Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

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Odin Sphere Leifthrasir

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Somehow, Odin Sphere, a cult classic from the PS2 era, was lovingly remastered.  I didn’t even know people bought this game back then. And it’s not just a remaster in the commonly used sense of new HD graphics, but a total rebalancing and update of the game that should make other remasters curl their toes in shame.

The narrative, with its Princess Bride-esque framing setup of a girl and her cat reading old books in the attic, follows the interweaving paths of several archetypical characters: the valkyrie, the cursed prince, the brooding warrior, the elf queen, the witch. You play out each of their campaigns one by one. Each character swap means you view events through their eyes from the beginning, which means that the end of the first character’s plot coincides with the end of the last character’s plot.

Sometimes it’s charming — most of characters are likeable, effecting earnest solemnity in the face of goofy plot. Other times it’s tedious as the characters, especially Oswald the shadow knight, prattle on about their feelings and o woe is me my soul is misery take me death. Occasionally it’s bizarre and hilarious, like when prince-turned-cursed-rabbit-man Cornelius declares I have a magic sword in the middle of a conversation without context or reason. Other times it’s troubling, like when you just want Valkyrie Gwendolyn to realize her dad, Odin, is kind an asshole, but she never does. Later, she’ll trade patriarchal controlling figure Dad for husband Oswald, whose totally okay with bargaining with Odin for her life&love. Maybe you can guess my feelings on Oswald.

This game displays the beauty of hand drawn and animated 2d graphics (and how technically taxing they can be — this game was notorious for slowing down the framerate of the PS2 and I even got it to slow down the PS4 once, when fighting a full screen full of enemies and throwing magical potions in a frantic effort to clear them all out). You guide your character from one battle arena to the next, juggling various elves and goblins and dragons, and then planting fruits and vegetables fed and watered by the essence of their souls. After harvesting this grim bounty, your character eats it to gain experience, stats, and health.

Leifthrasir greatly improves the combat over the original by making it far more fluid, easy to combo, and giving you much greater customization options. It makes the game easier, so playing on hard mode felt right to me. Though you’re never punished for lowering the difficulty and if you’re fighting an annoying boss on a less ideal character (like, say, Oswald, who is basically a slow, low-damage joke until you build up enough damage to go into ‘berserk’ mode), you can swap it back down to normal without penalty.

Playing it felt like a sort of blast to the past* of the PS2 glory days, but there was also a feeling of newness to it, because despite being a decade old, there’s never been much else like it.

 

*I even busted out the pen and paper to record every meal my character ate (for a trophy). Check it out:

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Nostalgia and Ducktales

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to connote a pleasant kind of yearning for the past. Maybe a little bittersweet but an ultimately positive feeling. But lately we’ve become skeptical of it. Some call it a barrier to innovation. Corporations cashing in on thirty-somethings who have families now and maybe some wealth. Just throw something in front of them that they remember fondly from their childhood and they’ll munch it right up. Blame endless sequels or our infinite obsession with superheroes on this. Watch your peers rapidly become how you remember your parents, crotchetly declaring that things used to be better.

I attributed these feelings to an nameless, amorphous critic here, but I share them in part. I don’t mind a good remake or rehash, but I want to see new things more. I’ve vowed I won’t end up one of those old guys afraid of new things and unable to adapt to new technology or music or yes, video games.

Which brings us to Ducktales Remastered, a remake of a 1989 NES game. Let’s be real here: Ducktales is not relevant anymore. It does not interest modern kids, all of whom are much too young to remember the heyday of early 90s Disney cartoons and video games. Ducktales is a kids game aimed at adults, even going so far as to use the cartoon’s original voice actors, which is kind of an outstanding feat. Scrooge and co. all sound much older and gravellier, but still nail their signature voices. It’s worthy to note that ‘kid’s game’ also meant something entirely different, gameplay-wise, in the NES days. While Remastered added an easy mode with infinite lives/checkpoints, it’s still dramatically more difficult than most currently produced, age-accessible games.

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Before we circle back to nostalgia, let’s ask: does a 1989 game hold up in 2016?

Sort of.

The innovation of Ducktales, a platformer like many others following the Super Mario or Megaman greats, was that Scrooge McDuck can use his cane as a pogo stick. Indeed, that’s how you navigate the world. Always be pogo’ing. It’s a cool mechanic. Remastered also obviously updated the graphics. The characters and enemies are sharply done, and look like they hopped right out of the cartoon, though the backgrounds and items are quite muddy and unremarkable. The thing is: other than Scrooge’s unique method of movement, the levels are very simple and forgettable. Enemies don’t do much. The bosses have simple patterns and take too many hits to kill. Add it all up and it’s a fun diversion but not timeless like say, Super Mario Bros 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor does it to compare well to modern re-envisioning like Shovel Knight. It’s appeal is steeped in nostalgia.

The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and algos, meaning ‘pain, grief, distress’. When originally used in the 19th century, it was something very dire indeed. Associated with a fictional (& fatal) Swiss disease or the terrible homesickness felt by African slaves. The modern interpretation is far more tame than its origins.

Ducktales made me feel some of the most acute nostalgia of my adult life. I played it at 4-6 years old; naturally amidst some major developmental times. There was a point, here in 2016, where I selected the Moon level and the music played and it was so distantly familiar,I felt a piercing jolt to my upper spine and literally got the chills, so deeply did it connect me to myself, twenty five years removed. Not the nostalgia of watching the next dumb superhero movie or listening to the same old radio station you listened to in your teens, playing the same old music. But the intense, greek version. It wasn’t like I was a slave yearning for a home I was ripped from. Nor do I want to be five years old again by any means. It wasn’t painful. Yet. The combination of intense connection or loss to/of a time gone by combined with that homey feel cannot but remind you of your own mortality. To connect with the past and see yourself now is also to know some day you won’t be experiencing anything at all.

Starcraft II

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I don’t want to be one of those guys in their 30s (or 40s or 50s or whatever) who complains, through rose-tinted glasses, that modern corporations or re-tellings of old media are ruining their childhood. The fact is: I haven’t played the original Starcraft since I was 15, max. I can’t possibly remember how good the narrative was because I viewed it through an entirely different lens.

But.

I’m still going to tell you that the Starcraft II is terrible by comparison. It’s that bad. It didn’t ruin my childhood or anything hyperbolic, but the original did inform my vision of sci-fi, surely more than Star Wars or Star Trek or Robert Heinlein or anything. Even when it was ostensibly ripping off Starship Troopers, it felt more like a story that was actually about humans and bugs in space, and not a political manifesto pleading the return of the Roman notion of citizenry, as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers book revealed itself to be.

Recap: Starcraft was about some miserable humans (terrans) launched into space, who literally reformed The New Confederacy and shortly found themselves tangling with two different alien species, the parasitic, seemingly mindless zerg, and the psychic, rigidly class based protoss. You alternate between the factions — a magistrate helping launch a terran rebellion and toppling the confederacy (only to find the new boss is just as bad as the old boss), as a lieutenant to the biblical verse spewing hivemind of the zerg (not so mindless as you thought), and as some middle manager in the incredibly bureaucratic protoss class structure, running a coup to kick out the assholes and uniting the fractious protoss clans to do the right thing and smash their biggest spaceship into the zerg overmind.

The expansion followed this up introducing the UED — humans from Earth who were maybe even more frightening villains than the zerg. It also characterized Sarah Kerrigan. Betrayed by the new terran government, Kerrigan was left to die amidst a zerg invasion. The zerg Overmind decided to spare her life and instead mutate her into some kind of human/zerg hybrid (the whole schtick of the zerg is they conquer worlds and mutate their favorite lifeforms into their swarm). In the absence of the Overmind (since you smashed your ship into it already), Kerrigan solidifies her power over the zerg and becomes its new ruler. She then proceeds to slaughter all your friends from the opposing factions on her way to smashing the humans from earth, the new terran dominion, and the united protoss. Yes, the planet eating, sentient bug race wins Starcraft. It’s bleak. But kind of funny.

Starcraft II then ignores all that and opens up several years later like nothing happened. Kerrigan just fucked off for 20 years I guess. She shows up again in the first (terran) campaign as a villain, but I guess one of the main terran characters, Jim Raynor, last seen in the Starcraft campaign vowing to see Kerrigan dead no matter the cost, now just wants to save her and spends the human campaign trying to do so. Remember, this is the same mutant-alien-woman who has murdered millions of innocents by this point. Jimmy succeeds in saving Kerrigan, by turning her back into a human by the end of the campaign, using a mysterious alien artifact that does shit like that.

… and then the zerg campaign starts (actually it started 2 years later, because Blizzard decided to release each campaign as a separate game), and Kerrigan’s human transformation lasts about five minutes before she re-zergifies and you control the zerg on the dumbest retcon plot thread of all time. Turns out the zerg weren’t always voracious life-subsuming monsters, but actually way back on their primal homeworld, they were noble beasts who were just scampering around and have a grand old time before a Dark God (yes) showed up and corrupted them. So Kerrigan needs to Eat, Pray, Love and find her inner self and become true Primal Zerg, and lose the influence of the Dark God, who is actually the reason she was such a bad person in the last game, yeah, whatever.

Which brings us to 2015, and the protoss campaign, where you control the most milquetoast, bland group of heroes yet, led by Saturday morning cartoon hero, Artanis, who just wants to clasp his hand over his heart and tell you how much we need to cooperate and be noble with eachother, guys. Anyway, the Dark God guy, Amon, who initially corrupted the zerg now just corrupted the protoss! So, as Artanis, you need to collect the uncorrupted protoss, and through the power of Friendship, unite them all and take down Amon. Which you do, but it turns out you can’t just go around killing gods or whatever because now there’s some nonsense about An Infinite Cycle, and someone needs to ascend to take Amon’s place. And who is it other than the Queen of Blades and mass murderer turned hero, Kerrigan, who sprouts wings and turns into an angel or some shit and Blizzard, you have so much money, why don’t you just hire some writers?

OK, but how about the gamplay? It was fun I guess. It feels like the real time strategy genre is more-or-less dead right now, so it was a good change of pace. There was too many “kill 5 void crystals/devices/generators/technobabble” levels, and I still had to endure the horrendous story of course. I tried to play some multiplayer games, and it’s funny how much difference five years make. In 2010, it felt like a quant diversion to play a gameplay style perfected in the 90s. Nowadays, it feels positively archaic. I didn’t last long. Gameplay mechanics designed just to make sure you can click X amount of times per second do not have a place in games anymore. For example: to maximize zerg efficiency, you have to make sure your all your queen units inject your hatchery (unit producing) buildings or else you have less larvae to create new zerg with. It’s just an artificial barrier to being good at the game. No thanks. Not 15 anymore.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

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Shovel Knight was a joyous nostalgia trip, but more than a mere trip down memory lane, it was backed up by engaging and rewarding gameplay.

And now it has an expansion.

As part of the Kickstarter that funded the game in the first place, backers got to vote on which of the secondary knights became playable characters. Plague Knight was one of the winners. In the base game, he’s a berobed, masked alchemist with a handful of lines, mostly giggles. Hehe. Plague of Shadows makes him the hero, characterizes him charmingly, gives him an adorable love story. Makes learning to dance a major plot motivation.

Operating from a secret lab below the main town you traverse as Shovel Knight, Plague Knight is out to defeat all the knights of the Order of No Quarter, nab their essences, and alchemize The Ultimate Potion. The game largely follows the same flow as the original. Just in places where Plague Knight, being a villain, shouldn’t be, he gets different sequences than Shovel Knight. Guards attack him instead of inviting him in. The game amusingly takes place concurrently to Shovel Knight’s adventure, which is played for laughs and helps explain why PK would visit his own level.

Plague Knight controls completely differently than Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight was solid — he had tightly responsive controls and his equipment all worked reliably & predictably. Plague Knight, by comparison, is slippery, unpredictable and awkward to control. He can throw bombs, of which you collect a wide assortment with different properties (customizing the arc of the throw, the type of powder in the bomb, and the type of explosion that is released). But the major crux of playing Plague Knight is his jumping scheme. He has a short, stubby jump (shorter than Shovel Knight), a second even stubbier double jump, but so long as you were holding down the bomb button, he has a third jump that blasts him across the screen.

A strange and imprecise control scheme. At first. You learn to always charge PK’s bomb jump, but if it’s charged, you have to release it at some point, which could be tricky when navigating spikes/lava/bottomless pits. I spun off into unintended directions often, slipped down holes, ran out of jumps mid spike pit. Fast forward to now, having beat the game a few times: I soar majestically through each level, barely touching the ground and skipping swathes of obstacles. While the game is partially remixed, and each level has a new Plague Knight specific section that better tests his skills, the majority of the game is still designed for Shovel Knight and his limited mobility. This is still somewhat challenging for the first run as Plague Knight (though being able to stay in the air so long does make the bosses super easy), but once you ‘get’ Plague Knight, it breaks the game wide open and you can beat levels in record time.

There’s two more playable knights coming some time in the future. Can’t get enough of this!

The Spooking Orb #2: Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water

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Fatal Frame 2 on the Playstation 2 was the scariest game I ever played. I straight up did not finish it. Couldn’t handle it. Only game that I can claim that. I could only play in very short bursts before the atmosphere got to me and I shut it off.

Why was it so frightening? For several reasons. Even though most horror games I had played were Japanese in origin, they were based on American mythos (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) with zombies and mad scientists with a vision and bioweapons gone wrong and Freudian rape monsters. Instead, Fatal Frame was full J-Horror — drowned women, hanged women, broken necked women, women weeping tears of blood, all pale with creepy, flowing black hair. (Why is J-Horror so feminine? I’m sure someone’s written about that.) That shit is scary. They bust out of a wall screaming, or creep around the corner awkwardly bent over backwards and grinning at you upside down.

And unlike the other horror games, you had these ethereal, shrieking creatures pursuing you but you weren’t some burly dude with a gun, but instead a little girl with a camera, which you could use to trap the ghosts in, ghostbuster style. You actually start as twins with a camera — the protagonist and her identical sister who has a lame leg, which she drags along after you as you navigate the game’s setting. An effect used for scares of course (…wait a second, I can’t hear the other girl dragging her leg anymore, how long has it been???). I’m telling you the avatar you control in games is a big deal.

After I shamefully put down Fatal Frame 2 (I think I sold it, actually; total banishment!), I did not pick up further entries in the series. Then the other day my Wii U controller started blinking to alert me a new Fatal Frame game had come out. Not only that — I could download the first few levels for free! Just in time for Halloween.

Long story short: It’s extremely boring and mediocre, a clunky, difficult to control mess. 

Like another favorite Japanese genre, RPGS, Japanese horror seems to have stagnated. This game feels like, mechanically, it could have been a PS2 game. We don’t put up with terrible controls anymore! The story, the dialogue and voice acting does not feel modern. There’s some sort of hair monster that looks more like a Final Fantasy boss than something that’s supposed to cause a fright. Enemies take forever to kill — the scariest ghost becomes kind of joke when you have to take dozens of pictures of him to kill, while fighting off the horrendous controls (what kind of game in 2015 doesn’t let you move the game camera while walking??).

I think if I somehow recovered a copy of FF2, it would have many of the same shortcomings. Well, actually the environment didn’t stuff me into narrow hallways where I couldn’t see anything like the Black Water demo and I don’t recall the enemies being quite so annoying to fight. But otherwise, probably the controls and camera and whatever weren’t great. But that was like ten years ago! I need a game to be enjoyable to actually play before I can get scared nowadays.

Shovel Knight (Yacht Club Games, 2015)

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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.

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.

Used Bookstores of Hawaii

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Pictured left: Makalawena Beach in Kona, Big Island, Hawaii. Requires a drive in a (rental) car down a roughshod road cut through a lava field and subsequent 20 minute hike through lava field. Just ‘secret’ and adventurous enough to stay relatively uncrowded and foster a comradely wink among attendees. Pictured right: the pile of books we purchased on Big Island
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I have become a connoisseur of city used-bookstores. Or, if ‘connoisseur’ denotes a level expertise I don’t actually possess — call me a wide-eyed explorer, an amateur archaeologist, an enthusiast. Big city standbys like Powell’s in Portland, OR, a veritable castle of books. Or small city eccentricities, like the naval/seafaring collection of a bookstore on the island of Alameda, CA. I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the suburbs and naturally a bookstore was the massive Barnes and Noble or Borders (R.I.P.) in the nearest giant mall. 3 floors of glossy bestsellers, new releases, and tables piled with gift suggestions that nowadays I only see every holiday season when I am back home on the east coast and need to buy several family members Christmas presents.

Also, when I was a child, vacations were synonymous with book purchases. I’d whine incessantly until my parents brought me to a bookstore (they’d give in only because it was a special occasion, like a birthday or holiday). Then I’d spend most of the time away, usually camping in New Hampshire or Maine, reading hundreds or thousands of pages. It’s weird to think now that what prevented me from reading then was not time to read but availability of new books.

These two factors tie adult vacations closely with buying books. I was disappointed the first time I went bookstore hunting in Hawaii. Kauai, despite all its other very high qualities, has one lame bookstore and I only bought a book because I felt I had to. It was Life of Pi and I didn’t even like it. So I was wary on my return trip, this time to Big Island (a birthday present from my amazing wife).

Big Island has used bookstores everywhere. Big ones, small ones, good ones, bad ones, weird ones comprised entirely of beat up mass market editions. It’s a high-use swap culture, judging by how well-used the books are and the fact that there’s several copies of books that just came out that aren’t even in softcover yet; This makes an easy way to get cheap hardcovers of books I wouldn’t have read for years, or possibly forgotten about (in this case, Emily St. John Mandel’s much heralded Station Eleven). We bought most of our books from the sister stores Kona Bay Books and Hilo Bay Books, giant warehouses that look like aircraft hangers, converted to shelf upon shelf of books. The smell upon entry is unmistakable. They’re the kind of store that still have entire sections dedicated to mystery or suspense and have sci-fi sections that are bigger than most normal stores’ fiction sections.

A short list of the types of books only to be unearthed in musty, used book stores:

  • The book you had been planning to buy forever but only just now picked up due to its amazing cover (seen here as the 1981 version of The War of the End of the World. Something between a telenovela and Jesus Christ Superstar)
  • The book that is so ancient and tattered that it’s list price is less than its present-day used book price (My $2 purchase of the originally 35cent The Turn of the Screw)
  • The book you had never heard of by one of your favorite authors (The Cave by Jose Saramago)
  • The book that honestly shouldn’t have been this hard to find (A Void by Georges Perec — seriously been looking for this for months, despite it being his most well known book)

Incidentally I only ever seem to come home with these enormous book caches when I am already in the middle of reading a massive novel (The Almanac of the Dead in this case — it’s really good, but also 800 pages). Thus putting off the choice of choosing which of these gems I can even start.

The Wii U Experience — Part I (Ordering)

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It’s that time again. The previous console generation had sputtered on so long, it seemed as if we’d never have to experience our favorite developers slow and stop releasing games for our favorite consoles. And then perforce rumination on whether to drop a few hundred bucks on an unproven system that is barely supported as of yet and appears to offer very little in graphical upgrades. But here we are, the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii are all breathing their last, abdicating their modernity and destined to enter the realm of historians, hobbyists, and hipsters. It will be a while yet until their true death rattle, but focus has shifted. Let us look ahead.

It’s a frustrating, eye-rolling trend for the previous industry-leader to immediately make poor decisions on their follow-up. Perhaps, like timeworn accounts of mad kings, they feel their digital fortress unassailable. There’s a reason the ancient Greeks were obsessed with tales of hubris. Anyway. The PS2 blew everything else away, had possibly the best library of any system ever then followed it up with a prohibitively expensive PS4 launch, with nary a great game in sight for much too long. Now, my last-gen favorite, the Xbox 360, has a too-expensive successor that originally laser focused itself as a ‘media center’, whatever the hell that is, and not on what matters — the game library. It has gone through multiple embarrassing marketing shifts, reneging on earlier goals, replacing public figures, acquiring a humbling albeit catchy nickname (Xbone!). Its 2013 E3 game-conference presentation was marked by a horrific show of misogyny, showcasing a major issue in gaming writ large. And it still barely has any games, either released or in the pipeline, that I would like to own.

The PS4. Well, at least it has avoided the baggage and marketing shitshow Microsoft has garnered. But otherwise, it has similar problems with price and gameplay. The… prestige of being an early adopter seems to be the biggest perk to dropping $400 right now, instead of waiting another year or two for a library to develop and the price to drop. The days of amazing launch titles like Mario 64 or Halo are long past, unlikely to return. It’s a peculiar turnaround when the excitement of new console releases is backloaded to some arbitrary point in the future when just the right amount of decent games are released to make it worth buying. Peculiar is fine, but much worse, it’s boring. Major launches, especially the kind that require substantial financial investment, should be an occasion for joy, not patience.

Which brings us to the Wii U. Released first and with marketing so anemic that many of the people that made the first Wii so incredibly successful either don’t know it exists or don’t care. Maybe there’s a certain ultra-casual audience that would never care. Even my parents, who ostensibly understand console lifecycles due to grudgingly buying me a few in my youth, would be hard pressed to be convinced they need another Wii. Further perplexing is this incarnation’s controller gimmick: a controller-as-tablet that actually seems pretty cool, or at least potentially cool (it does require game devs to think in new, maybe risky ways), but is a total departure from the immediate, obvious simplicity of the Wii-mote. You can’t get results just waving it about.

Yet, and possibly because it was first, the library is now starting to come together. Super Mario Bros U, Pikmin 3, Super Mario World U, Wind Waker HD are respectable. But now, yes, now, the tipping point has been reached.

mario kart

Mario Kart!

And Smash Bros hovers on the horizon. Yes, the cynics among us ought to point out this is an entire slate of sequels, some with bare updates on the past and including a mere HD remake. Others may peg this is a purchase rooted in nostalgia. They’d be right. But as someone who skipped most of the Wii’s lifespan, it’s been a while since I hurled turtle shells at a gorilla on a go-cart.

Part II: Pickup and setup