Star Trek Into Darkness

The reboot Star Trek finally gets a sequel, and it’s pretty much what everyone should have expected from a sequel to that movie. All the problems big Trek fans had with the first are still there, as are all the things non-fans loved. I am more of the later than the former, so again I enjoyed this movie for what it was, a finely executed summer action movie. Still, there are some parts, which fair warning I will spoil later, which are at the very least problematic.

Though I am far from an expert on these characters, Into Darkness does a great job of portraying the crew and of letting each member have a moment to shine. While the stars are definitely Kirk and Spock, everyone else has their role to play. Chekov gets to put in an uncomfortable position as head of engineering because Scotty sticks to his guns when Kirk is being reckless. Of course, Bones goes around being grumpy everywhere.

Abrams again directs. While I don’t remember it being as egregious on his signature lens flare as the previous movie, it still feels like one of his. It is competent and well executed, but ultimately feels safe. The action scenes are clear, exciting and numerous. The plot manages to be both twisty and predictable. It is just a well-made blockbuster. Not bad but ultimately forgettable.

The big deal with the movie (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) is that the villain is Khan. Just like the original Star Trek 2 had Khan, so does this one. There are two ways of looking at the second half of this movie: it is either a loving tribute to most people’s favorite Star Trek or the most craven of nostalgic pandering. All of the big scenes from Wrath of Khan are in this movie. Most of them transpose Kirk and Spock, but they are there. There’s Kirk’s plea to take him and save his crew, Kirk and Spock on opposite sides of glass while one dies, KHAAAAAAAAN!!!, etc. After first viewing the movie I was on the side of loving tribute I was one the side of loving tribute, but I am now leaning more to craven pandering. Wrath of Khan was about getting old, about the Enterprise crew, Kirk especially, accepting their mortality. Into Darkness is a little bit about growing up, which would be fitting counterpart, but it’s really not. It is yet another metaphor for the war on terror. Maybe the growing up connections are greater than I remember, I really need to see the movie again to know for sure. The Nimoy cameo, though, is absolutely pandering, and it leads me to think that the rest if just pandering as well.

Whether it is pandering or not, the crowd at the theater I was in loved it. They were annoying vocal in their reactions, cheering a clapping at appropriate moments, which I found disruptive to my viewing. Not that Star Trek Into Darkness needs close concentration. As an action movie it is an unqualified success, less so of a Star Trek movie. Not that there are many good Star Trek movies.

Correcting an Error

I guess I made a mistake. When I was making my 10 favorite games list, there were several that just missed the list. I wrote about many of them, but recently I have realized that I messed up. I don’t know if I should have dropped Chrono Cross or Skies of Arcadia or even Super Mario Galaxy, but I should have put Persona 4 on the list. It was one of the last games I left off and doing so was one of the hardest choices I made. However, I recently purchased Persona 4 Arena and it reminded me that I really, really like that game and its cast.

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Persona 4 Arena helped hammer that home. I’ll write more about that game later, but having scenes with that cast of characters showed me just how much love that cast. While Persona 4 only had a few gameplay tweaks from its thoroughly excellent predecessor, its big improvement was in the characters that join your party. Persona 3’s cast wasn’t bad, but they characters never really rose above being anime character tropes. Especially in the second half of the game, the situation was just so unreal that I kind of lost connection with the characters. Sure, Junpei and Yukari were great, as were Akihiko and Mitsuru. But Ken never really grew on me and Korumaru and Aigis were kind of dumb. This sounds like I’m coming down hard on P3, but I’m not. That game is great, but as good as its characters were, I greatly preferred the group from Persona 4.

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The main character doesn’t just show up out of the blue, he (they named him Yu in P4A, which is clever, but I can’t think of him as anything other than Clark, the name I gave him when I played through P4 the first time) is living with his uncle. There is no school organization dedicated to using Personas to fight Shadows, just a group of school friends investigating a mystery. Again the later joining crewmembers are a little more out there, but none as bad as robot girl Aigis. Naoto is a teenage detective, which fits in well with what the rest of the party is doing and Rise being a popstar is not that distracting. The big oddity is Teddie, but he is not a Johnny come lately like Aigis, but one of the central characters of the game. Figuring out what his deal is is a big part of the game. It is the interactions of the core 4 or 5 characters that really makes Persona 4 work.

Other than the player character, there is Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko and Kanji. All of them are very realistic representations of high schoolers. Yosuke is kind of a well-meaning dunce, often saying and doing stupid things but is for the most part an alright guy. Chie is a tomboy, very much one of the guys even though she technically isn’t a guy. Yukiko is the girly girl, Kanji the tough guy delinquent. I expect everybody knew someone like most of these characters when they were in school. But none of the characters is defined by their initial stereotype, over the course of the game they all grow to be well-rounded characters. The way they interact as they begin to learn more about each other is very real. They cease being just game characters and become realistic friends. And that isn’t even mentioning all of the great supporting charact

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ers, most notably Nanako and Dojima. I have never played a game where the cast felt more alive.

When I fired up Persona 4 Arena and saw a scene of the gang getting back together for a week of vacation, I was overjoyed. I played Persona 4 right as it was released in late 2008. That was shockingly more than four years ago. But getting back together with these characters just felt so right, so natural. It was like stepping into a pair of old shoes. I love this game. Despite not having anywhere near the time to sink 80+ hours into this game, I really want to start a new file up r

ight now. I’m actually considering dropping the money on a Vita if only to play Persona 4 Golden. This game should have been in my Top 10. Maybe I should go ahead and shove it in in place of what would have been #5, Ocarina of Time. It is such a great game.

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What I Read in April ‘13

Again a month shorter than my usual average. Or maybe two books a month is becoming my usual average. I guess I’m just reading less this year. I expect it to average out by the time the year is up, though. A few books that have been holding me up all year have already been finished in May, so I know it will at least have more books than the last few months.

Your Movie Sucks

Roger Ebert

I picked this up after Ebert passed and kind of wished I had gone for one of his books of good movie reviews. It can be fun to read reviews of bad movies, and Ebert often has fun with the reviews when he failed to have any with the movie, but a whole book of bad movies is tiring. I liked the individual reviews just fine, even when they were of movies that I actually liked. (I have some fondness for Joe Dirt. Sue me) As a whole, this collection was not what I wanted despite being exactly what it proposed to be. It is great to see a master reviewer eviscerate dreck that deserves it.

Live and Let Die

Ian Fleming

This second Bond book is exponentially better than the first. Part of it was that I was not intimately familiar with the plot of this one, but more it was that Fleming actually tells the story rather than telling about the story. Bond goes to America then the Caribbean to chase down Mr Big, who is selling old Spanish coins. Bond does more in this book than he did the previous book, actually effecting the villains plot. Really, the only downside is some rather awful racial comments. If the next books improves on this one as much as this one did on Casino Royale then it should be downright good.

My Favorite Games #6

Mega Man 2 & Mega Man 3

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Yes, I’m combing two games into one slot. It’s my list, I can do what I want. And despite this entry containing two games, it is going to be a short one. Because I have written about both of these games before (two and three) and I don’t really have anything to add. I did spend some time trying to choose which of these two games I liked better; then I had an epiphany: I don’t have to choose. Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 are equally excellent and I can love them both.

Proto Man

Mega Man 2 was Inafune’s (and his team) masterpiece. The original was good, but 2 took that solid foundation, sanded down the rough edges and polished it to perfection. It was proof that the makers were masters of their craft. Mega Man 3 made only one significant change, adding the slide ability, but is significantly bigger than its predecessor. It is almost too big, but makes the game feel sufficiently epic.

My first experience with the series was the Mega Man 2 issue of Nintendo Power. I had owned an NES for a while, but we never really got many games past Mario and Zelda. But seeing Mega Man 2 in that magazine, all the different bosses and enemies and powers and I knew I had to have that game. Once I figured out I could rent games from the grocery store I checked for Mega Man 2. They didn’t have it. However, they did have Mega Man 3. So I rented that. It was everything I could have hoped it would be.

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The NES Mega Man games have my some of my favorite 8-bit sprite art. The blue bomber is the perfect size, not like some characters that were too big for the screen. For my money, no one did NES music like Capcom. Giving the players 8 stages to choose from right from the start was brilliant. Most game you could only play one or two levels, never seeing the rest until you got good at the game. With Mega Man any player could see most of what it had to offer, even if they weren’t good enough to actually beat any of the stages.

One of the more brilliant parts of the game, one that doesn’t get talked about enough, is that the bosses are the same size as the player. Each of the robot masters seems like just another Mega Man. They may have better innate offensive capabilities, but they are just like the player. It also helps make the bosses in Wily’s Castles seem even more menacing. Almost everything you’ve been fighting to that point was roughly your size, now you are being chases by giant dragons and bulldozers made out of old bosses.

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Really these are just two particularly excellent games.

My Favorite Games #7

Skies of Arcadia

My Top 10 list is going to be heavy on the RPGs. It was almost heavier than it currently is. RPGs just tend to stick with me more than other games. Skies of Arcadia is proof of that. I’ve only beaten it once and made it only halfway through my only other attempt. Still, I feel like I know the game front to back. I know its characters and its combat and its world. It’s not quite burned into my memory like certain SNES games, but I don’t think a replay would hold many surprises. I wish I could play it again for the first time.

In an era somewhat incorrectly remembered for dark dreary epics, Skies of Arcadia was a stunning ray of sunshine through cloudy skies. It is in many ways reminiscent of 16-bit RPG design rather than the PSX ones that preceded it. It follows a plucky duo of sky pirates, Vyse and Aika, as they adventure with an amnesiac magical girl, Fina, to find the 6(7? Maybe I don’t remember as well as I thought) moon stones that control ancient weapons. It is a world and story set up straight out of Miyazaki, as many early rpgs were. It is blatantly inspired by Castle in Sky. Aika is a dead ringer for a young Dola. The story mostly sticks with charming and simple and avoids the existential and philosophical crises of games like FF7 or Xenogears. Its battle mechanics aren’t quite as simple as they look; there is strategy but not the layers of obtuse systems that were becoming endemic to the genre.

I find Skies of Arcadia memorable because for several years it was the last game I ever played. For nearly three years Skies was the last new game that I played. I got it for Christmas in 2003, beat it in early 2004 and didn’t play another new game until 2006 when I finally got a PS2. Depsite enjoying quite a few GC games, the kinds of games that I loved on the SNES and to a lesser extent the PS1/N64 mostly went away. Skies of Arcadia was exactly the sort of game that I loved and after beating it I kind of felt finished new games. Nothing seemed likely to give me more of what I wanted than Skies of Arcadia.

Skies of Arcadia is not an innovative game. Rather than doing new things, it excels by doing everything it does well. It is simple but well executed. The story does nothing new, it never elevates itself out of its simple adventure routes. It gives players some control over how characters learn abilities, but there isn’t really anything that requires much planning or thought. The battle system has a couple tricks, with its charging skill bars reusable abilities rather than a simple reliance on MP, but it isn’t that complex. Falling into useless vagaries, Skies of Arcadia is a game with heart. It is a fun adventure that tells its story well. Really, it was just the right game at the right time for me and I loved it.

Objection!

Taking a break from my best games list, I need to write about Ace Attorney: Investigations. The Ace Attorney series of fictional lawyering was one of the best things on the DS. I played and loved the first four games. Even Apollo Justice’s tossing aside the main cast didn’t much lessen my enjoyment. Unfortunately, when Ace Attorney Investigations came out, I was not in a financial situation that allowed me to get the game. Fortunately, I recently saw it on Amazon.com for twenty bucks and I just had to jump on that. Now I’ve beaten the game. Thanks to some fundamental changes, it isn’t quite as good as the rest of the series. Still, it is scratches the same itch as its predecessors and has me rearing for AA5 coming out later this year.

The first big change that isn’t really effective is Miles Edgeworth as the protagonist. I really like Edgeworth, he was the best opponent Phoenix had in the series, and he worked well as an occasional ally after that, but he really doesn’t work as the main character. The series requires the main character to frequently look like a fool. This worked for Phoenix, both when he was a rookie and later due to him always being thrust into cases knowing next to nothing. Apollo was no different from Phoenix. Edgeworth’s haughty demeanor is completely undercut by him not knowing what is going on. The problem is the game was made because he is such a popular character that they had to get him his own game. With a little work I am sure they could have arranged things to make Edgeworth not look like the incompetent goofus that Phoenix always looked like. Instead, we got an Edgeworth that spends most the game being talked down to by everyone short of Gumshoe. Gumshoe is another problem. The one way that the lack of knowledge for Edgeworth was addressed was by making Gumshoe completely incompetent. Not that he wasn’t before, but I think they went a little heavy on him in this game. While Edgeworth does get to show his trademark smugness at the end of cases, it could have used more work.

Then there is the reliance on old characters. With Edgeworth as the main character, I knew we’d be seeing Gumshoe and Franziska quite a bit. I expected some of the usually witnesses to show up, but I did not expect them to be relied on so much. Other than the criminals, most of the witnesses are returning characters. That robs the cases of drama, when there are few options as to who is responsible. It doesn’t help that the last case, the big case, features testimony from both Oldbag, my least favorite AA character, and Larry Butz. I don’t mind seeing old characters again, but in the easy early cases, not in the climax of the story.

The last problem is a fault of the big change to the game; the lack of courtroom scenes. This is Ace Attorney Investigations; this is not about the courtroom it is about them investigating. But they didn’t change how the game is approached. Yes, players get direct control of an Edgeworth sprite to look around, but that is a cosmetic change to how the game advances. It is still split between investigation and cross-examination. Without the courtroom, however, the cross-examinations make no sense. Sure, they call them interviews, but they put pointless restrictions on them like the courtroom stuff in the other AA games. It makes everything seem rushed and weird. They have to invent reasons to cut investigations shot to add some drama where there should be none. The only case where it works is the last one, where your opponent has the authority to stop the investigation.

Still, the writing is mostly good. Only the last two cases are really memorable, but that is not too different from most of the series. The new characters, though too few, are entertaining. Agent Lang is trying to be Edgeworth’s rival, like Edgeworth was for Wright. It isn’t as clear a relationship as that one, but his hostility is the only thing adding any tension to most of the cases. Kay Faraday steps in to Edgeworth’s Maya, with her own goofy trick to help him with his investigations. While the timing of the Yatagarsu stuff doesn’t seem to quite add up, it still gives her reason enough to stick around.

It is still Ace Attorney, and I am always up for more Ace Attorney. I am kind of sad that we’re not likely to ever get the second Investigations game, but I am glad I played this one.

 

Iron Man 3

The third Iron Man movie is everything I’ve come to expect from Marvel’s superhero movies: charming, slickly produced, highly entertaining and completely hollow. Iron Man 3 is a good movie, but suffers in comparison to last year’s Avengers. Like the Avengers, its main selling point is spectacle. Unfortunately, Iron Man 3 cannot match the Avengers on that front. It does have a greater focus on character than the Avengers; it takes the Tony Stark character into some logical new areas but unfortunately lacks the focus to clearly explore them.

Iron Man 3 has the usual Marvel high production values. Like the precious movies, it makes the viewer believe in the character and his fancy suit. The villain’s powered minions are less effective. They just sort of glow and are only vulnerable when the plot says so. Blows that do nothing one time are lethal the next. While the fight scenes are well directed, they lack consequence. Nothing anyone does matters until the script says it does. Still, it looks really good.

Robert Downey Jr. continues to be perfect as Stark. As always, he is perfectly snarky and self-centered. Paltrow is great as Pepper Potts, and likewise for the villains. Even though he didn’t direct this one, Favreau screen time as Tony’s bodyguard Happy is expanded, and he manages to feel more necessary than he has been to this point. Iron Man 3 is just an all-around well-made movie.

There are several important developments for Tony in this movie, but they are not pulled off well. First is him experiencing PTSD after the events of the Avengers. A laudable and logical development, but it is largely dropped halfway through. There is also the starting monologue about creating our own demons, but it is not really followed up with what happens in the film. It adds up to a movie with a lot of good ideas that doesn’t quite execute them.

Still, I am feeling spoiled by the Marvel movies of the last half decade. A superhero movie of this quality a decade ago would be lauded as the best action movie ever. But now I want more. I have seen Marvel get the characters right and tell a origin story or a decent follow up, now I want a movie with themes, a movie with some brains behind the glitz. Say what you will about thee flaws of Nolan’s Batman movies, but they at least tried to deeper meanings. Iron Man 3 makes some strides in this direction, but its feeble attempts only serve to highlight how empty the whole thing is.

This review is sounding more negative than I intended. Iron Man 3 is a very good movie. It has everything one should expect in a popcorn movie. It scratches that superhero action itch as well as any movie. It is definitely better than the second Iron Man, mostly due to the lack of a shoehorned in SHIELD subplot. Now that the Avengers is its own thing, Iron Man doesn’t have to waste its time setting it up. So go see Iron Man 3. It is a solidly good movie.

My Favorite Games #8

Super Mario Galaxy

Super Mario Bros 3 is a beloved game that largely perfected the gameplay that Nintendo originated in Super Mario Bros. Super Mario Galaxy did the same thing with the style of game that came about in Mario 64. It did so by primarily by taking a few pages from SMB3. Instead of the sprawling playgrounds of Mario 64, SMG uses bite-sized chunks more like the levels of SMB3. It also added a plethora of new power-ups. Ice Flower, Bee suit, Spring Suit. Again like SMB3’s proliferation of abilities. It took one of the best 2D games ever and transplanted its spirit into 3D. It is one of the most amazing games ever.

Super Mario Galaxy is the game that sold me on the Wii. I had held off on a new system until that point, waffling between the underpowered but interesting Wii and the too expensive PS3 while steadily thinning my stack of unbeaten PS2 games. Then I saw Mario Galaxy and my mind was made up. It was everything I could have wanted in a video game. Mario, as always, controls perfectly. It looked better than anything else on the Wii, better than most PS3/360 games one pure art direction. While there were some clunkers of star, like the trash destruction ones, since the games moves from goal to goal and area to area so fast, it is easy to bypass and ignore the crappy ones. At least until you whittle it down to about 10 starts left to get.

What I love SMG for the most, though, is that it brought me back to Mario. I hadn’t really played a Mario game since Mario 64 and while I played that I was possibly the only N64 owner to did not own that game. I hadn’t touched any of the 2D games since before even that and other than Smash Brothers I mostly ignored the spin-offs. But SMG reminded me that I loved Mario and his world. It made me want to go back and see those old games again. The Virtual Console allowed me to do so, but as much as I love all of those games I still love Galaxy the best.

The most visibly amazing part of the game is how you run around the small planetoids that make up the bulk of the game. It adds a layer of suspense, because you never quite know what is over the horizon, but it not at all difficult to navigate. There is just something awesome and intuitive about jumping from small planet to small planet. It works well with Galaxy’s limited but essential use of the Wii Remote’s pointer function. The pointer was always the best new Wii functionality, even though waggle got all the attention. The pointer is used to grab stars and fling Mario around. It is simply a new move to add to Mario’s arsenal and it makes for some fun tricky puzzles.

I just love Super Mario Galaxy. It, or its sequel, is the best 3D platformer ever made. It simply does everything well and just oozes the classic cartoon charm of the Mario series. It is a great game.

My 10 Favorite Games #9

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

My #9 game is the same game that stopped my series of Zelda replays cold. (I promise to get back to those soon.) It wasn’t playing the game that held me up, but writing about it. I had, and continue to have, a hard time articulating my love for A Link to the Past. Me saying LttP is great for a thousand words wouldn’t be very interesting. I don’t feel I have much to add to this conversation. It has few flaws, even fewer of which are worth mentioning at all, so I can’t make an argument to excuse them. I also don’t have much nostalgia for it, having first played after it came out on the GBA (I played it on a SNES, but I know the GBA version had just come out.) and I didn’t own it until I bought it one the Wii Virtual Console. Still, even ten years after its release, A Link to the Past is obviously a great game.

LttP belongs to that special category of SNES game that was the apex of their line of game design. After the SNES everything was about 3D and while some games were similar, they really did their own thing. This more recent resurrection of 2D games has largely been homage or imitation, not evolution. A Link to the Past is Nintendo perfecting what they started in Zelda 1.

LttP manages to improve on just about every part of the first Zelda game, while bringing in almost none of the bloat that has crept into more recent Zelda entries. Most of that bloat is due to the newer game’s greater narrative ambitions. LttP has no such goals; it is pure gameplay. It is astounding how fast LttP gets the player to the meat of the game, the dungeons, compared to its sequels. Despite its lack of storytelling ambition, LttP provides as cohesive a world imaginable in 16-bit. Sure, the NPCs lack anything resembling personality, but the world they live in makes sense.

As someone who cut his gaming teeth on the original LoZ, A Link to the Past is all that I could have hoped for in a sequel. It keeps all of the sense of adventure and exploration, but lost most of the confounding obtuseness. It is nearly perfect.

42 Review

42 feels like a movie that wants to be “important” but it can’t escape the trapping of a sports movie. That is not to say it is bad, 42 is a very good film, just that it lacks the impact of something like Lincoln. It deals with the same problem, with a hundred years worth of progress in between, but 42 tells its story through the lens of sport, a situation the most can comprehend but lends itself to a simple morality, a good v bad, us v them mentality.

Of course, maybe that simple morality works in this case, since there is no simpler issue than segregation. This is not an issue with two sides. Racism is bad. It was bad in 1860, it was bad in 1940, it is bad now. The prejudice of segregation was never anything but ugly. Sometimes though, everybody needs a reminder of where we’ve come from, and this is America’s history.

42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, specifically his first year in the Major Leagues as the league’s first African American player. At times, it feels truncated to the point of being a highlight reel, but largely it is easy to follow the arc of his, and his team’s season. What the movie really comes down to is its performances. Chadwick Boseman shows us a Jackie Robinson that is a great man with just enough justifiable anger and a tight hold on his temper. Whether it is an accurate portrayal or not, his performance is strong. Jackie is easy to root for. In what seems like the first time in forever, Harrison Ford actually acts. He steps somewhat out of his irascible old bastard persona to play Branch Rickey. He is authoritative and demanding, dictating to his teams that they will have a black player. He couches his religious zeal to do the right thing behind a façade of greed, claiming that he wants a black player to sell tickets to black people, when really he thinks ending segregation is just the right thing to do.

Outside the two stars, the rest of the acting is likewise good. That helps it get through some rough transitions in the script. 42 is s good movie, significantly more weighty than the usual popcorn affair. However, it is not quite on the level it aspires to be.