It is a Somewhat Disappointing Story

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is a game that, on paper, I should love. I really enjoyed the first M&L game (though I missed out on the second one) and this one brings back the best part, Fawful, and has some of the best looking sprites I’ve seen in a long time. It also has Nintendo’s trademark quality localization, being mostly witty and funny. So I am having difficulty pinpointing exactly why I found playing it to be such a chore.

Part of it I think is the premise. Mario and Luigi manipulating Bowser from the inside while he fights against Fawful’s minions sounds great, but it doesn’t quite work out as it should. All of Bowser’s insides basically look the same, meaning that nearly the entire time game Mario and Luigi are stuck in one area. Also, the globins, the anti-body inhabitants of Bowser’s body are a big miss on the writer’s part. Talking to them is simply tedious. The Mario Brothers portions of the game are simply not as good as they could be. The Bowser portions are much more entertaining. They are certainly better written. Bowser’s charmingly self-centered nature is tons of fun. He sees everything only as reflections of his importance. His goals haven’t changed, he plans to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom and force Peach to be his bride. However, with Fawful currently in power, his goals are temporarily aligned with Mario’s. Still, Bowser finds it hard to focus on the larger goal rather than instant gratification. The problem with Bowser’s portion is the other problem I’ve had with the game.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story tries its best to utilize as much of the DS’s functionality as possible. In this case this is a bad thing. There are many features on the DS that when uses appropriately can greatly enhance a game. The great games on the system use only the ones necessary. M&L3 uses as just about everything on the system, no matter how awkward the implementation is. The game has the player turn the system sideways to fight big battles with Bowser, you blow in the mic to blow fire, tap the screen for various attacks. It makes battles, whose timing mechanics already make them more involved than most, a chore. I found most of the tapping, sliding and other touch mechanics to be tiresome. The worst part is that the increased complexity in battle mechanics is offset by a simplification of the platforming parts, which were the best parts of the first game.

These problems aren’t really that big. They are kind of nitpicky. Still, they added up to enough to keep me from truly enjoying the game. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is a well-made game with small flaws that simply rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to like it, I really did, but I didn’t really enjoy the game all that much. I know some people were disappointed when Nintendo announced Paper Mario for the 3DS rather than a new Mario and Luigi game, but I’m perfectly happy with that series continuing over this one.

The Expendables 2

The Expendables 2 is a dumb movie. It wears its stupidity like a badge (a badge covered in skulls and guns) as viewers take in a steady stream of one-liners and explosions. The recipe for this movie is simple, just a mix of action stars from yesterday and tomorrow combined with as many action movie clichés as possible and topped off with a healthy dose of self-awareness. The Expendables 2 is a ton of fun as long as you don’t make the mistake of taking it seriously.

The first Expendables was a marginally more serious affair, with the star cameos kept small and mostly focusing on Stallone and Statham. Even the rest of the Expendables crew only gets a couple of scenes to show off. Despite the greater number and size of the cameos in Expendables 2, there is actually more for the crew to do. For a movie as much about its star cameos as anything, Expendables 2 does a marvelous job of working them seamlessly into the film. Each of the star characters has a reason to be there and at least the ghost of reason to be so chummy with each other. The only thing is that the usual banter is replaced with joked about their old one-liners. By the time Schwarzenegger and Willis finally get in on the action it is so gleefully fun you don’t even care that they steal the scene from the real characters.

The cameos are easy to implement because the plot is so basic. A supposedly easy mission goes badly and Stallone and crew seek revenge. That is pretty much it. It is simple, but it works, except for one thing. There is never any sense that the villains poser any threat to the heroes. As fun as Van Damme chewing scenery as Vilain is, he doesn’t seem to be that much of a threat to the team. The movie does such a good job of making the team seem like badasses that they completely overshadow the bad guys.

The Expendables 2 cold opening is some of the most perfect action violence that it is amazing the rest of the movie doesn’t feel like a letdown. If you are not enjoying the movie once the title rolls, you might as well leave. The Expendables 2 is about as far from art or thought as you get, but it is a blast. It is a greatest hits album of a movie, all your favorites but nothing new. If the movie took it seriously at all it would be hard to watch, but it is in on the joke as much as the audience. The Expendables 2 is a fun bit of filler.

Goodbye Nintendo Power

The news earlier this week that Nintendo Power would cease publication hit me pretty hard. For many gamers who grew up in the days of the NES and the SNES, Nintendo Power holds a special place in their hearts. While it was blatant Nintendo propaganda and the strategies found within were frequently not ideal, the amount of love lavished on the games found inside was made the magazine eminently enjoyable. NP made each and every game seem like a classic. Yes, it existed to sell more games, but in those pre-internet days information was not that easy to come by. The loss of Nintendo Power feels like a big step away from gaming as I grew up with.

I wasn’t always subscribed to NP. I was for about two years around 89-91. I bought the magazine occasionally for the next decade before resubscribing a little before publishing switched over to Future. The magazines fortunes mostly followed its namesakes. In the 8 and 16-bit days Nintendo Power was amazing. There was always tons of excitement and plenty of games to cover. In the N64 and Gamecube days the excitement didn’t flag, though there was a lot less to be excited for. It sometimes made the magazine a depressing read. When it switched over to Future, it immediately got better. I’m not trying to bad mouth it from just before, but Nintendo Power over the last 5 years has been the best video game magazine on the shelf. I am disappointed that I let my subscription lapse in the last year. I have saved most of the issues I ever received and have spent plenty of time over the last week looking over them. It is truly sad to see it go.

In many ways Nintendo Power helped shape my gaming tastes, even when I wasn’t able to find or play the games it covered. I had no idea what an RPG was before I read the NP that covered Final Fantasy II. I didn’t play that game, at least not for more than an hour, until it was ported to the GBA but still I know that game front to back just from pouring over Nintendo Power. It made the game seem like such an amazing adventure that I had to play, but I was never able to find it. Then there was River City Ransom. Another game that just captured my imagination but this time I was able track it down. For once, at least, a game was everything Nintendo Power promised it would be. It was the usual beat-em-up with some RPG mechanics. Seeing those two games helped me realize just how many different kinds of games were out there, and seeing all the maps and screenshots in NP helped me visualize exactly how those games worked.

The loss of Nintendo Power is kind of forcing me to realize just how far from the mainstream I’ve become when it comes to gaming. I don’t think my tastes have really changed, but gaming has. I still like the same kinds of games I always have, but they are apparently not popular anymore. In the last year or so I’ve got so many new games that cater almost perfectly to me, games like Xenoblade, the Last Story, Solatorobo and Rayman Origins, but still this seems like an aberration rather than a trend. Most of the games I’ve really enjoyed have not enjoyed much in the way of sales success. The few interesting games that Japan is able to produce often have a hard time making it to America. I’m never going to be a fan of shooters and I’m never going to want more than one sports game for any system. It’s not that I think they aren’t good games, they just aren’t games that interest me. I’m not saying I am going to quit playing video games, but things like the shuttering of Nintendo Power show me that the current gaming industry doesn’t support the kind of things I like. Still, I have nearly 25 years of great gaming memories to look over and there are still plenty of great games I haven’t played.

After 13 Games You Know It’s Never Really Final

Final Fantasy XIII is a smoking hot mess of a game. For everything it well or exceptionally well, it does another thing either poorly or fails to do it at all. The game has one of the most well-realized main casts in the genre paired with a plot that never even tries to make sense, as well as a complete lack of a supporting cast. It streamlined plenty of the tedium that plagues JRPGs but also loses many useful or necessary conventions in the deal. Playing FFXIII is like watching a play through a telescope; you see some things in magnificent detail, but it is nearly impossible to form a context for what you’ve seen due to the tiny field of view.

Final Fantasy XIII odd dual identity is easily seen in its story. FFXIII main characters are a well-rounded, engaging group. Sure, some of their characterizations fall back on the usual anime tropes, but there is more depth to them than the majority of video game casts. Lightning tries to be the stoic badass, and is for the most part, but in becoming that badass she has forfeited her connection to her sister. She is out for redemption, to atone for not being there for her sister when Serah needed her. Sazh, apparently a favorite of many though not me, is a father out of his depth trying to save his son. Fang and Vanille have a relationship that echoes Lightning and Serah’s, an older sister trying to protect the younger. Hope starts as a whiny brat and matures into a somewhat less whiny brat. He faces the trauma of seeing his mother die in the opening minutes of the game, and must process that grief and grow beyond it. Snowe, while not one of my favorite characters, is certainly an entertaining one. He is the peppy JRPG hero, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia or Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia, in a game that has absolutely no use for him. He wants to protect his love Serah, but fails. He tries to find meaning in their becoming L’Cie, but there is none to be had. He is forced to confront the wreckage inadvertently left in the wake of his can do attitude. Unfortunately, there are virtually no supporting characters. The game starts to build up some villains, but they promptly disappear after a few scenes, with the exception of Barthandelus. Any other supporting character is lucky to get so much as a name and two scenes. The plot, to put it nicely, is an indecipherable mess. The party is made L’Cie at the start. What exactly being a L’Cie means is never clearly explained. The player must infer it from the small amount of context available. The important thing is that people do not like them. The must obey the fal’Cie, which again are entities with no clear explanation, just that they are powerful beings. There are mentions of Cocoon and Pulse, but for the longest time no explanation of just what those two are. Countries? Cities? Planets? Once more, though never all, becomes clear the party finds a new goal. (Big Spoilers) The villain wants them to kill the fal’Cie powering Cocoon, but they refuse. Then, they kill it anyway and everything works out. Because it does.(End of Big Spoilers) The story game plays out in blunt, yet effective character bits intertwined with often visually amazing but nonsensical plot scenes. It is baffling how they got one part so very right, yet flubbed the others so very badly.

The rest of the game is the same way. The battle system seems to be another take on many of the same ideas that power FFXII’s battle system. Individual attacks are automated, but the player gets to choose what actions the characters can take. The control is another step back, with players making sets of classes for their party and switching class make up on the flay to handle dynamic battle situations. While the lack of direct control can seem off putting at first, once the game lets the training wheels come off it is rather entertaining and there is more strategy involved than most games in the genre. All other parts of usual JRPG gameplay are gone. There are no real towns to visit, no shops, nothing but tunnels to run through. Some of the losses are good. The genre, led by FFVII, had become bloated with mini-games and tedious sidequests. Those are all gone. Their loss helps streamline the game. But the loss of towns and shops hurt, making it harder to get a sense of this world and the people in it. Everything is done by a computer that pops out of save points. Despite the very real characters, the world of Final Fantasy XIII feels the most artificial. This world exists just to tell this game’s story. The crazy tunnel land suddenly ends when the player reaches Gran Pulse, a wide open plain full of strong enemies and optional missions. Instead of being a welcome change, at first is feels crippling. The game has held the player’s hand for so long that the sudden lack of direction is almost overwhelming. After a little bit of hesitance, though, Gran Pulse shows itself to be the best part of the game. The battle system has a near perfect combination of fluidity and strategy that running around fighting monsters is actually fun.

It is initially hard to get past FFXIII’s obvious terrible flaws. But the core of the game is very very good. That with the fine level of polish helps keep Final Fantasy XIII entertaining. I’d put it near the middle of the series in terms of quality, there with the other middle of the road Final Fantasies like 7 or 8. It is a flawed gem whose flaws are all the more obvious due to how large of a gem it is. It is not my favorite, and with what is essentially a 20 hour tutorial to start I can’t see myself replaying it soon, but I really did like this game.

What I Read in July

Another light month. I spent a lot of time on Path of Daggers, but the other books I finished this all took some time too. More variety this month than usual, with a collection of newspaper comics and a collection of essays to go along with the usual fantasy fare I read.

Cul de Sac Golden Treasury

Richard Thompson

This is a digital combination of the first two collections of Thompson’s excellent Cul de Sac newspaper comic. Cul de Sac is about a family, a neurotic son, a bratty daughter and their parents. It reads like a marvelous combination of Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. 4 year-old Alice is the star. She is a force of nature, full of wonder for the world and a determination to push her boundaries. Alice steamrolls most of her classmates and is generally a nuisance in the way only a 4 year old can be. Older brother Petey is a weird, closed boy who is also relatable. He may have his quirks, but he also gets the usual older brother joy from picking on his younger sibling and angst from his parents. The parents are just as odd as their children, taking some joy in making things difficult for the kids. The Peanuts like gang from Alice’s preschool are also fun.

This is a fine collection of some excellent comics. There is some enlightening commentary from the artist, but mostly the focus is on the comics themselves. And these are some especially good ones. I really like this comic.

Path of Daggers

Robert Jordan

Reread post forthcoming.

Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold

I read this for the first time roughly a year ago, and my review here is still spot on. This is a great fantasy novel, one that stands alone but leaves room for more stories to be told in the same world. It also avoids the world ending escalation of most of the genre. This is one of my absolute favorite novels.

Teenagers from the Future

Ed Tim Callahan

This is a collection of essays about DC Comics Legion of Superheroes, covering the future superteam from their origins to the present, looking at them from many different angles. As with any collection, some of the essays are better than others, but on the whole this is a good bunch. What I really like is getting serious writing about comic books, something that is somewhat hard to find. Even though the Legion of Superheroes is not one of my favorite, I did love a serious look at their impact and influences. I can’t recommend this to anyone who doesn’t either like the Legion or somewhat scholarly writing, but if you fall into either of those categories, it is worth picking up.

What I Read in June

June was a slow month, both because I finished a few books just at the end of May and because I spent a lot of time reading really long Wheel of Time books. I did manage to finish one non-WoT book in the month, though, so it gets a small entry.

Lord of Chaos

Robert Jordan

Reread post forthcoming.

The New World

Michael Stackpole

I read the first two volumes of this trilogy when they were brand new, but due to lack of funds I passed on the final volume. Now I went back to finish the series, but my memories of the first two have faded somewhat since I read them five or so years ago. Still, most of the frustrations and strengths came back to me as I read this.

Stackpole must be credited for creating a genuinely interesting world. In the world of this series, if one does something with enough skill and training it can become magic (more or less). Magic in any cases comes from an intense focus and can greatly affect the surrounding world. There is less a focus on the usual medieval time period of fantasy, instead taking place in something more akin to the times of Columbus, with characters off discovering and mapping new continents.

The writing, in this volume at least, is somewhat mechanical. It gets the job done, but there is little personality in the writing. There are also some plot oddities that didn’t agree with me. It seems too neat at times. The paths that some of the characters must walk seemed arbitrary to me, though that might have had something to do with my vague memories of parts one and two.

It is a good enough conclusion to a highly original series that differentiates itself from the fantasy standards, but not always in good ways. The New World is a flawed, sometimes clunky epic that delivers action and invention on a scale greater than most.

Crown of Swords

Robert Jordan

Reread post forthcoming.

The Dark Knight Rises Review

I’ve now seen The Dark Knight Rises twice and taken some time to digest it. Though it is not without its flaws, I loved it. I enjoyed it more than its predecessor, though it is a small margin. Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies is one of the few I can think of where the ending is just as good as the buildup. The Dark Knight Rises wears its themes on its sleeve and is more than willing to sacrifice realism for the sake of thematic appropriateness. The end result is a movie that strains credulity at times, but also a film on a grander scale than any in recent memory.

When I said TDKR sacrifices realism, I mean that it kills it execution style in the opening minutes and proceeds to do terrible things to its corpse for the rest of the film. The movie starts with a crazy midair hijacking and doesn’t let up, with amazing helicopters and the biggest supervillain I’ve ever seen on the screen. It is not, however, wholly inconsistent with the rest of the series. The Batplane is only marginally more outrageous than the Battank or the motorcycle. How exactly the Joker managed his villainous feats is somewhat less justified than Bane’s takeover of the city. The Dark Knight Rises is not a realistic movie in many ways, but it does still maintain a human realism. The characters are still very real, very relatable. Bruce is headed toward the only end a realistic Batman could ever come to, and the motivations of the various villains are all human. Whatever the movie lacks in plot realism, it makes up for in character realism, resulting in a film that is both outrageous and very human.

One place TDKR shines is in its uses of the Batman mythos. There are numerous references to seminal Batman stories evident throughout, most notably to Knightfall, the story of Bane defeating Batman, and The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s much loved story of Batman coming out of retirement, among many others. Bane himself is well presented on screen, rivaling Heath Ledgers outstanding take on the Joker. Unlike the atrocious Batman and Robin’s take on the character as a muscle bound thug, TDKR’s Bane is an intelligent, charismatic muscle bound thug. Yes he sounds like Darth Vader by way of Sean Connery, but it works beautifully. He is as terrifying as the Joker was, though in a very different way. The scene where he deals with sent chills down my spine. (Do you feel in charge?) Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman was basically a perfect take on the character, the ultimate femme fatale. The returning cast is as good as always.

It lacks some of the gravitas of The Dark Knight, but a more perfect telling of the hero’s journey you won’t find in a film. Batman is figuratively killed, literally cast down into the underworld and must pull himself back up. It perfectly ties the previous two movies together. Bane’s whole motivation is tied to the plot of the first movie, with a return of the League of Shadows. Again he must turn to the advice of his father, that we fall to get up again. But also the lie that Gordon and Batman built their peace on plays a large role. They are unable to keep hiding the Joker’s greatest triumph.

The Dark Knight Rises is pure fun. It is a movie where anything can happen, and the wilder it is the more likely it is to occur. But unlike the faceless alien invasion of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises conflicts all tie into a central theme. It may be faulted for beating viewers over the head with them, but at least it has themes, unlike most other superhero fare. I hope tentpole movie makers look at this film and it predecessor and learn the right lessons. Not that gritty and supposedly realistic is the way to go, but that theme and structure matter. But I’ve lived too long to believe that Hollywood will ever learn the right lessons.

What I Read in May

 

I know I’m way behind on these. I’ve been writing at them on an off, but I just wasn’t able to get any finished. The same goes for just about anything I’ve tried to post lately. I have a hard drive rapidly accumulating half-finished blog posts and various reviews. But with some time off work, I decided to hunker down and acutally get some work done. Luckily, or not depending, the change in work schedule that left me with less time to write also left with less time to read, so I don’t have as many books to review as usual after May.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades is a fantasy version of Jane Austen, which sounds like a great thing to me, at least. Unfortunately, when adding magic Kowal somehow managed to lose all the wit and vitally that Austen characters generally possess. What is left is the unremarkable romantic plotting and a fairly interesting magic system.

Protagonist Jane has a talent for glamour, the magic of this series, but doesn’t really possess any real vitality one the page. She faints through the plot until it comes to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Her sister Melody never rises higher than being a nuisance. Jane’s biggest dilemma stems from her needing to choose between the largely decent Mr. Dunkirk and the ill-mannered artist Mr. Vincent.

The plot plays out with a readable slowness that Austen got away with due to her wit. Kowal focuses on the magic, and it is a well-thought out, interesting magic system, but there is no life in the narrative. Shades of Milk and Honey isn’t precisely bad, but it does show the dangers of hewing too close to a classic source.

Persuasion

Jane Austen

Reading this just after Shades of Milk and Honey made me more aware of Shades’ flaws. Persuasion isn’t Austen’s best, but there is certainly more going on here than in that read alike.

This feels like a novel that Jane Austen wrote for herself, where a somewhat older woman, by those times’ standard, ends up writing the wrongs of her life and living happily ever after. Plus, the supporting characters spring right off the page, with amusing faults and larger than life personalities.

Persuasion is a little more straightforward in the plot department than most of Austen’s other novels, with no big surprises along the way. It really shines on the strength of the incidents it contains. Weak Austen is still better than the best facsimile.

Something Rotten

Jasper Fforde

This is the big final to the first section of Fforde’s Thusrday Next novels, tying up all the loose ends from the previous three books. I loved those books, and I love this one.

It really does tie the whole series together, even the sections that seemed entirely superfluous on my first reading. It is still kind of messy, but that is where the charm to this series is. The rules, for better or worse, are pretty well established by this point, but Something Rotten still manages to have some fun. Hamlet is great, as are the book visits. I don’t know what to say other than I like this books a lot and want to keep reading them forever. The Thursday Next series are books for people who love books, and I am one of those people.

The Thin Woman

Dorothy Cannell

This is a book I have some history with. My mother had a beaten to death old copy of this and I happened to pick it up and start reading. Unfortunately, it was beaten up enough that it was consigned to the garbage, and I was unable to finish it. So with my new Kindle in hand, I used the internet to find the title, my mom’s copy was short a cover, and found the book. While it isn’t one of my favorites, it was pretty good and finally being able to know how it ends was worth seeking out.

Hefty Ellie hires an escort to go pose as her fiancé at a family get together and in an absurd turn of events must play out the ruse, as well as lose weight, in order to get an inheritance. She also must solve a mystery involving the house left to her. Once past the ridiculousness of the premise The Thin Woman is a good mystery.

Stealing all the Rhythm

After finishing, for now, Theatrhythm, I moved on to another game rhythm game, despite my complete lack of, you know, rhythm. Sega’s, with some sort of publishing help from Nintendo if the Club Nintendo insert is anything to go by, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure is a wonderfully charming game. It isn’t particularly original, but it has a delightful exuberance that helps keep it entertaining throughout its ten or so hour run time. It does have its flaws though, the most prominent being a lack of feedback when you fail a mission. Despite some frustration, Rhythm Thief is greatly entertaining.

At its heart, Rhythm Thief is a curious and appealing mix of other popular series. The game is formatted largely like Level 5’s outstanding Professor Layton games, but instead of puzzles there are a series of Elite Beat Agents-esque rhythm games and the story is heavily and obviously influenced by the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The mix works wonderfully. There isn’t quite the same fluidity to the tap to find gameplay as there is in Layton, the biggest reason being that there are only about 50 games rather than near on 200 puzzles. I had some real problems with a few of the games, though I understand others did not so maybe it was just me. The biggest problem I had was that the game does not do a good job of showing the player where they went wrong. I failed repeatedly at several of the games, like the dog romance ones for instance, with no clue as to what I was doing wrong. Was I tapping too early? Too late? I never figured it out. At times I was certain the timing was flat out off. It is a problem, but not quite a dealing breaking one. The frustration would have been eased is I had realized I could buy items to help ease the difficulty.

The story is flat out amazing. (Beware of the coming spoilers!) It starts out being Castle of Cagliostro, with the titular Rhythm Thief playing the part of Lupin the 3rd but with additions to the plot that are, if anything, even more crazy than the stuff Lupin gets up too. You race against the apparently resurrected Napoleon Bonaparte to gather a series of ancient artifacts from various Paris landmarks. There is a carbon copy of the rooftop scene from Cagliostro that takes place on the Eiffel Tower. Then it changes to aping Castle in the Sky instead, with a flying fortress hovering over Paris ready to destroy the city until the scrappy young protagonists can stop its power made operator.

While Rhythm Thief has its problems, it is so thoroughly charming that they are easy to forget. There are certainly bouts of rage inducing frustration, enough that some people will certainly put the game away unfinished, but I found the game to be a delight. It mines a different vein of nostalgia than Theatrhythm, instead of cashing in on a quarter century of hard earned memories, Rhythm Thief offers a grab bag of other games and movies touchstones to reminisce about. It does feel a little cheap, but still fun.