Friday, June 28, 2013

Classic Songs: Dust in the Wind

Pressed for time, and feeling like doing something a bit different, today I'm here to talk to you about one of my favorite songs of all time, by one of my favorite bands of all time. The band is Kansas, and the song is "Dust in the Wind". Kansas was, in the 1970s, the heyday of progressive rock, one of the biggest bands in the world, certainly the United States. They have a pretty excellent 70s catalogue all around, but in the mid-70s they put out two chart topping hit albums back to back, 1976s "Leftoverture", and 1977's "Point of Know Return". Both albums together have some of the absolute best songs the band ever put out, in fact some of the absolute best music ever made, in my opinion. But it was on the latter that a last-second edition became one of the most timeless, memorable hits of all time.

One of the single coolest album covers of all time.

Originally written as a finger-picking exercise by guitarist Kerry Livgren, the principle figure behind most of the band's deeper, more esoteric lyrics. His wife had told him he should make a full song out of it, so he wrote the melancholy, philosophical lyrics that are now so well regarded, unsure if his bandmates would accept it. But they accept it they did, and a late, "throw away" addition to the album became the biggest hit the band ever had, even compared to "Carry On Wayward Son". Some bands manage to write that one song that elevates from "hit" to "timeless classic", more of a crossover phenomenon that people not even fans of rock music may hear and recognize. Queen had "We Are the Champions", Led Zeppelin had "Stairway to Heaven", Blue Oyster Cult had "Don't Fear the Reaper", and Kansas had "Dust in the Wind".

Kerry Livgren is on the far left.

The first time I heard this song, it was totally random, at a local bar & grill joint with my great uncle, and I just kind of heard it faintly in the background and it really spoke to me. I'm surprised I hadn't heard it earlier than the age of 15 or so, but this was my first exposure to it. I asked him "Who does this?" and he thought it was "Kansas or somebody", so I later looked them up on the internet, and bam. Instant love. The bittersweet tone of the song is both sad and soothing, the lyrics both simple yet profound. It instantly became one of my absolute favorite songs, and it has remained arguably my favorite song of all time, even though my favorite band of all time is Metallica. It just has the complete package, from the simple guitar melody, to lead singer Steve Walsh's (at the time) perfect vocals, to my favorite band-member Robby Steinhardt's (the majestic looking mountain man in the middle up there) soul-stirring viola solo. The song is short but sweet, and it does all it needs to do in that time. It's just so funny that, much like James Hetfield's "Nothing Else Matters" ballad, this song was something that almost didn't even get recorded, and yet it wound up becoming a timeless, amazing classic.

When I saw Kansas live for the first and only time back in 2006 or so, even though they're all old by now, and my boy Robby was no longer touring with them (for health reasons), when they played this song, it was still an amazing experience, and to borrow an expression from pro wrestling lingo, I totally "marked out". 

I shall leave you with the lyrics, and an awesome video of the song to enjoy. Cheers!

"I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment's gone.
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity.
Dust in the wind.....All they are is dust in the wind.

Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea.
All we do, crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.
Dust in the wind....All we are is dust in the wind.

Now don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy. 

Dust in the wind....all we are is dust in the wind.
Dust in the wind....everything is dust in the wind...."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Childhood Memories: 80s Robot Toys

As someone who spent my early childhood in the 80s, I got to experience almost the entire decade (born in late '81). Part of me would consider myself more of a "90s kid", because my late childhood and teens, literally when I "grew up", was the 90s. But I guess I was born at a good time, because I got to be both an 80s AND 90s kid, when you get right down to it. I got the best of both decades. And I don't think it's all that unfair to say that, with few exceptions (faster internet, etc.), those two decades were both light years better than anything that has come post-2000. In fact, the new millenia, so far, has been rather shitty, all things considered. But I digress.

Looking back at the 80s, one thing that really sticks out is that it was, unquestionably, the "Decade of Toys". Sure, many previous or following decades still have plenty of toys. But the 80s went kind of haywire with them. It's the only decade I can think of (having done the homework), that had such an ingrained phenomenon, for example, of cartoon shows either based on products, or cartoons made in tandem with a toy line specifically to sell it to kids. Transformers, Go Bots, GI Joe, He-Man, Care Bears, Glo-Friends, My Pet Monster, Potato Head Kids, Cabbage Patch Kids, MASK, Thundercats, Inhumanoids, Dino-Riders, the list literally goes on and on. And among the most popular of 80s toy trends, so it would seem, were toy robots. If you weren't alive in or don't remember the 1980s, trust me, robots were BIG.

So weird, sometimes so useless, yet still so cool.

As much as it was the "Decade of Toys", you could just as easily call the 80s the "Decade of Robots", at least in so far as society's fascination with them. You had R.A.L.F. (Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator) from the movie "Flight of the Navigator". You had Johnny 5 from the "Short Circuit" movies. You had the adorable little living flying saucer robots from "Batteries Not Included". You had the Transformers and GoBots, and the robotic butler from Rocky 4 (totally out of left field). But what we're here to talk about, of course, are the toys.

Ah, THIS guy.

Pictured above is one robot toy I actually owned (and wish I still had). You can basically figure out what it does from just looking at it, a battery operated little guy who moves around on the floor in certain patterns, and his eyes light up and he makes cool "laser" sounds, or whatever. I also had a white one with blue lights and neat little laser-gun hands that I wasn't able to find a picture of on the internets. Growing up fairly poor, as I've touch upon in the past, I unfortunately wasn't able to own too many of these bad boys, though trust me when I tell you that I certainly wanted them. One of my biggest childhood letdowns, was the fact that at a younger age, before Nintendo and Godzilla took over my life, I had an at least temporary obsession with getting my very own Teddy Ruxpin toy. It was a teddy bear doll, that was a robot (of sorts), with a tape player in it's back. You buy Teddy Ruxpin story tapes, pop 'em in, and the doll itself would move it's mouth and eyes while the voice of Teddy on the tape told you a story. On the commercials, it just looked so awesome I HAD to have one, and they naturally had a (pretty cool) Teddy Ruxpin cartoon that made my yearning even worse. Alas, I never did get to have one. I had Care Bears dolls, I had all three promotional Burger King "Alvin and the Chipmunks" dolls, I had He-Man toys and Legos and M.U.S.C.L.E. figures and a couple of Battle Beasts and I even had a Dino-Riders figure or two. But no Teddy. I was almost as forlorn about this fact as I was at an even YOUNGER age, when I felt that I absolutely had to have a $500 Pow-Pow-Powerwheels car. Ah.....youth.

The one that got away.....

So yeah. There were all kinds of robot toys. There was this guy:

Just look at that smile.

Alphie II, an educational robo-toy. Taught you numbers, letters, colors, memorization skills, etc. Never had one, but it always looked fairly neat.

Then there was this thing:

What a great................toy?

Called the "Armatron", from Tomy, the purveyor of all things ridiculously cool but also fairly useless. It is exactly what it looks like. Again, I never had one, but I remember it. If picking things up with extra effort is your thing, then Armatron is your friend for life!

Then of course there was:

So cool. So useless. But so fucking cool.

Nintendo, in order to market it's NES console as a "toy" in the recently game-aversion North American market, created ROB here, the "Robotic Operating Buddy", and packed him in with the earliest NES models to be shipped to the states. He looks absolutely bad ass, and those red flashing eyes you see were how it kept track of things happening in the game on-screen, the flashes would cue the robot to make certain actions. He was SUPPOSED to be your automated second player, a cool concept to a little kid, but sadly, they only made two games that he worked with (Stack Up and Gyromite), neither of which were all that good, and honestly, the poor guy just didn't work that well, or was all that fun to play with. But hot damn did he still LOOK cool, and that alone helped sell many parents who were weary of all the crap that Atari and Collecovision and Intellivision and Magnavox, etc., had flooded the market with in the early 80s.

AGAIN, sadly, I never had a ROB. Totally useless, to be honest, but to tell you the absolute truth, I wouldn't have cared as a kid. I would have, in all seriousness, just propped him up somewhere in my living room, and still pretended that he was my robotic pal, watching me play games, giving me pointers, watching my back for foul enemy attacks, etc. And it would have been the greatest thing ever. Ah well. One of these days, when I can afford to buy the obnoxiously priced used models online, I'll finally have one. And I'll STILL prop him up and pretend he's hanging out with me.

"I'm WAY cooler than Sonic the Hedgehog. Really."

Believe it or not, even SEGA had gotten into the robot act a bit earlier in Japan, creating what was essentially a public promotional tool, called "Sega Chan". Sega was already fairly rich even in 1982 off of their arcade profits, and they created Chan here, to put in malls and fun centers and other places where families and parents would likely see it. It had voice recognition, could talk and answer a select number of questions, show you promotional videos for Sega games on it's little chest-mounted TV screen, hand out pamphlets, and even shake your hand without crushing it. Looks pretty cool, but much like ROB, it must not have worked out all that well, because he's a forgotten piece of obscurity today.

All in all, toy robots are a pretty sweet idea. Although, I still maintain that, honestly, fuck Furbies. Those things are creepy as hell and look like they're going to learn just enough to kill you in your sleep. But OTHER than Furbies......I'd say, so long as you don't give them adaptive AI so they rise up and kill us all, robot toys (especially of the cheesy 80s variety), are pretty damn neat. I wish I still had the black and white ones from my childhood. And to tell you the truth, if I had the money to blow, I'd probably buy a bunch more I never had on ebay or something, right this minute. So if you have some spare cash lying around, go browse eBay or Amazon, and find yourself a battery operated 80s robot toy. You'll be glad you did, and you'll have a friend for life, or at least till his parts stop working.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Forgotten Gems: Mega Man V

Back again, with  another installment of the Forgotten Gems series, looking at more obscure (but awesome) classic video games from yesteryear! Today, in honor of classic Mega Man being announced as a playable fighter in the new upcoming Smash Bros. game, I decided it was a good time to look back at one of my favorite games, in fact my second favorite, and quite frankly, the second BEST Mega Man game ever made, Mega Man V for Game Boy!

New baddie Terra means business!

Not to be confused with Mega Man 5 for NES, this particular gem was the fifth and last of the Game Boy series of Mega Man games, known in Japan as "Rockman World". And also, while Mega Man 5 on NES was a decent, solid game, Mega Man V on GB is without question a far superior creation. The Mega Man games on the Nintendo Game Boy had, up until now, basically been rehashes of the NES games, using bosses and elements taken directly from those, with only a few things (like the Mega Man Killer robots) actually new. For example, the first game, "Mega Man: Dr. Wiley's Revenge", features four of the six robot masters from the original Mega Man on NES, then after defeating them, in Wily's Castle, you must fight four of the robot masters from Mega Man 2. In Mega Man II (the GB series used Roman numerals), you fought the other four robot masters from MM2 on NES, and then four from Mega Man 3. This continued on through Mega Man III and IV on Game Boy, as a typical formula. But then, lo and behold, the wonderful oddity that is Mega Man V came about, a game possessed of a totally, 100% brand new story, bosses, level elements, etc. And not only was it all new, but it was/is also AWESOME. Allow me to elucidate.

The Super Game Boy at work.

Mega Man V actually released after the also-fairly-good Mega Man 6 on NES, in September 1994. Along with being it's own, all-new game, it also was the only Mega Man game to make use of the Super Game Boy peripheral, which allowed Super Nintendo owners to play Game Boy games on their home console, and even add limited color palettes to them. Some later Game Boy titles, such as MMV, came programmed with some SGB compatibility, so as you can see above, they had their own pre-set palettes, as well as cool little graphic borders at the edge of the screen. Beyond that nifty addition, the game itself was one hell of a package.

I didn't personally get a Game Boy until Christmas 1994, but when I did, I was surprised by a fairly random-yet-awesome assortment of games. Among them, were Kirby's Pinball Land, the awesome 100 level Game Boy remake of Donkey Kong, the first Wario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (still to this day my favorite classic Zelda game), Tetris, and Mega Man V. I'm not 100% sure all these years later that I got ALL those games on Christmas with the GB, or if I got a couple of them later which is totally possible. But there were several, and MMV was among them. Looking back, Mega Man V has to be, hands down, my second favorite Mega Man game ever made, behind only the unbeatable classic Mega Man 2 on NES. MMV really has everything, from the Super GB functionality, to a cool original story, to the fact that it is one rare case in the series where NONE of the weapons you gain from beating the robot masters seem useless. They all are at least somewhat useful, a few of them being arguably the best weapons in the series. The coolest, and most memorable, out of all of these, is Saturn's weapon, the "Black Hole", which allows you to create a small black hole in the air which sucks up all items and enemies on screen, and drops any items neat-as-you-please right into your lap. Easily the coolest Mega Man weapon ever conceived. But even so, some of the other weapons you get are pretty sweet too. Such as the "Salt Water" attack, where you fire a ball of water, which then splits on impact into three smaller balls that bounce all around the room. Or the "Grab Buster", which fires a shot that leeches energy from enemies, refilling two units of your health meter.

The Mega Arm in action, made of pure awesomeness.

Mega Man V is so stuffed full of awesome, that even the standard Mega Buster is pretty much the coolest it's ever been, before or since. In every other Mega Man game (from 4 on NES onward) you could charge the Mega Buster to build up and release one big, powerful blast. Well in MMV for Game Boy, Dr. Light, Mega Man's creator, upgrades the Mega Buster weapon to create the Mega Arm, which instead of charging and firing a huge shot, you fire a huge Mega Man fist at enemies. And if you collect enough bolts (the in-game currency), you can upgrade this even further, to make it charge faster, to grab items from clear across screen, and to lock on to regular enemies and hit them over and over till they explode. If THAT isn't the single coolest regular weapon in just about any video game ever, I don't know what is. Rush, Mega Man's robotic dog pal (introduced in Mega Man 3 on NES), even gets into the act, transforming into "Rush Space" for the space journey form Earth to (SPOILERS) Dr. Wiley's secret space station. In this level you ride in Rush like a spaceship, and the level plays out like a classic side scrolling shoot'em up game, similar to R-Type or Gradius.

The actual plot of the game is pretty unique as well. The Earth has been attacked by mysterious space robots called "Stardroids", and in Mega Man's first encounter with their leader, Terra, his Mega Buster has no effect on their super-hard space metal. Thus Dr. Light upgrades it to the more powerful Mega Arm, and once again he must rush off to save the world. The robot masters themselves are singularly unique in the Mega Man universe as well, because unlike the classic Mega Man series, where every boss is named "____ Man", or the X series where almost all bosses are named/based off of some kind of animal, in MMV on Game Boy, the "Stardroids" are named after the 9 planets of our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Terra (Earth), Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto (which is STILL a planet, fuck the haters). As it later turns out, it was Dr. Wiley who discovered these mysterious space robots in some kind of ancient ruins, and reactivated and reprogrammed them to, what else, take over the world. After defeating them, surviving the hard-as-nails space shooter level including the boss fight with the Skull on the front of Wily's space station, and then making it through the station, fighting the "Mega Man Killer" robots one last time, and once again stomping Wily himself, (SPOILERS), you even have to fight one last super-top-secret space robot that Wily also discovered, a fairly all-powerful guy called "Sunstar". He's one hell of a final boss, let me tell you.

Cooler than Rush? Yes....yes he is.

I can't possibly talk about Mega Man V, however, without telling you about possibly the coolest and most unique asset this game has. Dr. Light also creates a new robot pal to assist Mega Man in his battles. And unlike Flip-Top Eddie, or the robo-bird Beat, etc., who are-yet-aren't useful, THIS little guy is fucking bad ass. It's a little green robo-cat named "Tango", and while he only has one function, it's just about the most awesome function you could hope for. When you summon him, he teleports on-screen, lets out a "meow", and then transforms into what basically looks like a giant buzz-saw, bouncing all over the screen and destroying everything in sight. And like Rush, you can refill his energy, so that you can use him throughout the game. The developers originally added Tango because they wanted a new robot pal that wasn't in the NES games. But sadly, as cool as he is, he more or less got forgotten in the future. He can be bought as an item in the SNES/Game Boy Advance game Mega Man & Bass, and makes a cameo playing in the item shop in the downloadable game Mega Man 10. But outside of that, he never has the prominant role he had in MMV. And to me, that sucks, because he's an awesome, and incredibly useful character.

So, in summary, Mega Man V for Game Boy is awesome on many fronts. It's the only all-new, completely original game in the Game Boy series. It's the only game in the entire Mega Man franchise, to my knowledge, that has totally unique names for the bosses. It's the only game that features the super-useful Mega Arm weapon. It's the only Mega Man game I can honestly thing of, where MOST of the robot master weapons you gain are actually useful. It's got the cool Rush Space shooter level. It's got a great soundtrack. It's fun, even though it's tough as nails to beat. It's got fuckin' TANGO the robo-cat! Basically, the game just has everything you could want in a Mega Man game, or an action/platformer game in general. It truly stands alone, and I would have to say, in my opinion at least, is the second coolest Mega Man game ever created.

So if you've never tried it yet, give it a whirl! Though sadly, as of now, Capcom has yet to release this game for download on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. Hopefully they eventually will, sooner rather than later, because it is one forgotten gem that ABSOLUTELY deserves to be played and recognized by a wider audience. Cheers!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Unnecessary Sequels: The Neverending Story

*In the interest of saving time and spacing things out a bit, this series will continue forward focusing on only one movie and it's crappy sequels per article from here on out. Enjoy!

Well, it's time once again for another look at the myriad of quality or even excellent movies, that should have stood the test of time as stand-alone, self-contained works. But instead due to Hollywood's love of money, received highly unnecessary, and in many cases absolutely horrible sequels. And away we go!

Film: The Neverending Story
Year: 1984
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Unnecessary Sequels: The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990), The Neverending Story III: Escape From Fantasia (1994)

Today we look at one of the quintessential films of the 1980s, and one of the greatest fantasy films ever produced, Wolfgang Petersen's "The Neverending Story". Based on the novel by the same name, written by author Michael Ende, this film is hands down one of the most esoteric and imaginative ever crafted, certainly that I have ever personally seen. It tells the tale of a lonely boy named Bastion whose mother has recently died, and who has a strained relationship with his father as they both struggle to cope with the loss. On his way to school one day, Bastion is chased by local bullies, who proceed to throw him in the garbage. After exiting said garbage, he is caught by the same bullies and manages to hide from them by slipping into a bookstore, owned by a Mr. Koreander. After talking with Koreander, who discovers much to his surprise that Bastion is most interested in books and fantastical stories, the shop owner leaves the room to take a phone call, which leaves the mysterious book he was reading, called "The Neverending Story", unguarded. Bastion, ever curious and loving stories, decides to snatch the book, leaving a note promising to return it. The shopkeeper sees this and merely chuckles, leading the viewer to realize he probably expected that the boy would do so. And from this we have the framing for our tale.

Quite possibly the coolest looking book in history.

So naturally, Bastion arrives late to school, discovers he's also late for a math test, and proceeds to steal away up to the school's storage attic, where he settles himself into reading this forbidden and mysterious book. What follows is one of the coolest movies ever made, one of the most imaginative worlds ever conceived, and all in all just a damn fun experience for just about anybody who has a soul. While produced on "only" $27 million US dollars, this German-American co-production really spared no expense, as they obviously tried their best to make every facet of the film, and the world within the book, known as "Fantasia", the most exotic, lavish and creative that they could. The entire film just oozes with a special feeling that few ever truly possess. I might be biased because I grew up with this movie, and it was and remains one of my all-time favorites. But it also holds up just as well today, and I think is beyond just being a "cult classic" film. In fact I think it absolutely deserves to be considered simply a classic, period.

"What's a Luckdragon?"

So there you have it, without going TOO in depth into this literally magical film. It's just full of so many memorable creatures, characters, and moments. It was absolutely a stand-alone film that stood the test of time, and served as a great, self-contained story that needed no further elaboration or exploration. It was a nice ending, nice wrap-up, nice everything. But, following the predictable pattern, the film made a lot of money worldwide, and thus movie executives were salivating at the prospects of making MORE money. That didn't wind up happening for several years, but come 1990, they finally released a "Neverending Story II". And as a kid, not yet really grasping such concepts as "This would be better as a stand alone piece and doesn't need any sequels", I was super excited to see it. So when it finally came out on tape, we rented it, and while I'm not sure I can rightly say I was unhappy with the film, I do remember being kind of let down by it, at the very least. Naturally, happening six years later, they recast all of the central roles of Bastion, the warrior Atreyu whose story Bastion followed by reading the book, and the Childlike Empress, ruler and embodiment of Fantasia whom Atreyu had set out to save. And with the sole exception of Atreyu, who they found another appropriately Native American looking kid to portray, the other two casting choices looked pretty much nothing like their predecessors. That alone was something that did bother me a bit, even as a kid. But that wasn't the half of it.

The devastating results of making a warrantless cash-in sequel.

Now before continuing, I suppose I am obligated to point out, that while I have never read the original book (though I certainly should), it's worth noting at the very least that the events of this second film aren't just made up crap by the movie studio. Rather, the events of the first movie actually make up only roughly the first half or so of the book, and thus the producers did actually bother to attempt a correct approach by using the second half of the book as the source material for it's sequel. However, in all honesty that is about where the earnestness ends. The story, in a nutshell, sees Bastion after having (SPOILERS) saved the day in the first movie, now actually adventuring around the land of Fantasia himself, any child's dream come true. During his adventures, he runs into an evil witch named Xayide, who proceeds to butter him up nonstop as the savior of Fantasia, using him for her own ends. Those ends have a little something to do with a new Fantasia-ending phenomenon called "The Emptiness" (replacing the original film's unstoppable force "The Nothing"), which causes things to hollow out and shatter like glass, becoming nonexistent, etc. She also helps turn Bastion into a jerk, which causes him to turn on his friends, kind of making him a bad guy and setting Atreyu up to save the day, and so on and so forth.

"We're having fun."

All of this, as far as I know, is fairly true to the second half of the book, with the exception of the "Emptiness" business, which I guess they felt added a "bigger" threat to the movie. But the real point is, as it has been with the earlier entries, that this film just simply was extremely unnecessary, and the entire thing just FEELS that way, from start to finish. Everything in the film is just "bigger" and flashier and glossier, more "Hollywood", whereas everything in the original film just flowed very naturally and everything seemed and felt very organic. This sequel from beginning to end just kind of quietly screams "FORCED!", and that is already a foundation for disaster. Now I wouldn't quite call this movie a disaster. It's not. It's just not very good. However, it is fantastic when compared to what would come next...........

This poster pretty much says all that needs to be said....

In 1994 a third sequel was released, in Germany only apparently. Almost two years later, it saw limited release in US theaters before going straight to video. That already kind of "smells funny", yes? Well, sufficed to say, I never actually saw this film when it came out, not bothering to actually try and watch it till I was 19 years old, in 2001. And when I DID finally sit down to try and watch it, because why not, I shit you not, I made it through the first ten minutes of the film, got to the part where it's revealed that the bad guys (seriously) refer to themselves as "The Nasties", and it was at that point I promptly turned it off and have never looked back. So no, in some remote sense of fairness, I must point out that I've never watched the entire film. But in fairness to ME, I don't think I really have to. You don't have actually eat a dog turd to guess what it probably tastes like, and thus is the case with this film. Ironically enough, this movie even features an early turn by (now megastar) Jack Black, as the leader of the Nasties "Slip". I'm sure he tries to forget this fact today.

Basically, without even watching the whole thing, just having read about it, added to the feel I got from just those first ten minutes, I can tell you that this movie was nothing more than a cheap cash-in times ten. It was cheaply done, probably hurriedly produced, and just displayed no care whatsoever for the original film or the book. At least the second film, while certainly not all that good, and very much a glossy, whitewashed Hollywood product, displayed some modicum of trying to live up to the first. This movie doesn't even attempt that, and follows some haberdashery about "The Nasties" getting control of the book, and creatures from Fantasia somehow being sent to this world, blah blah blah. I won't even dignify it by trying to get deep into it. If you really care about the plot, either see the film, or read the Wikipedia article. Just know that if the second movie is weak, the third straight up sucks. And that's all you really need to know. Just enjoy the first film, and forget that the "sequels" ever even existed.

But hey, take solace! If you've never seen the first "Neverending Story" film, please do yourself an enormous favor and see it as soon as possible. You'll be glad you did, and your life shall be all the richer for having seen it. Cause it's fuckin' awesome. Cheers!