Monthly Roundup: January 2020

First, a progress note: I didn’t get quite as much writing done this month as I would have liked, as I’ve resumed class and wound up actually having motivation to play videogames. In any case, I have a few projects in the works that I hope to debut very soon. I will mention The Driver a little later in this post, but I had been planning on fleshing out a comparison to Drive (2011) for a full article, which will hopefully be coming soon. Afterward, I’ll be embarking on a few rather ambitious works for which I have high hopes and expectations: the first is an in-depth analysis and comparison of 2D and 3D combat, which, upon some months of reflection, research, and constant revelation, I’ve decided to publish in chapters. The first one is already mostly finished (I just made a last-minute decision to write the Symphony of the Night piece as foundation some ways in), and should hopefully be published not too far into the future, and subsequent chapters should hopefully be churned out every week or so. While I publish those, I’ll also finally be working on my next in-depth film analysis like that of Taxi Driver, this time on Full Metal Jacket (and then on The Believer (2001) sometime after that).

Videogames

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Maximo: Ghosts to Glory (2001) (cont.) – I had embarked on this one after making the determination that 3D action-platformers don’t/can’t exist–or work, at any rate–but remembering my own meager experience from some years back and a little bit of footage that I had seen, wondered if this might prove that they simply hadn’t been properly attempted. Having finished it…I don’t really think that I’d rescind my sentiment. Maximo definitely made a strong attempt at truly hybridizing action and platforming, but for the most part just seemed to throw the two in sequence very rapidly, with jumps and topography rarely playing a particularly strong part in given enemy encounters in the same way that they might in Castlevania, Rastan, Mega Man Zero, etc. Castlevania 64 is arguably properly described as a 3D action-platformer, but a rather poor one (and thus a rather poor game) as it does not exactly hybridize the two–you’re either platforming or fighting, never really both at once, and neither aspect particularly remarkable on its own. Maximo is, rather than proper action-platforming done right, really more like a regular 3D platformer like Super Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot that dares to actually make enemies into a threat to the point that they’re more than just there, and makes the platforming truly difficult (and a vital part of level design, rather than just a means to an end of exploration like Banjo-Kazooie or Spyro). It’s just a 3D platformer that’s hard and has enemies worth a damn. Expect more in a chapter titled Why 3D Action-Platformers Don’t Exist as part of my aforementioned upcoming comparison.

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Dark Souls (2011) – Finally getting on the bandwagon after a whole decade and whew boy, where do I begin? Even only about halfway through, there’s a lot to say about this game (I can definitely understand why it made the splash it did) so I’ll try to put it all succinctly:

-First off, yes, I have found its difficulty to be generally overstated; that said, it’s a healthy challenge. It feels exactly as difficult as it wants to be and it seems to want to be about as hard as it needs to be.

-Being exactly what it wants to be is kind of a running theme—maybe I could articulate more clearly what I mean by this once I finish the game, but it does give that impression through its healthy-yet-not-overwhelming difficulty and degree of punishment (plus its refusal to offer difficulty modes), areas designed on the macro to provide a certain impression and on the micro to characterize specific enemy encounters, and finality regarding decisions (clearly very deliberately restricting playthroughs to only one save file so as to disallow players second-guessing their level-ups. other expenses, and character interactions, plus rendering some gravity unto trial-and-error experiments).

-It seems like it can be approached as an RPG with a greater-than-normal focus on action or as an action game that has RPG elements. Given my own predilections, for me it was the latter. As such, I’m going to rescind my belief that RPG elements have no place in action games, and instead say that you have to go ALL the way in order to make it work out, meaning in-depth custom builds as part of the heart and soul of the game design rather than tacked on progression systems and upgrades that are designed to be calibrated with the difficulty curve anyway. Basically: keep numbers away from my action games unless you’re really willing to make them worth something.

-There is a number of contributions made to the discourse regarding 3D combat as it relates to 2D, but I’ll save those until they have the necessary context.

Meat Boy (2008)– The flash game, not to be confused with sequel Super Meat Boy (2010). There’s arguably an article’s worth of text I could drop, but the text doesn’t really have much of a central theme to develop—it all just happens to revolve around one particular game. Who knows, maybe I’ll just dump them into an article that’s simply oriented around various thoughts on Meat Boy, but for now here they are.

The central criticism of the indie game approach to hard game design has already been established and done so quite well, so it would be unnecessary for me to go much deeper than simply mentioning that indie games try to achieve hardness (“hardness” as a general composite of difficulty and challenge, the particular definitions having been touched on by the same author and referenced by myself) via extremely intense yet tiny segments that punish the player little if it all for failure, as opposed to the “building a house of cards” mentality of the tough platformers, action games, shooters, etc. of yore that demanded prolonged mastery, sending players a fair distance back upon death not simply to punish but to impose that prolonged mastery via a longer challenge.

Now for my own contributions: Many gamers laud the title and its cohort by arguing that it’s a waste of time to repeat parts of the game that had already been cleared, as it’s a pointless extraneous “punishment” or an obsolete means of expanding the running times of games back when they couldn’t contain as much information, and that there is now no need to force players to repeat already finished challenges. After my experience with this game (taking into account my experience with more conventionally difficult titles), I would suggest that this notion is debunked by my observation that Meat Boy tests your skill at each individual level, not the game itself. Since it only demands tiny doses of mastery, the ball never really gets rolling, and so the game never quite allows for cultivation of true overall skill; the thing is, it never really demands it either–each stage is so small that getting by on chance or happenstance is far more viable than in games with longer stages (at any rate, they’re far greater as components compared to skill). Essentially, the game doesn’t seem to understand why many teachers or coaches will demand that a student or trainee get something right several consecutive times rather than just doing it five times total among numerous failures, or why a victor might not be declared until a competitor passes the target number of points and establishes a two point lead over their opponent.

This leads to another catchphrase I had come up with: Meat Boy is an easy game with hard levels. There were a number of stages that got me pretty good, a lot of jumps that were tough to land and needles tough to thread. Yet, due to the relative shallowness imposed by the short levels and lenient punishments, the game itself never really gave me the impression that something like Ninja Gaiden (NES), Castlevania III, or a good arcade game does. It’s an odd statement and it’s one I’m not sure I’ve properly articulated, but it’s one I stand by, and perhaps one that can only be understood if one is to play some genuinely hard games (platformers especially) and then heads into something like Meat Boy while consciously aware of its approach.

It’s tempting to buttress my assertion by mentioning that I managed to finish all three main worlds (wasn’t interested in bothering with the bonus world) in about two hours, and I wouldn’t consider it a moot point, although it raises a few questions itself. What is “hard,” then, and when does a game cross over from “not hard” to “hard”? Obviously, personal experience plays into this (case in point: the aforementioned Dark Souls, which got a reputation for being one of the hardest ever largely because it happened to be the hardest game that many of its players had experienced), but in the information age, everybody’s experience funnels together to create a general pool of knowledge whereby we can come to general (certainly not unanimous to the tee, but general) understandings and agreements regarding relative difficulty–even if you’ve never played Ninja Gaiden Black, you understand that it’s harder than Kirby 64, at any rate. Perhaps the first step in order to answer that question would be to figure out how to measure how hard something is. If it’s such a big deal that I beat Meat Boy in a mere two hours, is it just how long a game or section takes to beat? As I mentioned in the postscript of the Symphony of the Night article linked earlier, generally, if difficulty amounts to certain variables, length is one of them–between two otherwise identical encounters, the longer one is technically more difficult by definition, even if not remarkably so. SotN, for the reasons I described, is a game whose boss fights become much more challenging and are very meaningfully transformed by a simple increase in length (and severity, but simply making the bosses take more hits is all that’s needed, as I mentioned), and speaking of Dark Souls, the now famous boss fights therein managed to distinguish themselves by not only the amount of HP they have, but the way that their longevity demands that players learn how to properly engage them rather than rely on blind brute force.

I’ve come up with a thought experiment to offer something to the matter: Imagine it’s 1990, and you’re a young gamer with an NES in the age of short games that keep players captivated by taking a long time to beat. Now imagine that Ninja Gaiden were released with only the last two acts (for the uninitiated, NG is a fairly hard game that becomes excruciatingly difficult around act 5–consider the “Why 6-2” segment of this guide if you can’t be bothered to try it out for yourself). It would be a blisteringly hard game from start to finish–probably, based on average level of difficulty across each moment, one of the hardest games ever. However, even still, with very little content to conquer, you could throw yourself against it enough times that you could probably finish it in a weekend if you were decent. Castlevania III is a hard game, but no level is ever quite as gruesome as those last two Ninja Gaiden acts—even still, it would be at least a few days, weeks even before you’d manage to conquer the entire thing. Which do you think you would walk away thinking was harder? Were I to take a survey, I don’t figure it would be a landslide, but I’d figure most players would probably think CVIII is the tougher one, because, technically, total victory comes more easily in abridged NG (don’t overthink what I mean or am referring to by “easily”). The average difficulty is higher, each level is harder than any CVIII level, but the game is easier. Even still, would it be fair to call that abridged NG an easy game? Not really; CVIII is at least a hard game, so what about something like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? It would take much less time to beat abridged NG than Twilight Princess, but nobody would argue that the latter would be anywhere near as hard. Hell, there’s no need for hypotheticals; NG is already a fraction of the length of TP even taking into account the average elapsed time spent on failed attempts and restarts, but one is notoriously hard and the other notoriously easy. Elongating an arcade game (provided it’s played the right way, i.e. one credit) or a roguelike makes the survival gambit longer and thus more grueling, thus instantly more difficult. However, adding several dungeons to Twilight Princess (assuming they’d fit into the difficulty curve such that it ends at the same place) would do nothing to make it harder, only longer.

Conclusion: Duration is certainly a factor in difficulty, but it’s not equivalent let alone synonymous.

One final item I’ll note is that for all of my criticisms and dissatisfactions, I enjoyed myself while playing the game. Despite finding many parts down to the core of the design to be flawed, I didn’t have to drag myself to the finish line; I was hardly miserable, and even felt pleasure from each challenge met, as one does while playing videogames. Videogames are fun and it hits our dopamine receptors when we meet challenges, even when we see fault in the challenges presented to us—were I more inclined toward assigning ratings, maybe this would mark the difference between a 2/5 and a 1/5: only a select few games are truly miserable to play, and those that I found substandard but technically enjoyable would be ranked 2/5.

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Dark Souls (2011) – The theme for this month’s roundup will be a labyrinthine, somewhat recursive structure like Dark Souls‘ own map design. Having touched on duration, is it then the number of encounters with the failure state that dictates the difficulty of a game? Some might accuse me of posturing when I claim that this legendarily hard game isn’t actually too hard, considering how often I tend to die. However, my attitude on it’s difficulty level is merely an observation on my own natural impression; I’ve been dying a lot, but I don’t instinctively feel as much pushback from it as I have from some others. I suppose the same could be said for Meat Boy: though I was meeting the failure state very, very often, I rarely felt as if my skills were truly being pushed to their absolute limit. Dark Souls is at least more willing to punish players, although veterans of older action games (and certainly adherents of the one credit rule for arcades) will find the setbacks to be relatively tame. Other cases like Fire Emblem might have players’ encounters with failure states be rather few and far between, but will still come off as very difficult—it’s just one that generally comes in the long run after a number of strategic mishaps leading up to eventual defeat (even if surprise critical hits do happen sometimes).

Conclusion: There’s much more to difficulty than duration or frequency of failures. It’s really complicated; who would have known. Certainly something worth discussing at length once I have a better idea of what it is rather than just a few certainties regarding what it isn’t.

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Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988) – Finally beat this one after about a decade and a half—as a kid I generally just got through the first two worlds or so before losing interest or being kicked off the TV. Thank goodness for modern technology and allowances for saving progress.

This game is frequently compared to the next generation’s sequel Super Mario World, and for rather good reason—both of them, in comparison to the first SMB and the straightforward sequel (Japanese) SMB2, use a world map as a hub between levels and sometimes allow players to choose paths, and expand on the brutally simple platforming of their predecessors with some rather gimmicky stages and abilities. Overall, I prefer SMB3 to SMW on account of being kind of a happy medium between SMB1 and SMW. While SMW dazzled audiences with fancy graphics, tons of wacky stages that were longer than anything in any prior Mario game, and all sorts of themes and gimmicks in those stages all courtesy of the advanced hardware, SMB3 instead pushed the more limited capabilities of the NES so as to provide much more variety of theming than the extremely simplistic first entry but ultimately still relying on solid, straightforward platforming challenges.

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It was a simple and odd joy emerging from the tower in World 5 (after all fortress stages in the game thus far plus every one of of its predecessors’ fortress stages had occurred entirely within) and seeing a ton of the standard breakable blocks crudely yet deliberately arranged so as to suggest a tower, that they composed the building that you had just run and leapt through. It’s more complex than the prior games and yet not the kind of thing that a game that allowed for so many more assets would need to do, and a fair microcosm of the appeal of SMB3.

Of course, the levels are still at least as hard as those in the first, and not quite the low-resistance themepark of SMW—that’s an approach that I won’t demonize, but one that doesn’t tickle me as much as SMB3‘s. In contrast to SMW and even SMB1, there are no mid-level checkpoints, demanding that players successfully complete the entire thing in one gulp. Generally, this means more prolonged mastery than most other Mario games, but in turn also resulted in shorter stages. Take note that these stages were still much longer than those of Meat Boy, and as such had less of an adverse effect, allowing each stage to have its own identity while not overstaying its welcome, and demanding prolonged performance. This resulted in the game allowing/demanding overall mastery with stages that individually demand mastery of each specific one. Essentially, SMB3 is the principle of short platforming stages done right.

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Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003) – Many JRPG fans seem to look upon the Mario RPGs as being fairly basic and entry-level games for neophytes (likely because of the Mario name), but frankly I find them far more meritorious than many others on account of being willing to really innovate mechanics in meaningful ways. This goes back to the first Mario RPG back on the SNES and was taken further by Paper Mario on the N64, but I feel that M&L really brought it into its own. 

Timed hits on attacks (as innovated in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and continued in Paper Mario) to deal more damage is a good start, making simple menu-based combat a little bit more engaging, but much more intriguing is the way that M&L expands the rhythm component when on the defensive. Instead of just timing a block to mitigate damage like in those prior, the player now jumps over attacking enemies or deflects their attack with a hammer strike. Sometimes jumping onto a charging enemy’s head will inflict a little bit of bonus damage, sometimes it’s hazardous to land on the attack and you have to time it so that you go clean over it. Each enemy seems to have at least two methods of attacking, forcing the player not to just simply match the square block to the square hole and round to the round, but to stay on their toes and react appropriately to each enemy and each attack. This goes MILES as far as differentiating enemies, as well as making turn- and menu-based combat far more engaging, and is so quick and simple as to not become grating like the 30-second minigames that many “subversive” turn-based RPGs like YIIK bore players with just so that they might do a basic attack. Furthermore (though this was also done in Paper Mario beforehand, it’s still a vital component), battles only started not only once player and enemy collide on the screen (as many RPGs had done and continue to do), but once one had struck the other, when the player jumps on the enemy or hits them with their hammer, or when the enemy attacks first. This creates a fairly quick and unobtrusive additional dimension, in which there are brief top-down Zelda-style encounters before the “proper” encounter, as enemies have their own methods of attacking and optimal methods of being attacked–a bit more straightforward action in addition to the turns and menus. Finally, dungeons are much more engaging than those of many JRPGs, as they dial up the interactivity via platforming and the brothers’ various abilities with hammers and elemental kinesis.

So, barring those games that truly do force strategizing and tactical play along with working inevitable damage into that strategy (as opposed to merely a sort of obligation in the easier titles that basically amounts to a call and response–“Simon Says use a potion”–and so might benefit from something like what Mario RPGs do to keep players awake), why didn’t they adopt M&L’s innovations in droves? The fact that it may not haven’t been taken as seriously due to starring the child-friendly plumbers and the fact that pure turn-based RPGs were going out of style by 2003 aside (turn-based RPGs still existed, at any rate), there are admittedly some deeper issues to consider. Mario jumps. That’s his thing. Cloud Strife or Crono might be a bit harder to take seriously if he were leaping and wahoo-ing all over the place, and jumping is huge component in M&L’s dodging, allowing for simplicity that never gets old. Not to mention that the emphasis on jumping opens up the dungeons–Mario is known for platforming, so of course the Mario RPG spinoffs emphasize platforming; who knows if that transplant could be applied to the entire JRPG genre. I would argue that top-down games would generally probably benefit from those micro Zelda-encounters prior to fights, and I’d still implore turn-based RPG devs to consider how some sort of small tweak could make fights more engaging if they won’t make them tactical, but I suppose doing so without a protagonist already famous for hopping around may well be a delicate proposition.

The King of Fighters (series) – Fighting games make up much of my time spent on games and may well be my favorite genre, so I feel it’s odd that I haven’t mentioned them much as of yet. I suppose that perhaps it’s just that I’m a fairly intermediate player and so most of the worthwhile revelations have already come from the higher-ups, but here’s something I could offer:

KoF has a reputation for being extremely hard among fighting game series to get into and get good at, primarily in terms of execution but also strategy. Some KoF players (certainly at least one that I know) are rather puzzled at this perception, pointing out just how hard something like Guilty Gear is in comparison and wondering how GG players of all people could possibly think that about KoF. Perhaps KoF technically is easier, but there are some logistical issues. KoF is distinguished for plenty of reasons, among them being its team format, in which players select a team of three that are run through in order (as opposed to the best-of-three-rounds format used by most fighters), setting them in sequence to go from characters that are good at building up meter at first and ones that depend on having meter later, yadda yadda. The issue is that the process of getting good at fighting games is threefold, and one of those folds has a few asterisks in this case. Firstly, there is acquiring fundamental skills that transfer across all or most fighting games, arguably more separate from the other two than those aspects are from one another. Secondly and thirdly come getting good at a given game and getting good with the character that the player uses in it–these two steps are indeed two separate concepts, but are harder to separate from one another. What might be KoF’s issue, then, is that players’ attention must be separated among three characters. Knee-jerk reaction would be that it requires three times as much effort, then, to cover “learning your character,” but even that is actually selling it short. Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R  may technically be a harder game to learn and gain proficiency in than any given King of Fighters, but I have had a much easier time because I can just stick with Axl, get in the groove, and get some momentum going. With KoF, just when I might get the ball rolling, I have to switch to a different character, who has a different command for his basic poke (and whose basic poke functions a little bit differently), a different command for his anti-air (and whose anti-air functions a little bit differently), etc. Essentially, your focus keeps breaking, and though you’re playing KoF all along, again, the character is hard to separate from the game, as it is through that character that you experience the game. The game itself may technically not be too difficult compared to some others, but the learning process is. This isn’t a complaint–the team format adds a lot to the experience overall–just an observation and diagnosis.

In any case, if anyone wants to help me grind, you’re free to reach out and kick my ass in 2002 Unlimited Match (now that the game has functional netcode, thanks a bunch Code Mystics) or even XI via nulldcbear.

Super Smash Bros. (series) – Speaking of fighting games (hear me out), I’m just going to copy and paste a message board post I made recently. It’s condensed to fit character limit, but it covers much of my current sentiment. Begin quote:

Rather than the top-down approach of starting with a game (Smash 99% of the time) and pointing to some aspect and yuh huh/nuh uh-ing over whether it is necessary for or incompatible with identity as a fighting game, it would make more sense to work from the bottom up. Hell, before we even ask what makes a fighting game, what makes a genre? Ideally, a genre would classify and group things that are innately similar to one another to enough of a degree. What degree is enough? What are the boundaries, and moreover, WHY are those the boundaries? How is “difference” measured?

I would personally contend that the best measure of difference is in skill transfer. Final Fight, Streets of Rage, the “belt scroller” beat ’em ups all are clearly the same genre, and despite differences between games, someone can get really good at a few and have a tremendous advantage when starting a new one compared to a neophyte. Obviously, change enough dials and something arguably is worthy of a different classification; God Hand clearly draws a lot from arcade beat ’em ups, but skill is less likely to directly transfer, so it doesn’t make sense to file them under the same category–same goes for [Devil May Cry], [Ninja Gaiden], [Bayonetta], etc.

The question we’re really asking is whether Smash turned the dials enough to be considered a “different enough” experience that it’s not worth grouping under other similar experiences. I consider it to be very similar–an FPS pro and a Smash pro play [Street Fighter] for the first time, the latter probably has an advantage. However, consider the following: a great SF player plays against a solid [King of Fighters] player in KOF; the latter probably wins. A great SF player plays a solid KOF player in [Samurai Shodown] (first time for both), the SF player probably wins. A solid SF player and a great Smash player try out any given traditional FG neither has touched, the former likely crushes the Smash player every time (figure neither has ever played any other FG).

Smash is undeniably closer to fighting games than any other major genre, but it’s hard to say whether it’s really a similar enough overall experience to warrant grouping it alongside the canon of “traditional” FGs. It’s pretty gray and arguably rather arbitrary, but Smash doesn’t strike me as having enough skill that transfers so as to consider it fundamentally part of the same strain.

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NieR:Automata (2017) – I have yet to finally get around to playing this one, but this clip got me thinking:

The combo here looks pretty damn stylish, but without any personal experience, I couldn’t tell if it was actually as effort-intensive as something equivalent in Devil May Cry or if it might be something along the lines of a case of “mash X to awesome.” To that end, I consulted a friend of mine who had the following to say: “the game has quite a lot of stylish techniques but you don’t need any of it and the game doesn’t encourage you in any way to explore…there also isn’t a movelist of any kind.” Ouch. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance seems to be a similar case, in which there is plenty of potential but no reason to tap into it. Consider what the game is capable of (embedding at the proper time doesn’t seem to want to work, so skip to 3:36 and check out that encounter):

Now here’s what that same encounter looks like for most people (seems to have worked here, 11:00 if not):

In the first, the player uses all sorts of attacks chained together in a seamless combo, even prolonging an airborne juggle state (it’s hard to even get Mastiffs into a juggle state in the first place). In the second, the player just kinda…hits him. This isn’t even the difference between a pro and a scrub; the second player manages to get through the entire game on the hardest difficulty without taking a single hit! The issue is that the reward is the same, and the game not only doesn’t demand but doesn’t in any way encourage players to be truly stylish–in either case, the game simply logs the number of hits.

In his appraisal of the Devil May Cry reboot, Mike Lowell takes a potshot even at the original series by describing its style meter as “the perfect psychological incentive to hand-wave the fact you can beat these games with like three moves.” He goes on to identify the way that the game ranks the player’s performance in given enemy encounters as a fairly frivolous mechanic that players can simply choose to care about or not; frankly, he has a point, and one well worth addressing. The Mega Man Zero series, as I discussed last month, also employs a ranking system and locks special techniques behind high grades, which essentially is the player’s incentive to dash through stages speedily, in a perhaps more organic gambit to make player approach the game a certain way. The NES Ninja Gaiden titles arguably do so much more organically, as they spawn tons of enemies to the point that it will eventually become completely overwhelming if the player backtracks or ceases to move quickly and constantly forward, as a ninja should. The question, then, is: if DMC‘s style meter isn’t the proper approach to making a game demand that players play stylishly rather than monotonously, then what is? That would probably take a genius game designer or several to answer, so instead I’ll offer this: Lowell brings up a salient point worth dwelling on and addressing. All the same, even beginner to intermediate level DMC players don’t content themselves to simply hit opponents, while apparently MGR:R pros do, and only a small number of bizarre outliers actually bother to tap into the potential that MGR:R and NieR:Automata have. Superfluous as DMC‘s style system could be argued to be, it still demonstrably works better than offering no incentive whatsoever.

Post-script: Another catchphrase for the books would be: “The quality of a game’s combat is a composite of how good it can be and how good it must be. The latter tugs harder.”

Movies

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The Blancheville Monster/Edgar Allan Poe’s Horror (1963) – Honestly might be the most good-looking Italo-Gothic film I’ve seen yet, which in some regard makes up for the otherwise less-than-amazing content. I’ll be honest, I only paid so much attention to what was going on (apparently not something that the director would blame me for, calling it “a little film of no importance”), but it was still enjoyable just to look at.

As for what went on that I did notice, first came the icon of the repressed and monstrous in the form of the protagonist’s father, a sort of mad beast imprisoned deep in the penetralia of the castle which all suggests some fairly apparent psychological and mythological (i.e. psychological) imagery, a sort of Minotaur figure. I was initially a little let down by the twist, but came to realize that the “father’s” disguise and true identity was technically just trading one iconic symbol for another (OK, I’ll say it for those who haven’t seen the film but want to know: the father’s face was actually a mask being worn by the brother. Make of that what you will, bearing in mind how we’ve established that masks function). And of course, they aren’t quite mutually exclusive in the grand scheme of the narrative.

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Shrek 2 (2004) – No really, Shrek 2. It’s not the kind of thing that I ordinarily watch or discuss here, but a friend half-jokingly put it on while I was visiting, and I was surprised and a little disarmed by how much I enjoyed it even as an adult. Kids are easy to impress and it doesn’t take much effort to give them something they’ll like (that night we also remembered Shark Tale, a sort of go-to for films that apparently managed to satisfy children but doesn’t hold up to those with actual standards), so it’s no surprise that the SpongeBob Squarepantses of the world are relatively few and far between, but sometimes these scriptwriters will actually go so far as to write genuinely clever and well-timed humor. There were a few fart jokes, sure, but plenty of decent comedy as well.

I suppose I could elucidate just what I mean by “fart joke,” as it’s actually rather topical. Put to it, I could come up with a few instances of humor that happens to relate to or invoke flatulence that are truly clever and worthwhile, but kids, being easy to please, need little more than a fart with only the slightest amount of context. Put another way, there’s humor about flatulence, and then there’s a Fart Joke, which is more fart than joke. As some have claimed that jump scares are the fart jokes of horror, there might be a little bit of light that this sheds onto horror as well. Jump scares are hardly inherently bad or distasteful compared to slow burn atmospheric gut wrenching bone chilling character development driven etc. etc., the problem just comes from ones that are more jump than scare. Like how comedians don’t need to turn down a good joke premise just because there’s a fart, jump scares can absolutely be done in “high” horror provided that they’re called for. The token, but arguably perfect example of this is in Mulholland Drive’s notorious diner scene:

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The Driver (1978) – As I said, I’m going to do my comparison to Drive in a full-fledged article, so I’ll stow that for now. Instead, I’m just going to comment that I find it intriguing how this film along with Taxi Driver were distinctly noir just as much as any 30s/40s detective story while not seeming to directly invoke any discernible part of those time periods. Basically, by being 70s as hell, it draws a clear kinship to films and novels that are 30s/40s as hell without needing to be at all 30s or 40s. Is there some sort of inherent tie to the zeitgeist of the 70s that caused such a resurgence of noir–such a natural and intuitive resurgence?

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Streets of Fire (1984) – I watched this one because of its clear influence on the beat ‘em up videogame genre, especially Final Fight (those close to the blog are familiar with my fascination with FF and my intentions to eventually analyze it at length and in depth), and came away with a number of observations on that front, beyond the obvious (or so I like to imagine). I feel that those observations will feed into a worthy discussion someday of how movies can influence games not just thematically but mechanically (that mechanical influence being more than just adaptation of theme into an interactive medium–how a sequence that functions one way in film might inspire a particular gameplay mechanic that functions in a particularly gamey way, for example).

Expect that discussion at some point; for now I’ll continue what I had going with The Driver and note how this film directly invokes a lot of 50s imagery while having a sort of modern twist, like the 80s’ take on West Side Story. The world of Streets of Fire seems kind of curious and hazy–is it supposed to actually take place in the 50s? Is it some town in the 80s where 50s culture just happens to be popular? Rockabilly is in, plenty of haircuts are clearly 30 years out of style, all the cars look pretty retro, youth gangs look and act like those of Rebel Without a Cause, but the leather-clad motorcycle gang looks at least as much Rob Halford as any greaser, Raven’s home bar had a rockabilly band but clearly a lot of punk fashion and imagery going (really, The Blasters are a solid middle ground of punk and country blues), and protagonist Tom Cody may not wear a headband or anything but strikes me as a bit more in line with 80s sensibilities of a cool-looking young man than 50s, even if his fashion isn’t so decisively modern. Really, it seems to be a sort of unidentifiable pastiche of both the 50s and the then-present day; based on my recollection, the film adaptation of Rumble Fish was sort of a similar albeit less campy deal. If the 70s were a sort of natural resurgence of some of the same underlying ideas and cultural motifs of the 30s and 40s, then it would make sense that the 50s would come back in the 80s. Yet, is this how it has to be compared to Taxi Driver and The Driver, that those 70s films could parallel the noir of old while being unashamedly modern, while the new generation of stories about violent juvenile delinquent gangs had to rely more on overt nostalgia? Well…

Image result for karate kid theatrical poster

The Karate Kid (1984) – I watched this one because it has kind of crystallized as a peak 80s nostalgia flick, and it definitely delivered on the 80s goodness with its soundtrack, wardrobe design, and general theming. Having made the observations I did above, we can see the parallels to fare like Rebel Without a Cause that we might not have without a handy genre tag like noir, yet here we have the same theme in an unashamedly modern film: young gangs on motorcycles acting out of control, a young boy with a crush on a sweet girl taking it on himself to stand up to the thugs, this time with no rockabilly or diners necessary. It does seem that the 80s had a number of cultural congruencies with the 50s, and maybe we only need the Streets of Fires and Rumble Fishes to point that out long enough to recognize it in the Karate Kids.

I’ve noticed, though, that there are a lot of stories in various media about the losers, the unpopular kids, the targets of bullies, and they have a clear target audience. If it was the low-to-middle-rung social status kids watching The Karate Kid during the 80s, then what were the cool kids watching? Was it all just Schwarzenegger and Stallone action flicks for them? I wonder what it might have said that that echelon consumed media about grown men while their subordinates related to protagonists more like themselves–is there something deep in that, or is it just that films and shows glorifying bullies and jerks wouldn’t go through and would be mired in controversy if they did, so Predator and Rambo were the socially acceptable avenues to power trips, stories about the audience’s stand-in kicking other people’s/things’ asses? 

In any case, while I understand that it’s about an underdog with less cultural capital than the cool and rich kids asserting himself and coming up from below, I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that such a cool design was spent on a character as unlikable as Johnny Lawrence. It would have been really satisfying to cheer on a character who looks that slick with such a flashy design, but I suppose I can just work on my Terry in Real Bout Fatal Fury 2 or rewatch his anime OVAs.

What’s funny, though, is that while searching for a picture of Johnny, I came across this:

Image result for karate kid johnny lawrence

For those who don’t know, that’s Vine/YouTube star Logan Paul. He made a name for himself along with his brother Jake basically by embodying the sense of humor of the guys at your high school that wore Abercrombie, garnering plenty of fans and no small amount of detractors along the way. When Jake released his rap single about facing adversity and people trying to bring him down (or something, it’s been years since I heard the first couple of seconds), one twitter user commented on the irony of his own bully putting out such a lyric. Now, that’s this fellow’s brother, but based on what I know of Logan, it would be more of a surprise to learn that he hadn’t been a bully in school. Were this the case, this cosplay of his would be quite intriguing; though it’s a Halloween costume rather than simply an outright tribute and it’s conceivably just done because there’s a moderate resemblance between the two, it would be interesting indeed if there were clear evidence that real life bullies felt kinship with fictional bullies, even when they’re designed as antagonists that the audience is supposed to dislike.

One thought on “Monthly Roundup: January 2020”

  1. Good point on the Schwarzeneggers vs. Predators as sublimating bullies’ fantasies similar to the Karate Kidses doing same for their victims’. On the resurgence of noir in the 70s, I would tie that to the fresh-out-of-film-school directors having fallen in love with the genre/style in grad school and wanting to emulate it in their films, but also point out that in the years following Viet Nam and Watergate it was the stench of corruption from those 50s potboilers that powered their reinterpretation.

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