Friday, February 23, 2007

My Internet is Still Down

If you visit my other blog, Conversations on Ghibli, you'll know that I've been without internet access for a couple weeks. It's just a matter of paying the cable bill, which is tricky since my bank card and drivers' license were both stolen at the start of the month. Hopefully, I'll be able to get back in business within the next week.

Oh, and I'm thinking ofmoving in April, which means, again, no money.

So that's why there haven't been any posts here in a while. I've always been consistent on the weekly VC reviews, and I'll just have to get caught up when I can. I'd write everything here and now, but I still need to download a couple of the games and play through them for a bit before writing. Yadda yadda. Whatever.

Oh, and you really should get a turntable and some vinyl records.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - February 5

Another week, another roundup of classics for Nintendo's Virtual Console. This week we have a pretty rounded group, spread across the three 16-bit consoles. It's a pretty good example of where things stood between the three major players of the era. You have Sega, the scrappy upstart; NEC, the newcomer; and Nintendo, the king of the hill.

I wouldn't necessarily say these three games summarize their consoles, but in their own way, they each play to the strengths and weaknesses that each system dealt with. All in all, Nintendo is the clear winner this week, and I'm sure most gamers will stick with Super Mario World and leave it at that. But you may want to give the others a try. Give 'em a chance.

Oh, and look! Sega finally released Gain Ground! Only two weeks late. Thankfully, it's finally here. I already wrote about it earlier, so I'll just cut and paste it again here, with some edits. I don't really have anything new to add, and the game has its fans who are more than happy to praise its virtues.

Gain Ground - Sega for Genesis - 7/10

Gain Ground is one of those more obscure Genesis games that's enamoured by a good number of fans, and classic gamers and what-have-you. This is probably a good opportunity to jump into the pool and see what the fuss is all about.

Basically, Gain Ground is a slow, single-screen variant on Gauntlet, with a good amount of action and tension as you lead a small squad against a horribly outnumbered set of enemies. The time-travel setup sends you through different ages, from spears to bows and arrows to armor and castle walls. It's a nice style, it adds character.

For me, however, here's the main beef, and you'll have to judge for yourself whether this will influence your own thoughts. The pace is extremely slow. S-L-O-W. Fans would explain, I guess, that this is more of a strategically-minded game, not a mindless Rambo shooter. You have to bob and weave and use a little guerilla warfare to pick down your foes. And there's no denying that the tension is there once you get past the first half-dozen or so levels.

I think if you're expecting a fast-paced game, something akin to Gauntlet or Contra, you'll walk away disappointed. You need to approach Gain Ground on its own terms. You need to understand its methodical pacing, its blending of strategy and tension. As the game progresses, it can become quite intense, as you try to overcome overwhelming odds again and again. It also helps to have an ever-growing squad of characters to call upon, each with their own traits and quirks.

Also, it should be said, this is a two-player game. You need a buddy to team up with. Happy hunting.

Vigilante - Irem for Turbografx - 5/10

Somewhere around 1985 or so, Irem created one of the great arcade hits of the '80s, a Jackie Chan martial arts title called Kung-Fu Master. It was a great success, and spawned a good number of clones and followers and well-wishers. Last Battle on the Genesis is a good example. Irem later made a sequel of sorts called Vigilante. It was basically the same game, a left-to-right beat-em-up, but with far sharper and detailed graphics.

Vigilante was among the first Turbografx releases, and while it was a quality standout for the new system, it was met with poor reviews. It was 1989, and the relatively simple gameplay felt antiquated in the shadows of Double Dragon and Final Fight (and Streets of Rage looming on the horizon). It felt like a primitive, Atari 2600 throwback.

The VC gives us a chance to revisit this game and give it a fair chance. This was my first time playing for any extended period of time in ages. I was never a fan, but I figured, what the heck, it's worth twenty minutes of my time. Little did I realize how right that assessment was.

Here's where Vigilante succeeds. It's an intense, fast-paced game that never lets up for a second. The kidnapped-girlfriend plot is preposterous, but this was the standard plot to 95% of all games at that time. Who signed up these goons for the street gang, anyway? All they do is dutifully march forward, walking right into jump kicks and nunchucks. You've gotta admire their determination, because they never stop coming.

I'm also greatly impressed with the whole look of the game. This were some standout graphics at the dawn of the 16-bit age, expertly ported from the coin-op. There's some great color tones, some terrific environments, and all the character poses stand out. Add in a cut-scene between levels, and you have a game with style.

Now here's where Vigilante fails. It is easy. The game is extremely, extrordinarily, astonshingly easy. Kung-Fu Master was a pretty simple game at its core, but there was always a variety of attackers to keep you on your toes. The baddies in Vigilante pretty much just run forward. If you can find nunchucks, just turn the turbo switch on and stand around and dispatch of everyone.

The boss battles seem to be challenging at first, and it's here that you may run through your supply of continues. But with a little practice, you can crack their patterns with ease, and the bosses become just another formality. Just a slight hiccup on the morning stroll through the junkyard. Most games relied upon patterns, but I'm amazed at how quickly I was able to learn them, and how easily these big goons can be dispatched.

Now we add in the other main ingredient that spoils the meal - the game is short. Extremely, extrordinarily, astonishly short. Only five short stages in the entire game, and that's it. As it turns out, twenty minutes is all I need. The whole adventure is over by then. I'm shocked, really. Couldn't Irem have lenghtened the levels, or added more of a challenge, or expanded the game somehow? The trip itself is kind of fun, in that instant gratification way, but the whole thing is over so fast, you can't help but feel cheated.

This is one of those arcade games you can beat on a single quarter. I don't know if that's something you're willing to pay six bucks to play again. I'll have to reluctantly pass.

Super Mario World - Nintendo for Super NES - 10/10

Nintendo fans will argue among themselves as to which Super Mario game was the absolute best, but everyone agrees that the golden period ranged from 1990 to 1996, from Super Mario Bros 3 on NES to Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island on the Super NES, and Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. That's the absolute peak of Shigeru Miyamoto's playful genius.

For my money, Super Mario World is the best one. This was where Mario was his most expressive, his most colorful, his most inventive. It can be easy to forget, as games lumber on from one franchise sequel to the next, that there could be a game where practically everything in it is new, or at least novel. Eventually, the games cater more and more to the demands of the fans, like middle-aged rock stars who surrender their creativity and just play their old hits.

I think that's the feeling I'm finally stuck with by the time I finished New Super Mario Bros on Nintendo DS. That game was little more than a sugar-coated nostalgia circuit, a videogame greatest hits album. The early thrill gave way to a weary sense of disappointment, a feeling of going through the motions for the sake of going through the motions. This is why I'm not a fan of high school reunions.

I don't think New Super Mario has one tenth the inventiveness and brilliance of Super Mario World. Just run through all the cool moments that have become standard Nintendo lore. Yoshi the dinosaur. The Yoshi eggs. The Ghost Manor. The Big Boo. Switch palaces. The hidden keyholes. The star world. The extra-secret star world. The shortcut to Bowser's castle that almost skips through the entire game. The Superman cape. Flamethrowing dinosaurs. Flying dolpins. Rotating cages. Sunken ships.

There's that world map that can be skipped about from one place to the next, provided you can find the secret exists to star world. For that manner, there are all those secondary exits from the stages. You don't need to find them; it's just all part of the fun of wandering around and having fun for fun's sake. That's the real joy of Miyamoto; his childhood thrill of exploring and discovering. It's a great tribute that all the best exits require your most agile skills to discover.

There's another moment in Super Mario World that became one of the most-copied standards of modern videogame. It's the very first level with the Superman cape. You can hop down a pipe and go to a secret place, a wide area with nothing but coins in the air. The purpose is to teach you the new skill of flying with the cape. There must be several hundred coins up there, and it takes you some time if you want to grab them all. Eventually, you learn the subtlety of flying, which is an essential skill for finding all those secondary exits and keyholes.

Every videogame since then gives you the chance to learn a new skill and practice it out before it's fully called into service. Every game. It's probably the greatest contribution to game design since, well, the original Super Mario Bros.

Also, I should also point out my all-time favorite Mario secret. It's the prize you win once you've completed the second star road, eight stages of hardcore gaming hell. Damn, those are hard levels to get through, but get through them you can, and when you step back into the real world...well, if you've never played through this game, it'd be horrible of me to spoil it for you. I really think this is the point where the psychedelics really kick in. Miyamoto's Magical Mystery Tour.

Oh, and I love the ending to the game. The final battle against Bowser's far better than the anti-climactic finish to Super Mario 3, and we are treated to one of the all-time best endings. And what's with all the ragtime music? Who thought of that? Genius.

I think Shigeru Miyamoto knew that he reached a peak with this game that could never be surpassed. That's why he started his period of grand experimentation, of veering into stranger and stranger directions. Yoshi's Island is an entirely different beast, the electric kool-aid acid test of the Mario universe. Touch fuzzy, get dizzy. And Super Mario 64 inhabits its own universe. It's in a whole different realm of reality. There wouldn't be a proper, 2D Mario game for fifteen years. I never could have imagined that, as I was discovering the final, masterfully psychedelic secrets, that Super Mario World would be the last great trip.

As far as I'm concerned, Super Mario World is one of the ten best videogames ever made.

Playing Led Zeppelin IV on LP, or The Road to Damascus

I've been on a remarkable journey of self-discovery with the recent purchase of a Numark portable turntable. I haven't touched a vinyl record for 20+ years, and even then, the only records I really listened to was Michael Jackson's Thriller and Duran Duran's Arena. I just stuck with cassette tapes and then migrated to CDs.

I decided to start collecting vinyl records so I could frame the album covers and hang them on my wall. But...there was some distant, quiet voice speaking inside my gut. Call it intuition, call it the Voice of God, whatever. But I always told myself that I needed to hear Sgt. Pepper's on vinyl at least once. My collection was slowly building, including a few that I didn't have on my computer or CD, so I made the jump and grabbed the turntable.

I'm a great music lover, in addition to playing guitar and sometimes trying to sucker myself into thinking I have some sort of career as a folk singer or something. To me, music is sacred, the language of the soul. So I can speak with some degree of knowledge.

The first record I put on was Led Zeppelin IV. Haven't heard it in a long time, and I've heard all the CD releases. I know what to expect. Turn on the turntable, take the record out of the sleeve - immediately I'm impressed with the whole ritual of it all. I'm holding this giant gatefold album of Zeppelin IV, instead of a postcard-sized picture. The real deal. How cool is that? I imagine holding the more inventive Zeppelin albums, the ones like Zeppelin III and Physical Grafitti, where Jimmy Page really went insane with the designs. You just never see those things.

Anyway, back to the record itself. Short story - I put the needle to the groove, threw on the headphones, and cranked up the sound. The sounds of Page's guitars warming up for the trip grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. Then Robert Plant starts wailing, and I'm being grabbed by the seat of my pants and hurled - not pushed, but fucking hurled - into the Land of Oz.

Welcome to Technicolor, Dorothy.

Needless to say, this is an astonishing experience. I'm beginning to think that this could qualify as a psychedelic experience, all by itself. I'm being hurled into a world of heavy, booming, and deep - DEEEEEP - sounds. The real sound of Zeppelin. For the first time I realize what they mean when they say that digital is polished and cold. It really is. It's like looking at a picture of a dirt pile, and then being thrown head-first into the actual dirt pile.

There's so much sound, little bits and fragments and snippets of real life buried in the mix. So much that I never heard before. I really am hearing this album for the very first time. It's like falling in love with your first love all over again. I'm beginning to feel a little like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

Then Stairway to Heaven kicks in. Heard a million times. Sick to death of hearing it a million times. But now, I'm overwhelmed. The whole scope of it all, the sheer beauty of it all. It's so transcendent, I'm out of words to explain it away. The walls are just about to start melting. By the time Jimmy Page's guitar kicks in, I'm a puddle of goo. I'm practically bawling my eyes out, trying to figure out what the FUCK is going on.

And then I have to turn the record over, after pausing for a moment to catch my breath. Another ritual. And another side on the magical rollercoaster. Rinse and repeat, another sonic assault that I never even realized was there, in front of my nose all these years.

What the hell have we been missing out on? Who sold us out? The bad guys sucked the soul out of the music, just like our culture is sucking our very souls out of us. Hell, now modern science aims to tell us that mind and soul, our very personality, doesn't even exist. We're nothing more than ants, robots, machines too stupid to know we're machines. And we wonder why our civilization is crumbling, and why there's no more good art anymore.

There are no great artists, no great new ones. Television is a wasteland of banality. The movies suck. The music, if you can call it that, royally sucks. How many shitty plastic people are the kids supposed to consume? You call that rock 'n roll? You call that talent? American Fucking Idol?! Is this some kind of cruel joke? And, oh, hey, get your kids hopped up on Ritalin and Zoloft and Paxal. Those are the good drugs. They'll make you compliant and quiet and submissive to authority. And your soul will wither and die. Not that your soul exists.

So, okay, as I've said before, this is qualifying as a psychedelic experience. The colors seem brighter, the world seems more alive. Hell, I feel more alive. Try not to swing your booty to Misty Mountain Hop and Rock 'n Roll. It can't be done! There's probably scientific studies to prove it. Robot ants who can boogie.

Remember that feeling you had as a teenager that all the grownups were lying to you, trying to sucker you with one collosal scam after another? You better start getting those feelings back, kids. Fuck the digital world. You want to feel the walls shake? Step into the Land of Oz, Dorothy, and your little dog, too. You got to get your soul back - hell, it's the only thing in this world that's real. Everything else is an illusion or a con game.

All of which just goes to say that I'm really loving my vinyl records. Don't even get me started on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Or Abbey Road. Or Blonde on Blonde. Or Innervisions. Or The Unforgettable Fire. Or that Fonzie record I scored for two bucks. Oh, yeah. Did I mention that you can score a perfectly good record for two bucks? My copy of Led Zeppelin IV? Three-fifty. The CD cost fifteen dollars and came from the depths of hell. Do the math.

We've been set up, kids. Watch yer backs.

Friday, February 02, 2007

New Idea - 365 Days of Vinyl

This week, I was thinking of this really cool idea, since I'm now completely consumed by vinyl records and my new turntable. My experience with Zeppelin, Dylan and Beatles has been extrordinary. It really is like discovering them again for the very first time. Anyway, I had this great idea to blog about one record album every day, and chronicle the journey for a full year. 365 Days of Vinyl.

Earlier, I thought of just writing about one album per day, regardless of format. I could just pull out one of the many CDs on my hard drive - MP3's can crawl into a shallow grave and die - but that kinda takes the fun out of it. I have a decent collection of records, but not nearly enough to last a year. I'm going to have to hit the rounds and search around for some hidden gems. That sounds a lot more fun. Like a scavenger hunt.

I've already disvoered some vinyl albums that otherwise have escaped me on digital, so this is already proving a success. I think that's a lot of the fun of it, especially for the younger generation, the kids who never really experienced records up close. We've all been suckered in with the corportist scam that "progress" and "new technology" is inherently better. You've been played for suckers and chumps, by the genius minds that gave you trumped-up conditions like ADHD and pumped you full of soul-killing drugs like Ritalin. We've been robbed of our very souls, the souls that science now tells us doesn't even exist. Fuck them.

You know what would be really cool and groovy fun? If we all started record blogging. Let's all hit the used stores and hip-hop shops and see what's out there. I don't know if any record-a-day blogging has happened yet; almost certainly it's been tried by a few. The nature of this medium just calls out of it. Why not join in on the fun?

And to think that I wanted to collect record albums just to hang them on the wall. Life doesn't deserve to be buried in a museum. It deserves to be alive and free. Therin lies the sermon for today. Go in peace. Coffee and doughnuts in the basement.