Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Two years ago, a baseball team that had been non-competitive for far too long took a look at the young talent they were meticulously developing and decided they were one key piece away. So they took a calculated risk, trading their top prospect, a can't-miss kind of young player, a move designed to bring in that one piece they thought they needed to become a contender again. It was, to say the least, not a popular move among the media talking heads and Internet message boards.

The Royals, though, now turn to that one piece as they begin their first postseason since their World Championship of 1985, and "Big Game" James Shields takes the hill against Jon Lester and the Oakland A's, hoping to propel Kansas City past the one-game Wild Care playoff and into the ALDS. So was the trade worth it?

This isn't about what Wil Myers, the prospect Kansas City traded to get Shields, has or hasn't done since he was sent to Tampa Bay. It's about a team desperate to be relevant again doing what they had to do, maybe even overpaying, to bring in that one veteran player that could supplement the young core talent they had developed over the years. Think of the Mets as Royals 2.0, a notion that would horrify most Mets fans except for the fact that, hey, Kansas City is in the playoffs and the Metropolitans have all gone home for the winter. The $91 million Kansas City payroll isn't even that far off (though too far off for the tastes of many) from the Mets' $82 million payroll. 

But like the Royals, the Mets have been grooming a core of young players they hope will, sometime in the near future, make them contenders for years to come. The difference is that the Mets have been growing arms, and the Royals' young stars, for the most part, are positional players. So two years ago Kansas City spent a bat to get an ace. The Mets have a top prospect, too. He came over from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade and his name is Noah Syndergaard, a lanky fireballer who has talent evaluators across the game salivating at his potential.

But the Mets have arms to spare: Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, Rafael Montero, Jenry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black, Carlos Torres... even must-see-hitter Bartolo Colon is still under contract for 2015. And while pitching arms are that most combustible of commodities, should the Mets look to do some "Big Game" hunting of their own this winter? There are two obvious needs on the Flushing baseball diamond, at shortstop and in either left or right field (depending on where Curtis Granderson ends up playing next year.) In a line-up that would currently feature All-Star Daniel Murphy, 30 HR-man Lucas Duda, injury-returning David Wright, rebound hopeful Curtis Granderson, Travis "Vegas" d'Arnaud, and Rey-Ordonez-as-a-center-fielder Juan Lagares, should the Mets spend their best chip on a supplementary bat, a truly reliable middle-of-the-order line-up threat missing from the aforementioned group? Or do you believe in Wilmer Flores and Matt den Dekker?

(A side note: while Mets fans, and likely Sandy Alderson, dream of Giancarlo Stanton, in players he would probably cost Syndergaard AND deGrom or Wheeler, not to mention an impact bat the Mets don't have. That price is almost certainly too steep to pay.)

This comes back to the Royals, and the question of what matters more: that their acquired piece, James Shields, has played a key role in returning them to October baseball? Or that the traded prospect, Wil Myers, may very well blossom into an All-Star hitter for years and years to come? What matters more, immediate glory or long term potential?

The Royals decided that they had waited for long term potential long enough, and immediate glory was their most pressing desire. The Mets should take note. They have a major league established core of pitchers already. Maybe Syndergaard turns out to be the best of the bunch. Maybe not. The wait for long term potential in Flushing, though, has also gone on long enough. Not all trades work out as well as the Shields trade has for the Royals, but if the gamble is never taken the pot can never be won. The Mets have been irrelevant for too many Octobers. The answer here is clear. If the hitter is out there to be had, and Syndergaard is the price tag, it's a deal and a gamble that the Mets must make.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Retirement of Derek Jeter: A Narrative Journey

And so the day will come when one final time, Derek Jeter, Yankee captain and shortstop for a generation, will doff his cap to the crowd and disappear off into the sunset, even as cries of “Derek! Don’t leave us!” echo through the Bronx.
Those cries shall go unheeded. Derek Jeter will leave the Yankees behind, leave baseball behind, leave all of us behind. And as the man has found himself standing in the blazing white spotlight for his entire adult life, a spotlight under which he has never wilted, never misstepped, never said the wrong line nor sang the wrong note… can we fault him his disappearance? His fade into the ether of memory? No, we can’t. And we won’t.
At first.
For before long, just a blink and a sigh and an offseason away, looms Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium, the day when the pinstriped heroes of yesteryear reunite and try to recapture just a sliver of the glory days of our youth. And while bleacher creatures and businessmen alike will applaud (politely) the usual parade of legends and Yankeeography subjects, all eyes will eventually drift to the hole between second and third, forever empty on the field and in their hearts, unoccupied and abandoned.
Many a pinstriped heart will break again in that moment of realization, as one by one the Bronx faithful realize: Derek Jeter has not returned for Old-Timer’s Day.
“Why not?” they wonder. “Doesn’t he love us? Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he miss us as we miss him?”
And it’s a question that will ring again, louder and louder on and around all Old-Timers Days to come, days that all end up being entirely sans-Jeter celebrations. Finally, enough will be enough, and all but the most die-hard Jeter loyalists will turn. “Who needs him?” they’ll scoff on the radio and in the streets, in the bars and subways. “Who does he think he is? He’s nothing without us fans! We made him who he is!”
The obvious question, of course, will fail to rise and make itself heard through the self-reverent indignation of the sports fanatic, that obvious question being: “Just where the heck IS he?!”
On the day Derek Jeter retires, he climbs into his Ford Edge and drives to his Manhattan penthouse, locking himself in through the length of October. Derek Jeter, after all, should not be seen in public during the baseball playoffs if he is not playing in them; now that he’s retired, he sees no reason why that should change.
Once the playoffs are done and the world has looked away from baseball, Derek emerges, near unrecognizable through the coarse, wiry beard he’s sprouted over 30 days spent unshaven. He would wonder, if he cared anymore of such things, if nearly 20 years of beardless regulations has left his facial hair confused and uncertain so to how best to deploy.
But he no longer cares about such things.
He comes and goes only to attend meetings about Derek Jeter Books, the new book imprint being set up for him at a Manhattan publishing house. The publishing executives are all very excited about this imprint… although truth told, this new Jetes, all beard and flannel and distracted eyes, gives them pause.
Once he is satisfied his book imprint is shaping up the way he likes, Derek Jeter climbs back into his Ford Edge and drives it to an orphanage. He grabs a faded canvas bag from the trunk, rings the orphanage bell, hands his car keys to the astonished nun who opens the door, and walks away with his bag over his shoulder. Will the good sisters discover the check he left in the glove compartment? The one for his entire net worth? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Derek Jeter purchases an old beater from a used car dealership and hits the highway, heading north, his canvas bag in the backseat. He stops only for coffee, cigarettes, and to rescue an old basset hound limping along the side of the road somewhere in Vermont. He lets the hound sit shotgun. He names him Duke.
Derek Jeter and Duke make their way into the great state of Maine, stopping only for maple syrup and lobster and maybe some blueberries, until one night somewhere past midnight, along a stretch of wooded roadway at a spot just a few hours south of the Canadian border, Derek slows the used junker down to a stop and climbs out. He stands still, completely still, for more than ten minutes, and then he sucks in a great breath of air, tasting the bite of the great northeast on his tongue, and says simply, “Here.”
Derek Jeter and Duke leave their car on the side of the road and make their way into the woods. They will hike for several days, surviving on fish Derek spears from brooks and springs, and one night enjoying a luxury feast from the final bits of their lobster and maple syrup. Duke licks spilled syrup out of Derek’s beard as Derek blows a blues tune on an old tin harmonica dug out of the recesses of his canvas bag. Derek Jeter is content.
It is the next morning that Derek Jeter and Duke begin construction on their new home, right on that very spot. Using a hand axe from his bag and some whittlin’, Derek erects within a matter of days a simple yet cozy two-room log cabin, one room for livin’, the other for rockin’. Over the next several weeks, as winter closes in, Derek Jeter prepares their home for the elements: he collects firewood and stacks it on the side of the hearth, he kills and skins four bears, preserving their meat in mud pits packed with the newly fallen first snow and using the skins for rugs and for sleeping. He daubs the crevices of his new log home tight with clay and silt, insulation as the good Lord intended, and every night he and Duke hunker down in front of the hearth, an iron pot that Derek Jeter carried to his new home in his canvas bag perched above a roaring fire, full of piping hot bear stew.
Life, Derek Jeter decides, is good.
Derek Jeter doesn’t lie: that first winter is hard. He and Duke go through some rough, lean times. Companionship, though, is all they need, and as long as they have each other, Derek Jeter knows, they will be all right.
Spring comes, and with the thaw comes opportunity. Derek Jeter is excited: he now has a full summer to himself, at last, time he can use to properly spruce up he and Duke’s log cabin. Using naught but what the land has to give him (along with whatever his handy canvas bag has to offer) Derek Jeter crafts curtains, furniture, a new hearth and a bed for Duke. He mines salt from a nearby mine and sets to preserving half his daily hunt for the coming winter. Derek Jeter is learning.
One day in the middle of July, a man from Derek Jeter’s former life bursts in through the cabin door, bedraggled and sweaty but excited beyond compare. “Derek!” he cries. “It’s me! Your agent! I’ve found you! You have to come back to New York, Derek! Everyone is wondering where you’ve been! Is that an ax?”
That man is never heard from again.
Back in New York City, the publishing house that had once been so excited about the Derek Jeter Books imprint begins to lose faith. They had hoped for sports stories; they have received instead three packets of esoteric poetry, composed on parchment paper and tied crudely with brown string. There is no return address and each package is signed simply, “Derek”. The publishing house quietly cancels the imprint.
Winter approaches again and Derek Jeter has taken a bride. A comely lass of fifteen, the daughter of an old hermit from a cave fifteen miles away. She has a limp in the leg and a lazy eye, but Derek Jeter loves her grandly. She bears him seven children. Derek Jeter has his hands full now, expanding the homestead he and Duke once shared alone, making room for the children, raising them, playing with them. Life is busy. Life is full. Duke passes on. Derek Jeter mourns, but Derek Jeter is at peace.
Derek Jeter’s children are grown now, ages 8 to 18. Their mother has gone to a better place, taken by a harsh winter, and Derek Jeter is restless. He is sixty years old, his dog is gone, his wife is gone, his children are growing up and asking questions about the world outside their little log cabin. Why, even the cabin is plum worn out, and the roof won’t stand another patching. So Derek Jeter gathers up his brood and, with nowhere else to turn, they make their way to New York.
It is Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium. As has become tradition, wreaths have been laid by the outfield wall, just in front of the number 22. Up in the bleachers, a man with scraggly long, gray hair sits with seven rough-and-tumble children, ages 8 to 18. He is unrecognizable beneath his twenty-year old beard and under his faded Red Sox cap. His second-hand clothes attract no further inspection. Some of the children appear garbed in clothes crafted by hand. A woman in the next row moves a seat further away from them while the rest of the packed stadium observes the customary moment of silence for Derek Jeter, long gone but never forgotten.
Names are called, players are introduced, children of heroes lost are honored in memory of their fathers, former diamond warriors. The men who once played alongside Derek Jeter stand on the third base line and wave and smile. None will dare cross near shortstop position. They will walk around it in broad circles, superstitious even in old age. The current Yankee shortstop would avoid going to the position today if he could. They would, to a man, burst into tears should their fellow in the bleachers reveal himself to them. He does not.
It is the seventh inning. Derek Jeter leans over to his eldest son. “I’m going to get a hot dog,” he says, then gets up and walks away.
It is well past the end of the game. Derek Jeter’s children are still seated in the bleachers. The younger ones are getting scared. An usher approaches. “Hey, kids,” he says. “Ya gotta go.”
“We’re waiting for our dad,” the eldest replies.
“Who’s your dad?” the usher ask.
“Derek Jeter,” the eldest replies.
The children are kicked out of the stadium. That, they are told by several very serious looking security guards, wasn’t funny.
Derek Jeter’s children make their way, by hook or by crook, back to the cabin in Maine. The roof has fallen in again, but they are resourceful. Within a few days the roof is fixed and their home is habitable once more. Their father never returns. The little ones do not understand, but the eldest knows. His father is a wanderer, a vagabond, a restless and incomplete soul.
He must be free to seek his path. He must be free to move on. He must be free to find Derek Jeter.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE Predictions (And Spoilers!)

Not to be confused with predictions for Game of Thrones, the great HBO series that isn't quite as good as George Railroad Martin's books. Here there be spoilers:



Right here.

What are you doing?

Do you WANT to be spoiled?

Okay, fine. You asked for it.

I'm going to do some real quick character predictions. Not many details. Feel free to fill in the blanks. These predictions, specifically, refer to where I'm predicting each character will be AFTER the full events of the published book series, all 7 of them, have transpired. This is where they will be in the epilogue, if there's an epilogue.

I expect, in time, to be proven SO SO SO SO wrong about just about all of these. So here we go, in no particular order:

1.) Jon Snow - Turns down the lordship of Winterfell and the chance at the Iron Throne (as he will be proven to be a surviving Targaryen, the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen.) But, as Maester Aemon of the Night's Watch before him, he'll turn down the throne to fulfill his duties as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.

2.) Samwell Tarly - Lives out his days as Jon's chief advisor, as the Maester of Castle Black, a brother of the Night's Watch.

3.) Jaime Lannister - Takes the black. Rises to the rank of First Ranger of the Night's Watch.

(It should be said, I expect that the Night's Watch will still exist after the events of the book, obviously. Although the dangers of the far north will breach the Wall, post book 7 I expect there still to be a need for the Watch. What that specific need is, I couldn't say.)

4.) Benjen Stark - He's Coldhands. He dies.

5.) Bran Stark - Becomes one with the weirwoods. Never returns from beyond the wall.

6.) Jojen Reed - Dies North of the wall.

7.) Meera Reed and Hodor - Return to Greywater Watch after Jojen's death. Howland Reed raises the banners to go after and save Rickon. Hodor goes with, dies. Meera goes with, survives, returns home.

8.) Rickon Stark - Becomes Lord of Winterfell.

9.) Cersei Lannister - Joins the Silent Sisters after Tommen is killed.

10.) Tommen - Dead.

11.) Varys - Kills Tommen. Dies at the hand of Daenerys Targaryen while attempting to place the false Targaryen, Aegon, on the Iron Throne.

12.) Aegon Targaryen - Dies. Killed by dragon.

13.) Daenerys Targaryen - Wins the game of thrones. Ends up on the Iron Throne.

14.) Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark - The Lord and Lady of Casterly Rock. In a completion of her character arc (the girl obsessed with outer beauty becomes a woman who values inner beauty most of all after the attractive Joffrey and even Littlefinger turned out to be such scuzzbuckets) she reclaims her marriage to Tyrion by her own volition.

15.) Lady Stoneheart - Dies in flames, her hands choking the life out of Walder Frey.

16.) Theon Greyjoy - Freezes to death in the fields of the North, but not before revealing to the Northmen that Bran and Rickon are still alive.

17.) Asha Greyjoy - Recaptures Winterfell, kills the Bastard of Bolton. Claims the Seastone Chair in place of her dead uncles.

17.5) Asha's Uncles - Dead.

18.) Stannis - Denounced as a false king by Melisandre, dies trying (again) to capture Kings Landing, killed by Jorah Mormont.

19.) Jorah Mormont - Killed by the Onion Knight, Sir Davos.

20.) Sir Davos - Member of Daenerys' Queensguard.

21.) Brienne of Tarth - Lady Commander of Daenerys' Queensguard

22.) All the people between Daenerys and Westeros - Killed by dragonfire.

23.) Littlefinger - Becomes Master of Whispers for Daenerys.

24.) Princess Myrcella - Marries Prince Trystane of House Martell.

25.) House Martell - Opens the gates to King's Landing for Daenerys, betraying the false claim of Aegon Targaryen.

26.) Melisandre - Advisor to Daenerys Stormborn, First of Her Name

27.) Arya - Becomes Batman. Or a Jedi. One or the other.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Smashing - Ch. 01

This is worlds away. But I like her already.

Chapter 1
“Two million dollars?”
The clerk, a pimply faced teen with thick black glasses, nodded. “Yeah. Two million.”
Rebel ran her finger absently up and down the length of the flyer as she read it again. “Seems like a lot,” she said thoughtfully, “for playing a video game.”
The clerk, who Rebel had decided was named Clark, nodded. “Yeah, but it’s not for just playing a game. You have to win the tournament.”
“You have to win the tournament,” Rebel repeated. It didn’t seem real. She tried to be more specific. “The video game tournament.” Nope. Still didn’t seem like a real thing. She pointed to the banner header on the top of the flyer. “Who are these Triple Nova people?”
“Biggest pro gaming league in the world,” Clark said. Clark the clerk, whose name tag stubbornly continued to say Greg even though Rebel had decided that was not his name.
She wrinkled up her nose. “There’s a pro gaming league? How big could that be?”
Clark shrugged. “I dunno. Big enough for them to offer a two million dollar prize to the winner of a video game tournament?”
She nodded. “Touche.”
Clark pointed to the hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind her ear. “You can’t smoke that in here.”
“Is it lit? Don’t get all weird on me, Clark. It’s just for luck.”
“My name isn’t --”
Rebel turned away from Clark, leaning against the Game Shack counter. She read the flyer for the third time. “Triple Nova, Inc. presents,” she read aloud. “First annual… open tournament... July 4th weekend... Atlantic City...” she glanced up at Clark. “That’s convenient.”
He looked confused. “For who?”
Rebel didn’t bother to explain. “Two million dollar grand prize.” She looked up again. “What’s Super Smash Brothers?”
Clark’s eyes lit up. Geez, what a dork. “It’s this awesome fighting game by Nintendo, where --”
But Rebel cut him off with a wave of her hand. “You know what? I’ll google it.” She held up the flyer. “Can I keep this?”
“Uh, yeah,” Clark said. “We’ve got hundreds of ‘em.”
She nodded and shoved the flyer in the green canvas knapsack she wore slung over one shoulder, then glanced outside. The rain had stopped. “I gotta go,” she said. “Good talk, Clark.”
“My name isn’t --” But Rebel had already pushed past the pack of 12 year old boys playing XBox at the front of the Game Shack store and out the door. The sudden downpour was over and the sun was back out, just a beautiful spring day in Atlantic City, in the shadows of the hotel/casinos for which the city was famous. Though she was lost in thought, her feet carried her away from the shopping complexes that had sprung up just north of the beach a few years back, across Pacific Avenue, past the hotels, and onto the boardwalk. Her hands rode in the pockets of her hoodie, the black one with the pink and black striped sleeves, and her black ankle boots and dark jeans were not the standard boardwalk attire. But it’s where she always found herself headed when she set out to think, and right at that moment she was thinking about a video game tournament with an obscene cash prize being handed out just for being really, really good at playing some game called Super Smash Brothers.
This, she decided, was going to be the easiest money she had ever made.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Legend of Zelda, or Link, or Whoever.

So I've got a theory.

It's probably not an original theory. The Internet is a hugely big place, after all, and opinions of all shapes and sizes are on it, particularly opinions about stupid nerd stuff, like comic books and movies and, in this case, video games.

E3 is going on as I write, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the big annual video game industry trade show. Other things probably happen there, too, but that's essentially what it's become known as. Each year all the major game companies whip out their junk and try and show the world how much more impressive their's is than the other guy's. Sony and Microsoft had their traditional pressers, and those in each camp applauded wildly, claiming some sort of consumer electronics victory for their chosen platform. Then Nintendo held a "digital event", sort of a pre-recorded 45-minute featurette on all the games they have in development. They actually showcased a fantastic looking line-up, which they needed to do as their latest console, the Wii U, has been a financial disaster thanks to bad branding and... well, the whims of the electronic consumer.

Their biggest game announced was the next installment in the Legend of Zelda franchise, one of the grandfather franchises of gaming and a perennial bestseller. The brief trailer for Zelda was, as expected, a gorgeously crafted piece of virtual art, and in the little pre-trailer speech given by the game's director/producer/whatever, an "open world" Zelda was promised, an exciting new frontier for Nintendo, whose systems to date have rarely been powerful enough to allow such. Now. An "open world" game is a "go anywhere" sort of game, like Skyrim. In fact, Skyrim was the specific comparison made to give the audience an idea of what sort of game Zelda would be, and that's important. Keep that in mind.

The traditional protagonist of the Legend of Zelda games is an elfish boy/teen named Link. Link, more or less, looks like this:

More or less. Sometimes he's pixelated, sometimes he's younger, sometimes he's a cel-shaded cartoon. But the general idea remains: pointy ears, green tunic and green hat, sword, shield, left-handed (yes, always left-handed)... that's Link.

So here was the hero of the trailer showed yesterday at E3 by Nintendo of their new Legend of Zelda game:

Okay. So. Blue tunic, no sword, no hat, but point ears and blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail, main weapon is a bow-and-arrow, quite possibly a girl as opposed to a boy (although there is often an air of androgyny about the Link character design)...

... right-handed...

Either Link has gotten the only major character redesign he's ever had in the 28 year-old history of the Zelda franchise, or that ain't Link.

Aside from the character's appearance, how this bow-wielding hero was introduced in the trailer is also very important. This character was first shown in the distance, on a horse, and was then pursued by a tank-like monster shooting lasers because video games. The character was cloaked and hooded, something Link has never been, and then a big cinematic reveal was made of the character whipping off that cloak and hood to battle their assailant.

Link is the star of this franchise. Everyone knows that. Why would a trailer for a Zelda game that still stars Link need to reveal his identity with any such sort of flourish?

One popular theory: this is Princess Zelda, not Link, and she will be the protagonist of the game. That would be dope, and that was my first thought, but I don't think that's it.

Go back to the Skyrim comparison. Skyrim, in addition to being open-world, also asked players to create their own main character via a character creator interface, where they could select race, gender, job class, weapons proficiency, etc., etc.

So that up there, in the blue tunic? That ain't Link. That ain't Zelda. That's you. And you get to choose and design who you are going to be. Will Link and Zelda still be in the game? I'd think so, perhaps as NPCs (non-player characters) with whom your player-created avatar interacts.

So. That's my theory. Welcome to your open-world Zelda. Don't freak out now.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nerds, Misogyny, #YesAllWomen, and What I Know (Hint: Not Much)

The first thing I want to say is that the victims of the Santa Barbara shootings are in my thoughts and prayers. However useful the prayers of an agnostic are is up for debate, but there you go. I'd rail against the NRA and gun control and how weapons designed for military usage have no business being legal for civilian ownership, but that's a post for a different day. I don't even know what the shooter in Santa Barbara was armed with, honestly, and I don't care to know, nor do I know his name and nor do I care to know that.

What I do know is that he wrote a hella long manifesto and posted YouTube videos that have been summed up thusly: he was a lonely nerd who thought he was entitled to sex with girls, just cuz, and that he was frustrated (too weak of a word, I think) and insane (also too weak of a word).

I'll say this up front: I know a ton of guys who have desired after girls who had no interest in them (also vice-versa, to be fair), and not one of those guys ever resorted to rape or, as far as I know, creepy stalker tactics. (Okay, maybe one, if writing a screenplay about his unrequited love counts. But if it does, then there's a whole lot of writers over the course of history who are guilty as charged, and we'll start that list with William Shakespeare. Read the sonnets.)

I'll also say this: I was a nerd. Or a geek. And I still am. Comics, movies, and Nintendo were my jams, and still are. And I certainly had unrequited crushes in my day, the most prominent of whom I eventually married. (It was of her own free will, might I add, even though she might deny it now.) Was I ever socially awkward around girls? ... I'm going to say, 'No', actually. The truth is I've always been far more comfortable around girls than around guys. Maybe it's because I grew up with so many sisters, or maybe it's because, nerd though I was, I grew up performing in musical theater, an activity in which the females outnumber the (heterosexual) males at a rate of something like 10 to 1, and which is not technically a social environment. It's a goal-oriented environment where most of your time and energy is directed towards producing something greater than the individuals involved, and not directed towards constantly trying to impress members of the opposite gender.

Maybe that helped. What the hell do I know, really?

I know that sexual identity and gender relations and gender politics and more are mind-numbingly complicated issues. I know the #YesAllWomen hashtag that has made the rounds of late is based in the truth that yes, all women fear sexual assault of some kind (or even that yes, all women experience sexual assault of some kind), and that it is a completely valid concern and a particularly enlightening hashtag. I also know that some guys are attacking it, which is stupid and arrogant and small-minded of them. They are, without realizing it, part of the problem. I also know that other guys, guys who try their hardest to be polite and proper towards women, are feeling as though they're being lumped into accusations of misogyny and assault through this hashtag, and that's a valid, defensible feeling.

I know that I don't know enough to pretend I know anything about what it's like to be a woman. I know that I believe in the innate goodness of man, and men, and I know that the men I know would never dream of participating in any form of forced sexual encounter with anyone, even the more alpha among them, as far as I know. But again... what do I know?

I know that the overt sexualization of women in media is often criticized as misogynistic exploitation, but I also know that to criticize a woman for choosing to pose in little to no clothing for a magazine cover could also fall under the banner of "slut shaming", so I know I don't really know how to force those two pieces of knowledge to coexist. Is it possible to criticize the magazine in question for exploiting her while celebrating her freedom to choose to be exploited? I don't know.

I know that creepers and lurkers exist within the comic book fan community, and I know disgusting guys grope and grab and make awful comments to female cosplayers at cons. I also know that female cosplayers will dress up as Star Sapphire or Wonder Woman and walk about in outfits that are designed to display or enhance primary sexual characteristics, such as breasts, hips, legs, and buttocks, and I can't understand how they would expect not to be looked at by other individuals, male or female, who are attracted to said characteristics. Not groped or grabbed. Nobody has that right. But looked at. Don't cosplayers want to be looked at? Because I've known some female cosplayers to complain, "I can't believe that guy was staring at me like that!" With all due respect, and I mean that non-ironically, you WERE walking around the Superdome dressed as Vampirella. "That doesn't give him the right to stare!" Okay, then, educate me: what was the acceptable amount of time for him to be looking at you? Or did you expect him to lower his eyes as he passed? Isn't one of the points of cosplay to be looked at? What's a worse fate for a cosplayer: to be overly noticed or to be not noticed at all? That last was a rhetorical question. Sort of.

I know I read stories online and saw stories on the news celebrating the groups of women going to see Magic Mike, all of whom were giddy to see Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey in the buff, and I know that a group of guys going to see Showgirls together would only be on the news to be profiled as perverts.

I know the Hawkeye Initiative is a movement wherein artists draw Marvel's Hawkeye character into the sort of sexually suggestive costumes and impossibly contorted poses that comic book artists will put female characters into, costumes and poses that make purchasing certain books uncomfortable for me to the point of avoidance. I also know that female and male sexuality is physically expressed in different manners, that the more aggressive poses given to the male actors on the Avengers movie poster are on some levels the sexually suggestive male equivalent to the oft-criticized backside shot of Black Widow on the same poster, and that while putting Hawkeye in that pose is pretty funny it isn't actually a totally accurate comparison. I also know that if any artist I worked with ever tried to draw Cookie McCloud in the costumes and poses some male artists tend to prefer for their female characters, I'd punch that artist in the goddamn face like he had just assaulted my own flesh and blood.

I know that sex sells, and that the female form is traditionally (and classically) found to be more appealing to the eye than the male form. I know to appreciate that beauty while not exploiting it seems to be a fine line to walk.

I know that Hollywood has popularized and promoted a version of female attractiveness that is almost unattainable in the real world, and that the even the "frumpy best friend" female characters in movies and TV shows are usually unnaturally attractive. (Hollywood is a world where Tina Fey is "plain", for example, and she is not that at all.) I also know that, hey, audiences don't want to watch totally average looking people save the world for two hours. People like looking at pretty people. Pick up an US Weekly once in awhile. Shallow? I suppose. True? Yes.

On the other hand, I know the frumpy-guy-gets-the-hot-girl fantasy is a common trope in film and TV these days. I also know I see all sorts of unattractive guys with attractive girls in real life, and (again) vice-versa. Still, you rarely if ever see the frumpy-girl-gets-the-hot-guy movie, do you? Which I know is a problem. Equal representation is still an important thing. But I also know that personally blaming Seth Rogen for the misrepresentation of gender roles and sexual politics in media is dumb as shit.

I know I was once accused by a friend of promoting "rape culture" because of a musing I posted on Facebook, in which I put forth the idea that it would not have taken Ariel three days to get Eric to kiss her in The Little Mermaid, because he was a heterosexual teenage guy and, hey, look at her. I know that this accusation pissed me the hell off because, first of all, thanks for throwing me under that bus, and second of all, how is it rape if it's the girl who is pursuing the guy? Ariel is on the surface for one reason: to make out with Eric. If anything, she's the aggressor here.

Okay, so maybe that movie DOES promote rape culture. Female on male rape. Is that a thing? I don't know.

What I do know is that some insane jackhole wrote 140-some odd pages about how unfair it was that girls don't want to bang him, and frustrated or not, that's not normal. There's a ton of sexually frustrated guys in the world, and they're not all writing manifestos about it.

Then again, #YesAllWomen. So what do I know?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Life Spent Gaming: Part 2 - Playing With Power

Playing With Power

Two things come to mind when I think back to the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, or just “The Nintendo”. The first is that I almost never had one, and had it been up to my parents I probably never would have. The second is that, truthfully, most of the most influential games of my lifetime were not games I played on the NES. That first Nintendo system was my gateway drug, the pot or prescription painkillers that led me to the wonderful world of crystal meth that was the Super NES.
That probably wasn’t the best metaphor I could have gone with.
It was Christmas… I want to say 1988, but it could have been 1987. I had long since resigned myself to my fate: my parents were convinced that my Atari 2600 was enough video game for one household, and that this whole “Nintendo” thing was just either more of the same or a fad that would soon pass. No amount of references to blurry, squinty images of The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. screen shots in the Sears/Roebuck Christmas catalog would convince them otherwise. No, there would be no Nintendo for me. I would spend the rest of my life condemned to playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! or Spelunker (or games that stunk of cigarettes, rented from a local mom-and-pop video store) at my friend Steven’s, or every other game ever made at my friend Jason’s, i.e. that kid whose parents bought him every game ever made.
Did not have.
I am the youngest of six children, but it’s more complicated than that. My dad was married twice. His first wife passed away when their two children, Jimmy and Regina, were still young, and he married my mom when they were in their early teens. Now it’s important to note: although I was always AWARE of the details of these familial connections, it never OCCURRED to me until my early 20’s that Jimmy and Regina were, in reality, my half-brother and half-sister. They were always just my way-older brother and sister, a decade and a half separating us as opposed to the two-years-like-clockwork between Maggie, Lizz, Mary Cate, and myself.
Thinking back on Christmas ‘88 (or ‘87) it occurs to me that the whole thing may have been a set-up, and my parents may well have known exactly what was going to happen. In my memory, though, they were as surprised as any of us, although much more frowny in their expression of said surprise. As I said: I knew that a life with the NES was not in the cards for me. Imagine my surprise, then, when my brother Jim, home for Christmas with his wife Christine, hauled out a big wrapped box, a “family” gift.
You already know what it was.
Let’s get real: this was a “family” gift in name only, and in hindsight my parents, on a limited budget but knowing there was only one thing I really wanted, or maybe not wanting to spend so much on me in comparison to what they were spending on my siblings, may have set the whole thing up with Jimmy. But again, as I remember it, they were kind of pissed at him and the semi-smug enjoyment he took in watching me unwrap the present and going ape-shit bananas, not unlike this:
This is how we should all react to presents.

That Christmas was spent stomping Koopas and hunting ducks. I even (begrudgingly) let Jimmy play for a little while. But again (and I can’t make this clear enough) the only member of the family really interested, long-term, in the NES and the hours of joy it would bring, was me.
The introduction of a Nintendo to our household brought regulations that were swiftly pushed to the wayside, because what were my parents going to do? I was already an honor student and a pretty well-behaved kid, I was already doing household chores for a relative bargain-rate allowance; there was very little they could reasonably hold over my head as a device through which to dole out to me my Nintendo playing time.
Now before I get into specific games, I need to repeat: the NES laid out the groundwork for the standards to which I would hold my video-gaming life. This was where so many of the great franchises of gaming were born (even those that would later move exclusively to other systems), though many of those franchises would not see their best incarnation on the 8-bit NES. This was just a start, and I think on some level I understood that even then, I understood that the games I played and loved and devoured were… incomplete. Imperfect. Part of a larger process. So the number of stand-alone NES games I now point to as being influential or impactful are surprisingly few. Remember: this was a brave new world of mass-consumer home gaming, the first time the console gaming experience was beginning to rival in quality the product being pushed on PC or in the arcade. “Nintendo” was the battle cry of a burgeoning culture, synonymous with video games the way “Coke” was synonymous with cola.
My point? Moreso than arguably any other console system, the NES sure had a lot of half-assed crap on it, mixed in with all the classic games that we remember so fondly.
But who wants to talk about the crap? Not me. No, not when I spent a good five years doing nothing but playing…
The Classics
Starring: your closest friends from childhood.
Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, The Legend of Zelda, Combat, Ikari Warriors, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Mega Man 3, Castlevania, Skate or Die!!, Contra, Tecmo Bowl, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Donkey Kong Classics, Castlevania 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, Super Mario Bros. 3, Ice Hockey, RBI Baseball, The Adventures of Lolo, Bionic Commando, City Connection, Maniac Mansion, Mighty Bomb Jack, Adventure Island, Metroid, Double Dragon, Kung Fu, Double Dragon 2, Ninja Gaiden, River City Ransom, Battletoads, Shadowrun, StarTropics, The Goonies 2, Gradius 2, Excitebike, Bubble Bobble, Blaster Master, Dr. Mario
I’m not writing about each and every one of these games. And I’ve undoubtedly forgotten to mention some. But… man. My childhood was AWESOME. And listing all of these great games at once does two things: 1.) It illustrates why Super Smash Bros. is such a great franchise. 2.) It brings me to my next point…
Nintendo Culture
Did you have a Nintendo Club with your friends called The Totally Radical Video Gridiron Warriors? No? Just me?
I understand. Odds are your Nintendo club was called something very different.
The Nintendo was not just about the system and the games. That first Nintendo system impacted modern culture in a way no other video game platform has ever managed.
We live in a world where Mario has become as internationally recognizable an icon as Mickey Mouse. What other figure in video games can claim that? Pac-Man, maybe? Lara Croft? Sonic the Hedgehog? Those are the only ones I can think of, off the top of my head, that maybe come close, and let’s be honest: they don’t even come close.
Still one of the best things ever.
What other gaming platform (not GAME, but PLATFORM) has been the focus of a feature-length Hollywood film? I mean, not a GOOD one, but still? How many notes does it take for the average human of a certain age to recognize the World 1-1 music from Super Mario Bros.? How many of us grin knowingly when they see a t-shirt that reads “Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start”? How many of us know that a star makes one invincible, and that it’s dangerous to go alone and we should take this? Do you actually think we’ll see a Captain Playstation: The Game Master TV show anytime soon? When you hear Russian folk music do you think of Tchaikovsky or Tetrinos? DO all your base belong to us? DO you love your Power Glove? Tell me, which OTHER console established the standard by which all future platform, puzzle, shooter, adventure, RPG, and sport games would be judged? Have you ever tried to make a piece of technology work by blowing in it, and follow-up question, where did you get THAT move from?
Nice tag.
As huge as the video game industry is now, it is, like all modern entertainment options, fragmented amongst a disparity of content providers. Nintendo, though, in the days of the NES… Nintendo was a culture. Nintendo was a cult. Nintendo… was a way of life.
And we were all playing. With power.
Yes. Yes it is.
Nintendo Power
Speaking of…
It all began with the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, a black-covered serious-looking tome of insider tips for that first generation of classic NES games, complete with full maps and full-color screenshots and illustrations. It was not a book I owned, but it was a book I borrowed from friends probably a dozen times.
Like the Bible, only super useful.
As I was not on-board the NES train from day one, I missed out on the Nintendo Fun Club, the early officially Nintendo-licensed organization, with a newsletter and other perks. The membership form came in the box with my Nintendo, and my parents sent it in and signed up for me, but in that pre-Internet 6-8 weeks of processing time the Fun Club went kaput, and instead of my newsletter and trinkets what eventually arrived in the mail was so much cooler: the first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.
First issue.
Last issue.
Clay statue Mario was on the cover, pushing the much anticipated (and incredibly bizarre) Super Mario Bros. 2 on an eager readership. Nintendo Power proved to be a monthly dose of what I loved the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide for, and more: maps, tips, tricks, previews, “Classified Information”, “Counselor’s Corner”, Nintendo-themed contests, celebrity Nintendo gamer profiles, the “Howard & Nester” comic strip… there was not a feature in Nintendo Power I did not devour. In the early burgeoning field of video game magazines Nintendo Power was the best.
Calvin and Hobbes, step aside..
Now, was it a publication chock full of Nintendo propaganda? Well, sure. It pushed Nintendo product like the mass marketing machine it was designed to be. But it was also the definitive ad-free, Nintendo-only source for game-breaking maps and secrets. The fuzzy screenshots and map-less content offered besides lame tips in early competitors like GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly could not hold a candle to the production value and Nintendo exclusive strategy guides offered under the Nintendo Power banner. Sure, as other gaming platforms gained traction and other publishers figured out their game, Nintendo Power dwindled down into a shadow of the greatness it once was (much like Nintendo itself). But in those early halcyon days where Nintendo was king, Nintendo Power was the law of the land.
Now You’re Playing With Sequels: The Curiosity, the Catastrophe, and the Classic
The Nintendo entered our household just as the second wave of titles for the machine, the second generation, began to appear. One development cycle under their belts, the programmers at Nintendo and at their third-party licensees (that’s right; they used to have those) had begun to figure out the real tricks of the trade that would result in the system’s golden age, an age that lasted from 1988 to 1990.
(Aside: 1990, of course, is the year the last great NES game, Super Mario Bros. 3, launched, and although games were published for the system until 1994 most gaming historians, I’d wager, would agree the book can be closed right there. You’d do better arguing me that the golden age began earlier; my defense is those early games created an industry but weren’t better designed than their sequels: Super Mario Bros. didn’t let you scroll back, The Legend of Zelda was a fantasy adventure that took place in a lifeless wasteland Nintendo has been trying for years now to fold into the series’ canon, Metroid’s greatest design appeal (its atmosphere of isolation and foreboding) made it into the game due to system limitations… etc., etc.
I digress. So while my parents didn’t want me to get a NES, once I had one they were as on-board with it as a limited budget household could be. In fact, my dad was quick to score me a gaming coup: when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. 2 not long after my brother gave me the best Christmas present ever, it became a Holy Grail of gaming, in-demand and sold out by the truckload. In one of those rare moments, though, when the stars align and the cosmos bring forth true justice, my dad happened to know a guy who knew a guy at work, and he scored me a copy of the game before any of my friends had it. It was one of those rare moments in life where I had something first, where I was cool. (Remember grade school in the 80’s and 90’s, when ownership of a Super Mario game could make you cool?)
I’ve spent more time playing Super Mario 2 than I have any other game in the Super Mario series. Yes, that vegetable throwing Doki Doki Panic facelift game, that one that made zero sense even for a Super Mario game, the one that, while largely ignored in future Super Mario canon, has been cherry-picked over the years of its ripest fruit (Bob-ombs, Shy-guys, Birdo, the different abilities of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad)... I’m as familiar with the ins and outs of Super Mario Bros. 2 as I am with any other game ever made, and even more than the original Super Mario Bros. it defined my sense of what made a platformer a platformer. While it is often regarded as the black sheep of the Mario family of games, it’s always been on my list of favorite NES games (very close to the top, actually) and if Nintendo ever made a true sequel to it, not an impossibility given the quirky throwback nature of the company, I’d be a very happy retro gamer.
My other big NES ownership item was another franchise classic sequel just as different from its predecessor as Mario 2 was from Mario 1, but time has not been anywhere near as kind to its reputation. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link is as different from The Legend of Zelda as you could imagine, foregoing the top-down dungeon crawling of the original for a hybrid RPG/Action-Adventure mash-up with a top-down overworld that would throw you into side-scrolling battle if you collided with an enemy’s shadow. (Abuh?) Zelda 2 had experience points that you doled out as you leveled up to increase your magic, attack, and life meters, and you learned combat and defense spells as you did in almost every JRPG ever made and as you didn’t in just about every Zelda game before and since… and those three useless spells from Ocarina of Time don’t count. It was a departure from the series, yes, and is now perceived as the red-headed stepchild of Zelda, but I really think the un-Zelda play style is not the real reason for its dismissal by many gamers.
The real problem is that Zelda 2 is, by far, the hardest Zelda game ever made.
Look: the gameplay and overall game experience was as spot-on and polished as you’d ever expect from a Nintendo published title, particularly a core title like a Zelda game. The two-level side-scrolling sword fighting comes to mind, which was arguably more challenging, rewarding and even fun than the lock-and-wait Z-target combat popularized in the 3D Zelda games. Zelda 2 was, however, controller-throwing hard. (The quest through Death Mountain for the frakkata hammer comes to mind.) I finished Mario 2 numerous times as a child. I never finished Zelda 2 as a child. Nor, actually, as an adult, and I’ve tried, but even on the Virtual Console I haven’t been able to defeat the game’s final palace. To this day, Zelda 2 is the lone Zelda game I’ve really tried to beat that I haven’t been able to. And yet, my experience with the game is as formative as any gaming experience I’ve ever had on the NES. I imported many of the attributes given to Link exclusively in Zelda 2, particularly his combat spell system, into the daydream superhero version of Link I’d fantasize about being, running around and fighting alongside Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe.
But enough about that.
Carrying the antithesis of the reputation Mario 2 and Zelda 2 share, Mega Man 2 is widely recognized as the best Mega Man game of the 8-bit era, and perhaps even when you take into account all the Battle Network and X and Zero spin-off titles, as well. Inspired in level design and balanced within an inch of rock-paper-scissors-fire-bomb-bubble-boomerang perfection, Mega Man 2 bested its predecessor and successors in just about every way: challenging without being frustrating, lengthy without being tedious, packed with various items and power-ups without being overwhelming.
Unlike Zelda 2 and Mario 2, Mega Man 2 was a title I did not own, but I did borrow it and take it along on a family vacation to visit our cousins in Maryland. Play outside? Pfft. My cousin Kenny and I played the crap out of Mega Man 2, and it was a legitimate cause for celebration when we figured out which of the Blue Bomber’s many weapons we needed to use to take out Dr. Wily’s android form, and if that last sentence made any sense to you, then congratulations! You’re as cool as I am.
Take that for what it’s worth.
Mega Man 2 set the bar for action platformers, a genre mastered during both the 8 and 16 bit eras by Capcom, the game publisher of Street Fighter 2 fame. Capcom’s platformers were funtime masterpieces in every way, but they exceeded all but Nintendo’s own published titles in one area: play control. The physics and precision of control in Capcom’s platformers ingrained in me what I, to this day, consider to be the most important element of any action game. ‘Cuz if you can’t control it, it ain’t fun, and if you CAN control it, then even insanely challenging games aren’t hyper frustrating because at least the playing field between you and the CPU is even.
So it should come as a surprise to nobody that the absolute best game of the 8-bit NES era was also a Capcom platformer:
Hell yeah, it was.
Ducktales. Woo-hoo.