Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 In Review - My Top 5

2014 was a big surprise in movies for me. I don't think I've seen this many surprises in a single year in a long time. So to cut this into short let's get right to it. These are my top 5 favorite movies released in 2014!

Disclaimer: When I say 2014 I mean 2014. While there were a couple movies I saw in theatres in 2014 they only count toward 2013. These had to be released within this last year for them to qualify.

Disclaimer 2: I can only see so many movies in a single year. Please take this with a grain of salt as I likely didn't see a couple big names you were expecting or hoping to see here. At least not yet. That or I didn't like them as much as you did.

#5 - The Grand Budapest Hotel

Since first discovering the artsy brilliance of Wes Anderson through The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I've been a fan. I still haven't seen all his movies but always enjoyed the ones I have. One would expect I would have been more excited for Grand Budapest to come out then but at first I wasn't very excited. Mostly because his movies tend to be samey. Good, but samey, which made me wonder if I would even enjoy it that much.
Well I should never doubt what Wes brings to the screen because I loved this movie so much it wound up here as one of my top choices of the year! The movie is undeniably charming with the always excellent performances seen in Wes Anderson movies. The setting is exotic, the story is exciting, classy, and delightfully filled with child-like wonder. But my favorite was toying around with the aspect ratios as it jumped from time period to time period.
My only complaint is they didn't spend enough time in the hotel itself... but I have a soft spot for old and fancy hotels so take it as you will.

#4 - Edge of Tomorrow
(Clover review here)

While not my favorite movie of the year, I would rank it as one of the biggest surprises of the year. I went to see this entirely on a whim regardless of it not catching my interest that much. I am thankful I went because this movie was definitely overlooked and is highly underrated.
I know it's been getting a little more attention now that it's on home video, but I cannot stress enough how cool, creative, and fun Edge of Tomorrow is. In an industry currently overrun by the same superhero movies and the same young adult novel adaptations, and where the go to sci-fi adventure is something like Guardians of the Galaxy, it's nice to see a fresh idea come to light.
While an adaptation in and of itself it comes from an obscure source material. Obviously you shouldn't let that stop you from seeing this. I'm not always into the most mainstream movies as you can see by this list. This is easily the most approachable and mainstream of anything in my top 5.
If you like action, wit, and having a good time with a creative plot and some nice twists then you absolutely need to see Edge of Tomorrow. Or as it's stupidly called on home video... Live/Die/Repeat... *sigh*

#3 - Interstellar

After falling in love with hard science/non fantasy Sci-Fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris (not the 2002 remake with Clooney) it's hard to satisfy my want and need for similar films. So far Moon is the closest to equating to that experience. And Interstellar, while not satisfying me to the point I wished it would, still gave me one of the best experiences in theatres this year.
If you saw Interstellar in an IMAX theatre you'll know exactly what I mean. The visuals are brilliant in this epic adventure with a complex, yet comprehensible plot. The adventure is huge and has a lot of character. Despite some setbacks and silly plot choices it had me on the edge of my seat during the almost three hour run time. If anything I wanted it longer to flesh out some spots better. Still what I got was satisfactory.
I am looking forward to getting the blu-ray and cranking the volume to embrace the high def visuals and gorgeous soundtrack. Not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely worth a shot. An amazing experience none the less. 

#2 - The Raid 2

When I saw the first Raid a couple years ago I was blown away. I instantly recognized it as one of the best actions movies ever made because of the level of constant excitement it invoked and the beauty in the action. So finding out there would be a Raid 2 I was leaps and bounds excited. Turns out this is the movie they director wanted to make in the first place. But due to lack of funds they made the first Raid on a smaller scale to set up the world and get support to make what eventually became The Raid 2.
Despite how great the first one was this doesn't come close to disappointing. It actually is an even better experience because of how fleshed out it is. It's a bigger story with more characters dealing with a bigger problem than a single raid in a single building on a single day. This is a big mafia story with action and excitement that goes beyond what the first did. Not as consistent in action due to the much longer time length, but exciting none the less.
By and large a foreign language action movie that kicked every American action movie's ass this year. That includes you, Marvel.

#1 - Boyhood

With all that said about those last four we come to one of the finest filmmaking achievements of this year and of this generation. Boyhood was shot over twelve years using all the same actors. The results are astounding, making it one of the most literal and accurate coming of age movies ever made.
Boyhood, while not able to relate to everyone, is incredibly relatable to most because it covers a lot of the problems that come with growing up. None of which is done in an overly sentimental way. It's all handled very well, brilliantly acted, and is definitely honest with how life goes in both the ups and down. I've read some reviews saying "there is no plot, it's about nothing" to which I respond by saying it's more accurate to real life because of that. Real life doesn't have a set plot, or necessarily a pay off we're all anticipating. And that's one of many reasons it's so great. Having pointless plot elements that never go anywhere mixed in with the intended story of growing up is a perfect example of it's realism.
Boyhood is an incredible rarity and was produced on a level no movie has ever done before. So much dedication to such a special project especially with the tiny, tiny budget it had. And, dammit, every minute pays off.

Honorable Mention: Foxcatcher

The reason this is an honorable mention section is because I saw it just last night and I want to let it sink in like the titles above have. Still... it could easily be a contender for one of the best films of the year.
This true story is about brother wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their eccentric sponsor John du Pont training for the 1988 Olympics. From what I've heard this story delves into what happened leading up to John du Pont's arrest for murder, giving a back story otherwise only seen in the memoir Mark Schultz wrote, which was released around the same time of the film.
While the story itself will engage you, it's the characters that make you want event more. Mark Ruffalo is always fantastic so I wasn't too surprised by his performance. Steve Carell completely transforms into a bizarre and mysterious man of wealth and power. But Channing Tatum gives the most surprising performance, in the best role I've ever seen him play. He definitely steals the show even with how great his co-stars were.
I would easily watch this again and again, and coming from the same director as Capote and Moneyball, which are also great films, that should come as no surprise. It also has me interested in the original story outside of what was told here. Makes me want to pick up the book as well.
Just might.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 29

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"An exciting end to a bloated trilogy with too much unnecessary CG but OH MY GOSH THOSE WERE BUNNIES PULLING THAT SLED!"

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 28

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"A fun experience with a great Japanese influence and a hero I wanna snuggle up with!"

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Interview's Cancellation & Uncertain Future

Not too long ago Sony was hacked once again. Something I think they need to beef up security on because it seems like this has happened to them more often than other companies recently. I remember when the Playstation Network was hacked some five or so years ago. The network went down for at least two weeks, preventing any and all Playstation 3 owners from going online with their console. It sucked but they came back by giving away some free games to all Playstation Network users, which rocked, cause I got InFamous and LittleBigPlanet for nothing. Still it was unfortunate none the less.
This most recent hack seemed to mostly attack their movie end of things. Movies that were either still in theatres or soon to be released in theatres were stolen and leaked online among other things. I'm not too interested in talking about the history of what happened with that. What I'm interested in talking about is the fate of The Interview.

Something I was really looking forward to seeing.

In case you haven't seen trailers for this let me break it down for you. In this comedy James Franco plays a famous tabloid talk show host and Seth Rogen plays the show's producer. They find out the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un is a big fan and wants to be interviewed, but in order for that to happen they have to do the interview in North Korea. Before leaving Franco and Rogen are approached by the CIA who turn their trip into a mission to assassinate the dictator.
Well it turns out that concept didn't please some people. Just a day or two ago it was revealed that within that Sony hack there were terrorist threats against any theatre that screens this new movie. Described as "9/11 attacks." Many theatre chains both big and small immediately dropped out of screening the movie, not wanting to take the risk. Then on December 17th Sony officially cancelled the Christmas Day release with no word on the future of the movie.
It came as no surprise to find out these terrorist threats were in fact from North Korea.

My immediate reaction to this is... why now? What makes The Interview an exception to so many other movies that have come along, poking fun at or even depicting hatred, even death toward political figures both from the past and currently in power?

First off, I understand why they're scared and pulled the plug. There have been and will continue to be many reasons why theatres or distributors will pull or delay movies for one reason or another. I remember when the goofy comedy no one remembers Big Trouble was delayed at least half a year. It was set to come out late September or early October 2011 but was delayed after 9/11 because of a scene involving a bomb on a plane.
I actually remember it being a pretty funny movie despite the coincidental reminder of a horrible tragedy only months earlier.
Then, I totally think threats like this should be taken seriously. While I'm sure there's plenty of actual commentary and satire regarding North Korea and the notorious modern dictator many people are going to see this for laughs and entertainment purposes. It's something we shouldn't feel we have to risk our lives for. I hope you haven't forgotten what happened at that midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises when a man opened fire on the crowd. It has the possibility of being like that only bigger.
While it would seem unlikely to happen at your theatre, considering this was a wide release hitting thousands of screens, it isn't worth it to waste anyone's life just to get it out there and make money. Honestly if it was still released I wouldn't be too worried about my local theatre getting hit... but you never know. Maybe there's some hardcore North Korean supporters in my area and it would be just my luck for my screening to get hit.

Despite all that I'm trying to figure out what makes this situation unique or different from other movies making fun of or depicting the death of a political figure in a comedy. Was this the straw that broke the camel's back? Is there something in the movie that is particularly offensive? Or is it just a weird timing thing?
I ask because one movie from a few years ago comes to mind... Team America...

Yes, the puppet movie from the South Park guys.

I'll bring you up to speed again if you haven't seen this. Team America is another comedy that is part Thunderbirds parody and many parts satire on the modern perspective of America's ego about itself. In this comedy Team America is a group that fights against terrorists in a post-9/11 world. Basically saying "America solves all the world's problems." The main villain of the movie is North Korea and Kim Jong-Il.
The movie is a crazy and over the top. Many of which are a crazy characterization of Kim Jong-Il. Jokes and representations I'm sure many North Koreans would find insulting, even hateful. And want to know what happens by the end of the movie? Kim Jong-Il is violently killed. Sure it was a puppet version but the message was still clear.
So why didn't Trey Parker and Matt Stone get in huge trouble? Why didn't it become as big an issue as The Interview? And since The Interview seems to be so controversial for North Korea, why haven't Trey and Matt been in even more trouble than they already have for outright making fun of and mocking many figures, not just celebrities?

It's like we live in a very picky world where people have a problem with very specific things for no logical or connecting reason. Which is why I can't figure out why The Interview is such an exception to the countless other insults and jokes towards North Korea of the last decade or so. They've become such a huge joke, at least here in the states, there only second to Nazi in terms of being made fun of.
Speaking of Nazis... lets talk about The Great Dictator.

Another controversial piece.

If you haven't seen Chaplin's 1940 classic you really should. It's a brilliant piece of art that blends comedy and social commentary during one of history's darkest times... and was released while that dark period was still going.
In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin plays two roles. One as a poor Jewish barber, and the other as a fictional dictator that was clearly based on Hitler. The whole thing was highly controversial and the only reason it was made was because Chaplin financed it himself. Everything about this movie was mocking Hitler. The way Chaplin looked, acted, everything. Even having his other character be Jewish was a knock because Hitler thought Chaplin was Jewish.
Keep in mind this is while the war was still going on, but before America really became involved and before we found out everything we knew about Hitler. Chaplin even said if he knew about the concentration camps at the time he wouldn't have made the film. But still Chaplin made a controversial film on his own against one of the worst bad guys of history and it still didn't get a reaction like The Interview did. Granted it was a different time, context, and whatnot, but it seems like the worst is it was banned in many places. I haven't been able to find any evidence the movie-going public had anything to worry about.

I guess what my ramblings are trying to communicate is we've seen similar, if not more intense forms of parody and mockery in creative outlets in the past but not met with this intense a reaction. I'm wondering what the fate of the movie will be. It may never come out in theatres. But based on this initial reaction I wonder how long it would take to get to home video or VOD.
When it comes down to if this should or shouldn't have happened my reactions is a bit mixed. Yes I think it should have still been released, but at the same time it seems like the threats were pretty real. A lot of people, celebrities included, have commented on the situation saying it's an attack against creative freedom. Something I support, but maybe there's something we don't know. While writing and researching this I saw that the freaking White House is planning a response to the hack and threats. North Korea is pissed the hell off and lives could have been in danger if this was released.

Am I disappointed? Yes I am. I was really looking forward to this movie. I loved This is the End and I thought Neighbors was pretty damn good, too. But why this movie? What was in it that was so controversial that it warranted this kind of response when there's so much mockery towards North Korea to begin with? Such a sad and odd situation that I feel has gone way overboard.
If and when this movie comes out I plan to show my support for it. I will see it in theatres... or if that never happens I'll rent it on VOD. Hell I'll even buy the DVD or Blu-Ray just to show support and help them recoup the loss this terrorist threat brought the filmmakers and the studio.
Everyone is calling Sony cowards, hating on them, and I understand why. Still I feel they're playing it safe. Creative freedom is one thing, putting the lives of the public in danger when all they want to do is laugh is another. If my life were truly in danger to see this movie I wouldn't go and I suggest the same. Only so much talk will get through to someone insane enough to threaten a 9/11 style attack on fucking movie theatres. All for a comedy that probably won't change the world.

As a P.S. to all this... did you know there was a faux-documentary that was a (obviously) fictional account of President George W Bush being assassinated? That was released while he was still in office? Made with a serious tone. Still, kinda puts The Interview in a different light I bet.

But, really, you should see this. It's very well done.

I'm sad... but happy everyone will be okay at the movies this Christmas. We don't need unnecessary deaths just for a movie to come out. And if this all turns out to be bluffing, with no real threat and just a bunch of assholes messing with Hollywood, well that'll be even sadder.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Rings of Saturn Vol #4: Virtua Racing

History: Initially created as 'proof of concept' not intending to be an actual game, Virtua Racing was released in 1992 in arcades and became a foundation for the future of racing games. While not the first racer to use polygons it was the first to do it well. Previous games like Hard Drivin', while impressive for the times, just didn't render and play back fast enough, making it a rough experience.
Still Virtua Racing was very limited as it was developed on limited hardware for the time. The game lacks depth of detail and is mostly blank and solid colored polygons like Star Fox. It had limited music tracks, limited choice, and was overall a pretty limited experience while providing innovation at the same time. On the upside the game had a very high polygon count. Rendering more in real time that it's successor, Daytona USA.
When it was ported to the Saturn it was released by Time Warner. Giving it an awkward name to say and read. The full title was Time Warner Interactive's VR Virtua Racing. Why they felt the need to keep the VR when it says Virtua Racing afterwords is hard to say but I can't help but feel it was to hint at virtual reality. Thankfully in Japan the game was instead titled Virtua Racing SEGASATURN.
The Saturn port contains a few new features like new tracks but contains nothing added into Virtua Racing Deluxe, the Sega 32X port. That and the graphics were not improved much at all from the original arcade version even though it's since been improved on. From the outside it looks like it'd be a weaker port.

Personal History: This is the first time I've ever played this game. I've known about it for years but in little detail. It wasn't until I re-bought a Saturn that I finally decided to pick it up. Thankfully a local re-sale shop was selling it for less than $10. I couldn't resist.

Availability: Outside of arcades and the Saturn the game had a very limited porting life. One of the ports was to the Sega Genesis of all places. Only made possible by using a special chip in the cartridge much like the Super FX chip on the SNES. It was later ported to the 32X before being released on the Saturn. The 32X version was the previously mentioned Virtua Racing Deluxe. The last port was Virtua Racing -Flatout- for the Playstation 2. Like any other version the game had it's own additions that made it unique. Regardless of what port you're playing they will all be different in some way. But from what I can tell not a noticeably huge difference.

Version I Played: American Saturn release.

Review: When I decided to get back into Sega Saturn collecting I knew it wasn't going to be a bed of roses 100% of the time. Sure every console has their crap titles, that's a given. But since the Saturn was one of the major consoles when polygons and 3D gaming were new... it was bound to have a few titles that haven't aged well because of experimentation or lack of technology.

Virtua Racing, while influential and innovative at the time, is one of those titles.

I will admit it has been a curiosity for a long time. As I watched games become more advanced I became equally fascinated by older games, specifically in 3D over 2D. Discovering this game for the first time was like discovering a better, but not that much better looking version of Star Fox. Very basic, little to no texture, rough around the edges, but not set in space.

Seriously, don't you want to at least try this?

The visual experience really takes me back to when the idea of virtual reality was new and exciting. Ironically virtual reality never looked that real back in the day. Instead it seemed to focus on the virtual portion more because that seemed to be the in thing. One could blame lack of technology, but I don't fully agree. Even in movies about virtual reality there was a heavy visual focus to make it look computery. Have you forgotten The Lawnmower Man?

I haven't! I fucking love that movie!

So having it look like a computer was partly a technological limitation with the other part being the cool thing at the time. So in a way Virtua Racing brings back a lot of memories in a game I never played until over twenty years after it's arcade release.
Looking at it now the game is visually pathetic. It is about as basic as 3D can get with it's incredibly blocky shapes, no texture, flat solid colors, and so forth. Surprisingly I did see some good attention to detail I didn't expect.
For one the cars look pretty good. They're not a set of triangles and/or squares like in previous polygon games (i.e. Hard Drivin' and Star Fox.) They're actually a good visual representation considering what could be done in the early 90's. Another good attention to detail were things like skid marks on the road. If you or an opponent take a hard turn it'll leave skid marks behind from your tires and be there next time you roll around. Also in some tracks you can knock over poles or signs which, like the skid marks, will be there the next time you roll around. Lastly I loved how when you do cockpit view you see the hood of the car and even the steering wheel as you're driving. Its attention to detail like that, that really make this game stand out visually among others at the time.

Racing games that came after this didn't even do this... and some that did didn't do it as well.

Just like modern games it is about so much more than visuals. Be as pretty as you want, it doesn't overshadow the bad. Although I feel bad for criticizing this game from a modern perspective. Not saying it was perfect twenty two years ago, just that in perspective of the time it was much better than what I thought of it. Besides, it was an early attempt at something that would only get better. So less that I'm beating up an old man, more like pissing on the first draft of a great novel.

Simply put this is a rough experience overall, especially from the perspective I'm playing it. While I can see the appeal I have plenty of problems that are damn near game breaking.
For one the game is too fast and too difficult to control. Not quite a simulation but not floaty enough to be a full, proper arcade experience. Turning can be more difficult than it needs to be and using the brakes to aid your turns don't help much, or at least I haven't mastered it.
To make things more difficult you can kiss winning just about any race goodbye if you collide with walls or other cars. Sure it slows you down like any other game but this does it worse than that. For the most part you can graze by the walls fine. Slamming into them with damn near stop you dead in your tracks. What's even worse is running into another car which results in both you and the other card to actually stop in the middle of the road to spin around in a comically unrealistic fashion. Which is bad for a game with 'virtua' in the title. Well, realism aside it kills the pace and lets two, three cars to fly by which were difficult enough to pass in the first place.

Its not impossible to play smoothly. I actually found myself getting the hang of it, making for some more exciting racing than I previously thought possible. The arcade experience is definitely still alive. So getting beyond some of those set backs I can see better how this appealed to people so many years ago.
Sadly even the more positive experiences of this game can be a bit dull.

Once you get a hang of the awkward controls and actually find a way to not screw up on every turn and pass you'll find the experience dull. While not devoid of music there's a strong lack of it, only appearing ten to fifteen seconds at a time. So most of the time is spent going down many straight paths with the droning and primitive noise of the digital engine and tire squeals. Because of that the races feel longer than they really are and the experience turns out to be pretty boring.

But of course this is a retrospective look on what essentially laid the groundwork for future of the 3D racing genre. I really wish I was there to play it when it came out, and then when it was in arcades. Especially since later versions really enhanced the experience.

And I mean REALLY enhance it.

It just didn't age that well. As much as I love early 3D and the experiments that came around in the 90's this one just didn't do it for me. Maybe because it is too primitive, or my lack of experiencing it at the right time is causing the negative opinion, but that hasn't stopped me in the past. Or it could be I didn't get the best port despite being on a more advance console than the Genesis and 32X. That judgement based on nothing more than what I've gathered in research.
It might be because the vastly superior Daytona USA came out only a year later. A racing game so much better both in and outside the context of the time. And let's be honest, the first attempt isn't always the best in video games. If anything it takes a round or two to get it right and not just when introducing new technologies. It takes time, developing new ideas, fleshing it out, really understanding what works.
I'd still say check this game out. It's a great piece of video game history and a wonderful curiosity. Just know what you're getting into. It's going to feel dated. REALLY dated.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 27

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"An exhilarating thriller that sadly got overlooked despite the great writing and performances."

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Sheer Joy of Wii-U

Quite a while ago I gave my extensive thoughts (in THIS post) on the state of the video game industry and how I had no interest in the new generation of consoles. I felt the PS4 wasn't enough of an upgrade and how I'd rather stick to retro gaming because I already knew what I want and what I'd like. That and not anticipating only to be disappointed by political levels of promises in new games. I even talked smack about the Wii-U, expressing no interest.
My opinion slowly changed and I recently picked up a Wii-U. Let me tell you something... it's exactly what I needed in this day and age of gaming.

I love you.

Since I've been into gaming for most of my life I've seen it go through almost every change it's ever gone through, minus everything before I was born. For the most part there's been a lot of consistency minus the upgrades in hardware and visual capabilities. It all came down to putting a game into the slot/disc tray and playing. Sometimes there was a short cutscene, sometimes there was an introductory stage, but for the most part it was simple, fun, and effective.
When the last generation (PS3/X360/Wii) happened it felt more like games wanted to be PCs (minus the Wii of course.) While you didn't have to be connected to the internet it was definitely an integral part of the experience, giving you constant system and game updates. Fixing problems present in the core game or what have you. While it was a benefit it became tedious at times.
Now the industry feels too big... in a way. Consoles are these massive machines and have equally massive games that all feel very heavy. And that's the best way to describe the modern gaming industry. Heavy. When I pick up a AAA blockbuster title I feel like I'm being weighted down by a ton of content and if I don't play through all or enough of it I won't get the proper experience, including DLC. Likely why I haven't played through Skyrim or GTA V yet. While I've immensely enjoyed plenty of these like the Assassin's Creed games, I feel like playing them is sometimes too dedicated experience. Similar to watching a long, super serious TV show where if you stop or lose track you may as well put it down or start over.
Sometimes my experience in gaming is heavily affected by this. I'm currently working through Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. I've spent tons more time on the pirate ship doing side quests than I have doing the main story. Because, dammit, the main story is so dense and confusing but the side quests and ship battles are straight up fun! It's that lack of interest in the core of the games that made me wonder... how much do I even like gaming anymore?

Then I got the Wii-U.

The Wii-U is just what I needed in this modern age of gaming. And, Nintendo, I apologize. I feel we were never seeing eye to eye all these years. I think I saw you as mostly overrated despite having a lot of fun with a lot of your games and consoles. Seriously, I am so thankful for your most recent addition to the gaming world and I cannot thank you enough.

Stay with me... I don't want you to leave.

I think what I was feeling was exhaustion over the serious, heavy toned, and super lengthy games that the modern industry keeps cranking out. Many of which are given 'GOTY' or 'Game of the Year' awards or are considered "Mindblowing!" and so on and so on. Again, it's like hearing how good shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men are. I bet they're objectively good but those are big, heavy, and lengthy experiences that make it hard to decide what kool-aid to drink because once you're in... you're in!
Then there's DLC, sequels out the ass, and piles of other games you HAVE TO PLAY! It makes the whole gaming world feel like a cult where if I don't play the right games I'm not in that world proper.

What am I trying to say with all this? Well... that Nintendo is kicking everyone's ass in the enjoyment department right now. In a world where everyone seems to be putting all their efforts into being the next big thing in story, graphics, and overall presentation, they forget about something that Nintendo never forgot... "how do we make this fun?"
It hit me when I sat down to a long session of Super Mario 3D World. A feeling I hadn't had in a long time. The bright colors, the accessible but challenging gameplay, the presentation of the Wii-U itself in the main menu, everything about it made me feel a sense of joy and whimsy and it made me so happy. I was having fun playing with their console and gave me a real sense of joy and excitement I haven't experienced in years with gaming.


Sure there are experience I've enjoyed over and over the last few years. Games like Persona 4 Golden hit me on a personal level I didn't expect. Deadly Premonition is now one of my favorite horror game experiences of all time. But those games, mixed with the experience of their source console, didn't have something the entire Wii-U experience does have. Everything from the boot up screen to the games themselves are such a fun, positive, and easy to handle experience that it makes me want to revert to the simpler times of gaming. Even when I transferred data from my Wii to the Wii-U it was a Miyazaki-esque experience of joy.
What you do is first you format an SD card and it copies all your data from the Wii. Then you take that card, pop it into the Wii-U and it pulls it off. This isn't presented with the standard progress bar. It is presented with a group of Pikmin grabbing the files, putting them into packages, and hustle their way down long corridors onto a spaceship to fly to the planet Wii-U. The same thing happens in reverse when pulling files from the SD card onto the Wii-U unit. It's one part clever, one part adorable, and overall a nice change to the otherwise boring, methodical drag PCs and the PC style gaming modern consoles have.

I don't want this to sound like I don't like big or serious games anymore. I have one heck of a back catalog and recently started playing through the Tomb Raider reboot. I just needed a change of pace from the overly serious, overly heavy games the industry has been overflowing with this last decade or so.
It reminds me of when I first got into film as art. All I would watch were obscure, artsy, foreign, and super serious movies. I wouldn't watch many mainstream movies, even look down on them because they weren't 'worthy enough.' Eventually it got to be too much. Everything I watched would be so heavy, serious, or deep. Eventually I got out of that overly serious attitude and got a good mix of fun mainstream and artsy obscure stuff and I'm happier because of it.
These last few years I've played so many mega huge games including multiple massive RPGs. Sometimes it is good to just take a break and jump around as Mario for dozens of levels. I think I lost sight of that for a while. Like if a game doesn't last 20, 40, even 80 hours it wasn't enough of a 'value.'

What am I trying to say with all this? Not much more other than how wonderful a change of pace the Wii-U is, not to mention how much a step above the Wii it is. It is no longer the $200 bowling machine your grandma has. It has more potential than ever and it has an approach that offers a truly unique experience to an industry that's notorious for making the same game over and over again.
Yes I realize the irony in that statement, what with it being Nintendo and all.
This doesn't mean I won't play those bigger games anymore. This also doesn't mean I won't play games that could be considered art. The games I currently have for Wii-U are definitely more fun and goofy than intense experiences but there are some that are different than that. But for the most part some of the biggest and best games have that unique fun that other games don't focus enough on.

So, Nintendo, thank you. I love the Wii-U so much and am so happy I invested in it. I can't wait to pick up Smash Bros, Toad Treasure Tracker, Bayonetta 2, Splatoon, and to see how you implement unique fun other consoles don't like what Watch Dogs may do and what I know Zombi U does.

Here's to many years of fun, Wii-U.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 26

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"The dark and alternative reimagining/origin story genre needs to take a day off because this just isn't working as well anymore."

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ignorant American Gaming: Sonic CD

History: Began development shortly after the release of the first Sonic the Hedgehog. It was originally not going to be it's own game, though. This and Sonic 2 were being worked on at the same time and would be the same game. One of course with technical differences by being on a CD. During development it turned into something completely different (especially when comparing to what Sonic 2 became.)

Sonic CD was released exclusively for the Sega CD on September 23, 1993. It received critical praise and sold very well. For years I would even hear people claim it was the best Sonic game ever made. However, despite this praise and large sales it still sold poorly when compared to the Genesis games. Largely due to the Sega CD itself not selling well.
Strangely this game is somewhat controversial but it's because of the soundtrack. The American release had a completely different soundtrack than the Japanese and European release. Many fans don't like the American one, stating the Japanese soundtrack is superior. So when a new port is released the first question is wondering which tracks they'll go with. Thankfully the most recent port included both, giving the player a choice.
The game was considered one of the best, if not the best, game on the Sega CD. Characters and elements would even play out or be revisited in later Sonic games. This was the first appearance of Amy Rose and Metal Sonic, for example. The story was adapted to the Sonic comic books as well. Lastly, the Metal Sonic boss fight was re-created in Sonic Generations, a 20th anniversary love letter to the franchise released on PS3, XBox 360, and 3DS.

Personal History: Since this game came out when I was six it should come at no surprise I didn't play it a bunch when it first came out. Not to say I didn't have the other Sonic games. I did. I just wasn't living in a rich household that could afford an expensive add on to a console I was already lucky to have in the first place.
I did play it a little here and there throughout the years. In stores, via collections friend's had, but I never had my own copy until the PSN digital release. So my experience, while spread out throughout the years, is still relatively recent.

Availability: Originally released only on Sega CD in 1993. The first port was released in 1996 on PC. It wouldn't be re-released again until 2005 when it was included on the Sonic Gems Collection for Gamecube and Playstation 2.
The most recent port was in late 2011, which was also the first time it was release not in it's native state. The core game stayed the same but it was treated to a widescreen presentation and some bonus features like playing as Tails when he wasn't in the original game. This port was released digitally on the Playstation Network, XBox Live Arcade, iOS, and Android. A newer PC port (than the previously mentioned 1996 port) was released the following January, and eventually a Windows phone port late 2012. Lastly, this port was released on Ouya in August 2013.

Version I Played: While I've played the original Sega CD version in sprinkles, I played the PSN digital download version for this review.

Review: There was a point in time where I wanted a Sega CD. Not just in the mid-90's but in recent time as well. It was always a curiosity to me. Within the last year I remember seeing it on sale with the first generation Genesis attached for a really good deal. I brewed about it for a while but when I went to buy it, it was already gone. Initially bummed out but I'm glad I didn't get it. Going through the library there aren't a lot of games I feel make the system worth buying. Mostly because some of the best also came out on other consoles in forms of ports and re-releases. This one included.
So I found it unnecessary to get a Sega CD. Besides, the Sonic CD port on modern consoles is great! But the funny thing is I still have a Sega CD copy of this because a good friend sent it to me a while ago.

A nice little item to hold onto.

Being a big fan of Sonic from his glory days I was very excited to see this port. I bought it right away when it was released. Now like I said in the personal history section... I didn't have a lot of experience with this game when it came out but was always interested because of what people said about it. That and it was an essential, official entry into the 2D series of games. Me not playing this for so long felt like a crime against my fandom... as dweeby as that sounds.

But does it hold up all these years later? Do the years of anticipation and curiosity pay off? In many ways they definitely do.

This being made during the best year's of Sonic's game life gave it all the right elements. The core gameplay flows incredibly well in every way you'd expect it to. It feels and plays just like Sonic 1 or 2 (maybe not 3 or S&K) because the controls are essentially the same. Also it has the same left to right 'reach the end of the stage' approach. Nothing fancy. Just what you'd expect from a Sonic game. Which makes it all sound par for the course. Not quite if you ask me.
A big thing that sets this one apart from the rest is the colorful design and unique/innovative ideas it utilizes for the franchise.
This is easily one of the best, if not the best looking Sonic game of the side scrolling days. It has a unique charm to its approach that none of the other mainline games have. It's vibrant, exciting, and a lot of variety in the visuals.

I also really like purple.

To add to this there's a time travel element. Throughout the levels you can either go into the past or the future. I didn't quite understand the purpose at first outside of a visual change (past has more vegetation, future looks like Skynet took over) but according to online resources the past has more difficult enemies, whereas the future has less (because of machines breaking down I guess.) Unfortunately I didn't notice this naturally which says something about the game's design (but more on that later.) I also believe the route you take decides the ending.

I also really like the design in the boss battles.

These are among the most creative and in some cases the most challenging (in a good way) in the franchise. What I liked is they utilized elements that make the stage unique and throw that into the boss battle. They didn't feel interchangeable like with other Sonic bosses. It was a nice change of pace that went beyond 'jump on his head three times and win' that is far too common even in later, 'more advanced' Sonic games.

My two favorites are the conveyor belt boss and the Metal Sonic race.
The conveyor belt is the one pictured above. Robotnik's station is constantly being torn apart from below. The idea is to dodge his attacks and pretty much just survive while the conveyor belt pulls you back toward the spikes. The faster you run the quicker it rips Robotnik's station from below, meaning the quicker you win. It's definitely not the usual fight.
The other is the Metal Sonic race. This is set up similar to a standard level but you're racing Metal Sonic while being chased by Robotnik who is constantly shooting a deadly laser at you. This is fast paced and very exciting in all the ways a Sonic game should be. Also it's even more a 'survival boss fight' than the other favorite of mine. Not to mention Metal Sonic is one of my favorite characters. Such a cool boss fight, such a cool climax to a great game.
The final boss fight isn't as exciting but having the animated ending (on top of an animated opening) make it feel worthwhile finishing.

Sonic CD is, as many say, one of the best Sonic games available from the glory days. But it's not without its faults.
While it has a great visual design and controls well, the level design can be quite poor a lot of the time. The previous and later games would have winding paths that allow fast paced action that is easy to fly through despite the chaos. Sonic CD has a problem where you're constantly being thrown in odd directions that don't always make sense, or they slow you down. There were times where I couldn't tell where to go or it felt like there was no clear path. One section is almost entirely underwater, and another had floors that rocket you uncontrollably into the sky. It makes the game dizzying and confusing.
The other big problem I had was that the special stages didn't feel so special. They definitely look cool, especially in context of the time...

Super Mario Kart: Sonic Edition

...but they felt more like a tech demo of what the console could do instead of actually being something well thought out. You run around on an oddly designed track taking out UFOs. If you destroy them all you get the emerald like any other Sonic specials stage. This is fine and somewhat a step up from other special stages. I do like it more than the Sonic 3 special stage, that's for sure. But the way it controls is a pain. You turn in a wide motion and far too slow. You're likely to bump against the edges which can bounce you back, throwing you around uncontrollably like some of the previously mentioned poorly designed levels. I can only imagine how difficult it would be getting all seven emeralds.
Tough enough as is in the other games.

My list of complaints, while short, can hurt the experience as a whole. The early and later stages are a blast but those poorly designed levels in the middle make it something I don't want to revisit a lot. It's so close to Sonic perfection. It is strictly a Sonic title without extra characters (minus the addition of Tails in the re-release port), looks great, plays great, has a lot of excellent ideas, but enough to keep it from being as great as it could be.
At least it has a killer soundtrack! And between the Japanese and American soundtrack... I lean toward American. I just wound up enjoying it more. While the Japanese soundtrack isn't bad I felt it had too much going on. The American soundtrack has a great Sonic-like vibe I've seen in other games and I just enjoyed it more.

Despite the faults this is still a great experience. I wouldn't suggest introducing yourself to the franchise using this game. Start with Sonic 1 or 2. But definitely check this one out at some point. Do not let it go by the wayside. It is worth checking out. Who knows? Maybe you'll be more forgiving than I was. My retrospective look after years of tinkering with the franchise has given me a specific mindset so I know what I know and think a certain way.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 25

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"A sobering documentary about a simple man living a simple life. Felt appropriate to watch it on Black Friday of all days."

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 24

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"An exciting installment that brings a new twist to the story. The next year will be a long one waiting to see how it ends!"

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Interstellar

Version I Watched: Only available in theatres right now. My screening was on an IMAX screen.

History: The concept for Interstellar was conceived by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who also worked together on the 1997 film Contact. Interstellar first began production back in 2006 with Stephen Spielberg set to direct. Eventually Spielberg dropped from the project. So when Paramount was searching for a new director, Jonathan Nolan, who was hired as the film's screenwriter years earlier, suggested his brother Christopher.
There is a ton of history and information on Interstellar so I won't go into it all out. Basically Christopher Nolan kept this project under intense secrecy as he has done in the past. He continued to experimented with IMAX cameras, using it more here than his previous films. Also he used natural effects and real sets as much as possible, maintaining the realistic look and feel most of his movies have. One cool piece of trivia I'll drop in is... at a budget of $165 million, and running at 169 minutes, this production cost almost an average of $1 million a minute.
Interstellar has received generally positive reviews, currently holding a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. It opened last weekend in four formats technically. 4K digital, 35mm, digital IMAX and 70mm IMAX. Not common for modern films to open with so many technical options. As of this post it has earned $322 million after two weekends out.

Personal History: Since Nolan tends to be secretive I went along with it and avoided looking into it. I did not read previews, watch videos or trailers outside of what I saw before other movies, and I did not read reviews when it was released. I knew I wanted to see it and I wanted to be surprised as much as possible.

Review: Honestly, I'm a little surprised Interstellar got made, let alone at the scale it did. Hollywood is less risky than ever it seems. Churning out more sequels within the same franchise/universe than ever. So pumping over $150 million dollars into an original, potentially niche idea is quite a risk. A risk I'm glad they took.

I'll cut right to the chase on an important detail. See this on the IMAX. Christopher Nolan is to IMAX as Michael Bay is to explosions. It's definitely his thing and he does it bigger and better than most anyone out there. There's more IMAX footage and cameras used in this than any of his previous films and it makes for a visually exhilarating experience. Really made up for the fact that I never saw Gravity on the IMAX.
And with that said I apologize in advance for referencing Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey a lot.

Point of reference.

Keeping details of a movie secret is an important thing more studios should do. Yes they should create buzz and give enough to get people excited. But leaving a lot of details out can make for a more exciting experience. Going into Interstellar I didn't know what to expect. The trailers were pretty cryptic. Showing plenty but not really telling you a lot. I knew the central plot going in but I sure as hell didn't know where it was going. In contrast to that I saw a trailer for Chappie before the movie started and I already felt like I was told enough to not see the movie and still know everything that happened.
With that in place Interstellar takes you on an epic space journey that is somewhat hard to predict. However, while avoiding hype and spoilers I know for a fact I hyped myself up maybe a tad too much. Because as much as I loved this, I naturally was picky and had plenty of criticisms I didn't anticipate.
I may or may not have mentioned in previous posts my particular tastes with sci-fi. While I enjoy the campy and wild space epics like Star Wars and (some of) the other usual suspects, my absolute favorites are more down to Earth, so to say. Pun intended. What I mean is they are typically near future, dramatic in nature, based on real science or theories or are at least somewhat realistic. Space travel is still a long, tedious, and lonely challenge. And if aliens show up they're mysterious and hardly seen, if at all. So like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unfortunately this kind of sci-fi doesn't come along too often. So I was hoping Interstellar would fill that void in my modern cinema life. It definitely did, but it's not without it's problems.

First, what's good.
Coming from Christopher Nolan it should come as no surprise this movie is well directed. One of the best was the exposition. Most apocalyptic stories have a voice over, or a bunch of news reels to show how big a problem the world ending issue is. Not here. Matter of fact, the world seems very aware it's getting worse every year but it's a slow problem that feels inevitable and not a "Oh no we're dead tomorrow if we don't do something now!" If anything people are in denial about it, thinking things will get better. And it's expressed through subtle execution entirely in a small town. It doesn't go big until they go into space.
So getting past that I'll point out those performances. Some are what you expect of course. Anne Hathaway is always wonderful, as is Jessica Chastain. And while it's not excellent all around there were a few very notable performances.
Matthew McConaughey is the most obvious. This is further proof of reinventing his career after being type cast in so many corny, paint by number romcoms. He was stunning here especially in a heartbreaking scene while watching videos his kids send him while he's on his mission through the stars. Michael Caine was also great, but not as his normal self. Yes he plays what he always plays for the most part. Then there are a couple brief scenes of him much older and knocking on heaven's door. He really nails it with his transformation and you can feel the exhaustion in the old age he shows.
Yet the performance that REALLY caught me by surprise was Mackenzie Foy, who plays Murph, Cooper's (McConaughey) daughter as a child. The only place I knew her from before this was Twilight 4 Part 2 where she plays Mr and Mrs Sparkle Vampire's daughter. In that she was fine but that was more an issue with direction that performance. Here she KILLS it! Her range is incredible. And when Cooper leaves on his mission of potentially no return she breaks my heart with her heartbreak. Always wonderful to see young actors and actresses show potential by doing a better job than some of their older, more experienced counterparts. I did not expect her to give a performance as good as she did.

This scene was tough to get through.

Going back to something I already mentioned, there are the visuals. The visual appeal of this movie is superb with the most notable being the space scenes. The Earth scenes are very well shot, but I must say the space scenes are some of the best visuals I've ever seen in a sci-fi flick. While the shots aren't as extensive and artistically played out as 2001, for example, what we see is a work of art. So well done, so well thought out that it required developing new technology to create, especially with the black hole that comes up in the latter half.
Another feature that is almost just as good is that the cinematography and editing didn't make me want to vomit like most big movies. Nolan made some very smart moves using a tripod in a tripodless world. At no point did the camera movement make me feel sick. It's all very smooth, flowing fluidly from shot to shot with great comfort. It also helps the camera actually held a shot long enough for the audience to register what's happening instead of fast paced, MTV editing.
I really cannot say enough to give credit to how good this movie looks. It's hard to convince someone to sit through an almost 3 hour movie for the visuals alone, especially when there's not as much time spent in space as you'd like, but seeing this for the visuals is satisfying as is.

Now Chris Nolan, as great as he is at creating art that is pleasing to critics and mainstream audiences, he tends to have a few glaring issues in his films that really stand out. As beautiful Interstellar is, as well acted as it is, as engaging as the story is, it is also quite unbalanced at times which hurts the immersion and serious tone. There's one part in particular in the last half of the movie where I felt it took a super serious turn (more serious than it already was), but handled it in a corny and goofy way. Please don't take that too literally, but it's not far from the truth. It's a minor twist (that was a little predictable) but plays out very out of character from the rest of the movie, ending in an overly action packed sequence.
The tone of the movie tends to change without warning. Sad because most of it is a beautiful story filled with a lot of character and emotions that I imagine will cut right to the heart of parents. Especially parents who had to leave their children behind for a long time. But then it has moments of being overly emotional, jumping to twists with a thriller or horror-like tone, and the previously mentioned action sequence that made me think of the more unrealistic parts of Gravity.

Reference II

And with that last reference to Gravity it brings me to my biggest issues with Interstellar. It is very, VERY fast paced for an almost three hour long story. To me these hard science space adventures need to take their time. Really show the long and lonely journey. Interstellar packs what feels like as much as it can but the pacing and tone take a hit because of it. They say "we gotta go to Saturn to go through the wormhole and it'll take two years." Suddenly they're at Saturn. Then they jump through the wormhole without issue. And so on and so on. There was a real lack of weight in what should have been the most difficult and terrifying trip any astronaut has ever taken, seeing as they didn't know what happened to the last crew who went. Slowing it down would definitely make it less appealing to the masses, but it would make it a better space story... like 2001 for example... again.

While a lot of it did feel like a big love letter to films like 2001 (when, you know, originality is still possible) it was still an incredible experience. Some of the complaints I have for it feel like points that could ruin an entire film but they don't. There are lots of things that keep it from being better but what we get is easily one of the best big screen experiences of the year and one of the best IMAX experiences I've seen. It's very engaging. While I was annoyed at times... I was never bored. I never got numb butt from sitting there so long. I didn't want it to be over when it was over. I wanted it to be longer so it could takes it's time and add more to the already big story. I would easily watch this over and over again, ESPECIALLY on the IMAX.
For the most part it's been critically acclaimed. And while it's more streamlined than I wanted it to be, it ironically could turn people off by it's very 2001-esque sequences toward the end. The rest of it can easily engage anyone interest in a story of adventure and relationships, real relationships. At no point was there a forced love story to keep things 'interesting.' All that was there was a natural family bond filled with real issues and real emotions based on misunderstandings and failures to connect both literally and emotionally. A beautiful experience with lots of depth that will definitely satisfy.
While not the best I've seen this year it is one of the best. Definitely a worthy addition to the list of hard science space films. Right up there with 2001, Solaris, Moon... and maybe Gravity, too. But after seeing this it makes that look silly.