In the Vanishers’ Palace (2018)

Now here’s a book that I didn’t enjoy at all, but which I still think is quite well written and worth a read overall. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but if nobody would mention it you probably wouldn’t realize it (the plot skeleton is lurking in there, somewhat more subtle than in most retellings). That said, its main romantic hook is between a healer’s daughter and a female dragon in a post-apocalyptic world (brought on by alien invaders who have left already) where science and magic are closely interlinked.

This isn’t a science fiction setting with some spells thrown in or vice-versa a fantasy setting with some science fiction gadgets, but rather such a strange melange that feels like a whole piece where you can’t just cut out one part of the equation. This is probably what sets this apart from its inspiration and other retellings, the amount of world-building is immense and feels like a main character in its own right. And that world-building has such an impact on the characters, bleeds into their motivations and how they see the world, that it makes for less than fun reading.

This is a post-apocalyptic world, with all the craptastic elements such a setting implies. It’s a miserable, broken world, and the characters rightfully feel oppressed and distressed most of the time. Even when the main characters get together and reach somewhat of a happy end, the miserableness of the setting still bleeds into everything and dominates the tone from beginning to end. Again, this is really well written, but that just means it makes you feel everything even more.

Ready Player One (2011)

Sometimes I don’t finish a book because life gets in the way and somehow days turn into weeks into months and I forgot all about the beginning. This is not the case with Ready Player One, which I started reading right before the movie version came out. I got somewhere to around 46%, but then just couldn’t take it anymore. It’s more a 70ies/80ies reference book about all the stuff that reminded the author of his youth, plus a self-insert character who wins at life because he knows all those geek references.

I can’t say that knowing most of those references helped me the enjoy the book more, rather its the reverse. While amusing in the beginning the never-ending cavalcade of those references just became tiresome and made all the other flaws of the book stand out even stronger. The writing is pedestrian, the main char has the biggest plot-armor imaginable and a lot of his actions that are less than heroic (whups, somebody blew up my home, who cares) or his stalky behavior are never called into question.

The worst thing is just how boring the main plotline is, which is basically our ‘hero’ going from plot token to plot token that somehow nobody else but him has figured out (yeah, doesn’t strain suspension of disbelief much). Even then, if the author would have had a better handle on characterization and didn’t try to sell the main char as the best one ever, it would have been at least readable, but no.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

I liked the first Ant-Man even if it wasn’t great. But among the flood of Marvel movies, it felt different, a heist movie with a main character who had no super-powers or Tony Stark’s brilliance but still managed to do well as a hero. And the whole shrinking thing is just so much early pulp science fiction and I loved that aspect. Also using ants. A somewhat cliched villain and overall generic structure, but if there’s one feel-good movie among the Marvel ones, it was Ant-Man.

The second one, on the other hand, is just massively better. It builds on what the first movie established, the various things you could do with a shrinking ability, the original Ant-Man’s wife lost in the quantum realm (quasi-quote from Ant-Man “you put quantum in front of everything you say?”), the reveal about the Wasp suit, and then goes from there. Without an origin story, without trying to establish the ground rules, it starts with events already in motion and the pacing only increases from there.

And while Rudd is still one of the focus characters of the movie, it feels like this one is more well-rounded and gives enough space to everybody on the cast to shine. Not an ensemble movie, but like the best heist movies it works best when a large group of people works together, each playing their part and having their own piece of the plot (the first did that too, but it still was much more Lang-centric), with a couple of villains to work against.

And while the movie doesn’t really have a strong main villain, neither the FBI guys who watch over Lang after the fallout from Civil War, nor some random gangsters (perfectly headed by Walton Goggins as their leader), or another faction with super-powers, it still feels okay.

The first movie had its big villain and felt the lesser and more generic for it, this one has at its core a rescue mission and the various villain factions are there to spice it up. And like the first, its a big feel-good movie with lots of moments that just make you happy (I love Lang’s daughter and her interactions with Lang) or chuckle along (the FBI agent who can’t decide whether he wants to be Lang’s friend or whether they should be antagonists), until the final gut-punching moment. Damn, I forgot all about the ending of Infinity War and that it was a thing.

Rogue Protocol (2018)

<< The Murderbot Diaries #3 >>

The third Murderbot novella is basically about Murderbot going after the company that employed the thugs from the first novella, as recent revelations make it seems highly likely that going after alien artifacts and selling them to the highest bidders is actually the evil corp’s main business model.

To prove this, Murderbot goes after a failing, former terraforming station of evil corp, that Murderbot thinks is actually a decoy operation for selling another world’s alien artifacts. And then things get more complicated, as Murderbot hides among an expedition of a rival corp checking into what evil corp is doing, then there’s betrayal, real murderbots and the whole station starting to fall into the sun.

If the first novella was about Murderbot establishing what it didn’t want (be controlled), and the second about clearing up the past and getting an idea what it wants, the third is about showing Murderbot a glimpse of things it hasn’t allowed itself to think about. One of the characters is a real robot (not an android like Murderbot), that is truly loved and seen as a friend by its ‘owner’.

One of the oldest tropes in robot/AI stories is about the artificial creature becoming human or close enough to it, but that isn’t Murderbots problem. Murderbot wants to be itself, out in the open and not hiding all the time. It doesn’t care about being human, but it wants to live without prosecution and sort of as an equal, but so far it hasn’t consciously entertained that option because it just wasn’t possible. And then its shown that actually, it is possible, and Murderbot even got somewhat jealous of a little, childlike robot who had everything Murderbot didn’t even knew it wanted.

That is why Murderbot is actually going after evil corp. Not because what they are doing is evil and Murderbot doesn’t like them, but because it wants to collect evidence against them and help her clients from the first novella, who treated her like a human being, which probably was the real reason it ran away from them in the first place, because Murderbot couldn’t deal with it.

Murderbot wanted it and at the same time feared it, translating being part of a community and the tight connections that come with that into being controlled (partly true, but there was more to it than that). But it also can’t stop thinking about what could have been and circles around that need.

Artificial Condition (2018)

<< The Murderbot Diaries #2 >>

Murderbot, after having fled at the end of the last adventure, moves toward the origin of its trauma, the supposed origin-story where it went rogue and killed lots of people. But to get there, it has to become a stowaway, mainly on bot-controlled spaceships with no human passengers.

This works well on the first flight, but on the second its caught by a super-smart pilot-bot that is bored and uses Murderbot as a distraction. This ends somewhat well, as it helps Murderbot by changing its appearance to conceal what it is around humans, also doing support with intelligence and plans, but at the same time it’s intrusive and doesn’t respect Murderbots privacy in the least.

The rest of novella explores what happened in Murderbots past, which is basically what everybody already expected in the first place, wrapped in a story about Murderbot protecting some super-naive type humans from getting killed (Murderbot needed a fake mission to get on the planet, that turned into a real mission as Murderbot isn’t good at letting stupid but nice people be murdered). Its kinda amusing how humans in the Murderbot chronicles come in only two flavors, murderous monsters or naive to the point of being too good to live (because they get themselves killed over their own stupidity, despite all in-universe lore pointing to this being a terrible dystopia that eats up people).

For such a short piece (like the first a little bit under a 100 pages), it’s quite good at racking up tension and getting you involved in what happens. This is less so because there’s any real threat to Murderbot, but you don’t want to see its charges kill itself, even if they are stupid enough to almost beg for it to happen.

In terms of character development, the early encounter between Murderbot and the ship-bot is probably the most important one, as the ship-bot forces Murderbot to come a bit out of its shell and face things it doesn’t really want to face (and to be honest still doesn’t at the end of the story, but its slowly getting there).

At the end of the first novella, Murderbot realized what it didn’t want, to be controlled by anybody, not even those well-meaning and friendly. But Murderbot hasn’t yet realized what it wants, and it’s slowly working on this because not being controlled doesn’t mean you’re self-directed. Here Murderbot tried to clear up its past, but it didn’t really lead to any deeper insight into the question of what to do next. Like everybody else, either meat or steel, Murderbot has to figure out the hard way what it wants to be and do in life.

Ginga Denshou: Galaxy Odyssey (1986)

It’s easy to forget that 1986 was still pretty close to when video games started as a thing, that people were still figuring out a lot of what worked and what did not. Ginga Denshou is one of the odder combinations of gameplay elements, basically a fusion of a shmup with a top-down action-adventure. You start in a shoot’em up sequence where destroying enemies gives you oxygen, and occasionally you will see gates that you can enter to get to the top-down action-adventure parts.

Now, I’m all for innovation, but it should also be fun and what GD:GO does when it comes to the action-ADV levels is just stupid and annoying. The oxygen you collect in the shmup sequences is basically a timer for the action-ADV levels and when it runs out you die. Imagine trying to play Legend of Zelda with only half a minute to explore its world, collects hints and so on. I get that they were still figuring things out, but this right there was a damn stupid idea somebody should have shot down from the beginning, even in 1986.

So, no, I’m not into suffering stupid gameplay ideas like this, so I wasn’t playing far. The shmup gameplay is actually quite fun but does get repetitive, with good controls and ok-ish visuals. The top-down act-ADV levels are also quite repetitive looking, with lots of randomly appearing enemies, and less than good controls. In those levels, you have a ranged weapon, but your shots seem to not just travel either N/E/S/W (your four movement direction), but sometimes diagonally as well. Also sometimes the movement in those sections behaved a little bit odd.

I really wanted this to be a game I could enjoy more, as it combines two genres I really like, but the stupid timer was just an utterly boneheaded decision that stopped me from playing the game further.

Valkyrie no Bouken (1986)

In 1985 we had Bokosuka Wars where you had to bump into enemies to initiate combat, similar to the even older Hydlide. Tower of Druaga also had you bump into enemies, but first, you had to unleash your sword to actually do damage. Deadly Towers had an attack more nicked from shoot’em ups than following the Hydlide approach.

But with Valkyrie no Bouken we finally leave the bump-into-enemies approach behind. The game has proper sword swings and while the reach of your attack is pitifully short, it still feels like a massive improvement over other action-RPGs (or similar action-ADV) games from those years. Enemies appear randomly, there are no fixed encounters or anything like it. Unlike Hydlide whose world map was sequestered into individual screens, Valkyrie no Bouken has a scrolling world map, so enemies can’t randomly wander in from the edges of the screen and instead, the game deployed an awkward pop-in effect to let enemies appear that happens in various places while you walk around the map.

Other than that, the game feels pretty similar to Hydlide in other aspects as well, like it expects you to fight a lot in the beginning, grind a few levels until you’re strong enough to explore more of the world (you start on the 1st of 4 continents until you get a ship and can leave for the 2nd one).

While the grind is pretty boring, as the fighting still doesn’t feel as fun as say in many later games that perfected this approach (think SNES Zelda or Secret of Mana), it still gives you a more palpable sense of progression in that you feel your character getting stronger with each level-up. It’s not much, but just as in Hydlide it can give a much-needed sense of direction in the beginning, as in both games there are no NPCs you can talk to that can give you any hints what you’re supposed to do.

To this his opaqueness in direction, as well as the mostly unfun fighting on the world map, the game adds a limited number of items slots, which is really what killed the game for me. There’s no simple way to drop useless items as well, you can sell them or use them, but nothing else. It feels like for every step in the right direction, the game makes one in the opposite direction as well. You could use a walkthrough to find out, but what would be the point in playing the game then. I rather collect stuff and use it at my leisure instead of being forced to chose, without even knowing what those choices are.

Still, for such an old game it offers lots of gameplay ideas that other games would perfect later and it feels like the right step toward the developments of its great descendants.

Yoku’s Island Express (2018)

Innovation is easy enough (nobody said anything about good ideas), but a game that does something original and succeeds on the first try is something to be applauded for. Also, the game is just fun to play moment to moment, so not just original, but also sports great gameplay in general. Yoku’s Island Express is a mix of a Metroidvania-style game with a pinball machine, and as weird as it sounds, it turns out this was both a great idea and one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve played this year.

It’s an island full of pinball flippers, generously spread all over, that makes individual screens into their own pinball challenges, and also allows you to propel your character wherever you want to go. While it looks and feels like one, this isn’t a platformer and one of the first things you have to unlearn is trying to jump. You can move left or right, but you can’t jump, and whenever you have that impulse, you need to use the flippers. Once you get over that hurdle using them becomes second nature, but it does feel awkward in the beginning.

Later on you learn further ways to propel yourself forward, including collecting slugs that explode after some time or upon pushing one button, and depending on where they are placed on your dung ball (you’re a dung beetle carrying a much larger dung ball around, which is basically the pinball for all intents), you can justify this as a limited way to jump. Also, you get the ability to sling yourself around certain objects and upon letting go propel yourself far away, but it’s pretty tricky to get this working the right way all the time and requires some skill to pull off consistently.

Backtracking can be a bit of a pain in the beginning, as moving around just via flippers feels slower than the usual jump and run you’re used to from platformers in general, but later on, you can unlock shortcuts that make it easy to get everywhere on the island pretty fast.

The Metroidvania elements of the game are pretty standard, explore the island, get new abilities, backtrack to earlier areas and get past certain gated passages to new areas, solve various quest and so on. A lot of the game is also about collecting fruits (basically cash here) to unlock various flippers and other stuff. Overall its standard fare, but in combination with the rest of the gameplay rather fun to me.

I hope this one isn’t just a one-off, and we will see other games like it in the future. Because, as much as I like the game, its visual style is just a bit too cute for my taste and I can imagine other games like it with a bit more thematic edge that could be even more compelling. Especially given the rich history of pinball machines.

DuckTales S1 (2017-2018)

DuckTales’ opening is so iconic that I’m nostalgic about the show despite never having watched most of it as a kid (usually it didn’t run on the channels we had) and I only saw an episode here or there when visiting relatives or friends. The memories I had from the show was that the Duck family went out to have adventures every episode, something exciting and crazy happening all the time.

I don’t know how much of this actually maps to the ‘real’ show or whether its just me remembering things wrong, but I think it raised the expectation that the new Duck Tales show would be like that. And it does have the occasional adventure episode (the strongest of the season overall), but not enough for my taste.

Far too much time is spent on episodes that highlight the ‘amusing’ crazy hijinks that can happen in Duckburg, and when I say ‘amusing’ I mean these were utterly boring most of the time (worst of all whenever that incompetent iron man analog turned up). Some of them were good for character development, and even my nostalgia didn’t blind me to the fact that the new show is much better at making these characters real characters, with actual personalities that make it interesting to watch even as an adult.

Adding a few females to the cast was a nice addition, although where the show still failed was at making the three ducklings really distinct (one was apparently into money, but don’t ask me which one it was, most of the TMNT shows managed to do this much better with similar samey looking characters). That said, Donald and Scrooge were almost always great. I didn’t much like what they did to the inventor guy, who was much more benign and enjoyable in all other incarnations.

Overall, though, while I don’t think they had enough adventures on the show, I did like the new format and the more long-term story development really helped to keep me watching to see what would happen. They even managed to give Scrooge some real depth with the backstory of the three ducklings mother.

Adventure Time (2010-2018)

With Adventure Time recently concluded, it feels like an era has come and gone, and while the show aired long after it could have a major influence on me, unlike some of the shows I watched as a kid, I still enjoyed it immensely over its run. It definitely feels like it’s among the best we’ve seen in western animation in the last decade, especially how it managed to reinvent itself so often, keeping things fresh why still giving the impression of doing the same things it did in the beginning.

Which is not entirely true. Finn and Jake had much more random adventures in the early seasons where Ooo was a land of endless possibility and you could find a massive new dungeon around the next corner and not feel like it strained your suspension of disbelief much. Over the course of these seasons, Finn and Jake managed to save their country and the whole world a couple of times until they run out of things to kill, which is when the show apparently lost interest in doing it.

And while Finn remained the most common viewpoint character till the end, the show seemed less interested in him as it went along and focused more on side-characters or other stuff (this might be wrong, I didn’t count, but that’s how it felt to me). In a way, all the other characters on the show had more interesting character arcs than Finn, who, in the end, had regressed to this blank slate of a character that worked more like a gimmick than anything else.

They changed him into an eternally friend-zoned little boy (from someone who felt a lot older in the earlier seasons), who, in an inversion of his early adventures, became almost pacifist in nature and wholly passive. Instead of going out searching for adventures, things happened to him and he didn’t even seem aware of how things had changed. Over the seasons even Jake, his buddy in crime, got a family, got through trouble with kids and his brother, and felt more real than Finn was in the end.

If this sounds negative, it isn’t entirely. I enjoyed the show until the end and think its great overall. Its just that after it was over and I had some time to think about it, I realized just how dispensable Finn had become to the show as a character, although he was still an important plot device. This was an odd realization because to me the show was about Finn and to a lesser extent Jake, and that just wasn’t true in later seasons. And I’m not sure whether that was good or bad.