Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Marvel's 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

It's hard to argue that Marvel Entertainment doesn't have a winning film formula at this point. They've transformed characters not named Spider-man or Wolverine into billion-dollar franchises over the past six years. Still, some people might be skeptics. "They might not be the top of the food chain," some might argue, "but Captain America and Hulk still hold some cache and name recognition." Fair enough: Iron Man, Cap, and others have their place in modern pop culture.

That's why Guardians of the Galaxy could be viewed as Marvel's first real test. It's a decades-old franchise but one not known outside of certain circles of comic book fans; even more, the particular incarnation of the Guardians shown in the film are less than a decade old. Other franchises are easy to sell: a super-soldier man out of time, a billionaire playboy looking to right wrongs, a disgraced demigod. Despite the fantastic, there are hooks for the audience to connect with the characters. How do you sell the Guardians, whose ranks include a talking raccoon and a sentient tree? As James Gunn found out, you do it with humor, heart, and a whole lot of explosions.

Although it doesn't feature any of the characters thus far featured in Marvel's film empire, there's no mistaking Guardians of the Galaxy for anything other than a Marvel movie. Marvel's films have a definite structure to them, and Guardians follows it. If it ain't broken, right? You know the drill: not-yet-hero(es) caught up in a larger plot - recently revolving around Infinity Gem MacGuffins - featuring a mostly humorless and often (save Loki) replaceable villain. Cue a big fight scene at the end, and hang around for the post-credits stinger.

But Guardians has a lot going for it. Mostly the tree (Groot) and raccoon (Rocket). I kid, but not really. The characters fit in well together, clearly pieces of the same puzzle. High-concept science-fiction, like the housed-in-the-skull-of-a-dead-space-god settlement of Knowhere, are introduced with ease. It helps that a lot of the pretentious ideas are cut down by the characters themselves; they aren't impressed with this world, and their familiarity makes use feel at home, too.

The music in Guardians has also garnered a lot of praise, and for good reason. The soundtrack, heavy on '70s and '80s tracks, adds to the air of comfort. It's fun and familiar and, as the mixtape it's featured on is Peter "Star-Lord" Quill's (Chris Pratt) last connection to his homeworld and mother, it factors into the character work that the film pushes so confidently on the viewer. When Quill foregoes an escape to retrieve a mixtape from his mother, it's something we can identify with more so than chasing after a gem that can destroy worlds.

There's also the fact that it's just a damn good soundtrack. Must be the reason why it shot to #1 on the Billboard charts.

Guardians of the Galaxy definitely has its place in the Marvel Universe. It may not play as important a role in the ongoing Avengers storyline - certainly not as much as the revelation-filled Winter Soldier - but that's OK. The fact that it's such a good movie and can stand well on its own almost makes you forget that fact. Like Star-Lord's mixtape, it's familiarity is what makes it enjoyable in its own right, and for a summer blockbuster, that's all you need..

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: 'California' by Edan Lepucki

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre that has a lot more flexibility than it's given credit for. It typically involves some sort of disaster - nuclear warfare is a popular one - or the outbreak of something that decimates society. Zombies do a nice job of this, and for good reason: they tap into our fear of death, embody failure to contain an epidemic, and so on. But it's not often we get something more subtle and more immediately realistic than that.

Edan Lepucki's first novel, California, is refreshing in that regard. It certainly takes place in a world that is defined as dystopian - many people fend for themselves, like our protagonists Frida and Cal, while the rich hide in corporate-sponsored communities - but the reasons for it are less well-defined. There are hints of a simple collapse. The economy worsens, unemployment and inequality grow, violence escalates before finally peaking with a bombing credited to a group simply known as...The Group. There are no monsters, no pseudo-scientific explanation for the way things are. They just got worse, a line traced from our real world, until we find ourselves in California.

This premise - that we're reading about a world that very well could be - is the driving force behind California's enjoyment. The rest of the book is frustrating, and I mean that as complimentary as possible. Take the main characters of Frida and Cal, for instance. They're frustrating: their moods ebb and flow, so they're fighting one chapter and missing each other the next; they constantly keep secrets from each other; they're often on different sides of an argument.

But when you think about them within the context of the book, it makes sense. What if you lived in a world spiraling out of control? What if you suddenly left everything behind to live off the land in a deserted shack? What if the only regular human contact you had in your life was with one person, regardless of how much you loved them? Suddenly you begin to sympathize with them and their seemingly one-note frustration becomes layered.

The structure of the book also frustrates. We begin in the "modern day" and are told of past events through the characters' experience with them. There's little communication with the outside world, so what we learn about it is often incomplete, shrouded in mystery, sometimes complete guesses. We're at the edge of this world, standing on the beach while the only information we get is water lapping up on the shore, barely wetting our feet.

Again, thinking about it in the context of California, we're thrust into this world. Frida and Cal know very little, and so do we. They're living as best the can with what they have to go on, and we're struggling to keep up in the same way. They want answers to long-buried questions, and we want revelations as well: what exactly happened? How? When? Who were the major players, outside of the southern California scene that we have access to thanks to Frida and Cal's memories?

California is a seemingly simple book that gets more complicated upon reflection. Lepucki writes in a straightforward style that gives you upfront information about characters and surroundings, and she's very good in that regard. However, it doesn't hurt to give the novel a second read once you realize that the things you don't want to be feeling - mainly frustration - are exactly what draw you deeper into the book. By the end of the book you want something - a sequel, a prequel, a spinoff, anything - to fill in these gaps. Any time you can get readers to desire more of your work, you've done a good job.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: 'Rocket Raccoon' #1 by Skottie Young and Jean-Francois Beaulieu

Movies are certainly the taste-makers of modern pop culture. Sure, there's  popular music and books and whatnot, but films take things to the next level. Novels sell tens of thousands of more copies when they're adapted for the big screen; The Rock is starring in billion-dollar franchises; and the hottest character going right now is a foul-mouthed, gun-toting space raccoon.

If that doesn't prove the power of cinema, nothing will.

The latest installment of Marvel's Kevin empire, Guardians of the Galaxy, hits theaters in August, and the breakout star of the trailers thus far has been Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper. Who knows why? Maybe it's because he's represented by arguably the most popular actor in the film. Maybe because he's the weirdest, most offbeat part of a decidedly weird, offbeat movie. In any case, Marvel isn't letting this opportunity slip away and have capitalized on it with Rocket Raccoon, a series from Skottie Young and Jean-Francois Beaulieu that's sure to keep Rocket's newly-minted star rising.

Rocket Raccoon has been around for a few decades, although he mostly languished before finding a home in DNA excellent Guardians of the Galaxy on which the upcoming film is largely based. There he had a penchant for big guns and censored speech bubbles, often acting, along with Groot and Cosmo, as the comic relief of the series. Marvel is banking on him hard but it’s yet to be seen what he can do in an increasingly insular superhero market. What’s the verdict?

So far, so good.

Young is known for his exaggerated, cartoony style. He’s one of my absolute favorite artists in the industry today. The past few years have seen him busy with Oz adaptations, providing the occasional cover (especially variants) for Marvel. He’s been sorely missed on mainstream books but his style fits in perfectly with both the tone and subject of Rocket Raccoon.

One issue with anthropomorphizing animals is how much to let them emote: do only their mouths move, or do you give them more facial movement to allow them to show emotions with their eyes, for example? Young doesn’t find this to be a problem at all, as he allows Rocket, the wooden Groot, and every other character to show as much emotion as the best cartoons. The action is top notch as well; Young has a dynamic style, so whether characters are wrestling or dashing through the sewers avoiding gunfire, you can always feel the motion and excitement.

Young also writes the book, and if you weren’t expecting a book about a talking space raccoon to take itself seriously...well, you’d be right. The humor is irreverent and on point, and it isn’t just the dialogue that contributes to it. Characters’ reactions to absurd moments are great; signs of “Please Do Not Murder Others” set the mood; and sound effects include “pinky out click,” “splinter,” and “mmmmm drop” (the sound of a gun being let go, obviously). All these combine to provide humor in every detail, and looking through the book multiple times is a treat.

Beaulieu colors the book and does a fantastic job, complimenting the art wonderfully. The book takes place in the weirdest corners of outer space, and whether it’s the purples of a dark room, the bright oranges and yellows of a wrestling arena, or the green of sewage, each panel provides colors that are dynamic in their own rights. They’re bright and fun, adding to the wonderful cartoonish tone of the book.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how long this series will last. I was surprised to see it marketed as an ongoing series rather than a miniseries, and the plot makes it feel more like the latter. Without spoiling things, the story seems pretty personal and contained, something that could be wrapped up in a few issues without any lasting repercussions. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing saying that this won’t make a great first arc of a larger series. Still, that remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure, though: I hope it does continue indefinitely.

Rocket Raccoon is a strange book about a strange character who has been on a strange journey recently but it’s welcome. Skottie Young deftly weaves action and humor in a title that isn’t like much else in mainstream superhero lore. The writing and art come together perfectly to form a story and atmosphere that’s fun and silly in all the best ways. If the modern comic book market has taught us anything, it’s that books can go at a moment’s notice so we should enjoy them while we can. So enjoy Rocket Raccoon. It’s a breath of fresh air, and with enough love maybe we’ll be lucky enough to get more unique titles like this down the line.

Or Rocket Raccoon becomes the next Batman. Hey, it could happen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Review: 'Shovel Knight' by Yacht Club Games

What’s old is new again. Nostalgia is a big deal in video games, especially those that come from indie developers. Retro graphics and gameplay that serve as callbacks to SNES games of yesteryear are all the rage. They recall the glory days of gaming, where weird and unique were necessities to create standouts in an age of relatively tame computing power; sometimes, though, this nostalgia is abused and used as a crutch. You have a tinny soundtrack and blocky graphics rivaling Final Fantasy VI? Great! Too bad there’s no substance underneath.

Shovel Knight, from Yacht Club Games, has that potential strike against it right off the bat, along with the (unfair) stigma of being a crowdfunded game. After all, throwback games are a dime a dozen on Kickstarter. Still, there was always something that made Shovel Knight feel a cut above the rest. Maybe it was the way they interacted with their fans and backers throughout the development process. Maybe it was the wealth of content they showed that gave the feeling that this wasn’t going to be a fresh coat of ‘80s paint over an empty shell. In any case, after a good deal of hype, Shovel Knight was released last week. So does it stand up to that hype?

Boy, does it.

Good news: Shovel Knight is an honest-to-goodness game, not an ironically glorified retro tech demo. Gameplay-wise it is reminiscent of the classic Duck Tales game, but overall it owes a lot to the Mega Man series. The premise is simple: you play as Shovel Knight, who is, appropriately, a knight who wields a shovel to fight the evil Order of No Quarter. Your shovel can be used to swipe at enemies, volley projectiles, or bounce off of bad guys from above; alternatively, you use it to dig up piles of treasure and dig through dirt, snow, and stone that blocks your way through levels. And speaking of those levels, your goal is to fight your way through, occasionally facing a mid-level boss, and defeating the level’s knight at the end.

The characters are where the Mega Man influences really show through. Besides Shovel Knight - a stout hero comparable to Mega Man himself - each of your adversaries are themed. You’ll face Propeller Knight, Polar Knight, and more. You don’t gain a boss’s abilities like you do in Mega Man, but you’ll occasionally come across items like a propeller or anchor that match the themes of levels. Even though you only meet these bosses at the ends of levels with a few lines of dialogue, each is packed with humor and character that make them instantly memorable.

Shovel Knight is simple. You have a button to jump, a button to attack...and that’s basically it. Still, that simplicity is deceiving because there’s a lot to unpack with the game. Take the checkpoint system, for instance. Each level contains five or so checkpoints that, obviously, respawn you when you die. (And you will die. A lot.) However, you also lose gold when you die, and are given the chance to reclaim winged moneybags to win back your hard-earned lost cash. This is important - money plays a pivotal role in the game, because what are you going to do with a shovel if not dig up treasure? In fact, money is so central that you have the option of breaking a checkpoint and collecting a reward for it. This means, of course, that you lose that checkpoint and would need to start over from the previous upon death. If you want more of a challenge, that’s one way to do it.

This system highlights the strength of Shovel Knight, that being that it’s just a damn good game. It’s a throwback game for sure, but there are no winks or nods to that fact. It takes old school aesthetics and applies 20+ years of gameplay development, tying it all together into one neat, fun package. You could throw some 3D graphics and some orchestral music in there and it would still be a damn good game. That’s the sign of a damn good game.

Shovel Knight walks a few fine lines between clever, funny, nostalgic, exciting, and challenging. It’s certainly one of the most well-rounded games in recent memory. Best of all, it’s fun; you’ll put a few hours into it without realizing - and without it feeling - that much time has passed at all. It’s clear that a lot of passion and hard work went into the game. Shovel Knight wants you to relive the games you played in your youth but it doesn’t want to rehash them. Tough goal? Absolutely. Does it work out? Absolutely.

Shovel Knight is now available on PC, Wii U, and 3DS

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review: 'New Warriors #5' by Christopher Yost and Nick Roche

I’ve written about comics a few times in the past but have mostly shied away from titles by the “Big 2” publishers, DC and Marvel, in favor of creator-owned books. DC and Marvel are in the public consciousness; they don’t need my help singing their praises. I also don’t read much from them these days. Still every once in a while a book strikes my fancy, and I was happy to have come across one in New Warriors #5 by Christophe Yost and Nick Roche.

New Warriors is on its fifth volume at the moment; I own every issue of the previous four volumes, so the title holds a special place in my heart. The original series was one of the most daring and creative books of its time, and while the subsequent series have had their ups and downs, they’ve all tried to do something original: the second attempted to relaunch a fan-favorite title, the third was an offbeat parody of reality television, and the fourth attempted to work within the framework of the House of M and Civil War storylines, making controversial choices with some beloved characters.

And so we find ourselves at the fifth volume. I’d picked up the first 4 issues, and they were good. I’m a longtime fan of Christopher Yost, especially the way he writes young characters (New X-men is a particular favorite of mine) and Marcus To has a fun but classic superhero style to his art. The issues were lighthearted, incorporated a mix of characters that the various series have been known for, and told traditional superhero stories that are missing nowadays. The weren't standout issues but they were very solid, and for someone already invested in the franchise I enjoyed them a lot.

Issue five, however, is where the series seems to have found its footing. It more or less wraps up the story arc from the first four issues while setting things in motion for the future. As far as plot goes it’s rather light, but it more than makes up for it in other ways.

The character work in New Warriors #5 is the best in the series to date, and some of the best in mainstream superhero comics in a long time. The featured heroes might not be familiar to many readers, as they are drawn from peripheral titles, but Yost makes sure you don’t need to know everything about them. We get hints at their pasts, including more than one mystery, but their personalities shine through in their dialogue. For example, on if Scarlet Spider is Spider-man, Hummingbird’s “No! And please don’t ask him. He gets all stabby about it,” encapsulates both her character and Kaine’s in one fell swoop.

Justice is trying desperately to keep a barely-formed team together, the eager hero that he’s been for nearly 40 years. Scarlet Spider provides fun antagonistic banter, and the running Spider-man joke is a nice thread throughout. The other characters are relative unknowns, but that gives Yost a lot of room to work. The new Nova makes an appearance from his solo series, which has been enjoying success for a while; Hummingbird is overeager, naive, and a source of comic relief; Haechi is a mysterious Inhuman powerhouse (and if anyone knows how to pronounce his name, drop me a line. High-chi? Hay-chi?); Sun Girl has a hidden past with villainous origins; and Water Snake has some connection for former New Warrior Namorita, which is fun for fans of past volumes.

And then there’s Speedball. Full disclosure, Speedball has been my favorite superhero character for a long time. I even own his wonderfully absurd series by the wonderful Steve Ditko. Speedball has been through a lot in the past few years: the once happy-go-lucky young hero, whose power was essentially bouncing and releasing multicolored bubbles in the process, was in the instigating event of Civil War in which many, many children were killed. He grew serious, his powers transformed into energy blasts derived from cutting himself, and he wore a spiked suit and rechristened himself Penance. He was dark and brooding and far from his original self until he was (mostly) redeemed in the pages of Avengers Academy.

With all of that, it’s hard to reconcile what the character had become with his journey back to his former personality, but that’s the strongest part of this issue. The telepathic Hummingbird asks about Speedball’s time as Penance, and there’s a nice conversation where he attempts to explain himself while telepathically warning his teammate against her actions. It’s a phenomenal character moment that adds weight to an issue otherwise filled with levity.

It’s also an example of Yost’s real strength in integrating continuity. As any good fan knows, comic book continuity can be an indecipherable, tangled mess. Even New Warriors takes pieces of Avengers Academy, Superior Spider-man Team-Up (itself part of a larger story), Infinity, X-men, and more. That he’s able to combine the characters and their stories into a much larger arc is great; that he can take something like Speedball’s messy journey and distill it into a single powerful scene is incredible.

The art also pulls its weight in this issue. As mentioned, To’s art has a classic, archetypal feel to it, but Roche’s is a little more stylized (although not as much as former New Warriors artist Skottie Young). This adds to the writing; the characters are young, the dialogue is quick, clever, and fun, and this issue in particular was silly in parts (spoiler: there’s a character named Jake Waffles), so having an art style that’s more energetic, lighthearted while still remaining explosive, is a strength.

Overall, New Warriors #5 is a great example of using often-complicated comic book continuity and characterization and making it accessible and effective for the reader. It’s classic comic book action made modern, supported by clever, tight writing and fun art. It’s a rare book and the best that New Warriors has been in a long time, and I hope it sticks around.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Humble Weekly Bundle RPG Maker and 2014 Indie Game Maker Contest

Over the past several years, Humble Bundles have been invaluable in introducing games, music, books, and more to audiences who might not have otherwise experienced them. It's amazing exposure for games and developers that just so happens to be coupled with an inventive business model of pay-what-you-want, DRM-free, charitable payments.

The latest Humble Weekly Bundle - their obviously weekly sales that are different than the periodic specials Humble Bundle became known for - allows you to partake in the game creation process. The RPG Maker Bundle comes with RPG Maker VX Ace, the wildly popular RPG creation program that lets you quickly and easily build RPGs that harken back to the top-down, 16-bit days of Super Nintendo RPGs. There's no programming knowledge needed: you can drag and drop everything and insert game logic on the fly. It's robust and easy to use for learners of any level.

There are several tiers to this week's bundle; RPG Maker VX Ace is available on the standard "pay-what-you-want" level, which is a steal if you consider that the program normally costs a cool $70. If that wasn't enough, though, you can get a compliment of tools to help you create the game of your dreams.

Also included in the first tier is a DLC Bundle, containing graphical and music resources to give you even more options for your game. The next tier is unlocked at only $6 and includes RPG Maker XP, an alternative to VX Ace; the Exclusive Resource Pack, with even more art and music; and a second DLC bundle. Finally, with a $12 (or more) payment you get DLC Bundle #3 and the Game Character Hub to allow for easy creation and management of 2D sprites and tilesets. Those are a lot of resources to get you started.

But let's say you need to get inspired. Luckily, a number of games are included in each tier of the bundle. By paying any amount you get:
  • Skyborn by Dancing Dragon Games
  • Sweet Lily Dreams by RosePortal Games
  • RPG Maker - Free Games Bundle #1, an assortment of titles that shows just what you can do in RPG Maker
The second tier includes:
  • To the Moon by Freebird Games
  • Deadly Sin 2 by Dancing Dragon Games
  • RPG Maker - Free Games Bundle #2
In addition to the aforementioned programs, $12 will net you Legionwood 2: Rise of the Eternal's Realm by Dark Gaia Studios. All told, everything together would cost you $370. As if paying only $12 for all of this could look any better, right?

So there you go. You have the tools to create a game, you've got some great ideas. Now, what do you do with all of that enthusiasm?

Why not enter the 2014 Indie Game Maker Contest?

Sponsored by RPG Maker and Humble Bundle, the rules are simple: create and original game, starting on June 1st and continuing through the end of the month, and you have the chance to win up to $10,000.

Personally, I think this contest is a great idea. It really personifies what both RPG Maker and Humble Bundle are about: a sort of grassroots gaming industry where passion and talent take the forefront over big budgets and triple-A titles.

I look at it as something similar to NaNoWriMo: what you make might not be pretty or polished, but it will at least be something. Some people need the kick in the pants that a deadline provides to get started and the project will eventually flourish into a full-fledged project. Maybe you'll win the ten grand, or maybe this is just a starting point. Either way, it could turn out to be a valuable experience.

So there you have it: your game should be submitted one month from this post! Who knows - maybe you'll see your game in a Humble Bundle some day?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Larry Lessig and the Mayday PAC Look Toward Campaign Reform


It's election time around the United States, so this particular and peculiar crowdfunding campaign seems appropriate. One of the best aspects of crowdfunding projects is that it gives people a voice. Whether it's creators who don't want their vision diluted by corporate interference or customers who want to directly support projects and their creators, often for small or niche endeavors that couldn't make it out into the world otherwise, there's something wonderfully democratic about the crowdfunding process.

It's a feeling that, ironically, is missing in actual politics, now more than ever. Everywhere, people are concerned that there's too much money in politics and it seems that nothing can be done about it. Enter Larry Lessig, who has stood for many things, privacy, innovation, reform, among them. He's helped start the Mayday PAC, a crowdsourced SuperPAC dedicated to "end all SuperPACs."

Lessig and the Mayday PAC are using money to fight money. They're looking to raise money from the people who are currently being blocked out of the politics of their own country by the rich, who seemingly have more of a voice than others. It isn't the way a free country should work, and it's that issue that Mayday wants to address:
If we raise our funding targets, in 2014, we will launch a small campaign in at least 5 congressional districts. Based on what we learn in those 5 districts, we will launch a much larger campaign to get us to 218 votes in the House, and 60 votes in the United States Senate.
The goal is one million dollars; if that's met, then it will be matched. Similarly, five million dollars in pledges will also be matched - a stretch goal of sorts. Like Kickstarter campaigns, money will only be taken if the goal is reached. These funds - 100% of them - will go to support in districts where reform is a key issue. They are aiming first at 2014 elections, and then at the much larger goal of the 2016 races.

There's a lot to unpack. Not wanting to run the risk of confusion, incorrect information, or needless political debate by delving into it here, I really, really suggest you head to the site and read through the entire plan. Heck, engage with Lessig if you'd like; I'm sure he be thrilled at filling you in. This is bigger than one party or the other - although they will let you indicate if you want your contributions to support only a specific party - and is crucial in determining the future of our political system, or government, and our country.

Folks can pledge contributions in amounts between $5 and $10,000 - chump change in political campaign terms - but the Mayday PAC is already 47% funded as of this writing. In only a few days' time we've seen that this is an important cause that people are willing to take up. Maybe they just needed the right platform to take action, an act of innovation that wouldn't be out of place on Lessig's resume. "We the people" hasn't seemed more appropriate in a long while than it does for this experiment. As Lessig says in his video, "embrace the irony" of using big money to end big money. If you do - and maybe this is just optimism talking - you might just be on the right side of history.