Saturday, March 22, 2008
Every now and then, I break down and buy a straightforward, action-packed, shoot-and-slay 'em video game, like the side-scrollers of yore. Just something to let my brain gawk at while I download and relax after a full day of data mashing & student bashing.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance certainly scratches this particular itch. Released in 2006 for pretty much every platform (PC, Wii, PS3, Xbox360), it received favorable, if not spectacular reviews. My typical M.O. for games is to wait a while after they've been released - sometimes years - before picking them up. This has several advantages. For one, I usually don't have to worry about a game pushing the specs of my system. Two, the bugs have been ironed out; PC games post-patch are sometimes an entirely different beast. Three, they're cheaper. If you're into Marvel characters and want a simple run and shoot adventure where you'll battle a ton of popular (and some more esoteric) villains, put this on your wish-list.
There are more than 20 playable heroes for you to choose from - although several (like Dare Devil) will require unlocking. You put together a team of four and run them through various creative, well-designed (but largely linear) environments on missions that ultimately end in loud and raucous boss battles. You know the deal. Here's a great team I had going at one point (can you name them all?):
Marvel Ultimate Alliance also has some nice RPG elements: as you defeat enemies and complete quests, your heroes will gain experience and level up. This unlocks more and more powerful special abilities, like Deadpool's "Merc's Revenge" where he jumps into the air and sprays all nearby enemies with dual-SMG's. You'll also unlock different costumes for your hero which aren't just aesthetic wallpaper but also carry specific advantages (enhanced armor, speed, etc.). It's pretty entertaining to see all the different outfits that characters like Wolverine have gone through over the years, and have this aspect of the genre well-integrated into gameplay.
You can only control one hero at a time but your team-mates will generally do their best to watch your back and kick ass. You can easily switch who you're controlling by pressing a single button, which means that you'll rarely get bored using the same punches, throws, and special attacks over and over again. There are times when you'll really want to do this to get past tough spots in the game. For example, you can use Ms. Marvel's ability to slow time and then immediately switch to Wolverine to claw your enemies to death before they have a chance to reload.
The gameplay is fast and furious, with some sparse dialog and periodic "R&R" sessions at places like Stark Tower. There are incredibly intense sequences, including a truly awesome battle with Galactus. Here's a montage from Gametrailers.com which captures some representative gameplay:
In general, I was very impressed with the level of detail and immersion that Marvel Ultimate Alliance offers. It's just a helluva-lotta fun to jump into your favorite comic book characters in a game that doesn't demand too much of you. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I played through the campaign twice. Given the number of unplayed games that line my desk, that says quite a bit for Marvel Ultimate Alliance.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I'm a big fan of the art, fashion, and photography of the 1920's. This may have started by looking through my grandma Gam's old suitcase full of photos. In these pictures Gam and her sisters were ivory beauties who had not yet been touched by the rough lives that awaited them. The great depression hadn't happened yet. Here they were in their best clothes, their hair done, their heads turned just so. Such pictures take time to look at. The details seem like important clues - what were they like at that age? What were their lives like? What futures did they envision?
One of the best collections of 1920's era photographs I've encountered is the book Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfield Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston.
The book showcases portraits and pin-ups of some of the era's most well known it-girls, as well as the secret collection of anonymous nudes discovered on Johnston's estate after his death.
The softness of the female figure is showcased in an almost worshipful manner, draped in cloth and statuesque. Their figures are always second to their faces, whose expressions lead us to wonder about the women themselves, their lives and their stories.
Their figures aren't forgotten, however:
Quite some time ago Amani linked me to a truly enjoyable (and interactive) peek at 1920's pin-ups. I highly suggest you check it out here.
The Czech photographer, Miroslav Tichý, also takes photos of the female figure. Although his photos are more recent, they have a vintage quality to them. His photos reflect the same aesthetic and sensual obsession with the female form that Alfred Johnston's do. Tichy, however, doesn't photograph models in a stately studio. He secretly photographs them as they go about their daily activities, on the street, in parks. He himself is a ragged recluse, in and out of mental institutions since being periodically imprisoned for nonconformity during the communist regime. His photos remained largely unknown until 2005, when he was 79 years old.
What is most interesting is that he makes his own cameras from found objects tin cans, cardboard, and lenses from broken eyeglasses.
Using equally homemade tools, he makes only one print of each negative, sometimes drawing on them or framing them in some way.
Also worth checking out is the very 1920's influenced art of Cynthia Markert. O & C introduced me to her work, and even bought me one of her prints.
A couple weeks ago, I posted on the exquisite free flash game, Samorost. To my great pleasure, the boys at Amanita Design recently teamed up with the BBC to produce a short, educational adventure game of similar ilk. It's called Questionaut, and again, the endearing, unique world you explore makes this more an interactive piece of art than a mere game. The simple point-and-click puzzles are paired with educational questions (on writing, mathematics, and science), geared to your average British 11-year old level. Unfortunately, you can't save in progress so make sure you reserve around 30 minutes of free time to play through the game and absorb the delightful soundtrack. Some screenshots to tempt you:
Monday, March 17, 2008
Of course, you can find a lot of graffiti art spattered throughout the world-wide-web but here's one project I'm keeping tabs on. Blogger Tony Medeiros is posting daily photos of graffiti, murals, sculpture, and other street art that he encounters in his home city of Montreal. A couple samples from his website:
Street art is one of those things that gives me some hope for the human species.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I've been meaning to post on Please Kill Me for a while now - it was one of my favorite reads of last summer. I should start by saying that unlike Aili, I wasn't into punk right away as a teenager. Up until around 9th grade, I was very much a nerdy kid raised on NPR and Beethoven sonatas and about the only rock & roll I liked was Corey Hart's "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night." Sad, but true. Then in high school I joined the X-country and track teams and the seniors used to control the boomboxes on roadtrips and that's when I was introduced to LL Cool J's "Bad", AC/DC's "Back in Black," along with plenty of Guns N' Roses. Angus Young was my primary introduction to guitar rock and I really wouldn't have it any other way. You can see that, in general, my taste in music was fairly immature. But over the years, I have quickly learned to absorb good music and open my ears whenever I'm around other people who care intensely about particular genres.
In this sense, I really feel like I've "borged" my musical taste from the various friends, roommates, and girlfriends I've had. Later in high school, RAW gave me Faith No More, The Sisters of Mercy, The Dead Kennedy's, Ministry, The Cure, Danzig, and A Tribe Called Quest; AK/NR gave me Neil Young, The Doors, Pink Floyd, the Beatles. My college roommate, VD, gave me Nirvana, Tool, NIN, My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult, Tad, Siouxsie, Alice in Chains, and even Sinead O'Conner (not to mention an appreciation for Batman). BD in grad school gave me The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, & T. Rex; AF gave me The Pixies & Cake; and EJS gave me OutKast & Miles Davis. Most recently, I have MC to thank for Mos Def, Gang Starr, Ol' Dirty Bastard, & The Pharcyde. This list could obviously go on and on, and I won't bore you with everything I've borged from Aili, but you get my point.
So I really didn't start listening to The Stooges and The Ramones until I was well into my 20's - a little late perhaps. However, because of this my reaction to them wasn't an adoration born of teenage angst/rebellion but rather one based on actual appreciation (historical and visceral) for the music they created. Fun House is just a sick album, from "Down on the Street" to "1970," even (if I'm the right mood) the seizure-inducing noise of "LA Blues." And so perhaps it's apropos that I didn't read a definitive history of punk until my 30's.
Please Kill Me is the story of punk told by the people who did it. It's all just quotes from interviews, brilliantly woven into a chronological stream by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. You won't get any journalistic bombast, kissing up and cowing down, or snide critique. It's just Iggy and Dee Dee and Patti and Wayne talking about what it was like in the trenches, and since these interviews all come from that era, you feel like you're going through it all as you read.
On the Ramones at CBGB's...
"Legs McNeil: Just as we were talking to Lou Reed the Ramones hit the stage and it was an amazing sight. Four really pissed-off guys in black leather jackets. It was like the Gestapo had just walked into the room. These guys were definitely not hippies. Then they counted off - 'ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!' - and we were hit with this blast of noise, you physically recoiled from the shock of it, like this huge wind, and before I could even get into it, they stopped. Apparently, they were all playing a different song. The Ramones had a mini-fight onstage. They were just so thoroughly disgusted with each other that they threw down their guitars and stomped off the stage. It was amazing. It was like actually seeing something come together. Lou Reed was sitting at the table laughing."
One thing that that really comes through while reading this book is that Lou Reed, while brilliant, was also a complete asshole. Please Kill Me explains how Bowie fit into the whole scene and the artistic roots of glam (adopted by bands like The New York Dolls), which always confused me. After reading it you'll have a pretty good feel for the evolution of punk, of the whole New York versus London thing, and even how it fed into the Grunge of the early 90's. But above all else, you'll just get a lot of crazy rock & roll stories. Here's one of my favorites, on the origins of The Stooges song, "TV Eye":
"Kathy Asheton: About a month after the Stooges and the MC5 got signed to Elektra, Iggy got married. I remember the day of his wedding because that was the day that Iggy and I started our romantic relationship. You see, I never wore skirts or dresses, I hated all that, but the day of the wedding I decided to wear this real skimpy halter dress. That was the first time anybody saw my legs. And I guess you could say that Iggy was much more attentive to me than a man should be on his wedding day. He had a TV Eye on me... 'TV Eye' was my term. It was girl stuff. My girlfriends and I developed a code. It was a way for us to communicate with each other if we thought some guy was staring at us. It meant 'Twat Vibe Eye.' Like, 'He's got a TV Eye on you.' And if we had it, then of course we'd use, 'I have...' Iggy overheard us and thought it was really funny. That's when he wrote the song 'TV Eye'."
Regardless of whether these stories are 100% true, they're damn entertaining. And it's fairly common in the book to get two very different versions of the same event from different people. I especially liked the strong, diverse opinions put forth about Sid and Nancy, and the Sex Pistols in general. That's the beauty and joy of an interview-based history.
On a final note, there are many bands you won't find in here: Black Flag, The Minutemen, Minor Threat, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, etc. For those stories, you might try Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground (1981-1991). My friend, FP, just lent it to me and I'm slowly working my way through. I suspect that it will provide an interesting contrast and parallel journey to the one fantastically outlined in Please Kill Me.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
[posted by Aili]
I was in the big generic bookstore the other day, looking at art magazines. Most of them were showcasing ultra hip urban styles, full of clean lines and youthful disenchantment. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It just reminds me of t-shirt logos and skateboard decks.
Gail Potocki, on the other hand, is truly old school. Her oil paintings seem to be from an earlier era, and at this point such a nod to the old masters is kind of refreshing.
She also likes the work of the symbolists, and like them, includes metaphorical objects and images in all of her paintings.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
This is my 2nd entry in a series on excellent 2-player boardgames. The first reviewed the Settlers of Catan Card Game, and also touched on some of the fundamental differences between so-called Eurogames and Ameritrash. Carcassonne: the Castle (hereafter, CC) is another popular Eurogame and is very easy to pick up and play when you want to escape reality for a short while.
A glance at the box cover might convince you that this game is about building castles or developing some kind of miniature medieval economy but don't be deceived. CC is very much an abstract puzzle game in which the theme has been pasted on. In fact, there is an entire series of Carcassonne titles, ranging from the original game (designed for 2-5 players) and its many expansions, to Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, Carcassonne: the City, and Carcassonne: the Discovery. The play is similar in each.
Players take turns randomly drawing tiles from a central stockpile. You then place the tile next to previously played tiles, creating the map as the game progresses. In this sense, every game will be unique. Much of the strategy of Carcassonne comes from tile placement. In CC, tiles can be used to build towers, houses, paths, or courts. Each tile usually has several of these features on it, and therefore can be lined up against a variety of tiles already in play. Here's a shot of what the tiles look like:
The most upper-left tile in this picture is made up mostly of tower (the gray brick) but also has house (red tile) in it. The tile in the bottom row to the far right has tower, house, and courtyard. Counter-intuitively, you're allowed to place tiles against one another even if the sides don't completely match. You can place a red house side against a gray tower tile in play, for instance. The one exception to this is that paths do need to match up. As you place tiles, you're trying to build bigger houses/towers/courtyards and longer paths. However, you need to actively claim these spaces by placing a "follower" (meeple) on whatever castle feature you want. You have a limited number of followers, and can only play one per turn.
Scoring is a little tricky. For towers and houses, you score when the entire structure is surrounded by other features. Paths are scored when they form a complete loop or end at a castle wall (you score double if there's a well along your path). Courts aren't scored until the end of the game, when all tiles have been used; whichever player has more followers within a court scores 3 points for each market within the court. Finally, the player with the largest house (called the "keep") scores a big bonus. Yikes. That sounds really complicated - fortunately, it's not and after a couple games, you'll have it mastered.
Here's the final board after the last game that Aili and I played:
Note that tiles are placed within a delineated space - a border called the "castle wall." This wall also serves as a score-track, a clever design feature of the game. In general, I love the feel and look of CC. Call me a simpleton, but I really respond to its vibrant colors and small wooden pieces.
So that's Carcassonne: the Castle. You lay tiles to build structures and then try to score them with your meeples. The larger a structure is when completed, the greater the score will be. For example: a house built from 5 different tiles is worth 5 points. Herein lies the great tactical challenge of CC. You are tempted to keep expanding a particular structure - make your tower bigger or path longer - but if you don't complete it by the end of the game, you won't get diddly. This happens more often then you think. So... will you go for the quick score and get 3 points for a short path - 0r take a risk and try to build one that winds through the entire castle and could get you a dozen or more? This dilemma creates the underlying tension of every Carcassonne game and brings you back for more.
Both Aili and I like the game because while there is some strategic depth, there is also a healthy dose of "i have no idea what's going to happen because of this tile i'm playing and i don't care." This creates a casual, non-competitive atmosphere without too much "analysis paralysis." Aili often gives me suggestions of where to place my tiles and then regrets it when I end up kicking her butt!
Games can be completed in around 30 minutes. If I've done a poor job of explaining the rules and strategy, check out this excellent review by Shannon Appelcline at RPGnet.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Q*bert ranks up there among the oddest (and most challenging) video games I played as a child. The goal was to hop from cube to cube in a miniature Escher landscape, thereby changing the color of cubes until they all match a desired outcome. The reason behind this mission is never stated in the Q*bert mythos. However, it is clear that certain antagonistic forces are desperate to prevent Q*bert from accomplishing his abstract goal: there is "Coily" the snake, "Ugg" and "Wrong-way," and "Slick" and "Sam." Visit the Wikipedia entry on Q*bert for a nice summary of relevant historical and game-related information, if you are nostalgic.
However, the reason behind this blog entry was to show off a piece of Q*bert inspired art by artist, James Jean. I just ran across this piece and think it's extraordinary. I will let it speak for itself.
Monday, March 3, 2008
I just encountered another delightful, free flash game on the web this evening. It's called Samorost, and while ostensibly a miniature point-and-click adventure game, I'd almost consider it more a work of art. You play a gnome who is trying to prevent a tree-like asteroid from crashing into his home planet (apparently, Samorost means "driftwood" in Czech). There are mild brainteasers to solve in order to move the plot forward but the true joy comes from seeing the surreal beauty of the world unfold.
It should be noted that one's enjoyment of this brief (20 minutes, tops) game might be enhanced by pharmacological self-manipulation.
If you finish it and crave some more, there's a sequel (Samorost 2) in which the gnome goes on a longer quest to save his kidnapped dog. While the $7 entry-fee might dissuade you, Samorost 2 won Best Web Game at the 2007 Independent Games Festival. The designers of these gems are Jakub Dvorsky & Vaclav Blin. After a little digging, Aili and I discovered that their animation company (Amanita Design) also created a music video for the Danish triphop band, Under Byen. The song is called "Plantage" and you can watch the video - which has very similar visuals to Samorost - here.
The really good news is that they're currently hard at work on a full-scale adventure game called Machinarium. Here's a screenshot of what promises to be a unique gaming experience: