Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Invincible Moment of Clarity

Invincible, if you don't know, is a superhero comic published by Image and written by Robert Kirkman. Invincible is Mark Grayson, the son of the world's greatest superhero, who inherits his dad's powers and sets out to fight crime. I've been reading the entire run and now, at 110 issues in, I'm seriously considering whether I want to keep reading.

When Mark first put on the tights the tone of the book was optimistic, practically Silver Age. Over time, bad things happened to people, and people did bad things, but the book did maintain a sense of humor and a joy in superheroics that made it fun to read. But then things just kept getting darker and darker, and the fun moments grew further and further apart.

Issue 110 is pretty devastating for the main character on multiple levels, which I'm not going to discuss because A. SPOILERS and B. the details aren't important to my point. Suffice to say it crosses a pretty big line the series hasn't crossed before, which is saying something in a book where this happened:

Our hero headbutts a man to death.

Which did not give me a lot of pause, strangely enough. But I finished reading 110 this evening, and when I put it down I thought to myself: "Do I really want to keep reading this series?"

Technically there's nothing wrong with the writing, let me make that clear right now. Kirkman's treating superheroes honestly and the dialogue is always spot on. Kudos to the man.

What bothers me is twofold: one, the book has gotten so dark that I have trouble enjoying maybe half the issues I read, and two, the central conflict of the series has gotten so muddied that I can't see an end in sight. Mark's spent most of the series preparing the fight the alien Viltrumite Empire, and


at this point he's basically won. The Viltrumites are vanquished and under new management, Earth is as safe as it ever gets and who cares if everything goes to shit in a thousand years? The only central conflict left seems to be whether Mark himself will go bad, and well FACEPLANT! I don't mind dark moments if they're escalating towards a resolution, but a bloody slog to nowhere in particular is not something I enjoy.

I should note that Kirkman is also the author of The Walking Dead, which has been running for about as long as Invincible and catches similar accusations of getting unreadably bleak. But The Walking Dead is a damn zombie series, it's supposed to go that way. I jumped onto Invincible and read it this long because it showed the happy fun side of being a superhero. Now it leans more towards the Happy Fun Ball side of being a superhero.

I'll probably read at least the next issue, because - like I said! - Kirkman's got me wanting to know what happens next. But I can't help wondering why.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How I Met Your Mother's Ending Works


I'm seeing a lot of Twitter and blog disgust for the finale to How I Met Your Mother, so I just wanted to get my thoughts about it down before they got all scattered.

Contention: As a series How I Met Your Mother is structurally and narratively sound, and ends the way it needed to end.

First, let's go back to the beginning. How I Met Your Mother (hereforth HIMYM) is a romantic comedy. That's a love story where the main couple gets together at the end of it. And the very first episode established Ted and Robin as the main couple. So, much like on Friends with Ross and Rachel, they were going to get together at the end, Mother or no Mother.

"But aren't Ted and the Mother the main couple?" you ask. No, because narratively that sucks. You're asking the audience to root for two characters to get together where one of them hasn't appeared on the show until the final act. Name me a romantic comedy where that works!

No, it's Ted and Robin, and the point of the show is to get the two of them to a place where they work together. At the start of the series Ted's need is for a grand love story and a stable, loving family, while Robin's need is for a successful career. They might love each other, but the two of them can't meet each other's needs, so the relationship can't work.

HIMYM spends a lot of time getting Ted and The Mother together - of course! - but The Mother is a quirky, enjoyable, and ultimately two-dimensional character. She's Ted's ideal woman, and that's about it. Her purpose in the story is not to be the romantic lead, but to fulfill the needs Ted has that Robin can't meet.

Of course to get Ted and Robin together, that means the Mother has to go. And because Ted's the ultimate romantic, that means she has to die. Which is very Woman in Refrigerators, but a divorce doesn't fit Ted's character and it doesn't meet his needs. The great love stories don't end in divorce. And once Ted's lived the great love story, there's nothing holding him apart from Robin.

As to Robin: the show makes us think that her and Barney work together, but they don't meet each other's needs either. Barney might play the man of the world, but he's a lifetime New Yorker whose needs all come down to his issues with his father. He didn't have a father growing up, so he spends the show consciously wanting a father and unconsciously wanting to be a father, usually expressing that need by appointing himself Ted's mentor. Robin is attractive to Barney as a female "bro", but she doesn't meet his needs.

And Barney certainly doesn't meet Robin's needs. Primarily that's success in her career, but she also has a need for a stable family - something she didn't have growing up. But she can't admit that need to herself, and for most of the show uses The Gang to meet it. It's not until Robin becomes successful and the Gang falls apart that she can admit what she actually wants, and it's at that point that Ted becomes a valid romantic partner for her.

So Ted and Robin get together the only way they could: at 40, when they're both unattached, after they've both met the needs that kept them apart.

Does that make for a good finale? I liked it, for what it's worth. It didn't "wow" me, but it had solid moments and I thought it worked for the show. It certainly topped Seinfeld, and I liked it a lot more than I liked Friends at the end. And if Ted, Robin and Barney didn't work for you, Marshall and Lily remained a solid traditional love story from start to finish.

Overall I think the show's going to be memorable for its humor, its insane timeline and structure, and a hell of a lot of touching moments. And the finale isn't going to ruin that. If you liked it, fine; if you didn't, give it a while and see if it works better on the rewatch. And if you still don't like it, you can never watch it again and the rest of the show will hold up.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Twin Kiss

My latest publishing credit (ho ho) is a letter to the editor of the Maryland Independent, quoted down below. This was written per request of my dad, who's been using the Bel Alton post office for as long as I've been alive.

I remember riding there in his truck to pick up the mail when I was in elementary school. The building is very small, practically one room, painted white on the outside. It's just down the road from some railroad tracks and one of John Wilkes Booth's hideouts. Inside the post office is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling brass boxes, except for one wall that's a counter to pick up packages.

I'd walk in with my dad and watch him open the box to get the mail. To me the box was really high up and my dad was a giant. If someone he knew was there they'd stop and shoot the shit for a little bit. Someone was there more often than not.

That post office is closing, because of some fuck up with the lease and the fact that the United States Postal Service is always looking to streamline and save money.

Up 301 from Bel Alton is La Plata. Nobody in Maryland can pick out Bel Alton on a map unless they live there, but La Plata is known to some, being near Waldorf which practically everyone knows. There was a little diner there - I want to say it was Danny's - with these wonderful bar stools upholstered in green bean green that spun in place. They made delicious meatball subs that I ate all the time, until I nearly choked on one, and terrific crispy french fries.

A hurricane blew through La Plata while I was away at college and wrecked a lot of the buildings along 301. All of them came back; a lot of them came back different. I'm not sure that was the actual death knell for Danny's, but it's gone now.

Between Bel Alton and La Plata there was a restaurant called Twin Kiss. Maybe soda shop is the best term for it. It was a red brick building, distinctive. One half was black-speckled white tables and chairs and a counter to the kitchen where you could order burger and fries - it's the only place I know of that would serve crinkle-cut fries and make them work. There were arcade machines too, Galaga and Pac-Man and for a while a Simpsons arcade machine, which back then was premium gaming. The other half, past a line of tables near the windows, had a different counter that served soft ice cream twisted up high on a cone, with sprinkles if you liked. You could even drive up to a window to pick up your treat, or sit on the benches outside and watch the cars drive by.

Twin Kiss endures, despite changing owners and names and styles fifty times over. Something in the place refuses to die. It's the Texas Ribs & BBQ now, the crinkle cut fries are most likely gone, but they still proudly serve Twin Kiss ice cream to passerby and presidents alike.

I don't make it back to Charles County very often, usually only to see family for the holidays. A lot has changed over the years, a lot has gone. But there's something comforting in knowing I can go home and get a tall cone of soft ice cream, even today.

Postal service needs a solid plan 
When I was a child, I went with my father to the Bel Alton post office to pick up our mail. We lived well off the beaten path, where delivery wasn’t an option. I’d watch my dad collect our letters and chat with whomever else might be there. It was a good place for members of the community to keep in touch. 
Now the post office is closing, for no apparent reason, and customers like my father are being left in the lurch. Will they be able to get a post office box at the La Plata branch? Will they have to change their addresses? No one seems to have answers. 
If the U.S. Postal Service can’t keep the Bel Alton office’s current building open, there are alternative locations. Couldn’t it rent room at Bel Alton’s school? The building has space available. Wouldn’t it be better to keep a local community center open, at the very least until there’s a solid plan to replace it?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why The World Needs Nintendo To Survive

If you're a regular reader of this blog then thank you! Also this post is wildly off-topic but hey, still writing.

Video game blogs and journalists have been making a lot of hay over Nintendo's awful sales figures over the past year. The Wii U is not selling and crazy good sales of the 3DS aren't enough to pick up the slack. The venerable company's war chest, once flush with Wii cash, has been badly hit and the sharks smell blood in the water. People are talking about Nintendo reorganizing, maybe following Sega's lead and becoming a company that just makes games for more successful platforms.

To which I say, fuck off! If you think Nintendo should become some hired gun developer for Apple or the XBone then you're failing to understand Nintendo or the games industry at all.

Listen: Nintendo is not a floundering console maker. It is, and always has been, the driving force of innovation in the console industry. Losing Nintendo would be the greatest blow video games could suffer, and would doom gamers to a dark age we haven't seen since the collapse of Atari.

I know that look. Don't go. The crazy man has wisdom to share...

Think back on the recent history of consoles developed by other companies. The XBox, the XBox 360 and the XBox One. The Playstation 2, 3 and 4.

They're not really all that innovative, are they? (The naming systems certainly aren't.) I mean yes, better graphics, okay, but we're practically at photorealism now and it's not resulting in better games. Call of Duty Battlefield Madden Halo NBA Killzone Jam 2014 is going to come out and you'll be able to see the vascular systems of the plants you're running past while lobbing yet another grenade at that spawn camper who won't leave you alone. But that's a gameplay experience we've had for over a decade and nothing much is changing, even though a new game keeps coming out in all these series once, twice, or three times a year.

And the consoles themselves, from a pure gaming perspective, are pretty well locked down. You have a controller you hold in both hands. There is a D-pad, four buttons, two analog joysticks, shoulder buttons, and a Start and Select button. That's been true for three hardware generations now.

Meanwhile Nintendo went out and made the Wii, and people laughed at them until they played the thing and realized how much fun waving a little stick with buttons on could be. Sure the graphics weren't next-gen, but Nintendo put out games that did things that you could not do on any other console. Microsoft's Kinect is, I'm sorry to say, a solid idea that's been implemented as a bad joke twice now, and I'm not sure anybody ever bothered doing anything significant with the Playstation Move. The Wii became a must-have console because it was a new experience, it was enjoyable for hard-core gamers and casual gamers alike, and the developers focused on making the games fun.

Fast-forward, and people are laughing at the Wii U, admittedly with better cause. The graphics are now two generations behind the curve, the new gamepad hasn't caught on in the popular imagination, and Nintendo's not doing itself any favors by putting its third party developers through hell, and releasing the kickass games it's known for a year after the console came out. At this point the Wii U may be a legitimate, unrecoverable flop.

But, look, it's still an innovative flop. The idea of being able to tap a button on your controller, move the game on your television to a screen on the controller, and keep playing while your spouse watches Downton Abbey is a pretty damn good one. So good, in fact, that Sony outright stole it for the Playstation Vita.

And it's not like Nintendo completely punted on this generation. The 3DS, Nintendo's handheld, was the top-selling console last year, has a killer game library, and beats the pants off the competition for price.

I've heard certain people poo-poo the 3DS, saying that the mobile phone/tablet market has made it obsolete. These people are on crack. Taking a look at my iPad, I've got Plants vs Zombies 2, fifty versions of Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and some ports from the fucking Nintendo DS, the last-gen handheld. The rest of the games on the app store are... well, not worthless, but you absolutely get what you pay for, and sometimes not even that. Don't get me started on the grand mal fuckup that is Final Fantasy VI.

Phones and tablets are fine for casual games, but they don't offer anything beyond that except maybe the occasional port from last-gen or earlier Nintendo consoles. (And yeah, it's generally Nintendo, and yeah, that's not an accident.) And frankly, touch screen controls are shit if you want to do any sort of active gaming, up to and including just moving someone around a screen in real time.

And the 3DS... let me offer an anecdote. It spoils the beginning of Bravely Default, so skip this paragraph if you're concerned. I turned the game, the hot new Square Enix RPG, on, and was told to show it an AR card. That stands for Augmented Reality. I didn't have the card, so I put the console on a flat surface as told and waited. The screen used the built-in camera to show me my kitchen. A jewel appeared and floated up, out of sight. I picked up the 3DS and moved it around until I could see the crystal in my screen again - keep in mind the damn thing appears to be floating in my kitchen. Then there's a flash and this girl, this 3D girl, is standing in my fucking kitchen. She walks around, bemoaning the end of the world and begging me for help, until the floor of my kitchen cracks open and she falls in, screaming. At which point the actual game starts, because that's just the first three minutes!

Every phone and tablet has the potential to do this and not one game has tried it. I can't stress enough that the 3DS blew my mind without breaking a sweat by using the available tech to do something completely insane. Apple and Google aren't even close.

And for innovation that's true all around. Sony hardware can push pixels like nobody's business, but they rely on third-party game developers to take advantage of that and they sure as hell don't like to experiment with the controls too much. Microsoft tries to innovate and spits out things like the Kinect and Windows 8 - kudos for trying, but the shit doesn't work. Apple was innovative with Steve Jobs at the helm, but now he's gone and they seem stuck iterating minor improvements to the hardware and software they have - much like Google, unless Glass takes a massive leap forward. All the smartphone players are locked into form factors that are suboptimal for gaming - at the very least you need a standardized controller if you want developers to get serious, and nobody is biting.

Nintendo's the only company that can regularly produce innovative gaming products, because they're the only game company in the mix. Making a game console does not make you a game company, and Sony, Microsoft, Google and Apple all make their main profits elsewhere. Nintendo, on the other hand, just makes games and hardware to play games on, and they have perfected this over decades of excellence.

Nintendo's problems now come from a lot of things. The graphics curve is a biggie, because it's not profitable for third-party developers to backport their games to two-generation-old hardware. That means the Wii U is missing out on a lot of popular games. And then there's Nintendo's self-inflicted wounds from their release schedule, their failure to cope with networked, social multiplayer effectively, and some frankly horrendous marketing in the past few years. (Do you know what a 2DS is? Have you seen one? And are you even aware the Wii U isn't just an upgraded Wii?)

What is not fucking them up is innovation, and that's why Nintendo can't dare go the way of Sega. Nintendo makes excellent games because they know their own hardware and they know exactly how to get the most fun out of it. Trying to port even the classic Mario games to every goofy-ass mobile and console platform that comes out would dilute the quality of the games to the point where it's hardly worth the effort. Can you imagine playing Mario with a touchscreen? And God help us if Nintendo were to try licensing out their intellectual property again.

Please, no.
And beyond Nintendo's fate as a company, their contributions to the gaming industry in general are legendary, essential, and continue to this day. We can't afford to lose them because they are, so often, at the forefront of the best gaming can be. Without them, it won't be long before we fall into a stagnant pool of rich multimedia set top devices that offer subscription services to football league and military simulator channels, accompanied by high pixel density tablets that, very occasionally, play puzzle games.

God help us all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blatant Nintendo Advertising

This is the Nintendo 3DS. I got one (the XL version) from my wife for Christmas. It is the single greatest device a new parent gamer can own. Let me tell you why.

The 3DS is small, but not too small, and the XL version is a solid size without being too large. You can carry them both in your pocket easily, and you can hold one up and play it well enough even if you have, say, an infant sleeping on your chest.

The 3DS flips closed, which makes it durable. Cracking the screen is a mean feat. Odds are good your infant will not sneeze, spit or vomit on your 3DS screen, and he can gum it with relative impunity.

The 3DS is one of the cheapest game systems on the market, even the high end versions. The games are all cheaper than console games, by at least $20. Even game downloads can be had cheaply if you catch the right sale.

The 3DS was built from the ground up to deal with interruptions. For any game, you can flip the 3DS closed and it will pause. Flip it open and you can start playing again - easy as that. If you don't get back to it for a few days, the battery will probably still be fine. Standby mode is awesome and needs to be a thing on every system possible.

The 3DS has a switch to turn the 3D effect off. If you like 3D, more power to you.

The 3DS has a ton of games in all genres. If you don't like them, it also plays all the old DS games. If you don't like those, you can download classic Nintendo games. You will not lack for games to play.

So needless to say, I'm enamored with my new game system. Having a handheld lets me take advantage of Ben's naps to game without booting my wife off the television when she's trying to wind down after a work night. And the games are pretty sweet. Here's what I've played so far:

Super Mario 3D Land: I'm not sure I really have to explain why a main Mario game is awesome, but imagine Super Mario 64, updated and improved in every way, and set up for classic Mario levels, and you'll get a pretty good idea why I'm already in World 7 on this one.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: The classic A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo was one of my favorite Zelda games. This one has all the same charm and gameplay, and adds in challenging  puzzles and dungeons for a completely new experience. I'm already in the "Dark" world, and I can't even describe the twists they've put in there without spoiling things.

Shin Megami Tensei: I honestly downloaded this because A. it's supposedly one of the best RPGs on the 3DS, and B. it was $20 off the list price (and still is until tomorrow), even compared to Amazon. Hard to pass that sort of deal up. I've been too busy with Mario and Zelda to get very far into it, but it's looking good so far. Update: Oh my God this really is Atlus hard!

Bravely Default (demo): I'm not sure how to Brave or Default yet, but Square put a hell of a lot of effort into the demo, making an entirely separate quest line from the main game that gives you some advantages when it comes out. I'll be exploring this demo in more depth over the next couple of weeks to decide if I'll play the actual game.

Fire Emblem: Awakening (demo): This actually seems like a pretty sweet strategy game, based on the demo. The controls and actions aren't overcomplicated, but the relationship function between your units promises loads of complicated strategy trickery. On my list to pick up later.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies: Pretty sweet game, with a strong sense of humor and an interesting (if completely unrealistic) legal mechanic. I'll be picking this up when I have a free slot.

That's the good stuff. There are a few other demos I've tried, but they haven't been great:

Super Mario Dream Team (demo): I immediately glom onto Mario RPGs, and never finish them. The demo for this one demonstrated funky controls involving controlling Mario and Luigi at the same time, so no thanks. I might try out the Paper Mario game later if the price is right.

Resident Evil Revelations (demo): I tried the demo for this on the XBox 360 and the 3DS, and gave it a pass both times. The weird squid monster enemies (no zombies!) and tacked on gimmicks threw me off. I watched a video playthrough of the game and I'm satisfied with that.

Project X Zone (demo): The total opposite of Fire Emblem. It should be crazy awesome and full of Capcom characters I love, but the actual gameplay in the demo makes no sense and doesn't interest me and the Capcom characters I either don't recognize or don't care about, except Ken and Ryu. Kind of disappointing. Also why is the demo limited to only five plays?

2 Fast 4 Gnomez (demo): A running game. Go right, collect socks. I could download 50 versions of this same game on my phone. No thanks.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (demo): Apparently an attempt to make a 2D Castlevania game with the 3D engine, characters, and requirement to hit enemies way too many times to kill them. I outright hated playing this well before I found out a Belmont can take fall damage so no, I won't be picking this up.

And there are other games I'd like to play, but I'm determined to keep myself in check until I've finished the ones I have. Which includes a playthrough of the Final Fantasy IV remake for the DS.

So if I say on this blog this year that I don't have time to write? Blatant lies.

*runs off to scribble down notes on a little girl's spooky best friend*

*and play Zelda*