Archive for February, 2016

X-Files Title

 

Time is quite fleeting. It only seems like yesterday that I was waiting with baited breath for The X-Files revival series. Now, it has passed us by. Last night, the finale of the six episode event aired, acting as a bookend to the mythology heavy premier. Beware, here there be spoilers.

The episode opens with a monologue by Scully, mirroring Mulder’s from My Struggle (I) and ending with her morphing into an alien (citing the fear of what her alien DNA means). Once the episode proper begins, Scully shows up for work to find Mulder missing and his laptop open to the latest episode of Tad O’Malley. Skinner and Agent Einstein drop in, a conference ensues, and Scully and Einstein wind up at Scully’s former hospital to…well, I actually can’t recall. Suffice it to say that they are there for something important. Testing Einstein’s blood for the alien DNA, I think. Anyways, the first sign of trouble is a former soldier showing up with exposure to Anthrax, which he wasn’t actually exposed to.

X-Files alien

It’s what’s on the inside that counts, but yikes.

Meanwhile, we have also learned that Mulder was supposed to meet Tad O’Malley, but when he and Scully each arrive at his house they find it wrecked, with no Mulder. A flashback shows us that Mulder was assaulted by an agent of the CSM, whom Mulder has set out to track down. Scully realizes that the sickness she saw in the soldier is the beginning of what was hinted at in the first episode, and sets out trying to fix it. A meeting with Agent Reyes clears this up a bit. Agent Reyes is now the CSM’s go to woman, and has been saved from the coming extermination. Scully, as it turns out, is saved as well due to her alien DNA (given to her when she was abducted). She has had it backwards the entire time. Her alien DNA is not going to kill her, it is the only think that is saving her (thank you Agent Reyes, you may have redeemed yourself). Scully and Einstein successfully make a vaccine based on Scully’s DNA and begin administering it.

X-Files Reyes

Seriously, would a passing mention of Doggett been too much?

At the same time, Mulder has found the CSM, but is quickly deteriorating due to what is called the Spartan Virus, which shuts down most people’s immune systems and is the culmination of what we learned in My Struggle (I). The CSM fills in some missing spots regarding the current situation (population control, etc…), and simply waits as death approaches for Mulder. Using Mulder’s laptop to track his (Mulder’s) phone, Einstein’s partner, Miller, has tracked him down and pulls him from the home of the CSM, and makes plans to meet Scully to administer the vaccine. Once they meet on a crowded bridge, Scully states that Mulder is too far gone and needs stem cells from William to survive. Obviously, William is MIA. Out of nowhere, a blue light comes down from a UFO that is hovering over Scully and…cue credits.

X-Files UFO

Annnnnd wrap. That shouldn’t leave any plot elements unanswered.

Okay, this has been a quick and dirty recap, but if you’re reading this, you probably watched the episode anyway. I apologize for anything I got mixed up, but I really did just want to hit the high points.

Now, what does this mean for The X-Files? I was certain there would be no cliffhanger since this was a special event with no guarantee of future episodes, but it would appear that Chris Carter and company were not thinking in those terms. They went all in, renewal or no, and did manage to deliver one of the best cliffhangers of the series’ 10 seasons. Also, as I commented to my wife, this episode seemed to have the grandest story scale of any mythology episode I can recall watching. Traditionally, the world may have been at risk, but it was a future risk. In this episode, for the first time, we see one of these sweeping plans actually enacted. It was truly larger than I expected it to be, and I expected big.

So, will there be a renewal? I firmly believe so. The series was clearly a hit, averaging around 9.5 million viewers. Also, from most reports, the main principles are all interested in returning to the series again, though probably not for any kind of a full season (22 episodes or so). I expect there to be a Season 11 with a run of 10 to 12 episodes that will continue the story, as well as having the monster-of-the-week type episodes placed in between the story-centric episodes. I am very much in favor of this format. It keeps interest high and makes each episode feel that much more special because it doesn’t have time to become the norm again. It isn’t a show that just becomes a part of our schedule, it is truly an event that those of us that love The X-Files will anticipate for months. It also allows for anyone associated with the show to take part in other shows and/or films. It’s essentially a win/win for everyone involved.

The only change I would like to see is a bit more focus on the story. In a normal season, there would usually be 6 to 8 story episodes. That can’t happen here, obviously, but for as much as I enjoyed this finale, it did feel rushed from time to time. I think the same story, with the same cliffhanger, could have been handled much better over a two hour/two episode span. I understand that that wasn’t a choice here, but if this goes forwards, it would be nice to have the central story a bit more drawn out.

However the future of the show goes, I simply hope that I’m right in expecting a future. Fictional characters or no, I’m simply not going to be happy until I find out where Carter is taking this story. Just would have been nice if we could have gotten some minor confirmation at the end. Just a “The X-Files will return in 2017” would have sufficed.

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Voltron - Title

Note: Many times when I’m thinking of blog topics, I only go forward with them if I can reach a point or conclusion of some kind. I’ve decided that, instead of working that way, I’m going to just write those as more personal blogs. Recollections, if you will. What better place to start than Voltron.

So many of us, as kids (and adults), are mesmerized by giant robots and/or monsters of some description. I’m guilty here. Pacific Rim is one of my favorite movies of the past few years. I shamefully go see the Transformers films. There’s something magical about watching these behemoths go into battle.

For me, that fascination didn’t start with Transformers, as it seemed to with most kids in the late 80’s. For me, that started with Voltron. We didn’t have cable or satellite when I was a kid. I grew up, like many people in that time period, with the outside antennae that you had to go turn if you wanted a different channel. This meant that I often explored the video rental stores in search of new cartoons to watch. One such show I was drawn to was Go-Bots but, even more so than Go-Bots, I fell in love with Voltron.

We had two rental places in my town. One had a few videos that had a couple of episodes each. The bowling alley though, had a VHS that had about eight episodes, including the origin “movie.” God only knows how many times I rented that video and watched it over and over again while I had it. There was no buying these videos in the stores I went to, so renting is how I got my fix. When I couldn’t get videos, I would find the book/record or cassette tape sets based on Voltron episodes. I also made Voltron and Robeasts out of Legos. Before that, I would draw them, color them, then cut them out and have them do battle. I may have been a little bit obsessed.

Voltron - Tape

Yes, I actually had this one.

As much as I love many of the episodes, I will always remember the rush of the origin movie/episodes. To this day, I can still feel the excitement when the fifth key is found after the other four lions have been beaten down by the robeast. The thrill when they are finally able to form Voltron is as fresh now as when I was 10 or 12 years old. I make no excuses for that as a 34 year old. I’m sure it’s a nostalgia thing, but it’s definitely there.

Voltron - Robeast

This thing was scary as a kid.

As I’ve gotten older, my love of Voltron has stayed strong. I have the DVD collection now, and have finally seen all those episodes I had only read a bit about or heard of. I even watched the one season of Voltron Force that aired. It wasn’t great, but it did honor the original series while acting as a continuation, and I appreciated that approach and what the show’s creators were trying to do. I’ve been a bit sad because no season two ever materialized, which signaled to me that Voltron was probably going to be dead for the foreseeable future. I’m so very happy to have been wrong on this.

In January of this year, Netflix and Dreamworks announced that a new Voltron series would be coming in 2016. For a few minutes, I was a kid again. One of my favorite shows was getting new life. New life in the hands of two companies that have a fairly stellar track record. Once that new series launches, I am sure that I will be binge-watching it. Again, no shame there. It may equal or even best the original series. It may be a bit more sub-par, such as Voltron Force which I mentioned above. However it goes, I’ll be there, on the couch, watching with wide eyes (hopefully with my 9 year old beside me), and experiencing that same excitement I used to get when I’d get home with my latest Voltron rental. When it comes to Voltron, I’m most definitely still a kid at heart. And I love that.

Voltron - New

Star Fox Zero

At E3 2014, Nintendo confirmed what had become a poorly kept secret. A new Star Fox title was in development for the WiiU. Titled Star Fox Zero, the game would utilize both the television screen and the WiiU Gamepad for play. The television would be a sort of action view, whereas the Gamepad would be used for aiming and controls, taking advantage of the Gamepad’s gyroscopic abilities specifically for aiming. Reactions to the unveiling of the game as well as the control structure were mixed.

Star Fox Zero was confirmed for 2015, with a release date in November finalized in August, 2015. Star Fox Zero did not release in November, 2015. Instead, it was moved into the first quarter of 2016 to allow for extra development time. Star Fox Zero will not release in the first quarter of 2016. In North America, Star Fox Zero will now release on April 22, 2016…maybe.

Star Fox Zero in Development Hell Due to Motion Controls

Star Fox Zero is so Bad it Might Not Pass Quality Assurance

More Details on Star Fox Zero’s Development Situation

All of the above are rumors, but they are all reporting almost precisely the same situation with the game. Nintendo (and Platinum’s) determination to stick with the Motion Control aspects of the game are creating multiple problems, to the point that the game could see yet another delay and/or fail in quality testing. My favorite part of this entire story is this quote:

I also heard that Star Fox Zero is in the final stretches, which makes sense since it’s coming out in April. But it’s not all cat treats and scratching posts for the game. The foxing minds at Nintendo and PlatinumGames doubled down on motion controls.

I love Nintendo, but all too often, their strongest assets, originality and innovation, are also their Achilles heel. Nintendo loves to think outside the box. They love to differentiate themselves from other console makers. They did it with the Wii by introducing motion control gaming. They did it with the Nintendo DS, using dual screens, one being a touch screen. They are attempting to do it with the WiiU, adapting the idea of the DS to a home console, while also incorporating aspects of the Wii. It’s a tall order, and based just on sales, it has not paid off (we can argue about games and such all day long, I actually do like my WiiU).

Xenoblade Chronicles X

Thanks in large part to this game

The problem arises when Nintendo sets out to prove that their new ideas work. They are extremely stubborn and will seemingly compromise a game to make their newest innovation fit. Everyone remember Excite Truck? It launched with the Wii. It was a racing game that had you steering with the Wii Remote…and nothing else. There was no other option to control the game. I have to believe that some people avoided it because they prefer tighter controls in their racing games. I have to believe this, because I am one of those people. Remember The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass? A DS title that had you controlling Link by using the stylus? No other option was given to you. I tried the game and gave up on it because I hated the control scheme. This was also one of the few aspects of the game to receive any criticism. Remember The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? The game that utilized Wii Motion Plus and was the game that would show the fulfilled promise of the Wii? It was critically acclaimed upon release, yet as time has passed, more and more people have pointed out the overabundance of motion controls in the game and how, while some are intuitive, some are just over the top and unneeded.

None of these games were failures, quite the opposite actually. All were quite fun, but all are examples of how Nintendo can be ridiculously stubborn with their ideas, with their innovations. Mario Kart Wii got it right. You could control with the Wii Remote, or you could use more traditional controls. Why did Excite Truck (and later, Excite Bots) deprive the consumer of this choice? Why, in games like MadWorld and de Blob (not developed by Nintendo, I know), did motion control have to be added in a situation where its addition only served to remind the player that “Hey! I can wave this controller around?” It’s because Nintendo, as great as they are at being creative, simply can’t let their new ideas grow organically into their franchises/games. Sometimes, they just feel the need for justification, and I think it sometimes gets the better of them and their judgment.

Wii Music

A minor example

This brings us back to Star Fox Zero. I don’t recall anyone ever complaining about controlling and aiming with an analog stick in a Star Fox game (excepting Command here, which used the stylus). But Nintendo needs to further justify the Gamepad, and they will do that by putting the aiming mechanic in the Gamepad. Now, since the game announcement, Nintendo have clarified that you can opt to use the analog stick to aim, which is a concession that means maybe they are realizing where they have erred in the past. Still though, they are so insistent that the motion control play style be included that the game is obviously suffering as a result. Also, even with the concession of analog controls, this is still a game that was built to use the Gamepad, so how will analog aiming work now? My fear is that it will be quite choppy simply because it wasn’t planned for from the beginning. The game is meant to be theatric on the television, with most of the action taking place on the Gamepad. So, essentially, you’re playing a handheld game on the WiiU (unless you can swap perspectives, no idea if that’s going to happen).

Look, I’ll level with anyone reading this. I have not liked the ideas behind Star Fox Zero from its first preview. I demand tight controls in my games, and maybe that puts me in the minority, but unless I see something dramatic in future previews, this is a game I will most likely skip simply because I believe the control scheme is absurd (again, possibly in the minority). The continued rumors of the motion controls being problematic are only serving to strengthen my resolve against Star Fox Zero. My past frustrations with some shoehorned in motion controls aren’t helping matters.

I realize I’m being hard on Nintendo here. They have had far more hits than misses. The Metroid Prime Trilogy, Super Mario Galaxy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Pokemon, Xenoblade Chronicles X, and Super Mario Maker are all examples of games that implemented Nintendo’s console innovations seamlessly with gameplay. This is where Nintendo shines, but at times they buy into their own hype a bit too much and combine an idea with a game in such a way that doesn’t work well and will potentially put fans off. When they do this, they rarely leave an avenue open for more traditional play. But then, that seems to be Nintendo’s modus operandi. As I stated, maybe there implementation of analog controls in Star Fox Zero is a good sign in that Nintendo has learned from previous criticisms, but it’s only too bad that they realized it so late in the game.

Super Metroid - Title

Best. Game. Ever.

The Set-up:

“The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.”

You are Samus Aran, and so begins the most amazing game to grace the Super NES. Samus Aran has faced down the Metroids on Zebes, and completely eradicated them on their home planet of SR388, with the exception of a Metroid larva which attaches to her as if she were its mother. Unable or unwilling to destroy it, Samus delivers the infant to Ceres Space Station so that it may be tested and researched. Assuming all is well, Samus sets out for a new bounty to hunt (a woman has to eat) when she receives a message. Ceres Station is under attack.

The Story:
The game opens with your return to Ceres Station. As you work your way through this small facility, you’ll notice that the scientists have been slain and the infant Metroid is missing from its containment unit. In the next room, you’ll find the infant Metroid, but before you can get it, two red eyes appear, and the leader of the Space Pirate army, Ridley, snatches the infant, fights you briefly, then bails the scene. This is one of those impossible to win or lose battles. Upon hitting a health level of about 32, Ridley will zoom towards the screen, the space station will begin a self-destruct sequence, and you, as Samus, will need to exit stage left while Ridley flees towards, where else, planet Zebes.

The greatness of this game begins with an almost immediate visit to the site of the first game. After landing on the planet, you proceed through the only accessible area to an elevator and a familiar shaft which leads to a destroyed Mother Brain tube. The entire area is deserted and reeks of age. This portion of the game is identical, and brings back fond memories for those of us that played through the original Metroid. This was an amazing design idea that lets you know, without explicitly stating it, that much time has passed since your last battle here. After collecting some missiles, however, things come to life and the space pirates show up.

Super Metroid - Old Tourian

The most impressive aspect of the story is that it tells you so much without actually having to give you dialogue or text. The opening monologue by Samus Aran recaps the history of the Metroids and her encounters with them. The opening space station level sets up the conflict of the game, the taking of the infant Metroid. The initial exploration on Planet Zebes gives you familiar ground to explore, while also letting you know that there is much more that is new here than is old. Without speaking of the ending of the game (superb), Nintendo manages to get across more plot and story using level design and a short monologue than some games do with 30 minutes of narrative. This is no easy feat, and never fails to impress me when I replay Super Metroid.

The Gameplay:
Starting with the very first game, Metroid has been about exploration, discovering new areas, and using new items to access other new items and areas you could sometimes see, but not yet get to. Super Metroid not only keeps this aspect of the franchise, but perfects it. Initially, you only have access to missiles and morph ball bombs, but you can see doors of differing colors, ledges that are just out of reach, and other various impediments which block your exploration. Your first time through the game, you won’t know how to access these until you find the needed item. This is old hat now, having been utilized by the Castlevania franchise and, more recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum. At the time, however, there were exceedingly few games that worked this way, and of those that did, none did it better than Super Metroid.

Super Metroid - Energy

So close, yet so far

In addition to new areas of Zebes to explore, Super Metroid also introduced new upgrades for Samus Aran to use. In addition to the traditional missiles, you gain access to Super Missiles and Power Bombs. You obtain the Grapple Beam which makes use of specific blocks located throughout the game. Also included is the X-Ray Scope, allowing you to scan areas for breakable blocks or false walls and is helpful, if not necessary, along with the Varia and Gravity Suit upgrades, and the speed boots (personal favorite). Super Metroid also fixes a flaw from the original Metroid in regards to beams. In the original title, one beam would replace the other (an aspect that bit me once when I took on Tourian with the Wave Beam and couldn’t defeat the Metroids as a result). Super Metroid makes beams stackable, meaning that your beam gains an effect with each new pick-up. This is a small, but extremely helpful improvement.

Super Metroid also includes abilities that are not mentioned in the instruction booklet, and have to be discovered on your own in game. For example, there is the wall jump, the shinespark, and the morph ball bomb jump (there are others, just not mentioned here). For the first two, if you explore fully, you will find alien lifeforms that demonstrate how these work. Much like the story of the game, there is no dialogue included, you simply watch the critters, then mimic them. This is a very subtle, but highly effective way of teaching you something in the game without holding your hand or giving you a tutorial.

Super Metroid - Wall Jump

Now, while these “secret” abilities are not necessary to complete the game, or even collect everything, they are essential if your goal is to complete the game as quickly as possible and sequence break. This is part of the brilliance of the game design. Super Metroid is set up in such a way that sequence breaking is expected, and seemingly encouraged. The game is open world, with controls in place to guide you, but you can still attack it in differing ways. You can simply go through the game, revisiting areas when you have the proper items, or you can work around some such controls, accessing areas earlier or via a different path. To this day, I still get to Crocomire, the mini-boss in Norfair, via the exact opposite path that you are meant to take. But that is part of the joy of this game. There are multiple ways to attack it, and each playthrough can be different than the previous one.

Again, this design is simply brilliant. It’s as if the developers set the game up to be completed a specific way, but then added in difficult, but obtainable, shortcuts so spice things up. In the time period of the Super NES, the internet was not a “thing.” Therefore, we had to depend on gaming magazines and guides, or, in my case, simple perseverance to find all of these exploitable shortcuts. In doing so, the game became a true adventure, and you felt that you were truly in control of the situation. Not because you were breaking the game, but because the game was designed to let you explore instead of locking you into one path of exploration. The original Metroid and its sequel did the same, but they only accomplished a fraction of what Super Metroid presented.

Conclusions:
What else can I say about Super Metroid? It’s my favorite video game. Period. It’s expertly crafted. Wonderfully paced. Superbly designed. It perfectly captures the feel of being alone in a foreign land, facing, essentially, an army of enemies that want you dead, and in many cases, tower over you. Metroid has never seemed to have the level of fandom of Mario or Zelda, but I will always take the Metroid franchise over those. Mario, Zelda, Starfox, etc… all are great franchises, and I love them, but there is a magic to Metroid that those do not possess. I can’t put that into words, and maybe it’s something specific to me. I don’t believe that it’s nostalgia though. I can recall renting Super Metroid shortly after it came out. I was immediately in love with the game, and rented it multiple times. It would be a while before I owned my own copy, but once I did, I played and replayed it. That feeling I had then has not gone, and I simply can’t imagine another game ever toppling that.

Super Metroid - Ending

Still a better love story than Twilight