March 2020 in Summary: Silent World

I hope you’re all doing well out there in the face of this daunting pandemic. To think that nearly one-hundred years after the infamous influenza outbreak of 1918, we’d have another one our hands. Isolation won’t be easy but doing so will pay off in the long term, so remember to take care of yourself.


Films watched in March 2020:

In theaters:

  • <None>

At home:

  • The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
  • Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
  • The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020)
  • Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

The Coronavirus – the only thing that can clear out theaters faster than a screening of a Dinesh D’Souza film. Heyo!

I started off this month by watching The Lives of Others. It was one of those films I happened upon by researching what people consider to be the best German films, which is also how I found out about stuff such as M, Wings of Desire, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Either way, it really makes for a fascinating, suspenseful watch, which is a given when you’re discussing a story about the extensive surveillance the government of East Germany subjected their own citizens to in the final years of the Cold War.

In a lot of ways, Robert Altman was the Wes Anderson of his day. He really had a quirky style that blended together silliness and seriousness in a way few other artists could. Nashville has had an interesting afterlife in that while it isn’t as well-known as M*A*S*H, those who have seen it consider it Mr. Altman’s magnum opus. I have to admit I didn’t like it quite as much because it’s a little bit more directionless, and certain musical numbers go on for too long. Regardless, it is absolutely worth seeing, and that a majority of the cast wrote and preformed their own music makes it a remarkable achievement.

Before the Coronavirus happened, I had intended to see The Invisible Man. I originally planned to see it at the end of February, but my computer died on me, and I really wanted to get my Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom review finished as soon as I could, so that put the kibosh on those plans. I would finally end up seeing it several weeks later when it moved to Amazon’s on-demand service. I have to admit I would’ve been a little more apprehensive about seeing it had I known who directed it. Leigh Whannell’s previous film, Upgrade, was the single worst film I saw in 2018, which is quite an accomplishment given that he had some tough competition between Hereditary and Vice. Thankfully, The Invisible Man, though a bit tethered to standard horror-film conventions, managed to be a significant improvement. I’m not sure if it really got this decade off to a good start and, in all honesty, the pandemic is probably going to ensure most mediums are hindered for the first part of the decade, but I, at the very least, can say it’s an honorable mention.

Finally, nearing the end of the month, I ended up seeing Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring. Mr. Ozu was one of those directors who never really strayed far from what he knew, but if you want a slice-of-life film that incorporates a charismatic, human element missing in many contemporary efforts, he won’t let you down. I must admit I liked An Autumn Afternoon more, but Late Spring is a classic itself that is worth a watch.


Games reviewed in March 2020:

Tacoma

In some respect, I can appreciate what the walking simulator attempted to do. However, it was ultimately a revolution the medium never really needed in the first place. Everything that the walking simulator attempted to do was done better in visual novels and games that put all of their efforts into crafting stories without eschewing the game mechanics entirely such as Undertale or OneShot. It’s not so different from the AAA approach at the time wherein they relied on cinematic cutscenes to convey plots.

Either way, I feel it’s pretty damning that Tacoma managed to showcase far more ambition than Gone Home ever did, even defying the painfully tired science-fiction tropes going on at the time… and it walked away with less critical acclaim for its efforts. The moment gaming journalists reach the point where they’re actively shunning innovation and ambition is the moment that gaming will reach the creatively stagnant position in which films currently wallow. Fortunately, gaming also happens to have a better indie scene, so I’m not terribly worried about the medium falling into a rut.

Mega Man 4

I have to admit I’ve thought better about Mega Man 4 than when I originally played it back in 2006. Nonetheless, I do think that, in 1991, it was indeed the weakest of the games, for this is the moment that series fatigue began setting in. Sure, it has a better arsenal than that of Mega Man 3 while arguably boasting more polish, but the team that made this game clearly had a winning formula by this point, and they didn’t seem to want to do anything to truly mix things up. Worst of all, the most significant innovation only succeeds in defeating the purpose of gaining the Robot Masters’ weapons to begin with. All in all, it’s a mixed bag, but still generally a more worthwhile experience than most games out there.


Featured articles:

Ori and the Will of the Wisps – Review: A Near Flawless Masterpiece – Having recently played through Ori and the Blind Forest, I am very much looking forward to getting this decade off to a great start with its sequel, which Stephen Brown the Honest Gamer assures me is, in many ways better than the original. Impressive given what an achievement the original was.

Did He Really Solve Anything? – Rian Johnson is one of those directors who constantly gets in his own way. Whenever he succeeds, it is almost always in spite of his style, and not because of it. With this in mind, reading bookbeachbunny’s take on his latest film, Knives Out, was highly enjoyable.

Uncut Gems: Adam Sandler in Riveting Form – If we’re talking about studios that can’t help but get in their own way, that would be A24. Uncut Gems actually succeeds for many of the same reasons Knives Out does in that happened to be a film that benefitted from A24’s more obnoxious habits. Either way, I agree with Mr. Wapojif in that it really isn’t what I’d call a masterpiece (Good Time was better, for the record). And now critics are complaining that Adam Sandler didn’t get an Oscar nod. How times change.

Crush Pinball Series – An Overview – There aren’t that many quality pinball simulators out there, but Devil’s Crush, as The3rdPlayer showcases, is one of them. It definitely helps when the developers don’t even bother trying to recreate an experience they couldn’t reasonably replicate and do something completely new.

Xeodrifter – The 2010s were a strange decade in that it was a great period for Metroidvanias, but it was a horrible period for both Metroid and Castlevania. Regardless, the indie scene provided us with many quality Metroidvania experiences, though Neppy happened to review one of the lesser efforts in the form of Xeodrifter.

First Impressions – Ori and the Will of the Wisps – More love for Ori and the Will of the Wisps can be read here provided by the Gaming Omnivore. I’m really looking forward to getting into this one.

Twilight Of DC Comics? – Rumors have been going around that DC comics may cease publication. It would be a true end of an era if such a reality came to pass. Or it could just be clickbait fearmongering. Difficult to say at this point, but Starloggers’s take on the situation was interesting to read.

2020 Video Game Awards – I have to admit that I’m not sure how I would parse 2019 as a year for gaming, but reading through Scott’s annual video game awards series of articles would suggest it was a solid period.

The Battlegrounds Right Here: Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 4-Setting – In part four of his Persona 3 retrospective, Aether talks about Tatsumi Port Island – the game’s setting. The game is also notable in that it effectively only has a single dungeon. It’s a lot like a good progressive rock song; sprawling and made up of many disparate parts with a unifying theme.

The law of diminishing returns in the console arms race – The end of console generation number eight is upon us, and The Night Owl wrote a concise article that suggests it is another step to the side. I would be inclined to agree; at this point the only difference between the new consoles that matters are the exclusives, which is becoming a worse idea as time goes on given that it hasn’t really promoted creativity the same way it did in the 1980s and 1990s.


Links to my articles:

Game reviews:

Other posts:

Mystery Blogger Award from Ospreyshire

Well, once again, I find myself tagged with a Mystery Blogger Award – this time, courtesy of Ospreyshire. Outside of video games, you don’t see many creative types who actually acknowledge international efforts these days, so I’d say his is a blog worth following. He asked five questions from me, so let’s dive right in.

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[GAME REVIEW] Mega Man 4

Introduction

Mega Man 3 was highly regarded upon its 1990 release. Unbeknownst to the people who bought it, however, the project had to overcome myriad roadblocks in order to see the light of day. Director Akira Kitamura had left Capcom and would later quit making games entirely while his replacement, Masayoshi Kurokawa, frequently clashed with the team, causing him to leave the project halfway through. This resulted in artist Keiji Inafune taking up the reins, forcing him to compile their work in a very short amount of time. Consequently, many ideas were left on the cutting room floor. For example, the team expressed the desire to replace the famous stage select system in favor of a linear level progression or take inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been recently released, and implement a map system. Both ideas were shot down by Capcom executives. While Mega Man 3 remains a beloved classic, it does bear signs of its taxing production cycle for those who dig beneath the surface.

Although Mega Man 3 could have been considered a grand finale for the series, Capcom realized that the title character was their answer to Mario. With a formula that lent itself well to sequels, a fourth installment was an inevitability. Production of Mega Man 4 went much more smoothly according to Mr. Inafune, who worked as one of the three designers for this game. As a result, he and his fellow staff members often held this game in higher regard than its direct predecessor. The game was released domestically in December of 1991 as Rockman 4: A New Evil Ambition!! before abridging the title abroad to Mega Man 4 a month later. Mega Man 4 is notable for being the first installment in the series released after the debut of Nintendo’s Super Famicom console in November of 1990. Was Capcom able to give those who hadn’t yet adopted the new platform an experience worthy of its acclaimed predecessors?

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[GAME REVIEW] Tacoma

Introduction

The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.

Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.

Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?

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February 2020 in Summary: System Shocked!

Also known as the one in which Red Metal’s computer finally goes kaput, causing the last review of the month to be delayed. Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I had been considering getting a new one for a long time, but I hesitated until this development forced my hand (which isn’t the first time something like this happened, to be honest).

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

Introduction

Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.

Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.

Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?

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Mega Man 3

Introduction

The year 1987 saw the debut of Mega Man. Made by Capcom, this game only proved to be a modest hit. Nonetheless, director Akira Kitamura and his team found much potential in what they created, and sought to make a sequel. Capcom’s executive branch permitted them to work on it under the condition that they contributed to other projects at the same time. To see this project to completion, the team had to regularly work twenty-hour days for four months. Although Keiji Inafune, one of game’s original artists, described the process as daunting, he also considered it the single greatest period of his tenure working for Capcom. The care and attention they put into the game paid off when, to everyone’s surprise, Mega Man 2 sold well both domestically and internationally. With a clear triumph in the console market, Capcom began working on a sequel in 1989. However, the team faced a significant setback during the planning phase when Akira Kitamura resigned from Capcom. He would soon join the developer Takeru wherein he directed a game highly similar to Mega Man known as Cocoron before leaving the industry in the early 1990s.

Not willing to let the series come to an end, Capcom assigned Masahiko Kurokawa, a man who had proven his skills on other projects, to direct the newest Mega Man installment. Creative differences between him and Mr. Kitamura’s former teammates resulted in a troubled production cycle. The immense frustration led Mr. Kurokawa to leave the team before the game was finished. With the project quickly falling behind schedule, Mr. Inafune stepped up to salvage what they had completed before the deadline. Realizing his own lack of experience helming a project, he recruited Yoshinori Takenaka, who had designed Capcom’s adaptation of the popular Disney animated show DuckTales, for assistance.

Soldiering on through, Mr. Inafune and his team completed the game, which was released domestically in 1990. Named Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?, Mr. Inafune would regard this particular installment his least favorite entry in the series. Even if he and his team were able to get the game released on time, they had to leave many ideas on the cutting room floor. Nonetheless, the game was met with a positive reception; some regard it to this day as the series’ definitive entry. After it was exported to the West under the name Mega Man 3, the game went on to sell over one-million copies worldwide. In defiance of Mr. Inafune’s negative feelings about the game, does Mega Man 3 stand as one of the series’ highlights?

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Dark Souls

Introduction

In the 1990s, a man named Hidetaka Miyazaki graduated from Keio University with a degree in social science. He began working for an American company named Oracle Corporation wherein he managed accounts. However, he reconsidered his career path at age 29 when a friend recommended a game named Ico to him. Inspired by its design, Mr. Miyazaki sought a career in game design. Due to his age, few companies were willing to employ him. Fortunately, he found one promising studio in the form of FromSoftware. After being hired, he began working as a planner for the then-latest installment in their long-running Armored Core series of mech games: Last Raven. To his surprise, he soon found himself in the director’s chair, overseeing the development of Armored Core 4 and its direct sequel Armored Core: For Answer.

The seventh console generation began in 2005 following Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox 360. It was in full swing in 2006 once Nintendo and Sony released the Wii and PlayStation 3 respectively. The latter was largely criticized upon its launch due to its limited library upon launch and exorbitant price point of $599 USD. Having manufactured the console upon which FromSoftware made their debut, it seemed only fitting that the developer would provide Sony with a hot app. It was to be a fantasy role-playing game intended to be a spiritual sequel to their inaugural title King’s Field.

Mr. Miyazaki was especially interested in the project, though the rest of the company considered it a failure. Not helping matters was its negative reception at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Nonetheless, Mr. Miyazaki felt that, once assigned to the game’s development, he would do his best to put his own artistic spin on it. He rationalized that “if [his] ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure”. In spite of its poor initial showing, the game, entitled Demon’s Souls, began selling surprisingly well through word-of-mouth. FromSoftware soon found they had a sleeper hit on their hands. Such was the hype surrounding Demon’s Souls that it caught the attention of Western gamers – some of whom went as far as importing it. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to wait long for a chance to play it themselves because the surprising success of Demon’s Souls allowed them to easily find publishers willing to venture an overseas release. Thus, Demon’s Souls went on to become one of the PlayStation 3’s exemplary exclusive titles.

Having made such a popular game, it would seem only natural for Mr. Miyazaki and his team to rally themselves for round two. As soon as they could, they began working on a new game. However, things were not so clear-cut. Demon’s Souls was published by Sony whereas this new game would have Bandai Namco do the honors. As a direct result of this transfer, the intellectual property rights prevented FromSoftware from making a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls.

Undeterred, Mr. Miyazaki and his team retained many of the same basic ideas from Demon’s Souls to create not a sequel, but a spiritual successor. Working hard over the next two years, the game was finished and released worldwide in 2011 for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 under the name Dark Souls. While Demon’s Souls brought the company true international exposure, Dark Souls signposted to everyone that their success wasn’t an accident. Selling over two-million copies over the next two years, Mr. Miyazaki would soon be rewarded for his creativity by being promoted to the company’s president in 2014. To this day, Dark Souls is considered one of the greatest efforts of the 2010s. On the heels of a surprising sleeper hit, how was Dark Souls able to continue this momentum?

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The 92nd Academy Awards’ “Best Picture” Nominees Ranked from Worst to Best

Shortly after the 2010s came to an end, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked over the many releases in 2019 and announced their nominees for the prestigious title of “Best Picture”. The previous ceremony famously proceeded without a host. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but the 2019 ceremony had notably higher ratings than those of the year before. It was therefore fitting that the 92nd ceremony would follow suit. It’s just as well; hosted ceremonies would drag on for far too long, often featuring unfunny comedy sketches when, theoretically, the main focus should be on the art.

I say “theoretically” because the eight “Best Picture” nominees for the 91st ceremony were, to put it bluntly, underwhelming. In fact, they formed the single weakest lineup of films I had seen since I started seriously paying attention to the Oscars – decidedly lacking in muscle or staying power. In the end, Green Book walked away with the prize. Considering that the previous year had the artistically daring The Shape of Water shatter the barrier preventing the high-minded from appreciating fantasy as a genre, the victory of Green Book was a clear regression. Nonetheless, it was the single best film to represent 2018, showcasing the extreme lack of ambition or imagination plaguing creators at the time.

For the 92nd Academy Awards, a total of nine films were nominated for “Best Picture”: Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Parasite. On the surface, it would appear that the Academy fell into old habits. Much like Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, and Green Book, two of the “Best Picture” nominees from this year, Jojo Rabbit and Joker, received a lukewarm critical reception. It would seem counterproductive to claim to celebrate the best of the best only to promote middling efforts.

In what many critics would consider even more damning, for the second year in a row, none of A24’s films received a nomination. Unlike in 2018, this actually is kind of a shame because, despite getting off to a slow start with Gloria Bell and High Life, A24 managed to get their act together and issue one of their greatest films since Moonlight in the form of The Farewell. Supplemented by other stellar efforts such as Waves and Uncut Gems, I would actually argue this was A24’s single best year since their 2012 inception.

Regardless, I myself do not have a problem with their lack of nominations. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the quality of their features, but I don’t think it can be contested that A24 is one of the single worst distributors out there.

Part of the problem with nominating their films is that barely anybody outside of the people it’s specifically screened for gets an opportunity to see them. This is because, for whatever reason, A24 is obsessed with limited releases. We can only speculate as to why this is, but if you want your work to get through to people, ensuring it can only be seen by those who have already subscribed to the brand doesn’t cut it. The most beautiful painting world may as well not exist if only one person may look upon it, after all.

Even in the cases in which these films do receive a wider release, A24’s marketing for them is abysmal at the best of times. The only reason I even knew Waves existed is because I happened to see it on a theater marque by pure chance. For that matter, I wouldn’t even have heard of First Reformed had its director, Paul Schrader, resisted the urge to whine about its commercial failure. And this is coming from someone who checks for new releases every single week, so if it slipped beneath my radar, what chance does a causal fan have?

In the interest in fairness, I will say it can be defeating to take chances and pitch ideas only for them to not resonate with a mass audience. However, at the risk of sounding insensitive, I must also point out that one needs thick skin to grow as an artist. If A24 cannot learn from their mistakes, their fans better get used to seeing them coming back emptyhanded in the foreseeable future. I think it’s very telling that Roger Eggers’s The Lighthouse was their only effort to receive any kind of recognition – for cinematography, which is arguably the most objective award the Academy hands out. This suggests that, subjectively speaking, whatever A24 pitched in 2019 simply didn’t grab the Academy’s interest. Perhaps a wide release or two could have remedied this problem?

With all of that said, don’t be fooled by the numbers or the continued lack of A24 representation. In fact, if the creative stagnation of 2018 caused filmmakers to dole out the single weakest “Best Picture” lineup I’ve ever seen, 2019 was responsible for one of the strongest batch of nominees in years. The only other years of the 2010s capable of giving it a run for its money would either 2014 or 2015, which saw the release of the decade’s highlights: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mad Max: Fury Road respectively. Ironically, this increase in quality actually made ranking the nine films much trickier.

This is because last year’s eight nominations ended up being distributed across five different tiers – two of which faced disqualification to end up where they did. It’s easy to rank a list when several efforts exist alone on their tier. Conversely, I can say each and every single one of the films I’m about to discuss are worth seeing. So while 2018’s nominees struggled to get a 7/10, 2019 turned the grade into what it should have been all along: the standard. Because every nominee ended up getting a passing grade, I actually had to put some thought into how I would order them. In the end, I realized I had to think of this list in terms of how I would order my top ten for the year. The easiest ones to rank were the ones in the top two positions because we’re talking about works that are so unequivocally better than their contemporaries, it’s almost unfair they’re even in this competition.

Just like last time, this list is, in no way, intended to be a prediction as to which film will win. This article’s primary purpose is for me to express how I think of these films in relation to each other. Now that we have the introduction out of the way, let’s get started.

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Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

There is a family from South Korea known as the Kims. It consists of father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, son Ki-woo, and daughter Ki-jeong. They are decidedly not well off, living in a small basement apartment. The dwelling is unkempt with dishes strewn everywhere and they often find themselves needing to hold their smart phones to the ceiling to get any kind of Wi-Fi reception. They are barely staying afloat by working various low-paying odd jobs. One day, Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk, intends to study abroad, and gives the Kim family a scholar’s rock, which is supposed to bring them wealth. Feeling pity for his friend, Min-hyuk suggests that Ki-woo pose as a university student and take over his job as an English tutor for one Park Da-hye. The Park family is very wealthy, so Ki-woo may have stumbled into something that can help his family leave their squalid living conditions.

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