The Grand Reopening Of SFMOMA

It finally happened. After years of renovations, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened to the public on May 14th, 2016. To call the event “highly-anticipated” would be a huge understatement. When their new website went live and offered free, exclusive tickets for the reopening, thousands of potential visitors flooded and completely overwhelmed its database. And I was one of them; I spent two hours navigating the perpetually-crashing site, hoping that my clicks would finally register and get me into the event. I wasn’t the only one, either. After I live-tweeted this 21st century exercise in futility, the museum’s staff actually reached out to me and offered tickets as an apology. A month and some a few emails later (thank you very much to Christopher at Visitor Experiences, and the unnamed hero running the SFMOMA Twitter), I finally got the go-ahead to come to the event.

Upon entering, I was immediately struck by the sheer size. The lobby and staircase have long been a staple of the museum, but they’ve been revamped in order to keep the flow of visitors steady and focused. Aside from the gift shop (which is more than double the size than that of the Exploratorium), much of the entrance hall is free space for people to either stand, sit, or walk to the elevators. Or you could be like me and spend several minutes gaping up at the massive, cylindrical atrium that cuts through the first four floors of the building. It’s beautiful from the bottom, but it looks much better once you get up to the suspended walkway overhead. The ground floor isn’t the only part with huge floor space; the museum now has additional 235,000 square feet with which to accommodate visitors. As someone who despises crowds, I was quite grateful for the extra space. I’ll admit that I’m more of a classic art and history kind of person; The Legion of Honor has a special place in my heart, but SFMOMA does spacing and crowd control so much better. Despite being incredibly busy, it always felt like there was enough room to breathe.

Assuming, of course, that the exhibits don’t leave you breathless. There are well over 10,000 works of art at SFMOMA, in all shapes and sizes. It was good to revisit works like Ruth Asawa’s metal wire sculptures, the dramatic brush strokes of Jay DeFeo’s The Verónica, and the massive prayer beads that comprise Zarina’s Tasbih. It felt great to come across familiar names like Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier, Henri Matisse’s Le serf, Bentley’s Snowflakes, as well as works from pop culture giants like Andy Warhol. There was also a surprising amount of photography on display. Most of it depicted local histories, like the view from the top of partially constructed Golden Gate Bridge circa 1935, the twisted routes of Los Angeles freeway system, and some fascinating portraits of Patty Hearst.

What I found most interesting were the works that implemented modern technologies. Richard Serra’s Sequence is a two-story labyrinth that absolutely dominates one corner of the museum, and it was crafted with weatherproof steel at German fabrication plant. Anthony McCall’s Slit-Scan uses a rapidly-shifting slide projector to convey his message. The cafe on one of the upper floors has selfie booths, but you have to put objects on the machine’s illuminated surface to create the necessary contrast. There’s also a whole gallery devoted to the development of type settings, including old typewriters, posters, and keyboard technologies. One particularly stylish display was the Computer House of Cards, which utilizes some old IBM tech from the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. I’ve got to admit, it was pretty baffling to see a vintage ’76 Apple computer on display; I remember using one years ago in grade school! That also goes for the Palm Pilot, one of which I happened to own. My personal favorite, however, is Takeshi Murata’s Melter 3-D, which uses flashing strobe lights to create an illusion of a constantly churning and flowing ball of metal. Seriously, it looks like something out of Terminator 2!

If you’re getting overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of such exhibits, catch your breath at the outdoor Living Wall and Sculpture Garden. Imagine a forest floor, dense with flowers, plants, moss, and grass. Take that image and graft it onto the side of a two-story building, and you’ve got the Living Wall. It’s as pleasant as it is unusual; no one expects to find a miniature forest in the middle of downtown San Francisco. It’s reminiscent of the Living Roof at the California Academy of Sciences, but this is far more spacious and relaxing. It’s so easy to just sit down for few minutes and watch the leaves in the breeze. I you want something a little more urban, try the balcony up on the seventh floor. The view isn’t quite as grand as those of the Exploratorium or the Legion of Honor, but the skyscrapers and offices in the area make for some interesting architecture photography.

There’s plenty more to write about, but I don’t want to spoil everything. If you’re in San Francisco and have any interest in art, design, technology, and 20th century history whatsoever, you should absolutely visit this place. The variety and creativity of these thousands of works are nothing short of amazing. A lot of work went into revamping the building, and it’s now arguably the finest museum in the city. I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to come to the grand reopening, and I hope to do so again soon. Glad to have you back, SFMOMA. It’s been far too long.

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.

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 4 – The Leaning Tower Of Pisa

Continued from Day 3…

The front desk gave us a wake up call at 8 AM. I’d learned from the mistakes of the previous day. It still involved me stumbling around in the dark to reach the state room’s phone, but at least I had a better sense of time. While Mom got up, I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera, and climbed up to the Windjammer. As the doors automatically whooshed open to let me onto Deck 9, I immediately regretted not bringing a coat. The sun was out, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I shuddered against the breeze and headed straight for the restaurant. I munched on pineapple chunks and gazed out at our latest port. We’d left France behind in the night, and were now docked in Livorno, Italy. The sleepy little town and sweeping cliffs were replaced with a harbor crowded with cargo boxes, cranes, rusty warehouses, deserted parking lots, and about half a dozen other cruise ships. One was inexplicably painted with Looney Tunes characters; a four-story portrait of Bugs Bunny was the last thing I’d expect to see on this trip.

I squinted past the harbor and tried to get a glimpse of Livorno itself. The terrain was mostly flat, curving upwards into the hills near the horizon. The buildings closest to the water were each only a few stories tall (most likely hotels or apartments), with the occasional church bell tower looming in the background. Maybe it was due to my sleepiness or the morning sun glaring in my eyes, but nothing about this port jumped out at me. Villefranche had been like a mysterious, alluring lover that practically begged me to explore every inch of it. Livorno was drab and impersonal; it was there to do its job, nothing more or less.

And the worst part? I wouldn’t get the chance to be proven wrong. We weren’t going to be spending any time in town. This port gave travelers access to Florence and Pisa, and we’d already scheduled an excursion for the latter. That had been Mom’s choice; while I’d been keen on visiting Florence ever since hearing Hannibal Lecter talk about it in The Silence of the Lambs, she’d been fascinated with the Leaning Tower of Pisa since she was a child. I wasn’t going to deny her a chance to cross off a decades-old bucket list entry. Besides, I was interested as well; the unique combination of history, architecture, art, and physics made it too cool to pass up.

The bus ride to Pisa was uneventful. 40 minutes on the highway, with the occasional view of open fields and small towns. The tour guide had given each of us a small map that displayed the general layout of the area. It wasn’t necessary, though; we were just going to visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, not explore the city proper. Getting that far, however, required a little more effort. As soon as we got off the bus, we were bombarded with offers for knockoff designer bags, watches, and sunglasses. I immediately flashed back to our trip to Morocco, in which vendors stalked Mom for hours because she showed off her jewelry and heels and tried haggling with everyone. I inwardly cringed and waited for an inevitable repeat.

However, she seemed to have learned from the experience. She’d dressed plainly, stashed her money in a lanyard hidden under her arm and coat, and didn’t spare even a glance at the vendors. She and everyone else in the group crowded around the tour guide and fixated the numbered placard held above his head. We obediently followed him out of the parking lot, across a few streets, past some train tracks, and through a residential neighborhood. Most tourists have this romanticized view of Pisa (and Tuscany by extension), but it has the same aspects common to any busy area: noisy traffic, litter, graffiti, worn buildings, restaurants, children, beggars, pickpockets, crowded souvenir markets, etc. The chaos was kind of refreshing in a way; this wasn’t just some fancy, polished tourist trap. People lived here. Can you imagine owning a house next to one of the most famous landmarks on Earth?

Yeah, it wouldn’t be pleasant.

After leaving the meeting point – a local restaurant advertising pizza and gelato – we made the short walk through the souvenir market and through an old archway. The bustling, tourist-choked shops gave way to Piazza dei Miracoli’s massive expanse of grass and architecture. Whenever I see these ancient places, I’m always struck with the sense of scale upon which they’re designed. I’d been to bigger churches (the Seville Cathedral comes to mind), but this seemed different because the landmark was in an open field instead of a city. This place housed only three main buildings – the tower, cathedral, and baptistery – but they completely dominated the landscape. The tower is only about 60 meters high (and yes, it visibly leans), but the people milling around its sunken base looked like insects. And man, were there a lot of people. Thousands of travelers, mostly armed with DSLRs or selfie sticks, gaped at the architectural masterpiece/disaster and spent several minutes trying to shoot the perfect angle. This usually involved someone pretending to hold the tower up in an epic feat of strength, poking it with a finger, or holding up an object to manipulate perspective and size comparison. Is it tacky? Yes. Did I do my own version? Yes. I have no idea if I’ll ever see this place again, so I can afford to indulge in a little shamelessness.

Getting inside was another story. See, our excursion was to the Piazza dei Miracoli, but not within the Leaning Tower itself. That was a whole separate thing, which necessitated finding the tourism office, buying tickets, standing in line behind hundreds of people, and waiting for the guards posted at the entrance to let us pass. That’s a lot to take on normally, but our severe time limit made it impossible. I’m the kind of traveler who loves climbing and exploring far-flung areas, so the inability to get inside was incredibly annoying. Instead, we spent the hour wandering around the field and checking out the architecture. When I tried going into the cathedral, I was turned away by the authorities. Turns out our visit coincided with an incredibly high-profile funeral service. I don’t know who died, but I glimpsed a few dozen mourners exiting the building later on.

I headed back to the base of the tower – snapping a few photos of the horse-drawn carriages along the way – and headed to the cafe area nearby. After a few seconds of trying to navigate the crowds, I remembered that I’d brought lunch with me. I turned around and nearly collided with a man dressed as a Subway mascot. Unlike many places in Italy, this blend of ancient and modern did not go well together. Feeling defeated, I spent the rest of the time walking around the perimeter of the field. While everyone was clamoring for photos in the distance, the Camposanto Monumentale was particularly quiet and peaceful. It’s amazing how long those walls have stood. How many people walked there? How many died there? How many more centuries would it last? I was torn out my reverie when I passed a flustered young woman. She was looking wildly in every direction, on the verge of sheer panic. Turns out my paranoia was justified; she’d been pickpocketed within seconds of putting her bag down to take a photo. Not just her wallet or her passport, but her entire bag. She wasn’t going to get any of it back. As I watched her being escorted away to the authorities, I shoved my hands into my pockets and made sure Mom still had all of her stuff.

It was at that moment that we decided to go back. There were only about ten minutes left until the group had to meet up again, the cathedral was still closed, and there wasn’t anything else left to explore. Seeing that poor woman had killed what interest I had in staying. The feeling of dissatisfaction finally overtook me as we left the field and saw a McDonalds overflowing with tourists. Historical places normally fascinate me, but by then I felt tired and dejected. We made it back to the meeting point with time to spare, so I drifted back to a souvenir stand and picked out a key chain for myself, and a stylish Pisa-themed bag for one of my relatives. Of course, I was immediately swarmed by other vendors. Most took the hint right away, but one fellow was particularly desperate. When I refused his regular goods, he took a small elephant statue out of his pocket and tried to sell it to me for a euro. It took about a minute of one-sided haggling before he finally gave up. I quickly shoved my trinkets into my backpack, lest I get blindsided on the walk back to the bus.

During that walk, I made sure to take a few shots of the urban areas outside of the field. A glimpse of an abandoned, dilapidated house. Train tracks slightly overgrown with weeds. Old walls with cracks wide enough to expose the bricks underneath. I wanted to show others that there was more to Pisa than just the tower and the field. I wanted proof that life in Europe isn’t always as glamorous as we think it is. I spent the ride back to Livorno staring numbly out the window. The countryside was gorgeous; if I had more time, I’d have liked to hike it. But not on this trip. Mom later asked me to rank all of the places we’d seen from best to worst. Needless to say, Pisa was dead last. I’m immensely grateful to have been there, of course – it’s famous for good reason – but the entire experience felt rushed, and incomplete. On the bright side, the next day would prove to be far, far more epic.

To be continued on Day 5…

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Wind/Pinball Review

It finally happened. After years of letting them fade into obscurity, Haruki Murakami brought Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 stateside. For longtime English-speaking fans, the 2015 release of Wind/Pinball was a dream come true; finding translated copies of these novels was almost impossible. The fact that they were were the first two entries in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” made things even worse. While it wasn’t necessary to read them before A Wild Sheep Chase, having some background on the unnamed protagonist and the Rat would’ve been helpful. Now that the full story is here, Western readers can finally get the experience as it was meant to be…for better or worse.

For those of you expecting another round of Murakami’s bizarre shenanigans and magical realism, be prepared to reign in your expectations. Wind/Pinball were his first two novels, and it shows. Hear the Wind Sing is about the college-aged narrator coming back to his hometown during summer break and spending time with the Rat, his longtime friend and binge-drinking partner. The novel tries to encapsulate the sense of change and budding maturity of a young twenty-something. The narrator gradually realizes that the summers of his youth are long gone, and how much of his life he took for granted. He tries to track down a former high school classmate, but fails miserably. He’s had three previous girlfriends, yet can barely muster any memories of them. He attempts to romance a young lady – who, of course, has only nine fingers – but the relationship barely goes anywhere. We’re only given a glimpse of the girl’s issues towards the end of the novel (she’s practically a precursor to Yuki from Dance Dance Dance), but little else. Murakami’s female characters are often regarded as shallow satellites to the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious here.

Considering that Hear the Wind Sing is the first entry in the “Trilogy of the Rat,” it’s no surprise that its namesake is the more interesting of the two main characters. Unlike the narrator, the Rat has yet to take the first few steps into adulthood. While all of his friends are off studying at the universities, he spends his time getting drunk and avoiding responsibility. He uses alcoholism to drown out his sense of loneliness. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he loathes being rich and considers himself a social outcast. Like the narrator, he confronts some harsh truths: the times are changing, his friends are leaving him behind, and he needs to be able to connect with people beyond drunken debauchery. It’s rather telling that the narrator introduces the Rat as a “virtual stranger to books,” yet he’s seen reading literature in almost every scene he appears after. Whether this is a result of the Rat’s curiosity towards novels or an attempt to strengthen his friendship with the narrator remains ambiguous. Regardless, his character development adds flavor to an already bittersweet story.

The Rat’s issues are taken a step further in Pinball, 1973. Thanks to his wealthy background, he’s able to spend every day at the bar and have drunken flings…but they’re not as fulfilling as actually living. He’s well aware that life is passing him by, and he has yet to find a purpose. There’s a vague notion that he needs to leave town and find his own place in the world, which is nicely illustrated with Rat’s association with the town’s waterfront. As a child, he used to go down to the beach every night; there was a beacon that would turn on at sunset, and he could sit on the pier and watch the waves. However, his current girlfriend undermines his nostalgia. She lives in an apartment near the beach, but loathes the location. She’s complains about the ocean and shuts the blinds on her window, thus cutting the Rat off from the allure it gave him. It’s foreshadowing their doomed relationship, as well as the Rat’s ever-growing wanderlust. While his decision seems obvious (and a foregone conclusion to English-speaking fans who read A Wild Sheep Chase first), his character development is satisfying.

The narrator’s storyline is a little less straightforward. He’s already made the transition into adulthood, but gets a serious case of nostalgia. His focus is on a pinball machine called Spaceship, which used to be part of the bar where he and the Rat frequented. He goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of playing pinball. The dazzling lights, and the rush of a well-played game, the satisfaction of a new high score…and the inevitable burnout. Anyone who has grown up with video games will understand the sentiments all too well. However, it was something more for him; he describes as an obsessive love affair; it is intense, costly, and ultimately fleeting. He also has to face the unfortunate reality: reliving your past isn’t as easy or fulfilling as it sounds, and most people won’t share your passion, let alone even know what you’re talking about. The narrator goes to great lengths in his search for Spaceship, but recapturing those moments is something else entirely.

Pinball, 1973 also serves as the starting point for Murakami’s signature elements. Anyone who’s read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will perk up when the narrator mentions wells, and the name (and fate of) “Naoko” ought to give Norwegian Wood fans a jolt. There’s even a pair of identical twin girls – called 208 and 209 respectively – who inexplicably live with and interact with the narrator, yet he never questions their origins and possibly otherworldly existence. It all seems like typical Murakami, but not as structured or developed. Some of these aspects, much like the love interest from the first book, feel tacked on at best. Aside from providing the narrator a little emotional depth and some surreal conversations, they add little to the story. If anything, they’re the rough drafts of the stuff we’ve come to expect from the author.

They don’t make these novels necessarily bad, though. Every author, no matter how popular they are, has to start somewhere. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts at storytelling, and it shows. They’re not perfect by any means, but they do well at capturing the loneliness and confusion of someone coming of age. Longtime English-speaking fans will be glad to finally get the missing pieces of the Trilogy of the Rat and read the story as it was meant to be seen. Though far from Murakami’s finest, it’s still an interesting look into a great author’s humble beginnings.

Go Set A Watchman Review

Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.

SPOILERS

Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of  some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.

It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.

This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance,  which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.

Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.

“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway)  they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.

Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:

“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”

“After what I said to him? After the-”

Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”

No. She had not. She was terrified.

“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”

There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.

Opera At The Ballpark 2015

Yes, you read that title correctly. I spent last Friday evening watching opera in a baseball stadium. The San Francisco Opera performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the War Memorial Opera House. The show was simulcast for free at AT&T Park, the home of the Giants. Wait, you exclaim. How can something as classy as opera work with something so low-brow as baseball?!

Incredibly well, surprisingly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a music critic. I’m geek when it comes to multiple subjects, but I’ve never studied music. I sing poorly, don’t play any instruments, and can muster little more than a shout. The latter is why I find opera fascinating; The quote, “opera singers are the olympians of the music world” is the most apt description I’ve ever read. How much raw talent, dedication, and training does it take to reach those vocal plateaus? My exposure to opera is above average at best. My mother was part of a church choir and loved singing along to Phantom of the Opera on cassette (which I brought to school once, and was promptly ridiculed for it). My father constantly listened to Andrea Bocelli every time I visited, and once had me watch the entire performance of Les Miserables: The Dream Cast In Concert on tape. You know, the one with 17 Valjeans in the encore? I’ve only been to one show in person, which was Phantom at the Curran for a Christmas gift in 1997.

Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

Appropriately enough, it was my mother who told me about the event. We met up after work and walked to the ballpark. I hadn’t been inside since Labor Day weekend in 2000 – during the summer in which it originally opened – so I was interested to see how it changed. We were under the impression that we’d be able to sit on the grass, but were rebuffed by security once we reached ground level inside the stadium. Only visitors who came in through the side marina gate – and sporting the green wristbands to prove it – were allowed onto the outfield. Getting that far would’ve required us climbing back up to the main area and walking to the opposite end of the stadium. I was a little ticked about that (the staff in charge of the lines out front should’ve explained and guided newcomers accordingly) but decided on something better:

Yeah, that’s right. I got seats next to home plate at AT&T Park!…While the Giants were out of town. Heh. It was perfect for what we needed: good chairs with solid backs and beverage holders, and a stone’s throw from restrooms and restaurants downstairs. It exemplified the advantages of watching opera in a stadium; it’s more comfortable, you don’t have to dress up, you can take your kids, and there’s food, accommodations, and friendly staff at the ready. You’d be surprised how well garlic fries and a cold drink go with the opera. Just kick back, relax, and enjoy the show. Putting it on the jumbotron is a great idea as well; not only does it do split-screen to display multiple singers at once, but subtitles as well. That’s a huge benefit for those who don’t speak Italian or have trouble following what’s being sung. That way, the spectators can enjoy the plot and comedy without much confusion.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. Traditional opera houses are renowned for their phenomenal acoustics, but ballpark loudspeakers and big screens can’t quite replicate the experience. It probably doesn’t matter to 99% of the visitors, but there is a difference. Also, attending an opera means you’re actually inside a building, not an open-air stadium. Summer evenings are pleasant in San Francisco; the temperature is still decent, and there’s a slight breeze by the water. Skip forward to 10 or 11 PM, and things have gotten chilly, misty, and the gorgeous dusk sky has been devoured by fog. If you’re going to stay for the whole show, bring a couple of extra layers to keep warm. I was fine, but my mother was shivering under a sweater and jacket. Also, if you’re taking BART, keep in mind that you’ll need time to walk back to the station. After the awesome curtain call, we had to duck out in front of most of the crowd in order to make our train.

As for the show, it was hilarious and amazing. Opera is often stereotyped as being some stuffy, serious, incomprehensible, yawn-inducing thing exclusively for snobby old people. That’s unfortunate (more like absolutely ridiculous), because The Marriage of Figaro is essentially an 18th century romantic comedy. It’s got witty writing, romance, scandal, intrigue, snark, slapstick, likeable protagonists, a scene-stealing drunk gardener, and (of course) killer vocals. I could spend all day watching Philippe Sly and Lisette Oropesa bicker as Figaro and Susanna. Or Nadine Sierra constantly – but narrowly – outsmart Luca Pisaroni‘s Count Almaviva, for that matter. I heard 30,000 people laugh out loud at the look on Susanna’s face during the “Su madre?!” scene, and pretty much anything Angela Brower did as the oh-so lecherous and gropey Cherubino. No matter how old you are, watching a lovestruck idiot awkwardly hide under a bed sheet is somehow the funniest thing ever. If nothing else, this will make you believe that 18th century servant women could Judo-throw their foolish husbands.

The fun wasn’t limited to the show, either. During the intermissions, they displayed some classic Looney Tunes that involved the opera. All of us cartoon geeks in the audience recognized and laughed along to excerpts from Long-Haired Hare and Rabbit of Seville. Val Diamond of Beach Blanket Babylon took the stadium by storm with a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out To The Opera.” There was also a marriage proposal on the jumbotron, and apparently he said yes.

It’s interesting how it’s come to this. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the opposite. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro 229 years ago. I wonder if he ever imagined his music would survive this long, or himself playing to a crowd the size of a baseball stadium. The fact that there was such a huge turnout is not only a testament to the opera’s appeal, but to the performances as well. If something’s great, people will come to see it. It’s also thanks to the San Francisco Opera engaging the fans in a direct and modern way. They were very active on Twitter, encouraging viewers to make comments and displaying them on the jumbotron. I tweeted throughout the show (only during the intermissions, because it’s the polite thing to do), and got some great responses from the staff, performers, and fellow viewers. I even got a response from Susanna, which prompted me to geek out in the best way. This kind of approach is perfect for younger generations who’ve gotten used to sharing everything on social media.

You know what the best part was? There were lots of kids. Sure, some of them probably thought they were coming to see a baseball game. But they got the chance to experience something new and different. Something that they may not appreciate now, but they will later on. That’s how opera – and all other aspects of our culture – survive; we pass it all down in as many ways and influences as we can think of, and hope it sticks. Judging by the success of Opera At The Ballpark, we have nothing to worry about.

Daily Prompt: Zip-Lining In Puerto Vallarta

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about stories. Specifically, the story behind your appearance in a recent photo. This actually ties in with my trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago; I’d promised to write about the zip-lining excursion separately, and this prompt is perfect for it.

I’m not going to post the photo for various reasons, mainly because I’m not sure if the other people in my group want it displayed, I’m shy, and that I look ridiculously awkward. Considering how many photos I’ve posted, you may have noticed that I like being behind the camera, not in front of it. Pictures of me are few and far between (especially online), and I dislike all of them; for some reason, I never look good enough. This time, I’m standing amongst a group of six by a rock in the middle of the jungle. We’re outfitted with harnesses, bandanas, and helmets, mere minutes away from making the first of many zip-line runs. It’s just a generic photo taken by the company’s staff, something you’d put up on Facebook after getting home.

What the photo doesn’t show, however, is the exhaustion. Before getting to this point, we woke up at dawn, ate breakfast, got ready, and had to ride out to the El Eden zip-line. That involved us taking a taxi to a nearby OXXO (think 7-11, Mexico-style) and waiting for the tour truck to pick us up. The truck itself was a strange blend of pickup and flatbed; the back was decked out with half a dozen rows of benches and topped with an open-air canopy. It’s surprisingly good for taking photos, as long as you don’t mind the smog and noise of Puerto Vallarta’s early morning traffic. The ride was pleasant enough in the city – our driver made an amazing three-point turn on a hill when his normal route was blocked by construction – but things changed once we left the streets. As we thumped over the first pothole and onto the dirt, we realized there were no seat belts, and seemingly no shock absorbers. To call that hour-long ride into the jungle “bumpy” would be a gross understatement. By the time we reached the zip-line, several passengers were sore and glad to be on solid ground again.

One of the neat things about El Eden (aside from it being the filming set for Predator – they even have a statue of the alien!) is its natural waterfall and pool. After spending an hour climbing through the sweltering jungle, the water seems so tempting. Or you could go their well-furnished restaurant and enjoy some food. We’d planned on doing both, as this was supposed to be an all-day excursion. However, we failed to read the fine print; our tour scheduled us doing the zip-line, relaxing for half an hour, climbing back into the bus, attending a tequila factory presentation, and going back to the hotel. Of course, we didn’t find out about the plan until it was too late. We’d come out there with towels, beach stuff, and were wearing our swimsuits under our clothes. Yeah, imagine traversing the jungle with layered clothes and climbing gear.

Unsurprisingly, I was struck with heat exhaustion near the end.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m in reasonably good shape for a 30-year-old. I don’t have a six pack (it’s more like a one-and-half-pack at best), but I eat healthy, and I’m not diabetic. I swam for hours at the hotel’s pool, and walked for hours every day on the beach. I run up stairs. My sprints to catch subway trains are the stuff of legends. I used to hike and camp all the time as a kid, and I can still walk all day without any trouble. I walked 11 miles across San Francisco on a random whim not too long ago. But that doesn’t make any difference when you’re deep in the jungle, weighed down by clothes and gear, and don’t have any water with you.

I’d had a couple of cups of juice in the morning before leaving, but I somehow completely forgot to rehydrate myself before starting the course. I’d done zip-lining before in Maui last year, but that had only 3 lines. This had 12, all of which required some uphill climbing to reach. There were cups of water handed out after every four or five lines, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t enough. My steady pace devolved into weary stumbling, my face paled, and my skin went cold with sweat. I couldn’t even remove my helmet, which suddenly seemed tight enough to choke me; it was an older model, which meant I couldn’t adjust the straps by turning the mechanism of the side. The body harness was digging into me, and the drawstring on my swim trunks was shoved into my gut. The staff were pros at these kinds of situations, thankfully; it took about 4 cups of water and 15 minutes of rest to get me back into fighting shape, but I decided to call it a day.

It’s not like I was missing much, either. I’d keeled over after the 10th line, right before the steepest, toughest one on the entire course. It required you to have a decent mastery over the zip-line’s braking system; you basically had to shift your body and the metal handlebars side-to-side, thus increasing friction and reducing speed. I understood it from an academic standpoint, but putting into practice when you’re zooming above the trees is something else entirely. I saw plenty of people practically crash into the landing areas because they were coming in with too much momentum. If you couldn’t get braking down well enough by the 11th line, the staff would tell you to skip it for the sake of safety. Since I was too fed up and/or embarrassed about the whole situation, I followed their advice and waited for everyone at the last last line. I wearily sat down with the rest of my group for lunch, found out about the limited schedule, and had to wolf down a platter of fajitas someone graciously ordered for me. The fact that we were being rushed for the sake of visiting a tequila factory annoyed me. I don’t drink – I took a single shot of mandarin tequila and nearly spit it out – so I had no interest in the tour. I had just enough time to finish the meal and snap a few photos of the waterfall (which I’ll post later) before making the bumpy ride back.

That reminds me: They don’t let you use your own camera to record the zip-line action. I’d hauled my DSLR all the way into the jungle, only to be told to stow it in one of the lockers they had available. It’s a liability thing; no tourist wants to drop their camera (kinda hard to record when you’re supposed to be holding on with both hands), and the company doesn’t want to have to deal with that kind of mess. Instead, they offer special helmets mounted with GoPros. You record the action, they download it onto their computers, then charge you for whatever bundles/prints/etc. you choose. It makes sense – they are running a business, after all – but as someone used to having full control over my cameras and what’s being shot, it irked me. While I love a good adventure, I left El Eden feeling rushed, annoyed, and tired.

That’s okay, I’ll make up for it on my next journey. Where, you ask? Heh. Let’s just say that Fall 2015 is going to be…epic. Stay tuned.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…

 

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

Once upon a time, two titans clashed in the middle of an ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought until they were locked in an eternal stalemate. Both figuratively and literally; both beings died before they could win the battle, and their enormous corpses petrified together. Rather than crumbling under the ravages of time, their bodies formed a new world. Whole civilizations grew and flourished on these fallen gods, but the modern world hasn’t forgotten the ancient conflict. The human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of killing machines. With death already on their doorstep, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors desperately need a savior.

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

He’s not a hero. He lacks both the physical capabilities of a soldier and wisdom of his elders. He’d rather spend his days doing research than going on adventures. That’s what makes him more believable than most game characters; he’s a naive bystander that gets swept up in a war, suffers, survives, and gradually becomes a hero. He’s far more interesting a protagonist than his friend Reyn, who acts like a stereotypical thickheaded, temperamental warrior. What starts as a fairly creative story is dragged down by the cliches typical of the RPG genre. Shulk is somehow chosen to wield the Monado, a legendary sword capable of slaying Mechon. His background is hazy at best, which leads to a few predictable plot twists. He’s trying to avenge the destruction of his home town, but eventually gets drawn into something much bigger. Revenge is hardly an original motive, but the game does well in getting you emotionally involved; the heroes seem real and sympathetic, and the villains are sadistic and powerful. While the story is long – even the most straightforward playthroughs take dozens of hours to finish – the decent pacing and character development keep things interesting.

Shulk’s inexperience isn’t just for narrative purposes. He embarks on his quest woefully unskilled, armed with only a handful of awkward slashes and stabs. Finesse and variety are sacrificed for practicality; the combat mechanics focus on teamwork, positioning, and ability buffs. Some attacks deal more damage when he approaches from behind his opponent, while some enemies can’t even be hurt unless they’ve been inflicted with status effects. Battles take place in real-time, and attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s not so bad early on, but many of the later fights require you to constantly manage your party’s tactics. The controls lend themselves well to the New 3DS’s button mapping, but surprisingly lack touch screen menus; the top screen is needlessly cluttered with information that could’ve been displayed  in other ways. It’s tempting to blindly mash your way through and pray your random commands work, but you’ll just get everyone slaughtered. As you rack up critical hits, you’ll build up a gauge that can be used to either trigger high-damage chain attacks or revive fallen party members. Shulk can occasionally see oncoming attacks and let his friends decide on moves, but it’s inconsistent at best. Since the AI is rarely reliable in terms of advanced strategies, you’ll have to divide your time between keeping everyone alive and dishing out damage. While it seems overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the essentials are easy to learn.

It’s not all about fighting, though. Xenoblade Chronicles was designed around exploration, and it shows. Shulk’s quest spans two continents, taking on over 400 optional side-quests and killing creatures along the way. There are no random battles; just several areas teeming with monsters that don’t necessarily have to be attacked. The game tells you how strong they are, so you can go in or back off accordingly. While most RPGs favor linear designs, this world practically begs you to go off the beaten path. Not only are there tons of nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, but the game rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for your curiosity. There’s almost no downside to getting hurt in battle; health is plentiful, and you’ll re-spawn close by if you die. There’s even an ability to warp to any landmark you’ve previously visited, which eliminates countless hours of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed an area or need a certain item for a side-quest. These tasks are usually menial, but are essential for developing the huge assortment of skill trees, equipment, character affinities, and everything else that factors into combat system. Fair warning, though: You need to find a balance between storyline progression and going off on your own. If you focus too much on exploring, the pacing will slow to a crawl, the characters will be over-leveled, and you’ll likely burn yourself out.

Xenoblade 3D is indeed a massive game, both in terms of gameplay content and sheer scale. You won’t understand just how big and open-ended it is until you see Gaur Plain for the first time. The green fields and hills seem to go forever, and the silhouettes of the Bionis and Mechonis loom distantly in the drifting clouds. It gives you a sense of how utterly small you are, and how much there is left to see. Since there are so many creatures with widely varying strengths roaming around, the world feels more like a cohesive, living whole instead of a pre-structured journey. It’s no wonder the game can only be played on the New 3DS; it would’ve been impossible for the older handhelds to process these kinds of visuals consistently. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, though. The Wii version of Xenoblade was absolutely gorgeous at a distance, but suffered from poor texturing and bland facial designs up close. These issues are more prominent on a handheld; even with its impressive frame rate and 3D effects, the New 3DS can’t match the splendor of a console and television screen. Everything just seems a little fuzzier and faded, which lessen the overall experience. That being said, this is still one of the best-looking games on the system. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be more colorful and look smoother, but Xenoblade 3D trumps it in terms of draw distance and size.

The downgrade wasn’t limited to graphics, either. The Japanese voice acting was removed entirely, but the localized cast does an admirable job at bringing the characters to life. Phrases like, “Now it’s Reyn time!” or “I’m really feeling it!” are grating in their repetition, but the thick English accents are endearing and memorable. That goes double for the hammy villains; their “MUH-NA-DO BOY” nickname for Shulk is both sinister and unintentionally hilarious. The soundtrack is back in all its glory, too; if the visuals don’t stun you, the superb audio certainly will. You Will Know Our Names, Mechanical Rhythm, the Gaur Plain theme, and other instrumental tracks add so much emotion and atmosphere. It’s tempting to wander into an area, put your system down, and just listen to the music. If you want to enjoy the songs without the adventure, you’ll have to unlock them in the newly-added Jukebox. It’s pretty gimmicky – you have to either rack up tokens via StreetPass or buy a Shulk amiibo – but it’s well worth the effort. Combined with some good headphones, you’re in for one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.

That can be said for the game as a whole. It’s a testament to the quality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that a technically inferior port is arguably the best RPG on the 3DS. Its visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re still impressive. The game’s design was ahead of time; no other handheld title gives you the kind of freedom and sense of exploration seen here. The sheer scope, scale, and complexity of this adventure might be intimidating, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than limiting you to a strict path, it encourages you to find your own pace and rewards curiosity. With hundreds of side-quests, it’s so easy to ditch the lengthy story and go hiking for a few hours. Shulk’s cliched revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Thanks to the New 3DS, you’ll be able to experience each amazing moment at a time, all in the palm of your hand.

When was the last time you got lost?