Friday, October 28, 2005

Games that didn't make the cut

This time of the year there are so many video games. I get three or four delivered every day. With a biweekly column, there's no way to review them all if I want to have more than two sentences apiece for each. But since I've sampled or in some cases played through these games I might as well make a couple of comments about the ones I couldn't squeeze in.

These are the games that I didn't review the week I reviewed Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (brilliant mystery-adventure-comedy), Ultimate Spider-Man (stylish but a bit too much padding) and Sly 3 (fun action-adventure).

We Love Katamari

Katamari Damacy was this weird sleeper hit in which you are a tiny guy who pushes a ball around the floor. Things stick to the ball, which makes it bigger, and bigger, and you go from rolling up thumb tacks to rolling up trucks. We Love Katamari is the sequel. It tries out a few new ideas, but it's pretty much just an extension of the same game. The weird cut scenes aren't quite as weird, and it seems a little less amusing, either because it is less amusing or because I saw it all last year, but it's more-or-less as much fun as the original.

Why it didn't make it: Anything I had to say about this game I'd already said about the last one.

Trace Memory

Trace Memory is like a PC point-and-click adventure, only it's on the Nintendo DS. A little girl comes to a mysterious island to find her long lost father. He is nowhere to be found, and she explores the island with the help of a friend, amnesiac ghost. The story is pretty interesting and the puzzles are mixed. The dumbest thing is that at the end of each chapter you have to answer multiple choice questions on what you've just done, but some puzzles are quite entertaining. Not a great game, but fun.

Why it didn't make it: Just a matter of space. I couldn't squeeze more than three games in, and Phoenix Wright is also an adventure game for the DS and a much better one, so I went with that.

Nancy Drew: Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon

Every year HerInteractive comes out with two Nancy Drew games. On is generally kind of dumb, with a lot of arcade activities and poor puzzles, and the other is usually better. Oddly enough, I gave a review to the lesser one, Secret of the Old Clock, but not to the superior Blue Moon Canyon. This is simply because there were less interesting games to review at the time Old Clock was released. Canyon is a very good adventure game with generally intelligent puzzles. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult, notably a doll one, but it's an interesting game, well worth playing.

Why it didn't make it: Basically, I could have put both Blue Moon and Trace Memory in had I decided to simply devote my column to adventure games. That would have been fine if I hadn't actually written about two adventure games the previous time. I try and mix up the genres.

Legend of Kay

An action-adventure game in the tradition of the Legend of Zelda series, Kay is pretty abysmal in terms of story, with awful dialogue and acting, but it has very good Zelda-style gameplay.

Why it didn't make it: I am always nagging PR people to get me games before their release date so I can make my reviews timely. Kay came in rather late, and by that time I'd settled on the three games I would review. I could have dumped one and replaced it with Kay, but I would have really had to push myself to get through the game in the time I had, and while it was good, it wasn't necessarily better than the ones I was already reviewing. If the story had been good things might have been different.

Donkey Kong: King of Swing

Fun little GBA game in which you are able to grab onto objects and swing up higher. Simple but clever.

Why it didn't make it: Another situation where I would have had to dump a game I'd played through to do this one instead. It wasn't any better than what I had, but it's a fun game.

Why it didn't make it:
I loved the first Suffering game, which was cool and atmospheric. The sequel lacked the subtlety in terms of story and turned out to be more difficult. At a certain point I got killed over and over. Since I already had doubts about the game based on the first hour, I said screw it.

Why it didn't make it: It just wasn't as good as the first one.

Burnout: Legends

The PSP version of Burnout, which came out at the same time as Burnout: Revenge for the Xbox and PS2. Terrific game.

Why it didn't make it:PR people got it to me late. The review would not have been timely by then. I didn't even look at Revenge because I knew it was too old for a review, although I still have it and mean to check it out.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Play Like It's 1979

I was asked to contribute a few ideas to this article, so I did. It's kind of cute.

say what you like about G.W., the guy sure is willing to give jobs to the mentally disabled

The investigation into FEMA's screwup with Katrina holds a grisly fascination. Brown comes on and says, gee, my man on the ground Behamonde told me things were swell, and Behamonde says he sent dire warning of the extent of the disaster and received an email talking about how Brown needed more time to eat dinner. Are people on the right still defending this guy and Bush's appointment of him? I bet they are, but I doubt their heart's into it.


I take an immense pleasure in learning that bacterial soap isn't any better than regular soap. Bacterial soap represents two bits of American foolishness, an obsession with germs and the conviction that you need a special item for every single thing. People won't use soap to wash their bodies instead buying expensive body lotions and face lotions and body washes and whatever, and then they don't want soap for their hands because it's not clean enough. I'm not even convinced soap is all that important. My understanding is soap just makes water wetter (I've never known what that means, exactly, but that's what I keep hearing). So it's not that it kills germs, whcih suggests that if you just put your hands in the water and rub perhaps that will clean them just as well as often as not. I'm not saying that's true, but I was right about bacterial soap.

Monday, October 17, 2005

In search of Frank Rich

I was very sad when I learned the New York Times had started charging extra to read it's op-ed pieces. I love Frank Rich's column and I hated to be without it. Imagine my joy when I discovered, which republishes progressive columns from all sorts of publications, and appears to run almost everything Rich writes. I found this out by simply googling for the titles of some of Rich's columns. Thank you, google.

a little perspective on torture

In an op-ed piece on Bush's incomprehensible
refusal to prohibit U.S. torture, Bob Herbert has a wonderful quote by one of the soldiers who came forth with torture allegations against the U.S.

"Some argue that since our actions are not as horrifying as Al Qaeda's, we should not be concerned. When did Al Qaeda become any type of standard by which we measure the morality of the United States? We are America, and our actions should be held to a higher standard, the ideals expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."

Nice to see I'm not the only one who's sick of the, "they're worse than us so it's okay" argument.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

my blog is getting attention from everywhere!

Well, not exactly, but an enterprising PR person (whose signature describes her as a "grassroots campaign manager") did somehow trip over Opinionade and emailed to ask if I felt inclined to post a press release or run a banner for the game Stubbs the Zombie. It seems like an odd thing to ask of someone with a blog with no press releases or banners on it, but I guess it never hurts to try. Anyway, while I'm used to PR people contacting me through the Times this is the first time a PR person has contacted me through my blog, so I guess this means this is now a very important blog that everyone will vie to get in. :-)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Dare to Bare - New York Times

What I find fascinating about the concept of
freeing babies from diapers is that it's something so ingrained in culture that it would never have occurred to me to even question their necessity. And it makes me wonder what else I should be questioning that I'm not. Life is full of alternatives we just never think of.

Meet the new series, same as the old series - new TV series (part two)

I've seen enough shows now to get a sense of the season, which is basically made up of a whole bunch of generic comedies and X-Files clones. Almost every crime and suspense show is indebted to X-Files. It seems strange; why, five years after it went off the air, is everyone trying to capture the X-Files vibe? Here's my take on a few more shows, and some revisiting of ones I mentioned before.

The Night Stalker
Premise: Like the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series except different in every conceivable way

Review: I really don't understand the point in taking the name of an old series for a show that's nothing like it. Kolchak: The Night Stalker starred the middle-aged character actor Darren McGavin as a pushy, rumpled loner reporter fascinated with unusual murders that always turned out to have supernatural causes. He constantly tried to publish the stories but his editor resisted.

This new incarnation is about a young, attractive reporter obsessed with the mysterious death of his wife who teams up with an attractive female reporter and investigates mysterious murders that may have supernatural overtones, not to write about them, which he refuses to do for some dumb reason, but to find out if there's a connection with his wife's death.

The Night Stalker is not really a remake of Kolchak, it's actually a remake of the X-Files, and was in fact created by an ex-writer for that show. You've got the true believer guy and the woman skeptic and all sorts of scary monsters. And while as a remake of the McGavin show this is a complete failure, lacking that show's personality and humor, as a remake of the X-Files it's really pretty darn good. It's scary and stylish, although I could do without those dumb intros and outros where the good-looking Kolchack pretentiously prattles on while key phrases appear onscreen.

My Name is Earl

Premise: White trash low-life discovers karma and decides to make ammends for everything he's ever done wrong

Review: Hey look, it's a clever, original comedy! You don't see much of that, do you? This is a really funny show that plays off the dumbness of its principals but never really looks down on them. Earl is ill-informed (after seeing Carson Daly discussing karma on TV, Earl comes to believe that the concept was invented by Carson) and he's done a lot of bad things, but he's got an admirable determination and a certain childlike logic. The show manages to create a character who you can believe would try and right his wrongs but that you also believe would have done those wrongs to begin with. So far this is the only show I've seen this season whose cancellation would upset me.


Premise: girls talking really fast

Review: Related manages to be kind of clever without ever actually being funny. A group of sisters banter about this and that with the rat-a-tat delivery from the Gilmore Girls, and sometimes they say something that seems like there's a certain intelligence in the thought, but it's not funny or witty or anything like that, it just exhibits a certain facile cleverness. This is from the producers of Friends, and the characters are just as bland and generic as those on Friends. Friends kept me watching because of its sharp writing, but Related is written in an annoying manner and glib dialogue delivered by generic women is not my idea of a good time.


Premise: Something's going on, but what? The title suggests aliens, but the show isn't telling

Review: I wanted to check this out because it was from the creator of the brilliant, short-lived horror series American Gothic, Shaun Cassidy, who has apparently created a few other shows since then that were canceled without my ever knowing they existed. If not for Shaun's involvement I might have stopped watching in the middle of the first episode, which managed to make a hurricane seem dull, but I kept watching and the series picked up.

Invasion is definitely a slow build, which is why the first episode was all set-up and no excitement. Now the pieces are falling into place but you can't make out the picture. A doctor who was found after the hurricane naked in the forest has become obsessed with water. The doctor's sheriff husband acts suspiciously but may be okay (judging from this and American Gothic, Cassidy finds small-town sheriff's intimidating). A military guy was found injured with holes in his body, but he was supposed to be overseas; did he really die in the hospital? A reporter is intrigued by mysterious goings on in the area, but her boss, who also was found naked in the forest after the hurricane, insists she not investigate.

At this point, I'm intrigued. The show has a low-key eeriness to it, and while it's no American Gothic so far, I think as the story unwinds this show could have the same mysterious quality that gives Lost its charm. Here's hoping.

And here's comments on two shows I'm giving up on:


Premise: Sea monsters galore

Review: When I saw the second episode of the series I thought the recap of the first episode was too confusing, but having seen the first episode I realized there was no way around that, because the whole episode was confusing. Surface simply isn't done very well. It follows four separate stories, but none of them are especially involving, and the show often fails to make clear what's going on or why. I feel they're trying to squeeze in a lot of stuff and thus glossing over important details. It's not a terrible show, but it's not really worth watching either.

Commander in Chief

Premise: Woman becomes the president everyone wants

Review: Dream presidents work great in comedies like Dave, where one can take delight in a forthright guy who always does the right thing, but the world is too complex for a fantasy president to work in a drama. Here, Geena Davis is a president who is tough yet compassionate, a straight shooter who always does the right thing for the right and noble reason. But she's doing stuff that wouldn't work in the real world. Sure, it sounds great to intimidate a country into overthrowing their dictatorship, but in the real world patriotism and hatred of the U.S. generally trump hatred of one's own government And in the real world there is not always a good solution to a situation; sometimes you have to choose between a bunch of bad options none of which is going to get you anything close to what you want, a fact conveniently ignored by this show.

There is also a certain connect-the-dots quality to the story, which hits the subjects you would expect it to hit in the order you would expect it to hit them, doing the whole how to run the free world and still be a good mom thing and other such nonsense.

The cast is great, especially an unctuous Donald Sutherland, but the show feels false and contrived. It also just isn't that interesting.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Reality television's manufactured villains

My friend Cheryl always insists that reality shows are scripted. She believes the producers very explicitly say, fight with him, make out with her, betray your friend, get drunk and make a scene, whatever. She doesn't watch reality shows though, so she's hardly an expert. 

I have always thought of reality shows as being a result of smart casting and sneaky editing. You get a bunch of combustible people, put them in a strange situation, film it and then edit it for maximum effect (for example, reaction shots in reality shows are fairly meaningless; when someone says something dumb and there's a cut to another character rolling her eyes, she might have actually rolled her eyes half an hour earlier; I saw a documentary about tricks like those).

Still, I don't think producers are micromanaging the action, because I think actually scripting a reality show in great detail would be a monumental task that probably would wind up less interesting than something more natural (and certainly the shows that have tried to hardest to create soap opera scenarios and hype up the drama too much have tended to be flops).

But while producers may not be scripting the contestants, some contestants appear to be scripting themselves. And that brings me to Kill Reality and The Surreal Life.

In a recent Surreal Life, Omarosa, the incredibly annoying woman who was a contestant on The Apprentice, where she gained notoriety as a bitch, stated that she came on the show with the intent to be a bitch for the cameras. She says she's writing a book on reality shows.

Omarosa's main foil was Janice Dickenson, who was prone to tantrums. Throughout the show, her housemates would discuss amongst themselves whether she was really upset or was just trying to get more airtime. Unlike Omarosa, Janice hasn't admitted anything. Her constant referral to herself as the world's first supermodel (a phrase used by her dozens of times on the show) is most probably an attempt to either be outlandish or annoying, but Janice could also just be a little nuts.

On Kill Reality one suspects that Johnny Fairplay is also faking it. It was obvious when he was on Survivor that his real goal was not to win a million dollars but to become the ultimate Survivor villain. In the first episode of Kill Realityb John describes Johnny Fairplay as a character he has
invented, as opposed to the real him.

Johnny Fairplay is an ass, and he seems like a truly horrible person on the show, but one can't help but notice that everyone really likes him. He seems to be friends or lovers with almost everyone on the show, and it's rather hard to believe that the mean spirited, self-centered, drunken idiot on the show could be that well liked. Which suggests that he is also playing a part and that everyone understands that. This doesn't mean he's not an ass, but he is perhaps a different kind of ass.

My problem with the self-made villains is not that they aren't real. We're all acting to some extent, and those on TV can't help wanting to control their appearance. But Johnny Fairplay, Omarosa and Janice are all incredibly annoying. I hated Fairplay on Survivor and I constantly wished he'd be voted off. I was thrilled when Omarosa was fired.

Obviously as a fan of reality television I do take perverse enjoyment from watching conflict and turmoil, but I also enjoy seeing the more intricate examples of interplay between people; the alliances, the friendships, the occasional flashes of nobility, the humor. But a character like Johnny Fairplay can just take over a show and make it all about him, if the producers choose, and the result is rather annoying.

I don't blame Omarosa, who has figured out the rules and is playing the game for her own purposes, but I do blame the producers and editors who let these people take over their shows. They are creating Jerry Springer television, and that is always a bad thing.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Swimming against the critical tide

There is something decidedly disconcerting about finding oneself at odds with every other gaming critic in the world. In my review of Myst V and Indigo Prophecy, I'm pretty much in the mainstream on Myst V (good, but not as good as other Myst games) but I have apparently written the single most negative review in existence of Indigo Prophecy. Not a complete pan, but I complain a lot. But while I've been thinking about my review, and whether I was overly harsh, I really don't think I was. First off, the gameplay isn't that good. The twiddling the joystick thing is overused and not down as well as in Shenmue 2, which did something similar. The stealth sequences are kind of fun but have a rather clunky design. The puzzles are brainless.

This many critics will agree with me on. No one's that impressed with the gameplay. But people are raving about the story. And the story is not very good. It's a formulaic thriller with cardboard characters that would get poor reviews if you were to make it into a movie.

But that's just me. Literally, that's just me. Everyone who plays this loves it. I had a similar experience with Shenmue, a game that people raved about but that I found deeply flawed (liked the sequel though, although it also had its faults).

I really wanted to like Indigo, it tries so hard and it's got a nice score by Angelo Badalamenti, and there are some good ideas in there. But I just can't see why it's getting as much love as it's getting.