Throwback Thursday – Final Fantasy

•May 25, 2017 • 3 Comments

This year celebrates the 30th anniversary of the release of one of gaming’s biggest franchises, Final Fantasy. Debuting on Japan’s Nintendo Famicom in 1987, legend has it that the game was a last ditch effort to save its fledgling developer, Square. The game wouldn’t make its way stateside until 1990 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which is when I first got to experience it.

I remember clearly that the cartridge cost $70 and I cobbled together half of that and split the cost with a classmate, so we could share the game. And we did share it over the summer of 1990. I must admit, this setup was not the best way to play a game. After wrapping up the volcano and lighting the second orb, he took the game back and I didn’t see it again until he had wrapped it up. At which point, I just started a new game.

Wonky first experience aside, I have fond memories of the game on NES and returned to regularly over the years. I’ve played it on nearly everything it has released, except for maybe the Wonderswan. With the release of the NES Classic last year though, I thought what better time and way to celebrate its anniversary than to go back to the original as it was first played by me? You know, minus the weird trading between dungeons.

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Few games are as burned into my memory like the opening of Final Fantasy is. Visiting the tiny kingdom of Coneria and learning of the kidnapped princess at the hands of Garland. Leveling up against Imps, GrImps, Wolves, and the occasional MadPony until my party was strong enough to venture north to the temple and rescue Princess Sara. Once rescued, the real adventure begins and the world opens up dramatically. Today, so many years and playthroughs later, that opening is still fully engaging for me.

Going back to it on the NES though, does bring with it some design shock. For one, combat encounters were developed on a very particular set of turn based rules. Each turn you select actions for your party to perform including the ability to attack physically or cast magic. Physical attacks and some spells require you to select a target. This is honestly pretty standard practice. But where returning to Final Fantasy on the NES brings in that design shock, is that if you select a character to perform an action and the receiving target has disappeared your character will still perform the action on the empty space, in effect wasting their move.

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This can lead to some “cheap” deaths or “unfair” encounters that can strain your patience, especially when saving is relegated to inns in towns, or usable habitats on the open world. Nothing taxes me more than losing a significant chunk of progress because the game handles saving as a reward instead of a safety net.

If you can get past that one odd design quirk, that probably had more to do with the memory limitations of the NES at the time than anything else, Final Fantasy offers up a pretty great early era, open-world RPG. It doesn’t offer up an overly deep story, but what it does have is enough to string you along. It has a solid bestiary and some fantastical boss fights against massive behemoths that can leave you white knuckled and tense. Even today, the enemy designs look great, especially the more intricate bosses like Tiamat and Kracken.

It also lays the groundwork for so much of what comes in later entries to the series. Musical themes, weaponry, and little world building items from this game sprinkle every other Final Fantasy game. For me, even with its lack of story, outdated battle system, and lack of modern functionality, it might be my favorite in the series. Thirty years old and it still stands tall as one of the best.

Originally published at Critically Sane on 18 May 2017.

Watched – 20 May 2017

•May 20, 2017 • 3 Comments

This week I hit wrapped up my Alien series rewatch and caught a little indie horror film on Netflix.

On to this week’s viewings.

Alien vs. Predator – 3*

Alien vs. Predator holds a 29 on Metacritic. Many people will tell you that it is a boring slog with a silly premise. They will also tell you that it betrays the vision of the two franchises the film is built on and somehow damages them worse than anything ever has. I will tell you differently. Yes it has a silly premise but were you really expecting something different when melding Alien and Predator together? I mean, have you seen Resurrection and Predator 2? By the time this film originally came out, both franchises had already been hurtled at high speed towards the event horizon. I like the setting. I like seeing Aliens fight Predators. I like seeing Lance Henricksen playing Bishop again. It’s dumb but it is fun and for a film like this that meshes these two together that was the best you could hope for.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem – 2*

This film also sports that super sexy 29 score from Metacritic but unlike its predecessor, I think this film is a dumpster fire. Instead of having a coherent and somewhat interesting story like the first, this one just drops Aliens in a small town and unleashes a Predator to come clean it all up. It’s mindless action in a pitch black setting. There are characters but none are worth caring about and you almost hope everyone dies (and thankfully they almost all do). Requiem is trash.

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Prometheus – 4*

There is a strong contingent of people that dislike Prometheus. I understand why. It asks a lot of big, lofty questions and never comes close to answering any of them. It also features some of the dumbest scientists ever assembled in a film. I’m not bothered by this though, I don’t need the answers and films in the Alien series have always featured some of the dumbest people in horrific situations. Prometheus delivers exactly what I want out of it, expanding the Alien universe beyond Ellen Ripley and xenomorphs. And god that snake hugger scene is terrifying. So is the Kthulu-esque monster that Shaw gives “birth” to.

Beyond the Gates – 3*

I love 80s horror and even more than that, I love the attempts to recreate the feel of that era of horror with modern film techniques. Beyond the Gates looks like this from first glance. It has a stylish poster art that screams 80s horror. The intro to the movie further drives home the point with its synth soundtrack over the close up visuals of the inside of a VCR. And the premise screams 80s, with the film centering on a VHS board game. Unfortunately it never lives up to the poster or its stylish opening. It has some wooden performances and the lead is just plain terrible. But the premise is strong enough that it props up the film to make it perfectly watchable, if nothing more than that.

So, that is what I’ve been watching this week. I’ll be catching Alien: Covenant and maybe doing a rewatch of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Let me know if you’d like me to watch something and more importantly what you thought about some of these if you’ve seen them.

Throwback Thursday – Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

•May 18, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Real time strategy games have a mixed history on consoles but in 2009, Microsoft, through their Age of Empires studio, Ensemble, delivered the best attempt at it to date. That game was Halo Wars and it took the classic real time strategy formula of base and army building and translated it to a controller near perfectly. Microsoft shut down Ensemble and the hope of a Halo Wars 2 seemed non-existent. But eight years after the original game we have gotten a sequel, by Creative Assembly no less, but we’ve also gotten a definitive re-release of the original game.

Halo Wars still works wonderfully on a controller on a console but the Definitive Edition takes the game for the first time to PC. As much as I enjoyed Halo Wars the first time around, there is something about playing an RTS on a PC with a mouse and keyboard that just feels right. The funny thing about that though is that I didn’t end up playing too much of it with a mouse and keyboard.

Halo Wars campaign is a tight set of fifteen missions. Those missions are a mix of classic base and army building levels and more linear action focused levels. Both types of missions though feature a nice variety of objectives to complete and rarely does the game feel like it is retreading ground.

Halo Wars leans heavily on its RTS inspirations, namely StarCraft. But it also feels distinctly like a Halo game, which considering every other game in the Halo franchise to this point had been a first person shooter, is a great accomplishment. Instead of focusing on the Halo story through the eyes of the Master Chief, the game offers a sprawling tale of the UNSC fighting against the Covenant as they both chase down Forerunner artifacts. Filled with high quality cutscenes between missions and in-game exposition, Halo Wars offers up one of the deepest Halo game stories. There might not be a singular character in Halo Wars that matches up to the Master Chief or Cortana but the ensemble (no pun intended) that is presented here is enjoyable.

The zombie-like Flood make an appearance here as well but unlike in the FPS games, where they are both terrifying and annoying, they are only annoying here. The perspective of the RTS removes any sense of horror to the faction. Instead they are just shambling blobs that blow up nice. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t lean so heavily onto them. It is one of the few missteps the game takes.

As I opened with, there is something that just feels right about playing an RTS with a mouse and keyboard but weirdly there are choices made in the PC version that work against this being the ideal way of playing. The biggest of which is the inability to zoom out very far. This makes managing your on screen units a chore especially if you are attempting to do battle on more than one front. I actually ended up returning to the controller and just playing the game “Zerg Rush style” or more accurately “Warthog Rush” my enemies and take out objectives one by one. To be fair, the levels seemed to be designed to be approached this way but it is a bit disappointing nonetheless.

Complaints aside though, there is something satisfying about building a UNSC army from scratch and taking it across the landscape to destroy a Covenant base. Warthogs, Scorpions, Vultures, and Spartans make for a fun time be it in first person or a top down RTS.

The Definitive Edition on both PC and console looks markedly better than the original Xbox 360 version and Behavior Interactive did a good job in porting Ensemble’s last game over. Halo Wars 2 looks better but the original is still where it is at for Halo RTS action.

Originally published at Critically Sane on 11 May 2017.

Musings of a Grouch

•May 13, 2017 • 4 Comments

As you can hopefully see, I’ve changed the name of this blog. To be honest, I’ve never been fully happy with the name, Cool Stuff with Chris. It assumed too much of the content. I’m not sure I love Musings of a Grouch either but… it is slightly more accurate, being as I am somewhat of a grouch.

Anyway, as I said several days ago, I’m attempting to breathe some life back in to this blog. While, I will probably spend a good deal of time talking about geek culture, like video games, movies, and comics, I may also venture into talking about being a parent (or at least relaying the awkward stories), music, and on rare occasions current events. I may also drop in sketches that I’ve done (once upon a time I was an artist that went to school for animation) and may even try my hand at some fiction writing. So, I hope you join me to experience my musings.

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Watched – 12 May 2017

•May 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This week I hit the theater and continued my Alien series rewatch in preparation for Covenant.

Anyway, on to this week’s viewings.

Sleight – 4*

I saw this previewed early this year and thought it looked really cool. Turns out, it is. On the surface, Sleight seems to be a mix of inner-city drama mixed with magic. The might seem like a weird mix on the surface but as the film unfolds and you get to know the characters, the magic aspect of it all begins to congeal with its other half as the film drives towards its satisfying sci-fi conclusion.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – 3*

I enjoyed the original Guardians immensely and I left Guardians 2 feeling very similar. However, the more I think about it, the cracks begin to show. Like many of Marvel’s sequels, it returns to the well a bit too often and it feels a bit less exciting than it did the first time around. This isn’t to say that Guardians 2 is a bad movie, it’s not. But it is more popcorn fluff than anything else.

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Rings – 2*

Where Guardians Vol. 2 was a welcome sequel, Rings is an unnecessary one. Did we need to have a return of Samara? After seeing this, the answer is very clearly, no we didn’t. The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki plays a professor that discovers “the tape” and devises an experiment to study the phenomenon. I’m not going to lie, this premise actually sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately by the halfway point, this is no longer being explored and it’s back to hunting down Samara’s history.  It’s not scary. It’s not creepy. And it’s just not good.

Alien 3 – 3*

I remember liking Alien 3 and defending it to a certain degree. After watching it again, I still like aspects of it, particularly Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) , Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), and Clemens (Charles Dance). All three of them give solid performances within a very dull and uninspired looking film. The rest of the cast… well that is a different story and let’s not even get started on the CGI, which has soured like old milk. As my Movie Dudes co-host said while we recorded our upcoming episode, Alien 3 is remake of Alien in a boring warehouse. Even so, I can’t hate on it, although I might not return to it again for quite a while.

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Alien: Resurrection – 3*

If you go into Resurrection attempting to take itself and its history seriously, you will leave disappointed. If you can clear your preconceptions though and just take Resurrection at surface level, there is a lot to like here. It is straight up goofy, mostly courtesy to the writing (Joss Whedon) and the casting choices. It’s dumb, up and down, but it is fun as well and after the drabness of Alien 3, Resurrection was a nice change of pace. I can see myself returning to this one before 3, simply because it is an enjoyable mess.

They’re Watching – 3*

My Hump Day Horror film this week came courtesy of another Blumhouse list. They’re Watching is a found footage horror film that follows the exploits of a TV crew for a home repair show. Why it is in Moldova, I don’t know but creepy Eastern European superstitions, a weird house, some witchcraft, all work really well. That is up until the final act, where the film goes all cheap CGI and has ridiculous looking set pieces. Still, for a low budget, indie found footage film, I’ve seen worse and this one mostly works.

So, that is what I’ve been watching this week. I’ll be continuing my Alien series rewatch by watching Alien v Predator and Prometheus this week. Let me know if you’d like me to watch something and more importantly what you thought about some of these if you’ve seen them.

The State of the Blog

•May 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

My blog currently reminds me of the opening of Fallout: New Vegas. If you haven’t played it, the game starts out with you being shot out in the desert and left to die in a shallow grave. I am the inept shooter and the blog is the main character left to die. But I don’t want to be the inept shooter anymore and I don’t want this blog to be the character I let die in the desert.

So over the last couple months I’ve breathed a little bit of life into the blog. I’ve published a couple retro reviews that were published first over on my main site Critically Sane. I’ve also started a “feature” focusing on things I’ve been watching. It’s enough to give the blog an ever so faint heart beat. But I want to breathe more into it. I don’t know about getting it to thrive but I’d just like it off life support. Why? Well, I want to write more because I used to write a lot.

I’ve been writing on the internet for over 15 years,  I remember one of my first movie reviews was of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines on the now defunct site, juice.box. juice.box was part of the .box network, a group of sites dedicated to a variety of different interests. For example there was music.box that was dedicated to all things music. The juice site was a hodge podge of geek interests and I fit in well there.

Eventually though I was asked to join the Philadelphia metroblogging project and I spent time there writing movie and music reviews, with a touch of sports commentary on the Philadelphia Flyers and Phillies. At the time I viewed it as a gateway to possibly writing for a local news site or something. At some point traffic for the Philly site began to fade and like many of the authors there, I got bored and moved on. To the IGN blogs.

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The IGN blogs began what has been to date my most productive writing period. IGN was, and still is, a massive media giant in the geek culture arena. It sometimes gets a bad rap (sometimes deservedly so) but there is little disputing its massive reach. The IGN blogs were a place for me to write about everything and anything and due to the way the blogging system was designed you could easily build a following. There was a real sense of community on those blogs and I’ve developed some long lasting friendships from them as well (more on that soon).

My writing on those blogs garnered the attention of the Editor-In-Chief of Hooked Gamers and I was asked to come on board to write for them. Hooked Gamers, like a lot of smaller, independent sites, run on a volunteer basis but even though it was unpaid, I threw myself into my work there full force. I was privileged enough to review a ton of great games for the site including Bioshock (my first review for the site), Mass Effect, Uncharted, and Rock Band, amongst others. During my stint there, I worked with some great people that have made a mark in the games industry (both in writing and developing). And I wouldn’t stall to recommend writing for them if the question was posed to me. That group is a true class act.

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Working with Hooked Gamers and keeping my IGN blog updated kept me busy. But I guess I still wasn’t busy enough because seven years ago, I decided that I wanted to produce my own gaming podcast. And thus, The Perfectly Sane Show as born. At first the show was recorded live in my kitchen with a group of friends around the table. It was scattershot at its best but it laid the foundation for what was to come. 17 episodes in and it was becoming harder and harder to get people together to record the show and eventually it stagnated. That is until Fozzy (FozzyTheGamer) from the IGN blogs approached me about doing a podcast with his buddy Tony (napoleon1066) from the blogs. I was in to the idea but three hosts sounded off to me so I suggested we bring in a buddy of mine Jeff (justsomedude899) and The Perfectly Sane Show (version 2)was born. 357 episodes later we’re still going strong.

Two episodes in to the new show we joined forces with another IGN blogger, Ryan Kenward (sorry Ryan, I forget what your IGN tag was), that had an idea to build up his own podcasting network, Vagary.tv. Over the next few years we, along with a crew of mostly talented people, transformed Vagary into an independent success. While it was burning, it burned super bright. We were granted media access to PAX East, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (sadly I was unable to go), review copies, developer access, early film screenings (thanks to our budding film division headed up by myself and Jeff), and we were known when we went to these events. Life happens though and we began to lose contributors, which happens when you don’t pay them (it’s not their job) and everyone is just doing it for fun (it is a hobby). This pushed a lot of extra work on a handful of us and it stopped being fun. After PAX East 2013, I was burnt out. We weren’t building Vagary anymore, we were just maintaining it and doing a poor job. I had had enough maintaining. I wanted to build again.

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I approached my podcast co-hosts and the PR manager for us at Vagary about breaking off. It didn’t take much selling as everyone felt a bit burnt out at Vagary and six months later Critically Sane went live. We threw a lot into Critically Sane and we built it up pretty well over the next two years. It never reached the level of Vagary but considering the scope and staff of Vagary, that is nothing to be ashamed of. As I said earlier though, life happens and Critically Sane is mostly just a hosting ground for the occasional review and our podcasts (The Perfectly Sane Show and Movie Dudes, the latter which I co-host with Jeff from PSS).

Maintaining a blog is hard, maintaining a full site is even harder.

But I want to write more again. I don’t necessarily know if that is game reviews or whatnot, although I’m sure I will do some and they’ll cross post from Critically Sane to here. But I’ll be putting stuff here regardless. As this is my personal blog, it is going to be a mish-mash of crap though, games, movies, parenting, observations, inappropriate commentary, maybe some fiction, maybe some sketches (once upon a time I was an artist). Who knows? But as I’ve proven to myself I can do a weekly piece (with Watched), I think I’ll try to do a couple weeks of two or three posts. I’ll see what happens, hopefully you will stick around to as well.

Watched – 7 May 2017

•May 7, 2017 • 3 Comments

I’m a couple days late with this but I’m going to count it as five weeks running. Which, considering my lack of inspiration to write is pretty impressive I guess.

Anyway, on to this week’s viewings.

Alien – 5*

In preparation for the release of Alien: Covenant, my Movie Dudes co-host and I are doing a series re-watch (minus the AvP films). I mean, simply put, Alien is a masterpiece of sci-fi and horror cinema. It is a masterfully shot, paced, and acted film. I’m hard pressed to find fault with it but considering the Alien series is my second favorite series, behind only Star Wars, maybe I’m a bit biased.

Aliens – 5*

As much as I love Alien, Aliens is my favorite film in the series. It takes the world that Ridley Scott created with Alien and molds it to fit an entirely new style of film. Where Alien was a horror film at its core, Aliens is an action film. And James Cameron’s film, now 31 years old, is still one of the all-time greatest action films ever made. Between its incredible, and quote worthy, dialogue, its excellently crafted set pieces, and the sheer number of terrifying xenomorphs, Aliens is bigger and more bad ass than its older sibling. That doesn’t necessarily make it a better movie, although I like it more, but it allows the sequel to stand on its own and launches it alongside Alien as one of the best sci-fi films ever.

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Last Shift – 3*

My Wednesday horror choice of this past week was a film that hit a Blumhouse list as a great horror film on Netflix that needed to be watched, or something else similar in scope. Necessary to watch? Ehh… maybe not but, it is a fun haunted house type story that delves into the psyche of its primary character. Julian Harkavy plays Officer Loren, a rookie cop on her first shift with the task of playing glorified security guard at a now closed police station as they await the arrival of a cleaning crew. Turns out, this is the same police station where her dad worked before he was killed by a Manson like cult in a bust gone bad. As the film progresses, things get weirder and weirder for Loren until the final dramatic twist. As far as little indie horror films go, Last Shift is a solid enough film. It isn’t anything to get super excited over but I’m not disappointed that I spent 90 minutes with it.

Cold Prey – 3*

Another film I plucked off a list. Cold Prey or Fritt vilt as it is titled in its home Norway, was described as a masterful slasher film with its sequel being compared to Halloween II, one of my all time favorite slasher films due to its setting. Comparing anything to Halloween or its sequel is setting a really high bar for me and Cold Prey fails to get there for a few reasons. For one, I watched the English version of the film (I didn’t have the option for the Norwegian version) and the dubbing on the film is terrible, like 70s Kung-Fu films levels of bad. The other reason is that the film’s transfer is less than ideal, that makes it appear as a really low-fi looking film. Sometimes this works, like with classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but this just has a sloppy look to it and doesn’t add to the films atmosphere. In my opinion, if you have modern tech in your film (such as cell phones) your film should look clean.

Technical complaints aside though, the killer is never really set up, so we don’t have a connection to the lurking horror. In Halloween we get an understanding of Michael’s psychosis and his drive. Here we can just kind of glean who it is by a few scenes, but not what their motivations are. Michael, Freddy, Jason, even Leatherface all have  clear motivations, the killer here is… just a killer but with a weird tie to the setting that isn’t really explained. I’m not saying that I need to understand everything about a slasher but here it just seems like killing for the sake of killing. Anyway, the kills are OK – which is maybe another problem, but despite all my complaining here, it isn’t a bad movie. It just doesn’t do anything new.

Anyway, that is what I’ve been watching this week. I’ll be continuing my Alien series rewatch bywatching Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection this week. Let me know if you’d like me to watch something and more importantly what you thought about some of these if you’ve seen them.

 
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