MAME Roulette #3

GORF2It’s been rather crazy over here, what with making my novel sound more fantasy-ish by revising every “I don’t know” into “I know not,” reading 50 pages into Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn to finally have my kindle tell me I’m 2% finished with it, and tweaking my resume to describe my duties as a CPR instructor as “Bring people back from the dead, as necessary.” Since my list of readers is already shorter than the guest registry at Disneyland: North Korea, I’ll have to do some MAME Roulette’s to avoid spacing out my posts.

Big Karnak

Not to be confused with Little Karnak, which I presume is a commercial district of suburban Los Angeles that specializes in auto insurance agents, Big Karnak is a colorful delight of a story about a solemn, grim and stone-faced pharaoh who declares war on the gods of Egypt after Backtrack boss

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Um…excuse me…I think you have something that belongs to me.

Ancient Egypt after a bird-man swoops up his girlfriend like a ravenous sea gull descending on an abandoned chicken nugget. This hack-and-slash adventure turned out to be surprisingly good, much in the way that my bagel this morning was surprisingly good for not being reduced to a hunk of carbon by the toaster or fossilized from sitting in the fridge for three years. Granted, it’s a pretty low bar when the standard for greatness is, “didn’t screw it up,” but apparently that’s enough to get you elected president these days. Big Karnak is one of those games where the skin becomes the selling point. There are hundreds of games that simulate the experience of walking from left to right amongst a social environment of those who feel you ought to be walking right to left, but this is the only one that lets you fight beetles the size of Volkswagens. It’s kind of like how if you want to watch a movie about a horrible, undead evil returning from the grave to slaughter the living and hook up with his old flame, now reincarnated as a beautiful western girl, you may occasionally shove a stake in Dracula and watch The Mummy instead.

Chopper 1

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Synchronized chopping

Oh great! A space shooter! (And yes, I know that it isn’t set in space, but what else would you call the genre?) As long as we’re on the subject of games that move in one direction, here’s one where the bad guys always live in the north. Granted, this held true for 1941, as the U.S. took Japan from southern islands. Similar conflict occurred in Korea, Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure there’s hostile feelings between the Dakotas. Ancient China had a similar issue with Mongolia, but they opted for a wall, which makes for a far less successful video game. Still, before we Americans start feeling holier than Canada, we may want to reconsider the strategy of sending one lone fighter into enemy territory. Notice how the planes you don’t shoot down don’t seem to come back? Chances are you’re leaving behind you a trail of corpses, bombed out cities, and earth scorched so bad that even dust storms won’t grow there. I get it! You’re not trying to take down the enemy air force! You’re trying to fight your way in because they won’t grant you a visa! Which reminds me, I have to send some documents to New Zealand immigration…

Chopper 1, getting to the game, is hard. I get it. Build a game that gives you about 5 seconds worth of play time for one quarter, and your game earns about $180 an hour. That way, if being completely inept at the game doesn’t spiral you into a quandary of self-doubt, you can ignite a lifelong depression by realizing that an 8-bit computer built in 1988 can make more money in an hour than you can in a week. Bonus points for it’s guilt inspiring game over message, “If you quit now, it’ll cause more bloodshed,” a tactic that’ll earn respect from animal shelter ads, war propaganda, and Catholic and Jewish moms worldwide.

Elevator Action

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My favorite strategy is getting in the elevator and hitting the “1” button.

Elevators. Gotta get me some of that action. The problem with developing a game that would primarily appeal to four-year-olds who like pushing buttons is that chances are they’ll be just as happy in a real elevator. You play as a man who has lost his car in the parking garage of a 30-story building and decides that not only would the best place to look be the roof, but that the easiest access comes via zip line from some nearby-yet-unseen Spider-man web access point. On the way down, you shoot murderous Blues Brothers who try to kill you. If you get tired of elevator action, feel free to have an illicit affair with the building’s escalators along the way, before hopping back into an orgy of elevators apparently built for the Winchester House.

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I don’t know who’s lazier, the guy who takes the elevator to the second floor, or the guy who decides that building an elevator that goes to the third floor is too much work.

The wikipedia page says you’re a spy trying to collect secret documents and drive away in your escape car. That clears up a few things for me—namely, the objective for the game. I always wondered what would happen if I got to the bottom. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to know badly enough to play that far.

Gorf

GORFI swear my Retro Pie likes to mess with me, because it gave me another space shooter. This one actually takes place in space and pits the Starship Enterprise against an evil gumdrop monster, the apparent love child of McDonald’s Grimace and Groucho Marx. While the first level appears nothing more than a Space Invaders clone, subsequent levels evolve, fighting with different weapons, attack patterns, and strategies, marking the last time in video game history that such thought was put into a cloned game to make it fun to play. Apparently, Gorf was supposed to be a tie in with Star Trek, the Motion Picture, until the developers read the film’s script and decided it wouldn’t work as a game concept. And thus passed the last bit of integrity concerning licensed games.

Lady Bug

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Built by a guy who doesn’t want to keep pests out of his garden completely, but wants to be sure they’ve learned something on their way in.

When I said that Gorf was the last time anyone made a cloned game innovative and fun, I lied. Here, you play as a lady bug trying to wreak havoc on someone’s garden. The game plays like Pac Man, but parts of the maze wall serve as doors that rotate when you walk through them. As a way to keep pests out of your garden, the idea needs work, but changing the layout of the maze puts an element of strategy in avoiding enemies.

Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

CasinoBetween my recent attempt to finish FFXII fast enough to merit a felony-level speeding ticket and late night news coverage and my exploits as a CPR instructor, breathing into plastic dummies and explaining to people that, “No, these people won’t have the decency to crawl up on a table before the pass out just to accommodate the fact that you weigh six hundred pounds and your knees hurt on the ground,” I’ve gotten a bit behind on my entries. To add to that, living in 1938 Nazi Germany with a leader who is constantly both on the brink of war and looking at his own people like he’s trying to decide how much zyklon b he’ll need to get has somewhat dulled my capacity for humor. So I might as well try to distract myself from the next two and a half minutes by talking about an iconic Cold War hero responsible for fighting communism, killing foreigners, and causing enough collateral damage to be blacklisted by every insurance agency on the planet.

I imagine quite a few of you will disagree with what I intend to say about Casino Royale based on a fundamental quality of popular culture. Since superhero movies* have been popping up like genital warts—hideous, self-replicating spectacles that only exist because most of the population lacks the capacity to make intelligent decisions—I can only assume that most people like them. Superheroes, that is. Not genital warts. However, while these people might possess the vicarious narcissism to view lack of meaningful conflict or character development as a virtue or the cognitive dissonance to treat someone who tempts every psychopathic cosplayer into battle with no regard for collateral damage as a “good guy,” I find that as a use of my time, it ranks somewhere between standing in line at the grocery store and ignore my cat when he smacks me in the head at 4:00 am to tell me he’s hungry.

*And, I can’t believe I have to include this, the Spider-man Broadway musical.

Enter James Bond. Not the James Bond whose liver burns alcohol like a sterno can, who can cause more damage to a BMW than I could afford to pay for in my life and still convince his boss to give him an Aston Martin a year later, and for whom the genital warts analogy is a strikingly apt comparison, but a James Bond who never got over his childhood fear of falling asleep and traded in his teddy bear for a loaded Beretta. This broken, high-strung Bond draws from Ian Fleming’s real-life experience as a naval intelligence officer, where he developed a network of spies in Spain, planted false documents to lure Nazi U-boats into mine fields, and based on the plot of his novel, I assume, used the English treasury to feed a nasty gambling addiction. While I appreciate the realistic, vulnerable Bond, I have to wonder about the veracity of the novel’s content when he served primarily an administrative role during the war and his biographer literally says he had, “no obvious qualifications” for the job.

The novel’s plot begins with a scheme to bankrupt the villain, Le Chiffre, the treasurer for the Russian organization, Smersh an organization so paranoid and xenophobic that it makes American politics look like someone told a racist joke and gave away the punchline halfway through. Le Chiffre fills Smersh’s coffers by gambling, making him only slightly less dangerous than Wall Street. Bond is sent to the Casino as the best card player in the English Secret Service, an organization that apparently feels the best way to protect the country is to pick the employees who they owe money to and send them out on dangerous missions. While I’ll refrain from the finer details of the plot, suffice to say that the Secret Service botches the mission—as we might expect from people who keep tabs on spies with great talent in games of chance—and Bond ends up at the mercy of Le Chiffre.

Normally I wouldn’t give away quite so much about the story, but this is a special case—at the villain’s defeat, the reader is only two-thirds of the way through the book. Now, I’ve remained proverbially hungry after a few meals, but if I followed Fleming’s guidelines on when to stop, I’d finish off a plate of shrimp, the plate itself, a tray of silverware, the hostess and the front door of the restaurant before I went home. Casino Royale is the perfect book for the spy-thriller fan who loves to sit in the movie theatre for an hour after the credits. I can’t even express my confusion over how the creator of the most sexually active character in history can’t figure out that if you keep going for too long after the climax, it’ll just rub us down until we’re irritated and bored. So while the more realistic, vulnerable Bond makes the outcome a little less certain than your average Man vs Turkey Sandwich conflict, I don’t think an audience who appreciates a politically high-stakes game of baccarat will necessarily stay tuned in for the story of a man’s challenging road to physical recovery.

If I had to salvage some cohesive glue keeping the pages of the book from dropping out like narcoleptic readers, I’d say Fleming intended the book to be less about international espionage and more about the pseudo-romance between Vesper Lynd and James Bond. This does come off as almost a parody of a Disney princess, developing a life-long and fulfilling love based on as much personal information as can be obtained by exchanging business cards. Naturally, the relationship ends abruptly—and I say that confidently as the only people who think that’s a spoiler are currently waiting for the coyote to catch the road runner, or they’re positive that the professor’s plan is sure to get Gilligan and company off the island this time. Read for the character development or even the romance, I kind of like it. The sheer and abject depression that Bond sinks into at the realization that his job holds him in the lifetime stranglehold of a gang, poisoning all other aspects of his life with danger and paranoia, really goes a long way to explain why James Bond is the way he is. Because otherwise, I’m afraid I just wouldn’t understand why any man would want to travel to the most interesting places on earth and have anonymous, consequence-free sex with countless beautiful women and experience rejection less often than a customer in a McDonald’s drive-through. Completely baffling.

Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

It’s times like this that I have an entire novel to revise and just enough free time to glance at my work schedule that I think, “You know what I should do now? Play a 100+ hour game and then write about it. So I played Final Fantasy XII instead of doing anything useful or productive. I haven’t quite made it to the end, yet, but before you point out that judging something before you try it is only useful when hiring prostitutes and getting out of jury duty, I have played the game before. As such, I know that my characters are currently strong enough that if any of them have so much as an exceptionally strong bowel movement, the final boss will drop dead from the shock wave.

The point of playing through the game, though is to try the International Zodiac Job System, which is “international” in the same way that Dr. Pepper is medically qualified to treat your diabetes. Noting problems with the original release, such as the fact that each character can learn every skill in the game and still have enough skill points left over that they’d have to bury them in a hole somewhere in the desert just to be rid of them, the game underwent a few revisions. Then, presumably seeing how George Lucas went from God of Nerds to Discount Pauly Shore for doing just that, they hid their new Zodiac Job System from the rest of the world with an irony that would make a climate change denier’s head spin. Naming a Japan-exclusive release International is like naming a girl “Brandie Delight” and then shipping her off to a convent three states away from the nearest strip club.

Since Final Fantasy acts like the bastard love child of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, the story opens with the age-old “Empire-bad-kingdom-good scenario.” The Archadian Empire has been conquering the kingdoms like a 5-year-old diving into a pile of Christmas presents, and murdered the king of Dalmasca in a plot to seize power forcefully by interrupting a treaty signing that would give them that power peacefully, and then framing a Dalmascan captain by using his Archadian twin brother to do the actual killing. Then they blow the whole place up with the fantasy equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Princess Ashe, who was announced dead but then got better, now leads a small resistance movement against the Empire who is now camped out in Dalmasca like the creepy college roommate who won’t ever leave the house.

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Final Fantasy’s bad-ass, revenge-seeking bride. I made her a samurai so she could kick Uma Thurman’s ass.

The story runs with a fascinating concept—a twist on the man-who-would-be-king archetype wherein the Empire freely offers Ashe her throne in exchange for her full cooperation. But it reads as though writers’ prescriptions of Adderall ran out the morning they started work. Early on, the game cycles through three potential protagonists, one supporting character who constantly calls himself the leading man, and a trusty hero who bravely faces the tutorial level only die as soon as he’s learned everything. Once the story finally settles on Ashe, a steep difficulty curve demands the story be broken up for more or less mandatory side-questing. But now that I’ve played through the game for the fourth or fifth time, I can appreciate Ashe’s dilemma, whether or not she’ll let herself be manipulated by the Empire or the Gods; serve her own Trumpish Id, throw a tantrum, and nuke the entire Empire because she’s mad; or throw out all ideas of revenge like a copy of Moby Dick, essentially un-invent the atomic bomb, and rescue her kingdom from the token villain who had to murder his own father (who was on his way out the door anyway) just so we’d know he was supposed to be evil.

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“And also, no wedding cakes for the gays!”

The combat system deviates from Final Fantasy’s traditional turn-based battles and instead plays like an introduction to computer programming course. After twenty years of publishing RPGs, someone at Square must have pointed out, “You know, all anyone ever does is use the basic attack.” So they finally programmed an AI that would pretty much just keep attacking unless you told it to stop. Each character has a programmable list of actions and conditions called gambits. From top to bottom, the game runs down each list of conditions until it finds one it can meet, then the character performs that specific action. This is a brilliant way to reshape the way we think about battle, save time inputting menu commands (not to mention there are no more random encounters), and to ensure that at some point you will cure an enemy, burn through all your MP by casting your highest spells on monsters with 10 HP, and beating the tar out of your allies until you learn exactly how to set up your gambits properly.

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Ashe and Co gang up on a defenseless tomato-monster.

This leads to the first glorious difference between the American release and the International version—the gambits are smarter. Somewhat. I always liked to set my characters to resurrect anyone who died, thus insuring the number one priority in battle was to prevent rigor mortis. However, with the necessity of setting everyone with the same gambit came the inevitable result that everyone else would immediately drop what they were doing and chuck every feather within eyesight at the fresh corpse as if someone had just declared a sorority slumber party pillow fight. Now I can equip the same gambits on everyone and my characters won’t set upon each other like medical zombies every time one of them stubs their toe. Not all gambits are smart, though. I found that I don’t need to set “Character Status: Blind – Esuna,” “Character Status: Petrify – Esuna” and “Character Status: Parkinson’s Syndrome – Esuna,” as “Any Ally – Esuna” will simply wait until the spell is needed before casting it. However, if I set a gambit for “Any Foe – Steal,” I’ll end up picking the enemy’s pocket, steal their pocket, take the rest of their clothes and a few layers of skin and my character will still try to pick through their bones trying to find one more potion.

The selling point for the international version, however, is as the title might suggest, the Zodiac Jobs System. All skills in the game, as well as the ability to equip weapons and armor, come from a license board, much like FFX’s sphere grid, except more rectangular and a little more free-flowing. However, it was rather small, and after building up license points for the first 30% of the game, after which, license points would just stack up uselessly–like Arby’s coupons, but without the impending threat of dysentery. By that point, each your characters have as much diversity as a box of Peeps, each one possessing both a trove of knowledge that would make Stephen Hawking obsolete and the physical prowess to win gold medals in the Olympic decathalon. When a fifteen-year-old girl can smash skulls with a war hammer and cause as much damage as the 30-year-old seasoned war veteran, the game tends to lose the element of strategy. All six characters equip an entire iron ore freighter, cast all the buffs on themselves, and simultaneously pulverize the monsters as though they were auditioning to be machinery at the Ocean Spray factory.

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This one’s shaped like a bow and arrow. Obviously, this is the Insurance Adjuster job class.

The Zodiac Jobs System fixes that by introducing a complex bureaucracy to the game, delaying some licenses until much of the game has passed and denying many licenses altogether based on eligibility requirements. Unlike real bureaucracy, though, this surprisingly makes the game easier. Originally, any time a character developed a mild cough, the entire party would forget completely about the enemies to cure it, thus allowing the monsters free reign to beat them down, causing yet more memory loss. Now, it’s likely that at least one character will lack restorative powers altogether and continue to stab enemies if for no other reason than to fend off sheer boredom. I also noticed that mixing and matching different characters tended to produce different battle strategies, so beating a particularly difficult boss only required a small change to my starting lineup rather than half a week of punching bats in a mine.

Espers are…well, espers are still pretty fucking useless. The original release of the game gave you summoned monsters that died so quickly after summoning that they may as well have developed a DVT on the flight to the battlefield. Calling an esper never served as anything but a momentary diversion for people who feel the “menu” button takes all the challenge out of pausing a game. In IZJS, espers still enter the battlefield with all the vim and vigor of an asthmatic guinea pig, but now you get to control them in their few seconds of life on this plane of existence. Basically, that amounts to permission to pull off their major attack once, realizing it doesn’t have the strength to dent your car, and barely missing the opportunity to say goodbye to your esper, who takes off for the ICU as soon as he’s done.

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Looks almost dead, right? Guess again. See those dots below the health bar? Those are extra health bars. Or as I like to think of them, 1% of your total play time.

At the risk of running too long, the game is worth playing. More so than the original. In fact, not only do I feel like forever discarding the original release like last year’s iPhone, but I’m tempted to play through it a second time to use the six jobs I couldn’t use this time. Fortunately, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Despite the fact that writing a weekly blog often rushes me through games, they’ve introduced what I call yakkety sax mode, which doubles the speed of traveling and battling. I managed to shave over thirty hours off the game. Round two, here I come!

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

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Let’s play critical mad libs. I’ll give you a list of phrases, and you fill in the blanks to write a review about any movie, book, or game you want! Here are some popular ones:

“It’s like (title) meets (another title)!”
“Fans of (title) won’t want to miss this!”
“Picture (title), but on a (recreational drug) trip!”
“Come see this year’s (last year’s big success that nothing could ever possibly live up to)!”
“It’s (title) for (kids / grown-ups / the elderly / hamsters / guys who sell inflatable dolls at sex shops)!”

And if all those fail, you can’t go wrong with:

“Die Hard (on / in) a (vehicle / building / world heritage site / piece of furniture / inventory item from sex shop)!”

With this criteria laid out, my job becomes easy. “The Maze Runner is like Ender’s Game meets Total Recall, but for kids! Fans of Divergent won’t want to miss this. Picture Battle Royale, but on a heavy dose of pot. Come read this year’s Hunger Games. It’s like Die Hard in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi reproduction of the Cretan labyrinth!”

The point, of course, being that The Maze Runner might be a fun read, but it’s been done before.

The Maze Runner is your pretty standard, run-of-the-maze, dystopian teen murder porn. Thomas wakes up one day with a case of memory loss that would make Willie Nelson re-think his life choices (if he could remember them). Questioning the boys who find him, he learns that he’s been put in a sausage-fest hunger games in the middle of a labyrinth stocked with some spare Silent Hill monsters the game’s creators had lying around.* The boys have no clear objectives, and operate simply with a desire to map out the maze, whose walls change plans more often than the Trump administration’s, and to show up those Lord of the Flies douchebags by having a fully-functioning and ordered society.

*presumably, who were out of work after Silent Hills was canceled.

The book is okay, if you liked the Hunger Games but really didn’t like the way your head hurt after all that social relevance and critical thinking. Since the boys have the memories of a frat boy on Sunday morning, there’s no context for the maze. For all we know, the world could have become super-right-wing and wants to punish these kids for self-love, or it was destroyed in a nuclear war and the boys were stuffed away like heritage seeds by a confused biologist, or it could take place in modern times after The Bachelor ended and TV audiences ached for the next inane reality show to clear out all that pesky brain power growing in their heads. But without that, it’s kind of like being stuck on a bus in the middle of a traffic jam—the creatures around me are interesting in a grotesque can’t-look-away sort of way, and I definitely saw a lot of disturbing things that raised some weird questions, but I didn’t feel I was heading anywhere important, at least not any time soon.

The author tells us over and over that these kids are of above-average intelligence, which makes the book suffer from Ender’s Game Syndrome. Orson Scott Card kept repeating that Ender was intelligent like a younger sibling trying to get us to punch him in the face, but the only idea he ever gave us to support this idea was that Ender discovered a strategical advantage in beating and/or killing his enemies. Likewise, the Maze Runner constantly shows Thomas solving the mysteries of the maze through his brilliant strategy of having someone tell him the answers. Generally, if an author tells me a character is smart, I expect to see something clever that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. But Thomas never figures out anything on his own, and can’t even figure out what the mysterious acronym stands for when it is literally spelled out for him on a sign.

The book also fails to build up the gravity of the situation by not knowing who to kill or when to kill them. I’ve been more attached to red shirts from Star Trek than I have to the people who get taken by the maze monsters. I could tell you right now that they kill Adam without spoiling the story for you because after Thomas finds out that Adam is dead, the next line in the book literally tells us that Thomas didn’t know Adam and had never talked to him. Granted, you don’t want to swing to the George Martin extreme and build a world where characters drop dead like they dust their crops with anthrax, but a sudden death of an important character now and then might shatter the impression that running through the maze is about as dangerous as getting up to pee in the middle of the night.

I know I usually read through an entire series before reviewing it, but something told me this time around I needed to review the first book by itself. I think that was my brain’s way of telling me I needed to seriously think about whether I even want to read the rest of the series. Or maybe I could do something more productive like create a hedge maze in my backyard and re-create scenes from the movie. By which, I mean The Shining.

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…