Archive for July, 2013

“Bizarro Worlds” in WWE Video Games

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Paragon Fantasy Wrestling ArenaThe new WWE 2K14 video game is scheduled for release October 29, 2013, and I am waiting with great anticipation to sink my teeth into it.  The announcements so far, from the slight tweaks in the way the game plays to the inclusion of surprising new characters like the Ultimate Warrior, are exciting enough to me.  However, I am most curious about one particular detail the game’s developers have not fully revealed yet: what the story mode will be like.  For me, WWE games provide an escape from the worries of the real world; the over-the-top superstars and storylines of the wrestling world are exaggerated even more when viewed through the prism of a video game.  Of course, sometimes those exaggerations end up creating “bizarro worlds” where the most illogical things can, and often do, happen.  Here are a few of the more outrageous events I have seen go down in WWE games of the past which have made me love to play them even more.  Here’s hoping 2K14 can somehow manage to top them in sheer absurdity and fun while creating its own “bizarro world.”

The “Great One” comes to WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2007… just not that “Great One.”

One night in late 2006/early 2007  – (I cannot quite remember when), I was going through a portion of the absurdly long “24/7” mode in the latest WWE game when all of a sudden one of the game’s announcers proclaimed that a very special guest would be coming back to the world of wrestling soon.  They said he was a former WWE star who had gone on to star in several successful movies.  He had an “electrifying” presence, knew how to raise eyebrows, and most importantly, often called himself “The Great One” (which was, in fact, the name of the storyline I was playing through).  If you were to ask an average wrestling fan what all of those clues might be pointing to, they would likely say that Dwayne Johnson, better known to WWE viewers as The Rock, would be making a once-in-a-lifetime appearance, an event which would indeed happen in a few years in real life, but which was an outcome nearly unthinkable in a 2007 video game!  Alas, it really was too good to be true, for the guy who pulled up in the limosine in the arena parking lot and greeted my character was not the Rock, but he was a movie star and former wrestling great.  Yes, folks, it was none other than star of They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown, the self-proclaimed master of kicking behind and chewing bubblegum (while at the same time lamenting the sad lack of bubblegum in the near-vicinity), a truly “bizarro” person if there ever was one, the legendary “Rowdy” Roddy Piper!    The following hours of game play were filled with me becoming friends and eventually rivals with the kilted warrior, all the while leaving me stunned that his virtual likeness and signature Scottish/Canadian accent could become a featured part of a video game a full two decades after his 1980s heyday.  Sure, I wouldn’t have minded the Rock doing the near-impossible and showing up unannounced in a video game, but the “Hot Rod” was just as cool and certainly memorable in his own right.

A time machine could lead you back…to the future in WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011.

This one concerns a feature in a recent WWE game I never even knew about until I read the strategy guide for it, and even then, I have never actually tried it for myself, but if you have a copy of the game, try it out and tell me what you think of it!  It seems that, in the “bizarro world” of this game at least, the tag team of Edge and Christian used to have a time machine (well, they always did say they “reeked of awesomeness,” so why wouldn’t they have one of the most totally awesome scientific achievements ever?)  This video explains how Christian puts the machine back together using an old phone booth, a flux capacitor (because those things surely exist in real life, right?) and a couple of wrestling action figures.  Once he’s got the thing built, he gains the ability to bend space and time and travel back and forth to any point of any storyline in the game.  It’s probably a good thing that this type of technology isn’t available to WWE stars in real life.  Who knows what would happen if someone as powerful as WWE Chairman Vince McMahon gained the power to influence history in any way they saw fit?  No, I think this power should stay out of humanity’s hands for the good of all, even if it would be better to have Mickie James side with her friend Natalya instead of her boyfriend Dolph Ziggler (just one example of many, many choices you can make in the game, by the way).

In WWE ’12, Jacob Cass is, to quote from the Dave the Barbarian theme song, “a hero but a wimp.”

When the WWE video game series dropped the Smackdown vs. Raw name from the box cover, I took that as a signal that a lot of changes were coming, and boy was I right!  The game play received a huge overhaul and the graphics for the wrestlers and arenas looked even nicer than they had ever been before.  Even the story got a big boost as it was greatly expanded and divided into three huge parts.  The first two parts displayed some solid storytelling, but the third part was very disappointing to me.  In this last leg of the journey, you get to create your own version of a character written especially for the game named Jacob Cass, a wrestler who graduates from the WWE NXT show for developing wrestlers and competes on the main branded shows, Raw and SmackDown, for roughly a year of game time.  Along the way, he becomes subject to a surprising number of ambushes and unfair situations, first from fellow rookies and veteran stars who want a piece of his hide before he has even had a chance to step out of the blocks, then from a group of returning stars who want to revive the old WWE competitor World Championship Wrestling (WCW) but have to get rid of Cass first to accomplish their goal. 

Like any good hero, Cass is more than capable of handling these situations, especially since you, the player, have direct control over him and have to win to survive.  The story, however, makes a lot of your efforts seem useless.  Whenever you win a match, the story somehow turns it into something of a loss by adding more guys to the opposition or jumping to a cutscene where Cass is bamboozled by the bad guys and loses the match.  This happens with astonishing regularity and often Cass does not have any friends or allies who could help him to turn the tide, making things feel even more unfair.  I don’t have any complaints about this kind of story because setting up overwhelming odds and finding ways to overcome them are the whole point of wrestling storylines in the first place, but the constant barrage of such obstacles that Cass is confronted with and the amazing lack of defense the main story imbues him with seem just ridiculous to me.  I’m playing a good guy the game doesn’t even trust with saving his own life.  He’s beaten up like a pinata up until the very last cutscene when he finally wins a match fair and square and celebrates with all of his new “friends” in the ring with a new title belt.  This last vingette plays for all of 20 seconds before it cuts away to the developers’ credits.  Definitely not worth the near-month I put into it, but darn it if I didn’t enjoy the game anyway.

There’s plenty of other bizarro moments I could think of in these games, but those three stick out the most in my mind whenever I think of WWE and video games.  Ever had a strange moment happen during a movie or TV show that made you think twice?  Tell me about it in the comments, even if it is a bit too bizzarre for belief.

Rebuilding Riverdale In “Archie: Betty or Veronica?”

Friday, July 19th, 2013

One of the earliest comic books I can remember reading was an old dog-eared copy of something called Archie’s Jokes.  It was filled with page after page of short comic strip-type gags all centered around a group of small-town teenagers.  I had no idea who these kids were, and I didn’t think the gags were very funny, but for some inexplicable reason, I found myself strangely attracted to the title.  It struck just the right combination of hokey and homey that I never even knew I wanted.  After a few years, I discovered that Archie and his gang were also featured in many other comic books which I started collecting.  Once I got started all those years ago, I just could not stop.  I have amassed quite the collection now.  I’ve grown to love the small town of Riverdale and all of its inhabitants.  In fact, there’s a part of me that’s always wanted to live in that kind of town (well, I already live in a small town, but still, Riverdale is an idealized small town).  I now have my chance to do just that with the release of the new interactive iPad game “Archie: Betty or Veronica?”

The storyline behind the game borrows a lot from another game, “The Simpsons: Tapped Out,” which I did try out for a few days before I lost interest in it for many different reasons.  In both games, the small town at the center of the franchise (Riverdale for Archie, Springfield for The Simpsons) is devastated by a huge disaster (a tornado hits Springfield, but the source of Riverdale’s destruction has not yet  been revealed to me).  The town mayor, for some strange reason, doesn’t want to take responsibility for the cleanup effort and runs away, along with most of the rest of the town’s residents.  It’s up to the few remaining citizens to clean up the mess, rebuild all of the town’s structures, and bring everyone else back so life can go back to normal (or unusual depending on your point of view).

The primary task you carry out is to send Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Ms. Grundy, (the homeroom teacher), Mr. Weatherbee (the principal of Riverdale High), Pop Tate (the malt shop owner…say, how come Riverdale still has a malt shop in 2013?), and the other Riverdale citizens off to perform various tasks ranging from cleaning up trash to restoring buildings, along with a few oddball jobs for good measure such as getting Moose Mason (the muscular strong guy) to perform an eight-hour shift at the malt shop.  All of these tasks take various amounts of real-world time to complete, anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.  You can either wait for all of the timers to tick away on their own, or you can use the game’s “premium” currency, “kisses,” to “speed up” the timers and finish tasks immediately.  (You can also spend a few real-world dollars on kisses if you want to, but I don’t think I’ll be spending my hard-earned cash on this!)  I have spent the majority of my time with the game thus far simply waiting while doing more productive things including writing, visiting with family and friends, and, of course, reading Archie comics. 

The game helps immensely in this department with the inclusion of a “comic shop” which contains the short comic strips used to tell the game’s story as well as reproductions of the first appearances of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the game’s characters.  I read some of these origin stories while I was waiting for one of the timers, and I found it fascinating to compare the early versions of these teenagers with their modern counterparts in the game.  They certainly have changed a lot over the years!

I like the graphic style the game uses to portray the characters and their town.  It looks very much like the Archie comics come to life, a touch I greatly appreciate.  The tasks are also fairly entertaining in their own way, considering they are mostly limited to just descriptions of what is going on.  I just think there’s a bit of charm to sending Archie and Betty off to have date number 157 at the malt shop (Only 157?  Surely you jest, game!).  There’s also a bit of strategy involved in determining which characters you want to do different tasks.  All of the characters are divided into different types (Moose is a jock, Betty’s an artist, Dilton’s a geek, etc.) and using certain types with particular tasks can slightly reduce the amount of time it takes to complete them.  So far, my experience with this system has been a bit limited, but hopefully as I unlock more characters, its nuances will become more apparent.

The only thing I don’t particularly care for about this game is the parts of the story where you need to make arbitrary choices between two different tasks offered to you by two different characters.  The title of the game, “Betty or Veronica,” also hints at one of these choices.  You have to first choose between restoring Betty’s house or Veronica’s mansion.  I don’t really see the point, considering I ended up doing both tasks in the end.  It’s not like there’s some tangible reward for picking one choice over the other.  They both ended up rewarding me with a relatively useless decoration for your town, and it doesn’t feel to me like they have much of an emotional or narrative impact on the overall story, so they end up feeling as meaningless as Archie’s inevitable choice of which girl he wants to spend the rest of his life with, a choice which he’ll most likely never be able to make (at least in the mainstream comics, anyway; there is a series called “Life with Archie” which looks into alternate universes in which he marries either Betty or Veronica, so if you want to explore those possibilities and are in the mood for some great, thought-provoking comics, I say go right ahead!).  Will the choices even matter in the end?  Only time will tell.

So far, my experience with “Archie: Betty or Veronica?” has been extremely similar to my time reading Archie’s Jokes.  The jokes the game has presented so far are a bit hokey to me, but together with the small-town atmosphere and the timeless characters, it becomes a satisfying blend of classic visuals with modern technology.  I want to see the quest to rebuild Riverdale to completion while also seeing what other characters or locations pop up along the way.  Just like Archie’s teenage life, every new day with this game brings some new discovery and there’s some decent variety.  The only thing this game’s missing is a cup of “Sugar Sugar,” but so far, so good.  It certainly does make my heart go “Bang Shang a Lang!”

Do you like Archie comics?  If so, who are your favorite Archie characters?  Any fond memories of reading Archie comics?  Let me know in the comments.

Pop Culture Questions: Twilight Zone Edition

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
I bet in the show itself, this photo would be in color.

Serling: Picture if you will, a famous TV writer and host talking to himself in the middle of a hotel room, desperate for a meaningless distraction to come from outside the space he inhabits.
Room Service outside front door: Um, Mr. Serling, I’m still waiting for you to pick up your prime rib out here.
Serling: Tonight’s tale of meat consumption and satisfying hunger, in the Twilight Zone.

The Syfy channel’s annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon aired on Independence Day a short while ago.  I watched a few episodes in the morning and was delighted to see how well a lot of these stories hold up decades after they originally aired.  Still, like most great pieces of science fiction (or any kind of intellectually stimulating media for that matter), it did raise a few questions in my mind.  These are not the usual questions of morality and the natural feel of the unknown that Rod Serling and company raised practically every episode, but rather little queries about the events of the episodes themselves that figure prominently in how I view them.  For instance, have you ever considered…

Is Mr. Bemis’s fate at the end of “Time Enough at Last” really such a bad thing?  (I didn’t actually watch this one on the 4th, but since we’re talking Twilight Zone, I figured I might as well talk about it here.)

From what I have learned about the series over the years, it seems to me that the ending of “Time Enough at Last” is one of the most famous moments the original Twilight Zone series ever produced.  The plot in a nutshell for those of you who have never watched it (here’s the whole kit and kaboodle for you to enjoy, I know I sure did): Mr. Henry Bemis, a book-a-holic and professional windbag (played wonderfully by Burgess Meredith), locks himself in a bank vault for some peace, quiet, and good reading.  Meanwhile, World War III breaks out outside (we know that because the newspaper Bemis brought in with him conveniently says so).  When Bemis climbs out of the vault, he steps into a nightmarish landscape devastated by the atomic bomb.  After wandering around for a considerable length of time, he comes across a library literally overflowing with books of seemingly every type.  Just as he’s about to settle down for a lifetime of reading pleasure, he trips and breaks his glasses on the pavement.  As his vision blurs and goes out of focus, Bemis proceeds to whine like a little girl and complain about how true happiness will be denied him for the rest of his life, just because he can’t see anything he reads as clearly anymore.

Personally, I don’t think Mr. Bemis’s situation is quite as dire as the ending makes it out to be.  I remember from watching the episode (and confirming my suspicions via Wikipedia) that Bemis has enough food to survive for the long haul, so he certainly shouldn’t starve to death any time soon.  In addition, who’s to say that there isn’t some remains of an optometrist store left in all the ruins that he could raid for some new glasses or a pair of contact lenses?  He’s bound to find the right prescription for his eyes if he looks hard enough.  I bet he will soon indeed have all the time he needs, all the books he could ever want, and all the vision he can handle before he inevitably dies of radiation poisoning (well, what did you expect from this episode, a happy ending?).

How has the computer in “The Old Man in the Cave” managed to keep running for all this time without breaking down?  (Enjoy this two-minute version.)

In this episode, it is revealed that a giant computer has guided the lives of a small U.S. town’s residents for roughly a decade following a nuclear-fueled World War III (there’s that subplot again!), telling them which foods are safe to eat, where to go for fresh non-contaminated water, etc.  In 1974, after discovering the true identity of the “person” who has told them to go without canned food for more than a week, the townspeople show their gratitude by demolishing the computer into itty-bitty pieces.  The impressive thing about this is that it’s not your average run-of-the-mill laptop they’re smashing to bits.  This is a huge UNIVAC-type vaccuum-tube model you can normally only find in cheap sci-fi comic books.  I’ve always wondered just how this machine came to be placed in the cave and how it’s been able to operate so smoothly for such a long time after a nuclear war.  From the way it gives the townspeople weather reports and food health analyses, I believe it might be used for some type of farming program.  The cave residence might likely be to protect it from inclement weather and wanton marauders looking to destroy anything they can get their hands on.   How the thing’s been operational for so long, though, is beyond me.  There is a guy named Goldsmith who appears to know what the machine does within the episode itself, but who knows if he’s been with it from the beginning?  Also, where can I get one of those giant computers?  I wouldn’t mind one taking up most of the room in a corner of my house; I wouldn’t do anything with it of course, but it could just sit there and look important.

Is Rod Serling a figment of the imagination in the Twlight Zone universe?

Picture if you will: Your humble host, Rod Serling, is wrapping up a typical Twilight Zone episode with some long-winded closing narration.  You’re not really paying attention because you’ve heard this guy’s schtick a hundred times before (there are 154 episodes in the original series, after all).  Suddenly, he does something you’ve never seen him do before in any of his TV appearances.  He walks into the camera’s view, one of the story’s principal characters in the background tells him not to talk that way, that guy throws a paper into the nearby fireplace, and Serling suddenly disappears.  No folks, that’s not your nightmares coming true.  That’s actually a real ending to an early episode, and when I learned about it, it scared the living daylights out of me.

The episode in question is called, “A Room of His Own” (part 1 here, part 2 over yonder), a sleepy little yarn about a guy with a dictaphone who can make anything he speaks into it come to life.  For some strange unexplained reason, Rod Serling just so happens to be one of the things he has made.  This set of circumstances made me think: What if in all the other episodes, Rod Serling happens to be just as fictional as he is here?  After all, he has delivered his opening narrations from the weirdest places (his “fly on the wall” routine in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” comes to mind).  Who’s to say that, in the show’s context, he isn’t some kind of ghost or other unnatural being who has a predilection for finding weird, unsettling sci-fi stories and telling them to an unseen audience, all the while oblivious to the characters around him who are fully aware of his presence but choose to ignore him in the hopes that he’ll find some other poor freaks to rattle on about.  I’d be interested in seeing a Twilight Zone show like that someday; it might attract viewers interested in seeing just how this young man became so fascinated with the paranormal.

Any other strange questions you’ve ever had about The Twilight Zone?  Jot them down in the comments; I’d be up for a good chat concerning  any one of these episodes.

Pop Culture Questions: Pest Control Edition

Friday, July 5th, 2013
Say "cheese," Ronald! See what I did there?

This little rat was thankfully spared during the most recent dungeon raid. He is currently enjoying a steady recovery at Dr. Rodent’s Rat Rehab, home of the world-famous “Vermin Swimmin’ Spa,” in Reno, Nevada.

Welcome to another installment of my series, Pop Culture Questions.  This time, I’m going to tackle two conundrums involving things that I find annoying, irritating, or just a big old pest.  Get out the DDT and mousetraps because it’s time for some long-overdue extermination.

How come medieval dungeons are always filled with giant rats and spiders?

I have been playing a new game, Warhammer Quest, on my iPad and am repeatedly running into dungeons filled to the brim with orcs, goblins, and all sorts of other nasty creatures.  The most revolting creatures I’ve come up against so far, however, have been some grossly oversized rats and spiders.  It seems to me that in every castle dungeon I have ever seen, whether in movies, TV shows, or, lately, video games, I have always seen a healthy (or is that unhealthy?) assortment of jumbo-sized rats, spiders, bats, and other humongous vermin.  What compelled these critters to reside in such dark, dank, miserable places?  I think it’s probably due to the cold, moist environments and the steady supply of fresh meat in the form of traveling adventurers hapless enough to walk into the next random cave entrance only to find it’s a den of starving creatures waiting for a human feast.  The real question on my mind, though, as stated above, is: How come the majority of these rats, spiders, etc. are always of the “Triple Deluxe Whopper” variety?  From whence did these rodents and their disgusting friends gain the ability to grow to such a large size?  Someone must have left a magical potion lying around or been dumping something especially powerful into the sewage, because it looks like these huge monsters are here to stay, especially if they keep breeding like, well, rats.

What is “The Most Annoying Song in the World?”

A little while back, I came across a video for a song from the Disney TV show Phineas and Ferb called, “This Is the Most Annoying Song in the World (Woop Woop).”  Despite the claims of Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the show’s resident mad scientist and the lead singer here, that  his creation is the most mind-numbingly annoying song ever, I find that a bit hard to believe.  I think the song is actually quite catchy and pleasing to the ear.  In fact, I can come up with much more annoying songs than this pathetic attempt.  For instance, I personally don’t mind Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You, You Love Me,” but apparently there’s many other people who, if they don’t have any preschool-aged children around, set up bunkers and call civil defense authorities once this song starts playing on their TVs.  How about “The Song That Doesn’t End,” the classic that’s great for ending an episode of Lamb Chop’s Play Along  but turns into sheer torture when you’re forced to listen to it for 10 hours straight?  On that note, there’s also a lot of YouTube videos of annoying songs played on near-infinite loops, or at least as long as the person making the video can stand before finding something better to do with their time.  For example, have a taste of the “Nom Nom” song accompanied by 10 hours of hamsters and gerbils eating food, or for something a bit shorter, Pac-Man eating  dots for 58 seconds or one minute of some bizarrely cute Photoshops

I think I’ll pass this question on to you now, too.  Are there any songs that drive you up the wall any time you hear them?  Leave your songs in the comments, and if possible, give links to videos or sound files of the songs in question so I can hear them as well.  Hope you don’t find my request too annoying! 🙂

Taking It To the “Monopoly Streets” With My Cousins

Monday, July 1st, 2013

A few of my cousins visited us this past week, so I took a brief “vacation” from this blog to catch up with them.  We had a simply sublime time together every day they were here.  We spent the most time bonding over games of Monopoly Streets (love the use of “Rock This Town” in the trailer, by the way!) on the PlayStation 3.  It was through my time with them that I came to look at this virtual version of the classic game of land management in a new light.

In terms of the game, I discovered, after playing this version of Monopoly mostly by myself for the majority of the time I’ve had it, that it’s even better when played with other people.  “Of course it’s better with others!  Thanks a lot, Captain Obvious,” most of you smart-aleck type commenters are thinking right about now (and if you are, allow me to introduce to you my new crime-fighting partner, Lt. Redundant).  The thing is, however, that I’ve played the PS3 version with mostly computer opponents up until now.  I’ve played it with other people, too, but those games have never lasted very long.  I spent days roaming around different themed boards and trading properties with pretend players.  The tokens were all represented by human characters (little boy for the top hat, maid for the iron, dog walker for the little terrier puppy, etc.) and they were pretty cute, but at the end of the day, they were just tokens.  It was fun seeing all of the different boards and game types, but what I really wanted was someone to share playing the game with. 

I had an opportunity to do just that when my cousins expressed a desire to play the game from among my collection.  We played two rounds of Monopoly Streets, both on the classic board.  I remember distinctly that a heated topic of conversation was a certain pink property that one of my cousins kept attempting to broker a trade with me for.  Looking back on it, I think it turned into one of those moments where you end up arguing with someone you know and love over a small, meaningless thing.  True, it would have given him complete control of the pinks, and I wasn’t about to let him have that, but his trade attempts went on so long and became so extravagant that we ended up talking about them every day for the rest of the week.  By the way, I never did trade away the pink property.  We finished one game (one of my cousins won) while the other one, the pink property game, is, to the best of my knowledge, saved onto my cousin’s PS3 hard drive waiting for the day when we will either finish playing or delete it.

My cousins and I made many memories all week long, playing a few other games (Disney Universe and Apples to Apples, anyone?) and watching some TV shows and movies together.  For my money, though, the real highlight was our Monopoly Streets matches.  They were competitive, engaging, and suspenseful because you didn’t know who was going to win (I’m still curious as to how that “pink” game will turn out).  I love games because I feel they have a natural tendency to bring people closer together, and that certainly happened in this case.

Have you ever had a bonding moment with your family or friends while playing a board game?  Share your stories in the comments.  Avoid jail.  Avoid indirectly contacting jail.  Please pass go.  Please collect 200 dollars.