A Thousand Words: Valkyrie

Valkyrie

2008’s Valkyrie stars Tom Cruise and depicts the July 20 Plot that tried and failed to kill Hitler. An unusual historical movie for Hollywood, it has both the strengths and weaknesses of a lavish production aimed at a big audience. The strengths are obvious-great production values. The visual style is excellent, and the John Ottman score is nothing short of amazing.

However, it also, in the interest of audience morality, sugar-coats and oversimplifies the plotters. The movie does do a decent job in showing how unlikely it was for the Valkyrie conspirators to actually gain control of the government even if Hitler and his inner circle were killed off. However, it does not dwell on how the actual plotters ranged from “ok, at least a little better than Hitler, but that’s definitely not saying much” to “Really bad, including Einsatzgruppen commanders and mass POW-killers”. It also does not bring up that the Allies would never have accepted the terms the plotters wanted to offer, and would have just viewed it as infighting among thugs. While understandable, this is still a missed opportunity for complexity in addition to an inaccuracy.

Leaving factual issues aside, the acting is a mixed bag. Cruise himself is quite wooden, but a lot of the supporting cast does well. Tom Wilkinson does a great job as the weaselly General Fromm in my favorite role. An underrated performance is David Bamber as Hitler. Not only does he come across as appropriately menacing, but he’s menacing in a soft-spoken way that’s quite different from the usual (including Downfall) bombastic Hitler.

For all its issues, Valkyrie is still worth a watch, especially if you don’t mind historical inaccuracy.

A Thousand Words: Title Bout Championship Boxing

Title Bout Championship Boxing

The Title Bout Championship Boxing computer game, released first in the early 2000s, is very strange. It’s had development stop (and start, and stop), had the rights change hands, and yet the initial, stable version can still be legally bought and updated. Even in gameplay terms, it’s the kind of game that I like but I can see why many others wouldn’t.

It really can be summed up as like an MCOAT for boxing instead of military equipment. All you can do is set up the parameters and watch the simulation go forth, with a combination of characteristics and luck simulating the outcome of the matches. This leads to a very deep but very narrow type of game.

So yes, you can simulate Tyson vs. Ali, but save for giving vague and not necessarily follow-able instructions, you really can’t do much except watch. For “normal” players I can see the limitations. But for someone like me who likes seeing different outcomes for their own sake, it’s a very fun and enjoyable game.

A Thousand Words: Wario Land 4

Wario Land 4

When I was a kid, I got a Game Boy Advance, and one of the available games that early in the product’s life cycle was Wario Land 4. It’s still one of my favorite platformers ever, and learning about it and the character’s history has made it even better.

Wario’s origin apparently came from the Game Boy team loathing having to make a Mario game, viewing him as this ugly mustached intruder. So for Super Mario Land 2, they made an ugly mustached intruder. By a good coincidence, flipping the letter “M” in Mario led to a viable pun in both Japanese (Warui) and English (War) for a villain. Wario became popular enough to get his own games.

The excuse plot is Wario finding about an ancient pyramid and then heading off to plunder it. He travels through paintings into various dimensions (it just dawned on me now that this is a parody of Mario 64), and goes on weird escapades. This is a well-done game. The platforming is very good, and the colorful setup manages to work around the GBA’s infamous dark screen without being too obnoxious. It also ditches the outdated arcade holdover “life” system completely-if you die, you just get pushed back to the hub and have to restart the level.

What’s made me extra-fond of this game is that it’s the first that I mastered. I remember how fun it was to be able to effortlessly beat bosses that used to give me trouble, and recall being able to constantly stunlock one boss as a moment of pride. (Also, it was actually hard to accidentally get the worst ending, but I remember being “bad” on purpose to do so as yet another challenge). The GBA had a lot of clunkers, but this was not one of them.

A Thousand Words: The Blue Max

The Blue Max

A classic World War I aircraft film, 1966’s The Blue Max is the story of Bruno Stachel, a self-absorbed, vainglorious fighter pilot in the German military. How does it hold up today? Well, I think it suffers from being a product of its time, although not in the way one might think.

For its time, the aerial flying sequences and acting are very good. For its time, it’s an edgy and hard-hitting movie compared to the stereotypical John Wayne fluff of war movies past. Yet by modern standards, it pales in comparison to what post-Vietnam war films have to offer. Still, that’s through no fault of its own and it’s still a very good historical fiction film.

As an aside, I’ve heard it’s one of the few movies to depict largely realistic air combat maneuvering. Later movies have gone for more visually impressive but less practical aerobatics. This goes for wider, bigger turns. It may be a virtue made out of necessity with the lower-performance planes involved in production, but it’s still interesting to see.

A Thousand Words: Automation

Automation: The Car Company Tycoon Game

Because one of my past jobs involved working in a parking lot, I developed an interest in cars just as I discovered that Automation: The Car Company Tycoon Game existed. It was a great fit at the time, and has only grown and developed since then. A very detailed car design simulator with a basic but growing campaign mode, it’s not for everyone but is a delight for auto enthusiasts.

I’ve enjoyed making all sorts of cars in there, from the ones you’d expect to weird ones like gigantic rumbling inline 4 motors and stuffing monster engines into the bays of Corolla-sized econoboxes (talk about “hot hatches”). I even made something like the Dodge Ram SRT-10 by putting a supercar engine into a pickup truck. The game is unforgiving and has a pretty steep learning curve, but if/when you get the hang of it, you can do really great car things.

A Thousand Words: Pokemon Silver

Pokemon Silver Version

It’s the 25th anniversary of Pokemon, the series of my childhood. And one generation stands out in particular for me-Generation II, more specifically the Silver Version. However, I also feel like this particular generation happened at exactly the right time, when I was young enough to be in total awe but old enough to appreciate it.

I’d say Gen II felt alive in ways that neither Gen I or III did. There’s a clock, and visible day-night progression. Certain events only happen on certain days of the week. There are two regions, both of which look and sound distinct. It feels impressive.

Of course, two regions also lead to something I did notice even at the time-its horrible difficulty progression. Most of the early game is an absolute cakewalk, to the point where I think Whitney’s infamous Miltank gets its memetic status purely because it’s the only even slight challenge in an otherwise effortless journey. Then the difficulty jumps big and stays there.

If I was to replay Gen II now, I’d say it almost certainly wouldn’t impress me nearly as much. But it will always have a place in my heart that none of the other (worthy and enjoyable) games did.

A Thousand Words: Two For The Money

Two For The Money

2005’s Two For The Money stars Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. It is one of the few movies about sports betting, and perhaps the only movie in recent history about sports betting “handicappers” who sell pick advice, or, as they’re known more derogatorily, “touts”. As someone writing my own fiction about touts, I knew I had to watch this film. What did I think about it?

First the plot. McConaughey is an injured college quarterback who goes from playing football games to predicting them. Pacino is a super-tout who values in his skill. The movie chronicles their rise and fall. It’s a classic, predictable narrative. Al Pacino does the stereotypical “Al Pacino Hamfisted Role”, but he does it well. His co-star is more erratic, and not in a good way.

Beyond that, the biggest issue I had was how it misrepresented touts. Now, I was fully expecting and prepared for sports-movie exaggeration (for instance, the way the main character’s picks zoom from great to poor so quickly and consistently). But this goes beyond that, treating the handicappers as sincerely trying to get the right pick and sincerely caring about the outcomes of the games. In reality, nearly all touts don’t.

They make referral deals with sportsbooks, meaning they have a vested interest in their customers losing. They will either cherry-pick or outright lie about their records to make them seem more impressive. And, most notably, they will pull the infamous “give half the callers one team and half the other” trick so that 50% will be ‘winners’. You get the idea. Honestly admitting to the inevitable losing periods doesn’t attract business. Neither does advertising the highest realistic win rate, which less knowledgeable people (ie, the people who’d fall for touts at all) would not consider impressive compared with “79% WIN RATE IN THIS CFB SEASON!”

The thing is, this movie could be equally dramatic, equally exaggerated, and equally able to pull off the “man’s descent into sleaze” plot if it treated its “handicapping” service in this way. There are a few times when it does get the image right, like its spot-on reenactment of over the top sports betting shows/infomercials. But far more often, Two For The Money misses when it didn’t have to. Which is a shame.

A Thousand Words: Action PC Baseball

Action PC Baseball

I think my favorite sports simulator of all time is Action PC Baseball. Of all the (worthy) baseball sims I’ve tried, this hits the “just right” level of simplicity and depth. Instead of being a “tycoon” game, it’s a single season replay/simulator that requires a lot of manual setup. It’s also an individual game simulation that’s pretty easy and relaxing to play, with a game able to be finished in minutes with the right settings.

This seems like Jekyll and Hyde, but these elements actually complement each other well. If I’m in the mood for some relaxing time-passing, I can just fire up a single game controlling both teams and enjoy it for that. If I have the time and energy for creating massive “what-ifs”, I can focus on building the rosters (which is frequently very fun). Though simple and a little hard to get into, the UI is very smooth once figured out.

In short, this simulator is one that has given me many, many hours of fun, and different varieties no less.

A Thousand Words: Unmasking The Idol

Unmasking The Idol

The film Unmasking the Idol may be the most 1980s action movie ever. And one of the most ridiculous, whatever the decade. The film has ninjas, a trained baboon, “homages” to nearly every popular film of the time, a super-lair, and, as the icing on the cake, a flying pickup truck that looks as “majestic” as it sounds. And an incredibly 80s soundtrack, but you could have probably guessed that already.

Besides being very dumb fun in its own right, this movie has special resonance for this blog. It illustrates how by this point, visual media could provide cheap thrills just as well as, if not better than, any book. Stuff like this was the “Tecmo Bowl” compared to the “electric football” of men’s adventure novels. And the “Madden” was yet to come.

A Thousand Words: High Seas Havoc

High Seas Havoc

Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.

The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.

Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.

The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.

There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?