Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Terminator

This article was first posted on July 24, 2010 and was inspired by my then recent viewing of Mad Max (one of the trailers featured on my Special Edition Mad Max DVD was for The Terminator) and my desire to cleanse myself of the disappointment I had felt after watching Terminator Salvation. It is presented here with some minor corrections.

As far as I'm concerned, The Terminator was the only Terminator film. There was no need for a sequel, especially one which portrayed a "kinder, gentler" terminator. WTF? The premise of the original film is that the terminators are ruthless, single-minded killing machines that do not feel an inkling of remorse or pity. Then, in first the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, we have a terminator voicing regret that he cannot cry. OMG, just shoot me. Now. Please. Arnold Schwarzenegger's menacing portrayal of the terminator in the original film was completely undone when, in the two sequels that followed, the storylines involved terminators being captured (just how do you capture a single-minded killing machine?) and reprogrammed to do good.

In addition to the "dilution" of the menace projected by the terminators that occurred when it was revealed that you could simply reprogram them to be baby-sitters (albeit shotgun and minigun toting baby-sitters) for smart-mouthed teenagers, the sequels run into the same problem that has bedeviled every story involving time travel, which is the whole issue of the possibility, and the often paradoxical consequences, of changing the past. In The Terminator, this is avoided as it becomes apparent that everything that has happened and will happen is part of a self-contained loop in time: Sarah Connor gives birth to John Connor who ends up leading the resistance against Skynet and he sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother using the same time displacement equipment used by the machines to send a terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor to prevent her from giving birth to the future leader of the resistance; what the machines don't know is that Kyle Reese is John Connor's father and John Connor's decision to send him back in time is informed by the knowledge that if he does not, he, John, will never have been born. It all makes sense and the self-contained loop in time is a time-honored tradition in stories involving time travel. However, Terminator 2: Judgment Day basically twists this self-contained loop around so much that it snaps and basically throws a bunch of action and special effects at us in the hopes that all the shiny stuff on the screen distracts us and prevents us from realizing that Terminator 2: Judgment Day's storyline effectively moots that of The Terminator since it ends on the premise that the nuclear holocaust that was pivotal to all the events in the first film has been prevented. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines attempts to redress this grave injustice to the storyline of the first film by putting the nuclear holocaust back on track but we end up with a story where the end is never in doubt, which is the kiss of death as far as suspense is concerned, which I'm told stories kind of rely on to give them a sense of immediacy. I won't even mention Terminator Salvation since I've discussed that film at length but I will say that it repeats a mistake made in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which is the premise of the "kinder, gentler" terminator. Yes, I know Marcus Wright wasn't an actual terminator but given that he was a cybernetic organism engineered by Skynet, to deny his role as a "good" terminator in Terminator Salvation is nitpicking.

Why is the introduction of a "good" terminator such a mistake? The entire premise of The Terminator is that technology can be dangerous to humanity if it ever advances to a point where man is incapable of reversing its effects should things go very wrong. As such, it is a cautionary tale of the danger of advances in technology outpacing advances in man's wisdom. It completely dilutes the impact of the cautionary tale when the centerpiece of this dangerous technology, the terminator, can be used for good. In the first film, the terminator is absolutely frightening as it goes about in its single-minded mission to kill Sarah Connor; as such, the message of the possible dangers of technological advances is very clear. When the concept of the "good" terminator was introduced in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, this message got muddled.

But enough of my gripes about the sequels. How was The Terminator? Well, despite having been filmed in the 80's, it's still a great movie, especially when you consider that it was filmed on a shoe-string budget of $6.4 million. The tension and sense of despair felt by Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese as they come to grips with the fact that the weapons at their disposal in 1984 may not be sufficiently powerful enough to destroy the terminator are as palpable now as they were when I first saw The Terminator back when I was in high-school. And since the 80's are apparently back, the big hair and the strange clothes are not as jarring as they might have been otherwise. The only WTF moment in the film, for me, was when Sarah, seeking sanctuary (and a payphone) in a dance club, is told that the cover charge is $4.50! $4.50 cover for a dance club! My God, how I miss the 80's. Not only did we have just enough technology to be comfortable but not so much that we actually had to worry about whether humanity had enough wisdom to use it without destroying itself, we had some of the best music the world has ever heard, we weren't inundated with media 24/7 telling us to be afraid, angry, etc. and dance clubs had $4.50 cover. All we had to worry about was HIV/AIDS and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Speaking of the possible dangers of technology, I hate to sound like a Luddite, but it seems like The Terminator's cautionary tale of technology running amuck and destroying humanity is more relevant now than it was in the 80's. I'm not saying that mankind is anywhere near creating robots that will spontaneously gain sentience and decide we're a threat to their existence, although recent advances in UAV's brings to mind the final scenes of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but that our reliance on technology for just day-to-day living may ultimately be our undoing. We no longer treat the benefits conferred on us by technology as a luxury but as a necessity. And the almost absolute trust that we put in technology is frightening. People have died after driving off cliffs while following directions given them by their GPS, which brings to mind that old adage: The problem is that as soon as you make something idiot proof, nature just comes up with a better idiot.

And that's the ultimate danger that an over reliance on technology can present to humanity. Not killer robots trying to kill us. But in effectively "helping" mankind get on an evolutonary path that may very well be a dead end.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thor (or Kenneth Branagh's Mashup of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Excalibur, Henry V, King Lear and Superman)

Initially, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is, for lack of a better word, a bit of a douche. He's arrogant, irresponsible and hot-headed. He's not exactly the sort of person you'd think would make a promising king, sort of like Henry in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in the flashbacks derived from Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2.

One of his friends, Volstagg, even sort of resembles Bardolph from Henry V.

Despite his douchiness, he does love his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), as much as his mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but he lacks his trickster brother's silver tongue. In fact, he lacks any sort of verbal filter and what he thinks at the moment pretty much ends up coming out of his mouth and he manages to get himself banished to Midgard (Earth) after expressing himself with the sort of bluntness that got Cordelia (or Saburo, if you prefer your Shakespeare served up in Japanese) disinherited in King Lear (or Akira Kurosawa's Ran).

So Thor is exiled from his homeworld of Asgard, bereft of Mjolnir, his hammer, which results in him being pretty much stripped of his godlike powers. Mjolnir ends up on Earth as well, although stuck in a rock, ready to be pulled forth and brandished by whomever it deems worthy, sort of like Excalibur in the eponymous film.

A bunch of rednecks show up and discover they are not worthy.

At least one pickup truck is destroyed during this process.

Eventually, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents arrive and cordon off the area (and Mjolnir).

Thor sneaks through this cordon and tries to free Mjolnir from the rock but, much to his surprise, finds he isn't worthy! Loki, who turns out to be a bit of a douche himself but in a Machiavellian way, also tries to pull the hammer free and finds he isn't worthy either. In case you're wondering, Loki is on Earth to basically fuck with Thor's head. You see, he is responsible for orchestrating Thor's exile, having manipulated him into defying Odin so that he, Loki, can be king and not Thor, who would have ascended to the throne were it not for his tendency to put his foot in his mouth and start unnecessary wars.

Thor finally becomes hammer-worthy when he willingly sacrifices himself to save a small town that's about to become collateral damage in Loki's quest to kill him. Thor dies after being bitchslapped by the Destroyer, a sort of bipedal unmanned drone under Loki's command, but rises from the dead when Mjolnir, sensing that he is, at last, worthy, flies out of the rock in which it is embedded and lands in Thor's outstretched hand, resurrecting him, returning his godhead and prompting a spontaneous costume change of the sort that usually happens when Clark Kent runs into a phone booth.

With Mjolnir in hand, Thor proceeds to dish out some serious whoopass against those who have wronged him.

He starts off by dismantling the Destroyer and then moves on to his brother.

Now, despite the rather flippant tone with which I've pointed out all the various influences that were thrown into Thor, I actually liked Thor, mainly because each of these influences strongly resonated with me.

However, despite how much I liked Thor, I felt it highlighted the problem with superhero films in general, which is that the story of a superhero's origin is often the most interesting (and usually the only) story regarding that superhero worth telling.

After all, it is in the origin story that we see the transformation of a zero into a hero (or in the case of Thor, of a superbeing into a superhero).

How can you top that?

At the end of Thor, Thor is a changed man, more subdued and self-aware and no longer desirous of the throne despite now having the demeanor one would expect of a king.

After this transformation, what other avenues of growth are left?

How can a superhero develop in a way that can compete with the transformation undergone during his origin story?

One need only look at Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for inspiration.

Batman Begins showed the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman.

The Dark Knight showed how Bruce/Batman deals with the terrible repercussions of his crusade against crime.

Other superhero franchises would do well to follow The Dark Knight's example.

Because without further character development, you're just left with the spectacle of a bunch of guys in strange costumes beating the snot out of each other.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mad Max

This article was first posted on July 23, 2010. It was inspired, in part, by Mel Gibson's recent (at the time) misogynistic meltdown and comparisons made in the media between his actual personality and that of his breakthrough role in Mad Max, the film that put Mr. Gibson on his path to stardom and, possibly, his propensity towards alcohol-fueled, homophobic, antisemitic, racist and misogynist rants towards whomever happens to be unfortunate enough to be in his presence when the madness seizes him. It is presented here with some minor corrections.

Mad Max begins with the caption "A few years from now...". Frankly, when I first saw this film back in the mid 80's, I thought its vision of an anarchic future in which civilization is slowly unraveling at the seams, with the police, the Main Force Patrol, trying (in vain, it turns out) to maintain order and with nomad biker gangs reveling in a new social order in which they're positioned as the apex predator, was a bit naive and simplistic. This was before it was firmly established in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that the breakdown of civilization was precipitated by a nuclear war; in the first film, the actual cause of the breakdown is left somewhat vague but in the preamble to its sequel, The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2 as it was called in Australia), it was hinted that some sort of socioeconomic catastrophe that found its catalyst in a war of some sort (not necessarily nuclear) was the cause of civilization's slide back into barbarity.

However, after having lived through Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike and witnessed the mad rush for gasoline, food and water that occurred before and after the storms, and having recently moved to California just in time to witness the disbandment of police departments for lack of funds and having to live with the anxiety of wondering what will happen when/if the state's annual budgetary crisis come to a head, it's quite possible that it wasn't the background story of Mad Max that was naive and simplistic, it was me that was naive and simplistic.

My only excuse was that it was during the mid 80's when I came to this conclusion. I was young and stupid. And, hey, it was the 80's.

But enough of my pessimistic ruminations on the possible prescience of director George Miller's vision of the downfall of civilization.

What's the movie like?

Despite the more than 30 years spanning the film's initial release and my re-viewing of it tonight, George Miller's story of the efforts of the Main Force Patrol to stem humanity's slide back into barbarism and the tragedy that ultimately transforms Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), hot shot Main Force Patrol driver, to Mad Max, a human wrecking ball fueled by 600 horsepowers worth of righteous vengeance, still holds up well. Mad Max grabs your attention from the moment the title credits and the theme music come on and it doesn't let go. Modern audiences may think it slow but that's because films these days seem to be made to cater to ADHD sufferers. That bit of "slowness" in the middle of the movie is a little something called character development, which, strangely enough, existed in action films 30 years ago.

However, I don't want to give the impression that Mad Max wants for action. Like I said, it grabs your attention from the get-go and drops you right in the middle of the action, and action it has in spades. There's this stunt in Mad Max that made me cringe when I first saw it and it still makes me cringe. I don't know how they filmed this scene. Basically, Max drives his Pursuit Special through a formation of nomad bikers and we get to watch the aftermath of his righteously homicidal rampage in lovingly filmed slow motion; one of the bikers is thrown from his motorcycle (actually, they're all thrown from their bikes) and he sort of does a butt slide on the asphalt...and then a flying out of control bike hits him in the fucking head! I don't know if this was an actual accident that happened during filming which George Miller kept in the film or whether it was the result of a meticulously planned stunt but it really looks like an honest to God human being got hit in the head with a flying out of control bike for our entertainment. Now, it could have been a dummy that took a hit for the team but it really doesn't look like a dummy and, trust me, there are scenes in Mad Max where it is apparent that a dummy just got run over for our entertainment and the use of dummies in these scenes is pretty obvious so I speak as one who has some inkling of the difference between a dummy and a human being.

In addition to the many incredible stunts involving flying motor vehicles hitting each other and terrible things happening to the soft and squishy people that happen to be inside them, Mad Max ends with a climax, which probably inspired the Saw movies, in which Max Rockatansky utters one of the most memorable lines of dialogue in action movie history:

"The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go."

The difference between five minutes to hack through the ankle compared to the ten minutes to hack through the high-tensile steel is very relevant since before uttering this line, Max had just chained his prisoner, Johnny the Boy, to a jury-rigged time bomb!

Speaking of memorable lines of dialogue, some of the threats that Mel Gibson allegedly leveled at his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva would make great lines in an action film coming from the mouth of the hero warning the villain about the hellacious shitstorm that he is about to unleash upon him. Except for the bit where he tells her that "you should just fucking smile and blow me!"

Because that would be a little too weird.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Star Trek: This Side of Paradise (or Spock Gets Laid, McCoy Gets Drunk on Mint Juleps and Kirk Spoils Their Fun)


The crew of the Enterprise arrives at Omicron Ceti III expecting to find a ghost town of sorts. The human colonists there have been exposed to Berthold rays, a form of radiation exposure to which for a few weeks will result in death. Instead, the colonists are alive and well. If anything, they are thriving, at least physically. They've even regenerated lost organs!

Intellectually, however, they seem a little fat, dumb and happy. And the Enterprise's crew soon finds out why. It appears spores from certain flowers on the planet, when inhaled, not only protect those exposed from the effects of Berthold rays but also grant them a high degree of physical robustness. However, you can't get something for nothing and in exchange for a little extra zip in their step, those exposed to the spores end up being a bunch of sybarites.

Spock is amongst the first Enterprise crewmen to be infected, led to his doom by the lovely Leila Kalomi, whom he had known back on Earth. Having failed at winning Spock's heart six years ago, the resourceful Leila turns to the spores to seduce the normally stoic half-Vulcanian (in these early episodes, this is how people from Vulcan are described).

After exposure to the spores, Spock declares his love for Leila, they lock lips and I don't know what happens next but suffice it to say, when next we see Spock, he's wearing the one-piece uniform favored by the colonists, his Starfleet uniform nowhere to be seen (perhaps it needed to be laundered after the passionate goings-on which occurred after the kiss).

While Spock turns into a bit of a Lothario after exposure to the spores, McCoy turns into a caricature of a Southern gentleman, his normally subdued Southern accent slipping its leash and a mint julep his constant companion.

Even Kirk eventually succumbs to the spores, but being Kirk, it takes two doses to turn him into one of the pod people.

At this point, we get a glimpse of a rarely seen side of Kirk, that of the vainglorious officer. After turning into a lotus-eater, Kirk goes back to his quarters on the Enterprise to pack up some things before he joins the colonists (and the rest of his crew) on the idyllic paradise that is Omicron Ceti III.

What does he pack?

What does he intend to bring with him on his exile on Eden?

His Starfleet dress uniforms and his decorations.

He even fondly strokes his decorations and one would be pardoned for expecting him to start whispering: “My precious...

Like I said, it's a side of Kirk we haven't seen before and it seems a bit uncharacteristic of the Kirk we all know and love.

Even more jarring is how he shakes Spock out of his hedonistic state of mind after he, himself, serendipitously (and somewhat miraculously) manages to nullify the effects of the spores simply by getting angry (which, given the effect of the spores on a person's state of mind, is, as I mentioned before, miraculous).

He unleashes upon his first officer, his best friend, a torrent of bigoted and racist vitriol, insulting his half-human/half-Vulcan (excuse me, half-Vulcanian) heritage and taunts him for having the nerve to woo the deliciously Aryan Leila.

The purpose of this is to anger Spock enough to free him from the nasty bout of happiness he's suffering.

Frankly, it's a little hard to stomach.

Kirk later claims that it hurt him to have to say what he said but to this viewer, he seemed a wee bit too enthusiastic during his tirade.

Frankly, I don't know what the point of this episode was.

Perhaps it was an thinly veiled allegory against drug abuse?

An indictment of the mindless adherence to any school of thought, be it political or religious?

Frankly, I don't know.

What I do know is that the sad thing about this episode is not that Spock got a taste of happiness and then walked away from it.

It's that amongst the entire crew of the Enterprise, only Kirk couldn't find it in himself to actually embrace happiness, if only for a brief moment.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cell Phones Cause Cancer?!?! (or I'll Give You My Cell Phone when You Take It from My Cold, Dead Hands!!!!)

I've remarked more than once upon the fact that we are becoming more and more dependent on our technological geegaws to the point that it seems they've acquired the status of virtual organs that we can only part with at the risk of our own lives. So it was with some interest that I digested the result of recent studies which states that radiation from cell phones may cause cancer.

After all, we live in a society where people are willing to pay 10-40% more for organically grown foods despite the lack of any scientific evidence of their health benefits.

What would such a society do when faced with the possibility that an almost ubiquitous piece of technological bling may cause cancer?

Frankly, I think we would seek solace in the security blanket that is denial.

We've become so dependent on cell phones, both in terms of the benefits and convenience of being able to do business 24/7 but also for the shear sense of security provided by being able to call up someone you know and discuss something completely trivial while waiting for someone outside, say, a movie theater, because the average person is too insecure to just be seen alone doing nothing but waiting.

Given these facts, if it turns out that cell phones do pose a serious health risk, I suspect that getting people to give them up would be a Herculean task. Seeing as how people cannot help talking on their cell phones while driving, an activity equivalent to downing half a bottle of vodka before going for a drive, something which even the most incorrigible alcoholic would be hard-pressed to describe as anything less than suicidal, I think you'd have an easier time convincing the general population that they should amputate their left thumbs.

For crying out loud, I've seen people texting, of all things, while driving on the 101, here in Silicon Valley. At least I assume they were texting. For all I know, they may have been playing Angry Birds while driving. Just who the Hell does this and thinks it's a good idea?

It seems that when it comes to cell phones, the average person's common sense just goes flipping AWOL which leads me to believe that a call to surrender one's cell phone prompted by irrefutable evidence of the cancer causing effects of cell phone radiation would probably elicit the following defiant response from the public at large.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's Old Is New Again (or Why Does Born This Way Sound Like Express Yourself?)

I wouldn't call myself a Lady Gaga fan but when Born This Way was released, I did something which I haven't done since I started buying music on iTunes; I actually bought the entire album.

After listening to Born This Way, I got a nagging sense of familiarity whenever I heard its eponymous single, especially since I thought the country road version was catchy and I played it a lot on my drives to and from work. One day, it dawned on me just where this feeling of familiarity originated: Lady Gaga's Born This Way sounded a lot like Madonna's Express Yourself. At first, I thought I was going crazy but a Google search confirmed that I wasn't the only one who thought this.

I began asking myself how this could have happened. After all, Express Yourself is a pretty iconic song and despite its age of more than twenty years, it hasn't faded into obscurity.

I suppose it's possible that Lady Gaga had either never heard the song or didn't know it very well. After all, she was all of three years of age when it was released, and even if she had heard it, she may not have been familiar with it compared to someone, like me, who was an adult when it debuted and heard it played on the radio and seen its video countless times.

It is the conceit of every artist that what they create is original but the truth of the matter is that everyone is influenced by what has come before them and there aren't many artists who takes measures as extreme as Reiner Knizia to isolate themselves from the works of their contemporaries.

But even if Lady Gaga was familiar enough with Express Yourself to have been influenced by it, at least subconsciously, given the finite number of non-discordant combinations of notes possible, one has to accept the possibility that, eventually, musical artists will begin to recycle motifs from the past, especially ones as catchy at Madonna's anthem of female empowerment.

If this is what happened, we are on the cusp of the end of days. I'm not referring to the apocalypse heralded by Harold Camping and his ilk, but the coming of a time when we will have heard and seen it all.

What would become of humanity if and when such a day comes? Will we stagnate and whither away, as prophesied by James T. Kirk in every episode of Star Trek where the Enterprise and its crew encounters a seemingly utopic society?

Of course, Lady Gaga's channeling of Madonna may have had less perturbing origins. After all, at the end of the day, Lady Gaga, like every artist, is selling a product and in so doing, she has to walk the fine line between giving her customers what they want, which is a product familiar enough to remind them of what drew them to her in the first place, and something new, lest she (and they) grow bored of the familiar, but at the risk of alienating them a la Bob Dylan if she goes too far off her own beaten track.

After all, we all crave familiarity and very rarely do we embrace the new. I got a glimpse into that aspect of my own personality during the recent U2 concert in Oakland. I had stopped following U2's music in college so I was pretty psyched whenever Bono sang songs from Boy to Achtung Baby as these songs formed a soundtrack of sorts of my years in high-school and university. Whenever a song with which I was not familiar was performed, I basically zoned out.

So maybe the fact that Born This Way sounds like Express Yourself owes less to the possible coming of the end of days or a lack of creativity on Lady Gaga's part but is more due to song writing driven by marketing taking into account the tendency of the consumer (us) to gravitate towards the familiar and eschew anything truly original.

If that is the case, Lady Gaga's sin is that she chose to mine the works of another artist for the source of something familiar rather than delving into her own portfolio of songs.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Castiglione Goes Crawling in the Dungeons of Daggorath

I recently acquired a copy of Frozen Synapse but I've found I've not been able to play it as much as I would like due to the distraction of other games.

Just what other games could distract me from the pleasure of watching little neon colored men get mowed down by shotgun, rifle and RPG fire?

It may surprise you to know that I've been spending a lot of my gaming time playing Dungeons of Daggorath, Mazogs, 3D Monster Maze, Virus and 1k MazezaM as these are games for what are considered to be extinct platforms: Dungeons of Daggorath is a game for the Tandy Color Computer while the others are games for the ZX81.

I've already discussed 3D Monster Maze (I'm amazed at how startled I still get when I get caught by the Tyrannosaurus Rex) and I'll discuss Mazogs, Virus, 1k MazezaM and, yes, Frozen Synapse, in due time, but today I'd like to talk about Dungeons of Daggorath.

Dungeons of Daggorath was written by Douglas J. Morgan and Keith S. Kiyohara with sounds by Phil Landmeier and it was released in 1982 for the Tandy Color Computer, also known as the TRS-80 Color Computer or, more simply, the CoCo.

Someone looking at Dungeons of Daggorath could be forgiven for sniffing and saying, “What's the big deal? It's basically Akalabeth and Akalabeth predates it by two or three years (depending on who you talk to).”

Except for the fact that they'd be wrong.

In the case of Dungeons of Daggorath, there is literally more here than meets the eye.

What differentiates Dungeons of Daggorath from Akalabeth (and other computer role-playing games of its day) is its innovative use of sound. Audio cues provide you with clues of when monsters are near. And a virtual heartbeat gives you an indication of the physical state of your character: The faster your heartbeat, the more fatigued and/or injured your character. If your heartbeat gets fast enough, you'll either pass out (which could be bad) or die. Performing actions can result in fatigue. Obviously, getting hit by a monster can result in injury. Initially, you're a bit of a weakling in the game: Taking a few steps can tire you to such an extent that you may wish your character had gone through The Biggest Loser before entering the dungeon and you will have to be very careful when joining battle but with each monster you defeat, the stronger your character gets.

When you hear a monster, especially when your heartbeat indicates that you're in a bad way and really should be resting and not fighting, your anxiety level can begin to creep up, making for very immersive gameplay.

Dungeons of Daggorath's use of sound was groundbreaking but possibly because it was only released on the Tandy Color Computer and never ported to other systems, it seems to have been unknown outside the CoCo community. You have to remember, back then there was no internet (at least as far as the general public was concerned) and if something wasn't in your World Book Encyclopedia or in the Encyclopaedia Britannica down at your public library, you were basically out of options when it came to finding out about stuff.

With the exception of its use of sound, Dungeons of Daggorath is pretty pedestrian. It features first-person wire-frame 3D graphics similar to those used in the dungeon-crawling sequences in Akalabeth and the first Ultima. The storyline is cliched, involving a quest to find and kill an evil wizard but, hey, the greatest science fiction film of all time involved the rather cliched storyline of a simple farm boy saving the galaxy, so we probably shouldn't be so quick to turn our nose up at cliches.

We also shouldn't turn up our nose because the game is still a heck of a lot of fun, mainly because of those sounds I've been blabbering about. Where other contemporary computer role-playing games hewed closely to the model of their pencil and paper forefathers, Dungeons of Daggorath took advantage of what the medium that it was designed for had to offer. There were no hit points, no attributes displayed in the game, although they existed under the hood, so to speak. Your heartbeat replaced the hit point counter and the sound made by approaching monsters added to the atmosphere of the game as well as providing useful information that the player could use to make informed decisions.

Modern gamers may remark that sound effects announcing approaching enemies are nothing special and have been around for a while. For example, in Half Life, which was released in 1998, if you heard something that sounded like someone trying to hack up a furball while laughing at something really funny, you knew zombies were nearby. In F.E.A.R., if you heard voices distorted by radio static asking if anyone has seen anything, you knew you were about to get into a John Woo'esque firefight. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, if you heard someone yelling something nasty in Russian, you could rest assured that the someone in question would probably soon be lobbing bullets at your head.

However, when Dungeons of Daggorath was released, this was pretty cutting edge stuff. One should also note that in all of the above games, with the possible exception of F.E.A.R. , the sound effects marking the approach of bad guys are probably more a side effect of the games's physics engines rather than the result of conscious design decisions regarding gameplay. And Dungeons of Daggorath's almost exclusive use of sound to inform the player of the state of his character is something that just has to be experienced to fully appreciate its impact.

With all this being said, you may be wondering what, if anything, is wrong with the game.

I would be remiss not to mention the game's rather bizarre interface. Dungeons of Daggorath is a real-time game. However, its interface is that of a text adventure. While one can use abbreviations for all of the commands, the commands neither follow the standard used by text adventures since Colossal Cave Adventure nor are they intuitive.

For example, to see what you are carrying, you don't type “INVENTORY” but “EXAMINE”. Instead of typing “USE TORCH” or “LIGHT TORCH” to light your torch, you must type “PULL LEFT [or RIGHT] TORCH” (or “P L T” for short), to first pull your torch out of your backpack and hold it in your left hand, and then “USE LEFT” (or “U L”), to light it. To attack a monster, instead of typing “ATTACK SPIDER [or whatever monster deserves killing]”, you would type “ATTACK RIGHT” (or “A R”), assuming you're holding a weapon in your right hand (if you were holding a weapon in your left hand, you would type “ATTACK LEFT” or “A L”).

Speaking of torches, if you light a torch, it's suddenly “consumed” so if you were holding a torch in your left hand, you would find your left hand curiously empty after you've lit the torch. I guess the game assumes you're wearing one of these

except instead of an electric torch, you're wearing an honest to God flaming torch on your head.

Personally, this seems a little dangerous, but if you're crawling through underground caverns populated by stone giants and smiling blobs, I guess this is small potatoes.

A stone giant – or judging by the way it's leaning over, a stoned giant

Run away! It's a smiling blob! Don't let its boyish grin fool you, this thing is a killer!

The sound, while innovative for its time, may seem rather quaint to modern ears, especially considering how the sound of a monster being vanquished sounds more like an enemy tank getting blown up in Atari's Battlezone rather than any sort of blood curdling scream that one would expect of a monster giving up the ghost.

Now, for the $64,000 question. How can one play Dungeons of Daggorath nowadays, assuming one doesn't have access to a Tandy Color Computer and a Dungeons of Daggorath cartridge?

A good place to start is this web-site which states (correctly IMHO) that the easiest and fastest way to get started playing Dungeons of Daggorath is by using the Return of Coco emulator. I've tested it out and it runs fine in 64-bit Windows and on a 32-bit Linux system using Wine. The only downside is that you can't save your games due to the unfinished state of the emulator. So, unless you're willing to set aside a weekend and spend that weekend popping NoDoz, you probably won't be able to play the game to completion. However, if you just want to sample the gameplay about which I've been gushing, it's a viable option.

By the way, if you choose to use the Return of Coco emulator, you will probably want to go to the View menu and enable either the No Artifacts or Perfect Artifacts settings since the game as viewed in the default Simple Artifacts setting may induce nausea. Personally, I prefer the No Artifacts setting since the result is a cleaner display which reminds me of the monochrome monitor on my old Apple II+.

If you wish to get serious and attempt to play the game to completion, there is only one option as far as I have been able to determine: The MESS emulator.

MESS, as described in this web-site, is a mess to set-up. The instructions provided here for installing MESS and Dungeons of Daggorath are also woefully out of date. However, once it is set up, the Windows version runs Dungeons of Daggorath flawlessly (I had some stability issues with the Linux version of MESS). Whether you choose to install MESS will depend on whether you believe that Paris (or Dungeons of Daggorath in this case) vaut bien un MESS.

Setting up MESS and Dungeons of Daggorath goes as follows:
  1. Download the most recent version of MESS
  2. Download the ROMS for MESS at
  3. Install MESS. If you're running on Windows, installation is as simple as unzipping what you downloaded in step 1. If you're running on Linux, installation can be a bit more involved and you would be well served by reading the section in the MESS manual on installing MESS
  4. Unzip the ROMS in the same folder where you installed MESS in the following subfolder: roms/coco2/
  5. You can run Dungeons of Daggorath from a command line interface by typing: mess coco2 -cart roms/coco2/DUNGEONS.ROM
To save the game using MESS, you must:
  1. Hit SCROLL LOCK, P and then TAB to pause the game and get into MESS's internal UI
  2. Go into File Manager and select Cassette, select the folder where you want your game to be saved and then go to [create] and enter the name of your save game file in New Image Name
  3. Go into Tape Control and select Record
  4. Return to Dungeons of Daggorath and type ZSAVE”[save file name]”. Note that you must enter the double quotes although they won't show up on the screen of the emulated CoCo when you type them
  5. Once Dungeons of Daggorath is done saving the game, go back into MESS's internal UI using the instructions in step 1 and go into Tape Control and select Stop
Pretty easy, right? If you're interested, MESS saves your save game file as a .wav file so you can play it on a media player if you're curious about what people in the 70's and 80's heard when they played their program tapes in their audio cassette players.

Loading a saved game involves the following steps:
  1. In Dungeons of Daggorath, type ZLOAD”[save file name]”
  2. Go into MESS's internal UI, go into Tape Control, select Rewind and then Play
  3. Return to Dungeons of Daggorath and wait until the saved game is loaded
  4. Once the game is loaded, return to MESS's internal UI, go into Tape Control and select Stop
Anyone who is interested in playing Dungeons of Daggorath would be well served by first reading the manual, which is available at and here.

Given its rather idiosyncratic interface, this is definitely a game where RTFM applies.

Happy dungeon-crawling!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Castiglione Discusses Predators

The following article was originally posted on July 18, 2010. It is presented here in its entirety.

Predators begins with nary a preamble, with Royce (Adrien Brody) loaded to the gills with enough military hardware to decimate a small army and in free-fall. Within seconds, his parachute opens and he lands in the middle of a jungle. He finds he is not alone; there are seven others, all of various backgrounds but all killers in their own right, except for milquetoast doctor Edwin (Topher Grace), who appears to be the odd man out in a motley group made up of IDF sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga), death-row convict Stans (Walton Goggins), spetsnaz soldier Nikolai (Oleg Taktorov), Cartel enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Yakuza killer Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and Sierra Leone death squad member Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). The group realizes there is something strange afoot as the jungle is "wrong" and it doesn't take them long to find out that they are on another planet entirely. You remember watching movies where the main characters figure out what is going on wayyy after the audience does? Well, this isn't the case here, which is refreshing. However, they seem to figure out what's going on wayyy too quickly. They also seem strangely blase about the fact that they've been abducted and dumped on another planet. If I were them, I'd at least be concerned about the possibility of having been anally probed.

Royce, who gains acceptance as the de facto leader of the group, quickly establishes that the planet they are on is a game preserve of sorts and they're the game. After their first fire-fight against their hunters, he surmises that there's more than one entity hunting them, their adversaries use "projectile, energy based" weapons and that they have some sort of "cloaking device". I swear to God those are almost his exact words. Royce, in addition to being an ex-spec ops operator turned mercenary, has obviously spent a lot of time watching the Syfy channel because, frankly, I don't know how else he would've put two and two together so quickly and figured out what was going on.

Okay, so I've pointed out my first gripe about the film (the unbelievable rapidity in which the main characters figure out what's going on, which is to say, that they've been abducted by the Predators and parachuted onto a jungle planet to be hunted down). Besides this, what did I think about the film in general?

Well, it was entertaining. But it almost an exact retread of the first Predator film except that they threw in Laurence Fishburne as a half-mad survivor of a previous hunt; Fishburne's character really doesn't seem to serve any purpose in the storyline beyond providing a bit of exposition about how there are two types of Predators (it appears the ones in the film actually hunt the Predators that appeared in the previous films, in addition to hunting humans), something which the audience probably could have figured out on its own.

Not only was Predators a retread, but at least one iconic scene from the first film was ripped off and copied; in the first film, Sonny Landham decides it would be a good idea to fight a Predator while armed only with a KA-BAR. Needless to say, this ends quite badly for him but his death occurs off-screen with only his grisly scream giving us an indication as to his fate. In Predators, Yakuza killer Hanzo finds a katana amongst some odds and ends scavenged by Noland (Laurence Fishburne) and, like Billy, decides it's a good idea to fight a bigger, stronger, effectively invisible foe hand-to-hand! This time, we get to see the person who decides to fight the Predator mano a mano meet his demise but with the twist that he also manages to take his killer with him.

Speaking of twists, the revelation that Edwin (Topher Grace) is a deranged serial killer (thus explaining why he had been chosen by the Predators to be hunted) was anything but. I can't speak for other viewers but I saw this one coming from a mile away. After all, you have seven killers from various backgrounds and...a seemingly hapless doctor. You have to figure something is up. This twist (along with Stans's presence) also raises some serious questions. All of the abductees mention seeing a bright light and then waking up in free fall. I can understand how Royce and the other characters with military or paramilitary backgrounds could have been abducted by the Predators; they were probably just abducted straight off the battlefield in whatever war they were fighting.

But what about Stans? The guy was locked up, two days away from being executed. Just how did the Predators even know about this guy and how did they abduct him from what I assume must have been a maximum security prison? I'm not saying that the Predators could not have abducted him from a maximum security prison. I'm just saying that the results of such an abduction are bound to be really messy and you'd think that if these Predators made a habit of abducting people from maximum security prisons, humanity, in general, would rapidly learn of their existence, which clearly wasn't the case in the film.

Then there's the question of how the Predators knew Edwin was a serial killer and thus, worthy game for the hunt? The abduction of Stans and Edwin speaks to a level of knowledge of humanity on the part of the Predators that is perplexing and sometimes at odds with events in the films. It certainly implies that the Predators are deeply infiltrated into human society, at least enough to be able to read and understand news media (which they would have needed to do to learn about Stans and discover in which prison he was being held) and to be able to effectively stalk Edwin and observe his daily routine and establish that he, himself, was a predator. However, if they're going to abduct human predators and haul them all the way over to another planet to hunt them, why abduct people that are only armed with a shiv (Stans) or a scalpel (Edwin) when they're planning on just shooting them with their energy based projectile weapons? And the abduction of Edwin really doesn't make sense when you consider that his effectiveness as a predator depends solely on the fact that his victims probably didn't realize he was a deranged serial killer until it was too late; in effect, his seeming harmlessness was camouflage of sorts and was probably why he was effective as a serial killer. Such camouflage doesn't exist in the jungle when he's one of only eight human beings on the planet; his sort of camouflage is effective in a crowd, not so effective in a jungle, making him pretty easy pickings as far as the Predators are concerned. As it is, he's only a real danger to his comrades, who are ignorant of his true nature. To the Predators, who know what he is, he's just a skinny guy with a really small knife. It seems the concept of the canned hunt isn't unique to humanity.

In addition to the questions raised by Stans's and Edwin's abductions, there're also a few more plot holes. Early in the film, the motley crew of human predators almost get killed by a series of traps laid by a US special forces operator; they discover his body where he fell making his last stand. Just why was his body there at all? We all know that Predators take trophies from their victims. Why was his body still there, relatively intact, save for the massive hole in his chest where he was zapped by the Predator's energy based projectile weapon? Why was his skull and spine left intact? You'd think the Predator that killed him would've wanted a keepsake.

Then there's the fact that as soon as they first see one of the Predators, Isabelle immediately knows what it is and she explains later that she was privy to the information from Dutch's debrief which occurred between the first and second Predator films; one crucial piece of information she reveals is that mud can block the infra-red vision of the Predators. When they subsequently decide to make a stand and kill the Predators, do they use this piece of information and liberally smear themselves with mud to make themselves effectively invisible? WTF?!?! Just how does this make sense? The only explanation I can think of for the characters not attempting to take advantage of this piece of information is that they were all incredibly fastidious, perhaps to the point of having OCD. The mud is only used at the film's climax, when Royce uses it to devastating effect to mask his presence in his confrontation with the final Predator.

The plot holes are almost too numerous to count. Edwin conceals his true nature but then decides to start killing his cohorts at a time when he's stuck in a pit with one of them, having been tossed in there by a Predator in moment reminiscent of the "it puts the lotion on its skin" scene from The Silence of the Lambs. You'd think he'd choose a more opportune time to begin indulging his homicidal impulses but he does it at a time which makes absolutely no sense, when he probably needs the help of his intended victim in order to survive. And, this may seem like nitpicking but when asked what unit he belonged to, Noland answers "Air Cav". Now Air Cav is usually used to refer to the 1st Cavalry Division which was, indeed, an airmobile division during the Vietnam War. However, in 1975, it transitioned to being a heavy armored force. At that point, there was no more Air Cav. Unless Noland was abducted during the Vietnam War, which is unlikely given his apparent age, him referring to his unit as Air Cav makes no sense, unless time passes more slowly on the game preserve planet than on Earth.

All of these plot holes may be excusable and it's unlikely that I would have pondered them too deeply except the final plot hole really got under my skin and got me thinking about the others. What was this final plot hole? It was the destruction of the spaceship. Just why did Royce set the ship's controls to have it fly off without him? One could argue that he knew that the Predator was going to self-destruct remotely. But if he knew that, why didn't he leave the spaceship alone, fight the Predator, and kill it before it even had the opportunity to destroy the ship and, thus, be left with a means of escaping the planet? The whole sequence of Royce running for the ship, apparently leaving Isabelle and Edwin to their doom, and then apparently dying when it was self-destructed seemed to exist solely to set up the "surprise" of Royce showing up to rescue Isabelle from Edwin. Given that Royce's appearance wasn't much of a surprise at all, the screenwriters didn't get much return for the big plot hole they slapped onto the film's ending.

You may think this means I didn't enjoy watching Predators. Well, I did. Mainly because of Alice Braga's presence in the film. Ridiculously beautiful, she lit up the screen in every scene in which she appeared, despite being drenched in sweat and wearing baggy BDU's. Plus, it didn't hurt that, to quote Stans, she's got an awesome ass.