AM2R (2016)

AM2R is an excellent fan-remake of the second Metroid game that improves many aspects of the original but falls flat in other ways, which makes it hard to recommend it over the original. For a fan-game, it’s an impressive achievement. The controls are slick and it plays like the SNES or the GBA Metroids.

Gameplay-wise, its pretty similar to the original, to the point that if you played the original recently, you won’t get lost despite some minor changes to the map (even if you wouldn’t use the included automap). You go into the bowels of SR388 to hunt Metroids, and each time you kill a certain number of them, lava that blocked your path before goes down and opens new ways. The further down you go, the more dangerous the Metroids get, as you encounter more and more advanced mutations until you find the hive mother.

One major change to the original is the inclusion of new bosses, which are more or less appropriate, though none of them really feel like they needed to be there. They are a nice addition, nothing more.

Another change was to re-interpret each of the old levels and give them a unique identity, which I liked, though the execution tied into one of the major problems the remake had. The original game was done in the GameBoy monochrome color palette and together with the screen size lead to a game that felt claustrophobic and dark. Since the game had no automap, it was easy to get lost and part of the appeal was to find your way around. The remake showed much more of the game on each screen (like the SNES game), had an automap and had a colorful and often-times completely inappropriate visual style that completely erased the dark and disturbing nature of the original and just killed the mood.

One minor thing that irked me was the design of the Metroids themselves (both the visual one and from a mechanical viewpoint), which just didn’t work for me. In the original, finding a Metroid always felt like a reward, here it felt more like a chore. They looked ugly, and not the slimy, alien-like ugly, just badly designed ugly. Also, the whole hit-the-weak point approach was annoying.

Overall I wish the remake had gone for a dark and brooding mood like the original, instead of the almost happy and colorful approach it went for. It’s nice if you already played the original to death and want to see another interpretation of the game, but sadly it doesn’t surpass its inspiration.

The Wizard of 4th Street (1987)

I read this over twenty years ago in translation and mainly remembered it as something written in the light-hearted tone typical of the fantasies that came out at the time (Robert Asprin’s Myth series comes to mind). So it took me a little by surprise when it shifted later into serious business with mass murder to power black magic rituals and other foul things. It’s a pretty jarring shift, and since the writing itself doesn’t support this, it creates somewhat of a dissonance between content and style later on. It has rape, gruesome murder and people melting all over the place, and it still felt like in the author’s mind it was all just fun and games.

I’d also forgotten that it didn’t take place in the present, but actually, the future after a collapse of our present technological age, albeit the future is merely the present where magic has almost completely supplanted technology. They still have computers, trains, airplanes, but all powered by spells and spell-casters. I’m a big fan of Shadowrun, that at the time expertly managed to mix fantasy and cyberpunk and futuristic speculation, but don’t go in expecting this. There are some long info-dumps at the beginning to get you up to speed about the who and the why, but the setting itself isn’t all the well thought-out or interesting or deep, more style without substance.

Also from what I remembered, I expected somewhat of a precursor to modern urban fantasy, but stylistic-wise it changes too often between viewpoints compared to modern UF that mostly focuses on one narrator. Neither approach is better, but I think some of the viewpoints weren’t all that interesting and merely there to stuff up the already slight page-count.

As I said, I read it over 20 years ago and I do remember I was very fond of it. I didn’t remember the details, but I know I liked it. But alas, while the first book was translated at the time, the rest of the series never was and now that I had the chance to read the rest, I was overjoyed. So, I bought the series, read the first book, and now I don’t quite know if I want to go on. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either. There are much better-told series out there these days that suffer none of the same flaws.

It also shows how poorly it has aged. It has two important, powerful female characters, who are always one step behind the male characters, need to be saved as a damsel-in-distress or get mansplained things (an unintentional comedic scene when a beat-cop tells a thousand-year-old sorceress the meaning of justice and how great the US prison system is at rehabilitating people) and then one of them gets killed near the end. Remember, this was written in 1987, not 1950.

The Beauty of Destruction (2016)

<< Age of Scorpio 3/3 >>

I read the first two books of the trilogy in 2016, started the last in 2017 and then stalled somewhere at the halfway mark as it felt like this was going nowhere. It’s an ambitious narrative split into three parts that happen in the far past in a somewhat fantastic rendition of mythological history, in the present that goes from somewhat normal to post-apocalyptic, and the far future with lots of large-scale violence and against the backdrop of extremely advanced technology.

And all of these three threads kept going from the first to the last book and kept me wondering how it tied together and why Smith had chosen to tell the story this way. At the end of the second book, it was clearer how these narratives were connected, but it was still open if they led to a place where it would all be tied together.

With the third book over, I’m not quite convinced it all worked. It’s easy to lose sight of who is who and what exactly is going on, not because of an inherent complexity that makes it hard to understand, but because of the massive quantity of things that happen, such that you easily forget details that you need to remember to get the whole picture.

It’s a trilogy where the texture of the world-building and the overall journey is more important than where it all leads to. Sure, the third book offers some explanations of why everything started and it has sort of an ending that tries to tie together the three strands. It sort of works. I probably would have to re-read the last chapters to really get a better understanding just if what I think happened actually did, and to be honest after spending so much time on it, I don’t really feel like doing it.

There’s a final confrontation that manages to upstage earlier already impressive fights, but I wasn’t actually sure whether the conflict was really solved in the end, or not at all. Whether it was another defeat, a delayed victory or time loop that would resolve the whole conflict in another iteration. Smith is highly adept at staging action in such a way that even with lots of things going on you never lose sight of who is fighting who and what happens, but sadly that doesn’t apply to the bigger plot.

I’m not entirely sure whether that’s intentional or not, whether Smith wanted to keep the ending somewhat opaque, or whether he thought he was completely clear, and it just wasn’t.

If somebody asked me if the trilogy was worth reading, I would probably say it depends. If you’re the kind of reader that expects a mind-blowing payoff at the end of such a long and complicated narrative, you likely end up disappointed. If you expect thoughtful sci-fi speculation, this is not it.

This is smart, well-written modern pulp that plays with a lot of the posthuman toybox, but it’s not about subtle forecasting and social speculation. By no means stupid and Smith’s fiction often uses extreme violence to critique it at the same time, but it’s easy to oversee in all the gunplay.

That said, if you like action that includes posthuman tech that allows people to take and dish out damage on a scale almost unimaginable, then this might be for you. It’s a self-indulgent, somewhat inventive, crazy romp that may be going on longer than it should, but it has its moments.

Doctor Who S9 (2015)

<< Doctor Who 2005 series >>

In some ways the 9th season of the new Doctor Who is more defined by structure than content. Last season made me break from watching it for a few years, but upon rewatching had some good things going for it. This season, on the other hand, had 8 of 12 episodes that were two-parters. Which wasn’t bad in itself, but it often felt like they stretched the content of one episode over two, which made them look weaker overall.

Episode 5 where that girl from Game of Thrones appeared, was basically a one-episode setup (Vikings get attacked by aliens, the Doctor helps but makes one of the Vikings immortal) for the next one (he meets the immortal girl again), which was another setup for the 10th episode, in itself merely the first of the final three-parter of the season.

It’s by no means a terrible season, but it has few really outstanding moments and the dominance of two-parters made it feel less varied than past seasons that relied more on single episodes.

That said, it did have at least one extremely impressive episode, the second of the final three parts sequence, where the Doctor is imprisoned and has to free himself by destroying a diamond wall with bare hands, which takes him literally eons and dying and living again and again on a scale that becomes almost incomprehensible and inhuman. The sea showing an endless number of skulls of the Doctors who died was a harrowing sight and shows that Doctor Who is often at best when it does its own brand of horror (unlike its brand of sci-fi which is usually terrible).

Sadly, like so often with Moffat at the helm, he is good at setting up stuff, but the payoff rarely works, and after Heaven Sent, the final episode Hell Bent was just disappointing and couldn’t deliver at all.

Since the new series was established in 2005, Doctor Who has relied on either playing with the Daleks, the Master or the Time Lords in the final episode, and it does the same here. It’s not utterly disappointing, but Heaven Sent was just so strong, it would have been hard to do a satisfying reveal of who was behind it and why, and Hell Bent does exactly that, playing toward the expected (who) and giving you one of the most ridiculous reason for the why.

Axiom Verge (2015)

Metroidvanias never went away since they became a thing, but the last few years have seen some incredibly strong contenders for the throne of the genre, even though most of them either hew closer to the Castlevania side of things or be something uniquely their own. Far fewer metroidvanias that took more direct inspiration from the Metroid series, though in 2015 we got two excellent ones with both Environmental Station Alpha and Axiom Verge, that show there’s still a lot of potential to unearth from the original trope maker.

If you’ve only seen Axiom Verge on screenshots, you might feel that it might look even a bit too inspired by Metroid. Once you start playing, this will change, even if the influence is hard to deny. From the way how the game starts and how levels are structured, this plays and feels roughly like Metroid, with graphics that seems like an update of the original NES graphics, not like the more colourful SNES version, but darker and more claustrophobic than any of the later Metroids managed (unlike the original and Metroid 2 on the Gameboy).

But this is not a just a paint job, this is an excavation of what made the original great, and then evolves the formula along a slightly different route than the one Super Metroid or any of its brethren took. It’s slower paced, it feels gamier and the world less concrete, just like the original Metroid. It gives you more weapons than any Metroid ever did, and most of them feel unique and arguably useful in different situations. And at some point early in the game, it gives you the tool that changes everything, that manages to make the game both a meta-commentary on early console games and glitches, as well as being a unique gameplay element that sets it apart from its inspirations.

I’m talking about the glitch beam that allows you to bypass sections that feel, on first sight, like graphical errors, which you then unmake with your beam. It also allows you to glitch enemies, basically change their form and behavior (though all enemies have only one glitch form, so no randomized effects), which is required to advance in some situations.

And then the game does it again with giving you a phase suit that allows you to bypass sections that you couldn’t in other games (this gets upgraded a few times to even more powerful phasing later on). Basically to move through walls. The game also gives a plethora of more standard upgrades. Lots of them, so that you always feel like there’s something waiting around the corner.

That’s not even the best thing about the game. What Axiom Verge does better than almost any other metroidvania is backtracking. It’s such a staple of the genre that most people only miss it if there’s not enough of it, but few games have used it to the extent as Axiom Verge has. I actually started the game a few times since it came out, before I managed to finish it.

The automap the game includes it useful to a point. It doesn’t allow you to make your own notes, and since every new major upgrade allows you to open new paths in almost all the levels, once you’ve explored large sections of the game it gets harder and harder to keep track of every path you had to abandon because you couldn’t get past a barrier.

Doing my own maps on paper with lots of notes did the trick.

It’s not something I hold against the game, its a point in its favor. The deliberate decision to keep all the levels relevant to the end by providing situations where you could use new upgrades and still make the levels feel organically designed, and not just like more and more corridors were randomly added, which is really damn impressive. That said, if you don’t like backtracking, a lot, then this game isn’t for you.

As the whole game has been largely done by one person (Thomas Hap), everything from the graphics to the awesome soundtrack to level design has a cohesion of aesthetics, that games done by teams rarely manage to the same extent. That is both strength and weakness. I loved Hap’s design sensibilities, loved every minute I put into the game. But if those same aesthetics don’t appeal much to you, then for all of its variety, most of the game will not work.

It’s a grand, awesome metroidvania with lots of different vistas and gameplay elements, but it shows you from the first few moments how those will feel and play up to the end. Many, many clever permutations of the same basic concepts.

Also, the bosses look cool but are basically pushovers compared to the bosses in Environmental Station Alpha. Can’t be good at everything, though.

Man-Mountain Gentian (1983)

<< Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction 1983 (01) 5/25 >>

One of these stories that only a has slight science fictional element, but whose strong writing makes you forget any objections you might have based on genre expectations. It’s about sumo fighters basically using mental powers to throw their enemy out of the ring.

The main character of the story is the eponymous Gentian, a gentle giant despite his appearance. Thought nothing here is told to you outright, Waldrop is quite good at the whole show don’t tell. That said you get all the information you need, even when he’s not hitting you over the head with it.

There’s our main character, there’s a villain, who is depicted not as a black-white enemy, but a complex character, all done with just a few strokes. There’s Gentian’s wife. Again, we’re never told much about them, apart from which role they play. But shown how they react to each other, the situation at hand and from their actions you can infer a lot about who they are and what they think.

The story’s setup is Gentian losing a match of zen sumo to the villain, then we find out he will have his last match soon and you start to wonder whether he will go out on a win or a loss. And that match will again be against the villain of the story.

I’ve heard about Waldrop’s name for years, but never consciously read a story by him, but people seemed to hold him in quite a high regard. After reading this I can understand why. The writing feels so accomplished, and yet does it seemingly with ease. It sucks you in fast, then doesn’t let you go and when it’s over you actually feel like you’ve followed the characters for more than just a short story. Impressive, to say the least.

Doctor Who S8 – Christmas Special (2014)

<< Doctor Who 2005 series >>

Doctor Who Christmas specials are supposed to feel special, and some of them have managed to do just that. The Last Christmas, the season 8 Christmas special, on the other hand, is just mediocre. It’s not terrible, not great either, just a generic story about aliens on Earth, in this case, the dream crabs, that take over people minds and slowly dissolve their brain while keeping them pacified via dreams.

This could have easily been a run of the mill episode during a normal season, with the only exception that Santa turns up (played by the always amusing Nick Frost, who has a rather nice dynamic with the Doctor going, as both rely on their mystical authority figure image). Like in most cases where the supernatural appears in Doctor Who, it’s revealed to be anything but, even if most of the alien technology or various stuff going on in the series works more like magic than anything sciency.

Also, if you wonder where the major thrust of the episode is coming from, it’s basically the ages-old question of whether you ever know in a dream that you’re dreaming. Most viewers are clued-in to what is going on pretty fast and it’s easy to be one step ahead of the characters, which is just as unsatisfying as always being one step behind.

The resolution is trying to do a cutesy thing with the Doctor realizing that it’s actually not his Clara, but an aged Clara, and them not making up at the end of last season was a mistake, but then another twist happens, which is just short of self-gratifying and annoying. Again, not a terrible episode, but a pretty forgettable one that doesn’t really advance the Clara-Doctor relationship one bit.

Deathstate (2015)

This feels similar in style to roguelike-like twin-stick shooters like Nuclear Throne or Enter the Gungeon, only that it’s a one-stick avoider. You don’t have to focus on shooting enemies, all you have to do is avoiding getting hit by them, your character is firing on the nearest enemy all on its own. The rest is collecting money to buy stuff from various shops you encounter, collect organs that upgrade your abilities from a boss or high-level monsters, collect potions with various positive and negative effects and find magic books that increase you damage-per-second ratio while also modifying what kind of projectiles (or laser beams) you’re shooting.

There’s lots of other stuff going on as well. You can find further playable characters inside the dungeon, each with their own ending, you can increase the difficulty to insane levels, either at the start or by invoking unspeakable terrors at altars inside the levels. There’s lots of stuff to explore, secret levels, a hidden real ending (which so far I haven’t managed to unlock yet) and so on.

Plot-wise, it feels like a mix of 80ies horror movies and various other influences. You enter a mansion, where a mad professor has created a gate to a horrific dimension, and most of the thematic levels feel like some kind of afterlife-inspired hellscape. After all, the name of the game is Deathstate. To me, it feels mostly tame, since it’s all done in the modern retro pixel look that screams old-school but doesn’t really evoke a specific console or old computer graphic mode (although it does look nice).

Overall, it’s a fun game that feels much easier than similar games at its most basic level, but due to the difficulty slider allows you to modify just how hardcore you want your experience to be (and at highest difficulty its definitely no walk in the park).

The game also has an utterly ace soundtrack, go get it.

Vulcan’s Forge (1983)

<< Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction 1983 (01) 4/25 >>

Written in a clipped, almost abrasive style that is hard to get into, we see a scientific Mercury outpost acquire the help of a starship captain (Captain Ashe with his ship Kittiwake) to explore Vulcan, an asteroid. Kittiwake does the exploration part on its own thanks to its advanced computer core, though there’s a twist that was probably more impressive in 1983 than it is today (the Kittiwake actually took on the memories of Ashe’s dead wife). When the Kittiwake is struck by a solar storm and slightly damaged, Ashe tries his best to get her back and restore her.

Despite having read the story just a few hours previously, I had to look up what exactly happened. Due to the style, it’s hard to get a good grip on basic plot elements (Mercury outpost, Vulcan asteroid, sunstorm) and while I felt like a had a good handle on the overall shape of the plot, the finer details eluded me. Not that the story is really interested in plot as much as in its characters, their emotional reaction to the situation at hand and the setting that the story evokes.

It portrays the solar system, which is the stage for on-going space exploration, as a frontier with endless possibilities and uncountable dangers, but also full of its own harsh beauty. It’s a subset of science fiction that tried to transfer the majestic feeling often invoked by space operas operating on a galactic scale to the smaller scale of just one star system, by actually showing just how large one such system could be and how varied the locations it contained were.

From previous experience with Poul Anderson, I had formed the image of a highly accessible writer, this must have been either late-stage Anderson or more experimental Anderson. I’m not even sure I would classify the story as good, but it’s certainly captivating even with its, at least for me, unusual style.

Head On (2018)

Quick, whats worse than a written commentary on sports for somebody who isn’t all that interested in sports? Detailed descriptions of fictional sports. Thankfully, that’s the only major negative point I can come up with about the book, and even then it’s not too drawn out.

The sequel to Scalzi’s 2014 Lock In is a much slighter book, both in terms of size and ambition. The first part had to present an intriguing case while at the same time introduce its unusual world, where a virus locked many people into their bodies and the only way to interact with the outside world was via robots. The main character is both one of those robot-controlling locked-in people (called Hadens) as well as working for the FBI. The case from Lock In was intricately linked to the world-building and highlighted a major development (the US stopped subsidies for anything Haden-related), whose repercussion would be felt even after the case was over.

Head On, a subtle dig at what happens in the next case, is about a uniquely Haden-fronted sport, more murder among Hadens, and yet as intriguing as it is, just doesn’t has the same impact as the first case had. That said, while the sequel is less ambitious, it’s just as enjoyable as the first one. It’s quite short (my e-reader says around 200 pages), written in the usual Scalzi style that is refined dry, amusement even in the tensest situations.

While I dislike description of fictional sports (or sports in general), I did like the whole discussion about how it was financed and how that linked back to the Haden-subsidies cut off in the first part. It’s probably not the part most sports fan care about, but it’s the part I find fascinating, as the whole issue of how leagues or non-team sports are run and financed is more complicated than you would assume.

Also, the Haden-sport in the novel at times feels like an analog for esports, that right now is in a similar position, lots of hype, but few people know about its long-term viability and how to finance it.