January 2020 in Summary: Oscar Detour

Also known as the one in which Red Metal forgets to be a game critic for an entire month. I apologize for not getting any of the promised game reviews done. After the Oscar nominees were announced, I decided to put all of my energy towards reviewing all nine entries so I can type up my annual “worst to best” list for them. The good news is that I can already say that this is a much better lineup than last year’s miserable showing.

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Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams, 2019)

WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.

The members of the Resistance have escaped from Planet Crait and are now mounting a counterattack against the First Order. However, as they regroup, a shocking, new development occurs. A mysterious broadcast resonates throughout the galaxy, promising a threat of revenge. The voice belongs to none other than the deceased Emperor Palpatine – the despot ruler of the Galactic Empire. In response, General Leia Organa has dispatched her agents to gather intelligence as Rey prepares for the final battle. As the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, Kylo Ren attempts to solve the mystery of this phantom emperor, hoping to eliminate any threat to his own reign.

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Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.

Starkiller Base has been destroyed, but the First Order continues their campaign undaunted. Having disposed of the Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke has deployed his forces in order to subjugate the galaxy. The only thing standing in their way is General Leia Organa’s Resistance fighters. Although certain that her brother will rejoin the fight and light a spark of hope in the Resistance, their existence has been exposed. It is only a matter of time before Snoke’s forces overwhelms the Resistance.

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December 2019 in Summary: The End of a Decade

Happy New Year! Can you believe the year 2020 is upon us? I remember as a kid thinking 2000 sounded so futuristic. Crazy, isn’t it? When it comes to media, the 2010s certainly had its ups and downs.

Video games got off to a great start with 2010 and 2011 being excellent years for the medium. However, the bottom in the fell out in 2012, and suddenly AAA productions lost their dominance. I’m not sure if it can be attributed to a single incident, but I would probably have to name Mass Effect 3 and the negative reaction to its ending that caused people to be more wary of AAA products. Then there was 2013, which I consider the single weakest year for gaming within this decade, having an inordinate number of hyped games such as Gone Home and Beyond: Two Souls that utterly failed to deliver. While 2014 didn’t have as many bad games, barely anything from that year stood out. Then in 2015, Undertale was released, and that caused a major spike in interest for indie productions, which I think singlehandedly redeemed the medium from the treasure trove of bad games released in 2013. In a twist of irony, fans are now more supportive of independent efforts than the journalists – the exact opposite situation the film industry faces.

Depending on your perspective, the 2010s was either a great or miserable decade for music. While I think it was slightly better than the 2000s, there’s no getting around that the mainstream stuff was fairly weak. Fortunately, like video games, there were plenty of indie artists to pick up the slack.

I think of the 2010s as the decade in which films lost their claim to the artistic high ground to video games. They did get off to a better start than video games, having only a few critical missteps between 2010 and 2017. However, I think the release of The Last Jedi marked the moment film criticism lost its way, leading to the medium being in a bad way for 2018 and, to a lesser extent, 2019. Indeed, I consider 2018 to be the film industry equivalent of 2013 in that there was an inordinate number of films that failed to live up to the hype. However, films are overall worse off than video games ever were because I can safely say the independent game makers are far more ambitious than their filmmaking counterparts. Stuff like OneShot and Undertale are far more innovative than the most acclaimed indie films I’ve seen this decade.

As for other mediums, I can’t claim to be an expert, but from what I’ve seen, it was a great decade for animation – both from the West and the East, though the latter seemed to be more consistently good. Along those lines, it ended up being the decade in which I began seriously pursuing manga and graphic novels, though strangely, despite liking the MCU, I find myself gravitating towards non-superhero stories.

Anyway with that bit of rambling out of the way, let’s dive into the final recap, shall we?

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.

After the fall of the Galactic Empire, the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, and the rebel forces that brought down the oppressive regime became the talk of legends. Thirty years have passed since then, and a new crisis has emerged. Luke Skywalker has vanished without a trace. In his absence, a faction known as the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire. General Leia Organa now leads a resistance movement against the First Order backed by the Republic. Desperate to find her brother, she sends her best pilot on a mission to Planet Jakku. An old ally may have found a clue to Luke’s whereabouts.

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Impeccable Timing: 5 Classic Films That Contemporary Critics Would Have Hated

Last December, I had the pleasure of watching Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Although I didn’t like it quite as much as Memento, I definitely think it’s a great film well worth watching. Unfortunately, critics at the time didn’t agree, for the film’s initial reception was lukewarm. The critics who enjoyed it were in the majority, but the writing was on the wall; it paled in comparison to his earlier efforts. When the decade came to a close, something unexpected happened. Suddenly, this film that currently sits at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes began appearing on various “best of” lists regarding the most exemplary efforts of the 2000s.

Because of this development, one of the greatest weaknesses of aggregate review sites was revealed – it only provides a snapshot as to what critics thought of a film the minute it debuted. If a film is subject to retroactive vindication, the score does not change accordingly. This is also evident in how Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter achieved 100% on the same site despite being so poorly received upon its 1955 release that it completely ruined his chances of ever directing another film.

Seeing these two films got me thinking about how works are received. How many critical darlings are going to stand the test of time? How many masterpieces are the critics of today letting fall by the wayside? Critics have proven over the years to be masters of tooting their own horns, but as the late, great Orson Welles once proposed in his excellent swansong effort, F for Fake, they can be hoodwinked just as easily the audience they look down upon. If critics could make this mistake as recently as 2006 when the rules of the medium had been firmly established, I expect there will be many more instances of such a thing occurring to come.

Even with an educated guess here and there, I don’t have any way of determining what films considered mediocre or even outright bad now will receive their vindication in the future. Therefore, I will instead talk about the opposite phenomenon. As a result of the various think pieces ostensibly professional critics and journalists have written in the past decade, which range anywhere from woefully misbegotten to condescending to their audience, I’ve found them to be increasingly untrustworthy. Consequently, I can believe they would have hated many classic, undeniably good films had they been released today.

Now, to be clear, with this editorial, I’m not talking about films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Though critics continue to praise both works, it’s clear they have nothing to offer most people, promoting obviously outdated values among other problems. Instead, I propose that there are films considered to this very day some of the greatest ever made – but only because the current wave of critics took their predecessors at their word. I feel that if you were to somehow beam present-day critical sensibilities into their predecessors’ collective headspace, they would have dropped certain objectively great films like a hot potato. They fly in the face of present-day critical sensibilities to the extent that they would have lambasted them on principle alone. There are plenty of films I feel fall into this category, but five in particular struck me as the kinds of works contemporary critics would loathe with every fiber of their being.

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150th Review Special, Part 2: Throwing Caution to the Wind

I use yellow scores whenever I can’t officially recommend nor dissuade people from playing the game in question. The exact score I use depends on which way I would go if somebody pressed me enough with a 4/10 meaning probably avoid, a 5/10 meaning I’m not sure, and a 6/10 meaning play if you’re a fan. Either way, we’re officially done talking about bad games from this point onward.

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Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

Introduction

The impact of the 1993 PC game Doom was such that it led to a swath of imitators. Though they would become known as first-person shooters, these kinds of games were often referred to as Doom clones. One title to emerge from the scene was LucasArts’s Star Wars: Dark Forces. Originally released in 1995, it was a commercial success, selling over 300,000 units and enjoying fairly positive reviews. The developers named the custom engine on which the game was built Jedi after the franchise’s heroic faction. The game stood out from Doom by having no limitations on the Z-axis. Levels in the older game only existed on the X-Y plane, meaning areas could not overlap vertically – even if floor and ceiling heights varied.

Shortly before the debut of Dark Force, LucasArts began work on another game in 1994. The team wished to create a multimedia side story to the films entitled Shadows of the Empire, setting it between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – a time period that had not been explored in any Star Wars novel. The idea was to create something that could be considered a film without actually making one. The video game adaption of this project was to be released on Nintendo’s upcoming Nintendo 64 console. This decision was made because, though LucasArts enjoyed a lot of success in the PC circuit with classic adventure game such as Maniac Mansion, they felt they missed opportunities for extra revenue by ignoring the console market for so long. Therefore, by being an early adopter for Nintendo’s newest console, they could make a lot of money in this venture while also getting more people interested in it, forming a mutually beneficial partnership. In order to give themselves more creative control over the story and the gameplay, they decided against using any of central characters from the film. Instead, they elected to cast a minor character from the Expanded Universe in the lead role.

The development cycle for this game proved to be an interesting experience as the team was allowed access to the hardware months ahead of its launch. A prototype Nintendo 64 was not yet available when work began, so the developers used a Silicon Graphic Onyx visualization system. Eighteen months later, a nearly complete sample of the Nintendo 64 was given to LucasArts. Thankfully, two developers in particular had extensive experience with the SGI platform and prototyped the game using the Performer 3D API. This allowed the team to port their coding to the Nintendo 64 hardware in only three days. They were even given a prototype controller with which to test the game. It was actually a modified SNES controller with an analog stick and Z-trigger designed by Konami. To ensure complete secrecy, the LucasArts team signed a strict nondisclosure agreement, disallowing them from speaking to anyone about the hardware or the project. Furthermore, the controller prototype was concealed in a cardboard box that they could place their hands into, but prevented them from removing it.

Though the development cycle wasn’t plagued with any major setbacks, it ended up taking its toll on the team. According to the game’s director, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, some team members were regularly working 100-hour weeks for the better part of a year. Compounding the pressure was the fact that they had to release their game shortly after the console’s launch. To make matters worse, when the game was demonstrated at the 1996 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the audience’s reactions were mixed. In response, LucasArts canceled their original plan to have their work coincide with the Nintendo 64’s launch so they could take extra time to polish the gameplay. Despite this, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was postponed a mere three months later, finally seeing the light of day in December of 1996. After the Nintendo 64 debuted with Super Mario 64 being one of its launch titles, the 3D craze of the mid-nineties had begun in earnest. The idea of a real three-dimensional Star Wars game was truly exciting for both old and new fans at the time. It was one of the console’s first big third-party successes, and played a role in the 3D revolution’s continued momentum. Can it claim to have held up as well as its pioneering contemporaries?

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