Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

The vulture always seemed a bit of a one-note or gimmicky villain in the Spider-Man comics, following the typical animal-themed gallery of villains with not much to make him interesting. But actor Michael Keaton, together with a backstory that builds nicely on the events from Avengers one, make him one of the most compelling villains in the MCU so far. And when I say compelling, I mean halfway into the movie I wanted him – not to win – but to at least get away with his ill-gotten spoils.

Yes, he pretty much kills a guy in cold blood and is an arms dealer, but on the other hand he projects such a strong “I’m only a normal guy working his job to keep my family fed and my employees working” that it’s easy to root for him. Not saying its right; and thankfully Spidey has the moral backbone to take him down, but there’s a degree of truth in the things Keaton as Adrian Toomes says and how he deals with his people and later with Pete aka Spidey that makes him highly relatable and even likeable.

Homecoming suffers a bit from the typical teenage awkwardness that is found in all Spider-Man movies, and I’m aware it’s more of a feature and not a bug to most, but I never found that element appealing or interesting. On the other hand, at least this Spider-Man doesn’t go through another iteration of an origin story and the whole set-up with Tony Stark as a mentor feels fresh in terms of story-telling and yet quite fitting.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

It’s not implausible that someone who never watched the original comes away from the movie with a positive impression, liking it for what he has seen. But if you have seen the original anime and worse, loved it, the only thing that comes to mind when watching this abomination is that Hollywood has again managed to butcher an almost perfect foreign movie in their attempt to streamline it.

Interviews with the director give the impression that he did love the original, but when you see the movie all you can think about is that he obviously loved it for the wrong reasons. The movie stages almost shot-for-shot recreations of iconic scenes from the original, but with an almost completely different plot and different main character, it makes just no sense and descends to mere what-the-fuck moments.

At times the Ghost in the Shell adaptation feels like someone wanted to do a Blade Runner-like movie, but only got the GitS license. They’re both dystopian cyberpunk-like futures, but still have distinct styles and themes. Instead we get an odd mish-mash that doesn’t work either way and feels disjointed and generic.

But the biggest problem is the main plot, which doesn’t make a lick of sense. Or it does if you’re into dumb, one-note cartoon villains. Gone are the themes of the original, of the impact transhuman technologies have on human society and the political landscape and the complex machinations and conflicts between the powers of old, further intensified due to the emergence of entirely new players born form technology.

Instead we have a single evil guy abducting people for nefarious cyber-body experiments. It’s the most superficial, moronic approach anyone could have taken. The movie has a lot of other problems as well, especially on the character side, but honestly, it’s not worth wasting more words on it. Just avoid.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)

The NES Metroid is probably more important in kickstarting the series, but for me the second game on the Gameboy is more important as it was the first I played and which made me fell in love with both the Metroid series and the Metroidvania genre (which wasn’t a thing at that point). I remember wandering endlessly through its claustrophobic tunnels and caverns, occasionally finding bases with upgrades inside or the occasional Metroid lair and its occupant, which immediately turned into a frenzied fight for survival as I often was on my last hit points.

Lots of people say that the one thing to make the game better would have been an automap, and since I actually created one thanks to the Grid Cartographer software, I realized two things when I replayed it. The game isn’t actually that big and the map of the game has many parts that overlap (up to three layers in some places) and it’s impossible to get a correct plane map. I still wonder whether that was intentional on part of the gamemakers or just a by-product of how they made the game.

But more importantly, I think using an automap actually detracts from the experience. Yes, traversing the game becomes more comfortable and even without knowing where to go clearing the game becomes less cumbersome. But wandering around, exploring every corner of the map without any tool to assist you was part of the core experience. From the monochrome graphics, the simple but effective music and maze-like world-design, every aspect of the game reinforced that you were utterly alone in an alien, incomprehensible and often hostile environment.

It’s not per se a survival horror game, but my memories of how I played closely mirrored that sort of experience. Add an automap, and most of that is gone. It’s still a fun game, and some of what it did in terms of sprite graphics was pretty much foundational (more-so than the first Metroid) for the rest of the series, but it does lose something as well.

Most people these days tell you to either play the fan remake or probably go for the recent official remake, but to be honest, none of them matched the original game in terms of sheer emotional ups and downs, the terror from creeping along those lone corridors with your last health down to almost zero or the exhilaration of accidentally discovering and beating another metroid with almost your last few rockets.

GitS: SAC – Solid State Society (2006)

The Ghost in the Shell series can be a bit wordy a times, but at least the better entries (1st movie, 1st TV series) balance it with stylish action and neat science fictional concepts explored in a way you usually don’t get in anime. Sadly, the Solid State Society, an epilogue to the whole Stand Alone Complex sub-series is big letdown that lacks the right balance to make it compelling.

Over the last few years I made a few attempts to get through it, but was often too bored to continue early on. My last attempt managed to reach the finish line, only to find out that the whole plot amounted to nothing more than a cardboard racist James Bond villain and the usual allusion to something deeper going on, which is more or less a canvas for endless speculations but even that felt less deep than in other GitS entries.

I think the worst of it is that 99% of dialogue felt scripted like info exposition. Wordy is one thing, but when none of the characters even sound or act like a human being I’m left wondering whether the whole movie was just a random generator of text gibberish.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

I was pretty forgiving of the predecessor despite having similar flaws, but this semi-sequel goes into overdrive when it comes to characters doing stupid things to advance the plot. Even in Prometheus I felt like the decisions were sort of justified to some degree or at least somewhat believable (except maybe following a painting at the wall to another star system), but in A:C the things the main chars do are just inane.

Changing the target of a billion dollar investment colonization project because you got a strange message, getting closer to a planet that threatens the structural integrity of your star ship, open a quarantine bay when you know something alien and infectious is inside, running around a strange world without protective gear and so on. These characters weren’t just stupid, there upheld stupidity and run with it until they were killed by aliens. End of story.

Sure, none of the earlier movies are perfect, not even Alien and Aliens, but at least I can watch them without cringing. But A:C and to lesser degree Prometheus are just bloody moronic. Nice visuals only carry you so far.

Environmental Station Alpha (2015)

Environmental Station Alpha (short ESA) is one of the most content-rich metroidvania’s I’ve played, but also one of the most frustrating. In terms of difficulty, only An Untold Story is harder, and harder only in the sense of the platforming skills required, when it comes to boss design ESA definitely takes the cake. I played ESA’s demo when it came out in 2014 (which you should play if you want to see some extra-content), started ESA in 2015 and needed almost two years to see the finish line.

This is not to say that the game is unfair. It’s one of the most honest hard games I’ve played, each boss is doable with a lot of training and skill, it’s just that I prefer my metroidvania’s with less difficult bosses. Not that I find difficult bosses in general bad, it’s just that in this type of game they badly break the flow of gameplay and act like hard counters that just stop everything. I play these type of games more for the exploration than anything else.

This connects to my second point. The level design in ESA is superb, with lots of smart backtracking, winding corridors that lead back to the same hubs, with items required to open ways in areas you already covered. The problem is, the game requires so much backtracking, that you could only keep all that in your head and remember if you beat the bosses in a timely manner, if not you feel utterly lost. Once you’ve entered a room and see something you can’t reach, but the room itself is already uncovered on the map, you forget later that there was something to do there.

A map where you could jot down some notes would have helped make traversing the game much easier. At one point I stopped proceeding not because of one of the bosses, but because I’d forgotten that I could clear a certain type of block with one of my new items, because I didn’t realize I had to go there.

The graphics for the most part are quite cool, with a simplistic but inspired retro-vibe that feels like a high-quality demake of a game that never existed in the first place (apart from the obvious Metroid-vibe). That said, sometimes they are too sparse to make out details or differentiate between background and foreground. Most of the bosses also have quite neat sprites.

I didn’t much like the language encryption puzzles of the post-game content, I hated this stuff in Fez and I hated it here and the secrets are ridiculously obscured. I would have preferred something less oblique, but then I’m not a fan of adventure games and that type of thinking. Keep stuff like this to the genres where it belongs.

This sounds all a bit critical, so I want to iterate that I think ESA is one of the best metroidvania’s I’ve ever played. It has superb level-design and controls, it has excellent boss design, even earlier passed levels remain dangerous with tougher enemies getting activated later on and there is just tons of content here that beats most games done by larger teams.

Dead Cells (EARLY ACCESS)

I’m not usually a fan of Early Access titles, not because I think there’s something inherently wrong with that approach, but because I rather wait until a game is finished. In this case though, the trailer for the game looked too good and I’m a sucker for any metroidvania-type game. I was a bit skeptical at first, as similar titles like Rogue Legacy or Flinthook for example sport their roguelike influences on their sleeve, but usually contain no real trace of metroidvania-type gameplay.

And initially that was true for Dead Cells as well. Procedurally generated levels that change after each death, with a meta-game where you can earn persistent upgrades that make you stronger in each new run. But then I got my first ability, which allowed me to access more areas in the early levels. It’s a cool twist on the Metroidvania-genre, that actually manages to combines a roguelike action platformer with metroidvania-type elements into a neat mix. The roguevania descriptor here is actually well earned.

Beyond that, even at this early stage, the game is already more fun than many other full games. The action is perfect, with scrunchy hits that make it a delight to take enemies apart, either by sniping them from afar or going in for close combat. The weapon selection is such that instead of always preferring just one weapon, each is pretty cool and handles differently with unique advantages that makes it hard to decide which to take. Controls are tight and the graphics are a perfect fit for this type of game.

If the developers don’t make a major misstep in the future and build on those foundations, then Dead Cells will be almost perfect.

Flinthook (2017)

Flinthook is one of these games that seems almost perfect from the start: a great soundtrack, beautiful 2d-pixel graphics that closely remind me of Bitmap Brothers games (one of my all-time favorite classic studio when it comes to aesthetics) and more or less solid controls that makes the game initially fun to play.

The most similar game in terms of approach is Rogue Legacy: randomized level architecture based on various room segments that repeat ad nauseam in countless different configurations, single runs that either end with your death or a win against one of the few bosses and a metagame where you can earn advancements even if you die in single runs. Flinthook’s unique gimmick is the eponymous hook that allows you to fling yourself through the level segments at high speeds and avoid various traps. In theory.

In praxis, the hooking-mechanism works most of the time, but the times when it doesn’t often becomes a critical failure that traps you in a harmful loop that’s hard to escape. One major annoyance is that if you aim for a ring to hook but instead hit one of the spike balls, the hook gets deflected. Often, when it looks like you should hook, you don’t. The auto-aim works most of the time, but when it fails, it mostly does in the most unfortunate situations. Some rooms are designed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to escape without a major loss of health.

Traps in general are another problem. While the graphics are lovely, they are so busy and every rooms is stuffed to the brim with shiny things to look at, that the traps themselves are easily to miss, even when you know what to look for. Especially the ground plate spikes that shoot for the whole length of the plate, not just the part you’re standing on. I really hate those plates.

Shooting is a bit annoying as well, as your range is never as far as that of the enemies while their shots go through walls, unlike yours. That makes the game somewhat unfair, as it forces you to get close to the enemies, while they can snipe you from afar.

I also hated the slow-down mechanism and the time-barriers, which felt like something stuffed into the game purely to annoy the player and often aggravated the issues I had with individual room designs. All the little issues, hard-to-see traps, the less-than-ideal hooking mechanism, the time-barriers only highlighted the main issue of the game: the individual rooms.

Most of them are okay, offering the right balance between difficulty, stuff to find, enemies to kill. You get into the flow of things, fling yourself through the level, makes short process of the enemies and suddenly you’re in a room where you need a lot of luck just to escape alive.

The game is full of that and if you play long enough, you really get tired of seeing these badly designed rooms kill all the effort you put into every run. At some point advancing because of this becomes a terrible, boring grind and you’ll likely stop before ever reaching the ending.

The Raven and the Reindeer (2016)

There are three types of fairy-tale re-tellings (1) those that miss the mark by a wide margin (2) those that feel quiet alright by changing some elements and updating others and reminding us why we loved those stories in the first place and (3) the very few that improve upon the originals and replace them in your personal canon.

Actually, the original I remember isn’t the Hans Christian Anderson story, which I know I read as a kid, but whose memory who overtaken by the breathtakingly beautiful Russian animation from 1957, which for me was the most definitive version until now. Despite not having seen this for years, I remembered the tension between Gerda and the bandit daughter despite this being a kids movie. There was something there, if extremely subtle at that.

Vernon aka Kingfisher marvelously took those elements from the original tale, embellished them and spun them into a tale that is still recognizably the Snow Queen, but also something different. The rough story skeleton is the same, but some of beats are subtly and sometimes not so subtly altered to change it from the girl setting out to get the guy to the story of the girl who grew into her own, saved a guy (lets not pretend that Kay isn’t an ass in all of the versions) and got the girl.

At the end of the story I felt utterly like cheering and happy and nodding in agreement. This is how you do a re-telling.

Eden Green (2015)

This was a particularly interesting read for me, as I felt like I was enjoying the novel for things the author didn’t meant me to enjoy. The main character’s big fear, being infected with alien bio-machinery and slowly changed into something inhuman, was something I felt completely disconnected from. I did enjoy the bio-machinery, the strange and weird transformation Eden and her two associates went through, but this felt less like a source of genuine body horror (which I think was the intention), but the joy at seeing cool and neat transformations.

It probably depends on your reading protocols and interests, which in my case meant the changes, both body and mind, were the meat of the novel, as was the intriguing if somewhat lackluster exploration of an alien world. I found the super-rationalistic attitude of the main character amusing, and I’m not sure if that was intentional and to be taken serious or meant to be perceived as a character flaw. Also her constant resistance to the bio-machinery in her body was initially merely irritating until it became deeply annoying when it was established as the main thrust of the books final part.

Less convincing were the psychological changes. Sure, I completely buy that getting your brain blown up and then re-assembled by alien bio-machinery will force changes to your personality (and the part with the memories was neatly done), but I didn’t really bought that it would mean the characters would turn psychotic, just different.

On that account, I found the ending was the typical esoteric ending where the writer thought it was kind of positive and I though it was quite the opposite. If you write from the perspective of monsters (even if I don’t completely buy they are monsters), I want to see them succeed, accept what they are and go on with their lives of murder and mayhem. I’m a fan of happy endings.