Westworld Is Expensive, Exquisitely-Produced Trash

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Westworld is a show that looks good on paper, with an interesting premise, a great cast and a huge budget, but none of that saves it from being one of the most cliched and poorly written shows I’ve seen in recent years.

The show is led by Jonathan Nolan, the brother of Christopher Nolan and writer of most his films, with his wife Lisa Joy. The Nolans have always specialized in dumb movies that pretend to be much smarter than they are, but usually they are quickly paced and packed full of enough action and special effects that they still manage to be enjoyable. But when stretched out to over ten hours (I only watched the first season and don’t plan to watch the second) the shallowness of the characters and plot becomes hard to ignore.

J. J. Abrams also serves as executive producer, which I didn’t notice until midway through the season, and if I did, I never would have bothered with the show to begin with. (If I hadn’t already promised a friend to watch the entire season, I would have dropped it then and there.) Abrams is possibly the worst thing to ever happen to modern cinema, and Westworld is dripping with his signature mystery box BS. Viewers are teased with references to secrets sure to be revealed at a later date, but the characters and plot are so uninteresting, it’s hard to care about the true meaning of “the maze” or the identity of the Man in Black (even when played by an actor as great as Ed Harris).

The Leftovers, a concurrent HBO series produced by Abrams’ Lost partner Damon Lindelof, is also full of mysteries, but is grounded in believable, engaging characters who keep viewers invested while the mysteries slowly unfold. Comparing these two series, I’d be willing to bet that Lindelof was responsible for most of the best parts of Lost while Abrams contributed the factors that made the show so ultimately disappointing.

The dialogue in Westworld is atrocious. I suppose it makes sense for the robot characters to be so cliched and one-dimensional, but the human characters aren’t any better. You can tell a character is cynical and mean because they swear a lot, and that’s about as deep as any of them get. On top of that, the show can’t go more than ten minutes without a character explicitly stating their motivation or one of the show’s themes. One of the character’s mentions the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule at one point, but this is the only evidence anyone of the writing staff had ever heard of it. If I took a shot for every line of cringey dialogue, I’d have died of alcohol poisoning by the end of the first episode. (Given Lisa Joy’s eye-rolling proclamations about the importance of “diversity” and “creating opportunities” in writers’ rooms, it’s not hard to guess why the writing feels so god-awful amateurish. And this coming from a woman whose most notable skill is spreading her legs for the Batman guy’s brother.)

The philosophy of the show is not only spoonfed to the audience at every turn, it does nothing but rehash themes that have been explored by science fiction for decades: corporate greed is bad, modern hedonism leads to spiritual emptiness, and *gasp* what if the robots are more human than us? (Karel Capek called. He said you’re all hacks.) There’s still a lot of rich territory in these themes for ambitious creators, but Westworld doesn’t want to risk alienating or confusing its audience and only gives any of its ideas the most cursory examination. (The Leftovers is much more subtle and experimental in its philosophy, which resulted in the series never gaining a large following.)

Westworld was explicitly created to fill the gap created by the soon to finish Game of Thrones and everything about the show demonstrates its unwillingness to take any chances. The show is beautifully shot and employs great directors like Neil Marshall and Michelle MacLaren, but even at the best of times, it’s as hollow and lifeless as any of the show’s robots. There are some beautiful natural vistas in the Westworld park itself, but the sets for the “real world” behind the scenes of the park all look like a cross between a supervillain’s hideout from a brutalist dystopia and an Apple Store, in other words ugly and generic.

The show does pick up a bit in the final few episodes, where there’s a little more action and the answers to some of the mysteries are revealed, but even then everything still feels very by-the-numbers and it’s certainly not worth enduring the time it takes to get there.

Ultimately, Westworld is schlock with nothing of value to say. It could have been perfectly enjoyable if it toned down the pretension and focused on raw entertaining thrills instead, but like many of its characters, the series doesn’t know what it actually is and plays a role it is wholly unsuited for.

Final Rating: Negative 10 out of 5. What a waste of fucking time.

 

Donkey Kong Country (SNES) – Retro Game Reviews

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I played Donkey Kong Country a few times as a kid, but I never cared for it. The game was too hard for me then, and the art style didn’t appeal to me. (The bee enemies really scared me for some reason.) Revisiting it now, it still wouldn’t rank among my favorite platformers, but I have a lot more respect for it.

Before Donkey Kong Country, the DK franchise was effectively dead. Rareware effectively rebuilt the series from the ground up, changing the gameplay completely, adding what at the time were cutting edge graphics, and injecting some 90s attitude into the aging franchise.

From the opening cutscene, this game screams “This ain’t yo’ daddy’s Donkey Kong.” The original DK is relegated to the role of Cranky Kong, with a grown-up Donkey Kong Jr. taking center stage, surrounded by a cast of new characters. DKC is fully of personality, from Cranky’s hilarious insults right down to DK and Diddy’s idle animations.

For the most part, the art has aged really well. The early 3D reminds me a lot of claymation, and the enemies and backgrounds are nice and colorful. Obviously, everything is a bit pixelated, but that’s to be expected. The only model I really had a problem with was DK himself, who just looks like a brown blob a lot of time. Maybe that’s just me, but considering how DK was removed as main character from the sequels, perhaps someone at Rare shared my criticism.

Donkey Kong Country is famous for its tight controls, and while the game is challenging, it’s nowhere near as hard as I remembered. There’s still some trial and error, especially on the later levels, with enemies appearing without giving you time to react, but it never gets to the point where frustration ruined the experience or made me want to quit.

David Wise’s score is rightly lauded as one of the best soundtracks on SNES if not in the entire history of gaming. From upbeat tracks like “Jungle Groove” to the soothing “Aquatic Ambiance”, DKC shows the heights the SNES sound chip is capable of, and it’s worth playing for the music alone.

Another thing Donkey Kong Country is famous for is its hidden areas and bonus stages. I’ve never been the type of gamer that feels the need to find every secret, but if you are, DKC has a ton of replay value (which is good since the main game can be completed in only a couple of hours).

DKC isn’t without its problems though. The slippery controls in ice levels are atrocious. Ice levels are a bane to most gamers at the best of time, and given DKC’s difficulty, I’m sure they resulted in quite a few broken controllers back in the day. “Stop and Go Station” (where you have to hit barrels to stop invincible enemies from moving for a short time) and “Loopy Lights” (where the same mechanic is used to keep the stage lit up) are cool ideas in theory, but the barrels don’t last for a consistent length of time, making them needlessly frustrating.

By far the worst level in the game is “Torchlight Trouble”. This level is entirely dark, apart from a flashlight being held by a parrot (one of several animal companions in the game). The level itself isn’t bad, but every time you turn around, the parrot swings his flashlight, and the screen flashes completely white for a moment. It only took about ten seconds for this to start giving me a headache, though thankfully there are no other levels employing this gimmick.

It’s easy to see why Donkey Kong Country is favorite game for completionists and speedrunners. It’s a game that rewards repeated playthroughs and mastery of the controls. This has never been what I personally look for in a game and I’ll never be a DKC superfan, but I enjoyed my experience a lot more than I expected, and I could see myself revisiting it from time to time in the future.

Final Score: 4/5

Adventure Island IV (Famicom) – Retro Game Reviews

Adventure Island IV (Japan)

Before I started this series of reviews, I was completely unaware that there even was a fourth 8-bit Adventure Island game, which isn’t very surprising since it’s never been released outside of Japan.

Adventure Island IV features a lot of changes to the standard Adventure Island formula. Instead of a straight platformer, AI4 takes place in a Metroidvania-style open world. The witch doctor kidnaps your five dinosaur pals and later your girlfriend and you must travel through six zones collecting new weapons and items and defeating bosses to rescue your friends.

Higgins (technically Takahashi, I suppose) controls similarly to previous games, except that your can no longer hold B to run and the height of your jumps is no longer determined by your speed. One-hit deaths are gone too. Instead you start with two hit points and more can be added by finding heart containers. Your primary weapon is throwing bones, which function the same way as axes in previous games (axes can be unlocked later and do more damage), but you also have a wide variety of other weapons and items which are unlocked by defeating bosses and can be swapped at any time via the pause menu.

There are six zones in the game, each having a miniboss to unlock a weapon or item to help you progress (hammers can be used to smash rocks, torches can light up dark areas, etc.) and a main boss that will unlock an additional item and free one of your dinosaurs. Once you free a dinosaur you can go to a ranch near Higgins’ house to bring one them with you, and you can switch between riding your dinosaur or using your normal weapons with the pause menu. However, if you get hit while riding your dinosaur, it’ll disappear, and you’ll have to go all the way back to the ranch to get it back.

If you lose all your hearts, you’ll be sent back to Higgins’ house (where you can also rest to restore your hearts and get a save-password at any time) but you’re given a teleportation egg at the beginning of the game that you can place on pedestals throughout the world to create a warp point, so you don’t need to replay the same area over again.

You can only access one zone to start with, with additional zones being unlocked in order after you defeat the previous zone’s boss, so there’s no opportunity for sequence breaking. However, you can revisit previously unlocked zones at any time to search for heart containers that weren’t accessible your first time through.

There are a number of minigames that can be found throughout the game. Some of them are mandatory to progress, while others let you win various items to restore your health or a compass that will tell you which direction to go, though navigation is still pretty easy without it.

Thankfully, Adventure Island IV ditches the geometric art style and frustrating level design of the third game, and builds off what the previous games (particularly the second one) did right to create something familiar to fans but at the same time unique to the series. Of the four 8-bit Adventure Island games, it’s probably the easiest thanks having multiple hit points, but there’s still plenty of challenge, especially in boss fights.

If you’re a purist, the game is for the most part playable for non-Japanese speakers, but I still recommend downloading the English-patched version which can easily be found online.

Adventure Island IV is my second-favorite entry in the series so far. Adventure Island II is still the best one, but if you’re a fan of series and have never picked this one up, give it a shot because it’s a lot of fun.

Final Rating: 4/5

Pacific Rim: Uprising – Movie Review (No Spoilers)

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If you go into Pacific Rim: Uprising expecting the same level of quality as the first movie, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you approach it with a B-movie mentality, you’ll have a lot of fun. The film centers around John Boyega as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first movie and a small-time grifter who is forced to re-enter the military after being caught selling stolen Jaeger parts, as well Cailee Spaeny as Amara Namani, an orphan who is recruited after having built her own illegal Jaeger.

Burn Gorman and Charlie Day’s Hermann and Newt return from the first movie and are as entertaining as ever, and Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori also returns in a small role. Otherwise, the film focuses entirely on the new cast. The human drama of the film is all pretty cliche and the dialogue is downright cringey at times, but nobody watches a movie like this for the drama anyway. There is a twist midway through the movie that I genuinely didn’t see coming, and it pushes one of my favorite characters into the center of the plot, so it isn’t all bad.

There are a lot of cool fights in this movie. Our heroes have to fight not only against kaiju but also against other Jaegers that attack for unknown reasons. The special effects are equal in quality to the first movie, with the same rock ’em-sock ’em thrills that made the first film so much fun. They don’t skimp on the fights either. There are half a dozen or so major battles in the movie that steadily increase in scale, and even when the human parts are boring, you never have to wait too long for more giant robot action.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is not going to win any awards for subtlety, but if you dig giant robots as much as I do, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Final Rating: 3.5/5

Adventure Island III (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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I really enjoyed Adventure Island II so I was eager to hop into the third entry in the series, but unfortunately, Adventure Island III feels a step backwards from the previous game in a lot of ways. The basic mechanics are nearly identical to the second game, a few small additions. There a few more enemy types, you get a fifth dinosaur buddy (a triceratops), and in addition to your standard throwing axes, you now also can find boomerangs. You have to wait for your boomerang to return to you before you can throw it again, whereas you can throw multiple axes in quick succession, so you’re better off just sticking with them. You can also duck now, which can be very helpful in defeating small enemies and avoiding attacks.

But some features have been removed, most notably that the screen can no longer scroll backwards. Similar to the first Super Mario Bros., the screen locks behind you as you progress. As a consequence, the levels where you ascend vertically while going left and right to reach higher platforms have been scrubbed. These were some of my favorite levels in the second game, and it’s really disappointing that they didn’t return.

The art style isn’t as good as the second game either. All of the backgrounds have blocky, polygonal style that is just ugly in my opinion, and some of the levels are made up almost entirely of a few shades of the same color. Even the first Adventure Island had better art direction. Some of the returning enemies have received new sprites and in nearly every case, they’re more generic looking than their Adventure Island II counterparts.

But the level design is the biggest step backwards. There are so many times in this game when you’ll jump over an obstacle or to collect a fruit and an enemy will jump out of nowhere right where you’re going to land without giving you time to maneuver. This happened so often that it had to be intentional, and it’s extremely frustrating. You still have your stamina bar steadily ticking down, so proceeding through the level carefully to avoid these traps often isn’t an option. You just need to die and memorize them for next time. I get that they wanted to make the sequel more challenging, but this is not the way to do it. I don’t want to feel like the designers are intentionally punishing me for playing their game.

Adventure Island III isn’t terrible, but you’re much better off sticking with the second entry in the series. The few modest improvements don’t make up all the things the previous game got right which are removed. I can see myself revisiting Adventure Island II every through years for another playthrough, but I’ll probably never play Adventure Island III again.

Final Rating: 3/5

Adventure Island II (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Adventure Island II is everything a video game sequel should be. It has everything the first game did right, but bigger, better and more polished. The basic mechanics are the same: go right, throw axes at enemies, and collect fruit to refill your stamina bar, but many improvements are made to the formula.

The graphics and music are improved over the first game, as is the level design. There’s a good amount of varieties with some levels focusing on dodging or defeating enemies and others with hardly any foes that are more focused on platforming and making it to the end before your stamina bar depletes, as well as some stages that are mostly vertical and a few underwater stages as well. The levels are much shorter and early ones are a little too easy, but there is a steady difficulty curb as the game progresses.

There are more enemy types this time around and their placement doesn’t feel as random as they sometimes did in the first game, but one really annoying thing is that the same sprites will be used for enemies with different attacks. For example, some snakes will shoot fireballs at you, some will hop at you and some will stand still and do nothing. There’s no indication which behavior each one will have, so you have to stop and wait to see what you’re dealing with while your stamina bar continues to decrease.

In addition to skateboard power-ups from the first game, you now also have four dinosaur buddies you can find in eggs. The dinosaurs give you an extra hitpoint like the skateboard and some of them have unique attacks. The controls while riding the dinosaurs can be a bit slippery though, so on some stages it’s better to just skip them. You still lose your axe when you die, but if you finish a level with an axe or a dinosaur, you can choose to move them to your inventory before starting the next level to stock up for the more difficult levels later on.

One of my biggest gripes with the first game was how the same boss is repeated for every world and thankfully that isn’t the case with with Adventure Island II. The bosses strike a good balance between not too challenging or too easy, but if you die, you have to replay the previous level before facing them again, which is a bit of a pain. (Thank goodness for my ol’ pal, savestates.)

Adventure Island II is not without its flaws, but if you’re a fan of NES platformers, it’s worth checking out.

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Final Rating: 4/5

Adventure Island (NES) – Retro Game Reviews

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Hudson’s Adventure Island is one of the more memorable platforming series on the NES. Originally planned as a port of Wonder Boy, Hudson lost the rights prior to release and instead adapted it into an original property. You play as Master Higgins who must rescue his girlfriend Tina from an evil witch doctor by traveling through 32 stages divided into 8 worlds.

There are a few things that set Adventure Island apart from other platformers. For starters, there’s a health meter that slowly decreases over time and has to be replenished by collecting fruit found throughout the level. This game features one-hit deaths so you have to balance proceeding cautiously so you have time to react to enemies but quickly enough to get to the end of the stage before you run out of health.

You can’t jump on enemies. Instead you attack by throwing a axes, which are found in eggs for some reason. If you finish a level with an axe, it’ll carry over to the next stage, but when you die you lose your axe and some of the later levels are nearly impossible without it. (Adventure Island definitely lives up to the “Nintendo Hard” reputation.) The axes are thrown in an arc, so if enemies are too close, they tend to just fly over their heads

Eggs may also contain fairies that will briefly grant you invincibility, eggplants (described as Higgins’ least favorite food) which will deplete your health faster than normal until they go away, and skateboards. The skateboards are a mixed blessing. They give you more speed and if you hit an enemy, you lose the skateboard instead of dying immediately, but on stages with a lot of precision platforming, you’re better off just avoiding them.

The game also has a pretty unique momentum system. Jumping while running will give you a higher jump than while standing still, which leads to some tricky situations when you don’t have room to maneuver.

Every fourth stage ends with a boss fight but it’s the same boss every time. The boss will move from left to right and back again and occasionally throw fireballs at you. To defeat the boss, simply jump up and throw axes at his head. (Luckily you’re always given an axe power up right before the boss in case you don’t have one.) The only difference in the fights is the sprite used for the boss’s head and how many hits needed to defeat him. It’s really disappointing.

The graphics and music are okay for a game released relatively early in the NES’s lifespan, but they aren’t anything special.

Adventure Island is a pretty good game overall. It doesn’t rank among the best platformers on the system, but if you’ve never played it before, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Final Rating: 3.5/5