Monday, December 31, 2018

VGM Highlights - December 2018

Welcome to the December 2018 edition of my VGM Highlights. Why dilly-dally, let's kick things off at once before this month comes to an end!

I'm going to start things off with a track from the Rhythm & Pixels podcast and their 15-9 episode titled "Medical Music". These guys have made it their mission to always provide you with surprising topics and it's always as fun to hear what they come up with that relates to the theme. It's safe to say it's impossible to guess, except that Ristar will be in there somewhere (Rhythm & Pixels inside-joke). It's a great way to discover new music and new games to check out. In this episode they play a tune called "Persuade the Flame" from the game Lifesigns: Surgical Unit, which is just about the 200th game on their show I had never heard about. It has a great tempo and beat, and I would so not want to perform surgery to this. But dance, oh yeah, I can dance to this.

Next up is a track from the very first episode of the VGMBassy podcast, "Echoes of Ecco" which is all about the Ecco the Dolphin series. This whole episode is amazing and helped me completely revamp my view of the Ecco-series. I couldn't recommend it more, so go listen to it. Ecco The Dolphin also has a really great ambient soundtrack, and I am a sucker for great ambient soundtracks (hello Super Metroid). This one is one of the first you come across (both in the game and in the podcast). It's just so haunting and creepy. It really sets the mood that something has gone terribly wrong.

My next track is from the Nerd Noise Radio podcast which is one of the few commentator-free VGM podcasts I listen to. This provides you with a full episode of just music around a theme, with no talking (well, a little bit of talking at the beginning and end). Sometimes that is all you want and need. Interestingly enough this episode (episode 15) played a tune from Ecco the Dolphin as well, and what is probably my favourite one - the Undercaves. But the tune I want to highlight is a completely different one, called "Hardcore Combat" from the game Vay. It just has exactly that 90's techno beat that I am absolutely in love with and I just can't stop listening to this. It's a blast the speakers kind of moment here and I get Streets of Rage and Mortal Kombat-vibes from it. What more do you need?

Last but not least I have two honorable mentions; 

In The Battle Bards ep 121 (about Myst Online), Syl mentions the soundtrack to a game called Pit People. It's not technically what the episode is about but I can't not mention an electro swing soundtrack when I hear it.

Secondly is the Episode 57 "Commodore 64 in the 21st Century" episode from Forever Sound Version. It reminded me how great the Commodore 64 sounds and I have no idea why I don't listen to more of that. Well, consider that rectified. The whole episode is a great listen and I would like to link to some of my favourite tunes but unfortunately I can't find any youtube/other easily linkable format to so. So instead I am going to link you to the High Voltage SID Collection homepage where you can dig up your own SID chip treasure.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Zinn's New Years Wrap Up - A Look Back At 2018

The year is coming to a close and it is time to do what a lot of people do at this time of year, prepare for the new year by taking a look back at the old one. First of all, I hope you all had a great year. What with how the world looks right now things might feel gloomy, but let's leave that for a bit and focus on a world that usually only brings us joy - that of culture. In this post I thought I'd take a look at some of my favourite gaming, watching and reading experiences of 2018.

The Books
Let's start with the reading ones.

The Expanse Series by James S.A Corey
This was the year I discovered The Expanse by James S.A Corey. People, I think my mom mainly, had nagged me into checking out this series on Netflix. It took me quite a while to get around to it anyway, simply because I am not really a series-watching kind of person. But once I did, holeymoley was I hooked. The Expanse has pretty much everything I ever wanted from a tv-series; big space ships, drama that keeps you on the edge, great characters that you care about, big space ships... I was absolutely devastated to learn that it had been cancelled but then I also learned that the series was based on books and I could just read those instead of sit and cry over no more Expanse on Netflix. Said and done, I quickly bought the first six books in the Expanse series and yes, they are also awesome.

I love every character except the main one actually.

Interestingly enough, I actually think the tv-series is better, but we're talking awesome with a topping of awesome here, the book series is absolutely amazing as well. The tv series expands and changes a couple of things that I feel make certain parts more coherent. They add and remove characters here and there but in essence it is extremely faithful. They've even changed some of the main characters, some because of necessity like Naomi Nagata's long body frame, and some because I don't know like Amos not being a middle aged bald guy. But I actually prefer the way it is in the tv-series, which might simply come down to the fact that I watched it before I read it.

Either way, the books are absolute must-reads if you have even the slightest interest in science fiction. Without spoiling anything, I was worried after book three that the story was taking a path in the wrong direction, but I am currently on book four and things are still just as interesting as ever.

The Martian by Andy Weir
As we're on the topic of science fiction, another really great book I read this year was Andy Weir's "The Martian". It was one of those books where I thought it couldn't be as good as everyone said it was, but it really is. After I had read it I also watched the movie, which yet again is extremely faithful to the source material, but actually cuts out two or three quite important incidents so if you liked the movie I can really recommend reading the book. Poor Mark actually gets through even more shit there.

The Way to Hudson Bay. The Life and Times of Jens Munk by Thorkild Hansen
As we're on the topic of exploration then (see how great I am at segwaying?), a third book I really enjoyed this year was a thrift shop find. When I buy books in thrift shop I go 80% by the cover, and considering that I have been quite lucky with my finds, I often find books I end up really enjoying. This was a book called "The Way to Hudson Bay. The Life and Times of Jens Munk" by Thorkild Hansen, a Danish author. Jens Munk really existed in around the year 1600, and this is a telling of his life as he tries to find the Northwest Passage. I have something of a fascination for Arctic and Antarctic exploration as it was done back in the day, and the way people dared to face those extreme dangers for the sake of curiosity (and probably a lot of fame). In many ways it is very analog to space exploration, because back then these regions were as alien as things got.

The Mother by Pearl S Buck
As we're on the topic of people facing hardship and adversity, a fourth book I really enjoyed was "The Mother" by Pearl S Buck. Last year I went around to my grandpas to bring home a couple of boxes of books from my late grandmas. She loved reading just as much as me and I was curious to see what kind of literature she enjoyed. Most, if not all, is in German so it had the added benefit of getting me to practice that while also feeling like I was sharing something with a person I hold extremely dearly. From my book haul I can tell my grandma liked stories set in the East, and I remember she used to tell me she liked traveling there. The Mother is about a mother in an unnamed asian country and the hardship she faces together with her family living and farming in the country side in the early 1900's. It's got a very subdued and matter-of-factly sadness to it, it doesn't try to tug on any heartstrings but simply states it the way it was. It's enough for me to feel extremely blessed to live the life I live now.

Apelsinflickan by Lena Kallenberg
As we're on the topic of the life of women back in the day, my fifth and final book I am going to mention is "Apelsinflickan" by Lena Kallenberg. As far as I know this doesn't have a translation into any other language, but Apelsinflickan means "the Orange Girl" and was a term for prostitutes in late 1800's Stockholm. Apparently, walking around with an orange in your hand was a signal to men on the lookout. I read this already back when I was a teenager in high-school and loved it then. This year I decided to hunt it down, buy it and reread it to see if I still liked it as much. And I did. The characters are great and you feel like you're right there with them. You can really get a sense of how trapped and reliant on a benevolent man to take care of you a woman really could be back then (and a reminder that this is still reality for many women around the world). I don't know what I enjoy so much about reading about people whose lives pretty much suck, but maybe I just like to have the reminder that my life right here and now is great in so many, many ways.

The Movies
I keep track of which movies I've seen and when through IMDB, and it's clear that it would be impossible for me to properly judge how long ago it was since I saw something without it. When I look at the list and see movies I watched in early 2018 I could've sworn it was only a couple of months ago, like The Shallows. Overall, 2018 has been a pretty bad movie year for me unfortunately, with few movies seen that I really enjoyed and some were quite disappointing, like Black Panther.

There were a couple of good ones though;

Dirty Ho (1976/79)
Despite its name it's not what you probably think. Dirty Ho is the somewhat unfortunate English title of Lan Tou He, a Chinese martial arts movie from 1976 (or 79, it's a bit unclear). I like martial arts movies, and many of the best ones are from the 70's and 80's. Dirty Ho is the main protagonist who gets employed by a mysterious man to protect him from assassins. What we as viewers know, but Dirty Ho doesn't, is that the mysterious man is actually a prince, fully fledged in martial arts. To hide his identity from Ho and others around him, the prince often must use his martial arts covertly, for instance by using the body of another person, and so a lot of really cool fighting scenes play out. I can definitely recommend it if you have an interest in these kind of movies. It's both funny and well choreographed and the premise is quite clever.

Doom (2005)
Most movies based of video games are not very good. Some times the artistic licenses taken don't end up well, but some times I think they do. Resident Evil (only the first one!) is an example of where I think it works (and I am a huge RE fan) and Doom is another one. I had seen this before but couldn't remember anything about it. When I read that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Karl Urban were in it, I decided it required a rewatch. And it's actually not that bad. Johnson even plays a bad guy, so that's pretty fun to watch. Maybe it was weighed down by the expectations from the license, but as a horror-action movie it's quite entertaining.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
I had very low expectations when I went to watch this movie, because for some reason super hero movies just don't seem to jive with me. I didn't like the first Avengers, nor Black Panther, thought Dr Strange was fairly boring... In fact I think the only super hero movies I've seen so far that I liked were the X-Men ones. So why did I go see this movie you might wonder? Hope, I guess. And good thing I did too because this one hits all the nails. While I think it does require some previous knowledge of the MCU (and that makes sense given the story of the movie) this one gets the epic tone right and feels worthwhile. Characters get to use their powers properly and for the first time in a long time I actually cared. And that ending... it has me pretty hyped for what's to come.

The Invisible Man (1933) & The Mummy (1932)
I love old timey movies, and old timey horror movies are probably my favourite kind of old timey movies (also a nice way for me to substitute the fact that I am too squeamish for modern horror movies). The Invisible Man and the Mummy are classics for a reason, and half the reason I enjoy them so much is just because I marvel at the technical work. In Invisible Man they manage to make a whole lot of things move around as if worked by an invisible person, solely through practical effects. I love practical effects.

In the Mummy I simply enjoy
the way of the story telling, the way scenes are allowed to linger and take their time, and there isn't incessant cutting and editing everywhere. Watching old timey movies make me feel all cozy, even when they're about mummies and invisible men killing people.

The Games
I don't know if I managed to finish more games than I usually do this year, but it sure feels like it. And a lot of them were really good too. Here are my top picks;

Tales of Phantasia (GBA)
I had played a bit of the fan translated ROM way back in my teens and thought ToF was quite fun. Back then I gave pretty much every RPG I could get my hands on a couple of hours of my time, and almost never finished them, ToF was no different. It kept nagging in the back of my head though, having made more of an impression on me than many of the other RPG's I had tried, not to mention that the Tales of-series kept growing and piquing my interest. Since the SNES version was never released in Europe I got the GBA version a while back and finished the game this year. I loved it! Probably one of the best RPG's I've played in fact, with great characters, a story that keeps you entertained and an awesome combat system.

Chronicles of Riddick (PC)
I played both Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena, and Dark Athena is basically just more of the same so if you enjoyed the first you should really play both. CoR and DA are mainly sneaking games, but with quite a lot of shooting mixed in. They keep it simple and don't try to deviate from their working formula by making things more complicated than they need to be. This way they hold a nice pace throughout, and with clever level design and well designed gameplay they are fun all the way through. You can read my review of Escape from Butcher Bay here.

Koudelka (PSX)
Speaking of great RPG's, Koudelka could've been right up there with the very great ones if it just hadn't been so short. It has pretty much everything else; a bonkers story, cheesy characters (and the hammy dialogue that seems mandatory on PSX), interesting combat and gameplay and the fairly unique schtick of being a horror-RPG. But unfortunately it's all over far too soon, I finished it after about 14 hours and that's including the final boss fight which was 1 hour on its own. You can read my review of Koudelka here.

Orcs & Elves (NDS)
This was John Carmack's pet project, and maybe that is all I have to say about it to convince you that it was a good game. This is nothing like Doom though, although you do go around corridors shooting things with a wand... Just like CoR I think I like Orcs & Elves just as much for what it isn't as for what it is. Orcs & Elves doesn't outstay it's welcome, it throws in a couple of variables here and there to keep you interested and really twists all the juice out of its gameplay idea. It's great for a couple of hours of well-designed fun and I always appreciate any kind of entertainment that does what it came to do and just leaves it at that. You can read my review of Orcs & Elves here.

Dishonored (PC)
Out of the games on this list, Dishonored is the only one of which I had no previous knowledge, as in I hadn't played or seen any of the game. Dishonored turned out to be in the same vein as some of my favourite games - Thief and Deus Ex - and I am always happy to play more sneak-em-ups. It also did it well, with fun super powers and cool levels to sneak around in. My only gripe was that the game didn't flesh out some of the characters as much as I'd liked, but it's also possible it was designed this way intentionally with several playthroughs in mind. You can read my review of Dishonored here.

So those are pretty much the highlights of my year as far as entertainment goes. I can't end this post without mentioning the main highlight of my year however, the birth of my baby daughter Alexandra, born this summer and probably the happiest baby on the planet. She is still way off playing games on her own of course (who needs that when watching the washing machine is enough), but I am really looking forward to introducing her to the world I love so much, the same way I have done with my son.

Me and my son also got into playing games cooperatively more in this year (when he was younger it was more about helping him out than helping each other) which has been great fun. I am really looking forward to what the gaming, watching and reading year of 2019 has in store for me and maybe I will make a post about some of the things I am particularly hyped for as well.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Super Mario Party (Switch) - First Impression and Thoughts

It's weird that I consider myself a Mario Party fan when all I've really played is Mario Part 2 on the N64. So I've played that for hundreds and hundreds of hours, but I am curiously lacking in experience in almost all the other Mario Parties. I played a bit of Mario Party (1) and some of that one that's on the Wii, but honestly I can barely remember anything about them. Mario Party 2 however, is probably one of my favourite games ever, and I love that so much that I was hyped about Super Mario Party for the Switch. Because I never owned a GameCube (until much, much later), Wii or WiiU I considered this my first proper opportunity (because who wants to play Mario Party on a handheld?) to get back into the franchise.

This image hints at everything you'll need to know.

This was especially well timed as I had just introduced the son (then just under 5 yo) to Mario Party 2, before I even knew there was one just about to be released for the Switch. I had been looking for multiplayer games to play with him suitable for the age, and found that Mario Party 2 seemed like it could work. It did, he loved it and we had loads of fun. Thus I went and bought Super Mario Party almost immediately on release and as we haven't had time to play that much yet (I mean we do actually do other things than play video games around here!) here are just some quick thoughts I've gathered so far;

When I got it I had planned for it to be our Sunday Gaming Fun. Sundays is usually the day we use to play some multiplayer games together and we were all excited to try our new game. Then came a big blow to those plans. We have the two joy-cons that come with the Switch and a pro controller and had planned to be three people playing (mommy, daddy and son). We were sitting there like idiots not understanding what was wrong with the pro controller until I googled it and found out that, no, you can't use the pro controller on Super Mario Party. One of us would have to sit out. Ohh, I was so angry about this at first.

Then I played the game and I thought I could sort of understand Nintendo's reasoning behind it, that the pro controller isn't optimal to use with the minigames, but considering the price tag of that thing... Yeah, I am still sore about that, especially since Super Mario Party isn't even the only game where you can't use the pro controller. Pro my behind, more like schmoe.

But then we finally decided who had to sit out (it weren't going to be me and it weren't going to be the kid, so... bye bye daddy) and started playing the game.

Ok, we can't choose who the Computer Characters are going to be? Minor issue I guess, although I distinctly remember loving to kick Peaches rear in the mini-games as a kid, I've obviously outgrown such childish behaviour. (EDIT: I have since found where to do this, so Peach is going to get it.)

Then we get into the boards (into… or onto?). Ok, so we can only roll up to 6 now? Makes sense I guess since that is how an actual die works. When did they change that? And why was it up to 10 to begin with?

Oh ok I realize why it was up to 10 to begin with - because now everything moves endlessly slow! I keep rolling 1 and my son who is the luckiest s.o.b (wait did I just call myself a....) this side of the equator keeps rolling exactly what he needs to get to the damn star!

Wait?! The star only costs 10 coins now? Oh no... this was the only thing keeping my son from getting any stars. Because he never won any mini-games (I might love my kid, but I ain't losing on purpose when it's about Mario Party-dignity) he never used to have money for any stars. But now he gets enough money just from walking around the board and he. IS. WINNING!

So yeah, I've played this game four times with my kid and he has - legitimately - won every time. I don't mind, in fact I find this to be one of the good things about Super Mario Party. I mean it's a good thing if you're in the position where you want your 5 yo son to have a winning chance without bending over backwards trying to lose every mini-game. Now I am still winning every mini-game and it just doesn't matter. I can sit there with my 100+ coins all I like because if I never get to the star first, I will never have a star. Although there are other ways to get stars, and soon I find they are my only options, they are not enough for me to win. At least not yet.

So I do have a couple of issues with the game so far, but bear in mind that I have really barely touched it and I might've just been really unlucky. Firstly, if I haven't just been really unlucky and the game is actually designed this way, it sort of points towards that it doesn't matter how good you are at the mini-games, because all that matters is what you hit with the die. While this has always been true in the Mario Party games (and remember I am really only comparing to Mario Party 2, but talking like I know stuff), I feel that Super Mario Party is more down to luck than ever before. Because let's face it, my 5 yo is probably not some video game Mozart.

So much fun to explore!

Secondly, I feel like having you roll 6 instead of 10 is only there to mask how tiny the boards are. It also means I am 1/6 likely to roll a 1 instead of 1/10 likely and omg I roll so many 1... Compared to the sprawling headaches mazes that the boards are in Mario Party 2, you will walk in your tiny loop over and over and over like a goldfish in a bowl in Super Mario Party. It's just not exciting and doesn't offer much exploration, but grows repetitive quickly (and we all know I hate repetitiveness, mostly because I can't spell that dang word).

On the bright side however, the mini-games are fun, they have a good variety and make good use of the joy-con.

I do like the concept of having different die to choose from when you roll, although this seems to me some would be decidedly more useful than others.

And this game has so many other options to play with that I haven't even checked out yet. I am definitely looking forward to playing more, but I really wish I could have a 1-10 die again.