The Designer’s Drugs: Super Mario 3D Land

 

Medium: Game – Nintendo 3DS

Stimulus: Super Mario 3D Land

Anno: 2011

 

The thing to note about the newest Mario game is that, while it is technically a 3D game, it would be more accurate to say that this is an old school side scroller with a z-axis.  Were it not for Mario’s ability to run into the background, 3D Land would be an exact installment in the retro New Super Mario Brothers franchise, complete with three golden coins hidden in each stage for the obsessive compulsives to hunt down.  Beyond that faint whiff of side quest, it’s a very businesslike game, all Point A to Point B and very little world exploration.  I’d call this the spiritual successor to Super Mario Brothers 3, especially considering the direct lifting of the flight-granting raccoon suit from that game.

I’ve always kind of loathed the platforming aspects of 3D Mario games, since it can be hard to gauge where one is landing.  3D Land does a great job of handling this problem, as one isn’t required to perform any exotic angled leaps and Mario’s shadow is always in view.  If the latter wasn’t true, the game would be impossible.  By having the stages run on more or less fixed pathways, the camera isn’t given the freedom to go haywire and wreck the gameplay.  In a 3D game, this is really remarkable.

What is kind of nice is that, following the short conflict between Mario and the King of the Koopas, the game doubles in size and allows the player to run through a series of remixed stages which ramp up the difficulty to a significant degree.  Some of these special stages are simply new layouts, but many of them also feature the added challenges of having only 30 seconds on the clock and/or a treacherous little shadow version of Mario chasing him through the stage and trying to do him in.  The exploration factor decreases even further at this point, and the change in pace from leisurely to frantic kicks up the excitement.

I know that there’s a school of gaming that professes that if you’re not spending a hundred hours engaged in a game’s repetitive and pointless side quests, you’re not getting your money’s worth.  A tireless player can achieve everything there is to achieve in 3D Land in a couple of sittings, and the game is 40 bucks, and it’s worth every penny.  This is the year’s purest example of a game being allowed to simply be a game, and the result is a lot of quick, easy fun.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials (Deluxe)

Anno: 2011

 

The thought that ran through my head as I listened to this amazing album was that this is the sort of music that wins Grammys and deserves them.  Ceremonials is a mixture of the ambition of an orchestra, the aggression of rock, the hooks of pop, and the pipes of Florence Welch, a vocalist who could sing the phone book and make it sound like an erotic awakening.  The total product is easily the best album I’ve heard this year.

In fact, it may also have the year’s best track.  “What the Water Gave Me” starts as a steady pace of gloom and pieces of harp, pushing through the introductions before dropping into a hook of subterranean organs, shards of guitars, and a swelling choir that gathers its strength as the song progresses and soon explodes everything.  The song’s titanic conclusion isn’t the usual bitchy distorted guitar angst that typically characterizes rock, but it’s about as powerfully rock as anything I’ve ever heard.

And still, it’s only one song in a great series.  “Shake It Out” is a beaming sadjoy pop tune which carries the right sort of pretentious messianic overtones.  “No Light, No Light” is run by an organ and a smashing drum pulse operating alongside words which might not have been as catching if they weren’t delivered in Welch’s towering wails.  “Heartlines” is in the same percussive orchestral vein, though it has more of an esoteric beat and Welch is even more impressive at the helm.  The electronic R&B of “Spectrum” swings from the subdued intensity of the verses to blasts of voice and harp.  “Bedroom Hymns” closes the album with a frenzied swing rush of drums and piano while Welch does a little bit of the old erotic religion dirty talk.

There’s absolutely nothing on Ceremonials that comes within a light year of bad.  The very worst thing I could say about it is that there’s a song called “Never Let Me Go” that comes off as a slow, minimalist love ballad from the 80s, which isn’t my style.  If you’re into slow, minimalist love ballads from the 80s, however, this thing will spin your wheels.  There are shortcomings to be found throughout the album, to be sure, but the orchestration is so tightly woven in each and every song that any weakness is compensated for with a dozen strengths.

So yeah.  I severely doubt that I’m going to hear anything as good as this for a long, long while.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Justice / Camille Bloom and the Recovery

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Justice – Audio, Video, Disco

Anno: 2011

 

This is an album with a hot single that doesn’t do much to back it up.  “Civilization” is a towering work of synthpop that is easily one of my favorite songs of the year, but most of its support on Audio, Video, Disco is subdued and listless.  “Horsepower” is a wicked orchestral lead-in to the greater single, but it doesn’t stand by itself.  The concluding trilogy of “New Lands,” “Helix,” and “Audio, Video, Disco” are decently exciting dance tracks, but they blow off no doors.  In contrast, more conceptual electronic pieces like “Ohio” and “Parade” just come off as overproduced and jaded.  I’d recommend “Civilization” without a second’s hesitation, but as for the rest, it’s kind of hit or miss.

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Camille Bloom and the Recovery – Never out of Time

Anno: 2011

 

Never out of Time is the sort of introspective yet occasionally aggressive acoustic rock album that fills out a conventional band’s sound with some bowed strings for added depth.  It’s a very practical entry in the field.  The lyrics and vocals, while pretty typical angry anguished solitary fare, work well with the surrounding music and make a listenable whole.

I’m rarely in the mood for songs with acoustic guitars in full rock out mode, so I gravitated towards the quieter songs on this album, in particular “All of These Stains,” which is a pretty little sad song full of that added depth.  But the louder stuff isn’t exactly abrasive; “Just Because I’m a Friend” and “Why?” are the best examples of a canny sensibility that doesn’t throw architecture to the wind once the tempo picks up.  The only odd moment on the album is the bonus track “Teeny Car,” in which Camille Bloom raps alongside some vintage 80s electro.  It’s obviously not meant to fit in with the rest of the songs, which eliminates none of its strangeness.

The strength here comes more from the background than the front, and in supporting Camille Bloom, the Recovery excels.

The Designer’s Drugs: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Anno: 2011

 

God bless William Shatner for having a music career – okay, a spoken-word career set to music.  Following up on his artistic and awesome collaboration with Ben Folds in Has Been, Shatner’s enunciations have returned to the grin-worthy.  At last, his aural body of work has arrived at its logical, Captain Kirk conclusion: a covers concept album about space.  If it’s a famous song that in any way references the heavens, Seeking Major Tom takes it on, swirls it together alongside NASA audio clips, and places it among the coherent whole.  He dusts off his classic rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” does the expected gloom of Bowie’s “Space Odyssey,” rambles around like a drunk uncle in “Space Truckin’,” rocks it wild on “The Twilight Zone,” and synths up his voice to ba-baba a sweet cover of Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth.”  Most of this is entirely predictable, and all of it is wonderful.

The only exception to this goodness is “Mrs. Major Tom,” a cover entirely devoid of Shatner’s presence and full of Sheryl Crow’s.  It’s an okay track, but in the context of the greater album the lack of hyperacted vocals is jarring.  There’s definitely a Where the Hell is Shatner vibe to it.

But let’s get to the mind-blowing parts.  First off, Shatner covers “Iron Man.”  It’s pretty goddamn amazing, though the focus is much more on Zakk Wylde’s guitar playing than on our hero’s sweet crooning.  Yet looming even more titanic in the category of it must be heard to be believed is William Shatner, covering “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Holy shit (or Shat), this is amazing.  Shatner completely warps and perverts this song, throwing out Freddie Mercury’s rock opera vocals and replacing them with groans and wails and gnashing teeth.  The song becomes less tragedy and much more farce, with the lyrics under Shatner’s stewardship becoming the tale of a paranoid schizophrenic with a splitting headache.  It’s beautiful.

If you can, check out Shatner’s video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  Not content with warping only one classic beyond recognition, his music video is by all appearances a dissection of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” in which the starry, disembodied head of Shatner sings in space and occasionally plagues the Earth with meteors.  It’s splendid.

It’s not half as respectable as Has Been (or even those songs in which Shatner howls out Shakespeare monologues), but Seeking Major Tom is the album of a man who knows his place in pop culture and isn’t afraid to ham it up to the fullest.  Now if only Adam West will make a cover album about bats.

 

The Designer’s Drugs: Samurai Warriors: Chronicles

 

Medium: Game – Nintendo 3DS

Stimulus: Samurai Warriors: Chronicles

Anno: 2011

 

 

I’m a big fan of the tactical warfare disguised as button mashing idiocy genre that Koei’s Warriors series pioneered a decade ago with Dynasty Warriors 2 (for the record, number one is a lackluster-looking ancient Chinese history-themed street fighting game that isn’t recognized as part of the series in Japan).  With this 3DS installment of the offshoot franchise Samurai Warriors, the rampage through Asian history finally feels as fun and functional on a portable system as it does on a console.  Here, there’s no punching one’s way through a stage the size of my bathroom and into a loading screen fifty times per mission.  Each battlefield in Chronicles is complete, and one can run around at will, which is nice.

There are a few drawbacks to the game, most of which I feel exist because Chronicles is a first-year game for the 3DS and was obviously rushed out the door to get a jump on the homesteading.  The game’s menu and special features are very bare bones and don’t explain much of anything, for starters.

Yet the biggest weak point is a total lack of voice work in English.  Every voice in this game is speaking Japanese whether you like it or not.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the player wasn’t too busy dodging swords and arrows to read the dialogue bubbles at the bottom of the screen, but as it stands, English would have been a big help.

Another awkward issue in the language department is that whoever set up the printed dialogue in said bubbles was kind of a schmuck.  More than once there were bizarre uses of the enter button where a word would be cut in half to end one line and begin another.  I’m not talking between syllables, either, but within one syllable.  D-on’t?  Don’t.  The game’s Dan Quayle-like usage of two different spellings of the word heroes is also a nice touch.

Translation issues aside, Samurai Warriors: Chronicles brings a lot to the table.  The action, as always, is furious and strategic, but I really liked the addition of four character team-based gameplay, where one can tap the 3DS touchscreen and direct and switch between heroes on the fly.  This beats the hell out of the old model of playing through a stage with one person and having to fly off to the other end of the board whenever some jerk ambushes your leader.  It’s also wonderful not having to play through with each character individually, though the friendship system in Chronicles does require you to buddy up with the dozens of other fighters one at a time to unlock certain features.  The repetition is thus lessened but not eliminated.

Still, tactical button-mashing has never been done this well on a portable system, and that eclipses all shortcomings.

The Designer’s Drugs: The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo DS

Medium: Video Game – Portable

Stimuli:  The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo DS

Annos: 2007, 2009

 

I don’t like touchscreen video games.  Playing a game with imprecise wipes of one’s greasy fingers or clutching a pen to write one’s way to victory is to me way too gimmicky and usually not very fun.  As the years have passed I have grown to really like the dual screen setup of the Nintendo DS, but I stick to the games that run on d-pads and buttons.  Any game that primarily requires me to poke that tiny bottom screen gets nothing but distance from me.  For example, Metroid Prime: Hunters was a crappy first person shooter that was almost as unplayable as it was bland, and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword was another severe franchise disappointment that had none of the superninja excitement of the rest of its family.

Yet I’ve always had a morbid interest in playing the DS entries of the Legend of Zelda series, two games which run primarily by poking that bottom screen.  My loathing of the style kept me away for a long time, but I finally decided to give them a try.  While Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks didn’t come close to converting me away from d-pad gameplay, they largely convinced me that good touchscreen games could be made – or at least one of them did.

They’re basically the same game, the cartoon visuals of The Wind Waker mixed with the top-down 2D gameplay of A Link to the Past.  Young Link rides around the land, enters a dungeon, gains a magic item, and uses that item ad nauseum to clear said underworld.  Side quest, wash, rinse, search for heart containers, repeat.  The action was fun but extremely unsurprising.

The main difference in gameplay is that Phantom Hourglass uses a boat as transportation while Spirit Tracks squires Link around in a train.  The train sucks hard.  Really, this brings up a larger point.  Despite the fact that Phantom Hourglass is the earlier game and has rougher controls and a time limit dungeon the player must complete multiple times, it is far better.

The elaborate train controls of Spirit Tracks, which grossly interfere with getting where one wants to go and defending against enemies along the way, are the most obvious point against it.  On the other hand, one draws a line on a map in Hourglass, and the boat goes on its merry way.  Oh, and that game also features teleportation at will, which doesn’t appear in its successor.  I don’t like overworld traveling in any game, but Hourglass is about as good as it gets.

The gameplay sins of Spirit Tracks don’t end there.  They also include the forced use of the DS microphone which one must blow into to use a gameplay item and a plot-advancing musical item.  One is also treated to such joys as having to control two people at the same time and the subsequently unplayable dungeon puzzles that come with that clunky setup.  Best of all is the horrible, horrible end boss sequence, which brings all those clunky train riding, flute playing, simultaneous two player elements into one titanic clusterfuck with the additional bonus of having to play meteor tennis with a giant behemoth – and if you miss one ball, you must start, all, over, again.  I ended up swearing heavily at my DS at this low point in my gaming history.

A game should be difficult because a player sucks.  It shouldn’t be difficult because the controls suck.  Spirit Tracks unfortunately takes from both columns.  Phantom Hourglass is much better, though the more solid and careful nature of its gameplay also kept it from blowing my mind.

I don’t regret playing these games, but I think I’ll stay off the touchscreen for the time being.

The Designer’s Drugs: Albert Brooks – 2030

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030

Anno: 2011

 

I’ve recently developed a fascination with American declinist literature, stories taking place not far in the future which predict the end of America’s run as king of the mountain.  In reading Albert Brooks’ excellent account of the wane of one more empire, I drew immediate parallels to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, though as soon as I did so the differences also presented themselves.  The destination of both books is the same, but the focus of each is the polar opposite of the other.  Shteyngart’s story is concerned with the clutching desperation for youth in a hyper-networked world.  It describes, almost by necessity, a more absurd, idiotic place (I hesitate to say that it is more self-obsessed).  In contrast, the world Brooks describes is being wrecked by the old, who have become an undying, retired ruling caste with no regard for the Social Security slave state it has created.  Here, the young are not venerated but marginalized and then feared as hopelessness boils over.

The colors Brooks paints with are much more sober and human.  Leaving out the flying cars and neo-Facebook crackheads, the only technology that’s really fetishized in his story is medical technology.  The cancer cure that turned 60 into the new 30 was just the beginning of the immortality industry that both elevates and plagues this world, but Brooks doesn’t have his characters speak in Internetese or act hip and futuristic.  Both the old and young are gathered together and presented as terrified, self-interested, conflicted, and most of all familiar characters.  This point is precisely what gives 2030 its power.

This wide scope also leads to some weird changes in perspective in which the reader gets into the thoughts of multiple people at the same time.  This pinball narrative isn’t unreadable, but for those conditioned to read and write a certain way, it is noticeable.  Also noticeable is a thin political vagueness that seems to indicate a desire to make the issues of 2030 beyond politics.  This is best seen in the American president, a central character who is buried under his nation’s rubble, as well as his own.  He isn’t explicitly labeled a Democrat, but his team is pretty obvious.  One of his rivals is painted as a corporate opportunist who plays the field, but his business interests in a chain of retirement homes would seem to make him an ardent anti-Kevorkian Republican.  As opposed to the contradictions and asymmetry of the characters, I don’t think this lack of definition in the big picture completely works.

This is a pretty amazing work of future world building which has easily become my favorite story of the end of the United States as we know it.  The characterization amidst the deep examination of an impending and severe social issue makes clear that Albert Brooks wasn’t simply interested in creating an American grave to dance upon.  What’s most gripping about 2030 is the possibility that he might be right about everything.

The Designer’s Drugs: Tori Amos – Night of Hunters

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Tori Amos – Night of Hunters

Anno: 2011

 

 

Tori Amos doing a classical-themed album is sort of an obvious proposition.  As it turns out, it’s also a powerful reality.  The classical aspects of Night of Hunters aren’t blatant; the songs are still mostly built around Tori’s vocals and piano, with all the new orchestral sounds filling out the periphery.  What makes this album different from her previous works, however, almost seems to be the knowledge that this was going to be a classical album.  That label does more to define Night of Hunters than any change in instrumentation.

It’s a very long and dark album, both brooding and distant.  The contradiction is that the music found here is about as menacing as anything Amos has made, yet the lyrics often have a feel of epic poetry and lack Amos’ usual fire.  Sometimes it’s more of an opera than a collection of songs.  The nine minutes of slow decline comprising “Battle of Trees” construct the most obvious example of this grandiose sense of fiction.  It’s a strange thing to say about a musician who once created an entire album exploring five separate aspects of herself, but Night of Hunters feels like Amos at her least personal.  That’s not awful by any stretch – as the brilliant ten minute darkness of “Star Whisperer” proves – but it does require some level of adjustment.

Also requiring some adjustment is the addition of Amos’ daughter on backup vocals.  She’s a bit raspy and nervous, which tends to take away from the songs in which she appears.  The greatest example of this is the Alice and Wonderland-like “Cactus Practice,” which dips into the sort of repeat after me chorus mantras that normally show up in hip hop singles.

There is an example in which the backup steps up, however.  “Job’s Coffin” is one of the moments in which the album shakes off its epic classical programming, and this sort of bluesy feminist call to action is vocally driven by Tori’s daughter, whose rougher voice serves it rather well.

The usual response to those times when musicians create albums that buck their established formulas is to give them a condescending pat on the head and say “Nice experiment!” while waiting for the errant artists to remember where their bread is buttered.  Night of Hunters, however, never comes off as a toe in the water, something to be later written off as non-canonical (see: Y Kant Tori Read?).  Sure, I’d like to hear more albums from Tori Amos that have the high energy, tempos, and lyrical fists of her usual work, but would I listen to another half dozen albums of Amos doing classical?  If they’re like this, then absolutely.

The Designer’s Drugs: The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love

Anno: 2011

 

The Rapture used to be an exciting dance band.  Now it’s just a dance band.  Not everything on In the Grace of Your Love is the bored, stoned beach hippie electrorock that can pass for songwriting maturity since MGMT came out with Oracular Spectacular (a comparison that’s easy to make considering the waterfront album art of each).  Still, there’s also not a lot here that is as gripping as past Rapture works.  Almost as if it was made to reinforce this idea, track two of Grace is a harpsichord-wielding swinger titled “Miss You” which, while it’s one of the album’s best tracks, also has the exact same beat as the title track of the Rapture’s much better album, Pieces of the People We Love.  That track was also a track two, appropriately enough.

There’s very little that’s gut-wrenchingly terrible; I’d point to Luke Jenner’s screechy vocals opening the album on “Sail Away,” the boring and annoyingly whimsical “Roller Coaster,” and the terrible, repetitive lyrics laid over the dull, repetitive synths of “Can You Find a Way?”  These shortcomings would have been overlooked had the Rapture compensated by filling the rest of the album with great songs.  Instead, the rest of the songs are at best pretty good, the main selling point being that Luke Jenner, who used to screech and wail and get kind of ridiculous with his high-pitched throat muscles, has become a much better singer.

The title track of Grace is probably the collection’s high point, being a sly and self-assured bass-synth and guitar track that saunters through alongside Jenner at one of his best vocal moments on the album.  It’s followed by “Never Die Again,” which sounds the most like the big, spastic dance rock sound of old Rapture (without, as mentioned above, the band plagiarizing itself).  “How Deep Is Your Love?” is pretty solid dancefloor fuel, being both old and new by busting out some old Rapture saxophone while exchanging the guitars for piano.  “Come Back to Me” could have been great; it starts as a neat French accordion-driven dance song that would have been so much better had the brooding sluggishness of the second half been completely cut out and the opening it reflected allowed to exist independently.  That last half drags down the whole song.

It’s a bit of a disappointment hearing the Rapture trade in frenzied groove for a slower shot at adulthood, but In the Grace of Your Love isn’t the worst letdown imaginable.

The Designer’s Drugs: Glorious Nintendo 3DS First-Year Plan

EPIC!

 

Medium: Game – Portable

Stimulus: The Nintendo 3DS First-Year Rorschach

Anno: 2011

 

Last Friday, I picked up a brand new fire red Nintendo 3DS.  I’m pretty pumped about my new acquisition.  I can take or leave the 3D screen option, as it’s pretty hard to maintain a steady gaze and fight off the eye strain.  But I love the improved touchscreen, which is so much more responsive and usable than the old clunky Nintendo DS screen.  The inclusion of motion sensor controls on the system, in which you get to aim the screen instead of simply aiming a controller, also works wonders.

I’m pretty skeptical about game systems in their first year.  The hardware can get pretty buggy, and a solid collection of titles doesn’t develop until at least the second year of a system’s life.  Yet I found four games for the 3DS that looked good enough to merit picking up this new piece of technology, and I obtained them all.  Three of these games are remakes, and one is an established minigame set loose on its own.  Yet each one is a blast; even the worst of the bunch is above average.

Submitted for your approval: the best of the Nintendo 3DS, thus far.

 

Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition:  I remember getting written up at work for Protestant-bashing on a St. Patrick’s Day years ago, ditching out to take an extended break at Best Buy, playing the original version of this game there, and feeling okay with the world.  This is the better version of that game.  It plays as great as I remember, but the real star in this edition is the touchscreen, which is an absolute godsend.  No more fighting like a thumbless, black eyed chimp trying to enter convoluted commands to execute one’s special moves; the four touchscreen buttons can be programmed to bust out any command with a simple tap.  The simplicity is breathtaking.

 

Resident Evil – The Mercenaries 3D:  The weakest of my four purchases is still a fine game.  The premise of this minigame turned full release is simple: choose a character, choose a mission, and shoot as many zombies as possible before time runs out.

The Mercenaries does have a few issues, though.  It suffers from a weird form of slowdown when there are many baddies onscreen, in that the zeds furthest away seem to run around in a stilted slow-motion.  Also, this is not a game to go in for the long haul; missions get pretty monotonous quickly.  This one seems built for multiplayer.

Is it worth new game price?  Probably not, but The Mercenaries is everything good about Resident Evil ultraviolence distilled into a quick little injection.

 

 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D:  This is the flagship, the standard-bearer of the 3DS.  There is no question.  In what seems to be a trend with this system thus far, Nintendo took a decade-old game for the Nintendo 64, made it beautiful, and added some neat tricks to the gameplay.  The result is not only an epic, sprawling quest that doesn’t feel old, but also a game that is far superior to most new releases.  Vital and magnificent.

 

Starfox 64 3D: Nintendo’s other big rerelease from the Nintendo 64 days is a pretty slick update on Starfox 64’s classic of space combat.  The big selling point of this version is the ability to steer one’s spaceship with the 3DS’ motion controls, which is a cool feature but also one I think works best in combination with the traditional and more stable analog stick steering.  Again, this is an old game that has much more life in it than a lot of new games have.

 

The verdict?  The 3DS is worth the purchase.  It doesn’t hurt that the system’s price just dropped a hundred bucks, either.

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