Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Editorial: The Wind Rises (Part 2)

Previously on the SDP, I editorialised on Hayao Miyazaki's animated film The Wind Rises, which I had not even seen at the time.  Well, now I have, and further developments have forced me back on my virtual soapbox.

Let's take a trip back a month, to the 86th Academy Awards.  (Or look it up on Wikipedia if you can't be bothered to find a time machine.)  And the winner of the Best Animated Feature award goes to... Frozen!  Oh, you mean the new Disney film?  Yeah, that was awesome, wasn't it?  Worth every bit of the sensation it caused in our culture!  Let's see, what other nominees did it beat out?  Despicable Me 2?  Bah.  The Croods?  Meh.  If it weren't for Disney and company, I'd say the animation industry is finished.

...?  What's this?  Something called The Wind Rises was also nominated?  Wow, you think the Academy would gravitate to something like this, like they do with the live-action films.  But they didn't.  So the question is: Did Frozen really deserve the award?  Let's answer the question with a couple of brief reviews.

First, The Wind Rises.  Whilst my previous article on the subject was focused on its politics, I'm willing to chuck that all aside for fear of repeating myself.  The film is a fictionalised biography of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, with elements of author Tatsuo Hori thrown in for good measure.  As he is portrayed in this film, Horikishi-san grew up in a Japan struggling to catch up with the other major world industries.  During his youth, he starts having dreams wherein he interacts with a mister Giovanni Caproni, an Italian airplane designer, and vows to follow in his footsteps.  Through these dreams -- which, might I add, punch up the plot with a much-valued touch of whimsy -- Jiro's motives are revealed: all he wants to do is develop something which his country can be proud of.  Yes, his planes, the Mitsubishi A5M and (not seen in the film) A6M "Zero" were used by a horriffic war machine, but he had no direct desire for that.  Sometimes, the most controversial inventions in this world were simply products of altruism.

Interspersed with all this, he meets a girl named Naoko in the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake.  They reunite years later and make plans for marriage, only to discover that she has contracted tuberculosis and may not be long for this world.  This being the case, they make the most of their romance.  I don't want to call it boring, because that would only react poorly on my attention span.  I'll just say that their choice of two interwoven yet independent storylines doesn't make for good dramatic flow.  But who am I to say what stories should or shouldn't do?  At least taken on their own, these stories are teriffic.  I'll conclude by giving The Wind Rises a score of 95% (A) and a Dragon Award, and saying that, just barely, I respect it more than I like it.

And now, Frozen.  Our story opens with a pair of sister princesses, Anna and Elsa, the latter of whom has the power to control snow and ice.  But after accidentally injuring Anna with such, their parents decide to wipe Anna's memories of the affair, and lock up Elsa until her coronation as queen.  During the affair, Elsa's powers slip out, she runs away, and Anna gives chase in the hopes of talking some sense into here.  I'm not gonna lie, this film starts off on a real strong note.  To see what I mean, check out one of the opening songs, "Do You Want To Build A Snowman", which contrasts Anna's optimism and Elsa's fears.  But does Frozen follow through on this initial momentum?

Thinking back to another Disney animated feature, I remember recently watching 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time in years.  Having since kicked off this very blog and honed my critical mind, I fell in love for what this movie did, and I would've awarded it a perfect score -- but for the incongruous comic relief forced upon us by the little gargoyles.  I was afraid Frozen would suffer a similar dichotomy, and it does, although to a smaller degree.  When the film focuses on Elsa's inner conflict, it does a good job at that.  I sometimes wish it would focus on that instead of diverting our attention with characters such as the animate snowman Olaf (although I must admit I found his schtick, his self-destructive longing for warm things, to be genuinely funny), and with the Anna-Hans-Kristoff long-distance love triangle.  While I'm nitpicking, the ending is a tad cheesy, the villain reveal is rather obviously telegraphed halfway into the film, and none of the musical numbers stuck with me.  Oh, except "Let It Go" -- that was awesome.  Still, what Frozen does well, it does wonderfully.  I think I can sleep soundly after giving it a score of 85% (B-) and saying that, just barely, I like it more than I respect it.

So having compared the two films, I have to admit I'm comfortable with the Best Animated Feature award going to either one or the other.  ...At least, that's what I would have said before I chanced upon this little article from the website Cartoon Bomb 1 (original source: Hollywood Reporter 2).  Out of seven judges interviewed, three voted for Frozen because it was the only movie they cared to watch, and the other four abstained from voting for similar reasons.  And I'm like...  I'm... shocked and appalled.  I can't even bring myself to do another one of those Atomic F-Bombs; that's how stunned I am.  And it wasn't even a case of bribery or some other corruption -- at least I would've accepted that.  But nope, they just couldn't be arsed!  I first heard about this report from a piece of The Wind Rises fanart on deviantART. 3  I had the following conversation with the artist who made it:
SpyHunter29rtil, regarding the Academy's open-quote decision end-quote, have you considered making a petition asking for a re-vote?  Yeah, the Devil's Advocate in me wonders if this is the point where the fan's sense of entitlement has gone too far, but screw that guy!  Wouldn't you want it just for the sake of them doing their job properly?  And if they did do a re-vote having given all the films their fare share and Frozen still comes out on top, then I'll accept that.

But until then, the day I heard about this leak was one of the saddest days I can remember, second only to when Mega Man Legends 3 got cancelled.  But that's another story.  And for what it's worth, I hear the general Best Picture award didn't fare much better, no disrespect to 12 Years a Slave (I assume).

rtil: there's not much point in having a re-vote when some academy members simply refuse to see the films they are supposed to be voting on. i think the best thing to do is just not pay attention to the oscars and let them have them pat themselves on the back for their sham award show.
At the time, I had accepted rtil's response, but even now, the desire to change the world in this regard still burns in my heart.  ...Of course, such fires would no doubt just end up doused by my own laziness, so forget about it.  Oh well, I guess I'll just sit here and brood in the discontent brought upon by my displeasure for the Animation Age Ghetto, which I may or may not have brought up before.  See, if we as a culture would just treat animated features with the same respect as their live-action counterparts, we wouldn't be in this predicament, and The Wind Rises may very well have won the Oscar it deserved.  But such is the world we live in that, if the Hollywood studios are an accurate representation of the market they serve, all we want are the same rehashed fairy tales over and over again, without any acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, some of us have grown out of them.

But as I said about Pitbull, of all people, when you do the same thing over and over, you nonetheless hone some sort of skill in such.  Ever since 2009's The Princess and the Frog, which I guess we can call the last hurrah for traditional animation in America, Disney's been going through a phase of giving their world-famous princesses a higher degree of agency in terms of their respective plots.  They do stuff now, is what I'm saying.  Still, knowing what I know about other markets (read: anime), this comes across not so much as Disney stepping out of their comfort zone as it is them looking out the window into another adjacent comfort zone.  But the bare minimum of progress seems to have paid off -- as of the time I post this, Frozen is officially the best-selling animated motion picture of all time. 4  We're talking more than a billion dollars worldwide, peoples, And before you ask, The Wind Rises was highly successful in its home land, grossing over US$110 million during its run to become the best-selling Japanese film of 2013.  But its draw in America?  A paltry $5 million. 5

With that in mind, is it too much for me to ask that we, as the people of one nation, become more willing to branch out and consume the media of a land not our own?  ...Sorry, that's my Devil's Advocate talking again.  I hate that guy.  Of course it's not too much for me to ask!  As evidenced by the jurors' leaked comments, we have a very narrow concept of a medium that has so much more to offer.  I mean, an animated feature this based in reality?  No one over here would have the balls to attempt that, I can tell you!  With the likes of The Wind Rises, a new way forward for the animation industry has opened -- but we chose not to enter the door.  I weep for you, America.  And I'm not saying Frozen is terrible, either -- it's quite good, in fact.  It's just not billion-dollar good, or Best Animated Feature good.  As such, given the circumstances, I hereby state that I refuse to acknowledge Frozen as the recipient of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and instead consider The Wind Rises as such.  It's my blog, I can do whatever I want.

PS: Yes, I left out one of the nominees, the Franco-Belgian Ernest & Celestine.  I'll be honest, I'd never heard about that one before, but it only serves to illustrate my point about the stranglehold the Hollywood machine has on our media.

1 Amidi, Amid.  "Definitive Proof That Academy Voters Are Ignorant About Animation".  Cartoon Brew, 2 March 2014.

2 Anonymous, told to Feinberg, Scott.  "Oscar Voter Reveals Brutally Honest Ballot".  Hollywood Reporter, 26 February 2014.

3 rtil.  "'The Wind Rises".  deviantART, 12 March 2014.

4 Amidi, Amid.  "'Frozen' Just Became The Highest-Grossing Animated Film Ever".  Cartoon Brew, 30 March 2014.

5 Box Office Mojo.  "The Wind Rises (2014)".  Box Office Mojo, 9 April 2014.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Game Rehab: Call of Duty

If you're a piece of serialised media, make enough money and your consumers will have... interesting feelings about you.  And given this criterion, no franchise has a more polarised, factionalised consumer base than... Sonic the Hedgehog.  But I'm actually writing about Call of Duty, the first-person shooter series inspired by real and prospective military flashpoints of the past, present and future.  From its humble beginnings as a World War II-themed game, already following the coattails of other such titles, to the world-shattering Modern Warfare trilogy, Call of Duty has become the model for many other video games, both shooters and in other genres, trying to make it big.
  • Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003): The first game.  Set in the European theatre of World War II, the story mode alternates at certain points between American, British, and Soviet characters in their combined advance against the Nazi war machine.
    • Call of Duty: Finest Hour (Spark/Exakt, 2004): A spin-off of the first game for consoles.
  • Call of Duty 2 (Infinity Ward, 2005): Also set in WWII.  A launch title for the XBox 360.
    • Call of Duty 2: Big Red One (Treyarch, 2005): A spin-off of the first game for consoles, and a sequel to Finest Hour.
  • Call of Duty 3 (Treyarch, 2006): Also set in WWII.  The first main-series game not made by Infinity Ward, kicking off the series' tradition of swapping developers every other year.
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007): The first game exclusively developed for seventh-generation consoles (PlayStation 3, XBox 360, etc.).  Set in the near future, the story mode involves an American Army Rangers unit pursuing a nuclear-armed dictator in an unspecified middle-eastern land, and a British SAS task force pursuing his Russian partner in crime.  Also pioneered an online multiplayer mode, where players earn experience points to unlock new weapons and items.
  • Call of Duty: World at War (Treyarch, 2008): Returns the series to a World War II setting, specifically the Pacific Theatre.  Introduced the "Nazi Zombies" survival mode.
  • Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward, 2009): Arguably where the franchise jumped the shark.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch, 2010): A spin-off set in the Cold War-era 1960s, loosely connected plot-wise to World at War.
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, 2011): Finishes the story from MW2.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2012): A launch title for the Wii U.  The setting alternates between the 1980s Cold War and the not-to-distant future.  In a series first, the single-player campain features a branching storyline with multiple endings.
  • Call of Duty: Ghosts (Infinity Ward, 2013): A launch title for the PlayStation 4 and XBox One.  The story is a new one set in the present-day, about an invasion of a South American federation against the United States.
As you can see, CoD has been a very busy franchise, with new games coming out faster than once a year for an entire decade.  So with a schedule like that, it stands to reason that they don't have the time to innovate too much -- and therein lies the problem that many people see in it, myself included.  Now bear in mind: even though I was raised on shooters like Goldeneye 007 and pine for those days, I don't hate CoD on principle.  There's a time and place for different takes on the first-person shooter genre.  But if you're going to do one thing, you might as well do it to the best of your ability.  These are my suggestions for fixing the franchise, categorised into points specific to Call of Duty, and suggestions for the genre as a whole, both for single-player and multi-player experiences.

For the Call of Duty franchise specifically:
  • Your stories need to take some Ritalin.  More so with the newer entries, CoD games have a bad habit of dropping you in a different warzone for each level, with the battle du jour already in medias res.  Whilst the Modern Warfare trilogy carried on the original games' tradition of multiple parallel storylines, they jump between them with haphazard abandon.  For example, in MW2, there's a mission with a British SAS task force tracking down an arms dealer in Rio de Janeiro, followed by a mission in suburban Virginia where a bunch of Army Rangers come under fire by Russian paratroopers.  Then another mission with the SAS.  Then another with the Rangers.  Pray tell, what was wrong with keeping the SAS and Rangers missions together?
  • Try to keep a consistent tone, specifically in the portrayal of war.  Not all the games fell in this trap, mind you.  The WW2-era CoD games gave off an appropriate amount of patriotism, because by now we've all accepted the Nazi regime was a bad thing.  And CoD4 updated its portrayal of war for the post-Iraq era, minus the oil.  But then MW2 and MW3 come around, and things get a little... simpler.  Like the Brosnan-era Bond films, there's too much of an emphasis on explosive setpieces.  It almost makes war look awesome... and then you die, and the respawn screen pops up with a real-life inspirational quote on the nature of war.  Umm... am I supposed to walk away from my controller with the opinion that war is good or bad?
  • Be a little more even-handed and realistic in portaying the world's superpowers.  Oh my, the Russians are invading America and Western Europe?  What is this, 1984?  Okay, so the real Russia is a point of concern these days, to say the least, but the game goes out of its way to say it's not the Moscow government's fault.  That's considerate and all, but it feels like going out of your way to be "safe".  I'd prefer it if you either implicated the Kremlin directly, or chose a completely different antagonist force.  ...On second thought, that didn't work for Ghosts -- come on, South America isn't really that jealous of our freedoms and our kill-sats, right?  I mean, we've still got allies down there!  Which brings me to my next point:
  • As for the other side, America doesn't have to go it alone, you know.  The early CoD games were somewhat innovative in letting us play as characters from different nations.  And in these post-Iraq days of America being seen as a renegade force, we might as well buck that trend.  Even now, the USA has a lot of allies, so why not let them get in on the action?
    • And don't think of killing off those player characters when you're done with them, that habit's getting ridiculous.
  • Either cool it with the "shocking moments", or have them mean something.  For those unaware, the games in the Modern Warfare trilogy boast certain shocking, and often controversial scenes meant for some kind of emotional impact.  In CoD4, the player character dies slowly after getting caught in a nuclear explosion; in MW2, he goes undercover with a terrorist group as they raid a Moscow airport and massacre civillians; and in MW3, the Russians launch a series of chemical weapon attacks across Western Europe -- from the point of view of a tourist family.  Of these, I'd wager the first one made the best impact because A) it was unskippable, and B) it was the first one of its kind.  As for the others, well, they come across as a more contrived effort to tug at our heartstrings.  Plus, they give you the option to skip them beforehand without penalty, and I have to give them credit for thinking about the people who might be offended by them, but that's just it: it's all too well-calculated, too focused on mass appeal to have any real impact.  I mean, look at Spec Ops: The Line (PS3/X360, 2012): you don't have any choice but to launch the white phosphorus, and you don't know that you killed civilians with it until it's too late.  I'd go further in detail, but that game warrants its own review.  And besides, having this stunt pulled on us once every two years puts a damper on its intended effects.  (And no, I haven't played Ghosts, so I have no idea if they've bucked this trend.)
  • Don't give us special items only to restrict their use.  One of the things the CoD single-player campaigns like to do is give us a go with all manner of military hardware -- night-vision goggles, airstrikes, vehicles, turrets, robots, and as of Ghosts, playable attack dogs -- only to yank them from our hands after a minute or two.  These sorts of things often become the highlights of whatever level they're featured in, but when you give us something so fun, we'll just chafe at the limitations you impose upon them.
For single-player shooters in general:
  • Let us carry more than two guns at a time.  Sure, it was weird when you thought about how, say, James Bond in Goldeneye 007 (N64, 1997) could carry dozens of guns at once.  But to paraphrase that Passenger song, you only miss a hyperspace arsenal when you've only got two weapon slots.  Yes, Halo popularised this trend, but it worked (to some extent) in that game because there were so few weapons to be had (I count eight).  Meanwhile, your average post-Modern Warfare CoD game boasts dozens of guns -- many of them similar, mind you, I'll get to that next -- and without the ability to carry them all as you go, you might ditch one and not find the same one again for quite some time.
  • On that note, having a wide variety of guns is great on paper, but if you're going to do so, at least make all your weapons distinct.  Having 5 or more guns of a particular class means nothing if they all behave the same.  Your average Joe six-shooter won't understand the subtleties that set the M4 and M16 apart from each other, for example.  Otherwise, all this variety might overload us, and we'll have no reason not to just forgo it all and just stick with what we're arbitrarily provided with at the start -- especially if you give us more ammo than we'll ever need.
  • Don't regenerate our health.  Pardon me for being raised on games that actually carried the risk of making you start over if you goofed up enough, but the way I see it, giving us free refills on health points lessens the challenge below the level of reason.  Again, we have Halo (XBox, 2001) to blame for this trend, but it was handled better there: your health does not regenerate (unless you find health power-ups), but you have a shield on top of that which does recharge.  Granted, this sci-fi technology won't work for every setting, but maybe it's a sign that we didn't need this sort of thing in the first place.
  • Don't "force" us to use iron-sight aiming.  I know you're perfectly able to fire "from the hip", or without looking down the sights, but apparently you're much less accurate when you do.  In fact, the tutorial level from MW2, where you and your captain train a bunch of Afghan security forces, hammers this in rather blatantly.  Yes, I know it's good gun etiquette in the real world to look in the sights to hit the target you want, but I didn't boot up a video game to be subject to the same rules I can experience in my own world.  And I think I'd get a bit more efficiency out of my gaming session if I didn't have to waste half a second of aiming animation every time I wanted to shoot something.
  • Don't remind us when to reload.  I've started noticing this a lot in shooters lately: when my magazine is down to its last few rounds, a small notice will pop up on the screen telling me to reload and which button I may do it with.  Umm, if it's no offence to you, I'll reload when I dang well please!  Certain CoD games, MW2 in particular, are even worse in this regard: they outright tell you, "You are hurt.  Find cover!" when your HP (temporarily) drops close to zero.  Yeah, as if the throbbing redness taking over my screen didn't indicate that I'm in dire straights!
  • And do we really need objective markers all over the place?  Yes, missing an out-of-the-way objective when we didn't even know what to look for is one thing.  But shepherding us around like we're idiots is boring, insulting even.
For multi-player shooters in general:
  • Let us choose our own matches.  In some games (i.e. the PC version of CoD4), when you search for multiplayer matches you get a list of results which you can choose from.  But in others (i.e. the console versions of MW2), you just pick your mode and the game chooses the "best" match for you automatically.  The way they do this, it tends to lead to much longer wait times when there aren't enough good connections going about.  This may be a difference between PC and console gaming in general, but I for one value transparency in this sort of thing.  It wouldn't be to much to show console gamers what matches are available -- or better yet, give us the option to do both.
  • NEVER make multiplayer-exclusive Achievements.  CoD in particular doesn't have this problem, but numerous other online-enabled games these days, and shooters especially, fall victim to this trap.  See, if your servers don't get enough use, odds are you'll end up like 007 Legends (PS3/X360/Wii U, 2012), where you'll everyone only seems to want to play the regular Team Deathmatch -- and that's only if anyone's online at the moment.  And that's the best-case-scenario -- it's possible for the multiplayer servers to be switched off completely, rendering those acheivements unwinnable forever.  See Homefront (PS3/X360, 2011) for an example of that -- or rather, don't.
  • Bring back AI bots for offline multiplayer.  Again, the multiplayer servers aren't going to stay up forever, and some of us don't have friends to call up for split-screen games.  That's the reason I have more fond memories of multiplayer in The World Is Not Enough (N64, 2000) or Nightfire (PS2/GCN/XBox, 2002) as opposed to Goldeneye 007.
And last but not least, take a break for a couple of years!  Nothing hurts a series more than wearing out its welcome.  And series publisher Activision's no stranger to this phenomenon, either.  They've already run the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero series to the ground with their egregious sequelising, and the way I see it, Call of Duty will be their next casualty.  ...Aw, who am kidding?  Activision's not gonna heed my warnings.  all they care about is money.  ...Welp, it's never too late to heed my warnings, and send Call of Duty away for some game rehab.


Yeah, title drop!!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Music Review: Timber

  • Artist: Pitbull featuring Ke$ha
  • Album: Meltdown [EP]
  • Release: 7 October 2013
  • Genre: Pop / Dance / Hip-hop
  • Writers: Kesha Sebert, Armando C. "Pitbull" Pérez, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, Priscilla Hamilton, Jamie "Sermstyle" Sanderson, Breyan Stanley Isaac, Henry "Cirkut" Walter, Pebe Sebert, Lee Oskar, Keri Oskar, Greg Errico
  • ProducersDr. Luke, Cirkut, Sermstyle

Folks, I have a lot of explaining to do.  I actually like a Pitbull song.  I dare say it's even a guilty pleasure of mine.  And don't say I didn't warn you, either; I brought it up on my list of honourable mentions for my Best Hit Songs of 2013.  Welp, since it's still going strong as of the time I write this -- it's since peaked at #1 -- and since I don't see it making my best-of-2014 list either, I might as well dig myself deeper by digging into this song.

So what could've attracted me to "Timber" more so than any other of Pitbull's songs over the past few years?  Maybe because technically speaking, it's a Pitbull song featuring Ke$ha.  As I admitted previously, I have a soft spot for the girl.  I mean, yes, she does at times sound like she's vomiting glitter into your ears.  But especially since her last album, she's managed to keep her obnoxiousness under control.  So how does she fare this time around?  Let's take a look at the chorus, and the thesis presented therein:
It's going down, I'm yelling "timber"
You better move, you better dance
The key point of this song is the phrase "it's going down", in relation to the party du jour.  And to punctuate said point, they added "I'm yelling 'timber'", as a lumberjack would when he or she has cut a tree and it's about to fall.  As in go down, literally.  Like the party, figuratively.  ...Sorry I had to explain the joke, I must've underestimated your intelligence for a moment.

Well, how 'bout something even I didn't know?  Let's examine that harmonica-led track in the back.  It doesn't sound like any sample I've ever heard.  But it turns out that it is, in fact, a pre-existing riff.  It comes to us from a song called "San Francisco Bay" by the Danish harmonica player and former War member Lee Oskar.  (The version on "Timber" was re-performed by session musician Paul Harrington.)  What does this song have to do with the mood which "Timber" attempts to evoke?  Naught is my guess.  Just like another Pitbull song I reviewed.  Yes, "Back In Time"'s use of "Love Is Strange" was totally incongruous, having nothing to do with the former's association with Men In Black 3.  But whilst no one in their sane mind would relate "San Francisco Bay" with some redneck hoedown like Pitbull & co. seemed to do, they used just the right parts of the song to enhance the experience.  Slowly but surely, they may just be learning the meaning of the word "subtlety".

Those of you who remember one of the other Pitbull songs I've reviewed -- in this case, "Feel This Moment" -- may remember that it did something I liked: namely, use a sample from "Take On Me", in an awesome, pulse-pounding way.  But disappointment quickly set in when the verses did -- not just because Pitbull had to go and open up his big fat mouth, but also because all the musical momentum that had built up over those glorious thirty seconds came to a screeching halt.  And then the transition from the first verse to the chorus killed the momentum again.  And so on.  Well, I have good news: "Timber" does not share its predecessor's problem.  There are no slow segments to be found this time around, ensuring that beat is pulse-pounding throughout.  In fact, with a running time of 3:24, this is a rather trim song with no unnecessary instrumental breaks or anything.  Part of me can appreciate that, given whom we're dealing with.

But even if Pitbull's obscure choice of sample (assuming it was his call) could fool me into thinking that he's kicked his crippling addiction to sampling, his unique habit of sampling lyrics from other rap songs throws a proverbial wrench into the proverbial works.  In "Timber", he's guilty of two such offences: first, this line:
Face down, booty up
That's the way we like to (what?)
is a cleaned-up version of a line from 2 Live Crew's "Face Down, [noun] Up".  And there's also this:
We about to drown (why?)
'Cause it's -- about -- to go -- down
in which the latter line is from Jay-Z's "Give It To Me (I Just Wanna Love You)".  Okay, I will admit this part was kind of awesome, I guess because of the staccato delivery.  And Pitbull & co. can't even take credit for that, the original song did that sort of thing too.  Besides, borrowing lines from ther rappers isn't the reason I've harboured as much hatred as I have for the man.  He's got other problems.  For instance, his repertoire of references extends to celebrities themselves:
I have 'em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off
Twerking in their bras and thongs, timber
Aw, dangit man!  I was trying to forget about the Twerktastrophe of 2013!  And the fact that we've even given that random act such a cute name is a sign that our culture is focusing its attention on the wrong things, but that's a rant for another day.  So, what else ya got?
I'm slicker than an oil spill
Huh.  Remember when Pitbull did that line about "flooding like New Orleans", which I sarcastically honoured as the worst line he's ever spit?  I would cry foul at this line, too, having the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in mind, but that line is non-specific enough that I think I could give it a pass.  After all, oil spills anywhere in the world tend to occur more frequently than flooding in any one particular city.  Either way, I've surprised myself with how little I was offended by this or indeed any line from this song.  Maybe it's because of his relative absence, or because other rappers like Lil' Wayne showed just how low the bar could be set, but I'm not even as annoyed at Pitbull as I used to be.  For example, let's go back to the "flooding like New Orleans" line.  For any other bad rapper, that would only make the back half of the list, if at all.  On the other hand, when Pitbull says this:
She says she won't, but I bet she will
I don't picture that as a warning that he's about to date-rape some dame, and more that he's making a friendly wager with another guy that he can get some other girl to accompany him into bed of her own free will.  He is, to purloin a catchphrase from a certain intergalactic reference material, "mostly harmless".  I mean, he self-censored that 2 Live Crew line a while back!  Who else is gonna do that?  As a general rule, he's not mysoginistic, he's not threatening, he just wants to have a good time for himself.  Even if the man comes across as annoying every once in a while, in the grand scheme of things, is that such a crime?
Club jumpin' like LeBron now (Voli)
Order me another round, homie
We wrap up our whirlwind tour of worrisome writing with this wee little bit of product placement.  So, Pitbull... I see you're still vouching for Voli vodka.  Given the fate of Kodak -- you know, the brand you rather embarrassingly pimped out at the start of "Give Me Everything" -- I had hoped you'd have learned your lesson by now.  But I guess those first-class plane tickets don't pay for themselves!

Well, all product placement aside, I must admit I rather liked "Timber".  Do I think it's a good song?  ...Eh, that's harder to answer.  It's true that the path of the party song is fully well-worn, so if you're seeking some great insight into the human condition, look elsewhere.  But here's the thing: no one expects the party song to provide such insight; they just want to put it on to have fun.  And any party song that can serve as a consistent source of fun is a good party song.  See, I don't know about you, but in judging things, most especially songs, I try to take into account both the effort that went into it, and the reactions it instills in me as a consumer.  I mean, that's the point of entertainment as a whole, no?  If Pitbull's just gonna go off and do his own thing, he might as well improve at whatever that thing is.  And doggone it, I consider "Timber" an improvement.

Music: 4 out of 5
Lyrics: 2 out of 5
Performance: 4 out of 5
The Call: 3 out of 5 (C)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Game Review: Winter Olympic Games

Winter Olympic Games: Lillehammer '94
  • Publisher: US Gold
  • Developer: Tiertex
  • Release: Super NES/Sega Genesis/Sega Game Gear, 1994
  • Genre: Sports
  • Players: 1-4 Alternating
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Super NES: Common, US$5-10
    • Genesis: Common, US$5-10
    • Game Gear: Moderate, US $5-10
The XVII Winter Olympic Games, held at Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, were a time of change for the festival's history.  It was the first time that the Winter Olympics were staggered by 2 years to take place in between the Summer games*, and the first time that the former Soviet republics competed as independent nations**.  To date, Lillehammer was the northernmost site ever to hold a Winter Olympics, and these were the last Winter Olympics to date that were held in a "small town" of less than 50,000 people.  Oh yeah, and Lillehammer will also host the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics, so look out for that.  So what's the point of all that trivia?  Because it also gave us the officially-licenced, multi-platform, aptly-titled video game Winter Olympic Games.  Now, I've covered the Game Gear version of this multi-platform release before, in a Sticking Points special, and I've managed to take some of the other versions for a spin since.  For the sake of officiality, this review will cover the versions for the Game Gear, Genesis, and Super NES.  This review does not cover the version for the Sega Master System, but that wasn't sold outside of Europe, nor the Game Boy, whose events are substantially different to require a separate review.
* This format was experimented with once, by the Intercalated Games (Summer 1906, Athens), which were later rendered unofficial by the IOC.
** The Soviet Union dissolved before the Winter (Albertville) and Summer Olympics (Barcelona) of 1992, but as the Soviet Republics had already been training together, they competed as the Unified Team.

Some of you readers, especially American readers, may remember the '94 Winter Olympics for the rivalry between American figure-skaters Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, where the former had the latter knee-capped only for the gold medal to go to Ukraine's Oksana Baiul.  The video game doesn't give you a chance to re-create this little event, however; it boasts 10 events across 6 sports.  There are 4 skiing events (Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom), 2 sledding events (Luge and Bobsleigh), plus Freestyle Skiing, Ski Jump, Biathalon, and Short Track Speed Skating.  They are presented in three different modes: Full Olympics, where all 10 events are played in a set order; Mini Olympics, where you select which event(s) you wish to play; and Training, where you can practice an event as often as you need.
The way the skiing events are designed, it's too hard to react to the gates in time,
and the penalty is too steep if you miss one.  (Genesis version shown.)1
It's unfortunate that, proportionally speaking, there are so many skiing events, because they're a major headache.  The trouble is the isometric perspective in which these events are displayed, which give you precious little time to react to upcoming gates.  Holding a button to tuck for speed only gives you less reaction time, but unfortunately you have to do this to finish fast enough for a medal.  The only guideline you have to go by are the contours of the snow, but these lines show up faintly against the snow itself, and don't indicate if a gate is centred or aligned to one side.  If you miss even one gate, you'll be disqualified from the event, and yet you still get to keep going.  Pray tell, game, if you're going to invalidate my results in medias res, what incentive do I have to waste time finishing the course?  I might as well just crash into one of the many tree banks and end my run then and there.  Oddly, I had an easier time of it on the Game Gear than on either of the console ports.  Maybe it's just me, but your skiier and the flags are smaller in proportion to the screen size on the Game Gear unit, so you have more room to look ahead, but still, that's not much room for error.

The Moguls event is equally punishing in that it requires the most precise timing to land your jumps safely, but at least the round ends immediately if you do crash.  It wouldn't be so bad, except there's very little indication of what will constitute a successful jump until it's too late.  That's the same problem I had with the Ski Jump; of the many actions you must take in order to perform a high-scoring jump, there's little to no indication of what commands you have to input and when you have to do them.  But not all the events are downers.  My personal favourite might be the Biathalon, possibly because you're actually given a timing meter for you to gauge your strokes against.  Plus you get to shoot targets!  Okay, so they throw off your aim by simulating muscle fatigue, but at least the penalty for missing a target is relatively light -- just an extra 10 seconds added to your time.  Now why couldn't they have just done something like that for the skiing!?  The Luge and Bobsleigh events are also considerably more playable, since there's no opportunity to crash, but the track is so narrow and the turning controls so slippery that scraping along the walls and haemmoraghing speed is an inevitability at some point.  And finally, there's Short-Track Speed Skating, which boils down to a functional but tiring button-mashing contest.

As with that other Olympic-like game I reviewed a long time ago, Winter Olympic Games is unforgiving in its difficulty.  But it's not hard in all the same ways; there are no qualifying barriers you have to pass before you can continue.  On the contrary: even if you do get disqualified from an event, the game just moves you on to the next event.  Well, what if I want to try it again?  Granted, that's how it works in the real-life Olympics; if you don't win, you just move on with the program and your life.  But maybe I'm feeling a little ashamed of my performance and would like to save face.  Why won't you give me that little quantum of solace, game?

For some reason, the Game Gear
version (shown) is easier.1
I'll admit, once you get the hang of playing the events, there is more than just a quantum of fun to be had.  Up to four players can take turns competing in the Full or Mini Olympics modes -- yes, even on the Game Gear; no additional controllers or consoles needed.  But if you insist, the console versions also let you play some of the events head-to-head, but unfortunately it's limited to the dull stuff like Moguls and Speed Skating.  You get to name your athletes as well as choose their nations, each with their own uniform colour scheme -- again, only in Full and Mini Olympics.  The soundtrack is pretty rockin' too -- although the Game Gear's music is more tuneful than on the other games.  And it supports eight languages for the in-game text -- I reckon that was unheard of for the time.  But I'm pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point in my efforts to justify this game's existence.  If you desperately want to play Winter Olympic Games, be sure to A) stick to the Game Gear version, and B) ask yourself if you're a big enough Olympics nut for this game to be of any value to you.

Control: 2 medals out of 5
Design: 3 medals out of 5
Graphics: 3 medals out of 5
Audio: 3 medals out of 5 (SNES/Gen) / 5 medals out of 5 (GG)
The Call: 55% (D+): SNES & Gen. / 60% (C-): GG

1 "Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94 (1994) screenshots".  MobyGames.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Editorial: 2013 Best Hit Songs Runners-Up

To all the critics who deemed 2013 the worst year for pop music in recent memory, well... I can't quite agree.  (I'd suggest 2007 myself, but that's another story.)  I'll be honest, in addition to the stuff that actively sucked, there was a lot of boring, safe schlock padding out the top 40 throughout the year.  Even some of the stuff I put on my best-of list couldn't hold my interest after just a few listens.  Sometimes being a critic is about letting your personal tastes take the bullet in favour of what really matters.  But seriously, folks, the fact that I could pick out so many other songs I liked in addition to my top ten should give the hint that maybe, just maybe, there was enough good to balance out the bad.

"Alive" by Krewella
from Get Wet
Peak position: #32
Year-end position: N/A

Among the EDM songs to hit it big this year, this was my second-favourite behind "Don't You Worry Child".  The beat is pulse-pounding, the instrumental parts have just enough melody for them to have their own personality as opposed to the usual background noise we're often subject to, and the lyrics are affirmative but just vague enough that they work as a party song but aren't strictly limited to the dance floor.  And as somebody who's suffered from the neo-disco storm of '10, that's all I ask.  Yes, it could've made my best-of list if it had been a bigger hit.  Sorry, Paramore, but consider yourselves lucky.

"Applause" by Lady Gaga
from Artpop
Peak position: #4
Year-end position: #37

Lack of personality was a common crime among the hits of 2013, but Lady Gaga was acquitted on that charge as far as I'm concerned.  "Applause" is one of the few "image songs" to come out from America, and the character Lady Gaga plays in the song is Lady Gaga herself.  She leverages all the fame she's garnered over her career thus far and invites us to learn her take on it all.  At least she would, except the second verse was just garbage.  "One second I'm a Kunst / And suddenly the Kunst is me", eh?  You do know you're just saying the same thing with the words switched around, right?  But apart from that, it incorporates tasteful, if watered-down, elements of dubstep without bringing its momentum to a screeching halt, as is often the case with dubstep, intentional or not.

"Hold On, We're Going Home" by Drake feat. Majid Jordan
from Nothing Was the Same
Peak position: #4
Year-end position: #34

One of the songs from my Best Hit Songs of 2010 list was "Find Your Love" by Drake, an emotional retro-R&B jam.  I'm not going to say too much about its spiritual follow-up, "Hold On, We're Going Home", because I'd just point to that mini-review and say, "pretty much that". Unfortunately, the emotional stakes aren't as high this time around.  Whilst both this and "Find Your Love" were about picking up a girl, the other song was more desperate in its approach, whereas "Hold On, We're Going Home" is instead more upfront with its promise of sexy time.  But hey, at least this would work better than some other songs Drake's been on...

"Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake
from The 20/20 Experience
Peak position: #2
Year-end position: #6

Among the Justins of pop music, for once the Timberlake:Bieber ratio was skewed towards the former.  It's not like Bieber didn't put out music last year, but it was relatively easy to avoid -- not like Timberlake's world-conquering The 20/20 Experience albums.  But I didn't know what to make of "Mirrors".  I think it's supposed to be a song about rekindling a dying relationship, about discovering the magic that had once been lost with his significant other.  But then he says she's like his reflection in the mirror, and I'm like, "What's that supposed to mean?  Is he realizing that which he thought was lost, or is he just stroking his ego?"  With "Mirrors" having come out after the uber-slick "Suit & Tie" (discussed below), it could go either way, really.  Also, this song lost some points for its haphazard beatboxing in the background, which sadly leaves it sounding more like "Cry Me A River" than "What Goes Around (Comes Around)".

"My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)" by Fall Out Boy
from Save Rock and Roll
Peak position: #13
Year-end position: #40

When last year I described Linkin Park, Maroon 5, and even Nickelback as the only rock bands to have halfway decent success in the 2000s, I regret that I seem to have undercut Fall Out Boy by leaving them out of that statement.  Sure, they got lumped into the emo-rock scene which was apparently the only way we could get actual rock hits in the dark times that were the middle of the decade.  But now they're back with one of the most catchy and powerful songs of their career.  The beat has real headbanging potential and the lyrics involve fire motifs, so what's not to like?  Maybe that the lyrics are also mega-stupid.  See, whoever's writing the songs in Fall Out Boy, no one told them that the title phrase doesn't make any sense.  Also, the music video stars 2 Chainz.  But whatever, I'm still having fun.

"Safe and Sound" by Capital Cities
from In a Tidal Wave of Mystery
Peak position: #8
Year-end position: #29

The popularity-deciding public seems content with letting numerous indie-esque singles slowly filter up to the top ten, and "Safe and Sound" felt like a deserving success story when it did.  Even when compared to its genre peers, it's an incredibly bouncy tune, with judicious uses of retro synth washes and non-traditional instruments.  When's the last time you heard trumpets in a pop song?  Unfortunately, the same melodies are recycled throughout the verses, which was something I really paid attention to this past year.  Eventually, it was enough for me to change the station whenever this came on, and enough to keep it off my own top-ten list, but our times were good while they lasted.

"Still Into You" by Paramore
from Paramore
Peak position: #24
Year-end position: #100

In a year where so many female vocalists got through 2013 by the musical equivalent of sleep-walking, the same cannot be said of Hayley Williams.  True, I took it off my list because she sang off-key for much of the song.  But still, her staccato delivery on the verses of "Still Into You" provide a sort of '80s-rock swagger, and some much-needed edge to lyrics that could honestly have come off as lovey-dovey otherwise.  But lacking that, I'd still be loath to describe this song as "lovey-dovey".  I mean, this is a girl who knows times can be tough, and still manages to see the good in her significant other.  She and her song just ooze good times and pass those good times along to us.

"Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake & Jay Z
from The 20/20 Experience
Peak position: #3
Year-end position: #20

In the midst of the casual Internet's fascination with the word "swag" back in 2012, I saw an image macro with the caption "Swag is for boys, class is for men".  Somehow, Justin Timberlake exhibits both swag and class in his comeback single "Suit & Tie".  The vintage R&B music (it reminds me the most of the theme song to Diamonds Are Forever) provides the class, and the swag comes courtesy of Timberlake's reasonably self-confident lyrics and attitude.  Oh, except for the line "So thick / That I know why they call it a fatty".  Dude, I know you're talking about a girl's hindquarters being in pleasant proportion to the rest of her body, but you have to realise what you sound like.  Jay Z throws in a guest verse, and while it switches to a slower, chopped-and-screwed beat that dates his part of the song somewhat whilst killing the momentum, lyrically it doesn't exactly clash with anything before it.  Leave it to JT to pick a topic to which you could tack on any luxury-rap guest verse and no one would even notice.

Personally, if any of the songs from JT's The 20/20 Experience albums (yes, plural) would've made my list, I'd have placed "Take Back The Night" in my top 5 at least.  For having come out in the midst of the year's disco revival, this one arguably did it the best, with the funky grooves of its soundscape transcending the experience beyond the normal "carpe diem" anthem.  But sadly, it didn't meet my requirements, and I didn't think it noteworthy enough to warrant a Wildcard slot, but do check it out anyways.

"Timber" by Pitbull & Ke$ha
from Meltdown [EP]
Peak position: #2
Year-end position: N/A

I can't believe it!  This is the least awful Pitbull song yet!  How could this be!?  Maybe it's because they followed the same formula of "Feel This Moment", except the elements are more congruous this time around.  Whereas Christina Aguilera seemed more detached from the mood Pitbull was trying to promote in that other song, Ke$ha sounds like she's having much more fun in this one.  But any old Pitbull song could do that and I'd still think less of it because it's Pitbull; however, his own verses aren't as in-your-face this time around.  Instead of treating his good fortune as an exclusive privelege, he appears content with having a reasonably good time and letting everyone join in.  Sure, there are some questionable lines -- the Miley Cyrus reference is bound to become dated fast, and "slicker than an oil spill" is a Funny Aneurysm Moment waiting to happen -- but there's nothing that warrants a revision to my Top 10 Worst Pitbull Lyrics or anything.

"Troublemaker" by Olly Murs & Flo Rida
from Right Place Right Time
Peak position: #25
Year-end position: #82

Speaking of awful rappers having less-than-awful moments in 2013, Flo Rida's verse on "Troublemaker".  I don't know about you, but I'm used to him bringing out the same bottles-and-models lyrics for each one of his outings.  So you can imagine my surprise when his guest verse here actually carried the topic of the song!  Olly Murs is at least partially tortured over his less-healthy-than-desirable relationship, and by gum, so is Flo Rida!  Also, the instrumentation is what Maroon 5's last album should've sounded like.  I mean, cowbells and violin blasts!  Doesn't that spell funk to you?  I'd like to think this started the whole otherwise-inexplicable '70s-retro thing that we got this year.

"Wake Me Up" by Avicii & Aloe Blacc
from True
Peak position: #4
Year-end position: #19

So folky indie-pop and electronic dance music were two genres that gave us a good number of hits in 2013.  Who'd've thought that combining the two would yield such a good result?  I don't care what some of the critics say, I think the transaction between the acoustic and electronic parts are handled rather smoothly... for the most part.  The occasional cliched lyric holds it back, as does what they did with the chorus.  In the original version, Aloe Blacc sang a bunch of long "oh"s over the interlude, but the remix dropped them out in favour of a completely instrumental break.  Yeah, if I have any problems with vocal dance music, it's when they try to restrict any efforts for the singer to show off his or her personality.  I'm looking at you, David Guetta.  But it'll take a lot more than that for me to kiss off the genre, and for that matter, 2013's music in macrocosm.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Editorial: 2013 Worst Hit Songs Runners-Up

It's that time again.  With a worst-of list comes the stuff I had to leave off it.  Some of it just wasn't bad enough, some of it failed my last-minute requirements for being on the Billboard Year-end Hot 100, but as always, my mind's been on overdrive whilst listening to the radio this year, so why let all that thinking go to waste?

"23" by Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa, & Juicy J
non-album single
Peak position: #11
Year-end position: N/A

If I hadn't made the last-minute decision to restrict myself to Billboard's Year-end Hot 100, "23" would've made my worst-of list for sure.  First of all, there's producer Mike Will Made-It, who technically gets top billing on this song (I took his name off the artist tag out of protest).  He's produced hits like Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop" and Lil' Wayne's "Love Me" (no), and while his drunken beats weren't the key factors that made me put both of those on my hate-list, they certainly didn't help matters.  The stuttering rap delivery of Miley and Juicy J (at least Wiz Khalifa gets a pass), not to mention the egregious product placement (assuming you know that "J's on my feet" refer to Air Jordan shoes) only make things worse in that regard.

"Berzerk" by Eminem
from The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Peak position: #3
Year-end position: #67

What a disappointment.  I wrote up this long, beautiful paragraph on why Emimem's "Berzerk" [sic] belongs on my worst-of-2013 list, when it manages to grow on me.  Maybe it's because of his other new singles (namely "Survivor", "Rap God", and even "The Monster") which I really liked, but eventually I learned to appreciate the old-meets-new-school hip-hop approach to "Berserk" as well.  But never let it be said that I'd willingly withhold finished content from my consumers, unlike a certain games maker I could Capcom mention, so here is why I used to hate "Berserk":

"My opinion of Eminem is... complicated.  I like him when he's serious (e.g. "Lose Yourself" and most of the Recovery album).  And I like him when he's less rapping and more doing a stand-up comedy routine with a beat (i.e. "My Name Is" and "Without Me").  But he also tends to fall back on obnixiousness, and I'm sad to say "Berzerk" falls into that camp.  For example, he throws in a grating, rather un-ironic "bow chicka wow wow" somewhere in the second verse, and has the balls to rhyme it in the next few lines.  Also he sings his own chorus, which in theory is admirable, except for the fact that HE CAN'T SING WORTH BEANS.  As anybody who's suffered through the Encore album can attest to.  Meanwhile, the Billy Squire sample and old-school beat are equally promising, but even when he's not inflicting his demonic attempts at singing upon us, his rapping style is just too dark for me to enjoy it.  And another thing, he dared make a Kevin Federline reference in the chorus?  In 2013!?  Are you trying to make up for lost time or something?"

"Come & Get It" by Selena Gomez
from Stars Dance
Peak position: #6
Year-end position: #33

The teen pop machine chugged on in 2013 with "Come & Get It", or as I like to call it, "What not to do with an interesting beat".  The beat, by production team StarGate, starts out slow and subdued, with an Indian bhangra-esque influence, when suddenly the first chorus kicks in and everything unique about the song thus far is drowned in a torrent of indistinct synth.  And that's before you get to Selena's performance on the song; she sounds like a tired Rihanna rip-off, with all those stuttering edits and that bad Caribbean inflection.  I thought the world didn't need any more Rihanna, but come on guys, presenting the same thing under a different guise doesn't count!

"Cruise" / "Cruise (Remix)" by Florida Georgia Line & Nelly
from Here's to the Good Times
Peak position: #16 / #4
Year-end position: N/A / #9

Good news and bad news: it's getting harder to say you don't like country music these days, but that's only because it's adopting elements of all other genres in the blandest way possible.  The original version of "Cruise" barely had any country soul in its instrumentation, so why not add a drum machine and a forgettable guest verse by Nelly for the remix?  I'll give it this: that revised approach made for a more palatable hit... unless your tastes require good music.  And even then, the lyrics still bring up topics that I just can't relate to, like their obsession with trucks and relating girls to them.  In a year where rappers made references to brutal, racially-charged murders in relation to rough sex, I can't call this stuff un-palatable, but either way, I guess it isn't getting harder to say you don't like country music these days.

'[verb]in' Problems" by A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar
From Long. Live. ASAP
Peak position: #8
Year-end position: #41

The title of the song comes from the line 2 Chainz repeats in the chorus: "I love bad [noun]s, that's my [adjective] problem / And yeah, I like to [verb], I got a [verb]ing problem".  In case you're wondering what I censored, just picture the joke from Airplane! about the "drinking" problem, and filter it through the lens of luxury rap.  Did you like it?  Well, you needn't worry about that, because he beats that horse right into the ground!  In fact, I like the way Drake takes over the last two lines of the chorus, as if to save us the precious brain cells we could be using for more important things.  Yeah, the song could've made it on my list based on that line alone, but the rest of the song is actually kind of okay, inasmuch as mainstream hip-hop can be considered "okay".

by PSY
non-album single
Peak position: #5
Year-end position: N/A

Do me a favour and click back to my video review of "Gangnam Style".  You can find it here.  I'll wait.  So assuming you have it fresh in your mind, I'd like to you to flash back to my comments at the end.  You know how I despaired over the fact that PSY's follow-up to "Gangnam Style" was just a remake of the original song?  Well, I could very well recycle the same complaints for his real follow-up, "Gentleman".  And in case you're thinking, "Kevin, you liked 'Gangnam Style', so why should this be any different?"  Well that's just it: it isn't any different -- except the stuff they did change wasn't exactly for the better.  There's no soaring sing-along, PSY didn't bring as much energy to his rapping, the beat is dingier and less remarkable, and even the prerequisite dance in the music video doesn't have enough to it.  "Gentleman" would have potentially been the third viral-video hit on my worst-of list, after "The Fox" and "Harlem Shake" (at least before I took it off), and despite how much I like a good theme, "Gentleman" just wasn't the kind of bad I look for in making these lists.

"Harlem Shake" by Baauer
Non-album single
Peak position: #1
Year-end position: #4

The powers that be at Billboard must have been as frustrated as I was when "Gangnam Style" failed to wrest control of the top spot last year, so they've since changed their rules to include YouTube plays in the criteria for their charts.  Unfortunately, this resulted in "Harlem Shake", the song used for a briefly popular video meme, sitting at number one for five weeks despite lacking any personality whatsoever.  Now, I have the patience for extended dance mixes, but that's usually for vocal trance songs, stuff with distinct verses and chorus to mix it up.  "Harlem Shake", on the other hand, recycles the same musical idea for all it's worth and then some.  There's a reason all those videos only used the first thirty seconds of the song, and it's also the same reason I've never heard it on the radio -- and mind you, I have heard "Gangnam Style" on there.  Actually, there was this one time where a station played a sort of remix of this song, where they worked in a bunch of other songs about shaking.  Which illustrates "Harlem Shake"'s quandary perfectly: its best purpose is as a medium to convey other, more interesting media, sort of like the musical equivalent of, say, Melba toast.  Still, my disdain for "Harlem Shake" has less to do with the song itself than with how it got popular, so when the the time came for "U.O.E.N.O." to budge its way on the list, this was the one I felt the least guilty about forgiving.

"Royals" by Lorde
from Pure Heroine
Peak position: #1
Year-end position: #15

I wanted to like "Royals", I really did.  As a self-professed hipster, I'm inclined to welcome any attempt to tear down the excessively materialistic status-quo preached in popular music.  And I was pleasantly surprised when it started getting airplay on top-40 radio.  But then I listened to it again.  And again.  And again.  Sure, many, MANY songs this year wore out their welcome for me this year, but it felt like "Royals" achieved this task faster than any of its peers.  Personally, I blame its horribly lopsided verse:chorus ratio.  It's as if Lorde saved all her words for the parts that would get repeated the most.  And judging by her follow-up single "Team", this is a very real possibility.

"Summertime Sadness (Cedric Gervais Remix)" by Lana Del Rey
non-album single
Peak position: #6
Year-end position: #45

I can't say I've ever bought into the whole Lana Del Rey thing; it's hard to describe, but it's like she's a quirky kind of boring.  And what better way to take the "quirky" part out of the equation than to shoehorn one of her songs into the growing EDM fad?  The original version of "Summertime Sadness" had little staying power on its own, but Cedric Gervais's remix does it no favours.  The electro parts they added in lack any intricacy whatsoever, which only serves to highlight how dull Lana's voice is.  Sadly, "Summertime Sadness" was just one example of how  2013 was a very, very dull year for pop music.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

History of DDR: DanceDanceRevolution X2

The new music menu screen with the Cover Flow layout.
The advent of a new decade (get it, "New Decade" is a song from this game... read on) brought with it a chance for the Dance Dance Revolution franchise to redeem itself.  On the one hand, there was the arcade release of DDR X, an otherwise okay entry which got shafted by poor machine construction outside of Japan.  And on the other hand, there was the one-two punch of the home games X2 and Hottest Party 3, which couldn't decide whether they wanted to appeal to casual or hardcore DDR players.  Well, with such stakes as I've described just now, I'm proud to mention that the arcade sequel DanceDanceRevolution X2 (not to be confused with the PS2 entry of the same name) was good.


I assume.  Regrettably, I've never played on an X2 machine, ever since its rollout in 2010 (Asia: 7 July, NA: 31 December).  Sure, I've played its new songs on other DDR games, but the nearest X2 machine to where I am is up around New York, and we all know what I think about the Big Apple.  Even worse, I took a vacation to Japan just weeks before its launch over there, leaving me stuck to play on those crummy old deluxe X cabinets.  And even worse worse, I'm planning to visit again early next year, but by now all the arcades in Tokyo have replaced their X2 machines with newer entries in the series (if the arcade listings on are to be believed).  But enough about my personal anecdotes, let's talk about the game.

Hidden+ and Sudden+ look something like this.
(From Beatmania IIDX 12: Happy Sky.)
DDR X2 -- that is, the real DDR X2 -- has a green-dominated colour scheme and (re-)introduces the Cover Flow format on its music select screen.  As far as actual gameplay is concerned, X2 introduces new gameplay options which I'd say are useful for pro players.  First are the Hidden+ and Sudden+ modifiers, which like the original Hidden and Sudden mods hide the arrows at the bottom or top of the screen.  The difference with the "plus" versions is that you can adjust how far you want to hide the arrows by pressing the Up or Down buttons on the console during gameplay.  (Arrow-speed mods can also be adjusted on the fly in this fashion.)  And second is the Risky option, where missing one step or Freeze Arrow will kick you out of the song instantly, except you can still play any stages you have left.  On the flip side, beginner players can eschew the traditional, full-featured Pro Mode in favour of Happy Mode, which features a limited songlist focusing on easier charts, so if that makes you comfortable, then go nuts.

Once again, X2's hidden content requires an e-Amusement profile to unlock.  And once again, Konami released unlock codes for regions that were never graced with the presence of e-Amuse.  Furthermore, X2 is the first arcade DDR game to support PASELI, a debit card which can pay for games coinlessly.  In fact, there's also a Marathon Mode in which PASELI users can pay to play up to seven songs in a row.  As with e-Amuse, it's only available in Japan, and you can't even set up a PASELI account over the Internet if you don't live in Japan, so don't get your hopes up.

DDR X2 features a total of 444 songs, including the following:
  • A handful of classic Dancemania licences (including "If You Were Here" from 2ndMIX, and "Captain Jack" and "Dam Dariram" from 3rdMIX) have been revived, in the fashion of the X-Edits from the last game, including Challenge charts with Shock Arrows.  This time, however, they actually stuck to the original cut of the song and just stretched that out a bit at both ends.
  • "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice.  Yup, the same cruddy version I tore down in my last entry.
  • Since Konami also sold X2 in the rest of Asia outside Japan, they threw in unlockable Chinese-langauge versions of a few songs, including "iFuturelist" and "Nijiiro" from SuperNOVA.
  • "Gold Rush" by DJ Yoshitaka-G feat. Michael a la Mode, a crossover from Beatmania IIDX 14: Gold.  A lovably infamous song recogniseable by fans for its energy, stupid lyrics (like the recurring reprise of "Make it make money"), and the sequential name-dropping of the Beatmania games mid-song.  In X2, it is joined by two alternate versions, the "DDR AC" and "DDR CS" versions, which replace those references with the arcade and console DDR games, but otherwise use the same charts.
  • "smooooch" by Kors K, a crossover from Beatmania IIDX 16: Empress.  A bouncy happy-hardcore track whose background video, with three cartoon princesses bouncing about, has inspired parodies and tributes from both sides of the Pacific.
  • "Mei" by Amuro.  Not a boss song, but it should be.  In its IIDX appearance, the hardest chart on this two-minute track had two thousand notes, and whilst its DDR counterpart is nowhere near as complicated, with a level-18 Challenge chart, it's still among the hardest songs in X2.
  • "ΔMAX" (read: "Delta Max") by DM Ashura, a revival from DDR Universe 3.  Not a boss song in this game, but its tempo starts out at 100 and, throughout the song, gradually increases to a blistering 573.
    • Fun Fact: The number 573 appears elsewhere in DDR, namely the default high score in certain versions, and other Konami games as well.  That's because the name Konami can be "translated" to "573" through a system of Japanese wordplay known as "goroawase".
  • The boss songs are revivals from the 2009 series:
    • The Extra Stage is "Kimono Princess" by jun.
    • The Encore Extra Stage is "Roppongi Evolved" by TAG Underground.  The first time an Evolved song was used in an arcade release, this one boasts an exclusive fourth version not found in the 2009 home games.
  • In addition, X2 introduces a new system for boss songs called "Replicant-D Action", lifted from the newer Beatmania IIDX games.  For all intents and purposes, this doesn't work without an e-Amusement profile.  The songs in RDA and their requirements are:
    • "Pierce the Sky" by JAKAZiD feat. JN.  Unlocked by clearing any 20 songs from the X2 folder.
    • "Sakura Sunrise" by Ryu☆ (Ryutaro Nakahara).  Unlocked by clearing any 2 songs from each of the 12 folders.
    • "Shiny World" by Capacity Gate.  Unlocked by clearing 6 courses and one Drill Course.
    • "Posession" by TAG Underground.  Unlocked by clearing any 100 Challenge charts, and getting an AA grade or better on "Pierce the Sky" and "Sakura Sunrise".  The difficulty level on which those AAs were achieved determines which difficulty "Possession" can be played on.
    • "New Decade" by Sota F.  Unlocked by getting a full combo on any 15 charts, and getting AA or better on and "Sakura Sunrise" and "Shiny World".
    • "Anti-Matter" by Orbit1 & Milo.  Unlocked by playing Trial Mode (where two players can play one song for the price of a single-player game) three times, and getting AA or better on "Pierce the Sky" and "Shiny World".
    • Getting AA or better on each of the above songs earns a medal.  When all six medals are earned, the song "Valkyrie Dimension" by Spriggan (Yoshitaka Nishimura) is automatically selected as an Encore Extra Stage.  When this song is finished, pass or fail, all six medals are erased from the player's profile and can be earned again.  Rinse and repeat.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it?  Well... remember how I said that X2 machines were few and far between in my sphere of experience?  What hurts matters more is that there was never a home port of X2.  Sure, the individual songs showed up in other games, but this was Konami's big chance to bring Dance Dance Revolution into the seventh generation, and they blew it.  Again.  But think about it from their point of view: by 2010 the last console generation was for all intents and purposes dead, and the Guitar Hero/Rock Band craze was about to fade as well, so perhaps consumers wouldn't have the stomach to purchase another plastic peripheral for another system.  Konami did bite the bullet after all and make a DDR game for the latest and greatest systems, but... ah... that's a story for next time on the History of Dance Dance Revolution!