Monday, October 31, 2011

Captain N The Game Master - Return to Castlevania

While the late 80’s into the early 90’s saw DiC producing a number of awful (and one surprisingly watchable) cartoon shows based on videogames on both sides of the console war, few are reviled in quite the same way as Captain N. Unlike the other shows that focused on one particular franchise, it attempted to be the point where all the well-known games of the era (that didn’t already have their own show) met.

However, the reason it’s infamous among gamers is the writers appear to have spent about as much time playing a game as the Irate Gamer before sitting down to do the project. As in, not much. The Super Mario Bros. Super Show took some liberties with where its stories were set, but the enemies and the power-ups and Mario being able to breathe underwater were more or less accurate. Not here. The hero of Kid Icarus is actually named Pit, for instance, and it’s anybody’s guess why Jeffrey Scott thought adding “acus” to the end of half his dialogue would be endearing. Mega Man wears green instead of blue. And Samus Aran from Metroid didn’t appear in the show because Scott “never heard of her,” heavily implying he never played the game at all because all you have to do is hit Start and there she is. Not to mention the villain of her game was the main villain for this entire show. For what it’s worth, Samus was a regular in the tie-in comic.

Truth be told…I kind of like the show. There’s something endearing about the cheesiness and only occasionally-accurate research. For all its faults, there’s one thing I can say about Captain N that I can’t about the other cartoons I’ve reviewed: it’s hardly ever boring. And let’s be fair, they were adapting games from an era only with only slightly more developed plots and characters than the ones that showed up on Saturday Supercade. Obviously, this forced the writers to wing it on those fronts. I’m not saying most or even a lot of their choices for characterization were good ones, but the developers didn’t give them much to work with.

Anyway, the basic story of Captain N was that Kevin, the most bodacious gamer to ever pick up a controller, is pulled into the universe where the characters of his favorite games are real. Or some of them, anyway, or goofier likenesses of them, anyway, and he becomes the superhero Captain N to save it from the forces of evil. The show ran for two and a half seasons.

I say two and a half because this episode comes from the third, where the episodes where shortened to run in a half-hour block with the cartoon based on Super Mario World (which took a few too many of its story cues from The Flintstones for my taste, but whatever). The animation budget was noticeably lower, the scripts were lamer, and well I think we all knew this was probably the last roundup for both shows.

"Return to Castlevania" opens on Simon Belmont, whip-cracking, vampire-slaying hero of the Castlevania games where you kill all the movie monsters of old. In this show he was probably the most loathed of all the characters, being a narcissistic clod who’s also such a fraidycat you wonder how he ever managed to acquire a reputation as a master vampire hunter. The smarmy voice of his didn’t help (although believe it or not, the actor made a decent King Arthur).

Anyway, Simon’s attending a ceremony where he’ll be bequeathed the weapons used by his ancestor, Trevor Belmont (from Castlevania III, actually a prequel which some people apparently don’t realize), who used them to defeat Count Dracula who can only be called “the Count” for legal reasons. There to present the weapons is the Poltergeist King, the unseen benefactor who supposedly puts all those weapons in candles for heroes to find. Rather than congratulate Simon for the bravery of his ancestor, though, the Poltergeist King says Trevor was a coward and HE was the one who defeated the Count. The crowd at the ceremony appears to have been expecting this, as they always do, and starts pelting the stage with produce.

Elsewhere it turns out the Poltergeist King wasn’t really the Poltergeist King, he was the Count himself disguised as the Poltergeist King thanks to the kidnapped Poltergeist King’s stolen magic staff. Which he uses to make his captive think twice about escaping captivity by setting the rope on fire. And I just noticed Dracula’s wearing a bowtie. To think people get mad at Twilight for making vampires look sissy. Not to say it doesn’t, of course…

The Poltergeist King was able to attempt an escape in the first place because the Count put his deadbeat son on guard duty (Ian Corlett doing an embarrassing surfer dude voice, which feels a little weird to my mind because Matt Hill, who did Captain N, tended to have a hard time sounding like someone who wasn’t from SoCal. He made for a weird-sounding samurai, at least to my ears). Incidentally, said son’s also from Castlevania III, Alucard. So you can’t say “Dracula” but you can say it backward. The Count kicks him out of the castle for being worthless.

Captain N tracks Simon down to a graveyard where Trevor’s buried, and where Simon accidentally wakes up an absent-minded old wizard who helped Trevor stomp the Count before and says Castlevania never produced a braver man. This character’s never named, but it’s probably meant to be Sypha Belnades, one of three sidekicks you could pick up in the game (Alucard was one of the other ones). Fans loved this one because if you actually do beat the Count with Sypha as your sidekick, it turns out he’s actually a woman. At least they got that right when Samus appeared at all.

Sypha immediately proves his worth by accidentally animating a skeleton that tries to kill Simon, and Captain N proves his worth by trying to shoot it and only clipping off one of its horns, which prompts Sypha to remember the magic words for freezing monsters.

The Barely Competent Brigade end up in a tunnel somewhere and the Poltergeist King appears and promises to make them pay for invading his domain, but Captain N shoots the ceiling, which he somehow knows will dump water on the King. This serves to make his disguise go poof and turn him back into the Count. Huh? I thought the magic staff was supposed to be pretty badass, but you can cancel it out with water?

Anyway the Count creates some descending spiked chandeliers (what? Things from the actual game?), and after Sypha “accidentally” teleports himself away from these other idiots, Alucard shows up and offers to help the others defeat his dad. The Count watches and voices disappointment that his own son’s turned traitor. Even though Alucard’s another sidekick in the game because he disagrees with his father’s evil ways and will help you once you prove yourself worthy. And that game’s set a century before Simon was around.

Alucard leads them to his dad’s tomb, but immediately switches sides back, and shoots fireballs from his cape to wake up mummies to attack Simon and Captain N. During this Simon whips a candle that turns it into a boomerang that goes flying at the Count. Is that supposed to be like how you can get boomerangs from candles in the game?

He has the one gun, but can shoot them at the same time.

Simon swings on his whip, yelling like Tarzan for some reason even though he’s from a horror game, and defeats the Count by knocking him into his coffin. Which if I’m not mistaken is where he sleeps anyway, so what exactly did that accomplish? Captain N then remarks it’s time to “wrap things up,” which makes no sense because he beats the mummies by un-wrapping them. Then he knocks Alucard into a coffin too.

That’s treated like a victory, because next thing we know we’re at the ceremony from the beginning, take two. Captain N gets tired of Simon’s long-winded speech, and they apparently picked Sypha up again because he uses a spell to wrap Simon up like a mummy. Which I didn’t think was funny even when I was a kid and this episode was brand new.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

House II: The Second Story (Duh)

Normally I’m loathe to do things out of order here at Spectrum of Madness. Sure, I picked my Dino Squad reviews willy-nilly from the list, but that’s because it’s one of those shows where every episode stands on its own except in relation to the pilot. About the only thing I noticed that ever changed was Fiona’s kid sister being let in on her secret.

On those rare occasions where I’m not going to bother with an entire series to get to one thing, I try to give you enough background to understand what I’m talking about. Bearing that in mind, I could tell you about how House is the story of William Katt battling his undead ‘nam buddy Richard Moll for the life of his son, but I don’t have to. Because House II has nothing whatsoever to do with House.

After the opening credits a husband and wife pair in what looks like the 50’s (but by the movie’s dates would be 1961) see someone’s shadow in the upper floor of their house. The wife wonders if it could be “him,” but the husband replies it’s probably just some punks who broke into a neighbor’s house. Nonetheless he grabs his shootin’ iron before they go to look, and one supposes their doubts have to do with handing off their baby to a couple that drove away with all haste before this. That they appear to have hired a decorator with a fondness for Meso-American temple themes for their house doesn’t help ease the tension either.

Upstairs they look for the intruder, and probably not to their relief, find him: a zombie cowboy Dr. Claw. I’m not even kidding. But then, Frank Welker was kind of the go-to guy for evil voice roles in the 80’s. He demands “the skull,” and when they fail to produce it he pumps ‘em fulla lead.

Two and a half decades later, we find out the baby was Jesse McLaughlin when he and his musical talent scout girlfriend move back into the house where his parents were killed. Something that seems to barely register in his mind. Of course, within hours of taking up residence in the old place his obnoxious man-ho friend Charlie shows up with his latest floozie in tow (you can tell Charlie’s wild because he wears high-tops with a suit), so who can blame Jesse for being distracted.

While the inconsequential girlfriends are off discussing a musical career for Charlie’s latest acquisition (based on some of the lamest of lame 80’s rock I’ve ever heard), Jesse tells his buddy about some research he’s done about his great-great-grandfather (his namesake), who discovered a crystal skull supposedly possessed of mind-bending magical powers. But even if there’s no such thing as magic, the crystal skull has to be worth a fortune. So they do what any responsible guys would do and drive up to the cemetery to disinter Jesse the Elder.

Except the crystal skull really does have magic powers, and he’s still alive.

This movie doesn’t seem to care for you thinking about goes on, like when Jesse the Elder (or “Gramps” as he asks to be called for the sake of convenience) puts the skull in a little altar above the fireplace and tells the boys he needs them to help him protect it from the forces of evil. It even lights up at being put there, and might as well have a huge neon sign flashing “Hey bad guys, steal me” next to it.

Like a caveman (one with a metal sword, yet) tries to do the following night. And because it’s Halloween and Charlie invited everybody he knows over for a costume party, nobody notices except Jesse. He and Charlie follow Alley-Oop upstairs and find out the attic’s turned into a prehistoric jungle. And that’s just for starters.

House II takes itself less seriously than its predecessor, which is both a good, but mostly a bad thing. It seems like they wanted people watching the movie years from then to gag on the 80’s-ness of the whole thing. Like when Gramps is figuring out TV and they’re playing commercials for Toys R Us and Oreos. And of course, the fact that at the end of the movie you’re expecting to hear the villain growl “Next time, Jesse, next tiiiiiiime!”

The biggest problem, though, is the movie never gets into why the guys are willing to keep the skull in the house if evildoers who want it can appear from any time or any place via any door in the house. At least not when they seem to have no interest in figuring out how to use it for themselves. I mean, come on, you’ve got to have some kind of reason for dropping everything and grabbing the nearest sword when a bunch of balding Aztecs grab a knicknack of yours and run off. Plus, when they do, what kind of jerk do you have to be to give yourself an uzi and your buddy a gun that’s actually a cigarette lighter that looks like a gun?

For that matter, the movie has a young Bill Maher in a supporting role, who fortunately isn’t given much to do besides steal Jesse’s girlfriend. But she’s so wound up and career-focused you know as soon as you see her at the Halloween party that they’ll never end up together.

The good sadly isn’t as prevalent. John Ratzenberger turns in an amusing performance as an electrician who turns up in the second act and probably actually does see portals into other time periods on most jobs. Plus his cameo doubles as a hip in-joke to George Wendt playing a nosy neighbor in the first House. And the puppy-caterpillar thing they pick up from the prehistoric jungle is pretty cute. But for all that, the cheesiness ends up being more annoying than charming. I’m saying that as someone who can appreciate some cheese as part of a fun end product, but it’s easy to make something so silly it’s just silly, too.

This movie makes me want to upchuck in my shorts, all right.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eclipse Chapter 3 - Motives

1. You remember Edward bringing up the plane tickets he bought so he and Bella could visit her mom in front of her dad so she’d be forced to go. Well, this chapter opens on that visit. The end of it. When they’re on the plane back to Forks.

Here I was hoping to see Edward interact with Bella’s mom, who we hear so much about but as for the times we’ve actually seen her…well, you can leave your shoes on to count those. I mean, you can’t have a character keep going on and on about a relative of theirs without ever seeing them unless it’s supposed to be some kind of gag. And you couldn’t have a gag like that in something that takes itself as seriously as this series. Plus, I wanted to see how he’d socialize with this woman who knows nothing about the real him and why he can’t do things outside the house with them.

Apparently I somehow forgot that Stephenie Meyer’s a total wimp when it comes to giving her characters actual problems. Because we get one flashback of one conversation Bella had with her mom, while Edward made up some BS about having a term paper to avoid going outside and bringing the Volturi down on his future mother-in-law.

In fact it seems like he only did all this so Bella’s mom could tell us how in love he and Bella are.

2. Or maybe it was to give a chance to see how stupid people in the Meyerverse really are. You see, “I’d forgotten how much my mother saw,” and Bella’s surprised to hear her mother point out how Bella instinctively makes sure she’s always close to Edward. Because it’s not Bella’s plans for her future consist only of surgically grafting herself to Edward’s side or anything.

Yes, I’m pretty sure Bella’s supposed to be unusually perceptive for noticing something strange about the Cullens in the first book, but I’ve already been over that. That her mom’s supposed to share that heightened awareness because she noticed Bella making a point to stay close to her boyfriend is pretty darn stupid in its own right. I almost want to say this was to set the stage for a couple even dumber non-surprise reveals later in the book.

3. They get back, and for some reason Jacob’s extremely eager to chat with Bella. He’s been calling nonstop, you see, leading to this little exchange.

Bella: “Now why are you harassing Charlie?”
Jacob: “I need to talk to you.”
Bella: “Yea, I figured that part all by myself.”
Starofjustice: “Then why did you ask, smart perceptive protagonist person?”

He asks if she’s going to be at school the following day, and after getting an answer in the affirmative, hangs up. She tries to figure why it matters to him, and “I tried to think about it logically.” Probably for the first time ever. However “My brain refused to come up with any brilliant insights.” Oh how I’ve lost faith in you, Bella! I thought you’d never let me down!

His sudden concern after being quiet so long disturbs Bella a little. After all, “What difference could three days make?” Fair point, I mean, that’s only about how long it would take her to become a vampire. Hmmm, wait a sec…plus she knows a killer newborn vampire’s on the loose not all that faraway, and if the law of the universe is upheld it’ll eventually come straight for Bella. And there was that time Jacob dropped out of sight for a few days and then next thing you know he’s a werewolf. Not to mention she’s pretty close to ending her high school career. Yeah, a lot can change in a short amount of time.

At least she realizes that a couple paragraphs down too.

4. The next day at school, Edward asks for Bella to do something for him, and it’s to stay in the car while he confronts Jacob who’s waiting for her out front. She tells us she doesn’t hate Sam the way she used to, she’d learned “to like him, even” (gee, would’ve been nice if we could’ve seen that). But when she sees Jacob trying to hold back his emotions, he looks too much like Sam for her tastes. “I’d never been able to completely shake the resentment I felt when Jacob mimicked Sam’s expression. It was a stranger’s face. He wasn’t my Jacob when he wore it.”

Everything has to cater to her wants, huh? He has to be “her” Jacob, huh? This is why that malarkey from the illustrated guide about Bella becoming more important as the series progresses annoys me. It’s always been about her, what she wants, who wants her, who’s jealous of her, and who’s out to get her. I know she’s the main character, but every single thing that happens ties back to her. Maybe it would seem less like that if she actually reached out to other people other times than when they had something she wanted. And spending forever with Edward or having Jacob there as an emotional crutch count as something she wants.

5. Edward does indeed confront Jacob but Bella’s still close enough to hear. We hear about some people named Tyler Crowley and Austin Marks, and I’d be prepared to say those were just names to give us a sense that a crowd’s forming as Jacob and Edward argue if Meyer didn’t think nearly every single person in her books needs an identity of their own.

Jacob’s not happy because apparently Emmett crossed into the Quileutes’ territory the night before, and Bella realizes something’s up that Edward doesn’t want her to know about (but which Jacob wouldn’t try to hide from her). I’d say maybe Edward should let his girlfriend know when something dangerous is around, since we’ve hardly seen anything to prove they’re as competent fighters as the book would have us believe, but on the other hand the slightest flicker of unpleasantness immediately takes over Bella’s mind. Sort of makes you wonder why Edward puts up with her, really.

In any case, Bella realizes Victoria’s still after her, and having to listen to Jacob’s complaints makes Edward look “like…like a vampire.” Meaning what? That he looks like a bloodthirsty monster? That his sparkles have started to show? The books have put so much effort into portraying vampires as these inhumanly pretty creatures, not terrifying creatures of the dark, that it competes with Bella's moaning and groaning to be the most annoying thing about the books. It doesn’t go along with the idea that Edward’s supposed to look scary by saying he looks like a vampire. In Meyer's universe vampires are breathtakingly beautiful, not scary. And Bella won't shut up about that, so that's what I think when I'm reading Twilight and she says "vampire": beautiful. Not scary.

6. The boys argue over the merits of the their policy of informing Bella of danger, with Jacob saying “She’s tougher than you think.” Which was proved when she went insane from losing her boyfriend and started playing suicidal games to hang onto his memory. Then again, does Jacob know why she was doing that? If not, and I find that pretty easy to believe, nice to know she’s being so honest and open with the boy she wants to keep as a best friend.

And perhaps the principle failing of the Twilight series strikes again. She remembers Dakota Fanning using her fiendish power to torture Edward and, “I’d rather Victoria kill me a hundred times over than watch Edward suffer that way again.” Not really sure what one has to do with the other, but again Bella doesn’t sound selfless when she’s never placed any value on herself or anything she’s achieved. Maybe because she has yet to achieve anything.

7. Another deadly sin of these books appears when it appears Bella might be too physically ill to attend class because of the argument between the two major men in her life and/or the threat of Victoria hanging over her head. It’s kind of justified that everybody tries to keep her as far from the action as possible if she’s such a flake, but it also means she's almost never around when the exciting stuff happens. Why bother trying to have exciting stuff at all if that’s the case?

8. She gets Edward to admit that Victoria is in fact on the loose and they have in fact been trying to protect Bella without her knowledge. “All of them had been in on it - Emmett, Jasper, Alice, Rosalie and Carlisle. Maybe even Esme, though he hadn’t mentioned her.” Reminding us of all the lesser characters with weird names, huh? “And then Paul and the rest of the Quileute pack. It might so easily have turned into a fight, pitting my future family and my old friends against each other.” Is she so sure she wants to sign up for a group that’ll think nothing of withholding vital information from her? I mean, yes, obviously she is, but they’re certainly not making much of an effort to make her part of the group.

You know what book I want to read sometime? The story of a human and a vampire falling in love, but the woman’s the powerful, beautiful, ageless vampire.

9. The chapter closes out on the various unimportant students placing bets on the outcome almost fight between our male leads. Another of the series’ deadly sins rears because it’s trying to pretend it's not nearly as predictable as it actually is. In this case, the outcome of a fight between what's-his-face and who's-his-name.

Edward would win. Not because he’s necessarily a better fighter or anything, but because we all know he and Bella are going to end up together. Meaning he’s ultimately safe from any possible danger he might encounter, especially with how consistently phony-baloney Meyer’s been about the “terrifying” “threats” she puts up against our “heroes”.

Even more so because she ups the ante in this book. The villains this time are a group with equal powers but the advantage of numbers, so the only way they’ll get through this is to make nice and forget about fighting each other.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eclipse Chapter 2 - Evasion

1. Bella’s actually feeling pretty good as she goes to lunch, “and it wasn’t just because I was holding hands with the most perfect person on the planet” yeah it is. Who tossed herself off a cliff and would’ve happily drowned having Edward’s voice ringing in her ears as she did? Who was willing to endanger herself to keep Edward around, before she “went” crazy?

She goes on to add that it was because her “sentence was served and I was a free woman again.” Since we never saw her having to suffer through the horrible isolation of being able to see Edward every day at school and every single night, it feels like she’s getting out of another problem without having to actually deal with it. In fact, as my sarcasm indicates it sounds like it wasn’t really a problem for her in the first place, she just couldn’t be as open about her time with Edward. Since almost nothing about their relationship’s something the rest of the world can know about anyway, that doesn’t sound like much of a change of pace.

2. Bella runs into some of her “friends,” somebody named Ben and somebody named Angela who I think might have appeared once or twice. Alice is there too, and the newbies get to hear about her fixation with fashion. “If I’d allow it, she’d love to dress me every day - perhaps several times a day - like some oversized three-dimensional paper doll.” Ha! Bella! Three-dimensional! Couldn’t you just die?!

Besides, sounds like even Bella’s best friend among the Cullens sees her more as a toy than as a friend. You have to wonder if it’s because Rosalie’s too bitchy to put up with that and strong enough to stop Alice if she tries.

3. Anyway, they ask Bella about sending out graduation announcements, and Alice suggests going out and doing something to celebrate. Bella isn’t sure she’s “free” enough yet even with Charlie loosening his strictures, like “I’m sure I still have boundaries -- like the continental U.S., for example.” Is that some kind of hip in-joke? I almost want to say it is, because “Alice grimaced in real disappointment.” Like she can’t really take Bella to Milan to try on the newest styles from Giancomo Madeupguy.

4. Right on cue, Bella’s suddenly not getting into the spirit of being free, either from school or Charlie. “I’d been plagued by a persistent, uncomfortable intrusion of a specific mental picture. It popped into my thoughts at regular intervals like some annoying alarm clock set to sound every half hour, filling my head with the image of Jacob’s face crumpled in pain.” It’s just so sad that she hurt Jacob by picking Edward, isn’t it? Maybe if there’d ever been any room for doubt over who she’d pick, like sparing a moment’s thought for what she was doing by dropping everything to fly to Italy to save Edward, I might have more sympathy. But one guy or the other wasn’t gonna get picked, and that guy was going to feel hurt by her, and we all knew that guy wasn’t gonna be Edward.

Plus, it’s not even like Bella’s got a track record of actually doing things that make some kind of impact on the plot, and thus creating some sympathy for her when she wonders what she could’ve done differently to make Jacob happy too. The only fairly major thing Bella’s actually done in these books, with her own two hands, was to run through Volterra to stop Edward from looking like an idiot covered in body glitter in front of tourists. Which was stupid both because of how big an idiot Edward had to be to decide to kill himself over talking to Jacob on the phone, and because the official series compendium says nobody knows about vampires sparkling except vampires. No it’s not a big, brave thing she did, and it’s annoying listening to her trying to take responsibility for everything when she’s just a spectator for most of the series.

“Sure, I was free to go anywhere I wanted - except La Push; free to do anything I wanted - except see Jacob. I frowned at the table. There had to be some kind of middle ground.” Free to do whatever she wants - as long as Edward allows it. I know a lot of people get mad about this, and I do too, but I believe Dave Barry once said something in regards to being in favor of gender equality along the lines of “If a woman makes a mistake, she should be ridiculed just like a man would.” Which is to say that while the way Edward treats his girlfriend is deplorable, that doesn't make Bella any less of a stupid little whiner-bitch. Remember what she started doing with her free time without Edward around? Yeah, you do. Eclipse doesn’t try to pretend that didn’t happen, either. In fact it uses that to justify Edward being with her while his family fights the evil vampires.

For that matter, Bella’s such a dim bulb she continues to consider Jacob her best friend and wish for his happiness despite him being far more jerky and abusive to her than Edward ever was. She even realizes she’s still in love with him at the end of it all. As degrading to women as Edward’s treatment is, I’m tempted to call Bella the exception that proves the rule. She sure comes across as dangerously stupid to me.

Bella’s ruminations of her lame problems are interrupted when she realizes Alice has zoned out, which means she’s having one of her visions. Is that how it works again?

5. Some guy named Mike’s car breaks down, and Edward offers to fix it for him. Alice reminds him he’s really not that good with cars and suggests he get Rosalie to help him. Oh look, Meyer’s not sexist. One of her female characters is good with cars!

Except Rosalie’s supposedly away at college and it wouldn’t do for her to be seen in town taking some nobody character’s car apart. She hasn’t even left? Then what exactly do the Cullens do with their time, if the ones who supposedly aren’t there don’t leave? What about the treaty with the Quileutes, since that obviously happened more than at least one generation ago and the Cullens are still here? Do they rotate through a series of properties and identities every time they’ve been in one place too long? I mean, they can’t have stayed in Forks pretending to be a doctor and his teenage kids that whole time, right? Their act is supposed to be really tight. How does it work? Or  is this a case of “you’re thinking again, Dave”?

6. Bella lets this discussion filter in the background by settling into “my patient mode,” then when she gets home she gets anxious about what Alice saw and what Edward’s not telling her, drumming her fingers frantically until he remarks “Are we a little impatient today?” Love how these books are so lame they can contradict themselves in just over a page.

She’s about to make a biting comeback, but his perfect face totally disarms her. “If I had my way, I would spend the majority of my time kissing. Edward. There wasn’t anything I’d experienced in my life that compared to the feeling of his cool lips…” What exactly has she experienced in life, anyway? Edward’s the first boy she ever took an interest in ever. She’s got no experience with romance. Yeah there was Jacob, but things were just getting started with them as a couple rather than friends when she chucked it in the trash to run back to Edward. She doesn’t know he’s the best, it’s the hormones talking.

Further showing why she’s so well-loved by readers the world over, Bella reads an e-mail from her mom talking about doing some stupid thing or other and “I felt a little frustrated with Phil, her husband of almost two years, for allowing that one.” Because it’s the man’s responsibility to keep the woman on a tight leash. And wait, wasn’t she indignant about Edward not letting her see Jacob? Even if it was for her own safety?

“I was a very different person from my mother. Someone thoughtful and cautious. The responsible one, the grown-up. That’s how I saw myself. That was the person I knew.” I have nothing to add to that.

We finally find out why Bella’s reluctant to tie the knot with Edward despite him being her whole life, and it’s because she’s afraid of her mom’s disapproval. Marriage isn’t something smart people don’t rush into, sayeth Bella’s mom, and you know what, she’s right. Then again, this is a series with no credible problems no matter how many evil vampires the author sends after her narrator.

7. Edward reveals that Alice saw Jasper off somewhere, doing something. She thinks he’s meeting with some of his old vampire buddies from before he joined the family, but she doesn’t think he plans on rejoining them. It just goes to show how not-ready-for-primetime Meyer is that you’re more interested in that than you are about what goes on with Bella and Edward. I know I said I didn't care about the secondary characters' backstories before, but that was partly from how forced it felt when Meyer tried to tell us Alice's life story. In this book, she manages it better. And yes, it shows how thinly-etched the characters we spend the most time with are in comparison.

Edward finds the plane tickets he’d meant for Bella and him to visit her mom with, and they’re still good for a little while. Yeah, the guy who can’t go outside on sunny days thinks it’s a good idea to visit his girlfriend’s mom who doesn’t know he can’t go outside on sunny days. I guess I’m not surprised Meyer ends up handling that the way she does, but I’m still surprised she thought it was a good idea in the first place. Edward even mentions the tickets to Charlie to force Bella to go. That Edward, what a great guy. Although I’m surprised that Charlie’s surprised that Bella forgot she got plane tickets for her birthday. Remember how four months went by in her journal or whatever without Bella mentioning anything? She was that destroyed by Edward leaving her. The angst is the most pervasive thing about these books and Meyer forgot about that?

Again Bella contradicts herself by threatening to move out when Charlie tries to ground her, because she’s a legal (if not mental or emotional) adult now. She then goes on to say about mom that “She’s just as much my parental authority as you are.” Who was just saying her father wasn’t her parental authority anymore? “Naturally, as soon as I’d won the fight, I began to feel guilty.” And I began to care less about her. She feels guilty for standing up for herself.

Even if it's Charlie, who I like a lot more than her, she can at least have the gumption to stick to her decisions. Just because she doesn’t have supernatural powers doesn’t mean she has to lack a backbone. Edward compounds this last problem by noting Bella’s been talking about her mom in her sleep, “But, clearly, you were too much of a coward to deal with Charlie, so I interceded on your behalf.” That Edward, what a great guy. Not that I feel any sympathy for Princess Whiner-Pants. “It was just like with Charlie before - just like being treated like a misbehaving child.” Then stop being one.

8. They go to hang out with the rest of Edward’s family, where Edward plays Alice at chess. Apparently to Bella, “it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.” He was reading her mind to figure out her moves and she was seeing the future to see his, you see, and so they were just sitting there. “I think they’d each moved two of their pawns when Alice suddenly flicked her king over and surrendered. It took all of three minutes.” Gee, that sounds like one of the most boring things I’d ever see, even if you enjoy watching people play chess. But then, Bella’s not hard to entertain if the Cullens are involved. They’re just soooo perfect you know.

9. Afterward Charlie decides now’s the time to have The Talk with Bella, and responds to her horror that “I’m just as embarrassed as you.” She doubts that’s “humanly possible,” because nobody in the history of the world’s ever had to go through what she has. And for some of the vampire stuff that might be true, but when she keeps acting like a typical teenager that’s another one of the many things making her obsession with Edward seem less like undying love and more like a high school crush.

What’s worse is Edward knew this was coming, from the mind-reading. “No wonder he’d seemed so smug in the car.” That Edward, what a great guy.

For all that, when he mentions Jacob to his daughter Charlie’s sure she’ll do the right thing. “You’re a good person.” Quit sayin’ and start showin’, Meyer.

“Nice. So if I didn’t figure out some way to make things right with Jacob, then I was a bad person?” Does everything have to be completely one way or completely the other in these books! Darlin’ I don’t know why I go to extremes! Too high or too low, there ain’t no in-betweens!

10. Anyway, thinking about Jacob gets Bella to thinking she needs to talk the problem over with one of her human “friends,” someone with no perspective on Jacob or his secret identity whatsoever. Look, as much sense as it sounds like it might make to discuss this with someone who isn’t prejudiced against werewolves, Jacob has gotten a lot more crass and volatile as a result of his wolfing out. We haven’t even seen how much yet. Personally I don’t find it so hard to agree with Edward that he or one of his friends might slip around Bella and make her the new Emily (that doesn't mean I approve of how Edward handles the situation, though). It won’t, of course (even Bella, as if she can read the author’s mind [yeah, yeah], is all like “I knew that there was really no problem on that count”), but we have actually seen someone who carries the scars of that happening.

11. It’s time for THAT part. She figures she can sneak out to La Push to see Jacob “and be back before Edward realized I had gone.” I really don’t know why she thinks Edward doesn’t spy on her anymore now that they’re a couple, especially when he’s shown he’s clearly willing to override what she wants if he thinks it’s for her own good. Plus he knows full-well that she wants to keep being friends with Jacob.

Bella gets to her car, but it won’t start. The next thing she knows Edward’s sitting next to her, since Alice saw Bella disappearing off her radar, meaning our narrator went to hang with some wolf-dudes. Yeah, Edward’s not even above bribing his precognitive sister to make sure his girlfriend doesn’t overstep his authority. Maybe if they like, talked about their problems instead of Edward just deciding he’s right and using every superhuman resource at his disposal to make sure Bella does what he wants? He does admit he was wrong later, but like everything else in this series there’s no shades of gray and he agrees to totally go along with whatever Bella thinks is right. And, well, she's been a remarkably bad judge of that up to now.

12. As usual, Bella can’t even stay mad at what’s-his-face. After closing the window so hard “it crashed shut and the glass trembled,” she “sighed, and opened the window as wide as it would go.” The author seriously can’t understand why people complain about her books. And she’s the one saying they’re for “children”.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Villains & Vigilantes - Ancient Evil

***This review of an RPG adventure is for GMs’ eyes only***

With Villains & Vigilantes’s resurgence, seems like a lot of the old talent’s getting back into things. This combination of comic books and Lovecraft comes to us from Stephen Dedman, author of the ‘eh’ Pre-Emptive Strike and its more imaginative semi-sequel The Great Iridium Con (get this! People at a comic convention dressed like superheroes who actually ARE superheroes! Sure, Assassin did that first, but breezed right over it).

Now, having the players take on some absurdly powerful evildoer capable of decimating the entire campaign world if not stopped is a fun thing to do. If handled carefully. The problem I’ve found with a lot of these “monstrous horror from beyond” storylines, however, is that you just look at most of them and think “Lovecraft” right away. And his style really doesn't jibe that well with the superhero genre, where the main characters of beings of awesome power themselves who, rather than doing something small to contain some of the damage wrought by monstrous sanity-blasting evil, do take on and prevail against the most intimidating of menaces.

Sadly, I didn’t think Ancient Evil had a lot in the way of pretty clever ideas in the body of its main plot. Profundis is really nothing special as ancient, all-powerful monstrosities go. Plus, that’s not exactly a name that inspires terror in the hearts of men. From a statistical standpoint he’s scary, sure, but he just looks like a big purple lump with a big lavender eye. Not very scary or memorable for an aesthetics standpoint. And honestly, Lovecraftian terrors work best in games like, well, Call of Cthulhu, where getting into straight-up fights with supernatural enemies is a pretty bad idea, and stopping the ritual or finding the magic spell that banishes the eldritch horror is more in the style of how problems are resolved. In superhero games, the players are loaded up with beyond-human abilities themselves and blasting the hell out of a problem is an option more often than not, even if it's not always the best solution. As a result confronting danger head-on is often the order of the day, and horror elements doesn't work as well and the impulse to find a less direct solution may only work after a harsh beating or two.

I also wasn’t too crazy about the source of the only weapon that can destroy him, the Spear of Daedalus, since Greek mythology’s an even lazier source of inspiration than Lovecraft. If done well, mythological touches can be a lot of fun, but it seems like a lot of authors are quick to turn to the days of Zeus when they need a source of gods, monsters and mayhem (think about it like this: the Ninja Turtles were named after Renaissance painters. What were the Cheetahmen named after?). It’s more significant because should the players fail to recognize the spear’s use and let the villains destroy it, they have to actually go back in time and get Daedalus to make a new one. That part was done fairly well, though, as it mentions that Daedalus’s neighbors are scared of him (after all, the guy did scald the dreaded King Minos to death when he wouldn’t leave Daedalus alone), and that it gives a brief outline on other adventures they could go on while back in time. What heroes and monsters are around during that time, and what major quests have and haven’t happened yet.

I just wish the meat of the adventure was as interesting. A lot of the villains have no backgrounds. They’re just demonic androids in wetsuits created directly by the eldritch horror the heroes have to defeat. One’s a crazed fire-and-brimstone preacher, which might not be so bad, but he reminded me a little too much of Cardinal Rule from For the Greater Good for me to be really impressed with the character concept. I suppose that isn’t an archetype with a lot of wiggle room, though. And maybe I’m being unfair, but it feels like the other villains hired rat-controlling superthug Gutter more because he fits in with the motif of death/decay than anything else.

The adventure doesn’t really go anywhere interesting either, unless your players need to get the spear replaced, since the only other locations in it are an isolated town and the villains’ spaceship. Ancient Evil isn’t a bad adventure. I don’t wish to imply that, but there were only a couple things that made me sit up and take notice, among them the author providing a GIANT scientist (the agency that enlists the PC’s in his other adventures) as a scientific advisor if the players don’t have one. I don’t know, I just like it when I see the authors of these adventures creating a little world, instead of just cranking out a product for the bucks.