Monday, March 31, 2008

A Guide To World of Warcraft Classes

I'm sure you've at least thought of giving World of Warcraft a try. And why not?? It's awesome. However, you will have a not so awesome time if you create a character with a class that doesn't suit you. Allow me to give you an expert's description of each and guide your decision to the right answer.
Class: Rogue
Real Life Analogue: Assassins and Cat Burglars
What's It Play Like??: Playing a Rogue in WoW is more or less like playing Ninjas, Thieves, and Assassins all rolled up into one. To put it simply, you can do a fuckton of melee damage but you have no armor so you will also die easily if confronted face to face. Though you get all kinds of neat things like poisons, lockpicking, and the ability to stun enemies, you will spend the majority of the game going into stealth mode and slowly walking toward enemies and then killing them quickly. If spotted or confronted by more than one enemy, you die quickly. Basically, playing a Rogue is like playing the PC game Thief (or any stealth action game on consoles) in a MMORPG. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.

Class: Shaman
Real Life Analogue: Medicine Man
What's It Play Like??: Much has been made of the fact that the Shaman is the jack-of-all-trades class in WoW. They can fight, heal, cast buff/debuff spells, cast offensive spells, and take damage without dying quickly. However, what this really means is that they suck at everything. You'll never be as good at anything as any other class and you'll have to juggle so many different skills and spells that your screen will become a clogged mess akin to a hardcore PC strategy game. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.
Class: Warlock
Real Life Analogue: Goths and the guy in the second Indiana Jones movie who can take people's hearts out of their chests by chanting
What's It Play Like??: Warlocks are often considered the power class of WoW that super hardcore people can do sickening damage with. Things couldn't be further from the truth. Sure, they have almost bottomless health and magic, can call upon demons for aid, can cast magic that either hurts or hurts a lot over more time, can create items that heal or summon other characters, get their mounts for free, and look pretty damn cool...but they're pussies. Everyone makes fun of Warlocks behind their backs. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.
Class: Warrior
Real Life Analogue: Those big dudes who do the Strong Man competitions where they have to throw giant logs and carry progressively heavier/larger metal balls and place them on top of pedestals
What's It Play Like??: If you have absolutely no imagination or skill, then Warriors are for you. They are quite possibly the most boring and easy class in the game. Imagine a Final Fantasy where all you could do is select 'Fight' over and over. That's Warriors. So, they suck. Don't use them. They're for noobs.
Class: Druid
Real Life Analogue: Furries and/or Hippies
What's It Play Life??: Druids are kind of like Shamans in that they can do everything but they can't do anything well. However, in order to do badly what other classes do well, Druids have to shapeshift into various animal forms. They are also vegetarians and probably enjoy a good drum circle, if you catch my drift. You know how Druids were secretly one of the best classes in the BioWare/Black Isle PC RPGs?? Well, in World of Warcraft they're not-so-secretly among the worst. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.
Class: Hunter
Real Life Analogue: Uhm, Hunters. Also, Zookeepers
What's It Play Like??: Playing a Hunter in WoW is really hard. Yes, they do lots of damage from a distance and can choose a pet from among most of the game's enemies, and they can use 'traps' to disable or hurt foes, but they're difficult to control. Your pets are guaranteed to do idiotic things, your traps often fail or are triggered by the wrong thing, your gun jams or your arrows get woodrot...Yeah, Hunters are like WoW on hard mode. The only people who play as Hunters are NRA fanatics and disgruntled zoo employees. You know, there's a good reason so many people play as Hunters in WoW: most people are stupid. And that, combined with the shittiness of the class, is why you never see anyone trying to find Hunters for groups or dungeon raids. So, they suck. Don't play as them. Only noobs play as them.
Class: Mage
Real Life Analogue: The Amazing Jonathon
What's It Play Like??: At first glance, Mages are awesome. They get the sort of big, impressive spells that get all of us RPG fans of all stripes hot and bothered. Unfortunately, the truth about Mages in WoW is that they're garbage. Playing a Mage is like playing a suicide bomber: you can dish out tons of damage, but you usually die in the process. Even high level Mages will die in one hit from level 1 squirrels. If you ever want to die over and over in a dungeon, have a Mage in your party. They're sure to fling out a bunch of spells that anger every creature in a ten block radius and get you all killed. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.
Class: Paladin
Real Life Analogue: Medieval Christian Crusaders and those pompous, I-went-a-private-school types in your college classes that always have to bring their religion into everything
What's It Play Like??: I used to wonder why almost all of the Crusades were failures, but then I tried a Paladin in WoW and I instantly got it: Crusaders are walking cans of green beans waiting for a Muslim sword to open them. Within the context of WoW, Paladins are a hybrid of Warriors and Priests. And you know what that means: they don't do as much damage as Warriors so they're even more boring to play as, with the added "benefit" of limp healing/buff spells that couldn't save anyone from dying from even the weakest of attacks. Like a splinter. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.
Class: Priest
Real Life Analogue: Priests, Carebear fans, and crybabies
What's It Play Like: Forgive me for implying that the Paladin was WoW's most boring class. That dubious honor goes to the Priest, who can heal people...and that's it. They will die as fast as Mages without any of the cool looking attack spells. They can't fight hand to hand, immediately outclassed by level 1 snakes. They don't get pets like Hunters or Warlocks. The coolest thing they get is a magic shield that prevents a certain amount of damage for a set amount of time, which was the game designer's way of saying "we know this class is utter shit, so here's a cheat code built into the game." I can hear the experts out there yelling that most people level up their Priests under the Shadow skill path so they have actual offensive capabilities, but all that really does is turn your Priest into a bad healer and a mediocre wannabe Mage/Warlock rolled up into one. No matter how you slice it, Priests are weaksauce. If you see a Priest in the game, you can bet that everyone else is laughing at them, and you should, too. So, they suck. Don't play as them. They're for noobs.

Class: Zergling
Real Life Analogue: When you see a million ants attacking and killing a larger bug
What's It Play Like??: Zerglings are the only real class in the game, as far as the expert players are concerned. They're kind of like Warriors in that they're physical fighters, but they can summon hundreds of copies of themselves, so I guess they're sorta like Hunter or Warlock pets. Some would argue that this takes all the fun out of the game, because all you have to do is Zerg rush everything and you can power level to 70 in 1/20th of the time it would take other classes to reach there...but these people are morons and noobs. The only fun part about WoW is getting to 70 and then running the same instance over and over to get an item that drops once every presidential election. Zerglings will have you doing this tedious, unrewarding...oops, I mean, awesome and hardcore gameplay style in no time!! So, they rock. Play as them. Only noobs don't play as them.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Destroyer- Trouble In Dreams

Most people like to divide Destroyer's work into the delicious and immediate songs for the New Pornographers and the intricate and studious for his own project. I've always had a problem with this inclination--for starters it forgets his Swan Lake project--because it means he consciously handpicks certain songs for each and I've never got the feeling he is that self aware. This, despite what almost every other critic constantly says about him: that he's becoming a self parody, all an act, wordy and poetic but doesn't mean anything he says, etc.

Me, I've always got the impression that he tries to make the best record he can each time out, and if the results vary, well, that's as much a matter of inspiration not striking as it is the methods and players he chose at the time. Interesting, then, that the players and methods for Trouble In Dreams have been carried over wholesale from his last album, 2006's much loved Destroyer's Rubies. The phrase "diminishing returns" may come to mind, and it's spot on. Trouble In Dreams is not a bad album, but it can't help but feel like an inferior version of Destroyer's Rubies.

I will give the album credit for at least restoring my faith in Dan Bejar as a songwriter. After the release of Destroyer's Rubies he went on to work on the Swan Lake collaboration with Carey Mercer and Spencer Krug. The resulting album, Beast Moans, almost wholly belongs to those two, with Bejar's contributions either subtle or lackluster. Then there's the last New Pornographers album, Mass Romantic, which is their weakest to date. Not coincidentally, it contains Bejar's weakest songs for the band where normally his songs were among the best. So I found myself looking forward to his next Destroyer release with some trepidation, and hallelujah, it's actually good. Career highlights abound on the album, like the drunken and thrashing 'The State', long psych-rock epic 'Shooting Rockets (From The Desk of Night's Ape)' (a remake of a song from the Swan Lake album), nuanced and delicate 'Introducing Angels', and coy Dylan-esque piano driven 'Rivers.' If every song is not a homerun, there are at least enough moments where the bases are loaded to warrant a listen.

Yet I don't want to praise Trouble In Dreams too much. It virtually defines the phrase "more of the same, but not as good." 'Dark Leaves From A Thread' sounds like a warmed over Destroyer's Rubies outtake, all frantic changes and melodious-but-flaccid lead guitar. Then there's the needlessly long 'My Favorite Year', with its momentum killing and impossible to understand "you reside in" refrain and pointless, wordless vocals. And while this may definitely sound like splitting hairs and wanting this album to be something it's not, Trouble In Dreams begins and ends weakly: 'Blue Flower/Blue Flame' is too mellow for an opener, while 'Libby's First Sunrise' runs off inconsequentially and gives one no sense of satisfaction. Compare this to Destroyer's Rubies which opens with the epic and dramatic 'Rubies' and ends with the energetic and playful guitar rock of 'Sick Priest Learns To Last Forever.'

All in all, one hopes that Destroyer does the impossible and produces something both new and better with his next release. My feelings for Trouble In Dreams are mixed and muddled. Taken on its own, it's a very good album. However, nothing exists in a vacuum, so it's also an inferior version of Destroyer's Rubies, though still not bad by any means. Fans are advised to pick this up immediately, but everyone else should seek out his other, more different work first.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Playstation

If the NES made strides toward turning videogames into a mainstream form of entertainment, and the Genesis tried to make videogames cool, then the Playstation was the system that combined these goals and succeeded at doing both. This success was due as much to the actions of Sony as it was the botched handling of the Saturn and the failure of Nintendo to see the future (or, given their continued reticence in the online arena, a failure to do anything about the future).

It's easy to forget that the dominance of the Playstation was neither assured nor rapid. Launched in the fall of 1995, the system really didn't start to see any great games until 1997, by which point it was more than a bit sobering to compare its game lists and upcoming releases to the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn. However, I don't think anyone was really 100% sure about the Playstation until that time. Though it had the massive Sony corporation backing it, almost everyone assumed that Nintendo would clean up in that generation just as they had before. As kids and/or young adults, we didn't have any idea of the background to what was happening: the expense of producing carts vs. the inexpensive Playstation CD format; the arrogance and unfriendliness of Nintendo to third party developers vs. Sony's open arms; the generally crap N64 hardware vs. the easy to program for and great design of the Playstation. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think we could be forgiven for blindly believing Nintendo's promises and being suspicious of Sony. As some have pointed out, this was the era of failed CD systems like 3DO and Sega CD, and the Playstation felt like more of the same.

By 1997, though, we all knew that the N64 was going to be Nintendo's ballgame and the Playstation had everything else you could possibly want. Everyone kept their N64 around for those--admittedly--brilliant first party Nintendo titles twice a year and spent the rest of the time focused on the Playstation. Which, as I just said, had everything else you could possibly want, including 'cool' mature titles like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy VII. It even had things you never knew you wanted, like the cult classic Parappa the Rapper, a rhythm game that, one could argue, helped pave the way for the success of Guitar Hero in the U.S. Of course, the Playstation also had all the best racing games, sports games, action games, practically every RPG of that generation (if you didn't import Saturn titles, anyway), fighting games, stealth action (Metal Gear Solid, hello), and even some shoot-em-ups.

Bizarrely enough, all of my friends continued to drink the Nintendo cult Kool Aid during this era. I guess their own biological clock interest in videogames coincided with Nintendo, so they only needed two or three games a year. As for me, I jumped unto the Sony ship in the winter of 1998. After being unable to obtain a copy of Zelda: Ocarina of Time--the one and only game that I felt could satisfy what I wanted on the N64--I wandered over to the Playstation case in Target and I couldn't lie to myself anymore. I wanted a Playstation. Funnily enough, I didn't end up playing through Ocarina of Time until just before the release of Wind Waker on Gamecube, and I know that if I had managed to get a copy of Ocarina of Time, it would only have delayed my Playstation purchase for so long.

There are a handful of factors that made me want a Playstation--the cool factor, the relatively cheap(er) game prices, the variety of titles, the novelty of new gameplay experiences like Parappa or Metal Gear Solid--but the main one was RPGs. Though it runs neck and neck in my heart with the SNES for having both the most and best RPGs, there's no denying how much the Playstation did for popularizing and expanding the RPG market in the U.S. This is largely due to the success of Final Fantasy VII, but since the install base of the Playstation grew so large, companies like Atlus and Working Designs were willing to risk bringing obscure RPGs over because they could probably turn a profit. I know that I bought at least a few RPGs for each year the Playstation was active, and not all of those were Square titles. So it became a positive Catch 22: more people were buying RPGs because more RPGs were being released, and more RPGs were being released because more people were buying them.

Life during the Playstation era was good, but we all still had eyes out for the next batch of consoles. During 1998, we began to hear about Sega's next console, the Dreamcast, which would be released in the U.S. on Sept. 9, 1999. A little over a year later, the Playstation 2 was released, and about a year after that, the Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo Gamecube would both hit shelves. Though the Playstation 1 era wasn't officially over until 2003, when Final Fantasy Origins (the last significant release by my reckoning) was released in the U.S., it only truly had us for a full 4 years (I'm counting 1997-2001 as the height of the PS1 era) before we started to move on. I kept buying and playing Playstation games, but in the holiday season of 2000 I got a Dreamcast, and a bit over a year later, I got a Playstation 2, at which point I traded in my Playstation due to the PS2's backwards compatibility.

In the end, one could just as easily make the argument that the original Playstation was the most significant console ever released as they could that the NES was. I still tend to bow to the NES, but I do have a lot of nostalgia and rose tinted memories of the Playstation. Though history has been continually less kind to the Nintendo 64 and its games (and the less said of Saturn in the U.S., the better), I would argue that the majority of PS1 games still hold up, and that's saying quite a lot in an industry that moves as fast as videogames.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Album of the Week: Stephen Malkmus: Real Emotional Trash

The last time I saw Stephen Malkmus, he was playing solo and acoustic at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer. He seemed very relaxed and sloppy, which are two things I normally associate with both his solo albums as well as his much celebrated, loved, and (sometimes) hated former band, Pavement. However, his performance was also brilliant in its way: his between song was banter clever, funny, and self deprecating, but his acoustic playing seemed frustrated and at times awkward. It occurred to me then that Stephen Malkmus was, has, and always will be an electric kind of guy, and I couldn't wait to hear what his next album would turn out like.

One of the standard cards that music critics can play is the "band album." I realize that this may not be as 'common knowledge' as I assume it is, so let me explain. When a band or solo artists releases a "band album", it typically means that the album is tightly played but jammy, as if the band had played the songs for awhile and were familiar enough with them to stretch them to their breaking points and/or add new little emphases or accents here and there. Real Emotional Trash is all of these things: it's played extremely well, but it stretches out and has many little bits and pieces that feel thrown in because the band were a bit bored and needed to spice things up.

Anyone who follows Stephen Malkmus had to see this coming. Not only did Pig Lib point the way to this kind of prog rock/jam bandy/classic rocky music, but tracks from other solo works ('No More Shoes' says hello) did too. Hell, you could trace his particular inclination for this kind of thing back to 'Fillmore Jive' off Pavement's second album if you wanted to. Anyway, indie rock and extended guitar soloing are not mutually exclusive. For starters, Dinosaur Jr. and Built To Spill would have something to say on the matter, and then there's My Morning Jacket, who skirt the line between jam band and indie rock pretty finely. But I digress.

The real story behind Real Emotional Trash is that it is Malkmus's coming out party as a guitar hero as well as his tip-of-the-hat to his sometimes credited band, the Jicks. Though indie rock has its stalwart guitar heroes--from the noise masters Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth to Neil Youngish J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. to good-at-everything Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline of Wilco--it's only now that we can truly say Stephen Malkmus has made a point of foregrounding his chops. It will take a live album to really see if he stands up to the old masters of classic rock and beyond but, for a studio album, it's easily his most guitar centric. At the same time, it's the first one that really gives any kind of credit to the Jicks, his backing band. Though their lineup has shuffled over the past 4 releases, in ex-Sleater Kinney drummer Janet Weiss he has found a sympathetic musical foil not known since the early Pavement/Gary Young or mid-to-late Pavement Steve West days. That's not to discredit the other Jicks, who offer solid-but-unremarkable bass and brilliant-but-understated keyboards.

Anyway, let's cut to the chase. The title track is a flat out epic, building steam and segueing into a rocking second half--I'm almost tempted to let Malkmus know that he's not in a jam band and he isn't supposed to do this kind of thing (especially on a studio album) but the result is so visceral and, frankly, awesome that I keep my mouth shut. 'Baltimore' is a 6+ minute Malkmus showcase, with guitars stacking on top of guitars to continually keep the rock going. Meanwhile, the less indulgent side of Malkmus shows up in the short, pop-ish 'Gardenia' with its female backing vocals that recall the brilliant 'Us' from Pig Lib (and make one wish he'd contrast his voice with others more often) and the early album ballady 'Cold Son.' Finally, there's 'Elmo Delmo', which combines Malkmus's love for absurdist/poetic wordplay with whip sharp music acrobatics, effectively combining his two artistic spheres (jammy guitar hero and weird indie rock poet) in one of the album's best decadent treats.

At this point, if you're a Stephen Malkmus fan, I feel like you've either accepted the aforementioned sides of his musical spheres or you prefer one over the other. If you can't stand his instrumental grandstanding, then Real Emotional Trash represents his nadir in the same way that Face The Truth felt like his best album since Pavement's Wowee Zowee. For the rest of us, Real Emotional Trash is just another great solo album that expands the Malkmus book and expounds upon the jammy/guitar hero ploy that Pig Lib only hinted at.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Video: My Bloody Valentine- Only Shallow

I can go either way on performance videos. It's cool to see the band playing the song--or at least miming along to it--but it also feels kind of lazy to me. I mean, if you're going to make an official video, why not have some kind of concept or conceit??

Well, at least in My Bloody Valentine's case, they added a bunch of filters and film noise to approximate, visually, the sound of the album. As novel as it is to see the normally faceless band, it's slightly more interesting that they chose to make a performance video with art film overtones. "We'll let you see us, but only through a haze, because what we look like isn't important here--it's the haze."

I also remember reading somewhere that the iconic cover image for Loveless comes from a still of Kevin Shields' guitar from either this video or the one for 'Soon.' So, there's that.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Album of the Week: Neutral Milk Hotel- In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Though we've all probably experienced deja vu, there are actually three types of deja vu. One of which is called deja vecu, which is, apparently, what most people mean when they say "woah, deja vu!!": that feeling that you've experienced or done something before, and possibly, too, that you know exactly what you're supposed to say or do next.

Sometimes, while listening to albums for the first time, I feel that sense of deja vu. It's as if I have listened to it before, somehow, because it seems so familiar and yet there's no way it should be--I don't mean music that is predictable or trite, I mean new music I've never heard before, or heard anything like it. I can practically 'feel' or 'guess' what the next song or line will be like; it's strange and surreal at the same time. How appropriate, then, that one of the first times I remember having musical deja vecu was when I listened to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea for the first time.

Revisionists have been quick to declare the album an instant classic and a landmark piece of music, but the truth is it wasn't reviewed as such on its release. Even the now overly enthusiastic Pitchfork Media originally gave it a 8.7 out of 10: not a bad score by any means, but not exactly perfect, either. However, I do remember hearing about the album a year or two after its release. Someone mentioned that The Glow pt. 2 by the Microphones sounded a bit like it, and so I found myself in a record store trying to decide between the two. I went with the Microphones album, and had mostly forgotten about Neutral Milk Hotel until college, when a girlfriend had it in her collection and insisted I had to listen to it.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has that peculiar ability to sound familiar and yet totally foreign. It's the same way that Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, and The White Album have a unique and odd feeling to them, at once familiar and totally foreign. In short, "uncanny" in the literal sense of the word. They sound eerie and strange, created by people who's work you're familiar with, and yet there's some intangible element at play that seems to go beyond known scientific, logical reality. To me, albums like these are complete masterpieces that somehow transcend both the people who recorded them and their intentions for the finished product.

This album has always been particularly uncanny to me both for the way it sounds and the way it keeps popping up in my life. Though the album is, at its basic level, a singer/songwriter/folk concept piece vaguely based on the emotional response Jeff Magnum had to reading about Anne Frank, it has an unique mix of instruments and Magnum's bizarre voice to put a wholly original spin on things. Utilizing such odd instruments as shortwave radio, singing saw, bowed banjo, accordion, zanzithophone, and bagpipes, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has a vaguely Eastern European ethnic world music sound mixed with American indie rock lo-fi folk. Then there's Magnum's voice, which you'll either love or hate--nasally, always stretching for notes, strangled, pained, and ultimately, as transcendent and beautiful as the music itself. David Berman of the Silver Jews once sang "all my favorite singers couldn't sing", and that about sums it up.

Strangest of all is the way the album keeps recurring in my life. After first reading about it, and hearing the comparison to The Glow pt. 2, I would occasionally see it mentioned on message boards by people who said it was a must hear album. Then, after hearing it via my girlfriend, I was at a party once and happened to hear something familiar playing in one of the apartment's bedrooms. It's one of those times where your body physically notices some familiar thing before you consciously do--you stop and look around and think to yourself "wait, I know this''s..." Sure enough, one of the girls who lived there had her iTunes on shuffle and 'Two-Headed Boy' was playing. About a year later, I heard a song from the album playing on the college's radio station after I broke up with the girlfriend who introduced me to it. Just recently, someone sent me a mix CD with a non-Aeroplane Neutral Milk Hotel song on it.

As for the music itself, well, it's amazing. Though build upon Jeff Magnum's rock solid acoustic guitar strumming, the songs take on all sorts of weird sounds and textures--witness the title track, which adds booming bass, light handed drumming, a flugelhorn solo, wailing siren somethings, and I don't even know what else. Similarly, the lyrics are as unhinged and skewed as the music and famous album cover. I'm sure that most people who listen to the album think the lyrics are nonsense garbage, but they do something to me that I can't put into words; in short, they're as uncanny and familiar/foreign as the music. The lyrics are highly poetic and very bodily oriented: there are all sorts of mentions of the body and its processes, and somehow even as odd as it all is, it captures what it's like to be human and, actually, to be in love. The final track, 'Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two' has always been particularly gripping to me, the way it harkens back to the first 'Two-Headed Boy' and wraps up the album on a devastatingly bittersweet note:

"And when we break, we'll wait for our miracle
God is a place where some holy spectacle lies
God is a place you will wait the rest of your life
Two headed boy she is all you could need
she will feed you tomatoes and radio wires
and retire to sheets safe and clean
but don't hate her when she gets up to leave"

Sometimes I wonder if people get bogged down in all the minutiae of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I do find myself wondering if everyone would feel the same about the album if Jeff Magnum had released anything in the past 10 years. I mean, what if OK Computer was Radiohead's second album and they had disappeared for 10 years: would that effect your opinion and love for that album any?? I'd like to think not. Many bands have released albums after their masterpiece but we all still rate those masterpieces as their best...but, you never know. I mean, where could you really go from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea?? But I digress. Don't read about this album anymore. Don't dissect it, figure out exactly what every song means, what every sound you hear is played by, and so forth. Just get a copy, listen to it, and let one of the most spellbinding and brilliant albums of the 90s wash over you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Video: Pixies- Dig For Fire/Allison

I'm sure that somebody will immediately come out and prove me wrong, but off the top of my head, the only time I can think that a band directly linked two videos was the Pixies with 'Dig For Fire' and 'Allison.' Before I had even heard or heard of the Pixies, I happened upon this video late night on MTV once while in junior high. I didn't so much like the songs, but something about the juxtaposition of the two songs and the way the two videos were tied together worked for me.

In 'Dig For Fire' we see the band suiting up in leather, then jumping on motorcycles for a psychedelic/dreamy travel sequence. They arrive at their destination, putting in earplugs and going into a stadium looking building...

..only to reveal that, yes, this is a stadium, and they're here to perform 'Allison' in the empty middle of the field.

Personally, I prefer the video (and song) for 'Here Comes Your Man', but I like the concept behind these two paired videos better. I often find myself wondering what happens to the characters after a music video/novel/videogame ends, and in the case of these videos, you get to find out where they're going.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Penny Arcade: The Warsun Prophecies

In the first sentence of the introduction to this, the third volume of Penny Arcade webcomic collections, Jerry Holkins (aka Tycho) says that 2002 "might be [his] favorite year of Penny Arcade." He then closes by saying "[e]very good thing that has ever happened to me has been the result of your enthusiasm, your kindness, and your support." These two statements are fairly significant, taken together, and represent something about this year in particular.

The 'something' I refer to is the fact that this was the year when--apparently--Penny Arcade became fully reader supported. The introduction also mentions the advertisers, but Tycho seems to be specifically talking to the readers, especially when he thanks them so graciously. You really get the feeling that through these statements, and the very strips themselves, 2002 was the year where Tycho and Gabe realized they had an audience and began to write toward their own whims because they knew hundreds, thousands, indeed, millions of readers would eat it up.

It'd be easy to make a case for this being one of the best Penny Arcade years, too. Setting aside the origins of the ever popular Fruitf*****, Cardboard Tube Samurai, and Mr. Period characters, 2002 also has a lot of my personal favorite strips, such as the paint huffing one, Claw Shrimp, the Space Devil, the surge protector/"harmful Martian Rays" one, and Tribes 3/4/5's "beating a dead horse." While I suppose it's true that the strip became more insular, vulgar, and "you might need to read the newspost to get the joke" during 2002, that's always been the big appeal for me, anyway. Furthermore, I often find that violence and gross out humor are done best when they are written by very intelligent people, and to that extent, Penny Arcade's creators are two of the most intelligent, critical, and sharp minds in the whole videogame industry. And they like to swear.

Other than all the strips from 2002, The Warsun Prophecies contains Tycho's commentary on every strip, his introduction, an angry and funny introduction by PvP creator Scott Kurtz, and a few pages of concept art from the forthcoming Penny Arcade game. While this isn't the wealth of bonus content that the second collection had, it's still enough for any fan to appreciate and want to buy. In my opinion it's worth the price of admission just for Tycho's commentary, which, as always, is funny, informative, and other words that mean 'funny' and 'informative.'

If you're a fan, you simply must have this.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Super Smash Brothers Brawl

Trying to come up with a good way to begin my review, my head is a jumble of ideas, features, and concepts that swirl around each other in a chaotic mess. But, somehow, that's the perfect introduction to this game: Super Smash Brothers Brawl is chaos, and that's a very good thing.

When I was a kid, I used to get out all of my action figures and have a huge battle royale. Sure, they didn't all have the same scale so some of them were huge in comparison, and more often than not in my excitement I'd break something or put dents in the walls of my room...but I'd be lying if I didn't say that those were always the most fun times I had with those toys, because something about the mash ups and juxtapositions it allowed for was ridiculous and compelling. Thus, the main reason why I think Smash Brothers fascinated me before in the first two games and continues to fascinate me and everyone else with this new installment: it's just fun to see totally unrelated characters fight each other.

The best way I can think of to describe the Smash Brothers series is the following formula: one part party game, two parts fighting game, one part platformer, and three parts nostalgia. Let's take these parts one at a time.

Ever since the original on the N64, Smash Brothers has been one of those de facto party games that people get together to play. It's simple and easy to play, and while skilled players will normally dominate, there's enough chaos and randomness to allow even newcomers to win. Or lose miserably, which is just as fun. It is exceedingly rare that a game can make losing fun, but Smash Brothers does it. Perhaps that's because Brawl, more than ever, makes death a constant. So many things are happening on screen, so many attacks and items are being thrown around, that you're bound to miss something and eventually die. But I almost always find myself laughing and having a great time when, say, a stray Bob-bomb nails me or someone else gets to the Final Smash (a floating item that, when hit enough times, grants the player an overpowered super attack) and destroys everyone on screen. In any other game these kind of things would frustrate and have you shouting "CHEAP!!" alongside obscenities, but as long as you aren't playing to win, you'll always have a great time.

The fighting game aspect of Super Smash Brothers Brawl comes in the fact that it's the game's basic genre. The goal of the game is to knock the other players off the stage rather than simply wearing down a fighting game standard life bar. However, the higher each player's damage percentage becomes, the easier they are to knock away. At the same time, Smash Brothers has always been a pick up and play kind of fighting game because it uses far fewer buttons and attacks than the typical fighting game. The A button is responsible for your basic attacks--kicks, punches--while the B button does all the special moves, of which each character has four. These special moves are unique to each character: Mario has his fireballs, Link has his bombs, Pikachu has lighting attacks, etc. While there are hardcore Smash players out there who will master Brawl, the game is still decidedly aimed at the casual gamer who won't want to--or even need to--master the crazy, advanced moves that people discovered in Smash Brothers Melee on Gamecube.

More than the previous two games, Super Smash Brothers Brawl has inspired stage design just like a platformer. Whereas most of the stages from the others were relatively static, almost all of the new ones from Brawl change as time ticks on and do all kinds of creative things, from the WarioWare stage that interrupts the action every so often to make the players do WarioWare minigames to the way the Frigate Orpheon stage flips upside down, disorienting everyone for a few seconds. Moreover, the new single player mode--Subspace Emissary--is even closer to a platformer, similar to Melee's Adventure mode but much more fleshed out and varied. Though it's no Super Mario Galaxy, Brawl's level designs are one of the many things that make the game as amazing as it is.

Finally, and this part is critical, the nostalgia factor. If you've been a Nintendo fan for any length of time, this game is essentially aimed directly at you. Even setting aside the characters new and old, Brawl has the series standard huge number of Trophies to collect (essentially just collectible 3D models with accompanying text) that are items or characters from seemingly every Nintendo game from the past 25 years; Stickers, which are similar collectibles but ones that can be used in the Subspace Emissary to power up your characters; and Music CDs, which allow you to listen to tracks from a variety of Nintendo games. The fact that they included Pit from the NES game Kid Icarus as a playable character--a character, it's important to note, who hasn't appeared in anything since--speaks volumes for how dedicated this game is to pleasing Nintendo fans from the absolute hardcore to the most casual.

There is so much more I need to talk about--the Stage Builder, the minigames, the Events mode, the Challenges wall, not to mention more about Subspace Emissary and the characters/stages themselves--but I need to get to perhaps the greatest addition to this series: online play. Using the Wii's WiFi Internet capabilities, players can battle each other online. Using game specific Friend Codes, you can play with friends online in a handful of the games modes (one hopes that someday we'll be able to play the singeplayer-only modes like Subspace Emissary and All-Star with friends online) as well as use primitive chat via the game's Taunts. Then there's the Play Anyone option, which finds random players online to fight, though you can't use any of the Taunt Chat and are limited to the basic fighting mode--or you can be a Spectator and bet coins on other people's matches. So far my experience with Online has been hit or miss, both with Friends and Play Anyone. Matches ranged from no latency whatsoever to a one-to-three second delay, which completely ruins a fast paced game like this. As for Play Anyone, sometimes you will find three other willing opponents in less than a minute, and other times you will find no one after three minutes of waiting (or simply get disconnected from the servers). In short, when it works it's great; when it doesn't, well, there's enough other things to go on your own.

From a purely "is this game fun or not, and is it a good value??" point of view, Super Smash Brothers Brawl is the best title currently available for the Wii. I could put on my critic's cap and really dig into the minutiae, how some characters seem overpowered or some of the game's single player content is frustrating and cheap on higher difficulty levels, but this is the sort of game that resists criticism.

It seems as though this entire review ended up being a big jumble of ideas, concepts, and features after all, but as I said at the beginning, maybe that's the point. You don't need to sit around and think about the game like you would a BioShock or Silent Hill, where even though it may not have always been fun, it was a compelling experience. You don't need a critic to help you make sense of it. All you need to do with Super Smash Brothers Brawl is just put it on, hit start, and have fun.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Captain Beefheart- Lick My Decals Off, Baby

Like a lot of difficult, strange, or abstract music, Captain Beefheart has always been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I've officially ran the gamut of reactions to his music--well, the albums I've heard anyway--from "what the hell is this?!" to "is this a joke??" to "joke or not, I like it" to "this is awesome!!" to "do I just like this because I'm drunk??" to "do I just like this because it's so unlike anything else??" to "man, it's funny playing this around people who aren't prepared for it" to "OK, yeah, this is great." I feel like I've spent as much time, if not more time, thinking about his music than I have listening to it. Perhaps that is part of my fascination with it and similar artists like Pere Ubu, Frank Zappa, and Man Man: they force you to reconsider your notions of what is and isn't music, what can and can't be a rhythm or melody, what structure (if any) is necessary, and finally, just how we react to music that piece by piece or all at once subverts our expectations about music.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby is the follow-up to Trout Mask Replica, a nearly mythical album that still astounds and confounds almost 40 years later. Though in my opinion it's not Beefheart's best, Lick My Decals Off, Baby is worthy of similar praise and recognition. Where Trout set the table with an insane mix of avant garde, free jazz, rock, old fashioned blues, and Beefheart's indescribable voice that ranges from low growls to high pitched shrieks, Lick My Decals refines the sound by paring down to a single album and stripping away some of the bizarre instrumentation, while subsequently adding the sublime marimba of Art Tripp. With all of this comes a change in tone: Lick My Decals feels and sounds less playful and absurdist, toughening up and having a more bitter/cynical lyrical bent.

To try to describe the sound of the album is almost impossible. Somewhere between free jazz and late 60s/early 70s rock, Lick My Decals Off, Baby moves from the mindblowing instrumental showcases like 'One Red Rose That I Mean' to the blusey-but-warped 'The Buggy Boogie Woogie' to the frantic freak-outs like 'Doctor Dark' and 'The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye).' You really must experience Captain Beefheart's music for yourself to get what it's all about, because there is very little precedent or basis for comparison.

Therein lies the genius of the album, and the reason you'll either love or hate it. This truly is one of those cases where one man's genius is another man's charlatan. Either Captain Beefheart is an intensely creative person who recorded some of the most sublime and unique music of the 20th century, or he's an overrated trash merchant who people say they like in order to seem cool or ahead of trends. I fall on the pro side of the debate, though almost everyone I know hates him.

On a side note, Lick My Decals Off, Baby is currently out of print on CD. So if you really want to hear this, you'll have to get a record player and track it down. I assure you that if you like Captain Beefheart, it's worth the trouble.

I don't feel as though much more needs to be said about this album. In my estimation it's not as good as Trout Mask Replica, but it's still essential listening for fans of Captain Beefheart, and anyone who enjoys bizarre, experimental music.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Album of the Week: Talk Talk- Laughing Stock

I generally don't try to make significance out of coincidences, but it's difficult for me not to start this off without pointing out that, in 1991, Slint's Spiderland and Talk Talk's Laughing Stock were released. Post-rock being one of the most important and fascinating 'underground' genres to emerge in the mid-90s in both the UK and American music scenes, it's also important to note that Slint were an American band and Talk Talk were English. Also, listening to the two albums back to back, they don't sound much alike in the same way that no two post-rock bands will sound much alike, but still feel as though they occupy the same space.

Laughing Stock was the last and most experimental album released by Talk Talk. By this point, the band were almost fully a studio-only creature, giving the band plenty of time to craft this masterpiece. Drawing on a mix of jazz, ambient, and rock, Laughing Stock is a unique and, I daresay, magical piece of music. Nothing else sounds quite like it, from the angry crescendos of 'Ascension Day' to the half jazz/half krautrock beat of 'After The Flood' to the gorgeous but melancholic 'New Grass', built on top of pristine guitar chords. The deft and often unorthodox use of strings and horns only adds to the totally original and brilliant palette of sounds. If Spiderland didn't sound like anything other American bands were doing at the time of its release, let alone any bands anywhere, well, Laughing Stock didn't either.

I want to sort of pick up that thread and run with it, because as much as one can say the albums were influential on the post-rock genre, they still exist on their own. The Wikipedia entry for Laughing Stock mentions that reviews noted the album's kinship with In A Silent Way by Miles Davis, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In A Silent Way is a similar mix of jazz, rock, and ambient music, though it sounds entirely different. The same goes for Spiderland, which sticks more closely to a rock sound but approaches it from strange new angles via math rock, prog rock, minimalism, and so forth. Those looking to dig into the roots of post-rock (which, admittedly, go further back than 1991) will find in Spiderland and Laughing Stock touchstones for the sub-genre as well as elements and ideas they have never heard before.

This may just be my American perspective talking, but I feel as if Laughing Stock has been forgotten. Pitchfork actually ranked it above Slint's Spiderland on their 'Top 100 Albums of the 90s' feature 5 years back, but I don't think there's any doubt which album is better known or more listened to these days. Which is a shame, because there is so much to enjoy and dwell inside with this album. If music could ever be compared to a perfect dreamscape you wish you didn't have to wake up from, you could do worse than using Laughing Stock to argue it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Video: Pavement- Shady Lane

Of all the Pavement videos, 'Shady Lane' struck me as the most true to their aesthetic. While videos like 'Cut Your Hair' and 'Father To A Sister Of Thought' are good fun, they could be for anything, really, other than the barber setting for the former and the country-ish vibe of the latter. No, only 'Shady Lane' really matches Pavement.

I won't bother with a play-by-play because you're supposed to watch the damn thing, but I will point out--helpfully and politely--that the seemingly random scenes it presents to you are every bit as self contained and fleshed out as the average Pavement lyric. Stephen Malkmus is infamous for often writing lyrics that sound good but don't seem to mean anything. In my book that just puts him in the absurdist/poetic camp of writing, in which images or concepts are thrown out to exist on their own, sound good, or juxtapose with each other. Each line becomes like a mini-story or movie scene of its own, just as we see in this video. The car driving without any driver, the vacation slideshow, the super-real looking breakfast, the gas station dance...all seem to have nothing in common; even if they don't, they all make up a tapestry of mini-stories, as if we're being presented with vertical slices of bigger story pies.

Also, the image of a headless Stephen Malkmus is oddly affecting and memorable. I'm sure there's some kind of symbolism hidden within that which I could use to retroactively prove that he was already thinking about breaking up the band, but I'll leave that up to you to puzzle out.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Nintendo 64

I couldn't find a decent image of the original box, so just bear with me

Somewhere in the basement I have an old issue of some third party Nintendo 64 magazine. It came out during the first half of 1998, and reading it back then, it felt perfectly normal not to see many games I wanted coming out. Reading it after the N64 era had closed, the issue now seems like a historical document proving that things weren't going as well as I thought.

The Nintendo 64 still has a great reputation among gamers, particularly those my age or below, and I suppose it's for any number of reasons. When you're young, as I was when the Nintendo 64 came out, you only get a new game every once in awhile, so it didn't feel like the system was failing when I played all of 3 or 4 games a year. At the same time, we were all still under the spell of Nintendo. During that weird time between the end of the 16 bit generation and the domination of Sony's Playstation, Nintendo were the most obvious and safest bet. As discussed in my last entry, Sega had more or less hung themselves and by the end of 1997 they had all but given up on the Saturn in the U.S. So, we wanted to believe that the Nintendo 64 would be awesome--and really, it wasn't that bad of a system. Looking over the list of games for it, I noticed a few I had forgotten about, like Blast Corps. and Dr. Mario 64 (yeah, I had no idea they even released this).

My two main memories of the Nintendo 64 are getting it and getting fed up with it. I had a friend who got the system at launch, and shortly after, I was at his house watching him play Mario 64 for most of a day and never getting a chance to play. Another friend got it around the time of Mario Kart 64, and to be sure the 3 or 4 player matches we had were every bit as amazing as the two player experiences I had with friends or my sister on the earlier systems. Meanwhile, I finally got my N64 during the summer of 1997. I think I made a deal with my parents that if I painted the shed and our back deck, they would get me the system and Starfox 64. The hard work was worth it, because Starfox 64 and its rumble pak were revolutionary things. Not only was the N64 the first system to truly feature analog controls (meaning your character could run or walk depending on how far you pushed the stick instead of you having to hold down a button to toggle running off or on) but it was the first one to truly feature force feedback. Unfortunately, only having one game to play--and Starfox 64 of all games--gets really old after awhile, so I borrowed things like Cruis'n USA and Turok from friends. That Fall, Goldeneye came out, and with the combination of it, Mario Kart 64, Starfox 64, and Mario Party, it just kind of clicked that it would be a system for hanging out with friends and having fun.

However, the greatest flaw of the Nintendo 64 was its lack of great single player experiences. Oh, sure, there were Mario and Zelda titles for it, but by and large the system had no RPGs to speak of. Zelda games don't count as RPGs, so I could probably name the N64 RPGs on one hand, though the list would include the caustic Quest 64, who's generic title is actually the best thing about it. Hilariously enough, I very nearly bought Quest 64 to hold me over until Zelda: Ocarina of Time came out, though in the end I never got either game. In fact, I owned the Nintendo 64 for about a year and a half before Zelda, and I can't imagine waiting that long for a good single player game, let alone something that wasn't a RPG, to come out nowadays. But I did, and in my idiocy, I didn't reserve the game. This was before reserving games even entered the lingo of gamers--it just seemed inconceivable that Nintendo wouldn't release enough copies of a game. But they did, and it was the straw that broke the camel's back. I had been eyeing the library of the Playstation for some time--all the RPGs and the great single player experiences--and I finally turned my back on Nintendo.

I don't want to make this sound like I totally dropped the N64, though. I kept buying games for it, but they usually amounted to a quarter--if that--of my Playstation purchases. 1999 and 2000 weren't great years for the system, but they did see key releases, like the first Smash Brothers, Paper Mario, Perfect Dark, and Zelda: Majora's Mask. Assuming you were a two-or-three games a year kind of gamer, I'm sure the N64 was very good. But for everyone else, they were lean, sad times. It felt like a right of passage to get a Playstation and open up your eyes after being brainwashed by Nintendo propaganda for so long--the issues of Nintendo Power, the bizarre videos they created to promote the launch of the system and Starfox 64, all the shit talking about how carts were superior to CDs, etc. I feel sorry for people who stuck to Nintendo as their sole source of gaming, partially because they were missing out on so much greatness on the Playstation (and, later, the Dreamcast), but mostly because Nintendo wasn't rewarding their loyalty with much of anything. In fact, I kind of hate Majora's Mask, but that's a whole different post.

I say all of the above as a huge Nintendo fan, but it'd be hard for anyone to argue that the latter half of the 90s was anything other than the cracking of the Nintendo egg. Sega nearly did it before falling on their own sword, and Sony actually did it. At the same time, Nintendo made a series of bad business decisions, from the ill-conceived and quickly killed Virtual Boy to keeping with the expensive cart format to being arrogant with third party developers to designing a system that was difficult to program for to requiring people to buy a RAM expansion pak to play Zelda: Majora's Mask and Perfect Dark (you could play PD without one, but not to its full capacity). It's really amazing it was successful as much as it was.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Album of the Week: Vampire Weekend- Vampire Weekend

A few times each year, a band seems to come out of nowhere and rise to huge critical and popular standing within the space of a few weeks. Vampire Weekend are one such band, who, over the first few months of 2008, went from a blip on the radar to appearing on SNL and having their videos featured on MTV.

A lot of what you'll read about the music on their self titled album has to do with afro-pop and how the band are upper crust, Ivy League college grads. However, this misses the real thrust of their music, because whatever genre it might belong to or be influenced by, Vampire Weekend is addictive indie pop. Significantly, Vampire Weekend toured with the Shins in 2007, perhaps the Father of all "indie pop darlings who come out of nowhere to be really popular."

While the singles 'Mansard Roof' and 'A-Punk' are the obvious treats, the album is 35ish minutes of brilliant, catchy indie pop. 'M79' has a Harpsichord-laden intro and strings that tip the band's hat to Classical music, as well as a charming bridge around the 2:45 mark that rhymes callous with madras. 'One (Blake's Got A New Face)' has plinky 80s keyboards and the album's most surprisingly hook filled chorus, though the singer's voice seems to crack on the high pitched "Blake's" part each time. Maybe that's part of the fun. Finally, album closer 'The Kids Don't Stand A Chance' offers the strongest connection to more standard American indie pop, an almost proto-typical finale that slows the pace, pours on the harpsichord and strings for one last hurrah, and leaves one with the same satisfying ending as on 'The Past and Pending' from Oh, Inverted World by the Shins.

I suspect this album will only become more popular and beloved as the year goes on, particularly once we get into Spring and Summer. It's not often that an album so addictive and instantly accessible comes along, but Vampire Weekend have proven themselves worthy of all the praise and success they've achieved with this one.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Guided By Voices Drinking Games

Look, we all know that Guided By Voices are pretty awesome. Were pretty awesome. Anyway, we know that they're pretty awesome, but they sound that much better when you're drunk. Main Voice Robert Pollard, a retired school teacher, seemed to feel the same, because GBV shows were notorious for being 2 to 3 hour spectacles of intoxication and ass kicking rock music. In the spirit of the band, I now present two versions of the Guided By Voices drinking game.

Version 1
Get yourself a copy of The Electrifying Conclusion DVD and try to keep up with Robert Pollard's drinking. Keep in mind that he takes the stage with a beer or two under his belt already. If you're going to do this semi-authentically, you'll have to buy some beer, champagne, and (I'm assuming he's doing shots of whiskey) whiskey to match him as closely as possible.

Version 2
Dig out any GBV album, single, EP, compilation. Listen to it with some beer and a bottle of the hard liquor of your choice for shots.
--Take a drink whenever the song is about a relationship, or at least seems like it could be.
--Do a shot whenever someone other than Robert Pollard sings.
--Take a drink whenever you listen to a song with a patented bizarre GBV title. Note that for certain albums, like Bee Thousand, you will be getting drunk pretty fast.
--Do two shots whenever a song mentions anything to do with alcohol. Note that if you're listening to Isolation Drills you might pass out.
--Take a drink when a song is longer than 3 minutes.
--Do a shot when a song is less than a minute.
--If you find yourself singing--slurring??--along, finish your drink.
--If you realize you're accidentally listening to a Robert Pollard side project or solo album and didn't notice any difference, do a shot.
--Assuming you're listening to Do The Collapse, if you catch yourself thinking "you know, it's not that bad of an album after all" do two shots. Note that this doesn't apply to the song 'Teenage FBI' which is secretly one of the best things they ever recorded.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: SNES

Classy, elegant...Super.

I came to the SNES like a late guest arriving in Paris for a party in 1940 just before the Germans took over. That is to say, I was there long enough to get a feel for a very specific time and place before it changed forever. In this case, the late SNES era represented the high water mark of Nintendo before they fumbled with the N64 and never managed to fully turnover the car with the Gamecube. Also, my metaphor implies that Sony's Playstation was analogous to the Nazis and therefore it's a mess. Anyway!!

If you're a student of videogame history (and, really, why would you not want to be??), you'll know that 1995/1996 were right about the time Sega was fragmenting their Genesis player base with the 32X and Sega CD. And the Sega Saturn, which had been released months ahead of schedule that summer in a "surprise" launch that angered developers, publishers, and early adopters alike. Meanwhile, everything sailed smoothly out of the Nintendo port: no crappy add-ons, and the 'Ultra' 64 suffered delay after delay until it would be released in the fall of 1996. It wasn't hard to think that the next Nintendo system would be awesome, mainly because Sega was doing such a great job of shooting themselves in the foot. And arm. And face.

Then there was that weird Playstation thing, but Sony was just some dumb Walkman CD player company. No, Nintendo was videogames.

I got a SNES specifically for Chrono Trigger. Oh, sure, when I got mine it came with Super Mario All-Stars as well as the Super Gameboy, but the only games I really went out of my way to buy for it were all the awesome RPGs--as well as Demon's Crest, but that game is pure awesome. The only console that can rival the breadth and overall quality of the SNES in terms of RPGs is the Playstation. Consider for starters that the SNES had, arguably, three of the best Final Fantasies (though the middle one wouldn't be released in the U.S. until a Playstation port in 1999), cult classic Earthbound (which, if you bought it at the right time, came in a big honking box with the strategy guide), possible best console RPG ever Chrono Trigger, the insane mash-up of Super Mario RPG, and Secret of Mana, perhaps the best use of co-op in a console RPG pre-Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

My friend Dave and I, being the Shining Force fanatics that we were, would often look through Nintendo Power at our local library. The Epic Center section that appeared in it, which featured RPGs, was the closest we could get to porn at such a young age. We literally lusted after Chrono Trigger, going so far as to try to draw our own versions of the characters as classes in a Shining Force game--for the sake of interest, we made Lucca into a "Sky Princess" and Frog into a "Frog Lord." Otherwise, it was kind of the beginning of the whole "Japan is awesome, 2D is awesome, RPGs are awesome!!" phase we went through for a long time, largely because all we had to go by was our imagination as well as cryptic screenshots and descriptions from the magazine.

Other than the fact that they were awesome, what strikes me as most memorable about those games, and the SNES in general, was the quality of the sound. The system is commonly regarded as having one of the best sound chips, especially for its time, and the music of those games is still much loved today. It was the first and only time in my life that I used a boombox to record music off my TV and unto cassette tapes. Cyan's theme from Final Fantasy VI and Love and Peace from Earthbound still give me chills when I hear them.

I fully admit that I missed a lot of games during the 16 bit era because I only got a SNES toward the end. But I still think of this time as one of the happiest of my life largely due to the great RPGs on the SNES and the fun, more action-y Genesis library. Funnily enough, the Playstation would offer us the best of both worlds in due time. But first, all my friends and I had to buy tickets for the curiously beloved Nintendo 64.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gary Gygax Died

Is it wrong that the first thought I had was "he should've put more points into Constitution"??