Friday, January 28, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 1

Welcome and make yourself comfortable as I bring you my favorite games of 2010. You'll notice I didn't say "Game of the Year" as while I played many games this past year, some of them great and not so much, I couldn't whittle my choices down to one game I thought was the best or most represented what the year was about. Instead I've chosen my three favorite games of the year. I greatly enjoyed each of my three selections but I found each one had certain flaws that I just couldn't look past, which I'll discuss as I move through each selection. I'll start with one for now, with the other two in subsequent posts. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Halo: Reach (Bungie Studios)
In case you didn't know, the Halo series of games are some of my favorite. The original Halo: Combat Evolved pretty much made me a convert to console gaming, something I completely avoided throughout the better part of the 90s, preferring to stick with PC games, most notably Diablo 2 and the venerable Starcraft. Halo changed all that for me as it showed that a shooter could be played with a controller instead of keyboard and mouse, plus it had great mechanics, and was a delightfully whimsical blend of sci-fi tropes from the past 30 years (Larry Niven's Ringworld combined with Giger's Aliens, Schwarzenegger's Predators, holographic AI buddy Cortana looks like she's from Tron, and my favorite character 343 Guilty Spark is like C-3PO if he went insane and became murderous).

The Halo trilogy, opening in medias res as our hero 'Master Chief' escapes from the surprise attack on the human stronghold 'Reach', tells the tale of Master Chief and humankind's struggle to overcome the alien religious conglomerate known as 'the Covenant', only to discover in the process the parasitic alien life form referred to only as 'the Flood', ultimately defeating both in Halo 3. I loved Halo 3 and thought it had an utterly appropriate ending to a series that came to define console shooters (and did I mention how I'm convinced the special ending (@7:00) you get by finishing the game on the highest difficulty is a nod towards the end of The Beatles' A Day in the Life?).

So when Bungie announced they were doing one more Halo game I was a bit shocked, though simultaneously delighted. I was intrigued as this time Bungie decided to make a prequel, with the game taking place during the fall of Reach. This is something fans had been clamoring for for a while, as the only account of the fall of Reach was in book form, sanctioned by Bungie as official canon. I especially loved the initial reveal trailer for Halo: Reach, with it's almost 9/11-meets-Hindenburg disaster sense of confusion and dread.

So how is the game? Well, Bungie have finally perfected their craft, with the overall gameplay feeling butter smooth. The weapons are a delight to use, and the artificial intelligence of the enemies is hands down some of the best in any game. The graphics have been improved, the options expanded, and Bungie have added in a progression system to make the addictive multiplayer even more so. From a pure gameplay standpoint, this is my favorite game of the year. From the story standpoint, not so much.

Bungie have never been very good storytellers. The story suffers from some poor writing, poor character development, and for the hardcore fans, they basically retconned the entire story of the book, causing the fan forums to explode in anger. The last part didn't matter as much to me as I never read the books, but still, I have no idea why Bungie changed the story so much when previously they've been so particular about making sure the story kept its logical integrity (there's even a mysterious 'Halo Bible' Bungie consults to make sure nothing contradicts anything previously established). I did however enjoy the ending, as we got to see a few characters we hadn't seen since the original Halo, and I loved how the final scene (@1:27) is the original opening from Halo.

Actually, my main gripe is with some of the presentation and options Bungie mysteriously left out. It's a little too much to go into here, but I do miss the old version of Firefight, and why they removed the Lowball gametype is a mystery to me. Mainly, Bungie promised the most comprehensive Halo possible, complete with all the bells and whistles from previous games but with MORE. Funny though how I feel that there's fewer options than in Halo 3.

In the end I suppose it doesn't matter, because as long as the gameplay is good (and it is very, very good) I will keep coming back to it (according to my profile I've already logged more than six and a half days of continuous play). At the same time I'm glad that Bungie have signed off on the Halo franchise, giving control to Microsoft's newly minted 343 Industries.

Stay tuned next time as I reveal my second favorite game of the year, a black and white game that features no words and almost no music.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Crappy Slate Over-Analysis!

Aaah Slate, how you constantly pull me in with your headlines promising some new bit of knowledge or insightful analysis only to leave me scratching my head in confusion.

Take the recent Slate attention grabber "How I learned to love Katy Perry". Katy Perry, for those who don't know, if a fame-grabbing attention-whore Zoey Deschanel look-alike 'singer' with such notable hits as ur so gay and California Gurls. Also, the A.V. Club has a thing they push where they say she sounds like a dying frog. Ok, so you get my general impression of her. Visiting friends down in Southern California this past weekend (including LE's older brother Big E) I noticed that many people had the same opinion of Katy Perry.

So when I saw this headline I was intrigued. What was it, anything, that could make someone appreciate Katy Perry? What new insight could they offer? Well, in typical Slate fashion I was met with: A -an article that wasn't actually about Katy Perry specifically, but part of the larger Music Club series in which the segment concerning Katy Perry is just a few paragraphs, and B - a bunch of over-analysis gobblety gook.

To the evidence! Ahem:

"You think I'm pretty without any makeup on," Perry whispers incredulously in the first line of "Teenage Dream," her voice leaning slightly stunned against a latticework-privacy-fence of kick drum. The plucked way Perry sings the lyric—as if what she's saying is just impossible—says so much about how far we all feel we've strayed from our genuine selves. That line is the most important one to make the Top 10 this year, I think: its tragic nostalgia, playing out the new version of the hard-soft dynamic that made 1990s alt-rock so shocking—yeah, that Nirvana sound—except now what this jarring contrast expresses is a woman finding her power, a woman not knowing if that power is going to cost her everything and certainly not whether it will be worth it, instead of a boy-man like Kurt Cobain getting in touch with his feminine side.

If someone can explain to me how one's voice leans against a latticework privacy fence of kick drum, please give me a call.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

More Hilarious Headlines Of Articles I Can't Quite Bring Myself To Read

1) Phone Keeps Ringing In Crocodile's Tummy

2) Allergic To Orgasms? Man's Sad Story Has Happy Ending

3) Sex Sells - Even In Camel Fighting

4) Darwin's Rape Whistle: The Morning After

5) Here Kitty: Restaurant Offers African Lion Tacos

6) Experts Warn About "Awake" Plastic Surgery

7) Why Buying Coffee With Your iPhone Matters

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Go Tweet Yourself

Yes, it's true, I have gone and joined the throbbing masses of Twitter users. If you had asked me six months ago about joining Twitter I would have rolled my eyes or made some sort of sassy sarcastic comment about the vapidity of Twitter users. While I'm still not a Twitter junkie I have to say that I've learned to appreciate what Twitter offers.

And what is that? Well, mainly I can look up what people are talking about on a given subject in real time. It's like the chat rooms of the 90s but without the room. Essentially I can see what anyone is saying on a subject and jump into the conversation at any time. Take that small 4.1 earthquake we had last week. I was sitting at my computer when it happened and I wasn't quite sure I had just felt an earthquake or a large vehicle driving by. Searching twitter for earthquake I get instant feedback from hundreds of people describing how they just felt the earth move. And that was all in less than a minute after the quake hit. Twitter's kinda neat that way.

I decided to join Twitter when I got a new smartphone last month. If Facebook and social networking was designed for the computer user in mind, Twitter seems designed for the smartphone user. I'm currently following a couple of sites that update me with information I'm interested in. So when I get up in the morning and turn on my phone I'm instantly informed on subjects keyed to my interests (mainly videogame related but we won't go into that). Much better than waiting for my slow laptop to boot up.

I've yet to really use Twitter to do those things I despise about the stereotypical Twitter user, such as updates about trivial or mundane happenings (e.g., "I'm eating cheerios for breakfast"). When I do send out a tweet (I'm still not comfortable with that word) I tend to reserve it for crap I want to comment on but not important or interesting enough for facebook.

I don't think Twitter is necessarily revolutionary or amazing, but I do have a better appreciation for what it offers than I did before I began using it. It's an interesting service and I'm going to keep using it and see how it goes. And if you at all inclined, you can follow me @herrzrbo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Top Cop Swaps Shops

I'm an Examiner man. True, it's a borderline tabloid, and hilariously conservative for a San Francisco paper - but it's free. My lunchtime custom is to grab the Examiner, hop into a restaurant, and read about how horrible and disgusting Obama is while I enjoy my meal. I used to occasionally grab a copy of the Bay Guardian or SF Weekly, but I eventually realized that I preferred conservative outrage over liberal outrage - maybe because I feel like liberals should know better.

At any rate, I hope somebody at the Examiner is getting paid the big bucks, because they are the masters of snappy headlines. Case in point: apparently while on his way out, mayor Gavin Newsom needed to appoint a new district attorney, because our former district attorney, Kamala Harris, has been elected state attorney general. So Newsom called police chief George Gascon into his office to discuss the possibilities. Suddenly Newsom asked Gascon if perhaps he himself would be interested in the position. Lo and behold, a couple of hours later, Gascon was the new district attorney. The next day, the Examiner headline read as follows:

"Top Cop Swaps Shops"

Bravo, boys, bravo. I am reminded of the headline the Onion came up with when Jerry Garcia died: "Head Deadhead Dead." Of course, even though it's not free, the Chronicle does have its moments. The day after the Giants' victory parade, they featured a picture of the crowd and, in reference to first baseman Aubrey Huff's lucky rally throng, this caption:

"From Rally Thong To Rallying Throng"

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Michael Jackson: Interpreter

So how about the King of Pop and his interpretive skills? Here are some of the more famous Michael Jackson hits that Jackson did not write:

"Rock With You" (Rod Temperton)
"Thriller" (Rod Temperton)
"Human Nature" (Steve Porcaro/John Bettis)
"Man In The Mirror" (Glen Ballard/Siedah Garrett)
"You are Not Alone" (R. Kelly)

You may be asking yourself, what in the world is a Rod Temperton, author of "Rock With You" and "Thriller" (as well as smaller Jackson hits from that era such as "Off The Wall," "Baby Be Mine," and "The Lady In My Life"), and where can I find one? Let me tell you. A Rod Temperton is a late 70s/early 80s songwriter and performer. You may have heard several of his songs even if you did not know they were his. As a member of the disco band Heatwave, he wrote R&B airplay staples "Always and Forever," "Boogie Nights," and "Groove Line." George Benson's crossover smash "Give Me the Night"? Rod Temperton. James Ingram and Michael McDonald's absurdly cheesy duet "Yah Mo B There"? Rod Tempterton.

Apparently there isn't much of a story behind "Rock With You," but here is what Wikipedia has to say about the title track to the world's best-selling, and therefore greatest, album:
"Thriller" was originally titled "Starlight",[1][2] contrary to other reports of the title "Starlight Love".[3] While the song was titled "Starlight", the song's hook lyrics were "Starlight! Starlight sun...", but after the song was changed to "Thriller" the hook was rewritten to "Thriller! In the night...".[4]

Temperton commented, "Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, 'You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'Oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title 'Midnight Man'. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word... Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller'.[2]"

While Temperton was writing "Thriller" he stated that he'd "always envisioned" a "talking section at the end" on the song, but did not really know what "to do with it", until deciding "to have somebody, a famous voice, in the horror genre, to do this vocal."[2] Jones' wife, Peggy Lipton, who knew Vincent Price, suggested Price for the vocal part, which Price agreed to do.[2]
As I wrote before regarding "Human Nature," "The song was written by former Carpenters lyricist John Bettis and Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. That is some serious M.O.R. cred right there." Wikipedia goes on:
Initially, Porcaro recorded a rough demo of the song on a cassette.[1] Fellow Toto band member David Paich then gave the demo, along with two songs written by Paich, to producer Quincy Jones, hoping they would be included on Thriller.[1] Jones didn't like Paich's songs, but enjoyed the rough demo of "Human Nature" at the end of the cassette.[1] Jones explained, "All of a sudden, at the end, there was all this silence, there was: 'why, why, dah dah da-dum dah dah, why, why'. Just a dummy lyric and a very skeletal thing—I get goosebumps talking about it. I said, 'This is where we wanna go, because it's got such a wonderful flavor'".[2] Bettis, who had written lyrics for hits by The Carpenters and The Pointer Sisters, among others, was asked to add lyrics to the song. He completed the song in two days.[3] The producer asked if the song could be included on Jackson's album, to which Porcaro and Bettis agreed.[1] "Human Nature" was the last song selected for Thriller, ousting "Carousel" from the final track listing.
Sucks to be "Carousel." As far as "Man In The Mirror" is concerned, co-writer Siedah Garrett ended up being Jackson's surprise duet partner on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." I remember thinking "Who the hell is Siedah Garrett?" Well, the answer is, "the co-writer of 'Man In The Mirror'!" Glen Ballard, of course, achieved everlasting pop immortality/infamy by co-writing and producing Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill.

Finally, "You Are Not Alone" brought together two men with notoriously boundary-pushing views on adult/child intimacy:
The song was written by R. Kelly and produced by Kelly and Jackson.[2] Kelly wrote the song after the loss of close people in his life.[4] Kelly was delighted to be able to work with his idol, explaining "I was psyched ... I feel I could have done his whole album. Not being selfish. I was just that geeked about it. It was an experience out of this world ... It's amazing to know that five years ago I was writing songs in a basement in the ghetto and now I'm writing for Michael Jackson ... I'd be a fool not to say it's a dream come true."[5] Jackson contacted Kelly to see if he had any material available. Kelly forwarded a tape recording of the song and Jackson then agreed to work with Kelly on the piece.[5] On the tape sent to Jackson, Kelly sung "You Are Not Alone" mimicking Jackson's vocal style, explaining, "I think I am him. I become him. I want him to feel that as well." Jackson found the interpretation amusing.
I would hope he did. In conclusion, through sheer force of his unstoppable star power, Michael Jackson turned each of these songs into works that may have originated at the hands of someone else, but would never again be thought of as anything other than "Michael Jackson songs." Except by someone obnoxious like me.