Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Comic of the Week 5.30.12

Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates #11
Marvel Comics

Slim pickings in the comics department this week.  UC: Ultimates was the only comic I got so it was a lock for CotW.  That said it was pretty good.  Things have been building in the Ultimate line of of comics.  I was a little worried by the scope of things (a few issues back Reed Richards blew up Washington DC) and that they were ramping up intensity just to keep things interesting (a device in modern comics that is often used to hide inadequate or subpar storytelling), but they do seem to be building to something here and they laid the foundation for it for at least two years, so I am more than willing to see where this is going. 
Issue #11 continues this build as things go from worse to absolutely disastrous.  If you've not been keeping up, Reed Richards was left for dead in the Negative Zone several years ago, but he didn't die, instead he stayed behind in the Zone and got angry.  He reappeared about a year ago bearing a severe grudge against the Ultimates who left him there and with a more evolved brain that enabled him to build an advanced civilization called the City, which he implanted in Europe without asking anybody.  Meanwhile, Nick Fury's Ultimates team responded to this action by sending various agents in to investigate, infiltrate, and eventually destroy the City.  Ineffective attempts by the Hulk, Falcon and Thor simply served to seriously piss Richards off.  The final nail in the coffin was when the President of the United States (ambiguous as to whether or not it was connected to the real world correlate) launched every nuke the US had at the City.  Richards responded by transporting a tiny black hole into DC and eradicating the Capitol.  The interim President initiated martial law and tried to detain all of the Ultimates claiming they were a threat to national security.  The Ultimates went rogue instead and have been working against Richards and the government.  Issue #11 brings all of that to a head and the gentleman on the cover features prominent role in those proceedings.  One thing that bothers me a little is that this issue was drawn by committee suggesting that a competent regular art team is having trouble keeping up with a monthly schedule.  That usually spells doom for a modern comic...

UC: Ultimates also features a few other storylines in addition to this plot, so there is plenty to see here.  When it launched, it looked like the book was going to be too busy to follow in a monthly format, and I admit it can be a challenge, but when you take 3 or 4 issues in a session you get a better appreciation for the impact and scale of the story they are telling.  And if you do read in batches like that, you find that you are looking forward to the next issue to see what is going to happen.  I'm not patient enough to wait for a collection to come out, so I buy the single issues, but after reading them, I usually collect a few and then reread them all at once.  Not only do I get a better perspective on the story, but I also get a little more bang for my buck.

Make no mistake, this is cinematic comic book storytelling, which I think I hate, but at least here it is being done pretty darn well.  This is in contrast to the awesome, but incredibly drawn out story Bendis is telling over in Ultimate Comics: Spider-man.  If you want to check out UC: Ultimates, go grab some of the collections first to get up to speed.  Once you do, I think you'll be looking forward to each issue the way I am.

Coming Attractions! 
UC: Ultimates featured some very interesting ads for things Marvel has coming down the pipeline.  Let's take a look...

With the exception of the line shattering epic that was Ultimatum, crossovers in the Marvel Ultimate Universe have been unilaterally disastrous.  This is why I am instantly skeptical about this "Divided We Fall" crossover.  Things are kind of happening at different rates in the three Ultimate Comics and as a result trying to tie them into each other could lead to some very awkward scenarios.  That said, the Ultimate Comics X-men cover looks pretty sweet, so I guess we'll see where it goes.  I currently get all of the Ultimate Comics so I'll keep you posted.

And then there is this:

Did you demand this?  Because I didn't.  I really, honestly, didn't.  This can't possibly be good can it?  I like Frank Tieri and Mark Texeira, but this is very ill conceived and does not bode well.  Who knows, maybe it will be the greatest thing ever?  You spend your money and let me know....

Monday, May 28, 2012

Marvel Movie Project: #15 Captain America

Aimee here!

I bet you're surprised to see that today's special Memorial Day edition of the Marvel Movie Ranking Project is Captain America. C'mon, you know you are--it was heralded like the second coming of Jesus last summer and everyone but everyone was all too happy to throw movies (like, say, Thor) right into the trashcan after observing this movie's amazing majesty. It was a red-blooded All-American hot dog of a country-fried eagle, wrapped up in Summer Blockbuster fare, and distributed accordingly to all the happy peoples ready to charge into a short-lived bout of July fireworks-boltered American patriotism.

If you don't like this movie, you're a damn commie. I guess that means I'm a commie.

I'm not here to tear down the concept of patriotism on Memorial Day; on the contrary, I'm here to remind you why this film does not honor the patriotism and history it really seems to want to embrace.

Now, be forewarned. I was raised by a history enthusiast and went on to earn a degree in history. I'm also kind of a hipster in that I like retro design aesthetic, and one of my favorite pastimes is watching old informational filmstrips. When I watch a film, it can get ruined in a heartbeat by pervasive and nonsensical anachronisms. Not to say that a movie must be perfect--far from it. But when the tone of a film is being presented in a certain way--for example, Captain America seems to want me to take it seriously--and its set design, props department, costumers, scriptwriters, etc are presenting the film in another way--"It's a retro-futurist piece!"--I simply cannot hold it in.

I wanted to write this like a research paper, but I decided that, for simplicity's sake, it would be better if I just hit the high points. Let's begin!

1. It's Retro Future!

 Let's remove that "retro-futurist" bullshit right now. I heard "retro-future" tossed around a lot around the release of Captain America, and it doesn't work. It was said in an effort to remove movie-goer doubts about the amazing number of anachronisms.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Metropolis, and The Rocketeer are or have elements of a "retro-future" story and design aesthetic. Captain America  is a period piece and cannot have these elements. Why?

Because Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and The Avengers are all set in the "real" world. They are fantastic stories, sure--but they are grounded in the everyman, everyday American experience. If Captain America comes from the same continuity as Iron Man, it can't take liberties with the development of that continuity--meaning, the WWII experience of Tony Stark's world had to be roughly the same as the WWII experience of our world. This means some of the more blatant anachronisms, if explained as "retro-future" would had to have effected the continuity.

2. Closed-circuit TV!

This was the first thing that really set me off, because I had, up to that point, been willing to accept a few anachronisms and move on. But once that pressure gauge hits a certain reading, I can no longer accept anything, and seeing this particular anachronism was too much.

Hydra uses it in their base. It is visualized on roughly rectangular screens that *kind of* have a retro design aesthetic as long as you don't remember that the proto-TV's of the era looked like this 1939 Philco:


This awesome scan comes from

The average TV of the pre-War era contained a kinescope tube so long that the only practical way to present the image was to face the screen to the ceiling and reflect the image by mirror for those gathered in your parlor. Oh, and they were absurdly expensive considering that TV didn't really get started in earnest until the Post-War era. TV would begin making extreme improvements immediately following WWII, both in the sense of the actual appliance and the broadcast itself.

So when I see this:

I want to lose my mind. HYDRA boasts closed-circuit TV that displays on impossible screens. Plus, these freaking cameras MOVE. Remotely. Red Skull had to have had these things before the Cosmic Cube dropped in. No, I don't think anyone invented this stuff. No, I don't think he made them using the Cube!

3. The Cosmic Cube does NOT explain it all!

Ok, whatever the Cosmic Cube/Tesseract does in the comics, it does not do those things here. It is presented and used ENTIRELY as an energy source, a position that has only been backed up by the release of The Avengers. 

A dear friend of mine keeps going back to the Cube. Saying that all the stuff that doesn't look right or is an anachronism? It's the damn Cube. Well, I have news for you. You know how when, you see a movie like, Back to the Future Part 2 for example, the future looks suspiciously like the year the movie was filmed in? That's how our brains work. Design evolves slowly. True vanguards are usually regarded as strange until their designs are watered down and integrated. When we conceptualize a new invention, we do so using the design aesthetic of our time--or at least, design aesthetics we have seen before.

This is a 1943 Dumont. This is what "video" cameras looked like.
My point is, Red Skull would have, at the very least, conceptualized anything he got from the Cube in the design aesthetic of his era, or close to it. And maybe you can make the point about the surveillance cameras... but how can you make that same point about the blue-glowing HYDRA laser guns? I think they'd probably look either like real projectile weapons or they'd be laughably campy tributes to the budding sci-fi serials of the day. In short, if it was going to be a laser pistol, it'd be the first kind we all "knew" about. Flash Gordon level stuff.

4. New York, Land of Plenty... of Gasoline

Ok, so, why would there be a World's Fair type event all night when the Eastern Seaboard was under a blackout restriction because of the real threat of U-Boats? Why are there SO MANY CARS on the street without gas rationing stickers on them, and in addition to that, where are they coming up with all that gas? They sure are shiny, new-looking cars. Doesn't look like the war affected anyone.

It certainly didn't affect that guy in the theater that made an ass of himself about not caring about the war. I assure you, Cap did NOT have to go beat that guy down--every mother and child in that place would have jumped him. The newsreels were one of the only sources of information for those on the home-front starved for even a glimpse of what their sons, husbands, fathers, uncles and friends might be going through out there. We live in a post-nationalistic era and we are, thankfully, more free to express anti-war sentiment than we used to be. But you know something? During WWII, that wasn't the kind of thing you were likely to encounter. Not saying it didn't happen. But the wave of patriotic spirit and national pride that accompanied the sacrifice and bravery of both those in the service and those at home keeping them supplied and keeping the homeland safe was hard to ignore. That guy was going to have a purse crashed over his head, minimum.

Captain America does it as a plot point. It's entitled to make that kind of call. But it's symptomatic of the most glaring problem the movie faces:

5. Nazis. I hate these guys.

We all know Nazis are bad. We all agree Hitler is a bad, bad man. No one likes seeing a swastika. It is hard for us, now, to believe that such incredible hate and suffering ever marched across Europe. It is hard to visualize the kind of environment that fostered. The world knew that Hitler had to be stopped, and through a long and costly war, did exactly that.

These are concepts that are uncomfortable in the post-modern era. And we've done our best to remove uncomfortable subject matter in certain movies for quite some time. Rather than watch heroes take actual lives--uncomfortable--we watch them cut down wave after wave of "drones". They aren't alive or don't look like they are, so we never understand the cost in human life--on either side. Some movies, those specifically meant to be poignant or painstakingly historical, don't pull those punches, and try to remind us that these are the conflicts of humanity.

Captain America, however, lets us all know that the war is... what? We never see any real combat. We never even understand who he's fighting--not just as Cap, but as an American. He "punches" Hitler a few times in his little stage act, but hey--no big deal. This and ONE NEWSREEL are the only places we see Nazi symbols like the Swastika. You don't even see much on the uniforms of the Germans meeting up with Red Skull.

And by the way, Hitler is so bad that even Red Skull seems reluctant to throw in with him--and with that we promptly forget that there is ANYTHING else going on in Europe and we only fight HYDRA from that point on.

How does this honor WWII as a setting? How is this patriotic? Captain America takes the heart of the WWII Era and removes all the teeth and all the meaning, and leaves us with an irrelevant action flick.

6. Summing Up

I'm afraid that I just flat out think this movie fails on every level except one. The actual character of Captain America. He's exactly what he needs to be, and he's absolutely wandering around in a movie setting that is as flimsy as the fake apartment SHIELD puts him in at the end. He shines in the Avengers  because he's the same, likeable, lovably old-fashioned Cap that we see in Captain America, but he's been removed from all the bad film-making decisions. I don't like the forced romance, and I think the crash sequence that comes at the end is very forced. Surprisingly, a similar sequence from Star Trek (the new one) brought me to tears, where this one just made me groan. Heck, the slow type-out of "LOVE YOU WIFE" is enough to make me blubber a little when watching the Abyss. Cap and Peggy? Just crash and go to the future already.

It's a fine movie if you can stand the problems. It's certainly not the worst. But there are FAR better movies out there, and as we move up the list, I hope you'll understand why one of the Marvel Movie Darlings wound up sucking up the dead middle.

Stan's Take
Aimee does a good job of giving you the play-by-play of what is wrong with this film.  She wanted to lead off this time around because she had such a strong reaction to the film.  And she's right.

What I wanted in a Captain America  movie was either a good WWII period piece OR a "man-out-of-time" story.  What I got was goofy sci-fi set against a flimsy quasi-historical backdrop.  So, I got neither.  I was more forgiving of some of the historical problems Aimee detailed, but as soon as the blue laser guns show up and the Nazi's vanish into the background, I'm out.  I'm just out.  Any chance of a period piece are just gone.  Like Aimee said, the movie should look like it took place in WWII, even if you have fantastic elements, it should still fit in its time.  The blue laser guns destroy any chance of that happening.  I fail to see why Cap would ever feel like a man out of time when he wakes up in the future.  He's already seen things far more fantastic than a jumbo-tron.  He's seen a stealth submarine, a super-jet, all kinds of fancy computers, laser cannons and guns, and a machine that turns 98 lb. weaklings into super-heroes, how is a big TV going to throw him for a loop?  Dumb.

Chris Evans' Stever Rogers and Cap are the only saving graces here.  Evans is likeable and believable, which is particularly challenging when you consider how little he was given to do.  The Cap fights are fun, but they also are bereft of meaning since his enemy is an unrealistic fictional entity created to avoid making modern Germans angry or sad because 80 years ago their country was led by a madman who convinced enough Germans to join his bizarre hate crusade.  History is ugly, but it happened.  If we have to create fictional villains to avoid upsetting someone who might be connected to the real villains, then maybe we need to not make a period piece to begin with.  Indiana Jones had no problem going after Nazis.  Nazis were EVIL.  EVIL EVIL BAD.  It is OK to say that and it ok for Captain America to go fight them since THAT IS WHAT HE DID IN THE COMICS FROM THAT ERA.  Pack up your touchy-feely postmodern bullshit and go home.  Or, you know, don't make a period piece and insult anyone with an education past the fourth grade.

I'm sorry, as I was saying, Chris Evans is the only reason to see this movie, just turn it off after the blue laser guns show up.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Comic of the Week! 5.23.12

Ultimate Comics: X-men #12

Picking were slim this week as I am not into all of the Owl nonsense going on the Batman family of comics, and I was about to pick Aquaman for the Comic of the Week as it has been consistently one of the best DC books I have been getting (the other is Wonder Woman, last weeks CotW), but then I got to the final page of UC: X-men #12 and I was pretty much blown away.  You can tell the comic is building to something, something that feels like it is meant to be big, but in the industry these days, that usually is met with a lot of disappointment and gnashing of teeth.  (For example a "major" DC character is supposed to come out of the closet in the near future...snore)  But as I was saying, you really get the sense that the comic is building to an incredible reveal.  It gets even better as bits and pieces of story that have been lurking in the background of the comic's many plots start to resurface and tie into one another.  And then, on that final page, they hit you with something you couldn't possibly see coming.  They tie up many many loose ends by revealing a character and a storyline that had been pretty much forgotten and who has been pulling the strings for a very long time now.  The most savory part of the whole experience is that it actually makes sense!  It's not a shock for shock's sake.  You actually get that nice "oh wow" moment where your faith in comic book storytelling is restored.  Obviously, I am not going to ruin the moment for you, especially if you have been reading Ultimate X-men at all for the past few years.  And if you've trailed off lately, I strongly urge you to jump back in.  Things are getting really good.

Kitty Pride, not exactly Shadowcat anymore
If you are not familiar, Ultimate Comics: X-men follows the adventures of the various groups of mutants running about Marvel's Ultimate Universe (an alternate timeline that frees classic Marvel characters from their very heavy 40+ years of continuity and allows them to be fresh and new).  The world they inhabit is one where mutants are hated and feared because Magneto flooded the Earth Bible-style and killed a whole lot of people in the process.  Many of the stalwart X-men characters also met their end during this conflagration including Professor X, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Magneto himself. The comic follows three distinct groups of mutants as they navigate a dangerous world.  One group is Kitty Pride's group of "Morlocks" who live in the old Morlock tunnels of New York.  Her group seeks to save other mutants from being rounded up by the government or killed by an angry world. Kitty's group also features a displaced Johnny Storm who, while not a mutant, sure likes hanging around with them.  Jean Grey covertly leads another team of mutants who work for SHIELD and who cavort with the likes of the Hulk.  Finally, Storm is the de facto leader of the remaining mutants who have been rounded up by the government and placed in "protective custody" kind of like the Nazis did for the Jewish folks back in WWII.
The book oscillates between these three groups of mutants, sometimes focusing on a single group for two or three issues at a time.  The incredible thing is that the writers manage to hold all three stories together and make them independent and yet relevant to one another.  It really works well and interest in each group remains consistently high.  Although this latest issue promises to engage all three story lines simultaneously in something much bigger!

If you are not already checking out Ultimate Comics: X-men, it's not too late.  Grab a few trade paperbacks and catch up, things are about to get real.

Loser of the Week
Avenging Spider-man #7 

This comic is a couple of weeks old, but it is still worthy of derision.  I've long been disillusioned with Marvel's lack of respect for their flagship character.  I dropped Amazing Spider-man a long time ago because it was clear they were only paying lip service to the incredible creators that laid the foundation for the single greatest comic book character ever, and that they were only interesting in exploiting a marketable franchise.  But, I gave Avenging Spider-man a chance because it promised to be light-hearted and fun, and basically be a new iteration of the classic Marvel Team-Up.  And it was, for about two issues.  Now, it has reverted to type and is just a really sorry excuse for a comic book.  There is very little here of value.
I know She-Hulk is on the cover, but sadly, the cover is the best part of this comic.  There was a nice issue with Hawkeye awhile back, but that was the last issue worth reading.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Closer Look at Backgammon for the Atari 2600

Hey!  Remember this feature?!  It's been a while, but the Closer Look is back and we're blowing the doors off with the most explosive, action-packed game in thirty-plus years.  That's right, Backgammon, and not just Backgammon, but Backgammon on the gaming platform that made Backgammon cool: the Atari 2600.  What's that you say?  Backgammon isn't cool?  Why the hell not?  This is a game that is at least 5000 years old.  5000 years!!  Any game that can start out somewhere in ancient Persia and survive to be translated to the dawn of the video game era and information age is cool by default.

Seriously.  I think Backgammon gets a raw deal because it looks like a stodgy old game for dusty old folks who have nothing better to do than wait for death.  In reality, the game is deceptively simple, easy to learn, and lots of fun to play.  My first exposure to Backgammon honestly was Backgammon for the VCS.  I took one look at the box art and the accompanying screen shot and said, "no thank you, that looks like dry white toast."  And I never gave the game further thought until one night in my mid-twenties as the wife and I were browsing a yard sale and we came across this really nifty Backgammon set that closes up into a handy briefcase.  The set was cool and while we did not realize it at the time, Aimee was a budding hipster, so we decided to spend the $5 or whatever it was and take that baby home.  Of course, neither of us knew diddy-squat about Backgammon, so we resorted to the internet.  About 30 minutes later, we were enjoying round after round of Backgammon and eating pizza out on our deck.  We were the model of cool.

Well, maybe not, but we were having fun, fun 5000 years in the making.  As all things do, Aimee's interest in the game waned after some time, and I was left with a Backgammon itch that was not getting scratched.  I wasn't about to join some kind of local, underground Backgammon club.  You know what they say about those...  So instead, I turned to my oldest and most trusted ally, the VCS. Backgammon has been bouncing around in my collection for years unloved, only plugged in to test that it worked; a trend that was about to end!

(If you are not already familiar with the workings of Backgammon you may want to skip ahead to the "Learning Backgammon" section toward the end of the feature.  If you have no interest in Backgammon at all and are still reading this, you can always go here.)

You younger folk out there may be asking, "why in the hell would anyone in their right mind make a video game of something like Backgammon?"  Good question, until you realize the historical context of the game in question.  The Atari 2600 was the vanguard of the home video game console (yes yes Colecovision, Intellivision, and Vectrex enthusiasts, I see you.  And yes, I see you too, one Aquarius fan);  it was helping to define the future of video games.  So how do you do that?  You look at what came before: board games. Thus your first challenge is to see if you can translate already popular board games to your fancy new video computer system.  This is why you have so many games like Checkers, Chess, Bridge, and Casino.  No video games were popular at the time (faddish, yes, but culturally popular, no), but lots of board and card games were.  So if you want to draw a crowd, you take things they already like and show how much cooler they would be on your new fangled device.

Backgammon for the VCS was just such an effort.  While some classic board games are most likely beyond the scope of what the 2600 is capable of (no Risk or Monopoly), Backgammon features a simple rule set and symmetrical game board, perfect fodder for 6502 programming. The game mechanics in Backgammon are perfectly executed in this version of the game.  Rules aren't bent to get around programming limitations, and the AI isn't dumbed down so much, or thinks so hard, that the game is boring (see Video Chess where late in the game it can take hours for the AI to make its move...).  Backgammon does include the Doubling Cube which was added to the game in the early 20th century to literally raise the stakes.  As the outcome of a game was based on chance as much as skill, the doubling cube kept things interesting by allowing players to gamble on the likelihood of the outcome, in effect gambling that the player with the most favorable position would win.  (The instruction manual goes into full detail about the doubling cube, I'll not recover that ground here)  The inclusion of the doubling cube is interesting in Backgammon since for a single player game it is virtually meaningless.  You can set whatever stakes you like, if the AI loses it will not pay you a red cent.  For two player games, though it has the same appeal as it would in real life.  So I guess in that way it succeeds.

Backgammon also includes a variation developed by the US armed forces called "Acey Ducey." In this variation all pieces start on the bar and must work their way onto the board via dice roll.  Unlike the traditional rules, pieces on the board may move even if pieces remain on the bar.  Furthermore a roll of "1" and "2" (hence the name of the variation) allows players to move according to the dice roll, then pick the best doublet for their situation and execute that as well, and then roll again.  Insane, I know.  Acey Ducey is an interesting variation and can provide a different method of play should the basic game grow stale.  However, I must warn you, a roll of Acey Ducey can be a real game breaker!

"You hippies heard him right!"
The only real drawback in the VCS version of Backgammon is the "randomization" of the dice roll.  Because of the limitations of 6502 randomization and the fact that you have a 1:6 chance of rolling a doublet in real life, the programmer was faced with making doublets either extremely unlikely or much more common.  He chose the latter (yeah, I said "he" and the odds are on my side that in 1978 the programmer was dude, sorry women's libbers!!!) and the result was an overabundance of doublets during game play.  This can be great when you get back-to-back-to-back doublets of "5" or "6."  It can be infuriating when the AI rolls the same.  I suppose that makes the game somehow fair since the chances of benefiting or suffering as a consequence are even, but when you are trying to bear off and the AI gets doublet "6" twice, it strongly encourages the controller throw. Luckily, there is a workaround.  You don't have to let the computer roll the dice.  Backgammon features the option to "dial in" your own values on the dice.  On its face this looks like a brutal cheat.  Always dial in doublet "6" for your self and low values for the AI and you win every time!  But after about one game that is about as much fun as it sounds.  What this option actually allows you to do is use real dice to roll the moves and then dial them into the game program.  If the high probability of rolling a doublet is making you nuts, this is a great way to keep the fun going.  Of course, it makes me question that if I am going so far as to roll dice independent of the game, why not just play Backgammon in its original form?  Why mess with this video game version?  It would be akin to playing video game monopoly, but someone still has to be the banker.  A minor gripe, but certainly a legitimate one. I guess there are a few people out there for whom this is the only version of Backgammon they own...
(this section owes big thanks to programming maverick "Nukey Shay" over on the Atariage Forums, thanks Nukey, you are mother's milk!)

Look, you people already know I ain't right.  So it should come as no surprise that I have a strong affection for Backgammon.  The real shame is that I was too much of a kid to realize what a cool game I could have had back in the 80's.  I was too busy trying to get Pitfall Harry across the croc heads and keeping Q*bert away from Coily to realize that a great strategy game was languishing away on a shelf somewhere.  The good news is, I can sit here today and discover a great game in my collection that I never knew existed.  I can play it for hours on end and not have to worry about finding a partner to play Backgammon with.  It is always nice to find an unlikely winner buried in your collection of classic games.  I did it last year with Karate Kid, and here I am again finding great games in the least likely of places!

If this has inspired you to elevate your culture and seek out Backgammon as a recreational activity or a bizarre way to gamble (get help), I have included below a section that covers the basics of how to play the game.  Enjoy!

Learning Backgammon

Backgammon is easy to learn, but challenging to succeed at.  At its heart it is a strategy game (or "war game" as they were once called).  The basic idea of the game is to move your pieces from one side of the game board to the other.  You accomplish this by moving your pieces across the open spaces of the board called "points."  Movement is determined by the roll of two dice.  Once the dice are rolled, a player may move two pieces, each move corresponding to a number on each die.  You may also move a single piece twice, one for each number on each die, but only if there are an open number of points available. (more in a minute).  During your turn you may move your piece to any "open" point.  An "open" point is one that is either unoccupied, occupied by your other pieces, or occupied by one of your opponent's pieces (points occupied by only one piece, yours or your opponent's is called a "blot.").  Any point occupied by two or more opponent's pieces is considered "closed."  You may move past closed points, but you cannot stop on them.  Hence, if you are moving a single piece using both die values, you may not stop on a closed point and then resume on the remainder of the value on the second die (to wit: you cannot move the total of both dice at once in a single move).

The board starts with this arrangement of pieces.  Red moves along the red arrow, white along white.

Blots are any points occupied by one piece.  They are "open" but occupied.
As you move your pieces across the board your opponent attempts to do the same.  This is where the strategy comes in.  By closing points you can effectively block or limit your opponent's movements.  The more points you close, the less open points are available for your opponent to land on.  If there are no open points to move to, you resign the remainder of your turn.  With a little luck and smart strategy you can control your opponent's movements.  The ultimate realizations of this are called "prime" and "shutout."  A "prime" is anytime you close six consecutive points.  This creates a barrier your opponent cannot cross, until you open a point. A prime in your home area is called a "shutout" for reasons we shall soon see.

In addition to blockading points, you also possess some offensive capabilities.  If you land on a blot that is occupied by an opponent's piece, that piece is considered "hit" and is moved to the bar.  The bar is the lateral strip that separates the upper and lower game boards. (see below) A piece that is placed on the bar can only return to play by entering on the opposing side of the board at an open point.  Once a piece is placed on the bar, you may not move any other of your pieces until that piece re-enters play.  To re-enter play, you must roll a number that corresponds to an open point in your opponents home area.  You may also re-enter on a blot occupied by your opponent's piece, effectively removing his piece to the bar at the same time.
The white piece could also re-enter on the "1" point had a "1" been rolled.
This is why a prime in your home area is so important.  A shutout effectively prevents your opponent from re-entering pieces from the bar until you break the shutout.  By effecting a shutout or even a prime, you dictate the flow of play.  These are difficult positions to create and maintain, but they are strategic gold!
Play progresses in this fashion until one player moves all of his pieces to their home area.  Once a player has all of his pieces in his home area the process of "bearing off" begins.  Bearing off can only be done if all of your pieces are in the home area.  If a piece is removed to the bar by your opponent, bearing off stops until that piece returns to the home area.  "Bearing off" involves moving your pieces off the board by rolling the exact amount required to remove the piece.  For instance if a piece sits on the 4 point and you roll a 4, that piece may bear off.  If you roll a 3, you may move the piece three points, but that is not enough to bear off.  You may not bear off if you roll a 6, unless there are no other pieces that can move that distance.  You may bear off a piece on the 5 point as it is the next eligible piece to bear off.  You may not bear off the 4 unless there are no pieces on a point higher than it.  Play continues until one player has born off all of their pieces.

With all pieces borne off, you can claim Victory!!

There's winning and then there is winning BIG!
The point of the game is to bear off all of your pieces.  Doing so before your opponent is the only condition for victory, however you don't have to be satisfied with just a win.  If you can bear off all of your pieces before your opponent bears off a single piece, this win is called a Gammon.  For those who are particularly skillful, a Backgammon is possible, although highly unlikely.  A Backgammon is completed when you bear off while your opponent still has pieces on the bar or in your home area.  Backgammon is extremely rare unless one player is significantly better than their opponent.  But, hey it is always worth a try!
Although unlikely, a gammon against the red player is possible here. 

While it might look imposing with its strange spiky board and myriad of pieces scattered hither and yon, Backgammon is actually very easy to learn and play.  If you've been with me this long, I hope that you will be encouraged to give it a try. Whether in board game form or on your trusty VCS, there is is a lot of fun to be had with a game that has truly stood the test of time.

Final Look
Don't overlook Backgammon, for the VCS or otherwise.  There is a reason it has stuck around for 5000 years: its a fun game that requires good strategy and a little luck.   I hope I have been able to convert you over to the Backgammon side of the force, and if so, I'd love to hear your story!

Friday, May 18, 2012

NES Golf Tour Wrap Up

Well folks!  I hope you have enjoyed the NES Golf Tour!  This was a project years in the making.  I had been promising to do a guide like this for about 10 years, but video game golf is a lot like binge drinking, you get going and it's great, but after you are done, it is hard to go back and write about it.  So, instead I kept a notebook with all of my scores, and lots of notes about the various criteria that helped critique the games. Over the course of years, that accumulated quite a few notes and the accompanying experience was not unwelcome.  The final result is the following ranking of golf games for the NES (listed from best to worst):

4. Golf

NES Open easily provides the best and most complete golfing experience you are going to find on the NES. With all of its special features, saving ability, and customization, playing NES Open is fun every time.  It also has the most replay value of all of the games in the list due to its three courses and leveling up ability.  The graphics are colorful and the game play is engaging.  NES Open is always a stop when I play golf on the NES.

Atlus Golf Grand Slam ranks second, despite its tie with Bandai, on the back of its innovation.  This game amazed me as a kid and still stands unique among its competitors.  The putting is a beast, but the overall experience is enough to keep me coming back for more.  The rich graphics and curious music choice set the stage for a golfing experience unlike any other on the system.  The learning curve is a bit high, but carefully cushioned by the versatility of the interface.

Bandai Golf: Challenge Pebble Beach may not look as shiny as the two above it on this list, but it plays like a champ.  With very little learning curve and simplistic game play, BGCPB is a great game for the first time golfer.  It is also a lot of fun to play based on the course design.  The replication of the course at Pebble Beach is very good and provides excellent challenge for even the best video game golfer.

Even though it was the vanguard golf game for the system, Golf holds its own pretty well despite the stiff competition that was to take its cue from this pioneer.  It holds the center spot on this list because of its solid game play and reasonably low learning curve.  There are some quibbles with a few important game play elements that can result in more frustration than the game warrants, but overall Golf features enough simple fun to be worth a play from time to time.

It's not easy to see the game I grew up on rank so lowly on the list, but nostalgia is not enough to justify Jack Nicklaus Greatest 18 Holes of Major Championship Golf being any higher than it is on this list.  The game is pretty simple to play and was great for teaching me how to golf as a kid, but the antiquated graphics and limited game play make for a rigid experience.  I still play JNGHMCG from time to time for old time's sake, but it is not a shining example of what the NES can do with golf.

Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf has all the makings of being a great golf game, but it manages to fall short in too many ways.  The course designs are a bit too video gamey, the difficulty is too harsh and the interface unforgiving for a game that plays as loosely as LTFG. There is fun to be had here, but you'll have to overcome a lot of obstacles to get at it.

I'm not even sure you can really call Greg Norman's Golf Power a real golf video game. There are some basic elements of golf here, but they are so poorly managed that any attempt to derive fun from them is nearly impossible.  The only saving grace for GNGP is the course editor feature which will allow you to manage the basic elements of golf a little better than the original programmers at Virgin were able to.  You can build yourself a better golf course, and you can play it, but whether or not you have fun is entirely up to you.  Good luck!

And that's a wrap for the NES Golf Tour.  I hope this helps you make fun decisions when you decide to test your mettle on the 8-bit links!  I truly think golf shines on this system and most of the games on this list exemplify this opinion.

Have a golf game you love?  Disagree with my assessment on any of these games, or the ranking?  Want to see a guide for golf games for your favorite system in the same fashion as this one?  I'd love to hear your feedback.  Hit us up on our facebook page, or in the comments below!  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Comic of the Week!


I'm a dork.  But you knew that.  Every Wednesday is comic book day, or for ye laypersons, the day that new comic books are released for sale (they actually arrive on Tuesday, but cannot be legally sold until the following day).  Comic books are a long misunderstood storytelling medium.  They don't have the stodgy legitimacy of actual books (love me some literature, but it the cheese need not stand alone), and they lack the immediate spectacle of a motion picture ("movie" to ye laypersons), yet comic books are an incredible way of telling strong, compelling stories over the course of time.  Some are episodic, others are serial.  Some unfold a deep and meaningful story over a span of months or years, while others are pure candy and are meant to be devoured and enjoyed in and of themselves.
If you have always regarded comics as "kid's stuff" you have missed out on a lot of great stories.  Thanks to blockbusters like The Avengers, comic books and their subject matter are getting more cultural attention than ever, but that doesn't mean that all comics are great, nor does it mean you are always going to stumble into your local comic shop and pick a winner.  That's where I come in.  I spend a portion (far less than you might expect) of my modest income on comic books each Wednesday.  With the economy in the state it is in, every comic dollar is precious and there is no reason to waste your hard earned money on bad comics.  Each week, I will pick up my comics, read them, and then clue you in on the best comic I bought that week.  I'll tell you why it was so great and I'll tell you anything you might need to know to jump on board (if your curiosity is piqued). I'll also clue you in if I make a mistake and pick up a clunker, or if a comic that had previously been great has started to lose it's panache.  If you are already a comics fan, I would love to hear what you are reading, especially if I am missing out on something great, or if you disagree with my take on a certain book.
So I hope you'll join me each week as we take stroll down comics lane.  Oh the places we will go!

Comic of the Week 5.16.12
Wonder Woman #9 
DC Comics

I know very very little about Wonder Woman.  What I do know is a synthesis of Linda Carter and Super Friends.  So when it comes to WW comics I am a clean slate, and perhaps easily impressed, however when DC relaunched all of its titles last year I saw a clear opportunity to delve into the world of the Amazon with the golden sexist lasso.
Part of the DC New 52 relaunch involved pairing top creators with DC's powerhouse characters to breathe new life into their comics.  The much heralded Brian Azzarello drew the Wonder Woman straw.  Azzarello is the creator of the explosive comic 100 Bullets which set fans on fire during the first decade of the 21st century.  When it comes to popular writers, Azzarello is white hot.
Personally, I never got into 100 Bullets, but people went nuts for Azzarello's penchant for writing violent and thought-provoking stories and the comic won many awards.  Thus, the draw of having Azzarello as the writer did not necessarily sell me on the book.
Instead, my experience with WW has had the opposite effect.  Azzarello does such an incredible job with Diana and her literal pantheon of characters, that I now understand what all of the buzz is about.  Wonder Woman has made me an Azzarello fan.

The story is as epic as the cast.  Diana is charged with protecting the latest mortal bride of Zeus against the scores of gods, demi-gods, and other legendary figures bent to her destruction.  This task has required her to wage war against Poseidon, battle the armies of Hera and Hippolyta, and enlist the aid of Hephaestus.  Her most recent adventure, chronicled in this month's CotW, follows Diana as she prepares to marry Hades in order to keep her mortal charge out of harm's way. 

Azzarello does an incredible job of crafting this story. He handles the characters extremely well and manages to tell an epic tale, but rarely loses sight of the fact that he is telling single issue stories.  This is the challenge of the modern comic writer and Azzarello manages the task fairly well.  This month's issue is a perfect example of his powerful storytelling ability.  Diana is trapped in Hell.  Her mind clouded (maybe) by a shot from Cupid's gun, she seems unable to resist or escape.  While Diana marches, literally, toward her fate her cohorts Hermes, Hephaestus, and Cupid plot her liberation in the form of a spectacular wedding crash.  The story builds as the time of the impending nuptials draws near.  For fear of Diana's betrayal, Hades' enlists the aid of Strife to ensnare the Amazon in a plot that will lead either to her death or her ultimate submission to his will. 

It's truly great stuff.  I have no idea if this is what Wonder Woman fans would be into, but it has made a Wonder Woman fan out of me.  If you are not reading Wonder Woman, you should be!

On the flip side...
Loser of the Week
(or, the comic I'm about to drop because it has started to suck)

DC Comics

I started reading Batwoman at the same time and for the same reasons I picked up Wonder Woman.  For six issues Batwoman was a gripping crime drama with tons of suspense, great mystery, and compelling characters.  The art was moody and set the tone for a great read.  Then, something really bad happened.  The storytelling completely changed and the art took a turn for the worst.  Instead of telling a fairly linear crime drama based on single issue increments, Batwoman veered way off the beaten path and attempted to tell a chronologically dysfunctional tale with no clear plot or direction.  The story jumps time and place across the span of past weeks and days to the present moment with no real rhyme or reason.  To complicate matters further, the story jumps from character to character as well as temporally and it becomes impossible to make heads or tails of what is going on or when it is happening.  This kind of storytelling works great in a graphic novel where we get the entire story at once and the device is used to punctuate moments in the narrative.  In an episodic comic book, where parts of the story are doled out in thirty day increments, it is very difficult to make this kind of device work at all. When it does succeed it is usually a masterpiece.  Batwoman is not a masterpiece, it is a mess.

It is sad to see a good book go bad, but I fear this is a classic case of a creator who could not keep up with the demands of a monthly schedule and thus, after the first arc, elements of the comic got delegated to lesser talents and the overall effect killed any magic the comic had to begin with.  To be honest, at this point I'm only sticking around for the occasional lesbian action.  And for that reason, Batwoman must go.

What comics are you into these days?  Am I missing something great?  Did I just trash your favorite book?  As always, we at EF would love to hear from you!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Twenty-Five Cent Comic: Vector

Vector: Druid Rave Edition

I want to point out, first of all, that this comic cost $1.50. In 1986.

By comparison, a Marvel Comic in the same time period would have set you back $.75. So, as a buyer in 1986, you start out by making a huge sacrifice--you could pass on TWO decent Marvel Comics to pick up Vector. And while the book is hefty, it's only 30 pages. 

Let's check the sales pitch on Vector just to be sure we want to part with our milk money.

"COLOR COMICS WITH FULL COLOR COMPUTER GRAPHICS" is emblazoned on the cover. Now, I firstly, believe this means it will be a comic with fully computerized artwork. Hmmm. We'll see.

The inside cover, which talks about the rest of the Now Comics line up, goes on to say that Vector is "the ultimate visual experience! Full color comics with computer graphics."

Ok. Granted, in 1986, I was only doodling snowmen in Deskmate. But I know 1986 was capable of producing some fascinating and cutting-edge computer graphics--especially if those graphics were unintended for, say, a video game or some other kind of application but for the printed page. The cover depicts a pixelated style--seems ok enough. Reminds me a lot of DOS games I played with from around that time.

So opening up the book, you find... regular old comic art. Not particularly well-executed. If I had drawn this book in high school, I think I would have been fairly pleased with myself. I mean, hey, it's a finished comic! We clearly stopped at nothing to get to that point. There are badly drawn faces and questionable wrist joints peppering each panel.

This kind of establishes what the characters look like. To a degree.

You know, it really reminds me of a low-rent school-giveaway PSA comic, except the PSA is that I can't tell what the fuck is going on with the story other than that the "modem" is bringing some kind of malevolent force upon our two main characters, whose appearances change rather steadily throughout the first 5 pages.

Not "Modem"!

I gather the woman bought a computer, and that's what started this mess. Just like a woman. I finally found out that she is Alice, and her companion is Henry.

So I can't follow the story, the art sucks, and this is a computer-graphics comic that has provided nothing remotely computer-graphics-like.

By page five we get a little bit of pixel, revealing a touch of the computer world.

A preview of pixelated things to come...

They run around a little after that, but by page 13, they have fully entered the "computer world" and all the money I paid for this comic is put to... use.

Alice. Has. Enormous. Hands. And I think Henry might have some kind of deformity.

What the fuck is up with her hands!?

The resulting few pages are like a weird trip where body parts are suspiciously malformed and exaggerated, and every single scene is surrounded by what look like digital artifacts. You know, in case you couldn't tell what you were looking at.

Henry and Alice fight it out with a bunch of guys that they kind of refer to as "modems" but it's unclear. I'm not tracking down issues 1 & 2 to find out. I could use that $.50 to buy a side of sour cream next time I get a jones for a baked potato!

I showed this to Stan and asked him what was going on in the last panel. He said, "They guy got knocked over, or something." I replied, "That's the woman!"

Sometimes we color in the teeth, sometimes we leave it to chance, sometimes the characters are recognizable, and sometimes not.

I can't be the only one who feels that none of these characters look remotely the same from panel to panel.

There's some bullshit about Stonehenge being a transfer point for some weird computer druid guys living in "Dimension V", and the general plot as I now see it is that Henry has some "memory" of theirs that they must take back. Ok. There may be a third character called "Vector" or that may just be Henry. It's very hard to tell in the computer world. But they are referring to someone as Vector and when we all crash back to the poorly-drawn comic realm, there appear to be three people, one of whom seems massively constipated.

Panel 4 says it all...

Then something explodes. And Alice says we can all go back to normal. Yay!

 I want to point out also that no one, no one, takes full credit for any of the art here. We have a "computer consultant" and a letterer. We have a copyright by Jim McGreal and Rich Mrozek. But there's no "art by" or "pencils" or anything. No one wants to put their name on this.

The letters page is also entertaining. There is only ONE positive letter--most go on about how bad the art/story are. One exciting letter complements the story highly but offers that the art is so bad "maybe I could help you". The editorial team ACTUALLY TELLS HIM TO SEND A SAMPLE. Nothing says "got it together" like issue three of a comic without a fully-staffed art team.

The "Vector Letter Sector" scanned better than it read in real life. White on yellow = one sad fellow.

In short, Vector seems to be mostly about poorly-directed flash with no substance, throwing words around like "modem" and "vector" without much knowledge either of the 1986 computer world OR how to create computer graphics. When it's the banner headline of your comic, your gimmick better be phenomenal.

I don't know how Vector ends. I don't know how many more issues we got. I think a case could be made for this to have been the last one, but honestly it probably crawled along for a while longer. Now Comics did wind up putting out some comics that people remember, so Vector didn't kill the company or anything, it just didn't help. (This is, by the way, my HIGHLY factual account of how all this went down, gleaned entirely by what I read within this comic. I have put no research into it, so be sure you cite this article for Wikipedia later. Thanks!)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Marvel Movie Project: #16 X-men Origins Wolverine

Hope you enjoyed The Avengers as much as we did!  Now back to the count up!

Hugh Jackman is the perfect Wolverine. He really is.  There is a Clint Eastwood thing he has that forces me to have a borderline man-crush on him. (borderline because I'm a Clooney man)  Because of this, I cannot hate any movie where Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine (at least not yet, there is still rumor of a sequel...).  Unfortunately, this movie didn't feature a solo Wolverine story where he wanders around being a badass and maybe fighting a marquee foe like Sabretooth, nor does the movie do a simple compelling adaptation of the Barry Windsor-Smith classic "Weapon X" story from Marvel Comics Presents.  Instead we get a mish-mash of the semi-classic-but-tells-too-much Origin and the classic, but poorly interpreted Larry Hama run from the Wolverine comic.  And any time you get a mish-mash, things are bound to go wrong.

The primary problem in this film is the Hollywood Effect.  Anytime a film gets any kind of budget and aspirations of being a blockbuster, it starts making very bad, very over the top choices.  Big explosions, ridiculous vehicles and weapons, unnecessary characters, and confusing casting choices start to show up all over the place.  We'll see this a lot in the movies that are coming up and Wolverine kicks that off in grand fashion.

What starts with a lot of real promise, telling the mysterious, century spanning history of one of Marvel's franchise characters descends into a orgasm of mindless explosions, absurd fight sequences, even more useless action, and a complete absence of depth or story.

Things are going along pretty well until right after the scene with Gambit (a much awaited character that is completely wasted in this film).  Up to that point we get that rambling solo story that the movie wants to be.  We get Wolverine haunted by his past which is rapidly catching up to him in a very bad way.  The members of Team X featured in the film are pretty fun, particularly Wraith and Silver Fox.  Sabretooth is over the top from the start and has nowhere to go after that.  I've never been a particular fan of Liev Schreiber, but I'm not convinced he was given much to do in this script.  Silver Fox is actually very compelling, but again, given little to do.  Instead we get lots and lots of fan favorite Ryan Reynolds as Marvel's most overrated and overused character, Deadpool.

For those of you not familiar, Deadpool was a product of the 1990's much like Urkel and Dan "the Whopper Man" Cortese (yeah, I went there).  He was a slightly off-kilter, wise-mouthed assassin.  For all intents and purposes, he was an evil Spider-man in terms of personality.  Even the costumes looked similar...
That's even a Spider-man pose!  Feh!

However, somewhere down the line, a Marvel writer decided that Deadpool wasn't crazy enough and chose to have his insanity break the fourth wall, let DP become self-aware and do direct audience address.  This was a cute gimmick for a minute and in the hands of the right writer, even clever.  Unfortunately instead this opened Pandora's Box and DP became a cliche of a caricature of a meme (before there were memes).  The result was rampant over-exposure and an inflated sense of popularity.  If it weren't for this, you wouldn't even see Deadpool in this film.  And yet, somehow it seems fitting that overrated Ryan Reynolds is cast in the role of Marvel's least valuable asset. You cannot fault Reynolds, much like Keannu Reeves, he has only one card up his sleeve and he plays it at every turn.  Sadly, neither he, nor Deadpool, belong in this movie.

By the time we are subjected to near lethal doses of Deadpool, the film is heading toward critical mass and any hope of subtle character work or meaning is rapidly being drowned out by big explosions and fights atop cooling towers and every other kind of recycled action movie device you can name.  When Deadpool's head finally rolls to a stop in the rubble, you are praying for death or the end of the film. (the end teaser even hints at a possible Deadpool spinoff which we are all celebrating the absence of)

The Hollywood Effect kills Wolverine.  It starts with so much promise and then crashes and burns like there is no tomorrow.  You should probably see this movie for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and for the good stuff that happens early on, but after the Gambit fight in the alley, go watch something else, anything else.  Go see The Avengers again.

Aimee's Take: 

Luckily for you all, this is the MARVEL movie ranking--not DC. Why, you ask? Because that means this is the very last time I will be railing against the Ryan Reynolds smart-ass machine. Like the hubs above, I absolutely detest both Deadpool and Ryan Reynolds, and I am happy to report that because he took care of it pretty well, I can keep my Ryan Reynolds bashing to a minimum. 

Instead, I think I'm going to focus on the best of this movie. Wolverine. 

Not a fan of bone claws, but whatever. The movie should really just start without an "origin" reaching that far back and skip straight to Weapon X. Since the movie chooses to be muddled and confused on the whole Weapon X thing, it should probably skip that and just have Wolverine ride a motorcycle through Canada being a devil-may-care general badass, fighting Sabertooth and smoking cigars. He should say "bub" a few times. 

We kind of get that. Kind of. And that's the backbone of the film. Wolverine jumps at a helicopter. Wolverine rides away from an explosion. Wolverine uses his claws. These are the things we came to see.

Now, people like me who love Gambit are very happy to see him finally brought into the franchise. People like me who love Gambit are also pretty disappointed to see the type of film into which he's been brought. His role makes only a little sense with the negligible story. Still, he is Gambit, and he does all the things I want to see Gambit do, except you know, have character.

I'm not comfortable with the additional "cameos" we get, either. Cyclops is unnecessary, and Professor X is egregious. His appearance, in particular, is senseless. I'm not sure how old he's supposed to be here, because I'm never totally sure when the film is meant to take place. I kind of get that it's supposed to be... maybe? the 1970s, but frankly once we leave the WWII era, it is difficult to catch the markers. I hate not having a sense of place. Especially since this is supposed to tie together with the other X-Men films, characters like Professor X and Stryker should correlate very well to their later counterparts. They don't. Heck, I don't think Wolverine is all that consistant. But he's Wolverine.

And that's where I leave it. There's just enough Wolverine to enjoy in this film to make it squarely "middle of the road" fare. As a matter of fact, in our list, Wolverine marks the "beginning of the middle". This movie earns its place. One of the first that we ranked, Wolverine consistently stayed in the middle until better movies finally pushed it down a few ranks. 

It's enjoyable. To a point. That's all you can ask of such a thin premise.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

NES Golf Tour: Atlus Golf Grand Slam

The final stop on our Tour takes us to one of the most unusual golf games for the NES.  The good people at Atlus must have taken a look at the field of games already out there and said, "if we are to compete, we need to do something radically different."  And so they did.
Look familiar, facebookers?

I first encountered Golf Grand Slam as a teenager when my dad and I were playing a LOT of NES stuff in tandem (my dad was super cool).  We had been playing Golf and Jack Nicklaus for some time when this came home from the rental store.  It was like no golf game I had ever seen.  Weird interfaces, dramatic music, and a password feature.  Was this some kind of Golf RPG? (if only...but that would come later with Mario Golf Game Boy Color)  It very quickly became my new favorite golf game and it got a lot of play and rentals.  When I finally located the game as a twenty-something, I quickly discovered that skills I possessed as a kid had clearly vanished and my love for the game was mixed with a blind rage.  Always fun.

Here comes the putter throw
Course Design:  Good.  Atlus Golf Grand Slam presents a challenging course with smart hole design and a variety of well planned holes.  The course provides lots of interesting shot opportunities and puts hazards right where they should be: in the way of your easiest, best shot.  There is only one course in this game, but it will take many rounds to truly master.

Green Design: Tough.  Due to the design of the break and how it is implemented, putting is easily one of the hardest parts of this game.  This is amplified any time there is a slope or hill on the putting surface.  Hills or slopes require a LOT of extra power in your putt and can also veer a ball off course very easily.  There is no sigh of relief for making the green in this game as you may find half of your strokes are putts.

Shot Set-Up Interface:  Complex. AGGS provides the most comprehensive golfing experience you are going to find in a golf game of this era.  You'll not find the traditional shot of the golfer lining up the shot.  You will get a top down view of the course, but you'll line your shot up entirely using a menu below the view.  You have crosshairs that allow you to pinpoint the exact distance and direction of your shot.  You can over-extend your shot a bit, but too much and you will flub.  Once you are happy with how the shot lines up, you will select your club, your stance, shot type, tee position, and grip.  Yeah, you heard that right.  You can customize every last bit of that.  Plus, your stance actually has two options including ball position.  It's sick.  Off the tee the tee position will be replaced by your lie and the grip will be replaced if you are on a slope to indicate the severity so you can adjust your stance.  Similar options appear on the green.
Now, here's the best part, you don't have to go that in depth if you don't want to.  The auto-caddy (more later) will give you a default setting that is useable.  The shot set-up is as deep or shallow as you want it to be.  That greatly helps out the learning curve as well (more later).
This diverse shot set-up is unique in NES golf games and may take some time to get used to, but once you are adjusted it is a very precise way to play video game golf.
Look at all of these options!!

Swing Interface: Unusual.  Since the power is set by the set-up interface, your "swing" will consist of setting the spin of the ball.  Press A to start your "swing."  A small dot will gyrate across the image of a large golf ball.  Where you stop the dot will determine the spin of the ball.  Stop on either side and you will hook or slice.  Stop high or low to add forward or backspin.  It will take some concentration to hit the ball square in the middle.  This set-up does make it easy to add spin, fade, or draw.
The more accurately your club fits the situation, the slower the dot will jump, hence the better your control

Putting Interface: Also unusual.  The putting interface is the same as the swing.  Adding spin to the ball will cause it to roll in the given direction.  This can help adjust for brutal breaks or slopes.

Auto-Caddy: Decent.  As stated above, the auto-caddy in this game will give you a pretty good shot.  You can also customize it and make it better, but the shot the caddy sets up will get you where you want to go for the most part.  It is a good way to learn the game, and then branch out when you get bold.

Spin Control:  Awesome.  Because of the depth of the swing interface, you can set the spin to be as much or as little as you like and the game is pretty responsive to that input.  The amount of influence your spin will exert will depend on the landing surface.

Wind Influence: Strong. The wind varies realistically from light winds around 1-4 mph to strong winds, 10+.  You will need to adjust your shot accordingly and take particular note when the wind is in your face.
It may look easy, but no putt is certain.

Break Influence:  Vicious.  The break in this game is indicated by an arrow and a degree.  Thus you may get a break at roughly seven o'clock with a severity of 6 degrees.  That is going to be a pretty strong break and you will definitely need to make an adjustment to survive it.  Slope also plays a huge factor and will require adjustment depending on the severity.  As I said above, putting is probably the hardest part of the game.  If you fail to account for the break, you will three putt at the very least.

Chip-In Possible?  Absolutely.  While it isn't easy to do, it is definitely do-able.  Oddly enough I hit 4 chip-ins playing the game for screen shots for this review.  See that Eagle pic?  That was a chip.

Hole-in-One Possible? Yes.  Like the chip, the ace is definitely possible and with the right customized swing, you can knock in the occasional ace from time to time.  It is a great feeling.

Learning Curve: 5.  The depth in this game would suggest a greater curve, but the optional nature of the depth washes some of the curve out.  It will take a few rounds to get used to the unique controls, but once entrenched the game opens up to you.

Whistles and Bells: AGGS has great graphics with lots of color and detail.  The soundtrack to this game is bizarre and sounds more like it belongs in an RPG.  It sounds goofy, but sometimes this adds some real tension.
In addition to the spectacle, AGGS also allows you to pick your club set and your style of play.  It also features a password feature.  Thanks to this feature you can cheat and put together the perfect round by reloading each hole over and over until you get the score you want.  Not terribly sporting, but interesting.  Somehow I think the feature was designed more for people who need to stop playing and resume at a later time.  I am sure that doesn't stop cheaters, though.
You are not helping combat any Engrish stereotypes, people!

Overall Score: 8. Save for the frustration that comes with putting in this game, Atlus Golf Grand Slam is a pretty damn good golf game.  There is only one course, but it takes a lot of rounds to master and I cannot stress enough how much challenge the putting adds to this game.  That said, the game is a lot of fun and gets a lot of play around here when I am going through NES golf games.  It was a favorite when I was a kid, and it gets pretty high marks today as well.  The (optional) depth of the game play goes a long way to making this game exceptional.

Tips from the Club Pro:
  • Putting off of the green is sometimes automatic when chipping.  Just be careful and remember: it isn't an all-purpose trick.
  • Choose the Up swing when the wind is at your back for some extra distance.  Use the Down Below shot when the wind is in your face.
  • Watch for trees when lining up your shot.  You may not think the trees along the border will come into play, but they can.
  • Speaking of trees, they are brutal when they are in your path.  This is only important on a couple of holes, but on those holes, it is important.
  • When putting up a slope, you will need extra power and lots of it.  The slope can also act as break.  Trial and error are your best teachers.
  • The club distances are spot on.  You can extend the shot by 8-10 yards without flubbing, but be careful, particularly out of the rough.  It is better to over club, than to extend your club past its ability.
  • You will have to set distance with the crosshairs on the putt as well, so don't come up short while thinking about the break.
  • Elevation on the course doesn't make a lot of difference, but the slope indicators will give you an idea of how your ball might roll once it lands.

Club Pro's Best Rounds:
(as much as I played this game as a kid and adult, you would think I would have better scores...)

4.24.10               73 +1
3.15.12               75 +3
4.25.10               77 +5     Ace Hole #12
4.24.10               78 +6
4.21.10               79 +7

But wait, there's more!  Come back next week and we'll wrap up the tour with a look back and a ranking of all of the golf games on the Tour!