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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Key Character: Leslie Knope

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.

Leslie Knope may have begun her onscreen life as a poor man’s Michael Scott, but she became so much more. She became the noble, tireless civil servant that the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana never deserved.

Leslie loves her friends, her town, and her waffles. Not necessarily in that order. One of the reasons Parks & Recreation is such a re-watchable show is it’s easy to root for Leslie to succeed. She is the rare example of a person who cares more about other people than she cares about herself. Although she makes plenty of mistakes on her path from low level government employee to federal powerhouse, she always bounces back to being her optimistic, altruistic self.

Her relationship with Ben Wyatt is one of the best you can find on TV. Leslie and Ben flip the traditional gender roles, with Leslie being more of the domineering, type-A partner, while Ben often acts as the emotional support (and eye candy) for Leslie. They’re perfect together, and the show’s writers never felt the need to create cheap drama between them.

There are plenty of examples that illustrate the kind of person Leslie is, and one of my favorites comes from the season three episode “Ron & Tammy: Part Two.” Ben and Leslie are both worried that without police officer support at the Harvest Festival, the important event will fall apart. Ben visits with Police Chief Trumple privately to ask for police officer volunteers, and Trumple immediately agrees to help. He says, “Leslie Knope gets as many favors as she needs.” When Ben asks why, Trumple pauses to think before responding, “Because she’s the kind of a person who uses favors to help other people.” That’s the kind of civil servant we’d all be lucky to have.

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Video Game Review: Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

It’s been a long time since I’ve committed to playing a video game.  But somehow I’ve dedicated dozens of hours to building up a farm, interacting with neighbors, and exploring caves in Stardew Valley.  The first time I saw footage of Stardew Valley, I immediately thought of Harvest Moon, a fun farm simulator I played as a kid.  Stardew Valley feeds off of that nostalgia while building its own world.

The game doesn’t waste time with a long setup.  Fed up with corporate drone life, the protagonist moves to the quaint little town of Stardew Valley and inherits his (or her – you can customize your own avatar) grandfather’s farm.  After some quick introductions, the game allows the player to pursue his own ambitions.  On any given day the player can harvest crops, chop wood, go fishing, give gifts, feed barn animals, forage wild berries, pursue romantic interests, battle giant blobs, mine ore, and on and on.  What’s more, the game doesn’t push the player to engage in any one activity.  Rewards await those who explore everything Stardew Valley has to offer – keep a look out for Zelda-esque puzzles – but the game world is what you make of it.

Stardew Valley is a labor of love, and it shows.  The music is enjoyable and varies depending on seasons and settings.  The history of the land slowly unravels as books and artifacts are discovered.  One of my neighbors, an aspiring writer, once asked me about my favorite type of book.  I told him I liked science fiction.  Weeks later he invited me to a book reading for his sci-fi novel.  As I said, the game world is what you make of it.  And it’s a wonderful world.

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Best Eps: Breaking Bad – “One Minute”

Best Eps- Breaking Bad

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.

I know what you’re thinking.  “How could you not pick ‘Ozymandias’ as the best Breaking Bad episode?”  There’s no denying that “Ozymandias” is fantastic television, but it’s an episode that’s been talked about enough.  And from start to finish, “One Minute” is something special, even amongst other superb Breaking Bad episodes.

“One Minute” is bookended by two moments that define who Hank Schrader is.  At the start of the episode, Hank beats Jesse unconscious because he believes Jesse arranged a fake emergency call regarding Marie.  Hank instantly realizes his mistake in pummeling an unarmed man, and he alerts the authorities himself.  Hank is a good officer, and a good man, but after giving himself over to his rage, he knows his career as a DEA agent is over.

Of course, the other moment comes at the end of the episode with an assassination attempt on Hank’s life.  Hank had shown in earlier episodes that he suffers from PTSD, and he doesn’t revel in taking lives.  But like an old west gunslinger who never loses his touch, Hank is a dangerous man when cornered.  Director Michelle MacLaren directs the hell out of the final scene (I’d call her the best director the show had), and I still get chills when the cousin pulls a shining silver ax from the trunk of his car.  Hank prevails, though the last shot of a parking lot littered with bodies is chilling; it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

As if the action described above isn’t enough, there are more unforgettable scenes in “One Minute.”  Hank secretly weeping on Marie’s shoulder in the elevator is heartbreaking, and it says everything about their relationship and marriage.  Jesse has not one, but two monologues that show how frustrated he is at always being the fall guy for Walt.  I doubt that even Vince Gilligan expected Aaron Paul to grow into the actor he became while filming Breaking Bad.  After Jesse passionately rejects Walt’s offer to once again be partners, Walt speaks honestly, a rarity by this point in his life.  He says, “Your meth is good, Jesse.  As good as mine.”  The mentor-student relationship between Walt and Jesse anchors Breaking Bad, and in some ways, Walt’s words of praise mean more to Jesse than money ever could.

And hey, that goofball arms salesman was right about that hollow-point bullet.  “Sucker has six razor claws that expand upon impact.  Whew!  Shred your mama’s head like a cabbage.”

Other Best Eps candidates: “Dead Freight,” “Ozymandias,” “Salud”

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Movie Review: Creed

Creed

The Rocky franchise permeates my childhood memories.  I remember Rocky chasing a chicken, participating in a macho street fight, and of course I remember the exasperated Russian robot swearing that little Rocky is not a man, but a piece of iron.  That being said, nostalgia doesn’t overwhelm me when I think about Rocky.  It’s not one of my beloved franchises.

Director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have made me more excited about the Rocky universe (is everything a “universe” nowadays?) than I ever have been.  Coogler understands that the best sports movies are usually not about the sports involved.  Similar to the impressive Warrior, Creed is about relationships.  Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan) struggles against a legacy he’s unsure he can live up to, that of his deceased father Apollo Creed.  Johnson seeks out his father’s rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), but the elder champion doesn’t always fit Johnson’s expectations or ideals.

Coogler deserves most of the credit for the film as a whole, but Jordan and Stallone riff off of each other like real family members, with love and tension resting close to the surface.  The reason Creed works so well is Coogler nails both the emotional and physical impacts of the story.  The boxing choreography is excellent, and Coogler isn’t afraid to pull the camera back and allow the audience to witness the boxers circling each other and swinging away.  Jordan performs his own stunts, and it pays off.  If you’re not tensed up and cheering for the young Creed by the end of the film, you’re bad at watching sports films.  I’m looking forward to watching more of Creed’s journey, and I hope Coogler returns to add more depth to the storied franchise.

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Top Ten: The Challenge Moments

The Challenge

Bill Simmons and I have something in common – we’re both big fans of MTV’s long running series The Challenge.  What started out as goofy fun has turned into something of a real sport (minus the pesky performance enhancing drug testing).  Most adults, I’m sure, grow out of watching MTV reality shows, which is why YouTube comments of Challenge videos often go something like this: “I miss these Challenges.  This is the last time they had a great cast!”  I do miss the silly Challenge seasons of yore, but the current seasons filled with backstabbing and manipulation carried out by cast members desperate for a big payout are enjoyable in a different way.

Whether your last favorite season actually featured cast members of Road Rules, or you’ve witnessed Johnny Bananas’ rise from raspy voiced youngster to the self-proclaimed champ, there’s sure to be something on this list for you.  Without further ado, here are my top ten moments of The Challenge.

Top Ten- The Challenge Moments 10

10. Sarah Hangs Tough Against Irulan – The Gauntlet (2004)

The Challenge can be a cruel game.  When a team senses weakness, they’re quick to throw that weakness to the wolves.  Sarah was far from the best player on the Road Rules team on the original season on The Gauntlet, so she became the resident whipping girl.  Sarah entered the Gauntlet four times and sent four Real World cast members packing before facing off with Irulan in one last Gauntlet.  This did not end well for Irulan.  Sarah hung cool, like a zen bat, and she defeated her opponent.

Sarah later commented, “I am not a winner.  I haven’t been a winner my entire life.”  Except that she sent five people home and won the grand prize alongside her teammates.  Yeah, Sarah, you are a winner.

Top Ten- The Challenge Moments 09.jpg

09. Jordan Falls Before the Wall – Free Agents (2014)

Jordan was right to think that sending Johnny Bananas home early from the Free Agents competition was a fine idea.  Jordan was wrong to think volunteering to battle the four-time champ in an elimination was the way to accomplish that.  The number one rule of The Challenge is stay out of elimination rounds if at all possible.  Jordan broke that rule and flipped all the kill cards, and what’s worse, the elimination involved using hands and feet to break through a climbing wall.  With only one fully formed hand, Jordan had just enough trouble creating handholds to see his enemy climb away with the win.

During an argument earlier in the season Johnny told Jordan, “I will fucking end you, dude.”  And he did.  He also won the season in his most laborious victory to date.

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Music Review: Saves the Day – In Reverie

Saves the Day - In Reverie

Maybe I thought Stay What You Are would be too difficult to top.  Maybe seeing Chris bopping along to the beat in the “Anywhere with You” music video turned me off.  But the most likely reason it took me ten years from the release date to finally listen to In Reverie is that buying music costs lots of money for a broke student, and I had to be selective.  Either way, there’s no good excuse to put off listening to such a likable album.

I’m sure some people listen to In Reverie and really connect to certain songs, much like I connected to “Banned from the Back Porch” and “Firefly” in my youth.  I’ll admit I haven’t found such a connection with this album.  Chris Conley’s lyrics are wispy, featuring plenty of vague references to light, the moon, the sea, but the words just blow in and drift away.

But who cares?  I can start In Reverie at track one and enjoy it all the way through (actually, let’s skip “She” though ‘cause it slows things down a bit much).  Forget about the lyrics – this album is all about the sound.  The whiney highs of “Rise,” the rough guitar edges of “Where Are You,” and the elegiac shadow of “Tomorrow Too Late” are what make In Reverie good, if not great.  I listen to these songs like a child, admiring the surface without worrying about the depth.  And I’ll be bopping along to these tunes for years.

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Book Review: Aziz Ansari – Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari - Modern Romance

Swiping?  Ghosting?  Sexting?  There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dating in the age of Tinder and the dozens of other online dating hubs.  Thankfully, Aziz Ansari is as interested in dating as he is in fine dining.

In Modern Romance Aziz, along with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, seeks to understand the evolving world of dating.  Not so long ago people coupled up simply by poking their heads out their windows to see who lived next door.  Now it’s almost expected that we find “the one,” someone who completes us (see: Jerry Maguire) and figures into an overlong love story for future generations (see: How I Met Your Mother).

Aziz is as intrigued and captivated by relationships and dating apps as anyone else who’s swam in the dick pic infested waters of digital courtship, and therein lies the book’s greatest strength.  Aziz is an active participant, eagerly researching and learning right along with us.  He helps to illuminate truths that seem obvious after the fact.  The humor sometimes falls flat, but it’s more difficult to be funny on the page than it is on the stage.

The next time you get ghosted – that’s when a romantic interest disappears like an aloof Casper – turn to Modern Romance.  Because even when you’re confused, hurt, and alone (eating comfort tacos, natch), you’ll be assured of one thing: at least Aziz understands.

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Best Eps: Party Down – “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar”

Best Eps- Party Down

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.

Party Down is a short lived comedy series starring Adam Scott that not enough people watched.  Every episode follows the characters, employees of a substandard catering company, as they “work” an event (to be fair, they do work but they also find time to smoke pot and have sex while on the clock).  The series takes place in L.A., so of course most of the employees are also unknown actors no one cares about.

“Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar” follows the classic Party Down formula: Henry (Scott) and Casey flirt like teenagers, Kyle and Roman aggravate each other, and Ron tries to maintain some semblance of control.  But Constance (Jane Lynch) is the real star of this episode and the series as a whole.  She claims that “you’re as young as you feel,” but she’s also unabashedly disgusted by old people looking for love (or, as Constance visualizes it, “wrinkled parts pounding against wrinkled parts… blech”).  So when her former flame Bruce attempts to rekindle their love affair, Constance flees from his wrinkled face.  But when that wrinkled old flame collapses, seemingly dead, she mounts his body and screams, “I’m too young!  You can’t die!”

Kyle’s revenge plot against Roman falls a bit flaccid, but no big deal.  Because Casey finally ditches her drag of a husband and immediately leaps into Hendry’s waiting arms.  Oh, and thank God for Ron (the second best character of the series).  He’s the least inspirational boss after Michael Scott, and his “straight talk” story about a footless friend only elicits laughter.

Adam Scott and Jane Lynch should get high in bathrooms more often.  That should be every TV episode ever.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh,” “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”

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