Monthly Archives: November, 2013

The Top 5 Wii U Games

The Wii U may finally be coming into its own, an odd turn of events that one might not have predicted several months ago when it had very little interesting software and faced looming competition from the Xbox One and PS4. Game selection has greatly improved, with stellar first-party titles and some creative offerings from third-party devs. 

While I understand that most buyers will probably opt for a PS4/XB1 this season, if you have any interest in the Wii U (because it’s cheaper, has flash memory, is family-friendly, and already has many of the overhyped TV integration features of the XB1), here’s a quick primer to the platform’s top games. All of these are exclusive to the platform, though it may be worth your time to look at some ports like Assassin’s Creed 3/4 and Deus Ex Human Revolution Director’s Cut.

  1. Super Mario 3D World – this is an obvious choice. In much the same way that Super Mario 3D Land illuminated the possibilities of the 3DS, its successor does the same for the Wii U. 3D World carries over the best features of its 3DS predecessor, such as the fascinating use of perspective and lighting, while adding a welcome dose of HD graphics, new power-ups, and excellent co-op play. The cat costume (inexplicably obtained by absorbing a bell…but I’m long past trying to make sense of the Mario universe’s logic) is the funnest power-up since the flying tail/ears from Super Mario Bros. 3 (remember The Wizard?). Levels throw the player for a loop with tricky changes in perspective, sublime usage of shadow, and certain areas/items that require the use of the new cherry power-up, which produces two identical Marios/Luigis/Toads/Peaches. This game was built for co-op play, with its differently optimized characters. 
  2. The Wonderful 101 – I flirted with the idea of putting this at number one, but it’s too weird for some gamers, especially the kids who constitute much of the Wii U’s target audience. The Wonderful 101 is a superhero game in which an expandable group of heroes – each with his/her own distinctive powers – try to ward off an alien invasion of earth. It sounds like a ho-hum premise, but the execution make all the difference. No Wii U game, not even Nintendo’s offerings, make better use of the Game Pad, which is used here for drawing attack patterns, navigating through buildings, and tracking items on radar. No level is like the previous one, and the boss battles are endlessly creative. I compared this game to Battletoads, and I think the comparison still fits – it’s varied, cutting-edge, and often quite difficult. The multiplayer mode is fun and mercifully must less sadistic than Battletoads’ impossible co-op mode.
  3. ZombiU – it feels like every console gets the obligatory first-person shooter title early in its lifespan, which range from the great (GoldenEye for the N64) to the not so great (Perfect Dark Zero for the Xbox 360). ZombiU is far from a run-of-the-mill launch FPS, however. It blends elements of FPS and horror/survival, resulting in a rugged survivalist game in which the player has to fight off undead hordes with not much more than a cricket bat and the occasional firearm. Ammo is precious in ZombiU, as is life – dying forces you to become an entirely new, totally reset character who is likely to encounter his/her predecessor’s zombified form. Like The Wonderful 101, ZombiU stretches the Game Pad to its limits, using it to open doors, acquire vaccines, scan areas, and much more. Too bad that Ubisoft axed the sequel.
  4. Pikmin 3 – This game arguably began the console’s turnaround. It’s a bit on the short side, but the graphics, attention to detail, and gameplay show how versatile the Wii U is. The controls are a little wonky since the Nunchuk is more accurate but less informative than the Game Pad. Otherwise, this is a strong and breezy play-through.
  5. Nintendo Land – Nintendo has always done pack-in titles very well, and Nintendo Land is no exception. It doesn’t really have a story, but it works on several levels. It’s a great primer on the Wii U’s capabilities – each mini game does something a bit different, from co-op play with Game Pad and Wiimote in the Zelda game to Game Pad-controlled steering in the F-Zero game. It’s also a fun game in its own right, with challenging sequences like the ninja gallery shooter game.

The Smashing Pumpkins’ MACHINA/The Machines of God is Underrated

Intro: The Year 2000
2000 was a pivotal year. It would have seemed like a cliché to say that at the time, given the hysteria about Y2K and the number of people who thought that they were witnessing the arrival of a new millennium (that wouldn’t happen till the next year). But like a fine aged Kentucky bourbon, 2000 becomes bolder,  more sepia-toned and more important as the years pile up

As if it were aware of its own status as the closer of the 20th century, the year arguably represented the last hurrah for what digital dualists call the “analog” world. Blockbuster made $800 million on late fees, demonstrating the ludicrous high-water mark of pre-Netflix physical media rentals. CD sales (the CD is actually a “digital” medium, which I think causes real issues for all the digital/analog nonsense) were largely unimpacted by Napster or piracy, if only because people hadn’t lapsed into comas of convenience supported by broadband telecom networking. The U.S. presidential election was largely free of Nate Silver-grade analysis. The World Trade Center was still standing.

In February 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins attempted a dramatic “return to rock” by releasing MACHINA/The Machines of God. The band had spent the previous three years in turmoil, following the death of touring keyboardists Jonathan Melvoin and the ejection of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain from the lineup. Frontman Billy Corgan, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and guitarist James Iha churned out the dreary, boring Adore in the summer of 1998. The record showed the bands taking the absence of Chamberlain’s drumming far too literally – its songs were filled with watery electronic textures, drum machines, and songs about people named Sheilia. Two years later, Radiohead would do much the same thing with the grossly overrated Kid A and receive ludicrous acclaim for doing so.

Chamberlain returned to the fold for MACHINA, although his return coincided with the departure of Wretzky and her replacement by Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur. Still, the Pumpkins were never really a “band” in the conventional sense – it’s hard to know how much Wretzky and Iha did on record aside from their obvious contributions to 1995’s Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, and one is tempted to regard the Pumpkins as a good idea for a band, with an Asian-American guitarist, blonde female bassist, white guy drummer, and androgynous bald frontman, when in fact only Corgan and Chamberlain really drove their sound.

The Pumpkins had always been a commercially successful band. Even Adore went platinum. But MACHINA was entering into a very different record market – one characterized by the rise of Eminem (and the broader shift from rock to rap as the public’s music franca), and the peak of physical record dominance. Thirteen years later, it’s amazing to see how conscious MACHINA was of its own era.

What does it mean to try hard?
The Smashing Pumpkins obviously worked hard. Corgan’s prolificness resulted in monstrosities like Mellon Collie and endless b-side compilations and box sets. Their shortest album (Gish) was still 45 minutes long, revealing the band’s odd place among the scores of punk-influenced contemporaries such as Nirvana and the Pixies. With the exception of Adore, the Pumpkins were also very much a guitar-driven band. Peak period records such as Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie exhibited the band contorting the guitar into new possibilities, ranging from Loveless-style walls of sound to something that prefaced the impending scourge of nu-metal.

MACHINA is a much-maligned record that did not sell well. It barely went gold and any legacy it might have created evaporated once the band broke up in late 2000/early 2001 (they have since reunited, but they current band has nothing in common with the classic years). But its lyrical and topical concerns reveal much greater depth than any other Pumpkins record, and its sentiments are as good a chronicle of the music landscape in 2000 as anything.

Take “I of the Mourning,” one of the record’s singles and part of its excellent opening six. Corgan mentions “blowing the dust off my guitar” to show that he’s getting back to work, as if the electronic stew of Adore was just studio goofery/lazing, or something that occurred inside his head (“I’ve just been living in my head,” he recounts in opener “The Everlasting Gaze”). Moreover, he’s expecting his radio to play his “favorite song,” in what now feels like a downright ancient paean to the curatorial, particulars powers of radio DJs to play likable songs. Post-Napster, post-iPod, post-whatever, radio is now just dreck built upon a junk heap of “big data” and asking anyone to play your favorite song will only get you the audio equivalent of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” MACHINA lives in a world in which there is still discernible, distinct labor functions for human beings in the music business: the artist as manual instrument player, and the radio DJ as the middle man in the taste making business.

The record’s treatment of labor and effort shows up in its sonic palette, too. The guitars are aggressively mixed, and the drum work ranks with Chamberlin’s best (just listen to those fills on “Stand Inside Your Love”). But it’s not a complete back-to-rock affair. Pitchfork may have been off the mark is saying that it was thoroughly “marinated” in synthesizer, but the electronic trappings of Adore (and tbh, of Mellon Collie, which began the Pumpkins’ branching off into keyboards) are still here.

“The Sacred and the Profane,” “The Crying Tree of Mercury,” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears” all have that distinctive late 80s Cure vibe that is right at the edge of minor-key guitar and synthesizer. The crunch of “The Everlasting Gaze” wouldn’t be out of place on an EDM record, and just listen to the syncopations of “Raindrops + Sunshowers” – it begs to be compared to Duran Duran, and Corgan removes any doubt by quoting “Save a Prayer.” This record has techno – or more precisely, robots – on the brain, even as it tries to rock out, and for all of its humanistic posturing, it ends up taking the position of acquiescing to electronica’s spell.

To get a better glimpse of how deeply MACHINA cares about the effects of automation, robots, and the removal of human labor from music, just look at the neat lyrical bridge that connects “The Everlasting Gaze” and the admittedly awful “Heavy Metal Machine” (which is one of the record’s few weak points). In the former, Corgan proclaims that “you know I’m not dead,” but in the latter he asks “if I were dead, would my records still sell?”

Wondering about the alive/dead status of the Pumpkins’ members is hardly a front and center concern for the listener – it isn’t even the case for bands such as Nirvana whose music now survives saddled with the baggage of dead members. So why is Corgan fixated on it? Because he’s wondering if all this effort will be for naught – that the return to guitars, the dramatic reentry after a half-decade of drug/death/electronica-induced malaise will fail. The fictional band that is the backbone of the record’s loose theme will live on, like deathless robots, but will they fail without their human creators?

Success from failure
And the record did fail, in a way. MACHINA didn’t sell and isn’t well-regarded, a point driven home by the almost instantaneous follow-up of MACHINA II, a cobbled-together set of demo-quality songs from the same sessions (e.g., there’s an inferior version of “Speed Kills,” the marvelous number included on the vinyl and international editions of the first MACHINA). But the record tried; it even has a song called “Try, Try, Try,” for christsake.

The first six numbers are a delight before the listener hits the temporary wall of “Heavy Metal Machine.” Even after that, gorgeous numbers like “This Time,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “With Every Light” showoff a maturity and range that simply doesn’t show up in the one-note (not literally; and it is a good “note,” admittedly) Siamese Dream or the hard-to-digest Mellon Collie.

I haven’t listened to anything the band recorded after Zeitgeist, itself hardly a great record. But when I go back to the catalog, I often start with MACHINA since it’s intellectually dense and provocative even 13 years later – the perfect artifact for overqualified humanistic nerds.

Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies

One of the many ways in which Dual Destinies makes good use of 3D effects – with an in-your-face yokai charm.

Intro: Ace Attorney and “Art”
When I looked at the complex relationship between video games and established “arts” like cinema, music, and literature, I argued that the final sequence of Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney: Justice for All, with its intricate plot lines and dynamic characters, transcended video games and entered into the realm of drama or the novel. Justice for All wasn’t the strongest title in the GBA/DS line of Ace Attorney games; the original and Trials and Tribulations were more consistent and arguably more critical to the series’ overall mythology because they introduced characters such as Miles Edgeworth, the Von Karmas, and Godot. But that infamous Matt Engarde case from Justice for All is without equal among the Ace Attorney games or most games, period.

Engarde’s different personae and the high stakes of Maya’s kidnapping made “Farewell, My Turnabout” not just an outstanding piece of art, but the quintessential Ace Attorney case. More than any other, it was a story that you had to experience rather than play through – insofar as you could “win” the game, your progress was only a mechanism for moving the story along, a state of affairs that is the opposite of most games, in which the plot is just window dressing as you go about collecting more kills and corralling more items. That focus on plot was always what made Ace Attorney special and “Farewell, My Turnabout” has it in spades.

It was as black as a spade, too. The case’s darkness went above and beyond that of its peers, including the Manfred Von Karma showdown from the original. The player could even suffer a “bad ending” if Engarde weren’t acquitted. It can be easy to overlook the fact that characters are dying and being putted into danger against the backdrop of Ace Attorney’s melodramatic digressions about film, aesthetics, and culture. But what if we finally got an Ace Attorney game that took its latent darkness more seriously, that found a way to?

The dark pathways of Dual Destinies
The newest title in the series, and the first for the 3DS, is unmistakably an Ace Attorney game. The same investigation/trial structure from the first four installments shows up here, as do the characeristic shouts of “Objection!” But there’s something fundamentally different about Dual Destinies, and it’s primarily a difference of tone.

First, check that ESRB rating. Yep, that’s a big fat “M (17+)” and it’s well-deserved. This game is full of blood, sinister laughs, and foreboding. I mentioned Ninja Gaiden – The Dark Sword of Chaos in my entry about video games and art, and I couldn’t help but think of it again during one of the cutscenes involving new prosecutor-villain Simon Blackquill. The sea of blood that covers the floor after one of Blackquill’s trademark blade slashes is a dead ringer for the bloody action from Dark Sword of Chaos. Like that game did for the NES, Dual Destinies is blazing a new trail and bringing something new to the table for the normally family-friendly 3DS.

Blackquill’s status as a felon makes him perhaps the most wicked of Ace Attorney’s antagonists – or does it? Manfred Von Karma and Godot were also killers, although their actions were not known until they were melting down in the face of Phoenix Wright’s torrid strategies. Still, Blackquill’s past is a sign that the game isn’t messing around or confused about its identity – it wears its darkness proudly.

Technical features
The graphics are a big bump up from the GBA/DS games, with beautifully rendered 3D models. This game makes better use of 3D than any 3DS title I’ve played except possibly Super Mario 3D Land. The effect is both subtle and complex.

In the courtroom, 3D adds a nice layer of depth to revelatory moments when the camera pans across the crowd. It also makes the witnesses and attorneys really pop out from the screen, giving life to their gesticulations. There’s also a nice effect in one of the gardens, in which the 3D makes the lanterns appear to sway on the line.

The game now has a retraceable conversation history, which is helpful if you skip through dialogue with the B button or need to review clues. And new attorney Athena Cyke’s emotional intelligence scanner is intriguing, although not that much different than Apollo’s magical bracelet.

Dual Destinies may be the best all around Ace Attorney game. From a technical/graphical standpoint, it’s much richer than its predecessors, and its story lines have a certain darkness that makes the player feel like what he/she is doing is much more important than ever before.

It’s only $26 in the eShop, making it significantly cheaper than previous installments. If you have a 3DS, then this game beckons.