Movies of 2015 – January

Unlike previous years, I am going to try to keep track of every single movie I watch in 2015, so these will be listed in the order I saw them and will include movies both from 2015 and previous years. Expect frequent updates.

Inherent Vice (2014) – Paul Thomas Anderson

inherent-vice-trailer2Inherent Vice was pretty much Chinatown+marijuana. I never read the book, and I probably never will since Pynchon’s works usually go over my head. The movie, however, was great but mostly for the smaller funny moments throughout and the ridiculous characters rather than the overarching plot. – 8/10

Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle

Whiplash-4I wish I would have watched Whiplash last year because it probably would have made my top ten of 2014 in 2014 list. Whiplash explores the physical, emotional, interpersonal, and mental sacrifices that have to be made to truly be good at something, in this case drumming, and it doesn’t hold anything back. The duel of egos between the two main characters is incredibly intense, and the way the cinematographer shot the scenes of jazz music being played reminded me of the way Edgar Wright shoots action scenes. – 9/10

 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – Wes Anderson

fmf2Watching my students laugh their cusses off during Fantastic Mr. Fox during the ECC International Cinema Club screening helped me realize that it is probably Wes Anderson’s best movie. Anderson doesn’t sacrifice a single bit of his signature style but manages to actually add to it with brilliant stop-motion animation and a story that can appeal to both kids and adults. – 10/10

Foxcatcher (2014) – Bennett Miller

foxcatcher_aI should probably like Foxcatcher more than I do. While the acting was great, the whole movie (including the acting) was just off-putting to me. The slow pace, the color palette, the awkwardness of the characters, the look of Tatum sticking out his chin, and the look of Carell sticking out his nose just made for an uncomfortable experience. I honestly felt like the two leads were playing their characters as if they were autistic, and I’m not sure if that was intentional or not. This movie also includes the most obvious use of Chekhov’s gun I’ve ever seen in a movie (and this is coming from someone who didn’t know the ending before seeing the film). I know that there is someone who’s going to read this who will hate me for writing this review (hi, Paul), but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it at all.  – 5/10

Coherence (2013) – James Byrkit

Emily-Baldoni-and-or-Foxler-in-Coherence-movie-620xThis is one of those mindbending/timebending/realitybending movies that have popped up in recent years after the cult success of Primer and Triangle. These movies tend to have a very strong premise and clearly are crafted expertly in order to keep viewers guessing the whole time. Coherence does this pretty well but doesn’t really live up to the standards set by the two other movies I mentioned. One of the things it does really well like Primer, however, is create a sense of confusion while at the same time leaving hints for viewers to find in a second viewing. Maybe I’ll give it another shot in the future and will appreciate it more then. – 7/10

John Wick (2014) – David Leatch, Chad Stahelski

_1416165890Everything I read online about this movie made it seem like it was going to be the coolest action film of all time. Instead, I found it to be mostly a run-of-the-mill action movie that was a little more self-aware than some others of its kind (like Taken, for example). The fights were cool. The premise was silly. The casting was great, with Keanu Reeves and Alfie Allen both perfect in their roles (even if their roles were pretty much caricatures of other roles both have played in the past. I do want to add that this movie doesn’t shy away from showing real violence and people really getting hurt like some other big action movies such as The Expendables, which glorifies the violence but doesn’t show it honestly the way John Wick does. – 7/10

Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – Satoshi Kon

Tokyo-GodfathersThis movie continued the ECC International Cinema Club’s series on animated films. I showed Millennium Actress (one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time) last year to the club as my annual Satoshi Kon representative, and I taught it in my class as well, so I thought that I would change it up and show Tokyo Godfathers this time instead. I must admit I had never watched it before, so I took a chance and watched it for the first time with my students (something I have never done before). The movie is probably Kon’s weakest overall since the plot is just a series of completely absurd coincidences one after the other from the first scene all the way to the last. The characters are totally compelling though, and the atmosphere and tone are poignant. – 8/10

Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay

selma-bridgeThis film encapsulates the drama, tension, strategy, tragedy, hardships, and victories of the entire Civil Rights movement by focusing on one specific city and one specific struggle – that which led to the Voting Rights Act. I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I did. DuVernay pulled no punches in her honest portrayal of Dr. King, the SCLC members, Gov. Wallace, Pres. Johnson, or anyone else involved in this chapter of history. While many may write this movie off as a boring biopic, I found it to be extremely compelling; it felt more like a political thriller than a biography, and the film succeeds because of this. – 9/10

Short thoughts on Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and why I love video games

Pacmansmashbroswiiu3dsmiiversewebpostthtehhgwgwgwYesterday is a perfect example of why I still play and love video games. There were twelve different people at my house coming and going over the course of nine hours covering more than a 20 year difference in ages between the youngest and oldest and representing multiple races, political leanings, belief systems, income levels, genders, and sexual orientations who were all able to have a great time laughing, shouting at each other, and playing a game together.

I will, for the rest of my life, enjoy games when they provide a shared experience, create lasting friendships, and bring people together who may have never otherwise even known each other.

Movies of 2014 (update 12/10)

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Movies released in 2014. Months released are according to Wikipedia. I may have seen the movies after their initial release dates due to limited releases or waiting to watch at home. TBD scores mean that I am 100% planning to watch the movie but just haven’t had a chance to yet.

Month

Movie Name (Director) [my score out of ten]

 

January

Yves Saint Laurent (Jalil Lespert) [6/10] – The acting was decent, but plot was not compelling at all. A talented and successful person continues to be talented and successful for a long time without many speed bumps along the way.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh) [3/10] – I can’t believe the guy who directed Hamlet (1996) made this movie. It’s horrible. Every decision made by every character is incomprehensible.

February

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) [8/10] – I went into this movie the first time thinking it was going to be a good time-waster. Instead, it was a very clever movie that insulted the idea of  corporate-backed silly pop culture while also being corporate-backed silly pop culture.

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki) [8/10] – Unfortunately, I saw the strange English dubbed version in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices the main character, a Japanese airplane designer. It was still a visually stunning movie and made me care for a character whose primary job was building machines used to bomb people during WWII, which is not at all how I expected to respond when I first heard about the film.

March

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) [9/10] – This is definitely the funniest movie of the year. I admit I’m a bit biased towards Anderson movies, but I think anyone would find the humor in this one. There’s also a really cool framing technique used both in the narrative and with the cinematography that I personally enjoyed as a fan of frame stories.

Captain America: Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) [9/10] – Winter Soldier is a much better spy movie than the Jack Ryan film and a better superhero movie than The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It works on all levels and managed to both broaden and ground the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the same time.

The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura) [9/10] – This is a wonderfully crafted murder mystery movie that ignores detectives and instead focuses on the media, both social and traditional, as they manipulate the public’s view of a suspect. In a lot of ways, this movie is like Gone Girl (which I saw before this even though it came out earlier). Both films have unique ways of handling a typical mystery (missing wife or grizzly murder) and keep you guessing the entire time.

Divergent (Neil Burger) [4/10] – It’s not The Hunger Games.

Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller) [6/10] – It’s one of those Seth Rogen trying to toe the line between adulthood and adolescence movies. Great for a few laughs, but I am writing this in December, several months after seeing the movie, because it was so forgettable. The only reason I even remembered that I saw it is because I was looking at a list of the movies released in 2014 to see if there were any I still wanted to watch but didn’t have a chance to yet.

April

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) [7/10] – Personally, I found the sound editing of this movie to be the most interesting element. The dubstep-inspired fight scenes with Electro were especially exciting. The rest of the movie was pretty fun, too, but it just doesn’t hit the sweet spot that the first two Tobey McGuire films did for me.

Case Closed / Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper (Kobun Shizuno) [7/10] – Detective Conan is the Japanese equivalent of Scooby Doo. There are a million episodes of the show, and a thousand movies based on it. This most recent one was fairly interesting because all of the suspects were military snipers, which made for some intense scenes in which people were shooting at each other from huge distances. Too bad Conan is somehow a better shot than with a soccer ball than some of these trained snipers are with scoped rifles.

May

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) [10/10] – The X-Men movie series is probably my second favorite long-running series after Harry Potter. They both utilize the best actors possible for their roles to tell fantastical stories that have real meaning behind them. Days of Future Past takes one of the best stories from the X-Men comics and does it justice even though a large number of details were changed. It also effectively works without any confusion to the audience despite time travel and a gigantic ensemble cast.

The Normal Heart (Ryan Murphy) [8/10] – I watched this on a whim thinking it would be similar to last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club. I was right. There’s not too much that would make me recommend it over DBC, but it’s worth watching in its own right.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois) [8/10] – The first movie in this series did not impress me, but everything about the second film kept me smiling the whole way through. It’s my pick as of now for the best animated movie of the year with fantastic visuals and action as well as a compelling story and likable characters.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) [7/10] – Tom Cruise has been an A-list action movie star for more than 20 years for a reason. This sci-fi action take on Groundhog’s Day does everything just about right but doesn’t really stand out aside from its interesting premise.

The Double (Richard Ayoade) [10/10] – Ayoade’s take on Dostoyevsky was a complete surprise to me, since I know him primarily as that goofy guy from The IT Crowd. The visual style of the movie combined with Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliant acting as Simon Jame and James Simon worked together to form a confusing but brilliant film. It’s definitely in my top 5 of the year.

June

22 Jump Street (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) [7/10] – It’s like 21 Jump Street but newer. That exact joke is made in the movie. It’s fun; it’s funny; the actors are hilarious. But, it’s exactly what you expect, and the directors knew it. It may have the best epilogue/credits scenes of all time, though.

Earth to Echo (Dave Green) [8/10] – I did not expect to like this movie, but it is basically the ET of the Youtube generation, and I use “Youtube” specifically because the entire movie is shot as if it’s a Vlog by a pre-teen Youtuber. The movie has heart; the young actors are convincing; the not-quite-found-footage camerawork is great. My twelve-year-old brother who loves to spend his free time watching Youtube (in other words, the exact target demographic) said it was the best movie he has ever seen.

July

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) [9/10] – Marvel movies seem to be on a roll this year, whether it’s Marvel Studios, Sony, or Fox in charge. Gunn takes a less-than-popular comic series and turns it into a major blockbuster movie using a great lead actor and a very sharp script, just like Marvel Studios did previously with Captain America and Iron Man. I’m interested to see how the plot of this movie is going to fit in with the rest of the MCU.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater) [10/10] – This ambitious project made over the course of 11 years could have been a gimmicky mess. Instead, it is a movie about exactly what it claims to be about – boyhood. The movie documents the life of a fictional boy named Mason from the time he’s about 8 years old and in elementary school until he’s 18 and in college. The movie had to be made over an 11 year period because Mason was played by one actor, Ellar Coltrane, and they had to wait for him to grow through his boyhood years to shoot the scenes set during those specific periods.

August

Birdman (Alejandro Inarrito) [8/10] – Technically this movie came out in August, but I didn’t see it until late October. It was very hyped up by the people on various movie-based discussion forums I frequent as one of the greatest movies ever made. I found it to be technically impressive and very well-acted, but the plot meanders. I think this movie is aimed at people who appreciate film making and metacinema, which I do, but it probably doesn’t do much for anyone else.

September

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball) [6/10] – Another decent adaptation of a decent young adult novel makes its way onto the screen. I like the premise of this movie, and I found the book to be a bit better than some of the other popular series at the moment. However, the shortcuts taken in the adaptation make for a movie that probably doesn’t make much sense to non-readers. Some characters were strangely overlooked despite being important in the rest of the book series, and one incredibly important plot point is completely disregarded, which makes me wonder how they plan to proceed with the inevitable sequels.

October

Gone Girl (David Fincher) [10/10] – This is a perfect example of why I love movies. It has everything I want from a tense psychological thriller. The motivations of each of the characters are fresh and interesting. The development of the plot through the eyes of the two main characters running parallel to each other create a bunch of great moments of dramatic irony. The multiple twists and turns the story makes are all well-crafted. At the time of this writing (11/18), Gone Girl is my favorite movie of the year.

Dear White People (Justin Simien) [9/10] – I love movies about school life, school politics, students, and teachers. Dear White People is about a few different people at an Ivy League school that don’t really fit in – whether for their skin color, sexual orientation, place of origin, or parental heritage. The complex interrelationships of these characters with the underlying racial tensions clashing with traditional Ivy League values is handled with a deft hand by Simien. Unfortunately, many people are going to be turned off by the title, but I encourage anyone of any skin color to watch the movie.

November

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) [9/10] – This is another stunning, epic film from Nolan. As a fan of some of his work but not all of it, I was surprised by one thing above all: Christopher Nolan can actually direct something with some feeling and emotion in it. I never thought I would care about a sarcastic robot that looks like a Kit-Kat bar, but I did. The movie is not perfect, and I understand why some people may not like it or may want to not like it because it’s hip to hate what’s popular, but I will probably watch this movie at least a couple more times. I recommend for the full experience to see it at a real Imax theater such as the one at Navy Pier in Chicago.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall) [7/10] – What would you get if you crossed The Incredibles with anime? The answer is Big Hero 6, a story about a super genius 14-year old who has his ludicrously advanced technology stolen from him, so he uses more ludicrous technology to make his group of college aged friends as well as a medical robot into superheroes to find the guy who stole it and take it back but absolutely unbelievably does not give himself any special abilities beyond slightly magnetic pads to hold on tight to the robot. I like the movie. It’s fun and has a great visual style, but I wouldn’t choose it over How to Train Your Dragon 2 as my pick for action-packed movie for kids.

December

Movies I haven’t yet had a chance to see

Foxcatcher

Nightcrawler

Boxtrolls

The Imitation Game

Rosewater

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Gambler

Top Five

Under the Skin

Goodbye to Language

Winter Sleep

 

Response to a question: “How revelant is the competive community to a fighting game’s performance?”

img_4401This question was asked by Master Havik in the Chicago Fighting Game Community Facebook group. Below is my response.

The competitive community is what keeps people playing games, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to more revenue for the company, which is (unfortunately) why it looks like there is going to be a shift to the F2P model, where revenue stream for a game is extended throughout its competitive life. Fighting games have always had a weird revenue model:

Arcade machines cost money for each play, and the companies kept them interesting by releasing a lot of different games and versions.

 

Console versions of fighters traditionally also got many versions of a game, which you would have to buy individually. This has been true from the SF2 days all the way up to SF4 and MvC3 for Capcom. Companies like Aksys take it to an extreme with so, so many versions of GGXX and BB.

Many fighting game series stagnated in the 2000s because arcades weren’t pulling in as much money over the course of the game’s lifespan, customers were tired of paying for a whole new version of a game every year or so, and consoles like the DC and PS2 weren’t quite ready for DLC and all that was to come in the PS3/360 era.

In the current console generation, there has been a move towards paid patches and updates as well as paid DLC characters, costumes, etc. While this model allows for companies to make money over the course of a game’s lifespan, the competitive community (who keep the games alive by playing them) complain about getting nickel and dimed. I still can’t believe that I paid $5 each for the 3 DLC characters in KOFXIII, when I picked up the game itself for $20 about six months after it released.

The performance of most AAA single player games (that may have a shoehorned in multiplayer mode) depends almost entirely upon the sales in the first week or so that it comes out, much like Hollywood movies. Sure, there are those who will pick up the game later at a discounted price or buy it used, but the company gets little to none of that money. It’s okay for those types of games because they generally have a 10-20 hour lifespan and little replayability.

A competitive game has a literally endless number of new and exciting hours of gameplay because you’re playing against other people and discovering new things to do against them. The games’ performance can be tied to how long people continue to play, but the company still needs to bring in revenue if they are going to continue to support those games through online play, patches, DLC, and all the other things that we competitors want from them but are unwilling to pay for.

New games are going to need a system of revenue generation that many competitors (myself included) are very wary of. Look at Tekken Revolution, where leveling and paying for in game bonuses gives your character an unfair leg up on the competition. League of Legends allows players to buy new characters that others might not have access to unless they grind for in-game currency just to be able to play them. Yes, they offer free heroes on a rotating basis, but one of the best aspects of most competitive games is that all characters/strategies/etc are available to all players at all times so that they can learn to use them or practice how to counter them.

The model of revenue generation that I’m hoping takes over is that of DOTA2, which allows for buying of tons of cosmetic upgrades and customization of the game and characters but has no effect on the competitive aspects because all of the characters are available to anyone playing from the very start. If something like this came to fighting games (as it sort of did with Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown), where the game is free or cheap to download and all characters are included and cannot be buffed by leveling up or “buying up”, then we could see the financial performance of fighting games become more tied to the competitive community or at least the hardcore fans who are willing to pay to make the game more customized or fun for themselves while still keeping the competitive aspects fair and in tact. That would lead to companies having money on hand all the time for balance patches, new DLC characters, sponsored tournaments, and other great stuff.

Dangan Ronpa (PSP Game) Review

Dangan Ronpa  Kibou no Gakuen to Zetsubou no KoukouseiA few days ago, the incredibly fine folks over at Project Zetsubou released their fan translation of the 2010 PSP visual novel/mystery game Dangan Ronpa (developed and published by Spike) that has only been officially released in Japan. I had not heard of the game until a couple of months ago when my wife played through a Chinese fan translation. As a fan of the Ace Attorney series, I was intrigued by the gameplay and concept, so I’ve been waiting patiently for this fantastic game to finally be playable in a language I know. That all being said, here’s my quick review of the game.

Overview

Dangan Ronpa is a game that takes place inside of a school for the best and the brightest, with nearly every student excelling at a specific skill such as a sport, computer programming, or writing. The number of students admitted to the school is very small, just a bit more than a dozen. The main character has no particular skill and is only average in all school subjects, but one student is drawn randomly from a pool of average students from across Japan. Upon arriving, things are not what they seem from the very beginning, and you find yourself in a sort of twisted game in which the students are told by a remote-controlled teddy bear that only one of them can “graduate” and leave the school if that person is able to murder a fellow student and successfully trick the other students into placing the blame on someone else during the “Class Trial” that takes place after each murder. If someone does commit a murder and is found guilty, that person is executed, and the rest of the students can go on living in the “school”. If the Class Trial finds the wrong person guilty, then everyone but the murderer is executed, and he or she is free to leave.

Your task in the game is to get to know the other students, try to get them to work together, solve the murders, explore the locked-down school, and discover the mysteries behind the person or people running the twisted game.

Gameplay

While I’m sure there are tons of other great games that play out similarly to Ace Attorney and Dangan Ronpa, I have generally steered away from the “click on everything and talk to everyone in order to progress the story” visual novels that permeate the Japanese market, and I was worried that this might be the case with DR since it is basically a murder mystery game. However, the gameplay mixes things up enough that there are hardly any dull moments. Sometimes you are given a specific goal such as to find out where something or someone is hiding. Others you are free to roam about the school to building to build relationships with other students or just explore. Most of your time outside of the Class Trials will be spent, however, investigating murders and having informal meetings with the rest of the students.

This all takes place through a conventional first person perspective where clicking on another character will bring them into the foreground, and you can listen to what they have to say or ask them questions. Clicking on various objects around the school will add them to your “ammunition” which are used during the trials. After a dead body is found, you are given an amount of time to investigate and try to determine who the murderer is. There’s no actual time limit to the investigation, and there was never a time in which I simply didn’t know what to do. The pacing of the game allows for you to kind of learn the flow of the investigations as you go, and, while it doesn’t hold your hand all the time and always tell you where to go, it does occasionally give strong hints, and you usually can’t leave a room until you have examined everything there of importance.

After you have done a thorough investigation, the start of a Class Trial is announced. Coming from the Ace Attorney series, I expected the trials to play out as similarly to that series as the investigations do. While there are some elements that are borrowed, especially during the Nonstop Debate, the trials in Dangan Ronpa are a combination of several different gameplay types that mostly work. Nonstop Debates have you firing ammunition (in the form of evidence or testimonials) to contradict what people are saying. Machinegun Talk Battles act as very simple rhythm games in which you have to keep up with your opponent’s barrage of useless banter. Epiphany Anagrams have you spell out words by shooting the letters as they fly across the screen. Climax Logic has you put together a manga/comic that gives a rough timeline of the events of the murder. Of these, I feel like the MTBs were a bit too easy, and the Epiphany Anagrams probably work better in Japanese than they do in English. In one particular instance, the answer was an abbreviation of a longer phrase that was confusing at first.

As you go through the story and unlock more areas of the school to explore, the mysteries get more complicated and new elements are addded to the investigations and trials. The pacing of this is pretty spot-on, although I did feel like the 3rd chapter was more complicated and required a bit more work to piece together than the 4th. This is, of course, a very minor quibble, and there’s no particular reason other than general video game difficulty curves for the order of events to be so convenient.

The gameplay overall is solid, but there are a few questionable choices such as using the control stick to move around and the dpad to look around. Others, as mentioned earlier, are the less-than-stellar Machinegun Talk Battles and Epiphany Anagrams. These do not detract from the overall experience, however. If you are familiar and comfortable with the Ace Attorney games or even the daytime elements of Persona, then you should feel right at home, except this home is a bit more action-oriented.

Presentation

The music and art direction set this game apart from other murder mystery games which tend to be dark in tone, color, and atmosphere. Dangan Ronpa is full of upbeat music, funny dialogue, great character designs, and a high contrast color palette that is both creepy and cheerful. Every time you enter a room, the floors, ceiling, furniture, and characters fly onto the screen from every direction and form a pop-up book or diorama style 2D/3D hybrid that is truly unique. Even rooms I had gone into dozens of times still occasionally caught me off guard with plenty of little details and stuff to examine that I didn’t notice before.

During certain moments, the game shows still image close ups that let you admire the truly distinct characters and environments. At other times, there are full-blown CGI movies that play. Most of the time, you are looking at the different rooms throughout the school, which are all well-designed and distinct from each other, the hallways, which are a bit less exciting than the rest of the visual elements – especially since you’ll usually have your map overlaying the screen, or character art of the student you are talking to.

While I would never play a visual novel to be wowed by the presentation, I find little to complain about with this game. It’s got a style all of its own, and the characters are some of the best designed anime/manga style people I have ever seen in a game.The voice acting is fantastic, with each character’s personality really coming through the Japanese VO, and the translation by Project Zetsubou is nearly flawless. Add all of that with some great music (which can be played outside of the main game in the extras menu), and you have a game that bleeds style.

Story

I am keeping this as spoiler-free as possible (although my overview does admittedly spoil the premise), so this section will be short. To put it simply, the story is very hard to predict but is explained well enough that you never feel like it is using cheap tricks to justify the twists or surprises. Every new chapter brings more questions than answers, and I found myself staying up far later each night than the previous for the past three days as I could not wait to find out what happens next. Generally, I am very critical of the stories in video games, and I tend to play games in which the story is not the main draw, such as puzzle games, fighters, and platformers. That being said, I found the story of Dangan Ronpa to be a great mix of serious and whimsical. Every character is well developed (especially if you take the time to speak with them during “free time”), and the game does not have a single weak chapter. If you enjoy stories that combine mystery, deception, betrayal, diverse characters, and teddy bears, then I highly recommend the game.

Lasting Thoughts

Dangan Ronpa has unique story gameplay, story, and stylistic elements that set it apart from other games in the visual novel genre. I can’t say it’s better than my absolute favorite game of this type (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations), but it is the first game in a long time that has left me wanting more once I finished it. Often, I feel more of an obligation to finish out a story-based game once I’m about 2/3 of the way through because, by then, I’m probably tired of the gameplay or have already figured out the rest of the story. Dangan Ronpa has only made me wish I had waiting until the novel and sequel were already translated because I cannot stand to only know part of the story.

Thoughts on the “Big 3” at E3

6e201c5789e7be76f4271ffb2ba30af4For those who don’t know, E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, but (despite the name implying that it’s for all kinds of entertainment) it’s essentially a video game trade show. It’s held every year in California mainly for the press and people in the industry, but the news that comes out of it is important to everyone from an average video game player to stock traders on Wall Street. The “Big 3” are Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo – the companies that make or have made the 6th, 7th, and 8th generations of home video game consoles. It’s a big year for E3 because 2013 marks the full transition from the 7th to the 8th generation. Technically, Nintendo released its 8th generation console, the Wii U, in late 2012, but Sony and Microsoft join with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this year. Each of these three companies gave press conferences about the futures of their respective consoles (and handhelds in the case of Sony and Nintendo), and I’m going to give my opinion on each in the order they occurred.

 

Microsoft – Xbox One

The Xbox One (which many are nicknaming Xbone) was announced a couple of weeks before E3 to nobody’s surprise, and it left many people with more questions than answers. They showed the actual console but did not do much else besides show some games and give out confusing details about some serious limitations on the the device. At E3, many thought that they would clarify some of these limitations and ease the minds and hearts of those interested in getting Microsoft’s new system. One of the biggest unanswered questions was what the price would be. Another was whether or not an Internet connection would be required to simply play games as had been stated before. Instead of taking these concerns to heart and surprising everyone with a low price and removing the online requirement, they announced it would cost $499 in the US and would be even more expensive elsewhere. They then solidified the fact that the console would have to “check in” to the Internet at least once every 24 hours, even if someone only wanted to play games that have no online components. Also, that “elsewhere” I mentioned is limited to only 21 countries. If you live anywhere else in the world, the Internet check-in won’t work, and you won’t be able to play your games. Effectively, they bombed their chance at making things right since the announcement of the console.

However, many people who play games are interested primarily in the games themselves, right? Microsoft had plenty of them to show, and they seem to have quite a few important exclusive games. The one of these I’m most interested in as primarily a fighting game player is the long-awaited third game in the Killer Instinct series, named Killer Instinct. As a side note, I have no idea why so many games and movies like to pretend they are not sequels by removing the numbering after the title once enough time has passed or if there have simply been too many in the series. There’s already a game called Killer Instinct, and, if they make a sequel to the new one, will they just call it Killer Instinct 2? That’s already the name of a game as well! The new Killer Instinct was announced as a free to play game, which concerns me, but then was later changed to be a free to play demo, which most fighting games already have, and that you could buy the full game separately. I understand why Microsoft made KI an exclusive title, but it saddens me as someone who isn’t planning on buying an Xbox One.

Overall, I feel like Microsoft dropped the ball. They had every chance to do this right as they did with the Xbox 360, but the limitations, the scarily invasive technologies, and the price have turned me (and many others I have spoken to) against even considering to buy the Xbox One. There’s very little chance I will ever own one unless it somehow becomes the standard for future fighting games as the 360 did in this generation. I don’t see that happening, however, due to many concerns that tournament organizers have voiced over how difficult it would be to run a tournament on a system which requires a Kinect and an Internet connection to work.

Sony – PlayStation 4 

The PlayStation 4 (PS4) was announced even earlier than the Xbox One, which gave Microsoft a chance to feel out the competition before announcing its console. However, the original announcement focused on system features and games but did not show the console itself, leading to questions to hopefully be answered at E3, much like with the Xbox One (although different questions). Unlike with the Xbox One, most of the answers to these questions were satisfying with regards to Sony’s PS4. First of all, the design of the console itself is very sleek and will look nice in my Sony-centric living room. Secondly, the price is also much more reasonable at $399. To top it all off, the system is much more open in regards to region-locking, DRM, game sharing, and indie game development.

Unfortunately, there was not a single fighting game shown for PS4. This is really disappointing considering all the features that make the PS4 the perfect system for the genre: video streaming and sharing, ability to use 3rd party USB controllers, no required online check, and automatic updates. On the other hand, two games which I am very excited for were shown as part of the press conference: Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3. Later, both were revealed to be released for Xbox One as well, but it was too late for Microsoft because I preordered the PS4 only a few hours after Sony’s show. FFXV looks particularly amazing, a great example of the difference between the current and next generation. As mentioned before, Sony also confirmed that there are quite a few indie games in development for the system, which will hopefully bolster the launch with some fun diversions before some of the bigger games come out. Oh, yeah, there were also a bunch of shooting and racing games, but I’m not terribly interested in any of those.

Sony didn’t walk away with flying colors, however. They were slightly underhanded in the way they “announced” one new aspect of the PS4 – that you would be required to subscribe to PlayStation Plus to be able to play most games online. One of the biggest selling points of the PS3 is that it has always been free to play online. I personally think PlayStation Plus is already a great deal, but the fact that we had to find out about it on the small print of an advertisement for something else entirely was pretty shady.

Overall, I agree with most of the rest of the Internet that Sony did a pretty good job at E3. It looks like they are winning the early game against the Xbox One with preorders, and I think that they are going to continue to dominate the next console generation. I just hope there are actually some games that come out for the system at launch that I want to play.

Sony also has a great handheld called the PS Vita which has been out for a while. There weren’t a ton of games mentioned for it in the main conference, but I assure you that they exist. The Vita has the most beautiful screen I’ve ever seen on a handheld device, and the upcoming remote play functionality is going to be great for those few of us who are going to own both a PS4 and PSV.

Nintendo – Wii U

The poorly named and poorly marketed Wii U launched late last year to fairly poor sales and a lot of confusion. To this day, many people I know just think it’s an overpriced Wii accessory rather than an entirely new console that is more powerful than a PS3 or 360. Nintendo’s main goal of this E3 was to clarify all of this and get people to buy a Wii U before the onslaught of XB1 and PS4 this holiday season. Rather than show a traditional press conference to people who couldn’t make it to E3, Nintendo created some pre-recorded videos that included clips and short explanations of a bunch of different upcoming games. Also, at a very limited number of Best Buy stores around the US this week, shoppers were treated to some swag and a chance to play some of the demos that would have otherwise been limited to people who were able to attend E3. Unfortunately, the closest one to where I live is about two hours away despite there being about 20 Best Buys between here and there, and I couldn’t justify the trip.

Of course and as always, the games shown by Nintendo were mostly first-party titles in long-running series. There was not a single surprise among them all as the only completely unannounced title was Super Mario 3D World, but people have been expecting a 3D Mario on Wii U since before it launched. There were a couple of really cool surprise characters announced for the new Super Smash Bros. game, which is very sadly the biggest fighting game news to come out of E3 entirely. Nintendo’s first-party games, such as Mario Kart 8, all generally look great and are the main reason that I continue to buy Nintendo consoles.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that Nintendo really accomplished its main goal. The Nintendo Direct video should have started out by explaining exactly what the Wii U was and announcing a price drop. Instead, it focused on games and gameplay, which is normally a great move. I still predict in a few months there will be people at stores all over buying Super Mario 3D World as Christmas presents for their kids that only own a Wii. The confusion that haunted last year’s holiday season isn’t going to go away until Nintendo faces facts and makes the differences more clear to the average consumer. If Mario Kart 8 or Smash Bros. were announced as coming out in 2013, I would say that Nintendo had a fighting chance this year. Because they weren’t, I expect the Wii U to get crushed this year but to come back with a serious vengeance in 2014.

The 3DS is going strong as Nintendo’s newest handheld. One of the coolest announcements from E3 regarding the successor to the greatest handheld of all time (Nintendo DS) is that it will also have its own version of Super Smash Bros which will include all of the characters (but strangely not all of the stages). I don’t know if this will affect the game competitively, but I would expect that tournaments will be run on the Wii U version.

Closing Thoughts

As someone who primarily plays fighting games and other games by Japanese developers, E3 isn’t where I expect to get blown away by game announcements. I hope that EVO and Tokyo Game Show have some surprises in store. That isn’t to say that E3 isn’t important to me as a fan of video games. The entire industry is focused on this event, and its aftermath determines which consoles people are going to buy and develop games for. From what it looks like, Sony has the ball and is running with it. The PS4 has the power, price, and features that make for a great console. It just needs more games. Nintendo of course has strong first party games but needs to get out the word better about its console. If I were them, I would also worry about getting left in the dust due to the huge difference in power between the Wii U and the other two consoles, but I guess that didn’t matter much with the Wii. So, I could be wrong. Microsoft has to do a lot between now and the Xbox One’s launch to get the attention off of its terrible policies, price, and limitations. There are some really strong games coming out for the system, but I’m not willing to deal with all the hoops I would have to jump through in order to play them.

Shanghai (China Trip Part 2)

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We left for Shanghai on a very impressive high speed bullet train which took us the 110 miles in under 50 minutes. From what I understand, it was only traveling at half of its top speed, which makes me wonder why we don’t have high speed rail in the US. It’s definitely my new favorite way to travel. It’s like traveling by plane without all the hassles. It’s also a little bit cheaper, and the seats are more comfortable.

When we arrived in Shanghai, Vicky’s dad had already arranged for someone to pick us up from the train station and take us to a restaurant to eat before going to the hotel because we got there right in the middle of rush hour. So, we stopped in a random underground parking lot outside of the city (the train station is about as far outside of Shanghai as O’Hare is from Chicago), and after a quick elevator ride,  I found myself inside the nicest restaurant we visited during the trip. The people who picked us up from the airport were business associates of my father-in-law, and I guess they wanted to impress him with a great meal with a bunch of Shanghai specialties.

Finally, after eating a fantastic meal filled with dishes chosen by everyone else based on what they thought I would like (which was very welcome after the less than great meals we ate in Hangzhou), we headed for the city itself through some very thick traffic. It was okay, though, because I got the chance to check out a bunch of the architecture (albeit from a car window) along the way. At one point I asked how old some skyscrapers I saw were, and our host (for lack of a better term) told me that they were really old, built about 25 years ago. I laughed and said that, in America, most of our tall buildings are much older than that and that it’s a big deal for a city to construct a new building. She said that new buildings are made all the time in Shanghai and the rest of China because there is much less red tape than in the US and because construction costs are much lower. She would know because she works for a company that produces elevators.

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Our hotel was located right off of Nanjing Street, a famous pedestrian road with a bunch of restaurants and shopping centers, so that’s where we spent a lot of our free time during our stay. Some of the highlights of Nanjing Street are the first arcade I visited during the trip, a nice bookstore in which I bought “Catching Fire”, the second Hunger Games book, to read on the plane back to Harbin, a giant, multilevel food court, and an interesting encounter that took place outside of an ice cream shop.

When in Hangzhou, we met up with my wife’s friend who was in town visiting her parents for a few weeks during a vacation from school in Europe. Another of her friends and one of Vicky’s classmates from high school was also visiting Hangzhou at the time, so we all spent one afternoon together. Both girls were really nice and were willing to try speaking English with me as much as possible. Anyway, one of the nights in Shanghai, Vicky and I decided to get some ice cream at a place on Nanjing Street. After eating, we sat and relaxed inside the shop for about 20-25 minutes before getting up to leave and continue walking along the road. Right at the moment we left the shop, the girl we met in Hangzhou was walking by and recognized us. We were absolutely surprised considering the chances of that happening are astronomically low. Not only did she happen to decide to visit Shanghai after Hangzhou, but she also decided to check out Nanjing Street (remember that Shanghai is the biggest city in China with more than 23 million people – almost 3x that of New York City, so there are plenty of places to see). In addition, she happened to be there the same night as us, and we didn’t go there every evening. Also, she was walking by the ice cream store right as we decided to leave (and our decision to leave at that moment was entirely arbitrary).  Anyway, it was our last night there and we were heading back to our hotel to rest for the flight the next morning, so we only chatted and walked with her for a couple of blocks before sending her on her way with a bus pass we had bought earlier and no longer needed.

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Other cool places near our hotel included a cheap convenience store right across the street which we bought breakfast from every morning and a small mall that was completely filled with board game shops. I mentioned these a bit more in my minipost on board games in China, but suffice to say that there are tons of places in China to play and buy board games. We also took a cab out to Leihuo arcade in a different section of town, which is supposedly the best arcade in all of China. While it was full of tons of games and had a very strong selection of King of Fighters players, I generally enjoyed the other, more Japanese-style arcades full of music games and bright lights, than LeiHuo. I’m sure, however, that I would go there all the time and level up my KOF if I lived in Shanghai or was visiting for an extended period of time.

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One of the days we were in Shanghai could almost count as visiting another whole city since we drove out about an hour and a half to Zhujiajiao Ancient Town, a small village with a river winding its way through. It was filled with quaint shops selling everything from touristy plastic crap to original artwork and homemade food. We took a ton of pictures and videos there, and we rode a boat piloted by an old lady who asked us if we wanted to listen to her sing while she rowed. It was a pretty cool place, and the food we ate was delicious. Near the end, we almost got lost because we were wandering for quite some time.
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Although we had to deal with some inclement weather, we did quite a bit of travelling by foot while in Shanghai. One of the trips we made three times was to the river which separated the downtown financial district from the rest of the city. We took pictures and videos from both sides and even rode through a cool, psychedelic tunnel under the river at one point. The skyline of the financial district is probably the most famous view in all of Shanghai, with the Oriental Pearl Tower as the main focal point, and let me tell you that the view did not disappoint.

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On one of these expeditions (I can’t remember which), I declared that I just had to eat KFC and Pizza Hut in China at least once each. I had heard that they are much different than in the US and that they even qualify as restaurants you would take someone out on a date to. Well, here’s my quick review of both. First, KFC: Aside from some different menu choices, there’s not much interesting about it in China expect for the fact that KFC is everywhere. It seemed to be even more common than McDonald’s is in the US. Pizza Hut, on the other hand, was amazing! It’s a high-end restaurant that not only features strange and interesting pizza, but also has steak, wine, and a huge menu full of other Chinese takes on Western food. We ate a pizza with steak, corn, and bell peppers with stuffed crust and a black pepper spicy sauce instead of a tomato-based traditional pizza sauce. I liked it so much that I ordered the same thing again when Vicky and I went to Pizza Hut later in Harbin.
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Another cool area we went to was the Yuyuan Temple and the surrounding garden. It was cool to see people praying at the small temple and to walk through some of the same places that ancient Chinese dignitaries would have gone to relax. We also visited a touristy shopping area that looks like those you might see in a Chinese movie – small alleyways with people hawking their wares, quaint little restaurants and bars, and lots of bicycles and motorbikes parked outside.

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Of course, Shanghai was not the the end of our trip, so we had to yet again hop on a plane, this time to head back to Harbin for the next part of our stay. One of the coolest parts about this trip was riding the Shanghai Maglev – the first train of its kind to be available for commercial use in the whole world – to the airport. It was very similar to the bullet train we took to get into Shanghai, but it uses even more advanced technology despite being slightly older.

Stay tuned for Part 3 – Harbin!