Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Odd Case of Content ID

By now many of you will have heard of Google unleashing a metric shit ton of Content ID notices for Youtube content, specifically videogame related content.  What has happened is that the larger Youtube affiliates and the Multi Channel Networks -- the big guys - are suddenly being scanned for potential matches. As a result, many, many gaming-related channels are suddenly being hit with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of Content ID match warnings. For commercial channels, this can mean loss of revenue, ads being placed in videos, etc. As you can imagine, Youtubers are freaking the fuck out over this.

Chrontendo is not a monetized channel, so this particular change doesn't affect me. It is quite obvious that Youtube is gearing up to make some changes in the way it deals with monetized content. However, there are some rather bizarre things about these Content ID notices. First of all, the notices are being issued overwhelmingly to gaming channels. Also, a number of videogame companies, Capcom, Valve, Naughty Dog, and others are making statements saying they are not behind the notices.

What seems to be driving the notices is not the game content specifically, but instead, the music. A lot of reports are coming in from a digital music distribution company called Idol. Several little known music companies seem to be popping up in the content claims, and some of these claims are pretty unusual. Take for example this video, from the Youtube user, Gopher, who gives examples of the claims he's been receiving.

One of the claims is about the Billie Holiday song "Crazy He Calls Me." The message states that the recording is administered by one "Pirames International SRL." This is some sort of music company based in Milan. Their website is pretty barren. Their LinkedIn profile claims "1-10 employees," and they have a Youtube channel which focuses mostly on Italian artists, though I see Marilyn Manson and Amanda Palmer listed as well. It seems odd that Marilyn Manson's new album would be handled by this tiny little company in Italy, but the US it was released though an indie label, Cooking Vinyl, so its entirely possible Pirames is Manson's Italian distributor. But what about the Billie Holliday song? "Crazy He Calls Me" was recorded for Decca, and I'm pretty sure those recordings are currently owned by Universal. Since Universal is a huge, multinational music company that controls a sizable portion of all the music in the world, it is pretty unlikely that these Pirames guys ended up with the rights to that song.  The other song, by Eddy Christiani is listened as being from APM Music, a large licensing company. Presumably they are the ones who licensed the song to Bethesda for use in the game, so this one makes a bit more sense. Though Eddy Christiani, a Dutch musician, recorded that song in 1948, meaning it would have been in the public domain in Europe when Gopher made that video. (I think Gopher is based in Europe. Not sure how international copyright law would factor in, since Youtube is based in the US.)

The pattern seems to be content being flagged not by the owners of the music, or the game publishers, but the music licensing companies. What strikes as strange is the utter triviality of these content claims. How much value does a few moments of background music in a Let's Play video have? Very little. Yet much more valuable properties are flagrantly being posted on Youtube without the rights-holders' permission.

Unless the artist is Prince, this sort of thing is common on YT.

What's my connection to all this? Well, I received a Content ID notice for the F.E.A.R. video I uploaded in my last post.  The supposed rights holder was, again, some obscure music company. The artist/song in question pulled up absolutely zero matches in a Google search. The company's website didn't give much info on what sort of musical services it offered.  But the crazy thing was this: the part of the video in question did not really contain any music. The only sounds were in-game footstep sound effects. There was also some kind of barely audible ambient background drone that may have been considered as music.

For those who are hit with a Content ID match, Youtube has an option to remove the offending music. I did this, and I far as I can tell, the only thing it did was remove around 1 second of that background drone. If you watch the updated video now, it's not even noticeable. It's after the part where I jump out the window, right the before big explosion starts, right at about 14 seconds in. Listening to the original video, I'm not even sure anything was removed, as the background noise can't be heard as clearly in the YT video as it can be in the original video capture.

Incidentally, I had received an earlier content match with Chronturbo 4, during the Blazing Lazers segment. This was completely legit, as it flagged the footage from the Gunhed movie. In that case I disputed it as fair use, and the flag was removed.

Obviously the recent round of Content ID matches is causing a number of uploaders to sweat bullets. As for myself, I'm pretty baffled that as someone who's video consist mainly of copyrighted images and sounds, the one troublesome match I've received was on 2 seconds of background sound effects.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

F.E.A.R. Is Not Quite a Man's Best Friend

While we all just sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the new episode of Chrontendo I thought it best to put some content on this blog. This is, in theory, a videogame based blog, so I figured, what the hell? Maybe I'll write about an actual goddamned videogame.

The ultimate inspiration behind this post was those online game sales. You know the ones. The Steam sales. The Humble Bundles. Those "here's more games than you have time to play, but for a limited time the price is ridiculously low, so you better buy it just in case" sales.  The end result is that I'm a few dollars poorer and have a bunch more unplayed games. But at least these games aren't taking up any physical space. Nope. Even better, they aren't even clogging up my hard drive. They exist only in the realm of the potential. I have a bunch of games I could download and install on my computer if I see fit. At least this way I won't feel as guilty as I do when I see those shrink-wrapped games were piling up in my house. At least my wife will never even know about these games.

So the other week I spent $25 on a Warner Bros Humble Bundle. The main draw was Arkham City (which I haven't downloaded yet), but it also came with a Mortal Kombat pack, some Lord of the Rings game and.... the three F.E.A.R. games. I own F.E.A.R. for the XBox 360 but have never played the two sequels. Truth be told, I barely remember F.E.A.R. beyond it being a first person shooter which borrowed elements from the movie The Ring (and J-Horror in general, I guess.) So I thought, "What the hell, I'll give F.E.A.R. a spin for old time's sake." Then I realized, "My God, this game is almost 10 years old.  When Chrontendo started in 2007, Final Fantasy VII was 10 years old." I suddenly realized that F.E.A.R. was now a retro game. Since Chrontendo is all about retro gaming, we can talk about F.E.A.R. Unfortunately, another game reviewer, perhaps also inspired by the Humble Bundle sale, already wrote about F.E.A.R here. Ray Hardgrit is a more thorough writer than me, so I'm not sure what I can add to his analysis. But I think he might be British, so at least my post does not contain superfluous references to Oasis and Tesco's.

F.E.A.R. was created by Monolith, a developer based in Kirkland, Washington, located not that far from Microsoft's headquarters. Aside from F.E.A.R., Monolith is known for the Condemned games and Gotham City: Imposters as well as the aforementioned Lord of the Rings title. They seem quite fond of acronyms in their game titles, and other examples include Contract J.A.C.K. and No One Lives Forever: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way. F.E.A.R. was released in October 2005, several months after Valve's pioneering Half Life 2. But gameplay-wise, F.E.A.R. is mired in the era of the original Half Life. Unlike the HL games, F.E.A.R. separates the game into distinct "levels" with loading/debriefing screens breaking up the action. The game world is not a unified whole, as it was in Valve's games.  You are normally transported to a new area via a cut scene inside a helicopter; a level often ends when you reach the exit door, and then you are dropped off at the entrance of the next level. Most of  in-game action consists of exploring halls, tunnels, air ducts, climbing ladders, etc, punctuated by firefights with machine gun wielding enemy soldiers, who yell things like "Squad!" and "Fire in the Hole!" over their intercoms. So it resembles Half Life a great deal in that aspect.

F.E.A.R.'s exciting environments

Here's the  plot of F.E.A.R.: an experimental psychic super solider and his clone army go rogue, break into some industrial compound and kill everyone there and then go all Hannibal Lector on a dead guy's face.  The question is WHY?? That's where you come in. As an agent of "First Encounter Assault Recon," you, the nameless "Point Man" are tasked with tracking the dude down and asking him what the dealio is. Also, you are supposed to take him into custody or something. Obviously, this is easier said than done and the rest of the game is spent chasing the guy all over town.  A spooky ghost girl with long, straight, black hair occasionally shows up and makes the lights flicker on and off while your com device gets all staticky.  The nameless protagonist doesn't speak in the game, but he's probably pondering the strange coincidence that this is his first day at his new job with an outfit called F.E.A.R., and he finds himself running around in what resembles a horror movie.

Switch pressin' time! Let's open that gate!

For most of its length, F.E.A.R. has you running around featureless warehouses, storage rooms, elevator shafts, and various industrial type building. You will encounter many concrete walls and metal shelves which have identical paint cans and plastic containers on them. In the middle of the game you enter an expensive looking office building, and late in the game, a secret science research facility.  Aside from shooting people, you will sometimes need to press a button or switch to open a gate or deactivate a security system or something. This all sounds pretty standard, but F.E.A.R. switches it up by tossing in some horror movie tactics from time to time.  Aside from the flickering lights/spooky voices, you'll see things get knocked over for no reason, dead bodies dropping out of air vents unexpectedly, pools of blood, and... these weird hallucination sequences.  It soon becomes obvious that you, the Point Man, have some connection to the ghost girl and experimental super solider dude (whom the developers named Paxton Fettel, unfortunately.)

Mysterious blood leaking everywhere

Thus F.E.A.R. attempts to create an odd sort of FPS/Horror hybrid. The idea is intriguing, but the developers never fully integrate these two genre into a cohesive whole.  For one, the spooky stuff and the shooty stuff never happen at the same time. The ghosty girl, Alma, only pulls out the scares when you're walking around the empty parts of a level. Likewise, the shooting-guns-at-enemy-soldiers portions never bear any traces of the supernatural.  In fact, knowing Alma is about to appear actually lessens the tension of the game, since you know that as long as the lights are flickering, you aren't going to run into armed bad guys around the next corner. The horror sections are the "safe" part of the game.

Spooky vision/flashbacks of a mysterious hospital room.

This disconnect carries over into the game's plot. Despite the fact that this ghost chick keeps popping up and killing people in gruesome ways, (and despite that Paxton Fettel is communicating with you using his psychic powers and dropping hints about the connection between you, Alma and him,) as far as the F.E.A.R team is concerned, all they have on their hands is a rogue super solider. At no point does the silent Point Man open his trap and say "By the way, there's this psychic ghost girl running around and Fettel has some kind of connection to her." Meanwhile, your teammates stand around scratching their heads wondering how the Delta Team got turned into a bloody pile of charred skeletons. The result of this weird disconnect is that F.E.A.R. often feels like you are playing two different games simultaneously.

Aside from the plot being kind of goofy, the action sequences are repetitive. You encounter identical groups of enemy soldiers over and over again, with an occasional heavily armored, extra-tough dude thrown in. At one point there are a bunch of snipers. An mech resembling ED-209 pops up a couple times. But it often feels like you're fighting the same fight over and over. At least Half Life had headcrabs, zombies, and aliens to liven things up. Despite all these issues, F.E.A.R. was very well received when it was released. Metacritic currently lists it at 88. It was considered to be a top-tier game at the time.  Even the nerdier gaming sites loved it. Why? Well, part of the reason has to do with gamers being graphic whores. You see, PC gaming enthusiasts get very excited when new, more powerful graphics cards come out and want games that push those cards to the limits.  This was perhaps even more true in the early 2000s when developers were busy creating all these fancy new graphics and physics engines. Everything was all about ragdoll physics and realistic lighting effects back then. A story that made sense always took a back seat to how innovative the graphics were.

The lighting effects are quite nice looking

F.E.A.R. earned its reputation as a game requiring top of the line hardware to play. In 2005, this game looked AMAZING. It still looks halfway decent today. It had crazy realtime lighting that casts shadows everywhere. The main gameplay gimmick is a Max Payne "bullet time" style slow-mo effect. The slow-mo is a bit more than a mere piece of window dressing; it's pretty vital to not getting killed. It allows you to turn a corner, activate the slow-mo, then draw a bead on enemies and pop off a few shots before they can react.  F.E.A.R. puts a cool blur effect on everything while this is happening. This allows the impressive-for-the-time particle effects to shine. When guns are fired, you can see individual bullets flying through the air. Showers of sparks. Windows break and pieces of glass fill the air. Dust obscures your vision. Bullets leave persistent holes in walls. All these fancy particle effects were considered a huge deal at the time, but they weren't supposed to be mere graphical frippery. This was about creating an environment. About making the game world more interactive, more solid, and real. All these GPU-straining effects were intended to create immersion. The graphic effects, in some sense, were the gameplay.

The blurry slow-mo battles look cool.

It also benefited from having remarkable solid enemy AI for the time. F.E.A.R. was quite a challenging game. A single, well placed shotgun blast could kill you, so you couldn't just run into a room shooting blindly. Even today, F.E.A.R. is still reasonably fun to play, though it can be a bit tiring.

Dust and debris goes flying everywhere.

One thing that struck me about the game is the oddly anti-climatic final act.  F.E.A.R. is not very effective about resolving its various plot threads. For much of the second half of the game you are tasked with finding Alice Wade, the daughter of Harlan Wade, one of the creators behind the Origin Project, the top-secret experiment which started the whole mess. About halfway through F.E.A.R. you are told to rescue Alice and escort to her to safety. She manages to slip away and head off to find her father. From this point on, your official mission is to find and rescue Alice and Harlan, as well as capture Fettel. This eventually takes you to the Project Origin site, an underground facility called The Vault, where Alma is kept in a kind of cryogenic coma. Turns out she has super duper psychic powers and is so dangerous she must be kept on ice. And, yes, this is exactly the plot of Akira.

Alma, when she does appear, is pretty creepy.

You encounter stiff resistance as you attempt to enter the Vault; once inside you mostly face more hallucinations and spectral appearances from Alma. Despite having been chasing after Alice Wade for half the game, she's dispatched rather casually: you just happen to walk by her dead body in one room. Harlan Wade gets killed in by Alma as you watch passively from the other side of a window. Paxton Fettel gets shot by you in a hallucination/flashback cutscene thing.  Quite frankly, I forgot what happened to Fettel until I read a plot synopsis online while writing this article.  It's hard to think of another game of this era that kills off its cast and wraps any loose plot threads in such a dismissive fashion. The last two sections of the game barely contain any enemies, other than these phantoms which rush you and can easily be blown away with a single shot. Compared to the pitched firefights throughout the rest of the game, these enemy encounters are quite lame. If you were expecting a boss fight or some kind of big showdown... well, it just never happens. You leave the vault, wander through an abandoned building, find the exit, which leads an alley outside, and... the game ends. There's a brief cutscene.  When the screen then displays "epilogue," it's almost startling. You almost want to jump up and shout "What!? That was it?"

This is Fettel doing something important. I think. I actually can't remember.

Looking back now, I almost admire the unexpected ending and the sudden jolt at the very end. It's dumb and clich├ęd, but it stands in stark contrast to the drawn out cutscenes we get today. For your pleasure, I've recorded and uploaded it. (Spoiler alert, obviously.)

When the rumbling starts and the dust cloud starts rolling down the street, you assume some serious shit is going to happen. An epic boss battle or something. But nope, nada. Sitting through the entire credits will get you a brief voiceover which was intended to set up the sequel.  Still, it's a bizarre and action-free final act for an action-packed game.

I'll admit, one of my favorite parts of F.E.A.R. is this guy, an obese, junk food munching sysadmin guy.  He's the only lighthearted thing in an otherwise entirely grim game. He appears at various points in the game to annoy you (he even tries to kill you at some point) and his appearances are always marked by his rather goofy musical leitmotif forcing its way into the soundtrack. In his review, Ray Hardgrit expresses his dislike for the character and feels he clashes with the rest of F.E.A.R.'s tone. In my opinion, I like that the developers had some confidence in their ability to modulate F.E.A.R.'s mood by inserting a bit of comic relief into their horror game. You need something a bit silly to make the horrible parts seem even more horrible. (Check out that Shakespeare guy for some examples.)

He eventually gets what's coming to him.

As an action game, F.E.A.R. mostly delivers. As a psychological horror game, it kinda delivers, but ultimately fails. You can't experience any kind of emotional attachment to the game's cardboard characters. And the game almost completely falls apart in the final act. It's an impressive achievement in many ways, I just wish it was a little bit better. With a few tweaks, it could have been great.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed: The Good, The Awful & the WTF?

Perhaps you've heard the news. Rock & Roll legend Lou Reed has died at age 71 due to liver failure. The amazing thing is that Reed lived as long as he did, considering the sheer bulk of illicit substances he put into this body. I don't intend to write a Lou Reed tribute today, but rather a very brief guide to his bewildering solo musical career. Reed will always primarily remembered for his time in The Velvet Underground in '60s. The VU were immensely influential and their musical catalog is very solid, comprising three great albums and one good one. Reed's post-VU solo work is much more extensive and wildly uneven. There's very little logical pattern in Reed's solo output. So many '70s artists released strong work at the beginning/middle of the decade and then experienced a slow decline (e.g. Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, The Who, James Brown, Yes, Can and just about everyone else, really.) Reed's onetime collaborator David Bowie had a pretty typical career arc: releasing a series of consistently great records in the 70s, starting to produce weaker material around 1980 and then totally plunging off the cliff a few years later, with the '80s & '90s being virtual lost decades. Reed, on the other hand, was totally eccentric. A moment of utter and shining brilliance would be followed immediately by a turd. If nothing else, the man's musical output is full of surprises.

Here's a very subjective, yet completely correct, catalog of his solo works, organized by quality. Reed became a virtual museum piece sometime in the mid 90s, so his work after that point won't be given much consideration.

The Good Stuff:

Transformer (1972)

Reed's second album is still his best known. Produced by David Bowie, who dragged Reed, along with Iggy Pop, into the burgeoning glam scene, Transformer contains his most recognizable solo songs, "Walk on the Wild Side," and "Perfect Day." The latter was given sort of the second life in the '90s when it became suddenly popular in the UK after being used in the Trainspotting movie. Transformer's songs are of mostly high quality, but it's also a rather impersonal, mercenary album, lacking the freaky weirdness of Reed's best work.

Berlin (1973)

The exact opposite of Transformer, Berlin is a sprawling rock opera jam-packed full of human misery, drug abuse, insanity and suicide. When I first heard this as a young man in the 80s, it was the most intense music I had ever heard - sort of like The Wall minus the juvenile psychodrama. Both Berlin and The Wall were produced by Bob Ezrin, who gave this album a slick, overproduced sound that makes its gloomy subject matter seem even more disturbing. Appropriately, Reed and Ezrin experienced drug-related mental breakdowns while working on Berlin. Probably his best album from the 1970s.

Rock N' Roll Animal (1974)

Reed followed up Berlin by switching gears again, releasing this grandiose live album. Bringing in the twin guitars of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, Animal is the closest Reed ever got to straight up arena rock. It's the also most fun album he's made, and its version of "Sweet Jane" became a classic rock radio staple. Lou Reed Live from 1975 is, I believe, taken from the same performance, so I suppose you should combine them together to make a complete show.

Coney Island Baby (1976)

Reed's first "comeback" album. He dropped his drug addled, Frankenstein-in-leather image, and suddenly became an older and wiser version of himself, full of warmth, humanity and humor. Instead of spinning tales of drug overdoses, Reed was now singing of playing high school football, and "the glory of love." Still, he found time to squeeze in "Kicks," a disturbing tale of drugs and killing for fun.

Street Hassle (1978)

Two years after Coney, Reed was back to wallowing in themes of human dissolution with Street Hassle, though the sincerity of Berlin has been replaced with bitterness, self-loathing and bit of gallows humor. Street Hassle is what they call a "difficult" album. The sound is stripped down and ugly, Reed was beginning to sing with sort of a robotic vibrato effect, and the whole record is dirty and depressing. The title track is an epic triptych masterpiece containing male hustlers, drug overdoses, a surprise uncredited appearance by Bruce Springsteen (!), and the immortal line, "When somebody turns that blue/it's a universal truth/you just know that bitch will never fuck again." It's Fanfare for the Common Man, reconfigured for the fucked-up 70s. It's Reed at his most sincere/cynical best.

The Blue Mask  (1982).

Lou's second comeback album, released a decade after Transformer, Blue Mask was his "wiser and mature FOR REAL this time" record. Off drugs, married, and playing guitar for the first time in years, Reed suddenly turned out the most finely crafted work of his career. He was helped out by a fantastic band, which included former Richard Hell & the Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine. No joke, the guitar work on The Blue Mask is fantastic; check out the second half of  "Waves of Fear" for proof. The song's subjects range from domestic bliss and true love to alcoholism, gun violence, paranoia & in the title track, horrifying S&M murder. Probably his overall best solo album.

New York (1989)

Reed's third comeback album. After sitting out the second half of the 80s, Lou reinvented himself as an elder statesman of rock/singer-songwriter type guy. Sort of an angrier, more cynical Springsteen or a musical Martin Scorsese. References to Rudy Giuliani, AIDS & Bernard Goetz gave New York a very specific, timely and topical focus. By 1989 the Velvet Underground had been fully integrated into mainstream rock history, and Reed's image had transitioned from washed up relic to musical legend. New York was met with huge amounts critical acclaim and Reed's career entered a resurgence in the early/mid 90s. Perhaps the high point of this was the brief Velvet Underground reunion and their subsequent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A good album, but it feels somewhat dated today.

Magic and Loss (1992)

Riding high off his success with New York, Reed released two memorial albums, Songs for Drella with John Cale, and Magic and Loss. A concept album about the death of Reed's friend, songwriter Doc Pomus, this is Reed showing his contemplative and mystical side. The music almost approaches jazz at times, and while its not as musically exciting as some of Reed's earlier work, this is probably his most personal album. I for one can't resist a song that brings in Little Jimmy Scott for the background vocals.

The Bad Stuff:

Sally Can't Dance (1974)

Released shortly after Rock N' Roll animal, Sally established a Reed tradition: he would follow a strong album with a truly awful one. Released at the height of his '70s commercial success, Sally was Reed's highest charting album, somehow reaching the top ten in the Billboard charts. Reportedly Lou was so fucked up on drugs at this point that he needed to be literally propped up in the studio, reading the lyrics off a piece of paper someone held in front of his face. Still, even his worst records manage to have one good song on them, and Sally contained one of his best, the harrowing "Kill Your Sons," about Reed's experience with shock therapy as a teenager.

Rock and Roll Heart (1977)

The pattern repeats. After Coney Island Baby, Reed switched record labels, moving from RCA to Clive Davis' Arista. Not sure why he thought working for one of the music industry's most notorious assholes was a good idea, but his first Arista album is one of his dullest.  Most of the songs float by without making the slightest impact, though it picks up at the end, with a silly previously unrecorded Velvet Underground song, "Sheltered Life," and, best of all, the venomous, snarling "Temporary Thing." It's sort of a hate-filled version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Again, Reed manages one great song on his worst albums.

Mistrial (1986)

The album that killed Lou Reed's Blue Mask fueled comeback. AKA the record where Lou Reed raps. Most of Mistrial is not so much terrible as it is just very dated and boring. However, if you were a person of a certain age, then probably the first time you encountered Lou Reed was the music video for "No Money Down." Please remember that music videos in the 80s were typically shot very quickly and on very low budgets. A high concept video like "No Money Down," with its super sophisticated animatronic Lou Reed head, attracted a lot of attention. It was directed by Godley and Creme, famous for the robot-filled video for "Rockit", among other things.

Set The Twilight Reeling (1996)

This is not exactly a bad album, but it was the tombstone set atop Reed's '90s resurgence. Mostly musically uninteresting , it was the signal that told us we could go back to ignoring Lou Reed again. I saw Reed while he was touring in support of Twilight, and it was a magnificent show. But after this, he would slow down, put out a few live albums, release a mostly ignored studio record every five years, and finally die. His creative years were now behind him. So anyway, here he is sigining about egg cream sodas.

The Indifferent:

Lou Reed (1971)

His almost forgotten first solo album recorded in England with Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and various British session musicians. Ignored upon release, it's actually sort of interesting nowadays, since it turned out to be composed of unreleased Velvet Underground songs. Later, the original VU versions would turn up in the form of live recordings and studio outtakes. "Ocean" for example was eventually released in a superior live version on the 1969: Velvet Underground Live record.

Growing Up in Public (1980)

Another slick and somewhat dull record, and his last for Arista, Growing Up is sort of a dry run, a very dry run, for The Blue Mask. Reed is starting to enter his stable/grown up/autobiographical phase here, and there are a few decent songs, such as "My Old Man." He even looks like he just got out of rehab on the cover photo. An odd transitional record.

Legendary Hearts (1983)

An inferior clone of The Blue Mask, recorded with the same band. Some good songs. Some forgettable songs. And a couple that sound like they could have fit right in on The Blue Mask, "The Last Shot" and "Bottoming Out." At least it has a cool cover depicting black leather gloves holding a futuristic looking motorcycle helmet.

New Sensations (1984)

After Legendary Hearts, Robert Quine quit the band, and Reed released New Sensations: "the Lou Reed album with songs about videogames." He's even playing a videogame on the cover, though the game appears to just be a picture of himself. It's even poppier and chirpier than Legendary Hearts. Two great things about New Sensations are: a song in which a joystick is a phallic symbol, and one of my favorite Reed lyrics, "The president called me up with the news/I've been awarded the Nobel Prize in Rhythm and Blues/And Stevie Wonder wants to record one of my songs."

The Twilight Zone: A few albums walk the line between good and bad. I'm not sure how to categorize these.

Metal Machine Music (1975)

Okay, here's the biggie. It's impossible to discuss Reed's discography without bringing up MMM.  Opinions on this album vary, to say the least. Many sources call its his worst album or even the worst album ever made. Others say its the only wholly original thing Reed did in his post-Velvets career. It's not clear if MMM was intended to be taken as a serious composition, a drug inspired joke, or an act of contempt towards his record label. Whatever his motives, Reed's decided to follow up Sally Can't Dance, his best selling record at that point, with a 2-LP set of electronically distorted guitar noise, full of sequels of feedback laid on top of oscillating waves of sound. As despised as MMM is in most circles, it's probably Reed's most influential solo work, and can bee seen a predecessor to the noise music of the 80s and 90s. Whatever his intentions were, it's amazing that a successful mainstream musical artist somehow got a major label to release something this crazy.

Live: Take No Prisoners  (1978)

Another double LP.  AKA the Lou Reed live album with all the talking. Best known for its protracted monologues before, after, and during the songs, Take No Prisoners has a reputation as one of the most confrontational and acerbic live albums ever recorded. Many of the songs are almost unrecognizable, having been converted into lengthy R&B jams. Yet the audience seems to be eating it up, and it's actually a reasonably fun listen. The sleeve art stands out as well. An illustration by the Spanish underground comic artist Nazario Luque Vera, of a pale bald figure wearing a leather jacket and fishnet stockings, caused a bit of a row later. It turns out the label never attained the rights from the artist, resulting in a lawsuit.

The Bells (1979)

Reed's late 70s work with Arista is pretty uneven and messy. The Bells is perhaps the messiest and least Lou Reed-y of all his records. For reasons I can't explain, it's one of my favorites. His robotic vibrato returns here, and a sense of alienation permeates the whole thing. Repetitive disco-inspired songs, recorded samples of ambient speech, gongs, and a guest appearance by free jazz legend Don Cherry -- this record has it all. The title track is Reed at this weirdest. An ominous synth & trumpet jam burbles along for five minutes before the vocals come in: a stream of consciousness piece about... well, God knows what the song is about. It's like an evil, bizarro world version of "Layla."

The rest of the Lou Reed catalog is filled out with a few live albums, including the pretty darned good Live in Italy featuring the Blue Mask/Legendary Hearts band. There are also countless compilations, best-of's, greatest hits, etc. And of course, Reed continued to releases the occasional studio albums, though most of them are the sort of thing that his fans didn't want to hear. Ecstasy (2000),  his last "regular" record, was notable for the 18 minute guitar jam "Like a Possum." The Raven (2003) was a guest star packed musical theater type thing with lots of spoken word. Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007) is fucking Tai Chi exercise music. Finally, we have Lulu (2011) his almost universally reviled collaboration with Metallica. Like The Raven, this is a theater-inspired project, Lulu being an adaptation of the plays of Frank Wedekind.(which had already been musically adapted in a much more successful fashion by Alban Berg.)

However, like every awful Lou Reed record, Lulu has one shining moment, the final song, the medative 20 minute "Junior Dad." Too bad Loutallica couldn't have scrapped the rest of the record.

Lou almost released a few collaboration albums. Songs for Drella (1990) drew a great deal of attention since it reunited Reed with John Cale for the first time in many years, and was released shortly after the critically acclaimed New York. Le Bataclan '72, with Cale and Nico, is a live recording from a French TV concert. There were also a few more avant-garde releases: an improve disc with John Zorn and Laurie Anderson, and not one but two (!) live recordings of Metal Machine Music. 

So there we have it. I think we can now consider this to be the definitive guide to the recorded solo work of Lou Reed. Please adjust your opinions accordingly

Friday, October 4, 2013

Dirk Now Wears Orthopedic Socks

(Preface from Dr. Sparkle: I'm sorry I've been so quiet on the blog lately. I'm sorry that Chrontendo is on some sort of stupid hiatus. Yes, it will be back. No, I am not dead. Just a reminder, if you ever need to confirm that I still live on planet earth, you can look at the Chrontendo Twitter: You don't even have to join Twitter to see the posts. I post stupid tweets all the time. Today I mentioned JNCO Jeans. Last weekend I discussed the death of my 14 year old cat. What more could you want? Anyway, here's my thoughts on an Adam Ant concert, that I had promised to write about earlier on Twitter. I'm sorry its so damned long.)

I believe the term "rock dinosaur" was first uttered the mid 1970s. Rock 'n' Roll was a young man's game -- music for and by teenagers. Rock acts came and went quickly. The idea of a rock star in his 30s must have seemed absurd in 1965, when Roger Daltrey claimed that he hoped to die before he got old. Ten years later, The Who, The Rolling Stones & Led Zeppelin, were all in their 30s, and critics began pointing out the inherent ridiculousness of rocks stars rapidly approaching middle age, still singing those same songs of teenage rebellion.

In 2013, we have it much worse; those same men are now entering their 8th decade of existence. The generation of younger, hipper artists who displaced them in the pop charts in the 1970s and 1980s are themselves now in their 50s. Hell... Kurt Cobain, were he alive, would be 46 now. We now have multiple generations of musical artists simultaneously riding endless waves of nostalgia-fueled comebacks. Look! Kiss is touring again! Adam Ant has a new album! My Bloody Valentine finally finished that record! Some of these guys are already on their third, fourth, or fifth "comeback." The problem, of course, is that these combebacks are pretty stunted. No one goes to a Kiss concert to hear new Kiss songs; they go to see makeup, platform shoes and stage pyrotechnics, and to be able to say afterwards, "I saw Kiss!" The music itself might be incidental to their experience. What they really want is to relive their youth or to simply see an iconic musician in person.

The question is, what should we expect from these artists? When it comes to Kiss, we know what to expect -- they will give the audience exactly what they want. This is because Kiss has only one goal: to take the audience's money. But for musicians with more artistic integrity than Kiss (that is, musicians with at least some artistic integrity) they might feel compelled to not endlessly repeat the past over and over again. Here's he problem: this is exactly what the audience does not want. Does this make the audience wrong? Not necessarily. The sad truth is most 50 year old former rock stars used up their extra special musical mojo years ago. We all know this to be true. No matter how many critics call the new Sabbath album a "return to form," it will never, never replace Paranoid in our hearts. Old dried up dudes rarely churn out music with the same freshness they had when they were young.

What's weird is Ozzy gradually transformed into the woman on the cover.
 So...on Thursday, September 11th, I found myself at an Adam Ant concert. "Who exactly is Adam Ant?" you younger folks may ask? To which I'll reply that Adam Ant was before my time just as much as he was before yours, so your youth is no excuse. Though I actually do remember hearing about him when I was a kid, I didn't hear his music until years later. He was sort of well known in the early 80s, despite not having sold a lot of records (Dear British people: yes, I know that AA was a huge, chart-topping star in his home country. He was more of a cult figure in the US. I don't think he ever had a song in the top 40 here.) Ant got a lot of media attention for his weird name, striking appearance and flashy videos. Basically his deal was that he wore American-Indian face paint and frilly pirate outfits. In 1981, that was enough to get you on TV. Adam and the Ants, as his band was called, released three good LPs and Adam released one good "solo" LP, all between 1979 and 1982. After this, his fortunes quickly diminished. He released one "comeback" record in 1990, disappeared again, and then put out another comeback record in 1995 which featured a mature, makeup-free Ant playing acoustic guitars and such. 2012-2013 is his third career comeback, and since '80s nostalgia is much more marketable now than it was in 1995, he is back to wearing pirate outfits.

Despite several stylistic changes throughout the years, Ant will mostly be remembered for his work in 1980-1981, as part of a weird micro-genre of New Wave music distinguished by the so-called "Burundi Beat." A brief history lesson on this bit of cultural appropriation  -- The whole thing started with a 1960s recording of African drumming called "Musique du Burundi."

The simple (by African standards), hard driving percussion drew the attention of US and European musicians, who found ways to it work into their own music. A fellow named Mike Steiphenson threw some keyboards on top of the recording and released it as a single called "Burundi Black." In 1975 Joni Mitchell used it in "Jungle Line" on her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Former New York Dolls/Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren was fond of strange cultural mashups, and it seems he hit upon the idea of having new wave acts incorporate rhythms from the Burundi record. McLaren was brought in to revamp the image of Adam and the Ants, who at that point were a leather-clad quasi-punk band that specialized in S&M themes. Thus, by 1980 we had Adam and the Ants, as well as spin-off band Bow Wow Wow*, putting down "tribal" drumbeats in their songs. "Antmusic" was one such hit.

The Ants found massive commercial success in the UK, and cultish success in the US. Even I, a dumb kid in the early 80s who had no fucking idea who Joy Division or Human League or The Sex Pistols were, had somehow heard of Adam Ant. Years later, once I actually heard his music, its appeal was immediate: pounding drumbeats from dual drummers, clean guitar sounds, and yelping, often nonsensical vocals with distinctive harmonies.

"But Dr. Sparkle, on Twitter you said this was going to a review of the Adam Ant show you just saw!" I know you impatient bastards, I'm getting to that now.  When my wife announced she had bought us Adam Ant tickets, I had no idea what to expect. When you get to see an artist who was popular 30 years ago, you never quite know what you'llget, especially if they've been retired from music for the last 15 years. Hell, I wasn't even sure what sort of crowd Adam Ant would draw. It turns out he pulls in a crowd of old fat yuppies, with an assortment of younger  folks mixed in. I've been to numerous shows at this particular venue, and this was one of the smaller crowds I've seen there -- probably somewhere between 1/2-2/3 capacity. There is an upstairs bar area thas was closed off completely that night. The show started incredibly early. The doors were set to open at 7:30, which typically means the opener will begin playing around 8:30. In fact, we arrived around 8:15, and Adam Ant was on stage a few minutes before 8:30. We were walking back to our car by 10:30.

Prior to the day of the show, I had no idea what to expect. Ant did a smaller US tour last year, but this time he had just released a new album and had a pretty extensive tour itinerary. If someone's playing Sacramento, then you know they're playing every podunk town in the country. There was even an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, meaning Ant was getting mainstream media exposure in the US for the first time in... well, decades. Prior to the show I was hoping he might assemble a band with some roots in his musical history. Guitarist Marco Pirroni was as an important part of those 80s albums as Adam himself was, and as far as I know, they're on good terms and still work together. Other former Ants also went on to have interesting musical careers. But it turned out that Ant was touring with a young band of unknown musicians (though apparently the guitarist once passed through Fields of Nephelim!) who did not have any connection to his musical past.

Now... tons of old bands do the "one or two original guys plus all-new members" thing. There are a couple ways this scenario plays out. The results can sometimes be awful. An example: in the late 90s I saw a revamped version of Modern English play a local bar. The band comprised the guy who was the singer/songwriter/main creative force plus some younger musicians he rounded up to form his backing band. The show was dull as could be, with the crowd chatting throughout the songs from the new album and then finally springing to life and dancing along to "Melt With You." Modern English's new songs had nothing in common with the sound of their older material, and this particular band didn't have much going for it musically, coasting entirely on the success of a hit recorded by an almost entirely different band. And while rock dinosaurs can often be ridiculous, musicians who tour together for years and years can create an amazing musical bond. Think of Grateful Dead, arguably the most successful American rock band ever, in terms of their live shows. Their success was based on their tightly knit performances, with the members sharing a sense of musical intuition that bordered on psychic communication. This is something you just don't see in a thrown-together band like the 90s verson of Modern English.

The second way the one-old-member plus all-new-band scenario works is as follows: the one original member fills out the rest of the positions with highly skilled professional musicians.  Permit me another personal example. Dave Wakeling was one of two vocalists in an 80s ska band called The (English) Beat, and later, in General Public. He eventually moved the California and has since toured up and down the state playing shows under the names Dave Wakeling, General Public and The English Beat. Regardless of the name, it is always the same band and virtually the same setlist. When my wife said she wanted to see him some years ago, I was pretty skeptical, assuming they would be another Modern English. But within minutes of them starting their set, I was won over. While the group was not really "The English Beat," it was Dave Wakeling and his musical buddies from LA, the performance was about everything you could hope for. The band played like seasoned pros; the drummer was one of those guys who looked like some veteran studio drummer. He wore sunglasses and headphones while playing. The band was tight, yet swinging. They could lay down a serious rocksteady groove. Everything about the performance was fun, charming, and musically solid. Afterwards I was amazed at just how good those guys were. (I couldn't find a recent live clip of them with high quality sound, but here's a clip that gives you sort of an idea.)

"Wait a second, Dr. Sparkle," you say. "You still haven't said anything about the Adam Ant show." OK, I'm getting there. I just wanted to set the stage for what the expectations might be for seeing a performance by a living relic like Adam Ant.

Here's my opinion on the show: it was not the worst show I've ever seen. I can't be too hard on Mr. Ant. The man is approaching 60, has battled mental illness, and had been retired from music since the mid-90s. He is now older, fatter, and probably bald as a cue ball (he seems to be doing the Brett Michaels thing of never talking off his headwear.) His current look is that of a Johnny Depp cosplayer.  I told my wife I'd be be happy as long as there were two drummers. There were two drummers, yet, I can't say I came away pleased from the show.

Here's a clip of the start of the show. Despite being recorded on a cell phone, the sound is actually a bit clearer than what it sounded like in person. The vocals and drums were muffled; the bass rumble and guitar drowned out everything else except a bit of the cymbals. The guitarist was using quite a bit of distortion, and the result was just an undifferentiated blob of sound. Now, listen to the vid below for just a sec. The sound on the recording is pretty screwed up, as the uploader admits. But the sound mix actually resembles what I heard, standing in the back 1/3 of the room.

Eventually, the sound man adjusted a few knobs and things cleared up a bit.  But still, the balance of the instruments was awful, and everything sounded sort of smeared together. I've heard people complain about the sound of this particular venue. I recall someone seeing Buckethead there years ago, and griping how bad the sound was. I've certainly heard some pretty awful acoustics there, and maybe The Ace of Spades is a difficult room for sound men to work with. But a competent crew can get the room to sound great. You'll recall I saw Richard Thompson there a while back, and at that show the place sounded like fucking La Scala. Even loud artists such as Sonic Youth and Peaches managed to get great sound out of The Ace of Spades. So the bad sound was more of a problem with the sound crew, rather than the venue.

Aside from technical issues, much of the crappy sound was due to the band's musical decisions. The guitarist played though loads of effects, distortion, etc, trying to create a more "contemporary" heavy sound. Together the guitar and bass produced a huge wave of monolithic noise, which drowned out the percussion. Ant himself had a massive amount of echo on his vocals, making them hard to understand. There is nothing wrong with an artist changing their musical style over time to avoid stagnation. This particular style, however, made the band sound like generic late 80s buttrock at times. This stripped out most of the charm of songs such as "Desperate but Not Serious." The spare, sinister guitar line from the original has been replaced with non-stop busywork from the guitar player. Perhaps they should have brought along a keyboardist to do some of the melodic heavy lifting.

The band performed a typical mixture of old hits, new songs, and "deep" catalog titles. A few lesser known songs were dragged out, including a sing-along version of "Whip in My Valise," as well as "Cleopatra," and they even covered T-Rex's "Get it On."  For a few songs, such as "Stand and Deliver", the guitarist used a cleaner, more melodic, 80s guitar sound. Towards the end of the set, the band actually managed to coalesce into a tighter musical unit, though the sound mix remained pretty terrible. For the live version of the above mentioned "Ant Music," much of the drum work couldn't be heard well, which is crazy because the drum work is practically the whole point of the goddamned song!

This was certainly not the worst show I've ever seen. But it was one of the worst musical performances I've seen from an act charging $30/ticket. The band plodded along; Ant jumped around, did pirouettes, told silly stories between songs. Overall, the performance lacked conviction. Ant told a story that evening in which he claimed that during his retirement, he didn't miss making music. If true, that would explain the perfunctory nature of the show.

As I said earlier, some musical acts can keep going forever without losing their fire. Richard Thompson is one of those. Seeing him live, it doesn't matter whether he plays new songs from an album you've never heard, because he can fucking sell the song. He can play those songs with such conviction that you will think, "I've never heard this before, but this song is goddamned amazing**." He relies on the strength of his songwriting and musicianship, rather than on nostalgia.

If you'll permit me one last personal example before I end this overly long post, I'll mention seeing Cheap Trick in the late 90s. This was during a low point in their career, and they were playing a relatively small bar.  Still, the place was packed, and the crowd was entering a state that might be called "frenzied." I don't even know if they performed any new songs. The show might have been fueled by pure nostalgia. All the hits were performed. Bun E. Carlos drummed wearing white gloves. The five-necked guitar was brought out. The guitar shaped like Rick Nielsen was brought out. (Yes, Rick Nielsen has a guitar shaped like Rick Nielsen.)

Why is the bass player holding the guitar?
At point during the show, a complete stranger turned to us and ecstatically screamed "I can't believe I'm standing here seeing Cheap Trick do 'Heaven Tonight!" Why was the crowd  this rabid? Because Cheap Trick rocked out like fucking hell. Everything was fucking perfect. Even if you had a time machine and traveled back to 1978, you could not have seen a better Cheap Trick show. There was nothing new, nothing cutting edge about it. They pulled it off because they were masters at their craft. They were masters at combining a guitar, bass, drums and a voice into a perfect unified whole. Adam Ant and his band couldn't do this. Maybe Ant is only as good as the people he works with. Maybe a some things are simply better left in the past. Maybe we should just pretend Adam simply vanished for good in 1983. Let me leave you with this: here's one better than two drummers.

*To go into a bit more detail, at some point, McLaren decided it was Adam who was holding the band back. He convinced the band to dump Adam, and paired them an 14 year old singer, thus forming Bow Wow Wow. Incidentally, McLaren discovered another singer, a flight attendant later known as Boy George, and tried to work him into Bow Wow Wow. George left, hooked up with a former Ants drummer and formed Culture Club. Meanwhile, Adam Ant had hired a new band and then went on to commercial success.

** You might not know this, but the Grateful Dead operated in a similar fashion. Many of their biggest live numbers weren't released on actual Grateful Dead studio albums. None of the the songs on the1969 Live/Dead album, for example, had been on either of the two albums they had released at that point.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

All Quiet..../Dr. Sparkle Photo Album Time

As you have noticed, the Chrontendo blog has been pretty quiet lately. You might be wondering, "What's going on? Is Chrontendo on hiatus?" The answer is no, not really. It's just that a number of factors have contributed to preventing me from finishing recording the new episode. And no, one of those factors is not Animal Crossing! (it's SMT IV.) I have been dealing with persistent coughing for a while now. I had actually had a respiratory thing going on back in June, right before I recorded the first episode of Retronauts. I thought I had beaten it, but it came back, and now I've been coughing for the last few weeks. My doctor claims it's just a lingering cough and will eventually just go away, because "coughs are funny things."

However, the main factor in the slowdown of Chrontendo has been my project of making some cosmetic improvements to my office, the room where Chrontendo is recorded in. Almost everything I own had been crammed into that room for some time now, and I've been sorting through stuff and moving it out slowly in my spare time.  Finding things in the back of your closet that you haven't seen in years always brings on feelings of melancholy nostalgia. Here's a few pics I snapped of old things from the 90s. Some of these pics already appeared on Twitter.

Old art class exercises. This is the sort of exciting thing art students do all day, studies in light/shadow/color, etc. Yes, Dr. Sparkle used to paint years ago. I had exactly one piece hang in a gallery, which never sold. One thing you should know about watercolor: getting smooth transitions is a bitch!

I had huge piles of this stuff packed away in the closet. My real paintings remain safely hidden away where no one will ever see them, thank goodness!

When I was young enough to stay up all night I used to go to a lot of shows. My now-wife wrote for a free music rag - a job that didn't pay but got us into a lot of free shows. I still have a number of old posters.

The Deftones/Far show was one the most crowded concerts I've ever been to. This was back when Deftones had long hair. Far was a pioneering local emo band, and folks around her claim Dashboard Confessional ripped off his style from Far's singer. If you were not going to see shows in the 90s, then you might not be aware of how many fucking metal/funk/rap type hybrid bands their were. Red Hot Chili Peppers was the hugest one and Faith No More was also mining that vein, but there were tons of smaller bands doing similar things, like Fungo Mungo.  Oddly, the opening act, No Doubt, impressed me the most, but you have to realize that this was before the huge 90s ska revival, back when ska bands were still novel. We talked to the band after they played and Gwen gave me some ND stickers and a cassette. Also we mercifully arrived late to the Oingo Boingo show and missed 311.

Here's an alligator head. My wife's uncle used to have an alligator farm. He was an interesting character it seems, he did amateur preaching and had a mail-order bride. As for The Knot Book, it is an actual mathematics textbook, one that had not been printed yet, so we used a hand-assembled photocopy with the author's hand drawn diagrams. If you're wondering what post-calculus math is about, well, it involves weird stuff like knot theory.

At this point, the office is completely empty, the nasty old carpet ripped out, and my PC offline. Even if my computer was put back in the office, I wouldn't be able to record since the echo is insane. But hey, everything will be back together in no time at all. I'll actually be posting an update on the office status before to long, because as you know, I'll blog about anything on my videogame themed blog, as long as it's not videogames.

One last thing. Since I'm not doing this at my real computer, hopefully the formatting on the photos and text is not all screwed up.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Obligatory Post

As some of you will have noticed, today is July 15, 2013, the 30th anniversary of the release of the Famicom in Japan. By some odd coincidence, Sega's first console, the SG-1000 was also released that same day, supposedly.

I considered posting some sort of special episode or something to commemorate the event, but decided against it. I already did release something about the birth of the Famicom a few years ago. It was called "Chrontendo Episode 1." If you absolutely must have more of my thoughts on July 1983, you can of course check out the first episode of the new Retronauts. And there is also US Gamer's massive Summer of 1983 series, which include a few choice quotes from me.

At the moment, my headspace is in summer 1989, not 1983. However, in commemoration of this special day, I decided to just fucking upload the first episode onto Youtube. There was no special reason why I hadn't already done this, other than I've been uploading the old episodes in reverse order.  Also, for a little trip down memory lane, here is the post announcing the first episode from back in 2007.

If you have somehow not seen the first Chrontendo episode, then... enjoy, I guess?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Another Stupid Music Related Update

Retronauts just posted the first "mini" episode, which is sort of about tracing the influence of Prog on videogame music. I assumed they might use one of the other episodes for the second week, to avoid Dr. Sparkle exhaustion in their listeners, but.. nope! Back to back Dr. Sparkle.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Quickie Update

I found a pile of my wife's old LPs and made a video of my discovery. I was quite horrified at some of the things I found there. Check it out here.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Old News 'n' Shit

I'm sure everyone already knows this, but the first episode of the new Retronauts is out and it features Dr. Sparkle as a guest star. The theme of the show is "July 1983," because that's like, exactly 30 years ago, and it was the month that the Famicom, Sega SG-1000 and MSX were all released.  We spend the hour and a half just talking about random video game crap related to those three systems. It turned out better than I thought it would, perhaps because these guys actually know what they're doing when it comes to recording people, and Ray Barnholt was even working some kind of fancy mixing board.

A couple remarks about the experience -- I was a bit sick when this was recorded. In fact, the day before, I was thinking that I was not going to make it to the recording session. My voice had almost completed given out and I felt like crap. The next day, I had recovered enough to drive to SF and record, but the day after it was recorded, I lost my voice again and was sick for another week. I guess the fates decided that I needed to be present at that Retronauts recording.

As mentioned in the actual episode, there was a "yoga chanting" group meeting at that time (technically, it was an "Intro to Singing" class), resulting in a bit of unavoidable sound bleed-thru. Also, I was incredibly nervous since: 1. People had paid real American dollars to relaunch Retronauts and I didn't want to screw it up and 2. I was in there with these grizzled Podcast veterans/professional videogame dudes and felt a little out of my league.

For anyone out there who might be doing a future Retronauts guest spot, here's some advice. The room they record in is tiny and stiflingly hot, so you'll basically be sitting in each others' laps in a sauna-like environment. Make sure you dress appropriately. If you are driving in, then note that the building is located on a block with free parking. One block over you'll have to deal with SF's punitively expensive parking meters.  Also, the Retronauts guys are all really nice, and seem like genuinely cool people instead of annoying SF-style hipsters.

I also recorded a mini-episode while I was there, as they plan to alternate full-length episodes with shorter ones. No idea when they will air that one, but I'll remain quiet on the subject matter until it's announced. There seems to be an air of secrecy around future episodes and guest stars, and since Jeremy Parish is from Texas I don't want to make him mad and get beaten down with a 4X4 or something.

Yes, I know this is Tennessee, not Texas.
In other Chrontendo-delaying news, all the hype around Animal Crossing New Leaf led me to buy a damned 3DS. I've just barely started getting into my new job as mayor of Buttland, but I hope to have the place spruced up soon.  I bought the special Animal Crossing version of the 3DS XL. It turns out that version is kind of hard to get, so if you are looking for one and are in the Sac area, the Dimple on Arden had two left when I bought mine a week ago. Maybe they are still there.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Do You Think They'll Drop the Bomb?

OK, kids, I came back from my vacation, almost immediately got sick, had to attend some out-of-town business last weekend -- and now I'm almost completely sure I have some kind of ear/throat infection.

Also, it appears I may have outed myself as a Grateful Dead fan with the title of that Serious Sam video I posted. Sorry if I have disappointed you, but no one's perfect.

That provides us with the perfect segue in the subject of today's post, one of the most intriguing and fascinating games Nintendo released for the Famicom. This game would not only be Nintendo's first RPG, but it was designed by a well known writer/media celebrity named Shigesato Itoi.  The game's setting would not be the standard fantasy/sci-fi worlds of most RPGs, but the world of suburban America, with characters resembling the cast of Peanuts. All of this sounds like it has a huge amount of potential, yet the final result fell quite a bit short

Oh, I get it now... "mother Earth."

We are, of course, speaking of Mother, released in July 1989, although the name given to its official English translation was Earthbound. Since it's US release was eventually canceled, Nintendo reused the Earthbound name for the 1995 SNES release of the sequel, Mother 2. To avoid confusion, the English version of Mother is often called "Earthbound Zero." The unreleased English translation turned up on a prototype cartridge which was subsequently made available to the public by Demiforce Translations.

Mother is an odd beast. Nintendo had originally focused on action/platform/sports games for most of its first party Famicom releases. In the years 1986-1988, a few new genres achieved massive success on the console -- RPGs, menu-based adventure games, and military strategy games.  Nintendo ventured into adventure games with the Famicom Mukashi Banashi games in 1987, and released its first mil strategy game, Famicom Wars, in 1988, but remained stubbornly resistant to RPGs until Mother's release in 1989.

The game has some rather obvious Peanuts references.

On paper, Mother looks like a winner. The story is stuffed full of interesting ideas that elevate it beyond the the typical "destroy the evil demon/wizard" plot of most Famicom RPGs. Familial alienation is a major them of the game. Each of the four main characters has an absent parent, with reasons ranging from overwork to unexplained disappearance to death. I understand, of course, that RPG protagonists are frequently orphans/castoffs, but in Mother the missing parent theme is foregrounded.

One character joins you in order to find her missing mother.

The writing is quite good, and many NPCs are full of character, such as the lazy mayor of Podunk or Loid's father, who you find hiding in a garbage can in a swamp. Mother is stuff full of charming moments; in the middle of the desert you find a guy who will take you on a sight-seeing tour in his airplane. In a bar in the town of Ellay your party will engage in a synchronized dance routine.  As for the music -- it's fantastic. Provided by Itoi associate Keiichi Suzuki and Nintendo's Hip Tanaka (Metroid, Kid Icarus, Duck Hunt....), Mother's soundtrack is one of best we've encountered in Chrontendo so far, capturing feelings of melancholy, nostalgia and eerie stillness.

So what's the problem with Mother? Well, having created interesting and unusual characters, settings and plot, the game designers simply took all this and bolted it onto a Dragon Quest chassis. The game's mechanics are taken direclty from Enix's RPG series. The same menus, the same black background during battles -- the same limited inventories -- the same "fight a random battle every two steps" deal. So if you liked Dragon Quest II, then you might be forgiving of Mother's old school approach to RPGs. And the grinding! So much grinding.... Even so, you'll find yourself struggling to keep your weaker party members alive during battles. Your stereotypical female magic user character, Ana, has some decent attacks, but ends up needing to defend or heal herself most of the time just to stay alive.

This could be confused with a Dragon Quest screenshot. But it's Mother.

Additionally, if you are a fan of lots of cool loot and gear, expect to be disappointed by Mother. You won't finds tons of cool weapons and pieces of armor, like in Final Fantasy. To illustrate this: the protagonist, Ninten, finds his first weapon, the plastic bat, at the very beginning of the game. In the first town, Podunk, I bought him the boomerang. Once I had the boomerang, there was no need to acquire a new weapon until I found a better bat shortly before the game's final area.  Thus, I spent 80% of the game with the same weapon. As for armor, the town of Magicant, which you reach pretty early in the game, has all the armor you'll ever need. There are treasure chests in Mother, but they tend to contain (very useful) healing items, or one-time use items that can be used during battle for offense purposes. If you're the kind of person who like to poke around every dungeon corner in hopes of finding the Kaiser Knuckle or Flame Sword, then Mother will disappoint you.

Enemy types are quirky and silly, but rarely do more than use physical attacks or shoot a laser beam at you. Status aliments exist, but you rarely get hit with them. I had a character get turned to stone once and got poisoned only a couple times. A few enemies perform very annoying suicide attacks that do insane amounts of damage, killing off weaker party members.  But for the most part, battles are entirely nonstrategic slugfests - you pound monsters with your weapons/magic while occasionally healing.

I guess even little kids need to get their groove on sometimes.

In summary, Mother is a game full of creativity, whimsy and imagination which is weighed down by its derivative, dull and frustrating mechanics. In other words, it's a JRPG. (Just kidding!) The game is worth a look, and I suppose its an essential game for hardcore fans of the Mother series.. But don't go into expecting an 8-bit version of Earthbound.

Once Chrontendo 47 is released, fans of squandered potential will get a double treat. Aside from Mother, we have Capcom's bizarre 8-bit version of Strider.