Tag: Reviews

Doctor Who: The Inappropriately-Named Resurrection of the Daleks

Another old Who review. This one just got a Special Edition rerelease; the review is of the Not-Special Edition. And as before, it contains spoilers of some 28-year-old Doctor Who serials.

Originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2008-11-25.


Just watched the inappropriately-named Resurrection of the Daleks. Not bad, but a whole lot like Earthshock: a Davison serial with one of the Big Two enemy races, a lot of running around on a spaceship (and Rula Lenska's character is pretty much identical to the Captain in Earthshock), and ending with someone sacrificing himself to destroy the ship and a companion leaving. Of course, that last similarity actually works pretty well -- while Adric isn't mentioned, it's easy to assume Stien's death reminds Teagan too much of his and that's part of why she's so shaken up at the end.

The premise -- that the Daleks are totally helpless by themselves and forced to reluctantly rescue Davros in order to get out of a jam -- is almost as thin here as it was in Destiny of the Daleks, but at least the "we need a genetic engineer" explanation fits better than the rather nonsensical "we are slaves to logic and don't know how to improvise in a war" explanation used in the latter. Plus, Davros as much as says these Daleks aren't very advanced models and he's going to work on making them better; of course that's the bastard about time travel stories. In the Dalek timeline, this has to take place well before their first few appearances.

The climax is the Doctor's confrontation with Davros, which echoes the Fourth Doctor's "Have I the right?" scene in Genesis of the Daleks, and which still makes for decent drama here even though you just want him to pull the effing trigger already. It's not the ethical dilemma it was in Genesis (is it okay to kill the first batch of Daleks before they do any harm?) or, years later, The Parting of the Ways (is it worth taking out the entire Earth to kill the Daleks?); it's just the Doctor and Davros, with no innocent lives in the balance. And the Doctor's already killed several Daleks by this point.

This is the first I've seen of Turlough, and I can immediately understand why people like him: the companions are a pretty fucking bland and indistinguishable bunch, and he stands out by being more complex than most of them. He's intelligent but also arrogant and self-serving; that's a lot more compelling than just the girlfriend du jour.

Of all the DVD's I've watched, this one had the most noticeable issues with the transfer. There are a couple of places where the picture ripples noticeably. It's not a big deal but distracting enough to make note of; seems like they could have put more effort into fixing that.

Anyway. Not a bad Dalek serial; better than the previous one but not as good as Genesis. (Of course, Genesis is probably the best one, so that's sort of a meaningless comparison.) Decent; I'd put this one in the "rent, don't buy" pile.

Jack Cole

Originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2010-03-24 and 28; presented here with some edits.


A few months back, I was in my local independent bookseller, and I ran across Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits. I didn't even notice Spiegelman's name on the cover, I just flipped through the book and thought hey, this is pretty neat. And then my girlfriend got it for me for Christmas.

I started it today, and...wow.

Here's the thing: I've never actually read a Plastic Man comic before. I'm aware of him, I'm aware of Cole's work, but...I had no idea what I was missing out on.

It's just absolutely phenomenal stuff. The double-meaning in the book's title is apt: Plastic Man is like nothing I've ever seen before. It doesn't so much defy rules as live in a world where they haven't been invented yet. It freewheels between absurd whimsy and slapstick and completely shocking violence -- in one story, the villain, trying to escape, trips and lands with his head in a bear trap and dies. (It's page 12 in the link above.) There is absolutely nothing to foreshadow this; there is just a fucking bear trap all of a sudden. It's a real straight-up anything-can-happen book -- the closest analog I can think of is Tex Avery. (Spiegelman says it's like "Tex Avery on cocaine".)

Of course, Spiegelman's name is on the cover because a good big chunk of the book is a biography he's written -- and Cole is a fascinating character, right from the start. Early on, there's a story of how, at the age of 17, he biked from Pennsylvania to LA -- and there's a photocopy of his first published work, a piece he wrote about the journey that was published in Boys' Life.

I've read some very good comics histories over the past couple years, but none that used the artist's actual work so extensively. The Ten-Cent Plague, in particular, is a great book whose greatest weakness is its need to describe covers because it can't just print them (not sure whether that was due to rights issues or cost of printing, but at any rate there are many cases where it tells when it should show). Not only does Spiegelman use extensive excerpts of Cole's work, he discusses them with an artist's eye -- Cole's talent for layouts, the way Plastic Man draws your eye to create a sense of motion -- there are even diagrams.

And speaking of layouts, there's a reason Chip Kidd's name is on the cover too. He's the graphic designer who put it all together, Spiegelman's words and Cole's pictures. The whole thing is composed like a giant magazine article -- which it actually is, as it began life in The New Yorker. (Those of you familiar with Spiegelman will know that he is a major contributor to the magazine, and is married to Francoise Mouly, the art editor and a supreme talent herself.) The book is absolutely flooded with incidental Cole work, sometimes just a few panels on a page and sometimes a complete, uncut story. (Interestingly -- well, if you're interested in things like paper stock, which you actually most likely are not --, the pages that reprint stories in longform are newsprint, while the rest of the book is glossy. Those of you familiar with reprints of old comics have most likely observed that the old 4-color printing process looks much better on the newsprint it's intended for than on glossy paper. Scott McCloud discusses this a good bit in Understanding Comics.)

I've never seen a book quite like this, and I've never read a comic quite like Plastic Man. It's a deft combination -- Spiegelman makes for a great biographer and a great art teacher, and is equally masterful at knowing when to step the hell back and let the man's work speak for itself. And Kidd puts the whole thing together, creating an eye-catching presentation that's easy to read, or, if you prefer, just glance at. (I prefer to read everything, even the incidental stuff -- and even on the thumbnails, the text is big enough to read.)

The book also reprints Cole's infamous Murder, Morphine and Me in its entirety. I'd never read the story before (though I'd seen the infamous "woman about to get a syringe in the eye" panel that made it Exhibit A in the 1950's Senate hearings on comics), and it's an important piece of history, as well as a very neat contrast to the whimsy of the Plastic Man stories. It's got an afterschool-special quality to its message, and a predictable twist ending, but it's also got sympathetic characters, a breakneck pace, expressive art, and content that's graphic not just for violence's sake but to truly move the audience. It represents everything that thrilled young audiences of the time, and scared the old guard. It's just as powerful a representation of the no-rules nature of groundbreaking Golden Age comics as Plastic Man, with the same artist but an entirely different tone and genre.

This book makes me want to go out and buy a bunch of Jack Cole stuff. In the span of an hour he has become one of my favorite artists, and I don't know how I managed to miss out all these years.

And this book is the best casual introduction I can see, as sadly there is no set of cheap Chronicles paperbacks for Plas -- just $50 hardback Archives. I'm seriously considering saving up, though -- I want to see more.

Fortunately, there are also a lot of old Plastic Man comics available at Digital Comic Museum, which collects public domain comics. You can find Plastic Man in both his self-titled book and in Police Comics.

Caroline John, RIP

I read, today, that Caroline John, Doctor Who's Liz Shaw, passed away. There are obits at the Beeb and io9.

That's her, Elisabeth Sladen, and Nicholas Courtney all in the past year and a half -- I imagine Katy Manning's feeling a little nervous about now.

At any rate, I'm going to jump out of my original posting sequence and include one of my reviews on a Shaw-era episode: Inferno. Originally posted 2008-12-28.


Inferno, it turns out, is another great Pertwee serial that is available through Netflix (disc only, no streaming).

Essentially, it's like Mirror, Mirror, except instead of Spock with a goatee, it has Brig with an eyepatch.

It's a little long (could be one episode shorter -- he spends the entirety of the first episode in the parallel universe trying to explain to everyone that he's from a parallel universe), but really it runs at a great pace overall and has a whole lot more action than most Who from that period.

The parallel universe is used to good effect, emphasizing characters who are much different (the Brigade Leader is a coward hiding behind his gun and his rank) as well as characters who are more or less the same (the pompous Professor Stahlman, who would doom the world rather than take a blow to his ego, and the dashing Greg Sutton, who defies him), with companion Liz Shaw somewhere in-between.

The best device, IMO, is that in episode 4 or 5 the Doctor outright tells the parallel cast that they're screwed and past the point of no return and there's nothing he can do for their world, but that he can still save his own, leaving several episodes for the parallel cast to come to grips with their certain impending doom and react accordingly.

The "there are some things man wasn't meant to tamper with" premise is stale, but works well for an apocalyptic "Earth ends in fire" story -- the ending of the penultimate episode, with a wave of lava coming toward the cast, while cheesily green-screened, is a striking image.

The finale is another episode that could safely be chopped in half, but it mirrors the events of the parallel world, with slight changes, satisfyingly. The ending is vintage Third Doctor, with the Doctor and the Brigadier butting heads and then one of them forced to eat crow.

The transfer has all the usual flaws I've now come to associate with Pertwee-era serials, an often-grainy picture and occasional wavy lines. I watched one episode (3 or 4) on an SDTV and it was a lot less noticeable.

There's also a second disc with extras on it; I assume they're neat but I'm not going to bother.

All in all, classic Who; worth renting, worth buying. (It DOES help to have a cursory background knowledge of the Third Doctor's setup, that he's been exiled by the other Time Lords and trapped in 1970 London, and that at this point he's trying to fix his TARDIS so he can travel again.)

200 Motels Trailer

The trailer for Frank Zappa's 200 Motels:

The complete film is on Netflix.

I watched it the other day. It most closely resembles one of the weirder Python sketches -- like if you took, say, "Where Have All the Fishes Gone?" and stretched it to 100 minutes.

I found that, after two beers, it couldn't quite hold my full attention -- I imagine it would be more fun to watch with friends who are equally as interested in Weird Shit, and/or on stronger drugs, or possibly as background noise at a party, especially if it's late and most of the guests have gone home.

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos

Gotta clean the house and get to the airport, so for today I'm just gonna dig up another of my old Doctor Who reviews.

Originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2008-03-08.


Latest Netflix selection (Netflick? Netflik?) is Vengeance on Varos. I decided I should probably check out something with the Sixth Doctor just so I could say I had, and this is apparently generally viewed as his best serial.

It is pretty good, and manages that elusive trick of still being topical 24 years later. There's some 1984 in there, a bit of Fahrenheit 451, and a little Running Man; Varos is a world where the government keeps its citizens in line by plopping them in front of reality TV, and the particular brand of reality TV revolves around the execution of rebels. Varos's figurehead leader is an ineffectual governor who is physically punished every time the people vote against one of his policies; the true villain is an alien slug who sounds like Cobra Commander and who is ripping off the oblivious citizens on Varos by grossly underpaying them for their fuel source.

Hell of a lot going on there: the complacent citizens, the reality TV, the struggle for energy sources, the government figurehead being manipulated by a military-industrial complex. On top of that, the pacing is tight (though a bit off from what I've come to expect from classic Who, as this was after the shift from 25-minute to 45-minute episodes). The makeup's good, but the sets are pretty drab; lots of identical metal corridors in this one.

The other problem is that the Doctor and companion Peri are really just window-dressing in the story -- they're far less interesting than the supporting cast, and the story would have worked fine without them but for the Doctor's off-world knowledge of the value of Zeiton-7 ore. I didn't really get a bead on the Sixth Doctor's personality beyond "generic", and Peri was little more than a pair of jiggling breasts -- though I'm not going to spend too much time griping about that.

It's the best I've seen in awhile. If you're doing what I'm doing and Netflixing old eps on DVD, I'd call this a must-see; if you're looking to buy, I'd say it's worth the $12 Amazon's charging for it. (Update 2013-01-29: It's now also available in a $20 Special Edition and streaming for $2 an episode or free with Prime.)

Doctor Who: Earthshock

So back in 2008, after my sixth consecutive post (and twelfth post overall) in the Old Doctor Who thread, Brontoforumgoer Bal had this piece of advice:

So Thad, I know you love Doctor Who, and so do I, but uh, this whole thread is just you talking to yourself. Maybe you should just start a Doctor Who appreciation blog.

Well, he makes a good point. I'm not going to turn this into a Doctor Who appreciation blog, but I am going to repost some of my old episode reviews here.

I wrote a few back on the Pyoko boards but none of those appear to have been archived, so I'll just start with the first one I wrote on Brontoforumus: Earthshock.


Originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2008-02-22.

The original post contained spoiler tags. I'm going to omit them here. So, be forewarned: an extremely well-known spoiler from a 30-year-old Doctor Who serial, that is in fact probably the best-remembered sequence in the entire Davison run, follows.


Earthshock is a Davison-era serial best remembered for the death of Adric.

One of the reasons it is best remembered for that is that the rest of it is pretty thoroughly forgettable.

I hope you like stories where the Doctor materializes in the middle of a murder investigation, is falsely accused and taken into custody, and his captors don't believe his story until the real killers show up and start shooting people...because for some reason that happens twice in this serial.

The more interesting angle is the attempt to establish a father/son relationship between the Doctor and Adric. Unfortunately, Adric is at his most obnoxious here and what we see is full-on teen drama, which amounts to "You treat me like a child, you're not my real father, I liked Tom Baker better, I wanna go home, waaaaaaah." (And really, who didn't like Tom Baker better.)

Just to review Adric's faults, since the spotlight's on him here: while he predates Wesley Crusher, he's pretty much in his mold. He's the precocious child who somehow manages to show up all the adults on the show every time there's a problem to solve. Adding teen angst to his character traits does not make him more sympathetic.

That said, the attempt to explore the Doctor's companions as surrogate family is a noble one. We see a paternal side of the Doctor that recalls the First Doctor's farewell to Susan.

After that it's largely a straightforward Cybermen story; the Fifth Doctor's first (and only, unless you count their brief appearance in The Five Doctors) encounter with them. (As the Cybermen recognize the Doctor and recount his previous appearances, they bring up, by omission, the interesting bit of trivia that they didn't appear during Pertwee's run.) Pretty standard stuff; they're trying to destroy the Earth for what turns out to be a supremely nonsensical reason. (It turns out that a coalition of planetary leaders is meeting on Earth to declare war on the Cybermen; the Cyber Leader plans to wipe them all out in one fell swoop as this will "destroy their unity". Because nothing destroys the unity of a group that wants to declare war on you like assassinating all their heads of state.)

The big payoff is in the last five minutes -- a frantic battle with the Cyber Leader on the TARDIS, while the rest of the cast race against time on the bridge of a spaceship to prevent its lethal collision course with Earth. It's a tense and extraordinarily well-executed climax.

Adric's death is handled surprisingly well. He dies in truly precocious-child fashion, with the words "Now I'll never know if I was right" -- managing to turn his most obnoxious character trait into something bleakly charming. The reaction on the TARDIS is beautifully handled -- stunned, slackjawed silence, which carries over through the credits.

The presentation is slick -- the transition from the caves to the ship shows some good range in setting, and the Cybermen look less ridiculous than they did during the Troughton years. The score is solid, not nearly the overbearing early-'80's synth that characterized some of the late Baker stories.

This is one of those eps that's considered a classic by fans whose appeal I can't see so well watching it for the first time with no emotional investment. (This seems to be a trend among Cybermen stories.) The payoff of the last five minutes is excellent, and the pacing of the story is tight except for the fact that the first and third episode have exactly the same plot, but all in all I'd say it's a pretty average story. At the time of this posting Netflix has it available by mail but not for streaming, and Amazon's purchase price is $12.99, which is fair. (Update 2013-01-29: It's also streaming, free with Amazon Prime.)

X-Files

So you know what I just watched?

Well, it says "X-Files" up there, so yeah, you probably do.

My fiancée is out of town and I am bacheloring it up. This is rather less exciting than it sounds; as it turns out most of my friends my age are busy raising kids and said they'd get back to me about going out for beers sometime.

So I've largely been sitting at home playing Nintendo and watching Netflix.

You know, Thursday.

Anyway. I watched X-Files pretty religiously from probably about '96 to '98. I missed most of the early stuff and most of the late stuff. I saw enough to know that when it was on it was on, and when it was off...it got pretty bad.

Tonight I fired up the pilot. And while a lot of shows don't quite click in the pilot, this is definitely one of the "on" episodes. Right out the gate, the show is smartly written, beautifully directed, and convincingly acted. (Yes, even Duchovny. Guy only ever plays one part, but that part is Fox Mulder.)

And they look so young.

There's an immediate charm to it -- and I think part of it is in the tiny budget. There's something that's always fascinated me about watching people try to make something on a shoestring -- Evil Dead, Doctor Who, MST3K (which, incidentally, is the show I stopped watching X-Files for; it was moved into the same Sunday night timeslot in its last season or two). Even terrible stuff -- like, say, most of the movies they actually showed on MST3K -- there's a charm to the trying, to the heart of it all. I said recently that I'd rather watch a cheap, terrible movie like Manos: Hands of Fate than an expensive, mediocre one like...well, anything by Michael Bay -- and I stand by that.

But X-Files, at its best, was something that did great with a tiny budget.

Indeed, I think it was the Emmys, the movie, the relocation to LA, that led to the show beginning to dip in quality.

But even then, even during the Doggett and Reyes era -- when it was on, it was on. (Hell, I may be the only guy who thought the '08 movie had some charm -- course, it helped that I looked at it as just another episode instead of an attempt at a triumphant return.)

Anyhow, the whole series is up on Netflix.

There are lots worse ways to spend an hour...

Adventures in Home Audio

I'm not what you'd call an audiophile, but I know what I like.

I've got an HTPC I use as my primary media box. And for the past two and a half years, my surround sound speakers have been a set of Creative Inspire 5300's connected to it. They're perfectly good PC speakers (and were $80 when they were new), but as far as home theater, they're a bit lacking.

So, after months of research and scanning for deals, I got me a receiver and a new set of 5.1 speakers.

The receiver is the Onkyo HT-RC360, which Fry's had marked down from $550 to $300 for Presidents' Day. Now, three things:

  1. I have been keeping an eye on Dealzmodo, TechDealDigger, and TechBargains for months looking for a deal like this -- and none of them had this deal listed. This discovery was entirely the result of my deciding, on a whim, to check the Fry's site. Which is even more notable because
  2. I had been at Fry's, looking for a good deal on a receiver, the previous day, and not seen this. I know they had it in stock, because I picked it up in-store, but it hadn't been on display, nor had I seen it listed in the newspaper clippings upfront listing their weekend deals.
  3. Oh, and of course three days later the Sony equivalent got marked down to $215 on Amazon. But that's okay; this is the sort of thing you come to accept as inevitable in any kind of major hardware purchase, and anyway from the reviews the Onkyo sounds like the better device.

Talking of reviews, I couldn't find any professional ones of the RC360, which made me nervous. But I gathered from Cnet that it's roughly equivalent to the TX-NR609. I'd been looking at the 509, but its lack of OSD and HDMI upscaling gave me pause. Those features aren't make-or-break, but with the RC360 marked down to $300, it was only $75 more than the 509 -- plus it's got 7.1 support. For that price, I may as well buy something a little better and more future-proof.

I had also noted that most of the demo rooms at Fry's used NR509 mixers. While I don't always credit Fry's employees as the best judges of what makes a good product demo (the first thing you see when you walk in the front door is an expensive bigscreen plasma TV inexplicably playing a movie at an eye-searing 240Hz), I thought this was probably significant.

And while I was nervous about buying a speaker set I hadn't actually tested in the store, ultimately Cnet's review of the Monoprice 8247 won me over. The short version: you can get better speakers, but only if you pay four times as much. (An aside: I stopped reading news.com.com some time ago after their reporting became indistinguishable from the trolls in the comments section -- I was going to say "except with better spelling", but nevermind -- but their reviews section continues to be pretty great.)

Anyhow, the speakers came in and I wired them up. It's not pretty just yet -- for now the rear speakers are just sitting on end tables, with their cables blue-taped to the wall, but in the next few weeks I plan to get somebody over to run cable through the attic and mount them properly on the wall. (I'd run the cable myself, but asthma tends to limit one's desire for attic-related adventures.)

One minor gripe: the Monoprice page for the speakers recommends pin-type speaker plugs, but the wire-in-back type I ordered from them is too long; it won't fit in a speaker that's lying flat. It should work fine in one that's wall-mounted, and maybe the wire-in-side type will fit. I might try ordering a couple of those the next time I get something from them, though $2 speaker plugs aren't really worth ordering by themselves. So, bare wire for now -- not like I can hear the difference.

Once I got everything hooked up and configured, I fired up Back in the USSR to verify that the speakers were working, and then straight to the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm scene in Fellowship of the Ring. (This was the point at which my fiancée came out of the bedroom to complain that I was making the house shake. I like to think this was her way of saying "Great job on purchasing and setting up an awesome sound system, Honey!")

Image: The remote, with its many and oddly-labeled input buttons From there I hooked up the rest of my various devices. The Onkyo remote has the now-typical problem of a shitload of different inputs with sometimes arbitrary names -- "GAME" works fine for the component switch connected to my Wii and PS2 (another aside: I wish the thing had more component inputs so I wouldn't need a component switch at all -- but obviously analog is on its way out and I'm sure in a few years I'll have enough HDMI devices that I will be grateful for the emphasis on the new input over the old), but, absent anything resembling "HTPC", I have my HTPC connected under "BD/DVD". My seldom-used DVD/VCR combo is under "VCR/DVR", and my TV audio is connected to "TV/CD", which inexplicably is not the same button as "TV"; the "TV" button can't actually be assigned to any audio input. (I guess people connecting the audio output of their TV into an input on the receiver are probably a rarity; most people have cable boxes which they can connect to the receiver and then output to the TV. But I don't have cable TV, and we sometimes watch broadcast TV. Such people do exist!)

Also: this receiver is the only appliance I have ever bought that came with a GPL compliance notice in the box. This is one more piece of good news on future-proofing: my old TV is no longer supported, its firmware is no longer updated, and it has some annoying bugs (namely, every time it can't tune a channel in it drops it, meaning you effectively have to rerun the channel search every time you move the damn antenna -- again, developers just do not even consider people who watch over-the-air TV at this point). The Onkyo receiver not only supports more features and inputs than I need, its use of open-source software means it can continue to be updated even after its official end-of-life (unless, of course, there are some kind of TiVoization shenanigans at work).

Speaking of my 2005-vintage TV, it's probably the next major piece of equipment I'd like to replace, but it does have one feature I like: an "Automatic" zoom that will upsize the picture beyond the standard 4:3/16:9/"super zoom" presets and zoom the picture until there is no black border anywhere. This is especially useful for the PSP, which outputs games at a weird little 480x272 format that appears as a tiny little windowboxed picture even under most zoom presets. Unfortunately, the receiver's upscaling messes with the TV's "Automatic" zoom; it'll resize the PSP picture vertically, but that still leaves it pillarboxed and vertically stretched. That left me back at wiring the component output of the PSP directly to the TV and leaving the audio hooked into the receiver -- this largely defeats the purpose of upscaling since I'm back to switching TV inputs for different devices, but that is, of course, a minor inconvenience.

And that, incidentally, is the draw of upscaling for me -- I don't really expect the filters to increase my picture quality, but it does mean I don't have to switch from HDMI to Component 1 to Component 2 to whatever on my TV. (Actually, talking of quality, there were visible vertical lines on the PS2 picture -- but I couldn't see them from the couch, and I'm not sure if that's the fault of the receiver or the connection. I've had the PS2 and the cable for some time and I think the connection must be worn, as when I first turned the PS2 on I got audio but no picture; I wiggled the connector in the back and that's when I got a picture with faint lines on it.)

Now I've gotta figure out what to do with those Creative speakers. I'd like to hook them up to my desktop, but Apple is allergic to standards, and you can't actually get analog surround to work on a Mac without some kind of adapter.


Playing: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. You know what else the receiver has? A shitload of presets for audio levels. It doesn't just have a preset for games, it has different presets for different genres -- RPG, Action, etc.

Reading: The Light Fantastic

Final Fantasy 7, Fourteen Years Later

The thing that surprised me most, on a replay of FF7 after lo these many years was, you know, it's actually pretty good. Not the best game ever, not even the best Final Fantasy -- hell, not even the best Final Fantasy released in a six-month period --, but pretty good.

It's easy to scoff at it in hindsight, probably because it's not nearly as good as some people claim it is. And frankly I'm embarrassed by my own youthful enthusiasm for it. But, truth be told, it's a good game. And it's not really logically consistent to love 6 and hate 7, because 7 is so clearly a refinement of 6. Amnesiac hero reluctantly joins underground organization fighting an evil, technocratic Empire that is extracting the spirits of a dead, magical race into glowing stones to use for its own nefarious purposes? Yeah, that sounds pretty familiar. The leader of the Empire is killed by a psychopath who is the product of one of its magical infusion experiments gone wrong, and who then becomes the Big Bad? Check. The key to saving the world is a mysterious girl who escaped from the empire's lab and turns out to be the daughter of a human and one of the aforementioned magical race? Mhm. Even the environments and the music are awfully familiar.

Which I suppose in itself could be taken as a knock against FF7 -- it hits a lot of the same beats as its predecessor. But this is Final Fantasy we're talking about. It's not like FF6 was fresh and new -- if you squint, the above plot summary isn't too far off from FF4's, either. And truth be told, 7 does some things better than 6.

It's easy to lose sight of in a flashy, forty-hour game, but, at least in places, FF7 shows a remarkable economy of storytelling. Take President Shinra -- for the first act of the game, he's the presumptive villain, and he makes a hell of an impression. But in truth he only appears in two scenes, I can count his lines of dialogue on my hands, and then he's promptly killed, offscreen, by a character you've never seen and have only heard of in rumors.

That's a pretty far cry from Kefka and Gestahl, really. Kefka is clearly the game's villain from the get-go, and you know sooner or later he's going to take out the Emperor. As for Gestahl, he doesn't get a lot of development but he's in a few scenes and you get a decent sense of who he is.

With Shinra, by contrast, you get a sense of who he is with very minimal information. It's quite well done. And then he's killed just a few hours in, by somebody who hasn't even been introduced yet. That's a shock -- and the presentation, the darkened halls filled with blood, is pretty unexpected too.

The key difference between Shinra and Gestahl -- and the key difference between their respective empires, and arguably between the settings of the two games -- is that Gestahl is an actual head of state, while Shinra is a CEO. The Mayor of Midgar only briefly appears in the game, and makes it very clear that he's a powerless figurehead. The man who runs the reactors rules the world. Forget the motorcycles, that's the most modern thing about FF7.

Shinra's also utterly ruthless and calculating. He wipes out an entire slum and blames it on the terrorists who have been sabotaging his reactors.

(It does fall apart a bit in the Corel flashback. Barrett convinces the people of his town to sell out to Shinra -- and then Shinra burns down the town anyway? I really have no idea how that serves the plot at all. It's not even there to fill the "hero's hometown gets burned down" box on JRPG Bingo, because by that point in the game Sephiroth's already burned Nibelheim, in a different flashback.)

Rufus makes an interesting contrast to his father. For all his initial talk about ruling by fear, his death is a contrast to his father's: the elder Shinra dies after destroying Sector 7; the younger dies saving Midgar. He doesn't have to be there; he could have evacuated, and he chose not to. His deeds redeem him, even if he's still not a very nice person -- and even if Midgar ends up destroyed anyway.

But probably the best example of FF7's skill in economical storytelling is the destruction of Sector 7 and the deaths of Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. Sure, they're the requisite Star Wars-named fodder characters (Romanized correctly here for the first time!), and no, they don't have that much screentime, but you grow to like them in that short time. You learn just enough about their hopes and their doubts -- Wedge's guilt over the civilian casualties, Jessie's nervousness about her forged ID cards -- to feel for them. And Wedge is a legitimately fantastic example of a character whose personality is communicated visually, through his model and his body language. Which of course starts to bleed into my previous post and the observation that simple, iconic images can convey a whole lot to an audience.

There's a point where the uniqueness of gaming comes into the Sector 7 collapse, too. Sure, killing a bunch of poor people and blaming it on the hero is stock Bond Villain stuff, but this is different: the first opportunity you get to do a little bit of free exploration is Sector 7. You wander around, you meet people, you slowly get introduced to the world of the game there. It's not that the villagers have gotten too much more complicated since welcoming you to Coneria and warning you that the Fire Fiend will burn everything up, but they have little stories and personalities -- hell, the building designs have more character than the people, but the bottom line is that you get a feel for Sector 7 that you don't get for most fodder locations. (Contrast with FF6: Kefka's murder of the population of Doma establishes him as a very bad man, but you're not emotionally invested in Doma or in anyone there except Cyan and his family.) In short, a couple of lines of dialogue, some atmospheric design, and the proper placement in a game's narrative and presentation can really make a minor location stand out.

Oh, and the steel beam through the playground is as subtle as a chainsaw to the face, but it's definitely a memorable image.

And while the game can get awfully overbearing in places, it has some deep themes that are presented without being harped on. Of course the whole thing revolves around Japan's complex relationship with nuclear power -- something thrown into stark relief as I replayed it a few months ago when the Fukushima meltdown was in the news -- and it makes Barrett's team the ostensible heroes, but there are shades of gray there. Barrett is well-meaning, and perhaps the character with the purest motives in the game (leave a better world for the little girl he's adopted) -- but he's also a revenge-obsessed terrorist who gets a lot of people killed, most of them innocent and some of them his own team. And he's easily the most sanctimonious character in the game -- he rants constantly about saving the planet from the monsters who are sucking its lifeblood to generate power, and the game respects our intelligence enough not to point out the irony that he's a former coal miner.

Interface

It's not just the story that feels like an update of FF6; the actual gameplay is really quite similar too. Materia's not so far off from Espers -- the main difference is that it makes the characters even more interchangeable -- and the game is similarly unbalanced. It's still trivial to produce a party that will take the last boss out in a round or two; the game ups his stats a bit if you're at level 98 or 99, but it doesn't really make for a challenge.

There are challenges, of course, for advanced characters -- Huge Materia and the Weapons -- and in this sense, the game is better-rounded than FF6. The biggest problem is that, for the most part, they suck. On my latest play-through, I probably spent about ten hours grinding on Magic Pots and Movers, and for what? Spammy, unsatisfying battles with the Weapons, and a bunch of Master Materia I didn't need.

Seriously, if I ever try to beat Ruby and Emerald on a future playthrough, or get any Master Materia (with the possible exception of yellow), just give me a quick smack in the back of the head. It's stupid and it's a waste of time. And the Arena's not much better.

...but back to the interface. If you don't bother with all the side crap, it's pretty neat! And while weapons and armor have been simplified way down from 6, they complement the Materia system nicely. Do you optimize for equipment stats, for number of Materia slots, for number of linked Materia slots, or Materia growth?

And the Blue Materia are pretty neat too. Added Effect/Hades was always a favorite, and Phoenix/Final Attack is clever if overkill.

Where FF7 runs into its biggest gameplay problems is in simply interacting with the world. It's an early 3D game, and it's obvious that the team was still trying to figure out how to realize the Final Fantasy rules in that context.

This is most apparent in the field. There is a stunning variety of detailed backgrounds in the game. The trouble is that they're low-resolution, low-color prerenders, and much of the time it's difficult to figure out simple things like where you can walk and where you can't.

Image: Train yard
Can anybody tell me where the fuck I'm supposed to go on this screen?

There's a toggle you can use to show points of interest, but it's not very useful.

And battle's not much better. In classic Final Fantasy style, it consists of your party in one line and the enemy party in another line, but, for the first time, the characters actually move across the screen when they attack each other -- and the devs thought it would be a good idea to compensate for that by adding movement tracking to the battle interface.

They were wrong.

Say I'm trying to attack a monster, and it moves across the screen while I'm trying to point at it. Well, suddenly it's not where it was a second ago, and I have to move the pointer around to get to it. And probably wind up pointing at my own party somewhere in the process. Or, the reverse -- I'm trying to heal or buff one of my party members, and she jumps across the screen. (Actually it's a pain in the ass to target your own party members even when they're standing still, because the game can't seem to decide whether they're arranged left-right or up-down.)

All of which is just needlessly complicated, seemed-like-a-good-idea naivete. Changing the graphical presentation should not have actually changed the controls! FF7's battle interface is functionally identical to the previous six games'; it should play exactly the same even though it looks different. So that monster's not actually standing in his spot when I point at it? It doesn't matter; if I point at where he was standing a half-second ago it should still target him!

Music

The music in this one is just superb; it's legitimately one of the best original soundtracks in gaming history. Can you remember the first time you heard the boss theme? I can.

If I have one complaint, it's that you can pretty clearly hear Uematsu recycling the same themes at this point in the series -- Aeris's theme sounds a lot like Celes's theme, and they both bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Fanfare for the Common Man.

On the other hand, it's hard to fault Uematsu for retreading musical themes when the game retreads so many story themes -- you can't really blame him for making the Mako Plant sound like Vector when it looks so damn much like Vector too.

Ultimately, I can't take too many points off Uematsu for experimenting with the same riffs throughout the years. Charting his career through the series, it's the story of a guy learning his craft and learning new tools as they develop -- in his chiptune days, he was a programmer as much as a composer. The very first thing you hear in the very first 16-bit Final Fantasy is an extended version of the Prelude theme from the preceding three games. The first thing you hear in 7 is that theme again, this time with harp and vocals.

The move to the PS1 hardware had almost as profound an effect on the audio of the Final Fantasy series as the video. It allowed Uematsu a wide-open world to compose in MIDI, and, in a couple of cases, to use Redbook audio as well. FF6 had already involved some long, complex pieces that went on quite awhile before looping back to the start (Terra's overworld theme being the best example), but 7 had many more. And with instrument samples, the MIDI sounded less artificial than the chiptunes of yore.

The Love Triangle

The biggest problem with the Cloud/Aeris/Tifa triangle is that it's a case of two Bettys and no Veronica. (For you kids out there, you can substitute "Betty and Veronica" with "Edward and Jacob". Probably. I don't know; I couldn't even make it all the way through Steve's summary of Twilight. And it was hilarious.)

Tifa and Aeris are too much alike. At a glance, you expect the obvious trope: the scantily-clad, well-endowed one is the sassy, liberated one, while the conservatively-dressed one is a shy girl-nextdoor type. And at first, the game seems set to go down that path -- after all, you meet Aeris in a church and Tifa in a bar. Then, it takes an interesting turn suggesting that maybe they're about to subvert the trope and reverse the roles, as Tifa turns out to be literally the girl nextdoor and Aeris fearlessly guides you through the slums where she's grown up. But that potential twist never really pays off, and ultimately Tifa and Aeris are both the shy girl nextdoor. There's not a whole lot that distinguishes them from one another, and ultimately the competition between them never really feels like there's anything at stake in it.

Of course, once Aeris gets shish kebabed the triangle is resolved while simultaneously finally achieving a real dichotomy -- Cloud never makes a choice between the two women, the choice is made for him, and the rivalry for the audience's affection is no longer between two sweet girl-nextdoor types but, instead, between the angelic figure who died tragically and the girl who survives, stands by Cloud through his breakdown, and literally follows him to the ends of the earth. That is an interesting contrast, and it's most likely why people still care about Tifa and Aeris all these years later.

And of course there's also the rudimentary romance subquest that served to define them throughout RPG's to come. You can't seriously tell me that any of BioWare's romances are substantially more complex or nuanced than choosing your date for the Gold Saucer. Hell, it's even got a same-sex option!

The Translation

My God.

I played the PC version on my recent playthrough, and the most infamous errors ("This guy are sick", "Off course!/No, way!") were fixed, but there was still a "creek in the floor", and I'm pretty sure I saw "shit" spelled with an apostrophe. And the first boss fight still begins with Cloud instructing you to "Attack while it's tail's up!" -- less notable for the misplaced apostrophe than the omission of the rather nontrivial word "Don't", pretty much guaranteeing everyone playing the game for the first time would die twenty minutes in.

There's an absolutely fantastic peek behind the curtain in The Rise of Squaresoft Localization, an article by Wesley Fenlon at 1up. To wit: the massive script of FF7 was translated by one guy, who had little or no access to the original team, had no "series bible" of common Final Fantasy names and words, and had to hack the whole thing into a foreign character set. Considering that, he did a pretty good job -- I mean, we're still talking about the damn thing, aren't we?

But on the whole it was a big step down from Ted Woolsey's FF6 translation. Sure, that one has its detractors, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. It's got mistakes ("Vicks and Wedge"), truncations ("Fenix Down", "Carbunkl"), and plenty of 1990's-era-Nintendo censorship, but not only does it exceed 7 in its adherence to the basic rules of English spelling and grammar, it's also a lot more fun.

I suspect that FF7 is more like the American FF2 writ large in that people enjoyed it because the deeper themes of its story shone through the lousy script that conveyed them.

Right Time

I think the defining characteristic of FF7 is that it is spectacularly adolescent.

That's not entirely a bad thing -- in fact, it was adolescent in a time when its medium and its audience were adolescent too. It was big, it was operatic, it was bombastic; it was obsessed with its own appearance; it treated its shallow, superficial philosophy as if it were really deep and thought-provoking; it featured awkward cursing and a busty girl nextdoor and in the end it wasn't nearly as damn important as it seemed at the time. In other words, it's pretty damn obvious where its appeal to its target audience came from.

Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images

I closed Part One of my Final Fantasy 7 retrospective by saying that the Phoenix Rejuvenation Project, a mod designed to replace all the super-deformed field character models in the game with more detailed and realistically-proportioned ones, was the product of a lot of hard work by a lot of talented people...but just a bad idea on principle. The reason I believe this comes down to one essential point:

Final Fantasy 7 is ridiculous.

Now, the game has a huge fanbase, most of which was captivated by its epic story, cinematic atmosphere, and shocking moments. And I think that, given those elements, people tend to forget exactly how damn silly it is.

Here's an example. You're following Sephiroth -- the man who left a trail of blood and bodies ending in a dead President, a man who burned the heroes' village to the ground -- and his trail leads to...an amusement park. After you get your fortune told by a talking stuffed cat, and optionally ride the roller coaster and play an arcade game about the mating habits of Moogles, you find another trail of blood and bodies, these cut down by machine-gun fire. It's briefly implied that your colleague Barrett is the killer, but it turns out it's actually his best friend Dyne. Dyne's gone off the deep end and just wants to burn everything down; when he hears his daughter is still alive and Barrett's adopted her, he threatens to kill her and Barrett has to kill him first.

And then you go race a Chocobo.

Seriously. That is not an exaggeration. At all. The delay between Barrett having to gun down his best friend in order to protect his daughter and Cloud becoming a jockey in a race between giant pastel-colored birds is approximately thirty seconds.

The tone of FF7 shifts so often and so wildly that if you think too hard about it your brain will get whiplash. Do I even need to get into Wall Market and Don Corneo's Mansion? Do I ever want to see a realistically-proportioned Don Corneo thrusting his hips at me? (Actually, I looked for one from the Rejuvenation Project to inflict upon you, my audience, and couldn't find one. Maybe they don't want to see it any more than we do.)

And I can't stress this enough: one of your party members is a talking stuffed cat.

Final Fantasy games, at least since the 16-bit era, are a delicate balancing act of the serious and the silly, and 7 is probably the one that shows that contrast most clearly. And key to its balancing act is its use of exaggerated, iconic character models.

In the essential Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explores the power of simple, iconic images:

Image: Understanding Comics
Image: Understanding Comics

It doesn't just apply to comics, of course; it works for any form of cartooning. Similarly, a few years back some dumbass critic wrote a review of Monster House where he loudly proclaimed that it was the most important animated film of all time, and summarily dismissed the entire history of animation on the grounds that, prior to performance capture, cartoons couldn't truly convey emotion. I'm convinced he was just trolling, but Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew tore him a new one across multiple blog posts, including one with this side-by-side comparison:

Image: Monster House vs. Bugs Bunny

One's got a dead-eyed Uncanny Valley face, and the other one is Bugs goddamn Bunny. Bugs is an enduring icon who is recognized the world over and has remained popular for over 70 years, whereas Monster House...well, did you even remember what Monster House was when I mentioned it?

The point is, in cartooning, you take essential elements and exaggerate them. FF7's chibis do that: little bodies, big heads, and exaggerated movements in a story that is itself bigger-than-life. The Phoenix Rejuvenation Project injects more realistically-proportioned figures into those same exaggerated movements and bigger-than-life story, and the result is a pretty clear clash:

Image: Comparison of Barrett waving his arms, original vs. Rejuvenation
Image: Comparison of Barrett shaking his fist, original vs. Rejuvenation

FF7's field models lack even the basic facial emotions of FF6; each character has only one unchanging facial expression, and emotions are conveyed through exaggerated movement. In the Phoenix Rejuvenation Project, that doesn't change -- and it's a lot easier to accept a static facial expression when it's just a couple of lines and dots than when it's more fully formed, easier to accept ridiculous arm-waving from a squat little Playmobil man than one who's more reasonably proportioned.

And even if they could somehow take all that out, give the characters emote animations that fit their new models, you'd still have the Honeybee Inn, Sephiroth tossing people around like ragdolls in Nibelheim, Yuffie leaping across the screen, and, oh yeah, a talking stuffed cat. There are large swaths of the game that simply cannot be made to fit this art style.

I'm not opposed to overhauling FF7's field graphics by any means -- but Team Avalanche has the right idea: keep them chibi, just make them smoother and more detailed chibis.

Of course, even that approach is fraught with peril; FF9 tried it and we got a leading lady who doesn't look like a detailed chibi so much as, well, a dwarf.

Image: Final Fantasy 9's Princess Garnet


Next time: An attempt at a thorough critical analysis of Final Fantasy 7, what it did right and what it did wrong. Combat! Love triangles! Japanese nuclear anxiety! Recurring themes, both literary and musical! Keep goin'? Off course!

And in the meantime, don't forget to join the discussion currently raging at Brontoforumus!