Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Super Smash Bros for Wii U

In 2015, I'm trying to get into the habit of writing shorter, more frequent blogs, and save the ponderous word-monsters for the stuff that really needs it. Normally I'd give the whole thing a clever name and format, but instead I'm just going to write the damn things. Call it a New Year's Resolution if you like.
Smash 2
 Super Smash Bros for Wii U

To this day, the original Super Smash Bros on the N64 is the perfect example of what I want a fighting game to be.

Super Smash Bros drew me in with the prospect of a punch-up between Mario, Link and Pikachu – the kind of thing that had my ten-year old salivating like Homer Simpson over sixty-four slices of American cheese – but the thing that stuck with me was its streamlined combat.

The game eschewed the hard-to-memorise combos that will inevitably fill the arthritis clinics of ten years' time with old Tekken and Street Fighter players. In their place was a neat two-button system which put all of its weight on timing, anticipating your opponents' moves and and understanding the differences between characters. These are the same things a devotee of the genre will tell you about competitive Street Fighter 2 but to a novice like me, the barrier to entry is just too high.
Smash 14
In Smash Bros, each character essentially has four unique moves to learn. Add a pile of items, each introducing a pinch of chaos to the match when it drops from the sky, some creative levels, and you have the complete Smash Bros formula. Unfortunately, each subsequent installment seems to have lost confidence in the simplicity of the game's core loop, and leant instead on the latter half of the formula: the big pile of stuff. More characters, replacing distinction with duplication; more game modes; more items, cameos, trophies, unlockable macguffins...

By the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl in 2008, it was less the lean fighting game I'd fallen in love with, more a virtual museum exhibit of videogames' roaring nineties.
This is the bit where, if you haven't yet played the catchily-titled Super Smash Bros for Wii U (or SSBWU for short), you may be expecting me to say '...and it takes the series back to those gorgeous basics'.
Smash 13

SSBWU stacks yet more on top of this swaying Jenga tower of features. For the first time, eight players can get their smash on simultaneously, crowding the screen with colourful fighters. You can customise each character to your exact specifications, making them faster but more vulnerable, or punchier but slower. The series' ever-growing roster has, from an initial dozen on the N64, now broken the half-century mark. This is further bolstered with the ability to use personalised Mii characters, meaning you can punch your best friend in the face, without having to get dragged round his house by your mom to apologise.

The game is bloated like Kirby after inhaling an opponent with his B attack, but somehow SSBWU adds such an insane amount of stuff that it manages to come out the other side of these problems and, like a zen master, find peace among the chaos.
Smash 15
The finer points of combat can still get lost in a mess of particle effects, especially when there are eight players on screen at once, and the wider range of characters means less distinction between the silhouette. (Seriously, compare Marth, Ike and Robin – I think that's who they are, but frankly who knows – in the screenshot above.)

But I can still pick up a controller blind and immediately know how Fox McCloud's down-B attack works, from the time I learned it 15 years ago, or appreciate the subtle changes in how SSBWU's iteration of Samus Aran handles. I can even try out a new character and get to grips with the weird new mechanics they add in the space of one three-minute game.

Partly, I admit, that's a case of personal bias – Smash Bros happens to be the game I invested hundreds of hours into when I was a kid – but it's also the simplicity of that two-button, four-directional combat system. Underneath the clutter of SSBWU is the same wonderfully elegant game, refined and expanded and shining through more than it has in years.
Smash 5
(Oh, and the other thing I love as much today as I did in 1999 is the freezeframe mode, which which now allows you to snap photos, save them to an SD card, transfer them to your PC and then upload them to a blogpost until you have far, far too many to actually justify as illustrations. I've dropped another dozen of my favourite shots below.)
Smash 6
Smash 12
Smash 11
Smash 10
Smash 16
Smash 9
Smash 8
Smash 3
Smash 7
Smash 1

Thursday, 8 January 2015

2014: Game of the Year

I'm stretching my usual definition of both 'Game' and 'of 2014' here, but this is undoubtedly the game I've played most of over the past 12 months, the one that's given me the most pleasure, and the one that has most dominated my thoughts in idle moments.
Netrunner 0
Kate 'Mac' McCaffrey had been building up her rig for weeks, feeling the hot glare of Jinteki's spybots on the back of her neck the whole time. Working a several-levels-below-her-abilities data job to build up a stock of credits, surviving on cheap energy drinks while she built up a fearsome rig. Click, click, click, until... It was finally time.
Welcome to Netrunner, a two-player card game set in a dystopian future of mega-corporations, hackers and elevators to the Moon.

For anyone who has already taken Netrunner's red pill, the above won't be too difficult to translate into a rough version of what's going on at the table. Otherwise, I appreciate it's probably impossible to visualise this as some cards on a table, so let's try and lay it out:

It's early in the game, the fourth turn. The Runner player, who picked Mac from a broad roster of hackers, has spent the majority of her turns preparing for the moment we're picking apart here. The most notable cards she has played thus far are the 'Armitage Codebusting' resource card, which sits on the table waiting to be tapped up for money, and a sturdy suite of three Icebreakers – we'll get to those in a minute.

This turn, she has used up three of the four 'click' actions she gets every turn to take six credits from Armitage Codebusting, and her prep is complete. It's time to run.

Mac rammed the cable into the port where her spine met her skull, tapped the 'enter' key, and she was in. All of Jinteki's servers and defenses were neatly visualised, laid out before her. Without a moment's hesitation, she went right for the company's HQ.
On their turns, meanwhile, the Corp player on the other side of the table (representing Jinteki, a Japanese mega-corporation best known for manufacturing clones) has been playing a very different game.

While the Runner plays all of her cards openly, the Corp's are kept face-down until revealed. This is what runs are for – hacks into the Corp's servers, a risky foray into enemy territory to reveal their plans.

There's not just one game to master here, but two neatly interlocking ones. While the Runner player is constantly on the offence, the Corp plays defence. It's not all they do, but the top priority is protecting every card they have from these hacks. And I mean every card: not just the ones they've decided to play into 'Remote Servers', but also their discard pile (aka Archives), the deck they're drawing from (R&D), even their hand of cards (HQ).

Netrunner server
Jinteki's defence systems stayed dark, letting Mac float right past. Suspicious, maybe, but no time to wonder why now: the files were in sight. Suddenly, there was a buzz down the line, that telltale sign of a rez command. BOOOOOM.
The Corp protects their valuables with 'Ice' cards, stacked on top of each server – their hand or deck or a card 'installed' on the table – for the Runner to approach one by one. These can block entry, or charge a toll, or do some truly nasty things to intruders, and the Runner doesn't have a clue which it will be until the card has been flipped over. Ice is played face-down too, and during runs the Corp has the option to 'rez' – activate the Ice's defenses by paying a set cost – one at a time.

In this case, our Jinteki player has three pieces of Ice in front of their HQ. They peek at the ice card nearest to the Runner, then consider the Runner's line-up of Icebreakers – each of which can break through certain pieces of Ice at a cost, negating their effects but not damaging the Ice itself – and the state of their own finances.

This gamble is Netrunner's heartbeat. For the Runner, hitting the wrong piece of Ice can be disastrous, but failing to run will eventually cost them the game. For the Corp, it can be tempting to rez a piece of Ice, but doing so will deplete their resources in a game where everything costs money, and give the Runner an extra piece of information.

With all this in mind, the Jinteki player declines to rez their first and second pieces of Ice. When it comes to the final layer, with Mac getting dangerously close to the precious cards in their hand, they finally flip one over, revealing it to be a Data Mine.
Netrunner Tim
Back in the real world, a spot of blood dripped from Mac's nose and splashed onto her console', obscuring the loading bar that slowly filled on its vidscreen. She felt the metallic heat on her tongue as half-written programs combusted, and knew corners of her brain would never be the same again. Still, she'd managed to snatch a single file from Jinteki's HQ – vital evidence.
Normally at this point, the Runner could pay a couple of credits to stop the effects with one of their Icebreakers, depending on the type of Ice in question. If it's is a Codegate, they'd need a Decoder; for a Barrier, a Fracter; for a Sentry, a Killer. But Trap cards like Data Mine are an exception, without a corresponding breaker type. There are ways, but they're not common, and Mac doesn't have any in her armoury – catching her out to the cost of one point of net damage.

Netrunner isn't a combative game, in any straightforward sense, but Runners can get hurt. The Corp can broadcast brain-damaging signals through the net, or just trace the Runner back to their poky flat and blow their entire building to smithereens. Reading the largely incomprehensible rulebook, this was the moment I fell in love.

See, instead of intangible hitpoints, Netrunner uses the Runner's cards as their health. When she uses an action to draw a card, the Runner isn't just expanding her options but safeguarding against retribution.

Equally, when the Corp does land a building-demolishing punch, causing her to discard four cards in one fell swoop, it dramatically changes her game plan. That card you've been holding onto the whole game waiting for just the right moment? Oops, it just went up in flames.

Netrunner hand
Mac bit her tongue as the trademark 'Personal Evolution' defences kicked in – more heat – and reached for the back of her neck, ready to disconnect the thick cable from her spinal cord. Too late. There was the flash of an EMP, and Mac slumped onto her console, flatlined.
Winning, and especially losing, in Netrunner can often be unceremonious, even brutal.

Each player's objective is to be the first side to hit seven agenda points. For the Corp, that means placing the agenda cards out on the table and, one agonising move at a time, placing the allotted number of credits on them to score. For the Runner, it's a case of making your way through ice and into the Corp's various servers, hoping you turn over an Agenda. Defence, offence.

But this isn't the only way to win. If the number of cards in a Runner's hand hits zero, and the Corp manages to hit her with another point of damage before she can draw another, it's game over, and the Corp wins by default. Similarly, if the Corp exhausts their entire deck before securing victory, they lose. This second option is much, much less common than the first.

Partly, that's because Corp players are generally bloodthirsty bastards. Partly, it's because there are so many more ways of doing it. These can either be triggered by a careless action on the part of the Runner – from Ice, or from Traps, played face-down where Agendas would normally be – or outright aggression from Corp, by playing cards on their turn – like the Neural EMP which finishes off Mac.

Netrunner 2 
"Ouch," I say, laughing, as my trembling hand reaches for the pint, untouched and now warm. My eyes drift from the table for the first time in an hour, to meet my opponent's gaze. He's trying not to look too smug, the incredible bastard.

"Again?" he asks. I look at my phone, realise I'm on the brink of missing the last train home.

"Yeah, but bagsy Corp this time."

Despite the fact that Netrunner consumes too much brain power to allow for any real conversation, I'd argue that it is a deeply social activity.

I've played Netrunner cross-legged on park lawns, aware of the sideways glances from the office workers eating their packed lunches. I've played it on kitchen tables at 4am as my opponent's girlfriend snores softly on a nearby sofa. I've played it in more pubs than, in the presence of a medical profession, I'd be willing to admit having even been in.

I've played with friends and with strangers and, over time, both. Last summer, the wonders of the internet provided me with an opponent who worked around the corner. We met one lunchtime, quickly struck up a rivalry, and have played probably a hundred times since then. Later this month, I'm going to his wedding.
 Netrunner 3

Netrunner is social in the same way that watching a football game is social. It's certainly the closest I've ever come to following a sport, tracking the latest developments month to month online, listening to some of the dozens of podcasts dedicated solely to the game, talking the talk.

If I meet a fellow Netrunner player, we instantly have a common vocabulary. Anyone I've played a couple of times, we have long personal histories. That's something I have long envied of football fans: the shortcut of simply asking someone about their team.

That's something I've never gotten from any game before. I've never dug deep enough into the kind of games which support it, Dota or Starcraft or even Call of Duty, the kinds of e-sports that command Twitch channels and big cash-money tournaments. I've never been able to make chess or poker feel like they do in films or books or on The West Wing that one time.

You know, that platonic ideal where the game actually exists a good foot off the table, a wire stretched taut between two brains trying to simply out-think one another? Where every action is a signal sent along that wire?

Yeah, that's what Netrunner is to me. I don't care that it's made out of cardboard rather than pixels, I don't care that it was first printed in 2012 – Game of the Year.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

2014: Comic of the Year

I tried to pick something other than The Wicked + The Divine as my favourite comic of the year. I was well aware that I've written enough about it over the past six months to last a lifetime, and that another thousand words on my love for it was probably the last thing the internet needed. But then, I've written all that for a reason. y'know?

So, a solution. 

I'll be getting TWATD again with Tim in the New Year, but for now we've initiated another member into our mini-pantheon, and asked friend of the blog Reece Lipman to tell us why The Wicked + The Divine was his favourite comic of the year, too.

The Wicked and the Cinematic
When Alex asked me to write something about The Wicked + The Divine, I didn’t really know where to start. In all honesty, I was a little bit nervous writing alongside people who know a heck of a lot more about comics and music than I ever could. [Pretty sure he's confused me and Tim with someone else here – Self-deprecation ed] I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big ol’ comics nerd and I’m not adverse to dancing till 6am (I sit here writing this in a Spider-Man t-shirt belting out Blank Space as loud as my neighbors will allow) but I didn’t really know where to start.

Looking back over The Wicked + The Divine again though, something immediately struck me. There was something that I could talk about. Something that, as a filmmaker, I know quite a lot about. Cinema.

The skill of creating cinematic images isn't one I often see in comic books. The artwork may be beautiful and I may spend hours pouring over the details but I don’t view a lot of comics books with the same eye I would view a film. I'm always reading the book, but I’m very rarely transported there.

That’s a good thing, of course. The two have cross-over points but they are inherently different, as they should be – most of the time. Yet occasionally the image in a comic can feel like it is moving, jumping out of the frame and making a break for the real world. It can become truly ‘cinematic', that elusive mix of the real and the magical. An image which can both feel familiar and completely and utterly extraordinary.

The Wicked + The Divine is one of the few comics I’ve read this year that has achieved just that crossover.

Take the first couple of pages of issue #1. The striking full page image of a skull on the table adds mystery and intrigue like the very best of cinema. A few pages later, the browns, the greys, the blues of South London; we’re back in the real world, in utter normality. Six panels per page, nothing extraordinary. Life is just carrying on.  Then, the sudden full-page burst of colour and light you’re hit with the moment Laura enters the concert.

You can hear the music. The light radiates from the page. There’s no doubt you’re in the presence of a god before anyone even properly mentions the Pantheon. In every image McKelvie and Wilson manage to imbue the page with motion, light, sound; everything you’d hope for in a cinematic experience.

Cinema Ammy

The beginnings of this can be seen back in the last issue of Phonogram: The Singles Club. Kid-With-Knife’s trancelike state, driving him from fights to dancing to “bedroom dancing” is told wordlessly, but nonetheless we can hear every beat, every rhythm, every gasp. The interplay of light and colour are what drives the issue, and The Wicked + The Divine takes this to the next level, imbuing the story with more urgency and magic than anything I’ve read in a long time.

Any article about the cinematic nature of The Wicked + The Divine, though, would be empty without a nod to Lucy and the climactic fight of the first volume. I know this has been written about before on this blog but the sudden shift in tone, from random acts of violence to almost full-on war is something special. Baal’s entry to the fight bursts, quite literally, out of the confines of the comic. Debris is spread across panels, with no respect for the boundaries of the page. The image takes on a 3D quality throughout the fight, hitting the sort of Marvel-style climax that you can fully imagine seeing in a darkened room on with 7.1 surround.

For me at least, that’s what I love about comics and that’s what has made The Wicked + The Divine one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. The relationship between story and image is perfect. There is no spare frame, there’s no wasted space. When it’s needed, even the barrier between the panels is destroyed.

I can hear the music. I can feel every beat, every synth. It’s pure cinema captured on a page. I’m no longer reading it, I’m watching it.

Cinema Baal

Reece TWATD variantAs you can probably tell from the above, Reece Lipman makes films. Like, day in day out, for money. He's single-handedly (not single-handedly) responsible for interviewing 1,000 Londoners, teasing out some of the subcultures of this weird city. 

His ice bucket challenge video was the work of a dangerous mind left alone in a hotel room, but it was also a great homage to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.

Also, you didn't hear it from me, but I think he might be the secret identity of the Shimmer-Man. Find him on Twitter here.

Friday, 2 January 2015

2014: Film of the Year

Happy New Year! Why not celebrate the start of 2015 by spending a bit more time looking back over 2015? I'll be posting a Best Of thing every day for the next week or so, starting today with a spoiler-rich piece on...
 Lego Logo
My favourite film of 2014 was much easier to pick than my favourite game, album or any of the rest. Of all my selections, though, it was also the one which gave me the most pause.

I'm aware of how few films I saw at the cinema this year, and how that affects my decision. I have no problem with naming a kids' film as my favourite, but there is the fact that The Lego Movie is now the cornerstone of a big lumbering franchise about which I'm not too excited – and, you know, the whole argument that it's a feature-length advert.

I think at the time of The Lego Movie's release, people focused far too much on that last thing. The number of reviews which locked the film down into 'good for what it is' – meaning, good for a film produced as a piece of marketing, or good considering it had to negotiate the whims of a major corporation. It feels like a typically grown-up way of approaching something that's so full of joy.
Lego PrezBiz 
It's hard to deny that this in the mix, and one of the many things that is interesting about The Lego Movie is how it puts that conflict at its core. After all, the film's main villain is named 'President Business', whose nefarious plan involves drawing strict lines between each world, separating cowboy Lego from castles-&-knights Lego from Star Wars Lego – pretty much Lego's business model over the past decade.

People have accused Lego of stifling kids' creativity as its sets become increasingly reliant on building a single thing, with instructions and exact quantities of serial-numbered pieces. That's right there in the film too, with the contrast between the freedom of the Master Builders' creations and main character Emmett's inability to stray from the instructions.

So, yeah, it's kind of impressive that Lord & Miller managed to use Lego's license to create a 90-minute review of the product that isn't entirely positive. But if that's as far as you get with The Lego Movie – either boo consumerism or yay sticking it to the man – I'd say you weren't paying enough attention.
Lego City
Even if you insist with engaging with the film purely on that level, it's not just the Lego corporation that is under examination here: it's the users too. The whole film engages in this, showing three distinct ways of playing with Lego through the Master Builders, Emmett, and President Business, but by the time it switches to live-action, this isn't even subtext any more.

Let's just grab some sample dialogue from the Lego-enthusiast dad (and Lord Business alter ego) played by Will Ferrell in these segments:
“This isn't a toy! … It's a highly sophisticated inter-locking brick system! … The way I'm using it makes it an adult thing!”
Yeah, it's not exactly subtle, and at this point we could branch off into a rant about the insecurities of fans of games, comics and a thousand other niche nerdy pursuits, but again I think it would be missing what's actually important about these scenes, namely the father-son interactions.

Initially, the 'real world' is shot like a surreal horror film, but it slowly morphs into a low-key family drama which manages to be incredibly heart-warming given the short amount of time we spend with the characters. That it's just a secondary strand of the narrative, which doesn't undermine the reality of the animated Lego world and characters, is much more impressive to me than the biting-the-hand-that-feeds stuff.
Lego Ferrell
This third-act twist, if you can call it that, makes absolute sense. The entire film has the joyful energy of a child at play, constantly wanting to show you the latest thing it's come up with, so it makes sense that it would turn out to be authored by an eight year old boy.  

Here's an amazing vista rendered in coloured plastic bricks! Oh, here are some police alligators! Hey, you might want to freeze-frame this bit to check out all the background jokes! Oh look, here's Superman and Shakespeare and Gandalf and Milhouse from The Simpsons all just hanging out! Cool!

This seems like an apt time to mention that the film is gorgeous. It uses deep focus in a way that's reminiscent of photography, so that I had to check whether the animation was entirely computer-generated or if it used stop-motion models. It has endless fun with the restrictions of Lego, both for gags – characters pulling off their hair to put on a new hat, horses that leap around without moving their legs – and for spectacle – meticulously constructed fight scenes; handmade title cards; the way that the Lego sea moves.

The Lego Movie is absolutely packed with these moments of unique spectacle, and if pressed, I'd probably identify spectacle as the single thing I want most from cinema.
Lego Bats
...No, wait, Batman! That's the main thing I want from cinema.

I've heard people point to Will Arnett's Batman as the best depiction of the caped crusader ever seen on the big screen, and it's kind of hard to argue with them. I love that the film's Bruce Wayne is more Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho-businessdouche than Bale's actual portrayal. Plus, the self-centred older boyfriend with his own car who writes songs about his tortured soul is an excellent unspooling of the 'Batman should be grim 'n' gritty' argument. (You can make your own connections back to the “The way I'm using it makes it an adult thing!” here, if you wish.)

At the same time, though, The Lego Movie also shows what is great about Batman. It features probably the best-ever version of That Scene where the whole Justice League gets taken prisoner but Batman escapes to save the day later on, condensed into maybe three minutes of screen time.
Lego cameos
That's how The Lego Movie rolls. It's incredibly dense – I was tempted to add '...for a kid's film' here, but I did the right thing and slapped my typing hand instead. It's too easy to say The Lego Movie is dense/complex/dark/weird for a kid's film. You just don't need that qualifier.

One of the things that allows The Lego Movie to get away with all this while also entertaining younger viewers is how well the themes are handled. They are constantly being stated outright by characters, but the film uses them as fuel for the plot, or character development, or jokes.

Another is the use of a simple, familiar Hero's Journey structure, which all of this hangs off. To quickly recap: 

A hero (Emmett) ventures forth from the world of common day (Bricksburg) into a region of supernatural wonder (Cloud Cuckoo Land, and then the 'real world'); fabulous forces are there encountered (the Kragl and other artefacts from the real world) and a decisive victory is won (spoilers!).

Other elements the film borrows from Campbell's Monomyth include 'the Mentor' (Vitruvius), 'the Prophecy' (the, uh, prophecy), and 'wearing enemy's skin' (Emmett and Wildstyle wrapping themselves up in foil to disguise themselves as robots).

Except The Lego Movie is too restless and too smart to swallow this formula entirely. It makes it clear that Emmett isn't some special hero, which is actually what allows him to succeed. Even the prophecy makes fun of the concept. Its phrasing is childlike (“The greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times. All this is true because it rhymes”) and, later in the film, the prophecy is dismissed as Vitruvius admits that “I made it up, it's not true”.
Lego Crew 2

The Lego Movie does hold onto one of the most common problems with Hero's Journey stories, though.

Wildstyle, the film's primary female character, is relegated to the role of love interest. The film tries to address this – Wildstyle says she's pissed off that the Protagonist role defaults to the male character as soon as he arrives – but the narrative essentially hushes her concerns by making it Emmett's story, and arguably turning her into his prize.

The Lego Movie just about gets away with this because there's so much else going on. The film constantly contradicts itself, never settling into a lecture on why conformity is bad (it also shows why total anarchy doesn't work either) or why children's innocence is important (it also emphasises the problems of trying to artificially fix a moment in time), or dealing in absolutes of any kind.
Unikitty: Here in Cloud Cuckoo Land, there are no rules: There's no government, no babysitters, no bedtimes, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.
Wildstyle: You just said the word 'no' like a thousand times.
Unikitty: And there's also no consistency.
See what I mean about stating themes but turning them into gags?
Lego Emmett
So why did I hesitate about picking The Lego Movie? Possibly because, for all the intellectual arguments I've made for why it's great, they aren't the reason I loved it at the time.

I loved it because I came out of the cinema fizzing with excitement about the things I'd just seen. Because I laughed and gasped along with all the other eight year-olds in the cinema. Because of a massive personal bias which will be probably obvious to anyone who reads this blog regularly: the idea of kids and parents being able to find common ground by playing together is super important to me personally.

The short scenes between Finn and his Dad give the film a way to sidestep the tedious climactic brawl of most blockbusters (compare and contrast with the last half-hour of 2014's other cinematic vehicle for the charm of Chris Pratt, the one with spaceships). Beyond that, they ground all those themes I've spent the last one-and-a-half-thousand words talking about in something real and personal.

Even after it's rejected, that prophecy actually becomes vital to the resolution of the plot, even after it's rejected. So let's look at its wording again:
"The greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times."
To an eight year-old boy, what is that promise except for the one thing you most want to hear from an absent, or just emotionally distant, parent?

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.