Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Return of the King

[Spoiler alerts] I finished reading Return of the King the other day. (Well I've read it before of course, but not in the last fifteen years or so.) It's pretty epic. By this point, I guess I know Tolkien's world well enough that even the rambling details seemed pretty relevant to me this time through. And again, the parts about Mordor seemed extremely vivid to me. I think that's because the experience that Sam in particular goes there resonates with me. He doesn't do very many things that are outright heroic, other than fighting off Shelob (which was in the previous book), but the author switches to Sam's perspective for that journey and makes it clear that his constant dedication to Frodo is as much a pillar of the quest's success as anything else. Not surprising that I would connect with the consistent, loyal guy more than the dynamic warriors and royalty that make up the other plot line - I guess most people would, and that's probably intentional on the author's part. In addition to Sam as character, the journey through Mordor itself is a lot like life I think. You keep putting putting one foot in front of another, half the time not necessarily knowing where you're headed or what you'll do when you get there. (Fortunately Frodo did have some sense of direction for most of the time he was conscious.) Sometimes you only succeed because things have been arranged for you (like Sam rescuing Frodo from the Cirith Ungol tower). Sometimes your trials are what propel you forward, like how Golumn covers the Hobbits' tracks so the orcs can't follow. Somehow things are just outright painful for no good reason, but you keep moving forward anyway. And while Frodo and Sam get rescued by eagles when their work is done, the book still would have been valid (if not as satisfying) if they had perished in the eruption of Mount Doom, because they succeeded. I guess it's also relevant that following their world-changing feats, most of the characters end up going back to normal life. Fortunately they're humble enough to see the value in that rather than trying to live in the past and make everyone see them for what they have accomplished. The ending is really wistful and poignant and all that stuff. I know the "Scouring of the Shire" bit was cut from the movies because it was deemed anti-climactic (not to mention time), but it really does a lot to tie things back together, showing how the Hobbit characters have changed, and that Hobbits in general have character even when things aren't peaceful. Incidentally, it's also the part about Sam that I relate to least, in some ways (besides gardening) - that he becomes a leader as restoring the Shire becomes the new quest. It's fitting that the book ends with him coming home to his family, since I guess the point of any defensive war: to make sure that families can raise children in peace. But more than that, the reader once again connects with Sam in that the epic journey and magical world have passed for him, and the reader has to close the book and go back to the real world. I guess I can't really say I've finished the book, since I think the chronology in the appendix is nice - I remember it telling how the different characters visit each other and stuff. Not to mention that it once again underscores the fact that Tolkien had a whole world apart from the story. It's amazing. Go read it if you haven't already.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Link Between Worlds

At long last I started playing A Link Between Worlds last week. It is glorious. It’s intended to be a sequel (in style and plot) to A Link to the Past, and the nostalgia started flowing from the moment I started it up. The look and feel are very familiar, not to mention the landscape. And the 3D effect (which is new to me) is a nifty addition.

Like most Zelda games, this one has a “gimmick” to set it apart from other games: after the first main level, you can “merge” into walls and travel horizontally, i.e. through narrow gaps or over pits. This is a very important change, especially in such a familiar-feeling world, and there have been many times where I got stuck just because I forgot I could do that. It definitely introduces involves some clever puzzle-solving situations.

There’s also a distinctive change to the game mechanics. A Link to the Past has stood out as the longest game in the series, with 12 levels (although some are quite short). It also preserved a now-rare feature from the original game: you can often enter and even beat levels out of order. A Link Between Worlds appears to have the same number of levels, but it takes the level-reordering feature a step further in that in most cases, there is no order. To facilitate this, the levels often do not contain required items. This is a jarring change and a departure from the series. At first I was a little taken aback when the game just handed me a bunch of items near the start. (You have to “rent” them, but money is pretty plentiful in the game.) After playing it, though, I think it works. Each level does sort of focus on the use of a particular item, so you have a similar feel of solving unique puzzles in each level, and the levels do have important optional items to find. There's also a healthy supply of items to find as you explore the overworld.

Another thing I noticed is that, while the game is clearly supposed to be set in the same world as A Link to the Past, it does reinterpret the ending of that game a bit, since the Master Sword is back (despite the fact that the ending credits said it was to sleep again forever), and Ganon has apparently not been completely destroyed, as the Essence of the Triforce said he had been. But I can’t really complain about that, since those are both key elements of A Link to the Past (and Zelda in general).

My favorite thing about the game is the enemies. Pretty much all the enemies from A Link to the Past are back, and while they’re more detailed, they’re not restyled; they look like they were pulled right off of the Super Nintendo and rendered in 3D. Some of the monsters are absolutely adorable.

I’m not done with the game yet, but I imagine I’ll rank it right near the top of the series.

[Update, with spoiler alerts]
I finished the game! I'm very happy with it. I did manage to skip some should-be-obvious stuff early on, most notably the Pegasus Boots, which I didn't get until just before the last level. Likewise, I didn't know I could purchase (or upgrade) Ravio's items until that point either. At least there was still the Treacherous Tower left to do, and of course the final level, so I did get to use my stuff. I was a little weirded out that they had done nothing to explain the inverted Triforce symbol that's so prevalent, but fortunately they do explain that in the ending sequence, which was very gratifying. The game was definitely easier than most Zelda games; the only game over I saved was in the first level, where I hadn't saved intermediate progress. Later, that wasn't very necessary. I even skipped the red tunic - mainly because I think the blue one looks better, but also I suspected that I could handle the rest of the game without it. (Actually I probably could have done it with the green tunic, since I only used two blue potions in the final battles.

I will say that A Link to the Past is still my favorite Zelda title. And while the graphics in A Link Between Worlds are delightful, I doubt that people who haven't played A Link to the Past will fully appreciate their glory. Same goes for the many parallels between games. But this was definitely a wonderful sequel. Eventually I'll play it on Hero Mode and see how knowing stuff in advance balances out the harder enemies and stuff.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Shelob and other Two Towers stuff

[Spoiler alert for the book and movie]

Several years ago I got a nice hardback set of the Lord of the Rings books. It was a long time before I started (re-)reading them though, and after the first book the set stayed in a box for a while. I just finished The Two Towers. I remember that it was never really my favorite, largely because it starts with a huge departure from Frodo’s story, which was what I really wanted to hear about. I guess I didn’t have much of a frame of reference for the other stuff. I guess the movies helped me care more about Aragorn and company – in fact, it found that I generally pictured the movie actors as the characters. That’s not surprising, I guess, but I don’t necessarily do that with books I read before seeing the movie. (For instance, when I reread Jurassic Park, I didn’t picture the people like the actors.)

One thing Tolkien does really well is paint a very vivid picture of the locations. I had a particularly vivid picture in my head of the whole Imlad Morgul / Cirith Ungol part, and it fit pretty well as I read it again. (Side note: I looked up pictures online, and some of the maps I saw were clearly wrong: They had Minas Morgul on the north side of the river, and the road crossed the river a couple of times.

Shelob is a cool enemy. It’s strange to say that, since I loath spiders. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that she’s a compelling enemy, since nothing could be more terrifying than a giant spider lurking in a murky cave. I may have pictured her a little differently this time, since the book says that her eyes are “two great clusters of many-windowed eyes”. I think I had missed the part about them being in two groups and pictured them in rows, more like a normal spider. At first I thought that maybe Tolkien was saying that they were compound eyes like a fly. That didn’t sit right though, and I think that’s wrong: “Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight” I don’t think that compound eyes could really convey purpose or delight. Also, it says that they go out one by one as she turns away from the phial of Galadriel, and Sam stabs one of them. So they must be individual eyes.

Incidentally, Shelob’s face is one thing the movies get very wrong. Aside from not glowing and being arranged in a random, asymmetrical way, the eyes are just black dots that don’t really convey anything at all except nastiness. Certainly not intelligence. I remember from the special features that Peter Jackson showed a bunch of options to his kids and asked them which one was the scariest. That was very much the wrong question. I also disagree with their choice – nasty isn’t the same as scary.

One last thing – I’m not quite sure about the mechanics of on thing. When Sam slashes at Shelob, he can’t damage her. But when she tries to crush him, she impales herself. Yet, Sam manages to stay on his feet. It says this is because Shelob’s own strength is driving her bulk down onto the sword, but I’d think that it would drive Sam down before it would pierce her. But I think Tolkien has earned the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll trust him on this.

Oh, one other really last thing: I missed that when Sam attacks Shelob, he wields both swords at once. I thought that was pretty cool. Especially since he has to wield Sting left-handed (since he doesn’t have time to switch them). Yay Sam!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pokémon (the card game)

Yesterday I played the Pokémon card game for the first time. I feel sort of culturally enlightened. I was always against the idea because of the whole rigged-in-favor-of-whoever-has-spent-the-most-money theme. That's still a valid complaint, but my son just got a couple of starter decks, so by playing with default cards we sort of bypassed that element. And I have to say that the card game just might be more interesting than the video game, as heretical as that sounds. And yes, my son beat me.

I was using a deck with electric and fire Pokémon, while he had water and some fire. He never ended up using any of the fire ones. I tried not to, and the one time I did it backfired because of the whole water-beats-fire thing. What really bugged me about my deck is that it was so hard to get energy cards attached to my Pokémon, so I couldn't attack very often. And even when I could, the good attacks use up an energy card. My son didn't have that limitation. If I cared enough to get additional cards to modify the deck, the first thing I'd do would be to swap out some of the lame Pokémon for more energy cards. But mostly I think I just don't like the deck. That said, I'm going to try again and see if I can come up with a working strategy.

One thing I will say in favor of Pokémon is that it doesn't have the nastiness of Magic. I've seen people play that, and it was kind of interesting, but there's also the whole undead theme that permeates that game. Although I did take a sharpie to one of the trainer cards in order to lengthen a shirt, so that's another complaint. And the game isn't as fun as Splendor, which is the other card game we got for Christmas. But I keep winning at that, so I'm afraid my family will bail on it eventually.

Oh, and one more thing: What's up with the accent mark in the name? It seems that the Japanese word for "Pocket Monsters" does stress the "e", but they don't in English. So in English translations, they shouldn't write the accent mark. Or we should all be saying "Po-KE-mon" instead of "PO-ke-mon".

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Force Awakens

[Major spoiler alert on the movie and also on the Plasma Master books.]

I saw Star Wars episode 7 yesterday. It was pretty entertaining - it's amazing how the music an yellow text can get you more excited and engaged in 60 seconds than pretty much any other movie. There were some head-scratching science moments, but I suppose that can be forgiven in Star Wars. And of course the parallels to A New Hope made a lot of the events fairly predictable, but that's understandable too, since they had to prove to the audience that they understand why Star Wars is cool. I guess. It was a little wonky how casually they got rid of a government that only folks who read the now un-canonized books would know anything about. It was a actually a little odd ignoring the stuff I've read; I guess that's now an alternate timeline, analogous to the new Star Trek movies. But the light sabers and X-wings and stuff made me very happy.

One thought I kept having was that I'm super glad I've already published the Plasma Master books. That's because they kept using ideas that I used in those books, and this way it's clear that I didn't copy them. (And to be completely honest, the new movie parallels the first movie way more than my book does.)

So in case you're wondering, here's what they used. I might add to this list later : )

  1. Going to warp inside a ship. Han did this to escape quickly, whereas Mirana did it to avoid enemies outside, but the concept was the same.
  2. Using warp drive to bypass a shield. Han breaks into the enemy base by using normal hyperspace, whereas in my books I specifically make this impossible by saying that it's standard procedure to set up a static warp shell that resonates at each warp phase at the shield's position, but Mirana manages to bypass Venom's shield at a negative warp phase.
  3. The hyperspace planet-destroying weapon - I didn't actually depict this, but I hint that the ancient Plasma Masters may have had such a weapon.
Said weapon was the most confusing bit of science. It seems that all of the New Republic planets were in the same star system, and since they didn't specify that the weapon fired through hyperspace (and since you can see it in a line instead of having it disappear and reappear), it looks like the bad guys' base is also in that star system. (Even so, the weapon would have to be faster than light speed, since it doesn't take hours to cross planets.) Not to mention how you store the mass of a star inside a planet. But like I said, you already have to have suspended scientific rigor if you're watching Star Wars movies. So I'm moving on.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"This Christmas"

This is about the song, not the holiday. You know the song. The super whiny one about the guy whose girlfriend broke up with him last Christmas. Sadly, it was the first Christmas song I heard this year. It bugs me on many levels; hopefully writing them down will help me move on.

I guess first of all we need to clarify the narrative. Apparently the singer pledged his love for a girl the previous Christmas, and she didn’t immediately shoot him down. But the next day she told him that things weren’t going to work out. The singer was devastated. It’s unclear what happened over the course of the year, but when Christmas rolled around again, he pledged his love for someone else, then wrote a song to let the first girl know that he has moved on (and implying that she has missed out).

So here’s what’s lame:
  1. “I gave you my heart.” So the singer thinks that by asking this girl out, he was giving her a gift. In reality, though, he was asking her for a favor. And doing this on a holiday was a bit manipulative, since saying no would presumably dampen whatever other festivities were going on. Just imagine the dejected look she’d have to deal with on what is supposed to be a happy day. (Now, I suppose it’s possible that the girl had been sending positive vibes and that he may have been legitimately convinced that she would consider his “heart” as a gift. But I think that interpretation is unlikely given the other issues here.)
  2. The notion that the girl did something wrong by breaking up. If she wasn’t interested, she was under no obligation to continue the relationship. Of course the singer is justified in feeling disappointment, but this song goes beyond disappointment (as described below).
  3. “To save me from tears” – So the singer asked another girl out to avoid tears? Shouldn’t the motivation behind a relationship be a little deeper than that?
  4. “Someone special” – Obviously the singer considered the first girl to be special. So how is giving his heart to someone special different tactical choice now? This line is just a cheap insult to the first girl, but at the same time it paints the singer as pathetic. “You’re not special!” Who says that?
  5. Speaking of how special the first girl really is to him, why is he bothering to write her a song when he just got a new girlfriend? Does this girl know that he’s still pining over the previous girl? Does the singer even like the new girl, or is this whole relationship just a vehicle to launch the before-mentioned cheap insult?
  6. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the song consists of the same two sentences repeated over and over.

Of the three people in the song, the new girl is the one I feel most sorry for. Fortunately, since this song comes on every year, I think we can safely assume that the singer gets shot down every year on December 26th, so the poor ladies involved don’t have to deal with him for too long.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bad commentary on space

As a public service, I want to point out some flawed space-related comments I’ve heard recently.

The first was from an Air Force ad. Now, I’m all for the Air Force. But they said they were “pioneering new paths to space.” Really? I’m pretty sure there’s just the one path: up through the atmosphere. Space travel has had lots of obstacles, but a lack of paths hasn’t been one of them.

The other was from NASA. The article below contains the following quote: “We are closer to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history.” Well of course we’re closer. Any point in the future only gets closer, right?

http://news.yahoo.com/nasa-closer-sending-humans-mars-163300699.html

There. I feel better now.