Thursday, January 30, 2014

Video Game Home Bases: Skyloft vs. Comet Observatory

Ah, there's no place like home. A home should be a warm, comfortable spot where one can rest and spend time with loved ones. Or, perhaps, get refills of heart potions in between boss battles.

When it's done right, there's something pretty cool about "home bases" in video games. Returning to such a place after a long and grueling journey through a dungeon can give you the same sense of relief that you get from, say, going back to your suburban apartment after an exhausting day of fighting the crowd at Comic-Con. Or whatever.

Even the "Hero's Journey" archetype includes the "Return" as a major stage in the cycle. So just as there is some innate sense of satisfaction in stories that utilize this motif, so there is in these kinds of video games as well (which are usually very heavily story-based, anyway).

Two of my favorite video game "home bases" are Skyloft, from Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and the Comet Observatory from Super Mario Galaxy. Just for fun - and in the spirit of Super Bowl week - let's see how they stack up against each other, shall we? (warning: mild spoilers below)

Music: one of the common features that these two home bases share is a brilliant theme song that evokes feelings of peacefulness and tranquility. Sometimes I'll just listen to the song itself while I'm working or doing chores. Skyloft's has kind of a gentle pastoral feel, while the Observatory's is a lilting classical waltz. I love them both, but I'll have to give the nod on this one to the Comet Observatory.
Comet Observatory

Creature Comforts: home is a place where you can eat stuff out of your fridge, sleep in your own bed, and recuperate from horrific battle wounds. Skyloft contains a bunch of heart plants as well as benches and stools where you can sit down and replenish all of your hearts. And you can actually sleep in your own room. The Observatory has a few 1-Up shrooms scattered about, and (eventually) has most of the rooms found in a typical house, including a garage and a kitchen. You can't sleep in the bedroom, though (does Mario ever sleep?) Skyloft has the bazaar, Beedle's Air Shop, and even a bathroom. I'm gonna go with Skyloft here.

Neighbors: Skyloft has a bunch of interesting characters who live with you, from your fellow Knight trainees who represent the standard range of high school stereotypes to the split-personality people at the Bazaar. The Observatory has lumas, toads, and Rosalina. Point to Skyloft.

Interesting Twists: Each home base has cool little nooks and crannies for you to discover throughout the game, and eventually each one plays a major role in the storyline that involves it becoming something that you wouldn't (or maybe you would, depending on how many video games you play) expect. I won't go into major detail here, but I will award this one to Skyloft.

So the winner is...Skyloft! Really, though, it's hard to choose between the two. You'll just have to play the games yourself and decide which one you prefer. As for me, I'm gonna go eat stuff out of my fridge now.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Musical History, Episode 3: A "Real" Band

With R.F.H., one of our songs was a semi-serious lament about how we weren't a "real" band (i.e., one with bass and drums) writing "real" songs (i.e., at least three minutes long with standard verse/chorus structures). Even though what we were doing was just as valid as anything else (and in some cases, maybe even more so), I was still jonesing to have a band that fit that so-called definition of "real."

Then, several months after the end of R.F.H., it finally happened. After we came back from winter break, we saw that there was an opportunity for musical acts to perform at our dorm's spring banquet. This was the big chance I had been waiting for! So I gathered up the guys from R.F.H., and we started working on our plan for world domination. Nothing was going to stop us.

Our former "singer" had some previous experience playing drums, so it was decided that he would be the drummer in this new, yet-to-be-named project. The only problem: none of us owned a drum set. But remember - nothing was going to stop us! Eventually, we managed to procure a drum set from this other dude who, for some reason, agreed to lend it to us while not being a part of the band. Unfortunately, I have no recollection of how we managed to pull that off.*

Then we needed a bass player. This is usually the hardest step for any band, because as everyone knows, no musician starts off actually wanting to be a bass player. Eventually, we solved this problem by buying a cheap-o used bass and shanghai-ing coercing asking another guitar player that we knew to play it.

Then we needed a singer. This is usually the hardest step for any band, as finding people who possess an acceptable ratio of singing ability : sanity and stability is like finding...whatever it is that's really hard to find. Anyway, we actually took care of this step pretty easily. One day, we ran across a guy on the balcony of our dorm (apparently this balcony was a good place to meet musicians) who was playing his ukulele and singing Hawaiian songs. We had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: Hey, you sing?
Him: I guess
Me: Want to sing for our band?
Him: Um sure

And so, our band was complete. Now, the final step: we needed a name. This is usually the hardest step for any band, as coming up with a catchy, original name that everyone in the band agrees on is like...well, you get the idea. But remember - nothing was going to stop us! So one night, while we were sitting around the other guitar player's room watching TV and not studying, he noticed that his pet chinchilla was staring off into space like its raisins had been spiked or fermented or something. We then had a conversation that went something like this:

Him: Hey look
Me: Huh
Him: A zoning chinchilla
Me: That's it!!!

And so, Zoning Chinchilla was born. We were gonna rock that dorm banquet!

Next: The Dorm Banquet

* no laws were broken in the procurement of said drum set

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why Are Mentors Always Single?

Mentors may be wise, but it seems like there's one thing they don't have figured out: dating and relationships (okay, that's two things). Why is that? Why do these characters always seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to love and romance? I know they have to help the hero, but what law says that they can't also maintain some kind of social or family life at the same time?

Here are a few examples off the top of my head:

[WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead]

Albus Dumbledore - I guess being the Headmaster of Hogwarts can be a pretty busy job. But surely he must have had some personal time, right? Or was that all spent on his complicated scheme to take down Voldemort? Come to think of it, it seems like most of the Hogwarts faculty flew solo (yes, Remus Lupin got married, but that was after he left the school). A curse, perhaps, like the one on the Defense of the Dark Arts position?
Obi-Wan Kenobi - yes, I know that Jedis are forbidden from forming attachments. But c'mon, 99% of the Order is wiped out and you're in exile on Tatooine, who would know or care if you tried to get some woman's number at the Mos Eisley cantina? Would Yoda feel a disturbance in the Force?
Haymitch Abernathy - I suppose being constantly drunk and surly could be sort of a turn-off. But he's rich, famous, and has that sort of bad-boy vibe that seems to appeal to some.
Morpheus - okay, at least he has a hint of romance in his story, having formerly been in a relationship with Niobe. But, well, "formerly" is the key word here.
The only mentor I can think of at the moment who is the exception to this phenomenon is Tenzin, from The Legend of Korra. He's happily married and has three (and then four) kids. So he's a busy guy. And training Korra wasn't exactly something that you can do on auto-pilot.
So - see, you other mentor types? It is possible. Just work on your time management skills, break out of your shell a little, and then you, too, can find someone to share your life with. Why should your mentees be the only ones to get the girl/guy/whatever in the end?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Musical History, Episode 2: The Legendary R.F.H.

I don't really remember what happened to Maelstrom after that jam session. I guess it was like one of those first dates where you both decide that it's not gonna work out so you just sort of stop contacting each other. Not that I know what that's like. Or maybe. Whatever. Never mind.

Anyway, soon after that, I noticed this dude playing an Ibanez guitar on the balcony of our dorm. We had a conversation that - I swear - went like this:

Me: Hey, how's it goin
Me: Nice guitar
Me: Okay, later

Kind of like this, but red
So I went back to my room. He came walking in a few minutes later, playing some Van Halen lick. I was not a Van Halen fan at the time. I think it was a few more minutes before he actually said anything. His guitar was tuned to E-flat, while mine was tuned to E. Obviously, this wasn't going to work out.*

Fast forward a few weeks. Having tuned our guitars to each other, we were now cranking out some random metal/punk-ish riffs through our Crate amps late one night after watching Letterman. In a moment of sleep-deprived inspiration, we decided that "hey, I bet the acoustics in the bathroom would sound pretty awesome!" and relocated our jam session to the communal dorm lavatory. We took my boom box along and recorded a couple of thirty-second ditties that featured us playing Kerry King-inspired solos and screaming about physics class. Realizing that my voice probably wasn't going to last much longer, I shanghaied coerced asked another friend from down the hall to be our "singer." To my surprise, he agreed, and a legend was born.

A legend in our own minds, at least. We went on to write and record nearly forty minutes' worth of these short, S.O.D.-style songs, despite protests from dorm-mates who were foolishly trying to get some sleep at 4am on a weeknight (I don't know what they were thinking). These songs included such lovely gems as . . . as . . . well, let's just say that none of the titles were really appropriate for a PG blog such as this one. That goes for our band name as well, which I will simply refer to here as R.F.H.

Anyway, those forty minutes became our first "album," which we titled Have A Day. Using a pencil and typing paper, I made an album cover and liner notes, complete with lyrics, and today that tape sits - safely hidden from my kids - in my home office. R.F.H. went on to make a video/musical movie (kind of our Hard Day's Night) as well as two more albums. It's funny to me, because our creative arc was rather similar to "real" bands - the first album had a uniform sound and style, the second album saw us branching out stylistically (including the use of funk influences and cardboard box drums), and the third album was an attempt to return to our roots that ultimately ended up destroying the band.

To this day, R.F.H. holds a special place in my musical heart. Every so often, I'll go back and listen to some of our songs and think "wow, that was sheer genius" or "man, that was an awesome riff" or "I can't believe no one came into the bathroom to kick our butts." And yes guys, one day I really will - finally - make digital versions of everything, I promise.

Next: Finally, A "Real" Band

* we ended up playing in bands together for the next 12 years

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bad Guy 101

Happy New Year! The "My Musical History" serial will return next time with Episode 2. For today, I wanted to start a new recurring item called "Bad Guy 101," which was inspired by a moment when my daughter and I were half-watching some random sci-fi/fantasy movie on TV one night.

We observed - as I'm sure you all have - that most bad guys in books and movies tend to do the same inexplicably stupid things, usually to the benefit of the good guys. After a brief discussion, we came to the conclusion that all of these bad guys must go to the same Bad Guy College, where they learn how to do these stupid things in a class called Bad Guy 101.

After doing some research, I managed to track down a copy of the textbook that they use in this class (don't tell Voldemort). So, for your reading enjoyment, here are a couple of excerpts...after the jump!