Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sir Lemming's Guide To Christmas Music

Christmas is not only one of the biggest holidays of the year, it's also undeniably the most musical. There are more songs dedicated to the various traditional Christmas stories -- and then even Christmas itself -- than just about any other specific topic in the world. And there are also songs about winter in general that have been accepted into the canon of Christmas songs, such as "Let it Snow" and "Winter Wonderland". I guess when a song only seems appropriate to play during winter, it naturally gets absorbed into this other set of songs that can only be played in December.

But like any broad category of songs, there are good ones and bad ones. And because Christmas songs are some of the most covered songs of all time, surpassing even The Beatles' catalogue, there are good and bad versions of just about all of them. So I have taken it upon myself to apply criticism to a vast but rarely evaluated sector of music. And no, I do not guarantee that all of this criticism is constructive.

  • I'm going to start with the fundamentals: music that should be part of your Christmas tradition if it isn't already. Michael W. Smith's "Christmas" is pretty much the best Christmas music ever. The album is a symphonic classical pop suite unlike anything else out there, and it's hard to imagine it being improved upon even though it uses some cheesy late-'80s synth, which is no small feat. This is not to be confused with his later "Christmastime". It's a respectable effort that doesn't attempt to duplicate the previous album's strengths, and it does have some great orchestral tracks, but it's still pretty hard to stomach his cartoony renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman". I know he was going for something different, but after the classy and magnificent "Christmas", it just kind of eats your soul a little.

  • Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is also great, but I can't think of anything interesting to say about it.

  • Buy the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's trilogy of Christmas CDs. Then rip them to your computer and delete all the tracks with singing in them. You'll end up with approximately 80 minutes of great rock arrangements of Christmas songs, and 0 minutes of melodramatic power ballads about homeless children on street corners in front of city bars. Then burn that to a CD. Sounds oddly specific, you say? Well, that's because I did it. And it's the best Trans-Siberian Orchestra album ever!

  • If you're in the process of caroling and you decide to sing "The First Noel", watch out for verses 2-4. It's like a hedge maze, made out of syllables instead of hedges.

  • "O Holy Night" kicks butt. Always has, always will. But not when Celine Dion sings it. Who knew that the word "Noel" could be pronounced "Noahrrael"? And who allowed Celine Dion to get anywhere near one of our most cherished songs? Isn't that what the Canadian border is for? While I'm at it, I should probably give Josh Groban a mention. Actually, you can replace that last word with "savage beating", but let's take this one step at a time.

  • Josh Groban is the most boring and completely interchangeable singer of the century. He's the 22-year-old pop star who sings like a 72-year-old pastor. The fact that he's popular with anyone other than aging grandmothers with hearing aids baffles me. I don't think I'd enjoy Josh Groban even if you sawed my ears off, stuck tubes in the blood-caked holes, and literally pumped concentrated Alzheimer's Disease into my brain for a week so that I'd forget what good music sounded like. The worst part is that he also did a song on the Polar Express soundtrack (which I guess is appropriate, because like the characters in that movie, he's an emotionless approximation of an actual human being.) But he gets double duty on Christmas radio because of this. I hope the next person who raises him up so he can stand on a mountain runs away while he isn't looking.

  • While I'm feeling cheery, let's talk about "Christmas Shoes". "Christmas Shoes" is a conglomerate of every horrible Christmas pop ballad trope you can name. Let's run through the checklist:
    It's a story told in song form. Not every song has to be poetry, but basic narrative prose like this is rarely a good sign. After a while it just starts to sound silly, because the singer is describing mundane actions while trying to make it sound melodic and emotional. "So I reached into my pocket, and I found a few coins, blah blah blah..." See "Trapped In The Closet" for the ultimate example.
    It's about helping poverty-stricken children. This is a noble cause that you should should probably be donating more money to than you currently do, but let's be honest, there's really nothing compelling about the idea of some dude giving a kid money. It's a nice message that always makes for boring music. See also "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
    In similarly manipulative fashion, the child in the narrative is a stereotypical stock character, a picture of absolute purity and innocence. Again, not compelling. Naturally, he calls his mother "Mama". I know a song doesn't have time to dive into moral and emotional complexity, especially when it comes to a child, but this is just insultingly clichéd.
    It just keeps getting worse: after the song's middle section, a children's choir repeats the chorus. I don't think I need to elaborate on this. You've heard it a million times, and you know you hate it.
    After THAT, a sole child sings the last line of the song, while the same electric piano that's been in every pop ballad since 1985 plays the last few notes in a slowing tempo, then pauses, and then hits the final note.
    If I've left out any clichés, don't worry: they're there.
    I'm not so jaded that I wouldn't be at least slightly moved by this story if somebody related it as an anecdote, but as a song, it fails.

  • If you ever read the line "the fire is slowly dying" out of context, would you assume it's a Christmas song or a death metal song?

  • Trivia time! There are actually three versions of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas": the benign, cheerful modern version, the bittersweet version heard in the film "Meet Me In St. Louis", and the surprisingly dark version that never made it past the writing stage. I won't give all the details here -- that's what Wikipedia is for -- but just know that the first line of the original version was "Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last." Yikes.

  • "Blue Christmas" is nothing more than a random Elvis song with the word "Christmas" in it. I'm just sayin'. It's still probably better than "Jingle Bell Rock", though. I mean, jingle-horse? Really? That makes about as much sense as Santa Claus coming down Santa Claus Lane. Who cares about Santa driving down ONE street? A street that I can only assume is located at the North Pole? I thought the fact that he goes around the entire world was the thing people are supposed to get excited about. Christmas songs don't have to make sense, but I don't understand how some of these things even made past the stream-of-consciousness stage.

  • And can we stop it with "River" already? This song seems to have picked up steam in recent years, with more radio play and cover versions than ever before. If the name isn't familiar to you, this is that song that features the confusing repeated line "I wish I had a river I could skate away on." The song isn't so terrible in and of itself, but come on, does EVERY song that's even tangentially related to Christmas have to be covered by a million artists and played over and over on the radio from November to December? This song is not a Christmas classic. Just accept it.

  • And lastly, I'd like to be serious for a moment: There's an issue that affects thousands of people across the nation, especially during this time of year. We can no longer turn a blind eye. And with your help, I would like to pass a Constitutional amendment to change the name of "The Christmas Song" to "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire". Or, at the very least, "Chestnuts (Roasting On An Open Fire)". For too long this song has attempted to present itself as the official anthem of the season. It isn't. There's nothing special about it. So please... let us never refer to this song as "The Christmas Song" again.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Much Better Article About Piracy

Not that I thought my little rant about piracy was revolutionary or anything, but TweakGuides just posted an article about piracy that puts mine to shame: http://www.tweakguides.com/Piracy_1.html

Even if you're on the side of pirates -- or perhaps especially -- you really should read this article so that you can get your facts straight. It makes several claims that really threaten to shatter the most prevalent anti-DRM arguments out there, and so you owe it to yourself to check this stuff out instead of blindly accepting what you've heard from some guy on a forum. The author of the article clearly has his own opinion on the matter, and one could argue that it "taints" his perspective, but he's up front about it and he backs it up with tons of data that you can't just ignore.

It is a very long article, so I'll summarize most of its major points:
The claim that DRM "doesn't work" because it hasn't completely stopped piracy is akin to saying locks don't work because skilled thieves can still break them. DRM is a deterrent, designed to minimize piracy in the first few weeks of a game's release, and especially to prevent pre-release piracy. The claim that piracy can be stopped by making better games also appears to be flawed, as data suggests that the most pirated games are also the most popular and critically-acclaimed ones out there. (I was particularly infuriated to discover that World of Goo has been heavily pirated; it's made by an independent developer -- literally 3 people -- and it's generally agreed to be an incredible game.) Sales figures appear to indicate that piracy is indeed hurting the PC games industry, though of course this can always be debated, since there are several other reasons that people prefer console gaming. (Personally, I feel this is the one weak point in the article, but it's not a crucial one, and it's still hard to argue that piracy has NO negative impact on sales.) DRM may be inconvenient and may cause some problems for legitimate customers that are quite unfortunate, even unacceptable, but most of these issues have been resolved or are being worked on, and the claim that they install "spyware" and "rootkits" is largely untrue. (This is unlike what Sony did with music CDs a few years ago. PC Gamer also confirmed this in their latest issue.) Overall, there are a few things both sides can work on to resolve this issue, but it involves keeping a level head and examining the facts rather than spreading rumors and buying into propaganda. DRM needs to evolve into something that's less obtrusive to the legitimate consumer, but there are very legitimate reasons for its existence, which can't simply be ignored or circumvented if we want the PC gaming industry to continue to thrive. That is, unless we want PC gaming to consist of nothing more than shoddy console ports, MMOs, and casual games.

Monday, December 08, 2008

'Twas the Night Before [The Holidays]

At one time or another you've probably seen someone rant about people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". Well, get ready to see it again. But this may be more even-handed than you're used to, because I have two hands, and two is an even number.

I understand what stores are trying to do at this time of year. There are other religiously derived celebrations in December aside from Christmas, and so if you want to maximize your consumer appeal, you try to include everyone. I can accept that. And I can accept an office party being called a "Holiday Party" or saying "Happy Holidays" to someone you don't know too well. (On the other hand, I think it would be ridiculous for anyone to feel shame for accidentally wishing someone a Merry Christmas. Some people act as if this is the same thing as walking up to a Jewish guy and doing a Nazi salute.)

But the real problem I have is when people take things that are obviously Christmas-related and substitute the word "Holiday" in there. If you call a Christmas tree a Holiday tree, you are delusional. Sure, it may have nothing to do with Jesus, but it does have to do with Christmas, one way or another. What the heck else is it? Stop lying. It's just silly. Would you call A Christmas Story a "holiday" movie? Who does that help?

Anything that celebrates Jesus or Santa Claus in December is a Christmas thing and the word "Christmas" should never be removed from it. And no one should feel afraid or guilty about celebrating Christmas as much as they want. Sure, those who celebrate other holidays might feel left out, but what do you expect? That's what country you're in. Christmas is deeply ingrained in American (and much of European) culture, both for Christians and many non-Christians. The great thing is that you're free to celebrate whatever you want to celebrate. But for that to work, you have to accept the possibility that you'll be outnumbered.

Let's not be babies about this, people. Everyone's responsible for their own holiday cheer. Celebrate the season in whatever way feels right to you (as long as it doesn't involve murder) and let the rest work itself out. Incidentally, this is also good advice for those who feel that Christmas "just isn't doing it for you" anymore.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

I Have a DRM

Isn't it fun to be part of a boycott? You get to feel like a rebel, and you achieve this feeling by doing nothing! Like, by definition. It's perfect!

You know what else is fun? Video games. Playing them. On my PC.

Today, EA released a DRM De-Authorization tool for Red Alert 3. It guarantees that you'll be able to reinstall the game on as many computers as you want, as long as you only do 5 at a time. And the game still doesn't require a disc in the drive to play (as has been the case since it was first released).

As you've probably already guessed, this hasn't placated fussy PC gamers. (Which is to say, approximately all PC gamers.) They're still crying for EA's blood. They want DRM-free PC games and they want 'em now. Until then, they threaten, they will pirate PC games instead of buying them.

Okay, I totally get where they're coming from. DRM is a terrible solution to game piracy, just like it was a terrible solution to music piracy. I want to see it gone just as much as anyone else does; it simply doesn't work, and it makes the legitimate consumer feel like a criminal.

But I also feel obligated to support the developers of PC games. I mean, this seems like common sense to me, unless being a fan of something really does consist solely of complaining about it. Sure, I want EA to get the message that DRM is terrible, but isn't there a more productive way? As in, "not destructive"? Because guess what: if nobody buys PC games, it will in fact destroy the PC gaming industry. That's how it works.

Is that a risk you're willing to take? It shouldn't be. Because EA won't care. They'll just continue developing console games and make trillions off of it. They can afford to lose the PC market, even if that's a completely bone-headed and avoidable move on their part. And if that happens, you can play the blame game all you want; it doesn't matter. Is it going to happen? Probably not. But I don't feel comfortable pushing things in that direction, especially at a time when console gaming is bigger than ever. This isn't as simple as the music DRM issue was; companies had nowhere else to turn in that case, and you could still support the artists through concerts and merchandise.

So how do we send EA the message? I don't know. All I know is how I don't want to do it. I take no issue with people who download games illegally to bypass idiotic copy protection schemes, but only if they also buy the games to properly reward the devlopers for making them. That's the proper solution, although frankly, I don't even see the need for the download. Most current DRMs don't actually install harmful rootkits onto your computer (though there are exceptions) and are basically just CD Key checkers, and they really don't affect my life in any way. At worst, they require me to have the disc in, which I admit is a nag that castrates one of the potential benefits of PC gaming, but I can live with it. But that's just me. If you really must bypass DRM to ease your mind, please only do so after paying for the game. It may not send EA the clearest message, but it's still the right thing to do. We need to wage this war without civilian casualties.

PS: Valve seems to have figured out a method of verification that doesn't use irritating DRM, and most PC gamers seem to accept it. Yeah, everyone whined about Steam when it first came out, but it's been improved since then. The games that use Steam are completely up-front about the fact that it's being installed, they only verify your CD key upon installation, and there's no real install limit. It's actually not all that different from the DRM used in Red Alert 3, so there's definitely a good way to go about this. It would be great if EA could follow the example.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Half-Life 2-ometer

With today being the 10th anniversary of the release of Half-Life 1, it seemed only appropriate to do this now. (Even though it's actually about Half-Life 2. Okay, I honestly had no idea about this anniversary, but the timing was too good to pass up doing this today.)

As I review first-person shooter games, I'm starting to notice something: I keep comparing them to Half-Life 2. And there's a good reason for that. Half-Life 2 is amazing. It's possibly the best first-person shooter ever made, and a lot of developers have taken notice, incorporating some of its innovations into their own games. Because of this, Half-Life 2 is often referred to as "the standard by which other FPS games are measured." Well, why not take that as literally as possible?

Ladies and gentlemen, this... is the Half-Life-2-ometer.


From now on, all FPSes will be ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being better than Half-Life 2 (and, by extension, the best FPS ever) and 1 being somewhere around Super Noah's Ark. Yes, Half-Life 2 does in fact rate only a 9 on the Half-Life-2-ometer. If a game achieves a rank of 10, it will then become a 9 on a new __________-ometer.

Here are more detailed descriptions of these rankings:

10: Better than Half-Life 2.
9: As good as Half-Life 2.
8: Almost as good as Half-Life 2, but missing some polish.
7: Has certain aspects that may actually trump Half-Life 2, but is outclassed by Half-Life 2 in other ways.
6: Coexists comfortably alongside Half-Life 2.
5: Wishes it were Half-Life 2, but it ain't.
4: Not even in the same league as Half-Life 2. Ripping off Half-Life 2 would be an improvement.
3: A first-person shooter that is both dumb and not fun.
2: A bad game, plain and simple.
1: The antithesis of Half-Life 2; it gets everything completely wrong.

Crysis, by the way, rates a 7. I may augment its review to reflect this later on.

And here are how some other FPSes stack up. Keep in mind that this is not a percentage-based system of any sort. There is no conversion rate between my 5-star system and my 10-point Half-Life 2-ometer. 8 points does not necessarily equal 4 stars. In fact, anything in the 7-10 range can possibly be 5 stars. So with that in mind...
  • Bioshock: 6
  • FEAR: 7
  • Far Cry: 6
  • Dark Forces: 8
  • Half-Life 1: 8
Hey, wait a second! Do I consider FEAR a better game than Bioshock? Strangely, no. However, its combat puts Half-Life 2's to shame, whereas nothing in Bioshock really puts Half-Life 2 to shame. So I gotta give it props for that. I told you this wasn't a particularly sensible system.

Friday, November 07, 2008

"REVIEW": Red Alert 3

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, EA continues its long-running RTS franchise in tongue-in-cheek fashion. Red Alert 3 continues the C&C tradition of cheesy FMV sequences with the fanchise's most star-studded cast to date, all chewing so much scenery that if they were beavers and scenery were logs, they would probably be able to build a lot of dams with the end products of their chewing. There are also a lot of women who show cleavage, which is hilarious and very tongue-in-cheek.

Red Alert 3 is actually the exact same game as Red Alert 2, but with 3D graphics. Still, how can you not love a game with armored bears that parachute out of cannons, giant robots, and psychic schoolgirls? It is so wonderfully tongue-in-cheek that I'm beginning to suspect that each of the EA staff members' mouths is actually comprised entirely of a large mass of tongue muscle tissue that fills the oral cavity completely, which is quite prohibitive to talking, but allows for some really classic game design. Sure, it's nothing new -- you just have to command a military against another military, which is very old-hat -- but how can you not love a game where Mount Rushmore shoots lasers and J. K. Simmons chews scenery using his cheek-dewlling tongue?

Oh, I think this game introduces naval base-building and a third faction and co-op mode, but I wasn't really paying attention. It seemed pretty much the same as RA2.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


First off, allow me to congratulate the Democratic party for their rather smashing victory last night. Turns out you guys aren't an oppressed minority fighting desperately for survival in a harsh political wilderness; you just had to wait your turn.

As president, Barack Obama will bring a lot of change -- to television. Here are some of the ways:

  • First and most importantly, with Bush jokes losing their relevance, it's very possible that 75% of television will actually disappear. Unless "Joe Biden has weird eyelids" jokes catch on.
  • The Colbert Report will have to change its dynamic to some extent. The Daily Show will remain more or less the same, but maybe 5% happier.
  • With David Palmer no longer able to be called the first black president, 24 is now officially an alternate reality, and Jack Bauer is officially not real. Thanks a lot, dream-crushers.
  • Then again, "Bill Ayers" sounds like a name straight out of 24. But for some reason I don't think we'll be hearing that name again any time soon... (Hey, when does The Joe The Plumber Show premiere on VH1 again?)
  • Family Guy and The Simpsons might manage to go three whole episodes without one of the characters turning to the screen and saying, "We've been making you laugh for a while, but now I want to take a minute to educate you on the state of the current administration." Iraq War jokes may remain in fashion.
  • The basis of American Dad's underlying plot will change... about a year from now, when the animation gets a chance to catch up. (This is actually kind of a real fact.)
  • Li'l Bush will remain unchallenged as the greatest, most ground-breaking and most relevant political satire in history.
  • Depending on what happens in the next day or two, you might see Al Franken on sitcoms again.

Well, that was a hasty bit of political sub-satire. See you later.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Changing Face of Evil

My friends, we are currently facing an issue that has the potential to shape the future not only of this country, but of the entire world. It is important that we all pay attention during this historic time.

I'm talking, of course, about something that is obviously not the presidential election due to how much I'm setting up this punchline. I'm talking about Pepsi changing the logos and designs of their various soda products.


You may be thinking this isn't such a big deal. People on the internet will whine about it because it's new and therefore can't be as good as the old version, but this goes much deeper than that. Why? Because of this:


Here it is again, in case that wasn't clear enough:


That's right. Mtn Dew. An abbreviation unbecoming of an AIM chat will now represent one of the greatest soft drinks in history. They're trying to sneak this in with the rest of the faux-controversial changes, but it sticks out like a sore thmb. I for one will not stand for it.

So what am I going to do? Uh... this, I guess. Yeah.

Posted by Sir Lemming at 9:29 PM, Mtn Time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

REVIEW: Contra 4

(NOTE: Because I can't get screenshots from DS games, I'm stealing them from IGN. All credit goes to them.)

By the end of the game, you'll long for the days when this was all you had to deal with.

I'm going to be honest with you. I haven't beaten this game without cheating. Normally, you might wonder how someone could review a game without beating it legitimately. Play Contra 4 and you won't wonder anymore. To someone who doesn't write video game reviews for a living, it's asking a lot.

If you were around for the days of "old-school gaming" -- approximately 1985-1995 -- you're well aware of the fact that a lot of old games were really, really hard. One of the main reasons for this is that they were also really, really short. Video games basically started in the arcades, and if you'd been able to beat them on the first try, they wouldn't have been very profitable. The move to home consoles eliminated the pay-to-play system, but old design habits die hard, and technical limitations on game size still encouraged designers to increase play time in other ways.

The merits of the "Nintendo Hard" design philosophy are to this day a subject of great controversy (among nerds). Go too far in one direction and you get games that simply aren't fun to play; you never even get a chance to start liking the game before you hit Game Over. (See Shadow of the Beast for an unfortunate example; the art design was some of the best ever seen in gaming, but it was so unplayable that they actually publicized an invincibility cheat code to make up for it.) Go too far in the other direction and you get games that everyone can reach the end of, but provide so little challenge that they might as well be movies. So where's the happy medium? Well, I could go in-depth and write an essay, something I've had my fill of in the first 22 years of my life, or I could just say "Mega Man 9 and Contra 4". Specifically, let's talk about Contra 4.

Why is he riding a jet-ski? Why are there evil fish? Do you care?

There have actually been many Contra games betwen Contra 3 and Contra 4. Most of them were so misguided that Contra 4's manual actually makes fun of them. PS2's Shattered Soldier, however, was a really cool, insanely hard, side-scrolling Contra game whose only failing was the "2.5D" style. I would've preferred true 2D, but it still looked and felt like a true Contra game and not one of those 3D abominations. Regardless, Konami has decided to go with "Contra 4" as the title for this latest entry, and while I feel kind of bad for Shattered Soldier, the idea here is to stick even more strictly to the old-school design philosophy, and it's certainly appreciated. It also feels completely genuine.

But... it's a DS game. You may be thinking, surely they added some lame touch-screen mechanic that's totally uncalled for, or used the second screen for nothing other than displaying a map. Surely there's no reason for it to be on DS, other than the fact that DS is technologically superior to, and more popular than, Game Boy Advance. Well, that's sort of true and sort of not true. The touch-screen isn't used for anything other than an optional way of navigating the Contra Museum menus, and that's just fine with me. Just because a system has a feature doesn't mean you have to use it, and it would make no sense in a game like this. It's no bigger issue than simply not using all of the system's buttons. (Although on that note, I wish they would've left the A button alone as well instead of making it drop your weapon. WHY WOULD YOU EVER DROP YOUR WEAPON IN A CONTRA GAME. WHY??) However, the game does use the second screen rather well. The playing field is super-tall, just like in certain old arcade games. It's not 100% necessary, but they designed the levels around this setup and it's ultimately non-intrusive to the Contra experience. It also allows for some MONSTROUS boss sprites, which is justification enough.

We need to keep violence off the streets.

Contra 4 is a thesis statement on the merits of old-school game design, and it's an emphatic one. It's mercilessly difficult -- more on that later -- and it has virtually no storyline. Everything in the game is designed around the most interesting way to make things blow up. This illustrates one definitive advantage of the 2D, side-scrolling perspective that makes it relevant in this age of complex 3D environments: working in 2D, the designers are free to throw in any outlandish set piece that comes to mind and the player is able to traverse it without needless re-training. For example, this game contains a sequence where you climb onto a nuclear missile as it launches, fight a giant robot that clings to the side of the missile, jump from handle to handle as they appear and disappear from the missile's surface while shooting down smaller missiles, climb onto the exhaust of the missile as it heads back down to Earth, dodge the exhaust flames that flare up intermittently, crash-land between two buildings, and then fight the giant robot again. If that sounds confusing, it would be -- in a 3D game with a target lock-on system, controllable camera, and tricky jumping perspectives. Here, it's just another series of platforms to traverse and more stuff to shoot. Undeniably, 3D games have the advantage of increased immersion, the sense that you're "really there" in a fully developed world, and that should never be dismissed as some sort of modern tech fad. But 2D games still have the advantage of being able to throw something completely audacious at the player without missing a beat. When it comes to fast, twitchy action where one missed move equals death, you can't beat 2D.

Which brings up the subject of difficulty. This game is absolutely brutal, and that can't be overstated. Casual gamers need to heed this warning, because it is very possible that you will be unable to finish this game, and if that's something that bothers you, prepare to be bothered. In true Contra tradition (Contradition?), one hit from anything is an instant kill, and if you run out of lives, you have to continue either at the beginning of the level or at a midway point. And if you run out of Continues, goodbye. It's just as hard as any arcade game I can remember, and getting all the way to the end without cheating is proof positive that you're a hardcore gamer. (Which is why I haven't managed to do it yet.) Fortunately, because it's structured like an arcade game, you're guaranteed to be able to get somewhere before Game Over. You'll always get just enough of a taste for the action that you're motivated to push yourself a little further next time, and as you practice each stage, you eventually do improve. There is frustration, to be sure, but if you go into the game without necessarily expecting to beat it any time soon, it's a good time.

I should also point out the differences between Easy Mode and Normal Mode, two subsets of Arcade Mode (a.k.a. the actual game). Easy Mode is drastically different from Normal Mode. Weapons automatically start at level 2, out of 3 possible levels that are normally achieved by collecting the weapon power-up multiple times. You also have more lives, meaning you don't have to start over at the beginning or half-way point of a level quite so often. The levels themselves are missing many key obstacles, such as firing turrets and various other things in the background that kill you. But most importantly, you can't even play the final 2 stages in Easy Mode. So Easy Mode is basically a training session for the real game, and it works well. Most pseudo-hardcore gamers should be able to beat it with enough persistence. But Normal Mode is the real meat and potatoes here, and it will put you to the test. There's also some sort of "Hard Mode" option on the menu, which you should probably just ignore altogether.

You may never actually see this stage.

One feature of the game that alleviates this extreme difficulty, giving the game a bit of an advantage over other Contras, is the Challenge Mode. This mode is unlocked if you beat the game on Easy Mode, and it's a welcome spin on the classic Contra action. It consists of 40 challenges such as "Pacifism" (where you can't use weapons), "Speed Run" (where there's a time limit), and "Friendly Fire" (where there are actually things you SHOULDN'T shoot, for once). Each challenge requires you to complete a small chunk of the game under one of these conditions.

After investing several hours of your time attempting to beat Arcade Mode, Challenge Mode is a welcome breather. It allows you to repeat one tiny section of the game over and over again, limited to one life, without having to worry about the extremely daunting task of completing the whole thing. They're also good practice runs for the actual game, since many of the challenges take place on portions of the regular stages. This is especially useful for those later portions of the game that always wind up killing you (on the rare occasion that you actually make it that far). In fact, attempting to beat Normal Mode without practicing the final level in this mode is just plain suicide. Challenge Mode also rewards you frequently; for every 4 challenges you complete, you unlock one of several bonuses, including two original Contra games, an interview, a comic, new playable characters (including a female soldier with what might be described as "next-gen" attire), and more. Plus, you start out with several challenges available and each one unlocks another one, so you rarely get stuck with just one challenge that you can't manage to beat.

If you're a fan of Contra, this is a must-own. If you're a strictly modern gamer, I still recommend this game because it represents some of the best aspects of old-school gaming, but you also need to be warned that it's probably the hardest game you're ever going to play. Still, it's much more refined than some of those old games that are needlessly difficult to the point of masochism, and you'll have a good time playing it even if you don't ever manage to actually beat it. If you're looking for a challenge, this is it.

4 stars (out of 5): Recommended

For those of you who are curious, I didn't cheat intentionally. I died at the same time as a boss did, and I wound up with 99 lives. Apparently this happens if you get an extra life at the same time as losing your last one. I only had 9 of these lives left at the end of the game. Yeah.

Perhaps it's a testament to this game's design that I still want to beat it the real way, despite its overwhelming difficulty. Beating it without having to worry about continues eliminated a fair amount of the urgency and challenge in those later stages, and a part of me still wanted to be able to die, because I didn't feel a real sense of accomplishment. This stands in stark contrast to something like Shadow of the Beast, where cheating is the only way to enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


So apparently my most popular YouTube video, a music video using Cowboy Bebop movie clips set to Queens Of The Stone Age's "Song for the Deaf", has disappeared. No warning, no e-mail, no notification -- just gone.

Am I phenomenally surprised by this? Not really. I mean, it's copyrighted footage and copyrighted music, used without permission. I have no legal right to have it up there, and they have every right to take it down. (Even though it makes them lame.) I wondered if something like this would ever happen; I just didn't think it'd be so... cold. I wouldn't have known it happened if someone hadn't sent me a message asking where the video was. I didn't even get the satisfaction of feeling like a rebel.

Perhaps... this is all part of some sort of plan. Perhaps it's YouTube's way of giving a slap on the wrist to minor offenders to save face with certain mega-corporations (you won't have to DO A SEARCH to figure that one out, wink wink), while reserving the serious legal threats for actual troublemakers. Maybe I've paid my dues to YouTube society, and won't have to worry again until I start posting leaked tracks from the next Queens Of The Stone Age album set to pictures of the band members and superimposed "NEW SONG!!!" text.

Maybe I should stop talking before I get sued.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Red Alert 3: beta impressions

After playing the multiplayer beta of Red Alert 3, I can safely say that this is the weirdest, most complicated Command & Conquer game ever. It can be very hard to figure it out if you just jump into a game against other players (but of course, that's all you could do in the beta). There's still a lot I don't understand about it. Every unit seems very unique, and there are tons and tons of special abilities to go around. Reading the manual will be absolutely necessary unless you play the three single-player campaigns first, which I assume will train you on how to use all the units and abilities. The three sides are extremely different from each other. I can see this and C&C3 both retaining a large audience, because they are very different games.

Gone from C&C3 are squad-based infantry units and complete freedom with placing structures. The former is a matter of taste, and adds to the less military, more stylized feel of the game; the latter is probably a good idea, since structure placement in C&C3 was very confusing. No longer will you find yourself unable to place a structure on a gigantic, flat chunk of land that's well within your construction zone. In this game, structures are placed on a grid and can be rotated in only 4 directions (diagonally skewed in the default view, as has been the case with all C&C engines after the original).
Resources are also handled differently. Structures called Ore Mines are scattered across the map, and you build an Ore Refinery near one of them and let the ore collector start doing its thing. It most strongly resembles the Vespene Gas mechanic in Starcraft, with the ore mines becoming depleted after a while; the difference is that the ore mines are neutral structures and the refinery is built across from it. The ore collectors' turnaround time is quite fast assuming you place the refinery just a few blocks away from the mine, meaning there's really no need to build extra ore collectors unless the one that comes with the mine is destroyed. (Or for base expansion, in the case of the Allied ore collector.) The overall control scheme and interface of the game is basically the same as that of C&C3, although the graphics seem a little more advanced; I had to turn off anti-aliasing to get it running smoothly.

One of the most interesting changes across the board is the "special abilities" tree. Throughout the game -- I'm still not sure how, but it seems to have to do with construction -- you acquire experience points (I think they're called "defense points" or something) to spend on special abilities, which queue up on the left side of the screen the same way paratroopers, superweapons, etc. did in C&C3. There's a grid of abilities, with 3 columns and about 8 rows. When you spend points on one of them, it unlocks the one below it. For example, spending a point on an airstrike ability may unlock a bigger airstrike; however, they're a LOT more varied than that. Abilities range from basic things, like reinforcements, radar sweeps, and mild superweapons, to more advanced things, like a cash bounty that temporarily lets you get money from killing enemies. I'm told that this system is similar to something from Company of Heroes.
Compared to both C&C3 and Starcraft, there seems to be less focus on "upgrading" unit weapons and armor in the traditional sense. Any upgrading is done via this new ability tree system. The units more or less start off at full potential; however, almost all of them have a special ability that can be toggled on and off, or used after a cool-down period. Partially because of this, there seems to be a smaller, more focused set of units than in previous games, with some of the standard unit functions from previous games being combined into one unit.

There is a lot of focus on water combat. Obviously, every faction has a naval base that can build water vessels. But here's the biggest departure from tradition: many structures (if not all) can actually be built on the water, using a scaffolding/deck as visual justification. This includes turrets, as such base expansion necessitates defense expansion; so yes, you can build Tesla Coils in water. Quite a few units can cross water as well, including certain types of tanks, all engineers, and the Japanese Shinobi. All ore collectors are amphibious so that they can gain access to Ore Mines that are located in water. It appears that the only structures that can't be built on water are vehicle and infantry production structures; naturally, naval bases can't be built on land, but airfields can be built on either surface.

The soundtrack seems to largely follow the C&C3 mold in that it's dynamic ambient music rather than a tracklist of songs. When you get into battles it starts sounding more old-school, but I can't say anything for sure since I don't know how much of the soundtrack is available in this version. The main menu music is "Grinder", recycled from Red Alert 2, so I can only assume that will change.

With that said, I'll briefly go over the 3 factions.

The Allied Prospectors (ore collectors) double as C&C3's Surveyors: not only can they collect ore, but they can deploy into a base expansion area. Instead of building "tech" structures, Allies can purchase two levels of "clearance" to open up further construction tiers. I imagine this gives them the advantage of not being able to lose access to certain units until the construction building itself is destroyed. They have no grenade unit, just rifle and bazooka infantry; however, the rifle infantry can use "riot shields" which allow them to go into a garrisoned building and clear it out. Allies seem to favor units and structures where you can put infantry inside; their turret, their "hum-vee" type unit, and possibly one of the ships or aircraft allow this. (It's like C&C3's APC.) One of the Allies' coolest special abilities is Time Bomb, which lets you place a bomb anywhere not shrouded by "fog of war". I'm not sure how the enemy is supposed to diffuse it; possibly with an engineer? I didn't get much of a chance to experiment with their air and naval units, but they seemed pretty powerful. Tank-wise they have a relatively light tank and the Mirage tank from RA2, so the Soviets will outdo them in that department.

Rising Sun:
Definitely the oddball faction. Every single one of their structures is built as a deployable unit. So you don't just build a power plant; you build a power plant "core" and then you move it somewhere and deploy it. Even turrets are built like this. As confusing as this is, it has one obvious advantage: they can build absolutely anywhere. Hence, expect a Rising Sun player to claim all the ore mines near his base in no time. Whereas Allies need at least a refinery-collector combo and Soviets need at least a vehicle factory before expansion can happen, Rising Sun can deploy refineries wherever they want right off the bat. They can also send some deployable turrets along so the refinery won't be left vulnerable. They don't have an airfield, but most of their vehicles are actually "mecha" (giant robots), several of which can either fly around or turn into jets that fly around. They also have three types of flying infantry. One of the first types of infantry you can build with the Rising Sun is a flying scout unit that can sweep the map pretty quickly. The psychic schoolgirl is unbelievably effective against air and naval units, not to mention buildings. I was able to counter one pretty well with Shinobi (a ninja unit who basically looks like Sub-Zero with a sword), and I'd imagine anti-infantry turrets and other commando-level units would work pretty well too. The Rising Sun's standard infantry seem relatively weak, but they essentially have two types of "special" infantry (just below commando-level), both of which are good attackers.

The Soviets seem like the easiest faction to figure out. Their ore collector can't deploy into a base expansion area; that duty belongs to the Sputnik (who, incidentally, sounds like Borat). Hence, their biggest disadvantage is base expansion, especially compared to the Rising Sun; it can be hard to lay claim to all of the Ore Mines early on. Additionally, construction of Soviet structures requires that you place the structure first, before construction actually begins; Allies use the traditional C&C method of build-then-place, and of course the Rising Sun use something different entirely. Only the Soviets appear to have an advanced power plant. The Soviet Conscriptor doubles as a rifle infantry and grenade infantry -- you can switch them over to Molotov Cocktails, useful for de-garrisoning. They appear to have the best tanks, including one that's roughly equivalent to the Mammoth tank. They also have an air advantage, because only the MIGs need to dock at the airfield; their other aircraft can just hover around, so there's no limit to how many you can build. One Soviet special ability is Magnetic Lift, which can lift "certain" armored units into space, never to be seen again! I'm not sure yet what can and can't be lifted, but Rising Sun units seem most susceptible. I found this out the hard way when a Soviet enemy apparently figured out where my Mecha Bay was, and they sucked a bunch of my giant robots into space right after I built them. The commando unit, Natasha, can detonate buildings with a laser-guided bomb (so she doesn't have to touch the building), but she has to stand still for a few seconds.

This is going to be a very interesting game when it's released about a month from now (October 28th), and I'm looking forward to actually learning how to play it. With its complexity, innovation, and uniqueness, it should be able to hold its own against Starcraft II.

You can, of course, find more information about Red Alert 3 at the official website.

Monday, September 29, 2008

SOLD OUT -- I Selling Rolexes and other watches? DO uou want?

First off, I've set up an in-depth explanation of my review scoring system, to help explain the meanings behind my scores and hopefully stifle waves of angry e-mails. Actually, I've never gotten waves of angry e-mails and I'm curious to see how that works, so fire away anyway! http://sites.google.com/site/sirlemming/scoring-system-2

Fox's Animation Domination made its yearly return last night. And ever since that one glorious night in May 2005, when Animation Domination featured two new Simpsons episodes, the long-awaited return of Family Guy, and the series premiere of American Dad, it's been a downhill ride.

Since people on the internet complaining about past-their-prime animated sitcoms are easy to come by, I'll be brief. The Simpsons could've been written by a computer. Family Guy was its unfortunately typical new self, a mish-mash of blunt political statements and blandly offensive "edgy" jokes that offend those they're meant to offend without entertaining those they're meant to entertain. American Dad was the only show that provided more than a few laughs, but it was hardly its best outing, either.

All in all, thumbs down. I expect nothing from The Simpsons anymore; I'm beginning to expect nothing from the once-clever Family Guy; American Dad will probably still have a good season.

In other news, I'll be posting my thoughts on the Red Alert 3 Beta once it's completely over. So far, I'm impressed, surprised, and overwhelmed. It's unlike anything I've played before.

Oh, the title of this post is the title of an e-mail I found in my Junk Mail folder. I thought it was very nice!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

REVIEW: Crysis

The explosions look great, and they sound even better.

Crysis may not be a household name like Halo or Gears of War, but it's a name PC gamers fear. Some fear it out of reverence; others fear it because of its infamously high system requirements. The best approach, as long as you meet the minimum requirements to play the game acceptably (which is approximately a 2GHz dual-core processor and a $100 video card) is to take a look at TweakGuides' excellent document on how to fine-tune the game for your computer, figure out what works best, and then be content with it. Chances are you'll only lose super-high resolutions and a few neat light rays and stuff. Just pretend it's an Xbox 360 game. I say this because at maximum detail, it puts many Xbox 360 games to shame. It would also put many PS3 games to shame if there were such a thing as "many" PS3 games. Yet despite the game's seemingly excessive graphical aspirations, it's really amazing that it runs as well as it does. In fact, the few indoor portions of the game reveal just how efficient the engine is; they tend to run incredibly smoothly, even with complex polygonal humans walking about. The only part of the game that puts unreasonable demands on your PC is a certain ice/snow area that taxes the system far more than any other area does. I was able to resolve the situation by temporarily lowering my settings (namely, switching to DirectX 9 mode), but it's a bit of a quality-control blunder when what works for 98% of the game is suddenly insufficient for one part of it.

Lush jungle scenery. Lush!

Anyway, on to the game! Crysis is from Crytek, the makers of Far Cry, the original CryEngine game. The only thing more impressive than Crytek's undying devotion to the word "cry" is their game design prowess. (Seriously though, what's the deal with the whole "Cry" thing? It's like some sort of alien attempt at a pun that's meant to hide a very unusual subliminal message.) Far Cry took the PC gaming world by surprise with its enormous tropical environments and generally excellent open-ended gameplay. It was a unique first-person shooter (and a very difficult one) where the player could navigate to his objectives via several different routes and methods.

Crysis -- which, confusingly enough, is NOT Far Cry 2, which is being developed by a different company -- builds upon and enhances this design. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Nanosuit, which both provides a feasible excuse for one-man-army-ism (how did Far Cry Guy manage to wield an entire vehicle-grade machine gun?) and lets the player choose from four modes: Cloak, Strength, Speed, and Armor. The most interesting mode here is Cloak because it makes stealth a more viable gameplay option, thus adding to the numerous strategies you can use. As with all of the modes, its effect wears off after about 5 seconds of full-blown usage, but that's enough to let you sneak around quite effectively without making the game too easy.

The other major difference between Far Cry and Crysis is the storyline. Far Cry was basically just the story of an extremely sarcastic man in a Hawaiian shirt going up against a mad scientist who spun the Wheel of Sci-Fi and landed on "Genetic Engineering" (instead of "Nanotechnology" or "Alien Invasion"). The gameplay was great, but the storytelling was about as engaging as that of Millipede. With Crysis, the developers have taken cues from games such as Halo and Half-Life 2 and improved the narrative quite a bit. That's not to say the story itself is incredible. The aforementioned Wheel of Sci-Fi has landed on "Alien Invasion" this time around (with a side of Nanotech, but just a little), and it's the standard pseudo-military tac-ops thing with a rag-tag gang of just-witty-enough-to-still-be-serious soldiers. But if I've learned one thing from Burger Time -- and trust me, I have learned many things from Burger Time -- a game's story is only as important as the gameplay it motivates. Perhaps a more relevant example would be Half-Life 2, whose storyline, while certainly better than Crysis's, borrows plenty of elements from other Sci-Fi works and wouldn't be remarkable on its own. Rather, the skillful weaving of narrative into gameplay is what enhances the experience. Even though many sections of Far Cry and Crysis are similar on the surface (see: the general setting, the various enemy bases, firing rockets at enemies from the deck of a battleship, etc.), Crysis comes off as a bit more exciting.

Epic battles with aliens are fun, but not as groundbreaking as the rest of the gameplay.

However, the area of Crysis that deviates most from the Far Cry mold -- the addition of alien enemies -- is probably also the least successful aspect of the game. Most of the alien sequences are quite thrilling, especially on the visual end. But in retrospect, I had more fun during the parts of the game where I was crawling around in the jungle trying to evade and surgically eliminate swarms of Korean troops. The aliens look cool and allow for lots of explosive action, but it's in these parts of the game that you find yourself being led from one objective to the next almost on rails, which contrasts the freedom you have throughout the first 2/3 of the game. With all the military action surrounding you, it seems like there's not much for you to do except shoot things. The scope of these battles is nothing short of jaw-dropping, but a battle of similar scope near the end of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 provides a brilliant counter-example. If you've played that game, you know what I'm talking about, and it is both epic in scope and a challenging, unique, unforgettable gaming experience. In Crysis, on the other hand, the alien battles take the game down a notch from "revolutionary gameplay" to "good gameplay".

Next-gen gaming!

Most of the other key differences between Far Cry and Crysis fall under the category of enhancements, but they really do shine. With the possible exception of F.E.A.R., Crysis probably has the best, most intense, and most varied battles ever seen in an FPS. At the very least, I can say they're the best outdoor tactical battles to date. The battles rarely play out the same way twice, even if you load a saved game and try to do things exactly the way you did them last time. The nature of a battle also changes depending on how you choose to approach an area, i.e. sneaking in the back of a base, blasting through the main entrance with rocket launchers, or even skipping certain areas altogether if you find a different route to your objective. The advanced physics, far from just being a tech gimmick, give you even more options. For example, if you duck into a shed, the enemies have the option of using grenades or rockets to demolish the shed and crush you under the sheet metal and rubble. Alternatively, you can do the same to them. And if someone is sniping you from a guard tower, a well-placed missile launcher shot to its base will knock it down, if the explosion doesn't kill the sniper on its own. You can blow up gas tanks to create confusion and/or death (especially if you stay cloaked immediately before and after the fact), and if you decide you don't need to use any of their vehicles, you can usually blow those up too. Without said vehicles, you may need to make the next part of your journey on foot (aided by Speed mode), or you might be able to find a boat and cut across a nearby lake. Oh, and you can also knock down trees (as can enemies), pick up chickens and hurl them into the distance, and grab enemies by the neck.


The audio and graphical effects, if you can afford them, are worth the expense. On a good sound system, there is nothing more satisfying than blowing up a gas station and nearly feeling your own house collapse from the impact. As for the graphics, they're obviously phenomenal. Aside from the high polygon count, Crytek's use of coloration, blur filters, and subtle lighting and shading effects all combine to create a near-photorealistic style that still has some, well, style to it. But it's not just a tech demo. There are several moments in the game that simply fill you with awe, and it's not "whoa, look what my video card just did" awe. When you're running away from an enemy base mid-evacuation and you look up into the night sky and see jets flying by, rustling the palm trees in their wake, accompanied by the subtle flashes of distant gunfire and flares rising into the air, and then look down at your feet and see frogs hopping around on the jungle floor, you'll know this is something special. In other words, Crytek have used every last ounce of this engine's power to provide a memorable gaming experience packed with atmosphere. If you spend a little extra to build a computer that can run this game at high settings, those dollars aren't just going to put some shininess onto a bunch of bland military stuff. It's worth it.

The enemy AI is a step up from Far Cry, and it does a good job of making each combat scenario live up to its potential. It's not as advanced as the AI in F.E.A.R., but then again, in an outdoor environment the enemies in F.E.A.R. would be more or less impossible for one player to defeat. Immersion suffers a little bit in the occasional situations where you can fend off the entire Korean military by holding a barrel in front of you, or when one of them leaves his cover, stands up, and yells "Cover me while I reload!", but these are exceptions. (My personal favorite is when a soldier arbitrarily yells "He's ku-roaked!" when I haven't been cloaked in hours.) For the most part, this is an enemy force that keeps you on your toes and will overwhelm you if you don't play wisely. (This differs from the enemies in F.E.A.R., who WOULD KILL YOU almost every single time if you didn't have slow-mo powers and plenty of places to hide.)

Crysis isn't as long as Far Cry -- it's somewhere between half as long and 2/3 as long -- but it definitely never gets boring (and in that respect I do see the wisdom in transitioning from jungle-based tactical battles to alien shootouts). Far Cry did get a little repetitive in its later missions, so I commend Crytek for righting that wrong. The game ends with a blatant sequel tag, and I hope Crytek ends up making one, even if it isn't PC-exclusive. The stand-alone expansion, Crysis Warhead (which features a revamped Crytek engine that runs more efficiently), will have to tide us over for now.

5 stars (out of 5): Highly Recommended

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A weird display of fandom

I'll get things started in a small way. Here's a Mute Math mini-movie I made using The Movies. There's no point to it, it's just an exercise of some sort.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Where it all begins... AGAIN

Okay. So, a year after my latest "serious" attempt to start a web site, I am nowhere. Frankly my heart just isn't in it. So I'll just stick to this "blogging" thing everyone's so crazy about and bow to Google's ever-increasing authority. I tried GooglePages and Google Sites, but they're like this weird halfway point between a blog and a real web site. They look like blogs, but have pretty much none of the features of blogs, so what's the point? Apparently Google Sites is supposed to be some sort of Wiki, but what the heck do I need a personal Wiki for? Plus, if I wanted to make a Wiki, I would... you know... make a Wiki.

Further content to follow shortly after I figure out if this is really how I want to do things.