Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The King Baby, The Motherfuckin' King

Lots of video game stuff has been appearing in this ‘blog. Partly that has to do with the cyclical nature of hobbies… you have an interest rise to preeminent position, the others fall down the priority scale. It also has to do with the activity level of a fan community. There’s just a lot going on with fans talking about and playing games and getting into all the nerdy details. My other interests like aren’t ‘fed’ in quite the same way. I buy music still, but a lot of the active fanboy aspect of that pastime is torpedoed by lack of concerts where I live. In fact, the fuel for many of my interests is by my location. There are only so many things you can do in a tiny isolated town where it is winter seven months out of the year. But a hobby where you can just stay inside, waggle a little controller, and fatten yourself up on cupcakes and Doritos? You can manage THAT shit anywhere.

I’m not here to talk about video games in this entry. Nosirree. Today it’s all about my oldest, deepest, most insidious, yet most misunderstood fanboy interest of all.


Oh yeah, baby. Break out the sneers, chuckles, and looks of disbelief. In a tale spanning my considerable years on this planet, I’ve had a deep abiding passion for the big gray metaphor (as opposed to the common misconception of big green dinosaur).
Actually, my passion is more properly understood as ALL kaiju (lit. legendary beast, but often translated ‘giant monster’) characters and films, not just Godzilla. So that scoops Gamera, Mothra, Rodan, and in fact any tokusatsu (lit. special effects, but usually applied to Japanese fantasy and science fiction cinema/television). I have been an unabashed fan of this genre since I was but a wee lad.
Like a lot of kids, I was drawn to the excitement of SF and fantasy in all its forms. I read comics. I watched cartoons, I went to the movies, I read books. That last one might not be all that common today. This is some time before the advent of video games… ahem. Importantly, I was a regular reader of ‘monster magazines’ specifically Famous Monsters of Filmland and The Monster Times.

Now these rags are famous for use of stock photos, corny humor, crappy paper, and loads of inaccuracies. But they had what is missing from a lot of fan and genre magazines these days:

These mags just exuded love for monsters and monster movies. They talked about the directors and the screenplays and the actors. They talked about the old things and the new. They had big sections in the back where you could order masks, film clips and back issues. These days, periodicals about supposedly fun things all start with a healthy dose of cynicism. While I don’t want magazines I buy to degenerate into maelstroms of idiocy, everything is just so serious. Nowadays. Fangoria might be the closest thing I’ve seen in a mainstream magazine to still capture some of this spirit. I don’t buy it but I glance through every now and then. If you can find some of the kit mags like Amazing Figure Modeler, those are pretty upbeat and fun too.

Anyway. Through those old periodicals I came to discover Godzilla. A lot of older kaiju fans can tell you that Famous Monsters #144 was the turning point. A special all-Japan science fiction issue it brought the awesomeness home to a grade school age kid. In my hometown Godzilla movies were not shown on TV all that frequently. If I’d run across one I’m sure I would’ve watched it, loved it, and sought more of the same thing. But mostly my childhood was Harryhausen, Hammer, and Universal… all awesome to be sure. Famous Monsters opened the door on this hitherto unseen-by-me universe of city crushing fun and after THAT I made it a point to chase down any local listing that might be a kaiju film. I even bought some of the 8mm trailers and shorts that Famous Monsters sold in its back pages. I found out about The Monster Times and Godzilla was a favorite of theirs. They were constantly running pages about him. It was rough, intermittent going but eventually I started to accumulate kaiju-watching experience.

Like any kid fan I drew the hell out my obsession. I had little notebooks cataloging the monsters. Comparative size charts too. I bought the Aurora model kits, some more than once! Sometime after 1978, after home video cassettes started appearing in homes, I landed the ultimate item, a VHS copy of Destroy All Monsters. Somehow the stars aligned and I was at my uncle’s house (he was the first family member to have a VCR), he had a blank tape, and I had caught a late TV showing of the movie. Fortunate too, that although it isn’t the greatest of the first-gen Godzilla movies it is a pretty good one, and it had the benefit of having so many of the other kaiju all in one film. A new level of accuracy now permeated my drawings. I made all my friends watch the movie that’s for sure. It didn’t make any of them become a frother like I was, but they understood my enthusiasm.

Over in Japan, the fan object marketing craze was not what it is today, but there were a number of Godzilla toys, models and such available over there. But there was little to no connection here. I had the Aurora kits for Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, but that was just about it as far as ‘official merch’. I didn’t get much chance to tape further movies either. At some point in here I got Mattel’s line of big ‘Shogun Warriors’ that were derived from the jumbo machinder toys from Japan and Godzilla and Rodan were late additions to that range. Now, there is no shortage of crap for kaiju movies, but back then every little thing was like gold to a little fan-kid like me.

Growing up (but not completely obviously) I never lost my love for this genre. As time has worn on, I have always carefully acquired new editions of every kaiju film that comes available. I have collected more modern model kits that make the old ones look crude by comparison. I have burdened my own son with my love of giant monsters. Now he’s as big a fan as I am. For him, toy collections come and go, but the one he always comes back to and continues to actively collect for is his collection of Bandai Godzilla vinyls. He is up to around forty or so. It is easy to find info on kaiju now in fan magazines like G-Fan or on the internet.

Occasionally I get asked to explain just what the big deal is… why hang on to such a kitschy interest? A lot’s been written about this in recent times. As seems inevitable with older pop culture items and icons, kaiju films have been undergoing a reassessment. Since the mid-80s when the first of the so-called Heisei Godzilla films was released (and actually came to US theaters!) tokusatsu films have been given another look, and fans old and new have found a voice in books, magazines and online to focus more appreciation, at least in this country. Godzilla in his home country has usually been given the benefit of the doubt. With more information available, the west has sought out these films in the original cuts with widescreen prints in clean colors. Shown this way, their value culturally and as entertainment becomes much more apparent. Formerly scratchy, faded, and cropped, these were seen as crude, jumpy, camp wrestling fests (and some deserve that description no matter how you clean up the print), the best of the kaiju films now are considered on par or even better than contemporary films from the west.

Japanese sensibilities for what sort of spectacle should be shown are different than the western take on the same subject. Western filmmakers have typically tried to go as realistic as possible, believing the closer you get to ‘the real’ the more the audience gets caught up in the work. Some older western SF films don’t hold up very well because that was the best that could be done with the technology… and the best that a shoestring budget would allow, SF not exactly commanding the blockbuster audience it does today. If viewed through an appreciation for the times and technology these old movies can be fun. The Japanese don’t need the realism so much. They aren’t necessarily averse to it, but more importantly they want the striking image. They want the indelible impression. The awe and the art. Many viewers find that kaiju films hold up well on a number of levels even now when compared to American B-movies and monster films because the Japanese didn’t treat them like B-movies. If you watch a good widescreen DVD in the original Japanese language you will see expansive colorful cinematography. Decent acting from a roster of names that were well-known for other genres not just SF. The special effects may not be realistic, but there are times when the craft of it becomes so apparent, especially today in an age of clicking and dragging our special effects into place. Look at the intricacy of any Tokyo Tower model used in Mothra. Or think about what it would take to marionette King Ghidorah with three heads, two wings, and two tails. NO CG, man. No CG.

Even with scratchy crap prints, as a kid I was in awe of the spectacle. As a grownup, knowing more about what went into these things, I’m just as much in awe of what was done to put them up on the screen. In a western film if something was totally crazy—unworkable or out of budget—it got scrapped. In a kaiju film there was a better than even chance they’d figure out a way to get it up on screen. No US film would’ve dared to show something like King Ghidorah’s birth from a meteor the way it was done in his debut in 1964. We would’ve done something totally lame, or worse yet off-camera. What he actually happened is the meteor cracks open, spews steam, then showers of sparks and soon a fireball shoots up, with a combination of reverse photography and animation having it coalesce in full-view into the aerial monster. This whole process only takes a minute or so, but cripes, as a kid that kind of awesome wasn’t found all over the place. It shows the imagination and attention given, even if the sum effect doesn’t exactly knock the kids out today.

The attitude towards the monsters was different too. They weren’t ‘just animals’ to be eventually killed when the right weapon was found. Typically they were unstoppable, elemental forces, almost godlike. There’s no logic in a 150-ft beast being able to withstand tank shells, rockets, and enough electricity to power Tokyo. But these were ‘legendary beasts’, almost like our conception of superheroes who are more than the sum of mere tissue and bone.

Want to know where the American Godzilla film REALLY failed. It made Godzilla into The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. There is nothing wrong with Beast. It was a great movie, a tribute to Ray Harryhausen. But it is his work on it that makes it a standout. The beast itself is just another prehistoric creature running around ‘til the scientists or military figure out how to put it down. That’s all GINO (the American Godzilla, Godzilla In Name Only) was. With kids and eggs. Even if you don’t like Matthew Broderick or Hank Azaria, if the film had used American resources, money, and effects to make a film about GODZILLA—heat beam, indestructibility, massive skyscraper destruction, and an inscrutable purpose—you KNOW we’d all remember that film A LOT more kindly. Even people who aren’t into kaiju films ‘got’ on some level what was wrong with GINO. Godzilla has a rep as a super-destructive, unstoppable force. Where was that? Where the hell was that? So in the end, although it had been a long time since Hollywood had made a giant monster film of note, it felt lame. Americans have already had plenty of movies with a vulnerable misunderstood monster. One you are supposed to feel sympathetic with at the end. We have Kong.

How awesome was motherfuckin’ Cloverfield? THAT movie captured a lot of what a kaiju film should be about. The street-level personal camera thing didn’t hurt, though I wasn’t too keen on the monster design. That’s okay. I enjoyed that movie quite a bit. After a lot of rumors, sometime last year Legendary Pictures acquired the American rights to a future Godzilla project. Let’s hope they tilt toward Cloverfield and away from GINO.

Now that I’ve kind of opened the door on this not-so-guilty pleasure of mine, I’ll be picking through past (and hopefully future) kaiju films with a goal to proselytizing. More later.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Little More Personal Info

Using this chart I've cribbed from ECM's site, I've used a painstaking 534 question worksheet, a panel of psychoanalytical experts, and the most advanced algorithms available run through a battery of gigacomputers loaned to me by CERN, I have definitively found myself placed here:

A Better Pic

I've had some questions about what my handle kog3100 stands for. There's been some inquiry as to just what it is a I look like. I realise the little pic to the right of my blog intro is less than no help in giving readers an idea of just what I look like.

I like to retain online anonymity, but this 'blog really isn't well-known, and we're all good friends here, right?

I won't do this but this once. I'm pasting in a recent pic of myself that ought to clear up the mystery. I'm still being free with my real name and other particulars, but its something.

Scroll down to see it, since I don't really want it to come up on thumbnail previews of this page.








Hope that clears up any lingering interest.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More Film Bits

Alice In Wonderland. Partly a sequel to the book and Disney film, with aspects of Through the Looking Glass incorporated. The title is almost incorrect. If you like Tim Burton you know what to expect with this film. Highlights for me were the Mad Hatter’s (Depp’s) recitation of the Jabberwock verses, any appearance by Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, and the White Queen’s (Anne Hathaway’s) visceral squeamishness. Anyone notice how much Hathaway looked and acted like Tim Burton’s ex Lisa Marie? I still get a chuckle remembering Depp’s statement about Alice defeating the Jabberwock: ‘On that day, I shall futterwacken… vigorously.’

District 9. I was hoping this would be good, but it surpassed all my expectations. Blackly funny at times, it also contains some of the most harrowing scenes I can remember in any recent film… all due to Sharlto Copley’s incredible improvised performance. The rest of the film is certainly awesome, especially considering the budget. But the lead is such a believable everyman that the film could’ve been about making brownies and it still would have been entertaining. About the only criticism I’d have would be the heavy-handedness of placing a film about segregation and prejudice in South Africa. It makes a great and unique setting visually, but is really REALLY on the nose.

The Taking of Pelham 123. My expectations for this were pretty low, but I wanted to see Travolta’s psycho villain. It was better than I thought it would be and is pretty tense in places. Denzel and Travolta were both good, and both played very flawed, mistake-capable men. The direction and camera work might not be to everyone’s taste, but its Tony Scott, one of foundational directors for the jittery, ‘music video’ film style. Its been done to death perhaps, but he is the master of it.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Final Conflict (In That Little Hand). I had this on VHS ages ago, but bought it recently on DVD, so it got a rewatch. Frequently touted as the seventh and last film in the Kozure Okami film series, this is actually misleading since the film has little connection to the famous series from the seventies that starred Tomisaburo Wakayama apart from the title characters. New leads and a new style for a film made years after the original films stopped being made and the manga had ended. This movie is very revisionist, frequently putting spin on familiar scenes in the story. Even lead actor Tamura Masakazu is a completely different sort of Itto Ogami, making a much more emotional ‘hero’. He’s good but it rather works against the traditional story, which may have been the point. Ogami in the manga and previous films is supposed to be an immovable rock of a man. Centered in honor, but driven by vengeance to the point of being inhuman. The only one who regularly gets Ogami’s humanity to show is his son Daigoro. The kid is the lens through which the reader/viewer gets to sympathize with Ogami’s plight. With a less stoic Ogami, Daigoro’s role is seriously watered down. This film is well-known in cult circles for providing the ending to the story that the original film series never did. The conclusion here is heartrending (as is the whole film) but not a patch on the finale in the manga. I could recommend this film to anyone who wants a very melancholy style of action film, but Lone Wolf and Cub fans will have to be somewhat open-minded.

Ip Man. Donny Yen as the 20th century’s most influential wing chun sifu, who would later gain fame as Bruce Lee’s first formal instructor. This is a great film. I don’t know how accurate Donny is as Ip Man, but he does a good job with both the acting and the action. The fights as expected are awesome (thanks again, Sammo), but as has been common in martial arts films of late, a lot of questions get raised about the reasoning and practicality of their practice. In this case, Ip Man is kind of an idle dilettante just breezing through life practicing kung fu until the Japanese occupation prior to World War 2 crashes down on his reality. As has also been typical in these films recently, the Japanese get a much more even-handed treatment then they did back in the 60s and 70s. The trailers make the sequel to this film look even better, with Sammo actually stepping in front of the camera to fight Donny. Hopefully the results will be as awesome as they were in Killzone.

Ass Worship vol. 11. The level of talent on display in this… what? What the hell is this doing in the list. Uh…

I Love You Man. Paul Rudd doing exactly what you’d expect in this movie. A great premise, and executed pretty well. I’m not sure the character of his new buddy is quite extreme enough, but that probably made this film more believable. Part of the new breed of R-rated Apatow-ish comedies. More heartfelt and a little less about dick jokes. Has a great gag reel in the extras. While it is more of an odd-funny than a laugh-out-loud-funny thing, Rudd’s awkward, attempted-hip phrases were a highlight.

Halloween II. Rob Zombie’s followup to his 2007 film. I like Rob. He’s my favorite modern renaissance dude. I’m typically more lenient on his movies than the critics are. This one’s no exception. In the same way Rob transitioned to a harsher, grittier view when he followed House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects, his sequel to Halloween is a bleaker, more violent extension of the story. Michael Myers moves through the story almost as an elemental force (like Godzilla is frequently portrayed) and the story in Halloween II is mostly not about him. It is about the after effects of the first film on almost everyone else that survived. I’m partly convinced the poor reception to the film was its defiance of expectations as a horror film. It examines inherited insanity, the cult of celebrity, efficacy of psychoanalysis, and people putting their lives back together after a tragedy. The version I saw, the director’s cut, is apparently radically different than the theatrical version, including the ending. I’ll need to see the other cut and compare. About the only thing that really bothered me was the overuse of Michael’s hallucinations. In the first film, one of the scariest things was Michael’s descent into insanity as a child, the outward manifestation AND the viewers’ guesses as to what was going on inside. In this film, you see what is going on inside… and it is rather blah and disappointing

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From One Who Should Know

This is a list of 'life rules' Bill Gates apparently laid out in a fairly recent High School speech. Sent to me by a friend whose political views on paper wouldn't seem to line up with mine, but in practical terms she and I find a lot to agree upon. Frankly most men would be willing to overlook a lot of differences in opinion given how attractive this girl is. Ahem.

Anyway, the list:

Rule 1 : Life is not fair - get used to it!

Rule 2 : The world doesn't care about your self-esteem.. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3 : You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4 : If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5 : Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.

Rule 6 : If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault , so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7 : Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now.. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8 : Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9 : Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10 : Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11 : Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Grail

There are rarer video games. There are more expensive video games. But THIS one is THE one I've wanted most for a long, LONG time. And it has always been more than I could financially justify despite my raving lust for Technosoft shooters. But I landed a good price for one sans a spine card... and had my fingers crossed it was in good shape.

As it turns out, it looks mint.

Now like Wayne Campbell's Fender, it rests at last in my hot little clutches. I don't know if this was actually Technosoft's last game (released 1996 five years before they folded), but it is certainly amongst the last. And a game for that pinnacle of 2d shooting goodness the Sega Saturn, no less.

Can't wait to fire this sumbitch up!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Confession Time

The Devil's Own Box of Colors

Several weeks ago I was on an online gaming forum and confessed a secret shame.

I play Bejeweled 2. On my Xbox 360. And not just a little bit.

If you are not in the video game know, this is shameful because I will now have to go before the Grand Vidyageam Tribyoonal and tender my Hardcore Card.

Normally, I don’t put much stock in labels in general… casual/newb versus hardcore/true doesn’t mean much to me in ANY of the fangeek shit I’m involved in. This includes video games. BUT. In gaming at least most of my tastes tend to fall naturally into the various hardcore-centric genres, with the occasional foray into mainstream games and then, once in a blue moon, a so-called casual game. It is just how my tastes run, being as old as I am, and given the fact that oldschool game genres have acquired the patina of hardcoreness over time… as in, you’d HAVE to be hardcore to still be playing that old/simplistic/difficult shit.

But Bejeweled 2, as a game, dips into a rarely experienced level of casual-ness for me. Let’s put it this way; It is always on those bargain spin racks of jewel-cased PC software that are omnipresent at every electronics store or electronics departments in catch-alls like Target or Walmart. This game is displayed there like gum or mints would be racked up in the checkout aisle at the grocery store. So this thing is an ‘ooh puzzle game, pretty colors’ impulse buy for any grannie or schlub that might have a PC.

I bought it from the Xbox Live Arcade service because I just wanted something to fall back on that wasn’t too difficult, had simple controls, and wouldn’t mean much to me. Sort of video game meditation, in a way. For those times I wanted brightly-colored entertainment that didn’t require any sort of exertion or investment on my part.

The simple and meditative part was (somewhat) correct. Otherwise, my assumptions about the game were a huge error in judgment. Because you see, the other part of the Bejeweled problem is:

I totally suck at it.

There it is. An uber-casual game (but that shouldn’t matter I tell myself) kicking my ass. As an added affront to all things that make me ME, this game is subverting my indifference to the achievements that are part of the current game generation.

Normally I think achievements (or trophies on the PS3) are okay, not something I’d go out of my way to obtain unless they were adjacent to my own personal goals in a game, ie in Bayonetta I really want to explore the game world, so the achievement for finding all the Alfheim Portals lines up with that. I’ll make the effort to backtrack and do what is necessary to get that achievement. It isn’t much extra effort. Many achievements are tied to finishing the game or beating a boss or whatever. That’s all good, but really no big deal since that stuff is usually part of successfully playing most games.

Bejeweled is giving me such a hard time that the basic achievements for each game mode (but particularly the standard Classic mode) are now looking like badges of honor that I really need to claim to justify the time I’ve spent. And I have been blown away by how utterly I fail to even get close.

This has made me re-assess a few things about myself, puzzles, and puzzle games in general. Trying to discover what made this game so difficult for me is leading, inexorably it seems, to the conclusion:

I may be shitty at all sorts of strategic/thinking person’s pursuits.

Now this particular revelation may not seem like much of a big deal. So what, yeah?

The big deal is that I always kind of assumed… for all of my not-inconsiderable years… that I was smart enough or clever enough to just be ‘naturally good’ at puzzle games or strategic thinking stuff all around. The full assumption is like this; puzzles and strategic pursuits (chess, RTS video games, etc) are in the ‘realm of the intelligent’ and that one’s ability to ‘solve’ these sorts of things is directly proportionate to one’s intelligence. The smarter you are, the easier puzzles and brainy pursuits as a whole should be.

Now objectively that may not actually be true. I’m sure there are plenty of intelligent people who are shite at puzzles or certain strategy/cerebral pastimes. But for me, and the type of intelligence I’ve prided myself on having, this correlation has always been assumed… even if mostly subconsciously.

While I don’t think I lord it over people and I do TRY to be well-rounded and well-grounded enough not to come off as some elite intellectual tit, I still take a certain pride in my education, my desire to continue to learn, my ability rapidly assimilate and retain information and my logical approach to problem solving. It is what has allowed me to do well most any place I’ve been employed of course, and it is what allows me to traverse a lot of different fanboy arenas, material from which frequently surfaces here on this ‘blog.

So it might not be accurate, but it has always SEEMED, that with that sort of brain thinky type games should be (generally) a snap, or at least a modicum of ability would be natural. Now that I’ve discovered I may be crap at this sort of pursuit, it is making me call into question just how smart I am REALLY.

Have I overestimated myself? Am I guilty of pride and arrogance over my own smarts? For years and years?

There wouldn’t be quite this deep a personal examination over just the one casual puzzle game, Bejeweled 2. But in asking myself the question ‘why is this so hard?’ after a particularly grueling session of having my ass handed to me, I was trying to think up similar instances where I DID perform to expectations, I started to realize there may not be any. Or very few.

Through my kid and teen years I tried my hand at go, shogi, chess, on-paper puzzle games (crosswords, word searches, etc). Remembering back, I think I’m realizing I was never good at any of it. I have always played, losing or failing to finish most of the time, but always moving on with the dismissive thought ‘well, I could win if I really put my mind to it’. I have since that time just assumed I didn’t make time to practice that stuff because there were so many things to be interested, but that if I HAD practiced, it would’ve been almost record time that I would’ve gotten proficient or competitive. Shit, I LEARN everything else in short order, why would this brainy game stuff be any different?

I don’t think I believe this anymore. I think that on some level, I realized that it was going to be a lot of work to get good at ANY of it, and I justified not putting the effort in by labeling it ‘easily do-able for my big brain’ and moving on. It may not be important in a real sense, but it is rather disturbing to find something you’ve taken for granted about yourself to be fundamentally untrue. Cripes, its taken this long to figure this out? Or rather be honest about it?

In my early adult years, I had a friend who really liked chess. I thought I did too. But looking back on all the times I played and lost (usually badly), and all the many more times I put off having a game with him, I think I liked the IDEA of chess… what it is, a strategy game about a stylized battle with medieval trappings… but I was not keen on how I sucked at it (understandable) but was in denial about how much work I’d have to do to overcome the suckage because obviously if you’re smart there shouldn’t be that much work.

Maybe I’m being silly. Maybe I’m sort of stuck recalling only the incidents in which I failed or ducked, and not remembering times when I did fine. Maybe even performed as expected. I CAN come up with a few successes.

For every success however, it appears there are two or more failures. I got through World of Goo in record time. Portal, no problem either. No hints, no guides, no walkthroughs. But let me boot up Braid, and I’m totally lost. I can’t believe how incredibly obscure this game is to me. And looking about on the internet it seems I’m just about the only one! I’m also working on a color matching puzzle mode on the DS game Magnetica. I’m appalling at it. This game should’ve clued me in that I’d suck at Bejeweled, but I just didn’t ‘get it’ back when I started it. I’ve tried a few Sudoku puzzles. I can do the easy ones no problem, but once I start getting into middle difficulty (of course what constitutes what difficulty is probably widely variable) I get stuck like a dingleberry on a sheepdog.

And I can literally remember thinking ‘enh, I don’t have time for this kid stuff, but I could totally dominate if’n I wanted to.’.

I’ve always wanted to learn shogi. I’ve owned a set for years. But it is so much like chess that deep down I’ve probably avoided it like I have chess. When an XBLA version came up, here was a chance to play this game and learn it without embarrassing myself with real players. Not that there is a surfeit of shogi players where I live. There’s even awesome, detailed tutorials, and CPU players to practice with.

I can’t even get close to beating the level one rube CPU guy.

This discovery about myself isn’t life-changing. Really, it isn’t even as big an event as the existence of this ‘blog entry is making it out to be. Mostly it’s humorous to me. But there is still a mild level of shock, bewilderment, and disappointment at this. There shouldn’t be a lot of stock put in ‘puzzle skills’… but to find out you’ve got nothing where you always assumed there was something… man. Especially if, like me, you were so sure… you had so totally assumed. Its like finding out a bank account doesn’t really have any money in it, and what’s more the firm you assumed was paying a dividend into it really wasn’t!

I think it fair in the cosmic sense that I have to work to be good at these things. There isn’t truly some law or logic to thinking that because one is reasonably intelligent, or educated, or intuitive that you should just naturally be good at anything. I’m certainly not entitled to a natural skill. If asked directly I wouldn’t have said a smart person ‘HAS to’ be good at puzzles. At most I’d say ‘it wouldn’t surprise me’ if a smart person tended to be good at puzzles. But at heart, I’d say I believed the first quote. It isn’t so easy to shake that conviction, if you’ve held it all your life, no matter how untrue.

Failure to stop believing it also leads me to believe maybe I ain’t so damn smart. I don’t think I ever was. Huh.

After my forum confession I was pointed to a site dedicated to acquiring achievements. The site tells you how to win by any means necessary including various forms of cheating or subverting the designers’ intentions.

Now some achievements and the methods expected to get them are stupid. Stupider than stupid. So some fiddling with fairness might be justified. But for someone like me… who cares? I don’t care about right and wrong in getting achievements because I’m not in it to collect the damn things anyway! I think my online buddy’s point was to just let me acquire the damned thing and put Bejeweled 2 behind me, but doing that just isn’t my way. Using underhanded means would just rankle and eat at me. Like I hadn't really gotten the better of the game, and that is the whole point of frustration in the first place. I’d be far more likely to get satisfaction out of taking a game disc outside, breaking it, then setting it on fire. I may not be smarter than the game, but I can still kill it. Who has the power now you little plastic fuck?

I looked at the site anyway. I’m not averse to getting strategy tips and advice on how to be a better player and I knew that for some achievements you just need to be good. Lo and behold, the achievements I wanted were exactly like that. You can’t really fake your way to them.

There was a perversely comforting aspect to the site's comments about the game. They rated the game 9 out of 10 for difficulty in acquiring the achievements in Bejeweled 2. Not only can you not cheat, but the goals set by the designers require a ton of practice, time, and luck to get! Quote: ‘If you are looking for a quick set of points to boost your Gamerscore, look elsewhere.’.

Now I don’t feel quite so much like the grannies and schlubs can do it but I can’t.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


From an article on Yahoo! News this morning:

"In some respects, GenMe seems to want to have their cake and eat it too. That is they want high pay and status but aren't as interested in burning the midnight oil. "Given that GenMe values extrinsic rewards more than Boomers did, the combination of not wanting to work hard but still wanting more money and status verifies the sense of entitlement many have identified among GenMe," researchers write in an article published online this month by the Journal of Management.

The fact that GenMe individuals tend to dislike working overtime while also expecting higher status and compensation at work shows a disconnect between their expectations and reality, one that indicates a sense of overconfidence and even narcissism, said Twenge, who is also an author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" (Free Press, 2009) and "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before" (Free Press, 2007)."

So now there's hard data being collected on young peoples' laziness. Awesome. Whole article here:

Calling kids these days GenMe is lame though. I'm not sure I like 'millenials' very much, but its better than GenMe. Blech. But the topic is relevant given this 'blogs previous mentions (okay, rants) about entitlement.

Alone In The Dark

Watched almost all of a DVD set of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I have one episode left, the last one… one of my favorites. Or I recall that it was.

I remember being a kid staying up late all alone (Mom and bro already off to bed), lights out watching this program before the CBS Late Movie came on. Kolchak’s whistle and the rest of the ominous theme song usually heralded some pretty good scares for the school age kid I was back then.

I wasn’t expecting the shows to be particularly scary watching them as an adult. As a child in the mid-70s I bought into the production values, the appearance of the characters and monsters, and the various traditions and tropes in television at that time. Buying the set recently, I knew this was going to be more of a nostalgia trip and not so much to actually re-experience those old thrills.

I also had the side mission of hopefully providing more fright show fodder for my own kids. If you’re a sadist like me who wants to put their kids through the horror grist mill, you probably know that scary shows that are kid appropriate can be pretty thin on the ground. I’d been letting them watch the occasional Hammer horror film but I needed more material.

As expected, Kolchak didn’t turn out to be very scary. There were moments where I definitely could see what was scary about them… what would definitely have been frightening to a kid but were more on the level of 'creepy' now. Spoiler: Kolchak sewing up the mouth of the sleeping zombie, or the old crone demon leering out of the dark… yep, those would have a kid lying awake in bed. But some of the monsters are dumb or crippled by bad makeup and effects. I might not have rolled my eyes at the time (there wasn’t much that was a lot better) but MY own kids brought up on Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter sure might. They’ll still be scared by some of it, but for them the monsters will alternate episode-to-episode between comedy and terror I think. The budgets for each episode seemed to get smaller as they went along. In early episodes there’s dudes fighting armies of cops, and invisible entities powering through concrete walls in slow motion. Later, the adversaries are all various types of ‘human’...that is, no-makeup-involved villains with various mind powers that take no money to convey on screen.

Couple the okay scares with the limits television programs had in terms of what they could show and this probably is a good go-to series to show my kids. I really only found some prostitution and massage parlor references in one or two episodes that might be objectionable.

What DID surprise me was how good all the rest of the show was. McGavin’s work as Carl Kolchak and all the other regulars on the show are excellent. I mean REALLY good. It is kind of a given that when you watch an older show, you are going to have to accept certain conventions of the time if you want to get any enjoyment out of it. This includes character types and a lot of the humor that goes with them. Watch an old Jerry Lewis show and you probably will find that a lot of what was funny then isn’t so funny now. I didn’t find that to be the case with Kolchak at all. The shit still plays. It still comes across as well acted and genuinely funny. This show is a really good case for a certain something… charm maybe… that is all but lost in modern film and television. Carl Kolchak is an everyman schlub, but a reporter with balls of steel, too. He brazens his way into everyone’s business, makes enemies all around… yet you can’t help but like him. And McGavin pulls this all off almost effortlessly.

Although aspects of the show make it a good window into the period, it is amazing how much has stayed the same in contemporary life between then and now. Even the clothes and hair in some episodes doesn’t give too much away, like the producers almost shot them with timelessness in mind. In those installments, if you just gave everyone cell phones it could have happened today. Chicago, setting for the series, doesn’t look much different in the present. There are quite a few references to, and use of computers (or workstations). Kolchak comes off as something of a luddite even at that time, so his use of a typewriter and old cameras doesn’t really date the show all that much to me. Sometimes the automobiles are the biggest visual clue to the show’s airdates.

I’m going to have to round up the two movies to go along with this set. I saw them as a child and remember them being more frightening (and being made for TV movies, slightly more ambitious) than the series. I’ve read some buyer reviews for this set saying the picture is dark and nigh unwatchable. I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Thank goodness I didn't listen to them. It obviously hasn’t been meticulously restored… it looks like ‘old show film stock’… but the color was pretty vibrant, and I didn’t lose any action in the shadows. I didn’t fart around with the settings on my TV either, a 48inch Panasonic plasma screen. Customers at Amazon need to upgrade their damn televisions or something.

There are only twenty-two episodes. And the two movies. The last episode that I haven’t watched here yet goes back to being more ambitious with the effects and such, if I remember correctly. Like they blew a final wad on the final installment. Can’t wait to watch it, but it’ll be sad when I’m done.

Until I re-watch it when I force it on the children.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"I Should Have Been A Pole Dancer"-- Bayonetta

I was thinking Bayonetta should be my new girlfriend, but now I’ve changed my mind.

I know I know. Back when I still felt we could have something, one could have said ‘get in line’. There must be an army of gamers, nerds, bi-curious goth girls and whole lot of other people who want to be Bayonetta’s special someone.

But she’s just too devoted to her work. She’s got the looks, the confidence and a caboose full of talent (her caboose in fact took weeks of design work to get just perfect)… but when would she ever find time for me? I think I’m a pretty cool guy, but I’m not acrobatically-blasting-angels-all-the-time cool.

In all seriousness though, for all the praise her game gets… and the verdict from those who’ve played the game is overwhelmingly positive… Bayonetta as a character seems to polarize opinions.

Whether her visual design is appealing, it’s going to come down to individual taste, of course. I just find it really interesting how many people are willing to come out with their opinion ‘heatedly’ on this topic. Male characters? Oh, there might be an occasional ‘I think he looks cool’ bandied about, but it is pretty rare that I’ve ever seen fans wax prolific on the aesthetic appeal of Master Chief, Ryu, or Mario. JRPG players don’t count of course.

I haven’t seen this much love her/hate her stuff since early Lara Croft appearances, and she was FAR less realistic. Back in the Saturn/PSX days when Tomb Raider first came out, artwork for Lara Croft showed a very stylized, but confident heroine. And that was sexy. But looking back at those days of crude polygons, a lot of that sexiness was projected. In the promo art, Lara was drawn with tools orders of magnitude more powerful than the graphics engines in the Tomb Raider games themselves. So though she looked video game-y in the art, she was still recognizably a woman and she had some power to emote her toughness and confidence. In-game, like most characters of the day, she was more of a mess. Polygonal graphics were new and exciting so we all got kind of hyper and romantic about it, but those visuals have dated badly. If you look back at Tomb Raider now, you might think its cool from a nostalgic view but you could hardly call Lara (or Sarah from Virtua Fighter or any of the first wave characters) attractive. Sprite art, as old-fashioned as it is technologically, has aged a lot better. There’s a really humorous page on IGN (normally a place I’d stay the hell away from) somewhere that goes over a lot of the old ‘sexy’ polygon characters and serves up a big dish of ‘what were we thinking?’. The Dead or Alive girls are probably the first place an inkling of ACTUAL attractive starts to show. A little.

That’s really not the case now. Remember when you played a game, and when the rendered cutscene came up how cool you thought it’d be to play the game if the graphics were like that? I know a lot of players thought that very thing watching the intros to Tekken.Well, that day has come already. For some time now, not only have in-game graphics surpassed the cutscenes of the nascent polygon games, they typically don’t bother pre-rendering the cutscenes at all. I actually kind of like this. Even in the days when graphics were cruder, I always preferred narrative stuff to be delivered in the same graphic style and at the same graphic level as the parts I actually played. Cutscenes pull you out of the game as it is, I’d rather the visual transition not be so obvious.

So now that the bar has been raised very high on character design and the power to deliver is in the hands of developers, we’re getting games where a character can literally have a power to appeal in a real sense. The characters are frequently stylized, as Bayonetta is, but the weight, textures and movement scoot them close enough to reality for more than just the otaku to love. Hell, when I worked at GW I saw dudes get uncomfortably sweaty over inch-tall female elves… Bayonetta is practically a porn star next to that!

So Bayonetta at least looks, moves and talks something akin to a real-world woman, and like any person in the media (even though she isn’t real) she has gotten public scrutiny. For better or worse, like Lady Gaga if she were on your Xbox 360. Bayonetta’s design derives from a mix of runway fashion, goth/fetish style, and the Japanese pop culture aesthetic known as visual-kei. If it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, that’s fine. Personally I like her looks. But couple that with her in-your-face sexuality and she’s got some people freaking out. She doesn’t actually perform any sex acts in the game, but she has a slightly foul mouth, a suggestive manner, and her clothes (made of her hair) mostly come off during her finishing moves… though no ‘bits’ are shown.

I find it annoying (and even slightly disturbing) that people have a problem with this. Annoying because it is the same Puritan braying one can always expect from certain corners, but coming now from corners I wouldn’t expect. Slightly disturbing because this is an obviously adult woman displaying confidence in her abilities and sexuality… a SIGNIFICANT occurance in video games, let alone one hailing from Japan. Remember? The country with a rep for demure schoolgirl and lolita fetishes? Bayonetta is like the complete opposite from so many of the women and girls populating games and anime from Japan that… I dunno… Is culture shock of some form causing people HERE in the USA to react so strongly? Like OUR video game players are so condition to lolis now?

In Japan Bayonetta has been pretty well embraced. Developer Platinum Games kinda skipped around the loli & fuku thing by casting Bayonetta as British/European. Japanese boys and men often find western women exotic and their storied forwardness (compared to Japanese women) is part of the appeal. So Bayonetta is probably not a direct reaction against the pedo grain, but she’s something. She’s a better character, male or female than most western games manage too. I think that Ruby from Wet, and Faith from Mirror’s Edge are great. And they are sexy in their way. But they don’t flaunt it like Bayonetta does. And that seems to be a large part of the problem for people, even some reviewers who should know better. A lot of people are acting like this is a stereotyped portrayal of a woman in games, ‘when are we going to see a character that isn’t all about skin and sex?’ they say. I don’t know the answer to that, but this is one of the very few times when I’ve seen a female protagonist that KNEW she was about skin and sex and not just being vampy to achieve an end. It may be fan service but because with Bayonetta it doesn’t seem accidental or voyeurish it doesn’t FEEL so much like fan service. It’s just out there. How is that a stereotype in video games?

Don’t think there are women that act like that? You need to get out more. Most women don’t act like Bayonetta outside of partying on a Saturday night (and at the goth club you get the looks too) but for Bayonetta it’s a party all the time. She’s always ‘on’ cuz it’s a fantasy world, duh. Nothing about her world is supposed to be truly realistic. Everything’s exaggerated. They don’t have guns strapped to their heels but given the right context there are plenty of women who will give Bayonetta a run for her money in attitude and confidence in their sexuality.

If you don’t like the character, you don’t like the character. Maybe it shows just how far video games have to go when a character like Bayonetta is such a standout. While I can’t recall a film character that’s a lot like her, there are all sorts of female leads available… and portrayals get more diverse all the time, even if only by inches. Kate Beckinsale’s character in the Underworld films probably pulls a lot of the same strings in fans.

As to the game: I’m not the biggest 3D action gamer on the planet. I gave the Devil May Cry games a miss and most players seem to think that is the game’s closest relative play-wise. I’m not completely at sea… I know God of War, Shadow of the Colossus and some others. I found Bayonetta’s game world to be hugely interesting, and the foes really cool and different. Having one foot in goth-dom as I do, that artistic sense probably a lot of the appeal. The game’s hugely violent and gory. Probably another plus.

The combat engine is smooth and has a really cool dodge mechanism that activates Bayonetta’s version of ‘bullet time’… a thing so many action games seem to think they need these days… but here its pretty damn awesome. Blah blah blah you can find this stuff on any review site… they mostly think the same thing I do.

There’s a ton of hidden shit, and I didn’t find the game to be too short. I thought it was a good distilled action experience. So many gamers want these humongously long games and that’s just crap. Some of the best films and novels aren’t padded out just to make sure you got your money’s worth, but the game market is what it is. Perceived value is such a pain in the dick. Bayonetta was the right duration to get through the basic game if you include a bit of exploration in each level instead of just bashing right through it. Doing it that way you’d get 14 to 18 hours out of it. Then you have additional hours of going back and playing to find all the hidden Alfheim portals or perfecting your level medals.

About the only complaints I would have are that getting really good score medals is almost too hard and takes more practice and replays than I care to do… enh, not really a complaint, I guess. I just have too many other games to get to. And kids. I have those also. Some of the QTEs (quick time events) come up on you quicker than you can react and are lethal. You can have spent a whole level in near perfect combat, fuck up a QTE, and then get a shit medal because you had to use a continue. That’s probably a complaint a lot of games would get for their QTE events, wouldn’t they? There are a few more (and longer) cutscenes than I would prefer, but at least they were entertaining and I was interested enough in the narrative as it went along. It is never good when you feel like you are watching more than playing and Bayonetta ALMOST crossed a line there.

I bought the Japanese version of this game in November of last year (2009) but didn’t start playing it until the western release at the beginning of 2010. Bayonetta sold pretty well in Japan. I don’t know what the numbers here in the west were, but when I went into a Gamestop on release week I was pretty dismayed to find Darksiders released at the same time. What marketing strategy fucknut at Sega came up with that? Darksiders is also a you-versus-the-angels-and-demons semi-apocalyptic 3rd-person action game… only it stars a huge Games Workshop-looking MALE badass with a sword bigger than he is. Who do you think Johnny 14 year old is going to buy that week? He might like Bayonetta’s boobies, but he might also be intimidated by them given the whole package from which they jut forth. The protagonist of Darksiders is just much more (homo)cozier and familiar. Don’t get me wrong. I bought Darksiders and will probably like it. But Bayonetta did NOT need that kind of competition. And what was being advertised in the shop at the time (besides Darksiders and not Bayonetta)? Dante’s Inferno! ANOTHER dude fighting quasi-religious entities in a 3rd person action game. So now Johnny 14 year old has to think about maybe saving his ducats for THAT game. Or maybe getting Bayonetta AFTER he’s got his second helping of heretical gore. By that time he’ll be all heretical-gored out and won’t want our heroine’s game. Unless he REALLY likes her boobies.

I’m actually being a little sarcastic above. All the mentioned games are rated M, and we know no video game stores would ever sell a 14 year old a forbidden game, yeah?

In the case of Dante’s Inferno, all the glorious nudity and perversion that people think is inherent in Bayonetta is right out there in the game. Dante’s Inferno is so closely based on the old epic poem that they actually have his girlfriend Beatrice nude the whole game. What? You missed the part where Dante wrote Beatrice was naked and had great tits when he saw her after the Inferno? Me too. Wait’ll you see the region of Lust in the game.

I would kind of like to get the guidebook for Bayonetta. I don’t normally go in for guides, but a) I wouldn’t mind some combat tips and help finding the Alfheim portals… I just don’t have time to invest in it the old fashioned way, and b) the limited edition is really super spiffy. Black hardcovers and red ribbon. Not released in the USA, though. In fact, our fucking guide got canceled. Could that be because it didn’t look like it would sell well enough amongst all the Dantes and Darksiders? And because Prima still holds the rights, this cool European one can’t be sold by American dealers. So I gotta try to find some UK or continental seller that’ll ship it to me.

Anyway, its early going, so leading contender for my Game of the Year though Bayonetta is, there’ll be a lot more going before 2010 is over. Bayonetta, I love you, but it just wouldn’t have worked out.