Things Other Fighting Games Could Learn from Blazblue

Dare we hope for a proper next-gen Darkstalkers game? Rare, through Double Helix, brought back Killer Instinct, after all.

But let’s not focus on Capcom. Blazblue: Chronophantasma is coming to the West in a few months, and it’s time to celebrate the best fighting franchise of the past console generation, and the only one to push out three full games in that time.

It seems hard to believe that Arc System Works produced Blazblue: Calamity Trigger just five years ago. It seems hard to believe that Arc System Works produced Blazblue: Calamity Trigger -the spiritual successor to their previous cult fighter Guilty Gear– just five years ago.

In the time since then, they have completed two full sequels plus extended and arcade versions and multiple portable titles in the series for a total of eight titles.

That represents a lot of asskickings. And not only has the series been able to put more games on the shelf than its AAA competitors, but Blazblue bests other fighting games in almost all areas that matter. All except mainstream success, that is.

So what I’m going to do here is I’m going to break down some of the ways that Calamity Trigger and its sequel, Continuum Shift, represented the ideal evolution of the classic 2D fighting game genre and how big-name developers could improve their own games using the same principles.

Then I’m going to share some thoughts on the upcoming game. The wheel of fate is turning. Rebel One. Action!

Creative Gameplay

blazblue rachel alucard

One of the observations made about Calamity Trigger was its low playable character count; a mere twelve. Compared to recent Street Fighter games that have built a cast of dozens over the years, it’s pretty small.

But considering the immense depth and diversity that Blazblue offers, it’s Capcom’s cash cow who should be taking notes. I mean, how many Shotokan-style characters can they cram in before gamers start asking for some new movesets?

There is absolutely no character in Blazblue that looks, behaves, or plays anything like any other character in the series (aside from Mu-12 and Nu-13, who are really the same character).

A lot of creativity went into conceiving each fighter, and it shows. For example Rachel Alucard has the power to control the weather and she fights by controlling space.

She can set up multiple lighting rods around the stage and she can “detonate” them with lightning bolts at any time. She can also alter the wind, which she can use send to send a floating projectile at an opponent, then change its direction for multiple hits.

She also has the ability to send out a hopping electrified toad to act as a moving land mine. Putting these kinds of attacks together can make for a very strategic fight.

A lot of creativity went into conceiving each fighter, and it shows.
Each character has unique traits such as these that can be creatively combined for something different in addition to the usual combo memorization and projectile spamming.

Hobo ninja Bang Shishigami has special attacks that include an assortment of nails with various effects, including giant ones he nails into the background that he can use to boost through the air.

Speaking of boosts, if he lands all four hits of his Fu-Rin-Ka-Zan attacks during a round he can go into a super mode, which is accompanied by his very own theme music for the win. Touches like these are a big part of what makes these games such a joy to play.

Furthermore, while the AI is certainly challenging at times, it seldom feels unfair. A lot of fighting games have opponents programmed to counter your attacks by reading your inputs because it’s an easy (*cough*lazy*cough*) way to increase difficulty artificially without actually having to put any thought into AI behavior.

This can make for a frustrating and inauthentic-feeling single player experience, but Blazblue avoids stooping to that level.

Dat Plot

blazblue story tager makoto taokaka

If I told you that one of the best stories of the last gen was in a fighting game, would you believe me? Most fighting titles are content with just a few static images and some text to close out their “story” mode with maybe a little trash talk in between key fights and gamers just shrug it off as “it’s a fighting game; what do you expect?”

Well, Blazblue taught me I can expect more.

Another benefit of having less characters is that they can all have individual multiple intersecting stories within the main plot. Each character not only has a fully-voiced story, but the player is offered multiple paths in each one.

You are often offered choices and, depending on what you choose, the story takes different turns. In Continuum Shift , there were three possible endings, the “true” one if you made the right choices, a bad one if you chose poorly, and an amazingly bizarre comedic ending (my favorite)if you made a choice that sent the entire plot off the rails.

The story is presented in visual novel form, which is a low-budget style popular in Japan (popular as in representing about 70% of all PC software sold) where the characters are shown as a series of static images rather than animated, but are fully voiced.

The English voice acting has a ton of personality, and the scripts are littered with hilarious little references and in-jokes. It helps if you are a fan of anime humor in the first place, but I suspect even newcomers to that scene could appreciate the over-the-top satirical goofiness even if they aren’t as familiar with what was being satirized.

Blazblue is known as the hardcore fighters’ fighter, but I have a confession. I’m not actually that good at it. In fact, I’ve never even ventured online I’m so sure I’d get so completely destroyed. So listen to me very closely and believe me when I say I play this fighting game mostly for the story. Think about that for a minute.

Some other fighting games like Injustice: Gods Among Us are integrating good stories to balance the gameplay and online features, but there’s still a ways to go in the genre overall before the stories can be a premiere feature like it is here.

Something for the Fans

blazblue teach me

When I bought Continuum Shift Extend having played Calamity Trigger a couple years prior, I remembered that I adored the story from the first game, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the hell happened in it.

Blazblue’s story is nothing at all if not convoluted and crazy, as it deals with not only many characters, but with a lot of space and time loop stuff and other science fiction weirdness.

You think you know unlockable concept art? Not until you’ve seen Blazblue’s unlockable concept art.

Well, the sequel had me covered. It actually collected the key events from the first game’s story into a lengthy addditional single narrative story mode (complete with fights) to catch players up.

This was a brilliant and much appreciated way to ease me back into the Blazblue universe and it’s the kind of feature that puts this series above the rest.

In addition to that, there is a ton of extra content for fanatics to dig into. Teach Me, Miss Litchi is a series of comedic vignettes featuring chibi versions of the cast explaining various aspects of the Blazblue universe to the perpetually perplexed resident catgirl, Taokaka. It’s adorable.

For the cynic in us, the game also rewards failure. When you got the “bad” ending in any character’s story in Continuum Shift, they got sent to Help Me, Professor Kokonoe; another chibi presentation where the sarcastic mad scientist character lectures them on their failure.

This leads to some of the funniest and most hilariously self-referential moments in a game already noted for its outlandish humor.

You think you know unlockable concept art? Not until you’ve seen Blazblue’s unlockable concept art.

Playing the game nets you points that you can then use to unlock various content, and I found myself in love with getting every available piece of it. You literally never know what you were going to get, and I couldn’t wait to find out.

blazblue noel tsubaki

Okay, so Chronophantasma. It’s nice to see that they’ve stuck with the theme of game titles that sound like At the Drive-In lyrics, at least. Adding four new characters to put the total well into the 20’s was a natural choice, but seems to have come with a price. That price is the individual storylines; arguably my favorite thing about the series.

While I’m not pleased by this news, there are supposedly three separate storylines to play through and that sounds pretty interesting. Given Arc System’s penchant for creative features, I’m going to withhold raging until I’ve played it.

These guys have done a crapload of creating in the past half-decade, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Streamlining the story seems to be the only way to proceed efficiently with the growing number of characters.

But what I am going to rage about is that additional characters are available at launch…for a price.  Yes, I am aware of the irony that I am writing an article about how AAA fighting games need to be more like Blazblue when that series is instead becoming more like them.

In Continuum Shift Extend Kokonoe protested her exclusion as a playable character, and was consoled by assurances that the devs were saving her for a time when people were tired of the series, but would buy it anyways just to play as her once she was available.

Well, instead they’ve decided to charge extra while we still want more. Faith in humanity: destroyed. If she had her own story mode I’d bite, but come on.

blazblue kokonoe

Still, the PS3’s days are numbered, so I’m very much looking forward to experiencing what Chronophantasma has in store for me before I move on to the next console generation. If Arc System can give me as much as they gave me with the first two games I’m more than willing to overlook the day one DLC hijinks.

After all, they’ve made three full games in five years with only one “Ultimate Edition” in Continuum Shift Extend. Compare that to the fact that the original Street Fighter came out in 1987 and only has three proper sequels, with the rest more or less consisting of add-ons and mods to those core titles or spin-offs.

So let’s watch this action-packed trailer for the new game and get psyched while we await the localization of this insanely Japanese fighting game full of great characters, rockin’ music, incredible finishing moves, a mind-bending story brimming with charm and offbeat humor, and most of all creativity. And pay attention, big shot fighting game developers; you might learn something.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ay5xGrGtxqc

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Is It Time to Bring Back Battletoads?

battletoads

Out of all of the obscure, old-school franchises, there is one that seems to be the most demanded when it comes to talk of a revival. Battletoads inevitably comes up whenever any discussion regarding the most difficult games of all time. I mean, this game was one of the most upsetting, unfair, sadistic titles ever to exist. But people loved it. It remains a cult sensation to this day and at one time was even made into a pilot for a proposed cartoon series. But when, oh when, will the toads of battle be again brought forth and presented to the gaming population?

The original game was developed by Rare Ltd. for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991 as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rip-off. And while the original TMNT game was known for its difficulty –as many titles of the era were- Battletoads was on a whole different level than anything I’ve ever played. I remember renting it after reviews praised it incessantly. It was the beginning of the strangest love/hate relationship I’ve ever had with a media franchise.
At this point, you’re laughing and cheering and oohing and awing and high-fiving your co-op buddy. Best. Game. Evah.
The first level of a Battletoads game is a slice of beat ‘em up heaven. It was cool, it was fun, the soundtrack was rockin’, and it had a unique, cartoonish style where your enemies are KOed with crazy attacks where your toad of choice’s appendages become exaggerated.

Like, a kick would make your foot crazy big and send a bad little piggy flying offscreen and when a giant boss steps onscreen, your toads’ jaws drop to the floor and their eyes bug out. At this point, you’re laughing and cheering and oohing and awing and high-fiving your co-op buddy. Best. Game. Evah.

I spent the rest of my rental days trying to progress, certain that more asskickery awaited me on the other side. It was unusual for a game to be anything other than the same style of gameplay all the way through as it was, was this was a game about toads that battle stuff. Surely its bread and butter was going to be the awesome combat. Surely.

battletoads gameplay

Nope. The second level had you rappelling down canyon walls while birds, robots and venus fly traps attacked you. It was still pretty fun because you could fight back by kicking enemies or turning into a wrecking ball, and even earn 1-ups by keeping the same dead enemy airborne with repeated attacks. The variety was cool, but I couldn’t wait for more beat-em-up action.

Next came one of the most legendary levels in video game history. The one that most players never beat and stopped them from experiencing the other ten levels of Battletoads:  the dreaded Turbo Tunnel. Stay away. Stay very away. This is the level that ruined friendships (more on that later), destroyed controllers, and would have invented the concept of rage-quitting if you didn’t run out of lives before you could reach the power switch. The average single-player experience goes a little something like this:

or perhaps this if you practiced:

battletoads turbo tunnel gif

For me, that was a wrap on the original Battletoads. It was towards the end of the NES’ life cycle and I had lots of other games to get to. But that bizarre mix of frustration and adrenaline-pumping elation stuck with me. When the sequel came out, I was waiting. This time, THIS time I was going to wreck this game. I beat Mega Man 2 for crying out loud. And surely Rare would have learned from feedback that the combat was really awesome and the other stuff made people want to commit amphibian genocide so this one was going to be a truly amazing and fulfilling gaming experience.
When the sequel came out, I was waiting. This time, THIS time I was going to wreck this game.
Nah. Battletoads in Battlemaniacs actually had less battle than its maniacally sadistic predecessor. In fact, the first half was practically level-for-level identical in terms of gameplay, but the new graphics were swwweeeeet. But I own this baby now, so I’ve got all the time in the world to practice. Come at me, Battletoads. Come at me.

First level, another awesome beatdown-fest. Second level, instead of rappelling, you were descending on hover platforms, but pretty much the same. Afterwards, bonus level where you use your platforms to hit bowling pins because why not. Third level…guess.

Yup. Turbo Tunnel. But now it was actually worse as the devs had come up with deliberately trolltastic ways to wreck your day. You had no choice but to memorize the entire course and then hope your reflexes held up. They usually did not.

But hey, at least Battletoads lets you play with a friend! Misery loves company, right? No. No it does not. Battletoads even destroyed the fun of co-op play. Sure, the first two levels were good fun, but once you hit the Turbo Tunnel it was over. Most games make it so that as long as one of you survives, they can keep going. Not this game. If one died, you both died.

And you take a level that almost nobody can beat and make two people try to beat it concurrently with whoever dies first getting the blame and you have a recipe for screaming arguments and resentment that lasted long after the inevitable release of the “Game Over” screen. If only that loser hadn’t been playing with me! That was the time I was totally going to beat it!

battletoads battlemaniacs

Now, I did eventually beat that stupid, horrid hoverbike level, and several similarly horrific platformer levels after it, but I never conquered the game and the scars never healed. And you know what? I never got to play another awesome beat-em-up level. There weren’t any. There was a level where you had to ride snakes through a spikey obstacle course, and ride a buzzsaw thing, and race some rat bastard that was way faster than you to the bottom of a tower or something, but no more battling for me, I guess.

But wait, what is this? A crossover title between the Toads and my all-time favorite beat ‘em up franchise? Dare I hope?

battletoads double dragon

And so it came to pass that a young Nick Verboon got his all beat ‘em up Battletoads game with some Double Dragon thrown in for good measure. One of the highlights of my gaming life was grabbing that whip-wielding skank Linda by the hair and kicking her in the ass repeatedly with my webbed foot before slamming her around by her hair. I had some issues from past games to work out with her.Twenty years later people remember the fun, they remember the charm, they remember the originality, and most of all they remember the challenge. I almost lost my shit when the game had you hop onto speeder bikes, but instead of doing everything in its power to slam you into stone slabs, it instead chose to have you fight enemies on bikes. All was right with the world.

So my experience with the franchise began with an immensely fun combat level that left me wanting more and came to fruition in one of the least-expected crossovers of all time. There was an arcade game that looked like it would be really fun, but sadly in all my travels I never actually encountered one.

It’s twenty years later and people still want more Zitz, Rash, and Pimple. They remember the fun, they remember the charm, they remember the originality, and most of all they remember the challenge. That drive that kept them practicing and practicing, imagining what the next level was going to be like, and what craziness the Dark Queen was going to taunt you with.

dark queen

Fast-forward to present day and Battletoads has joined Mike Tyson’s Punch Out as that game that everybody claims to have beaten when they almost certainly have not. With the difficulty curve back on the rise in hardcore gaming and titles like Dark Souls garnering attention for ruthlessly kicking players’ asses, it seems like the time is right for a second coming.

Here on the internet, it has become a troll rite of passage to call up Gamestop and attempt to preorder Battletoads. But game store clerks are better than most store clerks and often play along with the joke so if you really want some rage, the answer to your prayers may lie in the world famous Gold and Silver pawn shop of Pawn Stars fame; the Mecca of Battletoads-based prank calls.

Disclaimer: there may be abusive language and objectification of your mother involved.

One could argue that Futurama got its second chance on television due in part to the popularity of internet memes spawned from its dedicated fandom. So why not Zoidb..errr Battletoads?  People have gone far enough to harass reality television stars and perpetrate hoaxes; clearly there is a demand for this franchise to return.

new battletoads troll

Not impressed that somebody created a front and back fake video game case artwork for a video game that doesn’t exist? How about a fake television commercial?

Oh my god, I forgot how much love that music.

Come on, Rare. It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do. Sure, I endorse the return of Killer Instinct, but I think what the gaming world really needs at a time like this is combat of a more amphibian nature. If they remastered the elusive arcade game and released it as a downloadable game on XBL or PSN, I’d certainly be all over it, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have a hard time finding company for the online co-op.

This is a classic hardcore gaming franchise; one that far surpassed its inspiration in the medium. Battletoads may not have a massive multi-media franchise behind it, but it’s a name that carries a lot of weight among old-school gamers and I’m fairly surprised that Nintendo, at the very least, is not clamoring to host a revival. I’m convinced that sometime soon we will see Zitz, Rash, and Pimple kicking ass again. The only questions are how soon and are you ready.

My Decade of Awesome With Xbox – Must it End?

xbox1As a lifelong gamer in his thirties I’ve been around and seen some things. I played Pong head-to-head in the arcade and challenged friends while eating on a Pac-Man machine that doubled as a table in a pizza place before there was such a thing as gaming nostalgia.

I owned and un-ironically played E.T. on the Atari 2600 (although I don’t remember enjoying even a minute of it), fell in love with Nintendo and all of their classic characters in their very first iterations, and fed a lonely Street Fighter II cabinet in the back of the local mall’s arcade quarters a few months before it became a massive sensation and felt like it was my little secret.

I still remember those experiences as some of my most cherished childhood memories and to this day I still play video games on an almost daily basis while juggling work, family, and several other hobbies on a tight budget.
It was Microsoft that ultimately ushered in the New Gaming World Order.
Like a lot of us I was there when Sony’s PlayStation rose up and smashed the N64 to bits with a whole new console paradigm. Games weren’t just for kids anymore; they could be scary and violent and tell amazing stories with fully voiced characters. Then a new contender entered the arena and kicked things into overdrive.

In 2001 Microsoft delivered unto us the Xbox; a gaming console that behaved like a computer, putting filthy console peasants that much closer to gaming on the level of the glorious PC master race. Since that moment, console wars have been serious business.

Previous contenders like Sega and Neo-Geo had risen and fallen in the past having made dents in the market, but for the first time it was a neck-and-neck three party race in the age of the internet with sides taken and positions defended with religious fervor. It was Microsoft that ultimately ushered in the New Gaming World Order.

xbox lighting

So I had a choice to make at that point. After the PlayStation changed the way I look at games as a young adult, going back to Nintendo was no longer an option. I could go with the safe choice and get the PS2, which was essentially a PS1 with better graphics, or I could take a chance on this gambit of Microsoft’s and go with something new and exciting.

The idea of ripping my own video game soundtracks among other PC-esque features had me leaning hard in that direction, although the Xbox was pricier and so many upstart consoles ended up as busts.

In the end, it always comes down to games. Sony had a bottomless pit of JRPG’s (historically my genre of choice) including my favorite franchise, Final Fantasy, in their corner and I heard their call but Microsoft had something that calls to me even louder than something familiar: something different.

With PC-quality Western role playing games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic from Bethesda and BioWare, respectively, the Xbox won the battle for my gaming soul and I never looked back until now.

For well over ten years Microsoft has held this capricious gamer firmly in its grip, a feat only equaled by Nintendo’s epic NES/SNES one-two punch. But in those days, the competition was a lot less fearsome than it is now.

When I first purchased my Xbox, the anticipated RPG’s has not yet arrived. So how was one to kill the time while I awaited epic journeys in a galaxy far, far away and the continent of Tamriel? Like you even have to ask.

I still remember being blown away when I fired up Halo: Combat Evolved for the first time. The firefight on the Pillar of Autumn, hopping into my first Warthog; I still remember being amazed at the way the enemies reacted to my assaults. I could not believe what I was playing. With games like this, Microsoft and I were going to get along just fine.

halo

Pshaw, Nick, you may say. Halo is ALL the Xbox ever had going for it apart from a few early RPG’s! Yeeeeaaahno.  Dead or Alive was arguably the best fighting game series at the time, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Far Cry Instincts, Unreal Championship, and Doom 3 were great first person shooters only available to console gamers through the Xbox.

Brute Force had great tactical squad-based third person shooter gameplay, Enclave is a fantasy gem desperately in need of a sequel, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse is a legit contender for coolest zombie game of all time, Fable was a thing that was awesome, Kingdom Under Fire was a great strategic fantasy franchise, Ninja Gaiden had your action fix and then some, Sudeki was another RPG I enjoyed very much, Jade Empire for the BioWare Wuxia win, and there were several exceptional mecha games like Phantom Crash and Steel Battalion to help build the case that the Xbox was a force to be reckoned with.

And that run-on sentence included only a few standouts of the exclusives they were working with. In time, classic PlayStation franchises like Grand Theft Auto would migrate to the Xbox as well, narrowing the gap in game choice.
The Xbox 360 took the things that made the Xbox so great and built upon them until the new console was a true multi-media center.
Four years later, Microsoft unleashed the Xbox 360 on the world. They took the things that made the Xbox so great and built upon them until the new console was a true multi-media center built around the emerging online console gaming market.

A year later, Sony struck back by… doing pretty much the exact same thing, but making it more expensive. I’m sure it was glorious to the Sony faithful, but it looked like “been there, done that” from where I was sitting.

I’m sure some would be happy to disagree with me with all of the fury of Hades behind them, but at this point, Xbox meant “innovation” in my mind. While the Wii’s revolutionary motion control certainly fit that bill as well, the fact is that I’m not all that interested in waving my arms around to control kiddie games. No offense.

gears of war

With the new console cycle, came another signature Microsoft franchise that changed the way shooters are played. Gears of War has seen their cover mechanic become a basic feature of third person gaming.

The franchise with its hyper-gritty violent machismo may have since worn out its welcome as a AAA contender, but the original was still one of the most influential games of this console generation, hands down.

With Valve’s Left 4 Dead as yet another score, the Xbox 360 secured its title as the console of choice for shooter fanatics and brought multiplayer co-op gaming to a new level for me.

Add Dead Rising to that, and their zombie cred was through the roof but there were still Japanese cult exclusives like Ninety-Nine Nights, Operation Darkness (a personal sleeper favorite), and Square’s Infinite Undiscovery to balance them out, so an RPG maniac like me was seldom left wanting. Did I have a great decade plus of gaming with Microsoft? You bet your ass. I don’t regret a second of it.

During this generation, Sony and Microsoft ended up giving up a lot to each other. The Xbox 360 got franchises like Final Fantasy and Devil May Cry, and Sony secured the services of BioWare and Bethesda for the PlayStation 3, gaining access to series including Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect. With fewer exclusives to go around, console choice became less of an objective issue to me, but somehow it increased the fervency of loyal corporate fanboys.

With all of this gushing praise, you know I’ve got to be setting Microsoft up for a fall. It’s what I do. I build them up, buttercup baby, just to knock them down. It’s not a secret that with the 360’s exclusives exhausted, I’ve been fooling around with Sony again. It’s not that Microsoft hasn’t been good to me. I believe I’ve painted a rosy enough portrait of my experiences, but you see there’s this whole Xbone issue that’s come between us.

xbox4
Despite the future potential of the technology, I’ve never seen a single thing related to Kinect that I desire to be part of my current gaming experience.
Wait, wait, wait there, friend. Don’t be so sure. It certainly seems like Microsoft has taken this approach to marketing their new console.

Adding on tons of unwanted features that horrified gamers and dystopian science fiction fans alike for different reasons and charging a hundred bucks more than the PS4 (which has more powerful hardware by most accounts) without giving any real cause to get excited for it is the crappiest marketing strategy since…since…I can’t come up with anything comparable.

After the massive crash in credibility, Microsoft backed out of a lot of their signature features, but I fear the damage was already done by the sheer audacity of their initial approach. I won’t pay extra for a Kinect, and them forcing the issue was not the way to go.

Despite the future potential of the technology, I’ve never seen a single thing related to Kinect that I desire to be part of my current gaming experience. Not even dancing Han Solo. All I care about is the games, and I haven’t seen much from PlayStation 4 or Xbox One in that regard but given the smaller price tag, Sony is winning by default.

arnold xbone gif

What happened? Where is that company that wooed me away from JRPG heaven with new and exciting titles and innovative features that didn’t involve spying on me and my family and selling the information gathered to corporate third parties? Is it a function of gamers’ manic fanboyism that Microsoft has simply stopped trying, believing that Xbox diehards would buy the Xbox One no matter what?

While I await next-gen price drops and killer apps, avoiding potential early adoption blues as a bonus (I remember you too, Red Ring of Death), I’ve put my 360 into the living room for my son to play and replaced it in my man cave with a shiny new PS3.

It’s the first time I’ve ever had two opposing consoles under the same roof, but it doesn’t feel wrong. My gaming world is at peace and both consoles still have a lot to offer me while I wait for their replacements to become worth my while.

And yeah, the Xbox One situation is still salvageable. All I ask is for games I really want to play. Halo and Gears aren’t enough anymore. Dead Rising and Fable are still on my radar, but at this point neither are system sellers for me. More of the same is not the answer.

If it was, I’d still be playing Zelda and Mario games. Old favorites are always welcome, but my choices in these situations are almost always decided by something new and different. That’s what attracted me to the Xbox in the first place, and that is the best way for them to get me back in their corner.

xbox awesome

One thing I’ve realized while writing this article is that Xbox has been one of the most important entertainment brands of my adult life; an equivalent to Nintendo in my childhood years.

Whether or not I pursue the relationship into the future is in the air, but either way I’ve spent nearly a third of my life playing titles that redefined gaming for me on Microsoft’s consoles and that is a powerful bond. Perhaps Sony (or maybe even Valve) has got the next dance, but gaming in the 21st century in my home has mostly belonged to Microsoft until now and that’s a hell of an achievement unlocked.

Unreal Movie Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

hobbit

You may notice that the byline for this review is wrong. Being the big boss man means Paul gets to rock the reviews for the happening new things himself, but it also means he’s a busy, busy guy so he’s decided to pass this one off to me. It makes sense since I was less than kind to his take on the previous film. Being a lifelong Tolkien fanatic and Peter Jackson supporter and all that, it’s my job to lob grenades at reviewers who don’t have the same attachment to the source material. It’s a nerd thing. Well, this time the grenades are coming at me. Serves me right, I suppose. Aim well, readers.

I was a big fan of An Unexpected Journey. In spite of the unnecessary bloating , additions, and bird dooky-covered hobo, it really felt like I was back in Middle Earth enjoying a different take on one of the most influential stories of my life. It just felt right. I didn’t care about any fancy high frame rates or 3D and I wasn’t judging what the next two films would be like as most reviewers were. The fact is, I watched that film for three hours starting at midnight and at the end I wanted three more hours.

I got two and a half more hours last Friday at midnight and the bottom line is that I left pissed. The song at the end sounded awesome, but I just wanted to leave so I couldn’t enjoy it.  Do you want me to say that The Desolation of Smaug made me feel desolate? Because I will if that’s what you want. I’ll go up and change the title of this article to “Smaug is desolate” or something right now. Okay, maybe not.

Really, it wasn’t all that bad. The film started off gloriously and I kept thinking to myself what a great director Peter Jackson is. The man has great visual style, timing, and his team always has a strong cohesive vision. But by the end of this one for the first time, I really felt the biggest and most common criticism of the man: the bloat; that need to make everything  SO FREAKIN’ EPIC and then making the next thing EVEN EPICER THAN THAT.

We start off with our company still on the run from Azog’s warg-riders and Bilbo still proving his worth. But fear not, there is precious little time for the title character in this middle chapter of The Hobbit trilogy. By the end, he’s practically a non-entity in his own story.

Beorn the skinchanger promised to be one of the highlights of the story and he was. I was expecting more than was given, but what was there was right in step with the book, right down to the dinner menu. Little details like these have impressed me in every film of the series. Say what you want about PJ’s excessiveness, but he gets the little details right on most of the time, and fans of the original works respect and appreciate that.

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Muh honeycoooomb!

At this point, Gandalf leaves the company as he did in the book. What the films give us that the book did not is what the hell the wizard was up to. In both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the purpose of Gandalf’s absences are often kept mysterious. Tolkien knew and divulged this information in other sources, but I always assumed it was to force Frodo/Bilbo’s true strength and potential to surface. Well, in Jackson’s films, the blanks are thankfully filled in.

I say thankfully because people freaking out over not knowing what happened when Batman left the Joker alone at the party in The Dark Knight taught me nothing so much as people really want their widdle hands held at all times. I love that Tolkien often only told you what the protagonist knew and left the rest vague and mysterious because it put you in their shoes and let you experience the events from their perspective.

Interestingly, Gandalf uses a lot more magic in this film than in previous ones. Jackson is on record as saying he doesn’t like magic and has avoided as much of it as he could thusfar. I’m not sure why he changed his mind, but we do see some more of Gandalf’s magic this time out, and what lurks in the fortress of Dol Guldur is more than he expected to find.

After some arachnophobic nightmares in the forest of Mirkwood and some hijinks involving a theme-park barrel ride with bonus orc-slaying, the film encounters a problem. That problem is named Legolas. The character hails from Mirkwood, so putting him in the story briefly made all of the sense in the world, but even beyond that point he takes over the damn movie for no good reason.

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Though one could argue there’s always room for more pretty, pretty people.

A lot of people might say that there is no such thing as too much action in a movie. Hell, I might have said that at some point. Well, that isn’t true in this case. I’d estimate that some twenty minutes of the movie is spent on scenes of Legolas shooting arrows, decapitating foes, and surfing on their corpses. Yes, apparently he was quite the corpse surfer back in his pre-Fellowship days.

On top of making Orlando Bloom’s dreamy elf the star of the show, Jackson knew he needed something for the gentlemen in the audience as well. There’s only so many hairy dwarves and hobbits a man can take, after all. Enter Evangeline Lilly as the gorgeous auburn-haired elvish warrior, Tauriel. While I agree with adding a strong female character to such a male-dominated narrative, it’s kind of unfortunate that she’s used as fodder for a poorly conceived love triangle which is, in turn, used an excuse to drag Legolas along for more unnecessary action scenes that start to look like different levels in a beat-em-up video game after a while.

Throw in some unwanted Laketown politics and the pacing of the second half of the film becomes nightmarish. But there’s a dragon on the way, folks; we’ve just got to get to the dragon and everything will be awesome again. It’s really hard to screw up a fire-breathing dragon.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien portrayed Thorin as well-meaning at first, but obsessed Ahab-like with reclaiming his people’s lost fortune and heritage, seeing Bilbo as a means to that end and eventually succumbing to his own greed when the fellowship he already shared was a bigger prize to begin with. Smaug represented greed embodied; the capitalist who kills the economy by gathering all of the wealth for himself and then simply sitting on it rather than spending it to keep the economy flowing as capital is meant to. There has never been a more apt metaphor for what our country is currently going through.

While the latter image of the two speaks for itself and didn’t need to be highlighted, Jackson dropped the ball by having Thorin go from giving up in the quest at the freakin’ door one minute to going full creepy the next with precious little foreshadowing or development since the first film. Even Anakin Skywalker thought that was weak character work, and god knows there was plenty of screen time available for it.

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Seriously, bro?

That brings us back to the title characters. The absolute highlight of this film was once again, Bilbo facing down a true menace alone. His confrontation with the dragon is amazing. The dialogue and shots in that sequence were intense and impressive. As Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice captured the perfect amount of bored haughtiness and commanding arrogance that one would attribute to a massive invincible monster who has been sleeping for decades, having claiming for his own everything in that part of the world worth claiming.

That scene by itself was worth the price of admission. As expected, Smaug is the best thing about the movie. Mission accomplished, let’s get back to Laketown and wrap this storyline up with the epic climax this movie deserves. But wait! Why ruin the horrible pacing now by sticking to the book? Why not cram in one last action scene so epic and so long and so unnecessary that we have to leave this plotline for the last movie to tie up in spite of the fact that there is already an epic setpiece in the book that will take up half of that movie?

You know how I said it’s hard to screw up a fire-breathing dragon?  Well, it can be done. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing when there is no narrative reason for it. The chase through the Lonely Mountain was beyond ridiculous. It belongs in one of Michael Bay’s Transformers films or something. I’m not even joking when I say that my exact thoughts during this sequence were as follows: “PJ. What r u doing? PJ.  Stahp.”

All that time, all that money, all of the crazy complex machinery and molten gold and flames and stunts and silliness just to accomplish taking me completely out of the film and then they fade to black right when things get back on track when there was a much more obvious place for the film to end that could have been accomplished in the same amount of time and wouldn’t have made me wish I’d order popcorn so I could throw my bucket at the screen? Why?

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Because reasons, Barrel-rider!

I didn’t hate The Desolation of Smaug, but I left angry regardless. I expected more. And when say more, I don’t mean more meandering plotlines that don’t relate to the core story, I don’t mean more lengthy action setpieces, and I don’t mean more half-assed romance. I wanted more character development, more thought given to the pacing, and more of the Peter Jackson that made the first four Tolkien films; the one who gave a crap about the original work and worried about what to leave out instead of what he could shoehorn in.

I will almost surely be getting the blu-ray at some point so the series has obviously not lost me as a fan, but I’m now worried about the final film whereas prior to the second half of The Desolation of Smaug there was only confidence. Sure, Jackson makes bloated films, but they never ceased entertaining me until now. I was never, ever bored during a PJ epic before. And to make me bored during an action sequence with a freakin’ dragon in it is a thing that has only been done once before in Dragon Wars. That is not a place you want to be.

For all my defending of An Unexpected Journey, the sequel seems to have vindicated the fears of that film’s critics that they were stretching the book’s narrative farther than it would go with a trilogy. Ironically, most of the critics seem to agree that this middle entry is better. Urge to kill: rising. Still, you’ve got to see it for yourself. It’s not as long a film as the first –although it felt longer to me- but if your complaint was not enough action or hot elvish girls, then maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. And who knows, maybe I’ll feel differently about it this time next year when the entire epic will be made whole.

Rant Time: The Tyranny of Overlong Credits!

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You know what REALLY grinds my gears these days? You guessed it; that thing I put as the title of this article. I’ve been going to movies and playing video games for a good long while now and while the quality of each has had its ups and downs over the years, one thing has progressively changed for the worse: the length of the closing credits.

The epic masterpiece *cough* Aliens vs Predator tips the scales at 12 minutes (over 10% of its running time) of credits to beat out Return of the King’s meager ten minute marathon, while Kevin Smith included the names of all of his Myspace friends (it was a different time)- a total of 163,070- in the closing credits for Clerks 2. These are some of the facts and figures that come up in a half-assed internet search, but there are plenty of unaccounted offenders to be sure (I’m quite sure Kill Bill: Volume 2 cracked the 15 minute mark) due to the lack of people sitting in the theater with stopwatches. But rest assured, collectively this represents a depressing amount of my time wasted in the theater.

And video games? Yeesh. Metal Gear Solid 4 closes with some 20 minutes of credits after the hour and forty minute closing cutscene, plus an epilogue. In fact, games really have movies beat when it comes to this as it’s becoming more and more fashionable to slap unskippable credit sequences that are well into the twenty minute range on the end of major game releases with some gamers claiming that they are passing the 30 minute mark.

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Too late, guys; the player is already asleep.

 If you aren’t a nerd you are maybe thinking “pssh, just don’t watch them! Nobody’s putting a gun to your head!” But they are, friend. They are. Some films and games put mid and/or post credit epilogues that we geekfolk do not want to miss out on in the mix. Marvel Studios in particular has made a tradition of this to the point where their post-credit scenes are like events unto themselves. You don’t want to be that loser looking up the scene on Youtube a week after the fact after the buzz of having just watched/played something awesome has long since worn off and the scene no longer has the impact it would have. I know this pain.

For example, a lot of reviews complained that the game Batman: Arkham Origins had nothing to do with its title. These are the people who skipped the end credits because a little ways into them you are treated to a radio transmission linking the events of the game to the re-opening of the fabled supervillain nuthouse, completing the game’s story. There is also Joker crooning a Hank Williams ballad to express his feelings for the Caped Crusader which is creepy as hell, but fitting. Furthermore, there is a Marvel-style cutscene cameo that creates some very interesting possibilities for future DC gaming properties. This is the kind of shit you don’t want to miss; what makes the insanity of suffering through the sssllllooooowwwwlllllyyyyy advancing names of hundreds of paid game testers in a game riddled with bugs worthwhile.

But then you get something like Iron Man 3. I was fairly disappointed with the film itself, but very much anticipating what might be waiting for me on the other side of the credits given past precedents and the fact that this was the first post-Avengers Marvel outing. They made me pay for it. Just for the hell of it, they decided to add fake names to the credits in order to lengthen them past the ten minute mark so that we’d have to wait that much longer for the epic unveiling of …the fact that the film’s voiceover narration was really Tony Stark talking to a sleeping Bruce Banner. Having Mark Ruffalo show up just give us the middle finger would have been a more clever way to make that work. The lame gag was unnecessary.

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Woo-hoo, we suck!

Thus have we often been trapped in the death spiral of endless credits hoping that there would be some sweet little tidbit in there somewhere to justify our OCD. Since I got a smartphone, I’ve gotten into the habit of searching the net on it after the credits roll to see whether there is an epilogue scene or not. It’s a simple solution, but it shouldn’t be necessary.  If it’s gotten to the point where the closing song is not long enough to contain the credits and the audience has to research whether or not they can leave at the end instead of losing another ten minutes or so of their lives that they can never get back, that is the exact moment where it needs to stop.

I understand that all of the people involved in such a massive project as a blockbuster film or a AAA video game want credit for their work and to give shout-outs to every person they’ve ever met (in the streets they call this “keepin’ it real”) and list every baby that was born during production and all that, but it’s really gotten out of control. I don’t know if it’s collective ego or force of habit or if every tester, programmer, assistant, and whatnot will go on strike if their name isn’t on screen for ten seconds of a ten minute text crawl, but it’s gotten to the point where it seriously detracts from the finished product at times and makes me angry at the end of something I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed.

Shadow of the Colossus ran their credits during the closing story sequence, Studi Ghibli and Pixar often give us adorable bonus art sequences, and Jackie Chan usually rocks your socks with outtakes and crazy brutal stunt fails as a bonus for sticking around awhile, to name a few alternatives of what studios could be doing right, but these are pretty much rarities. A few minutes is more than enough time for props to be given and filling that space with a little bonus content is not a tall order.

Quick, film fans: what is Boris Karloff’s defining role? That is correct. Frankenstein’s monster. But were you aware that this legend-making performance was not even credited onscreen?

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And let me point out while I’m here that there is no “Igor” in this film.

In the olden days of cinema, the end credits (when included at all) were typically limited to a single card featuring the primary cast. And damn it, we liked it that way! Or I would have if I’d been alive. Karloff didn’t even get his shoutout proper, yet everybody knows it was him. Not seeing his name on the screen did nothing to diminish the film or his role in it, and there is no possible way that a massive list of names which are meaningless to the viewer that is made up of enough text to finish A Song of Ice and Fire can improve the experience.     

So here’s what we are going to do, true believers… Well, I guess all we can really do is bitch about it on the internet. But oh, how we will bitch. I’m talking about flexing all of the internet’s entitled social justice whining muscles here. Take to Twitter and wreck Hideo Kojima with abuse. Post nasty things about Shane Black’s mother on Facebook. Or better yet, copy/paste from your local phonebook listings and spend all day spamming them with it.

Okay, you probably shouldn’t do those things because they are mean and obnoxious and may well take up even more of your time than these peoples’ absurdly long credits did in the first place. I guess if we are acting like adults, we’re pretty helpless to do anything about it unless we start tracking the length of end credits of upcoming releases and begin loudly boycotting them based on that. And that is stupid so let’s not do that either. To put it bluntly; we are f**ked.

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I’m sorry I let you down, Impotent Rage.

So consider this my conscientious objection to an entertainment trend that is currently burning my ass. All I ask is that they give us something interesting to look at beyond a black screen with white letters as they assault us with their entertainment industry hubris. It’s not a lot, but it’d be something.

At the end of my life as I lay on my death bed regretting all my final regrets, I can’t help but think I’ll have an especial burning rage and despair regarding the insane amount of time I spent watching ending credits hoping I’d catch a little something extra that turned out to not be worth it or nonexistent.  Hopefully I’ve still got plenty of time to plot all of the wicked nasty haunting stuff I’m going to do to the executives in charge of this shit when I’m a ghost. Paranormal Activity won’t have shit on me.

Six More One Season Wonders Taken From Us Before Their Times

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At some point I figure somebody held or will hold a contest for who could come up with the most unoriginal article idea and I intend on winning that sucker in spirit this week. If there’s anything we citizens of the almighty internet love to do it’s bemoan the fate of great shows that were canceled just because, and I’m the latest in to write about them.

Maybe it’s the supernatural curse of television sci-fi/fantasy/horror, or maybe some executive deliberately buried it so he could make room for his kid brother’s moronic sitcom idea, or maybe I was just the only one who liked the damn thing. Point is, the show is gone with the wind and if you’re lucky you’ll always have the DVD’s and the wonderment of what could have been.

And no, I’m not going to bore you with more Firefly gushings or anything so obvious. Just because the premise is unoriginal, doesn’t mean the content has to be. Here are six more shows that never got the second chance that they sorely deserved.

1. Lucy, The Daughter of the Devil

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This Adult Swim standout is one of the funniest things they’ve ever aired. You’ve got Satan, you’ve got his independent-minded daughter, her hippy boyfriend DJ Jesus (pronounced in Spanish) who may or may not be the second coming, a trio of special-ops Catholic priests (and a nun) out to destroy the evil and stop the apocalypse, and of course ukulele music. Because why the hell wouldn’t there be ukulele music?

The CG art style is unique and charming, and I think I can honestly say that the opening credits to each episode alone should have justified Lucy’s continued existence. Creative, diverse, and uniformly hilarious, you were taken on a brief and memorable trip through the wonderful world of low-budget post-ironic underground humor at the start of each and every episode; that and maybe a line of vampire choirboys singing Boogie Oogie Oogie while devouring an amorous priest. Yeah, it’s that kind of show.

And if you aren’t sold then I’ll just go ahead and point out that Satan is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin (of Archer fame). Okay, now picture that version of the Devil dueting with the Son of Man on Pat Benatar’s Shadows of the Night in a Mexican-themed karaoke bar. Who cancels that show? Seriously, I want to know so I can throw things at them in public.

There’s astonishingly little of Lucy for free on Youtube, but you can buy individual episodes there. If you prefer physical media you’ll likely need to import since Cartoon Network insisted on making the DVD release exclusive to their online store and then closed it down, but I did manage to scrounge up the first scene of the pilot episode for you.

 

2. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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This orgasmically hilarious delight from the UK lasted all of six episodes, and every second of each of them is to be cherished. What we’re looking at here is the perfect absurdist horror satire. Zero-budget artistic pretensions abound, as does poor acting, ridiculous commentary clips from the creators interspersed throughout, in-jokes, horror and sci-fi homages, and a general straight-faced savaging of every bad television trope you can think of. That’s a lot to manage in such a small number of episodes, but I swear by the end you feel like you’ve been watching this show your entire life because, in a way, you have.

Picture an 80’s horror version of Kung Pow: Enter the Fist with better jokes and pseudo-pretentions of self-importance and you may get an idea of what kind of humor you are in for. That’s the best I can do because there just has never been another show like this one. It was too cool to survive.

In spite of successful runs on American television, the show remains unreleased on DVD here, but the episodes are available on Youtube.  Have a clip.

 

3. Caprica

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One could argue that this Battlestar Galactica prequel was canceled deservedly and it was, in fact, a bit of a letdown. However, when it was good, it was really good. The pilot alone would have justified renewal in a perfect world. One season is often not enough for a show to hit its stride as going back to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer will confirm. Some room to grow is necessary and artists should have more room to work rather than be expected to hit it out of the park the first time every time.

The transhumanistic themes of the early episodes of Caprica were brilliance on par with the best that science fiction has to offer, as was the virtual reality world and inevitable hacking of it to create a kind of “deep web” for the seedier aspect to take wing. These were amazing creations and we deserved to see more of them. It’s unfortunate that much of the series was taken up with a half-assed mafia plot full of clichés, but the show was far from sunk and had a strong cast to match its greater ambitions.

I’d have very much liked to see where future seasons would have taken this one, but the Sci Fi Channel (still not calling it SyFy) opted to halt this chapter of the BSG saga and fast forward to more action in the web miniseries Blood and Chrome, which was great in an action movie kind of way, but lacked the more cerebral aspect that was Caprica’s bread and butter. In the first season, we got to see the birth of the Cylons, but it would have been great to see the series through all the way through their slavery and eventual rebellion too.

If you leave now, you’ll always wonder” indeed.

 

4. Camelot

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This Starz presentation was unfortunate enough to air at the same time as the first season of a certain fantasy smash hit on HBO, and got swallowed whole. Camelot was dubbed Game of Thrones -lite by critics, and while it did okay in the ratings the high production cost and cast scheduling issues contributed to its demise.

While the GoT comparisons are quite justified due to Camelot’s focus on political scheming, sex, and violence, the fact that it was based on Arthurian legends that were altered to keep it more down-to-Earth puts it in another category. And while one might argue about the casting of Arthur (kind of a scruffy pipsqueak) the rest of the cast ranged from sexy to badass, making it not unlike the more extreme Spartacus.

I was a big fan of this take on the stories I loved as a child and was sad to hear it wasn’t renewed. While Ralph Fiennes’ Merlin was definitely inspired, I was particularly smitten with Eva Green’s Morgan LeFay, who was portrayed as an ambitious and unscrupulous woman, but one that was shockingly relatable and even vulnerable at times. It seems crazy that they canceled a show about King Arthur before introducing Lancelot or the Round Table -much less any Holy Grail- but it happened. Goddammit, Starz.

 

5. Space: Above and Beyond

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This mid-90’s science fiction gem took ten years to finally get a proper DVD release. I remember regularly checking Amazon and finding only a similarly-titled but unrelated documentary with the top review title warning us off that his was not the show we were looking for. Space: Above and Beyond aired before I had access to the internet so I had no idea it was canceled at the time. I just waited and waited for a second season that never came. When the DVD release came, it languished on my Amazon wishlist for a long time as I suspected the 90’s-ness of it all may thwart my rose-tinted memories of it.

But no fear was necessary. Once I sat down and watched it, it was actually better than I remembered. Inspired by Starship Troopers, Above and Beyond dealt with the horrors of war from both sides, the potential social catastrophes of artificially grown humans, the possibilities of rebel AI, and a lot of other well-trod conceptual sci-fi tropes and themes, but in new and exciting ways and against the backdrop of war. This is without a doubt a must-see show for anyone who has ever loved military science fiction.

The cast was exceptional as well, although none of them have become break out stars. The Wild Cards were a diverse and young set of fighter pilots out to save the human race from a nigh-invincible intergalactic enemy. As with all good television series, they played it fast and loose like some sort of heavy gunnery equipment left unfastened aboard a ship, but damn it they got results! If nothing else, Above and Beyond gave me hope for the future. If people are still listening to Johnny Cash and the Ramones that long after we’ve colonized space, then maybe humanity really is worth saving after all.

6. Kindred: The Embraced.

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Remember Aaron Spelling, 90’s kids? Purveyor of nighttime soap operas for teenagers and middle aged housewives alike, Spelling ruled the prime time drama roost for a good long while. But did you know he had a show about vampires on around the same time a fellow One Season Wonder Hall of Fame inductee Space: Above and Beyond?  Furthermore, did you know it was actually really great?

Unreality readers may have noted that some of us have a fondness for the video game Vampire: the Masquerade-Bloodlines.  Well, Kindred: The Embraced is actually based in the same universe. In it, vampire society is divided into several clans and run by the Ventrue clan, whose head, Julian, is the Michael Corleone-esque vampire Prince of the city of San Francisco. As Prince, Julian gets to juggle presiding over several clans of conflicting bloodsuckers while maintaining vampire secrecy, watching out for his human niece, and loving the ladies. Because what good is any of it without a lady in your life.

While deviating from the White Wolf RPG source material to keep the story more down to earth, Kindred and its mythology was extremely compelling and unlike anything else on television. It was canceled after only eight episodes airing on CBS, and was considered for pick-up by Showtime (which could have been amazing) until the show’s star passed away in a traffic accident.  There is no God.

And there you have it: six more wonderful geeky television shows filled with potential for more awesomeness cut down before they even hit their primes. These shows all had so much potential that I broke my multiples of five rule because I just had to shoehorn an extra one in. The humanity. It’s a tale as old as the television medium itself and given the large number of cool shows hitting the air these days, we’ll probably have five more before you know it. Hopefully, some tool won’t feel the need to write an entire article about them, though. It’s been done to death.