Friday, October 24, 2014

Super Smash Bros 3DS (...and Almost Good Games)

I've noticed a pattern when I review video games; I tend to give more backstory than actual review.   In my blog about Injustice: Gods Among Us, I spent as much time talking about the history of Mortal Kombat as I did about Injustice itself.  In my Alien: Isolation blog, I wrote more about the Commodore 64 Alien game than I did about Isolation.  I think this may just be my style.  If a game reminds me of other games, I like to make comparisons.  And don't get me started on ramblings where I talk about how I blog, such as this paragraph.  So if you want to skip to where I talk about Super Smash Bros, just scroll down to the bolded part.

Anyway... Before I write about Super Smash Bros for the 3DS, I want to talk for a minute about games that are awesome... except for the "game" part.  Games where the programmers went all-out in making the game as complete as possible, but still failed in the basic aspects of making it fun.

A lot of my examples are going to be from the Commodore 64.  The C64 was a peculiar machine - it was a computer that wanted to be a game system, or possibly vice-versa.  It had graphics that were a fair bit better than the Atari 2600, but not quite as good as the 8-bit Nintendo... except when they were.  Some programmers managed to get more out of the graphics than others.  Well, that's true of any system, but it was particularly glaring on the C64.  But the C64 controls were even more erratic.  It had ports for Atari 2600 joysticks, which aren't the most precise controllers in video game history anyway, but used on the C64 they were particularly mushy.

So anyway, the games:

Project Firestart (C64, 1989)
As far as I'm concerned, Project Firestart was the first "Survival Horror" computer game.  If ever a game came out that could be called "Resident Evil in space", this is it, and it was released years before the first Resident Evil.  You're sent to investigate a deep space research station, which sent out a distress call before going silent.  You dock with the station, and the first few halls are completely empty.  You hear nothing but your own echoing footsteps. Then you enter one room and see the mutilated body of a scientist, who used his last bit of energy to write a warning on the wall in his own blood.  The game shows you a quick closeup of the body as the music plays a scare chord.  As you continue to explore the station, you find many more bodies.  You access computers to find clues.  One one computer you find some journals that explain what's going on - the scientists had created some creatures for labor purposes, and those creatures got loose.

That's when you finally see the creatures themselves.  These tall, green tentacled monsters show up and you have to run or fight.  You encounter them several more times during your explorations, and several plot twists keep you from just running back to your ship and hightailing it out of there.  All told it's not as long as Resident Evil, and it does resort to backtracking to prolong the length of the game.  But for the time, it was revolutionary.  The graphics may look ancient now, but at the time it was some of the best I'd seen.  All in all, it was a brilliant game...

 
...except for the gameplay.  While I loved exploring the space station, fending off the creatures was annoying because the weapons were terrible.  There were a couple of different types of guns you could pick up, but they were really more like cattle prods.  Instead of firing any sort of projectiles or beams, just the tip of the gun lit up and became lethal.  Safety-wise, this actually makes sense not having weapons that could breach the hull.  But gameplay-wise, it was way too difficult killing monsters this way.  If you were close enough for your weapon to hurt them, they could hurt you as well.  Now if the game were more of a run-and-hide style game like Alien Isolation, this would still be fun.  But Project Firestart often put you in situations where you had to fight to survive, by putting monsters on both sides of you with no other ways out.  This issue is the only black mark on a game that was otherwise years ahead of its time.

Mail-Order Monsters (C64, 1985)
Buy a monster.  Customize him with bio-upgrades and weapons.  Take him to the arena to fight other monsters.  Use your winnings to upgrade your monster, or to buy more monsters.  There's been a few modern attempts at similar games, but none of them have had the charm of MOM.  It was so fun playing this game with my friends, each of us loading up our own monsters and making them fight.  I spent hours cheating by playing the two player mode by myself, winning battle after battle so I could earn enough money to build an entire menagerie of fully-powered beasts.  It was a wonderful experience...

...except for the gameplay.  While the build process was well-done and had decent graphics, the actual battle part was pretty dull.  Each player controlled a tiny solid-colored sprite, trying to get close enough to the enemy to hit the button for a melee attack, or trying to line them up for an easily-dodged ranged attack.  I know I shouldn't expect much from the C64, but there were plenty of other games that managed to make this kind of combat exciting.  I just wish the programmers had worked as hard on the fighting as they did the construction mode.

Autoduel (C64, 1985)
Based on the tabeltop RPG "Car Wars", Autoduel was an open-world vehicular combat game set in a Mad Max style future.  The freedom was incredible - you're just a guy with a car, what you do next is up to you.  Enter a demolition derby to earn more money.  Or take a courier job, braving the lawless streets to deliver packages to other cities.  Or go bounty hunting, living off rewards for the outlaws you defeat.  Use the money to improve your car, buy better cars, and equip them with the best weapons.  The game came with an instruction booklet as thick as the RPG itself, designed to look like a vehicle owner's manual.  I'm not sure I've ever seen so much stuff you can do in a C64 game.  It was an incredible sandbox game...

...except for the gameplay.  The cars moved too sluggishly, making it very difficult.  It was hard to practice enough to get better, because of the extraordinarily long loading times.  The rules were as harsh as an RPG - if you died, you had to make a new character.  So a typical game session might go like this:  Wait 10 minutes for the game to load.  Start a new character, spend several minutes making your first car.  Several more minutes getting your first courier job.  Leave town so you can drive to your courier destination.  Wait 5 more minutes for it to load the area between the towns.  Get attacked by outlaws.  Try to flee, because the starting cash isn't enough to buy weapons that don't suck.  Get killed because your car is slow and hard to control.  Realize you have to start the entire game over because of the harsh death rules.  Play a different game because this one is so frustrating.

WWE All-Stars (3DS, 2011)
But games that are almost perfect aren't limited to the C64.  More recently I owned "WWE Wrestling All-Stars" for the 3DS, and it was nearly incredible.  It had an impressive roster split between classic and modern wrestlers.  The classic wrestlers included all my favorites from my teen years, with multiple outfits to represent different years of their career.  We have Andre in his classic black on-strap leotard, but we also have him in his early years, with the long hair and the more traditional briefs.  There were multiple rings, a create-a-wrestler mode, and all the match types I've come to expect from wrestling games (singles, tag team, steel cage, etc).  In short, it is the perfect WWE game...

...except for the gameplay.  The matches just feel slow and tedious.  To be fair, I haven't had a lot of luck with wrestling games, even the ones that received great reviews.  So this is probably just me.  I haven't played a wrestling game I liked since the days of 2D sprites.  Something happened when they converted to polygons - they stopped being fun arcade button mashers and started becoming wrestling simulators.  Which is fine for a certain type of gamer, but I don't think I'm the target audience.

Super Smash Bros for the 3DS

Still reading this far?  Cool.  So anyway, the new Smash Bros 3DS game.  I'm really enjoying this game.  It has a lot going for it.  For one thing, it has a huge roster of fighters (51 once all are unlocked), with several alternate looks for each.  Some of those alternate looks are practically new characters.  For instance, instead of alternate colors, Bowser Jr's alts are the other 7 Koopalings.  A couple of the characters have male and female versions, Little Mac has both his NES look and his green wireframe arcade look, one of Peach's alts is Daisy, one of Fox's alts is Wolf, and so on.

The game has a ton of modes, and hundreds of unlockable things, so you never run out of things to do.  If all you feel like doing is random fights, you can just go to the highly-customizable Smash Mode.  But there's also Classic Mode where you fight a lot of different types of matches until you get to the boss.  Not to mention Smash Run, where you run around a level fighting enemies like a traditional platformer, collecting powerup icons, until it ends with a traditional Smash battle using the powerups you collected.  It even has a mode where you fight every fighter in the game, in the order their games were released.  With characters like Pac-Man and Mr Game & Watch, it's practically the history of video games in the palm of my hand.

The addition of Miis is particularly nice.  I always like Create-A-Fighter modes, so the ability to put myself into SSB is wonderful.  You start with any Mii in your collection, then choose three basic fighting styles - fists, sword, or gun.  Then you can choose from a few special moves, pick some stat-boosting icons to help you specialize your character, and pick an outfit and head accessories (more of which are unlockable).  It's not perfect but it's a really great feature.

All in all, I'd have to say it's the perfect Nintendo fighting game...

...except for - you guessed it - the gameplay.  Now to be fair, I enjoy this game's controls more than any other game mentioned in this blog.  It is highly polished, and everything I dislike about it is just personal taste.  I still think it deserves all the 9 star reviews it's getting.  Unlike the C64 examples, this game's controls were not a casualty of limited technology; this is exactly the game the programmers were intending to make.  However, I personally hate being forced to play 2D games with the circle pad.  I have a firm belief that 3D games work better with analog pads, and 2D games work better with d-pads.  Fighting games in particular should be mapped to d-pads because they require a lot of precise button-tapping, and often involve a lot of pounding that's harsh on the more delicate analog sticks.  And before you think I'm being paranoid, there have already been a lot of reports of people breaking their circle pads playing SSB.  I really hope these breakages cause Nintendo to release a patch that lets you use the d-pad.

I also have trouble keeping track of my character in the chaotic battles.  The game does attempt to make this easier for you: it has a couple of options for putting an outline around characters, and it puts "P1" above your head at all times... but it's still easy to lose track of where you are.  And while the game has a lot of different play modes, most of them aren't very good.  I'm glad they're there, but after trying each once, I generally found myself going back to the plain old Smash mode over and over.  Some of the minigames in particular are tedious - I've hated home run stadium since the last game.

But despite these shortcomings - most of which are really my shortcomings - it's a fantastic game. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alien: Isolation


I didn't like scary movies as a kid.  I was easily frightened, and didn't understand why people would want to feel that way for fun.  Whenever I heard about the movie "Alien", I was curious because I liked sci-fi, but I was too scared to want to see it.  I saw a doll of the creature on store shelves, and that alone was scary enough for me.  When Aliens came out in 1986, I let that pass me right by.  I remember thinking "Cool title", but that's about it. 

Then my grandmother died, and we inherited a box of her old books.  My Mom asked me to look through it to see if there was anything I wanted to read.  I found a copy of the novelization of Alien, read it, and fell in love.  I then went to the bookstore and picked up Aliens, and finished that just as quickly.  Next I rented both movies, and they immediately became my two favorite movies.  I picked up any other Alien merchandise I could find, which wasn't much at the time.

I bought games based on both movies for the Commodore 64.  The one based on Aliens was an excellent (for the time) collection of minigames, with cut scenes that take you through all the events of the movie.  Some of the minigames were better than others, but you could tell the programmers loved the movie, and really put their best effort into keeping it faithful to the source material.  It would be almost unplayable today, with the primitive graphics, but at the time it was the best movie-based game I'd ever played.

The "Alien" computer game is another story. Graphically, this game was extremely simple.  Your screen showed a map of the ship, with dots representing where different crew members were.  You could highlight specific crew members, and order them to move to other rooms, pick up items, and so on.  However, they didn't follow your orders right away, and would sometimes ignore you completely if you asked them to do something too frightening.  Somewhere on the ship the alien was popping in and out of air ducts, occasionally killing crew members.  Your job was to somehow kill it, keeping as many crew members alive as possible.  Killing the alien was no easy task, considering there were no real weapons on board.  Theoretically you could blow it out the airlock, though I never successfully managed to do that.

My preferred method was setting the ship to self destruct, then using the escape shuttle.  However, there were a lot of rules that kept you from doing this right away.  First off, it could only hold three crew members, and it wouldn't allow you to leave any crew members alive on the ship.  So you would have to wait until there were only three crew members left to use this method (there was also a mode that let you start out with three crew members).  Which leads to the next problem - the cat counted as a crew member.  So before you could blow the ship, you had to get the cat carrier, find the cat, catch it, and bring it with you.  Of course, chasing the cat all over she ship increased your chances of running into the alien.  And whenever you saw the alien, the screen would change to an animated picture of the monster while alarms go off.  The graphics weren't great, but the first time it happened it still made me jump.

The lack of action kept the game from being a hit with my friends, but I loved the psychological aspects of it.  Whenever you highlighted a crew member, you could hear their heartbeat, while their current emotional condition (stable, shaken, etc) was displayed on the screen.  If you kept them calm, they were more likely to follow your orders.  These emotional conditions were affected by factors such as whether they were currently alone in the room, if they were holding something that could be used as a weapon, their location (being in the air ducts made them particularly jumpy), and whether they had recently seen the alien.  Some of the crew members were more easily shaken than others.  Lambert was particularly unstable, and could be killed simply by putting her in a situation so scary it gave her a heart attack.  This could even be a useful strategy if you still have one too many crew members to use the escape ship.

So it wasn't a very pretty game, and it could be incredibly frustrating at times, but in my opinion it captured the spirit of the movie more than any action game ever could.  This was years before Resident Evil coined the term "Survival Horror", but Alien easily belongs in the genre.  I always wished the game could be remade with modern graphics and controls...

...And here comes Alien: Isolation, scheduled to be in stores October 7th.  I have high hopes for this game.  It takes place sometime between Alien and Aliens, with you controlling Ripley's daughter as a member of a crew investigating the disappearance of the original ship.  Predictably, they end up getting an alien on their ship, and the plot runs similar to the first movie from there.  But the big difference between this and the 50 or so other Alien-related games that have come out in the past couple of decades, is you're not blasting waves of aliens with a machine gun.  Instead, Isolation is a tension-filled game of hide and seek, similar in some ways to Clock Tower.  You have to look for different hiding places, from which you might see parts of the alien as it hopefully passes by.  You even have a button to hold your breath so it doesn't hear you.

And they've even announced some DLC that adds scenarios based on the first movie.


This sounds just like what I've hoped for since the C64 game.  I can't wait to try it out.  Please-don't-suck-please-don't-suck-please-don't-suck...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Injustice: Gods Among Us (and the Mortal Kombat Series)

Lately we've been playing Injustice: Gods Among Us.  But before we talk about that, let's go back a little.

I always had a love/hate relationship with the Mortal Kombat series.  I was a teenager when the first one came out, and at the time it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.  Yes, the violence was attractive to my tasteless 18-year old mind, but that wasn't the biggest draw for me.  I loved the digitized actors, and some of the special moves (Scorpion's rope, Sub-Zero's freeze) were a lot more interesting than Street Fighter's punches and fireballs.  Unfortunately MK1 didn't translate very well to home systems.  I don't mean the censorship (which was annoying but didn't really make the game less fun), it's just that none of the home versions really got the controls quite right.

They made up for it with Mortal Kombat 2, which was uncensored and had better graphics, tighter controls, more characters, and lots of secrets to discover.  My fiancee KJ (now my wife) and I played that one for months.  Mortal Kombat 3 was a bit of a letdown.  No big graphical upgrade, and initially they took away some of the most popular characters.  These fighters returned in Ultimate MK3, which was nice, but it still wasn't as revolutionary as MK2 had been.  Eventually they released MK Trilogy for the home systems, and that was the pinnacle of the 2D series.  I've always preferred fighting games that have loads and loads of characters, and this was (at the time) the most I'd ever seen in a single game. 

The transition to 3D was rocky.  For me, Mortal Kombat 4 was basically a tech demo - like they were saying, "Here's the groundwork; eventually we'll be able to make a decent 3D MK game."  I didn't play much of Deadly Alliance or Deception.  Each one was better than the last, but at the time I just felt that I was "over" Mortal Kombat.

In 2006, I played Mortal Kombat Armageddon.  It was the best MK game up to that date, featuring nearly every character that had been in the series.  It was like the "MK Trilogy" of 3D MK games.  Like the previous games that I had skipped, it also had a decent single player mode that played like an adventure game.  I especially loved the Kreate-A-Fighter mode, and I wish more fighting games allowed you to build your own characters.  The only thing keeping it from being the definitive MK game was the Fatality system.  The designers tried to experiment this time, and instead of giving each fighter their own fatalities as usual, they had a weird sort of "create-your-own" fatality system where you linked together a series of brutal combos.  I never got the hang of it, and it's a dark mark on what was otherwise the height of the pre-reboot MK series.  I was certainly prepared for it to be the final MK game.

In 2008, they released Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe.  It was really fun for about an hour, but there just wasn't enough there to love.  It felt like the designers did just enough work to have a solid fighting game, then rushed it out the door.  I could see pulling it out again when friends are over, if I didn't already own some much better fighting games.  There is nothing hugely wrong with the game; it just goes through the motions and gets the job done.  If you see it for $10, there are worse ways you could spend the money.

In 2011, we picked up the Mortal Kombat reboot (aka MK9 or MK2011).  We bought it on a whim.  I hadn't been following the game's development, and I hadn't read any reviews of it.  KJ and I happened to see it on the shelf, and we had some extra money burning a hole in our pockets.  We were trying to decide between that and another game, and KJ was actually the one who said, "We like Mortal Kombat, let's get it."  And we played it for months.  It is so good, far better than anything the series has put out before.  The controls are tight.  My biggest complaint about the MK series was that it didn't control as easily as more serious fighters, but MK9's controls are so good that even Fatalities are a breeze to do.  It had a good-sized roster of characters, a lot of different modes and options, and a story mode that was actually interesting for a change.

Now let's be honest.  The Mortal Kombat series started as a gimmick.  First they wanted to see if they could make a fighter with digitized graphics.  Then they wanted to see how much gore they could get away with.  Later games in the series also tried to test how much skin they could show.  I recognize this, and while I have enjoyed these gimmicks in the past, I do recognize that they are gimmicks.  All these games I would enjoy until until I was out of shiny objects to find, then I'd look for another game.  So seriously, I never thought I would say this about a MK game.  But the truth is, MK9 is one of the best fighting games ever made.  If you haven't played it, and aren't put off by the violence and skimpy outfits, you can find the "Komplete Edition" (PS3, 360) for under $20 now.  It really is worth it.

And now we have Injustice: Gods Among Us.  Why did I preface my review of Injustice with a Mortal Kombat history lesson?  Well, for all intents and purposes, Injustice is the spiritual successor of MK9.  It was developed by the same set of programmers, and is very similar to MK9 in style.  The controls are a bit different (most noticably Injustice doesn't use a block button), but overall you can easily see the similarities.

So how does it measure up to its predecessor?  Well, overall I do think MK9 was a slightly better game.  It had a larger roster of fighters, and slightly more intuitive controls (in my opinion).  But truthfully, I'd have to be a more hardcore gamer to really care.

Injustice has 24 fighters (with four more coming soon as downloadable content).  The roster is split 50-50 heroes and villains, featuring most of DC's major characters.  The basic controls are simple, though some of the more complicated combos are almost impossible for me to pull off.  Granted, I'm playing on the 360, and I hate the 360's controller for fighting games.  Still, some of the most powerful moves are the easiest to perform.  You can throw background objects at your opponent by simply tapping the shoulder button.  Each character has an over-the-top Super Move which is done by pressing two shoulder buttons together.

These super moves are basically Injustice's alternative to MK's Fatalities (or MK9's X-Ray moves).  Unlike fatalities, they can be done during the match, after filling up your super meter.  It's hard to imagine anybody surviving these moves.  For example, Superman punches his opponent into space, flies after them, and punches them back to the ground.  It stretches believability a bit that people can keep fighting after getting hit by these powers, but that's nothing new for fighting games.  Seriously, how many people in real life could get hit by Ryu's fireball or Dhalsim's yoga flame and still continue the match?  Injustice just takes it a bit farther.

Also cool are the stage transitions.  Most stages have two fighting areas, and if you use the right move in the right spot, you will knock your opponent into the other part of the stage and continue the fight there.  The Mortal Kombat series has been doing this for a while, but this time the transitions are especially funny (and damaging).  If you're fighting on the roof and your opponent knocks you off, you don't just fall to the street level.  No, first you get knocked into the side of a nearby building, where a wrecking ball hits you, then you fall and land on some elevated train tracks.  The train hits you, knocking you to the street level, while the train also crashes to the ground in the background.  Again, these transitions challenge your suspension of disbelief, but they're very entertaining.

Injustice's story mode is very interesting.  Several former DC voice actors have returned, including George Newburn and Kevin Conroy.  The plot is similar to one of my favorite episodes of the Justice League animated series, but it plays out much darker.  I'm only a couple of chapters into it so far, but it already looks very compelling.  And in case you were wondering, the story mode does explain how a human like the Joker can stand up to Superman's punches.  (Update: I've now finished the story mode.  It's really good.)

Like MK9, Injustice is filled with tons of unlockable content.  Each character has an alternate outfit related to the story mode's plot.  You can unlock these outfits by spending cards you earn while playing.  There are also a lot of extra costumes that can be earned other random ways, such as by completing other game modes.  It also has some extra battle modes you can unlock, as well as the usual miscellany I probably won't bother unlocking, like concept art or music.

There's a mode called "STAR Labs" that works a lot like MK9's Challenge Tower.  You are given specific missions that sometimes involve fighting, but are just as likely to be something off-the-wall like defending the Earth from meteors.  One early mission has you controlling Catwoman's cat while avoiding museum security guards.  You even have a "meow" button.  These missions are a cool break from fighting, but a lot of them are frustratingly difficult for me.

Is it balanced?  Are the combos easy to pull off?  Is the online opponent-matching any good?  I don't know; I'm not a very hardcore gamer these days.  I will say that some of the one-button-press moves (like throwing background objects) are just as damaging as some of the moves that take more complicated button-pressing.  So lots of matches become races to see who can reach certain background objects first.  Also, some of the ranged moves (like Deathstroke's rifle) are cheap enough to be somewhat cheesy in the wrong hands.  But it's balanced enough that when KJ and I play, either one of us could win no matter who we pick.  And in the end, that's all I really care about.

The bottom line:  While I do think MK9 is technically a better game, Injustice has a lot of charm and comic geekiness that makes me like it better.  I highly recommend this game to anyone who likes fighting games and DC characters, but if you want to wait a year until a "complete" version comes out, I wouldn't blame you.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Nintendo 3DS

Still no big long post here, as I've been using up all my blogging energy for my RPG blog

Just wanted to mention that I have a 3DS now, so if anybody wants to add me to their friend list, here's my friend code: 1306-5310-8353

Remember you'll have to give me your code as well for it to work.  As long as we're posting friend codes, here's my Wii Code (not that I play the Wii much any more): 7045 1920 7172 8881

And my X-Box 360 handle: MattAndKJ

I'm really enjoying the 3DS.  So far I've mostly been playing Mario Kart 7, New SMB 2, and a bunch of classic NES/Gameboy games.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Super Hero Summer

Covering three:

The Avengers
I didn't bother blogging this one when it came out, because it was just too obvious.  I simply can not imagine a better super hero movie, unless Avengers 2 is just two hours of Black Widow making out with Pepper Potts. If you haven't seen the Avengers yet, you owe me $5 stupidity tax.  By the way, I've seen it with and without 3D, and it was beautiful both ways.  The 3D is great but not required, so use your own judgement there.

Amazing Spider-Man
This was fun, but I liked the other trilogy better.  And that's really the hardest part of sitting through Amazing Spider-Man - the fact that I'd seen most of it before.  Generally I don't mind remakes or reboots, in truth I think it's fun seeing how different people tackle the same story.  But in this case I wish they'd just summed up his origin story in the opening credits.  Instead, this movie actually spends more time on his origin story than the 2002 version.  We all know Spidey's origin, and while I appreciate the differences (the return of web shooters, intrigue involving his parents, Uncle Ben's accident playing out differently), they didn't need to draw it out so long.

Andrew Garfield does a decent enough job, but it really got on my nerves the way he always took so long to speak.  "How are you, Peter?"  "................................Fine."  They could have shaved 15 minutes off the movie's running time if they'd removed all the awkward conversational pauses.  You could tell a lot of the dialogue between Peter and Gwen was meant to be cutesy and clever, but it fell flat on my ears.  Maybe I'm just too old.

I loved the Lizard.  He looked great, and the fight scenes were a lot of fun, even if they did look a bit like video game cutscenes.  The part of the movie's climax involving cranes - you'll know it when you see it - was so cheesy that I can't decide whether I love it or hate it.  It was reminiscent of the "don't threaten New Yorkers" bridge scene in the 2002 movie, only much more over the top.

Overall I'd have to give it a thumbs up, but understand it really doesn't do much that wasn't done ten years ago.  I try not to judge movies based on other movies, but the bottom line is that if the earlier trilogy didn't exist, I would have been much more impressed by Amazing Spider-Man.

By the way, we saw it in 3D, which was fine, but they really didn't do much with it.  Save a couple of bucks and see it in 2D instead; you won't miss much IMO.

The Dark Knight Rises
It was really hard for me to get interested in seeing DKR.  Sure, Batman Begins was a great way to cast away old shames and restart the franchise.  And The Dark Knight was as good as a Batman movie could ever hope to be.  But none of the trailers for Dark Knight Rises really pulled me in.  After the flashy, colorful Avengers movie, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to see another gritty, realistic Batman.  

But I loved every minute of it.  And I do mean every minute, which kind of blows my mind.  The movie is nearly three hours long, and I'd heard that it lags in the middle, but I never felt bored.  There were a couple of subplots that could have been left out without affecting the movie's overall quality, but nothing that really bogged the movie down.

Bane was great.  I wasn't expecting much out of him, but he really captured the spirit of the comic book character.  But predictably, the character I liked most was Selina Kyle.  She was clever and funny...  yeah, there wasn't much there that we hadn't already seen from Black Widow, but I'd rather see it from Selina.

The movie seemed to pick bits of its plot out of several comic story arcs, such as No Man's Land, Son of the Demon, and of course Knightfall.   It's as if Christopher Nolan scoured the history of the Batman universe to find the bits that would be most believable.  In some ways it felt like a direct sequel to Batman Begins, with Dark Knight just being an interesting extra story thrown in the middle.  It ended perfectly, wrapping up all the right details and really capping off the trilogy well.

Awesome as it was, I am glad this is the last one.  It's a great trilogy, but it doesn't need more.  I hope the next Batman reboot is more on par with the 1989 movie.  The Nolanverse is awesome, but I'm ready for something a little more comic-booky again. Not silly like Batman & Robin, but just fanciful enough that it could exist in the same universe as the Justice League.  I'm tired of Marvel having all the fun.

By the way, DKR also shows the new teaser for Man of Steel.  I don't think I've ever seen a more pointless trailer full of random images.  I'll withhold judgement on the movie itself, as a lot of great movies have rotten early teasers.  But seriously, who thought this teaser was a good idea?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Random Sci-Fi Thoughts

I have often said, "There is a fundamental difference between a normal person and a sci-fi fan: a normal person actually likes sci-fi".  If I take my mom to see a Star Wars prequel or an odd-numbered Star Trek film, she'll come back saying, "That was a pretty fun space movie."  But if I take a true sci-fi fan - even if it's to a really good movie - for the next few hours I'll be subjected to diatribes about the technical mistakes, followed by rants about how modern science fiction isn't as good as the works of Isaac Asimov or Phillip K. Dick.

There's a reason people like this get ostracized.  It's not because they're smarter than everyone else; there's plenty of popular smart people.  It's because it's just not fun hanging around people who hate everything.  It's a simple rule; when even the nerds want to kick you in the nuts, the problem is you. 

A friend posted this webcomic declaring Star Wars to be fantasy, not sci-fi.  For the most part, I agree. However, he's never going to be able to hold a job at a video store.  To quote his accompanying blog:

Hugo Gernsback, considered by many to be the father of sci-fi (and whose name you can see in, you know, the HUGO Awards) established the criteria a work had to meet to be considered science fiction:

1) The author must know science.
2) The author must be able to play with breakthrough theories and delve into how they would affect society.

So yeah,  I can totally agree there, but it's just a semantic argument.  For one thing, Gernsback actually pushed for the cumbersome term "scientifiction", so clearly he understood science more than marketing.  My personal take?  There's "Science Fiction" and there's "Sci-Fi".  Science fiction" refers to stories that actually speculate about unknown aspects of science, attempt to predict science related things (the future of technology, the biology of alien species, etc), and in general are written by people who know what they are talking about.  Sci-fi refers to stories that happen to take place in space and/or in the future, or deal with futuristic elements like aliens or robots, but that concentrate more on entertaining you than getting their facts right.

Or for a more cynical take:  If they're on a spaceship and it bores you, it's science fiction.  If they're on a spaceship and stuff blows up, it's sci-fi.

There's plenty of room for overlap there.  You can easily be more than one thing.  Star Trek is both science fiction and sci-fi, depending on the episode or the writer.  Star Wars is both fantasy and sci-fi, but rarely really touches science fiction.  Alien is both sci-fi and horror. Aliens is both sci-fi and action. Alien 3 is both sci-fi and garbage.

What bugs me is when people try to shy away from the "sci-fi" stigma. You know, the ones who say, "Don't call my book sci-fi!  Sure, it's set in space and has robots, but it's a love story, dang it!"  Twenty years ago, sure, but today?  Right now there is not a single intelligent person on Earth who doesn't love sci-fi.  Be proud of your work!  Such a tiny percentage of people actually manage to get anything published.  No matter how hard you work, becoming a well-known author or director is still like winning the lottery.  You just sound whiny when your work doesn't get reviewed and categorized exactly the way you wanted.

I do think it's weird that the Sci-Fi channel didn't seem to mind the stigma back when it was considered nerdy, but then changed their name to SyFy after sci-fi became mainstream.  That might not be why they actually changed it, but I still think it's a funny observation.

So anyway, you can rationalize all you want about how Star Wars is technically not science fiction, and I probably won't disagree with your points. But you have to admit when you're browsing Netflix and want to watch Star Wars, you're going to head for the sci-fi section.

The Flamingo Analogy

"The world's toughest flamingo is still a flamingo."

Sometimes when I stop by the flamingo pen at the zoo, I'll see two flamingos fighting. This always makes me laugh, because really, what's this fight going to prove? Sure, you might be the strongest, but you're still a skinny pink bird with a crooked beak and a wormlike neck. When you're one of nature's silliest animals, there's no extra prestige in being the biggest and baddest one. Just picture a flamingo in a leather jacket and shades, sporting skull tattoos.  Intimidating, no?  No.

This analogy comes to mind whenever I see two "silly" groups fighting with each other.  For example, Twilight fans had "Team Edward" vs "Team Jacob".  No one ever wins these arguments, but even if you did, you'd still be a loser.  So if you ever hear me dismiss an argument as a "flamingo fight", that's what I mean.

It's hard for me to say this without insulting my more reverent friends, and so I apologize for this in advance.  But I also consider this analogy whenever I see two religious groups attacking each other. It doesn't matter if it's Christians vs Muslims, or Baptists vs Presbyterians, or Jehovah's Witnesses vs Mormons. From an outsider's point-of-view, all these religions are equally unlikely.

Lest you think I'm being snobbish, I'm not immune to the flamingo analogy. Everyone has their own flamingo threshold.  I've argued with my fellow geeks on many subjects that ordinary mortals would find pointless.  I've participated in internet flame wars over the best edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  I've been involved in heated discussions over the greatest Star Trek captain. 

So if I ever dismiss a battle you believe in as a flamingo fight, well, I'm sorry.  I know these things are important to people, and I should respect the believer if not the belief.  On the other hand, if you laugh along with me while I make fun of arguments between Twilight fans, Mormons, or rap artists, but suddenly get offended when I include something you like, then we're probably headed to the same hell together.