Why Super Nintendo Looks Better Than Regular Nintendo

Today I’d like to share something that I figured out when I was nine: why Super Nintendo graphics looked nicer than Regular Nintendo graphics. I think we all have examples of these kinds of things, things that make perfect sense in the mind of a little kid, and that we are, at the time, monumentally proud of. Like tapping into one of the secrets of the universe, or something. It’s a powerful feeling.

But that doesn’t change the fact that nine-year-olds are stupid and wrong about everything.

I was so happy when I figured it out that I explained it to my mom in some detail. I remember feeling that if I explained it well enough she might be so proud that she would go out and buy me one. (I was wrong about that, too.)

First, I observed that Regular Nintendo games looked kind of flat and blocky compared to Super Nintendo games, which looked colorful and round. So the first thing I had to figure out was where the graphics actually came from. I knew that Regular Nintendo games were drawn with tiles, so if you wanted to draw Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. you didn’t really have to draw the whole level. All you had to do was draw, like, six or seven pictures and then use the same ones over and over. Furthermore I knew you could use the same picture multiple times without having to draw it multiple times just by changing the colors, like OGREs and GrOGREs in Final Fantasy.

It stood to reason, then, that all the graphics you could need for a game could be stored right there in the game cartridge. I knew the inside of a Nintendo game had these little green plates, and that the plates were covered in little notches and ridges and things. All the tiles and graphics a game needed were etched right onto the plate, one instance of each, and then the computer inside the Nintendo put them all together so you could play a game. Initially I imagined a man hunched over a desk drawing the graphics directly onto the plates, tiny trees and IMPs and Search Snakes, as though building a ship in a bottle. But then I decided that was stupid and probably they just had a factory where they could draw the graphics on a computer, and then a robot arm etched the graphics for them. That’s how they mass-produced the plates.

But the plates were made of low-quality material, because Nintendo was a small company when they were just starting out in the 1980s. The only plates they were able to afford had microscopic imperfections; they weren’t smooth enough to draw perfectly round graphics. Now, regular drawing paper has microscopic imperfections too, but that didn’t matter because the things you were drawing were so big. The Nintendo graphics had to be drawn super duper tiny, so you could fit them all in, otherwise the imperfections wouldn’t have made a difference. So that’s why everything in a Regular Nintendo game looked all blocky.

After years of selling Mega Man and Legend of Zelda, though, Nintendo was finally able to afford higher-quality material to make the graphics plates. These new plates were perfectly smooth, all the way down to the atomic level, so when they drew the Mario graphics they looked a lot rounder and prettier. (I was especially proud that I was able to slip the word “atomic” in there. Maybe we had just learned about atoms in school, or something.)

Mom was impressed with my reasoning, but it didn’t change the fact that she didn’t have $200 to buy me a Super Nintendo. Ah, lament.

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Lollipop Chainsaw (is retarded)

Lollipop Chainsaw is retarded. Let’s get that out of the way first. Before we can answer questions about whether the game is good or bad, or fun, or exploitative, or any other adjective, we have to acknowledge that it is retarded. Horn-dog seventh graders sit around talking about what kind of games they’d like to play, and one of them says: “A game where a big-titted cheerleader cuts zombies apart with a chainsaw,” and his friends look at him like he’s retarded. This is some seriously low-brow, chin-spittle, can’t-break-the-graham-crackers-neatly-along-the-lines retarded shit.

Just so’s we’re clear.

Your capacity to enjoy Lollipop Chainsaw begins and ends with your ability to appreciate retarded shit. This was not a thing I was able to do for a very long time. I remember being in high school, and people would be talking about Turok or Twisted Metal or whatever retarded shit people played back then, and I would be all smug in my pompous, personal silence about the grandiose high art I was experiencing, like Grandia or Parasite Eve. Which says something about my tastes in video games as a high schooler, sure, but it also says something about the horror 14-year-old-me would have felt if he’d known that 30-year-old-me would eventually play a retarded zombie cheerleader game. I might have thought something like, gee, I wonder what happens to me to cause that kind of brain damage? Like do I get hit by a tractor or something?

The real answer is a little less dramatic: I grew up, and more importantly, I lightened up.

I remember the exact moment, too. It was a movie that did it: Freddy vs. Jason. One of my main dudes is a horror buff, and more importantly is well-versed in the guilty pleasures of B-movies. And he decided, for whatever reason, that we would go and see Freddy vs. Jason. I wasn’t that excited about it, and neither were the other dudes, because who wants to willingly pay actual money to watch that kind of garbage? But we went, and I remember none of us were in a very good mood for some reason, because we were arguing about god-only-knows-what, probably because we were all jobless and hanging out with each other way too much and just about ready to kill one another.

And the movie kicked ass.

I think, at first, I probably concluded that there was just something theraputic about absorbing cotton candy media when you’re in a shitty mood and want to kill your friends. You put something flashy and colorful and stupid in front of your eyeballs for an hour or so, and that calms the nerves and smooths out the anger, and then afterwards you don’t even know what you were angry about. I was wrong about that, though, because six months passed and Freddy vs. Jason came out on DVD, and I purchased it, and we watched it again, and it still kicked ass.

The actual lesson, which I arrived at way, way too late in life, is that retarded shit can kick ass. You just have to loosen the valve on your butthole and enjoy it sometimes. I started doing that with video games, too; I started playing fighting games and shooting games, and racing games, and all the other non-RPG non-Mega Man stuff I’d missed out on through my tight-assed adolescence.

More importantly, I learned to identify the retarded aspects of the games I already loved, the ones I considered to be actually worthwhile. Deep stories, interesting characters, brilliant musical scores, yadda yadda, but retarded gameplay. Ten years of playing nothing but RPGs, and I was only just now realizing that all I’d really been doing was pressing the button that chooses my Attack command, over and over.

I spent the next few years broadening my horizons a bit. I did try, though, to make sure I never opened my mind so much that my brain fell out. I was more willing to take chances on new types of gameplay, or types of gameplay I didn’t much enjoy during my formative years, but I was very careful to never buy a retarded game because it was retarded.

(Well, maybe Crackdown. But who could resist Crackdown?)

That put me into a bit of conundrum, where Lollipop Chainsaw was concerned. Upon seeing the initial trailer I predicted the game would be intensely fun for, say, twenty minutes. Certainly not worth $60. There was no way I was going to play full Xbox 360 disc game price for the retarded boobs-and-zombies game.

And so I didn’t. I made Peanut buy it for me. Heh heh.

And that’s where this “review” ends for you, if you’re not the kind of person who can appreciate retarded shit for no reason other than it is retarded. Not just tolerate it, understand, but actually seek it out, and digest it, in order to be nourished by all its short bus splendor. That’s the first hurdle you have to get over before you can appreciate anything else the game has to offer.

To put a fine point on it: the game doesn’t really offer anything else. It’s shallow gameplay and panty shots from here to Titsville, one “oh my god I can’t believe they did that” moment after another, for seven levels, until the game ends. There’s a reason it’s getting such atrocious reviews. Its Metacritic score is like 68%. But then, Freddy vs. Jason‘s sitting at 37%, and it kicked ass. That should tell you what you need to know.

The controls are loose and confusing, in that “Japanese developer trying to make a Western-style game” way. The camera is too fast in some places, too slow in others, and way too snappy to be really useful. There’s a lock-on button that serves no apparent function but to make your life more difficult. There are three attack buttons, two of which are chainsaw buttons, and the differences between them aren’t immediately apparent. You push a button to pop up a menu, on which the only option is “eat this to restore health”, rather than simply push a button to restore health. The subtitles aren’t sans-serif fonts. The last 360 game I can remember playing with ugly-ass serifs in the subtitles was Deadly Premonition, which had all these same problems.

(Deadly Premonition is another game I bought because it was retarded, I guess. But I exploited Amazon rewards to get it for free, so no skin of my bollocks.)

Once you get through that, the game is just wave after wave of zombies. Your two chainsaw buttons rougly correspond to “high attack” and “low attack”. In between you have a quick pom-pom bash. These three attack buttons can be chained together into a huge variety of combo attacks, each one more sparkly and rainbow-y than the last. Rounding out the buttons are a dodge, an awkward dash toggle, a superhero mode attached to a pink star meter that fills up as you kill zombies, and (of course) a grenade launcher.

From there the game gets as deep as you want it to get, I suppose. Killing zombies earns you coins, and killing more zombies earns you more coins, and killing more zombies stylishly earns you the most coins of all. You use these coins to purchase your combo attacks, static upgrades to health and strength, or ever-skimpier “clothing” to traipse around town with. I’m sure if you want to approach the game as an Arkham city-style ballet of carefully calculated attacks, the game is happy to oblige you. After all, there are harder difficulties, and time attacks, and high scores to beat. I’ll be interested to check back in a year and see what players are capable of with a bit of memorization and practice.

That’s not how I approached it, though. I played on Normal, which was actually piss-easy. My only deaths were during gimmick-y minigame areas with immediate failure states. I bought a lot of combo attacks, but I only ever used two: X-X-X-Y was a powerful flurry of pom-pom hits followed by an arcing overhead saw swipe, perfect for taking out single opponents. A-A-X was a long-distance circular saw attack that mowed down huge groups of zombies. I played a lot of the game A-A-X-ing my way through zombie mobs, back and forth, and never got tired of the game slowing down to show me the triumphant rainbow kill animation. I think it hit that same part of my brain as the ultras in Super Street Fighter IV. You never really get tired of watching Rose electrocute some clown, do you?

The game is not long enough to get boring. Each of the seven levels takes between twenty and forty minutes to clear, depending on how quickly you move and how often you have to continue. That’s just about the right length for this kind of shallow gameplay, but there’s a lot of stuff to find and buy and collect if you really have the hankerin’ for more. This is a good thing, because this is the kind of game that you will quit playing the very instant you become bored with it, and the game knows that. I always like to give bonus points when a game knows exactly what it is, and Lollipop Chainsaw does.

The game breaks up the endless waves of zombies with little gimmick challenges. Some of these are QTEs, some are race sequences, one level in particular is comprised almost entirely of retro video game riffs. These are mostly played for laffs and are relatively inoffensive. None of these are repeated often enough, nor do they drag on long enough, to overstay their welcome. You knock them down and forget about them. The QTEs gave me the most trouble because I still think of my ABXY buttons in terms of a Super Nintendo controller, but that’s my moral failing and has nothing to do with lollipops or chainsaws.

That just leaves the boss battles. And the boss battles are good. I mean legit good. They are creative and outrageous, and long, and difficult, but not frustrating or confusing. I’m sure there was a point in each one where I realized what the game wanted me to do, and my brain went, “Wait what? I have to do what!?” But then actually executing the thing was easier than I expected, and of course very satisfying. They were a blast to play through and easily the high point of the game.

And the final boss… well, the final boss is the most wonderful, retarded thing of all. You’ll never see it coming, but when it does, why, it’s exactly what you realize you should have expected. It’s the thing the entire game had been grooming you to see.

Let’s see, then. Retarded? Check. Fun and uncomplicated to play? Check. Cool bosses? Check. What else was there. Oh, yeah: the cheerleader’s voice is provided by Tara Strong, and I usually don’t hear Tara’s characters bleeding into each other, but her matter-of-fact voice in this game sounds almost identical to Twilight Sparkle’s matter-of-fact voice. This was the source of some bizarre cognitive dissonance, as you can imagine.

And that’s Lollipop Chainsaw in a nutshell. There’s more to say, of course, once you get into the more Freudian aspects of the game. For example, there’s a good discussion to be had on the nature of objectification on display here, to wit: who is objectified, and how? (And the answer isn’t what you’re expecting, if you haven’t played the game.) But I won’t get into that, because that’s not the part that interests me. I was interested in knowing whether the game was worth playing, and it is. And years from now, when I tell people I played that chainsaw cheerleader game, and they go, “That looked retarded,” I’m going to respond, “Yeah? And…?”

Because holy balls was it retarded.

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The Legend of Korra – The Finale, and Thoughts on Worldbuilding

This post contains spoilers for the season one finale of The Legend of Korra.

Back when The Legend of Korra first aired, I wrote up a post that served to give my first impressions of the series, and to give a decent encapsulation of my thoguhts on The Last Airbender, which I’d just finished watching. In that post I talked a little about worldbuilding, and how it was put to good use in the Avatar cartoons. Now Korra is over, and I’m not disappointed. Some people are, less than twenty-four hours after the finale aired. Some people think the ending was too sweet and perfect, a little too well gift-wrapped. Not complex or bittersweet enough.

I disagree. Because worldbuilding. The ending of Korra — and by “ending” I mean they very ending, as in the last two scenes — took everything we know about the world of Avatar and reflected it back on us. The more I think about how the story ends, the more I realize those scenes were framed to put the viewer directly into the world… so s/he could understand the world, by applying what s/he knows about it. Not just from the point of view of a dude on his couch watching a cartoon, but from the point of view of in inhabitant of the world, and what the sequence of events must look and feel like.

First, though, I want to ask a quick question, assuming for a moment you’re an American male. Are you signed up for the selective service? Actually that’s kind of a stupid question because, if you’re an American male, you are. I mean, there’s no alternative; American males are forced to do that. What it means is, young males can be drafted and made to go to war. Now, the US hasn’t actually instituted a draft since Vietnam, and there’s not much danger of it happening anytime soon. For all intents and purposes there isn’t a draft anymore. Not anytime in my generation, anyway, and much of my generation now has children of their own. Two living generations for which a military draft is just a Thing That Happened, sometime before they were born. But for the generation before mine, for our parents and their parents and so on, it was a very real and tangible thing.

That’s how quickly an important, world-defining idea can change. For my grandfather and my uncle it came to define their lives. For me it’s just a thing I had to do, and then forget about. That’s how quickly the idea fades. It’s how current events become history.

Now we’re going to apply this very real concept to the world of Avatar. Dig this screenshot:

At the front of this crowd is Aang, the avatar from The Last Aibrender. Behind him are Roku and Kyoshi, the avatars before him. And then hundreds of previous avatars, an uncountable amount, stretching back into antiquity. Avatars can live to be ancient, so say maybe a hundred years times however many avatars are in that shot. The cycle of the avatar was an expected and predictable thing for the entirety of that time. At any point in human history, there was an avatar, and the avatar’s purpose was known and revered.

Until Roku died.

Because, see, Aang didn’t become the avatar and fulfill his purpose; he fell into the ocean and got frozen in a block of ice. For a hundred years. During which time the world was engulfed in war. From the point of view of someone living in the world at the time, the avatar died and then the world went to hell. And that was the end of the story, for four or five generations; Roku was The Last Avatar, and then everything sucked.

We-the-viewer know how that story really ends, of course; Aang is discovered, finishes his training, ends the war, and builds Republic City. But the world he came into was not the world he left. The world Aang awoke to was a World With No Avatar. To the people of that time, the avatar was no longer a person you could talk to, or who could do things. The avatar was an idea. An outdated concept from antiquity. Aang’s allies struggle with seeing him as a person, rather than the nebulous dream of a better life. And his enemies misidentify him as an anomaly to be destroyed, because from their point of view “no avatar” is the normal state of things. Sometimes this confusion works to Aang’s benefit, sometimes to his detriment. But the fact remains: nobody in the world was prepared to receive the avatar when he returned.

The idea of a military draft faded into history in our culture in less than forty years. The world of Avatar had more than twice that time to forget about the avatar. And, in every practical sense, they did.

That world, the avatar-less world embroiled in war, still exists in the living memory for some people at the beginning of Korra. We don’t know how old Aang was when he died, but we do know how long he’s been dead. Anyone older than Korra, but younger than Katara, wouldn’t know a World With No Avatar. Rather, they know a World With One Avatar: Aang. Roku and all the avatars before him are ancient history, but Aang was practically a deity. He rescued the world from war, brought people together like never before. Like they never had to be brought together before, because there had never before been such a disruption in the cycle. Not only that, but “avatar” would be synonymous with “airbender” to these people; neither had existed for a hundred years, until this guy showed up who was both. People Korra’s age, or even Lin Bae Fong’s, can understand intellectually what the world must have been like before Aang came… but they can’t really know, just like I can’t really know what it’s like to be drafted.

Right away, right in the first episode of Korra, we see how much the avatar cycle has changed. The cycle did not just consist of death and rebirth. For an average citizen of the world, there would be some lag time after the death of one avatar but before the realization of the next one. Roku’s ascension was probably typical; he was informed as a young adult and then began his training, which took a number of years. Aang’s was highly irregular; his identity was known to some of his mentors, who made the decision to inform him several years early out of necessity. Korra’s was more irregular still; she was identified and informed as a very young child, and her training began immediately. Korra’s training completed at around the same age Roku’s — and every prior avatars’ — began.

In that first episode, the White Lotus (repurposed by Aang to safeguard the avatar and oversee her training) arrives at the house of Korra’s parents. They say they’ve already investigated a number of claims; their search has been ongoing. They were in a hurry to find the next avatar. Why? Because there was no tradition to fall back on. Because the population as a whole had lived their whole lives with one single avatar in living memory — and now he was dead. Because who knew if the world could afford to wait sixteen years for the new avatar, wherever she is, to begin her training.

And the world did need Korra. That’s the first aspect of how impressive the worldbuilding in this series is, how it can show society’s response change over the course of several generations. Most avatars probably aren’t needed immediately upon the death of the previous one. Most lived normal lives until Roku’s age. Then some solemn, bearded men came bearing strange news. Aang was needed immediately, so that pattern was broken, but he was still old enough to expect a normal life for himself, and lash out immaturely when it was denied him. Korra didn’t even have a chance for a normal life, because the new orders were to find the avatar as soon as possible. After all, who knows what will happen that requires her attention?

The second aspect of worldbuilding I found so impressive was how well Korra’s story mirrored Aang’s. It was as similar as it was different, and the differences were meaningful to the setting. For one, Korra is very near to Aang’s polar opposite. She is violent and impulsive. Well-trained, but under-confident. She has great affinity for elements Aang struggled with, but no aptitude for the one he had mastered. She is a wholly material person, while Aang was deeply spiritual. But they have this in common: neither was trained on how to be the avatar. Not the way Roku was, I mean. Aang had to complete his training in the shadows, in The World With No Avatar. And while he could learn the elements, nobody was around anymore to teach him about his spiritual duties. Those things, he had to learn on his own, with pointed nudges from his past lives.

Korra certainly had no want of trainers, but since she was born into the World With One Avatar, she likewise has nobody to train her in her spiritual duties. For hundreds of years the avatar was a cycle, and then Roku died, and then a long disruption. Then the avatar was no longer a cycle, but a man named Aang, who was at once the avatar and the world’s only airbender. The best anyone can do to teach Korra how to be the avatar is to teach her to be Aang, except she isn’t Aang, so that doesn’t work. The glowy-eye stuff, Korra has to figure out for herself, just like Aang did.

Another thing Korra has in common with Aang: her story is largely about cleaning up the mess of the previous avatar. The events that set The Last Airbender into motion largely occured because of the weaknesses of Avatar Roku; he was unable to destroy a great evil in the world, because that evil took the shape of his best friend. Had Roku been stronger, more able, less human and more avatar, the Fire Nation would have never become corrupted, the war never would have begun, and there would have not been such a huge disruption in the avatar cycle. Aang had to fix what Roku broke.

But Aang broke things too. Because of his airbending training, or perhaps his young age, Aang was a pacifist who refused to kill his opponents. One of the last things he does before embarking on his final journey to defeat the Fire Lord is commune with his past lives about how to solve the problem without killing anyone. He is told, by avatar after avatar, including previous airbenders, that there is no way around it. To save the world and end the war, Aang must kill Fire Lord Ozai.

Instead, Aang found another solution: he developed a way to take away Ozai’s bending, thereby allowing him to live. And while this solution put the endcap on Roku’s problems, it started a few problems of its own. Years later, Aang tried the same trick on a new threat named Yakone, a new type of villain Aang had not faced before. Yakone wasn’t a military or political leader; he was a gangster. He had access to resources Aang couldn’t understand or redirect. Putting a deposed king into a dungeon is one thing; locking a gangster up in a municipal prison after due course of law is something very different. When Aang tried to bring Yakone down using the courts, Yakone used his magic powers to escape. When Aang took Yakone’s bending to make him easier to lock up, Yakone’s gangster buddies busted him out.

The proper way to eliminate Yakone was to kill him, as countless avatars would have advised (including Korra, if only Aang could have asked her!). But Aang didn’t do that, and so Yakone survived to have sons, who devoted their lives to tearing down the things Aang had built. And nobody thought to correct Aang during his lifetime, because that was a period during which “avatar” and “airbender” were synonymous; an avatar who didn’t act like an airbender didn’t make any sense to them.

It comes to pass that Korra has to clean up Aang’s mess.

The next question is, how? And the answer is: the same way Aang cleaned up Roku’s. Aang became more powerful an avatar than Roku was. Aang surpassed Roku by developing an ability no other avatar had knowledge of. That ability eventually became corrupted, bastardized, and used as a tool of fear and strife. And so Korra must become more powerful than Aang; she develops the means to restore bending, to reverse the process that Aang pioneered.

Aang’s methods are no longer appropriate in the world. Korra can’t just go around taking bending away from her enemies. For one, that makes her just the same as the villain she worked so hard to defeat. And for another, her world is very different from Aang’s in that non-benders have considerable technological power. You can’t attack a charging battle mech by blocking its chi.

She can begin the healing process though, by restoring the bending Amon had stolen. It’s just the opposite of how Airbender ended; Aang takes bending away, Korra returns it. But it’s also just the same: the avatar identifies what it is the world needs, and then supplies it. This ability is exclusive to Korra. I do not believe Aang was able to restore bending the way Korra does; he always makes it very clear to his targets that he’s taking away their bending “for good”. As far as Aang ever knew, the process was not reversible. He didn’t consider a world where such a reversal was necessary to restore balance. He only realizes his error after his death, once it’s too late to fix, and it’s some new avatar’s problem. Just like Roku before him. The cycle closes.

There’s a reason Korra’s defining moment of triumph didn’t come during the battle with Amon, where she first airbends, or during her conversation with Aang, where her other elements are returned. Her triumph, the moment that makes Katara smile with recognition and Tenzin stand agape with astonishment, is when she restores Lin’s earthbending. Lin lifting a circle of boulders… that’s Korra’s victory. That’s the Korra the writers want implanted on our brains as we wait for season two. Only by not being like Aang does Korra finally become a fully-realized avatar. Only by becoming his opposite can she restore balance.

That is what I got out of the last few minutes of the Korra finale. It made me think about what it really means to have an avatar, and what that person must be like from generation to generation. And it made me wonder what unique challenges Korra faces in particular, what with being the first avater after the Only Avatar Anyone Remembers, who single-handedly saved the world and built all of modern society.

And that, in turn, makes me excited for the next season, and for the Avatar world in general. Because Korra is flawed, too. (Violent, impulsive, etc.) What kind of mess will she leave for some poor, unsuspecting earthbender to have to come and clean up?

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Five Pony Episodes I’d Love To See

The downtime between seasons of your favorite show is bittersweet, isn’t it? On one hand you aren’t getting your weekly fix of Don Draper or Walter White. Oh, you can go back and re-watch what you’ve already seen, but that doesn’t scratch the same itch as discovering each new plot development for the first time. You can try filling the void by chatting with other fans of the show, but you’re really just slumming with the jonesing masses, who are all the same boat you are.

On the other hand, getting a break from a great show gives you time to digest, to kind of take everything in. You can hit the wiki and find out whether other folks noticed things you didn’t. You find the time to indulge in clever or amusing fanworks. Heck, if you’re lucky, you might even discover something else worth watching! (Right, Korra?)

But nothing’s more fun than speculating as to what the new season will bring.

That’s hard to do with something like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. These shows are dominated by story arcs, so trying to figure out where the story is going means attempting to read the writers’ minds. And despite what you might think, you probably aren’t smarter or more creative than a team of professional writers. But for a purely episodic show? Something like My Little Pony? Why, the speculations can simply run wild. You can pretty much just make a list of all the wonderful things you’d like to see, and that’s exactly what this post is about.

Typically these kinds of lists degenerate into the realm of braindead fansquee, which means lots of, “I want to see more of the stuff I already like!” And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it demonstrates that fans really aren’t as creative as professional writers. After all, part of what you like about the shows you like is they constantly come up with new stuff to surprise and entertain you. Your only heart’s desire may be to have another episode starring the great and powerful Trixie, but the week before Boast Busters aired you didn’t even know that character existed.

What I’d like to see in season three, then, is not so much “more of my favorite stuff” as “expansion along the lines of what already exists”. If you follow the arc the show has already taken through the first two seasons, it looks something like this: the first season laid the groundwork for the characters, setting, and situations. It did this by establishing a formula and then applying that formula to a variety of stories. The second season quickly altered the formula so that it could be used to tell different kinds of stories, and it was able to do this because the groundwork had already been laid.

By that I mean, the second season focused a lot on developing characters rather than establishing them. Season two was able to do a lot more with its character episodes, because the characters by now had been so firmly grounded. There were more opportunities to “zoom in” on a single pony and tell a story exclusively about her, as in Baby Cakes and Read It and Weep. And there were more opportunities to build off of stories that had come previously, such as Applejack’s changed outlook on asking for help from Applebuck Season to Cider Squeezy 6000.

So this is my list of episodes I’d like to see in season three, and why I’d like to see them. In general I want to see things that 1) expand the existing characters and setting, and 2) subvert my expectations of what the show is and where it’s going.

#1: Fluttershy gets something new and interesting. And she needs it really early on, like maybe the second or third episode. Poor Fluttershy comes in a distant seventh in terms of development in the main cast, and she’s even a few notches behind some of the secondary characters at this point. If there’s going to be any expansion in cast and setting, Fluttershy is in danger of being left behind entirely.

The problem is that Fluttershy’s two most prominent (only?) character traits don’t lend themselves very well to telling stories. So far every story has revolved around her love of animals, overcoming some fear or anxiety, or some combination of those two things. Kindness, fear and shyness just aren’t as interesting as, say, Twilight Sparkle’s neuroses. There are a thousand cool stories you can tell about a pony going insane. But there’s only maybe two you can tell about a pony finding her courage, and Fluttershy has had like four so far.

What Fluttershy really needs is a new, interesting character trait that future stories can build on. Something fresh, but believable, and not so confining as “she’s always nice” or “she’s always scared”. I don’t have a clue what that thing might be, but then I’m not exactly a Fluttershy fan. Smarter people than me can figure it out.

#2: Princess Celestia is the bad guy. Celestia is portrayed as this awe-inspiring queen/mother/goddess figure, which makes her probably the weakest character in the show. If there’s a race to see who can be an even less interesting character than Fluttershy, Celestia is in the lead. The funny thing is, you do see these little snippets in certain episodes that bring her down to earth a bit, especially in A Canterlot Wedding where she’s totally ineffective both in identifying the villain and in fighting her. These rare moments help humanize the character — er, pony-ize her — and I feel like an episode devoted to that concept would open her up as a real character that could be used in real stories, rather than just a series mascot. She needs her own version of Luna Eclipsed.

I don’t think it would be hard to do. The episode opens with Twilight Sparkle (perhaps with the help of Princess Luna) identifying some princess-y decision Celestia has made for legitimately bad reasons. Like, she wants to enlist Fluttershy and Applejack’s help in running a pack of ugly (but otherwise harmless) monsters out of Equestria. Or perhaps she is playing favorites in some social factioning of Canterlot; an enterprising pony has figured out a way to accomplish some public service using machinery that is normally done with magic, and Celestia wants to put a stop to it unfairly. The episode ends with Celestia herself learning a Very Important Lesson, heartwarming monologue and all.

The knee-jerk here is to just have her taken over by some evil spirit, so it’s not really Celestia doing whatever bad thing it is, but that would miss the point. (And has already been done twice in this series, anyway.) I don’t find hero worship to be particularly healthy for a long-term series, and taking the perfect, can-do-no-wrong hero down a few pegs is a good way to dispell that. Gandalf survived it, so did Dumbledore, Celestia can too.

#3: Scootaloo gets her cutie mark, but her friends don’t. Season two did a great job with the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Yes, there is always a strong, single-minded undercurrent to all their stories (“We want butt marks! We want them immediately!”), but that undercurrent was adapted to some highly entertaining plotlines. Characters who merely irritated me in the first season came to really grow on me in the second, and theirs are now some of my favorite episodes.

Two things stick in my craw about the CMC stories, though. First off, Scootaloo isn’t her own character. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle have both branched off and done their own things, while Scootaloo kind of hasn’t. And kind of can’t, in the current climate of the series. And second, it’s painfully obvious how the CMC story arc is going to eventually end. After all, we-the-viewer already know what the girls’ special talents are, and are just ticking off the episodes until the eventual triumphant moment where all three get their prizes simultaneously.

I think the show can do better.

We already know Scootaloo can’t fly, and that she’s at least a little self-conscious about this. So open up on that premise — she gets a rejection letter from Flight Camp, or something — and she’s really depressed. Her friends save the day by pointing out what a speed demon she is on her scooter, maybe by getting her signed up in the Sixty-sixth Annual Ponyville Scooterpalooza. Scootaloo not only excels, but gets her cutie mark right there in the winner’s circle.

What the episode is about, then, is how guilt and jealousy can create a rift between friends, and how the girls eventually overcome it to remain a trio. (Rather than, say, dump Scootaloo unceremoniously the way Apple Bloom did to Candy Cane Girl early in the series.) This changes their group dynamic a little bit, but I think that’s okay, because their stories are already less about “butt marks immediately” and more about the girls creating trouble for themselves. And also because, while Scootaloo might have a cutie mark now, she still can’t fly. So it’s not like she’s done learning, or doesn’t still need her friends.

#4: Legends of the Dark Knight, but with ponies. The greatest cartoon series ever made is unquestionably Batman: The Animated Series. One of the most steller episodes of that series is Legends of the Dark Knight, in which some kids sit around sharing stories about what they imagine Batman to be like. Batman himself is only in the episode briefly. The effect is an episode about the main character, but which does not feature him. The hero you’re familiar with gets filtered through the lens of a generic everyman, whose knowledge isn’t nearly as well-developed as yours is.

Powerpuff Girls had a similar episode with a scruffy guy filming a documentary.

As the third season winds to a close, I figure My Little Pony will have eyedropped enough personality onto enough background ponies that you could have a whole episode about the mane six where they only feature peripherally. As an example, Twilight Sparkle has this annoying tendency to make important announcements about climactic upcoming events, and then rushing off or disappearing or just descending into madness. From the point of view of a normal citizen of Ponyville this must be incredibly frustrating! But since Twilight is the princess’s understudy it’s not like they can actually say or do anything. Enough such points of view exist that I’m sure they could fill a comical twenty-two minutes.

And hey, if they wanted to slip in some good-natured jabs at previous pony series, something along the lines of Batman’s “Shut up, Joel!”, well, that would be just fine too.

#5: A straight-up Daring Do adventure. Cold open on the title card: “Daring Do and the Haunted Lighthouse.” Or, “Daring Do and the Secret of the Sixth Circle.” Then, just a full episode of Daring Do having amazing adventures in exotic locations. No framing device, no cut to Rainbow Dash holding a book — just an inexplicable out-of-continuity homage to Indiana Jones. Before each commercial break she lands in some impossible danger. At the sixteen minute mark she says something about an artifact belonging in a museum. Close the episode out with, “Catch ya later, Ahuizotl!” Change the end credits music, too, so it belongs to Daring and not the mane six.

Okay, so this is just me engaging in some braindead fansquee of my own. I am not immune.

It occurred to me, halfway through writing this, that I could probably plumb the depths of EQD and find all five of these stories in fanfic form. That makes me feel a little like I need a shower.

Still, when season two ended I felt like I had learned a little something about Equestria that I hadn’t known before. I would like to feel that way at the end of season three, too. More than anything, I just want the show’s creators to avoid feeling safe in their popularity. “Give the fans what they want!” is a fallacy because fans often don’t know what they want — not really. What I want is to be surprised; I want new and exciting things. And I want the show to go places that I didn’t imagine it could go.

Oh, and no shipping. No shipping ever. This is a kid’s show and you shipper types are creepy. Knock it off.

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Super Mario 3D Land

I’ve owned Super Mario 3D Land since it came out, but I only managed to polish off my full-clear last night. This is a big game. There are eight worlds, with six levels in each world. Each of these levels has three hidden widgets to find, some number of which are required to open up later worlds. And once you’re done with all those, eight more worlds open up, as well as the option to play as a second character. Finishing every level in all sixteen worlds with both brothers will earn you close to 300 widgets, at which point a super hard finale level opens up that will take even the most battle-hardened Mario veterans a hundred tries to clear. Then, and only then, do you get a cheerful message thanking you for playing.

I feel I must add a disclaimer: I’m going to spend this post mostly talking about what I didn’t like about the game. Please don’t take this as an indication that 3D Land is a bad game, or that you shouldn’t play it. Surely gamers of any sort of quality know time spent with Mario is never time wasted. 3D Land is no exception. It looks and plays something like a bastard love child of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Galaxy. The stages are short and punchy, commonly built around a cool gimmick that hangs around just long enough that you don’t get tired of it. A world or two later that gimmick will pop up again, in a more difficult form, in another short and punchy level. As far as the general design of the game is concerned, I doubt you could concoct a better Mario formula than this.

Okay, some of those level gimmicks are lousy, and result in levels that aren’t much fun. And yeah, sometimes those levels get rehashed for no reason other than to force you to sit through them again. But that’s maybe ten, twelve levels out of a hundred. The win ratio is really good.

As I was enjoying the game, though — and I assure you I was enjoying it a great deal — I couldn’t avoid this jarring feeling that I’d rather be playing Super Mario 64. Kind of odd, considering that 3D Land and SM64 are similar in neither level design nor goal structure. SM64 focused mainly around navigating obstacles, with a bit of treasure hunting thrown in for good measure. 3D Land takes a more classic hop-and-bop approach, and has a greater focus on battling monsters and managing powerups. They’re both built around core Mario elements, but the games branch far enough from that core that they shouldn’t scratch each other’s itch.

It took me a long time to figure out exactly what was going on: Super Mario 3D Land has two major problems that Super Mario 64 didn’t have, way back in 1996. And every time I ran into one of those problems, over the course of sixteen worlds times six levels times two brothers, my brain fired off a neuron that reminded me, “You wouldn’t have to put up with this shit in Tick Tock Clock.”

Actually, there are three major problems. But the third is more of a meta-problem, and not something localized to 3D Land itself. Simply put, the 3DS sucks. It’s too smooth, and gets too warm, and there doesn’t seem to be a good way to get a grip on it. As far as I can tell there are three uncomfortable ways to hold the system, and zero comfortable ones. So I just alternate between the three uncomfortable ones (I call them the “Chest Bracer”, the “Crooked Talon” and “Help! My Sandwich Is Falling Apart!”) and, eventually, turn the system off and plunge my hands into a bucket of ice. I had to quit playing Mario Kart 7 entirely because playing it was so excruciating.

We can’t blame 3D Land for that, I suppose.

The first problem SM64 didn’t have was a proper sense of perspective. Each level was a fully-realized 3D world, and Mario was meant to move through it at all angles and directions. At a given point in an SM64 level Mario’s next move could be anywhere in relation to his current position, off to any side or around any corner. You could spin the camera wherever you wanted it to look, or even zoom all the way into Mario’s head to get a detailed sense of his immediate surroundings. Indeed, these were the bullet points on the back of the game box. 3D Land, despite its title, sticks mainly to 2D planes. At any given point in a level Mario’s next move is either “go sideways” or “go forward”. The camera sits in a fixed position, and your action is limited to just the slice of the level you’re looking at.

Mario’s movement, however, is not limited. He has his 360 degree range at all times, even though most of the time you want to move him in a straight horizontal or vertical line. The 3DS’s circle pad doesn’t have notches around the edge like the N64’s control stick did, so moving it in a strict horizontal or vertical manner is very difficult. As a result, it’s very easy to move Mario 93° instead of 90°, and you won’t notice until you’ve inadvertantly missed a jump or veered him into a monster. In SM64 I often got around these issues by circling the camera behind Mario, locking it in place, and then pushing the control stick into its upper notch. In 3D Land I just died a lot.

There’s a deeper issue here though, and it’s something that crops up in a lot of 3D games that try to adhere to a 2D spirit. When you reduce your 3D game to a 2D plane, you lose perception of one of your axes. In a sidescrolling segments it’s easy to judge height and distance, but not depth. Anything coming at you from the foreground or background is difficult to judge, let alone finnicky jumps to platforms in those areas of the screen. Meanwhile, there are these all-too-common top-down sections, where the action resembles something like a jump-y version of Zelda. Mario has no problem moving any direction he wants in these sections, but it’s next to impossible to detect height. Have fun crashing into ?-blocks and hammer bros. you were trying to land on top of!

I’ve heard tell this can be alleviated by playing with the 3D turned on, which solves some distance and perspective issues. I can’t stand to play any 3DS games that way, though, because the 3D looks like a smeary mess that has to be re-adjusted every time you reposition your hands. The game tries to clue you in when you enter an area that plays perspective tricks, and I did try to engage the 3D slider in those areas, but it never seemed to help, and anyway that’s a totally separate issue from not being able to tell how far into the background you’re jumping. If this is the best the 3DS can do with its stereoscopic gimmickry, it’s a failed experiment. (But that’s okay; Nintendo is used to those.)

It took me a long time to figure out exactly why my brain kept telling me this wasn’t a problem in SM64, but I eventually twigged to it. In that game, if you make 90% of a jump, Mario would grab the ledge and you could push a button to hoist him up to safety. In 3D Land, if you make 90% of a jump, Mario skids down the ledge into oblivion, and all your button does is make him wall kick away from safety. This is something that will happen over and over again, every time you sit down to play. In fact, this seemingly tiny alteration to Mario’s moveset made the difference between hardly noticing those tricksy weird-angle jumps (in SM64) to being continuously devastated by them (in 3D Land).

The second problem SM64 didn’t have was SSPP, which was a delightful step up back in the day because Super Mario World was plagued by it. SSPP stands for “Stupid Shitty Powerup Placement”. What it means is, a given Mario level is easy to play with a particular powerup, but very difficult without it. You can’t get that powerup inside the level, though, so if you get stuck there your options are to just throw yourself at it over and over, or leave and hunt powerups in an old level. Super Mario World had tons of levels like that. I distinctly remember making the two-minute journey across the world map to the Top Secret Area so I could start each new level with two capes and a Yoshi. In 3D Land I was constantly running back to level 1-1 to pick up two racoon tails.

I don’t know how to fix SSPP. SM64 avoided it by simply not having powerups in the traditional sense. I know when we were designing levels for Super Talking Time Bros. we resolved to just put some kind of powerup next to every checkpoint. 3D Land‘s fix is to start you out after each death as big Mario, rather than small Mario, which is more traditional. However, the concession doesn’t really work; allowing the player to take an extra hit isn’t really the same as ensuring the player always has the superpower he needs. When you’ve got the right power — a leaf, a fire flower, or whatever — the levels are breezy and fun. When you don’t, they become arduous very quickly. Getting whatever power you want is trivial, provided you know where to look, but it’s boring. “Well, time to replay 1-1 again!” is just as fun as “Well, time to hit up the Top Secret Area!”, which is to say, not at all.

Actually, scratch that. I do know what the solution is. Since 3D Land is trying so hard to ape Super Mario Bros. 3, it should just take another cue from that game and let you carry around a stock of items wherever you go. Instead of one reserve item, let Mario carry ten. If you have a leaf already, and you pick up another one, send it to the bottom screen to be retrieved later, rather than replace the fire flower that was already there. Allow access to one of these slots any time; allow access to all ten from the map screen or while Mario is standing at a checkpoint. Problem solved. Bill’s in the mail, Nintendo.

I want to be clear that I’m not exactly pining for the days of SM64 here. It’s not like that game didn’t have its own score of issues. For example, I never died in 3D Land because the camera suddenly and inexplicably swung around into a bad position. I never had to wrestle with air currents or invisible wind gusts. I never drowned. And I never got bored collecting coins to make a star appear, not even once. Next time I revisit the ol’ N64 classic, there will be spots where I say, “Man, I wish I were playing Super Mario 3D Land.”

If only I could play the game with a controller that didn’t traumatize my hands so much.

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First Impressions: Diablo III

This game is awesome. It is about punching monsters until they explode into piles of loot. You do that 6,000 times, then you win, then you start over on a harder difficulty. Also one of the characters can summon a giant demon bullfrog that eats bad guys.

It also has the best achievements:

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Robin Hood


Robin Hood(1973)

It’s weird to think of Disney in terms of anything other than a world-devouring mega-multi-billion dollar cartoon industry, isn’t it? Of course, I think it’s weird because I’m only thirty, and have never known a time when they weren’t in the business of marketing blockbusters. History speaks for itself, though: the real story of Disney’s animated film series is that everyone stood up and took notice when Walt himself pioneered the art form, then sort of sat back down for forty years while the studio chased its tail and tried to hammer out that magic formula of sustainability.

This is not to say there aren’t some quality films in that odd middle era. There certainly are, and Robin Hood is certainly one of them. I just think it’s useful to approach these offerings as Disney’s B-side. It’s like, nobody buys a Beatles album to hear George bust out a zither. If you were dividing the films up by tone, with all the comedies going into this box and all the romances going into that one, and so on, you’d be sort of at a loss for what to do with Robin Hood. I think “quaint” is a good word to boil it down to. There’s something soothing in that quaintness, a sort of purposely inoffensive charm, that causes the movie to be notable even though it does nothing in particular to stand out.

Man, I’m not doing a very good job making Robin Hood sound very appealing, am I? Let’s start here: this movie is great and I super duper love it. And I’m not the only one.

Oo-de-lally, what a day!

A few weeks ago I put up a friendly internet poll to find out what folks’ favorite Disney soundtracks were. Forum software being what it is I had to whittle the selection down to ten films, and being a forum full of twenty-thirty-somethings I stuck mostly to the Alan Menken soundtracks with Cinderella thrown in just to round things out. It was only a few posts before someone came along and put in an unofficial vote for Robin Hood.

Really, I should have known better. This wasn’t the first time a friendly conversation about Disney films caused Robin Hood to bubble to the surface, and quickly. No, it’s not in anyone’s top-five list, but at the same time it’s never far from anyone’s mind. This is an experiment you can conduct on your own in whatever web communities you haunt: strike up a general conversation about your favorite Disney movies, then wait and see how long it is before someone says, “Hey, anyone remember Robin Hood?” You might even be able to set your watch by it.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be such a strange occurence. That’s kind of how these discussions go: “My nostalgia is better than your nostalgia.” Try having a conversation about the newest X-Men storyline without some neckbeard popping up to compare it to one he read back in the ’70s. It’s technically on-topic, but still a little strange, until the second guy chimes in with memories about the same story, and then the whole discussion veers off in that direction. It is the natural order of things. It’s practically Internet Law.

In this conversation, though, it’s nearly always Robin Hood. People just seem to have a wistful fondness for it, moreso than other Disney films of the era. It beats Sword in the Stone and The Aristocats by ten to one, at least. I’ve witnessed it surface independently on web forums, in IRC chats, in conversations with friends my age. When one of my dudes sat down to play Kingdom Hearts with me, back before anyone knew that game sucked, one of his first observations was, “Man, I hope this game has a Robin Hood world.”

It didn’t. I don’t think any of the sequels did, either. I can’t help but wonder if Square hit a snag during their demographic research.

The fondness expressed for Robin Hood is not very strong, however. Everyone seems to have warm fuzzy feelings about it, but nobody lists it as their favorite. I think this might be a key piece of the puzzle: none of us were actually around for Robin Hood‘s theatrical release and the accompanying media blitz. None of us got a lute-playing plastic rooster in our Happy Meal, or a Little John bedspread. Nobody tapped THQ for a budget PlayStation title. When we watched Robin Hood, it was because we found a battered copy at Blockbuster after renting literally everything else in the store. To be honest, I don’t even remember when I first saw it. It was just this lingering presence that would creep up just often enough to remind me it was around. Commercials and movie posters never got the chance to tell me I would like it; I had to find that out on my own.

Was it the same for everyone else? I don’t know. And does that explain the fondness for this one film over its contemporaries? I don’t know that either. But it is important to remember that watching this movie today is a bit like stepping into a time machine, and that most everyone seems to regard it as a very pleasant trip.

My Brief Stint as an Almost-Furry

I was in 10th or 11th grade when I first played Suikoden. At that point in my development 90% of all my creative writing was done in the form of RPG scripts, meant to be plugged into a videogame someday. Each time I played a new RPG, my approach to structuring my next masterpiece would change somewhat. What Suikoden did was told the story of a war through the eyes of those at the front of the conflict, so of course I thought I might try my hand at that same story. It also eschewed the typical equipment system for a one man/one weapon setup, where each fighter had a favored weapon they could make stronger but never unequip. Suikoden never explained why its fighters did this, but I thought of a pretty good reason: if the heroes had a shorter lifespan than the typical human, they might devote their time to mastering one single weapon rather than learning many. And since I wasn’t in the mood to make up some kind of fantasy Nega-Elf, I decided the heroes in my story were going to be animals.

It wasn’t until I charted out who the heroes were and what they were like that I realized I was unconsciously transposing characters and ideas over from Robin Hood. The hero was a plucky young fox who fought for justice and chivalry etc. and was most adept at using a bow. Once I realized what I’d done I changed the bow to a whip and kept going. Other than that, it didn’t bother me very much that I’d just lifted a character wholesale from a children’s movie. (I ended up giving the bow to the hero’s chameleon sidekick.)

Once it was finished, I made the mistake of letting one of my friends read it, who told me she knew an artist who was “into that sort of thing”. So I let him read it too, thinking he would do a few drawings I could add to my folder for that magical day when I would totally make it into a for-real game. I had to skip math class because he took second lunch, and when I did I thought it was “kind of cool” that his backpack and all of his folders were covered in clippings from Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog comics.

I was young and foolish. Seeing that today would cause me to walk very briskly in the other direction.

I gave him a brief description of the characters and I think we even talked a bit about Robin Hood. He agreed he would start with the demure magic-using squirrel. In a few days he turned in his work: my squirrel was now some manner of snow owl with enormous, ahem, hooters. Her wings were splayed out behind her while she clutched a staff in her very anatomically incorrect arms. And she was licking her beak in a rather suggestive manner.

The uncomfortable conversation with this gentlemen, pointing out everything he’d done wrong, made me wish I’d just gone and factored some polynomials. And yet, he wouldn’t back down from any specific point. Snow owls were sexier than squirrels, he said. And no, birds don’t have arms (certainly not in Robin Hood!), but giving her extra appendages allowed him more freedom to… I don’t know, do whatever. In fact, he was upset with me for not proclaiming it a work of art! That was about the extent of our working relationship.

When I complained about this to one of my dudes online, I was told that I had met my first furry. “My first what?” And then, oh the things I did see. I realized I had looked into the crack of a door that led to a very dark place, and I turned my back on it. I was too embarrassed to even watch Robin Hood for many years. (I did manage to get back into Suikoden, though.)

That is, of course, unfair to Robin Hood. When I eventually did go back to it, after its DVD release, I was actually impressed that the characters were much less anthropomorphic than I remembered. Robin walks on his hind legs, sure, and speaks with an English accent, but he’s also got fangs and claws, and can move like a fox when he has cause to. He’s not just a person with a snout and red fur. This is, of course, right in line with most of Disney’s more realistic animal characters. If anything, Robin Hood is proof that there is a place in the world for stories about human-like critters having fun adventures without descending through that dark door leading to fursuits and Sonic recolors.

“We folks of the animal kingdom have our own version…”

It’s kind of dumb to compare Robin Hood to the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog when there are a couple hundred other versions of the story already floating around to compare it to instead. The movie even acknowledges this right up front, when Alan-A-Dale the rooster minstrel informs us that what we’re about to watch is “the story of what really happened in Sherwood Forest”. Other than Tarzan, I can’t name another Disney movie that was based on such a ubiquitous and well-trodden story as Robin Hood. For generations, the modern face of the fairy tale had already been Disney, and the ones they hadn’t gotten to yet (like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid) were at least slightly obscure. But Robin Hood? Everyone knows Robin Hood!

If you held me down and forced me, on pain of death, to say whether I’d seen Disney’s version or Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves first, I wouldn’t be able to answer you. But it doesn’t matter. Because even at that very young age, I understood that these were just different takes on the same story, which I was already familiar with. Not very many Disney movies attack their stories from the direction of “this won’t be the first time the audience has seen this.”

You can usually define a Robin Hood story by what gets cut out of it. Disney’s version omits the origin story entirely, opening up with Robin in the woods already a wanted criminal. All the religious trappings of medieval England have been excised. The villains were recast to be bumbling and foolish, more the better to tell a whimsical children’s story. And, of course, all the characters were made into adorable woodland creatures.

From there, the story goes exactly as you’d expect: Robin Hood and Little John are lovable vagabonds who steal from the rich and give to the poor. “Rich” in this context refers to Prince John exclusively, and the stealing happens over the course of three adventures: a treasure carriage on its way to Nottingham, the legendary archery competition where Robin competes in disguise, and finally an invasion of Prince John’s castle, simultaneous with a daring jailbreak. Along the way Robin manages to share a few tender moments with a local rabbit family and, of course, a blossoming romance with the Maid Marian.

In other words, you sort of have to know how the notes of the song go in order to listen along. The movie doesn’t spend any time introducing the characters or their relationships because it assumes you already know who they are and what they’re playing at. And really, who needs their hand held through the finer points of Robin Hood? Folklore is folklore for a reason.

This isn’t Disney’s usual approach to covering explored territory. In Tarzan, we still got the full brunt of the character’s origin and upbringing, and the major characters had been changed considerably from their original versions. Well, at least enough to put a new spin on the tale. With the rest of their adaptations of literature and classic fairy tales, Disney usually likes to pretend they’re telling the story for the first time… to own their interpretation as something new and unique. Robin Hood alone goes entirely the opposite direction.

The result is something like comfort food. The heroes feel more like old friends, the villains are rounded off and non-threatening. The setting is a place we’ve been to before, and enjoyed before… and isn’t that what we were expecting? Why else would you pick up a copy of Robin Hood with a cartoon fox on the cover? Everything about the film, all the warmth and simplicity of it, reminds you that this really isn’t Disney’s story — they’re just borrowing it for a while.

I wonder if the decision to do this was a conscious thing, a sort of shift in direction after more played-straight versions of Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book. Maybe someone stood up and said, “Guys, we’re not going to be able to pass Robin Hood off as one of ours, so let’s just have fun with it.” Or maybe it just happened naturally? Maybe Robin Hood is just the kind of story you start out with, “You’ve heard it before, but this is what really happened…”

“Alms… alms for the poor…”

The first thing I did when I decided to write this article series was sit down and do some basic research on the history of Disney movies. Since I’m lazy and live on the internet, “basic research” in this context means “I read a lot of Wikipedia and IMDB”. I have a handy spreadsheet here with the release dates, running time, budget and box office gross of every film from Snow White to Tangled, which comes in handy when comparing the current spotlight film to other films in the series, and to other films near it in the timeline. For example, I know that Robin Hood is the first feature film Walt Disney himself had no involvement in; he lived just long enough to see half of The Jungle Book‘s production, and to sign off on The Aristocats.

But you don’t have to be a Wikipedia junkie to see the cost-cutting measures employed by Robin Hood. It’s somewhat infamous for its use of traced animation, lifted wholesale from previous films to save the animators some trouble. And you don’t really have to squint to notice that the bear, snake and buzzard characters were imported directly from The Jungle Book.

My knee-jerk reaction to this is, well, animation in the 1970s was a pretty sorry affair. My apologies if you’re ten years older than I am, but you grew up during a time when most cartoon studios didn’t aim higher than “loud colorful noises to get kids to shut up”. We should consider it a minor miracle that Disney produced anything of value during that decade at all, and just move on.

What’s weird is, the numbers don’t add up. Robin Hood‘s budget of $15 million is still pretty pricey compared to The Aristocats‘s $4 million, three years prior. And both are extravagent when compared to The Rescuers, made four years later, for a scant $1.2 million. Why does Robin Hood have this reputation as a budget film, made during one of Disney’s more prominent financial downswings, if it wasn’t particularly cheap to make? And if a shoestring budget wasn’t necessary, why all the cost-cutting measures?

Either these numbers aren’t correct, perhaps the product of some overzealous independent research that got quickly cross-referenced to every website on the internet, or film production is a labyrinth of arcane secrets that I can’t possibly begin to unravel. Or heck, I still haven’t seen The Rescuers — maybe it looks like some straight-up Hanna-Barbera garbage compared to Robin Hood.

The salient question is, does any of this stuff about traced artwork and lifted characters actually impugne Robin Hood‘s quality? I don’t think it does. In fact, when you only know the movie as part of a nebulous “old, but not that old” era of Disney films, it sort of gives the impression that they simply had a stock of animal characters to draw from. Which, if you consider how many hats Mickey Mouse has worn over the years, is sort of true.

Hmm… I seem to have spent more time in this article skirting around the perimeter of Robin Hood than talking about the movie proper. I think I hit the major points, though: it is the story of Robin Hood, it features a cast of woodland creatures, and there are a damnable lot of people who feel its legacy is worth more than “that movie the hamsterdance song comes from”.

Going back to my original question, I think I know what box I’d put Robin Hood in: just plain fun. The movie doesn’t deliver overmuch, but it doesn’t ask very much from you, either. It’s got that intangible quality that just seeps into you and makes you want to like it. It probably won’t knock your socks off — it didn’t provide me with an opportunity to run to the Xbox achievement generator — but next time you find yourself inexplicably engrossed in a nostalgic conversation about Disney movies, could be you’ll be the one to say, “Hey, anyone else remember Robin Hood?”

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Super Talking Time Bros. 2 is the best Mario fangame ever.

I wasn’t going to say anything about Super RMN Bros. 3 on my blog, because the game sucks and their response to criticism has not changed since Super RMN Bros. 2, but I recieved an interesting new perspective on the situation that I feel is worth mentioning. So here I am mentioning it.

Really, this post is about Super Talking Time Bros. 2, more than anything. Putting these two community-driven Mario fangames up against each other in a sort of nerdhole internet grudge match actually makes a lot of sense to me, because one is a fine example of what can be achieved when a community with a clear goal can really accomplish, while the other, uh, isn’t. STTB2 is worthy of every ounce of praise you could possibly give it. People are not exaggerating when they say it’s better than some of Nintendo’s own work. Miyamoto would play this game and nod appreciatively that, yes, these guys really do get it. If the TT guys were Nintendo employees, and they sold you this game for $50, you would not begrudge them a penny.

Let’s start with this premise: a single person cannot make a really good game. Now we know that obviously isn’t universally true, or else the world wouldn’t have gems like Cave Story in it, but the trick is so rare I think it’s fair we can discount it as a fluke of genius. So okay, if you’re a genius you can maybe make a good game all by yourself, but most of us aren’t geniuses. I certainly know I’m not, and I know neither the TT nor RMN project leaders are, nor are any of the dudes who submitted levels. Basically we’re all just gibbering ape-creatures who like Mario a lot, and can maybe tie our shoes by ourselves on a good day, and need to have the crust cut off of our sandwiches, etc.

So with that in mind, we turn to the goals of the two competing internet communities, these congregations of ape-creatures who have come together in the conceit that they could pretend to make a Mario game. And this is the new perspective: Talking Time is a community of gamers, whereas RMN is a community of hackers.

I’ve put about five-ish years into Talking Time so far, and what I like about the community there as opposed to other gaming communities I’ve tried out is that the people like to talk about games. You would think that’s obvious (I mean, it’s in the forum title and all) but it’s really not. The dudes there don’t just talk about what they’re playing and what’s coming out and what new system will have the most chips or whatever. What they talk about is why they play games. You very nearly never have a dude just roll up all, “This fucking game sucks!” If a fucking game sucks, that dude is going to tell you why that fucking game sucks, and usually support his position with examples of games that did what that fucking game was trying to do better. Or ideas on how the fucking sucky parts could have been improved. And then a second dude will come along and disagree; he’ll make a case for why the game doesn’t fucking suck, and support that argument with generally sound reasoning about why he thinks that. And these two guys, even though there is no common ground re: fucking-sucking, are actually engaging in a real discussion about game design.

I have about ten years’ worth of experience in the various RPGMaker communities, of which RMN is just the most recent example, and I say with confidence that it is a totally different style of discourse. The community isn’t centered around playing games, but rather making them, and so everyone has an individual agenda. Everyone is making something, and they all want you to play it. And yes, that means playing the stuff other people make too. And yes, you can actually get a lot of enjoyment from that angle. What happens, though, when you have a hundred guys all using the same game engine to do things, is the conversation becomes skewed. When everyone knows what an engine can and can’t do, the level of expectation gets lowered. Mistakes are forgiven if everyone agrees it’s just a quirk of the engine, and truly novel things nobody has seen an editor do before are praised even if they are bad ideas.

(Indeed, one of the most explosive conversations I had about RMN Bros. 2 occured because I asked a level designer to add a checkpoint to a level, and I was rebuffed because it was impossible to do so. “Make the level shorter, then” was not even considered as a solution to the problem.)

Now when you get these groups together, as a community, to design a Mario game, it’s actually pretty clear why one consistently succeeds and the other consistently fails. Both communities are just doing what comes naturally to them. The TT guys get together and engross themselves in discussion about every level, discussions which sometimes blow up and hurt feelings. If a guy’s level doesn’t work, he’s forced to read lots of comments about why it doesn’t work and, in extreme cases, why it won’t be included in the project. Bad levels get weeded out and bugs get squashed at nearly every point in the process because these are guys who like to talk about games. They just happen to be talking about their own game, this time.

Meanwhile, at RMN, every contributor is ostensibly a game designer. The game thus becomes a collection of individual projects being plugged into the whole. A guy makes his level off in his own corner, then presents it when he’s done, and then goes off to make the next level. And because a “standard” SMBX level is old hat, each individual is trying to push the engine to do more novel things, without regard to whether those are really the kinds of things that work well inside of a Mario game.

These are two groups of people who have a healthy respect for gaming, just in different directions. Talking Time is interested in gaming as a culture, as a form of history. They would have deep discussions about SMBX whether they were making a game or not. Their project, then, is chock full of references and in-jokes, little nods to Mario history, and every brick has been pored over not just for bugs, but to ensure that fun, playability and “Mario-ness” were adhered to all along the way.

RMN is interested in gaming as more of a hobby, an avenue of creative output. They like to put pieces together to see what happens. To them, the simple act of making their own Mario level is worthwhile without acknowledging any higher goal. That a level isn’t very Mario-like is less of a concern, because they get to make a cool thing and share it with their friends, who are also making cool things.

What I’ve learned during my time at Talking Time, and what these quasi-yearly Mario projects continue to reinforce for me, is that the process of making a good video game begins with a willingness to really dig in and challenge everything you think you know about game design. 99.9% of everyone who has ever enjoyed a Mario level has not thought about why they enjoyed it. Understanding why you like the things you like is a skill you have to learn and develop. It’s something I was not very good at myself for a very long time. By its very nature, the Talking Time forums help develop that skill, whereas RMN bypasses it and goes directly to the technical aspects of using game editing software.

And no, merely playing games isn’t enough to develop this ability. A truly well-designed game is built specifically so you won’t notice the game-y aspects of it. If you don’t believe that’s true, turn on the developer commentary in Portal sometime and prepare to have your mind blown. (Here’s a hint, for you visitors from RMN: a lot of the level design that went into that game was directly influenced by player feedback.)

Homework assignment: write 500 words about why the first level in Super Mario Bros. is so good. Or so bad, if you don’t like it. And no filler; I can spot filler a mile away.

Talking Time is like a nebula of game designers. The guys there who really dig their hands in and really engage in the forum’s mission statement of “talking about television games” are, whether they know it or not, getting a powerful education. Super Talking Time Bros. is the proof. When you spend your free time making a case for the games you love and then defending that case against other dudes who do not love them, you become something more than just another ape-creature. A year or so later, when you sit down to make a Mario level, your first thought is, “Okay. What do I really know about Mario levels? What do I know works? And how can I put a little of myself into one?”

That’s the big difference between “Oh cool, a stopwatch! I should make a stopwatch level!” and “What would a stopwatch level look like, and how would it actually play? If it doesn’t play well, is there a way I can make it worthwhile?”

I can say, sincerely, that I am honored to know the guys who made the TT Mario games. It isn’t just better than RMN Bros., it’s head and shoulders above just about every Mario fangame ever made. And truth be told, I was more than a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t see my own name in the credits. I should have made a ghost house or something.

And to you RMN types, well, not that you’ve ever taken my advice in the past, but… you’re not hopeless. You just need to grasp that one important lesson you haven’t learned yet. Step one is realizing that the dudes at the front of the project — yes, I’m talking specifically about halibabica and kentona here — haven’t learned it either. Listen to criticism, be willing to throw away a week’s worth of work, and pay no attention to any positive thing anyone says about what you’re doing. If the TT guys do another sequel this year, I invite you to get a forum account and test your mettle there. Dart Zaidyer will whip you into shape.

It’ll sting, too. That fucker uses an actual whip.

But your levels will be better, scars and all.

If you’re an impartial observer, but you love Mario games, please download Super Talking Time Bros. 2 and Super RMN Bros. 3 for yourselves and make your own conclusions:

Super Talking Time Bros. 2

Super RMN Bros. 3

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Mouse Guard: The Roleplaying Game

There were no good videogames this month, so I put my gaming budget towards a copy of the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game Boxed Set. It was an interesting purchase. I love the setting of Mouse Guard and hope it sticks around long enough to take up a whole shelf in my house. And I loved the idea of a roleplaying game in this setting, because it’s got a unique feel that betrays the traditional “swords’n’sorcery, kill’n’loot” gameplay agenda. The heroes would be brave and strong, sure, but they would be mice. Mice do not slay monsters and amass gold. They do not blaze trails and explore dungeons. They scamper and retreat, climb and hide and trick. They scratch what life they can at the very bottom of the food chain. That’s the angle the comics have portrayed very well, and that’s a kind of roleplaying game I really think would be worth playing.

Having just finished reading the rulebook, I’ve concluded it’s a pretty simple and well-designed game. I bet it plays really well. I know, though, that it will never go over with my gaming group, or with any group that is at all similar to ours. It’s very clearly aimed towards novice groups who are new to roleplaying, or veteran groups who have only played one type of game. There is a lot of structure here, and not enough of the bolts and crossbeams are covered up. It’s too game-y. There are lots of spots in the rules, as written, where I can envision players being frustrated by too much “you can’t do that, just because.” There are a lot of really good roleplaying tools built into the system, but most of the mechanics require the players to approach the system as a game and not necessarily as a world their characters can interact with. What’s worse, the system doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to chock those restrictive mechanics aside.

My goal is to try and tweak the Mouse Guard rules so they will work for a veteran group that doesn’t need the kinds of rule-game-check restrictions that are built so solidly into its framework.

I’ll talk about the good stuff first, because the good stuff is really good and, more to the point, is the kind of good stuff that was noticably absent from 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. First, character creation is excellent. Every other game in the world seems to work under the assumption that every player has a copy of the book and therefore it’s okay to spend twenty minutes picking skills and spending points and notating abilities. If everyone does have a copy of the book, yeah, that process takes twenty minutes. This only happens if you’re playing a really old game that a lot of group members are familiar with, though. We have about six copies of the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook. But for a new game that one guy wants to introduce everyone else to? You usually just have his copy, and every player has to spend twenty minutes with it. An hour and a half later you can start playing. (Forty-five minutes if you print out a pirated .pdf of the rules.)

In Mouse Guard, character creation is structured as a series of questions. The GM goes down the list and the entire group (called a “patrol”) answers at once. The lists of skills and traits are broken down into sections that make logical sense: what skills were you born with? What skills did you get from your parents? Each group only has a subset of the whole skill list. Instead of poring over every available option and trying to balance them against each other, you’re instead just sharing your character’s backstory and letting the book fill in the dots for you. I bet it flows really well and gets a whole group up and running in just a few minutes. Gear is abstracted down to a Resources stat plus whatever the mouse can actually carry, which, being a mouse, isn’t much. I like games where characters are defined by who they are rather than what they can do, and that’s the kind of game Mouse Guard is.

Once you have your skills and such, you level them up by actually using them. Each skill has checkboxes next door to notate passes and failures. Passing a skill test represents getting better with practice; failure imparts important lessons. Both are required to get to the next level. This system is elegant and it rewards players for coming up with creative ways to use their skills. In point-based games you often reach a level where you have enough dots in a skill to pass almost every test you’ll ever make with it, but not enough to do anything really exceptional with it. In World of Darkness this is about four dots. Buying that fifth dot is almost prohibitively expensive; it takes something like three full sessions’ worth of XP. So you want to buy it, but you also don’t want to buy it, and argh frustrating. In Mouse Guard you get out of that boring middle range by seeking out riskier and more difficult applications of the skill. You’ll rack up your passes just by using it naturally, and rack up failures by purposely trying cool new things. And eventually you’ll skill it up.

(World of Darkness, in particular, is pretty bad about ever rewarding really risky behavior. Or maybe our GM’s just a total cocknose.)

The rest of your rewards all come through good roleplaying. Over the course of the game you stack up Fate and Persona points, which can be cashed in to improve rolls. You gain these points by staying true to several aspects of your mouse’s personality: his Belief, Goal and Instinct. I won’t go into detail about what these actually are, but understand there is almost no mechanical application for them. They are strictly defined by what’s in your head. These are not things you pick out of a list in a book, they are statements you make about what your character believes and how he acts. “I believe there is good in everymouse,” or “I never give up the high ground.” At the end of each session the group discusses everyone’s roleplaying and, if you’ve done well, you get points.

The game is also divided into seasons, with maybe one or two missions in each season. The Mouse Guard retires for the winter, and there are very nice rules set aside for how to conduct a Winter Session. This is essentially sped-up downtime where the players get some free points and acknowledge changes in how their mice have grown over the previous year. If a patrol can forego the downtime and volunteer for extremely deadly winter missions, if they really want, but otherwise winter is a great way to decompress and have the characters grow. I think every game needs something like this, and I liked that Mouse Guard specifically set rules aside for it.

So that’s what I liked. Now on to what I hated.

The game is broken up into alternating phases called “GM’s Turn” and “Players Turn”. I made sure to read this section twice through, very carefully, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how this distinction helps the game. The idea is that the GM’s Turn is the mission proper, where the patrol encounters obstacles, gets into fights, works towards their goals, etc. The Players Turn takes up the in-between spots where there is downtime; it’s used to rest and recuperate, obtain supplies, tie up dangling sidequests, etc. In theory it sounds like a good setup for novice players: the GM controls the first half of the session, then you Do Something Cool and then the players take over for a while. However, I anticipate a lot of problems with the system in practice. I am positive my group would reject it outright, and even if I were simply playing the game with another group I would feel unfairly restricted by it.

The major burning question is, why can’t the players just do whatever they want, wherever they happen to be? Sure there is an implicit agreement that the players are a patrol of guardsmice who are working on orders, but why can’t they decide to abandon their mission partway through and go do something else? The book is very clear that once the GM sets an obstacle before them, the players must attempt to clear it. I tried to find an alternate reading of this, something that didn’t sound quite so much like “the players must do what the GM wants them to do”, but there doesn’t seem to be one. After all, it’s the GM’s Turn, isn’t it? You make his checks and then jump through his hoops and dance when he says dance.

I realize a lot of groups play all their games this way. Particularly D&D groups that run on modules. “You can’t do that because it’s not allowed” is an acceptable statement in such groups. But try it with my group and you would be crucified. Our games still have structure, but we feel it’s the GM’s job to make us want to do the things he wants us to do, and to not penalize us when we want to do other things that are reasonable. In fact, we actively mock our GM when the plot threads are too blatant: “Hey look! A sign! It says, ‘plot, this way’! I guess I go that way.”

Mouse Guard is eerily silent on how to handle these situations; it simply assumes if the patrol faces a challenge, they will attempt to overcome it. If the GM gives them a fire to put out, the players will dutifully come together to douse it. And while there’s nothing really wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong (in my opinion) with the players deciding to wait until the fire burns out. Or to try and go around it. Or to throw their Mouse Guard cloaks into it and form a den of bandits. Or to start the fire in the first place.

Okay, so the patrol puts out the fire or whatever, and now the tables are turned; they’re allowed to do whatever they feel like, and the GM can’t spring new plotlines or challenges on them. But ah, there’s a catch! The players still aren’t in total control, because they can only take a certain amount of actions during the Players Turn! During the GM’s Turn they amass “checks”, and taking an action in the Players Turn requires one check. If you’re thirsty and need to hit a tavern? That’s a check. If your shield needs repaired, that’s a check. You get one free check per Players Turn, and you earn more by purposely harming yourself during the GM’s Turn. You get one check for reducing your dice pool on a skill test by one. You get two for letting your opponent win a tie. If you don’t do any of those things, and only have one check by the time you hit town? Too bad. You only get to do one thing.

It gets worse. A player cannot spend two checks back to back, so if you have five and I have three you just don’t get to use one of yours. Oh, you can give me the extra one so I can take an action I didn’t earn, I’m sure that won’t cause any sour feelings in the patrol. (I’m also sure it won’t bog down gameplay during the GM’s Turn: “Dude! Lower your dice so you get a check! I gave you two last time!” “What? No! Fuck off.” “Fine, then I’m not giving you any more checks!” “Fine, then I’m not spending any more of mine on plot stuff!”)

The whole checks system is totally arbitrary and stupid. There is no in-world reason explaining why difficult rolls translate into more downtime, and absolutely no explanation for why guardsmice can’t simply use their downtime as they see fit. If there are more than two players you can run into ridiculous situations where two players have lots of checks and one only has a few. The player with a few has to sit there and watch the other two guys take turns for a while. “So we were in town for three days. During that time they were able to eat, get drunk, hire a cartographer and restock their ammo. But you’re telling me I had so little time I had to choose between getting a good night’s sleep and getting my spear repaired?” Obviously in these situations it’s better for one player to give another player a few spare checks. In fact, it’s probably best to just make sure all the players distribute their checks so they’re equal as soon as they hit town. And if you’re going that far you might as well just say “Do what you need to do in town, let me know when you’re ready for the next adventure,” and do away with checks completely.

Checks do have another function: you can use them to boost dice rolls during the GM’s Turn. This is actually quite powerful; with a certain ability you can cash in four checks to reroll all the failed dice on any test. That’s pretty nice, but if you’ve ditched the Players Turn system and this is the only thing to spend checks on players are simply going to accumulate them on the easy rolls to bypass the hard ones later. That sort of equals out, and players already have points to spend on boosting their rolls, so you might as well do away with this system too.

There’s another hidden snake in this whole GM/Player Turn system: since challenges and obstacles can only be presented during the GM’s Turn, you lose an all-important element of surprise. When I’m playing, I like the feeling that the next adventure or plotline can erupt at any moment, from any direction. If you’ve agreed to this whole Players Turn conceit, though, the GM is agreeing to not do that. In a game where the players can do whatever they want, it’s okay to spring weasels on them while they’re shopping because they can always shop later. In a game where players have to spend a resource to go shopping, springing weasels is mean and unfair. Not only do they not get to do their shopping, but the don’t get another chance to shop until after the weasels and whatever adventure they’re linked to are dealt with. And only if they’ve accumulated more checks along the way.

I have reservations with the combat system, too. Or maybe I should say the “combat” system, as Mouse Guard is one of those games that tries to downplay combat in favor of other sorts of conflicts. D&D 4e tried this too, with its skill challenges, and the result was somewhat clumsy. The secret to “combat” in games like this, though, is that as long as it flows quickly and gets the job done it sort of doesn’t matter how well it works. Mouse guard does away with time-consuming things like initiative rolls, hit points, magic spells and attacks of opportunity. That sounds insane at first, and maybe it is. I might have to just write up another post about it once I’ve seen the system in action.

In any event, having the roleplaying game handy has inspired me to go back and re-read Peanut’s copies of the Mouse Guard hardbacks. These books are not great writing, but the artwork is exquisite and the author is clearly very passionate about the little world he’s created. It’s the type of setting that inspires you to look for reasons to love it. When I passed my copy of the roleplaying game over to our group’s chief cynical cocknose, his first reaction was, “I already love this picture.” So maybe there’s hope for us yet.

If nothing else, Mouse Guard would make a great stand-in for one-shot adventures as part of a less-filling game night. We have a need for those once in a while. Maybe we can piggyback a two hour session into an evening of Mansions of Madness or Castle Ravenloft sometime.

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What I Read Since the ReadIt1st Pledge

The vlogbrothers set up this website, readit1st.com, where you can make a pledge to not see a movie until you’ve read the book that movie is based on. I felt this pledge carried two very strong advantages:

1) Whether the book is better or not, it is certainly the denser of the two versions, which means you get a more complete sense of the story and are therefore provided enough context to later enjoy the sensory overload of the movie. I’m the type of guy who finds himself enjoying movies more on the second pass, because if I’m relaxed and not focused exclusively on absorbing the plot I can notice all the other little things movies do that please me. (I’m also the type of guy who always watches DVDs with the subtitles turned on, for exactly the same reason.)

2) Peanut is always wanting to drag me to the movies, and I sort of don’t ever want to go because movie theaters are terrible places to go in a universe where waiting two months allows me to purchase the same film for an equivalent amount of money which I can then play on a theater-quality flatscreen HDTV. Also, we have better snacks. “Whoops, I haven’t read the book,” is an efficient way to get out of an otherwise unenjoyable evening.

Since that time I’ve had to spring that excuse on Peanut twice. And I read some other stuff in between, too.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan

I accidentally purchased this book while trying to buy one called Game Over: How Nintendo Slaughtered America’s Youth and Drank the Wailing Souls of the Damned, or something. I had heard the book had since been re-branded with a somewhat less soul-drinking name, but couldn’t remember what it was at the office at 5am when I was hankering to read a book, so I ended up with this one instead.

I wasn’t disappointed, though. What I got was essentially a history book that tells the story of Nintendo by focusing on the birth and evolution of its biggest superstar. It’s weird to think of videogames in terms of needing a history book, but sure enough, they do. It covers Nintendo’s early forays into arcade cabinets, to its runaway success with Donkey Kong, to the company’s daring swoop into the barren landscape after the 1983 crash, to its stumbling through the years dominated by optical media, and finally to its revolutionary new console with movement-based input that amazed grandmas everywhere but left many gamers yawning. It’s all in here. Maybe not put quite so cynically. Heh.

There were a lot of interesting stories in here I had never heard before, or at least not heard in detail. Such as the details of Nintendo’s legal battles with Universal over the use of Donkey Kong. Or how Nintendo’s president wanted to market the SNES to businessmen as an online communications machine. And it reinforced some things I’ve suspected for years, but never researched. For example, it kind of blew my mind to read that the technology to build a 16-bit console actually available in 1985, and Nintendo opted not to use it because an 8-bit console would be more affordable. Remember when the Wii came under a lot of criticism for being a non-HD console, and how it sold six quadrillion units anyway? That’s been Nintendo’s business strategy all along.

Towards the end of the book the author starts getting a little misty-eyed about looking forward to the future of videogames. He fenced gamers off into three categories, defined broadly be era: the arcade stickers, who got into gaming with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, who see games primarily as tests of skill; the d-padders, who started playing on the NES, SNES or PlayStation, who view games more as a singular experience to be absorbed and enjoyed (this would be my generation); and the waggle-o-trons, who view games as slight diversions with minimal input, made popular with motion controls or touchscreens. Mario, of course, is one of the very few videogame archetypes that works well in all three divisions. There’s a heated internet debate to be had on the subject, but it was a nice way to end the book. If nothing else, I felt whatever craving my brain had for gamer books had been fulfilled by Super Mario and didn’t immediately go back seeking Game Over. I suppose that’s a complement.

World War Z by Max Brooks

I don’t care what the jaded-ass forum monkeys say, zombies are not played out. They are not just a silly internet meme along the lines of BACON CHEESE PIRATES. Zombie stories are compelling and terrifying, and can be told a thousand different ways. I don’t think I could ever get tired of them. I think what these people are missing, these “zombies are old and cliché now” people, is that the zombie itself isn’t the climax. Nobody writes a story about zombies. Zombies are the premise. It’s like, you wouldn’t look at sci-fi and say, “Oh, those are just stories about outer space. Outer space is so played out.” No. Of course not. You start with outer space, and then you jump off and tell your story. Zombies are a genre now. It’s like, “Suddenly, ZOMBIES!!” And then, “Okay, now what?”

From there the stories deviate into a few different directions, depending on whether the story is a drama or a comedy or a horror, but they almost universally focus on a small group of people right at the flashpoint of the outbreak. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are still a million stories to tell that start that way, but what World War Z does is pulls the camera back and tells the story of a global zombie outbreak from a macro scale. It starts with the flashpoint, works its way into the government cover-ups and the mass hysteria, moves on to humanity collecting its shit and mounting the counter-offensive, and finally describes how much different the post-zombie world is, culturally speaking.

The book is written as a series of interviews of people from all walks of life who survived the zombie apocalypse. The premise is that the author (that is, the fictional author compiling the data, not the actual author) has a lot of stories left over from a historical account of the war he was putting together which were deemed too emotionally-charged to be put in the final cut. So instead of getting the dry, matter-of-fact textbook version, we get the biased, gory, unbelievable Real Talk version. And by god was it entertaining.

I was constantly impressed by how many details got worked into this book. I mean, little things that would necessarily happen as the result of a worldwide zombie uprising which are always overlooked in zombie stories. Real bottom-of-the-closet stuff. For example, when the US army finally starts fighting back, its uniforms are these warm, practical things that resemble Civil War uniforms. And why not? Zombies don’t care about camouflage. And wouldn’t there be cases of young children losing their parents but surviving somehow themselves? Wouldn’t you have to set up some infrastructure to care for these feral children after things calmed down? The book covers that eventuality. Or, wouldn’t the cultural and political differences of countries around the world handle the outbreak in totally different ways? Of course they would. China attempts to cover the story up far past the point of practicality. Russia executes soldiers that want to desert to be with their families. South Africa implements an extremely controversial countermeasure that draws a lot of fire due to being similar in spirit to Apartheid. American celebrities huddle together in a mansion, guarded by a private para-military security force, and are the victims of their own hubris when they try to broadcast their co-existence as an internet reality show.

Finishing this book left me wanting more incredible zombie stories. Unfortunately there aren’t very many zombie novels out there, so…

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

…I was instead forced to re-read The Zombie Survival Guide. This would be the dry, matter-of-fact textbook stuff that World War Z doesn’t include. It is essentially just a how-to book for surviving zombies. What more can be said, really? It’s not an amazingly entertaining read — what how-to book is? — but having a fictional threat being examined in such a detailed, realistic and practical way just creates this bizarre sense of fascination that is impossible to resist.

What I’m saying is, reading these two books will leave you wondering if Max Brooks knows something the rest of us don’t.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My sole exposure to this movie before cracking the book was the Muppets’ parody of its trailer, and a quirky news story about people calling Redbox to complain that the DVD was pirated because it’s printed to look like someone scribbled on it with Sharpie. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a kung fu epic. In any case, Peanut bought the Blu-ray and I told her I couldn’t watch it with her because I was honor-bound by an internet pledge. “That’s stupid and you’re stupid,” she said, but she dutiflly shelved the movie until I could read the book.

I’m really, really glad she did.

This novel captivated me in a way no novel has since… let me think, now. Probably Memoirs of a Geisha. Part murder mystery, part cyberpunk drama, part… I don’t know… financial war epic. The two main characters are extraordinary in that they are both very different from anyone you know, yet somehow very relatable. (Well, to me, at least.) I really, really loved reading a story where neither of the “good guys” possessed a smidge of our tiresome, boring, outdated “American values”. They are both atheists. They are both sexually promiscuous. They are both, in their own way, devoted to revealing harmful truths. They are both ruled by logic rather than emotion. These are characters who have identified their flaws, and are comfortable with them. I found that to be refreshing.

What really drew me in, though, was the novel’s tone. The story is consistently told in this very clinical style. Something like the opposite of “show, don’t tell”. As far as the book is concerned, its job is to simply describe what’s happening, full stop. It doesn’t indulge in metaphor or symbolism. If a character puts on black pants, the book says “So-and-so put on black pants.” If a character goes into a room and stays there for seven minutes, the books says “He stayed there for seven minutes.” The chapter titles are just the dates on which the action takes place. Dragon Tattoo is a long book with lots of fiddly little details, and the tone helps make it go down smooth. It wouldn’t work for every story, but it works for this one.

On a personal level, I really enjoyed seeing a complicated mystery coming together the way it did. I’ve been pondering the workings of a good mystery book ever since I stumbled my way through writing one for NaNoWriMo ’10, and I think Dragon Tattoo taught me a few things.

The movie was excellent too, of course. I knew Daniel Craig starred in it, but the whole time I read the book I imagined his character portrayed by Liam Neeson.

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

If you’ve ever taken a psych class, you know who Dr. Zimbardo is. He’s the man who designed and implemented the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where a group of college students were divided into two groups of guards and prisoners to play-act a fake prison for two weeks. The experiment had to be cut short because of the extreme emotional stress the “prisoners” found themselves in, as the guards abused their power and things got way out of hand. The conclusions Zimbardo drew were that normal, everyday people can do atrocious things when put into extreme situations. He argues that, while we are always responsible for our actions, they are not always the product of purely internal factors. Our external situation can alter us as well, often without us even realizing it.

what the book does is compares the prison experiment to the real-world atrocities carried out at Abu Ghraib. The parallels are chilling. Zimbardo argues that the government’s explanation for the abuses there — having been the fault of just a few “bad apples” — is a short-sighted summary of the situation that borders on being a total miscarriage of justice.

Leaving the scientific and editorial aspects aside, the book was worth reading simply for being such a detailed analysis of these two events. From a historical standpoint, these are interesting tales that reveal something about our own culture and humanity. I do sort of wish the book had stopped there, though. Not being a psych major myself, the chapters and chapters of rote data analysis simply rolled off of me, and while I don’t disagree with Zimbardo’s findings and opinions I thought he came across as unnecessarily preachy during some of the overlong “this is what it all means” segments.

I get why the book is written the way it’s written. But I would have liked a more condensed version of the same material.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This was the second time I turned down Peanut’s movie invitation. This one worked a little better in my favor, though, because it not only kept me out of the theater but also got Peanut to actually read a book herself. (I wouldn’t classify what she usually uses her Kindle for as “books”. More like “senseless drivel”. But that’s a complaint for another time.)

A lot of people had told me this book was exceptional, and… I don’t think I agree with them. It was short, at least. I was able to consume it in a single night. The story and the characters were great. The premise is interesting in a blatantly horrific way. The book does a good job pulling your brain in and forcing you to examine yourself in the protagonist’s situation. It’s similar to zombie stories in that regard.

And the setting was pretty much perfect. The book is set in a nonspecific future sometime after the downfall of the USA. It walks that fine line between giving you just enough information that you have a good sense of the world and how things work there, but not so much that you’re overburdened with trivia. When a setting walks that line correctly you know the world well enough to absorb the story being told, but you don’t know everything so you’re always left wanting to learn more. This works especially well when the book is the first in a series, which The Hunger Games is.

It was the tone of the book that really got to me. It was just very, very… wrong. This story is about an enslaved country whose children are forced to draw lots to see who “wins” the opportunity to fight and kill each other in gladitorial bloodsport. It’s emotionally and psychologically terrifying, both from the standpoint of being a kid whose name gets drawn and from being a member of the community who has to stand by watching it happen, year after year.

However, the book is not written in a dark, gritty, “holy shit can you imagine” kind of way. It’s written like Harry Potter. Which, I will grant you, were great books! They were at their greatest, though, when they were lighthearted stories about young kids exploring a magical world of infinite fantasy and wonder. When the books veered off into darker territory they got really uncomfortable, and virtually no one liked those parts to the exclusion of the fantasy bits. And while you could argue that kids being in situations where they have to fight for their lives should make you feel uncomfortable, understand that I mean “awkward uncomfortable” and not “writhing in your chair uncomfortable”. Like the authors themselves were uncomfortable as they were writing out the words.

Without having seen the movie yet, I’ve decided Hunger Games probably works much better on the screen than as a book. That’s not an insult in the slightest; some storytellers simply have that quality. (Two prestigious examples being Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.) I still don’t want to go to the theater, but this will be a day one Blu-ray purchase. I’m sure Peanut will be happy that we’ll be able to watch our new movie right away for a change. And though she’ll never admit it, I think she’ll be happy to have read the book first, too.

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