Video Game Review: Final Fantasy VI

I regret missing out on Final Fantasy VI back in my SNES days. I would have fallen in love. Some of its story beats are familiar now, but that doesn’t take anything away from its status as one of the best titles in the series. If this were in fact the “final” fantasy released, the franchise would have gone out on a high note.

FFVI has a large, lively cast of characters, and two women – Terra and Celes – are arguably its most important protagonists. Terra is the only human who possesses innate magical abilities, and Celes holds the fate of the world in her hands at multiple points during the game. Unlike games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII, this game doesn’t depend on one main (and moody) protagonist to drive the story forward. FFVI is truly a team effort, and I had a tough time ranking my favorites heroes. For the record, my A-team ended up being: Terra (magic), Locke (strength), Celes (magic), and Shadow (strength).

Though I’d heard some information about FFVI before playing, I had no idea about its plot twist. Halfway through the game the unlikely band of rebels confronts the big bad Kefka, and they lose hard. The world is ripped apart, the heroes are scattered, and society as a whole barely survives. It’s such a dark time that one of the main characters attempts suicide. The World of Ruin reminds me of a post-apocalyptic novel setting, and its dark pall is nicely offset by moments of levity and love between the family of characters.

Not everything is perfect in FFVI. Though the characters are nicely varied, the Ultima spell is so powerful it makes all the other spells obsolete once it’s learned. Spamming one spell is not nearly as fun as learning an enemy’s weaknesses and exploiting them. An easy way to circumvent the issue would be to limit a character to using Ultima once per battle. On the flip side, the summons (which can only be used once per battle) are much too weak. Also, the characters only level up if they’re in the battle party, so it’s easy to allow less desirable characters to stagnate.

This is a definitely an RPG that benefits from at least two play-throughs. The plot’s not overly complex like Final Fantasy Tactics, but after reading up on the game (once I completed the story), I discovered plot points I didn’t even realize. Shadow’s connection to another character went right over my head. And Kefka sneaks into his role as the primary antagonist, graduating from unbalanced mage to world breaker. I didn’t expect that at all, and I should have taken him more seriously as a threat. He is, so far as I know, the only Final Fantasy character to succeed in his mission by becoming a god and taking control of the world. Really, even if you discover every secret the first time around, the story and characters are worth revisiting.

I completely understand why this is so many people’s favorite Final Fantasy game. It laid so much groundwork for future installments, and because of its gorgeous pixel art, excellent music, and timeless story, it’s aged very well. It’s a dark game, abound with themes of survivor’s guilt and depression. But like I said before, it’s a serious game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The characters can act quite silly, and even Kefka can be entertaining when he’s not completely horrifying. It’s refreshing to follow earnest heroes who are trying their best, as opposed to seeing characters attempting to rally around a bad boy who thinks “…whatever” is a proper bit of dialogue. Sorry, Cloud. Not sorry, Squall.

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Movie Review: Eternals

Eternals is fascinating. It it feels like a religious epic, it explores philosophical themes of morality, and it’s been been savaged by professional critics (it’s the worst reviewed MCU movie). The critics are wrong. Eternals has enough issues to keep it out of the MCU top tier, but it is far from the worst Marvel movie.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of the movie is it introduces a plus-sized superhero team and turns most of them into rounded characters, all without the benefit of tie-in media. It’s also beautifully shot, and I’m glad I watched it in theaters. Witnessing a massive celestial holding a tiny eternal within its palm took me back to the wonder of gargantuan statue Talos chasing humans in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Jack Kirby’s cosmic imagery mixes so well with Chloé Zhao directorial eye.

Eternals is a story of demigods, and all of them are imperfect beings. The movie is at its best when it lives in the gray area, when team members argue and fight about the best course for humanity. The razing of Tenochtitlan splinters the group, and the classic Marvel formula is complicated by characters who question their purpose. The deviants – ancient enemies of the eternals – almost achieve a level of complexity as well; sadly in the end they simply become something to punch.

If it hasn’t been made clear, I love Greek mythology and human myths in general, so Eternals lines up well with my interests. That being said, the movie is overly long, and the multiple flashbacks bog down the forward momentum of the narrative. And as cool as it is to have a deaf superhero, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is much too invisible before the climactic battle.

I wish this movie leapt to the top of the MCU rankings. No other Marvel movie has captured the heartbreak of humanity so beautifully and tragically (I’m thinking of both the Tenochtitlan and Hiroshima scenes). And watching demigods/angels choose the fate of humanity is a tale that’s ages old. But there’s always the sequel. The real test for Eternals will be whether or not there will be significant repercussions for the heroes’ decisions and disobedience. Now we have the perfect setup for a galactic threat like Annihilus to come forth and confront those who dared to deprive billions of lives to save one species. That’ll be a fight worth watching.

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Best Eps: Young Justice – “Homefront”

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.

Young Justice is about a team of young superheroes (don’t call them sidekicks) that works together to keep the world safe from local and galactic threats alike. The show features awesome powerhouse characters like Miss Martian and Blue Beetle, but one of its standout episodes is all about new team member Artemis. Artemis is an archer lacking super powers, and alongside Batman’s protégé Robin, she’s forced to save her superpowered friends from certain doom.

“Homefront” begins innocently enough. Artemis is attending her first day of school at Gotham Academy, and Dick Grayson (Robin) sneaks a photo with her, taking advantage of the fact she doesn’t know his secret identity. The two costumed heroes meet up once more before using a telephone booth to portal into their hideout, the cave. They are immediately attacked by fireballs and flash floods, and the action doesn’t stop for the remainder of the episode.

There are a few reasons “Homefront” is so good. Like I mentioned before, Artemis and Robin are lacking any extraordinary powers, yet they must save their super powered friends. While Artemis believes defeat is imminent, the younger Robin teaches her that every problem has a solution, no matter how difficult it may be. Their enemies are elemental and mysterious, creating deadly mystery. Anyone can imagine how awful burning alive or drowning would be, and both of those options are on the table here. Our first look at one of the antagonists is a haunting silhouette living in an inferno, a far cry from a zany villain in a colorful costume. There are horror/thriller movie moments galore in “Homefront.” Though this is ostensibly a kids show, the threat of death feels very real (the machines and their countdown cannot be reasoned with), so the heroes have no room for error. After Robin is captured, Artemis hides and curls into a fetal position. She knows she can’t win. But she decides to risk her own life to save others, and her perfect backflip arrow shot secures victory against the machines.

“Homefront” reminds me of Uncanny X-Men #143, the issue in which an outmatched Kitty Pryde cleverly destroys a powerful demon that’s stalking her in the X-Mansion. Everyone loves an underdog, and with Artemis there’s added complexity. She lacks the tutelage of Batman, but she gains valuable lessons from the more seasoned (albeit younger) Robin. Artemis is also keeping important secrets from her teammates, and it’s been difficult to build trust because of that. Regardless, Artemis gets traught and saves her new family. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Failsafe,” “Auld Acquaintance,” “Before the Dawn”

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Treasured Track: Run the Jewels – “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

Initially I planned to write about a song off the first Run the Jewels album. It’s a favorite of mine, and it reminds me of when a buddy and I would gush about RTJ while hanging out in Austin, TX. I suppose “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” off of Run the Jewels 2, is such a banger it refuses to be denied.

The heavy bass sets a serious tone for the flurry of words Killer Mike and El-P unleash upon the world. The dynamic duo are professional wordsmiths, and they go together like peanut butter and jamming rhymes down your throat. Like many of RTJ’s songs, “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” is aggressive as a curb stomping. Killer Mike and El-P are anti-establishment, anti-fuckboy, and pro-second amendment.

It’s impractical to quote the entire song, so I’ll round up some of my favorite lines from these poets of vulgarity. “I read the books, did the math. / Don’t need a preacher preachin’ on my behalf. / No teacher can teach my arrogant ass.” You can’t shut up the educated, and don’t try to speak for them. “I’m not from Earth, from far away. / I bust through chests like baby greys.” Science fiction pop culture coming through. And “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks” is an elegantly verbose way of telling someone to go fuck themselves.

The beat changes up at the end and it’s a sprint to the last second, but try not to cry. Hit the replay button and class is once again in session with professors El-P and Killer Mike. Damn, these guys are good.

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Movie Review: Predator

John McTiernan has to be my favorite action movie director, for two reasons alone: Die Hard with a Vengeance and Predator. The combination of guns and adventure just doesn’t get better than those two movies. Let’s focus on Predator today, though.

Predator begins like a cliché action romp with the beefy American commandos killing nameless, hapless opponents in a Central American jungle base. But everything changes when an invisible hunter begins picking off the Americans one by one, instilling a new kind of fear within them – the fear of prey. It’s a fantastic premise, with the straightforward action genre taking on elements of science fiction, thriller, and horror. The cast is unforgettable, and it’s always a bummer to lose the larger-than-life characters as they’re impaled and pulled apart. Still, the individual deaths are all classic moments (Billy – the death we don’t see – might be the best one).

Then there’s the Predator himself. He’s a monster similar to the shark in Jaws, an unstoppable and unknowable force of nature. His full reveal in his final battle against Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a jaw dropping moment in cinema. And that final battle just makes the movie even better. There’s Dutch’s primal scream to begin the fight, his ingenuity in creating death traps (expanding the guerilla warfare vs. superior force theme), the Predator learning how to throw a punch, and the creature’s final maniacal laughter. It’s all brilliant.

If there’s one thing I’d cut from the movie, it’s the opening scene showing a spaceship traveling to Earth. I haven’t seen it much, because you never catch the beginning of a movie when you’re watching it on cable or HBO, but I’d much prefer the viewer to be in the dark regarding the Predator’s origins, piecing things together as the characters do. That’s a slight critique though.

It’s a testament to the quality of the original that no sequel has ever come close to matching its exceptional cast, its cryptic antagonist, or its timeless one-liners. So, when is it a good time to watch Predator? “Anytime.” Good answer, Mac.

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The Challenge Hall of Shame: Colie Edison

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.

Colie Edison is a successful person. She’s the first female CEO of the Professional Bowlers Association, and long before that she was the president of her sorority at Tulane University. You would think someone with a Type A personality would at least be a decent competitor, but Colie sucked on The Challenge.

The Inferno III was Colie’s first season, and she made it pretty far along considering her rookie status. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Colie got disqualified on the first daily challenge, the third daily challenge, and twice more after that. Her coordination and overall physical abilities are simply bottom of the barrel. She even struggled on a wall climbing challenge with legendary climber Alton Williams on her team. She also joined the Susie Meister and Cara Zavaleta partnership, becoming the third wheel of their popular girl alliance when she could have been Paula Meronek’s number one.

Eventually Colie was mercifully eliminated by Jenn Grijalva. The fact that Jenn called her “The DQ Queen” says everything about Colie’s contribution to the Good Guys team. Due to her disqualifications and time penalties, she helped her team lose more than she helped them win.

For some reason Colie was invited back for The Island where she spent the majority of her screen time facilitating the voting deliberations. She did finally compete in a three-way elimination, but she lost quickly and easily. At least she wasn’t deluded regarding her position in the game. At the end of the episode deliberation she gave a weird scripted speech to the competitors, asking them to send her home so that her buddy Johanna Botta can stay. In a rare display of unity, everyone agreed to send Colie away. Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio summed her up pretty well: “You didn’t contribute to the island. And as far as I’m concerned, you were dead weight around here. So bon voyage, young lady.”

There is one moment Colie truly did shine. She referred to Dunbar Merrill as a “giant asshole” and didn’t back down when he tried to argue with her. It’s easily her best contribution to The Challenge.

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TV Review: The Challenge: All-Stars

I wouldn’t normally write a review for an individual season of The Challenge, but All-Stars is special. The spin-off began life as a “bring back the old schoolers” concept promoted by executive producer Mark “The Godfather” Long. And the Godfather delivered; All-Stars revives classic personalities and puts them through the wringer of modern challenges.

The cast features fan favorites like Alton Williams and Ruthie Alcaide, but the standout stars are Laterrian Wallace and Kendal Sheppard. Though neither of them make it to the final, that doesn’t matter. This is a redemption story for Laterrian, a competitor who always seemed to fall flat in his previous challenges. When Laterrian celebrates his first daily challenge win in 18 years while “Mo Money Mo Problems” hits, it’s impossible not to feel happy for him. Kendal is a returning champion, so she never had a chip on her shoulder like Laterrian. What she does have is a target on her back, and her elimination wins and daily challenge domination cement her as a multi-generational threat.

All-Stars is overall a quick watch, and it doesn’t use a redemption house or other silly twists that prolong a game indefinitely. If anything, ten episodes is a bit of a tease, but it is very cool to see a large number of individuals competing in a final. Daily challenges and eliminations are only part of the game, and you never know who might surprise you in a final. Jonna Mannion gave birth less than a year before the season started, and she damn near wins the entire game.

MTV absolutely should continue All-Stars, because it’s better than the Champs vs. Stars spin-off and more palatable than the 20+ episodes of the flagship show. It recaptures some of the fun and carefree vibe of past challenges, especially when natural entertainers like Teck Holmes are providing the commentary. Here’s my big plea to the showrunners: please please bring back Landon Lueck. The guy has been in his cage way too long and needs to be released.

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The Challenge Hall of Fame: Laurel Stucky

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.

Laurel Stucky is the Wonder Woman of The Challenge. She’s imposing, elegant in appearance, and she easily pushes around most other competitors. For a long time she remained undefeated in eliminations (her current record is 9-2), and she holds the record for most consecutive elimination victories by a woman. Laurel is the last person anyone wants to face one-on-one.

Despite her impressive ability to remain in the game – reaching three final challenges in a row – Laurel’s only win is Free Agents. That’s understandable, considering the obstacles in her way during those first three seasons. On Fresh Meat II Landon Lueck became an unstoppable force during the final, Laurel’s team imploded on Cutthroat, and the Rivals winners were Evelyn Smith and Paula Meronek, one of the better duos in the show’s history.

All of those second place finishes prepared Laurel for Free Agents. She defeated Aneesa Ferreira in a straight-up physical elimination, won the last puzzle elimination, and ran the politics of the house with Jordan Wiseley. It’s fitting, considering Laurel and Jordan are so much alike. They’re both dominating players who don’t hold their tongues. They believe in playing a straight up game and are quick to call people out, including and especially people on their own teams. During the Free Agents season Laurel learned that Theresa Gonzalez tricked other competitors into an elimination vote (while keeping the blood off her own hands), so Laurel adjusted her game to target Theresa. She can be arrogant and even mean spirited, but Laurel doesn’t tolerate snakes.

Laurel’s long anticipated return on Invasion of the Champions showed she still had a robot-like drive to destroy anything in her way. Then Camila Nakagawa shocked everyone by sending Laurel home in the final elimination, a rope tangling contest that involved strategy and stamina. It’s a well-deserved win for Camilla. Conversely, Laurel’s exit from War of the Worlds 2 is shameful. The controversial elimination ended with “Ninja” Natalie Duran winning even though T. J. Lavin had already sounded the airhorn. I’m not trying to take anything away from Ninja, but the producers should have reset the game to allow a fair conclusion. The competitors and the viewers deserve better.

Though she hasn’t seen much recent success, it’s always safe to bet on Laurel. Odds are good she’ll win her eliminations and verbally decimate those who oppose her. She’s great TV, and she’s possibly the one female competitor I’m most excited to see on the cast list when a new season is announced.

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