Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks [GAMES]

Happy to say--or more accurately relieved--that I finally finished The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on my Nintendo DS.  The original Legend of Zelda was the very first game I bought for my Nintendo when I was a kid, and I loved it--that shiny gold case still stands out in my memory.  I assumed that when I bought Spirit Tracks I'd be getting an evolution of the same thing: action-combat, some light puzzles, a few bosses, whacking trees with a wooden sword to discover secret stairways, all that good, relaxing stuff!  Instead, I discovered a surprisingly difficult puzzle game with several extremely clever but occasionally frustrating mechanics.

The puzzles, at least for me, were pretty hard and involved in spots--and I played through the first few Professor Layton games without much difficulty.  The clever mechanics include a sort of blowgun you use to push some creatures and objects around by blowing into the DS' actual microphone; a device to turn sand into temporarily solid raised bricks to reach otherwise inaccessible areas; bombs; boomerangs; the possession of certain enemies to get them to help you solve a puzzle, and more.  A feature of the game periodically is having to play a song on a pan-flute, which also operates by blowing into the microphone.  The song you're supposed to play is denoted by matching the color of notes with the colors of the pipes in the pan-flute: for someone color-blind like me, this was simply not going to happen without help.  Fortunately, I managed to compare walkthroughs that listed the colors of songs with a forum post that listed, from left to right, the colors of the pipes on the pan-flute.  By mentally numbering the pipes from left to right, I was able to eventually proceed by playing a song of numbers.

I say I finished with relief because, for almost all of the game, I occasionally got stuck on puzzles but never had too much difficulty with the action/combat aspects of the game.  There were a few bosses I had to try multiple times to figure out the trick or pattern, but that's normal.  Then came the final boss, and I couldn't even get close to winning.  Whilst close to throwing the game out the window, I looked at a walkthrough which revealed there was a special combat move I needed to do that I either never knew I had or never used and completely forgot it existed.  After learning that, and getting more help on a song, I finally made it through the final encounter.

According to the game, I've been playing Spirit Tracks (extremely off and on) since at least April 2, 2014.  I think my verdict, if asked, would be that it's a game I respected, but not necessarily enjoyed.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Eternals: The Herod Factor (one-shot 1991) [COMICS]

The Eternals, a race of super hero gods created by Jack Kirby, have always been part of the Marvel Universe that never did much for me.  Of them all, only Sersi became reasonably interesting to me because of the span of time she spent with the Avengers decades ago.  I can't even remember whether I've read Neil Gaiman's take, such is the lack of appeal the subject holds for me!

Eternals: The Herod Factor was a 1991 one-shot written by the always dependable Roy and Dann Thomas.  It begins with the Eternals on their remote mountain home of Olympia watching news footage of monsters attacking a high school prom in the U.S. The monsters seem Deviant (the Eternals ancient rivals) in appearance, and the Eternals debate what to do.  One of them, Phastos, arrives bearing an ancient scroll that holds a prophecy: that a pair of human twins, born of the union of Eternal and Deviant, will someday rule both groups.  Because the prom murders involved twins, and other attacks on twins have taken place near the same time, the Eternals suspect that the Deviants may be trying to stop the prophecy before it takes place--and although they're not sure whether the prophecy should take place either, the Eternals decide to investigate and stop the Deviants from murdering any other innocents.  It's an interesting premise for a story, and the Thomases always integrate past continuity well.

Whilst the leader of the Eternals, Ikaris, sneaks into the Deviant homeland for intel, another Eternal, Sersi, is approached in her New York apartment by Thena, the former Queen of the Eternals.  Thena admits that she is the mother of the prophesied twins, and relates a past liason with former Deviant warlord Kro.  The story is moving quite fast here, and it makes me wonder whether this was originally an outline for a longer series that got condensed into a one-shot.  Anyway, the Eternals track down the teenage twins, Donald and Deborah Ritter, and take them to Olympus for safety.

In a jumpy series of poorly-intercut scenes, monsters attack and kidnap the twins.  The Eternals chase the kidnappers to Lemuria, but they're captured and implanted with brain mines!  My notes are poorly written here, but suffice it to say, somehow or another it's revealed that the prophecy is fake!  (Joss Whedon would remember this whole theme when writing Angel years later!).  In fact, an ostensible ally of the Eternals, Dr. Damian, perpetrated the fraud for revenge out of anger of his daughter's death in a former conflict between the Eternals and Deviants.  Ultimately, a mind-controlled Eternal named Ajak kills himself and Dr. Damian to end the threat.

My summary is probably less comprehensible than the comic, which isn't half-bad.  It didn't make me *love* the Eternals, but I probably like them a little more than I did before.  Mission achieved, Mr. & Mrs. Thomas!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender [GAMES]


Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender was a 1992 point-and-click adventure game with an intentionally goofy premise and plot.  Space pilot Rex Nebular takes a commission to find a valuable vase in a mysterious sector of space where ships keep disappearing, only to discover a cloaked planet where all the men have died from a mysterious virus and only females are alive.  The game world consists of three large areas: the surface of the planet, which is full of low-tech hut dwellers; an underground complex of the surviving high-tech women; and a deserted city of the planet's men.  Rex, of course, runs around, encounters obstacles, gets into trouble, and has to use a wide variety of random objects to make progress in his quest.  The game isn't actually as funny as it wants to be (Flight of the Amazon Queen was more amusing), but the puzzles are pretty fair and enjoyable.  The fun with adventure games, despite the occasional frustration of getting completely stuck with no idea what to do next*, is when you're able to connect several disparate things to achieve that "a-ha!" moment.  For example, at one point:

I went through a lot of work to construct a timed detonator and explosives, with no idea why;

I manage to maneuver a large decorative boat from a theme-restaurant out into the street, with no idea why;

I needed to get to the top of a huge tower, but there was no way to climb;

One scene in the game is set in a room below sea level with a large glass window to view aquatic life

So when you figure out: I'll attach the explosives to the glass window, set the timer, run to the boat, flood the entire city, the water will raise the boat up to the top of the tower, and there you go.  Awesome.

The game has a ton of silly death and dismemberment animations when Rex screws up, but the game automatically starts Rex at the nearest safe screen so there's no frustration component.  Not a great game, but a good one for fans of the genre.

* My usual walkthrough confessions: (1) I completely overlooked the binoculars in the crashed spaceship; part of that is the game's fault, as the graphics make it very hard to distinguish items from background; (2) I couldn't get past the cannibal woman--first, I never noticed the pit, and second, I never noticed the branches to put over the pit, and third, I would never have guessed I could lure someone from another screen into the pit screen; (3) I didn't know that the teleporter would take me to the starbase to steal a ship at the end, because it you try it earlier in the game, you get disintegrated

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ultima I [GAMES]

Box Art
Fear not peasants, for the evil wizard Mondain has been slain and once again Sosaria is safe from his depredations.

Last night I finished Ultima I after many months of off-again and on-again playing.  My very first introduction to an RPG (computer or otherwise) of any kind was the NES version of Ultima III: Exodus, and I played that game for hundreds of hours until I got its various sequels.  When I saw that Good Old Games had Ultima 1-III as a collection for download, I acted quickly, having always wondered what the first two games in the series were like.  I can confidently report that Ultima I is weird.  If anyone's worried about spoilers for a three-decade old game, avert thine eyes now.

It's a very standard fantasy world with quasi-medieval technology and an evil wizard who must be defeated to save the realm.  Except, eventually you'll need to buy a space shuttle, blast off into outer space, dock at a space station, shift to a fighter ship, and blast 20 TIE-fighters to become a Space Ace!  I spent the entire game running around with a great sword and high-tech power armor.  The morality from later Ultima games is nowhere to be found: to advance in the game, you have to kill a court jester to get his key and then slay all of the (otherwise friendly) castle guards to rescue a princess.  And that's all so she'll give you a time machine!

The deadliest monsters on Level 1 of dungeons
I'm sure if you knew what you were doing, you could breeze through the game after a couple of night's play.  But playing it for the first time, like I did, and avoiding walkthroughs, was an eye-opening experience.  There's so many elements of the gameplay that are counter-intuitive to modern gamers: your character doesn't have a set maximum for hit points (other than 9999) and only has current hit points, which are increased every time you leave a dungeon (it's like temporary levelling).  Ability scores are increased by visiting magic signposts, but unlike most games, you can visit them over and over (as long as you don't visit the same one twice in a row).  The dungeons contain absolutely nothing besides monsters and gold, so the only reason to visit them is that certain kings in the game give you quests to kill certain monsters.  More, I was surprised at how large the game was (I naively assumed that it would be a simple, short game with a couple of towns and dungeons--instead, there's four continents, a couple of dozen towns, a couple of dozen dungeons, and several castles (the downside is that there's little in the way of difference between towns and no difference at all between dungeons apart from layout).  I had to go back to old-fashioned graph-paper mapping just to figure out where things were in the overworld.
Graph paper mapping

Here's my character just before the big final battle:

Temeris, Level 10 Male Human Fighter (Space Ace)
Hit Points: 9276
Strength: 67
Agility: 91
Stamina: 28
Charisma: 38
Wisdom: 22
Intelligence: 52
Coins: 113
Experience: 9999
Possessions: Reflect Suit, Great Sword, Frigate, Aircar, Shuttle, Time Machine, Red Gem (x5), Green Gem, Blue Gem, White Gem

Here's what the ending screen says when you win:

A rain of silver lightning heralds the death of Mondain.  Fleeting glimpses of fates avoided rush through thy mind as the arcane power of the mage's dying scream echoes in thy ears.  A thousand years pass in but a moment's time as a strange sleep overcomes thee.

Upon awakening thou dost find thyself in new surroundings.  A stately youth in violet robes helps thee to thy feet whereupon thou dost see the thousands who gaze upon thee in adoration.

"Thy selfless heroism hath saved our people, my worthy one.  Should our gratitude alone not be enough to sustain thee, know that I, Lord British, hereby ordain that the entire realm of Sosaria be at they service for all time hence-forth.  So let it be done."

Unfortunately, I've heard that the land is again threatened--this time by an evil witch named Minax.  I better grab that great sword and get to work!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy [NORTON]

The third book in my exploration of Norton Critical Editions is Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy, edited by Scott McMillin.  I knew this one might be a bit of a tough slog (attending plays can be fun; reading scripts can be far less so), but I persevered through 565 pages.  The first half of the book contains five English comedies:

The Country Wife (1675) is a good example of how bawdy these comedies can be.  The main character, a Mr. Horner, uses his friendship with a quack doctor to spread widely gossip that he's functionally a eunuch due to contracting venereal disease.  Horner's goal is to stop women from annoying him and getting him caught up in romantic intrigues, on the theory that they will be disgusted by the gossip and want nothing to do with him.   It turns out, however, that he's constantly asked and given the opportunity to spend time alone with his friends' wives because he's viewed as unthreatening.  He can't help but take advantage, and ends up cuckolding several of his associates.  It's a very funny, very dirty play full of talk of prostitutes, double entendres regarding sexual positions, and more.

The Man of Mode (1676) was a let-down after the sparkling wit of The Country Wife.  The story concerns a lady's man falling in love and the various romantic maneuvers he and his friends make, with the usual complications of the wrong people being in the wrong places, mistake of identity, etc.  There's one or two good lines, but otherwise it's forgettable.

The Way of the World (1700) started off slowly.  Too many indistinguishable characters and a complicated plot involving a scheme to bilk a dowager out of her estate.  I finally started to make sense of it in the final act, and then it was more enjoyable.  Far more moralistic than the past two, and less bawdy.

The Conscious Lovers (1722) was, self-professedly, a wholesome counterpart to the tendency of plays to be profane, ribald, and setting poor moral lessons.  I was prepared to be extremely bored, and it's true there's not a lick of wit or humor in the play.  On the other hand, it was quite readable and reasonably interesting.  The central plot is a dutiful son who has been directed by his father to marry a woman he does not love, and how he tries (virtuously) to extricate himself from the commitment.

The School for Scandal (1777) condemns the venomous gossip and back-biting that was seen by many as the vocation of the upper-class.  It makes the point well, and was fairly amusing.

A collection of essays makes up the second half of the book.  Not page-turners by any means, but there are some interesting themes developed: the definition and role of humor; the polemic against "immoral" stage plays written by Jeremy Collier in 1698 (and contemporary rebuttals); the development of stage dress and structure; the role of women on the stage, and more.

It's safe to say the subject of this book is far removed from any of my interests (personal or professional), but the purpose of an exercise like this is to be briefly immersed in an area I would otherwise absolutely no knowledge about.  It was eye-opening to read The Country Wife, because it's easy to forget that standards of decency fluctuate, and not all of English history had Victorian-style condemnation of anything prurient.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Diary of Jizana M'Rell: Entry # 8 [RPG]



RUN TIME 29/12765 24:29


Kessidus is dead, Carn showed more backbone than I anticipated, and Sian hates me now.

The Sith came back, and succeeded in corrupting Wimrick.  I saw it all through the Force--they hacked Kessidus literally to pieces.  Prann and Ayden were lucky to escape with their lives.  We're on our way to Coruscant now, having destroyed one of the Sith bases.  Carn seems sure that war is coming, but it could mean something else.  Undoubtedly this was what Doneeta was in a hurry to tell the other Jedi when I saw him arrive on Ossus those many weeks ago . . .

I offered Carn a bargain--if he took me as his apprentice, I wouldn't tell the galaxy about the Sarama and his role in it.  I'm not sure what made him refuse.  Was his loyalty to Master Bes that strong?  Surely she would have understood that I had placed him in an impossible position and wouldn't hold it against him.  Or was the thought of taking me as an apprentice so truly horrible and repugnant that he was willing to risk the lives of the Sarama, who he spent 20 years trying to protect, and the possible fall of the Republic just to keep me from becoming a Jedi?  And the sheer gall of them to cut me from the Academy because of the "dark side" when Wimrick was a Sith agent all along!

But regardless, Carn had his way, and now the galaxy knows everything.  I received a letter from the Republic Chancellor.  They want me to go on the lecture circuit, but I won't leave Sian.  In the long run, despite possibly harmful short-term effects, what I did will turn out to be the best--already the Republic is investigating and attempting to make sure what happened to the Sarama will never happen again.

Sian doesn't understand why I did it, and how can I explain it to her when I don't know myself?  She wouldn't even listen to me when I asked her to go to Ossus.  Doesn't she understand the Sith at all?!!  I understand them all too well after having read their little "Guide to Pain."  I will keep her safe though, no matter what.  I may be a pacifist, but when it comes to Sian, I will do whatever it takes.

Still, intergalactic war, revolution.  I am now truly alone.  I must confess that events have developed in a direction I had not anticipated.  But I know what must be done, and I will set things right.


RUN TIME 269/12765 24:43


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What I Read (2014)

I'm slowing down in my dotage!  Hopefully, a better routine will get me back in pace in 2015.

Jan. 2, 2014:  Homer, The Illiad  "Interesting how it starts in media res and ends at a surprising point.  Quite bloody too!"

Jan. 8, 2014:  N.D. Wilson, The Chestnut King  "Final book in 100 Cupboards trilogy.  Good but not great.  Still, a writer with potential."

Jan. 9, 2014: James L. Sutter, Before They Were Giants  "Planet Stories collection for first published work by major SF writers with own commentary.  Really enjoyable and introduced me to some authors to check out."

Feb. 2014: Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, The Gathering Storm "Fantastic page-turner.  Best WoT book in ages."

Mar. 5, 2014: Jeff Kinney, Journal d’un dégonflé: La vérite toute moche "Still laugh-out loud funny and very entertaining."

Mar. 6, 2014: David Lyon & Marguerite Van Die, Rethinking Church, State, and Modernity: Canada Between Europe and America, "Fairly good collection of essays for anyone interested in church & state in Canada."

Mar. 17, 2014: Michael Reeves, Patterns of Force "Third 'Coruscant Nights' Star Wars book.  Okay, but largely forgettable."

Mar. 2014: Stephen King, Carrie "My e-book re-read.  Brilliant, and you can see why it made him an instant star.  Yes, there's horror, but the overwhelming sense is tragedy and sadness."

Mar. 24, 2014: Carolyn Maree Evans, Legal Protection of Religious Freedom in Australia "Excellent, well-researched, and concise overview of statutory and constitutional dimensions of topic."

Mar. 31, 2014: Paul Heelas & Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality "Thought-provoking study of traditional religious activity vs 'holistic milieu' in English city w/ wider implications drawn for future of spirituality."

Mar. 31, 2014: Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint "Plotless, stream of consciousness monologue on Jewish life in post-war N.J.  Still very funny, even if I can't connect to much of it personally."

Apr. 7, 2014: R.A. Salvatore, The Legend of Drizzt Vol. 2 "Trilogy as Drizzt & friends liberate Mithril Hall, rescue Regis from Calimport.  Introduces Artemis Entreri.  Entertaining."

May 5, 2014: Stephen King, Salem's Lot "King brings realism to a vampire tale, and it works quite well."

May 15, 2014: Andrew Lang, Cock Lane and Common-Sense "Discussion of supernatural phenomenon, unfocussed & w/out strong guiding thesis."

May 28, 2014: J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter et les Reliques de la Mort "A bit exposition-heavy at times, but still a satisfying conclusion to the series."

June 5, 2014: Sarah Pinborough, Long Time Dead "Torchwood Miracle Day prequel--Suzie Costello lives again & has to be stopped.  Pretty good all in all."

June 11, 2014: David Budbill, Bones on Black Spruce Mountain "YA book about 2 boys on camping trip.  Theme of loneliness & family.  Very good, and worth keeping."

June 12, 2014: Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark "Re-read of first Sookie Stackhouse book.  Still love the well-described, evocative setting."

June 14, 2014: Laurie R. King, The Game "Holmes & Russell on an adventure in India.  Great skill in evoking a setting, even if plotting still falls flat."

June 28, 2014: Stephen King, The Shining "Classic & still spooky.  King really makes you care about the characters, which is what makes the horror work."

June 29, 2014: Carrie Vaughn, Kitty Takes a Holiday "Third in the werewolf series, as skinwalkers attack.  Enjoyable."

June 29, 2014: Elizabeth George, I, Richard "Short story collection.  Mostly 'twist in the tail' types, with one slight tale featuring Lynley.  Not worth getting."

July 8, 2014: William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, "Norton edition; classic story of economic fall but moral rise.  Fairly interesting, & very useful essays on literary realism."

July 20, 2014: C.J. Henderson & Erica Henderson, Baby's First Mythos "Silly rhymes & alphabet from Cthulhu mythos.  Not worth the cost, but some great artwork."

July 24, 2014: Mircea Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions "Collection of essays showing breathtaking and wide-ranging familiarity with culture, religion, and language around the world."

July 2014: Charlaine Harris, Living Dead in Dallas "Second Sookie Stackhouse novel.  Main plot with anti-vampire cult in Dallas is strong, but subplot with murder of gay cook poorly written & borderline problematic."

August 12, 2014: Stephen King, Night Shift "Still an excellent collection of short stories."

August 2014: Danielle Dumais, Sortilèleges, salsa, et compagnie: L’Evénement "First volume in pre-teen series about kids who gain magic powers after magnetic storm.  Not worth reading."

August 21, 2014: Gary Bouma, Australian Soul: Religion & Spirituality in the 21st Century "Some good overview, but also some polemic mixed w/ scholarship."

August 25, 2014: James Swallow, Faith & Fire "Frankly fantastic.  Warhammer 40K book about Sisters of Battle.  Would make a great movie."

September 2014: Barbara Hambly, Planet of Twilight "Boring paint-by-numbers Star Wars book."

September 23, 2014: Constance Greene, Double-Dare O'Toole "Fantastic YA novel about Fex, a boy who just can't resist a double-dare.  Sweet & insightful."

October 2014: No Author, Doctor Who Companion Compendium "Nicely packaged collection of trivia."

October 29, 2014: Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City "Fascinating tale of construction of Chicago's World Fair while serial killer strikes in the shadows.  True story."

November 2014: Gary Johns (ed.), Recognise What? "Essays opposing recognition of indigenous persons in the Australian Constitution."

November 2014: Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, Towers of Midnight "Next to last Wheel of Time book.  Excellent & exciting."

December 2014: Charlaine Harris, A Touch of Dead "Sookie Stackhouse short story collection.  Not required reading for sure."

December 2014: Jasper Fforde, First Among Sequels "Fourth of the Thursday Next books.  Surprising time jump, but remains incredibly creative and fun to read."

December 18, 2014: A.B. McKillop, Pierre Berton: A Biography "Journalist, historian, and 'Canadian Icon.'  Focusses on professional life, but little sense of personal life."

December 20, 2014: Richard Lee Byers, Unholy "Third book in the Haunted Lands series of FR Thay novels.  Decent."

December 23, 2014: Jude Watson, Secret Weapon "7th Last of the Jedi book.  Surprisingly really interesting and page turning.  Looking forward to others."

December 25, 2014: H. Paul Jeffers, Complete Idiot's Guide to the Great Depression "Bought for Cthulhu gaming research, finished years later!"