Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review - The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

An alternative title for this review could be "Why The Empire Strikes Back is the only good Star Wars movie." It followed an earnest but flawed effort and was followed up by a much inferior merchandising cash-in. It's not the best because of the "downer ending" or the introduction of the worst popular character in the history of pop culture, it's because The Empire Strikes Back subverts the very elements that the rest of the Star Wars films revel in. It's the deconstructionist Star Wars film, the adult one, and consequently the good one.

Consider the end of Star Wars. As the ending for an immature adventure film it's fine; the scary thing got blown up, the heroes get medals (at least the human ones), the main character apparently gets the girl, and everyone is happy. It's also completely unrealistic. (Bear with me as I use the term "realistic" to describe a space opera in which a telekinetic in black leather fetish gear drives around in a planet destroying basketball.)

The Death Star is one tiny portion of the empire's military. For the sake of destroying it the rebels have lead their enemies to the main base, lost their spy network, neutralized their main agent, caused the removal of the only political force that could stand between them and the Emperor, bear some moral responsibility for the death of billions of people, and lost the only mystic who could stand up to the Empire's greatest evil. To call it a "happy ending" would be like the Japanese military declaring victory in World War 2 because they sunk the Arizona.

And that's what The Empire Strikes Back does. It takes all the stuff that worked for an adventure movie and turns it on its head. The "happy ending" was a Pyhrric victory at best for the rebellion and that's the tip of the iceberg. The daring plans to stop the invasion force can beat one walking tank but there's an army of them. Jedis aren't telekinetic fencing masters, they're Zen mystics and you can't become a good one just by showing up for an intensive training montage. The last minute rescue not only doesn't work, but is a disaster. The fledging just trained hero doesn't beat the experienced villain, the hero gets trounced with hardly any effort. The hero doesn't get the girl, the comedic sidekick does. It doesn't really matter if the hero dies because there's a back up plan. Oh and the wise old master from the first film? He was a lying, manipulative bastard.

For the two people on the planet who need a plot synopsis this time the terrorists are on the run from the government and after quite a bit of chasing they get captured and interrogated. Eventually the main character who had been doing LSD with a nonsense spouting toad goes to rescue them and chaos ensues.

This film strongly benefits from the lack of George Lucas. Lucas neither directed it or had a direct hand in the screenplay (he's credited with "story" which means they took the concepts from Star Wars and used them). In the original Star Wars the cinematography was only really active in the special effects sequences. This time around the effects sequences are more subtle and downplayed while the camera work during the character moments is greatly improved just by having a more active camera. Also while it's still not a particularly great cast all of the actors give better performances in Empire as well.

Everything you knew from Star Wars was wrong which is what makes The Empire Strikes Back effective. Unfortunately it is tied to two much worse films directly like a pair of anchors. The first is necessary since in order to subvert Star Wars's space opera it has to build on that. Empire lacks a complete story, though, and it's follow-up completely failed to deliver on the promises of this film. The Empire Strikes Back may be the only good Star Wars film but it does not stand on its own.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rating the new Super Smash Brothers Brawl Fighters

Okay this isn't much of a review since if you're aware of Super Smash Brothers Brawl then you've already seen the acres of stuff telling you that it's not only the greatest thing since sliced bread but it will actually cure leprosy if you put the game in your Wii and then touch it. So who cares about that? The real question about the game should be "Is the new stuff in it any good?"

For those non-game players Super Smash Brothers Brawl is a game where popular Nintendo characters (and a few guests from other companies) decide to get together and beat the snot out of each other. Really you don't need to know much more than that.

My opinion is that there's enough high quality new material in Brawl that it makes a solid successor to Super Smash Brothers Melee. Differences are always going to put some people off but I am enjoying the larger scope of the new game.

So there's a lot of new fighters in the games and inevitably this leads to fights over "Who sucks more!" Inevitably when I see someone claim that a particular character in a fighting game "sucks" I soon encounter someone who has developed their skills with that character to such a point that they can take on all comers. So all I can do is rate my preferences:

Pokémon Trainer - He's got everything you need in one package. The quick Squirtle, the flying smasher Charizard, and even the more balanced Ivysaur for those times when you need all the angles covered. He's a swiss army knife that can be tough to prepare for. The only two downsides are that you have to master three characters to use him well and that final smash is just a simple beam which can be easily avoided.

Olimar - I wasn't expecting to like the little man from Pikman so much but he's a sneaky one. You can take down the bulk of your opponent's life in moments without them realizing it with his Pikman throwing ability (the little things stick to players and weaken them). When you're followed by a full set to back up your regular attacks they can pile on the damage. He's reasonably quick and his small size gives him an avoidance advantage. On top of all that his Final Smash hits everyone automatically for major smashing damage. I'm not fond of his chain whip attack and his lack of a down special (it simply calls the Pikmen back) doesn't help but this guy can surprise you.

Snake - The best thing about Snake? When the crowd chants his name they do the "Snake? Snake! SNAAAAAAAAAAAKE!!" that accompanies the game over screen to all of the Metal Gear Solid games. Even if I wasn't that easily amused he's got a really strong reach with explosive attacks. His mortar regular attack is particularly effective and his recovery move is easy to use. He's also got one of the greatest final smashes in the game as the game switches to the view of him sniping the characters as they fight. My only two problems are that he's on the slow side (I like my characters faster than this), and his forward special is a very slow rocket launcher which holds you in the attack pose until the rocket is gone. If you miss and it goes off the screen you could be stuck for several seconds.

Zero Suit Samus - Samus becomes the token "Sleezy, hyper sexualized, whip bearing female" for Brawl in this special mode that is only accessable through regular Samus performing a final smash or holding down a button while loading the match. She gets a radically different set of moves like that way which turn her into a speedy melee'er with a good reach on the special attacks.

King Dedede - The massive fighters aren't my favorites but I kind of like Dedede's craziness. He's got a massive reach with his hammer, a few good areal attacks and a fun final smash. I just wish that people couldn't dance around him so easily.

Pit - For a character that flies I was expecting him to be a bit more effective in the air. As it stands he's not a bad fighter with a good variety of moves, but I found his flight to be more of a gimmick than a useful ability. The archery also seemed to take too much time and not be particularly effective.

Metaknight - The first time I played him I was sure he'd be my favorite. His torpedo forward special is great, his counter attack is actually somewhat effective, his swooping up attack works great, and his regular sword swipes are fast. Then as I played with him more the flaws started coming out: the loss of movement when attacking in the air, the fact that all of his attacks are incredibly weak, and his slow walk speed compared to the fast attacks. I still like to use him but I wound up feeling like a wanted a bit more oomph out of him.

Wario - The first time I used Wario I couldn't stand him but he quickly grew on me. His motorcycle attack is a lot more controllable than Yoshi's similar egg roll, and Wario is more maneuverable than he looks. I doubt Wario will ever be my first pick for a character to play but he's fun.

Diddy Kong - I love his speed, I love his standard attacks, but his special attacks redefine the term useless. Both weak in damage and unhelpful in effect the only thing that's even usable in there is throwing banana peals. His pop gun and his rockets require charge time to approach effective and you could spend that same time doing something that is more helpful with his regular attacks.

Lucas - A copy of Ness but the variations in his PK moves give him a slightly different feel. In particular his explosion freezes which can be very effective.

Lucario - Okay, I've got nothing against Lucario it's just that... well... I've used him in matches, I've played through classic mode with him, finished all star mode with him, and I can't remember a thing about the character. He's bland, run of the mill, standard. I won't be shocked if quite a few people find him usable but he's just Mr. Average to me with nothing to make him stand out.

Sonic - He sets a new standard for tough to control characters and his attacks are tricky to follow even when you're the one controlling him. I'll give him some time to grow on me but unless a miracle happens I don't expect my opinion to improve.

R.O.B. - Including the Robotic Operating Buddy as a fighter? Genius! Making him slow, unmanueverable, with a tiny reach, having the few attacks that can go a distance ineffective, and a pointless final smash (he continually emits a small cone of weak damage in front of him for about ten seconds)? Confusing. The best thing about him for me is his ability to fly long distances.

Wolf - They took the time to eliminate almost all of the clone characters with Brawl or change up a few of them to give them an extra special something and then made a clone of a character who already had a clone. On top of that the only thing that makes Fox worthwhile, his speed, is completely removed with Wolf. Wolf is in my bottom tier of characters that I want to use.

Toon Link - He's a fine character, he's just down here because he's presented as a "new character" and it's just "Young Link" all over again. So he's not just a clone, he's a clone we've already had. That pretty much places him at the bottom of any list of "new characters".

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why Phoenix Wright is the Greatest Fictional Attorney Ever

I can already here the groans from people who know the greatness of Perry Mason or even like Ben Matlock but in playing Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations lately (I can't Super Smash Brothers Brawl on the road) I have been reminded why Wright is undoubtably the greatest lawyer ever.

Other great fictional lawyers overcome incredible odds, unravel plotting and trickery and even occasionally deal with a corrupt judge or prosecutor. They have it easy compared to Wright who has the entire legal system of his fictional world stacked against him. It makes the system in Kafka's The Trial look downright fair. And Phoenix Wright regularly beats it. No other fictional lawyer comes close to that.

The makers of the game try to justify it by saying the games are set slightly in the future, the country is unspecified and there is a disclaimer that the legal system in the games do not represent any real world law (that's putting it very mildly). So it's not real, but here's a short list of the nightmarish aspects of jurisprudence people face in Phoenix Wright's world:
  • First people are not just guilty until proven innocent, they're guilty until the defense proves someone else is guilty! It's not enough in the games to provide a massive pile of evidence that Phoenix's client did not commit the crime you have to conclusively prove that someone else did it (usually by having them break down and confess on the witness stand). One someone is on trial for a crime they will be convicted for it unless the state has someone else to throw into prison.
  • That would be bad enough but the police apparently don't do anything beyond the most basic investigation of the crime. They arrest the first person they can directly connect with the crime regardless of if the evidence is only loosely circumstantial, obviously contradictory, or incomplete. And once that person is arrested they don't bother trying to form a complete picture of the crime.
  • Which is complicated by the fact that the prosecutors regularly engage in witness tampering and suppress evidence. They hide anything that clearly exonerates the defendant and order witnesses not to talk to the defense attorneys. Not only is this done, it's well known that it is done and is tacitly approved up by the judges presiding over the trials.
  • Those judges can render verdicts based on circumstantial evidence before the defense even gets to rebut any of it or present their own witnesses.
  • Witnesses perjure themselves often with no consequences. Even after they admit to their perjury on the stand they can change their statement and still have it accepted as evidence.
  • As for evidence, there is no chain of custody or mutual discovery for any of it. Most pieces just show up during the trial without being examined or authenticated beforehand. Anyone who can get access to an area is allowed to take anything as evidence and present it, no search warrant required!
It's a scary justice system they have in the world of Phoenix Wright and yet his can consistently beat it. Let's see Perry Mason beat that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Review - Forever Peace

Forever Peace
by Joe Haldeman
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1997 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Twenty years before this novel Haldeman wrote Forever War which also won both the Hugo and Nebula for its wonderful story of a soldier trapped in a conflict that lasts centuries. Forever Peace is intended to be a spiritual successor to that book and it completely fails to live up to the promise of its older brother.

This time a long running quagmire is central America is the war but rather than putting our hero in direct peril he is strapped into a remote operation machine which forms him into a gestalt with the rest of his platoon who operate mechs in the combat zone. They work in ten day shifts and when he's not at war he's a peace loving college professor. He comes to discover that if people are connected too long they gain perfect empathy and begins to conspire to use this to end all war while at the same time another conspiracy plans to destroy the universe (really).

There are several interesting aspects to the novel that certainly deserve attention. Haldeman plays up the impact that an extended, remote war has on a population. The war is treated as entertainment by the bulk of the population. In addition he has not lost his touch at portraying the viewpoint of a soldier in combat. The idea of a cyberneticly driven telepathy and how it affects culture was a concept worthy of exploration. Also I enjoyed the fact that the characters are pushing the edge of moral boundaries through technology.

Unfortunately these good ideas are wrapped up in some pretty awful ones. The main protagonist and his lover are well rounded characters but everyone else is at best two dimensional. There's the stereotype evil religion fanatics, the stereotype crazed berserker soldier, the stereotype good peacenicks, and the stereotype egotistical professors.

The villains are religious fundamentalists who are planning to destroy the universe, after all, a plan which even if we assume a cult conspiracy that has infiltrated every layer of the government, academic studies, and the military still has to deal with the fact that destroying the universe to get what you want might make a few people think twice. You'd think a few of them (and there had to be a lot in on the plot considering the scale of it) when they realized they would destroy the universe would think, "That's where I keep all my stuff!"

The book is crying out for a richer conflict. The question of is it just to remove aggression from humanity hangs over the book but is never really brought into play. Instead they plan to brainwashing everyone on the planet for the sake of not blowing up the universe.

I also had a problem with suspension of disbelief since there's too much in this "day after tomorrow" stewpot. Set in a future not so far off to have society radically transformed they have cheap nanomanufacturing (which is the cause of the war), cybernetic remote control complete with gestalt and telepathy, and universe destroying science projects. Any one of those would have radically transformed the world and yet none of them have; it's today with a layer of future on top of it. Compare this to the nanotechnology revolution in The Diamond Age and you can see how short it falls; the technology carries with it implications that go far deeper than "We can build anything cheap and only need the rest of the world for raw materials."

Finally when the novel leaves the battlefield so does a lot of the passion in the writing. Haldeman can tell a great story about the military but he seems to flounder when it leaves that setting.

So despite liking roughly a third of the book I can't recommend Forever Peace. The whole product simply doesn't deliver; many of the ideas are interesting but few are really followed up on and the characters fall flat. I've got to say give this one a pass.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Review - "Home if the Hangman", "The Borderlands of Sol", and "Catch that Zeppelin!"

Frank Kelly Freas
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Home is the Hangman"
by Roger Zelazny
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Novela
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Novela

Ah Roger Zelazny, the Ernest Hemingway of science fiction. His stories are where men are men, women are there for men to fight over, and machismo is the optimal form of interspecies communication.

The Hangman is a android space probe with a mind built out of a four person gestalt. On its first trip into space it went mad and vanished into the outer reaches of the solar system, but its ship has crashed and been found empty. Now one of the people who helped build its mind is afraid that it has returned to kill its creators and hires a man who does not exist in any government record to stop it.

It's a Frankenstein story but Zelazny takes that common beginning and throws a few twists into it that make the story worth reading. Admittedly I've seen the concept subverted enough that it probably didn't have the impact for me that it did for readers in 1975.

Zelazny hits all of his traditional style fetishes in this which I won't bother pointing out since a few of them fall along the lines of spoilers but I will say that it will feel very familiar to anyone who has read a lot of Zelazny. I'd recommend the story but if you don't have a tolerance for his writing then "Home is the Hangman" won't change your mind.

"The Borderlands of Sol"
by Larry Niven
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Hard SF. Space opera. The two opposite ends of the science fiction spectrum. Throwing around science throws off the adventure, the high concept ideas rarely have anything to do with actual science. Niven has had more luck than most in jamming these two opposite ends together and "The Borderlands of Sol" is a decent but not brilliant effort.

A mysterious force has been making ships vanish at the edge of the Sol system and it's up to Niven's usual cast of heroes to locate them. The two theories of what could be causing it are space pirates or quantum black holes so naturally both are intertwined.

Black holes were coming to the public attention at this point so it's natural the Niven played around with them a bit. In this story he calls them "collapsars", a term that completely vanished by the early 80's for the more evocative but less accurately descriptive "black hole". This does mean that there's a lot of redundant exposition for modern readers.

That's the science component (there isn't really a lot of hard SF other than trying to explain the black hole), the space opera consists of a James Bond style adventure complete with handing out of gadgets. The action in the story is only on the last four or five pages though so it doesn't really pay off like it could.

It's a decent effort but time has passed this story by and I can't recommend it unless you really like Niven. If you do then you'll probably enjoy it.

"Catch that Zeppelin!"
by Fritz Leiber
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

"Can you imagine a world where alternate world fiction is filled with pointless expository dialog expressing shock at the idea of a world that is the same as the reader's own!"

"And those poor souls would likely also read a lot of dialog of people pitying them for living in such an alternate world outside of the one in the author's imagination."

"Yes! Such a world would have many alternate world stories written along these lines positing strange things like if Germany lost the Second Great War or if Socrates had drunk that cup of poison hemlock, but many of these stories would be written in that odd expository format."

"Yet at the same time it is not impossible that in the field of speculative fiction that one of their grand masters would toward the end of his career write one of these poor stories and still be honored for it."

"And there would be horrifying twist toward the end that demonstrates that the alternate world isn't as great as it first seems. Fortunately our world's greatest writer Piers Anthony would never create such a thing."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Review - Blue Mars

Blue Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
1997 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I've already covered how much I loathed Robinson's Mars trilogy when I reviewed Green Mars (brief recap: one of the worst literary atrocities I've ever seen in print). All of the same complaints about Green Mars still apply: the completely unlikable characters, the monotonous prose, the acres of landscape descriptions, and the laughable social sciences continue to march on to a conclusion.

This time around Mars has become an independent state but the Earth is dying from natural disaster and needs Mars. The book meanders around between Martian politics and settlements in the rest of the solar system. It goes on for six hundred pages with nothing much really happening until the reader dies of exhaustion or the mess finally ends.

This time let me bring up another major problem Robinson has in his novels: time. He apparently forgets that that the Martian year is nearly twice as long as an Earth year so while he refers to time in Martian years characters behave like the period is as long as an Earth year. A longevity treatment was introduced early on so he could keep his unlikable characters over the course of centuries but that just exasperates the problem.

For example there are 40-year-old teenagers, 60-year-old "young punks", 100-year-olds waiting for their parents to retire so they can step in, and 200-year-old people going through mid-life crises. As with every social aspect that he touches Robinson says that things will be different but never shows the consequences; everything is exactly the same just with exposition telling us that it's different. It's especially bad in Blue Mars because Robinson plays up the generation gap forgetting the minor detail that there's now roughly ten generations being gapped.

And on that subject of social sciences Robinson is clearly from the idealist school of thought since he puts a great deal of effort into describing the development of a Martian constitution but the constitution is, at best, a joke laying down broad social programs with no thought of structure or enforcement. Which means that everyone goes on at great length about how brilliant it is so that the reader knows that it's brilliant.

The novel is so poorly written than I can only believe that it was voted in as the best novel on the strength of the concept and if the entire book was that concept then I might have an easier time of it. Trying to plot out the terraforming of Mars based on technology that exists today is an interesting concept but everything that is wrapped around it in the Mars trilogy is so painfully bad that that it boggles my mind.

I can recommend Blue Mars if you:
  • Can tolerate a cast of dozens of characters all written with the maturity of junior high school students despite being several centuries old.
  • Appreciate padding a book out by several hundred pages with descriptions of landscape in geological terms.
  • Are attempting to read all of the Hugo award winning novels and are determined to make it through them.
  • Need to get information from a suspected Al-Quaida agent (you can either read it to him or beat him with it; both are effective).
Everyone else should avoid it like it comes with a free sample of the Ebola virus.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Doing Important Things...




So no update tonight. If you're really desperate to find what I think of "Home is the Hangman" or "The Borderlands of Sol" the answer is decent reads for both.

Oh and Super Smash Brothers Brawl is a fine addition to the game.