Tuesday, December 24, 2013

You Can't Handle the Truth about Santa


A child asks me, in earnest, "Is Santa Claus real?"

How does one respond?

Personally, I can't remember a time in my life when I ever believed in Santa Claus. It's not how I was raised, which is not to say that my family doesn't get festive during the holiday season. But, when I was a child and my parents were buying me Christmas presents, they would always ask me directly not simply what I hoped to get but what specifically I wanted them to get for me. Then, when they went to the store to buy the presents, I would accompany them to help make sure they picked out the right ones. So, no, Santa was not a part of my family's traditions when I was growing up.

I honestly think it's better that way. Kids don't come out of the womb believing in Santa by default. It's probably not even until they're about three or four years old, at the youngest, that they're able to process this idea of a jolly fat man from the North Pole, who rides around the globe on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, and comes down the chimney to deliver your Christmas presents while you sleep. It's not an intuitive concept, and I don't know what it serves to teach children this elaborate lie. When they inevitably discover the truth, most likely in traumatic fashion, the only lesson there is that no one can be trusted, not even the people closest to them, their parents, whom they were supposed to be able to count on most, but who, it turns out, masterminded this grotesque falsehood, perpetrated for years precisely to fool their own children.

I asked around a bit to see what other people thought.

A friend of mine, D, a single mother who works as a bartender, insists that the correct response, when asked by kids about Santa, is always to answer that he is real. With a five-year-old of her own, she perpetuates the myth in nearly its entirety—presents under the tree, letters to the North Pole, "naughty or nice" list, cookies for Santa. But she's careful to make the distinction to her son that the "Santa" at the mall, with whom other kids are taking pictures, is a fraud. Likewise are any Santas on TV. After all, if her son started observing multiple Santa actors and catching on that they were not all the same man, it might blow the lid on the whole operation.

When I shared with D my opinion on the matter, she argued that, not being a parent myself, I wouldn't be able to understand. I wouldn't be able to understand how a mother would do anything to guard her child. Now, I would never tell a parent how to do their job, but I wasn't sure what D was "guarding" in this case. She said it was her son's "sense of wonder."

"Let them have that, while they're still young," she said, "before they have to grow up and learn how crappy the world really is."

I still stood by a policy of truth, and I maintained that teaching kids the Santa lie would only make reality that much more devastating for them when eventually they learned the truth.

I suspected that, rather than serving the kids, the Santa story existed more to help parents to get their kids to behave well. Children are warned not to get on Santa's naughty list, or else they might not get what they want for Christmas. My friend D even keeps an "Elf on the Shelf" in her home. For those not in the know, this is a more recent invention, a doll of a Christmas elf, which parents place up on a high shelf, telling their kids that the doll is actually alive and keeping tabs on their behavior, serving as Santa's eyes and ears in the home. You can move the elf around the house when the kids aren't looking, in order to aid in the illusion that this limp doll is alive, but many parents are content just to do the bare minimum of putting the elf on the shelf, explaining its job to the kids and warning them that they must not try to touch it (or else it will lose its magic and get very sick!), then letting it passively go to work keeping the kids on their best behavior. I find it all quite cynical, and I'm not sure if even the very young kids are really fooled by this elf doll, or if they just play along, thinking it a game.

As far as guarding the kids' sense of wonder, I say that we ought always encourage children (and adults) to wonder and make serious inquiry when confronted with tales that offend their faculty of reason, especially when it is coming from those who would assume authority over them. I say, if a child has attained the intellectual honesty to question, then perhaps they deserve to be rewarded with an honest answer in response. If they're asking whether Santa is real, then it must mean that they already have doubts, in which case I might consider them ready to know the truth—that all they have been told is lies.

Another friend of mine, C, a lawyer and anarchist, has a different opinion on the matter. Although her parents did the "presents appear overnight under the tree" thing, she says they would always give her coy answers whenever she asked where the gifts came from, or whether Santa was real. The idea of Santa, which came to C from her classmates and from media, was something that was neither encouraged nor discouraged within her anarchist household. Rather than tell her what to believe, C's parents taught her to investigate and make up her own mind in all matters.

I had to think about this one. Although I feel it would be rather irritating for a child to never be able to get a straight answer from their own parents, maybe there is something more to be gained from earning one's own truth.

I asked one more friend, A, a young Jewish mother. Her response: "I'm Jewish. We don't have Santa Claus."

I'm not sure how accurate that is. Santa has only, at best, a tenuous connection to Christianity. Here in the U.S., he's more a commercial concoction and seasonal icon, open to being celebrated by all materialistic Americans. But, yes, the traditional Santa story does revolve around Christmas, and if one is determined not to observe that holiday in any way, then probably Santa is a no-go.

Thus, even at the age where a kid is most susceptible to the Santa Claus myth, there will be some who have already been taught explicitly by their parents that Santa is not real. The key point there is that, if parents want their children believing one way or the other about Santa, then it's the parents' own job to enforce that. The kid who asked me about Santa was not my kid, so it was not my responsibility to tell him what to believe.

Mr. G, who works as an elementary school teacher and consequently has to deal with this question all the time, tells me the trick is to ask the kid back, "What do your parents say?" Then Mr. G simply tells that kid to listen to their parents. It's a diplomatic response that is meant to ruffle no feathers (i.e. covers his ass against angry parents).

There was one more dimension to this dilemma that I perceived. As already established, the lies told one kid at home may not be in harmony with what other kids have been taught. And, this being the United States of America, kids also talk to one another, sometimes across cultural lines. They might even get into playground debates over whether Santa is real. In that case, it's really not desirable for an adult, who is not a parent, but who might nevertheless be recognized and cited by the children as an authority on the matter, to even be seen as implicitly supporting one side over the other, and then have that inadvertently fueling the fire of this schoolyard argument, ultimately multiplying your problems, when the news gets back to the kids' parents.

In the end, I think the best response is precisely the one I gave: "I don't have time for this."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Where is the champion? Where is Daigo?


The Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 tournament at this year's Capcom Cup featured some amazing play from eight of the strongest competitors in the world. Notably missing from that field, however, was Japan's Daigo "The Beast" Umehara, a two-time Evo champion in the Street Fighter IV series, last year's runner-up at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament (the precursor to Capcom Cup), and overall someone who is always in the conversation when discussing the best in the world at the game.

Daigo's results had slipped in recent years, with other top players, most notably South Korea's Seonwoo Lee (AKA "Infiltration") and Singapore's Ho Kun Xian, seeming to have his number. Infiltration, the most dominant player in 2012, was consistently standing in Daigo's way at major championships, trouncing him two Evos in a row, and also ultimately dismantling him in the 25th Anniversary tournament grand finals, despite Daigo having obviously trained hard to try to get back on top for that event. Xian, the Evo 2013 champion, had beaten Daigo convincingly in long sets on two separate occasions. Daigo was still a perennial top 8 finisher at Evo, but quite a number of people were ready to write his obituary as a serious contender for the title.

But fighting games, while not without a significant physical component, are not exactly like athletics, and the professional gamer's career need not mirror the athlete's arc of irreversibly declining performance over time. Capcom Cup winner Naoto Sako is in his mid-30s and has been playing competitively since the Street Fighter II days, and he is still regarded as the most dexterous player with the finest execution anywhere in the world. Age isn't that big a factor, and sponsored Japanese players like Sako and Daigo also aren't really going to "grow up" and out of heavy gaming like the rest of us adults. Sustained success has more to do with keeping up the will to win. Daigo's feeble loss to Infiltration at Evo this year, and the ensuing talk within the community that the fight was gone from him, perhaps reignited his determination to be the best, as he responded by subsequently delivering some high-profile beatdowns that were brutal even for "The Beast."

The first came a little over a month after Evo 2013, when Daigo was booked to take on Xian in a "Mad Catz Unveiled" first-to-10 exhibition at the PAX Prime festival in August in Seattle, WA.


Going into the exhibition, Xian led their head-to-head, but the ever-humble Evo 2013 champion acknowledged that Daigo had seemingly adapted, narrowly prevailing 12-10 in their most recent encounter in the Topanga Asia League in May 2013. So a victory for Daigo would not have been a total shocker. Still, this was the reigning Evo champion he was up against—a player only a month removed from having fought his way out of a field of over a thousand to claim that title. A 10-0 demolition, such as Daigo rendered here, was something nobody could have predicted, but Daigo made the champ look like a helpless chump.

As much as it restored respect for Daigo's game, that result also raised questions about the legitimacy of Xian's crown and about the legitimacy of Evo itself as the most coveted title in the fighting game community. Some pointed out that Xian had been fortunate, on his path to the 2013 championship, to dodge Infiltration, whom many still had pegged as the no. 1 player. Another first-to-10 exhibition, this time between Daigo and Infiltration, had already been scheduled for September at the Tokyo Game Show expo.


The final result was 10-2 Daigo, with Daigo winning the first 5 (meaning Daigo would have come out on top, even if it had been a more standard best-of-3 or best-of-5 set). This result may have been even more impressive than the 10-0 blowout against Xian, since Infiltration surely would have been aware of the earlier exhibition and had a month to prepare himself in order not to have the same thing happen to him as happened to Xian. But, whatever preparations Infiltration made, Daigo's must have been superior, as he finally figured out and paid back his recent nemesis in emphatic fashion.

Whatever his disappointment at Evo, with the potentially even more prestigious inaugural Capcom Cup scheduled to close out the season, all eyes were once again on Umehara as the man to beat. But then the tournament came and went, and Daigo wasn't even present. What happened?

Well, the very next day after his remarkable steamrolling of Infiltration, Daigo did compete in the Capcom Cup Japan qualifier, which was also being hosted at the Tokyo Game Show, but he lost in the second round to Yuki Ishigaki (AKA "Kyabetsu" or "Cabbage"), one of Japan's better C. Viper players. Daigo lost 0-2 to Kyabetsu, not even taking a single round.


Infiltration and Xian also both entered the 64-man tournament and, although they fared better, it was not by much. Infiltration went out in the third round, and Xian made the fourth-round quarterfinals, both of them losing, interestingly enough, to a Japanese Sakura player known as Juso.

For some, the takeaway here was that Daigo may be some kind of rock star when he comes to the U.S. and beats Justin Wong at Evo, but, amid the abundance of very good players in Japan, he (and Infiltration and Xian) is just another guy. Maybe winning Evo isn't as impressive an accomplishment as the U.S. fighting game community believes. Maybe Evo is a bit like the Olympics, which is certainly the largest, most prestigious event for most of the sports it features, but which, for some sports, maybe doesn't actually feature as high a level of competition overall as some countries' national championships.

The obvious example is Olympic basketball. A contest of nations in basketball could never field as many strong teams as the NBA playoffs, because the majority of the best players in the sport all come from a single country, the United States of America. Any American recognizes that the NBA championship trophy counts for a lot more than an Olympic gold medal in basketball. But there are many Olympic sports which are similarly dominated by other nations, and those of us in the U.S., who don't follow those sports except during the Olympics, might not realize that their national championships might actually feature a higher level of competition than what we tune in to see only every four years.

Likewise, some have speculated that a Japanese Street Fighter player might be able to find better competition on any given day at their own local arcade than they would by flying over to the U.S. to compete in Evo. Just about every non-Japanese player who has visited one of those Tokyo arcades would agree that there is no place in the world harder to win. But I'm not personally convinced that Japanese tournaments are more accurate than Evo in determining the best player in the world.

For one, most Japanese tournaments historically, including that Capcom Cup qualifier at TGS, have been single-elimination, which most tournament organizers outside Japan would agree produces less reliable results, since it's not that unusual for even a top player to suffer a random loss, but it's far less likely that they'll suffer two at the same event. For another, we've observed how Western players travel to Japan and then note how hard it is to win there, but it may be more of a two-way street than many realize—a lot of those lesser-known but very talented Japanese players are lesser-known, not because they don't come to Evo, but because, when they do, they don't fare as well as they do at home. Kyabetsu, for example, was at Evo this year, and he didn't make it out of his qualifying pool. As another example, Japan doesn't even have a serious national championship equivalent to Evo here, but their highest-profile competition is the Topanga League, a round-robin series featuring the alleged best players in the nation competing in a more intimate, more relaxed format for a million-yen grand prize. Well, in this year's Topanga A League, Daigo came in 5th. Of the four players above him, three of them attended Evo 2013, only one of them making the round of 16. The Topanga A League winner, Masato Takahashi (AKA "Bonchan"), tied for 17th at Evo. Daigo, meanwhile, tied for 7th. Rather than it being the case that simply whoever wins in Japan is the best in the world, I think being the best in the world means being able to win consistently in tournaments across the world. That's what Daigo, Infiltration, and Xian have done.

Back to Capcom Cup, however it happened, the fact is, Daigo wasn't able to qualify in Japan. There were still other opportunities to earn a spot. Daigo could have traveled to one of the qualifiers in other countries, as Naoto Sako and Hajime Taniguchi (AKA "Tokido") did, qualifying in Brazil and Australia respectively. But he just didn't.

What did he do instead? Well, other than the Topanga League, the only other event he entered following that early exit at TGS was the SSFIV tournament at DreamHack Winter 2013 in Sweden. "The world's largest digital festival," DreamHack hosts multiple eSports competitions, and, although the SSFIV tournament is not one of its bigger events, this year's tournament did boast reportedly the largest ever prize purse for the game. Held on November 30, the tournament featured many top European players, as well as several well-known Asian competitors, including Daigo and Xian.

Ultimately, at the end of a long tournament that included many high-level matches on a par with what was seen at Capcom Cup, it came down to Daigo in the grand finals against another one of the biggest names not at Capcom Cup, Taiwan's Bruce Hsiang (AKA "GamerBee"). It was a spectacular finals, the first round perfectly encapsulating the legend that is Daigo "The Beast" Umehara.


As amazing a player as GamerBee is, this was no blowout, and yet it had the feel of one. Daigo was simply on fire, and, even when he would lose a round, he would seem to retain momentum. It was almost like GamerBee was only there to build hype toward Daigo's inevitable victory.

With Daigo looking as sharp as he ever has, it really was an unfortunate blow to Capcom Cup that he wasn't there, but, after 2013 passed without any clear "man to beat," anyone who follows the competitive scene for SSFIV should now be anticipating Daigo's next appearance at an international major, where I have to believe he'll enter as the favorite. (Of course, Ultra Street Fighter IV should be the new standard by Evo 2014, so maybe that will just completely destroy the status quo anyway.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Capcom Cup

Traditionally, fighting game tournaments, separate from the rest of the "eSports" world, have always been community-run events. In the arcade days, Capcom, Namco, etc. would develop the games with limited consideration for the competitive scene, and then the players themselves would organize events at the local, regional, national, and even international level. As the Evo championship has grown bigger and bigger each year, the fighting game community as a whole has begun to enjoy more support from sponsors, including game publishers such as Capcom and Namco, but still even Evo remains a community-run event that could not persist but for the passion that its organizers and staff have for the scene. Although the community arguably does more than Capcom itself does to keep Street Fighter relevant—Evo actually emerged and only continued to grow during that seven-year drought between the releases of Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Street Fighter IV—it's hard to fault the Japanese developer and publisher for not being more engaged with the competitive scene, since Capcom is, at the end of the day, a business. It may be the case that Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, years after their original releases, still attract the most attention at tournaments, but that sustained popularity among the players unfortunately doesn't translate to continuous sales of old games. Still, Capcom did a great job last year celebrating Street Fighter's 25th anniversary with a tournament series that was probably even bigger than Evo. The positive response to that series encouraged Capcom to follow it up on a smaller and admittedly less glamorous scale this year with the inaugural Capcom Cup, its new (hopefully annual) year-end fighting game tournament, which, after three months of qualifying events across the globe, concluded last Saturday, December 14, 2013 in Burlingame, CA.

Street Fighter X Tekken

This year's competition featured three titles, the first and least of which was Street Fighter X Tekken, Capcom's newest fighter, which, only a year ago this time, was the headline game at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament. I've been critical of the design of this game in the past, but a lot of that has to do with my personal tastes. I think it's a bad game because it rewards lame play styles (turtling and running down the clock), rather than encouraging the sort of more aggressive play that I would consider fun and exciting. But it's not a degenerate game by the strictest standards. It's still a game that involves a high level of skill and where the better player usually wins. Most would agree that the best player in the world at Street Fighter X Tekken is Seonwoo Lee (AKA "Infiltration"), who won the 25th Anniversary tournament, as well as both years this game has been at Evo.

Having proven his prowess at the game, Infiltration received a direct invitation, along with three other top players, into the eight-man Capcom Cup tournament. The remaining four spots were determined by qualifying tournaments held online. Thus, the Capcom Cup tournament was billed somewhat as an "online warriors versus battle-tested veterans" story, although, in reality, all of the online qualifiers had traveled to and had some success at tournaments before (three of them even had sponsors), while one of the invitees, Du Dang (AKA "NuckleDu"), rose up from an online background. Nevertheless, it was interesting to note the contrast between the three most illustrious players—Infiltration, Justin Wong, and Alex Valle—who all played with arcade joysticks, versus the five "new school" players, who all played on gamepads.

In this double-elimination tournament, the four invitees were matched up against the four qualifiers in the first round, and, somewhat anticlimactically, all four qualifiers lost. Only one of them, Dexter James (AKA "Tampa Bison") came back in the losers bracket to score victories against the invitees, clawing his way back and defeating NuckleDu, Valle, and Wong to set up a final round match against Infiltration, who then won it handily, proving himself still to be on another level in this game.


High-level or no, though, this game is still a terrible bore to spectate. At this tournament, not too many rounds ended in time over (well, it was still a lot, but not a majority or anything), as I had complained about previously, but another problem is that, unless you've spent a lot of time yourself getting to know the ins and outs of it, all the characters kind of seem the same. For almost every character, even the ones with long-range zoning options, the game plan is to dance in and out of the opponent's range in an attempt to bait out and punish their whiffed attack with a clean hit of your own, which you then convert into a drawn-out combo that takes them to the wall. This is unlike Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where even casual observers, who will only grasp the game at a most reductive level, should quickly be able to discern the significant differences between commonly seen characters. In UMvC3,  you only need to watch Morrigan or Zero or Phoenix each win a match or two to grasp the strategy for each character, and they're all very different from one another. Morrigan crowds the screen with projectiles to pin the opponent down and chip away their health. Zero goes in and makes a rag doll of the opponent with his combos. Phoenix has to first depend on her teammates to build super combo meter for her (without spending it themselves), whereupon she can then take over and mop up as the overpowering Dark Phoenix. High-level UMvC3 can be exciting to spectate, because even if you don't comprehend much else of the game's intricacies, once you grasp the distinct strengths of these very distinct characters, you can grasp the narrative going into any match involving them. You know what the Morrigan or Zero or Phoenix wants to do, and consequently you also know what their opponent has to watch for and try to foil, and the tension is in seeing what tactics each player employs to try to execute on their respective strategy. In Street Fighter X Tekken, on the other hand, every character kind of seems to want to do the same thing in the same way. Thus, with narrative being determined by matchup, and with every matchup looking much the same to the untrained eye, there is no narrative tension to a Street Fighter X Tekken match. It's just, "Well, each guy wants to hit the other guy. I can't really tell what specific advantage either has over the other toward pulling that off, but eventually one guy pulls it off first. Of course, the other guy seemed to be trying to do the same thing in the same way, and I'm not sure what made the difference. Honestly, it just seems random." Of course, it's NOT random, I realize, but the point is that there's almost nothing there for the average spectator to latch on to to help contextualize any of the decisions the players are making mid-match.

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

After the Street Fighter X Tekken competition concluded, the event moved on to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The eight competitors for this tournament were determined by a Capcom poll asking fans to vote for which players they wanted to see compete. This seems a terrible way to determine who gets to play for what should be one of the most prestigious trophies of the tournament season. If you open this poll up to the general gaming public, they're most likely not going to have any idea who the best UMvC3 players are at the moment, and will probably just vote for the one fighting game player they might ever have heard of, which is Justin Wong. Or, you might think, probably anybody who would even care enough to take the time to vote would know who's who in the fighting game community. But then that leads to the opposite problem, which is players voting for their own friends or people they like in this fairly tight community, rather than for the player who has had the best results but maybe isn't the most popular or likable guy. Ultimately, when the polls closed, the results, though not met without controversy, did not go too awry, as the fans voted in the largely agreed upon top 3 players, one dark horse from Japan, a former champion and pillar of the community, and then three guys who would probably never make top 8 at Evo but who stand out by playing unorthodox teams.

The competition kicked off with a match between Japan's top UMvC3 player, Naoki "Nemo" Nemoto, and underachieving fan favorite, New Jersey's Kyohei Lehr (AKA, "MarlinPie"). Ever since Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (and, well, probably even before that, but nothing before that really mattered), the series has always been considered "America's game"—the one game where those in the U.S. fighting game community can confidently expect to crush their Japanese rivals. Owing to Marvel's lower profile in Japan, the series was never historically as heavily marketed or distributed in Capcom's home country, so the Japanese scene for these games has always been fairly small. And, without a healthy scene, it's hard to cultivate a high level of skill. There are a handful of Japanese players who love UMvC3 as what is, over there, a cult game, however, chief among them Nemo, who is credited for devising the incredibly cheap team of Nova/Doctor Strange/Spencer (dubbed "Team Nemo" by the fighting game community).

Always a dark horse (since he obviously can't fly over from Japan to compete regularly in the U.S. circuit), Nemo disappointingly fell short of the top 32 at Evo this year, losing to some American mid-carders. He made his biggest splash not in the Evo UMvC3 tournament proper but with his performances in a couple private "money matches" involving bets in the thousands of dollars. Playing in a first-to-20 set, Nemo crushed America's (and, by extension, the world's) clear No. 2, Ryan Ramirez (AKA "Filipino Champ"). In response to that wakeup call, the U.S. contingent then sent forth the No. 1 player, Chris Gonzalez, to take back America's game in another first-to-20. And then Nemo crushed Chris G. Off the backs of those shocking blowouts, Nemo garnered the most votes of any player for the Capcom Cup, and he made a strong opening statement by defeating MarlinPie 3-0.


The other first-round story was the match between Filipino Champ and Michael Mendoza (AKA "IFC Yipes"), the "hypest" man in the fighting game community. Yipes was a top MvC2 player—one of only two players ever to defeat Justin Wong in an Evo final—and he remained a strong competitor in MvC3 and UMvC3, but is perhaps more often regarded nowadays as a personality and color commentator. Having contributed perhaps more than anyone to the MvC community's peculiar meme-based lexicon, Yipes is understandably a very popular figure within the community, but few analysts would argue that his results in UMvC3 warrant his inclusion in a top 8 invitational. In that same above-linked "ChrisG vs Nemo" video, Filipino Champ, responding to the suggestion that the U.S. send up Yipes to take on Nemo, dismissively refers to Yipes as "Mr. Commentator." So, when Yipes got the call for Capcom Cup, and to face off against none other than Filipino Champ in the first round, he knew he would have to step up his game, both to 1) put on a good show for his many fans who voted him into a slot he maybe hadn't earned, and 2) punish Filipino Champ.


But the greatest match of the tournament, and indeed of Capcom Cup as a whole, had to be the second-round match between Justin Wong and Chris G. Justin's brilliant comeback against Chris at Evo 2013 was a classic, but, historically, both before and after that Evo meeting, Chris has held the upper hand against Justin and against everyone, his failure to win Evo the only blemish on his record as the undisputed best UMvC3 player. On Evo, Chris basically said that 1) he didn't give a crap about Evo, and 2) the results weren't legitimate because Evo was conducted on the PlayStation 3 version of UMvC3, which is known to have performance issues. That latter complaint generated enough controversy that Xbox 360 has become the standard for every significant UMvC3 tournament since and going forward. Thus, at Capcom Cup, the most prestigious event since Evo, with no more easy excuses, would Chris G. be able to prove, once and for all, that he was without peer in this game?


The matchup was again a classic. Morrigan/Doctor Doom is probably the strongest combination in the game, and, when Chris G. plays it, not only should any spectator be able to grasp the strategy but they'll probably come away thinking that the team is simply unfair. Yet Justin always manages to play him hard, and Capcom Cup was no different. Their best-of-5 went down to the final game, which started off horribly for Justin, as Chris took out two members of his team within the first 12 seconds, leaving Justin to take on Chris's entire team with only Storm, considered a mid-tier character at best by most players. Yet Justin hung in there and began to mount one of his signature comebacks as the most clutch player in the game. He took Chris to the brink—as close as it gets, Chris was down to just Morrigan with zero health left—but, when it was all over, Justin fell just short, as this time it was Chris who clutched it out, hushing the room into a silence that seemed to last the rest of the tournament. It was a heartbreaker, for sure, but, then again, they had just played in the winners bracket. Even if Justin had won, it would only have sent Chris to the losers bracket, where, still the strongest player, he would almost certainly have come back with a vengeance.

As things went, however, Chris didn't have to come back; he was never sent to the losers bracket, and ended up winning the tournament without suffering any losses. Yipes came in 2nd, never really challenging Chris, but at least validating the fans who voted for him, and managing to beat Filipino Champ not once, but twice. Justin, meanwhile, had to play Filipino Champ immediately after losing to Chris, and, clearly mentally destroyed by his loss, Justin stood no chance against the game's No. 2 player. The only other notable match was Filipino Champ eliminating Nemo in a couple of very close games. It was a strong 4th place finish for the Japanese player, if still a little disappointing to those hoping for this invader to shake up the UMvC3 world order. Before the night was over, however, Nemo would win a few thousand dollars in side money matches dominating random American challengers, lending credence to the suggestion that he is perhaps the best UMvC3 player in long sets, or maybe the best with bets on the line.

Immediately after the tournament's conclusion was a first-to-5 "Clash of the Champions" exhibition pitting Capcom Cup winner Chris G. against Evo 2013 champion Job Figueroa Perez (AKA "Flocker"), with an extra $1,000 up for grabs. Flocker had clearly been screwed over by the voting. The reigning Evo champion, Flocker is a top 5 player (at least), but the voters completely snubbed the Zero master. Indeed, the weirdest thing about this tournament was the lack of any Zero representation, when the character usually appears on multiple players' teams in the final 8 of any major. Capcom, recognizing how ridiculous this omission was, was good enough to extend to Flocker a special invite and chance to play for $1,000 (equivalent to placing between 2nd and 3rd in the tournament proper). But it was still lame that Flocker had to go in completely cold against Chris, who was riding high and getting stronger with every victory. In the anticlimactic match between champions and between arguably the two strongest characters in the game, Chris G.'s Morrigan team made Flocker's Zero look like any helpless chump.



Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012

Chris G. went from being the heavy favorite in UMvC3 to being the underdog just a few minutes later when the Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition tournament commenced with his first-round match against Japan's Naoto Sako. The only invitation sent out for this tournament was to Evo 2013 champion Kun Xian Ho (or, another way to look at it is that Evo was a qualifying event for Capcom Cup). The other seven spots were determined by qualifying tournaments conducted around the world in the months prior to Capcom Cup. Yet even this process was not without controversy.

Flocker was not the only "missing man" at a Capcom Cup tournament. Conspicuously absent from the Street Fighter X Tekken tournament was Japan's Hajime Taniguchi (AKA "Tokido"). The only player who might actually be better than Infiltration, he placed 2nd last year at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament and even beat Infiltration convincingly in their most recent bout in the Canada Cup 2013 finals. But he didn't get an invite to Capcom Cup, and he wasn't eligible to compete in the online qualifiers, which were open only to U.S. residents. But it was the Capcom Cup SSFIV tournament that had the most glaring omissions: 25th Anniversary champion Infiltration and all-time legend Daigo "The Beast" Umehara.

Infiltration fell just short of winning a spot at the stacked Asia qualifier (actually a multiple-tournament series, where players had to qualify for the chance to qualify). After a dominant 2012 season, he had seemed very vulnerable throughout 2013, so maybe it was not a total shocker that he missed Capcom Cup. The bigger surprise was Daigo not making it, especially after The Beast had seemed so resurgent post-Evo this year, scoring blowout victories over both Infiltration and Xian in first-to-10 exhibitions. Daigo went out in the second round of the Japan qualifier for the Capcom Cup. Not to make excuses for the man, but I'll say that that Japan qualifier was a very strange tournament. For one, it was single-elimination, which can produce all manner of weird results (Infiltration and Xian were also there and suffered early exits). Second, it was in Japan, where even a no-name off-the-street player might be a master. Even more than the competition being of a generally high-level, though, it being in Japan meant that Daigo was up against players who probably played against him all the time and knew all his tendencies. That doesn't mean that any random guy in Japan is stronger than Daigo; there are a lot of players who are very good when playing in their hometown arcade against the regulars, but who might not fare so impressively on the road or on a big stage like Evo. I mean, the guy who eliminated Daigo at this Japan tournament was actually at Evo this year, and he didn't make it out of his qualifying pool. At the end of the day, though, the fact is, Daigo lost, and that Japanese tournament was the only Capcom Cup qualifier he even entered. It wasn't anybody's fault but his own that he didn't make it to Capcom Cup, but, still, his absence raised questions about how seriously this championship could be taken.

Even without those former champions, however, the field at Capcom Cup was very strong. Half of it directly mirrored the final 8 at this year's Evo, including Evo champion Xian and three of the "Five Japanese Gods of Fighting Games"—Tokido, Sako, and Tatsuya Haitani. Another Japanese player, Keita Ai (AKA "Fuudo"), is someone you would have expected to have seen in the final 8 at Evo. The Evo 2011 champion, Fuudo is sure to go down as one of the top 5 all-time in the Street Fighter IV series, and, although he exited surprisingly early at this year's Evo, he qualified into Capcom Cup without too much difficulty. The remaining three qualifiers were less decorated. Chris G. was the lone U.S. qualifier. French player Alioune Camara was the lone European, a somewhat mysterious competitor, even if you follow the European scene, since he doesn't regularly compete against the better-known UK players. But he was a qualifier at last year's 25th Anniversary tournament too. The dark horse here was Ghim Kee Eng (AKA "Gackt"), Xian's fellow Singaporean and teammate, who beat out Infiltration and other big names for a spot at the Asia qualifier. Yes, the two Westerners were the first ones eliminated.

The SSFIV competitive scene right now doesn't have a clear best player dominating the way Infiltration and Daigo had in previous years. There are, instead, a lot of really good players, who are all capable of beating one another and winning major tournaments. On the one hand, that can be exciting, since it makes the results less predictable than when there's a dominant player. On the other hand, it means there's no "main event" matchup to anticipate going into a tournament like Capcom Cup. There was no match here that I was especially excited to see play out, and, although the level of play was high throughout, I don't know if any of the matches stood out at classics.

Haitani was perhaps the sentimental favorite, on account of his playing sort of an underdog character, Makoto, who isn't often seen winning tournaments. And the way Haitani plays is pretty nuts. Makoto isn't a terrible character, by any means, but, against the Fei Longs of the world, she just doesn't seem to have the buttons to go toe-to-toe or blow-for-blow. Haitani wins against even Fei Long players, however, because he doesn't try to match his blows to theirs (since Makoto can't), but he also doesn't sit patiently and wait for his chances (which might seem the safest and only option, except that Fei Long is always going to win any slow-paced attritional contest). Instead, he seems to constantly seize his chances from out of the lion's jaw, going for gutsy plays that seem highly inadvisable, but, before you can even finish the thought that he shouldn't have gone for this or that move, you see his opponent getting improbably struck by it. Indeed, Haitani seems to depend almost entirely on making brilliant reads to pay off his gambles, somehow as if able to react not to what the opponent is doing but to what they're planning to do.


But the gutsiest play at Capcom Cup may have come from Evo champ and Gen specialist Xian in his losers finals match against Fuudo. Xian was first sent to the losers bracket by Fuudo's Fei Long in the second round. In my opinion, Fei Long is the most overpowered character in the game, and he has clearly been the thorn in Xian's side lately, as shown in his first match against Fuudo here, which Xian lost badly 3-1. Xian fought his way back through the losers bracket, winning impressive victories against Tokido and Haitani, only to find Fuudo once more in his way. Fuudo's win had been convincing the first time; Xian played uncharacteristically tentative and seemingly at a loss. How could the Evo champ adapt mid-tournament to handle the world's strongest Fei Long?


In this battle between Evo champions, Xian dug deep, made all the right adjustments, and won it 3-0. The score doesn't tell how grueling it really was, though—those were some long rounds they played—and Xian seemed completely spent in the grand finals against Sako, a player Xian had beaten earlier this year at Evo, but who was playing on another level here. Renowned for his execution, Sako is most often seen playing Ibuki, but at Capcom Cup he stuck with Evil Ryu all the way, even closing the tournament out in spectacular fashion by landing Evil Ryu's rarely seen version of Akuma's signature Raging Demon super move.



Ultra Street Fighter IV

The only other story out of Capcom Cup was a bit of news on the upcoming latest version of SFIV, Ultra Street Fighter IV. Annoyingly, Capcom still wouldn't reveal who the fifth and final new playable character is, which is about the only thing left that anybody really wants to hear. Between now and the game's scheduled release in June, I can't think of any more fitting occasion than Capcom had here to reveal the fifth character, so the fact that Capcom still held back suggests to me that they really must not have anything ready to show. But the longer they hold out, the greater the anticipation is going to get—the greater, consequently, the disappointment will be when the character turns out to be not that exciting. And all signs point to it not being that exciting.

The clues Capcom has offered thus far have been, first, that the character has never been in a fighting game before. That rules out the characters that fans would really want, like Street Fighter III's Alex and Mike Haggar from Final Fight. They also assured that the character would be very much related to Street Fighter, so nothing crazy like Asura from Asura's Wrath. Most likely, it also means a character that is already part of the Street Fighter universe, as opposed to a brand new creation. Aside from the hints given, there are a couple things we can reasonably infer, most chiefly that the character must involve a limited amount of work put in by Capcom, meaning, in other words, that the character must be a clone of another character already in SSFIV. The only new hint Capcom would offer at Capcom Cup was that the character is female. As I see it, that all but confirms that the character is one of the formerly non-playable "Dolls" (the Cammy clones) from Street Fighter Alpha 3.

The only reason Ultra Street Fighter IV is even happening is because Street Fighter X Tekken was a failure, both sales-wise and within the competitive scene. It comes back to what I said earlier, about how the games still get played years after their release in increasingly large tournaments, but Capcom has no easy way to take advantage and translate that into sustained revenue for them. Capcom's usual model is to cheaply develop updates ("Super," "Ultimate," etc.) to refresh sales of old games and hold down the fort between bigger releases of legitimately new titles. But, because Street Fighter X Tekken failed, Capcom must have had to scrap whatever plans it might have had to draw out that game's shelf life with incremental updates. With no "Street Fighter V" yet on the horizon, however, Capcom still needs to put out something "new" in the meantime. The result is Ultra Street Fighter IV, where most of the revealed new content—four characters, six stages—is transplanted assets from Street Fighter X Tekken. That tells you how limited the budget for this game is. There's no way Capcom is devoting resources to develop anything from scratch. The fifth character has to be a clone. One of the other Dolls (i.e. not Juni or Juli) would fit all the hints and criteria. Furthermore, the Dolls already featured prominently in the Super Street Figher IV Original Video Animation movie, suggesting that Capcom has had plans to do something with them. I'll even go a step further and bet that it will specifically be Decapre, the Doll with the mask and claws, since she'd be the easiest to do (the other Dolls fight with weapons that would require new animations, but, for Decapre's claws, all Capcom would have to do is tack them on to Cammy's existing punches).

If I'm right, it will be disappointing, but mainly because of all this buildup for a character that wouldn't have been on anybody's wish list. That's not to say that a Cammy clone can't offer anything interesting and new-ish to the game. Evil Ryu and Oni from SSFIV: Arcade Edition were mostly constructed out of recycled assets, but they play differently enough from the characters they were based on to make them feel like worthwhile additions to the cast. A Cammy clone might just reuse art assets, but could potentially play very differently, which is what matters more.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Mowgli's, Blondfire - The Griffin, December 12, 2013

The Mowgli's Random Acts of Kindness Tour

I caught The Mowgli's when their "Random Acts of Kindness Tour" made its way to San Diego at The Griffin last Thursday, December 12, 2013. Opening for them on this tour was Blondfire, which was the band I was primarily going to see.

I quite enjoyed Blondfire's 2012 EP, Where the Kids Are, whose title track was featured in a Honda Civic TV ad earlier this year. Fronted by Erica Driscoll (who formed Blondfire together with her brother Bruce, who unfortunately no longer tours), their propulsive sound resembles a dreamier take on The Cardigans, or perhaps Metric with more sweetness.

It occurred to me too late, but it's not a sound, infectious as it is, that lends itself especially well to live performance. Many of Blondfire's catchier songs are made so by the synth elements, which, at this show, were just recorded tracks, nullifying much of the "live" element. And the songs are not especially on the lively side to begin with, so, although Driscoll and the band performed decently, the performance was just not energizing but almost rather the opposite. The stream of like-sounding songs started to have a tranquilizing effect on me, and I was only roused when Driscoll announced that she was going to play one of her favorites, which turned out not even to be a Blondfire song but a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."

I would have rather she had dug out their own best-known (and simply best) song from the band's earlier days, "L-L-Love," which was apparently featured in the movies Monster-in-Law (2005), Mozart and the Whale (2005), and, um, Bangkok Dangerous (2008). But she didn't play any of their older songs or even really make reference to Blondfire's history (like, back when they used to go by Astaire), other than to mention that their new album has been a long time in the making. Blondfire basically just showed up, gave a mostly unassuming performance, and then left the stage for The Mowgli's. Maybe, since they weren't the headliners, they didn't feel the need to put their best into their set and performance. At any rate, I still like Blondfire's music and am looking forward to their album.

The slightly disappointing performance from Blondfire did mean I needed The Mowgli's to be a lot better than I anticipated. Originally, I expected The Mowgli's would just be a bonus, as I did enjoy their one hit song, "San Francisco." Now, I was suddenly depending on them to be amazing, in order to justify the above-average price I had paid for my ticket. Fortunately, The Mowgli's did put on a great show, even if I couldn't recall any of their other songs once it was over.

The Mowgli's are an eight-piece band, which meant that small Griffin stage got pretty crowded. For such a large ensemble, their sound is not notably huge or intricate. Rather than yielding anything artistically or technically virtuous, the band's lineup more just supports its inclusive image as some love-loving peacenik collective. I don't know if it's really all that calculated, but I'm personally suspicious of any characters who would get up on a stage, as part of some "Random Acts of Kindness Tour," and dispense fuzzy messages about spreading love and making the world a better place.

Midway into The Mowgli's set, a giant drunk forced his way through the crowd to the front row, placing himself between two girls who were together but were thereafter separated for the rest of the night. As he gestured vigorously toward the stage with finger pistols, swimming motions, and flipping the bird, I wondered whether anyone would step up to try to deal with this jackass, but people's fear seemed to overtake their disapproval. I could see it in their eyes that the band members too had observed how boorish this guy was, but, not wanting to escalate a potentially volatile situation, they just tried to play it off as people having a wild good time, complimenting the guy's energy. Thus encouraged, the guy then pressed onward to rub the belly of one of the male vocalists who had gotten too close to the edge of the stage.

I thought to myself, this would be a moment of truth for these professed love-lovers. Would they recoil in disgust, or could they really be as cool yet warm as the words they put forth? The belly-rub had taken the musician by surprise; I perceived him hesitating that split-second while deciding how to react. Once he gathered himself, however, he did so with a smile and a high-five to the crazy guy. The hesitation told me one thing, but, ultimately, the smile and high-five told me more. Calculated or not, they were committed to this image, and able to put it ahead of any reflexive disgust. That was enough to impress me. After all, I consider "good" more a matter of effort than of nature.

Thereafter, the crazy guy would continue to grab at any band member who got within striking distance, even gripping the wrist of that same vocalist, who was, at that very moment, trying to play the guitar. Again, I could perceive some perturbation in the musician's brow, but he played on and then afterward gave the crazy guy another slap of affection. I honestly believe this crazy guy would have, given the chance, tried the same on the female band member or on Blondfire's Erica Driscoll, and I bet things would have gone a lot uglier in those cases, but luckily they never opened themselves up to that.

The Mowgli's played several songs. I don't know how many or which ones, but it was a very crowd-pleasing set. I find that The Mowgli's, quite the opposite of Blondfire, is an act that only "makes sense" live. I had listened to their album, Waiting for the Dawn (2013), before, and, other than "San Francisco," none of the songs really appealed to me. They were inoffensive but unremarkable. It's different when you see them perform those same songs live, however, because I think a lot of the act's personality isn't actually contained in the music but resides in the group of characters literally jumping around on stage.

It reminds me of when I was in my college writing workshops, and peers would sometimes read my work and question my language or even just claim not to "get it." When I would read aloud in my own voice, however, suddenly it would click and the feedback would be much more positive. Ultimately, it was a failure on my part, if my words couldn't hold up apart from my voice, because, after all, it was my ambition to be a writer, not a spoken-word artist. If I was ever to produce writing to be read on a wider scale, it would have to be with the understanding that I wouldn't be able to personally defend and clarify my work to every single reader.

Similarly, I don't think The Mowgli's music really holds up apart from the live performance—they're just kind of generic and forgettable songs—but, in the right circumstances (i.e. live), they can shine. When the band is hopping and dancing, and punctuating songs with warm words, and some are coming down from the stage to embrace the crowd, or other times inviting audience members (yes, the crazy guy) to join the band on the stage, that's when everything clicks and The Mowgli's seem like the greatest band in the world.

I would question, however, their decision to use "San Francisco" as their show-closer. It's typical, yes, to save your best-known song for last, building anticipation for it through the night. But "San Francisco" is clearly written to be an opener, as it is on Waiting for the Dawn. It announces the band and sets the mood. And The Mowgli's really don't have any other comparably energetic song that can so immediately pump up the crowd. It's just a waste to leave it until the end.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"Waves" (Blondfire, 2012)

The official music video for "Waves" by Blondfire, currently available on their 2012 EP, Where the Kids Are:


They're scheduled to play at The Griffin in San Diego this Thursday night, December 12, 2013, opening for The Mowgli's ("San Francisco").

Monday, December 2, 2013

So You Think You Can Dance 2013 Tour

So You Think You Can Dance

(Update 8/6/2014: The video links are all broken, because Fox or whoever keeps taking down the YouTube user uploads, while providing no official alternatives. If you search for the routines by title, you can usually still find an upload that hasn't been taken down yet, but I won't be updating this post any further with new links.)

I caught the So You Think You Can Dance touring show when it made its way to the San Diego Civic Theatre on November 26, 2013. Featuring contestants from the most recent season of the Fox dance competition show, the live program is basically a months-long victory tour for the dancers who made it into the top 10. Regrettably, I didn't actually get to watch much of Season 10 (2013) on TV, because there's no readily available on-demand stream for it, but I've long considered SYTYCD the best reality competition show on TV—not merely a guilty pleasure like a lot of reality TV, but actually, at its best, a legitimately praiseworthy program that can add to the culture of its mass audience, rather than depreciating it.

At first glance, it just looks like a clone of American Idol, also created by producer Simon Fuller, only focused on dancing instead of singing. Certainly, its format was modeled after Idol's, and, when SYTYCD debuted, the show was marketed as a sister program or even spin-off of Fox's biggest hit at the time. I don't despise American Idol, but I would say that, even at its height, it was a show of limited artistic worth, notwithstanding the handful of successful pop stars and actresses it has produced over the years.

The only part of Idol I ever truly enjoyed was the audition round, partly for the admittedly mean-spirited reason that that was when you would hear the comically hopeless hopefuls, but more so because that was the only time a real contestant could have a genuine "moment" and impress me. I think back to the movie Chariots of Fire (1981), when British Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams spoke of his "ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence." An American Idol audition would not be so brief, perhaps not so lonely, but it struck me as the same basic concept in practice. A mostly unremarkable individual—not rich, not famous—would be given this one shot, on the most-watched television program in the country, to prove—to the judges, to the viewers, and, perhaps most of all, to themselves—that they really could do that one thing that they all believed they were meant to do in this world, which was to sing this song that they had probably picked out months in advance and practiced daily in preparation for their audition. For most of them, the audition wouldn't lead to anything bigger; they would never be more relevant to the larger world than during those few soon-to-be-forgotten seconds on TV. Even so, any time a contestant could walk into that audition room and just really nail their one song (which happened far more rarely than the judges would have had viewers believe), I would consider that a moment, and even if it was all they ever got, I would say it was something to be proud of.

I think the audition portion of SYTYCD is also its best part, for mostly the same reasons. The dancers are not yet performing in the context of a competition and being judged against others, and they're not yet having to learn other people's choreography under intense pressure and in styles they've perhaps never attempted before. The routines might not have the most involved narrative arcs, but the level of artistic expression, on the part of the dancers themselves, is more honest and authentic than what comes later. They're showing the judges and the viewers their real selves, instead of who some professional choreographer is telling them to be, or what they think people want to see. And, whereas even the "moments" on American Idol would, truthfully, rarely be objectively superb vocal performances, but merely admirable in an "I can tell you really put your heart and soul into that" sort of way, the auditions on SYTYCD include numerous dancers who, prior to appearing on the show, have already proven themselves as practitioners of their respective styles on a national or even international level. Then there are also the dancers repping styles outside the mainstream—things like Mongolian bowl dancing—with their SYTYCD audition serving as perhaps the first time the style has received exposure before a large American television audience. The show has now been running for 10 seasons, and still every year I see things I've never seen before.

I do feel the audition portion is the purest and best part of SYTYCD, but, unlike Idol, the show is still worth watching even after it enters the live rounds of contestants competing for viewers' votes. Again, all of the finalists are extraordinarily talented, but, for all that, perhaps what's just as impressive is how humble, rather than entitled, everyone is. Part of it must be that the experience itself is humbling, but the truth is that nobody makes it that far into the competition without a humble attitude to begin with, because nobody gets to be that good, even just to make it to the live rounds, without understanding that success in dance comes down to a ridiculous amount of hard work. Well, I do personally enjoy the jazz and musical theatre dancers least, because I feel those dancers get by more on personality than on well-honed technique. And I don't much care for the tap dancers, because... well, I just don't like tap. But the other thing that all of the top dancers have in common, no matter their style, is a genuine passion for dance. The people who go far on SYTYCD don't go on the show because they principally want to become famous; the most stardom any contestant is going to get out of appearing on the show is a role in one of those Step Up movies, or if you're a ballroom dancer, maybe a job as one of the professionals on Dancing with the Stars. No, the people who go far on SYTYCD go on the show because they truly love dance, whether it's ballroom, street, ballet, jazz, modern, etc. And, as much as they all want to show off their own strengths and techniques, they also want to work with the award-winning choreographers, to learn different forms and styles, to be challenged to do things they haven't done before. So, although pairing a breakdancer with a contemporary ballet dancer to take on a jive routine may not yield a flattering exhibition of Latin dance (in fact, the Latin ballroom routines on this show, when performed by non-ballroom dancers, are probably my least favorite, even beneath the Broadway routines), even in such a case, one can appreciate that these contestants are really trying, they're not making excuses, and they're still performing better than the vast majority of us. In other words, SYTYCD at its worst still offers basically what other "inspiring" reality competition shows do at their best.

Now, to speak more specifically about the touring show that I attended, I did find it a very strange program, and I came away somewhat disappointed. Because I didn't follow this season on TV that closely, I wasn't that familiar with most of the dancers. So, when they introduced the top 10 who were touring, my initial reaction was disappointment at discovering that the one Season 10 dancer that really stood out from the random episodes I caught, animator Dorian "BluPrint" Hector, evidently didn't even make it that far and would not be performing that night. Among the top 10 dancers (plus four more invitees) who were in the house, I only recognized the four that made it to the final round. Everybody was still very good, of course, so if technique is what counts, then there was plenty enough on display, even if they didn't seem quite so sharp as during the televised competition.

The show opened with a scaled down version of the hip hop group number, "Puttin' on the Ritz," that originally opened Week 1 of the finals. The TV version, featuring the top 20 dancers and numerous guests, was done as a three-minute uninterrupted long take that began with the dancers arriving at the parking lot, then dancing their way through the studio and wardrobe changes, eventually finishing on the main stage. Choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo (together known as Nappytabs), the routine was conceptually recycled ("adapted," if you prefer) from their earlier work this year on Herb Alpert's "Puttin' on the Ritz" music video (although the SYTYCD version had the added challenge of having to be done on live TV), but it was still the most epic dance routine on television this year—in my opinion, one of the cooler moments on all of television this year.


The touring version was, well, missing most of what made the TV version great—the element of ingenuity, the wardrobe changes, six of the dancers and all of the guests. It was just a straightforward group number. Group numbers do tend to be my favorites, particularly when the choreography finds ways to play to each dancer's unique strengths, so this was still entertaining.

After "Puttin' on the Ritz," Season 10 winners Amy Yakima and Du-Shaunt "Fik-Shun" Stegall briefly spoke a few rehearsed lines to introduce the show. I don't know what I was expecting, but the lack of any real host or emcee took me by surprise. I hadn't expected TV host Cat Deeley to be there, but her absence was strangely jarring and made me realize how important it is to have someone like that providing context. Creator and judge Nigel Lythgoe was also not there, and, in fact, aside from the dancers, none of the people from the TV show were there, except for judge Mary Murphy, who sat down in the front row to tremendous applause from the audience but received no official acknowledgment from the stage. I think she was just there because she's local to San Diego.

Amy and Fik-Shun spoke again to close the show, but the dancers otherwise never said anything. The only context for any of the routines came every couple of dances in the form of a taped intro by one of the choreographers, who would talk about themselves and about their routine, almost never about the dancers. Oh, and each of the top 10 dancers also performed a solo, which would be the only time they would be introduced by name. The rest of the time, I had a hard time telling dancers apart. Yes, partly this was due to my not having seen that much of this season on TV. And I suppose the fact that, most of the time, I couldn't tell whether a dancer was doing their own style probably spoke well of how far they'd come in learning different genres.

So the dancing was good and the choreography was good. What was missing was personality, which I myself implied earlier was less critical than technique. I suppose one's enjoyment of the touring show depends upon what one watches the TV show for—the contestants, the choreographers, or dancing itself. The touring show highlights the latter two, while perhaps slighting the first. You do see the dancers show off their talent, and it is impressive, but at the same time, as people, they are rendered somewhat anonymous. They don't speak, they aren't introduced or even named most of the time, and, from the audience, it's sometimes hard to tell who's who. On TV, when the dancers introduce themselves with some sob story about what they're dancing for, a cynic might argue that it's manipulative, but, without any of that packaging, it all just feels somewhat cold and detached. Everything is so rigidly structured—dancers on stage, dancers off stage, next dancers on, video, repeat—that it's hard to tell if the dancers are even enjoying themselves, or if they're just going through the motions, performing the same routines for the umpteenth time on this months-long tour.

It's not an experience I can recommend, unless you already spent a lot of time following that specific group of dancers on the show. The only advantage to seeing them live is that you don't have to deal with the occasionally frustrating editing on the TV show, which sometimes cuts away in the middle of a good number in order to show the judges' reactions, instead of letting viewers see for themselves what the judges are reacting to. The other cool bit to the touring show was how routines sometimes faded into one another, with one dance's end overlapping with another's beginning, and with the dancers dressed in matching themes, even if the routines originally were unrelated.

As for other highlights, once the show was over, I had already forgotten most of the routines, except for "Puttin' on the Ritz" and Chris Scott's "Sand," which originally featured the top 10 guys but was here modified to include the girls in place of the missing guys. The one other routine that stood out was Travis Wall's "Medicine." Although it's not one of my favorite routines of all time, one criticism I've long had about SYTYCD is how doggedly it conforms to traditional gender narratives. For most of the competition, dancers are paired off, one male to one female, and the choreography most often plays up the girl as desirable, the guy as in pursuit of her. Even as many of the male contestants may be gay—even openly so, as Travis Wall himself is—the show basically never acknowledges the possibility, instead repeatedly emphasizing sexual chemistry as an important part of any male-female routine. Near the end of the competition, they'll experiment with more unconventional same-sex pairings, and the guy-guy pairings are almost always framed as battles, while, in girl-girl routines, the females often don't play characters at all but may be more symbolic, representing the female gender itself or some abstract concept. It's almost never just a guy and a girl who aren't in lust, or just two guys who aren't trying to one-up one another, or just a human girl and another human girl. So the "Medicine" routine is unique and somewhat refreshing, as it is a male-male dance, where the two guys are equals with clearly a strong and positive emotional connection.


The behind-the-scenes story to this routine was that the original two performers, Season 10 contestant Tucker Knox (who didn't make top 10 and was brought on tour probably specifically to perform this dance) and SYTYCD "All-Star" Robert Roldan, were both survivors of nearly fatal accidents. Roldan, in fact, was just coming back to SYTYCD after having suffered a potentially career-ending injury since his time as a contestant on Season 7. For the touring show, no All-Stars were brought along, so one of the Season 10 guys took Roldan's place. I don't remember who.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Attack on Titan (TV) (2013)

Attack on Titan

In the world of Attack on Titan (or Shingeki no Kyojin, lit. "Advancing Giants"), humanity has been decimated by the emergence of "Titans," giant humanoid creatures of unknown origins, who seemingly exist solely to eat human beings. The remnants of humankind have taken to living within a system of walls meant to keep the Titans out. Soldiers are trained to defend cities within the walls against Titans, and some humans are also dispatched to explore outside the walls, but even the most highly trained are basically resigned to the reality that any encounter with Titans is going to end horrifically for the human forces.

The tone for this anime, based on an ongoing manga by Hajime Isayama, seems set at the end of the first episode, when some Titans very suddenly breech the walls, and, in the ensuing unopposed massacre, devour significant characters in graphic fashion. The violence on this show is typically sudden and graphic, the humans typically powerless to prevent it. The indiscriminate carnage, and the disturbingly humanlike gleeful visages of the otherwise unknowable Titans inflicting it, is unsettling yet, at the same time, exhilarating. The characters are not especially interesting enough for viewers to feel invested in them, but still the sense that everyone is fair game to be chewed in half at any moment is enough to keep one glued to the TV screen, if only in dark anticipation of who is going to die next and how.

Also exhilarating are the action sequences that show off the human soldiers' special maneuvering equipment—a gas-powered harness with grappling hooks—which allows the wearer to swing through urban areas at high speed. Think Spider-Man with a motor, and with hands free to wield swords. The show makes heavy use of mostly CG-animated scenes of the camera chasing the characters as they maneuver between and above buildings at breakneck speeds in order to strike at their towering foes (or, at least as often, to retreat or rescue). The cost of animating these sequences is offset, however, by the show's reliance on pans across mostly still images for less involved moments. That even includes still images of characters having conversations without anybody's mouth moving. It's a worthy compromise, certainly, but it's just goofy how drastically the show shifts back and forth between looking awesome and looking absurdly cheap.

What's most unfortunate about Attack on Titan is that the series kind of peaks with the end of the fifth episode (of 25), before it somewhat backs down from its own promises of fearless and unrelenting gruesomeness, becoming instead a disappointingly fairly conventional shonen action story, laced with a few horror elements. There is still the occasional shocking death, but there are also characters who seem superhumanly skilled and invincible, and there are even characters who come back to life via ridiculous plot twists. There are fight scenes where the heroes get knocked down, then have to draw on some vague inner strength/rage/resolve in order to, essentially, enter their "power up" mode, whereupon they overwhelm the enemy. The pace of the show is also slower than its first few episodes might suggest, and things quickly start to drag whenever there are no Titans around. Too much time is consumed conveying what cliche bureaucratic tools the humans' leaders are. Worst of all are the slapstick comedic elements—the eccentric scientist character, for example, who irrepressibly geeks out at any chance to study the Titans—which just seem horribly out of place in a series where the main characters regularly witness their comrades getting eaten alive. Or, no, maybe worst of all is the plot twist where humanity finds its secret weapon in the form of a human-controlled Titan to fight against the other Titans. One of the more compelling aspects of Attack on Titan is the asymmetrical nature of the combat between the monstrous Titans and the puny humans swinging around with their gear, so when that gives way to Titan-versus-Titan slugfests, I lose interest in the proceedings.

As the Attack on Titan manga is still ongoing, without a complete story ready for adaptation, this is another one of those cases where the anime simply ends unresolved. The story's shortcomings are such that I can't really see myself going out of my way to pick up the manga to see what happens next. I can't say I understand how this property has become such a runaway phenomenon (maybe because the anime was handled by the same director, Tetsuro Araki, as Death Note?), but I found the show entertaining enough, through its 25 episodes, to be worthwhile—broadly conventional, yet still able, by its extreme nature, to surprise on occasion, or at least consistently captivate with its dangled potential to shock.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)

Thor: The Dark World

Quick Take:

The Thor series begins to find its own identity, feeling less like an Iron Man spin-off. Mythology is convoluted and story lacks a compelling arc, but, as an action movie, it's elegant and attractive. One of the better movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Recommended.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

Thor's second solo feature doesn't disappoint, but neither does it surprise. It's a well-executed blockbuster, better than the first Thor (2011). Honestly, all I've ever really asked for from a Thor movie is fight scenes where one superpowered character hits another a mile through the air, only to see them soar that mile back into the fray. Thor: The Dark World delivers that, better than did any of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The action is not as exhilarating as in Man of Steel (2013), but it's arguably more tastefully done and, at the very least, more coherent. Yes, even as Thor and his foe find themselves hurtling across dimensions with each blow—a clever touch, emphasizing the more cosmic scale of this property compared to the other Avengers' solo adventures, as well as adding a bit of humor to the climactic struggle, as the characters must contend as much with unpredictable spatial anomalies as with one another.

Among the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, I would rate Thor: The Dark World second best so far, behind only Iron Man 3 (2013). In other words, "Phase Two" is, for me, a pleasing step up from the first round of releases (the yawn-inducing Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show notwithstanding, if that even counts as part of Phase Two), which leaves me optimistic for the near future.

Compared to Iron Man, what the Thor (and Captain America) films have lacked that leave them feeling more like second-tier releases is a larger-than-life personality on a par with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth is close to perfect as Thor, but he's still basically just a good-looking, charismatic guy reading lines. He doesn't elevate the character or the movie the way Downey did with his performance in the first Iron Man (2008), hence why Iron Man will continue to be the Avengers' ace for as long as Disney and Marvel can get Downey to keep coming back. At least, this time around, the filmmakers were more confident in allowing Thor: The Dark World to mostly stand on its own strengths instead of riding Iron Man's coattails. To the film's benefit, there are no gratuitous appearances by S.H.I.E.L.D. characters, nor any obvious setup for a future non-Thor film or character (excepting that really awful and out-of-place mid-credits scene with Benicio del Toro).

Though this film perhaps fails to alter its title character's B-lister status among movie superheroes, there is and always has been more compelling drama contained in Thor's strained relationships with his father and brother than can be found in any of the Iron Man films. It is that drama, along with the fantasy grandeur, that grants these movies whatever just barely unique personality they possess within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which is why it's such a shame that there's not even more of that stuff—more Loki, more Odin, more Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, more Idris Elba as Heimdall, more Asgard and more Bifröst Bridge.

The scenes on Asgard were the best part of the first Thor, and it's nice that the sequel spends a greater amount of time there, but still too much of the film is taken up by the comic relief Earth contingent of the Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings characters. I seriously question whether these characters actually add anything at all to the story. For most of the movie, they're not even in communication with Thor, and, any time the story cut to their investigations in London, even before anyone would begin to speak, I would lose patience. They are never altogether so obnoxiously manic and loud as the comic relief characters in, say, a Michael Bay Transformers movie—they're more comparable, I'd say, to a Jar Jar Binks—but they nevertheless feel unnecessary and unwelcome.

And Thor's love interest, Jane Foster, is as bad as the rest of them—a total waste. Their relationship is based on almost nothing; they knew each other for, like, a day (out of the, what, thousands of years that Thor has lived?), they have no real chemistry, and they're both busy people. I don't buy the romance between them, and I don't buy them losing sleep over one another. And if Chris Hemsworth maybe doesn't have all that much to work with playing arguably one of the dumber and more one-dimensional superheroes in Marvel's roster, Natalie Portman's role is even considerably less inspired as that superhero's civilian main squeeze. And, Oscar-winner though she may be, Portman has, frankly, never done great work in roles where she's not motivated by the material. In my opinion, it would be best for everyone if they simply cut this character loose as the series moves forward. I question whether there needs to be a romantic interest for Thor in these movies at all.

I confess, I haven't read too many Thor comics. I have read Walt Simonson's well-regarded run from the 1980s. Malekith, the villain in Thor: The Dark World, debuted during that run and was the closest thing it had to a persistent antagonist, but, honestly, he kind of sucked and was no more compelling a character in the comics than in the movie. What I enjoyed about Simonson's stories, however, was how he really ran with the idea of "superhero comics as modern mythmaking," which, obviously, was especially appropriate when dealing with Thor. Written with a sense of awe and earnestness, Simonson's run read like the comic book equivalent of a lofty Odyssey-style epic, as Thor journeyed across realms and confronted exotic foes and myriad trials on his heroic mission, which could also be a journey of self-discovery for the brooding god, who, at the time, had no enduring love interest in the comics and was facing the prophecy of his own death. That's the sort of direction I would like to see the third movie go in.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel (Electronic Arts, Visceral Games, 2013)

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel

EA's Army of Two series has somehow made it to three installments, despite none of the releases ever having generated much buzz or acclaim, despite the fact that it almost seems like a redundant franchise for the publisher, which already has in its stable two other established military shooters—the commercially and critically reliable Battlefield and the far-fallen and embarrassing Medal of Honor. I assume the Army of Two games must sell okay (or at least the first two must have), most likely filling a gap during that slower first quarter of the year. The first one made "Platinum Hits" status on the Xbox 360. I know because the Platinum Hits version is the one I own. Indeed, as someone who has paid for all three Army of Two games with my own money, I've followed the series because I appreciate some of its unique qualities that distinguish it from other military shooters—namely, its all-in commitment to cooperative play as not just a feature but core to the experience, its relative honesty concerning the murky ethics of profiting off gun violence, and its many poorly executed yet intriguing gameplay gimmicks.

The number of gimmicks in these games has, sadly, declined with each installment. The original Army of Two (2008) had nutty back-to-back sequences, tandem parachute jumps, and the ability to feign death. The featured mechanic of the second game, Army of Two: The 40th Day (2010), was the morality system, presenting players with moral choices to make at several points throughout the campaign. Like most of Army of Two's gimmicks, it sounded better than it worked—the message of The 40th Day seemed to be that, no matter how you chose, bad things would happen (in which case, why should we even be morally invested?)—but, even in its failures, it added something novel to break up the shoot-shoot-shoot tedium that makes so many military shooters difficult to bear. This third installment, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, has dispensed with almost all gimmicks, and, although it is by far the most polished and mechanically competent shooter Army of Two has ever been, it is also a game suddenly devoid of a lot of the personality that formerly set the series apart from its peers. The "Aggro" system, which encouraged players to take turns alternating between drawing fire and flanking the enemy, remains in play, but it has been deemphasized. There's no longer a visible "Aggrometer" informing you which player is Aggro at the moment, and it often doesn't seem to matter anyway; it's a significantly less tactical experience than the previous games. Even the one inspired and fairly well-implemented mechanic—the ability to drag your wounded partner to safety before healing them—has been axed. You can't even press a button to give your partner kudos anymore. Granted, that was an Army of Two feature that was enjoyed more mockingly than anything else, but still it is missed.

The upside to new-to-the-series (and now already defunct) developer Visceral Montreal's decision to focus in on the fundamentals is that, after two oftentimes frustratingly stiff and dodgy games from EA Montreal, The Devil's Cartel actually delivers a fundamentally solid experience. For me, Epic's Gears of War series has always been the gold standard among third-person cover-based shooters, but, even after playing this right after Gears of War: Judgment (2013), The Devil's Cartel didn't feel like a massive step down. Some occasionally wonky stickiness to the cover system notwithstanding, the game controls smoothly, and everything basically operates as it should. That probably doesn't sound too glowing—"operates as it should" should more likely be the bare minimum requirement for a game rather than a selling point—but it is a huge step up from the previous games in the series. Where it still lags way behind the Gears of War series, however, is in the thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) of the level and enemy designs. When I discussed Gears of War: Judgment on this blog, I noted that, for a series that popularized the stick-to-cover mechanic, that last installment had evolved things to where it actually involved very little time spent in cover, because enemy groups were just too varied and aggressive for players to safely stay in one spot too long. In The Devil's Cartel, meanwhile, I'd say 90 percent of my experience was spent behind cover, gunning down one enemy after another from long range. The other 10 percent was fending off the Mexican drug cartel's sword-wielding ninjas(?!) with my knife. The enemy would toss grenades to force me out of cover, but then I'd just take cover again in a different (or even the same) spot. So, basically, it took three installments for Army of Two to get to a point where it plays just like Gears of War circa 2006.

As repetitive as it is, at least the action moves quickly, the campaign broken into dozens of very brief stages. One of the enjoyable returning mechanics, which is also among the less gimmicky, is "Overdrive," an arcade-style power-up mode that, when activated, slows everything down and fills players' guns with infinite rounds that will tear through brick walls. Other than that and the occasional vehicle stage, the most thrilling parts of playing The Devil's Cartel are probably the "breach" moments, where players stack up and count down before bursting through doors to slow-mo kill everyone in the room. Yes, it's a page right out of Call of Duty's playbook. Hard to believe that, three games into a series where you play as mercenaries, Army of Two still can be said to have "sold out," but there you have it.

Another thing that made the first Army of Two interesting was that it actually felt more topical than most shooters, dealing as it did with modern mercenaries. As a product that itself knowingly profited off the American people's addiction to gun violence, the game was obviously limited in the level of commentary it could make, but what I appreciated was that it really didn't try to present the player characters, Salem and Rios, as heroic figures. They were morally ambiguous characters (Salem more so than Rios, who at least had a conscience, even if all that meant was that he occasionally felt bad about the things they did), for whom war was simply business. There was none of that narrative dissonance that critics complain about when discussing Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic, who is supposed to be sympathetic but, between story missions, will gleefully gun down cops and civilians for the player's pleasure, or Uncharted's Nathan Drake, that lovable rogue, who, between cinema scenes, shoots dead some 900 guys. If you actually paid attention to Salem's dialogue, you would even have found that the writers were really trying to get across that this was not a nice guy, and profit was all he cared about. It was kind of an honest and unflattering depiction of a soldier of fortune.

The two sequels have seemed less topical. Part of that must be because, let's face it, the masses are so over caring about that headline. The Devil's Cartel swaps out Salem and Rios for two new player characters, Alpha and Bravo, whose dynamic largely mirrors their predecessors'. Bravo, like Salem, is very material, always talking about the things he intends to buy with the money he'll get for the assignment. Alpha, like Rios, tends to be the positive moral influence, keeping his partner honest, although he's more sanctimonious than Rios ever was. Alpha and Bravo's bond never struck me as being as strong as Salem and Rios's, and, I have to say, part of that is because there's no button to make them high-five or duo air guitar—the little things that let us know these guys are more than just two professionals assigned to the same op. But the difference between The Devil's Cartel and the original Army of Two's story has less to do with the player characters and more to do with the antagonists. In the first game, Salem and Rios were up against other mercenaries. The conflict was part personal, part professional, but it wasn't arising out of any great moral obligation to combat evil. In The Devil's Cartel, on the other hand, the antagonists are very clearly evil and dangerous, so Alpha and Bravo consequently end up playing hero, but as defined more by who their enemy is than by any objective moral fiber of their own.

To get anything more out of The Devil's Cartel than a fairly simplistic "badasses take on a Mexican cartel" story, you need to have played the first two games. And if you did spend those two previous campaigns with Salem and Rios, The Devil's Cartel might just make you mad. Because, although Salem and Rios have been replaced as the player characters, they remain as prominent in the story as they have ever been, and the script goes to, frankly, outrageous lengths to ensure that, barring a reboot, you will never play as those characters again in any potential future Army of Two game. Again, this is something that won't mean anything if you didn't play the first two games, or if you did but still can't remember who the hell Salem and Rios were. If you did have any attachment to those characters, then what The Devil's Cartel does with them (and the degree to which it fully commits) is, I suppose, kind of daring, kind of fitting, actually kind of true to what I originally respected about the first game, and yet kind of disappointing.

As for that last great aspect of the previous Army of Two games—the incomparable co-op experience—The Devil's Cartel is inferior to its predecessors. As mentioned, it's far less tactical in its implementation of the Aggro mechanic. There are, inexplicably, sections of the game where Alpha and Bravo are completely separated from one another and cannot assist or even see one another. They'll just split up at a fork in the road, and each will have to clear their own route, a magical green wall barring any travel between the two. How is it even a co-op game in that situation?

Still, the gameplay was only ever part of what made these games so much better in co-op. Army of Two may be the only series I can think of whose narrative greatly benefits from and even relies upon your playing with a human partner. In Gears of War, the characters are Marcus and Dom, Baird and Cole, etc. When I play those games, I merely see myself as acting out their stories, but I never identify as any of those muscleheads sawing aliens in half on the TV screen. When I play Army of Two, the protagonists are, yes, Salem and Rios, but they are also me and my partner. In the first game, it was because the Aggro system and all the other back-to-back, tandem parachute, etc. gimmicks necessitated real teamwork through almost every part of the game. Thus, while Salem and Rios would have their in-game dialogue, there would also be this concurrent dialogue between me and my partner, and that too would shape the narrative of our experience. In The 40th Day, which was an easier game, the dialogue between me and my partner more often concerned how we would decide together on each of the moral choices, most notably the sadistic final choice, which asked players to choose between either killing their partner or allowing millions of innocent people to die. I can honestly say that my decision to say "f– the millions" was strongly informed by my having played with a human co-op partner, such that, when the choice was presented and I was asked to kill my partner, without even thinking, I identified "my partner" in this scenario not as a character named Salem but as my actual human co-op partner. Sure, it was just a game, but I was never going to pull that trigger on someone I had been through two whole campaigns with. On the other hand, had it just been some AI character I had spent the whole game with, my decision might have been harder.

There was a certain blurring of the lines between my reality and the player characters and their relationship. Playing as Rios, I inserted myself in his place, and I likewise identified my partner in the Salem role. In The Devil's Cartel, when things go south for those characters—two guys who previously chose each other over saving millions of lives—this blurring of the lines comes into play to especially confused effect, since they're not even the player characters anymore, but I'm still identifying with and projecting onto them all this previous history that is my own. So, when non-player character Salem and Rios are mad at one another, I too end up yelling at my real-life co-op partner (jokingly, of course, but still), "Why are you being such an ass, man? After all we've been through!" I'm still thinking in terms of how I would respond as Rios to Salem, even though my actual place should be as Alpha, this new character that I'm now playing as. Again, this won't mean anything for anyone who didn't play the previous games, but it's probably the most interesting part of the narrative experience in The Devil's Cartel.

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel has lost a lot of the personality of the first two games, instead coming across as one of the more by-the-numbers third-person cover-based shooters on the market, offering little more than a lot of repetitive gunplay, punctuated by periodic and admittedly satisfying slow-mo sequences. What surprises there are to be had from the potentially shocking story entirely depend on your having played the earlier games, which themselves didn't have the most noteworthy stories. Still, it is a more playable shooter than any of the previous games in the series. It might even be the best co-op shooter campaign available on the PlayStation 3, where there is no Gears of War.