Tuesday, December 30, 2014

One Year Update

This marks one year since I started putting my thoughts into words and posting them online. In that time I have posted fourteen pieces on different topics that interest me. Originally, when I started this, my goal was to post once a month for an entire year, just to see if I could do it. I honestly did not think it would be possible to do so. Apparently, it was.

As it turns out, I really enjoy writing. I have a bizarre, specific set of interests, and I develop strange opinions about these interests. Although I don’t spend a lot of time (read: any) editing my work, that does not mean they are any less important to me. I feel like anyone reading these can get a better inside look at who I am.

I said in a previous post that I would write about things that interested me. Until now, that’s included mainly music, sports, and video games. Not the most academic of pursuits, to be sure, but still a lot of fun to write. So, a year later, I hope I have been able to share some of my interests with you, even if they are over things you might not care much about. Essentially, I want my writing to be fun for both me and you. And it’s certainly been fun for me.

Now, the goal will be to keep writing once a month, for as long as I can. Maybe more often, if possible, though I doubt I’ll be able to make it another full year. If I do go another year, that would be great! I imagine the topics will be very much the same as what they have been. I’ve already got some ideas going and some pieces started. And I have my magnum opus already written, but I’m saving that for last.

If you like what you have read so far, I seriously cannot thank you enough for reading them. It means so much to me to hear your comments and critiques. Please continue to read and let me know what you think! Feel free to share my writing with anyone else you think might enjoy them. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Destiny and Fate: The Future of a Franchise

Destiny is a weird game. If possible, the months leading up to its release made it an even weirder one. And it really shouldn’t be. There is nothing so dramatically groundbreaking in Destiny to garner the response it has received. But I think this is what makes it so weird: its adherence to traditional games makes it so non-spectacular compared to the massive amount of anticipation that it originally held. That said, it was a fully competent game, and I had a lot of fun playing it.

The expectations leading up to this game were incomparable. For many people, Destiny was a viable reason to step into the new console generation and purchase a shiny, new Playstation 4 or Xbox One. The reputation as a system-seller was bolstered by the incredible marketing scheme. With a television ad that read something along the lines of: “From the creators of Halo and the team that brought you Call of Duty…” how can a game go wrong? The appeal was there, and everyone seemed excited. When it came out, though, the enthusiasm evaporated like a popped balloon.

This seems due, in part, to the fact that because the game was so anticipated, it simply could not match the hype. Common complaints were that it was not the game consumers were promised. This is a bit unfair, as no one had a very clear grasp about what the game was before its release. This is akin to reading a synopsis and watching a trailer and comparing about the direction of a film. A second complaint was that the game was too repetitive, that the overall content was lacking. This is a little more fair; no one wants to do the same things over and over again. The final complaint is that the game does not really take off until after the main points of the story are finished. This is very fair. Destiny is not the kind of game where a large amount of time needs to be dedicated to truly get the game. It is a game where the player shoots a lot of aliens.

Not to be swayed by the negative critiques, I was still very interested in trying it out. I should first make three very important points to bear in mind which likely affected my experience with the game. First, I played the game on an Xbox 360, an obsolete piece of equipment barely worth a dime. (Just kidding, I still use my 360 a lot and plan to get a few more years out of it.) But it does make me much less qualified to mention how great it looked. Second, I rented the game. I know what you’re thinking: here it is, 2014, and he’s renting games and playing them on outdated consoles. Whatever. I rent a lot of games these days because I’d rather pay $7 than $60. But having a game for only three days does rush the experience and force me to get to the end a lot quicker than I probably would like. Finally, because my time was limited, I never once took the game online to play with or against other users. I payed my $7 to see the campaign, and I was happy with that. That said, I know I missed a quite a bit of content that I will probably never see.

What expectations I had for the actual gameplay, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, I got from the trailer. Reductively, it looked like a fair mix of Halo and Call of Duty. Since Halo is a personal favorite, I was prepared for this type of combat. I was not disappointed; the gameplay was quite fun, as I could only hope from the experienced Bungie team. I had a great time traversing the map and taking out aliens. Getting around a large map was not a hassle, as easy as hopping on a vehicle and driving1. And I should mention that the views were absolutely gorgeous (on my Xbox 360).

Prior to release, a highly emphasized feature of the game was the diversity of the equipment that could be picked up by the player to use. This came across well. While they included possibly too much equipment, it was exciting to pick up a new and better weapon and have to learn how to use it. This learning of new equipment forces the player to be adaptive. Furthermore, characters are continually progressing to a higher level where, obviously, they are better prepared to combat tougher enemies. All of this customization and player growth took a different approach to a modern first person shooter like infusing a bit of Borderlands. This sense of progress was rewarding.

I also found the main mission design to be well made. Following objectives, the player runs through several locations before arriving at a final battle against a large enemy (or large group of enemies). What made the levels great, though, was a feeling of tension not often achieved in an FPS. Hitting the final battle gives a sense of no-turning-back in each level. Playing by myself, there were times when I needed to slow down and work through waves of enemies. Being impossible to rush through made the game feel much more skill based, and finishing a level often brought a sigh of relief.

As I said, I did not even have online access to the game when I started. I did not have the time to invest in getting good at playing against other players, and I just wanted to see the main game anyway. So you can imagine my surprise when I entered the world to find dozens of other players running around with me. I thought something was wrong, but it turned out non-online users could still work together on certain missions, a point that was not made clear to me when I started. As it turned out, this lead to some of the better moments in between missions. Randomly throughout the level, events would emerge that would have to be completed by a group of people: defend this place, take down that enemy. These pseudo-online moments gave me a pleasant reminder of working cooperatively with friends back in school.

While the gameplay was quite good and I had a lot of fun running through the missions, Destiny was certainly not without complaints. For one, the missions, which I commended earlier, were ultimately forgettable. In the moment, they were great; but taken as a whole, they failed to make a satisfying arc. There was a break after each mission, so that there was never a sense of ongoing progress. The missions only linked by their locations. After each mission, the player is given the option to select a new planet or game-type to play. Each mission! Or the player can go back to another world, watch a video cutscene, or replay an old level without knowing if it’s already been completed. While I realize this is to give the option of going out to attain higher levels and be better prepared, jumping back out into space each time completely destroyed the continuity2.

Again, the biggest complaint about the game was that there were not enough new locations to visit. As a result, this did make for some repetitive scenarios. Basically, there were four different locations to explore, three planets and one moon. Divided among ten hours, these four places grow a little stale. The transition to a new planet is certainly a breath of fresh air. Furthermore, if you are in need of some quick powering up, one way to do so is by completing inane extra missions about hunting aliens, collecting materials, or just standing in one area for a few seconds. When these are interspaced with the main missions at each place, it begins to feel like you are doing the same things over and over again, regardless of the change in scenery (which is pretty, on my Xbox 360). All of these side steps supposedly benefit the ongoing story, but they never seemed to ultimately lead to anything substantial.

Not that I think a continuous narrative would have fixed the problem completely. The story was convoluted, yet empty of much meaning. Not for lack of trying, I could not really follow what was going on, and so I did not really care what was happening. Part of what made Halo so great is that the enemies were clearly defined and there was an overarching goal at the end. Not so in Destiny, at least as far as I could tell. Enemies were bland and the goal was unclear. I was surprised to have even finished the game when an option (an option!) to view the credits came on screen after the final mission. From what I’ve read of the story online after finishing the game, it sounds like it will be dealt with better, ahem, in the sequels. One of the cutscenes near the end heavily implied the emergence of a grander villain.

For better or for worse, I found myself wondering if the Destiny franchise is going to be like Assassin’s Creed. The first game in the Assassin’s series was released in 2007 to high hopes for something new. While the game was impressive, people soon complained that the gameplay was repetitive, and that missions or areas were not different enough to be engaging. Looking back now, it is remembered as a fairly weak entry in the series. It was, however, the launchpad for a now-annualized series that certainly has its ups (the excellent Brotherhood) and downs (III). What if Destiny turns out to be the same thing? I, for one, enjoyed the first Assassin’s Creed, but I found the later ones to be much improved. It has already been confirmed that we should expect a decade from this franchise; is it wrong to hope that Bungie will learn from the flaws of Destiny so that 2 and 3 will be something great?

In the end, I really enjoyed my ten or so hours with Destiny. Of course, it is not without its faults, but that happens. It probably did not sell as many new consoles as the developers envisioned. But taken separately from all the superfluous space travel and lackluster story, the gameplay was just fun and the vistas looked amazing (on my Xbox 360). Looking at all of the gameplay options in between levels made me think that maybe this first entry in the series was just trying to do too much. For something with a name like Destiny, we will have to see what the future holds for the franchise.

1 Driving is something that is difficult to pull enough in an otherwise decent video game, apparently. It’s fine in Destiny.
2 Also, jumping out into space made for some long loading movies that looked cool but were tiring after the first dozen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Foxygen, Musical Ambassadors

Earlier this year, Foxygen, the two-piece band from California released their fourth album, ...And Star Power, to generally positive reviews. To be honest, I have not listened to the album enough. I tried it a few times and liked what I heard, but I would not say it was an extraordinarily lasting experience. Again: there was nothing wrong with it, but it did not immediately stand out for me. Listening to it, however, reminded me that their previous album was absolutely incredible.

Released in 2013, the obnoxiously-titled We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is nine tracks that sound like they were lifted out of the previous century. Many reviews state the comparisons between this album and early Velvet Underground albums, statements which are totally valid. At times, singer, Sam France, carries some of the guttural tones reminiscent of Lou Reed with elements of the avant-garde. The Velvet Underground are often cited as one of the most historically influential bands in music, and the results are pleasantly apparent here. I had to continually remind myself that Foxygen was from California, not the New York scene that tends to produce Velvet facsimiles.

There are hints of sixties pop and rock music all over this album, not just from the Velvets. Some songs sound like Beatles; I hear bits of Fleetwood here and there. There has been obvious care to preserve the sounds of classic equipment, for example, in the instrumental track “Bowling Trophies” which serves as the midway point in the album. Even the enigmatic cover looks like something that you could unearth at a used record shop. I hesitate to use the word, “retro,” a meaningless word that has been so bastardized that it is now a smug fashion statement, but the album is truly an honorable evocation of classic pop.

That said, the title of the album may be more accurate than I thought (although still just as troublesome to say aloud). As France howls on the titular track, they are the 21st century. Perhaps their roles as ambassadors is to connect modern music with pop music of the sixties. Not to say we necessarily need more homage to classic pop, but it is welcome when done correctly. Many artists may attempt this link to earlier musical roots, but Foxygen does it quite neatly here.

The positives of this album are not limited only to its resemblance to music of decades past. That makes it seem that this album is unoriginal: not so. Beyond its influences, the album is simply a joy to listen to. Fairly short, it packs a lot into 35 minutes, feeling longer and more full. The sultry “Oh Yeah” is counterpointed by poppy love songs like “San Francisco.” The single, “No Destruction,” is one you can put on repeat. The final three songs create a sort of cerebral trilogy that could function as an EP by themselves. In short, the album is a fine-tuned collection of songs, reverent to decades-old music, but easily enjoyable by today’s listeners.

The production on the music is amazing as well. Throughout the tracks, it is easy to forget that this is a two-man band. Naturally, invaluable backing musicians are impossible to discredit, but the work is mostly done by France and Jonathan Rado. The songs sound full while retaining a sharp, clear tone. From backing strings to electric organs, there is a lot of music to unpack.

Foxygen’s newest album will probably continue to grow on me; in the meantime, Peace & Magic proves a near-perfect example of a classic pop revival. Whether you are a fan of rock music from yesterday or yesteryear, this release will be a pleasure to experience.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On Alan Wake

Anytime Steam rolls out one of its amazing sales on video games, like many people, I browse through and pick up way more than I need. And why not? If you can pick up a title for an incredible 90% off, you would be crazy not to buy it, right? Well, I know I’m not the only one who does this. Spending habits notwithstanding, one such game that I found at this price level was the collection of action/horror games featuring fictional writer, Alan Wake.

I did not know much about the game other than seeing some generally positive reviews upon its original release. The story seemed interesting, and the gameplay sounded different enough to be intriguing. So, when it flicked across my screen (for less than three dollars), I decided to pick it up. It didn’t hurt that I was reading some Stephen King at the time and had recently finished the stunning TV series Twin Peaks. This game seemed like a personal can’t-miss.

At any rate, I bought it, and like so many games from sales, put it away for a later time. That time came one winter night when I decided to install it and sit down with it for an experience. I did it correctly: I waited until it was dark outside, put on headphones, and took it in. I was in for a disappointing time. I played through the first of six episodes at a mind-numbingly slow pace. The enemies were annoying; controls were frustrating. There was a story there, but it was hidden behind too many discouraging battles. I finished the episode and went to bed feeling that I had bought a dud. At least I wasn’t out much.

Several months later, I decided to give it another shot. I had never uninstalled it, because I knew I would never go back to it if I had. And since it was the week before Halloween, and since I am a living stereotype, I thought I would try the survival horror game one more time. I opened it up and--at the risk of sounding like a “casual”--turned the difficulty down from ‘Normal’ to ‘Easy.’ That was exactly what the game needed. Now, I understand the desire to challenge yourself and play through a game on the hardest difficulty. Finishing something like Halo on ‘Legendary’ feels great; but Bioshock or The Last of Us on ‘Normal’ feels just as good. That’s because for a game driven by an engaging story, sometimes minimizing the gameplay is necessary to get to it.

This should not, however, excuse the gameplay. The game makes some innovative choices involving using light as a weapon, but at time even just a few of the simplest enemies were more annoying than they were worth. I did not feel a sense of accomplishment moving from location to location. Instead, I just felt relief that one more part of action was over. This is all too harsh, though. Lowering the difficulty was enough to make it manageable, and I even began to appreciate some of the light-as-weapon mechanics. As you progress, there are even some simple puzzles that need to be solved using various lights to combat the darkness.

But again, this is not a game you play for the action; you play it for the story. It absolutely lived up to the Stephen King-in-Twin Peaks level of anticipation I had pre-determined. The action revolves around the titular Alan Wake, a mystery writer who visits the quaint, mountain town of Bright Falls in order to clear his head and do some writing. The setting of the game is just gorgeous. Even on my four-year-old PC, the sun setting over the mountains looked incredible and added to the sheer scope of the game. But of course, disaster strikes. Wake’s wife is kidnapped, and the town is not as it appeared. To reclaim his wife, Wake must deal with the terrors of the town as well as his own enveloping madness. All of this sounds like clich├ęd horror--and it is--but it actually does work well during the hours you spend in this world. It is not all psychological fear, though. There are some well-placed moments that jump out at you, especially in a dark room with headphones on.

The episodic qualities of the campaign do wonders for the storytelling. Each episode is essentially a self-contained series of scenes that ended with cliffhangers, making it feel like an intense serial story. By the end, I was interested enough to play through the supplementary bonus episodes which I rarely do. While maybe not quite as good as the aforementioned Bioshock or The Last of Us, the story is certainly worth seeing. I was invested in the lead character, and the setting provided the perfect foil to Twin Peaks

As I played through the story over the course of a week, I was actually not surprised by how much I was enjoying it. It was the enjoyment I had originally expected when I purchased it. The first time I tried playing must have just been an anomaly. So, if you have some spare time and care about video games with something interesting to tell, Alan Wake is a good one to start with. Turn the lights out, put on headphones, and enjoy the vacation to Bright Falls.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On LeBron James

I have absolutely nothing to add to this discussion that has not already been said. But I think this just speaks to the fascination of this story: every single sports outlet has covered this to such an extent that every conceivable facet has basically been mentioned. From owner Dan Gilbert’s flight to Miami investigated by Internet sleuths to LeBron’s hairline (or lack thereof), everyone--not just NBA fans or even sports fans--has a bizarre interest in this story. So, while I have nothing new to say, I just think it bears reminding just how big this saga has been. In a sports world dominated by unbelievable happenings, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to call this the biggest sports story of the decade.

Everyone already knows the facts. Arguably the best active player in professional basketball follows the trail of money to South Beach, Florida, leaving his home city of Cleveland behind. In a heinous series of decisions that came across as tremendously arrogant, James went from being well-liked to a character of pure villainy to Ohio and most of the surrounding region. When things got tired in Florida, he picked up and announced he was returning home four years later, and sentiments of vitriol turned immediately to bliss. As highly reductive as possible, that is basically what happened. But like I said, you do not have to follow basketball at all to have been aware of this.

When it was becoming more and more apparent that LeBron was returning to Cleveland, my friend and I discussed the moves over breakfast. We tried to come up with some accurate analogy to describe the events, and it is honestly impossible without delving into the world of fiction. Comparing this to another situation in sports simply cannot be done. My friend offered the suggestion of Brett Favre. A face of the organization (check) leaving a city who adored him (check) to play for a rival team after a series of terrible choices (check). This is a good example, but it does not come close to the scale of James. For the state of Wisconsin, it’s easy to forgive Favre when you inherit a top-tier replacement quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and win a Super Bowl three seasons after Favre’s departure. When LeBron left, he took with him all hope from the Cavaliers organization.

Another viable comparison is Albert Pujols leaving the St. Louis Cardinals to join the Los Angeles Angels. Another similar story, franchise player and one of the best hitters in the league sees more money available in another town and leaves a successful team behind to a general sense of resentment. But like the Packers, did not stay down for long, replacing Pujols with Carlos Beltran and returning to the postseason the following year and the World Series the year after that. By no means were the Cardinals left in disaster. After five straight seasons in the playoffs, the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers managed a .311 win percentage without James.

The disaster in Cleveland was not limited to just basketball; the city was nearly riotous. Gone was the probability that Cleveland would receive a major sports championship since 1964. James jerseys were infamously burned. Dan Gilbert made some extremely regrettable comments, which childishly claimed that Cleveland would be more successful in LeBron’s absence. Even if someone in Ohio in 2011 did not follow basketball, they certainly felt the effects.

As much damage as he did in leaving the city, coming back had the exact opposite effect. When James finally did announce his return, the response was incredible. All of the media coverage was so positive--his apologetic letter and patching up with Gilbert--that it looked like he did everything right. I predicted it would not take long for Cavs fans to forgive and forget, but it happened much quicker than anyone expected. The joy in the city was palpable in every video shown of people cheering and crying and hugging in the streets. Watching season tickets sales sell out immediately. Even the “Wine and Gold” scrimmage attracted 17,000 screaming visitors, after four years of the arena barely filling 80% capacity. LeBron means so much more to this region than just basketball.

As the 2014-2015 NBA season is dawning later this month, many people say that LeBron is the only story they really care about this year. The sense of goodwill towards the man, the team, and the city is totally overwhelming. Even as an outsider, I find myself rooting for Cleveland sports, as long as they are not across Lake Erie in Detroit. The fact that LeBron did not shock the world and opt to play for the Pistons notwithstanding, I could not be more pleased with his return to the Cavaliers. With one move, he undid a lot of the mess he caused. Along with everyone else, I will eagerly watch him play what will probably be his final years in Cleveland. Let a new era of the King begin.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Ideal Smash Mouth Setlist

When I was 10, the biggest band in the world (or at least my life) was Smash Mouth. I, like so many other ten-year-olds, saw Shrek, and judging from the ultra-catchy singles (“I’m A Believer” and the ubiquitous “All Star”) Smash Mouth was the coolest band ever. I was stunned to find that “I’m A Believer” was a cover and immediately disregarded the original, without even listening to it. I went out to buy Astro Lounge and when I found it sold out, picked up their self-titled third album instead1, which inevitably became my 2001 album of the year. Promptly, I did my music report in 5th grade band class on Smash Mouth. It was established: Smash Mouth would be my favorite band forever.

Fast forward ten years. I went to college, probably having not listened to Smash Mouth since junior high. I thought those days were over. Then, I accidentally hear them again. It was probably All Star; like I said, that song is everywhere. This led to me listening to [then all existing] five of their albums in a row, a conversation with a friend, and a misguided Myspace message to the guitarist. I began to feel badly because no one was taking Smash Mouth seriously anymore. It sparked something in me that was tongue-in-cheek at first and then something I had to do. I had to create an ultimate live setlist, a perfect night with the band.

I set about putting together songs in the optimum order. Believe me: this is not the first iteration of this listing. I have rearranged this several times until I was happy with it2. Every song has been carefully considered and has a reason for being there. I included the right mix of hits and deep cuts--as well as some fan service to me with some of my favorites. Think of this as a reunion tour set, two hours of the best of Smash Mouth. My goal was for this to be played at a party and really get people thinking. I’m not sure that ever happened, but all the same, I am nothing but proud of the final product.

Let me set the figurative stage, as it were: we are in an eclectic outdoor venue just outside of San Jose. The ocean is only a block away. Rain has been threatening all day, but the skies have cleared in the last few hours. There is a gorgeous sun setting red over the beach. There is no opening act; it’s all about Smash Mouth this evening. The lineup is the four original members. Steve Harwell is singing. The late Kevin Coleman (RIP) is on drums. Paul De Lisle has the bass. Greg Camp is playing guitar. I imagine some great Fush Yu Mang-era banter from the band. The band is supposed to take the stage at 9:00, but it’s now about quarter after. Just when the tension could be no higher, a dull roar rises from the front of the crowd. Steve walks on-stage to thunderous applause and wipes a few tears from his eyes. The rest of the band fills in behind him. This is it, the moment thousands of people have been waiting for. The band is in place; fans are going crazy; and they launch into:

“Holiday in My Head” I’m a big fan of bands opening with tracks that are also opening album tracks. And this one establishes what everyone already knows. Smash Mouth is the biggest summer band of the decade. Everyone is smiling. The band is having fun, and the audience is, of course, responding.

“Everyday Superhero” Within ten minutes, everyone in the audience knows this will be a fun show. By the time the chorus hits, everyone is fist pumping to the sky in pure excitement.

“Hang On” This flows directly from the last song, continuing the good feelings. Although it is from a lesser-known album, people still groove to the music.

“The In Set” As Steve banters a bit with the crowd and the rest of the band, stagehands drag out an elaborate mixing station. This is followed shortly by a sound technician wearing a black T-shirt and a backwards ballcap. Adjusting levels and turning knobs, the pre-recorded intro fuzzes into the venue. The band takes off on this little known number from their self-titled. Fans dance wildly, and there is an extra loud cheer at the words, “It’s no secret this is our big show!”

“Magic” As the chants continue, rapper, J. Dash walks on stage with a second microphone. Some fans are knowingly aware of what’s coming. To promote their newest album, Smash heads into the first and only single. More recent fans for whom Magic is influential gold, sing along to every word, even Dash’s rap.

“So Insane” Here it is only five songs into the set and a group of fans have formed a mosh pit near the front of the stage. It’s about par for the course with this song. Steve knows it, and much to the chagrin of security, encourages a fan on stage, typifying the art of being “so insane.”

“Then the Morning Comes” Possibly the group’s next-most famous song. One that everyone can surely sing along with. And they do. Blue lights dance across the screens at the back of the stage.

“Diggin’ Your Scene” Smash closes out this mini, two-song Astro Lounge jaunt with what is probably the best song on the album. As opposed to the previous song, this is clearly for the fans who have been with them since the beginning. The dirty guitars and explosive drums have everyone jumping. Some people are puzzling through the enigmatic, yet existential “Tell me why we’re all gluttons for pain.”

“Sister Psychic” (I’ll admit that this song is fan service for me. But do listen to it.) Some of the older fans can’t believe it. What a weird addition to an already great setlist. While it weeds out some of the bandwagon fans, everyone respects the song.

“You Are My Number One” Even though Get the Picture? is Smash Mouth’s sixth best album, they still need to play a few songs from the album for the sake of inclusion. But as good as the show has been so far, fans are more than willing to put up with it. And honestly, a mediocre Smash Mouth song is never really bad.

“Walkin’ on the Sun” The opening bars of this song elicit the biggest cheer as of yet. They have waited ten songs to play something from their first album. And what a number it is. One of the biggest hits of their career, they show off a bit, taking some wild, but effective departures from the studio version. This includes some banter and a lot of clapping, all over the emblematic bass line.

“Story of My Life” Still marketing the unfortunately under-published and underrated album, Summer Girl, the band works through this lead single. People respect the song, of course, but it is situated between two staples, to say the least. The reaction is middling compared to the preceding and proceeding numbers.

“All Star” Their most famous song off their most quintessential album. Some fans who thought they would never see it live are crying, and everyone--everyone--is singing along with every word.

“Stoned” By this point, the edgier fans remembering their hardcore days are thrilled. A deep cut from Astro Lounge, the stage is bathed in a purple glow and the venue is instantly a bit more relaxed.

“Pacific Coast Party” Once again, the band re-engages the party mode after the last laidback few minutes. People eat it up.

“Hot” Maybe you remember this fittingly-titled song from a Hot Wheels commercial? Either way, fans seem to love it. It appears another mosh pit has developed just off the right side of the stage.

“Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” This cover exemplifies the sultry side of Smash Mouth. Too cool to be sleazy, the band looks on as thousands of young women swoon under their appeal. In fact, this is probably wherein lies the bridge between Smash Mouth and the Beach Boys. Listen close around 1:30, if you don’t believe me.

“The Fonz” If you haven’t heard this song, seriously go listen to it. It rocks pretty hard. And the rest of the crowd knows it.

“Come On, Come On” Quite the dance-y hit. Everywhere you look, folks are air-drumming and yelling and jumping. Truly “another day in the sun / I’m having fun.”

“She Turns Me On” It’s clear now that Smash is just unleashing a frenzy of rocking songs, clearly gearing up these last half dozen for the finale. Nothing but thousands of people jumping and waving fists during this song.

“Flippin’ Out” J. Dash emerges for one more song. Taking center stage, just next to Steve, Dash spits a blistering rap. Younger fans love it, while old fans see the new age of Smash Mouth and nod appreciatively.

“I Just Wanna See” A song about youth. Fans who have been around since Astro Lounge light up and sing along, still remembering every word to the chorus. As the song ends, Kevin and Paul politely stand and wave to the crowd, who is riled up from this rendition. They exit to the left of the stage, and the lights dim to a soft red. Spotlights focus in on two stools that stagehands have swiftly brought out. Steve and Greg settle into the stools.

“Right Side, Wrong Bed” This is the best song Greg Camp has ever written, and subsequently, the reason I tried to send him a message on Myspace. For this version, it’s just Steve and Greg on stage. Greg has a neat acoustic guitar, and he looks reverently at Steve, who croons the words. The song fades out, and both men rise and wave, tears in their eyes. The applause is deafening. They walk off stage to chants: “Steve! Steve! Steve! Greg! Greg! Greg!” The lights dim completely.

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” After four full minutes, lights slowly fade up again. Cheers mount to a dull roar. The band re-takes their positions. Words cannot describe the emotions during the pseudo-ska intro. Quickly, they whirl into the fast-paced song about peace and love. The audience could not be happier.

“I’m A Believer” I know what you are thinking--another cover?! That’s right, but these are the two covers that they are most known for, and they get the already exhausted crowd dancing and singing along.

“Road Man” Everywhere, fans in the crowd are turning and looking at each other. They can’t believe it! A classic call-and-response, guaranteed to send people home happy. The crowd joins arms and begins to sway together as one. The band takes advantage of this song and jams for ten minutes, showcasing their respective talents. Some people hold back tears, but most are just overcome with joy. As the lights come back up, fans storm out to the parking lot, all abuzz, talking about the display they have just seen. As cars start to drive out, you point out a true fan, windows down, blaring The East Bay Sessions. You make eye contact with this person and nod knowingly, to which he smiles and nods back. What a magical night.

*     *     *

Of course, this evening exists only in my imagination. But, doesn’t it just sound like a dream come true?

Now, almost fifteen years later, my musical tastes have shifted slightly. I would say my tastes are now much broader. I mean, Smash Mouth still channel that “summer fun” spirit of the early Beach Boys3. Alas, they did not remain my favorite band all these years later. And that’s okay. Obviously, I’d be more concerned if my tastes didn’t change from when I was ten. But I still listen to Smash Mouth once in a while, if only to remember my childhood4.

Some people obsess over their favorite bands and create new tracklistings of albums or unreleased tracks, claiming that listening to them in a different order is integral to understanding. I think that’s great. That’s essentially what I did with this setlist, which I have worked and reworked a couple times now. I suggest putting these songs in this order on your iTunes and listening through (only pausing for the encore, of course). You will find they are special. It really kicks a weekend off well. Maybe one day I’ll sit down and add some fake crowd sounds to my setlist. But probably not because that would sound like garbage.

And to the band: thanks, guys, and keep the summer party alive.

1 I found Astro Lounge soon after. The trouble was finding Fush Yu Mang. Because of that pesky parental advisory sticker, I had to get it from a seedy pawnshop when I was 14.
2 It was also updated at the release of the newest album, which came out when this was still a work in progress.
3 In fact, why did they cover the Monkees and not the Beach Boys? I have a theory that Smash Mouth was right with the Beach Boys until 1967. Pet Sounds was the jumping off point for them; after that, they were just too experimental.
4 Can you believe the band is over twenty years old now? They seem to never age.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Challenging the Game

The game of baseball has changed. This cannot be more obvious or overstated. Now it seems that, for every other player, the third baseman is playing behind second base1. Batters are fundamentally changing their swings; pitchers altering their windups. Some of these changes are purely situational as players adapt to the countless hours of film they have watched in preparation for the game. These changes are teams improving themselves, employing miniscule touches to gain advantages. Science creeps ever further into the sport. The most drastic change, however, is not about using strategy to better play the game. Instead, it is an attempt to manipulate plays that have just occurred. By far, the most blatant change is actually a brand new rule: the addition of the instant replay.

If you don’t follow baseball closely or just don’t fully understand the new rule (like me), here is a brief overview. It is a bit hard to follow. Like in football, each manager can use one challenge per game and earn another if the first is successful. These challenges can be used on a variety of plays. The types of plays are primarily (nearly 75%) close plays on the basepaths--whether or not a runner beat a throw or slid under a tag. After the seventh inning, managers lose their ability to challenge, and umpires decide if a play is able to be reviewed. Reviewable plays are watched by an official team of umpires in New York, in a situation probably not unlike NASA headquarters in Apollo 13. A call is then confirmed or, following “indisputable evidence,” overturned.

At the All-Star break, there had been 723 challenges, 599 of which were called by teams, the other 124 brought about by umpires. Of these seven hundred challenges, an astounding 48% were overturned. But I think the more important question--and the one that is harder to answer--how many of these challenges directly affected the outcome of the game?

Certainly, there are some plays that need to be reviewed. Major League Baseball has considered this; home runs are automatically inspected. But I have seen plays in the first inning, where a runner is thrown out trying to potentially steal second base. A year ago, would a manager consider taking the field to yell about such a call and prolong the inning? Probably not. I completely understand the logic that ‘every out counts in a baseball game’ and that runs can be scored with two outs, just as easily as they can be scored with none. But at what point does it seem overzealous to challenge a call so early in the game?

In an age when baseball seems to be slipping in popularity compared to other major sports, a constant complaint is that the game takes too long. Of the major sports, it is the only one that does not have a clock. Games probably average around three hours. But sometimes they finish 45 minutes early or hang on an hour late. People posit all kinds of fixes ranging from ridiculous to weird (two outs instead of three, seven innings instead of nine, etc.) All of these changes would definitely shorten playtime but at the cost of sacrificing integral parts of the game. But instead of making an effort to quicken the game, instant replay adds valuable time where, to an observer’s point of view, nothing is really happening

Originally intended to be 60-90 seconds long, some replays last as long as four minutes. Meanwhile, announcers have to invent new remarks to make about the same play they have already watched several times without commenting on the obviously long wait time. Unless the play decides a run scored, fans quickly lose interest after seeing the play themselves a few times. Not to mention the toll it takes on the players, notably the pitcher. After being constantly involved in the game, players are suddenly taken out of the moment. After particularly inane breaks, pitchers are allowed to continue throwing to keep themselves warm. Causing such a delay almost seems like an elaborate form of ‘icing the kicker.’

Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like a baseball purist, the instant replay takes away from the authority of the umpires. Before video evidence, umpires were the ultimate deciders of the outcome, for better or for worse. Managers could leave the comforts of their dugouts to get in the face of an umpire after a controversial call (an event which hardly ever takes place anymore), but by doing so, they’d be stepping out of their realm and into that of the umpire. I would love to see how former Braves manager and recent Hall-of-Fame inductee, Bobby Cox would behave under these new rules2. Now, the higher powers in New York watching every tape have the superiority. Every time a call is overturned, it highlights the imperfections of close judgement calls, imperfections which were always a classic part of the game. Sure, calls were missed from time to time. But these calls went in both directions. In a sport with, arguably, the most number of statistics determined by close plays, it was comforting that the umpires were right there, getting most calls correct. Now we have to rely on precise, but faceless analysts in New York.

I’m sure baseball could use some modernization. And I’m sure instant replay is a step in the right direction. I just don’t think this move is totally right. Perhaps the situation could be remedied to specifying when a manager could use their right (for instance, if a play directly results in a run). The instant replay is just too noticeable of a break that jars the pace of the game to a halt. It’s disrupting for the announcers, the players, and the fans. I hope someone who knows how to fix it agrees.

1 Relatively new in baseball, or at least more common, is shifting the infield on a batter. It involves making one side of the infield vulnerable by putting most of the fielders on the other side. Formerly done by certain teams only to the most prominent hitters who pulled the ball nearly every time to the right or left side, now just about every team seems to use this strategy. It all comes down to watching video and looking at statistics. I find this to be a fascinating and positive change for baseball.
2 Cox holds the record for most ejections from a game. With the new rules, this will probably be his record forever.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Am I Doing Here?

Now that I’ve been haphazardly posting for a few months, I should take the time to mention why I’m doing what I’m doing. I realized in the last few years that I really enjoyed writing, but writing for class was not the most engaging way to expand your thoughts. In course papers, you are always more pigeonholed than you think. So, for awhile I had been wanting to write more about things that interested me, and I figured maybe some of these things would interest other people. I got to thinking about subjects and thought that they might be fun to put into words.

Growing up, I developed some specific reading tastes. I was obsessed with Hunter S. Thompson, and read through nearly all of his works. Chuck Klosterman was hugely popular in my area, and he became an interest. Like many people, I turned first to the last page in Sports Illustrated to read Rick Reilly before I read the rest of the magazine. Elements of all of these writers are blatantly obvious in my writing. And I hope for that to be somewhat of an homage.

I spend a lot of time on the Internet. As I jump around from Grantland to Stereogum to IGN to ESPN’s Page Two, I realized that with all of the creative work I was reading and viewing, I would love to give some back. Trust me, this is far less noble than I just made it sound. I only felt that I could do something similar just to add it to the mix. The more I read, the more creative thoughts I came up, and the Internet is an easy place to display creativity. I realize this sounds conceited, but listen: I definitely did not say any of my writing was good. Hopefully the writing will get better over time. For now, I am only writing for fun and sharing what I come up with in case anyone else finds it interesting.

When casting around for a title for this blog, I realized that I really did not have a core theme to these writings. After explaining this to a friend, she said it made some sense. These writings are merely passions of mine that I wanted to share with anyone who was interested. That’s how I came up with the title: a general collection of diverse interests. And that is what I will continue to do. I am no expert in any one thing. In fact, you might know more about these subjects than me. But there are a few subjects I care about: music, literature, games, sports. When something interests me, I’ll try to put it into words. It’s just more fun that way.

So what to expect from me if you follow my writings? My goal is to put something new out every month or so. Reviews are easy; hypotheticals are fun. I’ll probably do a bit of both. If my current subject does not interest you, I’m sorry. The next one will probably be different. If you enjoyed one piece of writing, then I could not be more thrilled! I’m just looking to share some ideas. I can only hope they are as much fun to read as they are to write. Thanks.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Truck No. 722626

OCTOBER 1980… The clock struck 9:30, and the alarm began to buzz. Mann leaned over to grab a cigarette, pausing to shut off the alarm on the way back. Exhausted, he rubbed his eyes before sitting up. Another night, he thought grimly.

Patrick Mann stepped across his meager, but comfortable apartment to the bay window and raised the blinds. Not much seemed to be happening. The sun had just set over the monstrous skyscrapers of Midweigh, leaving the sky in a dark blue haze. The lights of the buildings made the city seem even more expansive. It always looked less intimidating from this level, forty stories above, looking down into the dark streets below. It still looked like a maze, to be sure, but it was much more terrifying turning each corner and not knowing what to expect. He thought of the thousands of other people looking down on the city, at the same time. They just do not know how hard it is, he told himself. But Mann knew what to expect when he left for work every night. He had a job to do, and he did it well. He’d lived in the city his entire life, after all.

He stepped out onto the street and headed towards the garbage plant, opening and subsequently consuming a greasy breakfast burrito along the way. Four months on the job had adjusted his daily habits, and he had gotten used to taking his meals at different times. But still he missed his other routines that were interrupted by taking this job of driving the night garbage truck. It’s only temporary--as he lit a second cigarette, his mind flashed back to the conversation with his younger sister the previous week. 

“But what if it’s not, Pat? You’re twenty-five years old. What kind of life is driving a garbage truck at night?” his sister, Pam, begged. It seemed every time the two of them shared a meal lately, the subject inevitably turned to his working life. Tonight they were sitting in Pam’s kitchen. Pam was showing off some of her prints from her sophomore art school class when the topic turned to work.

“I’ll make it work. This is only temporary until I can find something better,” Patrick replied. “Besides, it’s not actually that bad. If you make a game out of it, it can be fun.”

“Oh, how can you say that?” Pam cried. “Do you know how you sound? You sound like you’re stuck in a rut, and now you’re making excuses for it.”

Patrick thought for a moment. “Don’t worry about me, Miss. I’ll be okay.”

As these words faded from his mind, Mann looked up to realize he was at the plant.
* * *

“722626, again?” muttered the foreman at the plant, as Mann stepped up in line. Mann nodded. He did not know why, but he had grown attached to the garbage truck. Others complained that it did not handle well, that it was slow to turn, but he found it a comfort. “Problem with the user,” he would always say to those who questioned his choice.

His job was actually incredibly simple. As much as he did not want to admit it to Pam, he had actually begun to enjoy it. Not that he could see himself doing it for a long time, but now it seemed like a bit of a pastime. Every employee took responsibility for one area of blocks. Shifts rotated in three eight-hour cycles. There was no time built in for a meal, but he was allowed to bring snacks in the truck for a boost of energy. In an effort to offset his quick and unhealthy meals, he typically brought fruit such as cherries, oranges, or apples. Starting from the plant, he wound the streets of his district picking up trash as he went along.

The amount of trash in the city was truly remarkable. It always stunned him that with all the technological advancements of the day, they could not find a better way to dispose of garbage. Nearly every corner he turned, every few steps, there was another pile of junk. The most baffling part was that he never actually seemed to finish his district. Just when he thought he had gotten every bit of it, he would find more. If he drove long enough, he even found trash in places he knew he had already picked up. Mann did not have a personal route that he took every time; instead, he took inefficient paths down side streets. It did not matter as long as he stayed in his district. And, as long as he was picking up trash. That was the important thing.

Throughout his life, he had truly begun to appreciate the intricacies of the Midweigh streets. They were always winding, with few entrances or exits. But Mann had learned some shortcuts, sometimes even by accident. One night, he took a left turn that he had not taken before. It led to a tunnel that was nearly invisible. As he later found out, it was even difficult to spot from the vantage point of his apartment. Following the tunnel, he emerged in an area completely different from where he started. Or so he thought. He had never really bothered to find out exactly where it went.

The only true danger to his job were the bandits. An eerie, roving troupe, they seemed to glow a faint, pale blue in the dim street lights. “Ghosts,” he and the other drivers called them. He knew there could never actually be more than a half dozen at a time, but they appeared around any corner without the slightest forewarning. Different gangs of them patrolled the different blocks like turfs. They moved somewhat unpredictably:  sometimes he would encounter an individual rogue, other times they would stack up in a group. Worse yet, there was really no defense against them. If one approached, drivers were forced to turn their truck around immediately and continue on a different route.

Drivers were not caught often, but still there were horrific accidents. If a driver got too careless in his work, he could easily find himself trapped by three or four of the bandits in a dark corner. When this happened, hope was lost. Supposedly, the bandits suppress a stranded driver, raid the truck for everything of worth, and finally inject the driver with a unknown venom. Even if a cure was discovered, the alleyways in which the bandits attack are so desperately bare that no one could be saved in time. Postmortem analysis indicates that death occurs in a matter of minutes. When a driver failed to report back at the end of his shift, it was the duty of the next shift to locate the body and notify management. They were a vicious, godless group.
* * *
Mann sipped softly on his second cup of black coffee and smoked another cigarette. He was almost six hours through his shift and taking a small, but well-deserved break. He had had a good night, making several tours of his block. He had picked up a lot of garbage, on pace to have his best night yet. As an added incentive to keep them working, his pay was based in part on his results. He found that turning it into a game, competing against himself, made the night hours pass easier.

He finished his cup of coffee, throwing it into the back of his truck. As he did so, a rat leaped out of the nearest dumpster and hit the ground. He drew in his breath sharply. In this neighborhood, the slightest sound was enough to cause a spark of fear. Seeing it was only a rat, he laughed softly and got into his truck.

Starting up, he continued down the street, ready for his seventh pass through the streets. As he expected, trash was left in neat little piles equidistant apart on the side of the street. How can these people go through this much garbage? he thought. It truly was disgusting. 

Finishing the block he made a sharp right, taking a route that he knew had no exits. One could only go straight through--or turn around. It was better to get these areas clear when the night was quiet. If anything caught him back here, he could get into trouble in a hurry. He was proficient enough to turn around on a dime, assuming the robbers had not followed from behind. He made the full turn around the corner. Nothing there; he’d made it. He made a left onto the longest straightaway in his department.

Mann peered through his dirty windshield down the long, orange-lit street, half-expecting some action. It was not uncommon for him to see the thieves a few times a night, but tonight, they seemed less active. He had seen one near the beginning of his shift and what looked like a pair moving towards him later, flickering through the dim streets. A simple turn and they were not seen again. Still, it had been a fairly dull night.

As he looked, sure enough, he could distinguish a bluish shape scuttling towards him. Feeling the familiar flutter of anxiety, he eased into the next alley. Instantly, he spotted another bandit, distinctly orange, much closer. Mann swore loudly. Just like that, his heretofore quiet night had become a trial. 

Performing a finely-executed reversal, he returned to the straightaway, sneaking a quick glance at the oncoming thief. It was closer, much closer than he had expected. Further down the street, he saw in his rearview mirror, the two of them joining together in their approach. Not a problem, he thought, in an attempt to calm his racing heart. Just stay ahead of them. Don’t let them get me into a one-way street. Looking at his gas gauge, he evaluated that he had enough to get back to the plant for the night. He had never experienced two of the creatures this determined to get to him. Better to just head back to the plant, take his losses, and go home early. His supervisors would understand completely.

That’s when he heard the hiss and felt his truck grind to a halt.

What the hell?! he thought frantically. He took a mental calculation of his truck, his trusty truck, knowing that nothing should be out of date. Depressing the pedal, the engine revved, but the axle made a horrible wrenching sound. He had no choice but to exit the vehicle.

He took a quick inventory of what he saw. The bastards had put a hole in the rear left tire, rendering it unusable. Unbelievable! They had been known to carry guns for some time now, but he had never heard of them actually using them. No drivers had ever been found with gunshot wounds; the only known video recording of a mugging showed them using guns to threaten. Any time a gunshot was even heard, news reports had never linked the bandits to the event. At any rate, he had to move now. 

Choosing to stay inside the truck would be suicidal. Any truck that had been attacked in the past probably lasted all of twenty minutes, from the looks of their wrecked returns. No, he had only one choice: flee. He dashed away from his truck, previously his only protection against these things. Now he really had to use his wits to make it back to the plant. He crouched behind a pile of trash twenty meters away to take in his surroundings. Fortunately, he was not completely lost and could find his way back, although his preferred route home was currently blocked by two menaces.

He looked back, saving one last hope that they would stop at his truck only and disperse when they were through. It was a longshot, but a possibility. He had no idea how these things reacted when a driver was not in the truck. For all he knew, it had never happened before. He was in totally new territory.

They slowed as they approached the truck. Flitting about, one ransacked the back of the truck while the other checked the cab. At once, they both stopped. So it was true, they were not going to stop at the truck if he was not in it. Turning towards his direction, the one that he had taken for blue made a horrendous shriek, the likes of which he had never heard. Probably, no one had ever heard. No one still living, at least. Mann’s blood chilled.

He sprinted away from the pile as fast as he possibly could. He knew now that he could not stop running. Surely the two were following him. Risking one more look, he could see they were even closer. Whether it was his sleep-dulled perception or agitated imagination, Mann swore they were moving quicker. He’d heard rumors that they moved quicker later in the night. Hadn’t he? No, he could not afford to spook himself now. Not at a time like this.

He turned the corner and saw another bandit, this one with a reddish hue, coming at him down the straightaway. Darting into a side street, he took a quick evaluation of his surroundings. There were two following from one direction with a third joining pursuit. It took a second glance at the nearest sign to realize where he was: the mysterious tunnel he had discovered a few months back. Although, he had taken it before, he could not explain it. He had no idea where the other end came out, only that it felt like another district. Nor could he tell who was on the other side waiting for him. So far he had seen three bandits; how many did that leave? Would they know about the tunnel and anticipate his movements? He had no choice. They really were moving more rapidly now, he was sure of it.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the tunnel.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ziggy & Melody

In 1971, one of the most influential artists in French rock history came to London to record an album that would define his long career. A year later, also in London, the founder of glam rock produced what is possibly his most famous album in an equally illustrious career. Now, decades later, the two albums have stood the test of time and are remembered as some of the best of the 1970s.

All in all, David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg have a lot in common. Both men were European artists who had enormously prolific and lengthy careers. The two were most active and at their bests in the 1970s and 80s. Both were hugely influential on the future of glam rock and post-punk. I’m almost positive Bowie was listening Gainsbourg’s 1971 masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, when he made his 1972 classic, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I just wonder how much, if at all, the two stellar contemporaries affected each other.

The two albums themselves have a lot of similarities. For both albums, a heavy load of music is contained in a short time. One could listen to both albums in just over an hour: Ziggy Stardust clocks in under forty minutes while Melody Nelson does not even break thirty. That said, the music fits incredibly well into the short play-time. They are very much intended to be listened to in one sitting. Both are known as concept albums, however ridiculous their stories become. In fact, the albums inspired short films based on their concepts. Furthermore, the lead characters in the two albums’ stories are loosely based on the singers themselves. If you have not heard either of these albums, or it’s just been a while, I suggest listening to them in conjunction, one after the other. They are both incredible.

Conceptually, the albums are a bit absurd. In Melody Nelson, after (literally) running into a young American woman with his Rolls Royce, the narrator seduces her, and the two fall in love. Their romance, while meaningful, is largely physical in nature. The man falls for her white pants and red hair, and the relationship culminates with a night in a hotel. Then, in a disastrous turn of events, Melody dies in an airplane crash on her return to America, the ultimate end of their tragic relationship.

Ziggy Stardust is equally implausible, but for different reasons. The story focuses on a sexually ambiguous rock star using the approaching end of the world as a way to highlight current problems. This social commentary turns the character into a sort of a messiah figure. The sense of finality comes with the death of Ziggy as the world continues to rush toward its impending doom.

Stories aside, it is the musical influence of the two albums that continue their relevance today. With Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg paints the images with his soothing voice, always spoken-word, over an ecstatic blend of instruments. The album is bookended with two 7-minute epics that detail the entire extent of the relationship. At times, the music sounds full and surrounding, guitar that could be found in the best rock albums; other times, the bass and light percussion creates a minimalist tone. It is no surprise that the album inspired a wide range of artists in the future. Bowie displays the precursor of metal with a blend of psychedelic on Ziggy Stardust. Like Gainsbourg, the blend of explosive hard rock and light orchestral background is evident here as well. Bowie’s voice, sharper and harsher than Gainsbourg’s, creates the title character as he yells Ziggy’s idealist points of view.

Perhaps the biggest similarity between the two albums was their effects on the artists. For two songwriters who were already relatively well established in the music industry, these productions altered their careers. Histoire de Melody Nelson changed Serge Gainsbourg from a jazz and pop musician to a rock star. Unfortunately Gainsbourg could never truly recapture the spirit of this album and did not make another great rock album. He made several albums, including forays into other genres, but none were as recognized as this one.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars catapulted David Bowie after a successful run of several previous albums. It was a musical departure from his previous works and a leap into new styles. His second release on a new, major label, Ziggy Stardust brought his earlier albums out of obscurity. Unlike Gainsbourg, Bowie continued a successful career, making even better albums as he went along. Low might not have even been possible without Ziggy Stardust. And I’d like to think that Ziggy Stardust owes a bit to Melody Nelson.

If nothing else, the two albums share a clear sense of an unexpected rise and eventual fall. In an ideal universe, the deceased fictional characters, Ziggy and Melody, are together forever, holding hands in the afterlife.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Breaking Through to the Other Side

After a recent discussion with a friend, I made a personal claim that I have never before considered, but in retrospect, seems totally accurate. We were talking about music, specifically what was important to us and why. What artist or album meant so much to us that it stayed with us for life. After throwing out all of the common responses, I came to my choice. I had never thought about it too much, but without much second-guessing, it was obvious. The band who has had the biggest affect on my musical interests was The Doors. Typically, I hesitate to speak in superlatives, but in this case, I have no qualms claiming The Doors as the most influential musicians on my life.

When I was a freshman in high school, of course I still had a very youthful sense of music. I still do, but at least then, I was all over the top-40 radio hits, pretty much exclusively. Then, in the summer before my sophomore year, I became good friends with a senior on the cross country team. We had always been friends, but during that year, he and I started driving around, just talking about and listening to music. At one point, he asked me something along the lines of, “If I could be in any band, who would it be?” I forget what inane response I had, but he firmly answered, The Doors. I expressed some interest, and he seemed surprised that I could not have already experienced this band. Promptly the next day at school, he showed up with three CDs: Waiting for the Sun, L.A. Woman, and The Soft Parade.

I took these three home and immediately put them on. My first listen was Waiting for the Sun. I remember being shocked that The Doors did “Hello, I Love You.” I knew that song! But I had always thought it was some little one-hit band. How could I have been so wrong? Overall, I liked the album, so I went on to the next one. L.A. Woman was pretty cool, too. So, I finished my friend’s three CDs with a listen to The Soft Parade. I thought it was neat until I got to the last song on the album, the titular “Soft Parade.” At that point, I was blown away. I probably listened to that song several times in a row--and it’s over eight minutes long. Immediately, I made copies of all three of the CDs. I was hooked.

For the first few days of my following with The Doors, I only had access to these three albums. So, I became very familiar with them. Some songs astounded me and became my favorites. I was stunned by the immense sadness of “Hyacinth House.” The opening arpeggios on “Spanish Caravan” were purposely reminiscent of what I thought a market would sound like in Spain. “Not to Touch the Earth” was misleading and haunting, almost tribal. And still “The Soft Parade” was becoming my favorite song off my favorite album.

Over the following weeks, I was determined to get the three missing albums. It didn’t take me long to find the self-titled debut album, and I was just as impressed. The first half of that album is one great song after another. The second half appropriately ends with “The End,” an incredible epic forever immortalized by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Next, I found Morrison Hotel, which struck me as their most jazz-oriented record. The last album I tracked down was Strange Days, their follow up to their debut. This album continued the trend of having long, terrific closing songs seen on four of their albums.

By this point, my listening had become an obsession. It came at a perfect time, too: in 2007, all six studio albums got the remastered treatment. Eagerly, I collected them. For weeks, I was listening to nothing but Doors’ music, seemingly without tiring of it. Since my car only had a cassette player (this was 2007, after all), I used a Doors’ greatest hits tape that I picked up for a quarter. More live videos and rarities could easily be found online. There are many excellent books about the band, and I read them all (including Jim’s poetry). I borrowed the Oliver Stone film from the same friend and watched it several times. Using a classical guitar, I committed to learning as many songs as possible. Jim Morrison even lead me to a few of my now-favorite authors, like Jack Kerouac and Aldous Huxley. Over this period of months, my obsession with The Doors did not change my personality; but they definitely broadened it.

Musically, I think The Doors are nearly without comparison. Like fellow Californian contemporaries, The Beach Boys, there is a level of complexity in the music that does not sound like it could be made by only four people. Even listening today, I hear new parts of songs that I have never heard before. It is almost impossible to pick out each and every strand of music in the songs. They sound advanced, well ahead of their time. Drummer, John Densmore, highlights his jazz influences. The talented Robby Krieger showed his rock prowess on the guitar. Ray Manzarek blended the two in his parts on the organ. And there was no bassist! How many other popular rock bands can boast success without a bassist? Finally, there was Jim Morrison. His gruff, yet soothing voice is one of the best in American music.

I could not say when the obsession began to fade. It could not have lasted longer than six months. But I can say I have never before had a more continuous and complete phase with a band. I entered with a childish appreciation for music in general and emerged on the other side loving different music that I still treasure today. Although I have not gone back to them as often as I have with other bands, I can still go back to any one of their six main studio albums (before Morrison’s death) and it will cause an impression on me. The Doors are responsible for changing my musical views, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Universe for a Generation

Think about the console video game world in 1997. Although fans of Sony’s Playstation enjoyed core releases Final Fantasy VII and Gran Turismo, which ultimately became the system’s bestselling games, Sony was not a major video game entity until the Playstation 2 in 2000. Likewise, Microsoft’s Xbox would not be available for another four years. Sega saw the coming decline of its console career with the Saturn, released one final successful system, the Dreamcast, the following year, and essentially became the software developer we know of today. That left the gaming behemoth, Nintendo.

By far, Nintendo passed the 1990s as the most successful corporation in gaming. Since the mid-1980s, Nintendo had established itself as the most popular family gaming company. In 1997, the Nintendo had three successful platforms selling effectively--the newer, slimmer Super Nintendo, the updated Game Boy Pocket, and the immensely popular Nintendo 64--with arrival of the Game Boy Color in the queue. It is safe to say no other gaming company could compete with Nintendo, especially in handheld systems.

What could Nintendo possibly do to better themselves? The two best-selling franchises for the corporation were, and still are, the Mario series and the Pokemon series. In 2006, games involving Mario had sold over 185 million copies; Pokemon, 106 million copies. Since then, considering the releases of new consoles and new handhelds, these numbers have skyrocketed even higher.

The sheer amount of these games sold deserves a closer look, though. It may first appear that Mario games simply outsold Pokemon games by some 80 million copies. Keep in mind, however, that Pokemon games hit the market in 1996, fifteen years after Mario premiered in Donkey Kong in 1981, ten years after the release of Super Mario Bros. in 1985. At that rate, the Pokemon franchise sold quicker, moving almost one and a half times as many units per year than Mario. Furthermore, the Pokemon series was limited by the fact that it was sold almost solely on handheld games. Mario had the advantage of having hit games on every console--including handhelds. 

It would seem, then, there was one last project that would seal Nintendo as the greatest video game company in history:  create a Pokemon game for a console.

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Before we begin, let me just say that I have no technical understanding of a Nintendo 64 video game. None. It might have been totally impossible to create a game of such scale on a cartridge. Maybe the random encounters would have been too much for the system to handle. It is possible the region of Kanto would have been severely compromised by the technical limitations of the machine. And I can accept that. But I can dream, right?1

Of course, some Pokemon games were released on the N64, although they were “Pokemon” by name only. They were more just scaled down certain aspects of the original games. (Anyone up for some Pokemon Puzzle League?) And Snap was fun for plenty of reasons other than its adherence to the Pokemon universe. Having the sprawling region was probably possible on later consoles, but I’m really only concerned here with the late 1990s.

Another factor that I’m choosing not to take into consideration is the financial possibilities of the project. Maybe it was just not feasible to put a development team on such a massive undertaking. Or perhaps no one could have predicted the popularity of Pokemon at that time that it should have merited a full-scale world, causing publishers to back down. I’m no economics student, but when I look at the numbers retrospectively, I think Pokemon 64 (as I’ve affectionately taken to calling it) would have made a lot of money. That’s my expert opinion.

At any rate, here’s what I would have liked. Imagine Ash Ketchum rolling out of bed late, missing an appointment with one Professor Oak, only to be embarrassed by your mother while you get stuck with an annoyingly cute electric mouse. Sound familiar? As you know, this was the start of the anime series. An effective origin, but one that was lost in the original games for the Game Boy. The beginning to the Red/Blue amounts to little more than being gifted a free Pokemon for wandering into grass. Now imagine yourself playing as this character in a fully colored, three dimensional world.

In my mind, I have an image sort of like the beginning to Ocarina of Time. Even the story is somewhat similar for the first few minutes: lazy boy has to run around Kokiri Forest/Pallet Town equipping the tools necessary to set out on a long and arduous journey. After the opening trials, you, the player, would be off. Remember “That Moment” when you first walk out onto the sprawling Hyrule Field as the music soars? It could have been the same in Kanto.

I realize at this point it just sound like a fanboy’s wishful thinking for the impossible. But it’s true! This hypothetical game has such unbelievable potential, and so far, nothing seems out of the realm of possibility. In this analogy, Pokemon Red/Blue would be the series’ equivalent to Link’s Awakening.2 Assume an alternate universe in which a three-dimensional Zelda game was never made but Pokemon 64 existed. You could just as easily make the argument the opposite direction. And who wants to live in a world without a 3D Zelda game?

Onto the actual gameplay. Specifically: random encounters and turn based battles. Random encounters had been around for several years (Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, etc.), but were still relatively new to 3D games. One reason the random encounters worked so well in Red/Blue was the fact that there were certain areas where you could expect to find encounters and certain areas where they were not possible. This could easily work in a 3D game. I can almost transpose it in my mind. If I close my eyes, I can picture my TV screen displaying Ash running through grass and the screen freezing and flashing, signalling a random encounter. 

Another quality I liked about the Pokemon series was the fact that areas were limited to smaller sizes. It was kind of necessary to account for the handheld devices. The game had the feel of a large world, but not an open world. I would like to think that if ported to a console, the size of the area would increase slightly, though not too much. Sure, it would be exhausting to traverse such a large area without some sort of boundaries, so there could even be a system for fast travel, for when your Pidgeotto learns Fly. Why not?

Finally, there was the turn-based battle system. The core mechanic to every Pokemon game (or any JRPG, for that matter) was the alternating style of attack and defense. Fortunately, this part was already done! Pokemon Stadium, which actually showed up on the Nintendo 64 twice, featured such battle arenas as its main game.3 Long battles--however intense--bordered on tedious in Red/Blue, yet it was enough to make two entire games on the Nintendo 64. Logically, that should prove how profitable the fictional Pokemon 64 could have been.

I don’t know. Maybe the game would have been terrible. Maybe it would have ruined the franchise. I mean, the early 3D Castlevania games weren’t great. But when I think of the list of successes (Super Mario World to Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong Country to Donkey Kong 64, Super Metroid to Metroid Prime, etc.), I can’t help but wonder. If you’re interested enough, you can find mods that effectively run the game I’ve imagined on your computer. They seem to be quite popular, too. But they just can’t recapture the nostalgia.

1 Also noticeably absent is a Metroid game for the Nintendo 64. What happened between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime? Oh well. That’s a different question for a different day.
2 To be clear: many people, myself included, think Link’s Awakening was an excellent game.
3 And some really bitchin’ mini-games!