VIDEO GAMES, SELECTED AT RANDOM
(NES - 1988)
Sometimes, the art in a game's design can be found in its limitations.
If there was a "golden age" of video games, it probably resided in the late 80's, when the wildly successful arcade industry intersected with the Nintendo Entertainment System and its resurrection of console gaming. At the crossroads was Super Mario Bros, providing a synergy of action and platforming elements that introduced a whole new generation to gaming and gave rise to a whole new wave of action/platformers across consoles and arcades alike.
So imagine the collective surprise of arcade patrons when they stepped up to the Bionic Commando cabinet in 1987 and found an action game with platforming elements that wouldn't allow you to jump. Mario could jump. That dude in Rolling Thunder could jump. Even the incredibly obese Karnov could jump. But the Bionic Commando's feet were planted to the ground; he was saddled with a bionic arm that worked like a grappling hook, pulling him up to higher ledges and swinging him across pits like Pitfall Harry. (Of course, Harry, like virtually everybody else in the universe of gaming protagonists at the time, could jump too.)
Despite this novel concept, the Bionic Commando arcade game was a modest success, at best, which made it somewhat of a surprise when Capcom decided to not only port over the game to the NES, but to give it a complete makeover.
For one, the storyline of the game underwent a huge change. The somewhat scruffy-looking protagonist from the first game and fiery-haired Radd Spencer was installed as the hero. His mission: to rescue Super Joe (the protagonist from the original Commando game) from the Nazis and to destroy their secret Albatross project. Of course, even though the Nazis are the villains of choice for countless FPS games today, Nintendo of America felt that their inclusion within the NES version of Bionic Commando was far too controversial for their family-oriented policy of publishing, so Capcom changed the Nazis to the BADDs and renamed Hitler as "Commander Killt" for the North America release in 1988. (As we'll see later, though, Nintendo of America didn't catch quite everything that the game had to offer.)
Beyond the storyline, the rest of the game received a remarkable facelift. The background music was re-imagined into some of the most striking pieces that you'll find on the NES at the time. Communication rooms were added to many of the stages, giving players the chance (if they equipped the right radio) to contact HQ to gain more information about the mission, as well the ability to wiretap into enemy communications. A world map was added to allow the player to proceed through stages in a non-linear fashion, and "neutral zone" stages were added to allow the player to gain information from NPCs and find different weapons/radios for use in the different stages throughout the game. The development team even added a mini-game (represented by trucks on the world map) where the player would be thrown into an overhead action/shoot'em up (in yet another nod to Commando).
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), the stage design was tightened up exponentially, revealing the real genius behind the game: the limited mobility forced the player to be a little more creative as they navigated through each area. The stages scrolled vertically, as well as horizontally, and the bionic arm trickery required to get through each stage became progressively more difficult as you go along, building perfectly to an epic showdown with the huge Albatross airship, "Master-D" himself and a frantic Metroid-esque escape from the final stage.
With all of these changes in place, the NES release was a much more robust gaming experience and, as a result, it became one of the greatest action games on the platform, essentially reducing its arcade predecessor to a mere curiosity. Bionic Commando is an absolute blast to play to this very day and, with one notable exception (the inability to change weapons/radios in-stage), the game design that drives it still seems fun and fresh.
It will be interesting to see how the ESRB rules on a release of Bionic Commando on the Wii Virtual Console, if one happens to come down the pike; astonishingly, the original NES game has profanity and a rather grisly depiction of Hitler's death at the end of the game:
Though you would never guess from its humble arcade origins, the NES release of Bionic Commando might be one of the most underappreciated games of all time, and it's certainly one of the best action titles that you can find out there, even compared with the games of today. If you can snag a ROM, I would highly recommend that you check it out.
VIDEO GAMES, SELECTED AT RANDOM
Bump 'n Jump
(NES - 1988)
Once the late 80's hit and coin-op developers started to realize that the Nintendo Entertainment System had finally re-established the video game console as a viable force in the home electronics market, dozens of arcade ports started to roll into the Nintendo catalogue. 1988 was a particularly fruitful year for console ports on the NES: Contra, Bubble Bobble, Double Dragon, Bionic Commando, Legendary Wings, Salamander (released in America as Life Force), Gunsmoke, Paperboy, Jackal, and Bump 'n Jump.
Poor, poor Bump 'n Jump. Some thugs have snatched your girlfriend and you have a jumping car. Er, jeep. Off we go into stage after stage of race car derring-do, bumping other cars off of the road and jumping over huge, inexplicable rivers and bridges. I would suspect that the inclusion of multiple streams and rivers was, perhaps, an allusion to the future dangers of global warming but, then again, they have bushes planted in the middle of the road that detonate your car upon impact. Arcade games make my head hurt sometimes.
That's not to say that Bump 'n Jump isn't fun. You certainly don't see many "racing platformers" out there in the annals of gaming history. But it just doesn't go anywhere or really grow as the game goes on - bump some cars around, jump when the big exclamation point comes up at the top of the screen, maybe pick up some gas cans, and then move on to the next stage. It's a quarter muncher in the very sense of the word and, on the NES, that doesn't amount for much value at all.
One side point, as it relates to the original arcade release in 1982. Bump 'n Jump was originally developed by Data East, but it was licensed for distribution to Bally/Midway, the historic Chicago-based coin-op manufacturer. Shortly thereafter, Midway would answer with their own variation of the theme one year later, trading out the cartoony art and "Jumpin' John" for a steering wheel control, guns, and the Peter Gunn theme in Spy Hunter, one of the most absurdly successful arcade games of all time.
Anyway, Bump 'n Jump - it's worth a novelty play but, ultimately, it pales in comparison to the other titles on the NES at the time.
WOW, THE BEARS ARE REALLY CRAPPY AFTER ALL, AREN'T THEY
That "Super Bowl" show last night was a real hoot, wasn't it? The Indianapolis Colts win in a sloppy, waterlogged affair that really wasn't as close as the score (29-17) would indicate. Though I wouldn't stretch to call it a boring game, it was certainly one of the more poorly played Super Bowls in recent memory, as both teams combined for five fumbles in the first half, including two instances of the recovering team following up a fumble with one of their own. Both teams would eventually settle down in the second half, but Rex Grossman compensated for the lack of excitement by heaving two cringe-worthy interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown to seal the game in the fourth quarter.
Given the nature of the Bears' demise, there is a lot of finger-pointing going around The Morning After and rightfully so - the team that showed up in Miami was an unfortunate caricature of the Bears that steamrolled the National Football Conference during the regular season. Most of the blame-mongering will target Rex Grossman, who mixed an admirable David Carr imitation into his Evil Rex routine, conceding away third down conversions with weaksauce checkdowns (he completed 20 of 28 passes!), as well as failing to protect the ball in crucial situations.
But, ultimately, this same scrutiny should be applied to the rest of the offense, which struggled mightily against a rejuvenated Indianapolis defense. I've stated in NFL discussions on this board that time of possession can be misused when putting a game into proper context. The entire story of Super Bowl XLI, however, can be told through the stunning discrepancy in TOP:
The longest Chicago offensive drive of the game lasted 2:22. Two minutes and twenty-two seconds. Grossman certainly didn't have a sharp game, but neither did the Bears' running attack: Cedric Benson was a complete non-factor (and injured for most of the game) and, outside of the big 52 yarder that led to the Bears' only offensive touchdown of the game, Thomas Jones couldn't really put anything together against a supposedly-porous Colts run defense.
The Colts, on the other hand, dominated the line of scrimmage, carving up the Bears' top-rated defense with 191 yards on the ground - a season-high for Chicago's run defense - and 430 yards in total. Though much of the credit for those rushing yards should certainly go to the tandem of Addai and Rhodes, the performance of the Indianapolis offensive line should not be ignored, as both backs found plenty of holes in the line when they got the handoff. Manning (who gave the weakest Super Bowl MVP-winning performance since Tom Brady earned the award in 2001 for 145 yards and a TD) simply took whatever an off-balance Bears defense would give him, which included a wide-open Reggie Wayne for a 53 yard touchdown in the second quarter. Though the Bears did just about everything that they could to keep the game close at the half, they couldn't hold out forever, as the Colts simply imposed their will and finally broke through with an excruciating seven minute drive to start off the second half.
The only time where the Bears showed a distinct advantage was in special teams: Devin Hester scorched some woeful kickoff coverage for a touchdown on the first touch of the game and the threat of a repeat performance forced the Colts into squib kicks for virtually every ensuing Chicago return. Otherwise, complete squa-doosh, as Kornheiser might say.
All in all, it was a painful game for Bears fans everywhere, with the added benefit of putting a lot of Patriots fans in an awkward position of actually having to respect Peyton Manning now. It's not a position they're going to take quietly - we've seen some sour grapes on TSM already, and I can only imagine the sludge that we'll get from the Sports Guy later this week. But it's just a matter of time, since the two things that they could hold against Manning - beating the Patriots and winning the big one - have been erased by the championship run of the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. Congratulations to Alfdogg, that cowboy dude with the numbers in his name, and any other Colts fans on the board.
MASTER OF REALITY IS A HEAVY METAL ROCK ALBUM
After a stern talking-to from Agent of Oblivion, I went ahead and acquired the remasters of Black Sabbath's 1971 release, Master of Reality. That old curmudgeonly poop Christgau graded it at C-, but I'd say it's a fair deal better than that. Not a ballsmashingly five-star affair (AllMusic strikes again!), but still pretty good.
That being said, I'm still struggling with the idea that "Children of the Grave" is a heavier song than Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks." The former is certainly enough in its own right, but I'm not even sure it's the heaviest song on Master of Reality, let alone comparable to the room-shaking drums of the latter. Maybe it's just a matter of taste. Shrugs.
CAST THY SHIP ABLAZE AND ALONE, FOREVER INTO TWILIGHT
New Millennium Blues is dead. Not exactly news, if you had seen some of the "last post dates" hanging around the non-wrestling folders at the new board, but worth a mention anyway because:
A. Loss and co. have set up a new wrestling-happy venture at ProWrestlingOnly.com.
B. This post should be the last time I'll mention my old board, or talk about old board drama in this blog.
Good luck to Loss and the rest of the PWO crew.
AFRICA, MEXICO, SICILY, TIJUANA, INDIA, OSAKA, INDONESIA
Finding myself in between albums at the moment, I threw Cowboy Bebop: Blue into the mp3 player and spun through it on a particularly chilly commute into work today. My college roommate might have summed up Cowboy Bebop best when he said that "it's an anime that doesn't realize it's an anime." By integrating open-handed homage to Japanese detective stories with science fiction and excessive spaghetti western pastiche, Cowboy Bebop is the ultimate postmodernist anime and the soundtrack provided by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts is no different. Where else will you find deliciously overwrought power ballads sharing the stage with various jazz poetics and a straight-as-an-arrow orchestral rendition of Schubert's Ave Maria? Just a fantastic soundtrack.
BILL BELICHICK MAKES MY HEAD HURT
Apparently, the national sports media found a b-side to it's human interest blockbuster, "Let's Keep Talking About How We Shouldn't Talk About Black Coaches", in the story of one Ted Johnson, a former linebacker for the New England Patriots.
You'll never find me demeaning or belittling somebody's struggle with depression (perhaps, one of these days, I'll "treat" everybody to discussion of my own personal experiences with the ailment) and the fact that Alzheimer's disease may be right around the corner for the former player is undeniably a somber outcome for Ted Johnson and his family.
But, even though I generally have a disposition towards giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt, the timing of Johnson's testimony is somewhat unfortunate. When you couple the timing of this startling revelation (right before the Super Bowl) with reports that cite he was willing and ready to return to the team this year, Johnson's claim seems a little bit like a vengeful jab at a coach and organization that might have turned the linebacker down for his own good.
That's not to say the claim is without merit and/or relevance; the spectre of Andre Waters' suicide still lingers around the NFL's rear-view mirror. But, sometimes, the delivery is just as important as the message and, fair or not, there is a hint of sensationalism about this news. Let's find out more information before we take our turn at the soapbox, shall we?
WHEN YOU WANT TO GAMBLE, THE MAIN THING YOU MUST DO IS THIS: YOU MUST ACCEPT LOSING.
I haven't watched wrestling for years and I hardly ever frequent the wrestling folders here, but I did somehow meander into a link in the General Wrestling folder that detailed that Jake Roberts, once again, arrived at a card loaded and unable to perform. It is, of course, no news at all that Roberts (a favorite of mine, back when I had an interest in the business) is a cracked shell of humanity. What is concerning to me is the reaction that everybody always has to the unfortunate regularity of these kind of reports.
When they're not papering over the inherent tragedy in Jake's downfall with half-assed jokes, everybody keeps implying that it would be such a boon to the wrestling industry "if Jake were to somehow get his shit together", all while having a fundamental misunderstanding about what exactly has driven Roberts through this steady descent into oblivion. Why are you even bothering with any sort of optimism for Jake Roberts?
His self-destructive behavior comes about through a symbiotic relationship to professional wrestling; any possibility for humility is long gone, as there will always be some cheap-ass indie promoter, looking to score a buck, that will be more than happy to simply pay Roberts (in cash or in drugs, whatever's easier to procure) to headline their booking. Whether Roberts' addiction and depression are suitably indulged are of no consequence to them, as long as there's even a remote possibility that he works on their night. The sheer possibility of an appearance is somehow worthwhile because, despite what happened at Heroes of Wrestling, despite all of the constant no-shows and general instability...Jake "The Snake" Roberts still has some marketability to wrestling fandom, either out of hope for a glimpse at the brilliant performer of the past or out of morbid curiosity for the walking car crash that stumbles from town to no-horse town today.
There's no denying that Jake has the addiction here, likely spurred by an all-too-conscious self-loathing and a sordid past that no one would want to go through. But the industry, as a whole, has an addiction to Jake Roberts as well, always willing to bring him in for a quick jolt, a quick cash-in of nostalgia, with more regard for the icon rather than the human being that's no longer able to carry his fractured legacy. As much as I want Roberts to recover from his broken life, I know better than to expect him, or those that are content to bleed him dry, to find an opportunity. There Is No Hope Here.
TAKE THE BIGGEST GUY IN THE WORLD, SHATTER HIS KNEE AND HE'LL DROP LIKE A STONE
So, today, ESPN.com finally unveiled the new Sports Guy column to the unwashed masses of bloodthirsty Colts fans, many whom may have been circling the web page, waiting for blood to stain the waters. And, after a week of partying at the Super Bowl
location, building up anticipation for the big game and casually dismissing the Colts, Simmons finally turns in his response to the big game: a college basketball blog.
I don't even know if you can call this "weaksauce." Has "lamesauce" made it into the internet vernacular yet? Well, whatever the case, simply choose a pejorative, preferably one that implies sexual inadequacy and/or inimitible cowardice, and you'll be set for reading this column, which may be one of the absolute worst he's penned in a long, long time.
Seeing Simmons retreat from the Super Bowl result that he so obviously didn't want to see is sad enough in itself, but to watch him decide, all of a sudden, that he's going to be a college basketball analyst (and a poor one at that) after years of ambivalence towards college sports could be a new low, even for a guy who recently dedicated an entire column to assuring us that our culture is undeniably flawed for not celebrating the New England Patriots.
(And, apparently, Greg Oden isn't the next Bill Russell. Thanks for clearing that up, Mrs. Durant.)
WHY IS THIS WEEKEND PARTY MUSIC MAKING MY EARS BLEED
Thanks to the release of Friend Opportunity, I've found myself on a renewed Deerhoof kick, scrambling to find the various and sundry recordings that I haven't heard to this point. Reveille is still on the to-do list (Apple O is where I started with them), but I did happen to stumble onto a cut from their Untitled EP, which was apparently a free download from the KRS website at one point. The track is a cover of My Bloody Valentine's "Lose My Breath" from Isn't Anything and it's not too bad at all.
Thanks to some tuning issues on the guitar (which are perhaps intentional), the verse of the song manages to be even more dissonant than the divisive cacophony of the original. So much so, in fact, that the wheels almost fall off right on the outset - the vocal veers sharp throughout, unsure of where to stand tonally, and the guitars clang from note to note with all the grace of a cheap-ass Strat copy.
But, when they come to the chorus, Deerhoof finds the sweet spot, Matsuzaki's voice gliding perfectly across the guitar, pure and clean. And, by the time the drums and bass fully make their way into the soundscape, Deerhoof has kicked into a sensation missing from the MBV original, coming awfully close to swaying, emotional, torch-bearing rock. It never quite reaches that height again for the remainder of the playthrough, but it still comes across as a worthy and interesting take, regardless.
(If the attachment worked appropriately, you should be able to check it out from this blog post. Be warned: you really should not confuse this track with the Destiny's Child hit from a few years ago.)
SOUNDS LIKE SOMEBODY'S GOT A CASE OF THE MONDAYS
This one's coming late to the press, thanks to the incompetence of the tech support folks at my occupation, who had issues solving the dangerous riddle of file transfers across workstations. Fucking Monday.
So, I gave Arbouretum's Rites of Uncovering a spin through the early morning doldrums and wasn't overly impressed. Brooding guitar-heavy folk rock, feeling very British in spots, and occasionally a little too close to Papa M for comfort, but the majority of the album falls a bit flat. The guitar solos are certainly nice, as Pitchfork will tell you, but they don't reinforce as much as they outright save some of these songs. If Dave Heumann (the frontman) shaves this down to an EP, then we might have something on our hands.
Heumann, a former associate of Will Oldham, holds Paul Bowles (who penned The Sheltering Sky) as a primary influence over the album, so there may be more for you here, perhaps, if you're a fan of the author's work. As for me, I've got less of an inclination for folk rock as it is, and Rites of Uncovering doesn't really break new ground or hit a home run in that particular field, so it comes in at a solid "Eh." Here's a couple of the tracks I enjoyed:
"Pale Rider Blues" (download available at Thrill Jockey) - Straight-away blues, with an overdriven guitar that climaxes into one of the better guitar solos I've heard in a while. Reminiscent of Hendrix's extended blues jams.
"Signposts and Instruments" - GLOOOOOOM. Probably too dark and serious for its own good, the album's opener still maintains a distinct charm about it. Perhaps it's the tremolo-soaked vocals or the vibraphone flyover that buffers out the guitar crunch almost three minutes into the song. Methodical, somber, and somehow captivating.
"Tonight's A Jewel" - That's right, the first three songs all appear here as recommendations. This one taps into some English folk, complete with a real clanger of a line in "if you hold the torch / best carry it with flair". But, yet, it's the most palatable folk indulgence on the album and (surprise!) it holds a nice little electric guitar ditty about halfway through.
EXCUSES ARE NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PERFORMANCE, MR. THE MAN IN BLAK
Okay, so I didn't update the blog yesterday for Valentine's Day. (My opportunity for a dreadful My Bloody Valentine's Day pun, squandered.) The fact that I had actual work to do at my job, as well as spending the evening with my wife and family, probably had a lot to do with that, so apologies and whatnot.
That being said, this disturbing trend of actual work appears to be continuing through this week...perhaps even next week, so I'm in a bit of a tight spot. Well, at tight of a spot as you can be in, as it pertains to responsible and timely bloggery.
So, for the time being, I think I'll repost some more video game reviews on the blog, some of which may have already reared their head at New Millennium Blues during my time there. According to Gamefly, Final Fantasy VI Advance is supposedly on the way through the mail, so I may be able to sneak in a review some time next week. At any rate, if you see a reposted video game review here in the next couple of weeks, you can make a mental note that The Man in Blak just couldn't find it in himself to update Bow Down To Frogblog with original material. (What a lazy asshole.)
VIDEO GAMES, SELECTED AT RANDOM
(PS2 - 2003)
Sometimes, video game critics get too wrapped up in what a game is supposed to be and forget exactly what it is. You know the games, the ones that are endorsed by a seemingly endless line of critics - the games that you pick and play a couple of times and wonder "am I playing the same games as these guys?" Black & White is my personal favorite of this type of game; critics just couldn't shut up about it, despite the fact that there were plenty of people who couldn't even get past the interface of moving around in the game. What was the point? Why?
To a certain extent, Jak II falls under this category. On the surface, it seems like the series takes a substantial leap, taking the plotline into a darker direction, and incorporating all sorts of new gameplay elements, including guns, vehicles, and a gigantic cityscape with citizens and police officers that adapt to your every move. With such ambition on display here, perhaps a lot of critics are willing to excuse substandard execution, but I'm not so forgiving.
The game design here is a ten car pileup on the interstate, a handful of muddled ideas that manage to screw up each other. The wonderful platform gameplay of the first game is virtually muted, as the level design tries and miserably fails to accommodate all of these new tricks and treats under one circus tent. And the tricks themselves are lacking too; the gunplay would be considered a joke at best, especially if you played the game that challenged Naughty Dog to up the gameplay ante (Ratchet & Clank). The vehicle control for the hovercars - hovercars that are virtually the only way to navigate around the spacious Haven City, I might add - is embarrassingly bad, ricocheting you between buildings and other hovercars as though you were strapped to an Acme rocket by a rubber band. The Crimzon Guard, which plays the role of the police in Haven City, patrols the streets looking for Jak with MGS-style vision cones that you can see on your radar, but they're apparently just for show, as I steered our faithful hero in front of more than one Crimzon Guardsman. The inclusion of the police is, in itself, quite puzzling; can you ever imagine Rockstar attempting to place 3D platformer elements into Grand Theft Auto?
Some may applaud the darker direction that the storyline has taken, but the contrast between the whimsical comedy of the first game is just too much to swallow. Part of that may be due to the ineptitude of the writers, who warp Jak & Daxter from high-fiving and break dancing heroes into battle-hardened warriors that toss out flaccid one-liners like "Kill Metal Heads? Get Toys? Sounds good to me" without much of a build-up. Sure, the original game isn't exactly Hamlet and there are some traces of the previous game's humor sprinkled throughout, but the plotline induces groans at every turn and reaches far too desperately in its attempt to paint an epic revolution against tyranny.
There are a few positives - the graphics throughout the game are still impressive, even if the darker tone puts a damper on a lot of the aesthetic surroundings. The environments have flourishes of personality in them, with walls that crumble as Jak nears them and videoscreen advertisements that wouldn't seem out of place in Blade Runner. Character design is a plus, as Jak gets updated with a cool goatee and turns into a visually impressive "alter-ego" during the use of Dark Eco powers.
Overall, it just seems like Naughty Dog lost their way with this one. The transplant of Jak and Daxter's cartoony platform action just doesn't mix well with the darker direction the series has taken, and the entire game suffers for it. Other reviewers may disagree, but it is my opinion that Jak II is an unbelievable disappointment; it's not without redeeming elements, but it's certainly a title that demands a rental, especially if you're not real keen on integrating action gameplay into your platformer.