Probotector (1990)

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Probotector (in Europe), or better known as Contra in the rest of the world (or as Gryzor for European home computers), was an Arcade title published in 1987, though the NES port from 1988 is probably more well known and what people think of when talking about the game. It’s a run’n gunner (no meelee attack) and it’s one of the most ball-breaking difficult games of its type. Not sure if I would call it unfair, almost every situation is doable with good muscle memory and superior skill, but damn is the game unforgiving hard.

Still, what makes people come back to the game is both the great gun action and the insane variety: lots of different environments, deadly traps and swarming minions, many bosses and sub-bosses with their own unique attack patterns. There’s a ton of stuff packed in a short amount of time and coupled with the usually good controls makes for a fun experience (more or less depending on how you handle the difficulty). While the game is usually a side-scroller, it has two pseudo-3d levels that are kind of interesting. Not my favorite by a long shot, but the ingenuity of the gameplay shows just how willing the designers were to try out off-the-walls stuff.

The NES had three versions, the American one with human sprites, a Japanese one similar to the American one, only with more story bits (fan-translated three times over the years, most recently by Stardust Crusader in 2013 (if you want to play this translation you need the FCEU core in Retroarch, most others can’t handle it)) and the European Probotector variant with all the human exchanged with robots. This is only flavor stuff, the gameplay is the same in all three versions.

Shatterhand (1991)

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During the NES era Natsume produce a couple of tightly designed, extremely challenging 2d-action platformer games that brim with clever ideas and neat monster designs, among which is the often overlooked Shatterhand. The Japanese original is actually based on Super Rescue Solbrain, a series that never left Japan, so they went and changed some sprites, the intro and outro, took away a stage (a carnival, right screenshot) and added a completely different one (a submarine), but overall it’s pretty much the same game besides these changes.

Your basic attack is a punch, which is only moderately useful against the more weaponized enemies, but once you collect three different items of a certain kind, a helper bots appears. These make your life a lot easier (there are different bots and who appears depends on the sequence of the signs on the three items you collect), especially if you manage to reach a boss with one of these bots fully charged (they suck up hits aimed at you, but get damaged in the process).

When you start out, you can select one of five levels, after beating them you get to the boss level. The first five levels are challenging but not impossible, the boss level on the other hand is in a whole different class and I managed to finish it only with save states. While the controls in general are fine, they do feel a bit sluggish on occasion and especially in situations where you need 100% perfect movement control, they feel slightly not-up to par. Also the controls for climbing grates (which are all over the game) are decidedly subpar.

Overall, though, it’s a fine game for its kind and varying stages, both in terms of art as well as gameplay design, make for a lot of fun.

Btw. if you want to play the original (mostly for the extra stage), it was fan-translated to English, though I kinda prefer the US adaptation, mostly due to the main character sprite having more style.

Blackie the Pirate (1971)


An earlier Terence Hill/Bud Spencer movie that lacks their later trademark humor and is more run of the mill pirate movie than anything else. Terence Hill plays Blackie as an enigmatic pirate captain who is always ten steps ahead of his pirate competitors as well as the Spanish navy. Spencer is more of a side-character on this one, playing another pirate captain after the same gold as Blackie, but while smarter than the other captains still gets outsmarted by Blackie.

It’s not a great nor a terrible movie, fun to watch if you have the time but don’t expect anything big from this. The plot is simple but coherent, the actors fun to watch as pirates (movie pirates at best, violence is toned-down to kid level and the pirates are mostly nice guys or the usual assortment of cliches). The ship fighting scenes are stock footage, which makes the ships look much bigger from the outside than the actual movie sets.

Dracula Untold (2014)


Basically a Dracula origin story, this plays very loose and fast with historical fact to retell the story of how Vlad the Impaler became a vampire (he did it to save his people from a massive Turk army, going to a close-by master vampire who turned him for a few days, with predictable long-term results).

Almost universally hated by critics, it’s another case that makes you wonder if most critics aren’t somewhat retarded. This is a movie where everyone knows from the start that Vlad will become a vampire, so what it needs is a true thrill ride to make it exiting and a compelling reason for Vlad to make the conscious decision to fall to the dark side (and everybody knows he’s too strong to just give in).

And the movie certainly delivers on that. While the story is a tragedy, the execution feels more like majestic action adventure with some exemplary sense of wonder moments (Vlad stamping down with his bats on the Turk army) and from start to finish is just fun to watch. Also the movie really makes you wish they had started on a sequel immediately, seeing Vlad and the master vampire in present day New York promises to be a lot of fun.

A Quantum Mythology (2015)


The first Age of Scorpio book established a complex, compelling setting that didn’t explain anything and left readers more confused at the end, than enlightened about what was going on. With the second book, Gavin Smith makes it clear how these three timelines are connected as well as what the real stakes are. Not everything is explained and some of the bigger mysteries remain unsolved, but this is as it should be.

My worry after the first book was always that it was just an interesting setup with nowhere to go, but after the second book I’m more eager than ever to finish the trilogy and see where it leads.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)


Another movie in the re-imagined time line that is all about inward-looking and not exploring the universe. I wanted to be sympathetic toward this one, as I heard a lot of positive buzz, but its just another action adventure about fighting a cardboard villain of the vaguely social Darwinist bent, one of the more boring archetypes. While the action is kind of entertaining and the characters all sort of click and their dialogue is slick, its overall a pretty forgettable movie.

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)


The kind of movie that is pleasant to watch with good animation and likeable characters, but not very memorable overall. It’s sort of a buddy comedy about two dogs who have a rocky start when their owner presents one of them as the housemate to the other, who tries his best to get rid of the new dog.

There’s really nothing there that leaves a stronger imprint: it lacks a major villain to focus the plot, the central character relationship works but isn’t exactly original and the movie can’t ever decide what it wants to be and jumps from scene to scene and fills it with moments that on its own are quite amusing, but never really cohere into a strong plot or engaging experience.

It’s a nice, short time-waster you’ve forgotten the moment you step out of the cinema.

Deadly Class #21 (2016)


The recent 21st issue of Deadly Class, an extremely well-crafted and well-drawn series about a school of young killers, who are all sorts of fucked up due to their very fucked-up upbringings, ended one of the more violent and deadly recent story lines with one of things I utterly hate when authors do it. It’s one of the very few things that make me stop cold right there, and usually I struggle through even if the writing is a major atrocity towards literacy, but killing your main character, that is a no go.

It’s different when you have more than one main character, but if a story is build around one major viewpoint, and if you kill that character (and Remender didn’t just kill him, he offed most of the other more established side-characters in the process) and replace him with a side-character who hasn’t been that well-established from the beginning (nope, tattooed, mysterious killer-girlfriend is not good enough for that), then what we have basically is a different story set atop the one I liked in the first place.

Sorry, it’s not me, it’s you, many other more interesting things to read.

Nangoku Shounen Papuwa-kun (1991-1995)


A few years ago a I played a short, well-done SNES platformer and since then always wondered what the plot of its source material actual amounted to, as it is full of bizarre characters and other weird stuff that doesn’t make a lot sense. Turns out, the original 7-volume manga is one of the worst mangas I ever read.

It starts amusingly enough as more of a gag-manga interspersed with some action, but as the series went along (like a lot of shounen series) slowly focused more on action and plot. Sadly, the character designs, never much varied to begin with, became a big problem the moment more and more characters turned up, as a lot of them look very similar which makes it hard to identify who is speaking or to whom. The later volumes had parts where I utterly gave up trying to figure this out.

Added to this the plot is extremely ridiculous and preposterous, meandering and it looks like a lot of stuff is just made up on the spot. Characters exchange loyalties on a whim and often you aren’t sure who exactly is allied to whom right now and fighting against whom. The later volumes gave me the impression that either the mangaka working on it did it out of contractual obligations or because she had used up all the ideas in the early volumes and just threw more and more inane ideas at the paper in the hope that some of it would stick. What a mess.

I Am Providence (2016)


Like most of Mamatas’ books this is a rather short one, though even at that length it felt more tedious than I hoped it would. It’s a murder mystery against the background of a convention of Lovecraft fans, and while I didn’t care much for the main plot or the main character, the description of the convention and mainly its attendees was captivating enough to string me along till the end.

My biggest problem with the book, and this may be by design, is that the main POV, Colleen, became increasingly and unhealthily fixated on solving the murder of her one-time roommate, and occasionally it felt forced how Colleen kept at it, when a sane person would have just left. Sure, amateurs who solve crimes in lieu of the police are a staple of fiction, but (again not sure whether accidentally or by design) Colleen didn’t strike me as the greatest detective, though her powers of observation when it came the other con-goers were more insightful and amusing.

Another thing was that half of the time I felt like a lot of things were references to something and I was missing context to understand what they implied, as I’m neither a con-goer nor a Lovecraft/horror fan.

That said, the book had one highly quotable line “Fandom is the social network of last resort“, that succinctly summarizes the books whole approach.