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What I’ve Been Doing 26 Sept 2011 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Sep 26th, 2011 by Dan

Moneyball Movie Poster

Doesn't get much better than being portrayed by Brad Pitt in a movie. (Photo courtesy nsusco)

It’s fitting that I watched a movie about baseball considering how much baseball I also watched this weekend. Had to watch to support the Rays. They’ve got three games to make up a one game deficit. You can do it, Tampa Bay!

Movies

Moneyball – Not too bad at all. We’re not talking “the best baseball movie ever” or anything, but it was enjoyable. It’s always nice to see a good baseball movie. I didn’t love the stylized baseball shots with the all black backdrops (looked kind of cheap), but it was still lots of fun. Seeing Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation) play a more serious dramatic role (but still kind of comedic) was really neat. I liked it, but I’m glad I saw it with Ryan. Tiffany would have hated it.

TV

Up All Night – This show is actually pretty neat. Will Arnett and Christina Applegate make a good pairing for a show about an unplanned baby that they do genuinely love, even if they haven’t figured out how to integrate it into their lives yet. I’ve got another episode waiting on the DVR to get around to sometime this week. It’s not nailing it yet, but it’s good enough that I’ll give it a few more episodes.

Top Gear – Saw both last week and this week’s eps and the guys turned cars into trains to pull cars down the tracks. It was pretty hilarious. The demolitions competition at the end of this week’s was pretty cool too.

Talking Funny – I kind of wish they had a woman on the panel too. I mean, what’s that say when you’re advertising your special as a look at comedy from the who’s who of the biz, but you don’t have any women on the panel? Ricky Gervais was the most “intellectual” of the bunch (almost to pretension) and Seinfeld was the purest, most “elemental”. I wish Chris Rock said more and I thought Louie C.K. was among the funnier of the four.

How I Met Your Mother – The worst part of any episode remains any time Ted is on screen. I don’t know if the writers get that his pretentiousness is super off-putting, but it’s kind of terrible. There were definitely some funny moments in the first disc (I’m catching up on Season 5), but, while I like the show, I don’t love it. ESPECIALLY when Ted is on screen

2 Broke Girls – This was decent. I mean, it’s a totally safe sitcom being mostly carried by Kat Dennings, but I like Kat Dennings, so I’ll give it two or three more episodes. Wait, did I say safe? Definitely a decent amount of jokes about semen, orgasms, and exchanges like “You’re getting me wet.” “That’s the point.” It seems kind of edgy for 2130 on CBS, I guess, but definitely not that edgy compared to other stuff I watch. I like the gimmick with the money raised counter at the end. Reminds me of a reverse Battlestar Galactica.

Weeds – They totally had a Vonnegut reference in there (“So it goes.”), but there’s so much going on and unresolved with only one episode left that I’m at a loss to see how they end it effectively. It’s been a good season with the budding rivalry between her and Silas growing, but I worry about how it can have a satisfactory ending with only 30 mins to go.

Music

Extra Hot Great – One of my favorite podcasts, Extra Hot Great did a Fall TV preview this week that was funny and cool, per usual. Their mixing things up for Game Time for the next few episodes since Joe clinched the crown. This is definitely a great podcast to listen to if you’re into pop culture stuff (specifically TV and movies).

Books

Reamde – Neal Stephenson’s latest hit shelves this past week. So far so good. It’s got a lot of Stepehnson elements (obsession with guns/weapons), but hasn’t had any of his stereotypical nerdiness yet. Mentions of twitter/facebook/wikipedia kind of date the book, but, at the same time, I think that’s kind of what he’s going for.

(AHOY, THAR BE COMICS AHEAD!)

SI: Cloak and Dagger – Just gorgeous art and fantastic writing. Comic books like this remind me why it’s worth spending my money on them. Just beautiful.

Daredevil – Not as good as the first three, but still quite good. The cliffhanger panel is killer awesome.

The Red Wing – A very interesting premise with the traveling across dimensions too. The way the pilots explode across time when they’re destroyed remains the most striking image in this book.

SI: Spider-Woman – Didn’t really do it for me. Not that interesting.

Ultimate Comics Hawkeye – Good, but not great. I still feel like Hawkeye as a character is almost non-existent

Wonder Woman – So popular this week that I had to buy it digitally (sold out in all other formats). It was a good book with neat art (I love how Chiang draws Diana as full-figured/muscular) and I hope they continue with the Greek mythology bit because that will lead to great horror comics. Greek gods and their mythology are among the most interesting, graphic, and crazy sources for stories out there.

Video Games

SO MUCH GEARS OF WAR 3 – Tons of it. Still so much fun. I can’t wait for Min to be done with his schoolwork.

Left 4 Dead 2 – Dave and I finally finished all of the main story campaigns in this. We might go back and do some other extras, but for now I think we’re done. Lots of fun.

Resident Evil 5 – Back playing this. I miss actually having to buy and upgrade weapons, but it’s still tons of fun. Glad I’m playing this again. It’s insane and super fun.

Of The Blue Colour of the Sky and Contra [Feedback]
Jan 19th, 2010 by Dan

Should be a musical week here at IBNttT and I think I’m gonna start it off with my impressions on OK Go and Vampire Weekend’s new offerings, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky and Contra, respectively.

OK Go – This Too Shall Pass from OK Go on Vimeo.

It’s been ~5 years since OK Go released one of my favorite albums, Oh No, and started to find some mainstream success thanks to the music video for “Here It Goes Again”. A lot can change in five years for a band so I was curious as to how it would turn out (and sound), especially since I’d heard it was a result of them touring for so long they hardly felt like themselves. Sonic shifts can be completely disastrous or they can turn out like OtBCotS and turn out pretty well.

The sound shift comes in the form of an almost 80s funk-synth sound a la Prince, complete with Prince-like yelps and screams. If you’re like me, your first worry should be, “Can Damian Kulash actually hit those notes and sound appropriate for this style?” I’d say that the experiment was mostly a success, with his wailing only taking center stage during the song “Skyscrapers” where it’s used to both great effect and only one mildly annoying overdone part. Beyond that, the synth-y sound is actually pretty great and I’m positive that OK Go will only grow from this experimentation.

My main gripe with the album comes with the back third, which seems like a lot (and it is!). I understand why artists like to slow down the beat and bring us down slowly for the tail end of the album, but, of the last four songs, only the final song, “In the Glass” does anything for me while the other three just don’t fit in thematically. That said, the first two thirds of the album is absolutely fantastic. I’d say my favorite tracks are the first six, so just about half. Not perfect, but not bad either. The bass and drum work are especially worth noting, specifically in “Skyscrapers” and “White Knuckles”, but they’re great throughout the entire album.

If you’re a real fan of the sound OK Go had for their first two albums, I’d give the album a listen before you buy to make sure you’re not getting any unwelcome surprises. For everyone else, if you like your music with a little funk sometimes, it’s worth picking up.

Contra

I’m a little late to the Vampire Weekend party since I’d only heard of them a few days before both of the album came out. When I did some background checking to see what their first album sounded like, I was shocked, since Contra sounds almost nothing like their prior work. That’s not a bad thing, especially since I’m fond of just about every track on the disc, but I have to wonder what old fans might think of the shift to a more tropical, almost reggae-ish sound. Wikipedia calls it “worldbeat”, if that helps any. Anyway, the album definitely sounds Caribbean and tropical, which is definitely welcome during these cold winter months.

Ezra Koenig’s voice does a great job covering this varied sound and much acclaim needs to go to the rest of his band, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Tomson, and Chris Baio, for coming up with a wholly natural-sounding, almost ethnic album created by a bunch of kids from Brooklyn. I’d be hard pressed to select a single track as the standout so I’ll just say that my favorites are “Run”, “Diplomat’s Son”, “California English”, and “Horchata”. The entire album is available to be listened to on their website, so check them out. Given how different this album is from their first and how good it is, I’m really excited to see what Vampire Weekend does next. This is a band worth keeping an eye on.

Mother 3 Review [Big N]
Jan 12th, 2010 by Dan

Great Mother 3 art

Wallpaper courtesy Pet-Shop on DeviantArt

Ruminations on video games as an art form – this could very well become a Mother 3 review. There will be spoilers here. Seriously, don’t read it if you want to play Mother 3 and not have the plot spoiled.

There’s a trite comparison that floats around the internet almost every month that always gets my eyes rolling. Inevitably, someone will call such-and-such the Citizen Kane of video games or ask what the Citizen Kane is or claim that the medium is immature because we’ve yet to hit our Citizen Kane. It’s exhausting and, quite frankly, futile and stupid. To begin with, Citizen Kane opened with good reviews and was generally well-received, but it didn’t start to gain notoriety for ten years. It didn’t even make #1 on a top movies list until twenty years had passed. When the Citizen Kane of gaming hits (god I hate that phrase), we probably won’t know it for quite some time. The more important point is that movies and games are apples and oranges.

The day that we stop worrying about whether books or movies are better than games at expressing a particular artist’s point of view is probably the day that we’ll realize that we’ve already got fine examples of games that are reflections of authorial control already. Brütal Legend was not a great game, but Tim Schafer’s hands are clearly evident all over it. Anyone who’s ever played one of Fumito Ueda’s games knows precisely how a game can effectively be used to bring out your emotions through simple mechanics. Goichi Suda (AKA Suda 51) has been making games that show clear, artistic direction through his use of bizarre symbols and incomprehensible plots for years. My point is, we’ve been here for a while.

You may have heard of Shigesato Itoi, but chances are, you have no clue that he’s one of the most famous and respected men in Japan to such a degree that his dog was probably the most recognizable animal in the entire country for a few years. In America, we know him as a video game designer, specifically the man behind Earthbound, but not much else. Interestingly enough, Itoi is actually more famous for being an essayist, interviewer, and slogan generator than his work for Nintendo. His association with Hayao Miyazaki is well known enough that he’s famous for the Kiki’s Delivery Service slogan (“Ochikondari mo shita kedo, watashi wa genki desu” — “I was a little depressed for a bit; I’m okay now”) and he even voiced Mei’s father in My Neighbor Totoro (a role that went to Phil Hartman (rest in peace) when the movie was dubbed in English).

In his younger days, Itoi found himself sick and unable to do much but play Nintendo as he recovered. It was in this state that he discovered Dragon Quest, which set the wheels turning in his head. This experience was the impetus behind the Mother series and led to Itoi’s long, fruitful relationship with Nintendo. In case you were wondering (protip: you probably weren’t), Shigesato Itoi is the guy who came up with the name for the Game Boy. True fact.

It’s not surprising to me that most of the names I’ve mentioned were not always video game designers. The most bizarre of the bunch, Suda, was an undertaker before he tried his luck in the video game industry while Ueda was an artist and the aforementioned Itoi was a…well there’s no easy word to describe someone like Itoi. He was (and is) a cultural personality.

“If you immerse yourself too single-mindedly in your chosen art form, whether it’s video games, movies, comics or whatever,” he continues, “your work can easily become just a reflection of what others are doing in that field, rather than breaking new ground.”

Jordan Mechner

Now, Schafer is, himself, a product of the industry, having held no other jobs, but he’s the exception, a true creative mind that is not crippled by his feedback loop of doom. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts, and Brütal Legend could not be more different from each other, but just think of how rare this is. For every Schafer or Ken Levine out there trying to bring new influences into the industry, there are tons of Star Wars- and Lord of the Rings-inspired games produced each year retreading on the same, tired stories game in and game out. How many World War II games do we really need?

BOING!

In 1989 Shigesato Itoi looked at the video game industry and said “How many sword and sorcery RPGs do we really need?” 2009 just passed us by and I’d say we’re still mostly mired in these medieval locales in 95% of all RPGs. Mother, Itoi’s freshman attempt at a video game, was set in “modern day” America. Earthbound (Mother 2) wasn’t exactly breaking with Itoi’s norm by being set in America yet again (in 1994), but it’s still a light among the sameness that pervaded the industry. Mother 3 is ambiguous about its timeline, but it feels like a scaled back modern day. In any case, like in the other games of the series, the weapons aren’t swords and bows, but sticks, yo-yos, and baseball bats. It’s really only a cosmetic and tonal shift, but it makes all the difference.

That’s exactly what makes Shigesato Itoi so great as a game designer. Perhaps it’s his outside status or maybe it’s just his brilliance, but Itoi understands video games to a scary degree for a man who only undertook them on a whim. I applaud him most for understanding that a game is an interactive piece of art and reflecting that with his systems. To wit, every Mother game revolves around music. The first game had the character searching for the Eight Melodies while the second repeated that idea with Eight Sanctuaries (each with a musical theme associated with it). Earthbound’s instruction manual (in Japanese) contained a little song that Itoi wrote for the player to sing as the main melody played on the overworld. Every line of text in the Mother series is written in kana (katakana or hiragana), so that the person has to vocalize Itoi’s often lyrical writing style. Mother 3’s focus on musical themes and leifmotifs (from the Masked Man to the Magypsies) is also emphasized through every character’s attacks in the battle system.

From Lucas to Salsa the Monkey, every character has a musical instrument associated with his attacks. So does every enemy. Each enemy also has a musical theme that plays in the background. Once you attack, you can continue to press the ‘A’ button to extend your combo to 16 hits if you can keep time with the (sometimes fiendishly difficult) beat. Just like that, something Itoi has always wanted the player to do (become musically involved with his world) becomes integrated into the activity the player does most in the game, battling.

Itoi also loves to toy with player perception to a hilarious degree. In an early sequence in the first chapter of the game, Flint becomes covered with soot after saving a friend’s kid from a fire. Why? Because that’s what would happen if you were running around in a fire. As he makes his way back out of the woods, you can bet that every person you talk to will question why you are covered from head to toe in black soot. Even better, if you hop into a hot spring to recover, the soot will wash off of your character from the neck down, since the Mother 3 hot spring animation always leaves the head exposed. It’s not until much later when it starts to rain that the soot washes off Flint’s face, this time to emphasize that we’re not joking around anymore, Flint’s family was still missing after the fire and they were almost certainly in danger.

An even more brilliant sequence comes much later in the game when the player is washed upon a tropical island with 1 HP and no equipment. The only way to progress through the jungle without dying is to eat one of the psychotropic mushrooms growing on the island. A bizarre sequence of events follows as you make your way to the next Magypsy with your perceptions completely torn asunder. Replicas of your family and friends attack you, which isn’t that unique for an RPG, but the way the narrative is presented and the visuals are warped, it becomes seriously unsettling. The one moment of calm comes when you arrive at another hot spring and recover, only to continue back into the horrors of the jungle.

Once you get to the Magypsy’s house, you’re constantly bombarded with insults about how bad you smell. It makes no sense though, because the player has done nothing different that would cause such a foul smell. Still, when your perception is returned to normal, there is a visible stench rising from Lucas and his compatriots. A quick dip in the bath follows and you’re no longer “smelly”, but, as a curious player, I wondered what had happened in the first place. Instead of continuing forward, I dove right back into the jungle to get to the bottom of it. halfway through, I was feeling a bit fatigued, so I popped on over to the hot springs and it all made sense. In my hallucinogenic state, I was unable to recognize that the pond I dove into for recovery was a festering, toxic-looking garbage dump of a pond. Off to the side, where no conceivable player would ever go, was a door into the real hot spring.

I couldn’t believe that some players would never find out the mystery behind why they were so smelly. Returning to that hot spring is hardly mandatory. Maybe that’s why it felt so amazing to see these little narrative games played with my perception of what was going on in the Mother 3 world at the time. It’s also interesting to look at from a player trust perspective, because when I saw that disgusting pond, rendered in all its GBA, low-fi glory, I felt nauseous and I know it was partly due to a feeling of betrayal. I have a feeling that this was exactly how Itoi wanted me to feel at that point.

Shigesato Itoi admits that the original draft for Mother 3 was way darker than it already is. It was written shortly after his divorce was finalized, which I think has a lot to do with the emotional betrayals of even the finalized version of this game. However this game was very nearly vaporware that was never released. Its development started for the SNES in 1994, but was quickly shifted to the N64 and the ill-fated 64DD not long after. Anyone familiar with the 64DD peripheral knows that this was going to prove troublesome for Itoi and his team. The game was even canceled at one point, but it was eventually decided to put it on the Gameboy Advance and announced around the re-release of Mother 1 + 2, no doubt to help drum up sales.

No one but the team knows just how dark the original narrative was, but Itoi claims that the story that eventually made it to print was the result of him finally becoming a good person. It boggles the mind to realize that it could have been any more dramatic, especially for a game that looks as friendly and cute as this one. In fact, this is the reason why Nintendo of America claims it will not localize the game. They claim the narrative is too mature and depressing for the way it looks and, really, the tone and the subject matter are alternatively irrelevant and deathly serious, so I kind of get what they mean. At one point you have a guy telling Flint that he’s got good news and bad news. The good news is something irrelevant and stupid while the bad news is that Flint’s wife, Hinawa, is dead. What follows is a scene that is so emotionally gripping that my little brother was affected even without hearing the music and sound associated with the scene. Flint completely flips out and starts beating on the guy who gave him bad news and even starts lashing out at the townspeople who are trying to calm him down. He is knocked out by a friend and put in a jail cell that has never before been used in the town’s existence.

It’s this weird juxtaposition of the inane and the deathly serious that creates the dissonant feelings I mentioned before with the hot tub scene and makes the player feel uneasy about what’s going on. When Hinawa’s father, Alec, is trying to tell stupid jokes to help Flint not be so tense about the certain danger his son is in. I wanted to tell him to shut up and let him focus, but I could also see that Flint was obsessing to a dangerous degree and that Alec was right in trying to calm him down. You also have the lighthearted love story of Salsa and Samba being ruined by the brutal and sadistic torturer Yokuba (Fassad in the fan-translation). It’s like Itoi is trying to say that the world is a screwed up place, but you can’t let it get you down.

I’ll tell you right here, I’m a huge sucker for any story about brothers. Later on in the game, it becomes fairly obvious that Mother 3 starts to center around the struggle of twin brothers Lucas and Claus as they attempt to collect more plot coupons than the other. The game series is called Mother for a reason and this one in particular focuses on the differences between each of Hinawa’s boys and how they came to deal with her untimely death. While Lucas comes out of his shell and becomes a healthier, more assertive and confident boy despite his absentee father, Claus foolishly rushes out for vengeance and finds himself enslaved by the Pig Army in its quest to end the world. The climactic final battle reunites the family once again, but the reunion is bittersweet. Claus has almost killed Flint and Lucas must face him alone to the death, even though he’s yet to realize that the Masked Man is his brother. Once the mask is knocked off and Lucas is staring into his own face (they are twins after all), the battle becomes a masterpiece. Selecting attack will cause Lucas to intentionally pull his punches or miss his attacks completely. Sometimes he’ll even refuse to comply. Claus, having lost most of his humanity, will continue to attack until Hinawa begins pleading for him to stop. Eventually, Claus comes to his senses and realizes that Lucas is his brother and that he is no longer anything close to himself. At that point, Claus commits suicide in a peculiar way. It becomes apparent that the Courage Badge that Flint gave to Lucas (via a Mr. Saturn in another example of absentee parenting) is actually a Franklin Badge, an item that repels lightning in the Mother world.

The heartbreaking thing about this whole sequence is that there’s nothing the player can do once Claus decides that he must kill himself to save the world. Lucas may not be physically (or psychically) killing his brother, but there’s nothing he can do but watch his brother kill himself using an item that he is holding. When it’s all over and Claus is dying in Lucas’ arms with Flint nearby and Hinawa’s ghost above them, the reunion is finally completed and the family is happy for a brief second before both Claus and Hinawa depart the world leaving Lucas to pull the last plot coupon. The world literally ends and it all fades to black. Everyone (who was alive before) is still alive in the finale, but the world is darkness and it’s not made clear what the true outcome of the whole battle was. We do know that the world is safe and everyone makes it, but not much else beyond that, it’s left to the player to decide, I guess.

If you want to really see a strangely tragic, chilling ending for a character, consider the fate of Porky, the antagonist in the game. The conflict in this game is motivated by his desire to see the world end. Porky’s mind was so warped by Giygas in Earthbound that he has remained in a permanent immature, childlike state even though he is now hundreds of years old. His influence corrupts and nearly destroys everything about the idyllic and peaceful Tazmily village and he is the one responsible for sapping Claus of all of his humanity. In his final encounter with Lucas, when it becomes apparent that he will not win the battle, he encases himself in the Absolutely Safe Machine, a capsule that renders him absolutely safe from all attacks both interior and exterior. Because it was just a prototype, there was no way to escape it, meaning that the ageless Porky can never die, but he can never leave the capsule nor can he communicate with anyone on the outside. For someone like Porky, an agent of entropy like the Joker in The Dark Knight, this is truly an ending worse than death. When all is dead and gone, when the universe dies of heat death, when existence is nothingness, Porky will still exist, alone in that capsule. It gives me chills just to think about it.

There’s so much about this game that just doesn’t quite add up and leaves the player feeling strange about the relationships they are seeing. Duster, the limping thief, is very clearly verbally and probably physically abused by his father, Wess, yet they seem to be a team and there does seem to be some love there. It’s unsettling on all levels because Itoi wants to take the player from comfortable and happy to uneasy and sad throughout the whole game.

Games like this, they make me appreciate things, like my family and my life, and think about things, like the nature of society and happiness. I’m being simplistic here, but my point is this, what is art? Wikipedia calls it, “…the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

So I say yet again, why are we questioning whether or not video games are art? Wake up and smell the sunflowers.

One of the most interesting and artistic chapters of the game.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part IX: It’s A Small World [II]
Oct 5th, 2009 by Dan

Good riddance! I mean...Ill miss you!

Good riddance! I mean...I'll miss you!

The day opened with some sadness. David, who had already missed a week’s worth of school, had to finally head home. In fact, most of the tour was going home unless they paid to go to Tokyo Disney Sea or had other plans in Japan to attend to and once that was done, we’d be down to eight, including myself, who were going on to see the rest of the teams of Japan.

My morning was dominated by a briefing for the rest of the tour, since Bob and Mayumi would not be accompanying the final eight on the rest of the tour. After we were fully briefed on the intricacies and tricky finer points of the trip, it was time for me to head back to the room and help Dave prepare to go home.

After seeing David off and wondering how the rest of the tour would be when pared down to so few, I decided to grab some chow for lunch at a Go! Go! Curry! we spotted the day before after karaoke. I’ve never mentioned it on the blog before, but Go! Go! Curry! is one of the few Japanese curry shop branches in the States and the only one I know of on the east coast (there’s a location in New York City) and I’ve had curry there once, so I was eager to compare.

The gorilla on the signage is the logo for Go! Go! Curry!

The gorilla on the signage is the logo for Go! Go! Curry!

Just like the GGC in America, the restaurant was decorated with Yankees paraphernalia, mostly centered around Hideki Matsui (his player number is 55, the Japanese word for 5 is go, you do the rest). Just like the curry place at Meiji Jingu, GGC had one of those sweet curry ordering machines, so I put in an order of tonkatsu curry (CURRY! The official food of Dan’s JapanBall trip to Japan!) and scarfed it down before heading back to the hotel.

Go! Go! Matsui!

Go! Go! Matsui!

Once I’d returned to the lobby, I ran into Leon, who I learned hurt his leg at some point earlier on the trip. Although he paid money to go to Tokyo Disney Sea, he realized that he wouldn’t be able to manage wandering around a theme park and being on his feet all day, so he offered me his ticket for free. Since I didn’t really have anything on the agenda besides running errands, uploading pictures, and writing, I took him up on his offer and…had to check out and check back in, since no longer needed a double. After I did that, it was off to Tokyo Disney Sea!

Its Mickey Mouse! TOKYO DISNEY SEA!

It's Mickey Mouse! TOKYO DISNEY SEA!

…but first we must digress into an educational treatise on the Japanese rail system.

On this blog I have lauded the Japanese rail system for its punctuality, ubiquity, and general usefulness. It’s time to scale back on the praise parade. You see, the Japanese rail system is marred by what I’m calling overcomplexity.

Let me illustrate my point with a look at the New York City subway system. Within NYC there exists the MTA that runs the subways, the buses in the city, and the regional rail lines that all lead to the city. One entity runs all of this. Subway fare is not transferable to regional rail tickets nor is it transferable to bus fare, but the same subway card will allow you to ride any subway in New York City. Best of all, your trips are all a flat rate. You can swipe the card once and ride the train all the way to the furthest reaches of the city and it would cost the same as taking the subway one stop over. It’s simple, assuming you can decipher the railway maps which are, admittedly complicated, and the stops don’t help to indicate which way the train is going.

On that last point, the Japanese trains seem to be pulling ahead. They clearly indicate, based on platform, what the next stop is and all the trains have easy-to-understand railway maps that clearly express what stops the train will be making. It’s all downhill from there.

I’ve already mentioned that certain teams have their own rail lines that lead to their respective ballparks, but I don’t think that fully captures the extent of how confusing Tokyo’s rail system can get. When you include the Greater Tokyo area, you’ve got a total of 30 operators (realistically only about four or so within Tokyo itself) each with their own set of rail lines that have stops peppered throughout Japan. Compare this with the one operator in NYC and it starts to make sense just how confusing this can get. By our hotel there is a stop for the Tokyo Metro and a stop for the JR Railway. These are two, ostensibly competing, companies each operating their own lines that sometimes stop in the exact same stations throughout Tokyo. Lucky for us, the largest provider is the East Japan Railway Company, known in the vernacular as JR, and we picked up JR rail passes that allowed us, as tourists, unlimited access to all railways (and even that ferry in Miyajima!) and shinkansen that they operated throughout Japan, but it still presents needless complication in getting around the city. On the day that Dave and I went to the Square Enix store, we rode trains run by three different companies. Each time we switched, we had to buy completely new tickets from non-standard machines.

While we’re on the subject of tickets, as I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese rail system works something like the DC Metro in that you’re required to pay for how far you went on the train. That’s no problem on maps that feature English to let you know what the Kanji translates to, but some are far enough out of the way or not considered touristy-enough to not offer any English guidance at all before buying a fare. It can get confusing and difficult rather quickly.

As I’ve mentioned before, Japan is a small enough country, geographic area-wise, that there is a uniformity in the train paradigm that covers the entire island. Every rail system, no matter where it is, operates along these lines.

With that, we’re ready to dive back into our Disney narrative.

Since I was completely on my own when I was at the ballpark, I took some video and recorded some commentary within the video that I may or may not repeat within the text. Enjoy!

After making my way through the unbelievably large Tokyo Station to get to the train that would take me to Tokyo Disney Sea (hereafter called TDS), I finally arrived at the proper station and was greeted by Disney music and the kind of perfectly-crafted space that Disney is so famous for producing for its theme parks. To my right was the route to Tokyo Disney and to the left was TDS, or so it seemed. I wandered around lost for ten minutes, eventually entering the stores they had conveniently set up to trap tourists, until I realized that I had to take a shuttle to TDS, just like in Walt Disney World.

The Tokyo Disney monorail. Notice the brilliant attention to detail, down to the Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

The Tokyo Disney monorail. Notice the brilliant attention to detail, down to the Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

I was quickly thrown for a loop when it seemed that Western designers had failed to properly accommodate their Eastern patrons. By now I had become accustomed to the British-minded pedestrian patterns of Japan (which reflect their driving patterns). Since I should be on the left, the escalator I want to take is, nine times out of ten, on the left. At TDS, I was struck with confusion when I saw that the up escalator was on the right. It seemed that Disney’s attention to detail overlooked this small fact, but that’s ok, I had a monorail to catch.

On the way to TDS...after I loop through Disneyland

On the way to TDS...after I loop through Disneyland

I arrived at the station, it was time to board, except for one obstruction. Remember what I said earlier?

Every rail system, no matter where it is, operates along these lines.

I wasn’t kidding. The Tokyo Disney Resort Shuttle requires passengers to buy a ticket to board. Not only that, but despite the fact that the train travels in one direction and the fee is flat no matter where you go (¥250 per trip, which, if you’ve done your math right, means I’m out another ¥500), you have to insert your ticket at the entrance and at the exit, just like every other train in Japan. This is beyond asinine and stupid. This is the kind of nickel and dime-ing that I would expect in America. This is Tokyo Disney, a park built by Americans in Japan.

My ire over having to pay to ride the tram to TDS was softened by the amazing thoughtfulness of the train itself. The handholds were shaped like Mickey Mouse heads. I would hear about how great these were from Nora and Jill for the rest of the time they were on the tour.

This is the Disney touch that makes people go nuts for this stuff.

This is the Disney touch that makes people go nuts for this stuff.

As you’ve seen in a previous picture, the windows were mouse-shaped too.

Seeing the world through Mickey Mouse-tinted glasses.

Seeing the world through Mickey Mouse-tinted glasses.

I rode the train, which only went one direction (I can’t complain about this enough) for two stops to get to TDS, which would have only been one stop going the other way. Come on Disney, I paid ¥250 for this ticket! Make it go where I want!

While on the train (and immediately after disembarking) I began to notice that, despite it being early September, it was clearly Halloween season at TDS. Some of the Japanese, who go everywhere fully equipped, were carrying whole bags of Disney paraphernalia to put on before entering the park. Mouse ears, Daisy costumes, even Disney-themed face masks were in full force before I entered the park. I suddenly remembered that I knew that Jack Skellington and The Nightmare Before Christmas were super popular out here in Japan. It was only natural that the park would be making a big deal about Halloween.

TDS is centered around exploration, most notably exploration at sea, but not exclusively, which is why it’s not, as I presumed, a water park. The opening area is Mediterranean-themed and tries to reference Venice, Italy in its architecture, which would reinforce the Sea part of TDS, but, as we’ll see later, there’s an Arabian/Agrabah/Aladdin-themed area, which is the exact opposite of the sea, so go adventure!

Early on in the park I came across a strange sight: a group of three gaijin (“foreigner”) performers putting on a show. They all spoke heavily accented Japanese and seemed to be making a point of doing so and acting ridiculous. It wasn’t offensive or anything, it was just strange to see Americans (or Europeans or Australians, I don’t really know) putting on a show here in Japan in TDS in Japanese. Sorry I didn’t tape more.

Right near the performers I spotted a McDuck Department Store, so I had to enter (I LOVE Duck Tales). I was not at all prepared for what I saw inside.

A portrait of Scrooge inside his store.

A portrait of Scrooge inside his store.

The place was packed to the gills with people and all the shelves seemed to feature only one character. Upon closer examination, all of those characters were one I didn’t even recognize. I picked one up to investigate and saw that it was Duffy the Disney Bear.

A smaller, keychainable version of Duffy The Disney Bear.

A smaller, keychainable version of Duffy The Disney Bear.

Never heard of Duffy? Neither had I. A cursory Internet investigation turned up evidence that this little fellow was a failed experiment in Walt Disney World as The Disney Bear in 2004ish (in that he failed to catch on), so they rebranded him as Duffy the Disney Bear, a teddy bear given to Mickey by Minnie to keep him company when out to sea. My investigation also points to him debuting sometime in 2006. Each month they release new clothes for the bear and the Japanese have “gotta catch ’em all!“, so they flock to the Duffy-dedicated store to get the latest fashions.

I’m not kidding when I say these were flying off the shelves. Employees streamed out of back rooms every five to ten minutes to restock the rapidly depleting shelves. They were that popular. You think the line for Mickey is long? The line for Duffy is supposedly the longest at TDS.

My clever excuse to make use of this picture I took of Mickey and a random family.

My clever excuse to make use of this picture I took of Mickey and a random family.

Since I’m part of the problem (really because I have a friend whose last name is Duffy), I found myself queuing to buy the above-pictured mini-Duffy in one of the four long queues that wrapped around the middle of the shop. As I stood in line I quickly realized that I stood in the wrong line. The couple in front of me had baskets full of mini-Duffys, arms full of regular-sized Duffys, and another basket filled with this month’s outfit, a pumpkin costume for the bear. This was going to be a long wait. When all was said and done, the couple in front of me (older folks, mind you) had spent ¥68700 on Duffy merchandise. To put that in American perspective, that couple spent, based on today’s exchange rate (which is close to the one I got in Japan), $767. It boggles the mind.

Youre making a killing on these bears, McDuck.

You're making a killing on these bears, McDuck.

I continued exploring the park and saw that they transitioned from Venice to a more American riverboat feel. In that area was another character more popular in Japan than the states, Stitch. A good choice to express that Halloween vibe they love so much, Stitch is the character most commonly seen, outside of Mickey and Minnie, on baseball team merchandise outside of the Disney area. From the riverboat area, we transition to a Cape Cod-type area.

Youve gotta use spellcheck before you engrave these things...Also, the shot heard down the road? Really?

You've gotta use spellcheck before you engrave these things...Also, the "shot heard down the road"? Really? I'll assume it's a joke since the year is wrong too.

As I traveled through the Cape Cod area, I noticed something that, if it ever existed in Disney, certainly hasn’t in years. Smoking areas. If you recall (if I’ve mentioned it), it’s illegal to smoke while walking around Tokyo and other areas. You’re now confined to smoking areas until they further marginalize smokers like in America.

In Cape Cod I started to notice some of the subtler differences, like the menu. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about what I think sets are in the video, because when I’ve seen sets in contexts after TDS, it was used to denote a combo meal. (BONUS: There’s a Duffy portrait near the dessert menu)

The Cape Cod area also had some shows, but I quickly moved on to some of the other areas and left the lighthouses behind.

Is this in America or is it in Japan?

Is this in America or is it in Japan?

It was time to encounter my first ride. Now, I’ll have to admit, I wasn’t expecting the grand roller coasters of Universal Studios or anything, but this seemed to be a bit tame, even by Disney standards.

To be totally honest, I didn’t really ride anything at TDS partly because nothing called out to me and partly because I was there by myself. For those who would be interested in riding stuff, rest assured that Fast Passes do exist in Japan too!

Fast Pass, not just for America any more.

Fast Pass, not just for America any more.

Along the way I saw a Mexican/South American area where they had an Indiana Jones stage show (like in MGM) and eventually reached the aforementioned Aladdin-themed Agrabah area. I knew I was there because there was a curry popcorn stand right outside.

It might not sound appetizing, but, trust me, it smelled delicious.

It might not sound appetizing, but, trust me, it smelled delicious.

The Agrabah area was pretty cool. It had shows and shops that sold Disney-themed curry.

What more could you ask for?

What more could you ask for?

They also piped in some Arabic-themed music from Aladdin.

The next area was called Mysterious Island and it had a very steampunk feel to it, probably inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Disney Atlantis movie. It was the coolest looking area of the park (to an engineering-type like myself) and I’m pretty sure that their 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (under repair that day) was the very same one that was nixed from Walt Disney World back in 1994.

Nemos lost sub.

Nemo's lost sub.

Despite a lack of evidence on Wikipedia (hardly the most exhaustive search option available) to confirm my supposition, I’m almost sure that this is true of at least some of the parts from the ride, if not all of them.

With that I had explored most of the park and seen what I wanted to see. It was time to head out, but not before going to the major gift shop where I spotted tons of souvenirs catering exclusively to the Japanese crowd among the more traditional stuff. The collectors of Japan would love all the pins and stamps that are often limited editions. The hypochondriac or infirmed would love the character-themed face masks.

If you can name all the characters represented here, youre a bigger Disney fan that I am.

If you can name all the characters represented here, you're a bigger Disney fan that I am.

I was skeptical of what TDS would offer me before I showed up, but I was pleasantly surprised. The park exudes that Disney aesthetic that the company does so well and I found myself charmed by the park despite the hardened heart I carried in. Perhaps I’d visit with friends one day and give it a real chance.

After that it was back to the Tokyo Dome to try and get some better shots of the building that I missed on the first day and then to Akihabara to catch up on some souvenir and personal shopping.

The Tokyo Dome exterior with the roller coaster partially visible.

The Tokyo Dome exterior with the roller coaster partially visible.

I returned to the hotel, grabbed a quiet, solo dinner at a nearby convenience store (instant noodles), and turned in for the night. The laundry that I spent way too much money to get done by the hotel staff was in my room. An episode of Naruto Shippuden came on, reminding me that Dave was gone for the rest of my trip.

It seems that Duffy and Domo-kun are rather disinterested in the show.

It seems that Duffy and Domo-kun are rather disinterested in the show.

It was time to repack and get ready to embark on the rest of the journey without my travel companion. I had a good time traveling with Dave and it was already a bummer not to have him with me as I wandered around Tokyo and the rest of Japan.

Dave (2 September 2009 - 9 September 2009)

Dave (2 September 2009 - 10 September 2009). We'll Never Forget.

Video Game Music [Game Overview]
Mar 12th, 2009 by Dan

Inspired by a Rebel FM podcast, I found myself seeking video game remixes and music again, starting with my absolute favorite track from the Mega Man 2 soundtrack, Flash Man. Having seen a video on Youtube before, I started my search with The Minibosses.

The Minibosses

Ever wonder what your game themes would sound like played by a rock band with real electric guitars instead of synthy squeals? The Minibosses are for you. Their catalog is not large, with only two CDs available right now, but the benefit of their music is that you can get most of it free at their website. I’ve yet to listen to their full CD, but let me be the first to say that their Mega Man 2 medley is fantastic.

Wikipedia provided me with more links from there, one of which pointed me in the direction of a site I’d already been to, OverClocked ReMix.

OverClocked ReMix

I’d been to OCR once before seeking the soundtrack to Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, a project the were commissioned for not long ago that they provide for free on their website. What I discovered was a varied catalog of game music remixes that I wasn’t quite ready to download yet. I’ve since downloaded the rest of their 12 albums and the large torrents of miscellaneous songs, but it will be a while before I’m able to say anything definitive about those. I can say that their Street Fighter album is fantastically done.

Albums:

Relics of the Chozo – Super Metroid – 2003
Kong in Concert – Donkey Kong Country – 2004
Hedgehog Heaven – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – 2005
Rise of the Star – Kirby’s Adventure – 2005
The Dark Side of Phobos – Doom – 2005
Chrono Symphonic – Chrono Trigger – 2006
Blood on the Asphalt – Super Street Fighter II Turbo – 2006 (Inspiration for the HD Remix album)
Project Chaos – Sonic 3 & Knuckles – 2006
Voices of the Lifestream – Final Fantasy VII – 2007
Thieves of Fate – Radical Dreamers – 2008
Delta-Q-Delta – Doom II: Hell on Earth – 2008
OC ReMix: Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix Official Soundtrack – Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix – 2008
Summoning of Spirits – Tales series – 2009

The Rebel FM podcast and wikipedia also led me to The Megas

The Megas

What if the old Mega Man 2 songs had lyrics and a story weaved in? That’s precisely the ground that The Megas tries to cover. I’ve only heard part of their rendition of Flash Man, but I think the premise is promising and I will try to listen to more.

Which leads me to my final Wiki discovery, The OneUps

The OneUps

There are lots of metal and rock video game music bands out there, but what do you do if you’re not a fan of metal or rock? That’s where The OneUps come in. With two albums jam-packed with jazz covers of video game music, I’m sure that you’ll find a really interesting and cool arrangement of a song you’ve heard many a time before. Standouts for me include Terra from Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger from…Chrono Trigger. Check them out if you get the chance.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but if I run into more cool stuff, I’ll be sure to let you guys know.

Feedback: Rx Bandits
Jun 24th, 2008 by Dan

You may recall a post back in the day where I lauded the amazing Live from Bonnaroo 2007 album by Rx Bandits. It only recently occurred to me in my car this weekend while listening to the aforementioned album just why it is so good and why the Bandits are so good in general.

You see, back when I was reading the Wikipedia page for the Bandits albums The Resignation and …And the Battle Begun I noticed an interesting little tidbit:

“Guitars, bass, drums, and some keyboards on this album were all recorded live. Vocals, horns, percussion and additional keyboard parts were then overdubbed. They only allowed themselves a limited number of takes for each parts. Once a take was recorded, it was left as it was, with no post-thought interference.”

So, more or less, the reason why the Bandits sound so good on their live CD is that the songs sound more or less the exact same way they perform them live. Aside from sharper vocals, I’m not really missing out on a bunch of little details like I am in other live CDs from artists who like to really fill out the sound of their CDs. There is also a sense of energy and chaos in the Bandits CDs that I think stems from the limitations they arbitrarily place on themselves to get their takes done well within the boundaries.

Incidentally, I think this is why so many other live CDs disappointed me in the past. Many artists cannot help but be attracted by the allure of post-processing and its ability to modify their songs beyond what is actually humanly possible by the band. What results is a beautiful track (if the artist is good) that I love listening to, but am ultimately disappointed by when played live. I think that more bands should try to tone down and simplify their sounds to go for this more genuine, authentic sound. I think it can only help.

One last note, I’ve discovered that the Rx Bandits will be showing up in Baltimore on tour on 29 July. Count me there, I can’t wait.

Feedback: Live Shows: FOB and Rx Bandits
Apr 24th, 2008 by Dan

So I was wandering through Best Buy last week, as I am want to do, and I noticed that Fall Out Boy released a new album: Live in Phoenix. Back in the day I used to hate live albums. The sound quality was always a bit diminished and the songs were slightly different, musically, with different tempos, lyrics, and sometimes flourishes. They lacked the studio polish and effects and just sounded raw. Then I started going to concerts. My first real one was Five Iron Frenzy’s Winners Never Quit tour, which was just amazing. I remember hearing “The Medley of Power Ballads and Bad Taste” live and being just totally blown away. If this type of thing could happen at a concert, then it’s possible that other live CDs could have more than just songs that were on studio albums. Live album love was born for me and, to this day, I treasure my live albums by Ben Folds, FIF, and other odd live recordings here or there.

Even so, I’m still wary of these live albums. I’ve been burned by mediocre live albums in the past (I had to hate them for a reason, right?), so when I saw the FOB CD, I mosied on over to Borders to listen to previews of the album tracks. The first bunch failed to impress, I didn’t recognize one track, so I skipped it (more on this mistake later), but the tail end of the album seemed to be really neat, so I headed back over to Best Buy and bought the much more reasonably priced Live at Phoenix.

Once I copied the disk to my Linux computer and booted up the CD I was pleasantly…disappointed. The album just doesn’t sound good at all. FOB is not a band that translates well to the live medium. There are some pretty sweet parts in the tail end of the album, after “Beat It,” but the rest is pretty ho-hum. Worse…it sounds awful through my computer’s speakers. The lead’s voice just doesn’t sound good. The CD is actually much better through headphones, strangely enough.

Supposedly the CD is a sound recording of a live concert, with the DVD included and all, but this is where things get strange. Track 9, “Beat It,” is a studio recording. The concert CD has decent pacing, you’re into it, and then you’re thrown into a bonus track. Wikipedia’s got “Beat It” as a track too, so maybe it was a music video and not live? In any case, “Beat It,” a cover of the Michael Jackson hit, is amazing! FOB is just perfect for this cover. The tail end of this album, from about “Beat It” onwards, is worth the purchase, but that means that more than half of the 15 track album is just mediocre.

My recommendation: Unless you’re a diehard FOB fan, pass it up. Definitely try to get “Beat It” on its own from either iTunes or Amazon or something, it’s a great cover.

I’ve had …And the Battle Begun by Rx Bandits for quite some time, but had yet to really give it some serious listens. Once I had, I found a really deep and awesome album that just floors me whenever I hear its standout tracks. This led me to check out their wikipedia page and realize they had a live album out. Now, my friend Boz has often cited the opinions of his friends that the Bandits are just too long-winded with instrumentals in their concert. I can totally get where they’re coming from, since they are a former ska-band-turned-progressive-rock, so ska fans might not know what to think of music that clearly features an amazing horn section, but is not like ska or reggae or anything they’ve ever heard, really. I lamented that the album, Live at Bonnaroo (an amazing venue, I may go this year), was only available at iTunes (I HATE DRM!), but I relented and purchased the album anyway. Let me just say that RxB is amazing live. I’m going to have to seriously pay attention to when they’re in town and attend a show.

There are so many good tracks on this album, there’s no point in going through and highlighting the ones that are great, cause I’d just end up writing all 11 track names in a sequential list. My recommendation, listen to the Bandit’s other CDs, namely The Resignation and …And the Battle Begun, and buy this album from iTunes if you like that other music.

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