Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, the Last Command) – Timothy Zahn

1-heirI might as well sacrifice one more day of applying for jobs or revising my novel in order to do something that really matters, like telling you what Jedi knights drink. It’s hot chocolate. Apparently the Jedi drink hot chocolate. The early scene in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy where Luke tells C-3PO about the amazing drink Lando told him about pretty much encapsulates the uncanny valley of any Star Wars story not directly influenced by George Lucas. There’s just something off about this series, like when someone tells you, “I am just an average earth human

The story begins with the shattered remnants of the Imperial fleet taking a page from the Confederate South’s playbook, hoping to rise again after the war of rebel aggression. Super-top-secret Grand Admiral Thrawn, a phenomenal military tactician with a chiseled jaw, the eyes of Hannibal Lecter, and the smooth, beautiful skin of a deeply-tanned smurf, has discovered Palpatine’s old mountain full of secrets, and wants to use them to get out of the corner of the galaxy the rebels put him in to think about what he did. On his way, he discovers an old Jedi (apparently Palpatine’s order 66 was implemented about as effectively as Trump’s Muslim ban) who’s about as stable as a Jenga tower on the San Andreas fault. Fortunately, he had also just discovered a species of lizard that repels the Force, so the Jedi’s attacks had less of an impact than a carefully placed spit ball. Thrawn postulates that the Emperor had a habit of using the Force to coordinate battles (not very surprising, since we know that Qui-Gon cheated at dice, and I’m pretty sure Yoda rigged a few synchronized swimming events in his 900-year life), and strikes a deal with the new guy to do the same.

Meanwhile, Luke is drinking hot chocolate, Han knocked up Leia, Lando’s still trying to be a respectable businessman, the New Republic senators are laying a trap for Admiral Ackbar with no sense of irony whatsoever, Chewie still hasn’t torn anyone’s arms out of their sockets, and Jabba’s replacement has decided to forgo the lard-induced hedonism and actually hire his sexy sidekick—who just happens to want to murder the crap out of Luke—as his top aid.

2-darkI actually tried reading this series twice when I was younger, and both times I lost interest around the beginning of the third book. I finished this time around, but I know why the series struggles—the villains and the heroes interact about as much as I do with large sums of cash. The original movies were entirely about interaction between heroes and villains. Vader captured and tortured Leia in a way that would make Ned Stark proud. The second act of a New Hope put the heroes directly into the enemy lair, proving my mom wrong, that you can mix your lights and your darks and expect them to come out just as clean as before. Obi-Wan confronts Vader about his regrets over being a lousy teacher (trust me…any teacher who looks back at their first few years understands the urge to let your students have a free swipe at you), and Vader personally hops in a tie fighter—a ship that has the same safety rating as a bottle rocket—to take on Luke at the end. And that’s just the first movie! The Empire Strikes Back continues that trend of interaction, but changes the dynamic into that crushing disappointment you feel when you finally look up your biological father only to find out he’s waaaaay more right-wing than you’re comfortable with.

Meanwhile, Thrawn spends the trilogy sitting behind his desk like an eighth grader with an erection. He makes an intriguing character, to the point where I wished Zahn would focus less on Han and Leia and tell us more about Thrawn, but the only conflicts he has with other characters is with the Jedi he hired without checking his references. Since the Imperials immediately start bickering like Bill and Hillary, they never really get their act together in a way that threatens the heroes, and as soon as Leia starts accepting friend requests from the same species as Thrawn’s bodyguard, the bookies stopped accepting bets on the Grand Admiral’s death. Worst of all, because of this lack of interaction, the anti-Force Lizard League, and because Bonkers McNotasith doesn’t actually use a lightsaber, we never get to see Luke use his newfound Jedi powers for anything more than wisely settling a dispute between two guys in a bar. Because Star Wars fans really only wanted an intergalactic episode of Judge Judy. So with no one to fight, anytime we see Luke pull out his lightsaber, it’s usually to cut open a door, emergency escape route, or especially tightly-sealed jam jars.

However, the trilogy did make it onto several lists of top sci-fi and fantasy novels of all time, so there must be something worth reading. Even though Zahn treats the original cast like a rich kid who was given last year’s toys for Christmas (even going so far as to play up Vader as an incompetent, bumbling meathead with a short fuse—and mind you, this was years before the prequel trilogy had been written), his original characters have a lot more appeal. Thrawn truly comes off as a genius tactician, capable of predicting his opponents’ every move. The crazy Jedi gives off that same creepy, get-me-out-of-here vibe that my doctor did when he started spouting right-wing conspiracy theories during my last appointment. Even the new gangster in town, Talon Kardde, manages that Han-Solo-esque charm without feeling like a Han Solo clone. But the real star of the show is Mara Jade, the Ahab to Luke Skywalker’s Dick. Uh, Moby Dick, that is.

3-lastIf anyone has a conflict comparable to Luke’s do-I-kill-my-dad problem from the original trilogy, it’s Mara Jade. For that alone, Zahn should have written the entire book to focus on her. She’s Force-sensitive, but carries a mysterious vendetta against Luke, and while she has good reasons for it, she’s never quite clear if she wants him dead, or if she’s being manipulated by voices and dreams sent to her through the Force. Unfortunately, lacking any clear protagonist, Jade gets far too little screen time, as Zahn has clearly favored scenes of the original heroes having conversations in bars, so the one character who could give the Star Wars books an actual Star Wars feel is rarely present. But if you liked the cantina scene in A New Hope, boy are you in luck! Unless you liked it for Obi-wan’s spontaneous dismembering of the other patrons, or for the clever character development where Han Shoots Greedo in Cold Blood, thereby introducing us to the fact that Luke might be heading into deep space with a potentially crazed murderer. But if it was the dialogue and the setting you liked…good news.

So perhaps it’s a good book, but doesn’t know exactly why it’s good. I think when George Lucas extended the original trilogy to the prequels, he pretty much established that that’s the Star Wars way. Disney has taken subtle inspiration from Zahn’s novels, so it’s possible they’ll throw us a nod to Mara Jade or Grand Admiral Thrawn in episodes VIII and IX. But then again, Disney has managed to produce an episode VII where every line is less memorable than, “Mesa Jar-Jar binks.” You’ll probably just want to read the books.

In other news, I just started Final Fantasy XII. Be prepared for a lot of book reviews and possibly a few off-weeks. I’ve never finished that game in less than 100 hours.

Shadow of Mordor -PS4, PS3, XBox One, XBox 360, PC

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Shadow of Mordor is, quite simply, an Assassin’s Creed clone. Forgive me for going straight for the punchline like I could only afford five minutes with a prostitute, but the fact that Monolith Productions spent ten minutes alone with the Xerox machine in Ubisoft’s office is actually more of a starting point than a final judgment. See, creating a clone of a well-known game tends to present a problem when that game already has a nasty habit of cloning itself. What exactly can you do when trying to emulate a game known for glitches, repetitive meaningless tasks, combat that ramps up the difficulty so slightly that old men race their wheelchairs across it, and a story that aspires to be the novelization of it’s own movie adaptation? Turns out, you can make a halfway decent game.

I say halfway, though because that’s about as far as they got. Monolith cleaned up a lot of the trash lying around Ubisoft’s apartment, but one can only do so much after the carpet has developed a healthy substrate of mycelium and the mushrooms just keep growing back. The story, for example, reads as eloquently as a Trump tweet and contains about as much Tolkien lore as one can glean from finding a copy of the Silmarillion during an especially problematic bowel movement. It opens on Talion, a ranger of Gondor (a job description about as endemic to Middle Earth as “LGBT Bible Salesman of Kansas”) who suffers the obligatory wife-and-child-murder scenario in the opening scene, thus absolving him of any pesky responsibility that would prevent him from romping through the Mordor countryside murdering orcs (because let’s be honest, the one thing we took from the Star Wars Holiday Special is that Chewie is a deadbeat dad who neglects his family as long as it’s not Life Day). He then gets himself possessed by an elven wraith whose true identity will both momentarily amaze die-hard Tolkien fans and confuse anyone who didn’t feel like reading the Bible of Middle Earth. Together they romp through the Mordor countryside, shoving Talion’s sword into so many Uruk-hai that if his blade doesn’t kill them, they’ll probably contract Uruk-HIV and die of Uruk-aids anyway. Rinse and repeat for thirty hours, then kill Sauron in a climactic boss battle that makes Inglorious Basterds look like an introduction to European History course.

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Just a scratch.

Gameplay closely resembles Assassin’s Creed, except Shadow of Mordor doesn’t need to dig up a steady supply of Borgias to assassinate—instead you declare genocidal war on all things green and smelly and you have no end to the supply of Uruks to break your falls from high places. Literally. There’s no end. Many of the monsters you kill come back to life, which gets frustrating when you’re trying to whittle Sauron’s army down to nothing, but to be fair, you come back when they kill you, so I’ll allow them the handicap. Shadow of Mordor also trashes the combat from Assassin’s Creed, so gone is the feeling of trying to beat your way out of a refrigerator with a tire iron, and instead you get more of a feel for how Batman would get on in Middle Earth—both combat and stealth seems to have been lifted straight out of Arkham Asylum. It skews the stealth unrealistically, to the vein of assuming Sauron’s entire army is recovering from Lasik surgery over the same two-day period. At times, Talion would run full-bent towards them, stab them in the face, and then sneak around behind the orc who just witnessed the death, only to hear that orc say, “What was that? Did something move over there?” Absurdly unrealistic as this may be, I wholeheartedly approve of the change. Assassin’s Creed went the route of realistic, which broke the mechanics—sitting on a bench or pushing your way into a gaggle of whores sounded like a really cool assassin stealth technique, but most guards were still smart enough to figure out that there weren’t too many giant hulking men in huge white cloaks carrying more cutlery than a Ginsu commercial through Renaissance Italy.

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The Force has a strong influence on the weak mind.

When you’re not punching holes in the Uruks like you expect to find a prize inside, you travel around the Mordor countryside picking up trash and cleaning up graffiti. These mini-quests do nothing other than give you minute amounts of experience points and, of course, to clean up the place a bit and make Mordor great again. While it sounds useless, again, it’s an improvement over Assassin’s creed where you chase after boxes of useless cash. At least the XP gives you access to new abilities, and while many games grant you abilities that end up being longer, more complicated ways of accomplishing what is easier gained by punching enemies in the face, I actually found myself using almost all of the skills I unlocked by the end.

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This is lame. Why am I not riding a fucking direwolf?

Mordor apparently isn’t big on diversity, and you only really fight four different monsters throughout the game. But that’s fine, right? After all, Tolkien used excruciating detail—sometimes so excruciating that his readers actually felt right there, suffering Gollum’s torture—but he didn’t invent more than a handful of species of monsters. So it’s okay if we only get to fight orcs and uruks, wargs, spiders, trolls, dragons and balrogs. Except we never fight anything nearly as interesting as a dragon or a balrog…the swarming, skittering monsters are zombie-like ghuls instead of spiders, the giant hulking monsters are called graugs, not trolls, the bipedal wolf-like monsters are carragors, not wargs, and the game doesn’t mention orcs other than to say, “these ain’t them.” But don’t worry…there’s literally no end to the supply of Uruk-hai willing to fight you, and each one of them has a nice little speech to deliver before you get to start the battle.

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Man-swine! Let me go into extended detail on my displeasure with our previous encounter, be it for my demise or your return from yours.

Apparently the version of the game I played is not the one I was supposed to. The PS3 and the Xbox 360 editions are, from what I read online, the PS4 edition after being dragged through a mud puddle and then stored for a week in the rotting carcass of a sperm whale. But what it lacks in aesthetic value, it more than makes up for in loading and saving times, making Shadow of Mordor a great game to play when you have a few dozen small chores around the house, but you’re only willing to use the time going in and out of menus to do them. When you account for menu transitions, listening to each uruk tell you its life story, reloading after it kills you, and watching the WWE of Mordor as the uruks kill each other and level-up during death transitions, a 40-hour game quickly turns into about eight or nine hours of gameplay.

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Tinder profiles in Mordor.

The game touts its Nemesis system, which as far as I can tell is a fancy way of saying “we randomly generate enemies, then assign them a name.” Although this feels to me like Monolith’s main selling point is something I did with Lego guys when I was six, the enemies do feel like they have a little more personality than the goons in other games, and the names sound Tolkien-esque (One notable uruk goes by “Ratbag,” clearly inspired by the orcs from the book, Shagrat and Gorbag), even if I have to ride whatever the hell a caragor is in order to kill them. Supposedly, the PS3 version’s Nemesis system functions about as well as a cassette tape in an MRI machine, but I suspect the nearly three-hour update required when I first booted the game fixed some of that. Just add that to the game’s non-play-time counter.

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D – 3DS

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Well…as it appears that Anne has hijacked my 3DS to play Pokemon, so having not touched Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D in the better part of a month, I suppose that means I’ve finished it and ought to write about it. You’ll forgive me if, for once, I don’t have a snappy introduction, but it’s rather hard to find meaningful anecdotes to relate about a game designed entirely around the satisfying squish noise that happens every time you kill a monster. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I didn’t experience the epitome of bliss playing through main series games written by a team almost talented enough to devise a plot for a dog food commercial, or attain true inner-peace after playing hour after hour of briefcase feng-shui so I could pick up that chicken egg I found. It’s just that after a certain point, my “press X to not die” skills plateau and I start to feel like there are more enjoyable things I could be wasting my time on. Like shoveling goat shit out of a barn.

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Should we include popular protagonists like Leon and Ada? Nah. Let’s use the are-you-my-mummy guy!

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D strips away all the unnecessary fluff from RE games except for the title. As they still insist on reading the entire title out to you every time you start the game, this gives you plenty of time to go make a sandwich while the drunken frat boy they got tries to read it in his scariest surfer voice. But past that, the only game play they give you is running around various RE4 and RE5 areas on an ammunition easter egg hunt—providing you occasionally have to stomp on someone’s head to get to the egg. Well, I take that back. They do force you to play through an insufferable number of tutorial levels with each of the eight playable characters, and then again with their alternate costumes, as though each one were recovering from a shattered spine and had to attend regular physical therapy sessions…with murderous monsters eying up their neck like a lumberjack ogles a sequoia.

If you’ve played the mini-games of the same name included in RE4, RE5 or RE6, you essentially know what you’re getting into. I say “essentially” because even though The Mercenaries was perfect as a mini-game, Capcom apparently felt the need to stuff it like a swollen, bloated turducken until it “felt” like a full game, apparently forgetting that Donkey Kong and Space Invaders were both full games—but like a cat in heat, I’ll wait and touch on that later. Each level starts you off with a unique set of weapons, two minutes on the clock, and a rag-tag band of scrappy fighters who just happen to be infected with a parasite that makes them want to trade recipes with Hannibal Lecter. You can pick up time extensions to encourage you to move around the map, and you get small bonuses for style if you wrassle your enemies like a gator and kill them with your bare hands.

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As far as I can tell, you get a double-S rating just for killing this guy.

At the height of popularity for arcades, games were much like life, relationships, bureaucracy and work—you couldn’t win, they just got harder and harder until you died. The Mercenaries employs this philosophy. Providing the enemies don’t tenderize you like a fillet mignon or coat you in a heavy layer of pre-digestive juices, the best you can hope for is to extend your time as long as possible. You get graded based on your score, which is primarily affected by the number of monster kills you can chain together, but also seems partly influenced by the amount of times you had to pound your own heart back into working order. (Once again proving that Resident Evil has about as fluent a medical knowledge as an Alabaman redneck with an iPhone. Took one too many bullets to the spine? Rub an herb on it! You’ll be fine! Smashed with a hammer the size of an SUV? Just give yourself CPR and you’ll be good to go until the next monster grabs you by the shoulders and spits on you!) Higher scores unlock more stages, characters and costumes. Rinse and repeat.

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Ultimate matrix-y super villain Wesker–now with all the strength of a maxi-pad.

The game has a sort of simplistic beauty in that way, like a graceful ballerina performing an elegant, well-choreographed dance on the back of a monster truck belching out smoke like a forest fire. See, in their attempt to release the Mercenaries as a stand-alone title, Capcom stuffed a little too much into it. Capcom is the guy who goes to Old Country Buffet and insists on getting their money’s worth, so they stack up the food on their tray like devil’s tower, goes back for more twelve times, and spends the rest of the evening in the ER with a tube down their throat. The perfection of the Mercenaries as a mini-game was that there were only four levels and five characters. The point wasn’t to race through as fast as possible to complete everything you can like you had a bag of cocaine, a life of regrets and a week left to live. Instead, you practiced, learned each level, and tried to best your own scores. Human psychology awards us a much higher level of satisfaction when competing against ourselves than it does for competing against a computer program or even another human. That’s why the mini-game and a lot of those old arcade games worked so well. If we worked hard to best our past skills, the feeling of self-worth we get completely negates the realization that we could have written a novel or mastered the French horn in the time it took us to reach level 4 of Donkey Kong. Meanwhile, when the focus is on completion and moving on to the next level, we tend to get frustrated when we’ve mastered a level for fifteen minutes and then die instantly because we were playing with the sound off and didn’t notice the one-hit-kill boss sneak up behind us with a chainsaw and cut off our heads for the forty-seventh time that day. But on the plus side, I started kicking out enough BTUs in anger that my heating bill dropped by about five bucks that month.

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Most likely the last thing you’ll see. He’s like a ninja.

Not only do they have so many stages and characters that you might mistake The Mercenaries for a real estate firm, but the primary focus has shifted off of chaining monster kills and onto defeating bosses. Except for most of the tutorial levels, each stage has at least one boss enemy. That isn’t new. Each stage in the mini-game had them too. Except there, they were thrown in every now and then as a check on your power. They provided a hiccup in the difficulty to make sure you didn’t keep mowing down monsters like a field full of daisies. In the Mercenaries: 3D, the bosses take center stage, wresting it away from everything else and demanding all your attention like a narcissistic drag queen. The difference is that in the 3D game, the bosses constantly leer over you, breathing down your neck like the guy on the bus who smells like pee. You never get a moment to rest and go back to what you love—squishing monster heads. It seems like each level has either a never-ending parade of bosses to fight, or they give the bosses so much health that even the Republican party wants to take them down.

As I mentioned before, Anne had to take the game away from me. Whether I was playing it because I enjoyed it or because I felt obligated to unlock all the costumes…let’s say it’s about 50/50. The game definitely appeals to me as a fan of the mini-game, but it does so in the way that frozen yogurt appeals to me as a fan of ice cream—it fills the need, but you walk away feeling like something was wrong with it. Now if only Anne will get done with Pokemon, I’ve got a flaming meat tenderizer guy I need to kill…

The Legend of Zelda – NES

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Let me hold it up to the light here…what, did you make this yourself? You really want to send me off to rescue your wrinkly ass with…what is this? Balsa wood? Yeah, some great hero of Hyrule I’ll be. “He could have saved everyone if it weren’t for that nest of termites.”

“Is he actually going to do it?” you ask. “Is he going to take pot shots at the Legend of Zelda?”

Yes, fictional reader who asked a question no one was thinking so that I could begin this entry the way I wanted. Yes I am.

But let’s face it, while the game is the orgasm in the orgy of fantasy, adventure, catchy music, and 8-bit eye candy, but to pretend that Nintendo ironed out all the flaws and created the paradigm of video games with only a 64kb cartridge is like saying a four-year-old scribbling out the alphabet has a literary prowess to rival Tolkien.

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Whoah, Ganon, dude…you gotta get out more. Lift a few weights. Cut back on the like-like steaks. I almost feel bad fighting you in that shape.

As usual, though, let’s start with the story. The Kingdom of Hyrule keeps a powerful source of magic, the Triforce of the Gods (or the Triforce of the Nintendo of America Secular Censorship Authority, depending on whether you’re American or Japanese). However, this is like eating in bed, and the crumbs of magic tend to attract vicious monsters, evil wizards, giant pig demons, and republicans to the kingdom. Currently, the demon king Ganon has seized command of the kingdom (despite losing the popular vote), the Triforce of Power, and in true villain fashion, Princess Zelda (we’ll not ask how he seized her). However, before her capture, Zelda decided to desecrate a sacred artifact—for its own good, mind you—and scatter the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom around Hyrule. Furthermore, she put out a hit on Ganon and sent her servant, Impa, to track down the perfect assassin.

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Tink? Is that you? Come a little closer…there’s something really interesting in this bottle…

But Impa, being old enough to remember when the alphabet first came out, had a bit of a senior moment and came back with Link, an unarmed, prepubescent elf dressed like Peter Pan. Link, who apparently thinks he’s going to fight like Goofy from Kingdom Hearts, sets out with naught but his shield. His quest: wrest the hidden Triforce pieces away from Ganon’s goons and take them to the demon king himself to do battle. Wow. Where do I begin with that one? First, Zelda darling, your heart’s in the right place, but next time consider burying them in unmarked locations rather than hiding them in your enemy’s living room. Second, Ganon, I know you authoritarian types generally regard education with as much fondness as the scent of a burning skunk, but if it never occurred to you or your underlings to, you know, put the Triforce back together on your own, you may want to raise the standards on your help wanted ads. After all, it takes more than a few extra chromosomes to think that the hero would assemble it for you and waltz right into your office with it.

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What kind of fantasy world is this where I still need a prescription and a part-time job as an exterminator just to get medicine? I’m going to rescue Zelda, not roofie her!

So Link isn’t the sharpest edge on the sword (or judging by those tights, the straightest arrow in the quiver), but he gets the job done, much to the chagrin of the Hylian populace who, despite being forced to live in caves while packs of wild octopi devour people just beyond their threshold, seem to take every action possible to bolster the status quo of their predicament. They lure him into their casinos to take his cash, outright extort repair fees from him to maintain their shoddy housing, gouge prices on vital necessities, force him to obtain a reference letter before providing him with emergency healthcare, and refuse to give him the means to defend himself until he jumps through pointless hoops. But on the plus side, at least there are no background checks or five-day waiting periods. I guess, though, that dealing with an uneducated, right-wing group of victims is what separates true heroes from people applying for Canadian visas.

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…let me guess, the Democrats are in charge again. Don’t you know that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a sword is a good guy with a sword?

So by now, those of you who haven’t actually played the game are probably either confused about what I’m talking about or pissed off that I’ve just forced you to read three paragraphs of political satire veiled so thin that it could be sent home from school for violating the dress code. I promise that one of these days (preferably when national diplomacy no longer resembles poorly-scripted WWE smack-talk) I’ll go back and write a straight entry on this game. But for now, let’s talk about early sandbox games.

Most fans probably know the series through either Ocarina of Time or games that came out afterwards. These games and I have quite a bit in common—completely straight, even though no one seems to know just by looking at it. The original game is notably different in that right from the opening, the player has access to most dungeons and all but two of the grid squares on the map. In addition, you can collect items in whatever order you’d like, providing you can collect the cash to buy them or that you have the prerequisite items to obtain others. The result of this is a remarkable freedom as to how you play the game. We’re talking the type of freedom that makes Mel Gibson characters get teary-eyed. The type of freedom that George Bush wishes he could force upon the Middle East (sorry, but just try making a joke about freedom that doesn’t involve one or the other!)

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No, dude, this’ll totally work. I saw a cartoon rabbit do it on TV.

Like every other Zelda game, Link collects tools to help him, except instead of following the using-the-tool-to-beat-the-dungeon-it’s-found-in routine, most items just make regular tasks a little easier. Items range from the vital (swords, shield and bombs) to the mostly useless (raft, bow and arrows) to the completely worthless (red candle, wand, skeleton key), and the more difficult the dungeon is, the more likely you are to put the item you found there in a $1 bin at your next yard sale. So while the 1 to 2 hour game gives you several paths to choose from, those paths tend to lead to your choice of Detroit, Rio de Janeiro, Pyongyang, or Disney World.

Fortunately, for those of us who can’t quite strut around AGDQ with a girl on each arm like we’re the Jackie Chan of Zelda, there’s an intermediate option. For any player who finishes the game—or more likely had a friend on the playground who told them to name their save file ZELDA—the cartridge holds a second quest, with entirely new dungeons, a partly rearranged overworld map, new obstacles, more challenging bosses, and a red bubble enemy that might only be defeated by a prescription for sedatives and blood pressure medication. Oddly enough, I never played the second quest much when I was younger, so I found it more challenging than juggling hedgehogs. Dungeon layouts are confusing in part due to invisible doors, some of which work only one way, so between the doors and the onslaught of monsters I usually wound up feeling my way through the dungeon like a drunken roomba with an inner ear infection.

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It’s a good thing that Hylians don’t speak in cryptic riddles or this might be really hard to figure out.

Unfortunately I don’t have a playground full of kids to help me figure out the secrets of the second quest, but I do have the Internet, and I’m not ashamed to use it. Not only because Shigeru Miyamoto specifically wanted players to share information, but because otherwise the only way to find anything is to play the game like a Verizon commercial with bombs.

Lego Lord of the Rings – Wii, 3DS, NDS, PS3, PS Vita, XBox 360

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They’ve reigned in Legolas’ showboating. A little.

By now, these Lego game reviews are becoming somewhat of a crisis for me. What do I talk about? A licensed game? A corporate tie-in? A movie parody? A series of games so identical they make the Republican National Convention look like a celebration of diversity and globalism? A chance to play with Legos as a grown-up without having to worry about cleaning them up when I’m done? A series of relatively short games I can play when I need to write about something quickly? Probably a combination of all of those. The Lego Games are a lot like Will Ferrel DVDs in that respect—short, easy to get through, with a few humorous parts here and there, and something I’ll put on my shelf without looking at the extras and knowing that I’ll more likely than not never have the urge to come back to it.

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Let’s mow down some motherfuckin’ orcs!

What then, if they adapted the best movie of all time? No, not Revenge of the Nerds IV. Not Ghostbusters either. Nope, not Cool Runnings. Or Back to the Future (although…). Or Star Wars…wait, yes on Star Wars, but no on this game. I’m talking about Peter Jackson’s epic take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the beautiful modern-Medieval epic metaphor about the loss of our relationship with the natural world due to the effects of ambition, politics, and the desire for control over others. Yeah, it turns out it makes a pretty good game about plastic toy blocks.

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So if the lava is 1300 degrees, how hot does the air have to be to melt plastic?

Lego games are starting to remind me of my time among in Korea. If you spend enough time with them and give them the proper attention, you start to wonder how people have trouble telling them apart. The earlier games were more combat-intensive, if you can consider a hunk of plastic the size of a ping-pong ball to be capable of combat. These games, most notably the Lego Star Wars games, had boss fights reminiscent of a poorly lubricated rock-em-sock-em robot set, whereas the boss fights became somewhat more complicated as the gameplay shifted more toward puzzle solving. At the extreme other end of the spectrum is Lego Jurassic World, a thrilling man-v-nature fight for survival against vicious predators in which the dinosaurs calmly stand by as you set up convoluted Rube Goldberg contraptions that will lead to their untimely re-extinction, sufficing to snarl kindly if you get off-track from your mission.

nazgul

No, I am your father.

Lego Lord of the Rings meets these halfway, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on puzzle-solving than is healthy for a story that lists “Medieval Combat” at the top of its resume. Characters have skills and abilities which help you solve logical, intuitive puzzles such as catch-a-fish-to-throw-at-the-bird-to-distract-the-nazgul, catch-fish-to-throw-at-gollum-so-Sam-can-tie-the-rope-around-his-neck-so-Frodo-can-stab-him-with-Sting, and gather-fish-to-throw-at-the-wall-to-open-the-gate. And if you’re not into piscine-themed puzzles, enjoy such classics from the movie like Galadriel’s gift to Frodo. “I give you the light of Earendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light to you when quest items are hidden where other characters cannot access and need your help to get to.”

mt-doom

You know what protects your ring better than a smooth, unguarded pathway leading to a ledge over the only thing hot enough to destroy the One Ring? ANYTHING!

One think I thought novel of this game was that it told a more fluid rendition of its source material, rather than the Greatest Hits parade of other Lego games. You begin in the prologue, fighting against a Sauron that makes 300’s Xerxes look like a member of the Lollipop Guild. Once completed, you begin a long, arduous climb up Mt. Doom realizing that Sauron, the Ancient and Most Powerful of the Maiar, Lieutenant to Morgoth the Valar of All Things Corrupt, Fell or otherwise Evil, Etc, actually did very little to protect the One Weapon of All-Power and item that housed his mortal essence, and was easily outdone for security by a Dutch toy company. From there, each film seems to play about six levels to the usual five, and the traditional hub world for Lego games is replaced by a completely open map of Middle Earth that the player can travel to go from level to level, receive side quests, buy characters and items, and get completely turned around in despite the trail of phantom Lego studs leading you to your next destination. Levels are segmented and shorter than in other games, and often give you the choice between groups of characters, offering a timeline with a little more control and reason than the books give you.

mumak

That still only counts as one!

Puzzle-solving aspects alternate between the overly simplistic “stand here and push Z” (and during a handful of boss battles, just “stand here”) and “Throw fish at the wall to move forward,” which is about as intuitive as scraping a hedgehog across your keyboard to restart your computer. For those of you hoping for clunky, plastic Medieval warfare, there’s still a fair amount of that in the game, although it handles like old men swinging their walkers at each other, Legolas’ arrows have all the force behind them of an old Nerf dart blown out of the end of a wrapping-paper tube, and most of the battles come down to puzzle solving anyway. The humor starts out strong, but withers up like a dead orc near the end, and the game is riddled with glitches. So what reason, if any, remains to play the game?

It’s a scenery smasher. And in the end, don’t we all just want to hulk out and take revenge against all those Legos that refused to separate, even when we had the special separator tool? Take that, Lego environment! When I’m finished with you, you’re going to wish Climate Change had gotten to you first!

New Super Mario Bros Wii – Wii

new-super-mario

I know you’re probably reading this in February, but you have to understand that I’m writing in November. As it stands, we’ve just elected a new president who A) Lives in a tower, B) Enjoys grabbing maidens, C) Has legions of robed followers who call themselves wizards and D) Wants to rule the world for his own personal profit. As interesting as it might be to live under the rule of a dark sorcerer, no chosen one has come forth to end his reign, so life has been a little stressful. On top of trying to get Obamacare to pay for a four-to-eight year supply of Xanax before it’s repealed, I’ve also had to spend the semester student teaching, which basically means I’m spending all my time learning how to do a job I’ve had for ten years, and paying for the privilege of teaching someone else’s classes for free. But under Trump’s new education secretary, that may become the new norm. So in short, I haven’t had a lot of time for games lately. Here’s a Mario review.

The plot of New Super Mario Bros Wii opens with Bowser publicly denouncing his criminal ways. To offer restitution for the harm he’s committed in the past, he turns toward philanthropy, building up infrastructure in the Mushroom Kingdom and starting a foundation for the survivors of the Toad army to go to college. Mario embraces this new Koopa King, but Luigi can’t shake thirty years of dogged bullying, and secretly investigates Bowser’s sudden change of heart. Meanwhile, a dark and mysterious force moves in, trying to tempt a seemingly tranquil Bowser back to his old ways and…

…I’m just fucking with you. Bowser kidnaps the princess. Mario chases after him. This plot is Nintendo’s sugar daddy, and they’re going to stick to it like they were walking through Mirkwood and deviating from the path even slightly meant they’d be devoured by spiders the size of SUVs. (Although, they may want to consider a change in formula. I can see how the orange-haired monster grabbing the girl and taking her back to his tower while his magikoopa wizard tries to help him conquer the world might start inducing PTSD flashbacks like Pokemon induces seizures.) Fans are desperate enough for narrative consistency that Nintendo published a Zelda timeline that looks like it belongs in the office of an FBI agent hunting a serial killer. But Mario gets to remain frozen at one point in 1986, basically getting the same free pass as your racist, sexist grandfather. “He’s from a different time.”

hub

Like the hub world from SMB3, but with the added benefit of not having to make as many decisions!

So how does the game actually play? Well, pretty much like Mario 3, with a few cameos thrown in for fan service. You go through the same desert, ocean, ice world, etc, as you did on the NES. You fight the same koopa kids who haven’t bothered to take so much as a beginner’s judo lesson since Super Mario World and can still be taken out by three quick stomps to the head. You still follow a hub map from course to course as though you’ve got a bus pass for the Mushroom Kingdom and will be damned if you don’t get your money’s worth before you walk around the spinning lava-filled battlefield of murderous turtles. The game dishes out free lives and power-ups like Chick tracts, all of which have the stopping power of a broken condom when compared to the fire flower. In fact, they’ve paired up the fire flower with an ice flower that can freeze certain enemies for short periods of time. While it’s more useful than not for stopping your typical fire-proof enemies, and while it’s kind of fun to encase fish in a block of ice and make them float upwards to “sleep with the humans,” it generally slows enemies down about as much as stepping on a wad of chewing gum.

penguin

Penguin Suit. Because nothing says “Take to the skies!” like a chubby flightless bird with a strict black tie-dress code.

It’s a 2D platformer, and although I play platformers with much the same enthusiasm as renewing the license plates on my car every year, I’m glad they made the game. Too often, I think, developers confuse “what’s technologically possible” with “what’s mandatory for a game to include.” It’s the same sort of logic that leads people to confuse “abortion is legal” with “here’s some Vaseline and a plunger. Now get on the exam table or go to prison.”

The Elfstones of Shannara – Terry Brooks

elfstones-of-shannaraNow that our president has the motivations of a Bond villain and the brain of a kumquat, I think there’s one question on all of our minds: What post-nuclear-apocalyptic world would I most like to live in? McCarthy’s The Road? Bethesda’s Fallout? While selecting your favorite hypothetical misery, let’s not forget that science fiction doesn’t have the monopoly on the nuclear apocalypse (at least not under American business practices, where at least a half dozen corporations are vying for that monopoly themselves), and that there’s one apocalyptic landscape that actually doesn’t sound too damn bad: Shannara.

Well, technically the landscape is call “The Four Lands,” which I think perfectly encapsulates author Terry Brooks’ descriptive style of writing. Forget the clever names and fantastical languages of Tolkien! Just call everything what it is! Valley in the forest? That’s the shady vale! Ultimate lord of evil and practitioner of magic? He’s the Warlock Lord! Poultry slathered in enough grease to give half of North America heart attacks? Kentucky Fried Chicken! I didn’t even mind so much that the plot of The Sword of Shannara read like the draft had been turned in on tracing paper with The Lord of the Rings still attached; it was that Brooks simplified the adventure to the point where his nuclear landscape about elves, dwarves, and gnomes with magical swords and monsters just didn’t feel real enough. When Gandalf told Frodo he had to venture out with the One Ring, Frodo understood, “This is dangerous. I might end up being skewered by a nazgul, tortured, then dropped into a pit of lava…and that’s a best case scenario!” When Allanon told Shea Ohmsford he had to find the Sword of Shannara to defeat the Warlock Lord, he sat there smiling like a stoner listening to someone waxing on about the health benefits of blacklights. And his father, upon hearing of this quest, decided it was about time his boy leave home, go out into the world, and probably wind up in some situation where the terms “entrails,” “troll” and “chamber pot” would likely be used in conjunction. And while Frodo comes home battered and weary with a deep respect for the horrors of war and a clear case of PTSD, Shea returns from his adventure a little worse for the wear, but with a smile on his face and a sack of magic rocks.

The Elfstones of Shannara marks the point where Tolkien stopped, but Terry Brooks kept going. It’s no coincidence that the MTV series chose to start here (to avoid a lawsuit by Peter Jackson…it’s also no coincidence that they filmed in New Zealand and cast John Rhys Davies), as the reader first gets to hear plot ideas that hadn’t been abducted, beaten into submission and been forced to dance in some dive bar for 20% of all the singles stuffed into their g-strings at the end of the night. The book shifts the action to the elven kingdom of the Four Lands, where thousands of years ago, the elves rounded up a bunch of demons that were running around shredding the curtains and making a mess of the carpet, shoved them all into a magical closet called The Forbidding, and planted a tree in front of the door. At the beginning of the story, the tree is dying, and Allanon sets out to find Amberle, the elven girl charged with watering the tree, to make her do her job and fix up the tree. But rather than go himself, he decides to locate Wil Ohmsford, Shea’s grandson, who is studying with the gnomes to become a male nurse. Apparently, Allanon has fallen off the wagon because he thinks Wil would be an excellent bodyguard for Amberle because he inherited his grandpa’s sack…of rocks.

While Gandalf was a mysterious character whose actions all fell into place at the end of the story, I still wonder about Allanon’s judgment. Not only is Wil about as witty and charming as a box of cat litter, he does little to nothing through the whole story, influencing the plot about as effectively as the power of positive thinking in the cancer ward. Yet while he could often be mistaken for a potato in the middle of a conversation, he somehow has two beautiful women pursue him throughout the book (which, based on some of the guys I knew in high school, might be the most fucking realistic thing about this fantasy novel…either that or it has something to do with Wil being a doctor.). Amberle is the only character with a real inner conflict, and Eretria, from a band of Rovers who are probably still racial stereotypes even if they’re not outright called Gypsies, is the only one with an intriguing back story. There’s a fairly interesting side plot involving the younger elven prince who unexpectedly becomes king while fighting back the demons, but other than that characters come and go like the story takes place in a public restroom, and they all have less development and characterization than the Taco Bell cashier who always tells me my change in pennies.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the Johnny Quest syndrome (where something nostalgic turns out to be bland, poorly written and just a little bit racist), but even so it wasn’t painful to read. I know that’s like saying, “Eat at Chipotle! It won’t give you a lot of gas!” But the main draw of fantasy stories comes from magic and adventure rather than meaningful character development, and at the very least the adventure is there. There’s no shortage of demons to stalk, shriek and shred their way through minor heroes until the Elfstones light them up like someone dropped a Zippo onto an oil spill. Brooks’ books have always been rather hit or miss, and I still prefer this one to any of the others I’ve read. There’s a blurb for the next edition, “Elfstones of Shannara: Not bad for Brooks!”