Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
  • Publisher: Universal
  • Studio: Big Talk Films
  • Genre: Comedy/Action
  • Release: 13 August 2010
  • Director: Edgar Wright
  • Producers: Eric Glitter, Nira Park, Marc Platt, Edgar Wright
  • Writers: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright
Now that Roger Ebert has passed away, God rest his soul, we are ever-so-steadily reaching the point where the culture of video games becomes totally accepted by the mainstream.  Two films released in the early 2010s take place in fictional game-inspired environments, and they've done it right.  The first of those two is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, an adaptation of the graphic novel mini-series by Brian Lee O'Malley.  (The second I had in mind is 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, and I'll get to it later.)  Under the direction of Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Sean of the Dead), an already-stellar comic becomes transformed into an audiovisual tour-de-force, or in the words of some YouTube video I saw once, a theoretical blowjob for your eyes.

The eponymous hero of our story (Michael Cera) is a Toronto twenty-something and a bass player for the garage band Sex Bob-Omb.  As the story begins, Scott starts bragging about his new girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a Chinese-Canadian Catholic high-school girl -- and his friends are not amused.  He goes on a date with her only to glimpse Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams -- literally; she's a delivery girl who takes shortcuts through the subspace highways in his head.  With that, the quest is on for Scott to defeat Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends, put down his relationship with Knives, and all in all become a man.

Did I mention that all this takes place in a pseudo-video game environment?  I hope so; I'm pretty sure I was leading up to that.  While this live-action movie was filmed and set in Toronto, Canada, both the concept and a visual style evoke classic brawlers like River City Ransom (NES, 1989).  The seven evil exes leave behind coins and points when they die, and on-screen sound effects are plentiful.  And the dialogue is tightly integrated with the quirky visuals and rapid-fire transitions, with liberal addition of lampshade hanging, to boot.  For example, a black bar covers up a local sour puss's profanities, and Scott asks her how she does it.  But thankfully, very few of these gags are referred to by the dialogue, but serve mainly as Easter Eggs for diligent viewers to seek out, such as the many numerical motifs accompanying each Evil Ex boss fight.  Seriously, if you ran a clip of Film Brain shouting his "SYMBOLISM!!" catchphrase after every such occurrence, you may very well double the film's running time.  And no, I do not intend to test that.  Thank me later.

I will agree that these boss fights are the film's high points, given the kooky characters to have come out of Ramona's love life.  Given that, a common criticism of this film has been the first half-hour or so before the first Evil Ex shows up, when compared to how dense the action is after that point.  Up to that point, the script focuses on the conflicts of Scott's love life and his career (if you can call it that) with Sex Bob-Omb, and more or less comes across as -- please don't flame me for this -- the Twilight Saga for dudes.  Think about it:
  • In the main romantic structure, Subject A (Bella / Scott) is torn between a distant Subject B (Edward / Ramona) and a sensible Subject C (Jacob / Knives).
  • In their respective film adaptations, Subject A is delivered by an underwhelming performance; more on that later.
  • Subject B has an unnatural element to his/her appearance (Edward's sparkle skin, Ramona's hair colours).
  • Subject C is a third wheel of non-European descent (Jacob is Native American, Knives is Chinese).
  • Characters in both universes have supernatural fighting abilities with little to no explanation.
So, all we need is another iteration of the Scott Pilgrim saga in novel form, and we will officially no longer have a need for Twilight.  Now where was I...?  In terms of translating the story from the comics, the first volume, which ends just after the first boss, is given a disproportionate amount of screen time.  As such, do I agree with such complaints?  ...Actually, no.  Even in these relative doldrums, the rapid-fire comedy I previously described runs in top gear.  They could've cut out the Evil Ex plot entirely, and this movie still would've fun to watch again and again.  Having the capability to send up action-movie tropes as well is just good business.

But more importantly, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes itself seriously when it needs to be.  Whilst this angle is more pronounced in the original comics, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a tale about its title character growing up and accepting post-adolescent responsibilities, such as the perils of juggling two girlfriends, and grow up he does.  Even better, it manages to be one of the most Canadian films in recent memory without resorting to the stereotypical "Canada, Eh?" concepts that would just push it back into non-believability.  I for one chalk this up to references to real places and things in Toronto, even if this includes product-placements from Canadian chains such as Second Cup and Pizza Pizza (a.k.a. the reason Little Caesar's can't use their original motto in Canada).  On an equally welcoming note, this film's depiction of homosexuals is also to be applauded.  Characters including Scott's "cool gay roommate" Wallace Wells, his boyfriend Other Scott, and Ramona's 4th Evil Ex Roxy Richter exhibit no camp-gay tendencies, rather being first and foremost human beings with a specific place in the plot.  Sure, Wallace has his ship together more so than Scott, but then again so does everybody else, regardless of whether or not they believe opposites attract in the bedroom.

That said, is there anything I would deem fit to criticise?  ...Actually, yes.  I wasn't a big fan of Michael Cera's performance in the title role.  He comes off as a quirky young adult here and there, but for the most part he lacks the conviction that even the Scott Pilgrim of the comics exhibited.  For a frame of reference, I liked Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network; if this depiction of mister Pilgrim had been more like that, it could've pushed this movie to a perfect score.  Plus, the Sex Bob-Omb subplot is de-emphasised once the Evil Exes start rolling in, only to be rather abruptly ended later on.  One wonders what would've happened if the script had focused on being either a slice-of-life love-triangle drama set in Toronto's alt-rock scene, or a power fantasy about said love triangle.  But as an adaptation of some awesome source material, Edgar Wright's film version of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does said material justice -- and then some.

Positives:
+ Uber-slick visual design and writing.
+ Scads of visual gags.
Negatives:
- Some weak acting by Michael Cera.

Acting: 4 Evil Exes out of 5
Writing: 5 Evil Exes out of 5
Technical: 5 Evil Exes out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

So yeah, this obviously deserves a Dragon Award.  But before I go, I'd like to give a tip of the hat to the comic book mini-series which started it all.  In terms of plot and aesthetics, both the film and the books tackle different elements here and there, so if you like one, you'd definitely be well-served to check out the other.  And there's the video game, a downloadable beat-em-up which carries on the delightful spirit of the other media and does away with many of the genre's flaws.  And while I'm at it, I might as well throw out a recommendation for the soundtracks of both the movie and the game.  So, Dragon Awards all around!  Beat that, Twilight Saga.



Yes, I know I had to shrink these awards to get them to fit on the page.  But when it comes to the Dragon Award, (and ONLY the Dragon Award ^.^;) size doesn't matter.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dance Dance Retrospective: Hottest Party

It's no secret... that is, secretly-held opinion... that the Dance Dance Revolution franchise got stuck in a rut by not presenting innovative mechanics often enough.  I for one place the turning point right around SuperNOVA.  But where the franchise floundered in the arcades and on the PlayStation 2, its star rose on a new platform: the Nintendo Wii.  In 2007, Konami produced a spin-off entry entitled Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party, and molded into the formula several welcome changes which instilled a renewed sense of fun even into jaded fans like myself.  In fact, it was so well-received that Konami saw fit to bestow upon us a total of five games bearing the Hottest Party nameplate (depending on which region you live in).  But were the games themselves anything to write home about?  Let's find out.

Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party (2007)

First off, anyone remember the last time Konami attempted to put a DDR game on a Nintendo console?  Yeah, DDR Mario Mix (GameCube, 2005).  You can go ahead and forget about that one.  Except the fact that the dance pads they made for that are also used by Hottest Party.  Unless you've got one of the newer models that left out the GameCube ports, in which case sorry, but there's kind of no way to play this.


Four players and Hand Markers.  (From Hottest Party.)
As for everyone else, you'll be pleased to know that Hottest Party uses the Wii's exclusive features to great effect.  You can play with the regular four-panel setup, or you can turn on optional Hand Markers, notes in which you must shake the Wii Remote or Nunchuck to catch.  In effect, this is the next evolution of the six-panel mode from the DDR Solo series, or more recently, the EyeToy-powered Hands and Feet mode from the PlayStation 2 games.  In addition, you can also turn on optional Gimmick notes, which do anything from expanding into more notes to penalizing you for hitting them.  And while a new roster of characters has replaced old standbys like Disco, Rage, and Emi, you can also use your Mii characters in-game.  Yeah, that isn't creepy at all, I said in sarcasm mode.

The music selection, on the other hand, might not fulfill the excitement you built up for yourself in reading the above paragraph.  Whilst they did licence a decent array of hit songs from recent and past eras, they're all covers done by some of Konami's in-house bands.  Their results are generally nothing to be proud of, although at least they tried reworking stuff like Janet Jackson and Nelly's "Call On Me" and JoJo's "Too Little Too Late" to be more danceable.  Strangely, not even Konami's own songs are immune, as franchise classics like "B4U" and "Break Down!!" also got the cover treatment, and call it a case of "They Changed It, Now It Sucks", but... they suck.  I mean, seriously, I know the lyrics don't really matter, but at least get them right!  At least the brand-new songs are halfway decent, primarily the ones coming from the usual suspects like Naoki, DJ Taka, and Jun.

I know I told you to forget about Mario Mix, but I'm bringing it up one more time to illustrate one more point.  Mario Mix was easy; the hardest charts in that game would be lucky to be classified as Standard-level charts in the main series.  Hottest Party does not have this problem; it utilizes the same scale of difficulty as the Max and SuperNOVA games.  If you see a chart ranked at level 10, they MEAN level 10.  Fittingly, Hottest Party introduces a new paradigm for the "boss" songs, which eventually got carried over to the rest of the series:
  • A fast Happy-Hardcore song with relatively straightforward charts, usually performed by Jun.  In Hottest Party it is "Super Samurai".
  • Something known as an "Evolved" song, having plenty of tempo changes and multiple randomly-chosen versions.  In Hottest Party it is "Tokyo Evolved" by Naoki Underground.
  • In addition, the Japanese version of Hottest Party boasts a third boss song, "Pluto the First" by White Wall.  As the title suggests, this is another remix of "Pluto" from SuperNOVA2, and has more in common with the original than "Pluto Relinquish".  This was eventually ported abroad in Hottest Party 3 / X2.
Even more (easier to define) Hand Markers.  (From Hottest Party 2.)
Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 2 (2008)

Also known as Dance Dance Revolution: Furu-furu Party in Japan.  Again, many of the licenced songs are covers, although they did get some original versions here and there.  The features and style are similar to the original, so you feel like giving the Hottest Party series a try, you could do well with either one or the other.  Preferably this one.  The new boss songs are:
  • "Silver Wing" by Jun.  The happy-hardcore song.
  • "Osaka Evolved" by Naoki Underground.  The Evolved song.
Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 3 (2009)

Also known as Dance Dance Revolution: Music Fit in Japan.  Unlike the previous two entries, all the licenced songs in HP3 are the original recordings, with an emphasis on top-40 hits form 2008  A tie-in with the PS2 game Dance Dance Revolution X2 (not to be confused with the arcade game of the same name); more on DDR HP3 will follow in the article for that game.

DanceDanceRevolution (2010)

Also known as Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 4 in Europe.  Added a Choreography Mode which used the Wii Balance Board and remotes, perhaps to compete with the likes of Ubisoft's Just Dance series.  A tie-in with the game of the same name for PlayStation 3 and XBox 360; more on DDR 2010 will follow in the article for those games.

DanceDanceRevolution II (2011)

Also known as Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 5 in Europe.  The final DDR title released for the Wii, DDR II eschewed the functions and modes brought on by the previous Wii-exclusive entries, in order to bring itself more in line with the arcade/PlayStation paradigm.  Fitting, as this was a tie-in with the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution X3 vs. 2ndMIX.  More on DDR II will follow in the article for that game.

So yeah, there's lots I didn't want to spoil before I spoke about some other games, for being too similar to them.  That only stands as a testament to how much the Hottest Party series was accepted by new and hardcore fans alike.  So now that I've got that out of the way, it's time to revisit the arcade series for a little anniversary party, next time on Dance Dance Retrospective.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Game Review: Ghost Squad


Ghost Squad
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sega AM2 / Aritificial Mind & Movement
  • Release:
    • Arcade, 2004
    • Wii, 20 November 2007
  • Genre: First-person Action
  • Players: 1-2 (Arcade), 1-4 (Wii)
  • Save: 1 block (Wii)
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-20 (Wii)
Anyone remember Target: Terror, that arcade light-gun shooter by Raw Thrills?  No?  Good on ya.  Pretty much the only thing it contributed to its genre is that it's possible for one of these games to last longer than twenty minutes, although in doing so stripping out all the fun, charm, and gravitas (whatever gravitas remained in this genre) brought upon by its Japanese competitors.  One of those competitors was Ghost Squad by Sega AM2, which not only started showing up in arcades around the same time as Target: Terror, but years later got a home port on the Nintendo Wii -- wouldn't you know, also around the same time as Target: Terror.  So, what does Ghost Squad do right over its American rival?  More importantly, does it do anything right?

I'll start with the plot, inasmuch as an arcade game meant to get players on and off the hot seat as fast as possible can have a plot.  Unlike Target: Terror, where your only motivation is that your targets are terrorists and that's bad, the antagonist force in Ghost Squad has a name: the Indigo Wolves.  Their rap sheet includes kidnapping the President of the United States -- twice, in two of the game's three missions -- and the president of an arms company.  Because... evil.   And so a non-governmental force called the M.O.P. dispatches squads of ghosts (not literally, I just wanted to make a pun from the title) to dispatch the Indigo Wolves' threats.  As such, there's a fair bit of immersion to be gained from taking orders from a remote commander and "leading" computer-controlled team members, even if they bear no impact whatsoever on your game.  So does the arcade version's controller, a big hulking thing which I think is modelled after an MP5.  (Then again, it gets hard to keep holding the darn thing up during extended play, so forget about it.)  But the immersion is quickly lost when you realise its characters have no characterisation to speak of, or for that matter, when you bear witness to the goofy voice-acting.  So maybe Ghost Squad's story isn't so great, but more importantly, does it play any good?


Alternate fire modes may help you out.
It should; this isn't Sega AM2's first ride in the light-gun rodeo, so a lot of Ghost Squad's mechanics had become familiar by the time it was made.  You shoot terrorist characters who will occasionally attempt to shoot at you, you don't shoot hostages or other unarmed persons under penalty of losing health points, and you change your magazine simply by pointing your gun (Wii Remote) off of the screen.  No pulling the trigger (pressing B) or shaking the gun (Remote) necessary.  Huh, that's new.  Not exactly; Sega AM2's earlier shooter Confidential Mission (Arcade/Dreamcast, 2001) also handled reloading in this manner.  But it's nice to see it implemented here on the Wii as well, since having to shake the gun (Remote) tends to mess up your aim, if not your focus, in a way that simply flicking your sights off to the side does not.  In an actually new feature (for the arcade scene, at least), you can select your weapon type when starting a game, and most weapons feature alternate fire modes (single-shot, burst fire, full-auto, etc.) which you can toggle by flicking a switch above the trigger (pressing Left/Right on the Control Pad).

This game is short.  There are only three levels, and very short ones at that -- I'm talking at least five minutes apiece -- and not even a final boss after it all to tie up the story, such as it is.  That's not to say Ghost Squad doesn't have its ways of hooking you in for repeated play-throughs.  By collecting experience points (in the Wii version only, I'm afraid), alternate paths will be unlocked for you to choose between during repeated visits, as will new weapons for you to try out.  In addition, you'll be tasked with completing special objectives (again, also built upon from Confidential Mission), mainly in the vein of using your gun's (Wii Remote's) Action (A) button to defuse bombs, restrain hostages or fight in hand-to-hand combat, or simple sniping and protection segments.  Mess these up, and you're still allowed to continue, maybe with a blow to your life meter.  But completing these tasks, in addition to landing head shots or other special hits, fills up a separate "GS Meter".  Filling this up gives you extra ammo for your alternate fire modes, thus providing a tangible... not really, more like "direct"... at least non-score-related reward for skillful play.
Tasks like defusing bombs are done with the Action (A) button.
In a genre which has become as formulaic as the arcade light-gun shooter, innovation is nine-tenths of the law, and Ghost Squad boasts enough exclusive features to help it stand above the crowd, even to this very day.  Even better, these memorable traits have survived passage to the Wii, and then some.  But this genre has often suffered from a lack of substance, and Ghost Squad is sadly no exception.  It takes a lot more effort in this regard to make an arcade game suitable for the home experience, but given its progression of unlockables (including the goofy Ninja and Paradise modes), it's certainly worth more than one spin.  Just wake me when you can pack in more than three levels.

Positives:
+ Sharp controls.
+ Many unlockable paths and weapons.
+ Silly additional modes are good for a laugh.
Negatives:
- Only three missions.
- Poor voice acting and insubstantial story.

Control: 5 hostages out of 5
Design: 4 hostages out of 5
Graphics: 3 hostages out of 5
Audio: 1 hostages out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Music Review: Get Lucky vs. Blurred Lines

"Get Lucky"
  • Artist: Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) feat. Pharell Williams
  • Album: Random Access Memories
  • Genre: Dance/Electronic
  • Label: Columbia / Daft Life
  • Release: 19 April 2013
  • Writers: Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers
  • Producers: Daft Punk
"Blurred Lines"
  • Artist: Robin Thicke feat. Pharell Williams & T.I. (Clifford Harris Jnr)
  • Album: Blurred Lines
  • Genre: Pop
  • Label: Interscope / Star Trak
  • Release: 26 March 2013
  • Writers: Robin Thicke, Pharell, T.I.
  • Producer: Pharell

Disco.  Just one word can carry so much meaning, and in this case, "disco" may evoke in you memories of a musical genre laden in camp and too embarrassing to wish to recall.  After all, the phrase "Deader than Disco" is apparently a thing.  But what if this sound and even its spirit never left our public consciousness?  To that effect, I present three pieces of evidence for you kind people to ponder.  1) Compare the disco sound to the New Wave/New Romantic sub-genres which sprang up directly afterwards.  2) Consider the endless infusion of "in da club" pop-rap from the turn of the decade which, whilst having less to do with disco in terms of music, carries on its lyrical themes of material and sexual excess in the dance hall.  And 3) as I write this, there are three songs in the top ten which all claim influence from the disco sound of the 1970s, and to an extent the early 80s.  I am talking about the subjects of today's article, "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines", and also "Treasure" by Bruno Mars.  Which is alright, but I'm passing it over for now because A) the other two share singer Pharell, B) they both have similar lyrical themes, and C) comparisons tend to work best in twos.

The Music

The one word I would use to describe the music in "Get Lucky" is "authentic".  It strikes a balance between synthesizers and live instruments which was perfected in the late '70s and '80s, as we may have forgotten when reminiscing upon those times.  It probably helps that Daft Punk brought in co-writer and guitarist Nile Rodgers, formerly of the band Chic, which brought the disco scene some of its most iconic and, for better or worse, enduring tracks.  His funky shredding cleverly disguises the fact that, structurally, this song follows the Four Chords of Pop structure.

The vocals on "Get Lucky" are almost entirely sung by Pharell.  The nice thing about having him on here is that if you turn the pitch up and add some choice sound effects, bam, you can make him sound like Michael Jackson.  Something tells me Daft Punk would've drafted Michael Jackson if he were alive today.  Helps that the King of Pop dabbled in the disco sound himself.  Back to Pharell, his role is inverted on "Blurred Lines", where apart from the production work, his parts are reduced to the occasional ad-lib, while Robin Thicke takes centre stage and T.I. gets a guest rap verse.  T.I.'s alright, he's never been my least favourite rapper or anything, but for the frontman, Robin Thicke doesn't quite have the energy to carry so much weight on his own.  Also, he throws in the most annoying laugh I've ever heard in a pop song.  ...Oh wait, I just flashed back to Eminem in "Just Lose It".  Better make that the second most annoying laugh I've ever heard in a pop song.

Whereas "Get Lucky" draws inspiration from the height of the disco era, "Blurred Lines" evokes the genre's earlier years, leaning more towards the funk side of it.  Pharell's beat is inspired by (but not directly sampled from) the likes of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up", and anyone who draws inspiration from Marvin Gaye is alright in my book.  Unfortunately, there's nothing much else going on in the beat, and given Pharell's past history of making minimalism into an art form, when he says he only needed to spend an hour on the song [link], I believe it.  Thus, the one word I would use to describe the music in "Blurred Lines" is "cheap".

The Lyrics

There are similarities between the lyrics of "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines", the first being that both songs are from the point of view of a guy, or guys, cruisin' for a screwin'.  But they go about it differently.  Whereas Robin Thicke and T.I are deliberately more up-front in "Blurred Lines", Pharell in "Get Lucky" takes it slower and more intelligently, describing the scene as such in the first lines:
Like the legend of the Phoenix
All ends with beginnings
What keeps the planets spinning
The force from the beginning
I have no idea what that means, but it sound beautiful.  Maybe it's by virtue of Daft Punk's operating out of France which permits them to not rely on the lowest-common denominator as we Americans have perfected, but it's a breath of fresh air no matter how you explain it.  Numerous rappers have made the mistake of trying to be poetic after stating their intentions of getting in the guts of Mrs. Deuteragonist, but not so here: these are the first lines.  And... there's not much else to go by. Between two verses, a bridge, and a chorus, "Get Lucky" has but 16 distinct lines to its name before having to resort to repetition.  "Blurred Lines", on the other hand, can boast nearly twice as many.  Not necessarily better lines, mind you, but on the sliding scale of quantity vs. quality, at least it's sticking to a side and not living up to its namesake.  (You know, blurring the lines.)

To be fair, both songs use repetition in their hooks.  "Get Lucky" repeats "We're up all night to get lucky", and "Blurred Lines" repeats "I know you want it".  Despite "Get Lucky" repeating its line more often -- much more often -- they mix it up from time to time, such as layering another round of the chorus on top, or the Daft Punk guys morphing those words into a vocoder jam.  But when Robin Thicke repeats the line "I know you want it" in his chorus, it's done twice in the middle of it, so it comes across more like he's stalling for time.  To be fair, it is a panicky situation to run out of words during your song.
Okay, now he was close
Tried to domesticate you
But you're an animal
Baby, it's in your nature
*sigh* How many times have I told you?  Fellas?  It's not your place to claim you know the mindset of the target of your lust.  You don't know that.  YOU DON'T KNOW THAT!!
Just let me liberate ya
You don't need no papers
That man is not your maker
Okay, so this is another one of those "I will steal your girl" songs which was yet another unfortunate side effect of what I call the neo-disco era of the early 2010s.
I feel so lucky
You wanna hug me
What rhymes with "hug me"?
[beat]
Ugh, I can practically hear the guy from that "If you know what I mean" meme in those lines.  Not helping is the fact that Robin himself laughs a little whilst delivering that last line.  Or the fact that he rhymed "hug me" with itself and left the joke hanging.  But if it were an effort to defuse the obvious punchline, so much the better, I guess.  Either way, pickup jokes will get you know where.  See, Pharell knows how it's done, as he demonstrates on that other song:
What is this I'm feeling
If you want to leave I'm with it
Oh, and the phrase "get lucky" almost rhymes with "hug me".  What a tangled web we weave.  All the same, I wouldn't exactly call this stuff "rapey"; after all, we once had a song literally (minus censorship) titled "Tonight (I'm [verb]ing You)", and this is nowhere near as blunt.  That was, however, until I discovered the following line:
Baby, can you breathe?
I got this from Jamaica
It always works for me
Dakota to Decatur
By referring to Jamaica and breathing in the same couplet, this is a fairly obvious marijuana reference.  Although to be fair, I'm not familiar with marijuana's use as a date-rape drug.  Not that I have experience with date-rape drugs, either on the giving or receiving end, so that shows what I know.  Besides, this verse comes across as more like a suggestion than a threat.  Compare that to these lines from another song, namely "Shake That" by Eminem and Nate  (and yes, this was from Eminem's sucky period):
Pop a little champagne and a couple of E's
Mix it with the bubbly
[...]
I want a [noun] to sit at the crib with no panties on
Knows that she can't but she won't say no
(Not a rhyme -Ed.)
[...]
Tonight I want a [noun]
Hope you don't mind
I told him how you like it from behind
Now that certainly comes across as more fatalistic, like it's only one step above shouting "YOU GONNA GET RAPED".  "Blurred Lines"?  Not so much.  Pardon the pun, but of the many lines "Blurred Lines" blurs, it blurs the lines between Thicke playing a harmless pickup artist and a sexual predator.  Seriously, you can do much worse.  Besides, all three men involved in the conception and performance of this song have done the favour of reminding us that they are all happily married men and just having a little fun.  And I ain't calling them liars.  I mean come on, can't we all just enjoy "Blurred Lines" in the innocent spirit in which it was intended to be enjoyed?

...

Not when there are other, better disco throwbacks on the radio.


"Get Lucky":
Lyrics: 4 out of 5
Music: 5 out of 5
Performance: 5 out of 5
The Call: 5 out of 5 (A)
"Blurred Lines":
Lyrics: 2 out of 5
Music: 3 out of 5
Performance: 3 out of 5
The Call: 3 out of 5 (C)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Second Opinion: 1080 Snowboarding vs. Snowboard Kids

Despite the current lack of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, I recently got my hands on two snowboarding games for the Nintendo 64: Snowboard Kids by Atlus & Racdym, and 1080 Snowboarding by Nintendo.  Both are titles I have fond memories renting as a kid, and both are titles I haven't touched in years.  So which is better than the other?  Well... they're different.  But to explain which of the two quantifiably does what it does better... that would take more... explaining.  In pondering such an... explanation (somebody give me a thesaurus), I flashed back to a certain review by the Video Game Critic.  No, it's not Sonic 4, although it did generate negativity where I saw none.  Yup, he/she/they gave Snowboard Kids a C+, whereas 1080 scored an A-, and apparently, that is cause for my concern.  Looks like it's time to dust off the Second Opinion brand again!


1080 Snowboarding
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Release:
    • Nintendo 64, 31 March 1998
    • Wii (DLC), 28 January 2008
  • Genre: 1-4 player Sports/Racing
  • Save: Battery, 1 file
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • N64: Common, US$5-15
    • Wii: DLC, US$10
Snowboard Kids
  • Publisher: Atlus
  • Developer: Racdym
  • Release: Nintendo 64, February 1998
  • Genre: 1-4 player Sports/Racing
  • Save: Controller Pak, 121 Pages
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$15-25
Design:

First of all, I can tell you up front that 1080 Snowboarding is more or less a straight-up racing game on snowboards, in which the main mode involves series of one-on-one races.  Snowboard Kids, on the other hand, plays with that formula.  One, you can pick up items  to slow down your rivals or boost yourself.  For this reason alone, the Video Game Critic aptly describes this as "Mario Kart on snowboards".  So what kinds of pickups can one expect?  More than can be described in his/her/their traditional one-paragraph reviews, that's for certain, but he/she/they do have something to say on the the matter:
[SK] Some weapons are incredibly cheap, like one that simultaneously drops pans on all of your opponent's heads (really?).
Ah yes, the dreaded pie pans.  (Or possibly washtubs; I hear that's a real thing in anime.)  Now, what he/she/they don't tell you is that there's actually a fair balance to the item allotments.  The more effective goodies like the pie pans are more frequently given to players falling behind, whereas leading players are more likely to end up with lowly rocks (for tripping opponents with).  Compare it with the Mario Kart series, and let me know if you manage to find a Blue Shell within the top three places.

And two, despite the one-way nature of snowboarding, the game manages to work in a lap system: at the finish line, you scoot over to a gate and ride a chair-lift to the top of the course.  But it's not all good, as the VGC describes:
[SK] Each race requires several "runs" down the slope, and you need to enter a tiny lift gate at the bottom of each hill to ride back to the top. Why did they make these gates so tiny? They are so easy to miss! [...] The races are longer than Lindsay Lohan's rap sheet, so if one guy pulls way ahead it turns into a dull affair.
Alright, I will concede that fighting with your opponents to get the next seat on the chair-lift is not the best way to put this concept into practise.  Why not just make it a cutscene -- or better yet, a skippable cutscene?

[1080] There are a nice variety of modes including match races, time trials, slalom events, long jumps, half pipes, and "contests" that mix up the challenges.
[SK] The single-player mode challenges to beat all the tracks, and you shouldn't overlook the mini-games which include a rapid-fire snowman shooter.
Both games feature stand-alone time trials and score trials, where you pull off stunts for points.  By virtue of its unorthodox format, SK offers an exclusive mode where you shoot stationary snowmen.  But unlike SK, in 1080 you can attempt these auxiliary modes on any track available in the central mode, and then some.  However, what the Video Game Critic doesn't tell you is that "Long jumps" and "half pipes" merely refer to individual courses playable in one Trick Attack mode.  Draw.
[1080] A nice two-player split screen mode is included and the cartridge automatically saves high scores.[SK] The problem is, saving your progress requires 121 pages on a controller pack [sic], and that's pretty much the whole thing! 
Yeah, that's a lot of space, I said understatedly.  Frame of reference: a regulation-size Controller Pak holds 123 pages of data.  This is one reason why my youthful preferences drifted more towards the N64 and away from the CD-based PlayStation: the ability to save progress without and additional purchase.  The chance that my file might not be on the copy I rented the second time around was a chance I was willing to take.  Point 1080.

Control:
[1080]The trails are more narrow than other snowboarding games, but it's not a problem since analog stick provides just the right degree of control. [...] Also, I noticed that some characters have trouble nailing their landings even after performing simple tricks.
[SK] The tracks are wide enough and the analog controls make it easy to carve.
Okay, this is where I beg to differ.  In my experiences with 1080, the game offered me anything but the right degree of control.  I could literally (not literally, mind you) never get my boarder to coast in a straight line, since every single turn left him or her faced at some angle.  Which becomes problematic because there's a health meter, if you can believe it, and when it drains you have to trade in one of your limited "lives".  Whilst ultimately playable, the unstable controls of 1080 provide for a serious case of "Your Mileage May Vary".  At the very least, 1080's control setup boasts a feature missing from SK's: holding Z makes you duck down and go faster, without having to jump once you let go of the button.    Point SK.


You can hardly ever keep straight in 1080 Snowboarding.
If I may be permitted to make an observation of my own, I shall compare the trick systems of both games.  In 1080, the B button and Control Stick are used for grab tricks and the R for spins.  On the other hand, to do spins/flips in Snowboard Kids, you have to hold the Control Stick before jumping, not in midair.  You can also do grabs by pressing and holding one of the C buttons, but for some reason you can only perform one grab per jump.  Combined, these rules make the stunt system in SK far more awkward than in 1080.  And when doing tricks yields rewards other than points in a separate mode, it's kind of important not to mess that system up.  Still, both these titles were planned and released before Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (PlayStation et al., 1999) came and standardised the extreme-sports genre, so either way you might encounter a degree of early-installment weirdness.  Point 1080.

Graphics:
[1080] The graphics are superb, with awesome mountain backdrops, icy ridges, and blowing snow that looks so real you can feel the chill!  I actually had to wear a hat, ski pants, and ski boots just to review this game.  Most of the six courses are fairly realistic, and even the more unusual courses never go completely over-the-top like those in SSX (Playstation 2, 2000). [...] The sound of crisp snow crunching under your board is awesome, and I like the way snow flies as you slice through it.
[SK] 
The courses are very inviting with their well-groomed trails and bright blue skies. The night track is downright spectacular with gorgeous lighting effects and a quaint town backdrop. The tracks feature plenty ramps, cliffs, tunnels, and bridges to keep things interesting. [...] Most trails have appealing winter themes, but what's up with the "grass valley" stage? Who in the [expletive] [sic] wants to snowboard on grass? That doesn't even make any sense! There's also an amusement park track that's equally dumb - and unnecessary.
Somebody's gushing about games they like.  Alright, bias aside, I can safely state that 1080 goes for a straight snowboard simulation, whereas SK takes a more fantastical bent.  Both are reasonably competent at what they set out to do.  On the one hand, 1080 fits in more details, like the trail of compressed snow behind your boarder, and the wind whipping at his or her clothes.  But I don't know about "superb"; slowdown is occasional, the camera seems to have a fetish for "Dutch angles", and character animation is on the lifeless side.

As for Snowboard Kids, yes there is the occasional stage which takes place on non-snowy surfaces, like Green Valley (pictured below), Dizzy Land, and the unlockable Sand Mountain.  And you consider that as valid grounds for criticism?  Seriously, dude?  Whatever happened to your spirit of whimsical fun?  I mean, when your game features (alleged) 10-year-olds smacking each other about with snowmen, pie pans, and Cartoon Bombs, what else could you expect but something a little off-the-wall?  And besides, it's not like grass, rocks, or sand have different physics than snow, so in essence, they all play the same!  ...Granted it would be a nice technical achievement for them to have done so, but hey, gotta save something for the next console generation.  Besides, why not talk about the character models, each easily discernable from one another and decked out with these giant noses, it's just... so... KLOOOOOOOOOOT!!! =^_^=

...

Yes, folks.  A cat-emoticon.  You see what ya made me do, Snowboard Kids!?  Draw.


Grassy courses in Snowboard Kids because why the [verb] not.
[SK] Power-ups and weapons are provided by creepy clown icons.
And another thing: no, that's a dog on the item boxes.  You know, the same dog who runs the board shop from the main menu?  Do you even do research for your reviews?  Oh wait, you ignored Dimps' heavy involvement in Sonic 4, so I guess not.

Audio:
[1080] One negative aspect of the game is the soundtrack, which dishes out some of the most repetitive [noun] I've ever heard in a video game.
Alright, I'll agree with you there.  The music in 1080 tries to emulate real house and rock music, which given the limited music synthesizer and storage space for samples proffered by the Nintendo 64, is no small feat.  Unfortunately in doing so, they made some of the songs just plain annoying, in particular the track from the first level, Crystal Lake (no relation to Friday the 13th).  SK, on the other hand, has decidedly more in common with "traditional" video game composition, with a stronger emphasis on instrumental melody, and is stronger for it.  I for one especially liked the minor-key theme from the Night Highway course.  Point SK.

Final Statements:
[1080] [...] 1080 is a phenomenal title that's hard to put down.  Before SSX came along, nothing could touch this.
[SK] 
Bonehead design decisions not withstanding, this lighthearted racer will keep you in good spirits during the cold winter months.
Dear Video Game Critic, forgive me for not indulging in such gushing praise of 1080 Snowboarding.  I still maintain that the unstable motion physics leave much to be polished up, but the straight-up racing and trick mechanics provide more than their share of satisfaction.  But if I had to pick a proverbial deserted-island game, I'd personally prefer Snowboard Kids, for its creativity and innovation not only in the snowboarding sub-genre, but the kart-racing sub-genre from which it claims inspiration from.  Yes, execution is nine-tenths of the law when it comes to reviewing video games, but it's also important to understand the designers' intentions, and I do wish the Video Game Critic could be more receptive in that regard.


1080 Snowboarding:
Control: 2 out of 5
Design: 3 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Audio: 2 out of 5
The Call: 65% (C)
Snowboard Kids:
Control: 3 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Graphics: 3 out of 5
Audio: 4 out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

So that's my review, but before I go, I've got one more punch to throw.  Subsequent with his/her/their review on Snowboard Kids, the Video Game Critic published a review of its sequel Snowboard Kids 2 (Nintendo 64, 1999), which unfortunately had bestowed upon it a D+ rating.  Whilst some valid complaints were brought up about some less-than-desirable mechanics being carried over from the first game, the majority of the review was just him/her/they kvetching about its choice of non-traditional settings.  No seriously, comments relating to the snowy settings -- or lack thereof -- literally compose half the review -- and mind you, I've been real particular about the use of the word "literally", mind you.  And to that I say, OH MY GOD WHO THE [verb] CARES!?  IT'S FUN!!  Yes, pure simulations have their place in the market, and a well-deserved place at that.  But when you have the immense power of a virtual world at your disposal, what's wrong with letting your imagination run wild?  It would've been nicer if you spent more time examining what did get improved from SK, like the trick system; you can now do more than one grab per jump!  So yeah, the same experience as SK, only with more and better content.  If you don't mind shelling out an extra ten bucks for a used copy, I'd easily recommend Snowboard Kids 2 over its sequel, plus a bunch of sour grapes to the haters.