Waikiki Sunset

Waikiki Sunset

Settings: Nikon D3300 – 18mm – f/10 – 1/2500s – ISO 200

Hey, folks. If you’re into photography, you’ve probably heard of the golden hour. It’s those fleeting moments just after sunrise or before sunset in which light is seemingly redder, casting everything in a wonderful, warm glow. This effect is a combination of how human eyes perceive the visible light spectrum, and how sunlight is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere based on its location relative to a given latitude. It’s pretty awesome when you take a step back and think about it. So many aspects of our world come together just long enough to produce something so brilliant every day. As a science, astronomy, and geography geek, I understand and appreciate this phenomenon in terms of the sheer mechanics involved.

As a world traveler, however…

One of my longstanding travel habits is photographing sunsets. Beaches, bridges, piers, etc. Whatever it takes, I will capture at least one before I leave. I could wax poetic about the virtues of enjoying a sunset: basking in the dying warmth, the slight breeze on your neck, the hum of a street lamp turning on, everything seemingly slows and quiets down, and that unspoken understanding that you’re one day older. But I’m sure you already get it. Sunsets are among those few, great experiences that transcend language and culture. That’s not just some cheesy sentiment, by the way. If you don’t believe me, try visiting a major tourist destination or beach during the golden hour.

I did exactly that during my recent trip to Oahu. Waikiki is one of the most famous beaches in the world, and for good reason; it’s got excellent water, sand, and skyline, all just across the street from the amenities of a major city. On the other hand, it’s horrendously crowded and noisy. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stay. But I found myself there on what would be the most beautiful evening of the entire week. I and about a couple dozen other photographers crowded onto Waikiki’s iconic Kapahulu Groin, then eagerly waited for the inevitable.

I crouched on part of the ledge, wary of the waves thundering just a few feet below. I browsed through my camera’s options and set them to capture more reds at a higher speed. If I timed it perfectly, I’d be able to get both the sunset and a wave just as it would crash into the wall. Silently, I regretted leaving my tripod back at the hotel. I hadn’t planned to be in Waikiki when I had left that morning. Looking back, I now wish I’d known about Light, a new company that have designed a new compact camera that excels in low-light conditions, has adjustable field depth, and built-in editing features. As much as I love my DSLR, crouching precariously over a sea wall while holding a huge camera to your face isn’t easy.

It was worth the effort, of course.The images I captured were gorgeous, though they came at a cost; just after the last glimmer of sun vanished over the horizon, an especially large wave swept up to the pier and drenched several of us. We all exchanged a few sheepish glances and a laugh. For that brief stretch of time, we left the rest of the world and its problems behind. There were only us and that pier. When it was over, we looked over each others’ shots, did a little networking, and parted ways. One by one, our shared experience ended, each person walking off into the night. Yes, it felt a little tragic. But thanks to my camera, the memory of that golden hour will never be forgotten.

Early Summer In Oahu

Hey, folks! I’m baaaaack!

*Cue crickets chirping*

Ahem. Sorry I’ve been gone so long. Aside from being on the trip, my “vintage” 2011 laptop finally died on me a while ago. I didn’t lose anything incredibly important, but finding a new, affordable machine and starting over after so long has been rather time-consuming. Between that and the work schedule, I haven’t had much free computer time lately. Anyways. As mentioned a little while ago, I got the opportunity to visit Oahu. It was my third time in Hawaii (longtime readers will recall my trips in 2014), but this was first time visiting this particular island. I went in almost completely blind; the only thing I knew was that people surfed at Waikiki, Pearl Harbor was there, Honolulu was a major city, and the name “Diamond Head.” Unlike the last two islands, Oahu was supposedly ultra modern and lacked their wonderfully epic natural landscapes. As someone who likes adventuring on vacations, I went into this ready for disappointment.

Man, was I wrong.

Getting to Oahu was mostly uneventful. Just another lengthy ride to the far end of the BART system, and then checking out luggage. The security lines were thankfully brief – only about 30 minutes – despite numerous warnings about increasing wait times on the news. However, I didn’t get past the TSA entirely unscathed; a young lady patted down my hair! Seriously, I’ve had my pants and shoes checked. But my hair? Well, I suppose it is thick and long enough to conceal a knife, but that would’ve been picked up by the metal detectors. Guess I should just be glad security was on point, and leave it at that.

The first thing that struck me was how much Oahu was like to the Bay Area. Not in terms of scale or weather, but something far more mundane: traffic. Seriously, the drive out of Honolulu was like getting through Interstate 80 on an average weekend. Six lanes, countless speeders, and hilly terrain could’ve easily been mistaken for parts of the East Bay. I knew it would be busier than the Big Island (easily the most relaxing driving in Hawaii), but this felt like I’d never left California. The local amenities probably had something to do with it; before heading to the hotel, we stopped at a nearby shopping area and had Panda Express for lunch. Because nothing says exotic vacation meals like eating Asian fast food that you could easily get back at home. It makes sense; Hawaii is an American state, so of course it would have common fast food and grocery franchises. Given that our room didn’t come with a kitchen this time (we only got a studio as opposed to a villa) shopping for cheap and easy meals became a running theme for the week.

Much like our last venture to Hawaii, this one essentially became a road trip. Choose a destination the night before, sleep, wake up, get ready, stay out all day, eat dinner, come back, wash up, choose the next destination, rinse and repeat. I was once again the navigator of our group – the old GPS couldn’t handle Hawaiian address numbering – eternally tasked with riding shotgun, reading the map, and improvising routes whenever necessary. Our first stop was Manoa Falls, the highest waterfall on Oahu. Getting there involved a drive past most of Honolulu, stopping at a farmer’s market (paltry compared to that of Hilo), stumbling across the local Safeway, and wandering around a few residential streets. We nearly turned back due to the rainy weather, then realized how pointless that would’ve been; the trail to the falls is a 1.5-mile trek through the rainforest. It’s called such for a reason. We weren’t going to stay dry, no matter what day we hiked. It’s not like this was our first time, either; after hiking similar terrain on Maui and the Big Island, we came prepared with long sleeves, ponchos, insect repellent, etc.

What we weren’t prepared for was the mud.

Under normal circumstances, 1.5 miles is nothing to me. I walk more than that on my daily commute. The hill I live on is steeper than anything that was on that trail. But when it’s pouring rain, all bets are off. I saw able-bodied people of all ages – including small children – slip and slide multiple times, and I managed to utterly wreck my cargo pants along the way. It was worth the effort, though; the Manoa Falls Trail is absolutely brimming with beautiful scenery. Lush vegetation on all sides, a stream drifting through crowds of mossy rocks, and even a huge bamboo thicket. Manoa Falls itself was rather underwhelming; yes, it was tall and had a pool at its base, but that’s a far cry from the majestic scale of Akaka Falls and other natural wonders of the Big Island. Nevertheless, it was a unique – if messy – experience. If you have any interest in hiking and want something relatively easy, definitely give this a try.

That goes double for Pearl Harbor. It’s common understanding that when you go to Oahu, you visit Pearl Harbor. It’s like visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York, Alcatraz in San Francisco, etc. It’s what you do. We decided to tackle this part of the trip as soon as we could. Like on most parts of Hawaii, weather is inconsistent at best. Since part of the Pearl Harbor tour includes a boat ride out to the USS Arizona Memorial, the weather could make or break the trip. Monday morning was hot and sunny, so we immediately hopped in the car and sped back into the city. The place was packed, of course; people come from all over the world to see these remnants of the old war. Parking wasn’t horrendous, but the prospect of theft certainly was. Despite having cops on patrol and being well-maintained, there were multiple signs warning tourists of car break-ins. We brought everything we could and hoped the rest would remain there.

Before taking the boat out to the USS Arizona, tourists have to get tickets, stand in line, and sit in an auditorium. The staff turns on a short film that gives an abridged version of the events leading up to and the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. It’s a nice, brief piece of educational programming (I’m fairly certain it was narrated by Oprah), especially for children or people not well-versed in 20th century history. The ride to the Arizona was crowded, but organized. The memorial itself was almost elegant in its simplicity: a large, curved, white rectangular walkway that stood just over the sunken ship, with multiple open-air arches for people to gaze at the wreckage. Hunks of rusted metal jutted a few feet above the waterline, a stark contrast to the otherwise gorgeous scenery. 75 years later, oil still occasionally leaks to the surface. The wall at the far end of the memorial was actually a massive shrine that listed the names of dead. Despite having so many visitors, the memorial was surprisingly quiet. When it was time to get back on the ferry, I made sure to sit at the very back and take a few more fleeting photos of American history.

The rest of the visit was relatively unremarkable. We didn’t bother taking any more tours. I took a few exterior shots of the USS Bowfin, as well as a torpedoes, propellers, an antiaircraft assembly, and other artifacts. One of the more interesting exhibits was the conning tower from the USS Parche; you could climb inside, look at all the little buttons and gauges, all while trying to ignore the thick, oily stench. After stocking up on souvenirs and some free guidebooks, we left Pearl Harbor and headed for downtown Honolulu. Our next stop was Iolani Palace, former residence of Hawaii’s royal family. Getting there was a little tricky, though. Aside from road construction, traffic, and parking, we tried using the GPS navigator and ended up driving into the United States Pacific Command by mistake. The armed guard at the entrance was very understanding, though he held onto our IDs until we did a U-turn. Now we’re probably on some list!

Despite its historical significance, Iolani Palace was far less crowded than Pearl Harbor. There were about 20 people in our group, and we were given a self-guided tour via portable headsets and digital maps. By no means was this the most extravagant building I’ve ever visited – nothing will ever beat Versailles in terms in sheer opulence – but Iolani Palace was a work of art in of itself. Its building materials were mostly imported: slate from Pennsylvania, wood from the Pacific Northwest, and metalwork and engraved glass windows from San Francisco. The grand staircase at the entrance and much of the interior was made of koa, a Hawaiian tree species. Artifacts on display spanned multiple countries, most notably sets of vases, paintings, and statues from the English, French, Indian, and Chinese governments. Much of the furniture is still in great condition; the old throne room practically glitters, and everything in the aptly-named Blue Room is cast in a rich, dark shade. The palace used to be lit by gas chandeliers, until King Kalakaua met Thomas Edison and saw electrical lights in Paris. When combined with the in-house telephone, heated water, personal library, and other amenities, it’s clear that the king enjoyed the elegance, but was striving for modernity as well. While he must have made quite an impression with the outside world, his success didn’t last. After he died, his sister was imprisoned, overthrown, and replaced by a provisional government in 1893. Despite the political fallout (President Cleveland was anti-imperialist), Hawaii was eventually annexed five years later. Needless to say, the road to Hawaii’s inclusion into the United States was far from perfect.

What was perfect, however, was the evening we later spent at Waikiki. It was late in the day, and we didn’t want to have to deal with Oahu’s infamous rush hour, so we decided to wait it out at the island’s most popular beach. Looking back, I get why Waikiki is so famous; the waves are big, the sand is decent, and the sunsets are spectacular. The problem is that it’s too popular. The streets are congested with traffic and pedestrians for several blocks, it’s noisy, cluttered, and seemingly every inch of beach is covered with a towel, sunbather, or surfboard. It’s nearly impossible to walk along parts of that beach without accidentally stepping on someone. Also, the parking is atrocious; even if you find a public parking spot, it’ll cost you a 25 cents for every 10 minutes. Even if you max out the meter, you’ll still only get 2 hours. Imagine going to one of the coolest beaches on Earth, but having to constantly check your watch to ensure you’ll make it back in time. We walked on the paved sidewalk running parallel to the beach for a few blocks, then stopping for dinner at the local McDonald’s (Fun fact: the Waikiki branch gives you free pineapple slices with their Extra Value Meals), before making a run back to the car. After buying a few more minutes, I walked to the tip of the Kapahulu Groin (AKA Waikiki’s famous pier) and stayed long enough to photograph a few surfers and an absolutely gorgeous sunset. Waikiki was definitely worth the headache of getting there!

The next day, we decided to keep things a little more low-key. No major tourist attractions, just a good, old-fashioned road trip around Oahu’s eastern tip. Interstate H-3 is by far the most beautiful freeway on the island. Incredible landscapes, relatively simple navigation (it’s essentially a huge circle), far less traffic. It also has some of the most underrated beaches in Hawaii. With its white sands and bright blue water, Kailua Beach Park was almost blinding under the midday sun. While there were plenty of picnickers and sunbathers, it was a far cry from the hordes of tourists at Waikiki. Waimanalo Beach Park down the road had even fewer people, just a couple of families enjoying a beach that looked more like a water color painting. Makapu’u Beach had slightly more visitors, just some tourists and photographers enjoying the crashing waves and extensive tide pools. That’s aside from the iconic lighthouse nearby, which also serves as a landmark and trail marker.

Traffic started picking up around Halona Blowhole; dozens of people eagerly flocked to the observation deck, only to discover the tide was out. There was a beach hidden beneath the cliffs next to the lookout, and several people climbed down despite the warning signs. Our last – and arguably best – stop was the Lanai Lookout. It wasn’t anything special at first glance, just a parking lot overlooking some cliffs. But if you climb over the concrete and down the cliff, you’ll see some of Oahu’s most beautiful natural wonders. It’s as if someone had carved the cliffs into jagged layers of cooled lava, then completely covered them with splashes and swirls of paint. When you go down far enough, you’ll realize that one whole section of the cliff is obscured from the roadside view; you can slowly, carefully make your way all the way down to the rocky shoreline, inhabited only by a handful of fishermen and massive, thundering waves. Had it not been so late in the day, I would’ve sat on those cliffs for hours.

Unfortunately, we were on a schedule that evening. Our resort was showing its weekly luau, and we’ve kind of made a tradition of going to one every time we visit Hawaii. Unlike the last two times, however, we didn’t have tickets. Luaus – especially those run by hotels – are usually pretty expensive and time consuming. Yes, the food and performances are amazing, but that may not be what you want after being out adventuring all day. Instead, we got back to our rooms, dropped our stuff, and tried to see what we could of the festivities. The luau was being performed near the pool area, which was almost directly beneath the balcony at the resort’s lobby. It wasn’t the perfect view, but we and a few others enjoyed the show. Once the sun set – making it easier for us to sneak around in the dark – we went downstairs and stood at the fringes of the luau. Everyone was done eating and too distracted by the performances to notice us. When the fire dancers came on for the finale, I put my camera’s rapid shot functions to good use. Stay tuned for some awesome fire photos!

After spending all day in the southeast, we decided to go in almost the opposite direction the next day. Compared to the previous freeway, Interstate H-2 was pretty unremarkable; narrower roads, more traffic, and farmland that stretched for miles. However, said farmland was owned by one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii: the Dole Plantation. If you’ve ever eaten a pineapple in America, it’s probably come from this place. Their products are admittedly delicious, though I never imagined the plantation being so popular. Stepping inside the shop was like visiting a Disney store, except everything is white and yellow, and there are no creepy mascots. Any memorabilia remotely related to pineapples was contained in this one building. Sauces, dips, jams, shirts, stuffed animals, beer, key chains, magnets, coffee, water bottles, ice cream, chocolate, candy, knives, tacky magnets, Christmas ornaments…It was all there, overpriced and ripe for eager tourists’ picking. The line for the ice cream was ridiculous, but I managed to watch and partake in a live pineapple dessert demonstration. Fresh, diced pineapple sprinkled with plum extract tastes even better than it sounds.

We spent a little time roaming the grounds, looking at the various pineapple species growing on display. I never knew there were so many different types; the red-tinged ananas comosus looked especially fascinating. We didn’t bother taking the famed Pineapple Express; it was far too expensive, and we had plenty left on our schedule. We picnicked near the plantation’s parking lot, then headed for the next major stop of the day: Waimea Valley, a tropical park filled with unusual plants, ruins, hiking trails, birds, and a waterfall. By the time we got there, the skies were an ominous gray. That’s the thing about traveling to Hawaii; you can never be quite sure when those looming clouds will turn on you. Sure enough, it started pouring when we’d completed about 90% of the walk to Waimea Falls. We tried waiting out the rain by seeking shelter and having some snacks – this was my first time trying shaved ice – but it was to no avail. I covered my camera and made a break for the falls. Much like Manoa Falls a few days prior, this was kind of underwhelming. It didn’t have the height or splendor to make it really stand out, but it did have a massive swimming area. Several tourists ignored the rain, stripped down, and jumped in. I finally got a chance to make use of my new tripod as well; expect a lovely water-in-motion shot in the near future.

The return walk was mostly uneventful. Waimea Valley’s main walking area is actually paved and mostly flat, making it an easy trip back to the entrance. You can even take a shuttle to and from both ends, though it costs extra. Instead, we took our time wandering the branching paths, enjoying the exotic flowers and numerous bird species. Fun fact: peacocks generally have no problem being photographed. It’s almost as if they enjoy showing off for the camera. But if you hang around too long or close, they’ll lose their patience and honk until you go away. You’d never expect anything so beautiful to be so headache-inducingly loud.

By the time we left, it was already late in the afternoon. We had a couple of options: We could 1) keep driving north and swing around Kawela Bay, Laie, and eventually loop onto H-3 on the far side of the island or 2) Head back southwest the way we came and have dinner in Haleiwa. At that point we were pretty well worn out, so we decided to play it safe with the second option. This also had an important side benefit; we’d be driving by Laniakea Beach, homeland of Oahu’s famous turtle population. However, the exact location is kept secret; it’s not precisely pinpointed on Google maps, and most people we asked were rather reticent. At one point we pulled over at a lookout, and I walked almost a mile alongside the highway (with no sidewalks, in the rain), before realizing we were still too far off. Once we finally narrowed the location down, we found that there was no parking. Instead, there were construction signs and cones everywhere (though no workers), no place to pull over, and two police squad cars guarding the area. I guess the Hawaiian government really doesn’t want people messing with their turtles. Which is understandable; they are an endangered species, and people could mess up their habitat. I just wish there was an easier, but still legal way to get them on film.

We gave up on the turtles and drove into Haleiwa. We went in almost completely blind; all we knew was that it was a smaller town with a lot of local restaurants. After watching the rain pour into the mountains west of Haleiwa Beach Park (which was far less scenic than those on the eastern side of the island), we came across the Kua Aina Sandwich Shop, a famous – but relatively small – Americana food chain. Though they started in Hawaii, they spread to London and Tokyo. Their success was no coincidence; their dishes are made with fresh ingredients, from the mahi-mahi to the roasted peppers. After having their pineapple/tomato/lettuce/grilled onion burger, I can safely say that Kua Aina trounces every fast food place here in California. Sorry In & Out, but you’ve been outdone. We finished out meal and spent a few minutes exploring the area (including the Rainbow Bridge, the historical importance of which I didn’t know of at the time), then made the long drive back down south.

The next day, we decided to keep things a little closer to home. Our first destination was the Wahiawa Botanical Garden, which we passed beforehand en route to the Dole Plantation. After enjoying Waimea Valley so much, visiting another nature reserve seemed like a good idea. And it was…for the most part. It felt far smaller and more claustrophobic; exhibits seemed to be more clumped together instead of having a sleeker presentation. On the other hand, this felt more like a hike; the trails weren’t paved, the vegetation was thicker, and it actually felt like we were hiking in the rainforest again, even though city streets and houses were just beyond the tree line. It was also incredibly quiet; aside from us, the only other visitors were a small Japanese tour group. After getting our fill of unusual plants (including a yellow bamboo thicket and a multi-colored Mindanao gum tree), we had to decide on our next destination. We could try heading back up north go past where we went yesterday, or we could go back towards Kapolei and drive up the west coast of the island. Since it was raining all over the island that day, we decided not to press our luck and went with the latter.

Now, you might be wondering why we had to drive back down to Kapolei to reach the west coast. Couldn’t we have just driven northwest, then through Haleiwa, and go back down? Here’s the thing: the northwestern tip of Oahu is called Kaena Point, and it’s not a paved road. You either have to hike it or have an authorized vehicle to make it around the bend. Instead, we took the long way by driving from the southeast, all the way up to the very end of Highway 93. It was a lovely drive, even if it was fraught with rain and local traffic. The lush mountain landscapes on this side of the island were absolutely gorgeous, even with the overcast sky. As we neared the end of the road, we didn’t expect to find anything or be able to enjoy the beach. However, Mother Nature decided to cut us a break; when we rolled into Yokohama Bay, we discovered that it was the only sunny spot in Oahu for several miles. Several others had caught on, too. We saw the locals setting up picnics, fishing, surfing, and just enjoying the scenery. I didn’t bother with the Kaena Point Trail; the recent downpour had left it thick with fresh mud. Instead, I spent time walking along the coastline, capturing the huge waves as they crashed into the nearby tide pools. We stayed their until dinnertime, then reluctantly headed back south. We’d taken a chance driving up here, and it paid off immensely.

On our final full day in Oahu, we decided to cram in as many last minute things as we feasibly could. The weather was on our side; not only was it a clear day, but it was brutally hot. It’s as if Mother Nature was trying to make up for lost time. We set off early, spending a short while at Aulani, the famous Disney resort next door. The hotel people have this thing down to a science: Non-guests are permitted 30 minutes to park in the garage and explore the grounds. You’re given a ticket stub programmed with the time you’re supposed to leave. If you stay too long, you’ll need to shell out $12. However, if you stay and have a meal (minimum $35), you’re allowed to stay as long as you want. We practically sprinted through the main area, just long enough to snag photos of the famous lobby (you know exactly what I’m talking about if you watch Wheel of Fortune), the koi pond, pool area, and even with Mickey Mouse himself. We dashed back to the car and tried to exit…but the automated ticket machine at the exit wouldn’t let us out. After trying multiple times to get through, I buzzed the staff on the machine’s intercom and not-quite shouted until they opened up. That was by far the most stressful Disney-related experience I’ve ever had.

Our next stop was Hanauma Bay, which was in the far southeast. We’d have to drive from one end of Interstate H-1 to the other, slogging through traffic and praying that we’d be able to get in. See, Hanauma Bay isn’t just another beach; it was recently voted as the #1 Beach in America. No, seriously. That really happened. It’s got got a beautiful – if relatively narrow – stretch of white sand, clear water, coral reefs, and epic cliff landscapes overlooking on both sides. It’s also an excellent marine nature preserve; you have to watch an educational video about interacting with animals and preserving their habitats. Needless to say, this place is very popular. In fact, we weren’t able to get inside the first time; we were turned away by a staff member who blandly waved us past and back onto the highway.

Feeling defeated, I took out the map and began scouring for places to visit so the drive out there wouldn’t become a total waste. I ended up settling on the Koko Crater Stairs, a nearby hike infamous for its simple, but grueling workout. The trail is comprised of a single, straight line made up of an old rail road track. You just have to keep walking forward, and you’ll reach the end eventually. However, said ending is over 1,200 feet above sea level. Each railroad tie is like an old, dusty step on a staircase that stretches almost to the horizon. I felt confident in tackling it…only to realize that the narrow path was jammed with weekend athletes, tourists, and children. By the time I made it halfway up, I realized it’d take too long to get back down. Then the midday heat set in, and I knew this hike wasn’t going to happen. This was my last day on Oahu; did I really want to spend it suffering from heat exhaustion? I promptly turned around, snapped a few landscape shots, and climbed down.

Turns out my timing was impeccable; when we returned to Hanauma Bay, there was more than enough parking available. The trip from the entrance down to the beach was a small hike in itself; the trail was paved, but pretty steep. People could even pay extra and have a cart drive them down, though most went on foot. Hanauma Bay reminded me of Waikiki, just with smaller waves and less people. More animals, too; parts of the beach are home to stray cats and even a few mongooses. While I didn’t go snorkeling – you have to pay extra for the gear, of course – I spent most of the time wading into the beautiful, clear water and getting some great photos. It felt like I was living in the cover of Final Fantasy X. I walked from one of the beach to the other, enjoying what little time I had left in Hawaii.

It was so good, we actually lost track of time. When we climbed back up to the parking lot, it was already in the late afternoon. We had originally planned to save Diamond Head for our very last hike, but there would be no way to reach it before the trail closed for the night. Also, a massive rain cloud was looming right over the area, which would’ve spoiled the view regardless. This was another lesson that I still constantly need to remind myself: It’s impossible to see and do everything in one go. Even with all the planning, even with being in perfect health, sometimes things just don’t work out, and you need to save it for next time. Whenever I travel, I always assume that I’ll never make it back on another trip; it keeps me motivated and busy. But it also leaves me frustrated when I can’t quite pull off everything I plan. Call it a character flaw, hubris, whatever. I spent my last night on the island satisfied, but still wishing to see so much more.

The trip back to California was uneventful, for which I am very grateful. Lost luggage, local protests, and other problems are recurring issues on our Hawaii trips, but this one went almost perfectly. The only snag was getting through security; there was only one aged, lethargic fellow looking at everyone’s paperwork for Hawaiian Airlines, which dragged the wait time to a grueling 45-minute crawl. We made it to the terminal with enough time to refill water bottles and use the restroom, but nothing else. I had a window seat, and I fully intended to take plenty of awesome skyscape shots during the flight back. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was; less than an hour in, and I was deep in sleep. I woke up just in time to take a few unsatisfying night shots of the Bay Area, then resigned myself to the baggage claim, chilly air, and train commute back into San Francisco.

I was finally back, just in time for summer.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Katamari Damacy – Que Sera Sera

You may not have noticed, but my YouTube account was terminated a few days ago. I could talk about how annoying and frustrating it is to lose something that I’ve had for years, all due to the site’s inconsistent copyright notice system, but I’ll spare you. It’s fine, really. I’ve restarted from scratch and am currently getting my travel videos reuploaded. I didn’t lost anything important…aside from my favorites list.

Having to redo my favorites list has actually been a blessing in disguise; it’s made me revisit videos and songs that I haven’t heard in ages, like the Katamari Damacy soundtracks. If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you know why I love the Katamari series: A bizarre, hilarious premise involving physics and mythology, accompanied by an eclectic blend of rock, jazz, pop, electronica, mambo, gospel, and pretty much every other musical genre you could possibly think of. “Que Sera Sera” was one of those great standouts in the original game; no one expected chill English lounge music in such a wonderfully strange Japanese game.

If you want more Katamari Damacy, you can listen to the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Hyrule Warriors Legends Review

Hyrule is on the brink of annihilation. A seemingly endless horde of evil monsters is invading the kingdom. The castle’s walls are littered with the bodies of its defenders. Eldin Caves have been completely overrun, and something sinister lurks in its fiery depths. The trees in Faron Woods are burning down, and what’s left has turned poisonous. Princess Zelda is missing in action – again – leaving Impa and Link to lead what remains of the army to certain death.  Whoever is commanding the enemy forces is actively hunting the legendary hero. Is it a personal vendetta? A morbid obsession? No one knows. Regardless, the war won’t stop at just the borders of this Hyrule; its counterpart realms from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and The Wind Waker have all been dragged into the mess.

Even Link is going to need some help with this one.

At first glance, the story seems like a Zelda fan’s dream come true. After 30 years of games, worldbuilding, and diverging timelines, everything comes back together in the ultimate crisis crossover. In order to save his Hyrule, Link has to travel to the other versions and team up with the finest (and in some cases, most popular) warriors in the series. For those who grew up with the Nintendo 64 games, seeing Sheik, Darunia, Ruto, Young Link, and Skull Kid in action will be like a tidal wave of nostalgia. There are several nods to the mythology of respective games; Midna’s true form seen in Twilight Princess returns as a plot point, and Fi explicitly mentions that the current Link is not the same as his Skyward Sword iteration. Sheik’s true identity and Ganondorf’s involvement are foregone conclusions; the narrative indulges in those twists solely for the sake of newcomers to the series. It’s just enough fanservice to keep longtime players nodding along to an otherwise brisk pace and somewhat shallow story.

A narrative with such a grand scale is a double-edged sword. As awesome as it sounds, there’s no way to give every single character the same amount of focus and keep the story moving steadily. It only takes a few battles to liberate each of the respective Hyrules; there’s just enough time for character introductions, some banter, and a brief glimpses of the games by way of the battle maps. Beyond that, the majority of the warriors receive no development after they’ve joined the team. Despite being heavily promoted in the previews, Linkle has almost no impact on the story whatsoever. Link gets his usual arc of starting as a nobody and eventually earning the Master Sword, but now with a “power of friendship” moral tacked on. Even if it is cheesy, it makes sense; this game is all about banding together and making a combined effort to thwart a much larger force. Ganondorf is in an amalgam of the best aspects of his previous incarnations; he is intelligent, ruthless, overwhelmingly powerful, and seems like an unstoppable force of evil. His attempt to conquer Hyrule is one of the most entertaining parts of the game. The same cannot be said for Lana and Cia, the newcomers who drive the plot in their own ways. Their arcs are all about the dangers of obsession, and the emotional turmoil and unspeakable lengths that come with it. The big plot twist would’ve been more interesting had it not been so blatantly obvious, or at least had a slower build-up. Other games have handled similar subject matter, but with far better storytelling.

You’ll probably be too busy killing things to care, though. Rather than typical adventuring and puzzle solving of the Zelda series, Hyrule Warriors Legends is a straightforward musou-style action game. The overall goal is simple: conquer the battlefield and defeat the invading army. This is made slightly more complicated because, you know, you’re usually outnumbered a thousand to one. It’s easy to mow through dozens of minor enemies per second, but you’ll get trouble once you run into things like Icy Big Poes, Moblins, ReDeads, and other recurring enemies strong enough to block and take few hits. It’s even tougher when you’re facing off against a main character armed with a slew of signature moves and impressive durability. As a battle wears on, managing your army takes higher priority over your kill count. In order to stem the flow of enemy forces, you have to conquer their bases and outposts one at a time; doing so lets you control where and how powerful their presence will be. This typically involves running into an enclosed area and slaughtering everything until the game proclaims your success. You can try running blindly across the map and attempt to kill the opposing commander immediately, but you’ll probably get stopped by a locked door, thus leaving your bases unguarded, and your allies without backup. You’re left wide open for counterattacks and surprisingly fast losses. Side missions and objectives pop up frequently, forcing you to improvise your way to victory. The trick is learning to strike a balance between offensive and defensive tactics; steadily crush your enemies, but pay attention to your friends’ needs. Once you’ve gotten everything else out of the way, go for the final kill…

Oh, if only it all worked that well.

In certain respects, Hyrule Warriors Legends is technological marvel.  Taking such a huge Wii U game, adding even more content, and then cramming it onto a 3DS cart is nothing short of astounding. It’s far from perfect, though. There are still plenty of glitches to be fixed; I’ve had every enemy randomly freeze after using an Owl Statue warp, but then prevent me from conquering any bases. Some of the auto-saved checkpoints can re-spawn objectives you’ve already completed, refuse to unlock doors, or mess up your weapon’s hit detection. Your AI-controlled allies are borderline useless; the Hylian Captains fail miserably so often, they’re probably all secretly traitors. No matter how much you level up and develop the playable characters’ abilities, they will become utterly inept the moment you switch to another warrior mid-battle. The sub-weapon system, which includes arrows, bombs, and other Zelda staples, has awkward, lethargic controls and is poorly utilized. It’s used to defeat major bosses like King Dodongo, Gohma, and Manhandla, but little else aside from simple puzzles tacked on for the sake of battlefield progression or bonus items. The AI for those monsters are especially abysmal; it’s common for them to constantly recycle their animations instead of set attack patterns, which turns their fights into annoying, time-consuming games of chance.

The camera, which utilizes the C-Stick a la Monster Hunter 4 and Majora’s Mask 3D incredibly well, is barely responsive in certain directions. You’ll spend more time struggling with it than against any enemy in the game. It’s not uncommon for your view to get stuck in a corner or behind a wall, which is absolutely lethal in more difficult battles. That’s a huge problem when you have to rely on it to switch between targeted foes. Speaking of which, seeing all those dozens of classic Zelda monsters moving onscreen at the same time is amazing…Assuming you’re playing on a New 3DS, of course. The game runs decently on it, but you’ll still encounter foes that are invisible unless you’re standing right next to them. Some of the maps – Death Mountain and Valley of Seers come to mind – have intricate, cleverly-designed structures, but the draw distance is lacking, and the colors and textures are far below the 3DS’s usual standards. Even if you don’t care about the graphics and have are using an older version of the system, the poor camera controls, the sheer amount of processing, and their impact on the gameplay deserve some consideration.

The game tries to distract you from its shortcomings by focusing on its most important aspect: the combat mechanics. There are over 20 playable characters, each with unique movesets and abilities. While it’s easy to mash the X button and unleash a barrage of weak attacks, you can mix them up with stronger moves, and build up an energy meter for powerful specials. There’s no real challenge in terms of timing or technique; unless you’re trying to stun and kill a boss in a single combo, it all boils down to preference. The controls are wonderfully responsive and the attacks are flashy, and that’ll hopefully be enough to get you through the most tedious fights. There’s nothing quite as awesome as annihilating a small army by summoning Ganondorf’s giant demonic arm, or having Zant twirl and flail around like a maniacal blender. Stylishly juggling enemies with Linkle’s dual crossbows defies common sense, but it looks cool. Everyone gets unlockable alternate weapons, but the main characters get far more attention; aside from the Master Sword, Link can wield the Magic Rod, the Twilight Princess Spinner, and a few others, all with different uses and animations. Everyone can be further developed via the simple upgrade system, which allows you to improve combos, chip damage, item usage, and other stats. Combined with the character models, music (the Hyrule Field, Gerudo Desert, and Eldin Cave rock remixes are amazing), achievements, and Puzzle Swap-style artwork, there’s a ton of content waiting to be unlocked. No matter how bad the rest of the game seems, there effort involved in designing the moves and additional content is undeniable.

Since getting all of that extra stuff requires item drops, you’re going to be replaying. A lot. It’s easy to plow through the main story in a single weekend, but unlocking everything is a slow, arduous burn. You’ll spend the majority of your time on Adventure Mode, which has you tackle battles with specific win conditions and a grading system. You might have to kill a certain number of enemies with limited time, all while being chased around by a boss. Or you could slog through the laughably easy quiz missions, which give you a gauntlet of specific enemies to slay for your answers. Others, such as boss rushes and Cucco turf wars, can be surprisingly challenging. That’s especially true with the grading system; your score determines what mission you unlock next, so you’ll have to play exceptionally well if you want to get anywhere. Progression in Adventure Mode is further complicated by its layout; it’s a set of grids that resemble maps from other Zelda games. You’ll earn candles, whistles, and other old-school items that help you unlock new areas, characters, and equipment. It’s all about knowing when and where to use those items, just like the original game. Even if it is challenging and frustrating, it’s a clever, creative way to celebrate the franchise.

That can be said for the game as a whole. Hyrule Warriors Legends is an impressive feat that ultimately falters under its creator’s ambitions. Porting one of the biggest Wii U games to a handheld console was never going to be perfect, and it shows. Even if you’re playing this on a New 3DS, be prepared for glitches and questionable camera controls. The developers rightfully focused on making sure the characters played smoothly and stylishly amidst a ridiculously huge amount of enemies onscreen, and sacrificed the rest of the visuals in the process. The AI leaves much to be desired, though slaying hordes of video game monsters with iconic heroes is quite fun. If there was any Nintendo game that would benefit from patches and DLC, it’s this. There’s plenty of room for improvement in many areas, and time will tell if and how it’ll happen. Much like the overall Zelda franchise, Hyrule Warriors Legends has had a rough start, but could be potentially brilliant. Despite having so many heroes, it still needs a savior.

Originally posted here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Bay Of Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor Bay, Montenegro

This week’s challenge is all about one love, so I thought I’d skip ahead of my writing and share a photo that best portrays my love of travel. This is the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. It’s easily one of the most serene and peaceful places I’ve ever visited; its raw beauty hasn’t been spoiled by tourism yet. In geographical terms, this was the furthest I’ve ever been from home (even more so than Hong Kong), and I loved every moment of it. Exploring the world, learning new things and cultures, seeing faraway shores, finding places that are more beautiful than you thought possible… all with the wind and sun at your back. A larger version is viewable here.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Pokemon Stadium Theme (SSBM Version)

Hey, did you know Pokemon turned 20 this week? Yeah, I was surprised, too. I remember when the series first came to America. I was in that perfect target demographic sweet spot; I had a Game Boy, watched weekday afternoon cartoons (Pokemon was technically my first anime, as Toonami hadn’t premiered yet), and still had the time to dedicate hours to catching ’em all. I can still recite the original PokeRap. I don’t think I need to elaborate on Nintendo’s brilliant marketing campaign; the fact that the series has survived this long – with two brand new games coming out this Christmas – speaks for itself. Nintendo definitely knew they were onto something by 2001, when they included this song in Super Smash Bros. Melee. A fully-orchestrated remix of the anime’s title theme, complete with an utterly epic choir? Yeah, that’ll blow any fan’s mind the first time they hear it. While I don’t play Pokemon anymore (an exercise in futility if there ever was one), I still remember the original games fondly.

If you want more SSBM, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike – Jazzy NYC ’99

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a serious contender for my favorite game of all time. I could spend hours waxing poetic about its incredible design. How fun it was despite the relatively small roster. How unappreciated it was in its time, simply because of its ridiculously steep learning curve. How its intricate and technical combat mechanics set new standards for the fighting genre. How its complex parrying and combo systems unapologetically demanded memorization down to individual animation frames. How the graphics were some of the finest 2D sprites in the 90s. How high-level play is insanely difficult but extremely entertaining, even almost two decades later. How it’s one of the few games that I’m still willing to play anywhere, anytime.

Yeah, I love 3rd Strike.

What many folks remember it for most, however, is the soundtrack. The playlist borrowed from and blended several genres, most notably jazz, rap, techno, and instrumentals. It was a risky departure from the simpler, traditional game music themes (which Street Fighter II helped establish), but the decision paid off in spades. Jazzy NYC ’99 is arguably the most famous track, for obvious reasons. Its catchy beat goes perfectly with the bustling, gritty city subway in which its stage is located. Even after all these years, any old school fighting game fan will recognize it instantly. That’s a testament to this game’s quality.

If you want more 3rd Strike, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.