The Great Happiness Space (2008)

July 13th, 2011

In The Great Happiness Space I was introduced to the world of Japanese “host clubs”, something I (as a Westerner) had never heard of before. The focus of the film is Cafe Rakkyo, the most popular host club in Osaka, Japan. Here, in Cafe Rakkyo, women compete for the attention of men by spending money on champagne, VIP seats, and even the hosts themselves. The hottest host in the hottest club in all of Osaka is Issei, an attractive and stylish young Japanese man around whom most of the documentary focuses on.

Initially host clubs may sound a bit like strip clubs with the male/female roles reversed, but that’s not quite right. While strip clubs revolve around sex, host clubs are more about attention. In fact, as one of the hosts explains to viewers, sex is just about the worst thing that can happen between a host and a client, as the goal of every host is to string his clients along as long as possible and drain them financially.

Women arriving at Cafe Rakkyo (which looks like a modern restaurant, dance club, and lounge all rolled into one location) pick their hosts out of a book full of photographs. There are many more clients than hosts, so each host must entertain multiple women at the same time — sometimes in the same part of the club, sometimes in different areas. The women compete by spending money, and the hosts respond by showering the high rollers with attention. With club bottles of champagne costing between $250 and $600, an evening at the host club can get very expensive, very quickly. In one scene we watch the hosts badger a customer into buying five bottles of champagne, one for each year she’s been coming to the host club. Despite her protests, the hosts surround her and convince her into buying “one more bottle”. As the final bottle is guzzled, all the hosts gather round, the DJ chants her name, and for 30 seconds or so, the client has bought happiness.

Each day before the club opens, the lesser-known hosts hit the streets in an attempt to drum up business. Rain or shine, they stand around talking to women, attempting to lure them to the club. During one rainy afternoon, one of the hosts yells at a woman, “it’s acid rain! You’re going to go bald! Come inside!” For the most part the women of Osaka seem to know the score and none of them appear particularly interested in the men’s offers — still, like e-mail spam, it must have some success rate or people wouldn’t do it.

As the film progresses viewers begin to realize that all of the on-screen relationships we see are sham. Behind closed doors, when one of the hosts struggles with guilt from stringing women along in exchange for cash, Issei tells him to man up. “We sell dreams here,” he says. Issei admits to bringing in anywhere from $30k-$50k a month, and several of the female clients interviewed admit to spending thousands of dollars each visit. Most of the women can afford this because, we learn, they are prostitutes. These same women who men pay money to have physical relationships with pay the hosts for emotional relationships. Some of the hosts are emotionally drained from all the attention, and admit they have no way of (or interest in) finding women outside the club. Inside the club the hosts have prostitutes vying for the attention; outside, they can’t even get a date. My perception of which are the hunters and which are the hunted changed several times while watching the documentary.

One prostitute in particular shares that she has spent around $30,000 on Issei alone (she considers it “an investment in their future together”). We see the two of them cuddling on a couch and hugging in an elevator before she has to leave. Issei walks her to a waiting cab and, while waving at her as the taxi pulls away, tells viewers how much he can’t stand her. “It’s that kind of client that makes me sick,” he says. Moments later his cell phone rings, and it’s her. “Like I’m going to answer that,” he says. “Shit.”

But all of that sadness goes away when the doors open. Then, the hosts are “on” and the women line up for their adoration. The hosts know they are selling a fake emotional relationship, and the clients know that the men only give them attention while they spend money. (“I think they are all liars,” one client says. “I don’t trust any of them.”) None of this matters when the music gets cranked up and the alcohol begins to flow.

As the movie comes to a close we see the hosts closing up shop and going home. One is so drunk and passed out he has to be lifted up and walked to the elevator. One host, in his stylish clothes, hat and sunglasses, climbs onto a girl’s bicycle and pedals off. A few of the others pour themselves into a taxi cab. Issei, on the outside, doesn’t look too much worse for the wear. “Sometimes I drink 10 bottles of champagne a night,” he admits, “but I try to vomit some of it back up.” On the inside though, one can only wonder what kind of toll the host clubs will eventually take on its and their clients.

The Great Happiness Space is both addictive and repulsive, enthralling and disgusting. If it’s true only the lonely can play, the host clubs of Osaka are the playground.

I’m No Dummy (2009)

July 11th, 2011

For a few years as a kid, I was really into puppets and The Muppets and ventriloquism. In second grade for Christmas I got my very own ventriloquist doll, Charlie McCarthy. I spent a few months practicing the art of talking while keeping my mouth closed, and even remember working up a little routine for my friends. After almost getting my ass kicked by some older kids for bringing “a big doll” to school, I decided to retire the act. Sorry, Charlie.

I’m No Dummy is a solid documentary about the history and current state of ventriloquism. This documentary traces ventriloquism back to its vaudeville roots. It’s full of clips of performing artists. In the film, you’ll see clips of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Senor Wences (“S’alright? S’alright.”), Jay Johnson (from Soap), Sherri “Lambchop” Lewis, Paul Winchell, and of course lots and lots of Jeff Dunham, the modern savior of the art. A few lesser-known ventriloquists are interviewed as well, along with a few ventriloquist-related collectors. Unless you’re a die hard fan of ventriloquism, I suspect every ventriloquist you’ve ever heard of probably appears at some point in this film.

I wish I had more to say about this documentary. It’s as good and thorough as a documentary about the art of ventriloquism is probably going to get. The history the form, the mechanics of the art, and the force driving some of these artists are all covered. For most people, this is all the information about ventriloquism you will ever need. The only downside is several appearances of the “f-word,” which makes this a tough sell for children — again, what a shame.

You’re Gonna Miss Me (2007)

July 10th, 2011

Reporters are always looking for a snappy headline, so you should do your best in life not to give them one. If your last name is “Wiener”, you should probably go out of your way to avoid being caught up in a scandal that involves your wiener. It makes things too easy for TMZ — just sayin’. Chris Hansen, host of the controversial show “To Catch a Predator” in which people are busted using undercover camera footage, was recently caught cheating on his wife in an undercover camera sting. Sometimes the headlines write themselves, folks. And so, if you’re the lead guitarist and lead singer of a psychedelic rock band who loves taking acid, down the road people are liable to cringe at the irony of your hit single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.

You’re Gonna Miss Me documents the life and trials of Roky Erickson, member of the band 13th Floor Elevators. Despite being one of the founders of psychedelic rock (one of his bandmates claims to have coined the term during a jam session), I had never heard of either Roky Erickson nor the 13th Floor Elevators. The documentary contains early American Bandstand footage of Roky jamming on the guitar and screaming wildly as his band mates tried to follow. The only thing Roky loves more than making music is doing drugs. Throughout the 1960s, Roky had a seat at the drug buffet of life helped himself to a big ol’ helping of LSD, multiple side orders of cocaine and heroin, and a heaping pile of marijuana for dessert. By the time Roky got arrested for doing all the drugs he could find in Texas his mental capacity was already questionable, and years of time served in a maximum-security mental facility combined with experimental drugs and shock therapy didn’t help the situation.

That brings us to today, and the meat of the film. Roky’s brain is so rotten he makes modern day Ozzy look like 1970’s Ozzy. He bumbles around town and his apartment with the help of his mother Evelyn who, despite not having done all the drugs in Texas, doesn’t seem to much more mentally competent than her son. Evelyn spends her days making giant cardboard collages and doing whatever it is other crazy people do in their free time.

Despite the fact that at different times Roky has believed himself to be possessed by the devil and being harassed by aliens, Evelyn — Roky’s legal guardian — refuses him medicine. Did I mention that Roky has been diagnosed as a psychotic schizophrenic? Oh yeah, there’s that. Brewing in the Erickson family is a bitter custody battle. The youngest of the five Erickson brothers, Sumner, thinks that with the proper care, medication and therapy, that eldest Erickson brother Roky can rebuild his health, his mind, and his life. To show how good his therapist is, we are treated to footage in which Sumner rolls on the floor with her embracing him from behind as he cries uncontrollably. Did I mention Sumner is a professional tuba player? Rarely is the case where the most bizarre member of a family comes down to a coin flip, but that might be the case here. Early on my money was on the family’s patriarch, until we learn that he was once caught in the bedroom fooling around with one of the five sons. Jesus Christ, Ericksons!

As with any documentary involving dysfunctional family members, it’s difficult to unequivocally say who the good and bad guys are in You’re Gonna Miss Me. Near the end of the documentary, thank God, Roky begins to get the help he so badly needed. Through medication and therapy we see Roky “functioning” once again. He’s in therapy, he appears lucid, he even spends a little time playing an old song on the guitar for his therapist and brother, something that the Roky at the beginning of the film never could have done. There’s no doubt that the years of mental and physical abuse Roky experienced took a toll against his cranium, but seeing the guy appear to realize where (or who) he is makes him seem happier than he was not so long ago.

Since the release of this documentary, Roky Erickson has made a seemingly full recovery. In 2010 he released the album “True Love,” and has been touring and performing live gigs off and on since then. Thumbs up, Roky — after seeing this film, nobody’s gonna forget you.

Catfish (2010)

July 10th, 2011

The 2010 documentary Catfish begins seemingly normal enough. In the beginning of the film we witness the blossoming of an online friendship between Yaniv Schulman, a New York City photographer, and Abby, an 8-year-old prodigal painter. After Abby sends Yaniv a painting she did of one of his photographs, the two of them strike up an online friendship through Facebook.

Through Abby, Yaniv meets her family and friends — her parents, her family friends, and particularly her older half-sister Megan. Yaniv and Megan soon form a long distance relationship that consists of text messages, e-mails, Facebooking, and even late night phone calls.

As time goes on, holes begin to appear in Megan and Abby’s stories. A song that the two of them claim to have written appears to have been recorded by a different artist. A vacant building that Abby’s mom Angela claims has renovated as an art studio for Abby still appears to be on the market. After one too many details fail to add up, Yaniv, his brother Ariel, and director Henry Joost decide to drop in on Abby’s family to find out where the truth ends and the lies begin.

As you can probably guess, not all is what it appears to be, and not everyone is who they appear to be. After the trio visually verify that the art studio is still a vacant building and a horse barn that Megan claims to own is also unoccupied, they decide to drop in on Megan, Abby, and Angela. What happens next is … wow.

The movie’s selling point is its twist ending so I won’t give it away here, but suffice it to say that indeed, not everyone Yaniv was chatting with was who they said they were (in fact, some of them don’t even exist). An awkward dancing around the truth takes place until, eventually, the beans are spilled. And boy, are spilled beans messy. Put it this way; if you’ve ever dated a girl who turned out to be crazy … be thankful she wasn’t this crazy.

The veracity of the film has been strongly argued since its release. The filmmakers have conceded that “some” of the film’s early scenes were “recreated,” but that’s as much as they’ll admit to. Some reviewers have claimed that the story had a “nugget of truth,” which has been inflated — others claim that the whole story from beginning to end is a setup, or at least that our protagonist was “playing along,” to a certain extent. None of those things made the movie any less riveting for me. It’s a good story, regardless.

I, like many people my age, have people I call “friends” that I have never met in real life — people I communicate with on a regular basis that I have never met in person. Many of my online friends I have met only after knowing them online for years. Catfish is a valid reminder that, all that appears online may not be as it seems. This movie is a must-see for anyone who’s ever added a Facebook friend and later thought … I wonder who that is?

The Killing of a Chinese Cookie (2008)

July 7th, 2011

In The Killing of a Chinese Cookie, director Derek Shimoda delivers viewers everything they could ever possibly want to know about fortune cookies, those delicious little fortune-delivering snacks we (Americans) love to crunch on after gorging ourselves on Chinese food.

Right up front, the documentary tackles the question of, “Who invented the fortune cookie?” The answer to this question is surprisingly clouded in mystery. No less than four different (unrelated) interviewees claim to be direct descendants of the inventor of the fortune cookie. While some have more factual evidence than others, none have any verifiable proof. The two things everybody seems to agree on are (a) fortune cookies were invented in California (probably in the 1920s), and (b) they were invented by Japanese-Americans.

Japanese? Yes! In the 1920s and 30s, fortune cookies were largely associated with Japanese-Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor many Japanese-Americans were placed into “War Relocation Camps,” at which point Chinese-Americans adopted the manufacturing and distribution of fortune cookies … and the rest is history. As one interviewee states, “Fortune Cookies were invented by the Japanese, distributed by the Chinese, and served to the Americans.” To drive the point home, one elderly Chinese man is handed a fortune cookie. His on-camera response: “What is this?”

The history of the cookie is by and large the most interesting part of the documentary, but that story alone couldn’t fill a 90 minute documentary so the rest of the film consists of a dozen or so mini-stories about fortune cookies. We get to see how fortune cookies were once hand made. We also get to see a modern cookie production factory that churns out 5 million cookies a day. We meet a father/daughter team that make cookies and pen the fortunes found inside. We learn about an art project in which eccentric artists created works of art based on fortune cookies they received. We meet a man (his identity is blocked) who collects “rejected and innappropriate” fortunes that didn’t make the cut, and published them (under the pseudonym Joe Wang — cute). We hear about a guy that played a prank by sneaking fake fortune cookies into restaurants (I would have liked to hear more about the logistics of how this was done). We see clips of fortune cookies appearing in popular culture, one of which disappointingly uses harsh R-Rated language, tainting an otherwise family-friendly film. What a poor choice on the director’s part.

According to IMDB, The Killing of a Chinese Cookie has a 75-minute run time, but I could have sworn it ran for two hours. The last half of the movie drags, seeming less like a documentary and more like a series of 5-10 minute unrelated bits that should have been condensed to 2 minutes. A 10-15 minute section in the middle of the film is subtitled, which slows the film’s pace. (I get it, they’re from China, but still.) By the time you get to the section where every interviewee gets to make up their own perfect fortune for themselves, you’ll be ready for the film to end. At least, I was.

If you’re into random trivia and quirky documentaries, give The Killing of a Chinese Cookie a shot. I picked up a few factoids and found at least some of it interesting. It’s not a bad film, but it does run out of steam (and material) before you reach the end.

Sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles.

Available via Netflix/Netflix Streaming.

The Secret (2006)

July 6th, 2011

The Secret, available as a book, audio book, and DVD, claims that you (yes, you!) can have anything you have ever dreamed of having if you learn … the secret. Health, wealth, and happiness could all be yours if only you knew … the secret. And, for the price of a hardcover book and/or DVD (about $20), you too can learn … the secret.

Fortunately, The Secret is available on Netflix (both as a physical disc and via streaming), so I was able to learn the secret for free.

“The secret” boils down to the “Law of Attraction,” which, I learned, permeates the entire universe. The Law of Attraction states that we attract things into our lives — good and bad — through our thoughts. Bob Proctor, listed as a “Philosopher” in the credits, sidesteps explaining how the Law of Attraction actually works by stating, “Look, I don’t know how electricity works either, but I use it every day.” Magnets, man — miracles are all around us.

To use the Law of Attraction to our advantage, we need to focus on what we want in life. If you think about money you will get money, if you think about health you will be healthy, and so on. There are a few stipulations, however. First, the Law of Attraction is not instantaneous. That would just be silly, and dangerous. Second, you should focus on positive things because the Law of Attraction isn’t very bright. For example, focusing on “get me out of debt” will just attract more debt. Instead, you should focus on attracting money. And third, you should be reasonable in what you wish for … because apparently, the Law of Attraction can sometimes be stingy bitch.

Throughout the documentary’s 90 minute run time, a string of authors, therapists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, metaphysicians, visionaries, and even a Feng Shui consultant are paraded in front of the camera, explaining how The Secret worked for them. One fellow tells about how, five years ago, he cut out a picture of a mansion and stuck it on his wish board. Five years later, wildly successful in business and life, he pulled his old wish board out of storage only to find that he was living in the mansion he had dreamed of owning five years earlier. (Cue “Twilight Zone” theme.)

The problem I had with The Secret was that this is all presented as some sort of mystical, arcane knowledge. “The Secret has been passed down from generation to generation,” it says. “The Secret was known by Plato, Newton, Carnegie, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Einstein,” we are told.

For what it’s worth, I do believe in the “power” of positive thinking. I don’t think it’s as much magic as it is a frame of mind. I think people who see the glass of water as “half full” surely go through life happier than those who see it as “half empty.” What The Secret neglects to mention is that success is a combination of ambition and hard work. When positive thinking leads to positive action, you can expect positive results! Sitting around and dreaming about losing weight won’t help you lose a single pound until you actually get up and start exercising. It’s the action that leads to success.

Or perhaps that’ll the subject of The Secret: Part II

I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)

July 5th, 2011

Back in the late 1980s, pop singers/teen sensations Tiffany and Debbie Gibson battled it out on the pop charts. (Younger readers can consider them the 80s version of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.) Just as grunge rock killed hair metal, an onslaught of rap and hip-hop drove Tiffany and Debbie off the charts. That’s not to say either of them quit performing: both have launched comeback attempts, performed on reality television programs (Gibson on Skating with Celebrities, Tiffany on Celebrity Fit Club), and both singers have appeared in Playboy. See you in ten years, Spears and Aguilera!

Most of us quit following celebrities once they leave the spotlight, but others have a harder time doing so. The documentary I Think We’re Alone Now follows two of these individuals, both of which are obsessed with the singer Tiffany. (Sorry Debbie, maybe next time.)

First up is Jeff Turner, a 50-year-old man who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and claims to be a close personal friend of Tiffany’s — a fact he shares with anyone within earshot who is too polite to walk away. Although he initially appears somewhat normal, the more we see of Turner the more we sense something is not quite right. Eventually we learn that Tiffany once filed a restraining order against Turner for trying to give her a Samurai sword in an airport (“It’s considered an honor in Japan,” he notes), and that he has spent more than $20,000 on “radionics equipment.” The radionics equipment, which consists of a bicycle helmet with crystals duct taped to it that is connected to a pyramid made out of wood, allows Turner to tune in to Tiffany’s brain waves and connect with her telepathically — because she is a “inter-dimensional time traveler.”

Next up is Kelly McCormick, a 31-year-old transgendered hermaphrodite who is neither 31-years-old (s/he lied) nor a hermaphrodite (although she lives life as a female, McCormick admits in the commentary track that the pluming’s apparently male). The first thing McCormick heard when coming out of a coma in 1980s was a Tiffany song, and ever since then she’s known in her heart that the two of them were destined to have a relationship together.

Most of the documentary consists of footage of these two bumbling souls meandering through life. Turner, dissuaded by the restraining order, shows up at Tiffany beach concern apparently a day early and stands around talking to security guards until they finally walk away. McCormick almost gets to see Tiffany live in a club, but is turned away when the folded up photocopy over her driver’s license isn’t considered to be a legal photo ID. In probably the least surprising revelation of the film, both McCormick and Turner are unemployed and receive disability pay from the government for their mental disabilities.

Eventually, these two super fans are apparently connected by the director (it’s a little muddy) and they each hit the road to convene at a Tiffany show at the Krave Gay Night Club in Las Vegas. As muscular men in their tighty-whities dance around behind her, Tiffany sings as the two fans clap and dance the night away. Later that night, both of them stand in line to meet Tiffany and steal cheek kisses from her. She looks thrilled. Later that evening, the two of them compare Tiffany notes and stories until Turner’s one-upmanship gets the better of McCormick. So lonely are these two that they are content to sit in a hotel room and talk about how which one of them will end up with Tiffany first. (I had the same conversation with friends about Debby Harry back in the day; then again, I was 8-years-old.)

I Think We’re Alone Now is uncomfortable at times to watch and somewhat difficult to enjoy, especially when you realize that essentially what you are watching are two obsessed and mentally ill stalkers. It’s hard not to feel sad for these two delusional fans; likewise, it’s tough not to feel a little concerned for Tiffany’s well-being.

Shot on a hand-held camcorder, video quality isn’t great and the audio is just passable (save for a 5-10 second clip in which the audio was simply missing). You won’t have to worry about how those classic Tiffany hits sound in 5.1 surround sound because none of her music appears in the film. Tiffany also refused to be interviewed for the film. Talk about a no-win situation. Once you’ve alienated the mentally ill, what fan base does she have left? (I kid, I kid …)

if you’re a fan of documentaries, by all means check out I Think We’re Alone Now. I suspect “a rental will do ya,” as I can’t see myself watching this strange but curious look into the world of stalking more than once. I left this movie feeling sad, and in hopes that both Turner and McCormick are ultimately able to find peace and happiness without Tiffany in their lives.

Racing the Beam

May 26th, 2011

My parents brought home our first home Pong console in the fall of 1977, shortly after I turned four-years-old. The following year we upgraded to a Magnavox Odyssey 2, and in 1979 we purchased an Atari 2600. I have literally been playing video games my entire life; I’m a grown up gamer that grew up gaming. I’ve watched the video game technology grow and expand infinitely, back from its humble monochrome roots in the late 1970s to the hi-definition graphics, digital surround sound audio, and online multi-player gaming experiences we take for granted today.

When you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast the new with the old. As a technical kind of guy this often plays itself out in numbers. Comparing the processing power and storage capacity of today’s modern marvels to the systems of yesteryear results in some mind-blowing revelations. I once downloaded a zip file that contained the ROMs of every Atari 2600 game known at that time. The file was 3 megabytes in size. A complete archive of every official US Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is slightly larger at just over 100 megabytes. Realizing that I have enough memory to store complete copies of the Atari 2600, NES, SNES and Sega Genesis game libraries on my phone reminds us of how far we’ve come in the couple of decades. In the year 2000, I had a Nokia cell phone that was capable of playing a port of Snake (an arcade game from 1976). Ten years later, I bought an iPhone that plays Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (THPS2).

Cramming a skateboarding game originally designed to play on the Sony PlayStation into an iPhone requires a level of technical wizardry that is impressive, but not surprising. If you really want to understand what technical wizardry is — if you really want to learn about a world where every byte (nay, bit!) counted, you’ll need to go back almost 30 years to the Atari 2600 platform. While it is indeed impressive that in 2010 Activision was able to render a three-dimensional world in which you can maneuver a virtual Tony Hawk around in, it is more impressive to me that in 1982 Activision released Pitfall!, a game that contained 32 treasures spread across 255 unique rooms containing varying combinations tar pits, water holes, quicksand, rolling logs, campfires, snapping crocodiles, scorpions and swinging vines … all in 4k worth of code.

If that last fact made your jaw drop, or caused you to smile, or sent chills down your spine, or got any sort of physical reaction out of you at all … then Racing the Beam is for you.

Written by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam chronicles (in technical depth) the development of six seminal Atari 2600 games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. With the development of each game, readers are exposed to the capabilities (read: limitations) of the Atari 2600 platform. From a hardware perspective the 2600 was developed to play variations of Combat and Pong, and only contained the ability to render five moving objects (two players, two bullets, one ball) at a time, and had 128 bytes of RAM in which to do it. The random, colorful explosions in Yars’ Revenge and the smooth, parallax scrolling in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back become all the more impressive in that context.

Each game discussed within the book marks a milestone in the life of the Atari 2600, whether it’s the evolution of text adventures into a graphical environment (Adventure), the birth of movie licensed-games (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), or the genre of arcade-to-console conversions (Pac-Man). None of these games were developed within a vacuum, and the book does a good job of encapsulating not only the technical achievements of each game, but also the historical context in which they were developed. The chapter about Yars’ Revenge, for example, talks about the game’s roots as a port of Star Castle, and compares and contrasts the game with Atari’s Asteroids. The game’s Easter Egg, the code used for the seemingly random level-ending explosions, and its unique sonic landscape are all discussed in detail.

At multiple times throughout the book, Racing the Beam reminds us that these classic games weren’t compiled by teams of skilled programmers, but rather were labors of love, quite often imagined, developed, and programmed by a single individual. While general concepts and technical knowledge was passed along between programmers, because of the way these games were designed it was difficult to recycle and/or share specific code among projects. The concept of having different people work on graphics, sound, and gameplay mechanics would not come to pass for a few more years. The book does a good job of introducing us to these men behind the keyboards.

Racing the Beam is not always an easy read. While the anecdotes and memories documented within are both interesting and informative, the book occasionally delves deep into the technical hows-and-whys involved in producing these games. I encountered some conversational hurdles as I waded through information regarding Atari’s TIA chip (the 2600’s sound and graphics chip), clock cycles and horizontal and vertical blanks — interesting Jeopardy material to be sure, but definitely deeper reading than your average light-hearted romp down retrospective lane.

Upon finishing this book you will never again look at the background trees in Pitfall or Pac-Man’s flashing ghosts in the same way. While not an encapsulating history of the Atari 2600 itself, Racing the Beam does an excellent job of explaining the demonstrating the hurdles and limitations early programmers had to overcome in order to create great video games.

(One final thought: this review contains 5,899 characters, more than any of the Atari 2600 games mentioned in Racing the Beam. Food for thought.)

Yar’s Revenge (iOS)

May 24th, 2011

I was eight-years-old in 1981 when Yars’ Revenge was released for the Atari 2600 console. At that time, Yars’ seemed a radical departure from most other available titles. Unlike the other games I owned at that time (Combat, Space Invaders, Basketball), the goal of Yars’ Revenge isn’t immediately discernible by simply looking at the playfield. The left hand side of the screen contains a big white bug (that’s you); on the right sits something or someone else (presumably a foe) behind a big red shield. A strip of rainbow-colored static runs vertically between the two of you. You can shoot (or peck) away at the shield, but not while hiding in the rainbow zone. Sometimes a missile appears behind you. Sometimes your enemy turns into a deadly spiral and shoots you in the face. There’s another wandering wafer that players quickly learn is not friendly.

It isn’t until we read the game’s manual that we learn we are not controlling a fly, but rather a Yar scout. The Qotile (aka “the guy hiding behind the red shield”) can only destroyed by a blast from the Zorlon Cannon, which the Yar must arm by using TRONS (units of energy). TRONS can be obtained by nibbling on cells from the Qotile’s shield, or touching the Qotile when he is not swirling. Yar can hide from the Qotile’s Destroyer Missile in the Neutral Zone (the “colorful and glittering path down the center of the playfield”), but cannot fire from inside it.

In addition to the manual, Atari also included a mini-Yars’ Revenge comic book that further detailed the Yars’ plight. According to the comic book, the titular “revenge” was in response to the destruction of the Yars home planet of Razak IV. We also learn that Yars are alien descendants of common house flies who wear chrome armor into battle. And if you didn’t get enough back story from the comic book, Atari also released two separate vinyl records containing dramatic reenactments of the Yars story. Atari used to put a lot of effort into their releases back then, yo. In this case the efforts paid off, as Yars Revenge became Atari’s best selling original title for the 2600.

Yars’ Revenge has seen multiple ports, mostly to portable consoles. The game was released for the Game Boy Color in 1999, as part of a compilation package for the Game Boy Advance in 2005, and Atari’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 for the Nintendo DS in 2011. Yars’ Revenge was also included on both the Atari Flashback 2 and Jakks Pacific’s Atari Joystick Plug-n-Play/TV Games controllers. Most recently, the original version appeared most recently on the Atari Classics compilation for the PSP and iOS. (Just to clarify, all previous versions of Yars’ Revenge have been ports of the original, 1981 version.)

That brings us to Yar’s Revenge, a brand new Atari game developed by Killspace Entertainment. You can tell it’s an all new game because the old one was Yars’ (with a trailing apostrophe) and the new one is Yar’s (with the apostrophe before the “s”). SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE? This sly bit of coy marketing probably would have worked better if people hadn’t been misspelling the original version as “Yar’s” for the past three decades. Exactly thirty years after the release of the original, Yar’s Revenge hit PCs and XBLA in late April and PSN whenever hackers finally got gone done pissing all over it.

Despite the name of the original, apparently the Yars never got their revenge. In fact, in the sequel we learn that the Yars were all but wiped out by the Qotile, and what few Yars weren’t killed were captured. That’s where you come in, of course. After escaping, you’ll be exacting revenge against your former captors with guns a’blazing, which (technically speaking) means the game’s title should probably have been “Yar’s Yars’ Revenge Revenge”. Fortunately for us all it’s not; apparently, revenge is a dish best served one Yar at a time.

Speaking of names, this all new Yar’s Revenge doesn’t much resemble its namesake. The new Yar’s Revenge is at heart an on-rails shooter. Players are automatically guided through a beautifully pre-rendered world, and are allowed to move (but not steer) using the left analog stick while aiming with the right. In the past thirty years, Yar weaponry has come a long way; along with your traditional pulse laser, you also have a railgun and missiles at your disposal. Like all shooters, there are trade-offs (missiles are limited and the rail gun needs to recharge). Along the way you will also encounter power ups that can do things like recharge your health or make you temporarily invulnerable.

As with nearly all vidoe games, the overall goal here is to rack up a high score. Your score can be boosted by acquiring and maintaining multipliers, which themselves can be increased by shooting accuracy and speed. Yar’s Revenge contains six levels, each of which ends with a boss fight (where those powered-up weapons will come in handy).

One thing the sequel shares with the original is in-game poor story telling. In the original, the Yars’ back story had to be conveyed through the help of a comic book (the Atari 2600 wasn’t particularly known for its ability to render cut scenes). In the sequel, the ongoing Yar saga is related to players through voiceless, subtitled cut scenes. I hope you can read fast, because the words tend to zoom by faster than a Qotile Destroyer Missile. Even worse is the written dialogue that appears in-game, usually while a wave of enemies is firing lasers at your insect-shaped head. If you have a tough time texting and driving, you can forget about following the plot.

As far as shooters go, Yar’s Revenge isn’t great and it isn’t terrible; it’s just kind of there. While some of the bosses and waves of opponents can be tough to dispose of (depending on the difficulty settings you’ve chosen), more than anything, the repeated zapping of continual onslaughts of baddies grows monotonous long before players can blast their way through the game’s two-to-three hour playtime. More important to me than the fate of Yar was finding out when this punishment was going to end.

Thirty years ago, Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw created the Yars’ Revenge, a 192×160 resolution game that consists of 4k of code and is still being played today on modern systems. Thirty years later we have Yar’s Revenge, an absolutely gorgeous on-rails shooter that is bigger in size than a conventional CD (the PC version is well over 700 meg) and will be forgotten by most gamers in 30 days, much less 30 years. If that doesn’t sum up the current state of the gaming industry, I don’t know what does.

(originally submitted to Caltrops.com)

Into the Eagle’s Nest (C64)

May 18th, 2011

One man. Three hostages. Ninety-nine bullets. Untold riches. An infinite number of expendable Nazis. Welcome to Into the Eagle’s Nest.

Gauntlet, the classic arcade game released by Atari back in 1985, quickly inspired multiple clones both in arcades and at home on both consoles and home computers. Knock-offs such as Alien Syndrome (Sega, 1986), Druid (Firebird, 1986) and Demon Stalkers (Electronic Arts, 1987) copied the top-down maze format of Gauntlet and competed directly against licensed Gauntlet ports in the home market. While most of these Gauntlet clones took place in fantastic, magical settings, Into the Eagle’s Nest dropped players into World War II.

Presumably inspired by (at least in name) the classic World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” starring Clint Eastwood, Into the Eagle’s Nest places you in the heart of of the Eagle’s Nest, a Nazi fortress full of treasure, danger, and, well, Nazis. Your orders, according to the game’s manual, are to penetrate the Eagle’s Nest, rescue three allied captives before they are killed, destroy the Eagle’s Nest using hidden caches of explosives, and save as many stolen art treasures from destruction as possible.

To those who have played Gauntlet, the game’s layout should seem familiar. An overhead view of the Eagle’s Nest appears on the left, while a running inventory and status of your keys, ammo, health, and score are displayed vertically along the right hand side. A few differences between Gauntlet and Into the Eagle’s Nest are immediately noticeable. One, Into the Eagle’s Nest is a single-player game, so there will be no help for you. And two, the game’s graphics are much larger than Gauntlet’s. This design choice allows for more detailed graphics, but also means players are not able to see much of the game’s map at any given time (your view is limited to approximately 8×8 game tiles).

The game mechanics of Into the Eagle’s Nest should also seem familiar to Gauntlet veterans. Players will need to collect keys to open doors, collect first aid and food for health, and treasure (jewels, paintings, and vases) for score. Each level also contains elevator, wooden doors (which can be shot open), dynamite (boom!), and boxes of ammo. You’ll need the ammo to shoot and kill the hoards of Nazis, who are more than happy to return the favor. They’re not particularly bright, but there are lots and lots of them to deal with. The game is made more difficult by the fact that all bullets are invisible.

The ultimate goal of the game is to find all three allied prisoners and lead them to safety. Once your cohorts have been moved from harm’s way, you can complete the game’s final mission by using explosives and blowing the Eagle’s Nest sky high. If so are somehow able to do this, you’ll just start over in another, more difficult Eagle’s Nest. That doesn’t even make any sense. It would be like Darth Vader telling the Rebellion, “Oh yeah? Too bad for you I had ANOTHER Death Star!” And just how many stolen pieces of artwork were the Germans hiding in World War II? I mean, seriously; the Eagle’s Nest has more art than the Louvre!

As far as Nazi-killing games go, Into the Eagle’s Nest closes the gap between the original Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, 1981) and Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992). Although it’s a difficult game, it’s a fun one to play. Into the Eagle’s Nest was released for most major 8-Bit computers including the Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, as well as a few 16-Bit platforms including the Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS.