Saturday, August 23, 2008

My Super Sweet Sixteen: Exiled

For years, MTV has had a steady decline into a fluffy cushion of teenage decadence of almost biblical levels. Not since dwarfs fought lesbians in the Ancient Greek coliseums has the citizens of a failed society been able to partake in such hedonism.

Of course, I'm talking about a show that features idiots wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on a one night event, so perhaps America has lost long before My Super Sweet Sixteen.

With MTV cameras rolling, My Super Sweet Sixteen featured a lot of teenagers (or 20-somethings pretending to be teenagers) as they purportedly put on the birthday party to end all birthday parties. In reality, they were spending wads of other people's cash in order to gain publicity on MTV's dime to attempt to get an acting gig or a singing contract, as evident by every birthday girl "performing" for their guests... and the video cameras rolling... and the millions of teenage girls who are watching simply because the show is in between reruns of the Hills. It's the modern day chicken vs. egg situation: can people get famous for doing nothing simply because they follow a show about people who already got famous for doing nothing?

I'm sure when Billy Idol died at gunpoint during the Korean War to protect our right to demand our MTV, he never pictured it turning to this. Surely the worst he thought it'd come to was A-Ha's Take On Me.

A few years and a couple thousand My Super Sweet Sixteen marathons later, MTV is slowly realizing that they are just plum out of drop-in-the-pan, up and coming yet one hit wonder rappers to feature performing in front of a throng of screaming upper class white teenagers. What's a music video channel to do? Resort to playing music videos? Have you seen the last Paramore music video? That's not an option, that's terrorism.

So Music Television, desperate to find something to run along with episodes of the Hills, has gone back to their former Sweet Sixteeners two-to-three years later to see where they are today. Surely after being featured on a television show broadcast across the universe showing oneself to the highest of bitches, they have re-evaluated their lives and done time in the peace corp or taken up a higher purpose in their studies, right?

Not in the Myspace generation, folks.

My Super Sweet Sixteen represents the ultimate in YouTube culture where someone is famous just because other people have seen them. Even years (and a few plastic surgeries for some of them) later, these girls still consider themselves the height of popularity long even if that BMWer they were gifted on their episode was a rental and the people invited to their party only pretended to like them for the cameras. The only Sixteener to actually have a career after throwing her party was already signed to N.E.R.D.'s record label before her episode, and since then she's only known for creating a dance that urges America to "chicken noodle soup with soda on the side."

So with this daunting outlook on the future of our Sweet Sixteen Feted America becoming grossly apparent, we now have the fun term of "Exile" coming into place. Often times it is considered customary for well off teenagers to spend a summer abroad after high school to really find themselves. Let's use this tradition to humiliate teenage girls that much more!

With MTV's cameras rolling on them again with presumably no clue why, the girls (and one gay guy, of course) arrive home one afternoon to find their entire family sternly sitting in the living room quiet. Surely an every day occurrence, MTV, nothing to be concerned about. It's not like the idea of the Family Meeting died out around the time of the Cold War and Duck and Cover. So MTV is there to capture a unique phenomenon: they want the girl's honest reaction to being bombarded intervention style, but sadly they are more dumbfounded as to why their just as greedy and messed up family are sitting in one room when there's HD TVs with digital cable, computers with Wi-Fi, and XBox games that won't play themselves in other rooms. It could be a microcosm for society if MTV were allowed to be symbolic.

Then the grim news is handed out to our death row patron: you have been greedy, we (as your parents and legal guardians) haven't taught you how to appreciate your wealth and good fortune as we ourselves revel in it, and, for the sake of human growth and extra promotion on television, we're letting MTV solve all the problems 18 years of crappy parenting has caused by sending you to a remote part of the world for a week. Because that can solve anything. Yes, even AIDS.

The girls are given an afternoon to pack for their trip to what White People can only envision as hell on earth, which gives us the delightful montage of deciding just which Coach bag will look cutest as you are running from tigers way down in Kenya. Surely you are going on an expenses paid trip to be scared straight the African way, you need at least 3 or 4 pairs of 500 dollar sunglasses to take with you. Then with their family crying and hugging them as they push them closer to their gate, our poor spoiled princesses hop on the red eye to realization.

9 times out of 10, an episode of Exiled follows a story arc so rigid you would think the story editors were using a photoshop template hacked into their Avid. Girl lands in place they know nothing about. People who live there welcome girl with open arms and very poor English skills. Girl is grossed out by everything... absolutely everything. Everything smells of dung and poor people to these girls which instantly triggers their gag reflex. You'd think they'd have learned to suppress that by now.

Right before the second commercial break and the end of act 2, the girls use a satellite cell phone (which I'm sure every denizen in Africa also had access to so they could order valuable medicine or get some phone sex or other crucial activities) to cry to their mommy or daddy about how absolutely horrible it is. Re-read that sentence. No where did I say "The girls confess that others have it way harder than themselves and voe to change for the better." That part never comes, children.

After our last commercial break, the story editors decide to throw us a curveball as our Sixteener suddenly realizes that where she's at is pretty cool and is accepted into the society with a smile on her face. Was there a whole two more days of the girl not acting like an Ugly American that unfortunately had to be cut? The editors cleverly found a plot device in this, however, as the girls room and work with a girl of their age from their exiled place of choice. So even if the Sixteener doesn't change or comes to terms with having to work for a living, we can manufacture a sisterly relationship between the two of them that bridges the gap between our cultures.

This show has the foreign policy knowledge of George W. Bush.

The girls, after having to endure an entire week in this other locale, then get to go home to their plush mansion, parents waiting to spoil them, housekeepers, and BMWs they invariable have dented and dinged in fender benders because, yes, the real world does take after Clueless. My Super Sweet Sixteen: Exiled attempts a stab at social consciousness but, in the end, it's just as vapid and pointless as the parties they featured 2 years ago. No one really learns anything other than editors can make it appear they have and the girls who come back from their exile invariably go right back to doing everything wrong they've done their whole life. There's a strong case to be made that sending the children is the wrong route in Exile. The problem doesn't stem from spoiled kids continuing to want to be spoiled. The problem lies with the parents who spoil them to begin with.

So perhaps MTV will gift us with a spin-off of this spin-off, a transcontinental parent swap where the lousy parents must go to an African village and walk miles for water, slaughter a goat to find their children, and make the tough choice of which fruit of their loins get the TB medicine and lives and which one dies. Maybe then we'll see some problems solved as the parents learn that money and designer labels can't cure epidemics and tribal class systems in warring nations.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Batman: Gotham Knight

On the eve of The Dark Knight, a hotly-anticipated film guaranteed to bring in more money than several small countries, a few cash-ins were to be expected. The most heavily advertised of these was Batman: Gotham Knight, a series of short films animated by some of the most acclaimed/popular anime directors and studios. What should result is the best of east and west combined into the most kickass Batman cartoons ever. This is not what we got.

Batman is a pretty difficult concept to screw up. You've got an ordinary guy who dresses like a complete lunatic, armed with smarts, martial arts skills and enough money to purchase some seriously cool nonlethal weapons and tools. Once you have that, you can take it pretty much anywhere and it'll probably be enjoyable.

What we have are six cartoons that sort of try to link up with each other and the Batman film franchise, but don't really succeed very well at either of these. The idea of having it all directed by anime hotshots is clearly and blatantly ripped off of The Animatrix, which had far more input from the feature filmmakers and was probably better than the sequels it was created to serve. This comes across like somebody read twenty pages of the Dark Knight script and decided that was good enough. Sticking them inseparably together doesn't do them any favors, either.

On a side note, Target's packaging had a sticker that referred to this as the "first-ever PG-13 animated Batman movie," which is true as long as you ignore that other PG-13 animated Batman movie, and that other one that probably should have been PG-13.

Let's begin. Since the film doesn't bother to identify who's responsible for each segment until the end credits, neither will I.

Have I Got A Story For You opens up with what all true Batman fans were clamoring for: kids skateboarding. Said kids have gathered around a couple empty pools in the graffiti part of town and start sharing tales of Batman trying to stop some utterly generic dude in a wetsuit with a jetpack and goggles, and no other features whatsoever. What follows was clearly intended as an exercise in showing how different people interpret Batman's methods and what the citizens think of him, which arguably could have been really cool.

They didn't have time to make that, so instead they went with a first-grade approach. "What if Batman was a zombie?!" "What if Batman was a real giant bat-man?!" "What if Batman was a robot?!" None of the fights last longer than about 90 seconds, and then it's back to annoying kids sitting around and babbling.

Finally the real Batman and jetpack wetsuit dude show up. Batman is battered and bruised from the day's fighting (and really paunchy for some reason), barely able to stand up, and the only kid that didn't share a tale gets to whack the totally unnamed, totally uninteresting villain in the head with his skateboard. This knocks him out instantly, since they were only allotted twelve minutes. The other kids run up, wanting to know what just happened. "Man, have I got a story for you guys!" In this story, Batman was probably a pirate.

Crossfire begins with Batman apparently turning the guy from the first short into the police, but the fact that Batman is totally fine tends to contradict that. We're introduced to Detective Anna Ramirez, from The Dark Knight, and Detective Cris Allen, who might have been in the film but damned if I can remember. Allen doesn't trust Batman, but Ramirez does, and the two discuss this and establish the state of Gotham following Batman Begins while they take the villain to Arkham.

Apparently deciding that Two People Sit In A Car And Talk: The Movie wasn't exciting enough, after their errand is complete, Ramirez drives them dead center into a gang/mob turf war. The gang on one side, the mob on the other. That's when things go from boring to stupid.

Instead of making any attempt to drive off, the detectives crouch in the car and wait for the inevitable. Sure enough, the gang (led by "The Russian," a devilishly clever alias) and the mob start shooting at each other. They stand in a straight line, point their guns in a straight line, and fire, as if they were fighting a war in the 1600s. Sure enough, most of them die, as the budget apparently didn't allow for anybody to take cover behind cars. The head mobster, Maroni from The Dark Knight, is the only one budgeted to do anything, and in turn apparently becomes the first to notice the detectives' car in the middle. He runs to it for shelter.

The gang members blow up said car with a handy rocket launcher, allowing Batman to heroically save Allen from seriously about five stories up and perhaps change his mind in the process. Batman flies down, then runs around beating the crap out of all the gang members and seemingly absorbing bullets. Maroni attempts to hold Ramirez hostage, but is unprepared for the sight of Batman walking calmly through enormous flames. That's right, Batman is completely fireproof. Including that completely exposed portion of his face.

Allen, not wanting to get upstaged, jumps down three stories onto concrete and is totally fine, pointing his gun at Maroni. Batman, sick of standing in the middle of a goddamned fire, takes Maroni out with absolutely no effort and then grapple-hooks away straight up into the air somehow, noting that Gordon is "a good judge of character." That's where the short ends, with virtually no resolution or emotional conclusion. Needless to say, I did not get caught up in it.

In Field Test, we get our first look at Bruce Wayne himself, in this case rendered with as generic an "anime" look as they could muster. It starts with him and Lucius Fox (from the films, don'tcha know) as Fox introduces him to his newest toy, an electromagnetic bullet deflector that activates on sound. Not seeing any potential downside to this, Bruce decides to try it out.

Bruce then attends to his day-to-day business, such as attending a homeless shelter unveiling and basically accusing a guy of murder to his face in the middle of a golf course. After magnetically deflecting said dude's golf club halfway across the county, Bruce moves on to his other Field Test. Batman kicks it off by crashing Maroni's boat into The Russian's boat. He then flies in and starts beating the crap out of people. They shoot him, bullets reflect, he pummels them until the point of paralysis, as per his usual.

Finally he holds The Russian and Maroni up by their necks until they agree to stick to their own turf for a while. This is the cue for one of the mob members to shoot Batman, and the bullet inevitably bounces into some random gang member's shoulder. A brief trip to the hospital later, Batman decides it's just too dangerous to have something that ricochets bullets into other people. Nobody else can die because of him -- villains spending two years in traction is A-OK, though.

Truth be told, that was one of the better shorts in the collection. The same can't be said for the next one, In Darkness Dwells. It begins with a swoopy camera through the skyline to show just how intense this is going to be. You see, a large crocodile-man (Killer Croc for the unacquainted) attacked a church, stealing a cardinal or somesuch, and everyone inside said church went super-crazy. Gordon wanders into some seemingly unrelated, unbelievably decrepit catacomb hallway inside (seriously, the thing looks straight out of Eternal Darkness). After sending Ramirez and Allen away, he tells the story of what happened in the church to Batman, who is hanging from the ceiling. Because he is a bat. -man.

After coming to the incredibly obvious conclusion that the Scarecrow had to be behind this on some level, Batman follows the trail of the maybe-lizardman. Diving through a teensy hole in the floor, he gets on his way. A tedious trip through the sewer system and a discussion with some completely unnecessary underground people later, Batman finds the Croc and gets bit about twelve seconds into the fight, getting infected with FEAR TOXIN in the process. Always the pacifist, Batman responds to this by sticking a live bomb in Croc's mouth.

With Croc wandering off to vomit out his intestines or something, Batman moves on and just so happens to run into the Scarecrow and a bunch of crazy sewer people/asylum inmates. They're about to execute the stolen cardinal, so Batman beats the living crap out of all of them and then brings the whole sewer down, surely killing like a dozen people in the process. He and the cardinal ride the waves to the safety of a dam. Sure, whatever.

Gordon is already there with a helicopter, somehow, and tries to get Batman to come along, but Batman is just too cool for that, so he glides away. So in the end, none of the characters have any motivation or logical reason to do anything they're doing, the settings and fight scenes are barely linked together as if 12 minutes was just too damn long, Bruce is injected with fear toxin and absolutely nothing whatsoever comes from it, and Batman is completely impervious to entire sewer systems crashing down upon his head. Brilliant.

Working Through Pain begins with a terrified crazy guy pulling his own "Have I Got A Story For You" featuring Batman as a giant collection of bats; he fires into it and runs away. Batman, actually present, has been shot. After sticking his finger inside the wound to make sure it hurts or something, he uses a magical cauterizing iron and goes into flashback mode.

Think visions of bloodied African war veterans being operated on without anesthetic is a bit graphic and pretentious for this movie? Think again. Bruce's flashbacks begin there, after which in real life he falls down something like thirty stories of mine shaft and crashes on a pipe. But it's okay -- he's working through the pain.

The rest of the flashbacks center in India, where he meets up with "Cassandra" to learn how to work through his pain. Cassandra is a bit of an outcast from some unidentified sect because they don't teach icky girls the secrets of coalwalking and lying on beds of nails enlightenment. She's constantly berated by the townsfolk, but refuses to leave because "this is where [she] belong[s]." She tries to make the analogy to what Bruce is trying to do in Gotham, but since he's working to better the city and she seems to be doing nothing but sitting on her ass, it doesn't quite work.

One night, an angry mob comes by Cassandra's house to attack her for having cooties. Bruce steps in, since Cassandra makes absolutely no effort to defend herself, and fends them off in his usual way -- beating them until their internal bleeding makes it too hard to stand up. This leads Cassandra to kick him out of town, apparently for having dared to lift a finger against dudes with knives. As he walks away, she tells Bruce not to thank her -- after all, his pain is too great for her to teach him to deal with. Not that this really makes any sense, but nothing she says ever really does anyway.

Also, in real life, Bruce limped his way right into a stash of guns, to be dealt with in the next part of the film. This short didn't really make any sense at all and was pretty slow, but it was fairly engaging, and you didn't have to warp your mind to connect one scene to another, so I'm gonna give it a pass.

The final short is Deadshot, focusing on the DC villain so named. The animation style is immediately very offputting, as the characters themselves are extremely detailed and barely move. It starts with Bruce and Alfred talking about what to do with the guns found in Working Through Pain. This allows Bruce to talk about how totally awesome guns would be if he could use them, overlaying a sequence where Deadshot himself snipes a single dude in a party through a champagne glass from a ferris wheel halfway across Gotham. This is not the most implausible event in this cartoon.

Turns out that Deadshot's next target is everyone's favorite punching bag, Jim Gordon. Gordon hops in a huge cop caravan for his safety while Batman watches from up above. Alfred chimes in from home to let Batman know that the handy satellite surveillance he suddenly has access to reveals no rooftop snipers in the vicinity.

But there's trouble! The caravan is passing under a bridge at the same time a train passes over it! Since shooting a target with a rifle from one moving target into another is unspeakably flashy, Batman figures that's just what will happen, so he flies by. Seriously, he glides right next to the train, as he totally can do all the time. Deadshot takes aim and fires ...

... and Batman flies in and punches the bullet away. He doesn't knock the rifle into another direction. He doesn't knock Deadshot over. He punches a bullet. While flying. Deadshot is unimpressed by this for some reason, and pulls out some sort of wrist machine gun because Batman is of course the true target. Batman avoids every bullet, or his nonexistent body armor reflects some of them or something, and hops on the train just before it enters a tunnel.

Completely forgetting about the insane powers he just had, Batman attempts to get closer to Deadshot by means of running straight at him across like six train cars. Unsurprisingly, he gets shot. He's okay, though; no limping around and flashbacking this time. Deadshot wanders in closer while Batman hides between train cars, and just as unsurprisingly, Batman gets the jump on him and destroys the wrist gun with his gauntlets. He then holds Deadshot's face millimeters below a series of outcroppings in the train tunnels until Deadshot spills the beans on who hired him and, presumably, shits his pants. Convinced, Batman punches him square in the nose at full force.

Later, Deadshot's all arrested, and Bruce is getting his bullet wound patched. Since this is the final short, he takes a moment to compare everything that just happened to his parents' murder. He wanders over to the window and sees the Bat-signal, shining on Gotham's everpresent cloud cover. No, a bat's work is never done!

And with that, the spastic, incoherent thing is finally at an end. How this is supposed to link to The Dark Knight is beyond me; it barely works with itself. We've got six shorts in various degrees of awful, with Batman at six different looks, six different ability levels, and working in six different Gothams. The only remote consistency with itself or anything else is the savage brutality Batman unleashes upon hapless criminals -- and that's just not enough.

Root Beer Tapper: X-Box Live Edition

As most readers can see via our "Pathetic Gaming With Us" sidebar, the X-Box 360 is a harsh mistress to us Ice Anvil writers. It's a console that brings me great joy whenever I play a game like Crackdown or even Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. But it's also a bane on the existence of my wallet whenever I wake up one morning in a post-gaming stupor and realize I just spent X-Box points like they were monopoly money on Arcade titles like Root Beer Tapper.

Now, the rational me realizes what the half-asleep-with-a-console-that-has-my-credit-card-info-on-file bad idea me might have been going for. Yes, readers, I have a history with the game Tapper.

That last sentence might be a first for the English language but true it is nonetheless.

Back when I was a wee lad of 12 I came across a few cryptic websites talking about a video game program called MAME. I knew not what this could mean, of course, because I was 12 years old and actively collecting issues of X-Force at the time... so in most states, by all means I was clinically retarded. But clicked on I did as I found page after page extolling great gaming fortunes for all who partake in MAME-y goodness. Eventually, after realizing that text on websites isn't just there for decoration and should be read, I found an actual link to download the emulator and some random MAME roms.

These early roms weren't the cream of the crop that rose to the top, either. I have a feeling that most of these sites hosting early roms picked the ones that had the least choice of receiving cease and desist letters. Let's be candid here: if you actually worked on 3 Stooges arcade game, were sober enough to remember programming it, and still alive today, would you put yourself through the shame of confessing this prior sin to a lawyer? I think not. So many early MAME sites were full of games of this ilk, some of them having decent playability, most of them being novelties that many people never heard of. One such rom was Tapper, which is a title I still to this day confuse for another activity altogether.

Tapper is a product of its generation. At the time, a video game could be made about just about any subject, which is why we received games about a gorilla in a greenhouse, jousting on ostriches, kissing girls in study hall, and Tron. Eventually game developers started programming games based on their own real life interests, so naturally a game based entirely on drinking had to come up sooner or later. With Tapper, you played the part of a bartender on the go, forced to work in a dystopian future where watering holes have 5 bars and only one member of staff.

Let's dissect that last sentence for a moment, shall we? The game takes place in a reality where there are so many alcoholics that bars necessitate not one but 5 different bar situations. And it is to be assumed that Tapper himself is only bartender because he is not an alcoholic. So that would mean this once lighthearted game about getting people sauced is actually a cautionary tale of how horrible a life you might lead if you don't get drunk now. Would you want to be stuck the lone rider on the sober train, having to grease the wheels of an entire society of inebriated yokels with pocket change? I thought not, Mayor Moonshine, so get chugging.

With the outlook on our world's eventual drunken demise out of the way, let's talk about the fundamentals of the game as if it really merits it. The game is essentially a sideways shoot'em up, except what you are firing is frosty mugs of beer and what you are shooting at are drunks. The drunks happily grab their chalice of tard drink and chug like it's their job (which, as previously denoted, might very well be true). The sheer force of you feeding their addiction is enough to physically move them back a few feet, also... either that or you are slinging suds at the speed of sound. When they have consumed all that is to be consumed, a good 90% of them reasonably decide to leave your establishment and drive home, which could theoretically tie the actions of the game Bump 'N' Jump to Tapper, making it a spiritual successor. First you have to stupid the alcoholics up, then they think they can make their car jump on the drive home.

The ones that do not take notice tend to stick around, often not tipping, until you throw another frothy cup of nice-nice their way. Then, and only then, has their gripping addiction been sated and they can leave your game to star in their own version of City Connection. Side note: whichever city Tapper takes place in no longer has any cats.

There are two critical things to remember about Tapper before we go any further: Firstly, the game was made to be the lone arcade set-up in your neighborhood bar. The game was simple and short, easily beaten on a single quarter if you Jackie Chan drunk kung-fu it. Some versions of the game even bare the Budweiser logo to make no bones about who this game was targeted towards. And the topper to Tapper: the game included a handy drink holder to caress your bottle of fresh Budweiser or drink of choice while you show off to your equally shitfaced friends just how wicked awesome you are at the ol' Tap after a few tequila shots.

The second, and most crucial, part of Tapper lore lies in the developers wanting their cake and eating it, too. The 80s were a heady time, America. We had conflicted images of Phoebe Cates alone from Gremlins and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We were a nation divide. Among that divide were arcades set up in bars (which numbers in the tens of... uh... tens) and the number of arcades set up in pizza joints, malls, and assorted places marketed towards children (essentially all of them). A night at Chuck E Cheese's is less fun if daddy has to explain why the people in the Tapper game are impersonating what he does every night as he cries after work to his children.

So the game suddenly become Root Beer Tapper, as we've hit the Prohibition Age of Gaming. Surely you remember the great rush of root beer joints in the 80s, right? Man, you could barely throw a dead cat (most likely killed by one of Tapper's customers) without hitting a root beer jerk just being torn to pieces with job offers to work in yet another hip young root beer upstart opening down town.

What was once a glorified drinking simulator suddenly became a questionable piece of early video game censorship. The once happy faces of Tapper players full of amusement were replaced with faces of bemusement at what Root Beer Tapper represented. This one stroke of parental advisory killed any chance of video games creeping into your local bar for good, leaving a market wide open for Golden Tee. Ironically, you look like slightly less of an idiot playing Root Beer Tapper than you do playing Golden Tee.

So of course we get a port of the game on X-Box Live Arcade, surely a big seller to the dozens of people who fondly remember the time they got so hammered and played all the way to the Sports Bar level on a single token.

Every story comes with an inconvenient truth: there are currently 177,012 people who own Root Beer Tapper on their X-Box Live. That's 177,012 people crying out for help.

And yes, that includes myself as well. Help me protect myself from drunk Arcade purchases.