JSA Reread Part 2

I originally expected to cover only issues 6 and 7 for this entry, but I realized that if I only covered 2 issues at a time it would take me more than a year to cover all that I want to cover in this re-read. So now, I am taking on issues 6-9, the first of which is an interlude issue with Black Adam and then the three issue Darkness Falls arc. My plan for the rest of this re-read is to try to cover one arc in each entry, though some of the longer arcs will require more. I have it planned out for 25 Parts total, unless I also decide to cover Johns issues on the re-launched Justice Society of America. So let’s get started on the first four issues of the Johns/Goyer collaboration on the JSA. After the first issue, drawn by Marcos Martin, the rest are drawn by Stephen Sadowski, with inking my Michael Bair and covers by Alan Davis.

JSA #6: Justice, like Lightning.

This is Geoff Johns’ first issue as co-writer and immediately we are introduced to the character his run centers on: Black Adam. I am assuming most of Black Adam’s arc is Johns’ doing because it is one the few that is not tidied up when Goyer leaves the book around issue 50. Also worth noting is that this issue is penciled by Marcos Martin, who is a tremendous artist. Just look at his work on recent issues of Daredevil or in Batgirl Year One.

The issue starts with the JSA holding a press conference to announce that they have reformed. The superhero press conference is one of the worst ideas in the world of superheroes. Not the idea that a team, like the JSA, would announce to everybody that they are back in business, but that anyone would show up to something like the ribbon cutting in this issue without realizing the obvious would happen. A villain will attack this get together. Every time this scene occurs, a villain will attack. And of course, it happens here.

Johns and Goyer aren’t subtle on this title. Just look at Sand’s speech. The earlier JSA “created a legacy. That legacy isn’t easy to live up to,” he says. That is the major focus on of the book. Sand just comes out and says it. Legacy and the struggle to live up to it or in some cases break free from it. There is another interesting line in that speech, “While others in our line of work are often in the shadows or adventuring beyond time and space, we keep our feet firmly planted on the ground.” While on the surface those are clear references to Batman (shadows) and Superman (time and space), it also foreshadows where the book is going. The next issue starts an arc called Darkness Falls, wherein the entire world is covered in shadow. After that, the team must fight the time traveling villain Extant, a battle the roams over all of time and space. This is a new beginning for this team, and those are the adventures they will have.

Then we get a page of character positioning. Hawkgirl hates the spotlight, Dr. Fate misses his wife, and Star Spangled Kid is a bit self-centered. After Courtney (Star Spangled Kid, soon to be Stargirl) cuts the ribbon, it moves inside the JSA museum. In the middle of the page are three panels highlighting heroes who have passed on. First is Mr. Terrific, the predecessor to the man from issue 5 that Sand offered JSA membership to. Then it’s Dr Midnight, who will join in the next issue and finally Hawkman, whose return is a big arc itself in a few issues.

Then Black Adam attacks. Remember what I said about subtlety or the lack thereof? After the initial wave of JSAers is manhandled by the near Superman powerful Black Adam, Sand opines, “there’s nothing I can do if Black Adam’s feet aren’t on the ground.” An obvious call back to the line in his speech about the JSA being grounded. While most of the team tries to fend off the enraged strongman, Hourman, Dr. Fate and Hawkgirl travel back in time to ancient Egypt to the point when Black Adam received his powers. Using a combination of Hourman’s time powers and Dr Fate’s magic, they channel the magic lightning bolt to the present to drain their foe’s powers. Conveniently, this happens just after everyone on the team had the chance to show off their powers.

Everyone is confused about Black Adam’s attack because they thought he had reformed. For those unaware, Black Adam had been an ancient hero, but now his powers are used by his villainous descendant Theo Adam, though Black Adam had regained control. Sentinel (Green Lantern, really) discovers that he has a brain tumor that may have caused his outburst. Then Agent Chase (of her own short series) from the DEO (Department of Extranormal Operations) shows up and takes custody of Adam, while her boss Mr. Bones thinks some cryptic thoughts about Hawkgirl.

While this issue is primarily a cool down issue between big stories, it does seed a ton of story points for future issues. The most important of which is the introduction of Black Adam, who will play a major role in the series from much of its run. It also marks the first, but far from last, trip the team will make to ancient Egypt.

JSA #7: Darkness Falls

Now we start the second big story of this series. The threat was seeded in a couple of scenes in the first few issues, with Alan “Sentinel” Scott’s son Todd talking with shadows. Now we see what he was going on about.

This issue starts in medias res with Black Canary falling from a window. She is chased by shadows of her teammates, which eventually catch up with her.

Then it jumps back to earlier that morning and the apartment of Jade, Alan Scott’s other child. Johns and Goyer make sure you don’t miss this connection. Jade cuts her hand on a photo of her, her brother and her father and reminisces about the connection her and her brother share and wonders about how odd he’s been lately. So she calls her dad.

On the opposite page, Dr. Fate tries to connect with Hawkgirl, who is both his cousin and possibly his mother reincarnated. Very creepy, and it won’t get better. Echoing Jade cutting her wrist on the previous page, Hawkgirl’s scarred wrists are exposed. Her troubled life before the series is slowly explored during the time she is on the team and this is one of the first hints of her situation.

Fate’s and Hawkgirl’s talk is interrupted by a call to see a news report saying that all the shadows in Milwaukee had disappeared. While the team heads for the city, Sentinel info dumps all the back-story and set up for this arc. He just throws it out there.

Once they arrive at their secret underground bunker, we meet Star Spangled Kid’s step dad, who is the team’s mechanic and appears in only 3 or 4 issues of the series. His inclusion here seems like a bit of cross-pollination with John’s Stars and STRIPE book, where he is the co-star. However, it may have already been cancelled by this point. He takes a little guff from old friends and sets the team up with a plane, the Steel Eagle, which aspires to but never achieves the status of the X-Men’s Blackbird. Off they go to Milwaukee.

Why Milwaukee? Because that is the home of Jim Rice, Todd’s stepfather, a drunk who used to beat him. In his apartment, the team finds a shadow man sitting an armchair. As far as they can tell, it is the only shadow in the city. When Sentinel approaches, the shadow sucks him inside of itself; then it expands to cover the whole the city. The heroes try to protect civilians around the city, but the shadows slowly possess the heroes. Inside the shadow, a realm called the Shadowlands, Sentinel sees Jim Rice and the other part of the villainous duo Ian Karkull. There is the only editor’s note in the issue to explain Karkull’s history, referencing a story from 1941.

Outside the only three JSAers left who aren’t possessed, Atom Smasher, Black Canary and Star Spangled Kid, are captured. Obsidian (Todd) begins a classic villain monologue while Atom Smasher argues with him. Kid manages to free Black Canary, bringing us back to where the story started. Just before Canary is overcome by the shadows, a flash of light disperses them, revealing the new Dr. Midnight.

JSA #8: Shadowland

The first seven pages of this issue are introduction to this new Dr Midnight. Quickly we learn that he is an actual doctor, that he has a few light and shadow based gadgets, he can see in the dark and he has one of the best sidekick/pets ever: and owl. The owl is peeking in on Obsidian with the rest of the JSA, and feeding it back to Dr. Midnight via a tiny camera around its neck. It also features the first pairing of Black Canary and Dr. Midnight, which is the only real, possibly sexual, relationship that suns through the first year or so of the book.

Back with Obsidian, Atom Smasher tries to appeal to his shadow possessed teammates, but Obsidian tells him that they can’t help because they are currently living out their worst nightmares in their minds. Flash sees his dead successors come back to haunt him, Hourman is faced with an existential crisis; Hawkgirl relives an apparent murder she committed, etc. Obsidian proceeds to taunt Atom Smasher until Karkull returns with Obsidian’s fathers.

Obsidian then rails against both of his dads with ideological rantings. Nothing is left as subtext. From the juxtaposition of Nature and Nurture, which this story comes down on the side of nurture, to Obsidian flat asking Sentinel what he thinks about the legacy he’s left, with a wife that has committed suicide and a son who has become a super villain.

As Obsidian moves in for the killing blow, Canary and Midnight arrive. They free their non-possessed teammates and manage to break Hawkgirl free from the shadows. Atom Smasher manages to corner Obsidian, but despite Obsidian’s taunting about him being weak, he is unable to kill him to save his friends. So the team beats a hasty retreat. Karkull then reveals that he has been playing Obsidian from the start and tries to take him down. Obsidian then turns the tables on him and absorbs his powers. He then uses it to cover the whole world in shadow.

This issue is mostly rising action. It is the team beaten, and held at their lowest point. Their enemies appear triumphant. There are some moments of thematic worth here, though. Like Sentinel realizing the failures in his legacy and Atom Smasher thinking he’s found some of his own with inability to kill Obsidian, his best friend. The middle issue is tough, since the first issue generally establishes the conflict and the last one ends it, but in the middle, it is only rising action.

JSA #9: Black Planet.

Now that the entire planet is covered in shadow, everyone on the planet is going crazy. Because not only is the world dark, but also people are forced to face their inner darkness as well. Sentinel tells the rest of the team that by staying together they can pool their willpower and overcome their dark thoughts. So he leaves them to deal with their possessed teammates and the other possessed inhabitants of Milwaukee while he deals with his son.

Star Spangled Kid and Hawkgirl manage to free Hourman, who slows down Flash enough for them to free him as well. Dr. Fate manages to shake free of the possession on his own. Atom Smasher, with Rice hanging around his neck, seals the rest of the shadow people, including Sand, behind a wall of cars. Rice wants to know why Sentinel doesn’t need to be in contact with anyone else to stave off the darkness and Atom Smasher tells him it is because he is already living his greatest nightmare.

The central conflict of this issue is the conflict of this whole arc. It is Sentinel facing his mistakes and the truth of the legacy that he has left behind him, all in the person of his opposite powered son. So they have one of Johns patented shouting philosophical debate/fights. Obsidian feels as though the world has cheated him, with some pieces of a good point. He was the son of the superhero, but he was raised by an abusive drunk. He did not inherit his father’s light-based powers, like his sister, but instead powers of darkness and well as his mother’s mental problems. Not an actual good point, but enough of one to see why he wants what he wants. Sentinel is facing his most immediate legacy, his son, turned from being a hero (just before this he had been a member of a particularly forgettable JLA team) to a villain. And not an ambiguous villain, he has turned evil for evil’s sake. For the reasons mentioned above, as well as for the obvious symbolism (light vs shadow) and because he is actually crazy. It is not the most spectacular fight in this series, but it is a warm up for later, larger stories.

One interesting note is that Alan is only effective against Obsidian after he recalls his time as Green Lantern. Due to supposed reader confusion, he was going by Sentinel at this time, instead of his original name, Green Lantern. In a series about a character’s legacy, being forced to use a different name is problematic.

In the end, Alan is unable to save Obsidian, though he does stop him. Obsidian flees back into the shadow dimension, taking Jim Rice with him while Alan goes off to break the news to his daughter. The team is kind of down here. They saved the world, but they didn’t save Obsidian On the flight home Flash utters a disgusting sentiment about people being born bad, but it does not seem to be one endorsed by the book. Idly some members of the team wonder what Wildcat got up to in their absence.

Which segues to the two-page coda of Wildcat sitting in the bathtub, possibly attempting to engage in phone-sex with Catwoman only to be disturbed by an attack by the all-new Injustice Society.

I don’t feel that this title is completely up to speed yet. Some characters very important to the run have yet to be introduced and Johns has not yet found his footing. However, this is still a solid arc that sets up plenty of future stories. Yes, there will be more intercalations with Obsidian and Atom Smasher’s willingness to do kill to save people will again be tested.

Next time: Wildcat stands alone, JSA v Kobra and Sins of Youth.

Rating the Smash Bros Roster

At first I intended to write something like a review of Smash Bros 3DS, but since I’ve covered a lot of my thoughts in my previous two Smash Bros posts I don’t really have any more to add right now. Any additional thoughts about how this version of Smash Bros stacks up can wait until I get my hands on the WiiU version. Then I will write something more complete. However, I have been playing almost nothing but Smash for the last couple of weeks. I have been exhausting myself trying to complete all the challenges that are part of the game and I’m close.

While some of the late challenges are more tedious than difficult, they have helped me get used to the whole of the roster. Challenges like complete Classic or All-Star Mode with all fighters or complete the 100-Man Smash with the same. It isn’t hard; it just takes a long time to complete. Now that I’ve mostly conquered those challenges, I have a few more fighter to do 100-Man with, I feel like I have a handle on every fighter in the game. So I am going to rank them using a complicated formula known only to me. Mostly just a combination of how much I like them mixed with how effective I think they are and how much I like or dislike fighting against them.

*: Mii Swordsmaster, Brawler and Gunner – I haven’t used these three enough to rank them.

48: Wario – Remember, this list is largely based on how much I like to play as the characters. And as much as I love Wario and his motorcycle and his farting, I am terrible with him. I die so often and so quickly that I can’t ever play as him. Bottom of the list.

47: Meta Knight – Meta Knight I simply don’t like. He annoys me when I play as him or against him. Screw Meta Knight.

46: King Dedede – Another Wario case. Dedede his hilarious, but I just can’t play as him.

45: Mr. Game and Watch – I have softened on Mr. G&W since I forbid his use on my Gamecube back in the day, but as amusing as flipping sausages at foes is ,I don’t really like to play as him.

44: Olimar – He is too weird for me to have any fun with. I like his games, but that doesn’t really translate to Smash.

43: Yoshi – My hate for Yoshi has lessened greatly from the Melee/Brawl days. Him and his baby voice still annoy me, but I actually have some fun with him now.

42: Pit – I like the character, but try as I might I can’t figure out how to get a KO with him. He is too weak.

41: Sonic – A slippery fast jerk with a bunch of annoying fans. Not using him.

40: Ganondorf – He is basically the opposite of Pit, all I can do with him is get KO’s. I can’t move or fight, just randomly punch around to occasionally knock people out.

39: Fox – Better than Brawl, but still no fun.

38: Captain Falcon – I want to like Captain Falcon. But I am so very, very bad with him. Still, I can occasionally manage competence using him.

37: Diddy Kong – I’m actually not bad with Diddy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find him annoying. Another character I find too weak.

36: Charizard – He was the worst part of the Pokemon Trainer trio, but he still isn’t terrible. I just find him awkward to use.

35: Lucario – He’s fine, but I don’t ever really want to use him. I do like gimmick of getting much stronger as he takes damage.

34: Shulk- I like the character, but I haven’t been able to crack using him. So he ends up pretty far down the list.

33: Kirby – My eternal nemesis. (i.e. my brother’s favorite character) He’s fun to play against, but I am just no good with him.

32: Mario – From here up are characters I generally enjoy playing as, where below are the ones I kind of don’t. Mario is neutral.

31: Dark Pit – He’s like Pit, but just enough stronger for me to get KO’s with him.

30: Zero Suit Samus – Too fast for me, but a generally fun character to play as.

29: Sheik – See ZSS, Sheik is the same deal.

28: Greninja – I’ve fiddled a little bit, but he kind of falls into that same ZSS Sheik mold.

27: Falco – He’s a little better than Fox, that’s about all I can say with him.

26: Villager – I suck as this guy/gal. But his attacks are all so weird that I can’t help but love him/her.

25: Pikachu – Probably my favorite of the small speedy characters.

24: Dr. Mario – He is Mario, but fun to play as. Plus, he’s got the Tornado Spin.

23: Palutena – Another weird new character. Her moves are strong, but awkward.

22: Wii Fit Trainer – I really love the new characters. WFT is just as amusing I’d hoped s/he would be when announced.

21: Zelda – This is basically the same as she was before, except with a new down special. I really like her.

20: Donkey Kong – This is the last character that I am terrible with, but he’s so much fun. He is strong and slow and I lose and lose and lose while playing as him. I don’t care; I’m going to keep using DK.

19: Marth – My old favorite Melee character, but I can’t quite use him as well as I’d like, though I’m better than I was with him in Brawl.

18: Pac-Man – Weird newcomer? You bet. He is such a fun love letter to Namco arcade games.

17: Peach – She’s the floatiest and has some fun moves.

16: R.O.B – This robot is a tough character to deal with. I’ve got nothing else to say. I’m glad he’s here.

15: Samus – I hated Samus in Brawl. She had not power. Here she is nearly back to being the beast she was in the original; she is just hard to KO.

14: Luigi – Luigi is my boy, but I’ve lost a lot of my skills with using him. He is still the best, but I’m no longer the best with him.

13: Rosalina – She is like Ice Climbers lite, with the Luma echoing Rosalina’s attacks. Plus, she is pretty heavy.

12: Little Mac – Strong on the ground and nothing in the air. I like him a lot, but you best not end up off the edge, he’s got no recovery.

11: Duck Hunt – Biggest surprise in the game. He has a lot of medium range attacks and a great hook.

10: Link – Link was terrible in Brawl, but I love him this time. His move-set has a few changes, like his hopping running attack, but for the most part it was just small tweaks to make him fun again.

09: Robin – Another character with a kind of high concept hook. Robin is the first Fire Emblem character to use that games breakable weapons or magic. It makes for a fun, versatile character.

08: Ness – The original weird character. His recovery is still chancy, but he still has an excellent array of moves.

07: Mega Man – He has the most versatile move-set, a great KO move and is just generally a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I haven’t used much since I wasted all my time with him on the demo.

06: Bowser Jr. – This should actually read any of the Koopalings names, because I don’t use B Jr. here, I use Ludwig or Roy. While he lacks a good KO move, his clowncar has a lot going on.

05: Bowser – I hated Bowser before this, but now they’ve got the heavy right. His power is scary and he now he doesn’t die before he can bring it to bear.

04: Jigglypuff – She’s a Kirby clone without his signature move. Her singing, falling asleep combo is impossible to pull off against an opponent with a brain. But I love to clown people with Jigglypuff. Rollout and spike kick and constant taunts.

03: Lucina – She is the return of Roy. Same moves as Marth, but a little stronger and with a different focal point on the sword. I liked Marth more back in the day, but I am much better with Girl Marth this time around.

02: Ike – Ike is still a beast, though a little less of a beast that before. He is still a KO machine, but he is a little easy to take out now. I still love him.

01: Toon Link – He seems to be the sturdiest of the light characters. Plus he has Link’s wide variety of attacks. Plus he’s Toon Link.

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse

This has been quite a year for 2D platformers, seeing the release of such titles as Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze (technically 2.5D, but the play style is the same), 1001 Spikes, Shovel Knight and Guacamelee Super Turbo Championship Edition (I know that one is not technically a new release, but close enough) among others. It has simple been a great year, with several more due over the next few weeks. Even though I was greatly anticipating Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I am shocked about how good it is. I wanted it to be this good, but I really didn’t expect it. Wayforward’s original forays are almost always worth playing, but they also tend to be flawed. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is their original masterpiece.

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I love Wayforward; they make good games. Most of their output is licensed titles of variable quality. There is an underlying level of competence to even the bad ones that makes any Wayforward game worth giving a look. Their Adventure Time games are pretty good and their superhero games, Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Thor, are solid beat-em-ups. They are good, but not great games. Then they have a handful of remakes and re-imaginings; which is largely their best output. Contra 4, A Boy and his Blob and Double Dragon Neon are all excellent games. But those are all built upon pre-existing works. They are refinements of existing templates. That is not meant to diminish them, again they are great games, but they feel in a small way like they are not Wayforward’s games.

Wayforward’s original titles haven’t been bad, only small. The original Shantae is a fine game, but it chafes against the limitations of its platform. The GBC is not a great system for action games. While Shantae looked good it was an uneven title. The difficulty is frontloaded and Shantae’s sprite, while great looking, is a little too big for the small screen. The loosely tied Mighty series of games a delightful, but they are also bite-sized. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge was just short of being great. It is very, very good, but there are a just too many small problems. The game can be a chore to navigate and it, like the Mighty games, is just too darn short.

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Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, though, irons out all those flaws. It is a meaty game, a good ten hours long the first time through and never tedious or repetitive. It finally becomes the true Metroidvania that the previous two games hinted at, though it still somewhat level based. The individual areas do not connect like the areas of Super Metroid, but it does nail that free roaming exploration feel. In practice it feels like Monster World 4, but with the ability to backtrack. It is just a finely tuned game. Shantae’s hair whipping attack always looked good, but this time it actually feels like the attack has enough range. The heroine has lost her transformation abilities, but the new pirate themed skills she acquires more than make up for it. The transformations were great, but the pirate skills are smoother. It is easier to flip between them. The whole game just feels perfectly honed.

It is impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the graphics. Many 2D games go for a stylized self-consciously retro look. Shovel Knight does its best to look like an NES, 1001 Spikes looks like something older. Anything that tries to look newer inevitably goes 3D. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is 2D, but it isn’t trying to look old, it simply looks great. It looks like a 16-bit game on steroids. It also uses the 3D capabilities of the 3DS to make the sprite layers look great. Everything just looks great. It also sounds pretty good as well.

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This game is seriously the best case scenario I imagined when Wayforward announced that this game was coming. But it kept getting pushed back, the release date was constantly uncertain and they did a kickstarter for a new Shantae game in between the time this game was announced and when it released. I never really thought the game was in trouble or anything, but I expected it to be a little flawed. They seem to have taken the Nintendo philosophy with delays, that it is better to delay a game and fix it than release a flawed game on time. That is unusual, only Nintendo has my faith to pull it off, but Wayforward did it with this game. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the best possible game it could be.

Watching Home Movies

Around the start of the aughts there was a rash of animated sitcoms that hit TV. While a couple showed lasting appeal, most fell by the wayside. Futurama is one of the all-time great television shows and somehow the soulless husk of Family Guy is still being broadcast, but who remembers Mission Hill, The Oblongs or The PJs? Despite being an undeniably great show, Home Movies seems to have fallen into that latter category. That is a real disappointment; Home Movies is every bit as good as Futurama.

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For those not fortunate enough to have seen it, and yesterday I learned that the whole series is up on Youtube so there is nothing stopping you, Home Movies is about Brendan Small, an eight year old kid who makes movies in his basement. He is helped by his friends Jason and Melissa, and gets advice from his Mom, Paula, and significantly more dubious advice from his soccer coach McGuirk. The show was never destined for big success. The style of the animation is not all that appealing. The first season is in “Squigglevision,” the same scratchy looking animation technique used on Dr. Katz, but the entirety of the show uses the borderline abstract character designs and flat, sparse backgrounds. While one grows to appreciate the look of the show, it is not initially appealing. It is a somewhat ugly show, but its look perfectly fits the combination of normality and weirdness.

I love the way that this series evolves. I am ignoring the first season for the simple reason that I don’t own it on DVD and am therefore not as familiar with it. The second season is all about the movies that Brendan is making in his basement. There are plenty of other goings on, but they are filtered through his movies. As the third season goes on, the movies start to fade in importance. In the fourth season, they are often dropped completely. This isn’t a case of the show losing sight of its focus; it is Brendan growing up. Everyone was eight at one point; everyone had something that meant everything to them as child. Very few people are still in love with the same activities that they were at eight. At that age I was in love with dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), everything I did revolved around them. That fascination was short lived, though. It is the same with Brendan and his movies. They were what brought him and his friends together, but as they grow up the movies start to become less important. It is brought home in the last episode when he drops his camera outside of the car and barely seems to care. He has moved beyond his movies.

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While there is change, it is amazing that Home Movies has such well-defined characters when improvisation played such a big part in the scripting. Most of the show is at least partly improvised. Still, the core of the cast comes out as very real characters. Brendan, Paula, Jason, Melissa and Coach McGuirk are all great characters. Having a handful of them in a scene to play off of each other is just amazing. It has a lot of pithy one-liners. Characters will face a completely ridiculous problem that every character not directly involved recognize as ridiculous. They react with very adult sarcasm. The show really takes off, though, when the secondary characters become more prominent and start getting thrown in with different configurations. Characters like Walter and Perry, Mr. Lynch, Fenton and Duane. They all add something fun and new to the mix.

It is sad that Home Movies is gone, but its spirit lives on in the shows its creators, Loren Bouchard and Brendan Small, are doing now. Brendan Small went on to do Metalocalypse, a show about a crazy Death Metal band. Music was a big part of Home Movies, Brendan (the character) spent a lot of time working on the sound for his films with Duane, his slightly older friend with a band. Metalocalypse is a different show from Home Movies, but there are times when the patter of dialogue is similar. Loren Bouchard went on to make Bob’s Burgers, which in tone is much like Home Movies. It is about a weird family and weird neighborhood. Bob’s Burgers is the show that really keeps the spirit of Home Movies alive. Home Movies is on Youtube for anyone to watch, you should do that. It is one the best animated shows from an era full of great animated shows. Then watch Bob’s Burger’s on Netflix.

There are Tomb Raiders and there are Tomb Raiders

I recently played two Tomb Raider games, last’s years Tomb Raider reboot and Tomb Raider Underworld. The differences between them are a prime example of why I am feeling increasingly disconnected with so called AAA video games. Tomb Raider 2013 (from here on just called Tomb Raider) is easily the better made game, but I enjoyed Underworld more despite its flaws. There is a fundamental difference to the way they approach things that, even though Underworld’s execution is flawed, I still find it to be the superior experience.

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This is not about Tomb Raider changing what the series is really about; honestly I don’t care much about that. After playing these two games I’ve now played 5 Tomb Raider games and beaten 2 of them. (I have not yet reached the end of Underworld) I spent some time with Tomb Raider 2 way back in the day, but never played it enough to really gain an appreciation for it. I understood the importance of the series; along with Mario 64, Tomb Raider was essential to the development of 3D games. However, while games like Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time built off of that foundation, Tomb Raider never really advanced. For all of the PS1 generation, it was stuck much the same as it started. That sort of design bottomed out early in the PS2 days, and then the series rebounded with Tomb Raider: Legend. I liked that game because it took many cues from the Prince of Persia games from the same time. I beat that game and dabbled with Anniversary before the change in consoles left me out in the cold. So while I do have some experience with the series, it has never really been one of my favorites. While I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the direction that Tomb Raider when in, it has nothing to do with any delusions of it abandoning what came before it, a threat I’ve seen leveled as other popular games from long running series like Resident Evil 4.

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As I’ve already said, Tomb Raider is in most ways a better game than Underworld. The graphics are a big step up. Underworld has some nice environments, but Lara’s character model is grotesquely cartoonish. The environments look real, but Lara simply doesn’t fit in. Underworld also fails at times with its controls. No matter what I liked or disliked about Tomb Raider, I can’t think of a single situation when the controls did not work as intended. Within the first hour of starting Underworld it had already had its context sensitive inputs fail or misinterpret what I was trying to do a half dozen times. There are times where the camera doesn’t cooperate in giving you a useful view to maneuver through the environments, another thing that as not a problem with Tomb Raider.

What I like more about Underworld than Tomb Raider is that Underworld is a game about exploration with some shooting while Tomb Raider is a game about shooting with some exploration in it. The focus of Underworld is in exploring various environments. They are obstacle courses, mazes and treasure maps; the point of the game is to look around and find what’s out there. Sometimes the obstacles in Lara’s do involve shooting, but that is far from the focus. In Tomb Raider, the shooting is the main point. The exploring that is in the game is there for contrast with shooting. It ratchets up the tension with gunfights and set pieces; then lets the player cool down with some relaxing exploration. It is an effective combo, but it mostly succeeds in taking all the importance out of the exploration. The exploration is just the extra stuff.

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By itself Tomb Raider is a fine game, but it is also an example of a trend with big budget games. On the PS2 Ubisoft made Prince of Persia games about navigating a series of complex traps, but those gave way to the Assassin’s Creed series, which have similar, in some ways, gameplay but shift the focus onto killing people. The kind of platform and action games I like have given way to a cavalcade of shooters. Many of them are good games, but they are just not for me. Which is fine. Luckily, despite the myopia of big publishers, we are living in a golden age of new and different types of games. Sure, they might not have the production values and polish that games from big publishers might have, but the variety is astounding. As long as the indie game scene keeps cranking out new and interesting experiences, I don’t mind missing out on the big stuff.

Some Early Smash Thoughts

So I’ve has Smash Brothers for 3DS for a weekend now and I feel like I am just scratching the surface of what this game has to offer. I had already spent a ton of time with the demo before the game came out, but the whole game is much different and more robust experience. It is Smash Bros, at its heart the same game that it’s been since the N64 but as always stuffed to the brim with love for Nintendo.

The accepted narrative is that Smash Bros 4 rights the wrongs of Brawl. I disagree with that, Brawl was a fine game, a better one than Melee by a country mile. There were flaws, the character roster wasn’t that well balanced and tripping, while amusing, was not a good addition. But despite its unbalanced nature, the roster of characters was expansive and varied. The single player experience was by a wide margin the best thing the series has ever seen. Smash Bros. 4, though, does improve on Brawl in several ways. Despite the loss of a few fighters, the stable of fighters is even more impressive. The game is also sped up from Brawl’s leisurely pace. Not back up to Melee’s uncontrollable speed, but it is faster than it was. There are some problems as well. The single player seems somewhat barren. There are several different single player modes, but not a one of them is as substantial or entertaining as Brawl’s Subspace Emissary, as flawed as it was. Still, it makes up for it by having a worthwhile online mode.

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all pics taken from Nintendo’s website

That online mode is much better than Brawl’s. Brawl was of Nintendo’s earliest forays into online play and they didn’t quite get it. I played a few matches without lag, but unplayable lagginess was the norm. I have had some laggy games on the 3DS, but mostly it has been a pleasant experience. Other than the fact that I am getting beaten pretty regularly, that is. The local multiplayer is a little less spectacular, since the game doesn’t feature download play. I can understand why not, but it isn’t ideal.

I am in love with this games character roster. Not only are there a ton of new character, but a lot of the old characters feel drastically different despite not having their move sets changed up all that much. No matter how much I play, I can’t seem to choose a character, or even three characters, to be my main. There are plenty of interesting characters here. I’ll break them up into a couple of different categories: best newcomer and most improved returning character.

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The best newcomer is a tough call. Most of the really interesting characters are new. Like Palutena, who is fun despite the fact that I can’t quite figure her out or Little Mac, who is powerful but lacks good recovery moves. There are surprises, like Xenoblade’s Shulk and Duck Hunt Dog. I love Duck Hunt Dog, even if I don’t love playing as him. My favorite is, shockingly, Bowser Jr. Bowser Jr. is a stupid character. His existence lessens the importance of the more interesting Koopalings. Seeing that he was going to be in the game was a little disappointing. But not only are his alternate costumes the Koopalings, making him essentially 8 characters in one, but he is a ton of fun to use. He has decent power and movement. His unorthodox set up, being a small character in a machine, gives him an interesting hook.

The most improves returning character is also hard to choose. A lot of the old standbys were kind of awful in Brawl. Link and Samus were just north of jokes and both have seen a significant bump up in power. Both of them are legitimate combatants this time around. Like in the early Smash Bros games, Samus is a chore to finish off. No matter how hard you hit her, she just floats back in. Link is capable of a ton of feat, with both solid ranged and up close abilities. The most improved, though, has to be Bowser. I hated Bowser in the last game. He was strong, but he was too slow to be that serious of a threat. He is still just as much of a beast, but now he has some much needed agility. He actually moves around decently. He’ll never be anything but a lumbering giant, but now it is not such an insurmountable flaw.

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I guess what I’m saying is that new Smash Bros is great and you should be playing it. I feared this game might lessen my desire for the WiiU version. Even though this game is great, it is hampered enough by its platform to make me yearn for the solid heft of a real controller, instead of contorting my hands to hold the 3DS. Time to get back to Smashing.

Stopping at Fourside

Like any right thinking person, I was elated last year when Earthbound finally hit virtual console. I don’t know what caused Nintendo to hold it back for so long; maybe it was the rumored problems with some musical sampling, maybe NOA President Reggie Fils-Aime loves to feast on fans tears. No matter what held it up, the game’s digital release was a cause for celebration. I quickly purchased it and got to playing. I didn’t finish, though.

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I have finished Earthbound before. My brother and I borrowed it way back in the summer of ’98 or ’99. I was about fifteen, he was a year younger. We each had our own files and we took turns as best we could. I mean, we fought over who got to play and who got to play first, but we each got roughly the same amount of play time. The two of us play games differently. I am all about the experience. I like to explore, but I am generally about pushing the game forward. I want to get to the next area, to beat the next boss. I have no problem experimenting with strategies or different skills, but I don’t tinker just to tinker. If I have a strategy that works, I see no reason to change it. My brother, on the other hand, tends to master games. He loves to experiment with the game. If he gets a new attack, he will try to find a use for it, even if it doesn’t appear immediately useful. That also means that he has a tendency to grind. He will find out how everything works and how to game the system. What does that have to do with Earthbound? When we played I rushed ahead, speeding through the game to Magicant. There I promptly got stuck, dying repeatedly against Ness’s Nightmare. My brother was a little behind me, but he was also several levels higher. When he got to Magicant, me being the inconsiderate teenager I was, I played off of his save to the end of the game. I only saved once, but it was enough to rob him of some of the enjoyment of playing the game. I was an asshole, but an asshole that had beaten Earthbound.

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Since then I have not been able to beat the game. It is not some sort of Karmic justice, just the reality of not owning the cartridge. I didn’t have the game, so I couldn’t play it. I did make several attempts at emulating it. The first time I spent a few leisurely weeks meandering through the first couple of areas of the game. I got to Fourside, and then my save disappeared. I don’t know what I did, it was just gone. I tried again a few years later, but my laptop died right around the time I reached Fourside. A few years ago, right around the time that the Mother 3 translation came out, I tried once more only to get distracted about the time I got to … Fourside. Just last year, when Earthbound finally reached Virtual Console, I played it right to the point where I got to Fourside.

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I know the first half of Earthbound as well as I know any game. I could play through Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger or Suikoden II in my sleep. The same goes for Earthbound up to Fourside. After that, I am less sure. I remember parts of it, a desert, Magicant, Poo’s Cloudy home, but I am not sure of the order or the exact trials the player faces. The memories are there, but they are foggy. I feel like I’ve failed somehow for not playing this game more; like I am a poseur only pretending to be a fan. Especially now that I actually own the game. Now that I do own the game, I really should beat the game again. That is what I am trying to do before Bayonetta 2 hits later this month.

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As for Karmic justice, that hit me as well. About five years ago now that friend that I borrowed Earthbound from was selling all of his old video games. He needed some cash. While he was more than happy to take the game shops offer for games like Ultraman or Eye of the Beholder for SNES, but their offer for Earthbound was insultingly low. My brother, who just happened to be with him at the time, offered him twice what the store was for the game. So he is now the owner of the copy of Earthbound we played as children. He deserves it.

Top 5 Friday Favorite Books

Another Top 5 Friday. Favorite books this time, with the one stipulation that no more than one book by any author appear on the list.  One thing I like about making these lists is that they help me realize things about my tastes that I wouldn’t on my own.  Four out of the five books on this list deal with metafictional themes, as do some that just missed the list, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

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The Dragon Reborn.  Robert Jordan – The Dragon Reborn is on this list as a placeholder of the Wheel of Time as a whole. I unabashedly love the series. The world Jordan created in this series is just so well realized and the characters that populate it are so real. TDR is the book where the series really comes into its own, with the protagonists finally starting to act as much as react to the events going on around them. I love this book.

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All-Star Superman. Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely & others – I debated on whether or not to include a comic on this list, but since All-Star Superman is a completed work in and of itself and it is stupendously great, I put it on here. Honestly, this is just one of the best things I’ve ever read.

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Michael Chabon – Chabon is the best and this is his best work. Kavalier and Clay is about two young Jewish comic book creators and their personal and professional struggles starting in the late 1930’s. I don’t want to give anything away; just read it.

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The Princess Bride. William Goldman – I had long loved the movie, so when I heard there was a book, I quickly snapped it up. Written by the same person who wrote the screenplay, the book is largely the same as the film, but where it deviates it generally improves. I realize the book came first, but that is the opposite of how I encountered them.

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Shades of Grey.  Jasper Fforde – Another author I love. Fforde’s Thursday Next books are uniformly excellent, but with Shades of Gray he takes things to another level. It is more serious than the Thursday books, but it doesn’t lack the wit. It is a simply amazing dystopian story.

2nd Quest: Spirit Tracks

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is a very good game. It fixes all of the problems of its predecessor on the DS, though not without adding a few of its own new ones, while keeping that game’s strengths. Despite this, I would definitely consider Spirit Tracks to be one of the lesser Zelda games. It does everything it does well, but it lacks the one thing that makes the Zelda series so notable: ambition.

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Spirit Tracks is a small game. And a familiar game. This is not the smallest Zelda game, Minish Cap feels a lot more constrained. It is not the first game to build off the set up of its predecessor, Majora’s Mask plays almost identically to Ocarina of Time. But it is the first time that a Legend of Zelda game brings almost nothing new to the table. Ocarina of Time brought the series to 3D, Majora’s Mask has that whole 3 day cycle going for it, Wind Waker has sailing, Phantom Hourglass had a completely new control scheme, etc. Spirit Tracks is a refinement of Phantom Hourglass, but little else. It does have a new setting going for it, but other than switching out the ocean for the train that setting is largely the same as Phantom Hourglass. It’s only real innovation is the games obnoxious instance on using the DS mic for playing instruments and using weapons. That is also the games worst feature, by far. The biggest fault the game has not that it fails in any way; it is that it doesn’t try.

It does fix most of the problems from Phantom Hourglass. I thought the controls worked well in PH, but they are just that much more responsive and effective here. It is mostly slight changes, like a double tap rolls instead of drawing a curlicue, but they add up for a noticeably better controlling game. It also fixes the central dungeon idea that integral to PH. While there is still a central dungeon, but all of my complaints with it are fixed. It is no longer timed and you no longer have to repeat sections of it. The stealth segments are still there, but divorced from the other elements they work.

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While the first couple dungeons are rather simple, they ramp up to a satisfying complexity. It works with a limited array of tools to make the player think his way through obstacles. Instead of relying heavily on the tool found in each of the elemental dungeons, all the previously acquired tools are put to use. From the third dungeon on they are all excellent. The one fly in the ointment playing this game are the Locomo Flute Duets. I complained about them when I first reviewed this game, but this time I didn’t have as much trouble with them. In fact, I passed all of them but one on the first try. The thing is, I have no idea what caused me to fail the one time I did. The game does not provide any feedback as to what you are doing wrong when you fail. It just makes you start over The time after I failed I just about gave up since I did so badly, but the game decided I did it good enough to pass. What is most frustrating is not the failing, it is the lack of feedback.

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The one problem that wasn’t fixed is the overworld. It is still stifling and small; a chore to explore instead of joy. Having just played Twilight Princess the contrast could not be more stark. TP has an expansive, interesting world, Spirit Tracks has a series of rail, including some that only appear when you find certain items. It is no fun. And this game has a world that I’d like to explore, but I can’t because the game sticks you to the rails

The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks is not a bad game. For the most part, the game is excellent. It just lacks that creative spark that makes this series one of my favorites. There are other games that I would definitely call other games in the series failures, but none exhibit the total lack of ambition that Spirit Tracks does. It just feels kind of by the numbers, which is a huge problem.

What I Read in September ‘14

I didn’t do enough reading in September; of course, I often say that no matter how many books I read. My goal is four books, though, and I didn’t reach that milestone this month. I just didn’t spend the time reading that I normally do. I expect to get more reading done in October, though I don’t know how much more. Probably the next Outlander book, a Christie and maybe something more.

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Busman’s Honeymoon

Dorothy Sayers

This is the final Peter Wimsey mystery and I didn’t like it much at all. It was apparently adapted from a play, and it reads like it. Much more of the story is told through dialogue with minor characters, with much less time for the protagonists. This story does include Lord Peter and Harriet’s wedding. That early section of the book is great, but it has little to do with the mystery. It goes on for a good quarter of the book and gives a nice send off for some of the smaller supporting characters. Then there is the mystery in the middle; this is the part that feels like a play adaptation. The majority of the dialogue is told through cumbersome dialogue. It also makes it harder to get into the mystery. That mystery is also meaner than the norm for this series. It ends with what feels like a final wrap up. Lord Peter is less sure of “hobby” as a detective now that he is married. Also, he was disgusted by the petty monstrousness of this case. It provides a fitting, if somewhat depressing, end to this series.

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The Fiery Cross

Diana Gabaldon

This fifth volume of the Outlander series follows Claire and Jamie as it draws close to the start of the American Revolution, as well as a community starting to form around Fraser’s Ridge in the North Carolina back country. The Fiery Cross largely continues plotlines started in the last book, like dealing with the despicable Steven Bonnet and the growth of Brianna and Roger’s relationship. It seems significantly slower paced than previous books. The first quarter or so of this 1000+ pages long book take place at a Gathering of emigrated Scots, where both Brianna and Rogers and Duncan Innes and Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta’s weddings are scheduled. Little events, eventually important little events, keep dragging this scene out further. It is simultaneously amazing that Gabaldon keeps the scene moving without really moving anything and frustrating that that is how the book starts.

The one big development in this book is the complete dismantling that Roger goes through. He was a university professor in the twentieth century, with skills that aren’t exactly useful in the frontier of the eighteenth century, but he made due. Over the course of this book, Roger is crushed even further down. His attempts to learn to shoot end when he discovers that he is physically incapable of being a good shot. While early in the book he is lauded for his musical skill, which is soon taken from him as well. There are always difficult trials that characters face, but few times in this series has a character taken the brunt of misfortune that Roger faces in this book. While this book does move ponderously at times, there is a central mystery that ties it together nicely.

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The Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman

This is an exhaustive look at the first month of the start of WWI, as well as the days the immediately led to it. It is a fascinating read, illuminating the characters of the men in charge while also clearly illustrating the sequence of events. What comes across most clearly is the arrogance of everyone involved. The French had their plan if it came to war, and they were going to stick to it no matter what the situation actually was. The Russians were completely disorganized and incompetent, with their entire government crumbling. Germany was flush with economic and military success and eager to expand their country. All of them thought any conflict would be short lived and decisive. That arrogance is most apparent with Germany’s decision to invade Belgium. If they would have avoided it, then there was a good chance that Britain would not get involved or at least not involved as fast. But they didn’t think that Belgium would fight. The idea that they might not like the idea of being conquered by Germany seems to have never occurred to them. They somehow didn’t expect the reaction they got for burning their way through a country that had been neutral. The personalities of the leaders come through, as well. None are shown to be true villains, but neither are any portrayed as heroes. One of the most fascinating was Joffre, the Commander in Chief of the French Army. He stuck to his initial plan, despite what the Germans were doing not matching what he expected. But he also helped maintain control during their retreat without breaking.

The one weakness of The Guns of August is that other that a few chapters covering a naval engagement and Russia’s disastrous campaign against Germany in the East, it is almost totally about the Western front. Weakness isn’t really the right word, I guess. That’s just not what the book is about. For example, it does give just enough of a glimpse of the goings on to make me want to know more about Russia’s war with Austria. Still, I am sure there are other books about that very subject; I just need to read one of those.