Video Game Review: Spider-Man

Marvel's Spider-Man_20190201221533

Just like I got a Nintendo Switch strictly to play Breath of the Wild, I bought a Playstation 4 to play Spider-Man. In fact, I managed to snag the red PS4 special edition with the huge white spider logo slapped on it, and it looks slick. After spending hours completing every side mission and churning through the DLC, I’m happy to say that Spider-Man took the best parts of the classic Spider-Man 2 game (released way back in 2004) and improved on its weaknesses.

Spider-Man is a combination of Spider-Man 2 and the Batman Arkham games sprinkled with familiar, sometimes boring side missions copied from games like Assassin’s Creed. Even if some of the side missions aren’t exciting, web slinging around New York is enjoyable enough to forgive bland missions. Seriously, launching Spidey through the air and threading the needle through tight spaces at high velocity is terrific. Similar to the web slinging, the combat is fluid and varied. I never blamed the game when I failed in a fight, and when I fell into a good rhythm the streets of New York would be littered with webbed up criminals.

Although high end graphics are usually secondary to me when it comes to video games, Spidey looks amazing in this game. It’s clear that the designers took pride in crafting every costume, and I even found myself using costumes I don’t care that much about (Scarlet Spider, Secret War) because they look so cool in-game. The only problem is there are so many impressively designed suits and I could only wear one at a time.

I knew webslinging would be fun, but surprisingly, the story is the most impressive part of Spider-Man. Like the classic Marvel comics, Peter Parker has to balance crime fighting, finances, and family obligations. Mixed in with old tropes are new versions of Mary Jane and Aunt May (the best we’ve ever seen), sympathetic villain Martin Li, as well as a good kid named Miles Morales. There’s also Doctor Octavius, Peter’s mentor, who might be the most fleshed out villain I’ve ever encountered in a video game. The characters drive the story and inject it with life.

When I was about halfway through Spider-Man I realized something: this feels like being in a comic book! Whether I was slinging across the Upper East Side to meet Aunt May at the community center or dodging Electro’s blasts hundreds of feet in the air, I was immersed in the game and felt like the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. One of the only real flaws I found is in the title. “Spider-Man” is good, but adding an adjective like “Sensational” would be more fitting.

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Book Review: Stan Sakai – Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition

Book Review - Stan Sakai - Usagi Yojimbo- The Special Edition

I first met rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi while watching the ‘80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he wasn’t just a friend to the turtles, but an original character with his own comic series. Stan Sakai started the Usagi Yojimbo series in 1984, and The Special Edition collects the first seven volumes.

Usagi is a rōnin (masterless samurai) who wanders a fantastical Feudal Japan full of anthropomorphic animals, finding adventure along the way. Sakai’s art style is pleasantly cartoonish, even when characters are being stabbed or beheaded. It’s an odd contradiction, but it works very well. Plus, little details are fun to find; in one panel corner a lizard catches sight of an approaching conflict, and in the next panel the lizard flees in fear. The Special Edition tells short, self-contained stories while introducing recurring characters who work to assist or hinder Usagi. For example, if Usagi duels and defeats an enemy in one issue, that same antagonist is likely to pop up in a later issue looking for revenge. Sakai strikes a perfect balance between serialization and simplicity.

Many of the stories in The Special Edition are about good versus evil, but the gray areas are the most intriguing. In one story Usagi escorts an older woman to her home village where he finds that the cruel village leader is the woman’s son. The woman, aware of how the villagers are suffering under tyranny, pleads with Usagi to kill her son. I won’t spoil the ending, but the conflict tests Usagi’s morality and it is a must read. Usagi’s antagonists can also be sympathetic, changing over time and even helping Usagi when they could just as easily kill him.

Reading through The Special Edition I grew to care about Miyamoto Usagi, and I still want more stories even after completing the large volume. So I’ve already bought the next four volumes, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Usagi’s journey until he (hopefully) is able to settle down to a peaceful life.

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Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

movie review - spider-man- into the spider-verse

Like most comic book fans, I’ve come to accept that DC creates the best animated content for its superheroes (see Batman: The Animated Series, JLA Unlimited, and Young Justice). Well, no one must have told the minds behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Simply put, Spider-Man has never been more fun to watch onscreen.

Into the Spider-Verse is a hero’s journey for new superhero Miles Morales, but he’s joined by a washed-up Peter Parker (played by Jake Johnson, a favorite of mine), Spider-Gwen, and a few other unique Spider-heroes ready to fight on the side of good. It’s easy to suffer from Marvel fatigue considering how many similar movies are churned out each year, but Into the Spider-Verse is creative and funny, with striking visuals, and there’s even a shocking moment at the start of the film that actually saddened me (another unexpected treat is the horror movie vibe that starts up when The Prowler hunts Miles). The animated film shows a clear reverence for the mythology of Spider-Man, and it contains more Easter eggs than my eyes had time to identify.

The only part of Into the Spider-Verse that I didn’t buy was Miles’ upgrade from blundering, awkward, wannabe hero to an amazingly skilled combatant capable of defeating a legendary villain. It’s not a gradual transition, but rather a “believe in yourself and you can do anything” sort of change. To say it’s not realistic is odd, considering the film features a talking pig, but it bothered me. Regardless, I love this film, and I’m hoping the sequel is even better. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just a great Spidey movie, it’s probably the best Spider-Man movie ever made.

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The Challenge Hall of Shame: Danny Jamieson

The Challenge HOS- Danny Jamieson

The Challenge isn’t for everyone. There will always be those who excel in competition (see the Hall of Fame winners) and unfortunately, there will always be those who consistently find themselves at the bottom. Maybe they’ve embarrassed themselves. Maybe they couldn’t win an elimination to save their lives. Worst of all, maybe they quit on themselves or their teams. Either way, they played poorly enough to enter the Hall of Shame.

Poor Danny. He started out his reality TV career on The Real World: Austin by having his face punched in, and his Challenge career didn’t go much better. If he hadn’t been part of such a popular Real World season, Danny probably wouldn’t have been invited back to The Challenge so many times. But even with all the opportunities he had to win, Danny only lost.

Danny didn’t have a problem with daily challenges (so he wasn’t a constant liability to his teams), but he could not win an elimination to save his life. Now, no one can fault Danny for losing to heavy hitters like Wes Bergmann on Fresh Meat or Darrell Taylor on The Ruins. Danny actually put up a decent fight against Darrell. But Danny was one elimination away from the final on The Gauntlet III, and he failed miserably against the much smaller Adam King in a physical elimination. He talked a big game, saying something about tearing off Adam’s arm and beating him with it, and Adam ended up running circles around Danny. Even worse, Danny clearly quit on himself during the elimination, hunching his shoulders and accepting defeat. It’s the same posture he had on The Inferno III when he allowed Davis Mallory to knock him out of the game. Over the course of his Challenge career, Danny had six chances to survive elimination, and he failed every time.

Of course, a challenger doesn’t have to be great in eliminations in order to reach a final. If Danny had a better political game, he definitely could have made it to the end of a season. But for some reason Danny adopted Wes’ “I’m better than you” attitude, and it did not suit him at all. Wes could at least back up some of his bravado while Danny could not. Danny was never well liked, and it led to him getting thrown into elimination every season. It’s too bad that Danny hasn’t been back since his final appearance on Battle of the Seasons, because he finally seemed to become a more likable guy. That being said, even if he made a return, it’s unlikely Danny would make it anywhere near a final.

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Key Character: Dr. Peter Benton

Key Character- Dr. Peter Benton

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

Many great doctors walked the halls of ER during its fifteen season run, and there’s none finer than Dr. Peter Benton. Benton never gains many friends amongst the hospital staff due to his stubborn, sometimes disagreeable personality, but he works extraordinarily hard to uphold the Hippocratic Oath and care for his patients.

Introduced as a hotshot, impatient surgeon, Benton constantly displays his desire to be the best doctor in the operating room. There are plenty of references to the difficulty Benton faced in becoming a doctor due to his family’s lower income status, which helps to explain his drive to succeed. He doesn’t just excel for himself, he works for the people closest to him, namely his mother and sister (and later, his son). Choosing work over personal obligations becomes a constant conflict for Benton, and he often neglects his loved ones to fulfill his surgical duties. Much to his family’s displeasure, unfortunate scheduling leads to Benton missing his elderly mother’s birthday party to save the life of a white supremacist in the season one episode “The Birthday Party.” But that’s what makes Benton unique. No matter the history/race/transgression of the patient, Benton cares for his patients equally. Well, almost. More on that in a bit.

Even with Benton’s self-discipline and extremely busy schedule, somehow medical student John Carter manages to find his way into Benton’s heart. The mentor-mentee relationship between Benton and Carter is my favorite part of a series that features many other exemplary episodes and characters. Benton regularly berates Carter and expects perfection from his student, but it all has a purpose. There is no maliciousness. Benton is demanding and uncompromising in order to make Carter a better doctor. And here’s something I noticed upon re-watching ER’s early seasons – Benton is always supportive of Carter during traumas. Traumas are fast moving environments where it’s easy for a doctor to lose his cool, but that’s when Benton encourages Carter, letting him know he can perform difficult procedures, believing in Carter even if Carter doesn’t believe in himself.

The historic episode “All in the Family” reveals just how much Carter means to Dr. Benton. After he discovers Carter has been stabbed, a panicked Benton rushes to his side and refuses to leave until he knows Carter is out of danger. Benton has full faith in his own abilities, and he won’t trust anyone else to heal his student. For Benton, Carter’s surgery isn’t just professional, it’s very much personal. And when Carter develops an addiction to narcotics, once again it’s Dr. Benton who’s by his side, chaperoning him across the country to a rehab facility.

Dr. Benton finally leaves the ER after realizing that being a father is more important than anything else, but he leaves behind a strong legacy. Dr. Carter may have filled the void left by Dr. Green, but he’s the product of his mentor, Dr. Benton. And Carter couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.

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The Challenge Hall of Fame: Emily Schromm

The Challenge HOF- Emily Schromm

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

Emily Schromm is a physical specimen. Most competitors participate in some kind of physical training before and during The Challenge, but fitness is Emily’s life. She grew up an athlete, and over the years she has only increased in strength and endurance. Aneesa Ferreira is built for eliminations, Paula Meronek is built for finals, and Emily is built for anything.

Emily defied expectations during her debut on Cutthroat, surviving the destruction of her team until only she and Jenn Grijalva were left to run the final. Unfortunately Emily didn’t win her rookie season, and she didn’t win Battle of the Exes with her partner Ty Ruff. But along the way Emily destroyed Paul twice in eliminations, and she treated Cara Maria like a ragdoll in X-Battle, winning one of their rounds in a matter of seconds.

Paula shouted with joy when she found out she had been paired with Emily for Rivals II, but both competitors were lucky to be bound together. The pair won more than half of the season’s challenges, avoiding elimination completely and winning the final. All told, Emily has been in five eliminations and won five times. She may lack the impressive puzzle solving skills of, say, a Sarah Rice, but Emily can easily outperform just about anybody she faces off against (male or female). Emily also won a season of Champs vs. Stars, but I’m hoping she returns to the main Challenge for one more season. She’s already proven herself time and again, so at this point she’d only be strengthening her own legend.

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Best Eps: The Wonder Years – “Coda”

Best Eps- The Wonder Years

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

“When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything – artist, scientist, athlete, scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one.”

There will always be a special place in my childhood memories for The Wonder Years. I grew up with Kevin Arnold, faced the same adolescent challenges that he did, and when he struggled, I empathized. There are many Kevin Arnold moments I remember, but after re-watching the entire Wonder Years series a few years back, it’s “Coda” that stood out sharply. Like so many episodes of The Wonder Years, “Coda” has a tone of bittersweet nostalgia, and the episode begins and ends with a sunset representing the hobbies and passions lost along the path to adulthood.

When Kevin tries to quit his piano lessons, his teacher Mrs. Carples is not pleased. Mrs. Carples (played wonderfully by Maxine Stuart) is a chain-smoking, perceptive, honest, and supportive teacher who truly believes in Kevin’s innate musical ability. Kevin argues that he’ll never play the piano as perfectly as his robotic peer, Ronald Hirschmuller. Mrs. Carples scoffs at this, saying, “You have more talent in your little pinky than Ronald Hirschmuller has in his whole body.” More importantly, she teaches Kevin that music isn’t about competition, it’s about feeling the music and interpreting it in your own way.

So Kevin spends hours practicing for the annual piano recital, and Mrs. Carples proudly says he’s ready to play before an audience. But at the dress rehearsal Ronald plays the same song as Kevin, “Canon in D Major,” and he plays it perfectly. Kevin is up next, and he nervously begins his performance immediately after Ronald. He makes a mistake. And another. And another. Kevin’s confidence slips away, and he finally does quit the piano. He doesn’t perform in the piano recital, and he happily plays football with his friends instead.

I can’t overstate how much I love the writing on “Coda.” In simple words, the narrator – an older, wiser Kevin – speaks of regret in a profound way. Most people can immediately recall at least one opportunity or passion we abandoned for a variety of reasons, but life moves on no matter our regrets. Kevin reflects on this, and he speaks about it plainly while his younger self observes the piano recital from outside Mrs. Carples’ house as dusk falls.

“I remember the light glowing from Mrs. Carples’ window. And I remember the darkness falling as I sat out there on the street looking in. And now, more than twenty years later, I still remember every note of the music that wandered out into the still night air. The only thing is, I can’t remember how to play it anymore.”

Other Best Eps candidates: “Pilot,” “My Father’s Office,” “The Sixth Man”

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The Challenge Hall of Fame: Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio

The Challenge HOF: Johnny Bananas

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

If you watched The Duel, the first Challenge season Johnny Bananas took part in, you might have guessed he was a one-and-done type of competitor. His Real World roommate Tyler pulled him into the initial elimination and sent young Johnny packing. There’s no shame in a rookie being sent home early their first go-round, but Johnny must have found the defeat motivating, because he performed well on his next Challenge, and he clawed his way to the top a couple seasons later on The Island.

My how far we’ve come. Johnny has competed in over a dozen seasons, he’s won six times (additionally he won a season of the spin-off Champs vs. Stars), and he’s earned almost $700,000. Johnny has lost more elimination rounds than he’s won, but when he makes it to a final, the odds are he’s taking home the gold. Also, two of the elimination rounds he’s won have been against CT. No one else can say he’s eliminated CT twice.

The key to Johnny’s success is his ability to “stir the pot” and draw viewers in with his personality and in-game moves. There’s a reason MTV keeps inviting this guy back: he makes for good TV. What’s most surprising is Johnny’s ability to win even after everyone in the house is well aware that he’s the guy to beat, that he’s the guy you don’t want to see in a final. Johnny plays the political game well, and his elevated status as the all-time champ makes others hesitate to rise up against him. Jordan Wiseley created an uprising against the champ on Free Agents, challenging Johnny to an elimination battle, after which Jordan found himself on the next plane home.

Though he’s hit a bit of a losing streak recently (some say he’s cursed because he took Sarah’s half of the money on Rivals III), it wouldn’t be safe to bet against the Banana man winning again.

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Video Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I haven’t played a new Zelda game in years, but the overwhelming positive response to Breath of the Wild was too much for me to resist. I don’t care about the Nintendo Switch’s portability (I prefer using a TV screen), and I probably won’t buy more than a handful of games for the system, but boy does it feel good to be Link again.

The big draw of Breath of the Wild is the open world full of mountain peaks to climb and enemies to slay. But what really sells the world is its sense of history. There are desolate ruins that speak to the violent past of the beautiful land, and forgotten leviathan skeletons are wondrously alluring. There are plenty of shrines to uncover and conquer, and some of them – especially those involving riddles – provide a welcome challenge. Link’s essential abilities are available early in the game, so the player’s only limitations are lack of skill and imagination. I’m not necessarily skilled or imaginative, and I experienced satisfaction in returning to confront monsters that had once made me flee in fear.

Although most of the story is still delivered through text and Link remains woefully silent, Breath of the Wild also uses voice actors to flesh out the story and create bonds between Link and his allies. Zelda is more of a rounded character in this game; she’s idealistic, bratty, courageous, and hampered with self-doubt. Maybe someday Link will follow suit and be more than a mute hero.

At the time of this writing I haven’t yet completed Breath of the Wild, but I’m happy to say it feels like returning to Ocarina of Time on a grander scale. I do have minor quibbles with character pop-in and the short handful of dungeons. Overall though, Breath of the Wild is an incredible adventure, and it’s easy to see why Zelda fans fell in love with it.

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Book Review: Richard Adams – Watership Down

Richard Adams - Watership Down

I owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Adams. I’m getting into my mid-30s, but reading Watership Down for the first time made me feel like the kid I used to be, the kid getting transported to vivid, imaginative worlds through books’ words.

The anthropomorphized rabbits of Watership Down are not on a grand adventure to recover a mystical jewel or defeat an ancient evil (this isn’t that kind of fantasy novel) – they are simply trying to survive. Even simple acts that humans take for granted, like crossing a stream, are overwhelmingly intimidating for rabbits who are journeying far beyond the only world they’ve known. But what is truly endearing about the lead characters, including Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver, is their mutual dependence and appreciation for each other. Each rabbit has strengths, and these strengths are recognized and utilized by the group as a whole. Chief Rabbit Hazel empowers those around him and is careful to keep smaller, weaker rabbits from feeling less valuable. I didn’t expect an adventure story about rabbits to teach me lessons on leadership, but I’ll take what I can get.

Adams builds a rich world in Watership Down complete with folklore, mythos, and supernatural second sight abilities that lead to rewarding instances of foreshadowing (one rabbit even ruminates on the unconscious mind).  With all that being said, it would be a disservice to think of Adams’ work as a simple children’s book.  This book sunk its claws into me, and I read forward eagerly whilst remaining fearful that one or more of my favorite characters would meet a grim end.  I’m looking forward to re-reading Watership Down in a few years, and I’ve already bought the sequel Tales from Watership Down.  Bigwig forever.

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