Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lessons Learned from a Replay of Earthbound

It's well-enough known that Earthbound is probably my favorite video game of all time. I won't argue that it's the best game of all time, or even the best RPG or the best SNES game. (It might be close on that last one.) But after observing what the video game-producing world has had to offer for the last fifteen or twenty years, I will argue that it's the one I like the best.

So, if other games feature more detailed graphics and immersive environments (Oblivion), more engrossing plots and powerful story lines (Final Fantasy X), or more entertaining multiplayer modes (Mario Kart), what makes Earthbound worthy of being my favorite ever?

A lot of it is nostalgia. Earthbound is the first, and to date one of the only, games that I "found". That is, there wasn't a huge media buzz over it that I simply succumbed to. There wasn't a mad rush among my friends to get this game that I joined once most of them had bought it too. Instead, I read a description and review of the game in the newspaper, I thought it looked interesting, and I started playing it. It turned out to be a lot of fun. And the same way that indie kids become rabidly protective of "their" bands, I started to idolize Earthbound.

Of course, it's not like Earthbound is a bad game. Otherwise it wouldn't have had the staying power that it obviously has. What works? Quirky sense of humor that gracefully vacillates between punny, absurdist, and surreal. Absolutely inspired soundtrack with a clear John Lennon influence. So many obscure, hidden treats that you're practically guaranteed to find something new every time you play through the game.

With that last one in mind, I decided I'd play through the game for probably the seventh time this past summer. I was going to take a completely novel approach to the game: complete tasks in obviously the wrong order, take the time to look for rare items I'd never bothered with in the past, make sure I sought out all those obscure hidden characters and messages that really give the game its spirit.

My observations, progress toward goals, and other thoughts about the game:

--I didn't finish, sadly enough.

--I blame my not finishing on the Broken Antenna, which upgrades to Jeff's ultimate weapon, the Gaia Beam. It took a long time to get. Fighting Uncontrollable Spheres is a pain in the ass because every time you kill one, it explodes, and you take quite a lot of damage.

--The Sword of Kings gave me a lot more trouble than it usually does... I killed a lot more than 128 Starmen Super, that's for sure. The Sword has been a running point of contention between me and my friend Nicholas because of how effortlessly I'd obtained it in the past. Once, I got it on the first try. Another time, I accidentally got two in the same game. He's never found it. I guess this is karma.

--I didn't get the Star Pendant (but I figured out how I would have approached it, had I had time to).

--The Magic Fry Pan is totally not worth the effort it takes to get. I abandoned the project a few Chomposaurs in. Paula shouldn't make too many physical attacks anyway, so unless you're really worried about Smash attacks, the Guts bonus is practically useless.

--The For Sale Sign, on the other hand, is awesome. I probably netted thousands of dollars from that thing over the course of the game, because you can use it to sell obsolete items rather than discarding them.

--There are really only three Sanctuaries you have to visit in the "right" order: Giant Step, Milky Well, and Lumine Hall. All three of these advance the plot of the game. You can skip Lilliput Steps, Milky Well, Magnet Hill, and Pink Cloud and revisit them later in the game.

--The Dusty Dunes Desert has a lot of cool Easter eggs that you wouldn't necessarily realize unless you combed every inch of it. That can be a pain because you apparently contract sunstroke if you walk around the desert for two minutes.

--The Clumsy Robot's bologna sandwich doesn't actually max out its HP.

--I never quite reached Magicant or anything beyond it, so sadly I can't comment on the rest of the game.

So while I never reached my goal of getting all the rare items and talking to every character in the game, I did find out some interesting things about the game. More importantly, I can definitely confirm that this game is awesome, and I remembered why it's among my all-time favorites.

Currently listening: "Ten Cent Blues", Eisley, from Combinations

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Basterds, plus Tarantino in General

It's taken me until right now to discover something that presumably the rest of the free moviegoing world has known for over a decade now: the only way to enjoy a Quentin Tarantino movie is not to take it seriously. I think that's why I didn't like Pulp Fiction that much--I was trying to make it make too much sense. (Alternately, maybe it wasn't actually a good movie at all, but here again, the rest of the free moviegoing world disagrees with me.)

But that's exactly why Inglourious Basterds was amazing--as long as you don't expect anything serious out of it, it's a masterpiece of ridiculousness. Sure, depending on personal taste, there might be a number of reasons you wouldn't want to see this movie. If the over-the-top needless violence in, say, Kill Bill wasn't your thing, you probably won't do well with the over-the-top needless violence in this movie. If you're expecting a thoughtful film about the sensitive issues that World War II raised, you're not going to get it here. And if you want any historical accuracy, forget it.

What you will get is a bunch of dead "Nat-zees", as Brad Pitt's character puts it. And Pitt's Aldo Raine is by far the best part of this film. His barely-literate Appalachian zeal for Nazi killing is incredibly entertaining. It's roles like this that make me actually respect the guy despite all the tabloid nonsense he spawns. Christoph Waltz is equally excellent as the primary antagonist Hans Landa. In fact, he makes a much better antagonist than, say, the Joker from The Dark Knight, because he's believable. Nobody is as deranged as the Joker, but plenty of Nazis were as deranged as Landa, and Waltz plays that derangement with such utter contemptibility and sliminess that you want nothing more than for him to lose.

So really, the movie only suffers when neither Pitt nor Waltz are involved in a scene. Nothing against Mélanie Laurent, but the scenes with Pitt and Waltz are so good that the story of her Shoshanna seems more like a subplot than an integral part of the film. Maybe her story seems weak because the backstory is still a mystery: we have no idea how she got to Paris and became successful following the death of her family. Also, I would have like to have seen the British film critic turned soldier have a bigger part in the movie.

But those flaws don't do much to reduce the awesomeness and absurdity that is Inglourious Basterds. Definitely recommended.

Currently listening: "Turn on Me", the Shins