Sunday, January 20, 2013

Moving House

Because I'm tired of having to log into my old Google account every time I use this blog, I am moving over to a new blog on my primary account.  You can find it here:

Sinking Starship

The old Instant Radical archives will remain online here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Only Smiles Today

Only Smiles Today

Time is my worst enemy.
Sooner or later, it eats away everything I treasure:
The things I own rust apart and grow banal, sold or forgotten or thrown away.
The people and relationships I've known, fallen from branches into indifference.

Time is the sweetest lover.
Always more beautiful in recollection, memory's rough edges sanded away by its current:
Nostalgia like pebbles in a soft summer's river.
It's the light that gives me warmth when the present, the future, are jagged steel.

Time is my friend, pushing me to step across the unknown.
What am I supposed to say to you?
Whatever I might do, it's there for an instant, and then it's gone.
Locked away in the past; I want this to be a memory that grows brighter
As my eyes grow dim.

You sit, turning a page, showing me your tender smile.
Blushing in gentle spring, speckled with flowers.
Eyes sparkling with the color of your Hampshire hometown.
Nothing that I could say would encompass it all: hair hanging black
Like the void of outer space; gentle lips, and eyebrows
That you probably think are too thick, worrying over them each morning.

I want to kill time, to break it; to feel past and present all at once.
I want to unplug it, and stay suspended in this moment
Until all feeling becomes numb.
But as words flow through the vanishing space before us
Memory already fails me, and I see my last light
At the end of a distant tunnel. Now, only this one moment remains.
Suspended in time, growing ever distant as I am pulled away.

This I see as unconscious words drift between us.
And you note a hint of sadness on my face,
As I realize that no water may quench this thirst of longing.
You giggle and clasp your hands together, your eyes bound to mine.
Reading from a favored page, your lips slowly say:

Lighten up and sit right down,
Please don't wear fear as your crown.
Even if tomorrow brings storms and rain,
There're only smiles today.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Top Christmas Presents I Wish I'd Gotten

Christmas is a magical time of gluttonous consumerism that effectively drowns out the more important message of God's incarnation not as a conquering overlord with a lightning blade, but a humble baby born amongst dirty animals and shepherds, who came to bring Good News to the poor and poor in spirit.

But you already know that! I wrote a big post on it last year, if I remember right. So today, let's stew on discontentment from Christmases past and make an ungrateful, Scrooge-tastic list of swag I Wish I'd gotten!

  1. GI Joe (1995)

When I was a kid, GI Joe was awesome. My friends, like Cameron, had a ton of awesome GI Joe stuff. But I missed out – I had barely any! The only stuff I can concretely remember is the over-the-top, cheesy “GI Joe EXTREME!” I got for my birthday in 1997 or thereabouts. If I'd gotten more classic GI Joe gear, I have no doubt that I'd be a better person today.

  1. Jazz Jackrabbit CD (1995)

Jazz was one of my favorite games as a kid. But I never owned the full version! You cannot imagine how despondent this made me, but the parents were still in the middle of the no-video-game phase, and since Jazz was heavily reminiscent of Nintendo platformers, I never got it. I can play the whole thing today for free, but it would have been even better if I'd had it back when I was a kid.

  1. A New Computer (2002)

Let's face it: by 2002, our computer that we'd been using since 1998 or so was pretty much shot, and worn out. A new PC for Christmas 2002 would have been a great boost, since I can't recall a single thing I got in 2002, anyway! Something capable of playing newer games would have been quite nice.

  1. More Ertl Die-Cast Bulldozers (Early 90s)

I never got more than one or two of these amazing, detailed die-cast models of Caterpillar bulldozers. And that's a shame, because they were crazy cool. A few more models of these would have been a great addition to a Christmas from the first half of the 90s.

  1. More Rocks (1994-1998)

My rock collection was pretty sexy. The only problem is that I lacked so many sweet rocks that I could only drool over during the occasional visit to Jeanne's Rock Shop in Bellaire. While I guess I got a few rocks for Christmas over the years, I can't help but feel that Mom and Dad kind of dropped the ball here. A lot more rocks and a few impressive geodes would have cost a little bit of money, but man, it would've been better than another pair of pajamas that got thrown out fifteen years ago! Rocks last a long time, man.

  1. Nintendo 64 (1996)

The 64-bit era of gaming has never been my favorite, but man did the N64 seem cool when it first came out. I was never too interested in the Playstation, but games like Mario 64 and Pilotwings just looked plain awesome. I might have a much greater appreciation for classics like Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time if I'd played them at their release instead of years later, when the 3D graphics and clunky controls felt dated.

  1. LEGO Deep Freeze Defender (1993 or 1994)

There are a lot of giant, elaborate Lego sets I wish I'd gotten, but for the purposes of this list, I'm limiting it to just one. It's difficult to choose a single set, but this epic Ice Planet 2002 spaceship has to be one of the most impressive. It's just a fantastic set, between the glorious blue and white color scheme accented by transparent orange, and all of the cool details found on the ship. It's a shame this series didn't last longer, because it's pretty darn impressive.

  1. Super Nintendo (1994)

This is the big one. The Lost Present above all others. The Super Nintendo is, in my opinion, the greatest video game console of all time. It had an unforgettable library of classics: Chrono Trigger, Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link To The Past, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy VI, Super Metroid, and so many more. My mouth watered when I played games like Super Mario World at my friends' houses. But alas, I never got to own a SNES. This would have been the Holy Grail of Christmas presents... if only it had happened.

1994 would have been the ideal year. I would've been big enough to really appreciate the system, and read decently. If we had gotten a SNES with games like Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI, Super Metroid, or Zelda: A Link To The Past that year, it would have been the defining Christmas present.

The only upside is that years later, many of the system's classics would be re-released on the Game Boy Advance. Between that system and PC emulation, I've gotten to experience most of the great SNES games, but I still lament the fact that I didn't get to enjoy the system when it would have created the biggest impact.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Top Ten Christmas Presents!

It's Christmas time again! Today,  I attempt to determine my Top Ten Christmas Presents over the years. So let's dig in and revisit the dark depths of Christmases past!

  1. Toy Tools And Workbench (Early 90s)

Even today, I sometimes regret that I didn't end up taking after my father by becoming a woodworker. But man, when I was a kid, I sure wanted to! I savored every trip to Home Depot, lustily gazing upon tool belts and tools of all sorts, rigorously going over copies of the manuals to Dad's power tools, collected in my precious blue binder. And one Christmas, I got the next best thing, a super-cool toy workbench. I may never have become a carpenter, but at least I got to play one for a while.

  1. Smithsonian Crystal Growing Set (1995 or 1996)

When I was a kid, I loved collecting rocks. In fact, somewhere in the midst of my quarter-life crisis, I often find myself wishing I still had a cool rock collection. As you can imagine, the idea of actually being able to GROW crystals was absurdly awesome. I don't recall that we ever got as amazing results as the box promised, but this was still a very cool Christmas present: one that fueled the immortal childhood desire for discovery, rather than satiate it quite as easily as other gifts.

  1. Something Under The Bed Is Drooling (1998?)

This was my first Calvin and Hobbes book. Though it's pretty much in tatters due to childhood abuse, it started a lifelong love of Calvin and Hobbes, still my favorite American comic strip. I recall that I was a big Garfield fan at the time, and while that fact is rather embarrassing to me now (with the possible exception of the animated series, which actually isn't that bad), I still love C&H today. Once again, the parents steered me right.

  1. Game Boy Color (1999)

For years, I wanted a video game console, but sadly Mom and Dad resolutely refused to allow us one. 1999 was the year that cracks began to show in the formidable edifice of parental restriction. I got my prized Game Boy Color for Christmas, along with Frogger and Super Mario Bros. Deluxe. Despite its lack of a backlight, this was a great system and allowed me to experience a lot of great NES-era games I missed out on by being born a few years too late.

  1. Playstation 2 (2001)

This was the year it finally broke: the year that my brothers and I got our first full-blown video game console. We got a combo pack that included Gran Turismo 3, but the system sadly didn't work, and we had to wait until the next day, after we exchanged the system at the store, before we could play, and we didn't get Gran Turismo 3 for several more weeks. I got the critically-acclaimed Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, the first of many great times on the system. I was blown away: I'd never played a game that had looked anywhere near as good as this. Our Playstation 2 is still alive and kicking today, and with a library of great games: who could forget classics like Dragon Quest VIII, Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy X, and more? This was a Christmas present with long-reaching impact.

  1. Simmons Telescope (1997)

One of my many childhood hobbies was outer space. This Christmas, I got an amazing, hobbyist-grade telescope for gazing at the stars. Sadly, I never got much utility out of it since I lived in Houston, a city reeking of light pollution that kept me from being able to see much with it, but it was still insanely cool, even if it mostly just sat in the corner of my room. Few Christmas presents made quite as much of an impressive visual impact as this thing did.

  1. Thomas The Tank Engine Swag (1993?)

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When I was a littler dude, I loved Thomas The Tank Engine. And one Christmas, I got one of the biggest toy overloads I ever experience: a veritable cornucopia of Thomas swag. An absolute ton of toy trains and tracks and all of it, I don't think any Christmas since (with the possible exception of 1997) has quite met this level of sheer toy abundance. Present after present, packed with epic amounts of die-cast goodness. This is the first year that I can remember with a Christmas haul that really mad a big impact.  Unfortunately, I can't find any pictures of this - it's all on home video, which is, unfortunately, on the other side of the world.

  1. Remote Control Caterpillar Bulldozer (1993? 1994?)

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with bulldozers. And I loved nothing more than the sexy golden-painted of Caterpillar bulldozers, which were, in my mind, a step above the rest. This thing was HUGE. A remote-controlled, highly detailed Caterpillar bulldozer, it was a pretty epic Christmas present that blew me away. Back in these days, I really had no idea what I would be getting for Christmas. And surprises like these were always the best.

  1. LEGO Aquazone Neptune Discovery Lab (1996)

On this Christmas, I finally hit the jackpot: For the first time, I got the biggest Lego set, in the Aquazone series. This was a truly epic playset, the biggest box of Legos I ever owned, in fact. It took forever to build and there was a lot to do with it. It included a huge base for building things which saw a lot more use. Truly unforgettable.

  1. Descent 2: Infinite Abyss (1997)

This is quite possibly The Big One, one of the best Christmas presents I ever got. I'd been drooling over Descent 2 for a long time, but I got more than I bargained for with this awesome edition that included not only the original game, but also the Mission Builder and Vertigo Missions add-on. Dad and I struggled all day to get this working right on our old computer, but in the end? It was so worth it. Christmas '97 will probably always stand as the Greatest Christmas Ever. When the monetary systems of the western world fail, civilization descends into barbarism, and the golden age of the 1990s is but a distant memory as we toil in the dirt to grow meager food upon which to subsist in a world not much different from the TV-burning post-apocalyptic landscape of the opening minutes of Terminator, I will look back fondly upon Christmas '97.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Movie Review :: Sixteen Candles

(I wrote this months ago, but for some reason forgot to post it until now.)

Review: Sixteen Candles

Ever watch a movie that you should probably hate, but inexplicably enjoy anyway? Well, for me, one of those movies is Sixteen Candles. It has everything I hate: Teenagers, stereotypical Asians, drunken partying, and annoying extended family. But in a true testament to John Hughes' filmmaking prowess – making him a sort of Leonidas among the film industry, fearlessly pulling off the impossible – he somehow makes it work. Even though it really shouldn't.

This whole film plays like a teen girl's hot, sheet-soaking wet dream. “Average” teenage girl Samantha (played by cute redhead and 80s teen-girl archetype, Molly Ringwald) is cranky because her entire family has forgotten about her birthday, due to her older sister getting married the next day. To make matters worse, she has a crush on Jake, an older guy who doesn't know she exists, and is pursued by a brazenly confident nerd, Farmer Ted (played by Anthony Michael Hall, another bold hero of 80s movies. Move over, Arnie and Sylvester.) The strange thing is, Hughes came up with this entire movie, so it's not just some teen girl fantasy. Instead, I would argue that it is a subversion. At almost every turn Hughes makes fun of and belittles his teenage audience, and once you really think about it, nothing in the movie makes that much sense.

The biggest problem is Samantha. She's not very likeable (other than being cute.) She's brassy, constantly pissed off, and seems to be locked in a perpetual scowl at worst, and sarcastic half-smile at best. If she was trying her best to deal with the bad situations she encounters, she would be much more likeable and easy to root for. High school hunk Jake says he's looking to settle down with a serious girlfriend instead of screwing and partying around, but why the heck should he date Samantha? She doesn't exactly do a lot to endear herself to him, or anyone else – although they don't even really meet until the last three minutes of the film. But maybe that's the point – Hughes is making fun of how teenagers impulsively fall in love without any real basis for doing so. They don't know a lot about each other or have anything to go on rather than physical attraction. I'm almost certain Hughes is fully aware of this. But is he doing it to make a subtly subversive statement, or just to make money?  You decide.

The real star of this movie is Anthony Michael Hall. His nerd character is completely hilarious, irrationally self-confident, and deals with rejection and many clumsy situations as gracefully as one could possibly expect. Given a decade and some Game, he would probably become a ladykiller who could rival any other guy from his high school days. But here he's the leader of the dorks, and probably the only sane man in the whole film. Almost thirty years later, this sort of character is still interesting and refreshing because he's simply so unusual. Compared to his straight nerd portrayal in The Breakfast Club, Hall is way more interesting here. It's easy to cheer for him, especially in the end when he gets Jake's hot, now-ex girlfriend.

Gedde Watanabe – probably the only other guy on the planet with the same first name (albeit different spelling) as Rush's bass-playing power-rock hero – deserves more credit too. He's portrayed as an Asian caricature with his Chinese gong and song playing when introduced, but is this really the case? I'd say no. A stereotypically Asian guy would be portrayed as well-behaved, an academic overachiever, and hapless nerd who can't get a girlfriend, let alone a white one. Instead, he harbors barely-concealed irritation with the grandparents he lives with, and at the first chance he gets he cuts loose with booze, goes wild over a large-breasted white girl, and generally acts like a complete maniac. For some reason the Asian frat-boy gets a pass in movies like Harold and Kumar, but gets punished here. Unfair, I say, especially when his character is actually quite funny later in the movie.

Jake, our big hunky jock stereotype, seems like a decent fellow if not a little thin in the personality department, but we still have no idea why he's suddenly so interested in Samantha. She doesn't have a lot to commend her, and showing us that she's actually a decent person would do a lot to make the movie's central relationship slightly more tenable. But there's a chance this is just Hughes playing with his audience; he knows that she's flawed, and he wants to see if they can spot it too, even as he seemingly goes along with it. This shows up again in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where Ferris' younger sister acts much the same way and isn't particularly liked by anybody. At any rate, it's easier to root for Jake than Samantha.

This movie is kind of dumb, but it is a lot of fun and does something different and ever-so-slightly subversive with the teen movie formula. It's also a great window into the world of the early 1980s. Definitely recommended.

Friday, August 17, 2012

These Days

Hi, Blog.  Sorry I've been lazy about updating lately.

The good news is that I have definitely not been lazy about writing.  I've begun working on Bastion Against Darkness, the first book in a fantasy series of the same name, and I've written almost two hundred pages in less than two months.  I'm aiming to finish the first draft by the end of this year. 

Because I've been so busy with fiction writing, I've sadly neglected this blog.  I tend to turn every post into such a big affair that I really need to just focus on short little blurbs that are easy to write.  Besides Bastion, I've also nearly completed a short story that I may post here when I finish.

I'm currently in the US, back home for the first time in a year and a half.  Next week I'm coming back to Japan after a lengthy (and productive) stay in Texas and Georgia. 

Life proceeds much the same as usual.  I'm quite content at the moment.  I don't feel like I need to go out and buy stuff, and I'm not so anxious about my job.  I feel that I've found my true calling in writing, and that's given me a lot of peace.  Relationships haven't been much on my mind lately, which has also made life more pleasant for me.

My Flat Head jeans are nearing the five-month point, when I'll give them the first wash and post pictures up here.  Stay tuned for (hopefully) more frequent updates.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Modern Games Kind Of Suck

For a twenty four year-old guy, I sure can seem curmudgeony at times. And often that happens when we talk about video games.

I think games have actually gotten worse with each passing year. I tried – oh, how I tried – to get into the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 generation of games. I failed miserably. Playing games on these systems felt only marginally more fun than than the sense of accomplishment I feel when my house is vacuumed, dusted, and there's no laundry to wash – and that's on a good day of gaming.

It's puzzling, because I can easily say that games like Mass Effect, Dark Souls, Uncharted 2, or Metal Gear Solid 4 are great games. I should love them, but I don't. And for a while, that really troubled me. They look great, sound great, usually play well, and should be an overall satisfying package. But they're not.

I became more acutely aware of this when, on a whim, I bought Duke Nukem 3D for about five dollars the other day. In many ways, this game confirms my feelings about the huge disconnect in feel between modern games and older ones, in large part because there's no nostalgia filter coloring how I look at this game. I love Descent, for example, but there's no denying that growing up with that game has a lot to do with my affection for it.

Duke 3D is different because I did not get to play this violent, offensive game when I was a kid. But all the stuff I love from old games is here in spades. It feels tight and responsive. Firing off a shotgun blast or rocket gives a satisfying sensation missing from newer games with fancy graphics that distract me from what's actually going on in the game. The graphics look terrific. The early 3D shooters from the mid-90s are by far my favorite-looking 3D games of any type. I love the sprite enemies and powerups and delightfully grainy textures. This game is bright and boisterous and a lot of fun, miles ahead of brown-and-gray shooters that take themselves too seriously.

Another thing I love about games like Duke 3D is that the game doesn't treat the player like a baby. There's no condescending tutorial to tell you how to do everything; either you figure it out yourself, or you have to press F1 to see the controls when you encounter a passage you're obviously supposed to duck under but don't know the correct key. Puzzles aren't especially challenging, but the game doesn't hand out solutions on a silver platter, either. There are at least four difficulty levels, another thing missing from many games today. However, there's not a score – we'll get to that later – aside from each level grading you on the time it took to complete and the number of secrets you found.

I could say a lot about Duke 3D's innovations – checkable security cameras, destructible walls, interactive environments, and so on – but it's been done to death. Let's just say the game still looks and feels awesome over fifteen years after it first came out.  It's a game with real personality, and also one lacking the serious flaws of newer shooters that tend to have short, bland single-player campaigns.

Another case in point is Jazz Jackrabbit. Yes, I have loved this game ever since I was a kid and drooled over its kaleidoscopic graphics, hyperactive pacing, and insane levels of fun while furtively trying to play it during free time at the end of computer class in elementary school. I liked Mario a bit, but never owned a Super Nintendo. I never played Sonic at all, as far as I can remember. Jazz Jackrabbit was my platformer of choice. I only had the first episode at home – which takes about twenty minutes to complete, from start to finish – and played it to death, finding every last little secret in the first few levels.

Everything about Jazz is pretty much completely awesome. There are several types of colorful, fun weapons, badass Mode 7 3D bonus stages, an incredibly, memorable soundtrack, diverse level designs, and tons of enemies. When I play Jazz, I notice two things lacking in modern games: Things New Games Can't Do, and Things New Games Won't Do.

The first includes the sheer variety of enemies and environments. You never spend more than two or so levels on each world, with a huge variety of themes – an earth-like planet, a red castle, slippery ice world, a junkyard, a few spaceships, inside a computer, a jungle, and so on. Almost every one has different enemies to deal with. Modern games are so graphics intensive that that creating such a wide range of enemies and environments is nearly impossible. The shareware model was genius: you get the first episode free, and have to pay money for the rest of the game, which lets you experience all the cool weapons, levels, and enemies that make the free part seem pretty pathetic in comparison. Modern games are so big that you just can't make downloading or sharing them easy and practical like in the 1990s, and modern games are so small that developers are hesitant to give away a big, expensive chunk of their expensive product for free. Games like Jazz were very cheap to make compared to, say, a new Halo or Gears Of War.

But what about Things New Games Won't Do? This is my real pet peeve. Modern games can't just be games, they have to pretend to be a movie and faux cinematic experience with the occasional player interaction. Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid are infamous for this, but almost any modern game that's not about playing badminton or gambling suffers from this. Jazz has a score – you pick up shiny, useless junk and earn points. It seems dumb and characteristic of the sort of thing you'd see from a clueless parent on a sitcom who thinks Modern Warfare 3 is a prettier version of Pac-Man, but I love games with points. For me, picking up shiny junk and getting a high score gives a much greater sense of satisfaction than playing through some overwrought, pre-scripted story. And most importantly, it gives replay value. You can play through the game over again and try to beat your time, or get more points, or whatever you want.

When I finished Uncharted 2, I thought it was a fine game but I knew I would never care about playing it ever again. I mean, what else is there to do? The story is still going to be exactly the same. I could play on a harder difficulty where I die in two hits instead of four, but really, what's the point? Whenever I play something like Jazz Jackrabbit, or Ikaruga, or Commander Keen, I actually want to go back and re-play the game to see if I can do better. When you have a high score to beat, the game creates the feeling that if you re-play it, things will turn out differently. Out of the new-ish games I've played recently, only Dragon Age had a similar sensation, because you can replay using a different character and party.  Not all games are the same, but many modern RPGs (especially Japanese ones) and linear action games fall victim to this.

The fundamental problem is that modern games are actually embarrassed that they're games. They try to cover up their reality with cinematics that aren't as fun as a movie and aren't as fun as a game. The best games are the ones that know they're games and embrace it. For example, I enjoy The Wind Waker far more than other Zelda games like Ocarina Of Time. It's cartoony, it feels like it's a game and it's not embarrassed about the fact - it doesn't try to be 'real' like later entries in the series. It still looks great – like Jazz and Duke 3D, I feel like it hasn't aged a day. Sure there are problems – it's too easy, parts can be meandering, and so on – but you travel around, you collect stuff, and you aren't always led by the hand.  You feel like you're in control and play a conscious role in determining how things turn out.

This is also why I love Dragon Quest, which manages to keep feeling like an old game with each new installment, often refining and improving on the old-game-ness I already like. When I play a game like Dragon Quest Monsters, there's a fun sense of ownership that comes from breeding your own monsters and playing the game how you want – and I think that's one reason why games like Pokemon are also so popular. I don't have time to play games as often as I did when I was a kid, so I'm through wasting time with games that wish they weren't games. From now on, I'm going to stick with games that love being games.