Hana-bi (film) – Review

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Released in 1997, Hana-bi (meaning fireworks) cemented Takeshi Kitano’s reputation in the West as a filmmaker of superior talent. He’s long been well-regarded in his native Japan, albeit known as much for his “other” career as a comedian as a film star. But Hana-bi, coming a few years after the similarly well-regarded crime flick Sonatine, brought Kitano’s work to a global audience.

I bought this film on DVD a few years after it came out, and re-visiting it now, I was surprised how dated it felt; but the grainy look suits the subject matter. Hana-bi is a slow film in many ways, and it certainly takes a while to get going. It starts by showing us several police officers setting up a stakeout, and it seems like a mundane business: the cops are much more concerned with worrying about domestic issues and their personal lives than they are with the job at hand. Indeed, whereas so many films either glamorize police work, or attempt a self-consciously “gritty” portrayal, Hana-bi just shows the detectives treating it like a regular job; until something goes wrong, at least.

The long, languid scenes that Kitano favours create a naturalistic atmosphere, and there is a realism and tactile physicality to the film that feels exceptional. The slow, almost treacly pacing is punctuated by scenes of extreme violence, with unsettling results. The film’s editing – with many important scenes told in flashback, revealed only in part, in-progress and with information missing – adds to the sense of confusion and uncertainty, mirroring what it’s like to be caught up in violent events and confrontations.

Kitano wrote, directed, edited, and starred in this film, playing the main character, Nishi. He was also responsible for the artwork which appears throughout its second half: he created it while recovering from the motorcycle accident which also caused the partial facial paralysis which is noticeable throughout. His character is mute for long periods of the film, but he still injects a surprising amount of warmth and humor into his performance. This is especially striking in the scenes with his wife, who is dying from cancer. Their early scenes together are decidedly somber, as you’d expect; but they gradually become happier and more bittersweet. It’s clear that, for all the misfortune the couple has endured, they’re still deeply in love. That such tenderness, intimacy and comedy is conveyed in their almost silent scenes is a credit to their craft as well as to Kitano’s script.

But as well as a loving husband and kind friend, Nishi is a violent man prone to extreme and excessive outbursts. In its total aversion to romanticizing cops or the yakuza, Hana-bi almost feels like a deconstruction of those genres, but to see it as such would probably be missing the point. This is a reflective and poignant film and one to make you think about deep themes like the meaning of life, love, friendship, and so on. In other words, not your typical genre film, and essential viewing for anyone interested in Japanese cinema or Kitano’s oeuvre.

8/10

 

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The Specialist (film) – Review

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Amazon Video UK is in a bit of a purple patch at the moment: they seem to have uploaded a bunch of big-budget early 90s thrillers and action movies. You never know with Amazon Video how long their movies will be available for, so I say make hay while the sun shines. Released in 1994, The Specialist was a high-profile action movie that did well at the box office. Its success was driven by a heavy helping of star power, as it features Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone in its main roles.

The ’90s was a relatively fallow decade for Stallone (this largely forgotten movie was one of his biggest hits), but Stone came into this fresh off the back of the phenomenal success of Basic Instinct. She was a household name in 1994 and it’s easy to see why. While this film doesn’t have the humour or sophistication of a Paul Verhoeven movie, Stone is absolutely stunning, and there is plenty of fanservice. Sly gets his kit off, as well. The end result is a bit odd: the chemistry between the two stars isn’t great, and they have a somewhat awkward sex scene. Stallone is probably too clean-cut as a foil for Stone, who you get the feeling would run rings around him (well, she kind of does here, to be fair). She definitely worked better opposite the seedier, more ambivalent Michael Douglas.

As far as the plot goes, Sly plays Ray Quick, an explosives expert who left the CIA, disillusioned with the death of a child on one of his covert operations. He’s recruited by a mysterious woman, May Munro (Stone), who wants him to assassinate a group of gangsters who murdered her parents before her eyes when she was still a child. This appeals to Quick’s sense of justice, as does Munro’s glamorous appearance once he gets a good look at her while checking out her story. Quick agrees to take on the job, and we get an interesting view of the use of explosives, with Quick coming across as an intelligent artist, engineer, and craftsman.

The Specialist has a decent cast and a taste for the histrionic, with James Woods, Eric Roberts (sporting an absurd haircut), and Rod Steiger in supporting roles. But one of the problems with The Specialist is its convoluted plot, and it’s difficult to keep track of everyone’s motivations, and who is double crossing who. T. pointed out that the film is well shot, and I must say that it’s enjoyable and easy to watch. It was panned by most critics, but as we know that’s rarely a true estimation of a film’s worth. The film’s Peruvian director, Luis Llosa, also boasts the J-Lo and Jon Voight vehicle Anaconda among  his credits. The Specialist is better than that, but it does scratch the same sort of itch. This is a straightforward, entertaining action movie, with its heart in the right place.

Stone received a “Razzie” for bad acting in her role in this, which strikes me as both unkind and unfair. She and Stallone also received a “Razzie” for being “Worst Screen Couple” (amusingly, they were joint winners with Pitt and Cruise for Interview with the Vampire). That one’s arguable, as they’re far from a perfect match. But even so, this is a film that does exactly what it says on the tin. Its got a lot of explosions, its got Sharon Stone at her peak, and its got a plot that sees Stallone striving manfully to do the right thing. If it’s not for you, that’s fine, but most would agree there’s a time and a place for movies like this.

6/10

Fatal Attraction (film) – Review

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Released in 1987, Fatal Attraction was the first in a series of movies in which Michael Douglas played a sleazy character caught up in dangerous situations through his lust and weakness. As in Basic Instinct and Disclosure, at times you have to wonder, why are all these beautiful women throwing themselves at Michael Douglas? Anyway, here he plays a seemingly happily married lawyer, Dan Gallagher, who has a brief but passionate affair with an attractive magazine editor, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). An increasingly guilt-ridden Gallagher tries to call it off, and at first it seems like Alex is happy for them to go their separate ways. But it soon becomes clear that she’s developed a dangerous attachment to Dan, and isn’t prepared to let things end so easily.

Fatal Attraction is an effective drama, and a discomforting portrayal of infidelity. For the most part, events revolve around Gallagher, and the effect all this has on him, with his increasingly desperate attempts to stop his (really nice) wife Beth (Anne Archer) finding out about his affair. In contrast, the portrayal of Alex is relatively simplistic – but that’s not to say she’s without sympathy. Though she comes across as more and more deranged and dangerous, Close invests the character with vulnerability and tragedy. Alex is a single woman with a successful career, and while the film doesn’t explicitly address what that meant in 1980s America, we can fill in the blanks for ourselves. It was a particularly misogynist era, and women who wanted careers generally had to put up with sexual harassment, as well as loneliness: for most, the choice was between a career, or a marriage and family. While things aren’t completely different today, changes in work culture have meant the choice isn’t quite as stark today as it was thirty years ago.

So, the script does make you feel sorry for Alex, and Dan is morally culpable. But Alex’s characterization is still a bit flimsy, and for three quarters of the film there is no exploration of how she’s going about her daily life through all this: it just revolves around her stalking Dan. What’s happened to her successful career? The ending of the film was changed before release – apparently against the wishes of Close – and I can see how the ending as it stands makes things a bit neater, and removes some of the shades of grey that existed up until then. But the film was a massive box office hit so I suppose they found the right ending for audiences at the time.

Today, part of the reason Fatal Attraction is famous is a harrowing scene towards the end featuring a certain family pet, which has entered the popular lexicon. But one of the stars of the film is the Gallagher family Golden Retriever. It’s a beautiful dog with a great personality, who is well used in several scenes throughout the film. It’s clear that someone centrally involved with this movie was a pet-owner who was sensitive to animals and the role they play in a family unit. Here, animals are both literally and symbolically defenseless and innocent, and they’re used to emphasize the sordid and sad nature of the events going on around them.

While this isn’t a perfect film, and it’s quite disturbing at times,  it’s certainly worth seeing.

7/10

The most overrated video games of all time

Any experienced gamer will know the feeling. You’re excited to play a new game, which everyone says is amazing. But once you start to play it, you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, a game can still be enjoyable even after you decide it’s undeserving of the hype. But there are other times when the gap between what you’ve been told, and what you discover for yourself, will get deeper and deeper, until you end up wondering: is there something else going on?

Games or series being overrated isn’t problematic just because it irritates cantankerous old gamers like me. It’s significant because the historical reputation and cultural standing of games matters: not just for how it influences individual purchasing decisions, but in shaping the future development of entire franchises, and even genres. It affects the kinds of games we play, and how we play them. And some people can be put off games for years, or even for life, by playing overhyped games and thinking, is this all video games have to offer?

So, here is my attempt to debunk some of the most egregiously overrated video games of all time. It’s a long read, but if you stick with it until the end you’ll (hopefully) come to agree that this analysis reveals some clear trends.

In chronological order:

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1. Sonic the Hedgehog (Mega Drive)

Released: 1991. Metacritic score: N/A.

Everyone knows that Sonic games have sucked for years, with well-reviewed games like the recent Sonic Mania being the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, ever since games moved into 3D in the mid-90s, the Sonic franchise has been the object of widespread derision, and complaints from fans that the series abandoned its roots. But on the contrary, what if crummy game design is just part of Sonic’s DNA?

Sonic games were enormously popular back in the early 90s. Sonic was the iconic franchise on Sega’s Mega Drive (called the Genesis in the USA), and he was one of Sega’s main weapons in the console war against Nintendo. In contrast to Nintendo’s mascot, a rotund, mustachioed Italian plumber named Mario, Sonic was presented as “edgy” and cool, a character focused on speed above all else. The gameplay reflected this, and the mechanics were designed to encourage you to traverse the levels top speed. The problem was, that doing so was often suicidal: enemies and hazards would appear out of nowhere, meaning you would get hit unless you proceeded through the game at a snail’s pace. The labyrinthine level structure also encouraged a methodical approach that was at odds with the way Sonic controlled.

In short, the early Sonic games were a slew of contradictions that made for an unsatisfying and frustrating experience. For a series that was initially sold to consumers as being about exhilarating experiences, and being edgy and cool, it’s ironic that these days it relies on nostalgia and rose-tinted classes.

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2. EarthBound (Super Nintendo)

Released: 1994. Metacritic score: N/A.

EarthBound was actually the second game in the Japanese “Mother” series of RPGs, and the only one to be released by Nintendo in Europe and America. It didn’t do at all well in the West, its quirky, idiosyncratic tone a poor fit for the appetites of gamers and critics at the time. But it developed a cult following, which over the years ballooned out of all proportion to the original merits of the game; and the idea that the game was an underrated gem led, quite rapidly, to an absurdly overrated status in the West. Demands that Nintendo release its sequel, Mother 3, in the West, are now a mainstay of Nintendo-based communities online.

 

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Do these guys look like heroes to you?

3. Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo)

Released: 1995. Metacritic score: N/A.

Chrono Trigger was never released for the Super Nintendo in Europe, but is now widely available, including through a port for the Nintendo DS in 2008 (metacritic score: 92). It was the product of an all-star creative team at Square featuring senior staff from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. For the time, it had excellent graphics, with colourful, detailed sprites, and an exceptional soundtrack, which still sounds good today. Chrono Trigger also had an ambitious story, with multiple endings depending on what you did, and when, during its time-travelling structure. It was unusually sophisticated in 1995 and would prove to be an influential game in the history of the medium.

That said, on its own merits, played today Chrono Trigger remains a dated experience. Its presentation is solid, but the gameplay is flat and uninspired. In particular, combat is simplistic and boring, and the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s relatively straightforward and not too difficult. As much as the story had a novel structure, the actual writing was, for the most part, pretty flat. This should be an unexceptional comment – the game is, after all, over 20 years old, and Super Nintendo games weren’t renowned for their scripts – but Chrono Trigger is still held up a classic of videogame storytelling. But just because something is historically significant, that doesn’t mean it’s still good by contemporary standards.

While its in-game graphics were good, the person in charge of Chrono Trigger’s visual design was Akira Toriyama, also responsible for the Dragonball series. Toriyama’s style is divisive, and I personally find it to be offensively ugly. Here it’s completely out of sync with the tone of Chrono Trigger’s story: all his characters, including the heroes, look sadistically evil. It’s particularly obvious if you watch the cutscenes added to the later PlayStation port.

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4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)

Released: 2000. Metacritic score: 95.

It’s always going to be hard to follow one of the best games ever made, and so Nintendo wisely decide to make Majora’s Mask substantially different to it’s predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. While the game made use of many of Ocarina’s technical assets, and had the same basic gameplay, the similarities stopped there. Majora’s Mask made use of an original time-travelling mechanic, with Link having to repeatedly travel back in time in order to prevent the world’s imminent destruction.

The apocalyptic premise shaped the game’s tone, and Majora’s Mask is notable for having a particularly sombre and wistful feel. The story is concerned with subjects like friendship and loneliness, and can be quite affecting. Its atmosphere is often quite mysterious, with many aspects of the gameworld not being fully explained. The time-travelling mechanic also allows for some inventive puzzles – though you will often run out of time during the many sidequests, and have to go back to square one.

As much as the time limit is an interesting mechanic, there’s a reason we don’t see this used much in games, at least in RPGs. Knowing that a Game Over (and the end of the world) is just around the corner means exploration can be stressful, and the system is at odds with the engrained desire to explore and mess around which is such a big part of adventure games. It doesn’t help that Majora’s Mask can be pretty vague about where you’re supposed to go and what to do next. By the time you’ve figured it out, it’s more than likely time to reset the clock. Generally speaking, it’s no good starting a side quest after the first day, as you won’t have time to complete it. Moreover, the dungeon design was generally uninspired (certainly compared to Ocarina of Time), and some of the boss fights were pretty frustrating. It was a lot easier if you found all the hidden items, but the time limit made that a punishing chore. One way or the other, the game made you suffer.

In the end, Majora’s Mask was an interesting, but flawed game. Its limitations are understandable, particularly considering its short development period. It would require no further comment, but for the fact that its reputation has soared far out of proportion to its merits; and there is a cottage industry of theorycrafting devoted to various incidental aspects of the game’s design and lore. To be fair, it’s not the only overrated Zelda game. Both of the Wii Zeldas were laughably overhyped: Twilight Princess (2006, metacritic rating 95) was a boring and ugly collect-a-thon, while Skyward Sword (2011, metacritic rating 93) was one of the most forgettable and redundant Zeldas ever, and sold fewer than four million copies on the Wii’s install base of 100 million. But while they’re largely neglected now (with good reason), the hype around Majora’s Mask seems to go from strength to strength, and shows few signs of abating.

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5. Final Fantasy X (PlayStation 2)

Released: 2001. Metacritic score: 92.

They say your favourite Final Fantasy game is whichever one you play first. That might explain the enduring popularity of Final Fantasy X, the first game in the franchise to be released for the PlayStation 2. The series was enormously successful at that point, probably the most famous and highly-regarded RPG franchise in the world apart from Zelda. The commercial success of FFX was therefore more or less guaranteed; but that doesn’t explain the enthusiastic critical reaction to this deeply flawed game, or its inflated reputation since.

FFX was undermined by several major problems. It had a convoluted and melodramatic story featuring a cast of characters who were asinine at best and, at worst, deeply and profoundly annoying. This was abetted by perhaps the worst voice acting ever featured in a video game. FFX was one of the first high-profile games to make extensive use of voice acting, and it shows. The quality of the voice acting ranged from mediocre to horrendous, and it was made worse by a laughable script and clueless direction that led to some truly infamous scenes.

Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, the story in FFX took you along a largely linear path that meant the player couldn’t explore at all until they reached the endgame. It’s true that if you got that far, there was some interesting content in the form of optional quests to acquire powerful Guardian Forces. But the ludicrous puzzles (dodge 100 lighting bolts?) and frustrating boss fights, combined with the boring and predictable story and terrible writing, meant that whatever slim payoff you got was utterly inadequate. The game’s risible design extended to its minigames, particularly the atrocious, poorly conceived Blitzball mode.

One of FFX’s few saving graces was that the environments of Spira had a distinctive Pacific Island aesthetic; but its world was populated by ugly and badly designed characters who sucked any joy out of exploration. The combat system was functional, with an active and high-paced turn-based system that allowed you to swap characters in and out of your party. The grid-based character levelling system was original, and the characters in your party generally felt different enough from one another with their own strengths and weaknesses. But overall, it was a hugely disappointing game that feels like a turning point for the franchise. Although Final Fantasy XII was great, most of the games since X have fallen far short of expectations. And let’s not forget X’s direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, which somehow managed to be even worse. Much, much worse.

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6. Tales of Symphonia (Nintendo Gamecube)

Released: 2004. Metacritic score: 86.

Tales of Symphonia was a great RPG when it was released. The first Tales game to reach a mainstream audience in the West, Symphonia featured colourful graphics; a rich, complex story that dealt with serious subjects in an intelligent way; a beautiful soundtrack; and an energetic and deep combat system which supported co-operative multiplayer. It rightly received a lot of praise and helped the Tales franchise reach much larger new markets. However, played today, Symphonia is (unsurprisingly) somewhat dated, and suffers from poor pacing.

There have been a number of great Tales games after Symphonia, but most of these are ignored or dismissed by large sections of the Tales fanbase. Their constant harping on about Symphonia, and to an extent Tales of Vesperia, is embarrassing. But the mindless, stultifying atmosphere of nostalgia which the community cultivates around the game is also damaging. Because it has little basis in reality, it provides an impossible yardstick against which to judge the merits of more recent entries, such as Graces and Berseria.

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7. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii)

Released: 2007. Metacritic score: 97.

Super Mario Galaxy was released for the Nintendo Wii to rave reviews and a great deal of hype. The Wii was well on its way to stratospheric commercial success, but in 2007 it was still light short on top-quality triple-A exclusives. People were excited by the motion controls and party games like Wii Sports, but serious gamers wanted evidence that the Wii could deliver “proper” gaming experiences as well. Galaxy was brought to market as proof that the Wii was a console for hardcore gamers too.

Ever since Mario 64 brought the platform genre into 3D, Mario games had a reputation for showcasing the controls of Nintendo consoles to their best effect. In a way Galaxy continued the trend, because it incorporated motion controls in a gimmicky and imprecise way; a trend that would continue throughout the Wii’s lifespan. Mario’s spin attack was there as if to make up for the difficulty of landing your jump attacks properly, which was a function of tricky depth perception on Galaxy’s spherical worlds, combined with an inadequate and frustrating camera.

Galaxy was not without charm, but it lacked the sense of scale and vision of Mario 64, instead feeling like a sequence of minigames or demo levels. For many, it served as a fun introduction to the Mario franchise, but it lacked the taut design of the classic 2D games, or the ambition of Mario 64. In the end, it felt like a massive disappointment considering the hype that surrounded its release.

With hindsight, it seems that people were too keen to believe the Wii’s potential as a “serious” console. Wii owners were desperate for evidence that it could feature games with a richness and depth to rival the best games that were coming out on Microsoft and Sony’s consoles. Unfortunately, the residual hype endures to this day, and Galaxy still has a ludicrously inflated reputation – as does its sequel, Super Mario Galaxy 2. Hopefully Super Mario Odyssey, due out later this year, can get the series back on track.

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8. Metal Gear Solid 4 (PlayStation 3)

Released: 2008. Metacritic score: 94.

Metal Gear Solid 4 was released to near-universal critical acclaim, but a backlash began a few years later. It’s now widely abhorred by critics as a travesty of incoherent game design and bad taste. In fact, anyone aspiring to write about games would be well advised to play this game and then read some of the reviews it received. It would be a salutary lesson in the importance of thinking for yourself and judging a game on its merits, rather than on what other people are saying about it.

When Metal Gear Solid 4 was released, Sony’s PS3 was crying out for a system-selling exclusive. The console was eye-wateringly expensive, and Sony needed games that could deliver deep, immersive, cinematic experiences which justified the game’s price tag and powerful technology. MGS 4’s lengthy cutscenes and jaw-dropping graphics provided the raw material for impressive trailers and advertising. This all helped ensure that the game sold well, but if you have a copy of it now, good luck getting more than a few cents for it. It’s basically worthless, a reflection of how much fun it is to play.

The Metal Gear series has become a byword for incomprehensible storytelling and overlong cutscenes, and MGS4 was perhaps the most extreme version of this. Its po-faced exposition was combined with appallingly juvenile character interactions (like a character who repeatedly crapped his pants); while it assaulted the player with a host of different playstyles and frustrating boss battles (if you’re interested in reading more, here’s my review). It was basically a gigantic ego trip for producer Hideo Kojima. He was given one more turn at the wheel, in the form of Metal Gear Solid 5, before publisher Konami pulled the plug on the franchise. For all the criticism Konami gets these days – much of it deserved – euthanising this series earns them a thumbs-up from me.

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9. Grand Theft Auto IV (multi-platform)

Released: 2008. Metacritic rating: 98.

Grand Theft Auto IV was widely heralded as one of the best games ever made when it was released. It was certainly ambitious, a big-budget open world game with an expansive story and a lot of content. The story was told from the standpoint of Niko Bellic, an East European immigrant newly arrived in Liberty City, the GTA series’ sleazy take on New York. As Niko looked to make his way in his new surroundings, he was sucked into various criminal shenanigans, encountering a wide array of colourful characters along the way.

GTA IV had an uneven tone, its hardbitten story at odds with the flair for brash and garish carnage with which the series made its name – and which this game’s sandbox structure provided plenty of opportunties to indulge in. While not without appeal, it was far from the awe-inspiring experience its reviews led audiences to believe. Attempting to complete the story could be very frustrating, as GTA IV’s combat was terrible, featuring imprecise and clumsy controls which couldn’t support the large-scale firefights the game threw at you during its second half. It featured a dreadful checkpoint system which meant that if you died, you usually had to start a mission from scratch. So not only did you have to re-start a long firefight from the beginning, you might have to spend several minutes driving across Liberty City before you even got there. And if you got impatient and drove too fast, you were more than likely to attract the attention of the city’s cops, resulting in a long and tiresome car chase before you even got to retry the section where you just died – and where, more than likely, you would die again due to the poor combat mechanics.

GTA IV wasn’t an outright bad game, but it was certainly overrated. On the plus side, Rockstar learned from some its weaknesses and ensured they weren’t reproduced in LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption; games that, for the most part, did live up to the hype.

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10. The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS)

Released: 2008. Metacritic score: 88.

The DS was a hugely successful console, but like the Wii it was a bit lacking when it came to great games; particularly in comparison to its predecessor, the Game Boy Advance. At the time of release, Square’s The World Ends With You was regarded as one of the best games for the console. It was thought to be particularly important that a serious, third-party RPG would made use of features like the DS touchscreen.

The World Ends With You was set in the consumerist hub of Shibuya, Japan, and was a self-conscious appeal to a fashion-conscious teenage demographic. It featured its own system of brands and counterculture, and much of the game’s combat and customization revolved around selecting various “pins” for your character which had different effects. Most of these were pretty gimmicky, though, and the same went for the game’s combat. The World Ends With You tried to make use of the dual screens by making you control two characters at the same time, one on each screen, with predictably confusing results. Its combat is a good example of why complexity doesn’t necessarily equal depth.

But the chief problem was with the game’s story. The main character, Neku, was a surly introvert sucked into a sinister, high-stakes game in an alternate version of Shibuya. The story starts with an air of mystery and intrigue, but things soon fall apart. The World Ends With You introduces too many characters without developing them, and its structure meant that as soon as someone started to become interesting, they were likely to be removed from the picture. Its lore was abstruse, taking forever to untangle, and there was little payoff in the end. It all boiled down to a gimmicky game with an esoteric story. Although not a disaster, it should be approached now more as a historical curiosity than a good game; but it has maintained its dubious status as a DS “classic”.

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11. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3)

Released: 2009. Metacritic score: 96.

The first Uncharted game (metacritic 88) was released in late 2007, at a time when the PS3 sorely needed desirable exclusives. Added to some decent graphics, its spin on the Tomb Raider genre felt like a natural fit for a Playstation console, and it was fairly well-received at the time. Played today, however, it comes across as an objectively poor game let down by shoddy controls, repetitive and frustrating combat, and awkward platforming.

Uncharted 2 was undoubtedly an improvement, and is largely responsible for the monstrous hype that has surrounded the series ever since. Uncharted 2 had high production values and great graphics, and the gameplay was better than its predecessor, though still rather perfunctory. The experience was very linear, with uninspired design, and it felt neither original nor particularly memorable. A major part of the game’s appeal was its interpretation of the familiar and much-loved aesthetic of the Indiana Jones films, with the script adding an extra layer of knowing humour in a nod towards the Marvel style. But, as with the rest of the series, Uncharted 2’s story was hokey supernatural nonsense, with a penchant for Orientalist exoticism. Its tendency to conflate history with mysticism and fantasy was symptomatic of an irrational, postmodern culture disdainful of the very idea of truth, worshipful instead of spectacle and stupidity.

Moreover, Uncharted 2’s script doubled down on the nihilistic, individualist subtext that came to characterize the franchise. Uncharted’s protagonist, Nathan Drake, is a cynical and selfish lead, a thief obsessed with looting antiquities for his own enrichment, whose not above stealing from museums. He’s a fine example of the self-aware, insincere, wisecracking archetype featured so prominently in games and movies of the last decade. It’s unfortunate that Naughty Dog invested so much in this franchise, because 2013’s The Last of Us demonstrated they were capable of producing extraordinary games. But as things stand, the Uncharted trilogy has the dubious honour of being the most overhyped series on a platform replete with overrated exclusives.

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12. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Nintendo DS)

Released: 2010. Metacritic score: 80.

Atlus has a well-earned reputation for delivering some of the best JRPGs around, mainly in the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series. They’ve also published some great spin-offs set in those universes, like the Devil Summoner tactical RPGs or Digital Devil Saga games. Strange Journey was released for Nintendo’s DS handheld in 2010, and for the most part had a strong critical reception, and garnered a cult following online.

On the face of it, Strange Journey had all the ingredients that make for a decent JRPG. Its story starts promisingly, with a setting reminiscent of John Carpenter’s classic horror movie The Thing. A scientific team is sent to Antarctica to investigate a spatial abnormality which, if it expands, threatens to destabilize or even engulf the planet. Once there, the team is scattered and the player is sucked into a dimension populated by demons. Most of the game consists of exploring these alternate dimensions.

Strange Journey is a first-person dungeon crawler, where you explore boring, monochrome labyrinths, triggering random battles and occasional boss fights along the way. Combat is both mind-numbingly tedious and extremely frustrating, as enemies can often cast high-level spells with abandon, while your party is dependent on triggering elemental combos to do significant damage. You don’t know what element a demon is weak to until after you’ve killed it, and the first time you fight something you can’t even see it: it’s just a mess of blue pixels. Your party consists of demons, who have to be recruited through a nightmarish trial-and-error interview system where you answer a series of questions to try and win them over. If you give the wrong answer, you’ll normally be attacked, but even if you somehow manage to get all the answers right, the demon might randomly decide not to join you.

Most Atlus games have a good script, but Strange Journey’s was exceptionally bland, perhaps due to a poor localization, while most of the characters ranged from uninteresting to downright annoying. The story had an unbearably preachy tone, with most of the dungeons inspired by some negative aspect of human culture (vice, war, consumerism, etc), in a shallow and sanctimonious attempt to invoke weighty subjects. If the gameplay was any good, this wouldn’t have been such a problem; but when your “reward” for successfully navigating an ugly, tedious labyrinth is a brutal boss fight, followed by some execrable dialogue, it’s really not worth the effort. After a while, I found that playing Strange Journey actually made me feel nauseous, and even now, remembering what it was like to play makes me feel vaguely unwell.

Unfortunately, Atlus decided to remake Strange Journey, and a new edition is coming out for the 3DS later this year. I admit it’s possible that they’ll fix what was wrong with the DS version; but considering that what was wrong with it was pretty much “everything”, I won’t hold my breath.

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13. Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)

Released: 2010. Metacritic score: 87.

Heavy Rain (metacritic 87) was released in 2010, another PS3 exclusive which boasted impressive graphics and showcased new hardware. In this instance, Heavy Rain was compatible with the PlayStation Move controller, Sony’s motion control answer to Microsoft’s Kinect, which was itself a reaction to the success of the Nintendo Wii. Motion control has not yet been accepted as an adequate method for playing traditional games, due to its lack of precision, and for now is consigned mainly to gimmick or novelty status. But in 2010, it was important that Sony was able to say its console featured motion control, like its rivals.

Heavy Rain was also supposed to show that the PS3 remained the premier console for delivering cinematic experiences. It had a noir-ish plot, and allowed the player to make decisions which affected the course of the narrative, ultimately determining who lived and who died. Heavy Rain’s visual presentation was striking, and its state of the art facial animation combined with photorealistic graphics was truly impressive. At the same time, it wasn’t perfect, and those moments when the facial animations weren’t quite right could be alternately hilarious and disturbing, with characters gurning maniacally. This, combined with the cheesy script, meant that Heavy Rain often descended into the depths of bathos (also known as Narm), and moments that were supposed to be significant or moving often ended up making you laugh due to inept scripting, or bad “acting” from one of the characters.

Heavy Rain was far from an unmitigated failure. Its story was not without heart, and its technical design and vision was ambitious: and when it succeeded, the results could be remarkable. But it was far from the visionary work it was presented as at the time, and its inflated reputation helps explain the underwhelming response to its successor, 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls, which was in most respects a superior experience.

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14. The Walking Dead (multi-platform)

Released: 2012. Metacritic score: 92.

Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead was terrific. It felt like a mature and sophisticated use of the source material, with a poignant and emotionally affecting story centred around one of the best representations of a parent-child dynamic ever seen in a video game. But the actual game supporting the story was quite creaky, and the sections between dialogue mainly consisted of a bit of walking and some simple puzzles. Moreover, it quickly became apparent that your freedom to control the direction of the story was largely illusory.

The Walking Dead received enormous accolades, regarded by many as one of the best games of 2012. But the stubborn refusal of publisher Telltale Games to update their creaking engine has meant that later games, including in big-ticket franchises like Game of Thrones and Batman, have been riddled with technical errors. Moreover, episodes of Telltale’s subsequent seasons kept getting shorter and shorter, the publisher dangerously close to being seen to take advantage of the good will of critics and consumers alike.

Five years after The Walking Dead’s breakout success, Telltale Games are glitchier than ever; as expensive as ever; lighter on content; and the limits imposed on player choice and control are increasingly transparent. It didn’t have to be this way. The widespread acceptance of this style of game has also led to the proliferation of interactive stories masquerading as games, in a weird fracturing of the medium.

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15. Bioshock Infinite (multi-platform)

Released: 2013. Metacritic score: 94.

The first two Bioshock games were critically acclaimed, and they featured atmospheric and original environments with solid game mechanics and a sophisticated approach to storytelling. Even if the stories themselves were pretentious, bogged down in examinations of Ayn Rand’s banal individualist “philosophy” of Objectivism, this didn’t detract too much from the overall experience.  The third game in the trilogy, Bioshock Infinite (metacritic rating 94), moved the action from the depths of the sea to the skies above. Featuring good graphics, and espousing the same “show, don’t tell” approach to narrative showcased in the first games, Bioshock Infinite was a highly cinematic and vivid first-person shooter. The gunplay was basic but satisfying, and it had a colourful system of “Vigors” (upgradeable spells) which were fun to play around with, even if most of them felt inessential in the context of the game’s simplistic combat.

While Infinite’s campaign played well enough, the game laboured towards the end under the weight of its tortured, metaphysical narrative, finally reaching a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion. Moreover, its story was characterized by the nihilistic outlook which shaped the series. The game’s setting, the sky city of Columbia, was a dystopian state run along the lines of a white-supremacist, fundamentalist Christian ideology, where the poor and ethnic minorities were kept under constant, brutal subjugation. A major part of the game’s early stages saw a revolution led by the multi-racial plebeian ‘Vox Populi’ movement, which soon degenerated into a lurid campaign of indiscriminate murder and bloodshed, the player forced to slaughter wave after wave of Vox Populi zealots.

Infinite’s story evinced a profound scepticism about people’s capacity to collectively organize in a positive way, in either a religious or secular guise. It was a cliched posture which, in a more mature medium such as film or literature, would have been understood to limit the work’s appeal. Moreover, the incorporation of extreme and graphic violence in this nihilistic context was a little troubling. These issues were barely explored in the initial literature around Bioshock Infinite, with most publications happy to promote the game quite uncritically. The mere fact that a functional shooter would invoke metaphysics was significant enough to earn it classic status.

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16. Undertale (multi-platform)

Released: 2015. Metacritic score: 92.

Undertale was first released on PC in 2015, a bedroom project made by a single developer. It’s a simplistic RPG which depicts a human child seeking to escape from the underworld, and during his journey he encounters various monsters who he can kill or subdue. The game was heavily influenced by the cult favourite Mother series, as well as internet culture. It received praise for its sentimental story, use of cultural reference points, and mechanics, and garnered critical acclaim as well as adulation from gamers.

However, as this site’s review enumerated, Undertale was profoundly flawed:

“After the gentle introduction to the game the humor devolves into the ‘LOL RANDOM’ territory and remains firmly there for the next 5 hours of gameplay. The humor not only misses the mark wildly, it’s also injected into your experience at points that serve to massively frustrate (that is, if you don’t enjoy memery and senpai jokes). […] There is a massive bullet-hell component to the combat as well, where around 5 hits will end your life. You will spend half of the combat healing yourself – otherwise, you die. […]  [T]here is literally no way to know how you’re meant to make some of the boss monsters stop fighting you. […] [A] game that subjects you to massively frustrating combat while feeding you memery and stupid inane jokes is almost intolerable.”

Much of the enthusiasm for Undertale came from Millennial gamers, and that’s understandable. As much as Undertale ultimately fails on both a functional and an artistic level, the desire of younger gamers to put forward new styles of game, distinct from the archetypes handed down from previous generations, is understandable; even if, in this case, it takes an infantile form. After all, that just reflects the juvenile internet culture which spawned it. What is unacceptable is the shameless manner in which the games writing industry lent credibility to the myth of Undertale’s exceptional quality. What started as an internet joke was turned into a kind of cultural fraud by the gaming media, and a victory for stupidity and cynicism.

 

Conclusions

Most overrated video games can be seen to fall into one of two main categories. The first category comprises platform exclusives designed to shift hardware. Hardware manufacturers want consumers to believe they have a great line-up of exclusive games, so they’ll buy a console. Gamers want to believe the exclusives on the console they own are great, to justify their decision to buy that console instead of another. If the exclusives really aren’t that good, this can just serve to make gamers more irrational and dogmatic in their defence. Such games are normally first-party software, like Sonic The Hedgehog and Super Mario Galaxy. The experience of the PlayStation 3 – one of the worst offenders when it comes to overrated exclusives – might suggest that the more expensive and ambitious the console is, the more likely it is to spawn such games. The PS3 is notable for featuring overrated games like Metal Gear Solid 4, Heavy Rain, as well as the entire Uncharted series (particularly Uncharted 2).

The second category which most overrated games tend to fall into comprises narrative-driven games (normally RPGs) whose plot features a sentimental, emotionally affecting story (which in some cases may be obviously manipulative). Back in the day, playing a game like Final Fantasy X could be quite affecting if you’d never encountered a “grown-up” story in a game before. But just because a game resonates with you personally doesn’t mean that, objectively speaking, it’s any good. This phenomenon seems to increase in proportion to which a game was critically or commercially overlooked at its time of release: we can see this with Majora’s Mask (released at the end of the N64’s cycle) and, particularly, EarthBound. 

A variation within this second category is when a game is overrated not because of its emotional resonance but because it is intellectually pretentious. This can refer either to the game’s narrative, or to its mechanics or structure. Therefore a game like Bioshock Infinite is highly regarded because of its portentous subject matter, even if its references are invoked in a way that would discredit an undergraduate philosophy essay. Strange Journey combined pubescent moralizing with obtuse mechanics, and was accordingly feted as an “old-school” RPG. The World Ends With You speaks to this trope through its convoluted, turgid story, but also speaks to the first category because of how it made use of the gimmicky hardware featured on the Nintendo DS. Chrono Trigger featured both a sentimental storyline and a complicated structure; it was groundbreaking for its time, but was surpassed two decades ago.

The slew of independent “walking simulators” that followed in the wake of Telltale’s The Walking Dead show there is a burgeoning market for games that require little interaction. While such games can undoubtedly have narrative appeal, increasingly the performative act of consuming them seems to bestow status to the consumer due to connotations of cultural or intellectual sensibility.  Undertale is an extreme example of this trope, a self-aware triumph of form over content. Perhaps this is where we end up when people stop prioritizing video games as functional entertainment, employing them instead in a vain attempt to provide external validation for the misguided notion that EarthBound was ever a good game.

 

 

Cheers (seasons 7 and 8) – Review

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By the time its seventh and eighth seasons aired, Cheers was one of the most well-established sitcoms around, and was well and truly in its comfort zone. After Diane left in season five, it didn’t take long before her replacement, new character Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), settled in as bar manager of Cheers. Unfortunately, the rapidity with which a new dynamic was established was exceeded only by the rigidity with which the showrunners stuck to it. Seasons seven and eight see very little variation or creativity, and the same stories and tired old jokes are trotted out time after time. Admittedly, this is what happens when people spend every evening at the pub in the same company.

The main axis of Cheers‘ plot by this point is the relationship between Sam and Rebecca. Sam, a notorious philanderer, is determined to seduce Rebecca, his colleague and putative manager, and conducts an unrelenting campaign of sexual harassment which feels pretty disturbing in this day and age. On several occasions Rebecca capitulates and agrees to sleep with Sam, but he’s not happy with her mere passive acquiescence: he won’t rest until he’s secured her active participation in his cult of “Sammy-worship”. It’s a tiresome and distasteful storyline. However, the writers undermine Sam just often enough to stop the show becoming completely unwatchable, and his occasional humiliations make it feel like justice is close to being served. The problem is that Sam is so conceited that no degradation, of him or others, is enough to make him reflect and change his ways. It’s one of many things that make you miss Shelley Long’s Diane, and Cheers is really not the same without her. The occasional lame, bitter jokes at her expense just make it more obvious.

As ever, the better episodes generally focus on Frasier and Lilith, or Woody. But there’s very little character development, and if anything it feels like characters regress, becoming less complex, more extreme, and less convincingly human versions of themselves. After eight seasons, Norm has gone from being a morbidly obese underachievening accountant who loves beer and makes cruel jokes about his neglected wife, to being… the same, except now he’s unemployed. Carla increasingly comes across as a sociopath and her presence kills most scenes dead. The show gives her character a major plot point in season eight and the writers can find nothing whatsoever to do with it. At least her awful family don’t show their faces in Cheers any more – perhaps the writers were convinced to shelve them by the disastrous ratings of the Tortelli spin-off show.

Clifford’s dysfunctional personality at least allows for some entertaining dialogue. As for Rebecca, she becomes increasingly self-absorbed and shallow, and (somehow) strikes up an emotionally damaging relationship with a billionaire. As time goes by, she becomes harder to sympathize with, and by the end of season eight it’s difficult to really care about her or most of the other characters. It feels like the show’s just treading water by this point, but it still does just about enough to keep your attention. Fortunately we only have three more seasons to watch before we can move on to Frasier.

6/10 (both seasons)

Crime and the media

This morning I encountered a curious piece on the BBC News website. It’s promoting an online tool which can tell you what your statistical chance of being a ‘victim of crime’ is (this is for UK residents only). Everyone loves tools like this so I had a play around with it, and was pleased to see my chances of being a ‘victim of crime’ are generally lower than the national average. This is quite satisfying as I recently moved home, and one of the reasons was because I wanted to live in a nicer area.

If the piece left it at that there wouldn’t be much more to say. However, the article has an obvious message, which is that older people (particularly older women) have an excessive fear of crime, considering they are statistically much less likely to be victims of crime than young men, particularly if they are from deprived neighbourhoods. The piece closes by relating this to scaremongering about crime in the media.

The sanctimonious tone of the piece irritated me and I think it’s symptomatic of news reporting. The reason for this is that, while older people as a social group might be statistically less likely to be the victim of a crime than the young, this does not necessarily mean an individual’s fear of crime is inherently irrational. Young people who are statistically more likely to be a victim of crime are more likely to already be involved in activities which disproportionately increase their chances of being ‘victims’ of crime. For example, involved in the drug trade, or getting into fights at the pub. To be fair, the article does make half of this point, specifically with reference to drug use. However, it doesn’t make the other side of the point, which is the remaining random risk of being a victim of crime among those not involved in criminal activity.

It is exactly the vulnerability of older people to random crime which makes the prospect so scary. An older person who is subject to a mugging or bag theft has even less chance of escaping a crime, once it has been initiated, than a healthy younger person; while the consequences of such a crime – both in physical and mental damage – can be more severe. Therefore a lower risk of being a victim of crime in general does not necessarily mean that the specific fear of becoming a victim is irrational.

The report on which this online tool is based on contains a significant point in its Executive Summary, and it’s really problematic that the BBC article doesn’t refer to this. This is that being disabled, or having a limiting disability, significantly increases your chance of being a victim of crime. What this suggests is that vulnerability is a major risk factor, especially among those who do not have parents or guardians to look out for them. It’s this same criteria of vulnerability which makes some older people fearful of crime: predators naturally target ‘easy’ prey.

Obviously, some people do have an irrational fear of crime, including (but not limited to) older people. This can often be bound up with bigoted social attitudes about younger people, ethnic minorities, or certain identities or lifestyle choices. However, it’s ultimately counter-productive to use some crude statistics to try and shame people into changing their beliefs, especially when those statistics don’t tell the whole story.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS) – Review

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A Link Between Worlds is both sequel and spiritual successor to classic SNES RPG The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Released in 2013 to critical acclaim and commercial success, Link Between Worlds is remarkable for recreating the magical world of Link to the Past while also refreshing the Zelda formula and making the game accessible to contemporary audiences. I’ve put off playing it for a long time, having become somewhat jaded by Zelda games over the years, but I’m delighted to have finally given it a go: for Link Between Worlds is a joyful experience, a game bursting with charm and invention.

Most Zelda games have but obscure connections to each other, but Link Between Worlds is set in the same gameworld as its illustrious forebear, several generations in the future. It’s 20 years since I played Link to the Past, so it was a nostalgic experience to see the same places, and hear the same tunes. Fortunately, this game is more than a trip down memory lane, as new gameplay mechanics make for a very different experience. Although the basic format is the same – Link  sets off on a quest to save Hyrule and rescue Zelda – the pace of the game is somewhat different. This is helped by the fact that, for the most part, you’re allowed to tackle dungeons in whatever order you prefer: some areas remain inaccessible without certain items, but the game’s item-gating system isn’t as rigid as in other Zelda games. Moreover, there are quite a lot of sidequests and minigames, which help during those times when you’re not quite sure what to do next. Link Between Worlds achieves what most games can only dream of, effectively eliminating frustration or tedium while still creating an engaging, rewarding and rich adventure.

There are significant quality of life improvements in this game’s mechanics that reflect the way we expect our games to play these days. I always disliked that Zelda games made you level up your wallet several times so you could hold more rupees, meaning every rupee you collected over your limited capacity would go to waste. That’s no longer an issue, and it’s surprisingly liberating to see your rupee count rise in the early game. You’ll need that cash, though, because another new mechanic is the item rental system. A helpful character allows you to acquire iconic weapons like the Boomerang, Hookshot and Bow very early on… for a price. You can rent them for a few dozen rupees, but if you die, you lose them and have to rent them again. Alternatively, you can buy them outright for a (much) higher price. You still get items in dungeons, but the rental system is a welcome, and much-needed, change to the traditional Zelda formula.

I was also very pleased to find that Link Between Worlds has a, shall we say, forgiving difficulty level. The older I get, the more I dislike it when games force me to waste my time grinding for levels or experience; and I’m also not a fan of the modern trend towards ever-longer playtimes, with many RPGs now exceeding 80 or even 100 hours. Sometimes, that investment is worth it (Witcher 3), but most of the time it’s spurious. Many classic games managed to do more with less: Mass Effect was 40 hours; Super Metroid was about ten. It probably takes about 15-20 hours to finish Link Between Worlds’ story, and I actually completed it without dying a single time – although it got pretty close with the last boss. The game’s challenge was fine, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it more had it been more difficult. Once you complete the game, you unlock ‘Hero Mode’, which makes enemies do four times the damage, and which I imagine makes the item rental system much more interesting. It makes the prospect of a second playthrough quite enticing. For now, I’m just pleased to be able to chalk off a game from my backlog.

Link Between Worlds is a charming game, and even if you’re unfamiliar with previous Zeldas, you can’t fail to be impressed by the colourful graphics and the brilliant soundtrack. The script is surprisingly funny, and I was really quite impresed by the localization – the humour is more pervasive and effective than I remember associating with the franchise. The story is fine, with a couple of interesting twists on the classic Zelda formula, but I don’t think people particularly expect (or want) incomprehensible plots or lurid sex and violence from a game like this. Sometimes, a bit of good clean fun is just what the doctor ordered.

Of course, people do expect great puzzles from a Zelda game, and Link Between Worlds doesn’t disappoint. The game’s major innovation is Link’s ability to turn himself into a painting (seriously), which allows him to move along walls as a two-dimensional mural. This allows for some ingenious scenarios, and it’s an exhilirating feeling to figure things out; but at the same time, there are hint ghosts who you can ask for help in most situations if you don’t know what to do. It’s yet another way the game makes it easier for you to enjoy yourself, without getting bogged down running in circles, as happens so often in other Japanese RPGs.

I loved Ocarina of Time, but I lost interest in the Zelda franchise for about 15 years afterwards: it felt like the formula had been perfected and, to me, subsequent entries in the franchise felt like pale, redundant imitations. (Of course, it didnt help that Twilight Princess was delayed by years and was a massive disappointment when it came out). In hindsight, following the spectacular success of Breath of the Wild, it feels a bit like Link Between Worlds was a step towards re-imagining this revered and iconic series so that it could once again become vital and relevant to modern audiences.

9/10