Archive for February, 2009

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Review- Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon

February 23, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tactically minded person must want an interesting strategy title to play.  Ensemble Studios (may it rest in peace) founded itself on that principle, and while it may have lost its way after a time, the work created within those hallowed halls kept me entertained and harvesting gold and upgrading my town hall to a keep quite often when I wasn’t building cannon towers in Warcraft 2 with Blizzard Entertainment and building walls out of farms.  My point is that strategy titles, be they real-time or turns based, have occupied me for years when I felt the need to engage in some mild megalomania.

That brings me to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, a revamping of the original Fire Emblem game that was made for the NES (known in Japan as Famicom apparently).  This game had never before been released out of Japan, though in recent years there have been a couple Fire Emblem titles released here, they were part of secondary story lines taking place in the same world but different continents in that world.  In Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, the main character is Marth, of Super Smash Brothers: Melee fame for those of you who never played Fire Emblem on an emulator.

The game has all of the trappings of a Fire Emblem game, from the micromanagment of individual units to the short battle scenes, laughable dialogue, and thrilling music.   For people who have never played a Fire Emblem title before the game can be very frustrating because if one of your soldiers dies on the battlefield, there is no way that you can bring him back, not even if you obtain every item in the game will Aeris… I mean… the soldier come back.  That is what invests me in the Fire Emblem games, along with animated battles and the great unit variety and versatility, the risk that you undertake with each battle.   You could spend hours and hours upgrading Frey, a Cavalier character, only to have him be mowed down by an archer because you were not paying attention to your flanks.

I realize this makes the game sound frustrating and not entertaining, but if that is what you take away from this review, you are missing the point, at least in my opinion.  Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is an epic JRPG/Turn-based strategy game with silly dialogue that allows you to take on overwhelming enemy forces and journey on a noble quest, and have some laughs as well as some tears while you do it.  The learning curve is not steep if you play through the new prologue, which aids newcomers to the series in adjusting to the battle system.  That being said, I guarantee there will be times where you will find yourself stuck on a battle, unable to save one of your units, and you will have to make a terrible choice, and that’s what this game is all about.  There is a sense of urgency throughout the game that makes it all the more compelling, and that is why, time and time again after putting away my DS in frustration, I unzip the case, take out the stylus, and begin the battle again.

-Amanda/Seamus

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Defending Buffy to the Uninitiated

February 22, 2009

The Chosen One is a girl. Wrap your brain around that one. The Chosen One has always been a girl, and always will be a girl. And not just any girl: A silver-tongued, adorable blonde girl in a mini dress and mall-rat makeup, with a D average and the irreversible brand of “Troublemaker.” She saves the world a lot. You got a problem with that?

Since Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer came crashing into mainstream television, there have been two kinds of people: Those who will defend this television show to the death, and those who just don’t get it and wouldn’t be caught dead watching it. I am one of the former, but in a peaceful, Ghandi sort of way. It’s ok if you don’t love Buffy like I love Buffy. I’m not here to beat you over the head for your woeful ignorance. Rather, my goal in the next few paragraphs is to lead you gently by the hand. I want to refute a few of the arguments for not watching Buffy, and introduce you to a few of the reasons why you should. This is my brief defense of Buffy to the uninitiated.

The Metaphor

When Buffy creator Joss Whedon set about crafting the show, he had a very simple theme in mind: High school is a horror movie. Anyone who has managed to survive high school can recognize the truth of this metaphor. The teenage world is a scary place, and many seemingly meaningless actions can have dire consequences. The metaphor becomes starkly real and terrifying with each of Buffy’s “monsters of the week”: Have sex with your boyfriend and you might wake up to find he’s a completely different person-a sadistic vampire who tries to brutally murder everyone you love. Take steroids in order to win the state swimming championship, and end up shedding your skin to become a slimy Swamp Thing. Meet a boy online who sounds really nice, and he turns out to be a demonic robot intent on making you his demonic robot bride. Ignore the shy girl enough and she literally becomes invisible… only to hunt down her tormentors with murderous intent.

The monsters of the first few seasons of Buffy had definite moral-of-the-story overtones. But the overall theme of Buffy goes beyond the metaphor I’ve described above. Buffy conforms to the heroic journey motif of scholar Joseph Campbell, putting her and the “Scoobie gang” on a level with Odysseus and his crew, and Frodo and the fellowship of the ring. Yes, our heroine is a teenage girl from Southern California, complete with test-taking anxiety and problems with authority, but she is also a leader, a warrior, and a hero. The show constantly questions which is more important to the Buffy: her identity as a normal girl, or her calling as the Slayer. At its core the horrific monsters of Buffy are a metaphor for real life, and Buffy herself is a character to be admired. Her heroism is something viewers can aspire to. Maybe our heroic feats don’t entail blowing up the evil mayor when he transforms into a giant snake, or dying so that the rest of the world can live (Jesus, anyone?). But perhaps we can use that inner “Slayer strength” in life’s smaller battles. Next time you see a high school student defending a classmate against a bully, think of Buffy. She’s a hero who fights monsters. We can be the same.

But She’s a Girl

When I suggested to my boyfriend (a born-again fan of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity) that he might enjoy watching Buffy, he immediately rejected the idea. I pointed out that the writing of the show was just as original, amusing, intellectually stimulating, and exciting as the Space Western Firefly, but his response was basically, “But she’s a girl.”

So I’ve decided not to read Lord of the Rings because almost all of the characters are male. I’ve decided to take a pass on The X-Files because Mulder is more central to the plot than Scully. I don’t think I’ll watch Battlestar Galactica because Admiral Adama and Apollo are men. I won’t watch Fight Club because Edward Norton and Brad Pitt have balls. I think I’ll skip The Watchmen because the title is Watchmen, and not Watchwomen. The same goes for X-Men. And I’m opposed to 90% of first-person-shooter video games ever made because the protagonists are male.

Now that I’ve boycotted every form of entertainment featuring a male protagonist, I’m incredibly bored. Most art and literature, particularly action television shows, feature men in the lead roles. For a woman to close her mind to a television show because the protagonist is of the opposite gender (and therefore couldn’t possibly relate to the viewer in any way!) would be ridiculous and irrational, not only because she’d be missing out on many quality shows, but because she’d be seen as a narrow-minded femi-nazi. Why then, is it acceptable for a male viewer to discount Buffy because he doesn’t believe a female protagonist and action hero will have anything to offer him? It’s just silly.

Buffy isn’t simply a girl. She’s a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. She proves herself again and again to be intelligent and resourceful, using her wits and her creativity to defeat the monsters that threaten the innocent people of Sunnydale (most of whom don’t even like or respect her). She’s strong, both physically and emotionally. Most people would crumple under the weight of the world on their shoulders, but Buffy manages to soldier on after heartbreak and disappointment. Her physical strength allows her to protect even the men in her life: boyfriend(s), best friend, and father figure.

Perhaps this strength is intimidating to a male viewer. After all, the men in the cast willingly accept Buffy as their general, and they are grateful for her “generous life-saving.” Buffy’s strength shouldn’t be interpreted as emasculating. It is empowering and encouraging to men who value the strong women in their lives, and who are tired of the damsel in distress wringing her hands in the corner instead of helping her man defeat the villain. The women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer don’t just help their men, they help themselves. After decades of two-dimensional, weak heroines subordinate to their male counterparts, I should think a male viewer would find Buffy refreshing. Finally, we have a female protagonist who is worthy of a male audience’s attention and intellectual investment.

It’s Just a TV Show

Television, particularly science fiction and fantasy programs, have fought an uphill battle for recognition as art. When was the last time you saw an actor in a sci fi or fantasy series win an Emmy? When was the last time you heard anyone refer to a television series as “art”? When Buffy was broadcast, the stigma against “non-realistic” shows was just starting to lift, and I believe that it is one of the reasons sci fi and fantasy shows have gained respectability and popularity (Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, and Lost to name a few). There are those who consider TV an inferior form of entertainment-especially “unrealistic” shows.

Television is an incredibly dynamic storytelling medium. A book can describe to you actions and emotions, and you as the reader are left to visualize and imagine the world of the book all on your own. Movies take storytelling a step further, by providing actors to visualize the emotions and dialog for you, background music to set the mood of the scene, elaborate sets to build the world of the story, special effects to bring your imaginings to life. But television shows do something neither books or movies can: they progress. Once you reach the end of a novel or a feature film, it is done. The entire story-character growth, passage of time, beginning and ending-is encapsulated in a relatively short medium. But television, especially shows like Buffy, can give the viewer seven years of continuous storyline, allowing the characters and plot to evolve continuously and refer back to years of previous content, in a way no film and few books can. In Buffy we watch the Scoobie gang grow and change over a period of seven years. There is no montage in the middle, where we skip over five years of important events in order to pass over a character’s dark, transitional period. No, instead we get season four and Buffy’s tumultuous freshman year of college. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a long and complex story, continuously layered and self-referential.

As Buffy scholar Rhonda Wilcox once said, just because a show contains unreal elements does not mean the show is unrealistic. With a host of vampires, demons, witches, werewolves, and un-nameable gods of evil, Buffy definitely has its share of unreal elements. Magic exists in this story, but so does real human emotion and interaction. While some might dismiss the drama of Buffy because of the supernatural antagonists (and the supernatural advantages of its heroine), the truth is that many of the conflicts of Buffy are more realistic than your standard “realistic” show, applauded for its depictions of real life. If all television is meant to reflect the real world, then I would rather use Buffy the Vampire Slayer for my mirror than an endless lineup of marginally differentiated cop shows. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and-yes, I’ll say it-it might even have changed my life.

Don’t just take my word for it-ask somebody you know who loves Buffy! This essay is just to get you to consider watching the show. Buffy does not need defending from me. There are many, many scholarly articles and books written about Joss Whedon’s seven-season-long work of art, and if the seal of approval from respected academics, critics, and authors isn’t enough to give this show some clout, I don’t know what is. If you’d like to read more about Buffy, I recommend Rhonda Wilcox’s Why Buffy Matters, and The Watcher’s Guides by Nancy Holder and company.

~Jess d’Arbonne

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Rack Jack #3

February 22, 2009

The Rack Jack #3

DC and Marvel are really going at it, and even still, it feels more like the calm before the storm.  The most obviously notable events that have happened in the DC universe are the drastic changes to the Batman Family.

Both the Nightwing and Robin main titles have had their final issues, and though this may fall more under a “weekly recommendation” area, it is something I want to give a bit more attention.  Whenever a title ends, it is always something to note, especially when it is from two major characters whose titles were running for 12 to 15 years (150-180 some issues), that is a sign that this whole “Batman is dead” thing might be important.  The stories told of the two Bat-Prodigies and how they are leaving their old lives behind to fill the void left by Batman’s absence.  Even Alfred is leading the Outsiders!  Battle for the Cowl is coming…

Marvel is still fighting the brave fight in the topsy-turvy world they have created.  Brian Michael Bendis is a man whose has done…well, a lot.  I loved his run on Ultimate Spiderman, but I have to say I wonder if he’s stretched too thin.  After Secret Invasion, he now has THREE Avengers titles (that’s just Avengers titles, he is still writing other things as well).  What are you up to, Marvel, what’s the end game?

Anyway…

Week of 2/18/09

  • Robin #183. As mentioned above, it is the last issue of a series I wasn’t even reading. But I picked it up because it was the end, and I found the writing to be quite good. The story was solid, heartfelt, and definitely raises the reader’s eyebrow in curiosity: I wonder where the boy wonder will wander…
  • Invincible #59. I was actually in the store when it was being recommended this week, and I couldn’t help but add a simple “you should try it” to the customer they were trying to convince to start this series with the first trade-and buy it he did. But this new issue stands out in my mind because it was a unique story. Told from the perspective of a man whose sister died because of one of Invincible’s fights, he has grown to hate the hero and has powers of his own. His quest, one issue’s worth of vengeance, and even his wife and young son support him-so he may fight the hero, but it is hard to call him a villain.
  • Ultimate Fantastic Four #60. Okay, Ultimatum? I don’t know what is going on with the Ultimate line, but apparently things are changing and coming to a close. Ultimate FF is one of the few Ultimate titles that stayed strong. It was convoluted at times, sure, but the writing has been good, and the characters sincere, as the FF should be. Susan surprised me in this issue, in a new and interesting way.

-Patrick

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The Rack Jack #2

February 13, 2009

This week in comics began DC Comics’ NEXT, BIG THING! Because, obviously, we haven’t had enough of their events. No, now we have Omens and Origins, which I am holding off really critiquing. It is an interesting idea, and the build up seems like it could lead to something cool. DC actually takes the lead in this week’s news, since Marvel didn’t put up too many new issues this week. A couple smaller titles also are worth consideration, and have my endorsement. But enough with the generalities, damnit, you need specifics!

Week of 2/13/09

THE HEADLINER: BATMAN #686 by NEIL GAIMAN. I will repeat that: By Neil Gaiman. Grant Morrison to Neil Gaiman. Why is it Batman only gets the best writers when he’s dead? But really, it is an interesting read. It’s a two parter, about Batman’s death. Very Gaiman. The story is a bit hard to follow, but that’s because it’s about the build up, and you’ve got to hang in for the big twist. The good news? It’s only an issue away.

DMZ by Brian Wood. The 6th DMZ trade came out this week, and I wanted to take the time to give the series it’s proper salute. Hats off to Brian Wood, the man knows how to write a good human story. New York as a De-Militarized Zone? Journalist protagonist meeting all the different types of people? It’s new, it’s rich, and it’s well done. Trade Paperback #5 explored different stories of different people in the city-from a graffiti artist to the head of a gang. I will admit I haven’t gotten to sink my teeth into the new trade, but I expect to be pleasantly unsurprised by a good story.

Incognito by Ed Brubaker. Government witness protection for supervillains! This type of thing is where Brubaker hits his stride. It’s got a character with a standard power suite (strong, tough, etc), but it really focuses on the grit, but not just human grit-superhuman subculture. Icon is an interesting publisher, offshoot of Marvel, with titles like Powers. They know what they are doing, and Brubaker’s reputation is one that has yet to falter.

Keep the faith DC and Marvel fans, I’m sure that in 2-3 years some normalcy should return to the characters we love. Y’know, except Steve Rogers…or Tony Stark…oh, nevermind.

‘Til next Wednesday.

Patrick

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WILT: All About An Horse

February 10, 2009

What I’m Listening to:

There’s this charming little band from Australia that has been majorly growing on me of late, and they’re called An Horse.  They remind me of a mix of Sleater-Kinney and Rilo Kiley, with a nice helping of The Shins thrown in.  It’s enjoyable, dance-able power pop with a rock undercurrent, which is always a good time.  Here, check this out and see for yourself:

An Horse’s Myspace page

Their debut album is available on Itunes now and in stores on March 17 in the US.

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What I’m Listening to: 2/9/09

February 9, 2009

I’m gonna come clean, I tend to be a pop music person in general, be it regular pop, indie pop, power pop, electro-pop or pretty much any other kind of pop that you can name.  I can be perfectly happy listening to M. Ward or Estelle, Britney or Rilo Kiley, etc.  I just like catchy tunes with a beat that you could bop about to a bit.  Rocking out is important.  That being said, here are some of the people I happen to be listening to right now:

  • M. Ward and Zooey Deschannel: The thing about this is, I realize that I’m really just listening to M. Ward, and Zooey’s cool and all, but note that she’s featuring.  That being said “Never Had Nobody Like You” is a nice little pop song.  M. Ward sounds kind of sleepy and lazy when he sings and I like it.  This song is available on spinner.com and I highly recommend it, the rest of the album is worth checking out as well but this is definitely the stand out track for me.
  • The Appleseed Cast: I love early songs by the Appleseed Cast, and I am pretty much always encouraging people to listen to them.  It might be a product of my listening to bands like Los Desparecidos and Thursday in high school and going to Daughters shows, but I like really epic-but- subdued guitar sounds that just rip it wide open when it’s time and vocals that soar.  That being said, I think Mare Vitalis is their rawest and best album, and it might be the reason I like Explosions in the Sky as much as I do.  I love music that feels like traveling across great distances and triumphing over obstacles.  That being said, Mare Vitalis is a well-crafted gem, one song flowing directly into the other, something that I always love having grown up on Pink Floyd.
  • “International Player’s Anthem”:  UGK feat. Andre 3000.  This song is amazing, Andre 3000’s rap in the beginning feels like he’s painting with words, and then UGK just brings it home with their hilarious rhymes.

That’s all for today, have a good one.

-Amanda/Seamus

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“Honor is like the Hawk”:

February 7, 2009

WARNING! Do not read this if: 

  • You haven’t read Watchmen
  • You don’t want the surprises in Watchmen ruined for you

I have to say that I’m astonished that there is so little published scholarship on Watchmen, arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written and one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest English-language novels from 1923-present day.  Personally speaking, I’ve never been more moved by a graphic novel besides The Sandman books, and yet Watchmen, being less episodic in nature, does not suffer from the weaknesses that keep The Sandman books from being something that I reread often, namely hackneyed subplot lines and inconsistent artwork. 

 

In Watchmen, the prevalent use of World War II imagery, be it a “fat man” crushing Janey Slater’s watch or Adrian Veidt as a latter day Truman to name a few, serves to deconstruct the nature of mutually assured destruction and the idiotic nature of attempts to prevent nuclear war by deliberately wiping out millions of people through an overwhelming first strike on New York City.  In addition, the superheroes’ failure to prevent Adrian Veidt’s attempt to save the world from the path that he set it on himself by removing Dr. Manhattan as well as their later collaborating in the cover up opens up the conversation about morality and vigilantism as well as war. 

 

The thing I’m wondering about right now is how they are planning on ending the film.  In the book, Adrian Veidt owns a secret island full of artists and writers, as well as the brain of a dead psychic, which he uses to create a hideous monster that sends out overwhelmingly violent and hideous images that drive people mad.  He then drops this on Manhattan and kills millions of people.  In writing this out, it sounds ridiculous, but the whole point of it is that in convincing world leaders that there is a very real threat from outer space, it will prevent nuclear war.  Ronald Reagan once stated:

 

“When you stop to think that we’re all God’s children, wherever we may live in the world, I couldn’t help but say to [Gorbachev], just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from another planet outside in the universe.”

 

While I may not agree with Ronald Reagan on just about anything, in this case he is on the money regarding Adrian Veidt’s thought process.  He sought to unite the world and idolized Alexander the Great and the Egyptian Pharohs.  He justified his actions in saying that he forced himself to see the faces of the dead in his meditations.  

 

 

Toward the end of the book there is an exchange between Veidt and Dr. Manhattan that summarizes the inveitability of conflict when there will always new more powerful weapons being created to keep the peace:

 

Adrian Veidt: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.

 

Dr. Manhattan: ‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends. 

 

Watchmen has an ending that some believe is ridiculous but most recognize that it is the only way that book could have ended.  In recent trailers it seems like the strike on New York may be something else altogether and I just hope it’s something in the spirit of the work that will make sense.  A central focus of the novel is the deconstruction of the superhero trope and Zac Snyder seems to be deifying them.  Don’t get me wrong, I will be there opening day with everyone else, I just have my reservations and hope that the nuclear strike in the 2nd trailer is the one from Dan Dreiberg’s dream and not something else.

 

Amanda/Seamus

 

 

Works Cited:

Jeff Smith, “Reagan, Star Wars, and American Culture”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan/Feb 1987, p 25.

Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen.