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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 on its own 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 empathize 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 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 entirely undeserved 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!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars - Replaying the movies in video games


So apparently there’s a new Star Wars film out?

With the Force busy awakening, everyone’s online chronicling their rewatch binges. Good, good, but perhaps you’ve seen them recently or can’t stomach the prequel dialogue more than once a decade. If you’re still after a preparatory blast of nostalgia, might I suggest you revisit the galaxy far, far away through a different medium?

Star Wars and video games have grown up together. As tech improved, the games got prettier, though as evidenced by the movies, improved tech doesn’t necessarily mean a better experience. The quality of the SW video game catalogue is patchy, but the sheer number of titles over the years means you can now navigate the poodoo and relive the entire series very well through game adaptations alone. I haven’t played EVERYTHING, but I’ve sampled a good enough percentage to present the following.

So, allow me to guide you through Episodes I-IV, VG-style:


The Phantom Menace

With regards to video game versions, the prequels suffer in two ways. Firstly, they’re much newer than the originals and thus haven’t had nearly forty years of adaptation and reinterpretation. Secondly, the originals are cultural cinematic icons. The prequels were critical disappointments. Regardless of the spectacle and the fandom, nobody’s clamouring for a new version of the Gungan Battle on Naboo. Likewise, Hoth and the Death Star Trench Run trump Geonosis every time. Therefore the number of depictions to draw from is smaller.

Fortunately Lego Star Wars has us covered. One of the first licenced Lego games, it came as a wonderful surprise with humour, simple puzzles and collecting mechanics. Being able to wield a lightsaber (and play as almost any character) while listening to John Williams’ score and playing cooperatively was instantly satisfying (before the Lego licenced soured through repetition). The player is taken through the main plot points of the entire prequel trilogy (the game’s sequel would cover the originals) and is invaluable when taking the video game route through the movies.

Several terrible tie-in games accompanied the returning franchise back in 1999. Star Wars Episode I: Racer for the N64 stood alone and proud amongst the dross. It’s a fluid, nuanced racing game in the F-Zero/Wipeout vein with loads of vehicles and upgrades that channels one of the strongest scenes in the movie. I still remember being in awe of how the Tatooine circuit matched the one on film. Try playing with a controller in each hand for that authentic pod-feel.

After winning the Boonta Eve Classic, head back to Lego Star Wars until the final space battle when you might want to check out Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo, again for N64. This was Factor 5’s ‘spiritual’ sequel to Rogue Squadron with a new and improved engine that permitted ground vehicles and improved draw distances. While it suffered for not having the cache of the original trilogy, it’s still a solid game with tight controls.

Head back to Lego SW to polish off Darth Maul and we’re on to Episode II!



Attack of the Clones

To cover the weakest film we’ll be calling on Lego Star Wars for the most part. However, the Battlefront games did a great job of conveying the scale and mayhem of the larger Clone battles in Episodes II and III. It might be worth hitting that for the Battle of Geonosis with Mace Windu, but let’s face it - Geonosis is pretty drab. I’d stick to Lego if you’re after purple saber action. Onwards quickly past the crass dialogue before we too are haunted by the kiss she shouldn’t have given us!


Revenge of the Sith

…Ah. Right. We’re still running on fumes here. VG-wise, though the film itself was a giant leap in the right direction, there were some lacklustre tie-ins. Once again, Lego Star Wars is your best bet for Episode III (with some Wookiee support from Battlefront in the Battle on Kashyyyk). Galactic Battlegrounds might be good if you’re an RTS lover. Otherwise you should go about your business. Move along.

To be fair, while video game depictions of the movies were suffering around the time of the prequels, there were plenty of great non-canon games being released. Battlefront and Galactic Battleground were joined by Knights of the Old Republic and the Jedi Knight series, which gave players other opportunities to get their hands on a lightsaber. Still, the biggest thrills generally came when they echoed moments or revisited locations from the films, with most characters acting as shoddy clones of movie originals (I’m looking at you, Dash).


"Stay on target."

A New Hope

Now we’re talking. Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy will service the bulk of on-foot passages in this trilogy too, but now we’re joined by the Rogue Squadron games. Although the first on N64 laid out a great template, it’s Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader on GameCube that nails the look, sound and feel of the piloting and dogfighting in the originals films. It’s still a looker 15 years on. The bonus level ‘Death Star Escape’ gives a nice shooting range version of the TIE fighter attack on the Millennium Falcon (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.”) and it also has the best version of the Death Star Trench Run (far prettier than the N64’s attempt). There are multiple versions of the trench run, and some that might even spark off nostalgia but - trust me - Rebel Assault is a mess. If you’re feeling old-school, you could check out the original 1983 arcade game Star Wars from Atari. It’s the original take and, some argue, still the best. Handily it can be found as an unlockable bonus on the otherwise dispensable Star Wars Rogue Leader III: Rebel Strike disc. Boom.


The Empire Strikes Back

The Battle of Hoth. The most depicted Star Wars scene in video games. Even rubbish games like Shadows of the Empire have a decent Hoth level. The new version in Battlefront (2015) looks pretty spectacular (especially with the Real Life mod). Battlefront II does a great job of giving the troops’ eye perspective, and Rogue Squadron II also has a great interpretation.



And it’s back to Lego again for the rest of the film. Rogue Squadron II features a bland bonus ‘Asteroid Field’ level following the Millennium Falcon escaping from the Star Destroyers and a great Cloud City-based mission, though the latter is not set during the film.



Return of the Jedi

For the last film in the replay/rewatch, we’re going to supplement Lego Star Wars II with a couple of the best depictions of Star Wars ever put on cart/disc/PCB. Star Wars Trilogy Arcade was an on-rail shooter cabinet from Sega that featured half a dozen scenes from the films. I remember vividly watching the demo screen loop, wishing I was good enough at video games to get beyond the first level. Its Death Star Run and Battle of Hoth are fine, but it’s the Speeder Bike section and the Dual with Vader that really nail the atmosphere better than any other game. Couple this with the hectic ‘Battle of Endor’ and ‘Strike at the Core’ missions from Rogue Squadron II and you’ve made your way through the whole damn saga. Yub-nub!


******


I’m sure I’ve missed some and you may disagree, but there are some damn fine moments in there. I haven’t tried the recently released Battlefront, though videos show that it nails the look at least. There’s one thing which I think we can all agree on though – thank god for Lego Star Wars.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A to Z - evolution under the right thumb



When we discuss the development of the standard video game console controller we tend to concentrate on significant additions to the basic pad. Things like shoulder buttons and analogue sticks and rumble. We less often talk about the arrangement of the buttons that have come to be standard. Why A, B, X and Y? What’s wrong with 1, 2, 3 and 4? Here, I'll take a brief look at the evolution of the buttons under your right thumb…


Before the arrival of the NES, the success of Pong and its associated clones meant dials were prevalent on home console controllers. Number pads were also common. The Atari 2600’s joystick controller had a single red button on it. The Vectrex was one of the first consoles to feature a layout resembling a pad as we now know it, with a micro joystick on the left and four circular buttons in a horizontal line on the right (labelled 1-2-3-4). The 1983 release of the Famicom in Japan introduced the home console audience to the D-pad, a cardinal direction input borrowed from Nintendo’s Game & Watch line of portable LCD games. It also introduced Select and Start, and labelled its two primary input buttons (initially square, though quickly replaced with circular versions) B and A. The outer button was where the player’s right thumb would naturally fall and therefore became A. Primary actions like jumping would usually be mapped to this, with B assuming secondary duties such as firing. Returning to games from this period often throws up anomalies for modern players. It feels peculiar to use Select to toggle between menu options now that we’re all accustomed to using the D-pad and hitting A to confirm, B to cancel. The NES kept the Famicom’s basic design, though changing the B and A buttons from black to red. Sega’s Master System used an 8-directional input on the left and two buttons on the right, labelled 1 and 2. Nintendo and Sega’s handheld consoles would ape the control schemes of their home-based brethren, though positioned at a more natural and comfortable angle. The Turbografx/PC Engine would reverse Sega’s numbers and make them Roman numerals.

The Vectrex and its pad
(Source: Evan Amos)
With the increased processing power of fourth generation home consoles, devs needed more inputs for more complex games. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive ditched numbers in favour of A-B-C slanted on a chunky pad with a pellet-shaped Start hovering above. The SNES, while also gaining shoulder buttons (L=Left, R=Right), took B and A from the NES and added two buttons above in a diamond formation. D and C would seem the most natural choice (the Neo Geo went with these) but Nintendo chose instead Y and X. Perhaps it helped separate the pair in function from B and A, as evidenced by the lozenge-shaped border surrounding each pair, though why they didn’t choose Y and Z is puzzling. Nintendo also gave these buttons colours. A retained the glossy red from the NES, while B turned yellow. X picked up the third primary colour, blue, leaving Y with green. The curved shape of the pad coupled with the new diamond formation meant that B became the default position for the right thumb and Mario’s jump moved there. The US version of the SNES received a makeover that removed the primary colours (presumably a marketing strategy to make the console appear less toy-like), making B-A purple and Y-X lilac.

While the Mega Drive pad would grow to accommodate three extra X-Y-Z buttons above A-B-C, the Saturn had six buttons as standard at the start of the fifth generation. The three-pronged N64 pad was perplexing until you realised you only held two of them. Nintendo moved the diamond buttons further up the pad, made them yellow and rechristened them C-buttons (Cardinal buttons, perhaps?) above B and A (now occupying the spaces left by Y and B respectively). Once again, A became the principal input, now blue, while the central Start button inherited the glossy red colour from before. B was, obviously…, erm, green.

As confusing as this may seem, Sony were about to turn everything on its head with the PlayStation. Letters, numbers – who needs ‘em? Sony’s shapes became icons, surpassing even the SNES’ colourful diamond formation. Triangle pointed upwards so it took the top of the diamond. The SNES’ A button became Circle (which Japanese players use to confirm) and primary B became Cross (which Westerners use to confirm). Square took the remaining space. The design was slick, easily identifiable and it endures (as does the East/West confirm/cancel confusion). Less durable examples include: SNK’s Neo Geo CD, which borrowed the SNES’ colours and diamond formation with D-B-A-C labelling from the AES’ joystick controller; Philip’s CD-i, which used the familiar diamond with an array of ‘dots’ (·, ··, ·, and, of course, ·/··); and Atari’s Jaguar, which took Sega’s layout and flipped it horizontally.
Press  ·  to delete save file  (Source: Evan Amos)

Following 'A' around Nintendo's pads.
Following the addition of dual analogue sticks, Sony’s pad changed little for the sixth generation. The DualShock 2 featured pressure-sensitive face buttons but nobody really noticed. The organic GameCube controller continued Nintendo’s esoteric journey by transforming the C-buttons into a C-stick, returning B (now red) to its alignment from the SNES days and rotating Y and X (now kidney-shaped and grey) almost 90° around a big green A button. Sega took their six button layout and lopped off Z and C for the broad Dreamcast pad, leaving Y-B-A-X. They borrowed the primary SNES colours, reassigning them seemingly at random.

Following Sony's shapes...
But a new challenger approached - and a big’un, too. Microsoft constructed their monstrous Duke by carefully examining the competition. They borrowed the Saturn/Dreamcast letter configuration, though with smaller White and Black buttons in place of the now-deceased Z and C (these would shift below the diamond on the smaller ‘S’ revision and disappear entirely next generation). Xbox borrowed the colours but once again they were reassigned: Y=yellow, B=red, A=green, X=blue. ‘Green for go, red for no’ makes sense seeing how these buttons had evolved with use and Microsoft have stuck with them ever since.

Both Sony and Microsoft kept the same basic configurations for the seventh generation. Nintendo, however, unveiled a TV remote. After initial confusion, it became clear that they’d simply split the standard pad in two and augmented it with some accelerometers and an IR pointer, providing a non-threatening and familiar form factor for wary non-gamers put off by increasingly complex conventional pads. It retained the GameCube’s chunky, satisfying A button, planted the D-pad above it and added '-' and '+' (playing the roles of Select and Start respectively) and a Home menu button. Relegating B to the underside, it brought back numbers for ancillary functions at the bottom (1 and 2) which served as ‘B and A’ when the pad was rotated and assumed the ‘classic’ NES-like configuration. The whole thing, buttons and all, was finished in a benign glossy white. While continually trying new things in the home, Nintendo finally bid farewell to the trusty Select-Start-B-A combo of the Game Boy and dusted off the classic SNES X-A-B-Y diamond for their new portable, the DS (sans the sexy colours).


And thus we arrive at current-gen (eighth if you’re still counting). Nintendo threw the kitchen sink at the Wii U Gamepad, including the SNES diamond (again, without the sexy colours, although they have reappeared on the beautiful New 3DS). Sony and Microsoft have refined their pads but retain the same basic layout they’ve had for a decade. Those face buttons under your hovering right thumb have settled down in their middle age into something comforting and familiar, with little inherited idiosyncrasies from the past. Valve's Steam controller sticks with Microsoft's colours/labelling. Configurable touchscreen buttons with individual haptic feedback have yet to appear beyond fantastical artists' imaginings. VR's particular requirements deny players a view of their hands, let alone their gamepad, but although motion controls often augment the experience, traditional analogue inputs continue to play a crucial role in the interface. With NX on the horizon, it’ll be fascinating to see where buttons go next.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Welling up at Williams


I remember distinctly watching Superman Returns one afternoon, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago. I am a Burton Batman kid - Superman’s primary colours and goofy Donner-films never interested me. But this soft sequel was on the telly so I watched to see a more modern take on the character. A plane containing Lois Lane plummets to the ground and the Man of Steel saves it, plonking it down in the middle of a baseball game. After heading inside to check on Lois, he emerges to see the roaring stadium and John Williams’ theme starts up. Superman has returned.

At this moment an unusual thing happened. As he stood in the hatch, the crowd cheering, the percussive strings building to the fanfare, a shiver went down my neck and my eyes filled with tears. To be clear, I have no particular affection or history with Superman in any medium. Of course I know the icon and the premise, but I never read the comics and never paid much attention to the films. But there I was, blubbing on the sofa. Why?

This isn’t an isolated incident. Hearing the Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfare has had a similar effect on me. I remember several years ago loading Raiders of the Lost Ark into the DVD tray and being set off by the music on the menu screen. Only the other day I was blinking tears back at the end of Back to the Future part II when Marty receives the letter from Doc – that wasn’t even the theme tune, simply the mysterious ‘diddlo-diddloo’ prelude flourish (listen to the first seconds of ‘Western Union’ on the soundtrack if you’re unsure.) However, those are things I DO feel a childhood attachment to. Again, Superman doesn’t figure with those examples.

 ‘diddlo-diddloo’ 
I do not usually cry, and certainly not in public. I’m not comfortable displaying myself in that state. I’m pretty cynical about attempts in TV and film to elicit tears through sentimentality and rousing string sections. That is not to say I’m immune to crying in the cinema – Toy Story 3 destroyed me – but a film really has to EARN an emotional response. The Superman plane sequence above was competently put together, but wasn’t designed to elicit tears – it’s simply a public reintroduction of the character in the fiction. A character I don’t particularly care for. SO again, what happened?

First I thought it must be nostalgia. I’m pining for a lost past, a childhood forever gone, lamenting our frail mortality, yadda-yadda-yadda. But I’m not nostalgic for Superman.

Then I thought maybe it’s a musical trick that Williams and co. are pulling on me. Say what you like about the Star Wars prequels, but JW absolutely NAILED it every time. I remember listening to the Phantom Menace soundtrack album back in 1999 and replaying Anakin’s Theme. It hits everything about the child – it's hopeful, fearful, with the delicate suggestion at the end of what’s ahead for the character. It’s masterful. Regardless how well JJ Abrams manages Episode VII, there’s zero doubt the score will be anything but perfect. Dinosaurs, archaeologists, aliens; he does it all the time. Maybe he's just deftly cracking out the leitmotif and playing me like a pipe with an algorithmic sequence that always produces results. Maybe I’m just getting trolled by the master.

Or perhaps I’m just getting sentimental with advancing years. You hear it all the time. It’s conceivable that seeing the pure goodness of the character through the lens of experienced cynicism has a profound emotional impact after the injustice and incompetence so readily visible in the adult world. I’ve heard of middle aged men overwhelmed while watching Secret Millionaire. Perhaps such acts of generosity and selflessness makes sentimental fools of us all in our dotage. And maybe I’m weeping for optimism and enthusiasm of youth when I hear those melodies. Though that's a tad melodramatic for a 31-year old, no?

So I return to nostalgia – can you be nostalgic for things you didn’t experienced? For a time when you weren’t alive? I get melancholic when I hear certain songs on the radio. The Doobie Brothers’ 1979 hit ‘What a Fool Believes’, for example. I’ve never known the lyrics, which turn out to explore differing perceptions of events and constructed memories - the tale of a man meeting a woman he remembers as an old flame and the subsequent awkwardness when she remembers no such flirtation and it’s been built up over the years in the mind of the ‘fool’. For me the song simply brings back memories of Radio 2 morning shows (the playlists of which seem to have changed little since the mid-‘80s) and working with my dad in the school holidays for some extra cash. Again, childhood. Loads of songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s make me melancholic, regardless of the genre. Could that be why I’m weeping at a guy onscreen in blue spandex?

While writing this, the rousing Thunderbirds theme came on iTunes. I smiled, and my vision went blurry. Damn it. I excitedly await the day when I break down publicly to the Antiques Roadshow theme and the R. Whites Lemonade advert.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A happy fate: Masquerading in Majora's Mask



There are many things Majora's Mask is not. It is not the prettiest Zelda game. Even with Grezzo's excellent work on the 3DS update, The Wind Waker's cel-shading bestows a timeless quality that will endure for decades, whereas the rudimentary polygons of the N64 entries locate them squarely in the '90s. It is not the most original Zelda either, reusing engine, assets and music from its predecessor and doing very little to update its base mechanics. And neither are those mechanics best-in-series. Hugely influential, they have been iterated on many times since and returning to their second-ever outing only highlights the enhancements made over the years, particularly to Z-targeting and swimming. Yes, Majora's Mask can be frustrating.


So why then is it considered the 'hidden' best of the series? All the cool kids claim it's their favourite, but why when it's so obviously flawed? For me, it's simply the most interesting Zelda has ever been.

Moody PAL.
Visually, Termina is a mash-up of Ocarina's locations, snow and ocean additions notwithstanding. Although it feels darker, the actual world is pieced together with the same earth tones as Hyrule, with hyper-colour highlights in the dungeons. That wonderful impression of rich purple and forest-green really comes from the art that accompanied its release. The development teams' recycling also extends to the population themselves. Many of the characters are duplicates from Hyrule, here assigned new identities (or sometimes multiple identities as with the Gormon Brothers or the Romani sisters). These doppelgangers exist as archetypes across dimensions and as satisfying touchstones for returning players to recognise. Our familiarity allows the makers to subvert expectations of these characters and perhaps reconsider the originals too. The player's memories of the egotistical Ingo from Ocarina (himself already an analogue for Luigi, the under-appreciated Mario Brother) colour our impression of Gorman the Troupe Leader, and give him a more textured personality when we discover his real story of entering showbusiness with youthful idealism and his anger at his failure to succeed.

The three-day cycle, maligned as the primary cause of player confusion and fatigue, rather than being a restrictive device, actually provides context for the characters' endlessly repeating paths and gives us a far more detailed view of their lives than would otherwise be possible. In this short cycle, every cause has an effect. If the bomb lady is mugged on the first night, the Bomb Shop will lose its stock. If Anju isn't on reception at the Inn, she'll be cooking lunch or taking a walk in the rain. In those 72 hours we become intimately familiar with these people: their hopes and fears; the risks they take; the secrets they keep.

The real draw to Majora's Mask is the universal questions it poses about mortality, acceptance, attachment, friendship and failure. It asks the biggest of all questions: what is our purpose here? The four moon children at the end of the game ask the player the questions in the textboxes throughout this page. I've written before about the effect of meeting these masked characters, and their questions impacted my impressionable teenage mind. The game has concerned itself with giving the player tasks and experiences that directly relate to these questions. It's impossible to please everybody all of the time, but we still empathise with them because we have witnessed their potential - their best self - in another time. The game can often be a gloomy proposition with the enemy-filled map and the looming lunatic face in the sky. No, I don't have time to save the Gorons today, so their winter will not end. The shambling mummies of Ikana must be ignored today because I'm needed elsewhere. My power to affect the world is great but so are the demands on my resources. And, just as in the real world, time is my most precious commodity.

Perhaps this is one reason why so many take umbrage with the time limit. It denies the player the escapism of other games and forces self-reflection. From a company that habitually prizes mechanics and game feel over story, the moments when Nintendo do explore narrative ideas and deeper questions seem all the more profound in a catalogue of work featuring a deluge of kidnapped princesses.



The Happy Mask Salesman instructs us to work to improve the world and create happiness through the use of masks. The essential duality presented, mirrored throughout the game by the recurrence of doubles, twins and alter egos, demonstrates through masks that pretence and play are very necessary components of the human condition. This ties into the very nature of games themselves, video or otherwise. Nintendo are experts at enabling play - Majora's Mask asks us to consider why that is so important.




Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The T2 Family Model 101 - Brothers, Mothers & Significant Others




Time-travelling body-building cyborgs on motorcycles - that's what the Terminator is about, right? That's why Salvation was boring - too much worthiness from Christian Bale and not enough Arnie on a Harley.

Well, no. You could argue that James Cameron's films explore free will versus determinism or our morbid paranoia with nuclear apocalypse or the amorality of technology and unchecked scientific endeavour. But their prevailing concern, most notably in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is that of family.

Or more specifically, broken family. Perhaps mirroring reality, the traditional harmonious family unit doesn't really exist. From the intimate mother-father-son model to the desperate brothers-in-arms Resistance fighters to the Skynet production line - the world is full of familial connections. The 1984 original gave us the premise of a machine sent back in time to eliminate the human enemy, striking their leader at his most vulnerable, before his conception. Though convoluted, there is a certain logic to this conceit - destroy your enemy by terminating the family line. That leader, the future John Connor, sends back a protector for his mother, who (spoiler!) turns out to be his father. Leaving aside the paradox, by the end of the first film we are left with Sarah Connor, alone after a one-night-stand with a burden unimaginable to the carefree scooter-riding girl who couldn't balance her chequebook at the beginning of the movie. She alone carries the knowledge of the coming war and drives prophetically into the storm, the lone 'mother of the future'.

John's bee-in-a-bottle Honda is juxtaposed with the
deep throatiness of the Terminator's V-twin, and
while the former quickly succumbs beneath the
wheels of the T-1000's pursuing truck, the Harley
carries them to safety.
T2 picks up the story a decade later with Sarah incarcerated and John living in suburbia with foster parents Todd and Janelle Voight. The house and neighbourhood seem idyllic  - sun streams through the windows onto the piano, children play in the street, Janelle collects the newspaper from the front lawn while avoiding the sprinkler. A secure environment for a developing child then, though we quickly see John rebelling against it. He counters Todd's demand that he listen to his mother with a defiant "She's not my mother, Todd" before taking off on his whining motorcycle. Father figures are doomed in this universe - the best they can hope for is a heroic or redemptive death. Unfortunately neither awaits Todd - his lack of paternal sympathy or urgency ("What? What? Wow, it's an emergency - hang on! I'll get right on it!") provides justification for his later shocking demise at the hands (or, more accurately, the stabby metal hand) of the T-1000.

Cut to Pescadero State Hospital: 'A Criminally Disordered Retention Facility' where we join Sarah doing pull ups in her cell. Sweating and sinewy, she is a different woman from the one we witnessed driving into the storm a decade ago. Having necessarily assumed the role of warrior mother since the original film, she has become more the soldier and we are told of her history of violence as the doctors examine her as one would a prowling, caged beast. We later see her fully assume the Terminator role (as discussed by Cameron himself) when she launches a solo pre-emptive strike against Miles Dyson, the computer scientist whose work unwittingly leads to the rise of the machines. Only the sight of Dyson's wife and son running to protect him rouses Sarah's humanity and a realisation of what she has become.

Sarah's transformation from the first film to the second is quite extraordinary. Gone is the bouffant '80s perm and the girlish voice; we see her disdainful eyes through knotted strands of hair as she growls at Dr Silberman through the cell door window. 
The family dynamic can be seen even before John and Sarah's respective introductions. Schwarzenegger's arrival mirrors that from the first movie and establishes a familiar continuity - he's the same make, same model and follows the same procedures. Though first-time viewers may have been unaware that Robert Patrick's T-1000 was the villain, we see in him too the same methodical approach to his objective. His arrival at the Voight's residence echoes the original Terminator's, though he avoids crushing the toy truck (don't worry, he gets his own later). This, along with his personable discourse with the Voights demonstrates he is the refined son of Skynet, less brutish and with greater social facility. The T-800 acknowledges to John that his counterpart is more advanced, though we constantly see evidence of their similar programming through tactics and behaviour ("The T-1000 would definitely try to reacquire you [at home]." "You sure?" "I would.") The duality between these two 'brothers' creates a sense of family from the very beginning.

Boys will be boys. A little fraternal
competition can be healthy, no?
The father-son dynamic between the boy and his bodyguard is obvious and quickly established. However, we also soon witness a role reversal as the child provides the machine with a moral education. Though skilled in the mechanics of protection we are constantly reminded that the Terminator is uneducated in basic concepts of emotion and language. When John tells him to 'put the gun down' he interprets it literally, placing it on the concrete beside his feet. He responds childlike to being told he mustn't kill people. "Why?" he asks, repeatedly. John's protests are acknowledged and accepted but their reasoning still eludes him, even later as they race to stop Sarah from murdering Dyson. As a species whose nature he identifies is to destroy itself, the benefit of denying that base instinct is not apparent to a machine constructed with one sole purpose - to terminate life.

Although the machine is cast as the paternal figure, John is tasked with teaching him the meaning of that role. As they drive away from the city together, John tries to help him assimilate more successfully socially with some language lessons, providing him with the zinger he later employs against his upstart sibling ("Hasta la vista, baby.") The trio drive not in a carefully product-placed Ford Mondeo but quite explicitly in a clapped-out family wagon. This is significant in a movie that set a new standard for Hollywood tie-in promotion. Despite the high concept sci-fi, discussions take place in the most ordinary and familiar of settings - back streets, telephone boxes, gas stations, cars. They chat while driving into the desert to meet Enrique Salceda, a mercenary and old friend of Sarah's living in the sticks with his family and a secret weapons cache. We see John and the Terminator interacting as Sarah looks on, pondering how this absurd solution to the family dynamic is ironically 'the sanest choice'. The machine's lack of humanity is the very thing that makes him the perfect father, 'the only one who measured up' to her uncompromising expectations.

After their departure Enrique's fate isn't made clear in the finished film, though a planned-but-unfilmed scene would have had him ultimately joining Reese and Dyson in the ranks of absentee fathers after an interrogation from the T-1000.

The crisis meeting between the families Dyson and Connor
takes place appropriately sitting around the dining table.
Following Sarah to the Dyson residence, we encounter the closest thing to the 2.4 architypal family in the entire film. Dyson, unknowing architect of the apocalypse, is a family man whose faults lie in his workaholic tendencies. A scene from the special edition highlights his altuistic motives in developing the computer chip ("Imagine a jet airliner with a pilot that never gets tired, never makes mistakes, never shows up to work with a hangover...") but his work still drives him away from his family and ultimately to destruction. He is redeemed through triggering the explosion that destroys Cyberdyne, but his children are left fatherless.

Having defeated the troublesome younger brother and averted Judgment [sic] Day, the movie ends with John's 'parents' physically wrecked but victorious. Sarah's closing voiceover tells us she believes the Terminator learned 'the value of human life'. He does come to understand kinship and loss by the end of the film, though acknowledging that he is unable to experience those himself ("I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.") Whether this signifies that he now knows why killing is wrong is unclear (he is, of course, a Terminator) but he recognises why humans value life. He and Sarah share a limp handshake before yet another father figure nobly sacrifices himself for the good of the family.





Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Two Little Boys: Reclaiming tainted music


Two little boys had two little toys…

Hang on. No, we can’t sing that anymore. Nor can we wobble a piece of card while panting ridiculously, nor blurt Can you tell what it is yet? in our finest Aussie accent while playing Pictionary. No, those little cultural jokes will be stricken from the collective consciousness over the coming years until they make no sense anymore. It’s really just a hastening of the inevitable. The catchphrases, songs and mannerisms of bygone entertainment giants like George Formby and Norman Wisdom have faded in the many years since they were in vogue. They hang around in spirit through families regurgitating them to each other, but surely mine will be the last generation to recognise a Just like that! accompanied by a shaking hand held mid-air as a Tommy Cooper reference.

Tommy Cooper died the year I was born. I knew him only as an echo through grandparents who adored him. I never quite got him myself. The gradual decline of his legacy is as natural as that of Formby or Wisdom. However, Rolf Harris was present throughout my past 30 years, whether singing songs or presenting Rolf’s Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital or painting the Queen. His legacy is still at the forefront of the cultural mindset and isn’t being slowly forgotten – it’s being disowned, quick smart. Which I feel is saddening and, ultimately, futile.

If you’re really having trouble reconciling that CD single on the shelf, take comfort in the fact that Two Little Boys is not Harris’ song. It was written in 1902, sixty-seven years before his version was released. Many others have been recorded, but his is the most famous, especially in Britain. Following his conviction for child sex abuse, a twinge of guilt and shame now accompanies the hearing of Harris’ endlessly imitable delivery, as if enjoying it or singing along signifies tacit approval of the singer’s crimes. This is ridiculous for several reasons, but such is the seriousness and stigma of the offense that it is deemed socially safer to simply erase all references to the individual rather than confront the issue rationally and divorce the art from the artist.

This mass-disowning has precedent. The music of Gary Glitter was quickly removed from circulation after his child abuse convictions in the late ‘90s. The stomping I’m The Leader Of The Gang simply isn’t heard anymore. Christmas compilation CDs suddenly lost a staple in Another Rock n’Roll Christmas, and people were obliged to delete references to it from their collective memories.

But how can you? I certainly didn’t. Besides the fact that the song is an absolute belter, it’s tied up with too many childhood memories to simply forget. I cannot ostracise the memory of my grandparents’ renditions of Two Little Boys like I can an individual. Likewise, I doubt I’ll be able to stop myself panting out Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport when I see a suitably wobbly piece of board. The spectre of child abuse is a powerful one, but art (or indeed, fluff) becomes independent the moment it is made public. It takes on a life of its own the moment others assign their own meaning to it. We all have songs that we have taken and laid our own lives across, and with that they become ours. The artist does not and cannot control or change or tarnish them once they have been assimilated into memory.

I understand the stigma and the power these particular crimes have over public opinion and perception. With the appropriate level of contrition, talent and PR management, the public will forgive many an appalling act but, perhaps singularly, child abuse convictions represent a point-of-no-return for public figures.  I still remember the Monday night when in Desire (a questionable nightclub opposite Worthing Train Station throughout the ‘00s) the DJ played a Michael Jackson set after announcing the Not Guilty verdict Jackson had received earlier that day. The feeling in the club was of ecstatic relief – it’s OK, it’s OKAY, we haven’t lost the music! And Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough sounded even more joyful that night than ever before. Of course we hadn’t lost it. But even if MJ had been convicted that night, we still wouldn’t have lost that music – how do you erase the soundtrack to a million lives?

Of course you cannot, and to try is futile. Two Little Boys should be heard, its singer’s background explained if needs be, but heard and enjoyed nonetheless. To expunge it from existence would be to lose not only the song, but also to deny and sully our own memories. They are sure to fade on their own - for now, let’s just enjoy the damn music.