Thursday, June 27, 2019

My Appendix N: Video Games

Have some tunes for this post.

We are the first generations to consider video games important influence in storytelling. Particularly those in Gen Y who grew up during the biggest shift in the medium stretching from the release of Nintendo's NES and DOS PC gaming up to the release of Sega's Dreamcast and Sony's PlayStation 2. The reach is quite great and the most the medium has changed before or since.

Since my generation spans being born from about 1980 to 1990, it means all of us came of age when Nintendo was still a cultural force (which it has been off and on since) being that the NES burst onto the scene in 1985 and were kings in the scene until around the release of the Gamecube in 2001. At the same time Sega and the Genesis and its attachments, the arcades, the coming of the PlayStation, and PC gaming's meteoric rise, were all at their peak through the same time period.

If you can find me someone born in the '80s in the west and was not somehow influenced by video games they are probably either lying or were sheltered in a way that would make the moral majority weep with envy. You knew about video games back then. They were mainstream more than they are now.

A lot is made due of the Boomers and their parents' quest to ban and destroy video games, but much of it is overblown. They had never seen such a medium and as such they made bad calls. It happens. What we don't have an excuse for are members of Gen X and Y currently in charge who grew up with video games trying desperately to destroy them as if they don't know better. As such I won't be covering the tired "banning vidya" arguments since we are far worse at it then our parents and grandparents were, and we have no excuse for it. I'm not going to be throwing stones.

Still, the fact that it was a topic at all shows how big video games became in such a short period of time. From being pure time wasters in the '70s with simplistic fare such as Pong to more involved products such as River Raid or Pitfall! it was by the '80s when they hit their stride. By the end of the '90s they would be unstoppable.

Blazing Lazers
Of course I was influenced by video games. I had an NES before I can even remember and played the original Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt constantly as a kid. I remember the Console Wars (the only good one) between Nintendo's SNES and Sega's Genesis, and I remember entering high school around the time 3D graphics were all the rage and everyone was bragging about them. I graduated not long after Sega left the console business and the arcades were beginning their slow death. To say they didn't have an effect on me would be to lie.

Video games were a way to live out adventures and experience sights and directly interact with them. It was different than watching a movie because you could influence what happened. It was different than playing around with your friends because they couldn't change the rules on you. It was different than reading a book because you could all enjoy it together at the same time. As a result they really weren't like anything else. To join in, all you had to do was pick up a controller and push the buttons.

If you want some examples of my favorite games you can click the "Video Game" tag at the bottom of this post. I've written about a bunch of my favorites here. So instead I would like to go over some genres that made the difference.

There are many to go through, but I'm going to start with the obvious one. The first is the platformer.

Really coming into its own with Activision's Pitfall!, starting with Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. for the NES (and a pack-in for the console) the genre blasted into prominence where it stayed for 3 full console generations. That was before publishers decided to ditch it, not knowing the highest selling game of the first HD generation would be a 2D platformer from a series that originated on the NES. They're still trying to kill their roots, but the platformer survives regardless. It is one of the most important genres in gaming.

Rocket Knight Adventures
The reason it became a sensation is because of a simple premise and understandable goals. In a platformer the player is tasked with going from a starting point to an end point and dodging every obstacle in their way to reach it. This is as straightforward an idea as you can get, making it perfect for action gaming and the basis for much to come.

Platformers aren't far away from Shoot 'em Ups ("Shmups") and in fact are linked by a subgenre called Run n' Gun which features elements of both. For the best example of this you can look to Konami's Contra series.

Inspired by 80s action movies such as the Predator and Rambo series, Contra was one of the series that really helped the fledgling shooter genre find its feet beyond spaceships. It's also a a great example of mixing genres, and perhaps one of my favorite series in gaming. You only take one hit to die, but you fight waves of enemies who are the same as well as giant bosses who make you feel small and helpless. Getting through a Contra game in one life is quite an achievement and rewarding.

But that is just one many series.

The NES was home to some of the best platformers ever made from the aforementioned Contra to Nintendo's own, and still running series, such as Super Mario, Kirby, and Metroid, but there were plenty of arcade-style games in other genres such as Jackal, Gun.Smoke, and GUN*NAC, not to mention the licensed games that were great from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Disney's Capcom games, to even obscure properties such as Little Nemo, or Yo Noid! featuring the old pizza mascot, the NES had just about everything. Never trust anyone who has bad things to say about the NES, they have missed out on much and have a dark heart. That's not even going into overlooked gems such as Rockin' Kats, Gimmick!, or The Lone Ranger many missed out on.

Double Dragon II: The Revenge
What I should also bring up are arcades. Never trust anyone born between 1970 and 2000 that has never had a favorite arcade game. Particularly up to 2003 or so when the consoles caught up tech-wise, arcades were considered the peak of video games and in many ways the loss of them and their influence has changed the medium for the worse. Games are not the same today.

There was a community aspect to arcades since you both had to wait in line for them and since anyone could drop in to challenge you or work with you it could lead to developing new relationships. Couch co-op at home isn't like this, and certainly neither is online multiplayer. There is something strange in meeting someone you've never met and achieving a goal alongside them.

Because of the fact that the publishers wanted you there in the arcades, the best way to do that was to make the games difficult. You had to keep coming back to beat the games. This is why difficulty is synonymous with with video games and why those who seek to eject it from the medium are missing the point of the hobby. You're meant to stick with it and get better. Why else would you keep playing it?

As for some of the best arcade games, well, there is so much you could mention. From Shmups such as Detana!! TwinBee, Gradius, and Fantasy Zone, to shooters like Gunforce 2, Sunset Riders, and Rolling Thunder, to racers such as OutRun, Hydro Thunder, and Initial D, to fighters such as Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter II, there was more than plenty to play. Genres such as rail shooters mostly died with the arcade as series such as Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and Time Crisis, have since fallen into obscurity despite how big they were at the time and how many gameplay possibilities they could still offer. I haven't even gone into hidden gems such Elevator Action Returns, The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy, and Boogie Wings.

But my all time favorite arcade genre was the beat 'em up. Capcom and Konami were the clear winners in the genre, though Data East would randomly throw out a bizarre title and Sega had a few of their own such as Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. Heck, even the guys behind R-Type, Irem, made Undercover Cops and Ninja Baseball Bat-Man. But Capcom and Konami were easily the best at the genre.

Metamorphic Force
Capcom made their mark with the original Final Fight in 1989, taking the Double Dragon formula of buddies taking on the world and simplifying it while making it faster. They released many great games in the genre up to 1997's criminally under-looked Battle Circuit which had a full on shop and upgrade system, complicated combos, and varied level design. The genre had come a long way before it was unceremoniously abandoned for 3D. Thankfully Capcom has at least recently released a brawler collection featuring some of their best non-licensed work from mech action Armored Warriors and the aforementioned Final Fight all the way up to Battle Circuit. If you're never experienced the genre before, this is a place to start.

However, my favorite beat 'em ups in the arcade were probably made by Konami. Their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games were great (The SNES version of Turtles in Time is better, however) but my favorites from them are a bit more obscure. They did some licensed work including the only good The Simpsons game to date, to Bucky O'Hare (developed by guys who would go on to form Treasure), to Cowboys of Moo Mesa, and yet in other genres such as shooters, but their forgotten original work is the Crime Fighters trilogy and it is their best.

The original Crime Fighters is a busted, cheesy game with a draining health mechanic that needs quarter munching to raise. The game has some good music, but it's otherwise forgettable. However, the follow-up, Crime Fighters 2: Vendetta, might be the best in the genre ever made. Essentially a Cannon Film movie starring Hulk Hogan and his musclebound pals, they are a neighborhood gang of good guys who have a woman taken from them and they fight through enemy territory to take her back. The sprites are big and lively, the weapons and levels are inventive, and the difficulty is actually manageable. That this has never been re-released is a crime itself. Then we come to the third game Violent Storm.

Violent Storm
Violent Storm was Konami's final beat 'em up, coming out in 1993, and it might be their best. It takes pieces of everything of the time from the obvious Fist of the North Star-style post-apocalyptic setting to Final Fight's more popular two button fighting controls, to the large and expressive sprite work, but it added its own twists.

Violent Storm's world is both post-apocalyptic yet features Utopian societies bubbled up all over that present more questions than they answer. It has Final Fight's two button controls, yet is far deeper than Final Fight, with smoother controls and more plentiful moves that require digging to find. The giant sprites are some of the best ever made with many hidden inside levels and used for one-off jokes. The soundtrack is the best in the genre, and if you've heard some of the soundtracks in this genre you know that is a bold claim. From cheesy synth rock, to '50s rock n roll, to groovy early '90s hip hop, to surf, to atmospheric beats, it goes all over the map. As far as I'm concerned the genre never got better than this which might be why it was abandoned not long later.

The Crime Fighters trilogy highlights the evolution of the genre perfectly, and two of them are some of the best in the genre. It is great stuff.

Suffice to say there were a lot in the arcades back then. Much of it is still worth playing today. If only more companies were more interested in preserving the past and making them more available many would understand that. The fact that one can't legally purchase Violent Storm and hasn't been able to in over 25 years is ridiculous.

But as influential as the arcades were I would say the ultimate peak was the 16-bit generation of consoles. I am talking about the Super Nintendo, the Sega Genesis, and (technically) the Turbografx-16/PC Engine. If one wants to include PC games that came up during this era (because there are a lot of them), portables such as the Game Boy and Game Gear, and the aforementioned arcade games they can do so. Heck, even through in the Neo Geo. But I'm referring mainly to the consoles that really perfect what the 8-bit systems put out.

Should one every question how competition could ever make anything better, I don't think you have to go any further than the 16-bit system wars. Nintendo's system had a slower CPU so it required games that took advantage of its superior graphical and sound capabilities. Sega's system was faster but weaker in most other aspects, so it used that speed to create different sorts of games. Both console as a result featured vastly different games, but both had fantastic libraries. The PC Engine was more of a bridge between 8 and 16 bit, but its CD technology allowed it to have a unique approach of its own during this war.
To be sure, this is the only console generation where every player had their own tremendous library of games that could go toe to toe with the others and somehow every gamer could still be jealous of the other. Games still had their roots in the arcades, new genres were coming up every day, older ones were getting interesting spins, and the gamers made out like bandits.

It was never that good for us again.

Of course I'm still a gamer today, but even at the time I knew that things changed with the 32-bit generation, and not for the better. For one, it's aged the worst of any console generation. Just about every 3D game from that time needs a remake, and 2D was cast into the trash as if it didn't matter as most of those 2D games look worse than they did on the SNES and Genesis.

It was a downgrade of a generation.

Mega Man X
At the same time the CD format had gone the wrong way from the Turbografx CD being used solely to pack in movie cinematics in a desperate bid to make games respectable by turning them into movies. Even soundtracks began to move away from the excellent Redbook audio from that system to becoming more interested in licensed music and, eventually, wannabe movie scores. It moved away from the strength of the medium.

Nintendo and Sega both shot themselves in the foot with bad hardware choices brought about by hubris over a successful previous generation, so Sony's movie approach started to become more and more accepted and seen as the norm.

And that's why we are where we are today. Games are "respected" now, but they're barely games most of the time. They're glorified movies. Good games used to be common and now they are the minority.

That isn't to say I didn't like any post 16-bit system. The Dreamcast is one of the best systems ever made, with great hardware and software made for it. It was the last Sega system and the last fashioned after arcade gaming. The Nintendo Wii was the best system of its generation with an attempt to actually do something other than mindlessly make graphics prettier and as a result has an excellent library of both big name and lesser known titles, and tons of hidden gems. Both of Nintendo's DS systems were great fun, but their Game Boy Advance was superior, featuring the last stand of 2D gaming and the best library of portable games by far.

But aside from them? Eh, it's dicey.

Ninja Five-O
As for how video games could possibly influence anyone, well, I would say it is because of their aim to allow the player to connect directly with a world beyond their own. There isn't anything like that. That is how they got big to begin with.

For a writer it helps me get that tactile feel of dealing with a high stress situation that hearing a story 
from someone or just reading a book about it just doesn't quite give. It allows that extra bit of connection to the action itself. It also helps the writer understand the value of stakes and effort to achieve a goal.

So yes, video games were a very important part of my life. I grew up with them and don't remember a time I had without them. They have helped me to understand things I might not have otherwise understood and connected me with fantastical worlds and ideas far out of my comfort zone. These are things I never would have imagined without them.

Even though I think the industry right now is in a terrible spot and has been there for a very long time, I cannot deny that it has its place. Video games are here to stay.

Here's hoping we can still say that ten years from now.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Signal Boost ~ "Crusader" by Declan Finn

Find it Here!

Out today is the next novel in veritable word factory Declan Finn's St. Tommy, NYPD series. This one is a paranormal cop series featuring a police officer with special abilities. Can you believe he's already up to book 5? The man is a machine!

I've already reviewed other books by the author and have had nothing but positives to say about it. If you are into tales of action, adventure, and suspense then this is the man you should be looking to. If you pick up a Declan Finn book you know you're getting plenty of bang for your buck.

Speaking of, he has this to say about book 5:
We have Winged Hussars.
We have Jihadi Nazi vampires.
We have succubi running a sex trafficking ring.
We have the nightclub scene from John Wick (dead puppy not included).
We have telekinetic teenagers.
We have mechs versus kaiju dragons -- yes, I managed to stuff in one of those, too.
If you've ever read a book by Finn then you know he's not lying. Not only is the man fast, but he puts out quality work.

The description of Crusader is as follows:
"Still working abroad, Detective Tommy Nolan has a hot tip that leads him to Germany. Women and children are disappearing from Catholic Bavaria. The local police have their hands tied. Tommy is the last hope for answers. 
"Yet again, Tommy is in over his head. What starts as a sex trafficking ring turns into a terrorist conspiracy to unleash Hell on Europe. To stop it, Tommy must fight Nazi vampires, terrorists, and a swarm of succubi who want him as their next meal. Tommy has always crusaded for justice. But now he might be on his last crusade."
Once again you can find it here.

Enjoy, folks. You're in for a good time with Declan Finn. In a world where the mainstream publishers have lost their vigor for the genre he has injected new life into it. That's just the sort of pulp revolution we are all looking and hoping for.

That's all for now. My usual post will be up later this week.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

My Appendix N: Anime & Manga

Armored Trooper Votoms
Stow the attitude, you knew this post was coming. It is time for us to continue our journey through my personal Appendix N, and anime and manga were definite influences. This is going to be quite a bit different as it's not going to be a list. I'm going to talk about why something so foreign to western sensibilities managed to break in and change the way many of my generation and younger see storytelling.

Here we go: it's anime and manga time.

Now saying anime is an influence has apparently taken a different sort of meaning in recent years since the mid-00s when the industry decided to pander to otaku over normal customers, so I have to stress to those unaware that anime as it is now is not as it was before. The reason many western viewers watch anime now is very different to why they used to forty, thirty, or even fifteen, years ago. Not that I can't enjoy some good modern anime, but the reason it sucked me in is different to the reason most enjoy it now.

I'm in it for the hotblooded conflicts and adventure.

There are two different branches this influence comes from so please be patient as I explain each. First I'm going to start with the one that doesn't have much in the way of anime adaptions, mostly locked entirely to manga with the occasional early 90s OVA adaption. You might not know much about this one. I'm referring to the delinquent genre.

Technically starting near the beginning of modern manga through series such as Ashita no Joe, this is the story of a modern teenage youth dissatisfied with a society that undervalues traditional masculinity and has no place for it, or them. It epitomizes a society lost inside itself. These stories can vary from being about confused youth such as Rokudenashi Blues in not knowing the way to adapt to society, to stories of how friendship can save you in series like Kiku, to even about finding love and a woman to protect and becoming a man despite it all.

But there was more to it than that. Kyou Kara Ore Wa!! was a comedy about a boy who decided to be a delinquent one day and ends up in chaotic situation after chaotic situation. Cromartie High was a parody on the genre while at the same time understanding its foibles and strengths. There was a lot of flexibility of the style. For a good while it was the second most popular genre behind action and adventure.

Of course the most popular delinquent series, and probably the biggest the genre will ever get, was merging adventure with the style in Yu Yu Hakusho. The story was about aggressive youth Yusuke Urameshi, a worthless punk who decides to save a boy's life out of the blue which ends up killing him. He is then given a second chance at life as a spirit detective to hunt down those who would do harm to humanity. This one combines the best of delinquent series with the popular battle shonen formula to become one of anime's most well known. The anime was a massive hit, and it still remains the only delinquent manga that isn't some sort of parody to get a proper anime adaption.

This sort of manga got really popular in the late 80s through the late 90s before it got usurped by the milquetoast harem protagonist overtaking just about everything. Since then it has been mostly glorified yakuza stories with teenage characters or parodies treading the same jokes.

Bucchigiri: Bad Boy Boogie
The closest thing to this genre we had in the west hadn't really been around for decades with old Hollywood movies. Those movies were more interested in glamorizing misspent youth than exploring why aggression and anger like this might even occur and what it might be used for to benefit society and others. It requires understanding masculinity in a way no one in charge is willing to.

Even Japan must find this sort of thing uncomfortable, though. After all, as I said, these series rarely ever got anime adaptions, probably due to sponsors and advertisers not finding this sort of thing very friendly to the majority of the population or their higher-ups. Perhaps they're right. Either way, it is definitely an interesting genre when it is done right.

Unfortunately, outside of random examples it is mostly gone today. You might find a delinquent character in a manga or anime now but it is rare that they are ever portrayed as anything other than an idiot or a one dimensional thug for the hero to beat down.

Times change, but these stories don't age much. And they still beat what ended up replacing them even years after the fact.

But that's only half of what inspired me.

Aside from this genre the most obvious influence for me is the same it is for most anyone who got into anime before the late 00s, and that is the adventure genre.

Fist of the North Star
It started in the early 90s on a station from Canada called YTV. They used to air cartoons and kid shows from all over the world from every era at the time. One of the series they used to air was a little known one, at the time, called Dragon Ball. This was the original show, to be exact. Watch a comically powerful kid go on an adventure through a strange fairy land to make a wish on the legendary Dragon Balls. They only aired the first 13 episodes which is was but one arc but they left their impression. That was the first anime I ever really got into.

I later discovered series and movies such as Robotech / Macross, Ronin Warriors, Teknoman, Galaxy Express 999, Akira, and the like, which stuck with me long afterwards. The elemental armors in Knights of the End, for example, are inspired by Ronin Warriors even though they work more like they do in Saint Seiya. Suffice to say anime left its mark on me.

It was only later that I discovered darker fare such as Ninja Scroll, Bubblegum Crisis, or Vampire Hunter D. This rabbit hole went deeper than I thought! By high school I had learned just what this whole anime and manga thing were all about, and I had begun diving into it..

But the peak of the whole thing came around the late '90s when I discovered a trio of series known as the Space Western Trilogy among those in the know. All releasing in 1998 and all were giant hits overseas as opposed to at home, the three of them went on to become some of the highest selling series in the west. But they were also great.

Of course I don't have to tell you that I'm talking about Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop, and Trigun. These three changed the game.

I would be remiss to not mention that around this time Viz Media began to finally put manga out here in both the original unflipped right to left format but also in magazine form as Shonen Jump became a monthly release in the west. This meant manga had finally cracked the market and reading classics like Rurouni Kenshin (better than the anime!), Flame of Recca (the manga is in a whole other league) and those mentioned above became quite a good deal easier to read.

Not long after Viz licensed a series from Naoki Urasawa called Monster. The anime was a good adaption, but it was long and has since become hard to find. So it is the manga which stuck around long after and is the more well known. This is a series about a doctor who saves the wrong patient after being told to abandon him. This leads him into a world of corruption and hidden evil as he tries to find the right answer. It is a battle between good and evil where the stakes are souls and identity.

His follow-up series, 20th Century Boys, is another good against evil series, this time being more of a combination of Stephen King's The Stand and It with a heavy dose of pulp in the veins and far less degeneracy. It was adapted to a trio of live action movies, but the manga still stands as the best way to experience the story.

It was about at this time the original anime and manga boom began to die off. Shady publishers such as Tokyopop and over-saturation were key reasons, but also because Japan decided to crack down on piracy by appealing their products to hardcore otaku instead of those who wanted more series such as Trigun, Monster, or Full Metal Alchemist. They doubled down on easy money at the expense of experimentation or wider audience satisfaction.

To be sure, such series were still made but were pushed to the side when they were once the focus of the industry and created the overseas success anime and manga still enjoy now. But that first boom is what influenced many of those like me.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
What is important to note is that should you take anime and manga out of the equation, entertainment options in the late '90s and '00s are limited by quite a good deal. There are those who to this day think of anime and manga as this weird anomaly that came out of nowhere and that is completely nonsensical in the wider scheme of things. It went from being known as that "tentacle porn" thing in the "Japanimation" days to being known as wish fulfillment for the dateless in the moe era, neither of which are the case. Those who call themselves action and adventure aficionados have bypassed much of the best of it due to preconceptions of an entire genre formed on a minority example. I can't imagine being a writer of the fantastical and completely ignoring anime and manga. You might as we go watch Disney Star Wars and the rest of the stale modern pap being pushed out by modern mega-corporations.

Watch a few episodes of the original Macross (or Robotech if you have to) or Cowboy Bebop, or Escaflowne, and you will be stunned at the level of storytelling and creativity it has that the mainstream is entirely missing today and has been for many years.

While the medium has its own problems, as some of those infamous stigmas it has are real, the medium still remains far above what you will find in western comic books or television today. It still remains the best place to find pulp inspired stories outside of the printed word. If it wasn't for anime and manga I don't think I ever would have pursued writing, as action based storytelling had all but been banished by the time I picked up that issue of Dragon Ball back in the day. I'm not alone in that, either.

So yes, it has had a massive influence on what I write and how I perceive stories. I even have an idea for a future post examining these strengths and weaknesses the mediums have. For now, though, it has proven itself to be one of the few remaining positive influences on future writers, animators, and comic artists, and one that should be watched and examined. There is something there worth exploring.

And so ends this entry. Next post I will go into a less controversial area that will be sure to entertain. How do video games influence fiction writing and thought processes? I guess we'll see.

Until next time.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Game Over

I was going to continue my recent series of posts on my personal Appendix N choices until I remembered this was E3 time. A change of subject was needed. So instead of that I decided to focus this post on video games to match it. And the medium is not in great spot.

However, not only am I not alone in this view, it appears to be a growing consensus year after year. The last few days confirmed it further.

One thing this recent E3 has made clear is that video games have lost their way, and had lost it long ago. For those that don't know, E3 is a trade show for the video game industry that is supposed to be the hobby's biggest even of the year, but it has gotten terrible in recent years. It exists to promote video games and show just how much the industry has in the tank. This year showed it doesn't have much. 2019 is the worst it's ever been.

What was once the hobby of your average kid, has devolved into being for no one. It hasn't grown up with its audience as advertised but has instead morphed. It is now about cults of personality, corporation worship, and "Geek Culture", far away from where it began.

If you want a summary if how bad this E3 was, crass and crude, but always insightful youtuber, Razorfist explains it in the profanity laden rant below.

It sounds like he's joking, but all that actually happened.

For a different perspective as this event was happening live, professional court jester youtuber Mister Metokur goes into a near-10 minute rant after the show by Square Enix had just wrapped up. It almost appears out of character for him, but it is completely understandable. This is after he sat through every live conference at the time and was very clearly getting more and more agitated throughout them all. His commentary paints a picture of a bleak industry.

Starting at about 1:25:50 in the video below he goes off on a tear going through everything bad the hobby has devolved into in recent years. Just as Razorfist, this is someone who has been gaming for a long time, and probably about has long as I have.

(Skip to 1:25:50)

I share both their opinions on this colossal failure of an event. This is not what gaming used to be.

At least, as both have admitted, the Nintendo presentation which ran last on Tuesday actually was extraordinary. They presented games, revealed new ones, and offered surprise after surprise in a compact time period. It was the anti-thesis of every other presentation. Nintendo still remembers what made this industry great to begin with, whch is great to see since they've been in it longer than any of the others at the show. However, one company cannot save an industry, and E3 2019 was still terrible.

So, what happened? How did video games devolve from being fun slices of imagination pressed to a cartridge that a kid would buy after a week of mowing lawns to becoming brain dead shallow interactive movies with the imagination of a thumbtack? When did they decide to become our priests and confessors instead of vendors? When did entertainment decide it needed to become a lifestyle brand instead of entertainment? A hobby that went from giving the censors the finger in the '90s to bending over for them in two decades is quite the fall.

Video games are not like the other dying forms of entertainment. Whereas movies and TV lost the plot in the '90s, slowly sliding downhill throughout the '00s to the dog's breakfast they are now, and comics went through the grinder back in the 60s before gradually rotting away into irrelevance, video games managed to stay the course kept their popularity on top of it. They never had to pander to be a gigantic industry.

You see, despite the revisionism that video games are being ruined now because of the dumb mainstream, video games have been mainstream since the 1970s. There were movies and TV shows based around them that were highly successful, and you'd be hard pressed to find a kid by the early 90s that didn't own an NES at least once. They got more and more popular because they stayed the course and attracted new people as an audience towards them.

The difference is that companies used to make games for gamers, the people that actually bought them, and not a phantom casual audience of millions that will buy watered down dross. You could list classic game after classic game throughout every decade since the '70s as genres came and went, some were twisted and were destroyed, and yet others rose from the ashes, sometimes within a single entry of a series, but creativity never appeared in short supply. Games were at their best when they had a defined identity.

Perhaps looking at the game boxes of popular games will give a hint. I will even choose older ones to illustrate the point.

If you've spent any time around here at all then you probably know what the similarities are between the above boxes. It isn't genre, publisher, developer, system, or release date year. They're all pulp inspired. They all share the fact that they play on the imagination and longing for adventure that the audience craves. The gameplay built around their pulp framework is what hooks the gamer into the adventure to make the experience even more immersive.

Here we go again.

Early games were based on comics, TV, and adventure movies that all have roots in the older traditions that go back further into the pulps. Throughout the '70s, and '80s, deep into the '90s all video games had these as touchstones and backing which made "Gameplay first, Everything else second" far easier to manage. This is how they kept to the narrow path of success. Now games are based on bad, boring, and overproduced modern Hollywood movies. The same Hollywood movies people are going out less and less to see and that games were out-grossing.

Imagine if you're a popular Jazz artist and you suddenly decide to play Noise Polka. You don't think there wouldn't be a problem with the audience? Of course it's a stupid example. Musicians aren't dumb enough to abandon what made them to begin with to copy a style that is significantly less likely to make them money or an audience. The game industry is, however.

But video games didn't use to be this restrained and limited. Actually, I will go further and include all games from Tabletop to Board. It's about the concept of gaming itself. The reason gaming took off was the tactile feel and close brushing against that world of imagination we all love to tap into. This is a different word than just "reading" or "watching", but also "experiencing" on top of it. What it's not is about mindless consuming and hoping one solid heroin hit will give you that buzz you are looking for. Gaming was about finding new ways to get the gamer into situations and push them further into that mindset of imagination and creativity.

You are the master of your imagination. They give you the rules and set up, and you play. Everything beyond that basic set up is up to you.

And because they were games that naturally meant its barrier of entry was challenge. This was needed to make them stand out from other types of art. The rules are what separate playing a game from passively watching a movie or patiently reading a book. This challenge is what helped games craft an identity apart from other art. This is why the roots in video games come from arcades and arcade rules such as "Continues" and "Game Over" screens.

That's right, arcade gaming is one of the deepest roots in the medium. It emphasized challenge to keep gamers coming back and pumping quarters and token into their machines. So with the death of arcades after the end of the '90s, gaming began to shift from this focus on players traversing tough challenges into being about advancing a pseudo-film plots through poorly aged cutscenes. It continued this devolution from the original PlayStation up to where we are today.

A good example of this is the shoot 'em up, or "shmup", genre. This used to be a staple style in gaming throughout the golden age of the medium up until the death of arcades and the movement towards "Cinematic experiences" and other such idiocy.

A "Shmup"

Back in the day, up until about the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and original PlayStation generation, you wouldn't find a game critic or gamer who didn't have a favorite shmup or have a few in their library, and publishers were still putting them out up until the '00s hit. But then it got worse as the industry shifted from challenge to cinematics. Pioneers in the genre such as Compile ended up biting the dust by the end of the generation and the arcades had to cling to the gimmicky and visually stagnant "bullet hell" subgenre to get by. Now not only is the genre practically dead, they are treated as outdated and cheap relics worth no more than a pocket of change by those salivating for the next $60 movie experience. This loss of a cornerstone genre is just one example of how watered down and diluted the hobby has become since ts heyday.

The concept of "Lives" and "Continues" have become a foreign concept for those who need save states and instant gratification to get by, when they are what built the industry to begin with. But challenge is now looked at as bad. Game reviewers actually mark games down for being too difficult today, and have since the original PlayStation. Having your hand held through static cinematics and pushing a button prompt on screen to "be awesome" has replaced it. What easier way to get that dopamine hit without the developer having to design anything new or the gamer having to strive to reach it?

At this point they aren't even games anymore. This isn't what the industry started from, and without those roots the static E3 show the above commentators were harping on is inevitable. Games are not going to get better from here because there's nowhere else to go. This framework of bad movies they are stuck in is a dead end.

What are they going to do to fix it or improve? Take more control from the player? Add in more cinematics fashioned on worse movies no one watches? Streamline design even more to the point you only need controllers with a single button? Game design has already been stagnant for over a decade now. It can't get worse from here, but it can, and will, continue to decay. They're even bringing back old series such as Commander Keen and Battletoads to spit on with terrible modern anti-consumer practices and bad, insulting art. If you can't beat the past, it's easier to destroy it.

It happens all the time.

But there are still many keeping the old flame alive. From middle market developers such as New Blood Interactive putting out games such as DUSK and Amid Evil to Nintendo remembering that people want that gameplay--that key component of gaming--more than ever. It isn't hopeless, despite how bad it looks.

While the AAA industry will eventually gorge itself to death, and will be forgotten rather quickly when it does by those moving on to the next shallow hobby, there are still those who remember where it all came from and are dead set on doing it right. We can only hope they stick around long enough to make a difference.

Next time we return to business as usual when I get back to my Appendix N posts. For now I think I'm going to go play some Soldier Blade. That's a game that never gets old. Because it wasn't designed to. It was made to have you keep coming back and improve your skill. And maybe that's the key.

So don't look for the future of your hobby of choice from corporations. They've long since lost the plot. You won't find any future there. Time's already almost up. Look to the past and you'll get an idea of what the future holds.

It's guaranteed.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

My Appendix N: Movies & TV

Welcome back to this series of posts where I try to nail down what exactly inspired me to write what I do. This is my personal Appendix N of art that has stuck with me. More than a favorites list, I'm focused first on what really attached itself to what I do. This hasn't been as easy to compile as I would have thought.

As the years have gone by I've been watching less and less of the old boob tube or spending money to stare at a bigger screen. Perhaps it's shifting interests, or perhaps it's just gotten that bad. Probably both. But even as I look back on the television I enjoyed when I was younger it is mostly limited to adventure cartoons and action series that had been driven out by the end of the 90s or were targeted by ACT at the time. Aside from that? Well, it's anime city. I'm sure that chased off more than a few.

But that will have to wait for another post. For now I would prefer to stick by what really gave me the juice to write in my younger years before the weeb virus hit. This is going to go far back, so be prepared.

As for what exactly I would classify as my Appendix N entries for television and movies? That list is not as long as I would have thought.

So let us begin!

Labyrinth (1986)

This is the movie I watched more than any other as a kid. For years I would watch this when staying over at my grandmother's house. No lie, I must have rewound that tape so much I'm surprised it lasted anywhere near as long as it did. Essentially a quest film, the fantasy atmosphere, memorable characters, practical effects, and weirdness of the whole project kept me engaged for years. Most people associated Jim Henson with the Muppets, but it was always this movie for me.

Of course it goes without saying that a movie like this could never be made today without checking boxes or sterilizing the story, and the music would never be anywhere near as good, but for its time, and for my childhood, it was exactly what was needed. I can hear David Bowie singing right now.

I'm still surprised I watched this one as much as I did, though looking back now I can see why. Few movies nail the weird fiction feel that Labyrinth does.

The Simpsons (1989-1997)

Well, I was born in the mid-80s, so of course this would have to be here. But aside from just blandly acknowledging its influence, I can say that the first 9 seasons are some of the best television you will ever see on a writing level. It's smart, it's funny, and it can be touching, sometimes even all at the same time. After that era, season 10 is just okay, season 11 and 12 are abysmal aside from an episode or two, and it's been mediocre ever since. The only reason it is still around is because of that first decade of existence. But what a decade it was.

I do remember seeing the Tracy Ullman shorts when I was young (which will never be officially re-released) and watching the show long after season 8, but it was those first 8 seasons which are the peak of the whole run. Season 9 was the last with many of the writers (who went on to the also great Futurama and King of the Hill right after it) and as such it has more laughs than it does brains, but it is still great and worth seeing. After that it has had the same group of writers give or take a few since season 10, and it shows. I would hardly recommend watching that far in.

But those first eight seasons taught me a lot of what was possible in writing from how much could be crammed into one scene or line and how much every little thing counts from aesthetic to music. I haven't even had to watch a full episode in years since I still remember so much of it. That is why it's here.

Bloodsport (1988)

Now we get to another movie I wore out as a kid. Bloodsport is regularly acknowledged as one of the best action movies ever made, and Van Damme's best, and for good reason. To be honest, most of it is standard for the time. The acting is passable, the music is typical, and the plot is straightforward. But all of it is improved by the tremendous editing to make it dynamite and the action scenes pop in a big way. Add in that 80s action movies never failed in delivering what audiences wanted and you have a winner..

Van Damme tasked himself with editing this, much like he did with Cyborg, due to Cannon Films' failing fortunes at the time and need for a hit and both resulted in bigger movies than they otherwise would have been. Bloodsport benefited the most, and it is still regarded as his best movie. I concur with that notion. Why else did I watch this so many times as a kid? Even watching it now gets the blood pumping.

This one taught me a lot about the importance of brevity, impact, and editing. All these helped make Bloodsport one of the best action movies, and I hope to incorporate them in what I do.

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

I watched this series later than most, but that definitely doesn't mean it didn't have an effect on me. I shouldn't have to explain it but the show was essentially Weird Tales for television, especially since it premiered three years after the magazine folded and featured some of the most famous writers in the field such as Richard Matheson. Particularly in the first two seasons, it is a great show that can be eerie, funny, or heartwarming. It's classic status is well deserved.

Of course it's not perfect. Some of the episodes, particularly near the end, are ridiculous, and the public's focus on reading social messages into the show (that one neighbor episode is not about the red scare, for instance) that might not have been there gave it a reputation far from its original intent. These dumb readings ended up with many missing the purpose of what such a show was meant to be. The Weird Tale is the encroachment of supernatural on the normal with the supernatural problem being solved, or understood, by the end of it. The Twilight Zone was the first show to put it to film, and it was a hit for that reason.

The best episode in my opinion is in the first season. The Four of Us are Dying is a noir with a dark twist and an ending that is as creepy as it can get, especially for the time. If you are looking for one episode in particular to watch, start with that. You will see the show is more than reading into messages that may not even exist.

Dark City (1998)

At the time I had only seen The Matrix, and was unaware how much it had taken from Dark City. But as the years go by one's influence has waned while the other has made itself clear to me. Dark City is part noir, part Weird Tale, and part fantasy, with tons of style to spare. In the process it became something wholly unique from the pack, especially from a time period that honestly has very few memorable movies that have lasted. Of course it was also a flop at the time.

I have heard charges that this movie is Gnostic, but I don't see it--especially not to the level of The Matrix. A Gnostic tale has to be one where our reality is the false one and the "real" one, which is considerably more fantastical, is the preferred reality. We need to break into the better one and shun this weak one. However, the dream world in Dark City does not reflect our world at all (there is no sun, for instance) and the real one is . . . well, it's ours, aside from a supernatural explanation as to why they are in the false one to begin with. It's the opposite of a movie such as The Matrix where mundane Earth is bad and secret fantastical universe is great--the whole plot hinges on the opposite being true. It's a movie about searching for light in the dark. That's pretty normal to me.

It's a noir movie where the quest is for the truth hidden by nefarious means and where reality is held up as where one has to live. We don't know what will happen after the credits roll but we do know that things won't be the same again, and that evil has been expelled. For a noir? That's a happy ending. And it is one movie that has influenced me a lot.

DuckTales (1987-1990)

I didn't grow up with the original DuckTales comics, but I did grow up with the show, just like every other kid who saw The Disney Afternoon in the '90s. It was a syndicated series which aired every day after school along with other adventure shows for kids such as The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Chip n Dale Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and Gargoyles, but this was the biggest one among them. It was also the longest at 100 episodes flat.

Because of its format it had things I had never seen before such as 5-part episodes that ran through the week and genre switching whenever it felt like doing so. One day it might be aliens, the next a trip through the Klondike, or a journey to the center of the Earth, or robots might rise up. It could be anything at any time. You never knew what you were tuning into with any given episode of DuckTales. That is the spirit of adventure, and it is an idea I took very seriously, and still do now.

It was also, like the rest of the block, very family friendly. It didn't need to be explicit to give off danger even when characters died and the situations were still allowed to be dire. I maintain that The Disney Afternoon was Disney's last peak before they became that dross that they are now and this show in particular is an example of why.

Die Hard (1988)

It's almost embarrassing at this point to mention Die Hard as an inspiration, but to do otherwise would be lying. It is popular for a reason. Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made for the fact that its stakes are real, tangible, and always a direct threat to everyone. This means the main character cannot afford to be sloppy or else he will have a hole blown through his plot armor. And he does. Several times.

On top of it, Die Hard is a very funny movie with good lines and character moments. It has tight pacing. The acting is phenomenal. What more can be said? If you've seen it then you understand why. Every piece comes together to make this one a classic.

At the same time I grew up a fan of the series. While the second and fourth movie are not as strong as the first or third, (and the fifth is terrible) as a whole it is one of the best action movie series around. It's up there with Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon. But its the first movie that makes it here for being the one that really showed me how far out there an action movie can get while also retaining stakes. Few movies do it better than Die Hard.

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)

The first western cartoon in years to try and do something away from comedy. Batman had to catch up to anime, and it did a great job on its own even if the networks have tried so very hard to expunge its influence since. Batman: The Animated Series brought detective noir to animation and did it in a way that no one else really has since, outside of anime. For the time it was untouchable and even now its still a great show that has aged far better than it had any right to.

It also started a whole universe of shows long before Marvel tried their hand at it with movies. This one, Superman: The Animated Series, Static Shock, Batman Beyond, The Zeta Project, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, all rolled out from this one to form a cohesive and whole universe. It also had an ending way more satisfying than Marvel's, and at least one movie (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm) that is better than anything to come out of the superhero milieu. And it all started with this series.

Needless to say, I owe a lot to this series when it comes to world-building possibilities and in pure imagination. This might not be the best series of the 90s, but it's close to it.

The Killer (1989)

Despite how controversial John Woo might be considered as a filmmaker, I would not trust anyone who told me The Killer was anything less than a classic. Top notch action, wonderful cinematography and directing, and fantastic acting and music elevate it high, but there is one thing that makes it one of the best and that is the moral dilemma.

It's no secret that John Woo is a Christian who likes to use doves quite a bit in his works. However, this film of the awakening of the moral conscience and the discovery of love (and more than one kind of love) amidst a world of darkness, revenge, and death, where hope is a foreign idea, is incredible and engaging from beginning to end. Even the title takes on a whole new meaning by the end of the movie when everything is on fire and the main character gains true sight.

No one could ever remake it, but this did have quite the influential range up to today from anime series such as Trigun to a little series known as John Wick. It's a redemption story, and one of the best of its kind. I don't care who you are: The Killer is one of the best.

Batman: The Brave & the Bold (2008-2011)

Another Batman series? Yes, but not for the same reasons as the other one. You see, after Batman: The Animated Series and the entire animated universe ended, DC had no idea what to do with the character. The first thing they tried was a bland rebooted series (with a surprisingly good movie) called The Batman that could not help but pale to the original. Missing the pulp influence was probably a contributing factor to that. So along came Batman: The Brave & the Bold which threw caution to the wind and did something new.

This series is unabashedly pulp. Aside from the first few episodes which were more Saturday Morning Cartoon in content and unsure to the point they tried being meta and failed, once it got going TB&TB became a series ripped out of the Golden Age of comics, taking the most insane plot ideas seriously with a consistent internal logic, team ups with a large swath of legendary characters, comedy that was the best it had been since Adam West wore the cowl (without the camp, though), and plenty of action and stakes along the way. It has everything. That it took the whole ordeal seriously is what makes it one of the best Batman adaptions, and one of the best comic book TV series ever.

I think this might have been the first series since the '90s to try and unapologetically put pulp on your TV screen and not water it down or treat it as an ironic goof. For that it really showed me how possible it was to have fun with something and treat it seriously at the same time. That type of thing is rare enough these days.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Of course I had to include this. I've never been into Star Trek aside from enjoying a handful of movies and a TV series, of which you can probably guess which ones, but I did understand what Galaxy Quest was both parodying and celebrating when it came out. There's a lot of love in this movie for both old fantastic fiction and the fandom that loves it for reasons they might not even understand.

It's also really funny and clever and takes the premise seriously despite how silly it might seem. And it appears to have hit its mark as twenty years later it is still beloved. I managed to watch this in theaters the day it came out to a mostly empty showing so seeing the appreciation it gets now is great to see.

I quite like this one for how it finds a way to make just about every character quirk both a strength and a flaw and how it turns serious at the right moments when it needs to. The writing is pitch perfect here. This also might be the very last movie of its kind as I can't think of many like it that have come out in the years since.

Gargoyles (1994-1996)

This one was a marvel for the time. A Disney produced action adventure show taken seriously with a full world mythology and conflicts to explore is not something we had gotten before, or since. In many ways this is what The Disney Afternoon had been leading up to since it first started with Gummi Bears and DuckTales. Incorporating everything from Celtic myths to Shakespeare to the Illuminati within its many stories Gargoyles could go anywhere, and it did.

Unfortunately the run only lasted 65 episodes, with an additional season tacked on by no one involved with the original, however it managed quite a lot in such a short run. It later had a comic continuation but I've never been interested in that as the cartoon was enough. The original run did all it needed to.

Strangely enough the same time this show was running my Elementary school ran a play of MacBeth that I happened to be in. That added quite a bit of context to this already great show and gave me an appreciation for the classics at the same same time I was being told by everyone else how irrelevant they were. Reality can be a strange place.

The Shadow (1994)

I'm not going to pretend this is a great movie, but it does have a lot of great moments and performances by Alec Baldwin and Tim Curry to make it sing at times. To be honest, none of the live action Batman movies ever did it for me. It wasn't until later that I learned they were actually missing that pulp heart this movie had in spades. And warts or not, this movie has that feel. Put it in black and white and trim down the weaker elements and you will have an old school pulp film.

Here is a movie about a mysterious vigilante dealing with the fantastical in strange ways of his own and with a moral code that was as dangerous as it was cool to a kid like I was. Seeing it in the theater was a double treat. To this day I think this film is far more interesting than the Tim Burton Batman movies which never did anything for me. Blasphemous? Maybe. But it's true.

As I said there were problems. There are a few tonal issues and I don't like the fact that there is an origin story, but it otherwise made The Shadow such an interesting character that he always stuck with me long after the movie was forgotten by everyone else. When I try to write heroes it is hard to not have The Shadow lingering in the back of my thoughts just as he would probably prefer.

Rocko's Modern Life (1993-1996)

Overshadowed these days by a show named Spongebob Squarepants which shared much of its staff, there wasn't really anything like Rocko's Modern Life at the time, or now. Nickelodeon was known as the edgy new cartoon network then and shows like Ren & Stimpy and Ahh! Real Monsters were well in that gross-out style, but Rocko was a bit different. It was a satire of modern life and all the crazy things that were happening at the time.

In a way it was The Simpsons for kids only it was a lot cruder and unforgiving on the modern world's foibles. From everything to corporate cubicle life to pop culture worship to cults, it covered just about everything. It was also wickedly funny. It did this without having to preach anything to the viewer either. Not bad for a kid's show at a time when they were under fire.

Nickelodeon started strong but never managed to keep its quality level, especially after the 90s, and it never got as good as Rocko again. But this one did show me the right way to write about sensitive and controversial topics without pandering, and remaining entertaining at the same time. This is an art lost to time, but the show still holds up. As much as it would be nice if it didn't.

Cobra (1986)

This was the first action movie that showed me the importance of the clear dichotomy between good and evil and how it leads to more explosive and intense action scenes. In Cobra everything is black and white and those that try to gray it up are actively helping the black. At the same time the main character's code hinders him throughout the film no matter how correct it might be, showing that for good to win it must work much harder than evil does.

It's also incredibly fun. The action scenes are intense and well-directed, there are one-liners all over the place, and the pacing never drags. For a movie edited at the zero hour it sure doesn't show it aside from cutting out the villains' motivations which don't matter that much in the long run for those who have seen the movie.

As far as action movies go, Cobra is one of the best and is still the one I think of when I think of the genre. It does everything right and remains a model for me on how to write in the genre. Oh, and that soundtrack is perfection. Can't forget that.

King of the Hill (1997-2010)

Whereas The Simpsons was the most important sitcom of the 20th century, King of the Hill went on to become the best one. Run by Mike Judge (Office Space, Idiocracy, Beavis & Butthead) and Greg Daniels (The Office), King of the Hill was at once a celebration, satire, endorsement, and parody, of small town life in one of the few places such a life still existed in the western world: the American South. With a rich cast of characters, a seemingly endless bag of tricks, and a good portion of the writers from The Simpsons in tow, King of the Hill ran for over a decade and 250 episodes, somehow surviving despite its network trying hard to kill it off.

It's difficult to imagine a series like this existing now. Staunchly traditional, it didn't even move to HD until its very last season. It was very old school from comedic sensibility to its lack of reliance on subversion, though it did have that, too. That might be why it had the longest run of pure quality of any sitcom to date--it didn't have to keep shocking the audience. Despite this it didn't mind indulging in and poking fun at just about every aspect of the small town way of life. Fittingly enough, it ended about the time that way of life did at the end of the '00s. King of the Hill now rests as a time capsule of the 20th century that fell away as the 21st got its hooks in and tore it asunder.

The writing in this series also taught me a lot from voices, motivations, and temperament, in a way I try to reflect in my own. That it managed to do so for so long with seemingly little effort (at least, as far as we can see as viewers) is a testament to the fact it is looked at as a classic now when it was overlooked for much of its original run. Of course it would have to influence me. This is the best sitcom ever made, after all.

The Princess Bride (1987)

As a kid I watched a good few of the '80s classics Gen Y went through from The Goonies to E.T., but of all of them I would imagine The Princess Bride is the one that wins over them all. In many ways, it is also the last of its kind, as far as adventure movies go. But that merely adds to the charm.

This was a pure-hearted swashbuckler seen through a modern lens that is hard to see as anything but an attempt at subversion that utterly fails because it cannot compete with itself. Despite how funny the movie it is, it is funny in context with the story of adventure and romance as the backdrop. It showed that these types of stories are impossible to subvert as when once is tempted to play it straight it shows to be too good to ignore for those involved. This is adventure too good for this world.

It isn't hard to see why this resonated for so many, but the adventure, romance, and excitement is as captivating today as it was when it came out. We won't see anything like this again.

NewsRadio (1995-1998)

If I could I would list this whole entry as "Late 80s/Early 90s Comedy" then it might be more accurate. I say this, as SNL, Mad TV, Kids in the Hall, SCTV, and Married with Children, at the time all emphasized a sort of freewheeling madness in their comedy that is like nothing we'll ever see again. However, the final one of these types of shows I would put as the peak would be NewsRadio, specifically the first four seasons before the final one dropped the ball, though for unavoidable reasons. Comedy after this was never the same, and it can't be again.

This is a typical office-life sitcom except with an emphasis on nutty gags and situations with some of the best comedic actors from the period, such as Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall), Stephen Root (King of the Hill, Office Space), Joe Rogan, Maura Tierney, and Andy Dick at his least annoying. But leading them all was one of my favorites: Phil Hartman. NewsRadio was the last sitcom of its style before nu-comedy took over from Friends-style shallow city life worship to the PC factory of awkward speeches and single cameras we are stuck with now.

About the only thing missing in the show were cameos from Chris Farley and John Candy, though it is obvious why that was impossible. The death of Phil Hartman (he was killed after season 4 wrapped up) puts a damper on the proceedings and signaled the end of this era, but that doesn't change how strong this is or the fact that it as good as it gets. When I think of comedy, this is the sort of thing I go to. And that will always be the case.

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

One of the few adaptions I have enjoyed more than the original, The Secret of NIMH was Don Bluth's first feature and his attempt to show Disney what they were missing out on by continuing on with the same formula forever. He adapted this children's book and added a fantasy and mystical vibe to it that went well with the gritty and fantastic animation only hand-painted cells can give. About the only regret is the lack of Brutus getting more screen-time when he was one of the best characters in the book, but everything else is better, especially since there is a final confrontation with the villain here.

It is hard to imagine a time when western animation wasn't the barren desert it is today, but in a pre-Shrek world people like Don Bluth were willing to do new things, and this was easily his peak. Unfortunately, its influence no longer appears to be around in the animated world but those like me who saw it as a kid still think highly of it today, and it inspires just as much.

Outside of anime I don't think I've seen an earnest attempt to make a serious theatrical adventure story without attaching some gimmick. NIMH does it easily with some of the best and most imaginative animation ever seen. And that's what still makes it work. As a writer you would be remiss passing this one over.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

I'm not sure is possible to explain this one aside from an episode on a certain podcast I've done, so just let me sum it up. John Carpenter was unstoppable in the '80s with new ideas seemingly bursting at the seams, and really putting himself out there in a post-Star Wars world. You can probably name a few of your favorites. This one is mine.

A supernatural tour-de-force of action, adventure, romance, wonder, and comedy, John Carpenter took inspiration from Chinese martial arts movies to construct his own vision of sinister forces and the brave men who battle them. At the same time it is also a comedy of a man the universe deems to be a sidekick who refuses to be one. As strange as John Carpenter could be at the time, this was him at his weirdest, and most inventive. This is one of the best Weird Tales ever filmed.

This is the sort of thing I aspire to write today. Just ignore artificial genre boundaries and do what the story needs to succeed. Fiction can be anything and go anywhere, so why limit yourself? Art is meant to be explored and shared with others. And few people understood it better than Carpenter did in the '80s.

And that would be it for movies and television. There are others I could mention, but they are pretty obvious. Despite being of the generation where we were supposed to have been left unattended in front of the idiot box it didn't carry quite as much inspiration as I would have thought it did. But does the medium matter that much when it comes to art? I'm not so sure.

That said, this is what has inspired me the most and helped shape what I wish to accomplish with what I do. It's a strange list, but then again I also grew up in a strange time.

Next we'll go a bit into the weeb-ier side and wonder just how someone like this could like something like that. Who would have thought?

Until next time.