Metroid: Samus Returns

I finally got around to playing Metroid: Samus Returns (despite having bought it when it was released in 2017), and for the most part, it’s exactly what I want from a Metroid game. I like the exploration and gaining new abilities that then unlock new areas and make Samus more powerful. The Metroid formula works, and while I have no idea why Nintendo treats one of their marquee titles like an afterthought (my working theory is that unlike Mario and Zelda, Metroid wasn’t created by Shigeru Miyamoto), but the franchise formula works whether it’s in 2D or 3D. Metroid is also a great title for the 3DS since you can always have your map screen ready to go and it doesn’t take up space on your gameplay screen.

The one part of the game I really don’t like are the boss fights. There are various qualms I have with the game overall–the different areas aren’t visually distinctive; the enemy types are repetitive, the mini-bosses get to be kind of tedious–but none of them are as bad as the boss fights. Near the end, you’ve got three really tough boss battles, and some people live for those kinds of challenges. Those are people who play Dark Souls and Bloodborne and I am not among them. I do not want a game to punish me. I do not want to work to get really good at a video game. I want the video game to make me feel empowered rather than banging my head against a wall as I struggle to succeed. I managed to fell all three bosses, but not before I finally had to resort to a strategy guide to figure out how exactly they needed to be defeated.

The boss battles didn’t ruin the game for me, but they did make it a bit more tedious and take me away from the parts I enjoyed the most. All that being said, Metroid is one of the best franchises Nintendo has ever made and it’s insane that we’re still waiting on Metroid Prime 4.

Friday, March 20th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Batman: The Telltale Series – The Enemy Within

I didn’t expect two of the best Batman stories in recent memory to come from Telltale, but here we are. From a gameplay perspective, The Enemy Within feels like a step back. They ditch the detective stuff and narrow the canvas to put Bruce Wayne/Batman in the crosshairs of Amanda Waller. But where The Enemy Within makes a genius turn is what they do with Joker.

For some, the game’s approach to Joker may seem like sacrilege. Joker is traditionally (or at least since the era of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and beating Robin to death) the chaotic arch-nemesis to Batman’s quest for order. Telltale turns this story on its head in plenty of ways. For starters, it makes Harley Quinn the dominant member of the relationship, which is fascinating in its own right. Then it has “John Doe” (aka Joker) eager to be Batman/Bruce’s friend. Basically, they attempt the tricky balancing act of making Joker as sympathetic as possible while still making him dangerous, and it works! You really feel for John and think that you might be able to save him.

Batman typically doesn’t have that kind of emotional investment in a villain before. It’s usually reserved for Harvey Dent, but leaning into the similarities between Joker and Batman to show them not as polar opposites but, to use the game’s phrase, part of the “same stitch” makes for a fascinating relationship that really goes in a fresh direction. The recent iterations of Joker in popular culture–Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix (no one cares about Jared Leto’s take)–have been about how Joker is a reflection on the world or society, respectively. By leaning into Joker’s relationship with Batman and making The Enemy Within a kind of origin story, the writers came up with something exciting and new.

While I don’t think they quite stick the landing on the Joker/Batman story, they do find it with the Bruce/Alfred relationship and doing what some of the best Batman stories do: questioning the character. While I’m not surprised that I was in the minority in the choices I made at the end, I think it was some smart writing to really test what’s important to Bruce: his family or being Batman. Some stories seek to reconcile the two, but I liked how The Enemy Within showed it as a fracture.

If you’re tired with the same old Batman stories, I highly recommend checking out what Telltale did with the character.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Why I’m Voting for Biden

A few weeks ago, I wrote about “The Case for Bernie”, but a lot has changed since then, especially Sanders inability to grow his coalition.

Before I get any further, I want to say that I’m really trying to back off the politics talk since A) there’s already enough punditry in the world; and B) I doubt anyone cares. But if you’re like me and your preferred candidate (in my case, Elizabeth Warren) dropped out and now you’re stuck deciding between two 78-year-old white guys who are both flawed candidates, then maybe I can offer a bit of guidance.

To start, I think Sanders’ agenda is more in line with what I want in terms of big reforms, although I doubt his ability to work the executive branch to achieve such reforms (they’ll never get through congress because they’ll die in the Senate). I also think he knows how to stay on message whereas Biden clearly has trouble putting a sentence together these days. Furthermore, Biden needs to quickly come out with some kind of positive message, whether it’s expanding Medicare or something that makes people excited to vote for him rather than just being anti-Trump because I worry that won’t be enough. The Burisma fake-scandal doesn’t concern me because some BS scandal was going to be used against whomever was the Democratic nominee and the media’s going to go along with it because they need the candidates to appear equally bad because that means “objectivity” somehow.

So why Biden? To be clear, we’re not exactly sure how Biden will govern. We don’t know what the makeup of congress will be, and it’s possible he’s ineffective or in the pocket of big banks. He’s not the revolutionary that Sanders is, but here’s the thing: we’ve been through Super Tuesday now and Democratic voters are saying they don’t want Sanders’ plan. Chalk it up however you like, but at some point you need to listen to voters who will be voting in the general and if they’re not turning out for Sanders now, there’s a danger of them staying home in November.

My issue with Sanders now that I didn’t have a few weeks ago is that his coalition hasn’t materialized. Sanders knew he was going to run again in four years. He’s been actively running for over a year now. And in all that time, he made no inroads with black voters and his promise of increased turnout and the youth vote hasn’t materialized. It doesn’t matter how many obnoxious fans you have on Twitter; tweets aren’t enough (if anyone knows this, it’s me, someone who tweets about politics way too much). We’ve become too accustomed to thinking that governance is the “big ideas” and while enthusiasm matters, so does the unglamorous work of coalition building.

If your political identity is liberal, you owe it to yourself to be a good ally and hear what black voters are telling you. Black voters are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Even when they’re in states that will go red in November (the South is bad, what do you want from me), they’re the ones doing the hard work of campaigning, fundraising, working the phones, and making the apparatus run. You literally cannot win a Presidential election without them. If they weren’t important, Republicans wouldn’t go to great lengths to disenfranchise them at every turn. And black voters are telling us that they want Biden. They see Biden as the best chance to stop the danger of Trump, and we should listen to them. If you have beef with Biden, I guarantee you it will keep until after he’s elected. If he gets elected President, you can criticize him all damn day. I’ll probably even join you.

But for now, the spine of the party is telling you that they want Biden, and we owe it to them to listen and to follow their lead.

Friday, March 6th, 2020 politics No Comments

Batman: The Telltale Series

I’m awfully mixed on Telltale games. On the one hand, it feels like other game developers should steal their schtick and give more dialogue and player choice in story-driven games (to the credit of BioWare folks, Mass Effect was doing this before Telltale came on the scene). On the other hand, I’ve had mixed feelings about the games I’ve played from them. The Walking Dead: Season 1 was very well done, but suffered from being in the nihilistic universe of The Walking Dead. Game of Thrones, like the show, started out strong before being pretty awful by the end. And while people raved about Tales from the Borderlands, I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. But since Batman: The Telltale Series was a free Xbox Gold download, I decided to finally give it a shot, and I’m glad I did.

Once you set aside the poor production values of these games (for all the artistry in the character models and gameplay, the graphics are glitchy as hell; this game came out in 2016 and since that time no one thought to patch it so that textures aren’t blurry or that the smoke from Gordon’s cigarettes looks right), the storytelling conceit of letting your dialogue options and actions guide the story works because Telltale forces you into difficult conundrums. It was incredibly smart to make the biggest conflict of a Batman story not external, but internal–what you do as Bruce Wayne matters just as much (if not more so) than what you do as Batman.

I also really like the big narrative swings this game makes. I won’t spoil anything, but Telltale was willing to throw out a lot of canon and predictable beats to really force Bruce/Batman into some difficult positions. This is trickier than their other games where they’re creating a character from scratch. A Batman fan knows how Batman is supposed to behave, but Telltale managed to work that into their thinking so that you’re not simply going “What Would Batman Do” (WWBD) with every choice. You have to decide what kind of Batman you’re going to be: the symbol that inspires hope or the symbol that inspires fear. It makes for a great storytelling device and helps separate this Telltale take from the Batman comics, movies, TV shows, and previous video games.

I’m now very excited to fire up Batman: The Enemy Within and I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020 videogames No Comments

LEGO Harry Potter Collection

So here’s the thing about LEGO video games: they’re all the same. Traveler’s Tales slaps a different licensing coat of paint on, maybe adds one unique gameplay element, and that’s it. I can’t imagine buying every iteration of the games they make. But that all being said, these games can be very relaxing in that they’re not very demanding. They’re very cute (especially the ones before they added voice acting so the characters just make faces and noises), silly, and comforting.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing LEGO Harry Potter Collection on Xbox One, and it was exactly what I wanted. There were loads of collectibles to pick up (I’m a 100% addict as long as no skill is involved in getting to 100%; I’ll find your collectibles all damn day if it doesn’t mean I have to complete a time trial or make some show of dexterity), I was going through the Harry Potter story that I enjoy, and it was just a good way to unwind. It’s not a game to make me mad or where I’m competing with other people. There’s no rush to get through it. I simply pick it up, play some levels, find the collectibles, and complete the achievements.

I’ve now got a little over a month before Final Fantasy VII Remake hits, so I can probably squeeze in one more game before then. It’s just a matter of deciding which one because the backlog is out of control.

Monday, February 24th, 2020 videogames No Comments

The Case for Bernie

As I write this, New Hampshire has just been called for Bernie Sanders. As a Warren supporter, I’m obviously a bit dismayed at her distant 3rd and 4th place finishes in the first two states. I think there’s a lot of baked-in misogyny in our country, but there’s also a lot of fear. I can see the casual voter who looks at Elizabeth Warren, sees Hillary Clinton 2.0, and sees Donald Trump getting reelected.

Naysayers will say that Bernie didn’t increase his turnout from 2016. I’d counter that the electorate is far more fractured when you’re running against four people (plus a few people that never really had a chance) than when you’re running against one person. Bernie was never going to repeat his 22-point New Hampshire victory from 2016; there’s not enough vote to go around. Naysayers will say that because Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden split the moderate vote, there are more moderates than Bernie supporters. I’d counter that’s not how elections work, and if that’s the math you want to do, then all it takes is for Kasich, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush to beat Trump in the 2016 Republican primary. The win is the win, so what you need to concern yourself with is whether or not those people who voted for other candidates other than Bernie in the primary will come out for Bernie in a general election.

Looking out at the field, I think Bernie is a strong contender for several reasons:

There’s the theory that each election is a “remedy” to the previous election. Granted, if things are going well, you get a reelection, but Trump makes that difficult because he’s an unpopular President with a popular economy. But I think that people are, by and large, tired by Trump. Even if you don’t follow the news closely, you know there’s this idiot blowhard around who needs to make everything about him. He is, simply put, exhausting.

Sanders looks appealing by virtue of being, frankly, uninterested in anything that deals with his personality. That may seem like an odd trait in someone who is looking to win a popularity contest, but Sanders has his brand–no-nonsense progressive who fights against the wealthy–and that brand is popular. If you’re a swing voter who voted for Trump because you wanted “change” and then Trump just continues on in a general direction of constant corruption while getting into trade wars with China, then you’re still angry and still looking for change. Bernie is your change candidate who gives you what you want (“a new system”) minus the constant need for adoration.

Some are worried that Bernie will turn off suburban women because he’s too “radical.” But this theory reminds me of 2016 when Trump couldn’t win with white women because not only was Clinton too popular with that demographic, but the Access Hollywood tape wiped out any gains Trump may have made with that group. Trump ended up winning with white women 57% to 37%. I’m not disputing the argument that you need women to win; my argument is you have no idea how women are going to vote in 2020.

I also think Bernie has the intangibles to win this race. I think he has a simple message that he never deviates from. I think he’s endearing in a curmudgeonly fashion. I think what people don’t like about him are tired arguments that no longer resonate (“Socialism!”) The worst thing about him are his followers, and if that’s your hang-up, Trump’s followers and some of his employees are white nationalists. I’m not saying Bernie Bros. are great (they can be quite toxic on social media), but I also don’t think Bernie follows their lead or needs to call them “very fine people.”

Will Bernie get hammered with opposition research? Of course. There’s no candidate that will avoid it. If you aren’t expecting Trump and the media establishment to fight back against Sanders tooth-and-nail, you haven’t been paying attention. But it’s not like they’re going to roll out the red carpet for Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar. There is no path of least resistance here.

Honestly, I’m not all that worried about Trump because everyone knows who he is and what he’ll do. The reason his approval hovers at 42% is because he’s a polarizing figure. Your opinion on him doesn’t really change. He’s going to lie and cheat and use all the levers of government to stop the Democratic nominee, but Trump needs the media as a willing handmaiden. His whole Ukraine scam was to open an investigation on Biden because he needed dirt that the media could run with. He knew that once any cloud of controversy surrounded Biden, it would be the new “e-mails” and the media, in their dopey need to be “objective”, would pounce and “raise questions.”

The media is my concern. The media needs this election (and every election) to be a horserace. They need it to be sports. If it’s not a competition and Bernie is a normal candidate who is not corrupt and Donald Trump is clearly corrupt, then that’s not a good conflict and that’s bad for ratings. But if Bernie is corrupt and Donald Trump is corrupt then wHaT wiLL vOTeRs dO? It’s all a game to people like Chuck Todd and Chris Cillizza because politics doesn’t affect them. They cover it, but the outcomes can’t touch rich, white men.

I’m not pollyanna about a Sanders win. If we should have learned anything in 2016 it’s not to take a single election for granted, especially when the GOP has made it clear that they will use every trick in the book to ensure their rule for as long as possible. But I think Sanders is a strong candidate who’s easy to understand, hard to knock off message, and doesn’t mince words. I don’t know how he’ll be as a President (my preference for Warren is that I think she’d be a stronger executive), but I think he gives Democrats a stronger case than any “moderate” who has the approval of the punditry but not the people. The pundits said Biden was the Electability candidate; he got clobbered in the first two states. The pundits said Sanders was too radical; he’s got the best path to the nomination right now.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020 politics No Comments

2020 Oscar Predictions

Best Picture

Should Win: Parasite

Will Win: Parasite

Best Director

Should Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actor

Should Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actress

Should Win: Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

Will Win: Renee Zellweger, Judy

Best Supporting Actor

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress

Should Win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Will Win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Best Adapted Screenplay

Should Win: Little Women

Will Win: Jojo Rabbit

Best Original Screenplay

Should Win: Parasite

Will Win: Parasite

Best Animated Film

Should Win: I Lost My Body

Will Win: Klaus

Best Cinematography

Will Win: 1917

Should Win: 1917

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Little Women

Should Win: Little Women

Best Documentary

Will Win: American Factory

Best Documentary Short

Will Win: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Best International Feature Film

Will Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: Bombshell

Should Win: Bombshell

Best Original Score

Will Win: Joker

Should Win: 1917

Best Original Song

Will Win: Rocketman

Should Win: Rocketman

Best Production Design

Will Win: Parasite

Should Win: Parasite

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Hair Love

Best Live-Action Short

Will Win: The Neighbors’ Window

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: 1917

Should Win: 1917

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: 1917

Should Win: 1917

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: 1917

Should Win: 1917

Friday, February 7th, 2020 Uncategorized No Comments

Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King

It’s fascinating to play these games as an adult and also with the benefit of a rewind button. If I can take you back to the early 90s when these games were released, the way games had longevity was through difficult. When arcade games were difficult, it was a financial transaction. You pump in quarters to keep playing. But when home console games were difficult, it’s so that parents wouldn’t feel ripped off while game developers inflicted sadistic gameplay on kids. If you were a tenacious child, then coming home after school every day to see if you could get past the “Cave of Wonders” or “I Can’t Wait to Be King” was how games worked. You would get destroyed again and again with only a limited numbers of lives and continues and checkpoints. The underlying message for kids (if these games have a message): be perfect or die.

Playing them as an adult, it speaks volumes that even with a rewind button to speed things along, these games are still punishingly difficult. Some if it is because of poor design like weak object detection (like getting hit when you weren’t touched by an enemy) or platforming that doesn’t reach the gold standard set by the Mario games. But ultimately, with Aladdin and The Lion King, you have two pretty typical games of the era: they were tie-ins, they were brutally difficult, and, credit where it’s due, they’re beautifully animated for their era. Carrying that Disney license ensured that the games didn’t look bad even if their gameplay felt designed to upset and anger children.

That’s the weirdest thing about the way these games play. As an adult, I would never want my kid to play a game like this. It’s fine for me with the nostalgia and the rewind button and all that. But there’s really nothing rewarding happening here. Sure, the Mario games have their level of difficulty, but what’s always made the Mario games stand apart is that they feel, on some level, fair. Even as a kid, you know that if you missed the jump or got struck by an enemy, it was kind of on you. And especially once you reach Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, the games offer ways to be more forgiving without completely nerfing the experience.

Aladdin and especially The Lion King really hate the player. They almost feel like a cruel joke played on every child who loved the movies and then gets introduced to some of the most punishing levels the designers were able to concoct. And again, I get the business decision: Parents are the ones paying for these games and a game that can be beaten in a weekend makes for unhappy parents. But look at the puzzling element added to The Lion King and tell me that’s a game for a child. I’m a grown-ass man and I was repeatedly checking YouTube to figure out how to advance (I had less of a problem with that on Aladdin, although the boss fights still gave me trouble).

The Disney Classic Games collection is a funny little nostalgia box that really leans hard into “nostalgia” because any realistic recollection of these games has to acknowledge their unforgiving difficulty. With the rewind button frequently in use (although it can cause the game to glitch something awful by basically losing control of your character), the games are manageable, but they’d probably only be considered “fun” by masochists.

Sunday, January 12th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Talk about starting the gaming year off with a disappointment. I got stuck on an early boss, switched over to Zelda, and then came back to this one and still got whomped. I read strategy guides and I read about difficulty, and this just the kind of game I don’t like playing. I was hoping for a return to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with some better graphics, but it oddly has less charm than the PlayStation classic and feels more cumbersome. It always feels like I’m playing off-brand SOTN even though it’s from the same creator.

I guess I could really grind it out on this boss battle and see if the game eases up, but how much time do I have to invest to beat this one guy? Also, it’s not like I’m getting any closer to beating him. He knocks me out pretty quickly, and part of the appeal of these Metroidvania games is that they unfold with exploration. I’ve now hit a wall and rather than dump more time trying to make the best of Bloodstained, I’m moving on to something else. Bummer.

Friday, January 10th, 2020 videogames No Comments

The Legend of Zelda

I did not have a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) growing up. The first console we ever got in my house was a Super Nintendo, which we loved very much (thanks, Mom!). But that didn’t stop me from playing NES games over at friends’ houses. However, one game I never really got to play was The Legend of Zelda, which makes sense. While the Super Mario Bros. games allow for multiple players or you can switch off lives and levels, Zelda is a big, expansive game of trial-and-error. It’s a game the begs you to get lost in it, to dig out some graph paper, and to record the location of every secret treasure. It’s a game that demands you get together with your friends who are also playing it and figure out the location of the secret rooms and how to get into various dungeons. Before social networking became a thing, the social element of Zelda was essential (it was either that or pick up a strategy guide).

As a kid, I can imagine that playing The Legend of Zelda was a blast, but I am now an adult. The game is part of the NES Classics lineup on Nintendo Switch, so I decided to finally play through it. However, since my free time is more finite and all my friends aren’t playing a game from 1986, I decided to take a couple shortcuts. First up, I happily used an online strategy guide to help direct me in making my way around Hyrule. Second, and what I’m sure others will declare as blasphemous, I made use of the rewind feature when enemies started raining a beatdown on me. I regret nothing. I wanted to play the game, but I also realized that there was no way in 2019 for me to play it as originally intended unless I forsook other responsibilities like “spending time with my wife” and “my job.”

And having beaten the game (or at least the first quest; I don’t really see the point of completing the second quest), it’s no surprise why the game is a classic. I actually felt a little sad that I didn’t get to play this game when it came out because I can easily see getting lost in making maps and talking about how to beat dungeons with friends. That’s the communal aspect of video games that’s kind of lost right now and has kind of wandered over to “solving” TV shows like Lost and Westworld. Now the community of video games is who can you beat and how badly you can beat them rather than a small group of young friends coming together to get to the end of a quest. As an adult, I’m no longer the target audience for a 34-year-old video game, if that game has any large audience at all. But I’m grateful for the experience of having played it, shortcuts and all.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 videogames No Comments