Archive for category Video Games

SUPER MARIO BROS. ADVENTURES – Intro to Comics

Okay, this needs a lengthy introduction.

I mentioned this briefly on my write-up of the Super Mario Bros. movie, but I was, and still am, an unabashed Super Mario fan. I’ve been behind on the games as of late, although I did play Super Mario Bros. Wii and I am currently on-and-off with Super Mario Galaxy. But the premise, background, and history of the Super Mario Brothers universe is almost like a second world to me. I love its whimsical freedom along with its dark undercurrents; it’s really a lighter form of the Harry Potter universe without the genocide.

While my fanship waned (somewhat) over the years, I have amassed a small collection of the available Super Mario Bros. (SMB) comics that were published in the early 90s. There was two overall anthologies: The SMB comics under the Nintendo Comics System, published by Valiant Comics in 1990 and 1991 (which also produced a run of Legend of Zelda and Captain N series), and the Super Mario Adventure volume, which was the compilation of the Nintendo Power series published when that magazine was the best thing out there, back in 1992.

SMB Anthology Hardcover

The SMB Valiant series was released in a hardcover edition in 1990, which contains the “Best of” of the lot, not so much all of them. Owning that, and Edition #1, I think I only failed to read 2 others that may exist out there in the void, and these comics are not easy to find. Still, the fact I still have them gives me a sense of… shameful pride? Prideful shame? Something.

I happened upon this blog here, a fellow blogger who reviews and analyzes various Ducktales/Scrooge McDuck Disney comics, and I truly enjoy the write ups, so much so that I decided to do something similar with the collection of SMB comics I have, in addition to the CHILDHOOD REVISITED series, the various updates to the webtoon, and what ever entertainment issue I want to write about. Truth is, I wanted to do this for a while, and mister Geo X just gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start.

I will try to impart as much info as I can about the writers and artists for each of the comics that I can find; truth is, it’s a bit tricky since it was so long ago and it’s difficult to find and confirm that some of these current comic book creators indeed worked on this series. In all honesty, some of these comics are of various quality, and save for one or two, you… wouldn’t really want them in your portfolio. But I’ll try my best to blend together a general recap of the story, a light review, a bit of analysis and information, and some good ol’ fashioned nerd-love for the SMB world.

I’ll go in the order of the hardcover anthology, starting with the first offered comic: “Just Deserts”.

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“Just Desserts” is actually a great comic to begin with, as it’s both a good mix of what could be great about this series, as well as what could be flat-out abysmal. Here, the art is fairly decent all around, and the story starts off cute and intriguing, but ends with a “What the fuck” (I don’t do WTF, as W is not a great letter to use as an initial) type of twist that would make Shyamalan look at it incredulously.

We start of with what looks to be the precursor to Super Mario Kart as well as the introduction of who will be a recurring character:

Just Deserts - pg 1

I’ll talk more about The King, King Toadstool, the father to Princess Toadstool, at length in a future comic where he’s much more prominent, but the basic gist is that he’s a bold, lazy, slightly-arrogant and simple-minded fool. You get the sense that Princess Toadstool does all the real royal duties, but it’s surprisingly clear that 1) she’s her father’s daughter and 2) isn’t as smart as another future recurring character. I’ll talk about him, as well as Princess Toadstool, later as well. I’ll tell you right now, though: I LOVE how the comics portray her.

I digress. Our sibling heroes and king are on their way somewhere – and they get stuck when they run over a cactus and get a flat tire. It’s important to note that here, SMB takes a very cartoony approach to its storylines, unlike something like Sonic the Hedgehog, which is more mystically serious.

The king lazily forces the brothers to fix the flat. Meanwhile, Bowser is watching their struggle in a hidden, underground pyramid/hideout:

Just Desserts - pg 4

(That is the old design of Bowser, AKA King Koopa, in the days when games were still 8-bit. He’s even called King Koopa in this comic run as well. I’ll get into the revamped villain design later as well.)

Our king sudden spots a pool nearby, and dives right in. The brothers are skeptical that it might be a mirage, but after watching the king have fun, Mario and Luigi join in —

Just Desserts - pg 6 crop

— only to be duped by the entire scenario being a mirage. The king’s been taken while the brothers been busy, which sets up something pretty creepy: Mario and Luigi have to find him in the HUGE expanse of a barren desert. In theory, this could be a pretty tight adventure. Expect not:

Just Deserts - pg 7

Okay, while the convenience of the ransom note vending machine is pretty lame, it doesn’t kill the plot completely. But where is this tiny pyramid?

Just Deserts - pg 8 crop

I included this panel because it’s a really awesome canted perspective shot. And Luigi’s right: the pyramid’s big now, so they still don’t know where this “small pyramid” is!

Only one thing to do now: just book it!

Just Deserts - pg 9

This is pretty amusing – the progress cut short by gravity. I really dig how the first panel portrayed that. Also, very convenient, as they find the king AND a nice pool to cool off in. The escape, however is where the problem arises. I mean, the emergency button near the pool is ridiculous but plausible in a far-fetched kind of way, but:

Just Deserts - pg 10

— the idea that the entire thing, pyramid, plan, and all, was a mirage is just too far out there. If it all was a mirage, then how was it originally created? I get that the device didn’t create mirages so much as create realistic holograms, but there’s no way to play the “hologram created the hologram” card without going cross-eyed. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Still, I will say for the most part this is a fun little comic and the art is fairly great all around (although, the settings tend to be better and more consistent than the character designs), with little bits of visual flair here and there to make this issue stand out. Vibrant colors is key to any SMB outing, and here, the artists do a decent job. The writers miss the boat (or should I say limo?) at the end there, but for a primer entry into this series, it’s a decent one.

I should also mention that most of these and the future screenshots and crops are from this site: http://trsrockin.com/ncs_smb.html. I thank them for the scans so I don’t have to scan my edition, which is almost falling apart at the seams anyway. You can read most of the comics there.

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Thinking vs. Entertaining: Just Kiss and Make Up

I saw Inception three weekends ago and, for the most part, it rocked. In fact, I mentioned on a comment board that Inception “(intellectually) rocked.”

Inception Movie Poster

It got me thinking, and I’m not talking about the multiple layers of what was a dream and what was real in the movie. It got me thinking about the oft-debated role of entertainment in the world today, of the power of pop culture and the supposed responsibility it has towards the viewing public at large. Should it be a purely-entertaining spectacle, a visual and narrative means to appeal to the “lowest common denominator” (a phrase which I loathe to the core, in that it belittles the worth of the average person – to the point that they lash out into, oh, let’s say, Tea Partier-like mentalities)? Or should it be a thought-provocative, challenging piece of work that really forces its audience to ponder the world around them?

After hits like Inception and The Matrix, can it be both?

Short answer: of course not. Financially-speaking, it’s impossible. You need the best screenwriters, the best directors, the best action-choreographers. You need to spend time tweaking the script to have all the depths necessary to push narrative boundaries, yet maintain enough comfort food (action! explosions! hot womens!) to keep regular audience members entertained all the way through. It’s known as a high-concept film, and you can’t finance all of them at such a high level of quality. That kind of money just doesn’t exist.

Yet, even with small budgets, I would think a certain amount of intellectual-to-entertainment value could be maintained. Look, I’m all for explosions, fart jokes, gratuitous sexual scenes, and all those silly moments films and TV shows have to hook viewers. I’m a guy. But it doesn’t take a million dollars to put all of that into a framework or layer of content that seeks to say something about the world or human nature. Even if it’s nothing new or ground-breaking, a form of entertainment can really hit upon a certain truth that affects its viewers at a deeper level, even if that depth is skin deep.

Part of it is on audience members. Alan Sepinwall is partially credited for the new wave of TV criticism that focuses on close analysis of television shows, which corresponded perfectly with this “golden age of TV” that we’re apparently experiencing. There is much to be said of the kinds of great, heavy moments that TV is indeed producing, but let’s not be coy – these shows are also immensely entertaining. Breaking Bad has all the rich, wonderful elements worthy of dissecting: issues of identity, influences, family, violence, and so on. But it’s also the most entertaining, exciting, balls-to-the-walls hour on television today.

Sepinwall’s style of analysis is approachable and clean, and has been embraced by so many critics and spread across so many fields; video games and comics and music now have episodic, closer readings of their contents, as well as still maintaining their basic core. In time, cartoons of every level will begin to have something like that (outside of Pixar films), something that I’m hoping to be a part of. [Hint, hint.]

I digress. Part of the sudden fall of the indie wave in the post-Tarantino landscape was because of the number of boring indie films. These filmmakers lacked the training and experience to maintain clear pacing and exciting stories (melodramas can be exciting!), and only get caught up in their intellectual exercising. Contrast that with the vapid yawn-fest of this summer’s flock of movies – all spice, no substance. And financially, it showed.

(Note, I’m still believe there is a place for fun, silly movies like The Expendables and deep, thematic movies like There Will Be Blood. There’s always room for both types, and depending on the mood I’m willing to watch them both. However, in terms of increasing the quality to the current-television, 90s-animation, or 80s-comics level, it’s possible to do both.)

Education and critical thinking don’t have to be pretentious, maudlin, platitudinous acts. Which classes do you best remember in high school and college? The lame ones? Or the ones where your teacher or professor tried to bring life into the curriculum? It’s not that average audience members ignore smart material. It’s simply that you can’t present just the smart material. You need to jazz it up. It has to be presentable, fun, and engaging. It’s something schools should be trying, and it can’t stop once you reach the theaters.

With this new wave of TV, and the sad summer save for the hits like How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and Inception, entertainment, even high-budget summer blockbuster, will hopefully try to be smarter, more grounded with its stories, and really seek to prefect that blend of high-octane excitement with narrative substance.

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The Biggest Problem with the “Video Games as Art” Argument…

… is the following question: What is art, today?

In February of 2005, Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed and designed over 75 thousand “gates” along a pathway through Central Park, New York. They remained there for only sixteen days before they were removed and dismantled. According to Wikipedia, the showcase was inspired by the Japanese torii gates, which are usually placed along the entrance to Shinto shrines.

The Gates
In 2007, artist Wendu Gu debuted a massive undertaking, whereby she and her assistants gathered over 430 pounds of human hair, cleaned and braided it, and strung it all over the Baker-Barry Library at Dartmouth College. I was attending this school when this event happened. It sounds gross, but it was sanitary, and nifty, if in the oddest sense.

Dartmouth Hair Project
What is art, today? It is global. It is digital. It is not post-Modern (itself a term impossible to define), but post-post-Modern. It is combination of the past/present, East/West, North/South “division”. It is the binaries, redefined. It is art, not-art, and the very manner in which we experience art.

And it has to be. We’re too far along in this decade, too intelligent, too interconnected to no longer discredit or discount the works of other nations, other people, other genres as art – or art of “class” or “wealth”. I’m reminded of the relatively recent 1970s decision to study the diaries, journals, and writings of the common people to study history – social history, they called it. It was supposed to reinforce traditional views of history, the big-man approach to the field, but instead, it forced several historians to rethink the nature of history. (The freed slaves were thought, for example, to be ‘prone’ towards their lot in life, due to their lack of intelligence. It is now fairly well understood that the freed slaves were very smart, but played “dumb” more or less to protect themselves and their families from the violence that would be unleashed upon them if certain radicals discovered their “smarts.”) (After the Fact, Davidson and Lytle)

The Gates connection to traditional Japanese architecture and Gu’s global hair-collection project are manifestations of the contemporary issues of art as we have to understand it today. We can’t constantly compare the Now to the art of the past – not to say they do not have value, for they do; Shakespeare is certainly art; so is Picasso, Beethoven, Contempt. But under this strict definition and narrow lens, it seems impossible to make art today; all potential venues in some format now is parody, is pastiche, is copy, is simulation, is simulacrum. It’s global, universal, multi-natural and multi-faceted. It’s interaction, interactivity, communication, and the methods in which we do all of that. It’s everything.

Roger Ebert, as per his recent blogpost, would be hard pressed to argue with Gu, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Richard Prince that their work is not art. Prince is responsible for “appropriation art,” photographing other people’s photographs. He applied this to the Marlboro Man, which makes for an interesting question: is the Marlboro Man art? If not, is the photograph of it art? If not, why the hell was it hanging in the Guggenheim?

But that is it. Art is more than the aesthetics and the personal, subjective sensation we feel when we experience it (although it is part of it). It is the QUESTIONS that are inevitably derived when we experience art. It expands our thinking, our criticism, our viewpoint of the world around us, from the little, the frivolous, the silly, to the profound, the majestic, the sublime. Is comedy art? Does the fact that Shakespeare’s work may not be attributed to him still make his work artistic? Is the fact that Raphael, being more or less a copycat, mean he is less an artist than Da Vinci? Let’s talk about it. Let’s debate this. Let’s DISCUSS.

The two issues I have with Ebert’s analysis has less to do with his belief and more to do with his methodology and mindset. 1) Not playing a game yet denoting it not art is flawed in the most obvious of ways. 2) Refusing to play a game to judge whether a game is art is every more egregious, especially coming from someone as well-spoken and intelligent as he is. Dr. Seuss taught children this mistake in Green Eggs and Ham.

Green Eggs and Ham

Children even get this.

Had he played a game and denoted it not art – well, that would be something else. That would make for a much more interesting dialogue, one that would be much more coherent and grounded. And that, that would be the beginning of the language of art for video games, of the interactivity and “immersion” of entertainment.

I have, in my hands, TONS of essays about so many elements and facets of film and the media of today that it’s almost sad. (Thanks, Dartmouth!) I have: “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator” by Tom Gunning (an essay showcasing early films as thrill rides than mistaken assaults on the audience); “How Films Mean” by Geoffrey, Nowell-Smith (a dialogue on how to “read” film); “Anal Rope” by D. A. Miller (a queer theorist reading of Hitchcock’s Rope). Linda Williams focuses SOLELY on the audience’s pre-expectation of the film Psycho, on how it reinvented the ad campaign and the visual/visceral reaction of said audience in “Discipline and fun: Psycho and postmodern cinema.” I could go on; in my studies, I’ve read over a hundred different essays that served to deal with, in some format, of film, cinema, television, the “new media,” and post-Modernism (whatever that means). Ebert has a bigger fight, in reality, than the mere fourteen year-old boys that seek mere legitimacy in their past hobby.

Is all of this art? Who knows? That’s why we want to discuss it. Detail and compare, cite and suggest, argue and debate. We like to. We WANT to. It will make the field better, stronger, smarter. WE want to be better, stronger, smarter. Art itself is not art until we not only experience it, but understand and learn about that experience beyond the primary encounter. If the works by Wassily Kandinsky are art, and the animated films by Oskar Fischinger are art, then Rez, the game, has to be art; three different mediums (painting, cinema, video games) seeking to “connect” the elements of sound, shape, color, motion, and how we perceive it all (Cracked made this argument, in comical but cohesive fashion). To deny one form is to inherently deny them all. But beyond that, the real question is: why deny one at all? Why does, let’s say, the interaction of the color/sound/shape aesthetic stop being art within the realm of interactivity? THAT’S what should be discussed, and with people as well-versed as Ebert flat-out denying a medium as even worthy of discussion — well, that is exceedingly disappointing.

Discussing the aesthetics of what art is within the 21th century is worthwhile, mainly because it needs to be discussed. My former professor at Dartmouth (Mark Williams, if you wish to look him up) has always found meaning and value with how we percent the nature of what is real and reality, using films like The Matrix (outside the fighting sequences) and books by William Gibson. The “computerized” aesthetic – green artificiality, vague connections via social/virtual interaction, digitalization and interactivity – has to be something. If not art, then what? What exactly are we experiencing?

If the nature of interactivity itself is the problem, and the “thrills” incited by the player that plays belittles the chance for gaming to be art, I offer one film as an argument to this: Children of Men.

Children of Men

Children of Men is a perfect case study that should push the dialogue towards gaming as art. Clive Owen’s character, especially towards the latter half of the movie, is pushed and driven forward in an insane world of “enemies and chaos” around them. With the camera as a seamless tracking shot, save for the occasional moment for dialogue and plot revelation, that visceral thrill one feels is probably the closest feeling one gets when playing a video game. Perhaps the film, overall, is not art, but there’s a real artistic vibe to how well the camera and cinematography was ingrained within the film and the flow of the story. Quite frankly, the sole difference between game and film is the ability to control Clive’s character. (The introduction to Half-Life 2 reeks of Children of Men sensibilities [or vice versa]).

The “game” metaphor when it comes to the critiques of films is that the movie is very staged and structured, like a level-to-level game, moving from one action set piece to the next. What filmmakers and critics alike fail to realize is that the in-the-moment, immersive thrill is what makes a game truly a game, since most of them place the player against what seems to be an insurmountable number of places, people, or things. Game-based movies certainly don’t count, and while films like Gamer skirt the idea of player interactivity, I doubt they attempt to question it, among the plentiful explosions (an aside: the image of the gamer have become so cliche that it is bordering on frustrating. Gamer’s geeky kid protagonist seems annoying while Roger’s first image on his blogpost is embarrassing, made more so by his constant replies that “it’s cute,” which only serves his overall, diminutive dismissal even more. And I refrain from the pathetic portrayals of the “game” and the “gamer” on screen. But I digress.)

There is no desire to be pretentious here, nor am I seeking to “legitimize” gaming in anyway. Hell, I don’t care, really – I play my games knowing full well the ridiculous scenarios are geared towards explosions, gun fights, and ass-kicking. The issue is that the layers of this interaction – just as the various layers of how we interact with literature, paintings, theater, film, comics, and other art forms – is what is at stake. At the very least, just as the artists above made art of the Now now, we need to debate and discuss what constitute the Art of today, in ALL forms, from all places.

Let criticism thrive in this century at all levels of our representative experiences.

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