Week of Cartoons – Day 1: Dino Riders (1988)

March 23, 2008

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Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S 13″ KITCHEN TV — There are two things that 8-year-old boys like: Dinosaurs and outer space. When I was that age, I couldn’t be bothered with the big pirates versus ninjas question. I just wanted a triceratops mounted with a laser cannon.

Along came Dino Riders and my world was complete.

Transformers had already set the standard for using cartoons as 22-minute ads for toys, and Dino Riders called on Peter Cullen and Frank Welker — again — to pretty much re-skin the eternal Transformers struggle with a whole bucket of prehistoric awesome. It was by all accounts a flop, with just 14 episodes made and 13 hitting the air. But its brevity belied the widespread appeal of the toys, which somehow managed to stay in my bedroom until the mid-90s.

The plot, briefly (it’s part of the show opener anyway): The Valorians are a peaceful people fighting the good fight against the evil Rulons. When the Valorians use an experimental time-travel warp drive to escape their attackers, the Rulons lock on a tractor beam. Both factions are hurled back in time to prehistoric Earth, where they use their advanced technology to carry on the eternal struggle.

Oh, did I mention that the good guys are telepaths and the bad guys are snake men, ant men, and shark men?

Dino Riders had the same premise flaw as all other 1980s cartoons: There were evil characters doing evil for the sake of being evil. There was no other motivation. The Valorians’ arch-nemesis, Emporer Krulos, was a Cobra Commander clone and just wanted to rule the universe for the sake of having power. There were no shades of gray in the Cold War mindset. America considered itself the soldier of the light, and it needed an Emmanuel Goldstein caricature to be the soldier of the dark.

The show was laced with a pretty cliché moral of universal harmony prevailing over coercion. The Valorians befriended the planet’s dinosaurs, forging alliances. The Rulons use force, creating mind-control devices called “brain boxes” to enslave vicious dinos.

There was no historical cohesiveness about the show, which mixed a few hundred million years worth of dinos into the same setting. In fact, there were primitive humans living alongside the dinosaurs, which in retrospect makes me wonder if stupid Young Earth creationists had something to do with the show.

Interestingly, the writers took great care to align docile and defensive saurians with the Valorians (stegasaurus, diplodocus, dimetrodon, brontosaurus). Meanwhile, the Rulons got dinos that were more or less tanks (T-Rex, ankylosaurus, and several triceratops-ish species). They also tried to evenly match the capabilities of the two factions; Transformers had always bothered me a bit because the Decepticons had all the jets and the Autobots were stuck with ground transportation (mostly). Dino Riders gave each side flying dinos.


TV advertisement for the toys.

My parents were at first a little upset about all the shooting of lasers and such (they were always prudish about cartoon violence), but finally caved and bought the toys because they were marginally educational. These were no cheap Chinese hunks of plastic. The dinos were extremely well-constructed and tremendously detailed, much larger-scaled than typical toys of the time (I never got the brontosaurus, which was HUGE), and often came with turrets or seats for multiple action figures.

I wish this concept would have worked out and that the stories would have been a bit more mature. Had the animation been a little more detailed, Dino Riders would have made an incredible anime cross-over hit like RoboTech, and I would have been a rabid fanatic. Oh well.

“We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re DINO RIDERS!”

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It’s coming: The Week of Cartoons draws nigh

March 21, 2008

THE BOOK OF JASON Ch. 8 v. 7-10: And lo, the waters parted and there stood before Him a multitude of the shows of the 1980s. And they were animated. The LORD thy Jason looked upon them and said, “It is good.” And the drawings did move, and did they battle with each other.

Seven days. Seven brands of awesome.


YesterGames #6: Quadnet

March 18, 2008

FROM JASON’S DESIRE TO BE HAN SOLO — This game has nothing at all to do with Star Wars except for the pareidolia effect. But if I’m to be childishly honest, the reason I played this game longer than 3 minutes the first time was because the grid triggered something deep in my memory: It looked and acted like the one on the Millennium Falcon’s laser cannon targeting computer.

Then I was hooked.

Quadnet is a lot like the old Atari 2600 classic Vanguard in that you can fire in four directions while moving independently. You’re gridlocked and have to take out hi-tech bouncing balls. Think Asteroids on a giant, tilting tic-tac-toe board.

It’s easy at first but with 14 or so targets in later stages things can get pretty hairy. Quadnet starts off with strategy — stay in the middle or hit the edges — and quickly devolves into six-finger twitching as you jam the controls with both hands. By the time you pass that 50,000 mark, you’re thinking in multiple dimensions and calculating trajectories 5 or 6 seconds in advance.

I strongly recommend re-assigning the controls to arrow keys for movement and WASD for firing. It’s very natural that way.

Made by Brain Child Design in 1999, Quadnet (download) packs a lot of fun into 281k. If you’re running XP or later, you’ll need DosBox to make it run, but it’s worth the effort. Honestly, I would kill for a well-done Flash version to avoid all the hassle.


Music Monday: Nada Surf and The Statler Brothers

March 17, 2008

1. Nada Surf — Popular

These were the days of flannel and backward baseball caps. I remember how huge Popular was in 1996 in New York state — mostly because the band had a huge teen following downstate. When the video hit MTV, Nada Surf suddenly became the ironic icon of misplaced teen priorities, showing how delusional most pop culture depictions of high school were.

The first few times I actually listened to the lyrics, I was stumped. Was Matt Caws being serious? It didn’t take long to catch on to the vitriol as his spoken rant escalated into full, hateful ablution. I was dating my first real girlfriend at the time and I remember that this song triggered my first doubts that high school love was real.

Also, that slutty cheerleader was really hot by 1996 standards.
Space


2. The Statler Brothers — Flowers on the Wall


I spent some of my earliest years hanging around my grandparents’ farm in the hills of western Pennsylvania, a state where Flowers on the Wall might as well be the official anthem of depressed cultural solitude. That was the 1980s, but even today that part of the state seems to be permanently stuck in a sepia-toned shadow of the 1960s, when The Statler Brothers’ tune hit the radio waves.

There’s that famous refrain: “Playin’ Solitaire ’till dawn with a deck of 51/Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo/Now don’t tell me I’ve got nothin’ better to do.” It’s ostensibly about a man who’s left direction-less after a break-up. But I think it perfectly describes the tired mindset of the backwoods Pennsylvania coal miners who watched industry and progress fall away in the 1970s.

That kind of disenchantment was lost on me at age 4 when the song would play on my grandfather’s pick-up truck radio. But it really hit home in the context of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1995 — especially next to other 60s and 70s slacker songs. Quentin Tarantino’s track list was brilliant and I think my dream job would be choosing songs for his films.


Second part of ‘Star Trek: Of Gods and Men’ fan film released

March 16, 2008

FROM JASON’S SMIRK — Tim Russ must have been watching a lot of 24 while making Star Trek: Of Gods and Men Act II, because it’s all close-up face shots and zippy little melodramatic zooms. It also trades a steadycam for hand-held action and — surprise — a “pacifism is better than righteous violence” message.

Andrew and I laughed at the goofiness of the first installment of the fan film, which stars Trek alums like Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Garrett Wang, Russ, Gary Graham, Alan Ruck, and… Chase Masterson?

Act II is far superior to the first, but in a “this couldn’t ever even get on The Sci-Fi Channel” kind of way. The second part weighs in at 33 minutes and picks up with the destruction of Vulcan by — if you’ll remember — the Death Star an evil Mirror Universe version of Captain Harriman (Ruck). Uhura, Chekov, Tuvok, and Ragnar have to break out of the Enterprise brig before they are executed and manage to take over auxiliary control of the ship. They stumble back to the mysterious planet M-622, where the Guardian of Forever waits.

The big questions are answered, and guess what: It turns out my predictions about the plot were pure money. The psychic, Charlie (from episode 2 of the 1960s series), is in command of the Galactic Order and admits he used the Guardian of Forever to go back in time and terminate John Connor James Kirk. With Kirk gone, the entire galaxy collapses in a fit of collective despotism.

Through it all, we get nods to all the classic Trek tropes: The Vulcan mind-meld, Vulcan neck pinch, a self-destruct sequence that is halted with just one second left on the timer, a shapeshifter, and I’m sure Koenig thought he was very clever spinning McCoy’s trademark line with the Russian Reversal by muttering, “I’m a freedom fighter, not a doctor.”

The costumes are weak and the wigs are worse. The exterior shots are heavily CG (and look quite nice considering the budget) but they don’t match the 1960s interiors stolen from the original set. The dialog is forced, the delivery is mangled, and the ethical message is ham-fistedly obvious.

But I understand that despite the famous faces, this is fan fiction. Low production value should be expected.

In that light, there are several things about Of Gods and Men that I really enjoyed. Nichols is by far the best actor in the piece and her facial expressions are worth far more than her lines. The writers had the guts to kill off a main character (Tuvok — and no, I have no idea if he’s supposed to be the Tuvok since this is long before the Voyager timeline). The hand-cam close-ups I already mentioned, but there are also a few other inventive shots, including one in the brig filmed through a ceiling grate.

And the detail that sticks most prominently in my memory came at 1:57 into the film. Whenever two ships meet in Star Trek they are always flying level with each other on the same plane. But here we have a shuttlecraft sitting next to the Enterprise, which is floating on its vertical axis. The two are parked perpendicular to each other rather than parallel.

It’s a great (computer generated) shot and much more true to how things would work in space since “up” and “down” and “level” and “right-side up” mean absolutely nothing there.

NOTE: Since I was so accurate the first time around, I figure I’ll make a prediction for Act III. This one ends on a cliffhanger with Garrett Wang getting ready to execute Harriman, Uhura, and Chekov. Guess who isn’t in the shot? The shape-shifter.

Wang is the shapeshifter, if you need me to spell it out, Wendy.


Does being the economic superpower excuse American self-interest?

March 14, 2008

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Click to embiggen.

FROM JASON’S SHREDDED NATIONALISM — This depiction of the US appeared a while ago on the Strange Maps blog, but I colored it in Photoshop and I feel that gives me the right to resurrect it. The map labels states with the names of nations that have similar economic output and I find it fascinating.

Not long ago, a Canadian friend of mine referenced this map and asked whether the data excuses Americans for “being so self-interested… It certainly explains a bit, and makes the rest of us feel a bit small,” he wrote. I’ve been beating that question around in my mind for the past three days and doing stupid amounts of research to satisfy my curiosity.

Let’s deal with the premise first. Americans are self-interested. I’ve complained before about Americans’ xenophobia and ignorance of geography. A survey by the Rand Corporation shows only 14 percent of respondents could give a rough estimate of the global population (about 6 billion people at the time). Only 6 in 10 Americans ages 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, a 2006 study by National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs found.

The Pew Research Center said last year that 68 percent of Americans know the US has a trade deficit, but only 32 percent knew that Sunni was a branch of Islam. The best educated Americans got their primary news from The Daily Show, that report said. Another non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that most Americans did not know who Yasser Arafat was, and the Harris Poll Group had 57 percent of respondents say they “dislike learning about political issues in other countries.”

Still not convinced? Watch Rick Mercer have his way with clueless Americans (including then-governor Mike Huckabee) on Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes:

So back to my Canadian friend’s question — is that American ignorance justified by our economic superiority? Call it childish if you must, but Andre the Giant’s line from The Princess Bride kept ringing in my head as I thought about it: “It’s not my fault I’m the biggest and strongest. I don’t even exercise.”

We are the biggest and strongest, at least as an individual nation. Take a look at Gross Domestic Product information for some of the most advanced countries via the CIA World Factbook:


GDP by purchasing power
US – $13.86 trillion
China – $7.43 trillion
Japan – $4.35 trillion
Germany – $2.83 trillion
United Kingdom – $2.15 trillion
France – $2.07 trillion
Italy – $1.8 trillion
Russia – $2.08 trillion
India – $2.97 trillion
Canada – $1.27 trillion
Australia – $766.8 billion
GDP per capita
US – $46,000
China – $5,300
Japan – $33,800
Germany – $34,400
United Kingdom – $35,300
France – $33,800
Italy – $31,000
Russia – $14,600
India – $2,700
Canada – $38,200
Australia – $37,500

To be fair, the US is outclassed in terms of per capita GDP by Luxembourg, Qatar, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore — but that gets into some tricky statistical business.

The US continues to dominate as a production powerhouse, and as a single nation it is the superpower. But the European Union with its 27 member nations has already surpassed the US in cooperative production with a combined GDP of $14.45 trillion in 2007. No wonder the Euro is devaluing the dollar so efficiently. So far, we’ve managed to stay ahead by translating technological advances into corporate productivity, the New York Times argues.

No throne is ever 100 percent secure for life, and this is why the pesistent American attitude of unalterable, isolationist superiority and willful disregard of world affairs has me worried. True, the US continues to profit from huge consumption spending but high trade deficits and federal debt are perched to trump that and destroy our meager 2 percent annual growth rate.

That’s why the value of the US dollar is falling so quickly — and why it should be. One of the things that truly irks me about my fellow Americans is an attitude that the US deserves by the sheer force of its reputation to retain its position as the sole, indefatigable superpower. But as other nations reach post-industrial status, there will have to be a major shift in global economic balance.

Take a quiz

It’s intended for children, but I’m curious how well the blogosphere will perform: Try the GeoNet Game.


YesterGames #5: Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy (Secret of the Oracle)

March 12, 2008

FROM JASON’S CYAN AND MAGENTA SCREEN — It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when side-scrollers didn’t work on the PC. Long after the folks over in Japan had figured out how to Mario themselves into Scrooge’s Money Bank-esque piles of cash, the PC was still lagging dangerously behind.

In a way, all of the modern computer games — Bioshock, Portal, Crysis, Sins of a Solar Empire, Supreme Commander, everything — owe all their success to a little 1990 game called Commander Keen (download). Its code surmounted a major problem facing PC gaming: the lack of parallax scrolling.

Inspired by Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, Buck Rogers, and other old radio serials, Keen tells the story of Billy Blaze, an 8-year-old boy with an IQ of 314 who journeys across the galaxy trying to thwart his nemesis, Mortimer McMire. Interestingly enough, Billy’s backstory was re-written after the release of Wolfenstein 3D (both created by Id Software) so that he was the grandson of Wolftenstein hero B.J. Blazkowicz.

Keen creator Tom Hall discovered a coding trick that allowed smooth scrolling on the EGA graphics card/CRT. His first move was to port the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC and try to sell Nintendo on getting into the home computing market. Nintendo purportedly came close but eventually declined, and Hall (and collaborators) decided to make an original game.

The account of that venture is pretty widely established and you can read the 3D Realms version if you want. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to rehash it.

Of all the Keen episodes — there are six, including a Gameboy Color title — I think Secret of the Oracle (the first half of the Goodbye Galaxy story arc and the fourth in the series) is by far the best. First of all, it was the first to be backward-compatible with CGA monitors, which meant I could play it in its four-color glory: black, white, cyan, and magenta. It also boasted non-linear level selection once the first two stages were completed.


Keen’s level design was tops in 1991. This player knows what he’s doing.

But maybe the best thing about Oracle was the level design. These were still the days of randomly floating platforms and floating chochkes, but in Oracle alone did the Id team manage to make these elements look somewhat naturalistic and contiguous. The 2/3 view didn’t hurt, and the large, solid background elements like trees and desert, houses, the infamous slug statue, and Billy’s rocket ship added a sense that this wasn’t a world made up of just 16×16 sprites.

I also think a big reason why the early PC gaming community adopted Billy Blaze as its ad hoc mascot was because he’s so geek-relatable. Computers in the pre-Windows days weren’t exactly user friendly, and not everybody was savvy enough to get drivers to work or even learn commands for DOS (or DOShell). Those who developed even basic early PC literacy were pretty bright and I, especially, felt like I could identify with a kid genius slinging lines of DOS syntax and BASIC commands.

Maybe that’s a little narcissistic, but that’s how I felt as an 11-year-old 3.5-inch disc jockey.

Leave Billy alone long enough in-game and he’ll sit down and read a book — just like me. He’s also got some young punk cred; a trick in the Temple of the Moon level will make him moon you. He’s got that superior cocked eyebrow going on in the title screen. He’s also got that slightly lopsided grin that maybe I stole from him subconsciously.

One last thing: I always felt there was a little bit of ambiguity in the Keen games about whether the events were really taking place. The narrative always played it straight: Yes, Billy was really planet-hopping to fight the Vorticons et al. But I always thought that the entire Keen world might just be a byproduct of Billy’s imagination. I mean, I’m not too proud to admit that as a small boy (age 16 or 17 or 24) I would don a football helmet, grab a Captain Power lightgun and rush around the basement acting out some epic quest. I wonder if that’s all Billy was doing and if that means the surrealism of the game was entirely a figment.

There are better platformers out there now, or course, but Secret of the Oracle still holds up remarkably well (if you’re slightly forgiving). It certainly looks better than many, many Famicom Nintendo titles from the same era. Hall continues to waffle about the future of the franchise — he doesn’t have the intellectual rights anymore — but says he wants to someday develop another episode.

Let me say this: If a Keen-a-la-Mario64 reimagining hit the Nintendo DS today, I would pay double the retail price to get it.

NOTE: I was already planning to talk about this game, but Ninjarabbi gave me a kick in the butt. I hope Scrym talk about Keen on Geeknights soon.