Wallpaper of the Week: Megatron and Optimus Prime

January 23, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — I was fiddling around again with video editing and decided to show you my desktop, which is cubed out with Yod’m 3D, a French-language virtual desktop app that gives you four separate work spaces.

Linux users already have this functionality, and I don’t understand why Microsoft hasn’t done more to make it Windows-native; the ability to place different apps on different desks is tremendously useful, especially when working on large projects on a small, single monitor (I’m still in the dark ages with a 4:3 15-inch).

Anyway, two of the walls in the video above have already been wallpaper of the week, and I decided to post the third here as I am on a bit of a Transformers kick after watching the 1986 animated movie again (it looks amazing on the 42-inch plasma in my living room).

Like any boy raised in the 80s, my allegiance will always be to Generation 1. When Rodimus Prime stepped in, I largely stopped watching the cartoon, so I’m not sure if the tanked-out versions of Megatron and Optimus Prime below are cannon. Honestly, I’ve thought more than once about getting into the Transformers comic books, if only economics allowed. I hear they’re much darker than anything else in the franchise.


YouTube Cinema: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

June 26, 2008

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.

As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.

In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.

This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.

Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.

Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.

MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.

This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.


YesterGames #1: X-Men 2 — Clone Wars

February 27, 2008

FROM JASON’S BATTERED 16-BIT SYSTEM — Before consoles had the power to use 3D graphics, Sega was leading the way in superhero side-scrolling platform action by licensing comic book characters.

Nintendo was still leading the market with the Mario and Zelda franchises, but meanwhile Sega was forging an alliance with Marvel and creating darker teen games with oversized sprites like Spider-Man and Venom: Separation Anxiety. But maybe the best of this brood was 1995’s X-Men 2: Clone Wars.

The plot: Techno-organic beings known as The Phalanx have sent a clone invasion to Earth. Only a small band of X-Men have remained uncaptured. When the baddies go after a closed-down sentinel factory, it’s your job to stop them.

I spent weeks playing Clone Wars as a teen, switching between the playable characters and their assorted mutant abilities: Beast with his amazing strength and ground-pound; Cyclops’ optic blasts; Psylocke’s 180-degree sword slash and psychic thrust; Gambit’s long-reaching staff and telekinetically-charged cards; Wolverine’s claws, wall-climbing, and self-healing; and Nightcrawler’s ability to crawl on ceilings, teleport, and deliver and high-speed flying kick. Later in the game, I was dumbstruck when Magneto was unlocked to fight alongside the X-Men. He was slow but he could fly (and remaing hovering), giving each level a new dimension. He could also throw a pretty wicked magnetic bomb blast.

That versatility meant many different ways to complete a level, and allowed for a great deal of strategy compared to other platformers of the day. It’s also what makes modern comic-book vidjagames like X-Men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance so attractive and re-playable.

Nightcrawler was easily my favorite character, and if played right he was almost invincible. During an invasion of Asteroid M, Nightcrawler could bypass almost the entire level by walking up the wall and clawing across the ceiling, then teleporting to the exit. At one point I completed the first 6 levels in 15 minutes using those tricks and his speedy flying kick to circumvent enemies.

The levels were beautifully rendered. The introduction stage was a Siberian military complex with flying snow and mock-3D ice walls. Later stages included a raid on a sentinel factory, Magneto’s Avalon, a showdown with Apocalypse, the Savage Land, and a dark Metroid-type maze.

In that final level, you have to fight clones of all the X-Men to survive. I beat the game once during college but never again managed to duplicate that victory.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you have a Genesis emulator, the ROM is out there. Take the time to learn each of your mutants’ special moves, then go out there and kick some Apocalypse/clone ass.


You damned kids had better get off my lawn: Video games are unjust victims of generational bias

November 19, 2007

mk.jpgFROM JASON’S ROLLING EYES — As long as there has been popular culture, there have been Luddites to decry it as the source of all violence, pestilence, poverty, and sexual immorality.

Video games are the scapegoat of the moment, following in the proud tradition of television, Elvis’ thrusting hips, comic books, and pinball — all which were attacked by the god-fearing preservers of a patina-colored yesteryear that never really existed.

Public Agenda, a non-partisan research group often tapped by journalists, did a series of years-long studies published in 1999 and 2002, tracking how people in the U.S. feel about newer generations.

The results were hardly surprising. Everything, according to the survey, was better back in the Golden Age, before these young whipper-snappers came along and started perverting it all, people said.

Teens and children were described by respondents as “lazy” and “irresponsible,” (53 percent) with fewer than half of adults and one-third of teens saying the next generation will make America a better place.

A whopping 71 percent of people surveyed had negative labels for teens — and the number grew to 74 percent among parents polled.

Drugs and alcohol, according to 68 percent of those surveyed, are “very serious” problems among today’s kids — but the same percentage said violence and sex on TV and in movies were dangerous. Of those people, 33 percent said the biggest problem among kids is that they simply have no values.

The strange thing is that the two most recent generations — Generation X and the Bridger Generation — seem to be doing better than ever. A quick overview of the numbers shows that mythical concept of Andy Griffith America never really existed.

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crimes dipped significantly in the early 80s, climbed again toward the mid-90s, and since then have plummeted to all-time lows. That’s all-time — including the fanciful daydream of the 1950s.

The data measures all the things that Jack Thompson and his ilk want to convince us are endemic today and of which video games are the root: Assaults, robberies, thefts, burglaries, auto thefts, rapes, and sexual assaults (among U.S. residents ages 12 and up).

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Even better is the improvement in generational property crime rates, which have fallen steeply since 1975, with only two slight rises in 1980 and 1990.

As for homicides, people seem to think that a nation awash in school shootings is more deadly than ever before. True, DOJ data does show that there was a major increase in killings in the 1970s and 1980s, but the homicide rate has recently returned to levels unseen since the 1960s.

Even at its peak in 1991, the homicide rate was 9.8 per 100,000 people or 1/100th of a percent of the population. Today, there are about 16,000 homicides a year as opposed to about 7,500 in 1950, according to the DOJ. But in that span, the population haas nearly doubled from 150 million to about 285 million — which means the homicide rate has only risen a small percentage.

Since 1993, however — the era where the most violent video games have been introduced, the murder rate among the prime vidjagame demographic (14- to 17-year-olds) is the same as it was in 1973-1976.

Forget for a moment about Manhunt 2 and Mortal Kombat, about Grand Theft Auto and Doom.

The truth is that long before Columbine, conservatives were claiming that many pop culture staples were responsible for perceived generational fire and brimstone. Parents crusaded against the corrupting influence of jazz as soon as the term was invented at a Chicago night club in 1915. They were angered in 1953 when Elvis had the indecency to sing “black music” and again when Chuck Berry played the devil’s music in the form of rock & roll.

Copies of Voltaire’s Candide were seized and destroyed by U.S. Customs agents in 1930, and The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights were banned for decades. John Scopes was convicted of teaching Origin of Species in his high school classroom in 1925. The Grapes of Wrath was banned from several libraries in 1939 because of “vulgar language” and The Catcher In the Rye was banned in Columbus, Ohio schools in 1963 because of its “anti-white” message.

Pinball was the next to draw overzealous attention. In the 1940s, parents claimed that the machines themselves were immoral; they were even linked to gambling and the Mafia. New York City seized and destroyed about 3,000 pinball machines in the late 30s and early 40s, and a ban remained in effect until 1976. Even jukeboxes were held in suspicion because the newfangled gadgets had a strange draw for the youth of the day.

A book by Dr. Fredric Wertham convinced Congress in the 1950s to place the comic book industry under scrutiny — eventually leading to the instatement of the Comic Book Code as a means of self-policing. Wertham said Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality, claimed comics were laden with subliminal female nudity, caused children to emulate violence, glorified bondage, and traumatized young children with horrific and demonic villains.

In the 1970s and 1980s, American Protestant groups targeted another pop-culture iteration, saying Dungeons & Dragons was a game based on Satanic rituals. Church camps across the nation showed cheesy videos saying that the devil was behind fantasy books and games, waging “spiritual warfare” on the faithful.

The same groups had another battlefront with television and film, saying Looney Tunes was too violent, The Smurfs taught kids about witchcraft, E.T. was a sacrilegious perversion of the Christ story, pink Teletubbies promoted homosexuality, and South Park… well, they still don’t understand that Matt Stone and Trey Parker are fairly libertarian themselves.

All of those allegations against new forms of media and distribution are just non causa pro causa arguments that lack even the benefit of statistical validation. Video games are the latest to be attacked.