Shovel Knight (Yacht Club Games, 2015)

shovel knight

Shovel Knight is a tribute, a homage, a loving paean to an age long past: the golden era of the 8 bit platformer.

Mario, Zelda, Megaman, Ducktales, Battletoads. They all have echoes throughout in Shovel Knight (and in the case of Battletoads, they’re actually in the game). But, most crucially, the creators of Shovel Knight deeply understood what made those games charming, delightful, and fun and utilizes those learnings to create a new game, not a shallow nostalgia trip. There’s a reason we moved on from punishing 8 bit platformers and Yacht Club Games comprehends this even while celebrating it.

Shovel Knight plays out in an overworld map with separate levels thematically tied to The Order of No Quarter (goons with names like King Knight and Propeller Knight and Plague Knight). The honorable Shovel Knight himself has set out to find the villainous Enchantress at whose hand his beloved Shield Knight has disappeared. There’s towns and shops filled with charming individuals/horse people and pun-spitting frogs. The game proves you can communicate quite a bit with nothing but 2d sprites, good level design, catchy music, smart excerpts of texts, and singing fish. The world of Shovel Knight is chock full of character.

Shovel Knight can swing his shovel, use it like a pogo stick (ala Scrooge McDuck in Nintendo’s Ducktales), and collect relics that do things like shoot fireballs and make him invulnerable. The controls are tight and your hero reacts like he ought to. The level design is similarly fine tuned. Concepts are introduced to you smartly before you have to use them in life or death situations (stuff like a platform that fires you into the ceiling appearing in an innocuous place before the next screen puts the same platform under 1-hit kill spikes). Even things like how far one platform is placed from another is designed thoughtfully. It’s the minutia and level flow that make this game so enjoyable — I can’t point out any specific level and think they missed the mark on that one. The art of 2d platformer design stopped progressing 20 years ago and Shovel Knight gobbled up everything we had learned until then and improved on it.

I conquered Shovel Knight. I beat it at least 4 times. Taking double damage with no checkpoints. In under 90 minutes. Using nothing but a shovel. Without dying. I did everything; I’m usually sick to death of a game by the time I reach that point, but I want more. Mastery of a simple concept can be greatly rewarding. Great platformers push that button for me.

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Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (part II)

This is the second half of my review of Annals of the Former World. You should read the first part here.

annals

Wrapping up Rising from the Plains, McPhee explores the concept of ‘hot spots’. If you look at a geological map of the Pacific Ocean, you can see a chain of islands, underwater, extending from Hawaii most of the way to Asia. This is because there is an intense thrust of heat somewhere deep in the earth’s mantle — Hawaii, the Yellowstone Mountains, and portions of the Caribbean among others did not rise via plate Tectonics, but through these hot spots. The underwater islands are portions of Hawaii from the distant past. Eventually Kauai, northmost and oldest of the islands, will sink and new islands will arise southeast of Big Island and the chain will continue.

A hotspot lay under Yellowstone that conceivably traveled all the way under the US and fired Bermuda into the Atlantic.

 

Assembling California

For an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California. […] I don’t mean to suggest that California was underwater and has since come up. I mean to say that of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces that we now call California nothing whatever was there. The continent ended far to the east. Where California has come to be, there was only blue sea reaching down some miles to ocean-crustal rock.

This is a geological history of California, the newest segment of the United States. It’s also a story of settlers moving west, the doom of the Donner party, and especially the gold rush and the 49ers, a history of humanity directly triggering geologic events in a mad destructive frenzy to unearth more gold. It’s an excellent mix of history and science. As he wrote these books, McPhee learned better how to fluidly entwine the two. Like the Nevada books, my understanding was greatly enhanced by reading of areas I’ve lived/visited. It’s easy to image the miners shearing through the Sierras with high-powered hoses when you’ve actually driven by the pits they left behind.

McPhee travels with Eldridge Moores, a professor with an unlikely childhood in a tiny Arizona mining town, throughout the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and down through the central valley and over to the coastal ranges abutting San Francisco north and south. They do not remain state-side and revisit Moores’ old areas of study — Macedonia and Cyprus. Assembling California has a scope beyond the previous books, even while focusing on one state. The newness of California is fascinating and allows us to imagine how many other areas of the earth appeared in their infancy.

The book ends with a stirring present-tense account of what happened during the northern-California earthquake of 1989 (generally tied to San Francisco, it did greater damage nearer to its epicenter a couple hours south). Freeways collapsed on top of eachother, bridges swayed and lurched (the upper portion of the Bay Bridge smashed through the lower), skyscrapers jumped, bicyclists were thrown somersaulting through the air… it’s amazing only eighty-ish people died amidst such awesome destruction. The lesson here is that despite human and geologic time existing on such vastly different scales, they are still one and the same, occurring simultaneously.

 

Crossing the Craton

The last volume of this mammoth is much shorter and written considerably later than the others. It could only exist later because it relies on recent (for 1999) technologies that allow geologists much greater insight into the interior of the US — from Nebraska though Illinois (A.K.A. The Craton). For much of the history of science, the stable center of North America was considered to have been there, unchanged, since the fiery creation of the earth. Recent finds show that the craton came together like everywhere else: plates grinding and slamming into eachother with land aboard, little archipelagos and islands getting crunched together to form larger masses, ocean floor sliding under other ocean floor to melt and push up mountains. There’s mountains buried in Kansas, far below any human capacity to drill. Gravity surveys and isotopic dating allow us to see below.

This path pushes geology beyond the realm of rocks into astronomy and biology. It allows us to envision a world before plant life. It causes us to face the stunning truth that plenty of our modern rocks are reinforced or made of the fossilized shells of ancient vertebrates. It also gives us a vision of the early earth — extremely hot and withstanding the constant pummeling of meteors. Those same rocks are still there… somewhere. The oldest rocks any humans have discovered are around 4 billion years old, approaching the age of the earth.


This book was very long. I mostly enjoyed it. I worried throughout that I was not retaining enough. Indeed, a great fraction of this text passed through my brain and skiied beyond into the great blue yonder. Yet while camping this Memorial Day weekend, in northern California beside a river cutting into a mountain valley, leaping from water-eroded rocks that looked like ancient volcanic debris, laying down a towel upon pulverized rock and tracing the track of the river, I felt a geologic sense, an interest and understanding I owe to reading Annals of the Former World. It was only while writing this paragraph that I thought to look and confirm that the river I was staying on — The Eel river — was created by the San Andreas fault, which I was reading about while lounging on its shores.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

mad max guitar guySomewhere amidst humanity’s collective unconscious lies The Wasteland. Sand. Emptiness. Industrial collapse. An absence of life metaphored through lack of water or greenery. In the 80s, George Miller fashioned Mad Max’s desolate universe, surrounded by cold war paranoia and the potential for weaponized destruction of the earth, and it immediately lodged itself into the apocalyptic zeitgeist: other movies, books, video games are like to feature a variation of Miller’s wasteland. In 2015, the franchise inexplicably rejuvenated, we now fear environmental destruction instead of the atom bomb but the result is essentially the same. Neither nuclear winter nor catastrophic glacial melt creates the setting of Mad Max — but it’s how we envision a world dead, the unintended-but-obvious endgame of carelessness & greed.

Each of the Mad Max movies is tonally different. I know because I watched all three again in anticipation of Fury Road. The original (1979) has the captivating quality that all very early projects by talented directors have. Its vision is central and palpable. The apocalypse is background to an interpersonal tale that flangs outward to include a psychopathic biker gang. The violence is sparse and devastating, the aesthetic unmistakable. Road Warrior (1981) follows and Max has turned from family man to brooding, reluctant hero. Apocalypse has arrived. Gangs fight on the road for any scrap of gas to keep driving. The plot revolves around an enclave surrounding a tanker full of gas and their plan of escape, beyond the second coming of psycho biker gangs in bondage gear. Last comes Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which takes the series into extra campy, goofy territory. Mel Gibson’s Max is more of a grunting, disoriented non-hero. Tina Turner is resplendent as the villain. It’s kind of hilarious. Those four years changed a great deal.

So what is Fury Road? Non-stop action, that’s what. The main characters drive a weaponized, armored rig through the desert with an army of mad hooligans in hot pursuit. Then they turn around and do it again. There’s rare stoppages to breathe and they do not last long. The bondage attired goons of the 80s are replaced by white skinned bald guys who hunker and scrabble and leap like goblins & orcs (WETA workshop, masterminds behind Lord of the Rings costuming and imagery, were at work here). I missed the sexually deviant leather-clad-assless-chapped-codpieced cadre of the previous movies but there’s hints of weirdness and humor here and there. The action is tight & smart — not nonsensical blockbuster explosions and quick shots. Tension is engineered through unique situations: take for an example two racing vehicles, both with a passenger on the hood frantically siphoning gas and spitting it into the engine to stay ahead of the other. Or the Crouching Tiger-esque fight where Max engages Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in fistfight while chained to a corpse he must keep navigating around/with.

It’s exhilarating. I haven’t seen a great action flick in years, it seems. I missed some of the small scale quirkiness of early Mad Max’s, but I am also glad this movie struck its own path and avoided a nostalgic Thunderdome rehash. The movie unapologetically blames everyone — the good guys, the bad guys, the in-betweens, the audience — for the destruction of the world. There’s a scene with some characters screaming “You killed the world!” at another character while he denies it. We exult in the action and violence of the movie, revel in our own projected destruction. It’s the villains people dress up as. Fury Road doesn’t so much warn us of a potential future; it shows us what we think it looks like and asks us to celebrate along with it.

Quick thoughts: Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV

ac3and4 I finished Assassin’s Creed III months ago. I had too many thoughts. The effort involved vs. finished review seemed a poor investment. The world does not need an AC3 thesis.Then I finished Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was fun, but ultimately kind of bland and not worth writing a review over. So, in an effort to record my experience during all those hours without getting excessive, I am limiting each game to one paragraph each.

Assassin’s Creed III: AC3 stars ‘Connor’*, a half british, half Mohawk man who Forrest Gumps his way through the American Revolution. It’s the least interesting historical period/event from a time-travel tourism perspective — I grew up in New England and these stories were drilled into me ad nauseum, via elementary school and cultural osmosis. The missions are too tightly scripted and controlled since they need to match precise events the player is already familiar with. The frontier stuff — running around on trees, hunting animals, building a homestead, sailing around on my ship — was my favorite part of the game; I could leave the Boston and New York pieces. A Native American protagonist started off promising but devolved rapidly when the plot and character motivation turned to utter nonsense. There’s a major turnaround late where it turns out Connor’s village was destroyed as a result of George Washington’s decisions — but the game is too afraid to denounce the patriots (until after the credits are over) and Conner basically doesn’t react and continues to support the revolution.

*Connor’s real name is a complex and difficult to say in its entirety for a non-native speaker. This leads to a ridiculous scene where Connor’s (black) mentor says something like “Better to pass as an Italian or Arab than an Indian… let’s call you Connor.”

Assassin’s Creed IV: To the golden age of piracy! The Caribbean is beautifully realized here. The plot and world adheres to real history but is elastic enough to be unfamiliar. Piloting a ship is fun, as is island exploration. For a while. The game starts to get repetitive right quick. Boarding ships is exactly the same every time. There’s a bajillion collectibles spread across the world, which dampens discovery and also makes no sense: Why are there 50+ treasure chests per square mile?? Not very pirate-y. Edward, the protagonist, is yet another rogue with a conscience. Feels like Ubisoft got real safe character-wise after Connor wasn’t received well (I thought he was great until the plot stopped making sense). Early in the game, Edward escapes bondage and steals his own ship (the Jackdaw) with a black man and his future first mate, Adewale. Adewale allows Edward to assume ownership of the Jackdaw on account of the color of his skin — ironic that the ownership answer of 1715 doubles as the reason a black man can’t be the main character of a video game in 2013.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Part 1)

annals“The world which we inhabit is composed of materials not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present but of the earth which. . .had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration. . .the result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
– James Hutton, 1726-1797

I like to think of the world in other eras. The alien sweep of Pangaea. The frigid silence of glaciers blanketing the earth. Dinosaurs trudging through the the mud. Deserts that were swamps, mountains that were oceans. The incomprehensibility of deep time and the eons where no life stirred on earth. Or the sheer cataclysm of the great extinctions that wiped out most of cambrian life and later, the dinosaurs and their ilk. It evokes a sense of crushing awe. There’s a comfort in human insignificance, a giddiness to the unbelievably small time we’ve existed in earth’s history.

And, as John McPhee elucidates in this behemoth, there’s a poetry in geology absent in other sciences, save perhaps astrology. Metaphor is absolutely required.

Annals of the Former World is not just one book — it’s a collection of five books. Each book selects a different part of the US to focus on, generally tied to Interstate-80. I’m only about halfway through. I plan to expound upon the first two and a half books and write of the remainder at a later date.

 

Basin and Range

Basin and Range takes place in Nevada — the contiguous mountain ranges and intermediate basins that make up most of the state. At one point, western Nevada was the coastline of America, and it’s the prime suspect for where the country will tear in half in the distant future, first creating a facsimile of the Red Sea and later becoming an ocean in its own right. This is the future of the Red Sea and the past of the Atlantic Ocean, which began as a rent between conjoined North America and Africa.

McPhee’s journey takes him along I-80 through towns like Battle Mountain and Lovelock and Winnemucca. I’ve driven this road myself, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and it was fascinating to see the history, both human and geological, detailed for this region, which I mostly found to be dusty towns whose primary feature was impoverishment. Having a real-life experience of the land is extremely helpful, but even then I can typically only grasp the macro-level of the geology that McPhee is describing. The book is written for any audience and the history, the big picture descriptions of past and future oceans and mountains, the basins and ranges thrust up and down throughout the earth are clear. The smaller scale descriptions of sandstone and quartz and which era they came from are a bit muddy for me. I can start glazing over when there is too much discussion of the finer points of sediment deposits.

In between descriptions of the journey, the text is peppered with history lessons on how geology grew as a science — the great revolutions of geologists rejecting the notion of biblical time (4-6 thousand year old earth) and the Great Flood, which people took as outright fact through much of western history. Later, the theory of plate tectonics. Or the many missteps in between. In addition, McPhee works as a biographer to the geologists he invites on his journeys. Basin and Range features a man named Deffeyes, who is characterized a bit like an obsessed mad scientist, with poofy hair protruding from the sides of his hat. Deffeyes is outfitted with a deep understanding of the actual basin and range and a plan to strike rich by excavating old silver mines that birthed small towns in Nevada and later ruined them when the silver ran out… but only for their 18-19th century technology, not for today’s.

 

In Suspect Terrain

The subsequent book is significantly weaker, at least from the perspective that I value. It takes place in Pennsylvania and parts of New York or New Jersey — states I’ve spent very little time in and thus areas that I can’t visualize from my own memories. There’s a lot of minutia and not a lot of history. McPhee’s companion for this portion of the trip just isn’t as interesting or eccentric as the ones in the preceding or following texts. Her big thing is that she is a skeptic — the theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the science, but geologists start using it as the answer to everything, which clearly cannot be the case.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve already forgotten large swathes of In Suspect Terrain.

 

Rising from the Plains

I am only halfway through book three and it’s already my favorite thus far. It chronicles Wyoming, a place I’ve never visited but would like to. The Rocky Mountains used to be submerged in earth (sand, dirt, mud, rock), and before that they were at the bottom of the sea. There’s marine life buried in the rock, as well as tiny jaws and teeth to three toed horses, the first tiny predecessors to our modern day mounts. McPhee builds on the descriptive prose of the first two books and I can follow the lay of the land and its intricacies with far greater acuity. Or maybe I just got better at reading.

Interspersed with the geology is the history of a family. McPhee’s companion for this trip is David Love. His mother was a Wellesley graduate who became a school teacher in distant Wyoming in 1905, still the wild west, with students who had to travel sixty miles through devastating cold to reach the schoolhouse. She was an excellent writer and her captivating journals are excerpted throughout. Her husband and David’s father was a Wyoming cowboy, who spend at least one seven year stretch sleeping without a roof over his head, and was a miraculously successful homesteader in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, a land which is very cold much of year, reaches fifty below zero in winter, and has winds so powerful and unrelenting that houses with closed doors and windows fill with snow through cracks in the walls and keyholes.

The local and family history and how it entwines with the geology is masterful and I look forward to charging onward, both through millions of years of geological time and the infant history of inhospitable Wyoming.

 

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

Part II continues here.

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Mieville

threemomenetsexplosionWant to read about sinister icebergs appearing afloat in the skies of London? It’s here. Long ago sunk ships forging legs and shambling out of the ocean? Got that too. Socialist dust particles out to radicalize your world? Read all about it. People obsessed with wearing hollowed out, decaying animal heads? Yep.

China Mieville has mastered the weird, the bizarre, the monstrous joke. A story about a terror lurking in the depths of a remote lake is not going to turn out to be another Lovecraft pastiche, but instead finds its influence in an obscure byzantine torture ritual involving a sack, a dog, a cockerel, and an ape. Even when the premise is extra wacky — therapist-assassins out to assure their client’s happiness at all costs — the tone of the story remains deadly serious and only only occasionally falls into ha-ha it was all a joke!

Most of the short story collections I have read in recent years are short, a few interesting pieces that may have been published elsewhere. You finish in a day or two. It feels kind of cheap. Three Moments of an Explosion is hefty by comparison and I appreciate it. You can really sink into the depths of this man’s imagination. There’s recurrent themes and motifs. There’s a running gag with prose movie trailers appearing at a few different places in the book — speedy, crawling zombies that hunt regular zombies, people manufactured with metal poles protruding from their backs, and so on. It faintly reminded me of the eponymous interviews in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s a craft to the arrangement of stories!

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that a few of the longer stories start to get samey. They generally start with a character who has pre-existing knowledge of the weird happening that will be central to the story; we slowly gain context and can make sense of the earlier bits; The baffling horror takes shape; then the story wraps up without really giving a complete answer to the mystery. There is exceedingly low amounts of resolution in this collection, and this works better in some stories than others — you don’t always need a conclusion but sometimes the story feels unsatisfying without one. There’s a story about aliens discovered in a volcanic island that builds and then just… ends.

China Mieville is a singular voice in sci-fi/fantasy/horror. I think this is about seventy percent due to his imagination, which is both fresh and inviting. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be strange. The remaining thirty percent is craft — he’s a smart writer with a handle on prose that most genre writers either don’t have or don’t try to achieve. The language & tone are ambitious. The blockiness of language present in his early novels is greatly diminished. There’s occasional times where I had to reread a paragraph because it wasn’t quite clear what happened, but this is minor in comparison to the devilishly affected imagery sprinkled throughout each story, or the slowly emerging black humor. The man also has a prodigious vocabulary. I learned some oddly specific words. Take peristalsising on:

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.

Yum.

 

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for hooking me up early.