My favorite video games (played) in 2010

One benefit to not being an early adopter is that feeling of a whole library’s worth of content just waiting to be discovered. I bought a Playstation 3 and a Wii in 2009, and mixed up my playing of both new titles and well-reviewed old favorites. That continued in 2010, assisted both by the encouraging example of prices dropping for new versions of older games (the Bioshock effect) and my Blockbuster Online account adding older video games to the queue. I probably played fewer games in 2010, but those games received (and demanded) more attention. Here are my top 11 that were released this year:

1. Red Dead Redemption – I knew I was in deep when I spent an hour trying to make sure John Marston’s hand avoided an increasingly speedy knife on a warn-down table overlooking the mountains of Mexico. This gorgeous title threw so much into the gameplay, from horse wrangling to standard third-person shooting to trying to outsmart a rampaging bear. The turn-of-the-20th-century setting proved to be a great respite from the increasingly standard variations of war-torn battlefields, jungles and spacecraft walkways. And the story took some pretty amazing chances, in both structure and execution.

Inevitable comparisons to Rockstar’s main franchise, Grand Theft Auto, can’t be avoided. In GTA4, the ancillary missions and quests seemed like just percentage points toward a mythical 100 percent completion. But in RDR, these were interesting aspects to a larger, more cohesive framework. Also, and I say this as a person who mostly cowers in fear of most online multiplayer, the co-op missions online add tremendous value to a title that packs enough emotional wallop that it might take a while to play the single-player campaign again. I can’t wait to try out the new zombie-fied expansion.

2. Dead Rising 2 – The effusive praise for this game on the Gamespot Hotspot podcast convinced me to jump into this series having not seen the first (an XBox exclusive with a Wii-ified version later). And it was a game in such a classic sense of the word. The simple mechanics allowed for the game to be populated by a treasure trove of details, allowing for the creation of some of the best weapons you’ll ever find in a hack-and-slash game. But everyone knows that just wandering around a mall, even one run rampant by zombies, can be tiresome after a while. So the strict adherence to a running clock to complete both main and side missions makes for some amazingly intense gameplay and somehow accesses that deep memory of the music quickening in the first Super Mario Brothers game. As with No. 1 on the list, I also enjoyed the online component to this game, a four-player competitive version of the televised game show that starts the game (and can make life much easier in the single-player mode by transferring virtual cash to your account).

3. God of War 3Oh my god, they’re gorgeous graphics, the same solid game mechanics present in the first two games and some really entertaining boss fights. This series probably made revisiting the era of Greek/Roman mythology too daunting for any serious competitors.

4. Enslaved – This is on the top of my mind, as I just finished it. But where the game’s creators didn’t spend much time on the character names (even Beppo would be better than just naming the guy “Monkey”), it made up for it in taking a small-budget approach to the thrills offered by the more prestigious Uncharted series. It’s the Cobra of action games, certainly worth a rental or a budget buy and sometimes more fun than the AAA games we’re supposed to love more.

5. Angry Birds – It’s the game that made me believe you can play games on the iPod touch. I don’t know if games can get bigger/better/faster/more for the device, but this will suffice for some time to come. Also, as an unrepentant reader of walkthroughs and FAQs while playing games, I appreciated Roxio doing the work for us and uploading YouTube clips of completed levels.

6. Final Fantasy 13 - Man, a lot of people don’t like this game. So much so that I saw the game on sale for something like $20 during Black Friday weekend after Thanksgiving. My copy of Final Fantasy 7 for the PS1 would go for more than that! Much of the criticism is valid, from annoying characters to a story that doesn’t open up until well into the game. But the combat system is a real treat, giving each fight the possibility of a pulse-pounding affair. The game would benefit from offering real decisions on party members and their specific strengths, rather than giving everyone similar abilities with slight variations. But it’s a testament to the series that it kept me trying to battle impossibly sized monsters just in the hopes they would drop materials for weapons/armor, even if those battles proved I really didn’t need it.

7. NBA Jam – Nostalgia can blindside you, or it can ease slowly into your mind. Having finally rented Punchout for Wii and felt how revisiting a classic can be especially painful on the Nunchuk-holding joints, I have gain an extra level of appreciation for how NBA Jam updated itself without changing the essence of its playability. As other sports titles battle year after year with a balance between simulation and pick-up-and-play (see No. 10), my best friend’s young son can play the game with his dad and enjoy it, while somehow gravitating toward the Rockets (Kevin Martin and Yao) as his go-to team. They’re no Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf, but play on, playa.

8. Metroid: Other M – This game could join FF13 in the bathroom, shedding tears from all those hurtful things said during the lunch hour. Wipe your eyes, Samus! Sure, the story stinks and longtime fans bristled at any characterization that weakened her bad ass past. But it pushes the envelope for graphics on the Wii

9. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions – As one of the only fans of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, I’m evidently easy to please when it comes to comic book adaptations. This game mixes some classic interpretations of Spider-Man gameplay with Batman : Arkham Asylum-esque stealth levels, all while populating the game with all sorts of lore from the Spider-Man mythos. I finished the game but never quite felt comfortable with the web-slinging mechanics, but the combat was varied … especially in some pretty entertaining boss battles. A nice “buy low” candidate for bargain hunters in 2011.

10. Madden 2011 – For some reason (mostly work/school related), I haven’t had time to dive into the time-sucking wormholes more commonly referred to as the Madden franchise mode. I did try out the Madden Card version of a franchise, which is great for all of us who want to see quarterbacks Todd Collins versus Todd Bouman lead their respective teams in online competition. And people thought taking the Carolina Panthers as an existing franchise was daunting!

11. Bejeweled 3 - The best way to take a break from designing Web sites for breaks of five minutes that turn into 15. And modes out the mother-flippin’ wazoo, alternating between strategy and time-limit panic.

2010 titles I hope to get to (and/or finish) in the new year: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Fallout: New Vegas, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Heavy Rain, Goldeneye, Vanquished and Call of Duty:Black Ops


12 2010

My favorite songs of 2010

As it turns out, there might be one side effect of Amazon’s excellent variable price promotions for mp3 downloads: a momentary lapse in value. As albums like the Beatles Anthology 3 sit on Best Buy shelves gathering dust at a $30 price point, Amazon has battled the iTunes juggernaut with an everything-must-go mindset. That means about 100 different $5 albums each month and hyped albums by well-regarded artists sometimes falling even lower than that in their release week. That they notify the consumer through Twitter feeds would be an example for a marketing textbook, probably an electronic version that is Kindle- and iPad-friendly so as to not be immediately obsolete.

But what about the product as it sits on your hard drive, in your iTunes library? How can paying $4 for Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs ever be wrong? I found out when sitting down with the album turned into something to do after the latest (free!) podcasts silently populating my feeds. And this from someone who frequently listens to songs on Neon Bible and won’t skip “My Body is A Cage,” even when working out! Thus, I still don’t have a handle on that album. But I do have a good idea of how excellent these songs are, in no particular order:

“Bushwick Blues” by Delta Spirit

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12 2010

Me and Willie McGee

He sat just a few feet away, and I tried to recall just what led me to pay $40 for the proximity.

Childhood heroes oftentimes end up thrust upon us, either by relation or by what parents let into their culture-starved children’s lives. I loved the St. Louis Cardinals because my dad loved the St. Louis Cardinals, and those types of things inevitably end up with birthday cakes designed with frosting basepaths and a centerpiece featuring a plastic Starting Lineup figurine of Vince Coleman running down a fly ball. In later years, you hang reasons on these feelings, like the way the run-run Cardinals played. But that’s like creating constellations out of the stars, trying to give shape to the shapeless and rationalize everything we feel before the age of 10.

So I lie if I say I know why people like Willie McGee hold a special place in my heart. Before I knew better, he was already there, looking all sad-eyed and awkward. In recent years, I tried to lay irony on these feelings, creating the user name “WillieMcGeeModelingCompany” in the early days of the Viva el Birdos Cardinals blog. But that doesn’t feel quite so right now.

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12 2010

Book review: Death to the BCS

Is one born a champion of the underdog, or nurtured into choosing the uphill battle? For me, it was both. Growing up in a small town that could barely field one team in any sport, the kids of Elwood would face long odds even against towns that require maximum zoomage on Google Maps. When we won, which was rarely, we earned it.

But my natural inclination for other sports, ones in which I wasn’t wearing Croakies attached to my glasses and simply watching on television, always has leaned toward the underdog. The 1990s were filled with dynasties in professional football, baseball and basketball, and only the close proximity to Chicago made the last worth rooting for. My fondest random sports memory of this time period is sitting on the couch with my dad as Princeton survived a horrible start to somehow beat babyface punk supreme Toby Bailey and UCLA. Neither Princeton nor myself could hardly be considered ragtag, but such an outcome gave hope – however tenuously connected – that such outcomes were possible in my life.

All this leads to, of all things, the 2003 Northern Illinois Huskies. I was there in 1998 when the school ended the longest losing streak in the country on a rainy homecoming. And I had left just in time to see the program reach its ascendency with All-Pro Michael Turner leading the way. Wins against Maryland (the last big school to play in DeKalb) and at Alabama (granted, during the Mike Shula years, but still!) propelled the team into the BCS standings and onto shows like Pardon the Interruption. It was unbelievable in the literal sense of the word. Unfortunately, the team dropped two conference games to ranked teams – really, the height of the MAC’s relevance – to finish the regular season 10-2 … and sit at home unoccupied during bowl season. Read the rest of this entry →


11 2010

Re-experiencing The Sportswriters on TV

Editor’s note: After seeing the show missing from any upcoming airings on my DVR, I feared I damned the show with not-so-faint praise. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune reports that the show has been pulled for the time being to settle compensation issues. Let’s hope they come to an agreement at a faster pace than the Tribune’s bankruptcy proceedings.

ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn recently moved into a new studio, allowing for the ability to air in high definition. It marked a new milestone in the genre of sports talk, giving those shows a sheen that fits right in with the other productions on the Worldwide Leader. On-screen “navigation,” a multitude of highlights and on-camera remote interviews all take the simple act of (mostly) guys arguing about sports and turns that into a visual feast that can maintain interest in a world with attention at a deficit.

It wasn’t always this way. Chicago’s Comcast Sportsnet has re-introduced the vanguard in the genre, The Sportswriters on TV, with original broadcasts supplemented by “Pop Up Video”-style updates, fact-checking and irony. Enough time has passed that “old news” has turned into history, and these re-airings provide a great opportunity to compare the opinions of the day with our hindsight. And it just reinforces the aspects that make for good sports talk, be it in 1990 or 2010 – interesting personalities with interesting things to say, no matter the TV screen resolution.

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10 2010

Sometimes, they know what they’re doing

With music videos only reaching mainstream awareness when “Lady Gaga” appears on the Arial font in the corner of the screen or Cee-Lo uses profanity in interesting ways, television commercials have picked up the slack in melding existing songs to something worth selling. A couple of recent spots have cropped in the regular TV-viewing rotation recently, with varying artistic success. If nothing else, we can safely assume that at least these uses won’t result in $15 million lawsuits over the use of the songs.

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10 2010

On music, phenomena and SOBs

Francisco Liriano, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Latos
“If you were a baseball closer, what would be the song that plays over the public address system when you jog to the home mound in the top of the ninth inning?”

The question takes the absurd, and gives that description a rational detail. Sure, my 60-mile-an-hour fastball (weakening with every throw) would be worse than batting practice fodder for even the Aaron Mileses of the world, but wouldn’t the sounds of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Phenomena” send the home crowd into a frenzy beforehand? Even Shawn Chacon – who had such a bad 2004 that a 1.9 WHIP should be referred to as the Chacon Line – garnered Jay Z’s “Moment of Clarity” as entrance music, according to Wikipedia.

(As an aside, that Wikipedia page provides endless entertainment. Were all the kids with “K” names not enough to stave off surprise at Roger Clemens’ hubris? How about being OK with the use of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” as walk-up music? Also, I am hesitant to believe that Chad Bradford ever willfully asked that “Yellow Submarine” play for any of his rare save opportunities.)

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09 2010

Mixing Up the Past: Songs Without Points or Counterpoints

Before iPod playlists and after mix tapes, there were mix CDs … and I made a lot of them. This periodic feature will look at some of those CDs and see if my opinions and tastes have lasted longer than the cheap CD-Rs the songs were recorded on. And yes, this is a pretty clear rip-off of Nathan Rabin’s Then That’s What I Called Music series.

Title: Songs Without Points or Counterpoints
Inspiration: Lifelong affinity for bad wordplay
Creation date: August 2001
Album cover: Picture of CD creator doing a bad flip cannonball into great aunt’s pool

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08 2010

Mixing Up the Past: Benefits of a Day in the Sun CD

Before iPod playlists and after mix tapes, there were mix CDs … and I made a lot of them. This periodic feature will look at some of those CDs and see if my opinions and tastes have lasted longer than the cheap CD-Rs the songs were recorded on. And yes, this is a pretty clear rip-off of Nathan Rabin’s Then That’s What I Called Music series.

Title: Benefits of a Day in the Sun
Inspiration: Unknown, sounded vaguely summer-ish
Creation date: June, 2000
Album cover: Promotional, artistic shot from Virgin Suicides movie, back when one wasn’t chastised for having a crush on Kirsten Dunst.

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08 2010

Director Edgar Wright “fills the panels” in Scott Pilgrim

On most weekends, the sight of Sylvester Stallone sprinting in The Expendables like he was a reporter attempting the Albert Haynesworth conditioning test would be the highlight. But Edgar Wright’s direction in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World amazed me even more, especially the way he faithfully adapted content originally made for the graphic novel and gave it a cinematic life all its own.

Bryan Lee O’Malley should be the envy of any writer’s retreat the way his books found a kindred spirit in Wright. Rather than change things up, Wright trusts the material and himself to add even more visual layers of wit and humor to the festivities. In the same way that a good graphic novel uses every available inch as an opportunity to tell the story and earn a laugh, Wright does the same in his film.

Pilgrim will be a movie based on favorite moments rather than big-picture appreciation. It’s Sunday night now, and I’ve already read one listicle on why the movie “bombed” at the box office and the prospects of cult classic status on DVD and Blu-Ray. Call me old or defeated, but my energy for understanding why people might not love the same things I do has waned. Instead of converting or conversing, I want to share one of my favorite little moments that might have passed you by.

The film uses sound almost as a character throughout, with the type of video game cues that reward the knowledgeable and harmlessly fly over the head of people who didn’t own a Nintendo. Songs played by the characters’ band, Sex Bob-omb, make up most of the rest of the soundtrack. But at least one existing song sneaks its way on screen. Sex Bob-omb ends its set in Toronto, and Michael Cera brushes past his former girlfriend, 17-year-old high schooler Knives Chau. As any concert-goer will tell you, when the opening act ends the room fills with recorded music. In this case, the venue features “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene just as Knives’ heart breaks once more.

Most of the time, the song you hear on screen could safely be assumed to be the result of a synergistic deal between production company and record label. But this band, a Toronto staple in a story that revels in its setting? And this song, with a melody so perfect and a title so apropos for the character?

Discoveries like these thrill me, because it gives hope that amid all the sound and spectacle there are other little connections to discover. It doesn’t immediately make for a great movie (though I did enjoy it), but the invitation to dive in to a kaleidoscopic world still ruled by purpose doesn’t have to be sent twice.

P.S. It bugged me through the film to try and place where I had seen the actor who plays the lead singer in Sex Bob-omb, Mark Webber. And a first glance at his IMDB page didn’t reveal much. But then, there it was: 2000′s Snow Day. I reviewed that movie for my college paper, and spent more time on Emmanuelle Chriqui’s burgeoning sexuality than Webber’s performance (sorry, I was 19).


08 2010