Friday, November 30, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #4: Iron Man

This was #1 on the list for a very, very long time.  Robert Downey Jr. so perfectly captured the essence of Tony Stark that it can be hard to see the flaws in this film.  I was never a fan of Iron Man, the character.  I never read Iron Man comics and as far as an Avenger goes, I could have easily swapped him with Tigra and never known the difference, excepting that Tigra is a super-hot catwoman.
But I digress.  The point is, I do not much care for Iron Man.  At least that was true until the movie came out.  I was super skeptical.  I thought there was no way they could make an interesting Iron Man movie.  I knew the special effects would be dumb and way too computer generated to be believed.  This movie was going to tank hard.

It is so nice to be wrong.  And it all starts with the stellar performance by Robert Downey Jr.  The man literally makes the film.  He breathes life into an otherwise boorish and obnoxious character and makes you really, really like him.  A lot.  Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is a perfect synthesis of the right actor with the right script in the right movie.  No one else could have pulled this off with the level of arrogant charm that RDJ manages.  Forget the super-heroics, I could watch a two hour movie based on Tony Stark buying a hot dog from a hot dog cart.

Paltrow does a great job of bringing Pepper Pots to life as well, and she plays expertly against Stark's nonchalance.  Likewise, Jeff Bridges creates a wonderfully complex villain in Obediah Stane.  If you didn't know the characters well, you might not even see the reversal coming.  And when it does, what a great moment it is, thanks to Bridges playing the character to close to the vest.  The comics could use this level of subtlety at times!

As we have seen previously, it is very hard to tell an origin story and not over-complicate it.  (see Spider-Man Iron Man manages to not only tell an origin story, but it manages to make the origin story incredibly compelling.  The story of Tony Stark being captured and forced to work for terrorists, then turning that work on his captors makes for a great story, again with or without the Iron Man suit.  Taking that ball and running with it by tying in the Stane master plot creates a tight tale that does justice to both classic and modern interpretations of the core Iron Man character.

And on top of all of that, they go and make the damn suit.  Oh sure, Iron Man features some amazing CG, but because they wanted to make sure they made the film right, they went and made the suit.  And that, my friends, much like the path less taken, has made all the difference.  It looks real because it IS real!  Go figure.  And when you have something real to ground your CG in, it makes the CG that much more convincing and organic.  (Memo to George Lucas)  Iron Man features perhaps some of the most fluid and natural CG work since Lord of the Rings (which is holding up rather well, honestly).  The Iron Man suit looks great and the flying scenes are totally realistic.  There is great attention to detail in the effects that elevate them above the usual gimmick level that happens all too often in big Hollywood movies (see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, what the fork?)

So, great story, great acting, great casting, smart scripting, incredible special effects that serve the story and not just the spectacle, what is there not to like about Iron Man?  Aimee will tell you (and for the record, I agree with her.  She makes a very convincing argument).

Aimee's Take:

I'm not going to retread what Stan has already articulated, because we agree entirely. This movie rocks like crazy and there's no stopping it. BUT

Here's the thing. This movie came out the same summer as Incredible Hulk. And in many, many ways, this movie follows the same general pattern as Incredible Hulk. People lost their very minds for THIS movie, but Incredible Hulk has been subject to heaps of critical shit and nonsense about how boring/stupid/awful it is. How do I feel about this?

Girl, please.
Now, listen. I loved Iron Man and I have gone years and years without EVER touching a comic that even mentions the character. Of Iron Man, I literally only knew that his "real" name was Tony Stark, he has an alcohol problem, and he wears a suit. I also know about the unrelated song of the same name. And it made me love the character.

However, Iron Man fails to convince me that it's the opus of modern comic book movies, and here's why I actually FOUGHT with my husband about its rank.

The Big Hollywood Ending.

If you recall, this is the same thing that troubles The Incredible Hulk. There's a crucial difference. As implausible as it is to have Emil Blonsky turn into that ridiculous version of the Abomination at the end of the movie, it makes sense. They spend a lot of time painting him as the kind of man whose hunger for power and strength makes him hate and envy the Hulk's power. I can totally buy that he begins basically "juicing" just to get the edge over this powerful being. I think the ending is still kind of stupid, but whatever. It does follow what's been set up in the film. I don't like where they go with it, but it works.

This post is about Iron Man, I swear.

In Iron Man, there is a similar "two big superhero things battle it out in a big place with collateral damage" scene. Only in this one, it's Obadiah Stane who climbs into that super suit and slugs it out like a cornered pugilist. His thirst for physical power and mega-strength has led him to this... wait. What?

No. Obadiah in this movie is absolutely NOT the man who climbs in the big stupid suit and launches zingers at Pepper while he fights zippy little Tony. Why on earth would he do that? This man is behind the scenes. And the only reason that Tony knows he's truly bad is because Obadiah told him he was. As he killed him in a way that left his hands clean. He deprived him of a life-saving device, he didn't strangle him with his bare hands. That's not the kind of man Obadiah has been presented to be. He's white collar, crafty, manipulative and powerful. He doesn't need to get in the suit. It will give him nothing.

I'm going to spin this one, but next time I'll probably just wear a big metal suit to solve my problems. 
Getting in the suit really seriously tips Obadiah's hand, too, something he goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid. The man who gets in the suit to slug it out with Tony is not the same man who hires terrorists to kidnap Tony in another country, and kill him without anyone ever knowing that it was his idea all along. This is not a man who is obsessed with being a physical juggernaut who can kill Tony himself. Twice he tries to kill Tony without getting his hands dirty.

I know what you're thinking. This third time is where he snaps and goes, "Forget it, I'll kill him myself!" Ooookay. Who is he? Skeletor? This is not what he's going to do, and if it is, we are not seeing the break properly. He's not being built into a character that has a break or is lead to this conclusion. I firmly believe that the man I saw in this film would slink into the shadows, hidden behind a vast network of legal and illegal organizations, ready to strike again. He's not going to risk his public reputation. He'd be pissed that Tony turned up alive, but not so pissed he wouldn't try to spin it before he climbs in the big stupid suit and rides it all the way to the Big Hollywood Ending.

Because Blonsky's transformation is clearly motivated and illustrated very well throughout his story, I think that makes his ending BETTER, and thus, I think it makes the movie BETTER. I don't love what was done, but I understand where it comes from.

Because Stane's transformation is not clearly motivated and not illustrated at all through his story, I think that makes his ending STUPID, and thus, I think it makes Iron Man the slightly less good movie. But because the entire movie has higher production values and slicker execution (and a much more charismatic protagonist), it's only on that note that it gets the nod and the higher ranking.

Believe me when I tell you, I agonize over this. I try getting people on the street to see my view and join my cult. I usually fail, and although Stan agrees with me he still doesn't totally agree, even though everyone can see I'm clearly right about this.

I love both movies. I seriously do. I promise. This is hair splitting that we aren't going to see again until we hit the top two. It burns me that Incredible Hulk isn't in the top 5 but I can accept it. Iron Man is better. But only slightly.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


For the first time in well over a year I added a new game to my Atari 2600 collection.  I've been collecting for the 2600 for over 10 years in a transparent attempt to regain or relive (you choose) my childhood.  In that time I have amassed a silly amount of Atari 2600 games.  At this point my collection has reached a threshold:  all of the games I need are either on the rare side (some extremely so) or they are ridiculously common and I usually balk at paying more than a couple of dollars for them.  So these days when a new game comes along, it is cause for celebration, and hopefully lots and lots of playing the new game.

The newest addition to my 2600 collection is the Tigervision game JawbreakerJawbreaker is only moderately rare (a rarity 5 on the Atariage ranking), but has eluded me for some time.  My good friend Deatrick recently went to a classic gaming show in Columbus, OH and there purchased it for me.  I paid $25, a bit higher than I would usually go for a rarity 5 game, but since this one has been outstanding for so long, I went for it.

The game cartridge itself is in pretty good condition with some glue soaking through the label due to age (in nerd circles we refer to that as "Actiplaque" as it is most common with Activision games), and some minor peeling on the end label.  But all in all it is in good shape.  Tigervision had the cool gimmick of putting some of their games in colored carts, so they look extra cool in the collection.  Jawbreaker has a red cartridge, which will look really cool above my King Kong Tigervision cart which is blue!

But I don't buy games just to look good on a shelf (it is a nice perk though).  I buy games to play them.  Tigervision has a wildly inconsistent library of games that are for the most part playable, but often marred by blocky (even for the VCS) graphics that lack the refinement of games by companies like Parker Bros. or Activision.  Likewise the game play is often reduced down and simpler than it has the potential to be.

Jawbreaker tows that line very well.  The game is a Pac-man clone with elements of Turmoil or maybe Taz thrown in for good measure.  You are a pair of jaws set loose in a candy store.  Your job is to eat through eight screens of candy bars while avoiding the Smiling Face enemies that roam the maze looking to chomp on you.  Three times per maze, an energizer will appear in the center of the screen.  Eating this energizer will allow you to turn the tables on the Smiling Faces and chomp them instead.  Extra lives are awarded every other round.

The difference between Jawbreaker and a game like Pac-man is the build of the maze.  Unlike the static maze featured in Pac-man, the maze in Jawbreaker is constantly shifting.  Each wall of the maze features a single passage through to the next row.  This passage is constantly moving horizontally across the screen.  In addition to the passage in the maze wall, you can also go around the ends of the maze wall to enter the next row.  This provides some serious challenge since your escape route is never assured, at least not while in the middle of a row.

The Smiling Face enemies only appear one at a time in a row and there are only four of them in total.  This means that there will always be at least half of the rows on the screen unoccupied. However, the Smiling Faces can change direction at any given time and can reappear in any unoccupied row at any time.  They cannot use the passages nor go around the end of maze walls. Like in Pac-Man, eating the energizer gives you a brief window where you can eat the Smiling Faces and/or clear candy bars in peace.

Toothbrush or torture device?
As you progress, the Smiling Faces move faster and faster and seem to make better decisions on how to attack and corral you.  The AI doesn't seem to change when you eat an energizer, so occasionally the Smiling Faces will run right into you when you are the aggressor.  When you clear a level you get an interesting intermission where a double-sided tooth brush comes and cleans up your act.  Very strange.

You get three lives in all with the potential to earn up to 3 more (you may only have 3 maximum at any time, so go ahead and waste one at the end of every other round if you like).  The game's instruction manual seems to indicate that there are only 8 levels, but it does not say what happens at the end of level 8.  I have been playing for a couple of hours and have made it to level 4, but the difficult gets serious as the Smiling Faces get faster.

But is it fun?  Yeah, kind of.  I mean, I'd rather play Ms. Pac-man on the 2600, but Jawbreaker does not give a let down experience.  It is still fun to play, it's just not incredibly fun to play.  I would not recommend this game to you in deference to better, similar games on the system.  Graphically, it's alright.  It doesn't need much in the way of flash and it definitely does not overachieve in that capacity either.  I'll probably play it more than once, and I'll probably play it for high scores until I manage to get to the end of screen 8, but it's not going to make any best games lists.  I will say that it was worth $25 to fill a gap in my collection with a game that is moderately playable, but that may also be time talking since there has been such a drought in finding new games for my collection.

My advice to you?  There are far better games of this genre out there for the Atari 2600.  Go play one of them.  From a collecting standpoint, Jawbreaker is a rarity 5, but to be honest the value is more in the $15 dollar range than the $25 I paid.  If you can get it for $8, you've got a good deal there.

All of that said, it is nice to have a new game in my collection after far too long.  Now to find Espial, a game I have been after for about 6 years....

(For more information on Atari 2600 games and collecting check out and

Monday, November 12, 2012

Playing it Through: Final Fantasy VII

I was debating what to play the other day after taking a trip through Simon's Quest and then Luigi's Mansion (gearing up for Halloween next month...).  Aimee and I are playing Donkey Kong Country Returns, so that was satisfying my platforming itch, and I was looking for something RPG-ish, but I didn't want to start a whole new thing.  That's when I got another itch, a non-platformy itch that comes around every year or so, an itch that calls me to play through what might be the single greatest story-driven (Japanese-style, if you like) RPG ever, Final Fantasy VII.  When a game is as great as FFVII, it calls to you to play it.  It calls to you to come to the planet's defense against the evil of Shinra one more time.  And you have to answer.

And I have.

I started playing FFVII yesterday afternoon (after I got my chores done, of course), and the rest of my day was a loss.  10 hours later I'm standing outside of Junon Harbor.  There is a reason why FFVII is heralded as one of the greatest games of all time:  it's just fun to play, no matter how many times you run through it.  There is a charm here that doesn't get old.  Sure there are parts that I like less than others (the parade in Junon comes to mind...), but even those don't seem so bad when you are wrapped up in the game's engaging story.  And FFVII brings story to the table in spades.  Even for those like myself who have played through this dozens of times before, it is difficult to not get engaged in the characters and the mystery of the Ancients, and Sephiroth and Aeris, and the plight of the planet.  There are enough twists and turns in the story to make it fun to watch even when you know how it comes out (like watching Babylon 5 over again).
As great as the story is, what makes FFVII compelling for me, time after time, is the game play.  Really tight turn based battles, great combat aspects like Summon magic and Limit Breaks, and a character customization system that is both simple and yet deep make playing the game a fun experience every time.  I love the Materia system and the fact that your magic grows and even multiplies the more you use it.  Equipping the materia to different weapons and armor and choosing weapons and armor based not solely on their power, but on the number of materia slots and the growth rate lends a unique and interesting dynamic to an RPG mainstay.

I had an absolute blast yesterday crawling around Midgar, dressing like a girl to meet Don Corneo (Aeris got picked though, I think I had the wrong dress, so no "poik-poik-squish" this time...), speeding down the freeway whacking Shinra bikers with a stick, and falling through a church roof to meet an ill-fated young flower girl.  Even when you know what you are doing and moving at a good pace, it takes about 7 hours to get out of Midgar and on to the world map. Midgar is such a cool place, though, and so smartly designed it's no loss to spend time there.  But for me the game really opens up when you get to the world map.  There are chocobos to catch and ride (still not my favorite part of the game, but fun), Midgar Zoloms to run screaming from, and a cute little Ninja you can't turn your back on.  It's like leaving your hometown for the first time and realizing that the interstate goes to many other amazing places.
After fleeing Midgar, I grinded levels for a bit (something that in this game like few others, is actually fun) and then went Chocobo hunting.  No amount of grinding at this time will prepare me for the horror of the Zolom and his vicious Beta attack.  One of the best things you can do this early in the game is pick up the Matra Magic Enemy Skill from one of the machines that wander around Midgar's immediate area.  Easily the most powerful abilities you can possess at this point in the game, it makes the bands of little tree monsters and those horrible flying purple birds much easier to combat.

After picking up the Chocobo (always throw the greens FIRST) I dashed across the Zolom marsh, with that horrible shadow giving me much chase, and into the Mythril Mine.  I forgot how short that mine is, so after the encounter with the Turks, I hung out for a bit and grinded a few more levels.  The Mythril Mine is home to the always important Long Range materia.
Sephiroth takes the honey badger approach to the Midgar Zolom

Back outside, I went ahead and cleared the Fort Condor strategy game.  This is a fun and surprising little side game that completely baffled me years ago when I played it for the first time.  What is this strategy game doing in my RPG?  Confusing yes, but FFVII is full of asides like this, so not uncharacteristic.  That said, being a pro, I easily defeated the Shinra attackers and won the day.  The best part of Fort Condor is the free room and board!  Now if only they'd let me have that Phoenix materia....

Leaving Condor, I did what you really must do next: get Yuffie.  Her super cool limit breaks and plucky spirit make it really hard to play through this adventure without her.  Plus, you can grind a few levels waiting for her to show up.  I cannot tell you how many times I screwed up catching her the first several times I played this game.  That save point is so alluring.  But you cannot take your eyes off Yuffie, and you have to play equal parts hard to get and stroke her ego in order for her to join, but once she's in, she's in (well, until later...).
So that's where I am now.  My current party consists of Cloud, Red XIII (I give him his real name: Nanaki) and Yuffie.  I almost never play with Barret because I get my fill of him in Midgar and I don't really care for his limit breaks or combat skills.  I love Tifa and almost always play with her which means that Red or Yuffie get sidelined.  So this time I'm taking those two on the adventure!  I don't play with Aeris much anymore because I can't take the heartbreak.

And with that we're off to Junon!  I'll keep updating with commentary and other tidbits from the adventure as we go along!  Please join me as I play through and feel free to toss out your own comments in the Comments section!

Follow the rest of my adventure after the JUMP!