Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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Civil War is pretty much Marvel’s BvS: it has a highly convoluted plot that doesn’t make much sense once you think too hard about it, feels way overlong and expects the viewer to take it seriously. At least the fight scenes are intense and exhilarating and unlike BvS, this is a movie that knows how to make a joke, does it repeatedly, and most of them actually work. Civil War also has great new co-stars with Black Panther and Spider-Man, who steal the show almost all the time they turn up.

But the plot is utterly inane. I went into the movie expecting Bucky’s role to be more than just a gimmick and the whole morality of having vigilantes run around to be questioned or at least explored more than just on a surface-emotional level. This isn’t a movie about that. It’s a therapy session for Captain America and Iron Man to work out their various issues, and it ends with them breaking up.

I’m also sad to see that BvS final part is better staged and more exiting than Civil War’s climax, which on the plus side has a neat, Se7en-level twist, but still feels deficient compared to the Warner Brother offering. I was hoping for some grand scheme from Zemo (who is one of the most disappointing and boring villains in the Marvel universe so far) and a big fight between the heroes and the other super soldiers. Instead we got more in-fighting that just feels like a letdown.

We Are All Completely Fine (2014)

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Don’t believe what the title is saying, nobody is. This novella collects various survivors of supernatural events (think the last, only surviving victim of a group of teenagers in your typical horror movie) for group therapy sessions and things go from bad to worse when it turns out that some of them have unfinished business.

Despite its limited space, the novella packs a lot of content, which is especially impressive when you consider its large cast and how the novella manages to give each of the characters their own unique voice and identity. As the title makes you expect, or even common sense, horror movie survivors go through their own unique hell even after they have survived. While it maps well on various psych conditions, the shared knowledge that there’s more to this world than we know it, and that few people believe it, sets those survivors apart from other trauma victims.

All of this comes out during the various group sessions, which allows the reader to get to know each of the characters in turn and which mostly avoids to common cliches you expect in such a group. Sure, it starts with stereotypes – the asshole, the silent one – but once it dives deeper into these characters it becomes obvious that there’s more to each of them and none of them is just a cardboard cutout easily sorted into just one drawer.

Once the long setup is over and we know all we need to, the novella switches from slow introspection to slightly faster action and tops it off with neat climax that still feels like a natural outcome of the earlier events. And then it leaves you with an itch to know what happens next to these characters, even if this particular story is over. Which is exactly how a good story should end.

Sky Force Anniversary (2015)

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SFA manages the feat of making a shmup that is both accessible to beginners as well as offering enough challenge on the more harder difficulties to appease core-gamers as well. Instead of choosing a difficulty, you start with the easiest one and only when you beat a level and various objectives (no hits, total enemy annihilation, etc.) do further difficulties get unlocked. Hard and hardest: two more for each stage.

Unlike old-school games, you don’t have to play through the game from start to finish, instead you can select and replay each level at will, though you have to unlock stages first, which gives the game a nice sense of progression. Death also is not a disparagement here, as you can augment your ship’s various systems by buying stuff with the stars you collect each stage (and which you keep even when you die).

Since the system is a bit on the grindy side, you often find yourself replaying stages again and again to get more dough to buy the next upgrade here or there. And the beauty of it is, this repeated practice will make you a much better player, without demotivating you like a lot of the more old-school shmups do, where you have to replay right from the beginning again and again without any feeling of progression.

Burned (2016)

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Your enjoyement of Burned, the 7th entry in the Alex Verus series, depends on how much you prefer episodic vs myth-arc content, to take a metaphor from TV (X-Files and pretty much every genre show these days). It’s not a perfect metaphor for urban fantasy series like Alex Verus or for example the Harry Dresden ones, as most books are single episodes that advance the overall arc in small and subtle ways, usually until you reach a point in the series where a full-on myth-arc book is needed to untangle all the plot threads and/or move the overall story forward.

Burned is pretty much this for the Alex Verus series, where there is basically no filler-mystery that has subtle connections to the overall myth-arc. Instead we start with a death sentence by the light mage council, Alex trying to get out of this predicament and things pile up until major status quo changes are instituted and the novels ends.

It’s not so much a cliffhanger for the book, which in itself is self-contained (more or less, as it’s myth-arc heavy and wouldn’t make much sense to newcomers), as it’s a cliffhanger for the first half of the series where Alex was allowed to act as an independent mage and do his own things. At the end of the book this has changed, and as so often in the series, for the worst.

I do like the developments here, both minor stuff as well as the overall change in direction, but on the other hand I do miss the more episodic approach of the earlier novels. Well done myth-arc stuff can be exiting, but it reads much better once you have a series fully finished on your hand and not have to wait for each new entry for a year or more.

The big change here makes a lot of sense in terms of what the series is doing, but I do wish Alex had more control over his fate, or at least had proactively made the choice to work for Richard again, instead of being forced into it. In the past Alex was realist enough to make the necessary choices to survive, here he becomes a bit too much like Harry Dresden (annoyingly idealistic and incapable of compromising his ideals). So while it’s an intense read from start to end, I liked some of the plot execution less than I hoped I would, given how Alex acted in the past.

Azzarello’s Wonder Woman (2011-2014)

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Azzarello’s Wonder Woman is the first singular run I’ve read of the character, despite seeing her almost everywhere over the years due to her appearances in all the DC team and crossover books. Given that this has been hailed as the best and most definitive run of her character (in recent years), I thought it was a bit bland and underwhelming.

While the action is great and most of the fights really work quite well, the slower bits, aka the character moments, appear completely out of the blue, if they happen at all. This would be no problem if the run was entirely focused on the action, but from time to time the story expects the reader to empathize with certain characters, which does not work at all because the characterization here is so limited or non-existent.

The worst example is of the human stand-in character, whom the series at the end upholds as a shining example of humanity, which feels kind of odd as all she does during the series is acting as a cup-holder for her demi-god baby and always managing to stumble from one idiotic escape to another. Wonder Woman and some of the other demi-gods are written as if they care about the stand-in, but most of the time they just handle guard-duty and that’s it.

Not that the gods, demi-gods and other mystic creatures are better written, but at least they are more or less active agents with well-defined character types. The human stand-in aka the baby-holder is nothing of the sort. Which makes the ending, which goes for emotional resonance, fall completely flat on its face.

The rest of the run is just as average. The overall plot progression is that Wonder Woman in turns fights with each of the various Greek gods, invites them into her small group and then gets betrayed by them and so on. After a certain points this becomes so formulaic that you stop keeping track of who is the current enemy, current friend, etc.

The ending is another thing you’ve probably figured out halfway into the run. The biggest threat is, while visually imposing, just another boring evil guy with large daddy issues (or parenting issues, take your pick). All this sounds rather disappointing, but it’s more a case of failed expectations. It’s a solid but unremarkable run, and if that’s the best Wonder Woman has gotten in years, I dread to read any of her other runs.

Aztec (1982)

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Aztec on the Apple II is probably one of the earliest examples of a platformer that sports a continuous, persistent world, at least until you’re sick of your current world and generate a new one. Your goal is do go down into a dungeon (called the tomb here), collect weapons, kill monsters, find the idol and then find your way back to the surface (like a platformer-variant of a roguelike).

It has lots of concept found in later Metroidvanias (exploration, usable items, a persistent world), but it’s more of forerunner for cinematic platformers, a related but slightly different genre. The game gives heed to (for its time) realistic, fluid movement: walking or running have their own momentum, jumps are very short, every small fall can knock your character out for a few seconds (even sometimes when you change direction too fast in too few seconds or when you run into a wall).

For a modern player, the biggest stumbling block is probably the utterly arcane control scheme, which is very untypical for what you’re used to in platformers. You have keys for either left or right direction, but to actually move you need to either trigger the run or walk key. You have a key to stop movement again. A key to get into a fighting stance, but then a different key to spin in either direction and another key to actually attack with your machete. Or ready your gun and then shoot (another key again). This really gets tiresome fast, and coupled with countless bugs that makes it easy to fall through walls or floors and lots of deads ends, made this more of a chore to play.

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The few contemporary reactions I could find were rather more positive about the controls and the game (“the control, game design, and animation are good examples of the state of the art in Apple arcades” Howard A. Shore Softline Jan-1983, p.45 / “The player controls…remarkably clean and logical… The excitement remains keen through game after game…” Electronic Games Jun-1983, p.56) and if you look at comments on some of the YouTube videos of the game, there’s lots of nostalgic gushing about it. So it definitely has its fans, though without any nostalgic attachment it becomes less compelling.

Like a lot of the very early platformers, it feels more like an experiment where new gameplay concept where born instead of a masterful execution of tried and true ideas. Which means some of the stuff they did just didn’t work out all that well or they didn’t get the mechanics exactly right to make it really fun to play, from a modern POV, but it’s still interesting.

Also ported to various other systems of that era: the Atari 8-bit computers (1982), the Commodore 64 (1984) and various Japanese computers, the FM-7 (1984), the PC-88 (1984) and the Sharp X1 (1985).

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Actually, there were strangely enough two ports for the Atari 8-bit computers, the one in 1982 for the US by Datamost (the screens above are from this one) and a UK port in 1986 from Databyte. Both ports share a simplified control scheme (only 5 buttons) and show your inventory on the screen all the time, but the flaws inherent in the original are present in these ports as well: dead ends, lots of bugs and a control scheme that while simplified, is still far too much trouble than the gameplay is worth it.

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The ’84 C64 port of the game reverted back to the more convoluted control scheme of the Apple II original, including the inventory you had to activate by key to see. The most obvious difference to the Apple II version is that instead of starting in a picturesque outside scenery you’re standing at the top of abstract, 2.5D looking stairs, from where you go down into the Aztec pyramid.

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Like the C64 port, the PC-88 port is an almost 1-to-1 copy of the Apple II game, it has the unwieldy control scheme and all the rest. Apart from its own distinctive color scheme this is pretty much the same game with no obvious differences.

Xydonia DEMO (2015)

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One-level demo version of an still in-development old-school arcade/16-bit-console lookalike shmup that has everything I love about the genre: tight, utterly perfect controls, cool enemy design as well as fiendish attack patterns, beautiful pixel-graphics and exactly the right mix of gameplay and difficulty to keep you playing again and again until you beat the level with both of the two of three available ships.

It’s not terribly original, if you’ve played shmups you’ve seen all these things. Many of the enemies remind me of similar ones in other games and the gameplay is pretty much classic style with no new elements. But despite the lack of new ideas the execution is so well done that it’s easy to forgive this lack of anything new and just enjoy it for what it is, a love letter to classic shmups.

Saving Princess (2016)

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This is a smaller Metroidvania whose roots are both Metroid and of all things Mega Man, and after having played through the game I have to wonder why nobody else thought of this before, as it is such a great match. You don’t collect any new items, only HP updates and updates to your weapon (number of shots, reload-speed and new weapon capabilities) which will help you get around various hard-gated areas. Actually the game has two kind of hard locks, those you open with updates to your primary weapon and those gates that open once you’ve beaten certain bosses.

While you don’t get new weapon capabilities after beating every boss (only from four of the eight bosses), the ones you get help you overcome various obstacles (use ice shot to cool down lava, fire to melt snow and icicles and so on). Another unique element of the game is that you don’t get double or triple jump, but instead use your cannon to get multiple jumps (another Metroidvania who did something similar before is Rex Rocket).

Aesthetic-wise this is all NES-era graphics, which I find quiet lovely. The levels and the whole game itself isn’t very big, I managed to beat it under one hour on my second-run and most of the time was spent dealing with the bosses. Those come in two categories, too easy, once you figure out their pattern (the snow level boss seems almost impossible until you get the pattern and then it’s hilariously easy) or challenging. Strangely enough, of the eight bosses only three are of the second category, the second boss, the green ninja and the final boss.

I would say the overall difficulty is moderate, not completely a walk-in-the-park, especially the three mentioned bosses keep up a fight, but far from the more challenging Metroidvania’s of recent times, like Rex Rocket or Environmental Station Alpha. That said, while it’s a small game, it’s one that gets all the essentials right and packs a lot of fun into its running time.

If you want to get 100% for items, I’ve marked the three not so obvious secrets with orange squares on the game map. There are a couple of other secrets, but mostly behind rather obvious fake walls.

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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This often cited as the best of all the Star Wars movies and it’s easy to see why. Comparing TESB with ANH you can see a marked improvement in acting from all of the principal actors, most obvious in Mark Hamill’s case who went from an annoying and sometimes a bit whiny young adult to a more solemn and serious Jedi-in-training who for the first makes you actually believe he has what it takes to become one of the power players.

The action is better, the sets are better, the whole plot is better structured, everything feels like a real story and not just a fairy tale in space and overall the movie is just a lot more fun to watch than the ’77 Star Wars. The original started it all, but it’s also a movie that hasn’t aged well, and I’m not talking about special effects, but it’s utter lack of good acting or writing makes it actually a chore to get through.

Not so The Empire Strikes Back. Not that TESB is perfect, while I liked the final reveal of the movie, probably like everyone else, rewatching that scene makes it cornier every time. But for every weaker moment there are countless stronger ones. Lando is a great addition to the team, Vader feels even more menacing, the space scenes are more varied and interesting, Bespin’s cloud city is a great setting for the final part of the movie and Yoda’s and Luke’s interactions are fun to watch, as are Han Solo’s and Leia’s (and also feel more convincing here).

Despite its age it’s a highly enjoyable movie and one of the finest examples of a space opera on the big screen. The biggest problem, at least for me, is that it’s a sequel to a decidedly weaker movie. But otherwise, TESB is the one Star Wars movie that makes you go, “ah, that’s the reason everybody loves that universe“. I think without TESB’s greatness, the Star Wars franchise would have been dead in the water.

Magic Shifts (2015)

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The previous part of the series was pretty much a narrative milestone the series had worked toward for years. And while the meeting between Kate Daniels and her dad didn’t play out as most expected, it was everything that this meeting should have been and better, it managed to positively surprise with what it did. But often in long-running series, after such a high-point, the next novel or novels feel like filler, a respite with much slower pacing and less interesting stuff happening. Magic Shifts is thankfully none of that.

While the new enemy here could be seen as filler, he’s tied into some of the main characters in a way that makes the stakes just as personal as with almost every previous bad guy. He’s also packed a hefty magic oomph and beating him felt like a hard-won victory for our heroes.

Best of all, after leaving the pack I feared that the Beast Lord’s character was pretty much spent, but author duo Andrews managed to introduce a new occupation for him that isn’t just fun and ties to stuff from the earliest novels, but also could seriously boost Kate’s strike base in a conflict with her father down the road. There are also a couple of other new developments for a host of secondary characters that made this a really fun read and nullified my fears that not much of interest would happen.

Overall, I started reading this fully expecting a nice but ultimately lightweight and consequence-less filler, instead I got countless exiting new developments and a fast-paced sequel to Magic Breaks that managed to solidly build on the foundation of what happened in the last novel.