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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

It was 20 years ago... Looking back at N64 Magazine Issue 8




It's time to look back on the olden days with Worldy BlokeTM ...

Seven months in, it's evident that Nintendo have scored a hit with Switch. Consolidating their software teams onto one platform, coupled with their experience from the Wii U-era, seems to be paying off. The standard post-launch drought was alleviated somewhat by Breath of the Wild’s open-form gameplay, and a slow but steady flow of first-party titles has appeared every month since. Now we’ve reached a point where each week brings a deluge of indie hits and quality ports, and with Super Mario Odyssey ready for release at the end of the month, manufacturing enough units to meet demand over the holiday season seems to be the company’s biggest challenge. A nice problem to have.

One-score and zero years ago in Euroland, Nintendo was seven months into another console – the N64. And I was starting to read the best video game magazine ever printed – the imaginatively titled N64 Magazine. I actually started with issue 12, but ordered issue 8 from the back of the mag. Having recently been reunited with my collection after 15 years in my parents' loft, I realised the two decade anniversary and decided to chronicle it here as an excuse to reread some old issues. And it holds up! It’s fascinating looking back to see the adverts, the hopes and just how the writers negotiated the drought of software that arguably characterised the console’s whole cycle. Lacking the digital distribution that now allows smaller studios to put out software on modern hardware, those expense of Nintendo's cartridges versus the cheap CD alternatives offered on PlayStation widened the lead Sony had built by launching over a year earlier. The N64 offered quality to its dedicated fans, but couldn’t compete against the sheer wealth of software put out on PlayStation (under 400 titles compared to Sony’s 2,500-odd.)

We also see a pre-Trump use of the adverb ‘bigly’.
Looking back on issue 8, Lylat Wars (Starfox 64's EU guise) is the cover star. It also features in the accompanying Gentleman Space Adventurer Quarterly poster magazine, featuring a Lylat system map and tips delivered in the style of a WW2-era, spiffing, tea-sipping gentleman Brit (splendid show, old chap – let’s get back to base for broth and medals). The headline review showcases what was special about the magazine. It’s impeccably laid out with plenty of screenshots and a variety of typefaces and colours. There is info in sidebars, breakout boxes, captions and tiny asterisked gags. While it’s obvious the writers were contending with a lack of software (something which made their focus on import games all the more intriguing to UK readers), they squeezed every last drop of content (*shudder*) from the games they had and presented it in an entertaining, non-patronising way. They make reference to the dire state of PAL conversions at the time (see 'THEY HATE YOU' sidebar) and bemoan the ‘teeth-grinding’ name change from Starfox 64 ("How would you feel if, without your permission, someone changed your name by deed pole to Millicent? Or Adolf? Or Earwax?"), which had its own import review in issue 3.

Elsewhere, the PAL version of Multi Racing Championship faces off against US version of Top Gear Rally (Top Gear wins, 86% - 71%) and…that’s it for PAL reviews! The post-launch lull pushed the team to be ever more inventive with their features. The Import Arena section helps flesh out the magazine, so we get reviews of Baku Bomberman ("Briefly diverting, but a genuine disappointment for Bomberman’s most devoted fans." – 50%), J-League Dynamite Soccer ("To start with this is about as much fun as a pulled hamstring. But after a while you’ll plod through it and maybe even enjoy it. A bit." – 66%), Konami’s Jikkyou World Soccer 3 ("Slightly inferior to PAL ISS 64 but still a breathtaking football game." – 91%) and the US version of Mischief Makers ("The banality of this [game’s] sagacity, when juxtaposed with the outright bonkersness of the game in general, serves only to heighten the lighthearted surrealism that abounds (Eh? – Ed), which, in our book, is a Very Good Thing." – 90%). There’s a massive tips section featuring Mario Kart 64 and Blast Corps. The Future Look section details San Francisco Rush, Nagano Winter Olympics and Earthworm Jim 3D, while the less screenshot intensive Coming Soon section jokes about the tardiness of upcoming 3D platformers and also looks at Zelda 64 ("Rumours abound that the Pointy-Eared One literally ‘grows up’ during the course of the game.")

In the news, Planet 64 reports Nintendo’s profits are soaring on the back of Pocket Monsters and cheaper games are coming thanks to a modest reduction in the cost of manufacturing N64 carts ($6). Elsewhere in the mag there’s Reader Tips, and the I’m The Best section pits readers against each other, competing for time/score supremacy in various games. Club 64 is the letters section and also contains the So Tell Me This… questions section – example: "My friend thinks the N64 can play SNES games. Could you tell him this is total rubbish so he can see it with his own eyes? – Robert’s friend: you’re a clot. Of course the N64 can’t play SNES games. Blimey." Topics run the gamut, from release dates and import tech queries to cooking tips. Sue Overton, ‘N64 Magazine’s culinary advisor’ (and presumably significant-other to Art Editor, Wil Overton) provides jam tart advice ("Pre-baking the pastry by five minutes before adding the jam is a useful tip if you’ve got the time.")

The letters section showcased the back-and-forth banter that gave the magazine that member-of-the-club feel. Even if your whole letter didn’t make it in, you still might crop up in the Bonus Letters section and get a badge.

A directory of every reviewed game has two sections: UK and Import games. After seven months, the UK section had just 15 titles. The Import section contained a further 21, but it illustrates that Nintendo had form with software supply long before the Wii U’s drip-feed scheduling. Of those 15 PAL games, Super Mario 64 (predictably) takes the highest score with 96%, with Turok, Mario Kart 64, Wave Race 64, ISS 64, Blast Corps and Pilotwings 64 all joining the Star Game club (85%+). The only absolute turkeys are FIFA 64 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, coming in at 39% and 34% respectively.

The text in the Directory explanation box in no way offers commentary
on working conditions at Future Publishing in the late ‘90s
.
The whole magazine is dense and colourful and beautifully presented. It takes its cues from Super Play, the magazine from which it evolved when the N64 launched, which itself looked to Japanese publications for inspiration. It’s still a pleasure to read through, to see the care and attention which went into these 100 pages and to recall hoovering up every last detail before 24/7 internet culture started reporting when other publications award a a game top marks.

It's easy to forget that dodgy PAL conversions were still an issue in the fifth console generation.

*****

I'll be looking back at other issues over the coming months whenever I see a particularly juicy 20th anniversary or awesome cover. Can't wait to get to @Kosmikat's great work on those Double Game Guides. Top drawer.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A Place Both Wonderful and Strange

With the new season of Twin Peaks premiering a few weeks back, I sent fellow fan @jonkristinsson a Lego Digital Designer model I made last year of the 'Red Room' after seeing some amazing Lego renders he had produced.



It made me realise there would never be a better time to polish the model and submit it to Lego Ideas, the online peer-approval process that has resulted in the official Lego Ghostbusters and Back to the Future sets. So I went about refining it and actually ordering the pieces to build it. I also downloaded some software allowing me to render some better images myself - nothing as good as Jón's, but better than a screengrab from LDD.

So, after many hours of rendering a few images (my CPU is OLD) and writing a brief summary of the set, I submitted my proposal...
And today I received an email saying it wasn't approved :(

As detailed in their comments, "unfortunately...the brand or licensed property your project refers to contains content or themes that we find inappropriate for a potential LEGO product.I suppose that's reasonable - there's plenty of sex, drugs, murder and violence in Twin Peaks - but it's still disappointing.

So rather than completely waste all those hours of rendering, I thought I'd put them and the photos up here along with the text from the proposal:


Intro
My proposal is the 'Red Room' from the TV series Twin Peaks. It is a surreal, purgatorial waiting area where FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper finds himself trapped for 25 years.
It will be recognisable to fans and newbies alike -  the room has become iconic since it was first seen 27 years ago. It's visually striking and has been referenced and parodied in all sorts of media, from The Simpsons to Scooby Doo.
Model Info
I built this model first using LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) before ordering the bricks to test it. The set uses 536 bricks with a 32x32 stud base (although in an unusual 'diamond' formation due to the zig-zag floor pattern.) I've tried to make it as small and affordable as possible while keeping a good balance of detail and scale. It uses mostly common bricks and provides a fun and varied challenge for builders of all ages/skill levels. The furniture is attached to studded tiles.
Note: The real-life model in the photos shows some variations from the rendered images - I am waiting for more parts to arrive! I'll update the page when it's finished.
Minifigs
The set includes four minifigures: the coffee-loving Special Agent Dale Cooper, the Man From Another Place, Laura Palmer and the Venus de Medici statue. All of the characters (except the statue) would have reversible heads with white-eyed angry faces representing their malevolent doppelgangers.
I have used easily available parts but these could be exchanged for more detailed versions - I couldn't find a torso with dress detailing for Laura and The Man From Another Place should really be wearing a red shirt and black shoes!
Possible Alterations
  • The brick count might be reduced by redesigning the red curtains with fewer pieces (however, the non-uniformity of the curtain is intended to replicate how the real fabric hangs.)
  • The six plates used as the centre of the base could be replaced with one 16x16 plate (I couldn't source one for my prototype model) which would reduce the brick count and also improve structural integrity.
  • Other minifigures could be included or substituted - Mike (the One-Armed Man) or the Giant might be good. Additional decorative flourishes are possible (for example, adding other elements associated with Twin Peaks such as a cherry pie, a fine coffee mug, an owl, Cooper's dictophone, a Douglas fir tree, a log, etc) but I have included only the essential pieces relevant to this room.
I hope you like it! Thanks for your consideration and support :)










*****


*Sigh*
On the bright side, I'm very happy with the model, and the new season of the series is cracking. Utterly impenetrable, I'd imagine, if you haven't seen the original two seasons and the film Fire Walk With Me, but delightful for longtime fans who have been waiting so long. Every episode is something to chew on and savour.

*thumbs up*

Monday, 13 March 2017

Bringing back the B-tier


NB. Originally posted on Monday 28th November 2016.

As the Wii U gathers its precious few belongings in a bindle and wanders into the sunset with a resigned ‘so long, folks’, the retrospectives are rolling in as fast as Switch rumours. Everyone’s racing to explain the console’s quiet demise. Surpassing its predecessor would always be a challenge but Nintendo’s confused messaging and utter failure to make a compelling case for the Gamepad’s existence (until, perhaps, Mario Maker) are the fundamental reasons production was halted just earlier this month. Even now, the average consumer assumes it’s a Wii accessory. And after failing to escape the shadow of its forebear, Switch looks set to rob Wii U of what legacy it had. The real jewels in its crown – Mario MakerSplatoonMario Kart 8 and (hopefully) the upcoming Zelda: Breath of the Wild – are to be updated with new deluxe Switch editions. Smash Bros, too, if that’s your bag. Even third parties are retooling previously exclusive titles. Unless you transferred your original Wii digital library to your Wii U, chances are it’ll be packed away in the loft come springtime. So long, folks.


Lego City Undercover, previously an exclusive,
is now coming to Switch, and everything else.
ZombiSwitch announcement imminent.
Commentators and critics crow about the lack of games, but one particularly underserved area was what I call the ‘precision arcade racer’. These are stylishly presented games that very quickly demonstrate real depth with precise controls that take time to master, but reward persistence. Nintendo’s got several of them, none of which received a Wii U entry – 1080° SnowboardingWave RaceExcitebike and F-Zero all fall into this category. While none could be labeled ‘simulations’, each has a realism and delicacy about its controls and physics that set it apart from more standard arcade fare and they have a real core following of players. Sure, you can blunder in and have a laugh, but dedication and finesse are required to get beyond the  first few courses. They’ve never been tentpole releases, but have plugged gaps in otherwise barren release schedules and kept invested players occupied for many months. Scanning the list of racers released on Wii U, Need for Speed: Most Wanted U and Fast Racing Neo stand alone as the only examples of this sub-genre. The former, while excellent, had previously been released on other consoles and the latter, great as I’ve heard it is, was never given the marketing push to rival a first party release.



My impression is Nintendo were reluctant to simply knock out decent HD versions of these series without implementing some new mechanic/gimmick. Shigeru Miyamoto stated that a new F-Zero would need a different control scheme in order to justify a new entry. Yet Pikmin got a Wii U iteration that added very little to the tried-and-tested formula. And I would argue that the small, precise adjustments offered by gyro controls, as evidenced by (optional) aiming assists in Splatoon, would be ideally suited to a new F-Zero. Every console gets a Mario Kart with only incremental improvements but its existence is justified by the revenue that series generates. The ‘precision arcade racers’ listed above may have their dedicated following, but they’re not system sellers.


B TIER (b tier), B TIER (b tier), no-one wants to be defeated...
But they have been missed on Wii U. We’ve seen them crop up on Virtual Console but that only highlights their absence. Excitebike 64, for example, was a terrific entry in the series, coming late in the N64’s lifecycle and many years after the NES original. It married the pitch-angle-landing gameplay mechanic with the subtle analogue control from 1080°Excitetruck for the Wii wonderfully tailored the series for simple motion controls without sacrificing anything. Excitetruck came out ten years ago.


A game that really belongs on
those ‘underrated gems’ listicles.
And that was the last time we saw these franchises (Excitebots: Trick Racing for Wii never saw release outside North America and Japanese Club Nintendo). 1080°Wave Race, and F-Zero all had their last outings on GameCube. No, they’re not marquee titles but their importance in their respective consoles’ libraries has been overlooked, possibly masked by the Wii’s runaway success. That void has been exposed by Wii U’s disappointing performance, despite having some truly excellent games to its name. Switch needs to bring these games back. Being able to take them on-the-go should provide enough of a ‘hook’ to motivate Nintendo to dust them off for a new installment. HD rejuvenated Mario and Pikmin years after the competition upgraded from 480p; who wouldn´t jump at the prospect of Wave Race’s beautiful water in high-def? Or the back wheel of a bike spraying mud up the trunk of a pine? Or the Blue Falcon beansing it through Mute City – in HD!?! Mario Kart 8’s DLC, and even Nintendoland, hinted at the possibilities but they failed to materialise. 2017 is definitely the year to bring them back.


1080° in 1080p?! Get in
Bring back the B-tier! And a new Rogue Squadron.
A Poe-gue Squadron, if you will. Ahem. Guys?...
NB. Originally posted on Monday 28th November 2016.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Idolising the Pixel

Over the past decade or so the pixel has gone mainstream. High-definition televisions and media formats really put the number ‘1080’ in the mouths of anybody upgrading their bulky cathode ray tube TV, and inevitably the layman question “1080 what?” had to be answered. The seventh generation of video game consoles (specifically PS3 and Xbox 360) arrived to showcase that High-Definition. That very few games ran natively at 1080 was immaterial - HD had landed! And with our hi-res obsession came a new appreciation for the humble pixel itself; after all, those individual blocks made up all our jaggy games of old. But as the novelty of anti-aliased polygons wore off, players and developers began looking back and embracing the 2D pixel aesthetic from the earliest video games. And that aesthetic spread into fashion, furniture and art. Pixels even got an eponymous movie last year (about which we shall never again speak.) ‘80s retrogame-chic pops up everywhere these days – Famicom phone cases, Tetris t-shirts, Atari manbags - they are cultural callbacks to the dawn of our digital age and are displayed as badges of lo-fi credibility – we were there at the beginning when the now-Disneyfied plumber was just a 16x12 collection of squares.
Box and manual art for early home console games were designed not only to really pop on store shelves,
but also to give the players an idea what those rudimentary, pixelated blobs actually represented.

Nintendo embraced their sprites and advertised them
prominently on their boxes in the West from the beginning.

But they were muddy, blurry squares. Modern remasters and emulators outputting 1080p via upscale trickery make us forget the colourful gloop most of us saw as we sat in the glow of our curved screens thirty years ago. We forget that those games were never designed to be viewed in HD. We forget that while some companies embraced the pixel in their advertising, most attempted to hide their ‘ugly’ cuboid characters behind hyper realistic or extravagant covers that bore little relation to the sprite but, instead, communicated what players were ‘supposed’ to be seeing. Beyond that, players had to impose their own imagination on the impressionist canvas of the flickering CRT. Our current pin-sharp pixel worship doesn’t celebrate a return to the purity of some past experience, but highlights that this modern fixation actually echoes far older artistic preoccupations.


Some examples of the work
of street artist Invader.
 

Alexander the Great. Pfff, hardly. Not even 720.
We've been creating and idolising lo-fi interpretations of the real world for centuries. Art history constantly demonstrates the deconstruction of complex forms into simpler blocks for rebuilding and reconfiguration. Greco-Roman mosaic tiles offer an ancient analogue to the pixel, although they allow the viewer to appreciate the image’s complexity in a way an animated sprite couldn’t until we were able to screen-grab and fetishise each frame. Unlike mosaics or textiles where intricacy is easily considered and appreciated in the final product, animated art usually prevents similar analysis without disrupting the final form. When taken in isolation and out of context, ironically it’s often the economy of pixel art rather than the detail that is most admirable in a field governed by strict technical limitations. The implication of a single pixel on a character can read differently to every player. I was always convinced that Sonic the Hedgehog had no visible mouth. Looking closely at the sprite blown up on a monitor, one could argue that the darker red pixels imply his mouth but I always perceived a defiant, determined frown, not the shit-eating grin he wore in all accompanying media that fed into his ‘hog with ‘tude persona. The sprite was open to individual interpretation.

“Enemy GAUDIZARD attacked!”
In the 19th Century ‘realism' in painting and portraiture lost relevance somewhat following the invention of the photographic camera. The Impressionists began exploring the effects of light and the eye’s perception of a scene, and more abstract takes and movements followed.


Pointillism is a painting technique involving thousands of coloured ‘points’ painted to create the scene, much as sub-pixels use RGB to represent the whole colour spectrum. It’s perhaps most famously exemplified by George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. Try zooming in on those sub-pixels!

Intricately beautiful, but a ‘mare to animate. [Source]
This retreat to the abstract is echoed in video game history – the constant drive towards 3D, sandbox play experiences and photorealism created an offshoot of games exploring a more ‘abstract’ aesthetic. This occurred even before games entered the third dimension. While Rareware shot for incredible 3D-esque sprites in 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, which were certainly impressive at the time, Shigeru Miyamoto resisted calls from within Nintendo to replicate that style in Yoshi’s Island and instead raided the crayon box, producing a look that still stands up today. The ‘Celda’ controversy surrounding Wind Waker was the result of developers maturing artistically and being chastised by a playerbase excited by the Spaceworld 2000 tech teaser and locked into the mindset of MORE REALISTIC = BETTER. Wind Waker’s timeless art style endures in a way its follow-up, Twilight Princess: Fan Appeasement, simply doesn’t. Nintendo, as with all large companies, are somewhat hamstrung by their audience, but the ‘indie’ studios that sprung up in the late ‘00s were free to make bold artistic choices which happily dovetailed with their limited resources and growing retro nostalgia. Minecraft’s voxels offer a new way to interact with our beloved pixels. Mario Maker allows the player to swap palettes, taking us from pixel to polygon at the touch of a button. Super Mario Bros plays and looks just as you remember it. As you REMEMBER it, not how it is if you go back, but ignorance is bliss. It was always 16:9, no? It was always HD!

We should remember that although the number of pixels in the vertical line was still the measure of resolution before HD ruled, CRTs had the ability to support multiple resolutions. They would rapidly scan across the screen projecting one line at a time, ‘skipping’ every other one if the input resolution was sufficiently low, resulting in that delicious banding effect. CRTs would take the input resolution and, regardless of horizontal pixel number, alter the beam sweep rate to fill the width of the 4:3 screen. Consequently, the pixels would ‘stretch’ and become rectangular. The NES (see the Super Mario Bros illustration) output 256x240 pixels, which is not 4:3 (320x240), but the CRT stretched them by about 20%. Nowadays TVs have a set resolution across the screen (1080p, or ‘full HD’, gives us 1920 fixed pixels across with the standard 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio) and they cannot be ‘stretched’. Therefore, displaying NES games in 1:1 pixel mode on modern screens results in a thinner than expected screen. This can be remedied but it involves some algorithmic trickery that necessarily blurs the x-axis pixel info to fudge that extra 20%. We get our 4:3, though it doesn’t look as sharp due to a fundamental limitation that the older tech didn’t have. Add a scanline filter and you’re getting close.
Shocking textures. And where’s my 4xMSAA?? #lazydevs

I remember the static of CRTs though: being so close I could discern the bright red/blue/green of each sub-pixel; turning the TV off and touching the screen, watching it glow white under my fingertips; hearing the static discharge and smelling the burning dust rising out of the back vents of the hulking Trinitron. Replicating all that is much more difficult than getting the sharpest, cleanest signal from the source and faking the scanlines. It’s that atmosphere which is hard to recreate. Because, if we’re honest, many of the games themselves don’t hold up after 30 years. They often need a spit-polish to bring out the fun again in a modern context (not only visually, but also in feature set – things like online multiplayer or leaderboard/achievement support).

And that’s really the ultimate goal here – creating the circumstances that give us the feeling that we’re playing just as we did. For some this involves replicating the exact set-up, but for most others, spoiled by years of pin-sharp definition and digital convenience (or lacking the space to accommodate the bulky old tech), it actually means embracing the upscaling, emulation, remasters and remixes. Ultimately the delivery method, be it clone console, emulator, virtual console or the genuine painstakingly sourced article, isn’t important so long as these games are played and enjoyed. The advertising for Nintendo’s upcoming NES Mini plays on early ‘90s VHS nostalgia with tape warping effects and curved screens before a burst of light heralds the arrival of 16:9 and they showcase the HDMI output and various display options in HD. The catalogue of 30 included games are advertised to run at 60HZ – something most PAL gamers never knew they were missing back in the day. And, of course, some fans want a 50 HZ option because ‘they’re not the games I played’ without it. They’ll be faster and/or smoother, yes, but not identical. This demonstrates the tightrope developers walk when revamping their back catalogue. The unoptimised Sonic the Hedgehog we European gamers played would be a syrupy nightmare to US/Japanese players, but that was all we knew. No wonder I never thought ‘speed’ was Sonic’s defining characteristic. For me it was all about maintaining the flow through those beautifully designed levels. Hearing the music at 60HZ for the first time made me anxious. ‘No, no, slow down! Calm down!’ I’ve taken mp3s into Audacity before and slowed them down 20%-ish to match my memories and appreciate all those notes! But after playing the games on several other platforms since then (it surely tops the Game Ported To Most Platforms Ever list), returning to the original hardware is TOUGH (‘how did I ever play this chuggy mess?!’) and not how I want to remember the game. We think we want technological authenticity, but the human mind is a treacherous bastard. Grezzo’s Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask 3DS remasters are masterclasses in how to update aged classics while respecting not only the original intent and direction, but also players’ memories.

How you remember (top) versus how it was (bottom).
Going back to the source is jarring after years of 30-60fps.
Standardisation across regions means NTSC/PAL discrepancies are a thing of the past, though our preoccupation with resolution and frames-per-second is far from over. Sony and Microsoft are both diving into the 4K quagmire and once again arguments about upscaling versus native rendering abound. ‘4K’ itself is something of a misnomer – the actual vertical resolution is only doubled from 1080 pixels (to 2160), but 2K doesn’t sound as impressive, I guess. So convention was broken and the name was taken from the horizontal pixel count instead. Which at the standard 16:9 ratio is actually only 3840 pixels, NOT 4000. That’s right, tin-foilers, we’re being screwed out of 160 pixels. I’m sure there’s a lawsuit in there somewhere. Of course, things are further complicated by the film industry which uses a marginally different standard of 4096x2160…

Regardless, 1080p60 isn’t bleeding edge anymore. But is native 4K30 better? How about upscaled 4K45-ish? Post-processing? HDR? Downsampling? Filters?...

It all boils down to a pixel, whether crisp and clean or smeared by its nearest neighbour. Play and let play…except, of course, if you use that unholy Super Eagle filter. That is obviously and objectively wrong and you should be punished/reeducated. [/sarcasm]

Thursday, 21 January 2016

No Salvation


I’ve just rewatched Terminator Salvation for the first time since 2009. ‘Exceptionally dull’ was my evaluation back then. But how does it hold up after 6 years with my expectations suitably lowered? My word, it’s still awful. It lacks, well, everything.

Sometime before the rise of the machines Sam Worthington’s character, Marcus, commits some unspecified sin in the early ‘00s leading to the deaths of his brother and two police officers. On death row he signs his body over to cancer-survivor/shady tech person Helena Bonham-Carter for some non-specific post-mortal experimentation. Marcus is lethally injected. Judgement Day happens. He then wakes up in 2018, like, totes confused, looking identical but naked, covered in mud and screaming in a storm. He meanders round post-apocalyptic LA meeting the principal cast until he and everyone else discovers he’s actually a robot. But with a Heart. And a Brain. And Courage. He decides to help the Resistance fight the evil Skynet. The 'monster' returns to destroy its creator. That’s what they were going for. Powerful stuff.

First up, let’s start with a dialogue sample:
Blair                      You don’t meet many good guys these days.
Marcus                 I’m not a good guy.
Blair                      Yes, you are – you just don’t know it yet.

Oscar! Unfortunately this is just one example of the screenplay playing 'Guess The Next Hackneyed Line' with the audience. There's nothing wrong with a little meat-and-potatoes but this script sounds like it was made by a Hollywood dialogue generator; generic and dull. And it only gets worse from there. Now, I am a huge Terminator fan - I know the lore and the characters – but here the audience is expected to get goosebumps with every mention of a character’s name. The words ‘John Connor’ and ‘Kyle Reese’ are repeated literally DOZENS of times. It’s worthy of a drinking game.  Series-stalwarts get bored and first-timers are bewildered by the meaninglessness. They already got the JC/prophet analogy signposted in the opening text but when it’s not just being derivative and dry as all hell, this script DEPENDS on characters repeating each other’s names to drive the narrative. Half of poor Anton Yelchin’s lines are introductions, and Bale does little but announce who he is over the bloody radio (apparently Skynet doesn’t monitor the wireless).

"You tried to kill my mother, Sarah Connor. You killed my father, Kyle Reese.
You will not kill me.” (That's John Connor.)
Connor HAS TO mention Reese so Marcus can recognise the name and push the plot forward appropriately. You can hear the gears clunking and grinding and it highlights further faults. While reverential to Cameron’s films when it suits, it discounts them when they become inconvenient. Connor doesn’t reveal his father’s identity to anyone in the originals. Not even to Reese HIMSELF. Here he’s forced to because otherwise the story flatlines. In The Terminator Michael Biehn explicitly states of the future war that it’s dangerous to go out during the day but at night you can move around (though the machines use infra-red so don’t go mad). This is ignored in Salvation. There are ways to get around this if you want some daylight in your film. It only takes one clever line.


Plotholes abound and without any fun or excitement to distract, you end up picking at threads until the movie falls apart. It’s a mess but that in isolation isn’t the problem. Plenty of films make no sense but if they’re entertaining, you go with them. Salvation is po-faced, self-righteous and excruciatingly dull. Worthington does what he can with practically nothing. Who is this random? Why should we care? His confusion is the only thing the audience can empathise with. His character’s past guilt is a MacGuffin but without any details it’s impossible to appreciate his redemption. Petty thief? Haunted veteran? Too many parking tickets? We're left in the dark. ANYONE, however, with a passing interest in the series will realise he’s a Terminator. If they missed the reveal in the trailer, McG’s angles should clue them in. The director replicates some choice shots from Cameron (the camera fixes on Marcus as he takes a hit to the side of the face and slowly rotates his scowl back towards the assailant; the frame follows his legs as he approaches a downed goon, knife-in-hand). McG fills the movie with the iconography of the series. He manages to contrive Griffith Park Observatory, Guns ‘n’ Roses and a CG Arnie into it. And sure, he’s got this Wizard of Oz/Frankenstein motif pasted in, and HB-C’s got cancer because…er, well...death lingers on her..., or something deep, and Christian Bale has the Earnest-o-meter dialled up to eleventy-stupid. No question the director’s assembled a stellar cast. Why doesn’t it work?

It fails because everything is superficial and unearned. Marcus has a heart but machines don’t have hearts. Of course, brains and hearts are what make us humans different and special, and Marcus did something bad in the past but he gives his heart to save John Connor and is redeemed and will go on to be the ‘heart’ of the Resistance (*emoji heart*). It’s his ‘second chance’ and people deserve second chances because that nice woman told us so in the second act, and we’ve resolved that circle by saying so again at the end. That’s writing. And then the former-veterinarian performs a heart transplant. Obvs.

"The name's Bond. James...shit, that's not right..."
Absolutely nothing registers as genuine on screen thanks to transparent characters and mistaking the repetition of individuals’ names in hallowed tones for plot development. McG completely fails to recognise and replicate the ‘heart’ of the first two films, despite liberally pilfering the iconography. I’ve written previously about the family dynamic but Salvation is also missing entirely the relentless threat of the unknown from Cameron’s films. More than simply the technological menace, 1 and 2 are driven by the chase; the danger of the pursuing Terminator always stalking, like the truck in Speilberg’s Duel. Cameron created two of cinema’s greatest villains and the franchise has struggled to offer a worthy nemesis ever since (the Swiss-Army-Terminator from T3, much like Genisys’ T-3000, is a visual mess on screen). That pursuit was the frame on which Cameron hung his commentary on humanity, family and the ambiguity of technology.

McG has absolutely nothing to say but he treats trite sentiment as profound. Rise of the Machines, derivative as it may be, had some simple ideas executed competently. Skynet selected Arnie’s likeness due to Connor’s boyhood attachment to his model number, thus helping him terminate future JC. That makes sense. Skynet was software that grew on the internet with no central core. That too makes sense. T3 dared to end with Judgment (sic) Day. The writers realised that this story couldn’t continue without change and actually ending the world rather than delaying the inevitable was bleak and bold - it challenges the ‘no fate’ adage. McG was tasked with taking the story into the future war that we’d only glimpsed before. You can see how elements thought to be important to a Terminator movie were written in (the moto-terminators are a misguided attempt to bring motorbikes back because, hey, Terminator films have motorcycles, right?!) but the DREAD - the constant fear of the predator - is utterly absent, as are any reasons to care about anyone on screen. That’s what should drive the story forward, not repeating ‘Kyle Reese’ forty fucking times. The obligatory zingers are crow-barred in but are unearned and they jar with the rest of the stodgy, sullen dialogue. It’s like McG doused the entire cast in liquid anti-charisma.


It is possible to take that dread and make it the focus of a story set post-Judgement Day. The paranoia of a Terminator infiltrating a base would be interesting – it would be a different film, but it could retain that element of fear. I found Genisys to be a fun mash-up of the first two movies that necessarily distanced itself from Salvation by rebooting the timeline. It’s a shame that it may not be getting a direct sequel. It had little original to say (and Jai Courtney's beefy Reese was a far cry from Biehn's wirey, vulnerable fighter) but it was entertaining fluff. Salvation is not. Michael Ironside is McG’s lone shard of light, providing barking ‘80s kudos. But even he can’t offer this film any salvatio...

That's writing, folks!