Video Game

This Is Costume Quest

Seriously, what better way to celebrate Halloween than this?

I am an avid fan of all things R, P, and G.  I don’t discriminate or turn my nose up if there happens to be a “J” in front of those three letters as some will.  In fact: I hold a very special place in my heart for the genre.  Final Fantasy 9 (yes, 9) is my favorite game of all time, beating out Ms. Pac-Man by a small margin, but taking the top spot all the same.  Vivi is too awesome not to love.

So knowing this, it should come as no surprise Costume Quest would land on my radar.  Being made by Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend) which is headed by Tim Schafer (The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle) certainly helps things.  In Costume Quest you play a boy or girl whose sibling is kidnapped by monsters on Halloween and, even though you think they’re annoying and don’t really want to save them, go off in search of their rescue.  The writing is wonderful.  Funny.  Cute.  Smart.  A little sarcastic.  The art is perfect, stylized in a half-anime, half Saturday Morning cartoon.  I realize there’s some overlap there.  Gameplay is brilliant, letting players obtain and switch between costumes granting varying powers and abilities.  The Robot costume has players shooting giant rockets at the enemy, where the more subtle Ninja favors, obviously, stealth.  What makes this mechanic so wonderful is the visual cues and transformations the kids go through when a battle gets underway.  They become their costume, growing from pint-sized to full Knight and brandishing a too-real sword.  We’re reminded what it’s like to be a child, where that rolled-up ball of paper is a grenade or cardboard tube a lightsaber, and monsters are totally-incredibly-impossibly real.  I must have smiled the whole way through.

Here’s a complaint for you.  A small one, and only one, which might have been bigger if Costume didn’t possess the charm it does, but presentation goes a long-long way.  It’s repetitious.  You could maybe make the argument most JRPGs are, and you’d be right, though the good ones give sidequests and other distractions by way of variety.  Those exist here, though they’re all relatively easy and minor, blending seamlessly enough into the “story” as you move from hub to hub, so as to almost feel a part of the main offering.  I don’t remember ever having to go too far out of my way to reach any one thing, even when looking to unlock the “special” costumes and differing achievements.  Again, the concept is enough to keep me hooked, but I would have been okay with more.

Costume Quest is the perfect Halloween game.  It’s everything I love about the holiday: monsters, dressing up, candy, and make-believe.  Cannot recommend enough.

As a P.S.: in looking up the trailer, I discovered Costume Quest 2 is out.  I’m not sure how I missed it, but I’m remedying that wrong right after hitting the “publish” button.

Board Game, horror

This Is Elder Sign

I’m a fan of Lovecraft.  His mythos, along with the help of August Derleth, is among some of my favorites.  I’ve always been drawn to the idea of hidden worlds, uneasy truths at the corners of our vision.  There’s something startling about a force so much greater than ourselves which can upend reality with a thought or a word (or a look) which we, in our smallness, can do nothing about.  Lovecraft thrust ordinary people into the presence of these impossibilities, the results of which are never good.  Always interesting, but never good.  There’s The Festival, a long walk through the darkness of Kingsport.  The famous The Call of Cthulhu.  My personal favorite, The Colour Out of Space, reminds me of my youth in the strangest way and forest behind my house I refused to go in.  These Lovecraftian Things hit the world like a thunderclap, and the people they encounter are swept easily with their coming like so many pieces of flotsam.  How does one rise against Azathoth?

With dice.  Obviously.

I’m a fan of board games.  Not traditional ones, necessarily – though they have their place – but more, say, thorough choices like A Touch of Evil, Cosmic Encounter, or Battlestar Galactica.  I love Arkham Horror, a Lovecraft inspired battle through the streets of Arkham and other worlds, but it’s cumbersome.  Ridiculously.  With all of the possible expansions laid out end-to-end and shuffled together – and I’ve got them all – you spend more time setting up than you do playing, and it’s a four plus hour game.  It’s a shame, because it means it rarely hits my table.  Even then latest Eldritch Horror curbs this some (and is amazing), but the set-up and gameplay of it can take a while too.

Thankfully, there’s Elder Sign, a dice game with all of the Lovecraft and none of the mess.  Very little mess.  The game takes place in Arkham’s museum where the players, known as Investigators, solve riddles, navigate cosmic portals, and do battle with Star Spawns, Nightgaunts, and Cultists.  Players choose an available encounter, often a particular room within the museum where an event is taking place, and roll dice to complete various patterns found on the encounters.  For example, one encounter may force you to roll a skull-skull-magnifying glass pattern (in a single roll), where another is two eldritch symbols, represented by a cluster of tentacles.  Of course.  Players can use items found throughout the museum to help with these encounters, some in the form of health, others in the form of special red or yellow die which ups your chances of getting the symbols you need to win.  The main thing you’re looking for are Elder Signs – symbols in the mythos which look like this – these helping you seal the gateways the chosen Ancient One is using to breach worlds.

That’s the entire goal: for Investigators to stop the Ancient One from awakening and doing very-bad-things.  Sometimes eating the universe.  Sometimes driving everyone insane.  Sometimes making the DMV a year-long process.  Every Ancient One affects the overall tone of the game in a unique way.  Take Yig, for example, the Father of Serpents.  The two main resources an Investigator has is Health and Sanity.  If any ever hit 0, the Investigator is devoured (dramatically), and removed from the game.  Those necessary Elder Signs I told you about a paragraph ago?  Yig takes one away should any Investigator be devoured, or if Investigators ever defeat a Cultist.  Cthulhu, however, reduces everyone’s base stamina and sanity by 1 making it that much easier to start chewing your tongue.

I know rolling dice doesn’t sound super exciting, but I love it.  There’s a very strong risk/reward mechanic which makes me feel like I’m playing a game of Press Your Luck, minus the Whammies, and a number of decisions you need to weigh when choosing what encounters to tackle and when.  Rounds are marked with a timer in the form of a clock, and after each turn, it goes from midnight to three, six, nine, and back to twelve.  With each new “day” a new set of parameters come into play – much like how the Ancient One will change things up – some giving Investigators breathing room, others pushing the big bad that much closer to tearing a hole in the fabric of reality.  So, do you take things slow, chipping away at “known” victories, or do you head for more dangerous encounters, arming yourself with a Tome and a Shotgun, while praying to whatever god you believe is merciful to get you out alive?

Great with friends, great solo.  So completely recommended.  There’s nothing better than being driven to the edge of madness and having one roll of the die left to either save or engulf the world.

As a brief aside, you can also get Elder Sign for Android or iOS.  A bit of a different experience, but the core is similar.  Though you can form your own narrative with the physical game, the digital version focuses a bit more or storytelling, and that’s something I really enjoy.  Also recommended.

horror, Movies

This is Critters

Welcome to Halloween week, also known as Horror week, also known as just week in my home.  If it is some other time of the year when you happen to stumble upon this blog or post, try and tie Halloween into whatever you have going on in your life as best you can in order to find these topics applicable.

First up: Critters.

In light of last week’s The Monster Squad review, I got to thinking of the movies I loved when I was younger, and the ones I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Critters was near the top of that invisible list, holding space alongside Hellraiser, Poltergeist, Gremlins (yes, Gremlins counts as horror), Fright Night, Child’s Play, Pumpkinhead – you get the idea – with Critters in the end being the only one I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen.

I may have not been aware enough at that age to realize horror-comedy was a thing.  There’s always some laughs or ridiculousness which puts the audience at ease – something A Nightmare on Elm Street was masterful at – but actual comedy there right alongside the scares was, to me then, rare as far as I remember.  It’s possible, and very likely, I took Critters at face value, ignoring the science fiction elements, ignoring the humor, focusing instead on these rolling creatures the size of a Popple who fly spaceships, eviscerate cows, shoot poisoned quill-things, swear (a lot), push over bikes menacingly, and generally terrorize a poor family who just wanted to go to a bowling tournament.

Small side rant/thought.  Jay, the dad in the film, spends a good chunk of the movie in his team’s bowling shirt.  It’s a pin made to look like the ghost from Ghostbusters, complete with the logo, and the name Pinbusters fanned out beneath.  I bowled when I was little.  It’s the only “sport” I’ve ever found myself somewhat competent in, and growing up, there wasn’t much else to do in my town.  I remember there being a Pinbusters team.  I remember there also being a Gutterdusters, who I’ve found at a number of other bowling places over the years.  A part of me wonders, even hopes, bowling team names are a piece of the universal condition, like morality, etched onto our DNA and imprinted in stardust, where perhaps, perhaps, when we find life millenia from now in some far arm of the galaxy, they too will have bowling teams, and they too will be the Pinbusters and the Gutterdusters.

This is my dream.

Okay back.  There is a music video which seems to be the only thing playing on the television anywhere in this sad Kansas town.  Not only is it a great excuse for hair metal, it actually acts as a strange plot piece.  The bounty hunters sent to track down the Critters (also known as Krites) and destroy them are faceless, glowing green-skinned human shaped things, which I suppose works well for blending in with the locals, unless the locals happen to reside in a very small place where everyone seems to know everyone else, and they grow suspicious when Reverend Miller is suddenly dressed in a leather duster and holding a giant cannon/shock vac nuking the inside of a church.  Johnny Steele – the musician – has his video seen by Ur – one of the bounty hunters – because of course that’s what you watch during interstellar travel, and Ur chooses to take Johnny’s face and use it as his own.  The effects of the face-swap is pretty good for 80s standards, and still holds up (in fact, most of the movie does), and acts as a bit of a fun element with the other bounty hunter, who seems to have no name, constantly morphing from person to person, presumably to find the best fit.  What I love as an adult is the strangeness of the film universe.  There really is no premise – Krites escape from (I think) prison and the hunters are sent to chase them down – though there are nods to a more fleshed-out mythology.  Maybe it’s explored in the other 3 Critters flicks, I don’t remember, but I want to say they went the way of so many other franchises and chose straight-up comedy, which leads me to believe not.  Still: some cool elements I’d actually like more of.  Heck, I’d even take a reboot or a new, legitimate, entry, and that’s something I never say.  More sci-fi bits please.

Anyhow, coming back to it twenty-some years later was a great thing.  It’s cheesy, yes, but so many of the films from that time are, which is something I love about them.  They almost act as guilty pleasures without crossing over that narrow line into awful.  I known I’d show it to my wife and she’d frown at me the whole time, and rightly so, but for someone predisposed to liking this sort of thing, it checks out, and manages to be both creepy and fun.  Still.

You should watch it.  If the above doesn’t sell you, it also features Billy Zane with a fantastic set of broccoli hair and nub ponytail, who (spoiler) gets gnawed on by a Critter for a good minute.  Doubly recommended as a result.

Video Game

This is Shovel Knight

What is a Shovel Knight?  Well, it’s right there in the name.  I’m near the end – second to last level (I think) – but I am desperately, desperately, hoping there is a Samus-like moment upon the credits, where Shovel Knight takes off his helmet to reveal William H. Macy.  Fingers crossed.

Shovel Knight is a game for the PC, 3DS, and Wii U by Yacht Club Games, and it is one part Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, one part Mega Man, and a dash of Super Mario Bros.’ 3 overworld thrown in for good measure.  I should point out quickly Shovel Knight is what Zelda II would be if it was a good game, and not a horrible, terrible, I-choose-to-believe-it-doesn’t-exist amalgam of dead parts.  Here you travel the map fighting sideways (the best ways) through levels, using power-ups purchased along the way known as Relics to keep your head above water.  At the end of each level you fight a Knight-version of the level you’re on a la Cut Man, rinse, repeat.  There are distractions, of course, levels you need a particular Relic to access for treasure and the like, or a haunted house to rid of its possessors.  Wandering Knights popping up across the map looking for a fight.  As they will.  You can purchase health and magic upgrades, special shovel moves and better gear which help give some variation depending on your play style (one ups your damage intake while greatly increasing magic, while another preps a stronger slash-attack… there’s even fancy armor you can buy which does nothing but sparkles and allows you to flip, occasionally).  There are collectibles.  There are Feats, Shovel Knight’s version of Achievements, these welcome further distractions on my 3DS.  They give me good benchmarks to look for as I play – collect all of X, do these side missions – though some, like never die, just will not happen.  I can think of a handful of games off the top of my head I achievement chased because they rank in the top of my “modern” favorites, and though Shovel is great, I don’t have that amount of patience.

There is very little Shovel Knight does wrong.  The further in you go, the more likely it is you’ll run into a cheap death, which brings me back to my formative years.  Checkpoints are paced well, though it doesn’t fully curb the frustration when you miss a jump for the fifth (eighteenth) time and have to trudge through territory you could attack blindfolded just for another go.  Sometimes the experience is my fault, sometimes not, but the outcome is the same.  Adds to the nostalgia Shovel Knight is going for.

Speaking of: the graphics are beautifully 8-bit.  Perfectly so.  The music wonderfully chiptune (at least I think it’s chiptune, someone may correct me).  I feel like a time-traveler the more I play it, Shovel Knight being exactly the type of game 8-year-old me would have been drawn to, and one I would have lost myself equally in searching for every last item.  And it’s the perfect length, just long enough to leave you wanting more, but not so drawn as to become exhaustive.

If you like side-scrollers, if you like odd fantasy, if you grew up in an 8-bit era and still believe the power glove deserves a travel case, you should pick this up.  Even if you answer “no” to any/all of those questions, you should pick this up.  It’s fifteen bucks as of this post and very close to flawless.


Birds, Nature

This Is The American Pipit

I had intended to make today’s review about Shovel Knight, and I’m sure some of you will be devastated, but it’s been bumped back to make room for a much better discussion.  One on people.  And birds.  Three people I met at the park yesterday in-between fits of rain.

Some history.  I am an introvert.  Still am, though I’ve gotten somewhat better.  My comfort zone is and will always be found within a book away from others, but I can at least hold my own inside a small crowd now, and not want to push myself slowly through a sheet of plated glass.  This, by definition, is progress.  A large portion of that progress is attributed to my wife who is far better at being extroverted than I.  She too is an introvert at heart, but she’s much braver at stepping outside her bubble than I am, often realizing in order to grow as a person you need to be willing to sometimes walk/run off that ledge no matter how high or low to the ground said ledge might be.  Talking to others is small potatoes in the grand scheme, sure, it’s just not where I’d generally like to spend my time.  However, in an effort to be more, say, broad, I’ve attempted to open myself up to stranger experiences.  More natural experiences.  Interactions, maybe.  My wife would call this “following the crow”, which is a whole review in and of itself which I may touch on somewhere down the road, but I feel the moniker is pretty self-explanatory as a stand-alone statement, so you likely get the gist.  But, by quick way of definition: I was in Asheville, North Carolina recently, and drove by a sign which said “Come Meet So-and-So, An Authentic North Carolina Hillbilly” and, on the sign, a crow was perched.  I said heck with it, I’ll meet a hillbilly, and pulled over.  Following the crow.

There is no crow in this story, but there is a bird, which is mostly the same thing.

I try and take my dog to the park as often as I can.  One, because he needs to lose weight.  Two, because I need out of the house.  And three, I like seeing his ears spread out when there’s a breeze.  A handful of times now – say three, maybe four – there has been a trio on the trail when I’m there, always with binoculars, and always staring off toward some indeterminate point.  They all appear to be late sixties, early seventies, the man with the white-white beard every day wearing a hat so wide and floppy he would do well in Ladies In Lavender were we living on an English countryside, and the women both in coats long enough to double as Hogwarts attire.  I don’t know the politics of small-talk when passing a person on a nature trail, and I’m awkward enough when opening the window to any conversation, which led me, I believe, to blurt out “We must be on the same schedule”, leading them, I believe, to lower their binoculars in unison (or in unison in my memory), and stare.  This may have lasted seconds, hours, both possible when your dog is trying to get someone’s or something’s attention by wiggling on his leash like a fish fighting for air.  Alek, with a “K”, broke the pause with a very loud “I remember you”, which was directed at Jenkins – my dog – and not me.

This is how I met Alek, Louise, and Louisa.

Louise, and Louisa are twins, one with shoulder-length gray hair and one with shoulder-length red, dyed, I’m told, for Halloween, though she doesn’t have a costume.  The three of them are from southern Ohio, staying in Columbus having heard there were some sightings of American Pipits in the area, which I had to look up, a bird none of them had seen and were anxious to check off their list.  Ohio is on the Pipit migratory path, though supposedly we don’t see them all too often, according to Alek (whom I trust, what with his binoculars and his hat, and his infectious enthusiasm when talking birds), making this season “particularly exciting”.  We were on the upper part of a slope, the shore and heavier mud hidden by trees, Louise or Louisa looking down toward the water again and waving me over.  I am not a bird person.  I like them just fine, but I am more likely to go out of my way for a rare sandwich than I am a bird (who could turn out to be a sandwich, now that I think about it), but I will admit to having a strange spine-shock moment putting the lenses to my face and seeing a tiny group of brown-speckled birds hoping clump to clump in the mud they match.  I’d never heard of a Pipit.  Had to text myself the name just so I’d remember to look them up.  Maybe I’ve stumbled across them already in my travels and never thought to look up or down or twice at them.  And like the birds, I’ve passed thousands of Aleks and Louises and Louisas and also never looked up or down or twice at them, which is a shame, though I don’t know if I see myself ever getting comfortable enough to completely change.  I will say, it’s a neat thing when you can get to know a person, really get to know a person, without sharing too many words.

That, like a Pipit in my neck of the woods, is rare, and deserves some attention.


horror, Movies

This Is The Monster Squad

A quick prologue for you by way of a story.

When I was younger, I had to have a few teeth removed.  I want to say this was around third grade or so, which puts me close to ten.  Post-“surgery”, I’m hungry, and it’s dinner time, so mom makes me some spaghetti which I put on a T.V. tray – our family’s version of a dinner table – and stuck The Monster Squad into the VCR.  My copy was rough, beaten down already by dozens of viewings, and recorded off of the television which gave it those lines of static blipping through the screen like a heart monitor.  About ten minutes in, if that, long enough for Van Helsing to send the crystal shooting through time and space, but not long enough for Rudy to come riding in on his bike, I look down, and find myself covered in noodles and sauce.  To cross-film pollinate: my chest is a scene from Alien.  This is important for two reasons, both of which explain my mother to you and, in turn, me.  One: she thought it would be funny to feed me spaghetti with a face still dentist-numb.  I, trusting her, took my food without thinking ahead.  And two: my love of horror.  This too was her doing, my dad not being a fan and her having no one to watch movies with.  In the same way dad taught me chess to have someone in the house to play against, mom indoctrinated me to Leatherface early.  Earlier than might be safe, even.

So The Monster Squad was my dream scenario growing up: kids my age forced to fight (and thwart) evil, saving the town from Dracula, The Wolf-Man, and Mummy (and Creature from the Black Lagoon and Vampire Brides, for good measure).  Frankenstein’s Monster is in the mix too, though Frank is good people here.  An innocent kid at heart.  Though the adventure is less grand, this is a horror-esque Goonies, kids thrown into a scenario where their imaginations are at play and, unfortunately, working to kill them.  It’s the classic set-up where they’re the only ones willing to believe what’s happening around them, and adults coming too late to the party.

And though the film is thick with cheese – a trait I would argue makes it better – the monsters are actually pretty faithful to their original counterparts.  At least Hollywood counterparts.  Dracula looks like Dracula and he’s entirely unkind.  He dresses the part which is a dead give-away to anyone paying attention, can turn into a bat, and drives a car (maybe a hearse) with a catchy skull hood ornament.  I’m not sure where he found the car, in a town that small, as he happened upon the Squad by way of falling bat-like from a plane, but it’s conveniently there and Draculanian.  New word.  Also, and maybe most important, he doesn’t glitter.  At all.  Well, his fangs do when he hisses, because he’s a vampire and they’re supposed to do that.  The Wolf-Man is more Lon Chaney than David Naughton, down to the ripped pants and shirt and desire to be upright.  More man-wolf than wolf-man, oddly, but there we are.  According to IMDB, Jon Gries who plays the role is known as “Desperate Man”, having no official name which I think is accurate, and making for a reluctant Werewolf, which I like.  He manages to be both terrifying and sympathetic.  Also, thankfully, I don’t think he’s ever shirtless.  At least not shirtless for the sake of being shirtless.  That’s nice.

I’ve graduated from VCR copy to DVD, and it holds up.  Still watch it at least once a year, same with Goonies.  It’s maybe a strange comparison, but both films are what I wanted my life to be when I was younger and living in a small(ish) town.  Invaders From Mars convinced me the air conditioning unit outside my bedroom window was a ship landing whenever it would come to life.  Critters had me second-guessing the basement.  Everything had me second-guessing the basement, I suppose, but that one stands out.  The Goonies made me believe there was a world behind this one, where the strange and the extraordinary exist right under the surface, hidden beneath the floorboards of an abandoned house or a wishing well and, in a number of ways, The Monster Squad did the same.  Even now I have my bouts of What-If, whenever the moon is up and I’m walking somewhere alone be it woods or field or street.  There are more possibilities in the dark, and as a kid, that’s all the world really is: unknown and unseen outside a small bubble.  Maybe that’s why it’s easier to believe then, and harder now.  I don’t know.

Recommended.  If you haven’t seen it, do.  If it’s been a while, track it down.  I have a buddy who hasn’t gone back to it because he was afraid Today-Him wouldn’t line up with Then-Him, and I personally find it an unwarranted fear.  Some things absolutely fall into that trap (Masters of the Universe, for starters, though I’ll admit to still having a Gwildor sized spot somewhere in me), but The Monster Squad isn’t one of them.  Closing in on 30 years later – vomit – the importance of friends, adventure, and silver bullets are just as relevant, and just as good.

In fact, I’m going to watch it tonight.


This Is A Chip

That’s right: a chip.  Singular.  The chip in question?  In the picture.  Plucked for a bag of Kettle Salt and Pepper Chips with 40% Less Fat, this chip was a work of Escherian beauty, and though inexplicable – even chaotic – in design, it boasted hints of Sacred Geometry.  On the Crunch Richter Scale, I’d give it a 12.  Like a heartbeat between the ears, each bite echoed new noise: rain on a window, paper torn from its binder.  In one swoop, all other chips were rendered useless.  Left wanting.  Though now gone from this world, I keep this photo as a reminder of the fleeting pursuit of perfection.