Afterparty (2014)


I read Daryl Gregory’s phenomenal short story Second Person, Present Tense when it came out in 2005 and ever since then he was on my list of writer to look out for. There are a few science fiction writers who like to make a go at where brain chemistry, consciousness and egos cross, but none made it feel so effortless and personal as Gregory did in that short but impressive story.

But further dips into his work left me less impressed. Good writing in general, but his other novels just didn’t speak to me the same way as SPPT had. And then I read Afterparty. It has a different set of characters, the main hook is different (a drug that once you overdose gives you your own personal god, whether you want to or not) and it thankfully goes on for far longer.

But overall, it has the same energy and verve, it’s interested in a similar set of topics and it gives you something to think about even when you close the book. It’s probably my favorite book from 2014, and a strong contender for one of the best books recently overall.

Part of the attraction is just how the book frames the entire debate: the main character is a staunch atheist who is also completely convinced that she has found god, even when she knows its all just brain chemistry. And she’s not happy with that.

As a concept, it might be blasphemous to true believers, but it’s just as uncomfortable for the true atheists. What Lyda and her friends who overdosed suffer from isn’t exactly mind control, but it’s a close cousin where you can believe whatever you want, but that drug-induced personal god won’t take no for an answer and leave. Always there, always making you feel like you have direct access to a higher truth.

It’s one thing to know its fake when you’re not afflicted, but when it’s always there, always on, it becomes its own kind of truth.

There’s a lot more going in the novel than just that. Someone has started distributing the drug she and her friends overdosed on, even as it should be impossible. And her journey to find the source and shut it down leads to personal revelations that while long overdue and necessary, still cut deep. Meanwhile, lots of characters, each with their damage, their own stories that are just as compelling Lyda’s.

The story has just the right length with a pitch-perfect ending, but it still makes me want to see more from this world and its characters.

Holy Fire (1996)


Given the current political climate and development, it doesn’t look like our world is heading the direction of Sterling’s Holy Fire, but maybe we’re just right before the mass upheaval and megadeath phase. The future depicted in the novel is one that is both dystopian and utopian at the same time, depending to a large extend on your age and also personal inclinations.

It’s a meditation of the impact successful longevity treatments have on society, and how a world where old people have most of the power feels like. Sterling could have gone for easy targets here. It’s pretty clear where his sympathies lie, but you never get the feeling that the gerontocracy is cardboard evil. It’s the outcome of a likely future history where the survivors of years of plagues and death have developed a stance toward personal responsibility (regarding health) that makes sense but still feels incredibly cold.

Funnily enough, I would fit rather well into the gerontocracy, as I’m rather risk-averse and security-prone. But even I can see the drawbacks of such a system. The gerontocracy has plateaued, which is okay in the short and even medium term, but forever is a long time. With such a time-frame, out-of-context problems will crop up, and to at least have a chance of surviving them requires a different attitude. You need dreamers and risk-takers, the weird and the strange ones willing to go where nobody else has gone.

Even if that doesn’t happen and the gerontocracy of the book manages to keep the reigns of power and exist for a very long time, it’s easy to see why it doesn’t look much like living. Risk-aversity and forethought are not a bad thing per se, but as in many things there needs to be a balance. If all you do is focused on prolonging your life, at some point you’ve forgotten what actually living means. There are fates worse that death.

Metroid (1986)

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Metroid is the granddaddy of the whole Metroidvania-genre, and while it’s not the first game that had a large, explorable world in a 2d platformer perspective, it’s the first where all the disparate elements came together into something whole and fitting, where each aspects fed into the next and created one of the best genres we have today.

From adventures Metroid cribbed item-gated progression, though it incorporated them seamlessly into the gameplay (rockets to open various doors, different fire modi to access new areas). From its precursors it took large worlds, but made them continuous and deliberately designed instead of generated on the fly. But the big gamechanger is that as old as Metroid is, it’s one of the earliest games on my Metroidvania-playlist that is actually fun to play, even today.

Sure, there are some elements that makes it less accessible today: after dying your HP-counter doesn’t get refilled much and if you need rockets you have to farm them. This adds difficulty to the game, as farming items from enemies often results in losing more health again.

But it’s the kind of pointless, grindy gameplay that just isn’t fun and only artificially extends the gameplay. The other thing it lacks is a map, which is arguably something you can do without (if your memory is good enough) or do on paper, if you’re so inclined. That said, there’s a LUA-script out there that gives you a modern Metroid-type map and recovers all HP and rockets after respawning, which makes the gameplay experience much smoother.

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The LUA-script sadly only works for the NES-version of the game (and hacks of it), not for the one-year earlier (1986) released Famicom Disk System version. That first version had slightly better sound and three save banks (if you want to play it, somebody fan-translated it).

Although, some of the stuff Metroid did was actually quite lenient. Once you get an item, even if you die on the route back, you still have it once you respawn. With that in mind you can plan for one-tour exploration trips without worrying about getting back to spawn points (the elevators between levels). Most of the difficulty of the early game is the lack of any equipment. The only real difficulty spike later on is the Mother Brain and the area before her, which is just incredibly hard.

Overall though, this is it, the transformation point from which on Metroidvania-games or likelike games became actually fun to play.

Roidz (2012)

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There are a couple of graphical hacks for Metroid, of which Roidz is my favorite. The art direction is a subtle improvement on the original, making it look as good as some of the late NES-games without being very-in-your-face with the changes. The hack has a tendency to change the layout of the item rooms into small puzzles, which I didn’t appreciate as it broke the atmosphere and took me out of the game (and the whole, find the breakable wall-thing is neither clever nor adds anything to the gameplay). But overall, this is one of the best hacks, and if you then go back to the original it feels drab and lacking visually.

Chaos Engine (1993)

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The Chaos Engine is in my opinion the magnus opus of the Bitmap Brothers, that showcased the most refined version of their highly recognizable art direction combined with almost perfect playability. It’s a top-down action shooter where you have to traverse four worlds with each four levels to final confront and if possible defeat the eponymous Chaos Engine.

The first few levels start easy but get noticeable harder in each successive level: new enemies that move faster and more erratic or can even climb walls, that can fire more deadly projectiles and can take on more damage than before. The only advantage you have is to collect as much money as possible in each level, to buy upgrades and keep pace with the arms race.

What adds to the immense replayability of the game is that every level has countless secrets that allow you to collect even more money, often offering two or three different paths through each level and various exits. I don’t remember any other game of this type that had such an amount of content and variety, at least if we’re talking about top-down shooters. You’ll always wonder what the best way to collect to most amount of money each level is and whether you’ll find a new secret on your next run.

You’re also not alone, a second soldier is always following you, though this is also one of my biggest gripe with the game. The second soldier is more obstruction than useful tool and how the game shoves him into your face gets annoying very fast. The second soldier also acts incredibly stupid most of the time (Dos-version). You can increase his intelligence, but by the point you have enough money to do so, you rather wish you could kill him forever. Sadly the game forces you to resurrect him repeatedly.

Overall it’s pretty hard. Coins appear after you hit an enemy, but shortly afterwards disappear again. You need them to power up, or you’re soon hopelessly outclassed, but if you’re too fast to collect them, you might bump into another enemy who comes from the same spawn point as the first one.

Shooting is only 8-directional and you can’t move while you’re shooting, while your enemies don’t seem limited by this as much as you. Your hitbox is quite large while enemies have a seemingly smaller one and often you miss them by a single pixel. The later levels are quite trying, and the final boss is extremely difficult due to how the controls limit you. Also later on you often can’t outrun enemies and if you don’t start hitting them once they appear, you already lost valuable hit points.

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SNES version

The game was released on a buttload of systems: Amiga and later Amiga CD32, Atari ST, on floppy disk on MS-Dos and later in an enchanced CD-version (which despite a patch for stuck keys remains almost unplayable, as the patch doesn’t really alleviate the problem), and on the Genesis and the SNES.

The floppy disk version for MS-Dos is quite good (but has weak sound). The SNES (screens above) version looks a bit more colorful, has actually a soundtrack and is much faster, including much faster enemy spawning, which makes coin farming from spawning enemies more difficult and the whole game even more nail-biting hard.

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The Genesis version has more muted colors, but has a similar tempo as the Dos-version and is in general better balanced for playability, and just as the SNES-version has sound as well. Both the SNES and the Genesis show also much better AI for your companion, to the point that he collects stuff you want rather than him.

The one major drawback of the Genesis version is that you can’t exchange abilities with your partner, which makes the early game easier if you take the Scientist and use his medkit in the Dos- and SNES-version.

The European version of the Genesis Chaos Engine (both Genesis and SNES US-versions are called Soldiers of Fortune) is that it has three selectable difficulties, which is not in the US-version and neither in any other.

Dark Ages (1991)

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Dark Ages reminds me of the earliest games I played when I got my first computer, a clunky 386er with a 20 MByte harddisk. I liked platformers, and in these days it often meant weak controls and lots of levels, but rarely well designed. I never played the game at that time, but I probably would have liked it, given the lack of good platformers on the PC in general. It follows the shareware principle, the first of three episodes is free, the rest had to be paid for. That said, once you’ve played the first episode, there’s no reason to really play the 2nd and 3rd.

They don’t offer new gameplay or even new sprites, just occasionally more difficult levels. As the base gameplay is already not very good in the first episode, I can’t imagine anybody wanting to see more of that. Even in 1991 you had better choice with Apogee’s own Commander Keen series or some of the other platformers. Dark Ages is really from the dark time and better left forgotten. Boring, long levels that feel boxed in (you can’t jump above the top screen, even if it’s open sky). Movement feels like it’s in the lowest frames-per-seconds number possible, sometimes it’s as if you hit a key and see the following action unwind in slow motion.

It’s interesting to see from a historical perspective, but doesn’t offer much of interest or playability these days.

Below the Root (1984)

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Below the Root is basically the fourth and final part in a three-part book series from the late 70ties by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It’s a trilogy of books that reads like children/young adult fantasy fiction but are rather some kind of stealth science fiction.

I read the first at the end of 2013, planning to read the other two in short succession to then start with the game, but man did I hate that experience and stalled after I started the second. I recently tried again and it’s just as terrible now as it was then. So instead of trying to push myself through them (mind you, these are short volumes, shy of 200 pages each, but man does reading them feel never-ending), I just read a summary and be done with it.

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The game was developed and published simultaneously in 1984 for three computer systems, Apple II (left picture), the C64 (right besides the cover) and a PC Booter (right picture). The Apple II and the PC Booter had a similar momentum-based movement scheme as other earlier platformers, to move right or left you start walking, to stop you counter it with pressing the key of the counter-direction.

The C64 has a more modern control-scheme, though I assume this is more born from primarily being joystick-controlled, not from actually thinking of improving the control scheme. Jumping is handled terrible in all versions, though JoyToKey helps with that. The C64 version is also the only one with good sound and the best graphics (worst were the ugly CGA graphics in the PC Booter).

As for gameplay, this is basically an adventure with a 2d perspective and traces of platformer games. I almost want to go as far as saying it’s a typical 2d-action-adventure, but in truth the game is missing on the action part. You can’t attack or even kill the few enemies that turn up in the game, likewise you can’t die either from attacks or falling from the tree or falling into water. All it does is set you back day, and since there’s a time limit of 50 days to finish, not advisable.

The game is really impressive as early example for an exploration-driven 2d game sporting a large continuous world and lots of elements that came to later mark the whole metroidvania genre: you have to get new abilities to get past certain obstacles and reach new ground, you have stats right out of cRPGs and the world in front of you is truly massive. With the game there came a map of some of it (the white square is your starting screen), but the real size of the world is even bigger.

Given all that, it’s not a game I see myself ever finishing. It’s not the antiquated control scheme and I quite like the graphics of the C64 version, it’s just that some of the things that irked me in the book series make me stop here as well.I don’t like the characters, I don’t like the setting and I can’t stand the overall attitude to everything, the hippy and vegan vibe I get.

Also, I like action in my games, and if there are enemies I want to defeat them. And the whole point of moving from the typical loose approach adventures have, perspective-wise that is, to something more rigid like in a platformer is too facilitate this kind of action. It’s a game that is almost where I want it to be, only to stop in front of the finish line and not go the last 5% percent. It gets so many gameplay elements right, but the things that really matter it gets completely wrong.

Another thing that really annoyed me in the books, the inflationary usage of made-up words for various things, feels just as pretentious here as it was there. It forces you to deploy mental capacity on things that should be clear-cut and part of the background, not standing out and call attention to themselves. Call it fucking mindreading and teleportation.

That said, I assume that if you approach the game coming from the adventure genre, it does well enough. I’m not the biggest adventure fan, but I assume a big world to explore with strange lingua might be just the right mix of elements to satisfy typical adventurer gamers. Me, I prefer to rack up kills during exploration, but then I’m coming from the cRPG side, so that explains that.

Suicide Squad – Extended Cut (2016)


This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, first in the theater and now this extended version. I liked the cinema cut well enough. It’s not a smart movie, had lots of faults, but as a spectacle, despite what the critics were hawking about, more or less succeeded. There’s a varied pool of neat characters, a well-defined villain, some nice action. It’s a good package as far as superheroes goes, if you don’t overthink it (for example that creating the squad in the first place created the very enemy they were forced to fight, which is either a thinly-veiled metaphor for American politics or just dumb, your pick).

The biggest problem of the movie was always its tone in regard to the characters. It wanted to have some evil-motherfuckers as anti-heroes but at the same time wanted to make them relatable and human as well. This went down as well as you imagine and is best exemplified by Deadshot aka Will Smith. I like Smith, but his acting range is all Will Smith, and no, he didn’t pull off a psychotic assassin believable. What he did was put in his best impression of Will Smith doing Deadshot, which was basically a villain with a heart of gold. Not what the movie required.

Deadshot isn’t the only one, the movie could never decide whether it was depicting psychotic murderers or nice guy’s who just took the wrong turn in life. At times this comes of as inept and dishonest, but one of the strengths of the movie is that it doesn’t matter much. Villains lie to themselves first of all, so it kind of fits, but its clear that the movie wants the audience to buy into it as well, which works right until the movie switches the tone to evil motherfucker again and you’re reminded that there are no heroes here.

As for the extended scenes, they work against Robbie’s and Leto’s character arc, transforming a bizarre love story into something more muddled and overall less compelling. Also in general, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie that really needed to be longer. I prefer the movie cut, which is just to the point and doesn’t make you linger to long on its many weaknesses.

Shadow of the Scorpion (2008)


Chronicles the early days of Neal Asher’s primary Polity protagonist, agent Cormac, by intertwining two plot threads, stuff that happened while Cormac was a kid and his early days as an agent for the Polity. It’s unusual for Asher in that the story is primarily character-driven, even if there’s a hunt for some terrorists going on. Also surprisingly Asher pulls this off rather well. Cormac is played not as hard-shell-soft-core hero, but as a deeply damaged person who functions well and doesn’t let the damage define who he is, even if its the foundation of who he is. It’s kind of an interesting take on the psychotic hero and of all things reminds me a bit of James Bond, somewhat.

Steam Heart (2016)

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Very short but highly enjoyable gun’n runner from this years Ludum Dare 36 gamejam. The controls are tight, the difficult is a bit one the low end (you’ll likely get through it on the first try) and the graphics are both well done and a bit of a mess, as it’s really hard to differentiate between backgrounds, explosion and general stuff going on. But it’s hard to get mad at some of the minor flaws, given the short production time and the amount of levels and bosses crammed into this.

The creator also works on a metroidvania, Ourobos Legacy, which looks great as well.

Conan: Hall of Volta (1984)

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Another of those early platformer game where the designers haven’t yet figured out the optimal controls for moving and jumping. It’s not as terrible as say Aztec, but it’s still far from pleasant. To move you speed up in one direction, but to stop you don’t let go of the movement key, instead you slow down again by hitting the other direction (this applies to the Apple II version).

Making your character stop at a certain point is quite trying and I’ve died often enough because I walked over a cliff. Jumping is iffy as well and doesn’t always work as you hoped it would. Once you have jumped, there’s not a lot you can do and you can only hope you hit the right angle and put enough power into the jump.

The game is an early forerunner for both cinematic platformers (simulationist movement physics and very concrete levels) and puzzle platformers. You have one-screen levels where you have to get to the ending often by finding keys, solving minor puzzles and doing all that in a set sequence to get out. Also there are lots of things that can insta-kill you (lava, water, spikes, wild animals).

What sets the game apart from other early platformers are the levels. Typical platformers have mostly abstract levels that follow a certain theme, but each level in Conan is modeled as if it were a real place. The outer part of a castle, a lava pit, a moat in front of the castle, some of its interior halls. It’s obviously still abstract to a large extend, else there would be no game, but each of them feels more realistic than was the norm then. You want to step outside of some of those screens and go explore further.

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The game was published on various western home computers in 1984 (Atari 8-bit, C64, Apple II) and from 1985 to 1986 on Japanese ones (PC-88, Sharp X1, FM7). While it’s not possible to see on these small screenshots, the Apple II (screen beside the cover) version had owning to the hardware a nice scanline effect that made its version look rather beautiful.

In comparison the Atari 8-bit version (the 2 screens above) looks rather drab and simple, though the controls are much better in the Atari version. Movement is less based on momentum and almost feels like a modern platformer. You move the left key, you move left, you stop, your character stops. You move the right key, and so on. Only jumping is still a bit off in this version.

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The C64 looks just as drab as the Atari 8-bit one, and also sports the same improved control scheme. One thing that stands out about it though is the sound. Compared to the primitive bleeps and blops of both the Apple and the Atari version, the sound on the C64 version is a noticeable improvement and actually sounds like real music (good too, though a bit repetitive after some time). One major drawback to this version are the loading times between levels. If you not accustomed to this you think the software has bugged out.

Alas, of the versions I tried one really did bug out after the fourth level (offering a horrendous glitch screen version of the the 4th level), and in the other where I could play to the final level, it bugged out once I finished the final puzzle. Instead of seeing the bird throw Volta into the volcano and bring Conan to safety and maybe an ending screen, everything turned black. Could be the software is still loading, but after a few minutes I gave up. Still worth for the music though.