Friday, January 29, 2010

Second Look: Glory of Heracles

So I've been playing Glory of Heracles since roughly last Friday evening, and finished it last night. Not bad, getting almost an entire week's worth of gaming (a full week, if you count the fact that I finished after midnight last night) out of a DS RPG that I wasn't expecting too much out of.

In my first impression post about this game, I had almost universally good things to say about it - along with a few nitpicks. While I don't think that my first write-up was too premature, this game somewhat altered its entertainment value down the line.Now that isn't to say that the game got bad at any point, but I think for me at least, after about hour 25 the "new" wore off. My total time played was something in the neighborhood of 40 hours.

For one thing, the plot gets a lot more convoluted, and thus a lot more yawn-worthy for this customer. It's hard to articulate without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say that you eventually end up having to destroy these "devices that go against the gods' will" and what made the story enjoyable before is that when you set out to do something, there were things to interrupt and create a sidestory before. It kept things alive and fresh, but something got botched somewhere along the line, perhaps the scenario writers got bored? The only point that actually gets injected into your journey after a while is the final boss, which seems kinda contrived, not to mention when you get towards the end, it seems like a giant Pokemon battle (if you play all the way through you'll see what I mean). The story seems to retain that feel of Greek mythos with a Japanese/modern bent, for better or worse, throughout. "Worse" being invoked in that traditionally JRPG ending, sort of way, too. But more on that later.

Some of the game's strengths manage to work against it toward the end. The whole battle-->town-->battle-->town revolving door thing that managed to keep the plot moving in the beginning, gets sort of grating, and having the old school console RPG fanboy residing inside of me still, I was semi-disappointed that this game drags you along by a yoke up until the very end. No transportation like a ship or being able to travel freely are detrimental, in my opinion. And at times, if you even try to leave a town or something to go grind or get some parts to make weapons with at the blacksmith, your party stops you and says, "Shouldn't we be looking for person X?" It does give events a sense of gravity, because really, if you're after an evil madman with the powers of a god, do you really have time to board your airship and go searching for the Rat's Tail to trade for a hunk of Adamantite? But then again, I can sit until doomsday doing nothing in the inn or weapons shop and time doesn't pass there, so.

The random battles do stay fresh and their frequency consistent enough that you don't easily just run through areas without encounters, but you don't have to keep healing yourself after every battle, either. I do have to say, however, that a lot of the later battles' enemy parties have a large disparity between their difficulties. In some battles I found myself one-shotting monsters with the normal Attack command and they did absolutely no damage to me, and in others there would be a kamikaze of "Desperate Attack" or "Inject" whereby the enemy would sacrifice themselves constantly to overkill my guys, doing 5000+ damage on a character with 4000 health. Granted, this would happen to one, maybe two characters in every 5th or 6th encounter, so it wasn't a big deal so much as a nuisance, but when one mob does 39 damage to a character, and then another in the same area does 4900 to that same one... it's just inconsistent. Another thing I noticed about this game that I had been sort of oblivious to earlier, is that the "annoying" enemies are easily a lot worse than the powerful ones, which as I said in my last post makes bosses a joke for the most part. What I mean by annoying is typical RPG enemy that is resistant to magic, or in this game there are enemies that are only susceptible to magic (unless you have a special skill called Bulldoze that makes your attacks land 100% of the time, which show you just how vulnerable to physical attacks they are when you do connect). In Heracles there is the concept of "ether" which is what everything is made of. When you kill something it doesn't disappear right away, you can "overkill" it to restore your mana pool. However, if something is considered undead, until you overkill it, it will keep coming back to life after that turn is over. I actually found a lot of these confrontations a lot harder than any boss in the game.

And those aren't the only inconsistencies in the game, either. The game sort of coddles you throughout, directing you where to go without any real path back (i.e. - super linear) as I mentioned above, it reminds you frequently to save, when you level up it restores everything to that character and it gives you upgrades every five feet. Despite all of this hand-holding, when you enter any sort of cut scene in town where in any traditional RPG you'd be restored, you never are. In fact, I can only remember about two places in the game where it throws you a bone. They let you buy "Camping Kits", but really the only places I found myself able to use them, I was near a town with an inn, it was kinda retarded. If they make another one of these using the same engine, they really need to fine tune it, too. There were points in time where the computer drops you into an obvious place and there's only one (obvious) way to go. And then there were at least two occasions where I tapped or pressed A next to the spot that eventually turned out to be correct, several times, and the "hidden entrance" or whatever didn't open until I made multiple laps around the area and apparently did the right thing (One being opening the stairway to Hades up for the last battle, I pressed the column you need to push on the touch screen at least 20 times and made several laps before I guess I pressed the right pixel/part of the 3-D model and tada!). This applies to doors and chests, too, they're either super-sensitive and open when you're half a screen away or you have to be like right on top of them.

And it wouldn't be a true JRPG without 82 million spells, with only 10 or 15 being at all relevant. You know, 3-4 versions of charming/poisoning/sleeping/attuning and doing damage. As I said before, any offensive spell and most offensive physical arts usually give you an option to do "100% damage" or you can go for anywhere from 133% damage to 200% depending on the spell, by playing some touchscreen minigame. This is another concept I found exhausting. The minigames make battles slow as hell, but are necessary a lot of the time if you don't want to run out of MP (you'd be surprised how little the margin of damage there is between filling your MP back up with an overkill, or your enemy's corpse sitting there, laughing at you), plus I found myself getting wrist cramps when I kept having to tap the screen repeatedly, or play a glorified version of Simon or something. Your stats also grow like crazy, but you never really get to use anything useful because the "ether" in the air for each battle is limited. I never did fully understand how it worked, it's supposed to prevent you from spamming spells to kill shit is what it seems like, but the game's explanation early on is that if you don't have the MP to cast a spell, you can use the ether around to supplement your mana pool but you take HP damage by doing so. Even when I HAD the MP (and thensome!) to cast a spell, it would still subtract it from that element's ether on that battlefield and it'd threaten me with that aforementioned HP damage reflux. This usually resulted in single target spells, and anything that targeted a row or all enemies couldn't be used without killing myself, or nearly. You have a caster character, but she never learns any multi-target spells - ever. So that makes it kind of moot, because everyone who does have them doesn't have enough INT stat to do any decent amount of damage, and have much better options available to them to kill things a lot faster. You can equip her with a weapon or armor to "teach" her a multi-target spell, but that as fast as you trade equipment for others in this game, you wind up losing stats if you keep her with a staff that teaches her a magic that's useful to your party, and there's that aforementioned reflux damage.

And on that note, you can make battles way too easy in this game with a not-so-secret, secret. There are a number of De'Int (magic damage reduction) and De-physical (I forget the name, but reduces physical damage dealt) as well as reducing resistance to magic and physical damage spells that you can cast for little MP on just about any and every enemy in the game (including the last boss). ONE cast makes a spell that once did 500+ damage, do about 20 damage, or that punch in the gut your main guy just took? Take his phys damage down and he's scratching you like a kitten. The last boss was laughably easy due to this, and had I stumbled upon this trick of the trade earlier, I would've made my shitty ranged character who was always struggling to keep up, a support character. This one-cast-and-you're-neutered thing really did take all of the challenge out once I discovered it.

Your physical moves and magic share a mana pool. While this isn't that annoying early on, because everything doesn't cost that, that much, later on physical moves cost a ridiculous amount of MP while spells kinda keep it down. I guess you're supposed to take into account the overkill thing, but it's more difficult to get overkills later, and when you have a mana pool of 2400 and your moves cost 350-1000 MP each, you're wasting gas when you use something that isn't a certain (over)kill. This is compounded by the fact that if you put the right Abilities on your physical attack-centric characters, your regular Attack command can easily outdamage your Skills.

Other RPGs could learn a few things from Heracles, though, too. I always thought it was a retarded concept that even later on, weak monsters could attack you in most RPGs, and you can kill them with one stroke and all still hang on till the bitter end. In Heracles if you're doing well, there's a reward. Say your criticals proc in your first 2/3 attacks and you down a bigger, badder monster in two hits, the other monsters cower and are prone to running away, because you showed off your strength. I love that aspect. I still maintain that I love having to trade stats for moves or Abilities, it doesn't really make the game ez-mode and requires you to strategize. I think this is the result of being a post-MMO RPG, because MMOs make you make a tradeoff so as to not make everyone god in-game.

The ending is terrible, I'll just throw it out there. Most mysteries get solved before you take on the last boss, the big reveal involving your main character is disappointing and a little depressing and the characters that you started to care about before get really, terribly generic toward the 3/4-done mark.

When you beat the game, New Game+ and Survival open up. Now when a RPG has a New Game+, that usually means you start out with the same stats, work your way through to new endings, or content or whatever. Heracles makes you start over with no items and from level one. I was semi-excited to play through again, knowing I can plow through to new areas and items, but I'm not leveling my party twice. Survival pits you against groups of enemies 3-4 battles back to back and then you get auto-healed, and this is supposedly for new items. But for what? If I load my data for New Game+ and have no access to these items, what the hell is the point? And to compound this, I fought about 16 battles and got nothing new at all, just crap to build items with and sell, and older weapons, and if I'm not going shopping or there's no blacksmith in Survival mode, what's the point? Also, the battles in Survival mode are once again, incongruous. There are enemies from the beginning of the game with improved stats that are now harder to beat, but it seemed like they were only resistant to physical attacks, I was nuking in the 10000+ range with magic.

Overall, I don't view this game's completion as a waste of my time, it remained fun to the point where, even at the end when I couldn't find the faulty switch because of the shitty engine, I was still having fun with the random battles while doing laps around the screen. I was highly disappointed by the New Game+ and Survival options, and the last 10th of the game really dragged on for no reason. The grinding aspect of the game and about 3/5ths of the story were great, if only that last bit wasn't so awful, and those other modes could've been a lot better - I was really looking forward to earning new items to actually use for something.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Glory of Heracles

Have you ever had one of those games that you sit down and are immediately engrossed in? One that you play for an hour and don't even realize that an hour has passed? A game that is relaxing yet challenging, a game that makes you say to yourself, "This is why I got into gaming in the first place,"? Glory of Heracles is the first game in a long damned time that has done this to me. I'm going to sound prematurely aged and like somewhat of a hypocrite here, but it is refreshing as hell to have a game where I don't have to use eleventeen button combinations like a fucking finger gymnast just to shoot an alien in the face or whatever. I guess that makes me a hypocrite because I like gaming on the PC - specifically FPS' - for the reason that the buttons are spread out, there are more keys to bind things to than you can shake a stick at and the mouse aims about over 9000 times better than a thumbstick. Honestly, I have no idea how over-caffeinated teens and 20-somethings aim so well with jittery thumbs.

Anyway, Glory of Heracles really proves that you don't need a multimillion dollar budget to make a fun product. The Greek mythology setting is somewhat unorthodox for RPGs (console ones anyway) and I'll use that word again: it's refreshing. The story's really not cliche - I'm still engrossed and want to know what happens, even into hour 20 - and the script is funny if you're a nerd like me and know all sorts of Greek mythos. And on that note, whoever did the translation should handle every Japanese to English game translation from now on, alongside the person that translated for Atlus, doing the first Megami Tensei release here ever (20 years after the series debuted in Japan, lmao). The script comes off localized but without that stupidass "dumbin it down" that most "localization specialists" wind up doing to the characters/script/colloquialisms.

I've spent almost 20 hours over 2 and a 1/2 days playing this game, and it really never let me down once. The pacing is perfect, battles and their difficulty tweak slightly from area to area, the story is fleshed out at just the right intervals and the game's story doesn't ever tip its hand too much. The battle system itself really doesn't leave a whole lot to be desired, it is engaging enough not to bore you, but also punishing enough that if you just hit fight, fight, fight, you'll most certainly lose. Battles require tactics to win, strategy. Also, to ensure you don't just rely on magic nukes, there's a system in place to make sure that doesn't happen, either. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, there were very few places that I even ran into the same groups of enemies, the formations were very well-thought out.

Some people might complain that the dungeons are a little too straightforward (and almost entirely premapped out on the top screen, including stairs and such), but I actually like not having to wander through 20 floors of something just to be left wondering if I missed something. (Yeah, I'm a completionist that loves his peace of mind, wanna fight about it? =P) This, for me at least, is counterbalanced by the fact that the battles are almost symphonic. I like the fact that the screen I'm spending the most time on/in changes enough to hold my interest and forces me to actually utilize more than 2-3 moves and adapt.

The soundtrack is amazing, and after every battle, without fail, I found myself tapping the stylus to the fanfare, gleefully. Every song fits its occasion, and most of the game is "epic", revolving around heroes and mythology and immortals and all, and the score really fits. I read somewhere (and can't find the article again) that a famous game composer worked on the score, and it's quite evident here.

The system of "moves", for lack of a better word, is pretty ingenious, too, if not overly-complicated. They're divided up into three categories: Magic, Abilities & Skills. Magic is just like it sounds, and is mind-numbingly specific in this game. There are separate spells that single-target/target a row/target everyone, for eeeeeeverything.Much like other games there are lots of useless spells that lower/raise every stat, and every battle is over much too quickly to focus on anything but damaging the enemy, imo. Abilities are passive things that usually happen in reaction to something (i.e. - counter, crit percentage up, restoring HP/MP after your turn, etc). Skills are more physical acts, but more on that in a second. Everyone can use all three and all are tied to the same "mana pool". Every character has two open slots you can do as you please with as far as offense/defense. Each character has two weapons that are unique to them, (think Chrono Trigger, also your main character and the third permanent character you get in your party both use the same swords and two can use the same bows, other than that they're unique per character) one melee and one "ranged". You have the option of either equipping the melee weapon and a shield, or the melee and "ranged", taking the defense loss if you decide to equip the second weapon and not a shield. I say ranged in quotes because if you're just using the character's Attack command, you can only attack enemies in the first row. Most attacks that involve the offhand weapons are considered Skills and can only be performed if you have the secondary weapon equipped, and most allow you to reach the back row. The weapons are considered ranged, but they're really melee in all cases but the two bow-wielders. The other three characters have a spear/javelin, battleaxe and a scythe, and all of their moves that reach the back row use them in a melee fashion.

You learn a lot of spells and such permanently through praying at temples to various gods and goddesses throughout the game. Certain spells and Abilities are or are not innate, however, and you have to equip weapons/armor that have them included, and it forces you to trade weapons with stats for weapons with a cool Ability or vice versa, and strategize. If you take less defense by equipping this armor, you get an Ability that only takes 50% MP consumption for spells, or this helm may have less agility but you get a reduction in magic damage. And even those things build on one another, because there are Abilities that make other Abilities proc more. Stuff overlaps as far as what you can learn and what you get attached to armor or whatever, so I think it's a little more complicated than it has to be at times, but the system itself is great.

My complaints are few, but one or two are glaring. One, the camera wildly swings around and sometimes your dot on the map is moving the exact opposite direction that you, yourself are moving on screen. That may just be me, I have a terrible sense of direction in games, but a wonderful one in real life. I think that's because in games if you hit a tree/wall you just path around it, if I walk/drive into a wall in real life, it's going to hurt like hell.

Second, the graphics are like pseudo cell-shaded or something, and while they're not terrible by any means, their quality runs the gamut from awesome to, "wtf is that supposed to be?". I can put it this way, this game looks like it was developed for a bigger screen and then shrunk down, if that makes any sense. Like when you take something and make it widescreen and it was originally 4:3, it doesn't look right. Well a lot of these individual models look like they'd look awesome if they were stretched more so you could see the whole thing clearly, but on this smaller screen... And it's more or less not speculation, because the boss characters look great, and they're huge on-screen, and they were obviously made using the same process - mystery solved.

Which brings me to my next point, the boss fights are too easy/short. Most use the old formula of SNES-generation Final Fantasy games, whereby the boss has some elemental weakness to exploit, or you can't use physical attacks or they use magic that roasts you alive or vice versa. Also, the game has "powerful battles" where the screen flashes red instead of white, and you're left to face a battalion of monsters, and those are actually harder and more time-consuming than most of the boss fights. Powerful battles are a fun addition, even though most of the time I didn't find them to be much more challenging than a normal fight, just more numerous enemies. Now that I'm reaching hour 20 or so, though, the 3 or 4 I've run into recently had a core enemy that was much tougher than the others and sorta kicked my ass a bit. Like I said, the battles are challenging and you can't just fudge your way through them, but they're not overly hard, either. You establish a comfort zone early on and you know what you can and can't take for the most part. One thing I'm truly grateful for is that Heracles isn't like most RPGs where you either have a small group of enemies that you can beat like you're stomping a bug or battles where there's some really unfair attack/defense mechanic at work, and you get worked over and end up back at the title screen. The difficulty doesn't bounce like crazy.

The last few minor issues I have are sorta nitpicky. There are waaaaay too many shops and things to do with your items, which leads to too much micromanagement. I like micromanaging to an extent, but there's a blacksmithing function that is completely arbitrary, and you never know what weapon/armor you'll need to hang on to, to upgrade later. Some items in the game you only see once, so if you sold that item, you're sol (shit out of luck). And you have a cap of only being able to carry 200 items. I could see if there were only shops, or only smithing or enhancing, but everytime you get to a new city there's a shop full of items that actually are upgrades of what you currently have, and you buy the upgrades, and then literally 10 minutes later you're in a dungeon and find another upgrade, and 20 mins after that, another town with more items, lmao. Another thing, while we're on that note, is that if you have something equipped, you have to unequip it to enhance or smith it. (and I literally mean "or", because for no reason at all, one can be modified completely in your possession and the other you have to unequip, and I forget which is which) You can add abilities and such, too, but I like the fact that you have to choose between an ability or more Defense or Attack rating. Your characters may be immortals, but it'd be boring if you just had swords bouncing off of you and you can nuke the hell out of everything under Zeus' sky all at once.

When you receive certain items or polish something rusty at the polisher (yes, that's what it's called), in the description it says: "could probably be sold for a high value to a shopkeeper" and then later in the game I find out that the self-described "useless lump of metal" can be used to make a nice sword, that's playing dirty in my book. Especially when you can't buy stuff back. But apparently the makers of this game like to play tricks on the players, because there's something later in the game that is affected by your luck - which decreases everytime you "steal" from people's houses' chest of drawers/armoire things. Apparently something that you can elect to do late in the game or after you beat it or something gives you better rewards if you're not a thief.

Lastly - and this is a blanket complaint - I like playing RPGs to play RPGs, not to have Chocobo races and snowboarding competitions. I mean I don't hate minigames, but I think they should affect the outcome of battles or how much money I end up with. Or if I'm not a great card player I don't get access to cool items or whatever. But I digress. This game takes that to the next level. Everytime you cast an offensive spell or use certain Skills a minigame of sorts offers itself up to boost your damage. These are fine, but they get kind of annoying. Like, tap the circle until the meter fills up, tap Roman numerals in order, etc etc.

But really, these are all small problems (even if I wrote more about them than the game's merits, I'm told I'm better at being negative, go figure) and I urge you to give this game a whirl. If nothing else it's an entertaining distraction for 25 or so hours. For me, it's an excellent reason to pick up my DS and play.

Friday, January 22, 2010

To whom it may concern:
Locating button cell batteries in a tangible marketplace (aka - not ordering them from the internet) that aren't as expensive as silver per ounce, is damned hard. Also, things that take LR44 button cells devour them too quickly. -_-;

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Winter Cheese Doritos

Having just ingested quite a few of these, I figured I'd do the review while the aftertaste was still fresh in my mouth. It's funny, I love salty things, and I can't really put my finger on why these taste too salty even for me - because they're not - but they're overwhelmingly salty without actually being such. It's bizarre.

But that's Winter Cheese Doritos for you, enigmatic. I know that Frito Lay is an American company, and that in Japan, Western/American holidays are becoming more and more widespread in celebration. (Halloween was virtually unheard of whenever I was there and whenever we were learning through that US high school filter & through a teacher who had been in Japan the better part of a decade, but now via ex-pat blogs and other sources like ESL teacher friends, Halloween is actually starting to be celebrated as a regular sort of holiday) Americans like swiss cheese. I've worked in a deli before, I've shopped in the refrigerated section of my local grocer, I know Americans buy swiss cheese. Finally, the chips are in the shape of xmas trees. American manufacturer, a flavor Americans probably wouldn't hate, and a Western holiday. Why are these chips only available in Japan? Yeah, I went off on a whole-paragraph tangent about this. Because it is just so weird. Japan has xmas decorations, they have xmas cakes like in the UK, but the UK also has xmas cakes. No one else has Douglas Fir Doritos that taste like swiss cheese (powder).

As for the taste, texture and all things relevant to the actual physical snack, the bag has a picture of a wedge of swiss cheese and calls itself Winter Cheese. The description on the back of the bag asserts that they are called "Winter Cheese" because they've, "sprinkled snow-colored, rich cheese onto Doritos." It also goes on to say that you should, "get the fun feeling of winter through this exciting tortilla chip," or some approximation of that. So how does the actual taste stack up? As I said above, there's this odd saltiness that is not salt. They do have that typical Doritos "overpowering corn chip" undertaste, too. There is a cheese taste there that is vaguely swiss, but it could just as easily be renamed any other cheese and the placebo effect would probably dictate that it's muenster or cheddar successfully if they're put those cheeses on the package. Which, I realize there's only so much you can do with chemical cheese powder.

The texture, which I've tried to capture, but didn't really do successfully (the auto-focus wouldn't cooperate), it normal corn-y Dorito on one side, and it almost looks glazed and feels borderline waxy on the other side. For as drenched in cheese as the waxy side feels, like I said there isn't that much of a cheese taste there, if anything the taste of the corn chip comes shining through more than anything.

The tree shape gimmick is what initially snared me, and I don't hate swiss cheese. Overall these weren't bad, but would I buy them again? Probably not.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Becoming An Heirloom...

I was pretty happy the other day when, upon pure stupid luck I discovered that the button cell batteries in something with LEDs in it that broke on me, fit in this Lotte keychain watch I got in the mid 90's. I thought I'd never replace the battery in it, it died in like 1998, so for over 10 years this little device hasn't worked. It was a gift from my cousin's first trip to Japan, and I've always loved it anyway, even if it didn't have that connotation to it. I honestly didn't even think it'd work even with brand new batteries, after all of this time. But lo and behold, one battery and a careful installation did the trick. I've officially declared this item an heirloom. ^^

Now, I'm an introspective soul, so whenever I would buy anything for the longest time I would think ahead to when I'd had it "forever and ever" (about 20 years) and it would essentially be a conversation piece. When I see something I want - and moreover when I ultimately obtain it - I more or less categorize it in my head as something that will stick with me for a long time, something that's "neat" and will ultimately end up in the closet or in a box somewhere over time, or something that I like but will in the end, sell. That last one I don't really see a long ways off most of the time, i.e. - videogames. Initially, I thought that I would keep most or all of my games for a long time because I am (or was) sentimental about playing games over and over, love nostalgia, etc.

Over time, though, I sort of fell out of love and started to view the games I'd kept all of this time as "wasted space" or hunks of gray plastic. Some of this emerging attitude had to do with the fact that when technology was closer (i.e. - crappier), those games were still very entertaining to go back to. Also, there's that sort of "Crisco on the lens" effect that makes hindsight - as far as nostalgia is concerned anyway - blurry in a really fun way. As I aged more and reality set in, I think that for me at least, I realized that the gameplay aspect was still kind of there (I played through the first two Zelda games again the other day and they both still held my interest quite well, but I realized just how small they were this time around) but in general it's the art form of the game and aspects of design and such, that make the nostalgia hold so well. And that makes me really, really happy. Because going back and playing a game to relive being 8 is one thing, but when I can hear the music, look at a clump of pixels and truly appreciate them, and wade into art and products that glorify this as a medium (not to mention the numerous awesome Flash games and such that draw artistically on the 8/16-bit era), it makes me truly happy.

Some of the reason behind my waning interest was that aforementioned space constraint, and the fact that shelves of anime figures and paraphernalia take up much more space than a few game systems and fixed-form games that fit back-to-back in a drawer. The upside to this is that figures and such aren't uniform and are much more interesting to look at, versus plastic with a sticker on it, or a CD/DVD. And I know that's being completely superficial about it, because after all games are supposed to be about playing them, not thumbing through the manual or looking at the box, but if I'm not going to play the game again anyway, why keep it? I already played it, I have the memories of having played it, what's the difference if I keep it or not?

Finally, a large part of keeping these, since I wasn't planning on opening a museum dedicated to gaming, was going to be sharing them with my kids. Yes, I was geeky and foresight-ridden enough to actually think, "I'll keep this longer, it'll be awesome to share with my kids." But the more and more time rolls forward, well I don't even know any women that are unattached let alone have had any sort of date or anything in forever, so I don't see children in the offing anytime soon.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Return of Chuck!

So Chuck came back to the airwaves last week (and again on Monday of this week), and is larger and more in charge than ever. This wonderful show was on the bubble at the end of the Spring season, and was initially picked up for 13 episodes, which was later expanded during production 6 more eps for a full 19 episode season.

For as much as I championed Chuck at the end of its second season, at the beginning of its first season I thought of it as merely "something to watch" before Heroes came on, and being technologically-minded, the first five or six episodes were met with some eyerolling on my part because it seemed like it might turn out like every other show attempting to intertwine its storyline with technology it purports to understand but doesn't. After some initial jitters, however, it came across as pretty genuine - far-fetched and implausible at times - but in a self-realizing way that acknowledges it has to be a little bit implausible to make things move along entertainingly. And it did so without losing a beat, losing the story or losing my viewership - and I'm a harsh critic, lulz. I warmed up to it fast, but the reason I'm making these comments is because right before the new season premiered I went back and watched season 1 for the first time since season 1 was on TV. I had watched season 2 a few times because they put it - and kept it - on Hulu a lot. Season 1? Not so much. Somehow the pilot was on Hulu and a few other eps were on the WB's site, and well, I filled in the blanks in a secret fashion.

Rewatching season 1 now, I realized that the series picked up a lot of steam once it hit episode 7. When I first began watching Chuck, I had a chip on my shoulder for series like this, sci-fi/tech stuff that was always improperly discussed or used, because most shows always did such a bad job of it. And the amazing thing is that, the more involved with technology the show is, the worse they tend to be at explaining/utilizing the tech. A good example of this is 24, "uploading" and "downloading" and how much time something would take in the real world, versus in a show where you need suspense and last-minute cliffhangers. Or if we want to talk about movies, Live Free, Die Hard, where, from Kevin Smith's (aka War1ock) computer we're able to access or shut down a whole power grid, etc etc. And that movie was made in 2007. I mean, at least in 1996, a movie like Independence Day had the excuse of PCs not being that widespread yet, to make some cockamamie scheme to invade alien technology with a Mac and a "Jolly Roger Virus" to save Earth plot, work. And the first few episodes of Chuck, aside from the larger plot point of the Intersect, kinda made me cringe at Chuck and Morgan's banter about, "Playing Call of Duty tonight!" or whatever, as well as a few other specific technological things that escape my memory at the moment. Because at first, I thought that mentioning "XBox" or whatever, was going to be some disingenuous attempt at "befriending" the geek demographic to watch this show. I actually couldn't have been more wrong. It was actually very genuine, down to changing the boxes, displays and paraphernalia in the Buy More to reflect recent gaming and tech releases for when that episode is produced/released. And I also understand that Zach Levi is actually a really big gamer/geek so and so in his personal life.

And without going too much further in that aspect, I think that is what made the show a success, but also what put it on the bubble. People claim they want "smart" entertainment, but that doesn't explain how wrestlemania was celebrating its 25th anniversary last year. I think a lot of people enjoy the flashy action and some of the humor Chuck has to offer - and god knows you don't have to be smart per se, to be a geek, so you've got the gamer/sci-fi demo there - but a good bit of what I find to be droll or witty I can imagine being over a good many people's heads. The "genuine" factor seems like it might hinder as well. I believe a good comparison to Chuck is another show in the spy genre that also debuted in 2007 - Burn Notice. Although there are many more geeks out there watching TV than actual, real life spies, both shows try to be genuine about their tech, the way things are put together, and having a smart, often non-linear (at least in TV terms) approach to problems. Both shows also offer escapism in an almost implausible, over-the-top way at times, but the way their characters relate to one another is kinda heart-warming in a completely opposite, real world way. It's in this that people seem to have a problem, seeing as one half of the people on one side want a violent conclusion to a problem so they can feel the main character's vindication in a self-righteous sort of way, and the other half on the other side want characters to relate in a catty, (melo)dramatic way like a soap opera.

What I think makes the show work - and has done so since the beginning - is how the show works in mini-arcs that are clearly under a bigger arc, like filling in pieces of a puzzle. It never lets itself get stale lingering in one plot circle for too long, but it isn't exactly like, oh, say, Heroes, where things jump around so much that we get lost in new plot threads and are left to wonder what the hell is going on. Speaking of, Chuck has also managed an ensemble cast, and meshing what essentially amounts to two casts (and stories) at times in interesting and often hilarious ways.

I feel that Chuck hit its stride in season 2, which a lot of shows do, and I think that perhaps it's going to find itself hard to top. Season 2's plot was pretty great, it had a lot of laughs and the Buy More stuff was just as interesting to watch as the CIA/NSA/spy/asset/action elements. So far, season 3 seems to be off to a good start, with the writers not relying heavily on the Intersect 2.0, which enables Chuck to pull things from the Intersect in his head into some sort of muscle memory/mind interaction. We saw this demonstrated at the end of last season to "know kung fu", and it was used twice or three times for this in Sunday's premiere (and I foresee that being used a lot more in the future, as Chuck refuses to use firearms), but they've already used it creatively, too. Once to enable Chuck to perform covertly in a mariachi band, and once to play doctor, so to speak.

The one and only real problem I have with Chuck is something they've seemed to have semi-cleared up. Chuck and Sarah's back and forth, on and off again relationship kinda had plot relevancy at first because of the whole "cover relationship" thing. But from the middle of season 1 up through the end of last season it just kept yo-yoing for various reasons. I understood the Bryce coming back thing, and they did sort of attach good reasons (mixed with bad timing) to the rest of the times Chuck wanted with Sarah or Sarah wanted with Chuck but one or the other wasn't ready, but it just happened way too often. There weren't even cooling off episodes, it was always one pining for the other, then the other pining for the one right after they realized, "Uh oh, I made the wrong decision, I am in love!" Hopefully something will give here, Kristin Kreuk is supposed to be Chuck's new love interest this season, and the previews at the end of this week's episodes indicated that Sarah will be getting a new interestee as well.

So I guess we'll see how things play out in these remaining 16 episodes. I'm totally pleased so far, even eschewing a new House to watch all three hours of new episodes this week.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Galaga Light & Sound Hallmark Ornament

This was a pretty neat holiday surprise, found it in my local Hallmark shop at xmas time and waited until it was like 40% off after the holiday buying frenzy was over. It plays the Galaga theme and lights up when the fire button is pressed. I was pretty amazed at the level of detail on this, almost up to the level of detail on my Japanese stuff - almost. =P

Choro Q/Q Steer Showroom

The thing on the right is a solar-powered turntable that perpetually rotates the car ^^

I was also pretty surprised by the fact that the Lamborghini was an officially licensed Lambo product.