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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008
Arun Subramanian looks at the purest bit of nostalgia yet released for the modern consoles.

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.


That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.


As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.


Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 


Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.


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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008

I’ve wondered about this when I’ve listened to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, two classic pre-psychedelic era 60’s live albums, where the crowds themselves are so boisterous that they become an important part of the live recording.  In both cases, what’s going on with the performance is enhanced by the audience reaction- I talk about this in more detail in an upcoming PopMatters article about yet another classic 60’s live album, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison.


I also wondered about this when I saw three bands at CMJ: Monotonix, DMBQ and AIDS Wolf. Other than the noise-rock connection, another thing that these three bands have in common is that they don’t like to be confined to the stage.  AIDS Wolf’s show at the Knitting Factory inspired a mini-mosh pit near the front of the stage, which sometimes spilled over there, encouraged by the band.  Diminutive singer Chloe Lum (aka Special Deluxe) also ran into the audience and writhed on the floor.  Nothing new unless you’ve never heard of Iggy Pop but seeing this kind of act up close is still exhilarating and definitely added something to the music and the performance. 


Japanese band DMBQ recovered from the tragic death of their drummer in an ‘05 car accident. Live, singer Shinji Masuko (a noted music journalist) donned a Lighting Bolt-type mask with a mic tied to his face and climbed onto the ceiling’s pipe fixtures.  Guitarist Toru Matsui frequently held his whole guitar in his mouth while bassist Ryuichi Watanabe frequently made his way into the crowd.  As for drummer Shinji Wada, he threw his kit into the audience and encouraged the crowd to hold it up as well as his drum stool.  He jumped up on the stool and played his kit, elevated over the crowd.  Surely Iggy would appreciate such crowd participation.


After that, I didn’t think that Monotix could top that in another venue but they did.  The crazed Israeli trio, subject to bans in their hometown, spends little or no time on a stage.  Like DMBQ, their drummer (Haggai Fershtman) likes to play in the audience, frequently moving his kit around.  The singer (Ami Shalev) and (Yonatan Gat) soon join him there.  Sometimes, the drums wind up at the back of a club or more frequently on top of a bar, where Fershtman goes to play them, with the rest of the band following along.  At one point, Shalev emptied a garbage can and put it over Fershtman’s head before he took it off and climbed in it himself with the crowd passing him and the can around, over their heads.  Shalev also put a drum on Fershtman’s head and played it there while the drummer himself played the rest of his kit.  Later, Fershtman moved his kit to the exits and Shalev literally herded the crowd back there to join him.  I’d seen them do something similar at another show but this was still great entertainment to witness.  For the newbies, they couldn’t imagine anything being any more exciting afterward.  Sadly, the club put on the house music, which drown out their sing-a-long finale but by then, the crowd was gratified enough.


See what crowd participation can do?  Tough to duplicate at home for sure unless you have a nice big rumpus room and don’t mind breaking some furniture.


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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008

In BusinessWeek, Heather Green reported on Google’s attempts to design an algorithm for ranking people as well as web pages. So ranked, people can then leverage their internet influence to attract ad dollars to their social networking profiles.


The new technology could track not just how many friends you have on Facebook but how many friends your friends have. Well-connected chums make you particularly influential. The tracking system also would follow how frequently people post things on each other’s sites. It could even rate how successful somebody is in getting friends to read a news story or watch a video clip, according to people familiar with the patent filing. “[Google] search displays Web pages with the highest influence—it makes complete sense for them to extend this to online communities and people,” says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR).


If you are good at getting your friends to watch YouTube videos or follow links or look at photos, then you become worthy of sponsorship by advertisers. This makes explicit the way in which sociality online is a competitive sport, less about conviviality but power. And there’s nothing like money to sharpen how we define ourselves on the internet, where our “presence” is far more throughly commercialized and monetized than it ever could be in the real world. A more catholic ranking scheme imposed by Google would most likely intensify that evolution, rendering voluntary, unmonitored reciprocity a quaint archaism. Why recommend anything to anyone without a finder’s fee?


But there’s a catch to the whole friends-for-money scheme: as it stands, Google will get your sponsorship money, while you get, if anything, the permission to use social networking services for free.


Using today’s standard advertising methods, a company such as Nike (NKE) would pay Google to place a display ad on a fan’s page or show a “sponsored link” when somebody searches for basketball-related news. With influence-tracking, Google could follow this group of fans’ shared interests more closely, see which other fan communities they interact with, and—most important—learn which members get the most attention when they update profiles or post pictures.
The added information would let Nike both sharpen and expand its targeting while allowing Google to charge a premium for its ad services.


This reminds me of Nicholas Carr’s assessment of Web 2.0 technologies—or “digital sharecropping” as he calls it:


Web 2.0’s economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.


So if Google has its way, amateur influencers of the future will have to content themselves with being paid in sheer prestige alone, like those BzzAgents who shill for advertisers for free (or for the comfort of having a commercial alibi for talking to people).


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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008

Yesterday I finished reading a lavishly illustrated hardcover copy of Clive Barker’s fantastical Abarat (2002), and by complete coincidence I also stumbled across a paperback version. Same purple cover, same text, completely different book.


image

It’s lucky I encountered the hardcover first, or I wouldn’t have given this series another glance. The paperback looked so sad and lacking when compared to the fully colored artistic renderings of the strange people and island settings of the magical world of the Abarat. Not only is Barker a great storyteller, making the weird and wonderful both appealing and appalling, he is a gifted artist as well. Nearly every second or third page, the original version has one of his color-saturated depictions of the characters and locales of the Abarat.


Granted, the hardcover is one of the heaviest volumes I’ve ever struggled to hold up while reading at night. The paper is clearly specially selected to properly hold up to the full color printing process. The Abarat first editions must have been prohibitively expensive to produce. Seeing the fruits of Barker’s vibrant imagination in full color is worth the expense.


A website devoted to the series (ultimately to extend to five books) gives a taste of the amazing 300+ oil paintings Barker originally spent four years producing as part of the process in defining this alternate universe. Believe it or not, it all starts in a place called Chickentown, USA. Everything gets much better from there.


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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008

What does it take to make a movie in 2008? A huge budget underwritten by a major Tinsel Town conglomerate? A nonstop parade of union-loyal crewmembers each striving to bring their contract-mandated best to the project while surreptitiously preparing for their next paying gig? A bevy of A-list actors who moderate onset professionalism and skilled performance with just a dash of limelight laziness? A high concept script? A director who isn’t drunk on his own ego (or an everpresent bottle of Vat 69)? Whatever it takes, Lloyd Kaufman didn’t have any of it a few years back. Hoping to bring his beloved indie shingle Troma back from the proposed post-millennial dead, he called upon his most reliable employment pool, and offered them a chance to do something very rare - work on a major motion picture release.


Thus last year’s sensational Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Created by Gabe Friedman, Daniel Bova, and Kaufman himself, this fright flick farce built on fast food and freak side showboating rejuvenated the lame duck label that, at one time, boasted the biggest roster of cult icons this side of a John Waters’ Dreamland reunion. With rave reviews coming from all manner of outlets - including oddball love letters from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Guardian - it should have been a massive Saw-sized hit. Instead, Kaufman claims conspiracy, stating flat out that theaters would not book his film because of his outsider stance and its “Unrated” status. Luckily, as with most criminally overlooked efforts, the digital format is here to save the day.


Our sordid saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.


If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ - and it most certainly is - then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s insane shoot for Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured by the roving camera of Andy Deemer and Jason Foulke. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.


Almost all the problems revolve around the all-volunteer crew and amateur cast ‘hired’ by Kaufman as a cost cutting measure. Living in an abandoned church and filming in a rundown McDonalds, everyone begins with high hopes. And when a few of the F/X fail to work, everyone is determined to hunker down and make things right. But soon, Poultrygeist as a production starts to go askew - very askew. No-names turn despots, and Kaufman’s consistently cranky personality explodes. Soon, threats are being leveled, insults are being hurled, and nerves are systematically frayed, folded, and mutilated. By the last day of shooting, so little of the previous good humor exists that people seem satisfied just to see something - anything - happen. 


It’s a telling reflection of the final film, one of the best things to ever come out of the New York nuthouse. Kaufman can call ‘fowl’ all he wants (or claim as he does on the commentary that many of the mistakes were fixed in post), but Poultrygeist is a great geek film made by and meant for film geeks. It’s a love letter to the genre by individuals who make macabre their entire life. It’s so blood and bodily fluid splattered brilliant that the freebie filmmaking assistants should be complimented, not cursed. Sure, as the alternate narrative track insists, more went wrong than right, but sometimes, a couple of thousand f*ck-ups can lead to something truly remarkable.


Elsewhere, the DVD argues for Kaufman’s often unglued approach to material. There is a deleted song for the character Humus that definitely should have been left in the film, and several of the Troma titan’s self-proclaimed “film lessons” often come across as stand-up comedy routines. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, it’s offered to support the supposition that art often comes from the most messed up of minds and motives. The concept of creating a Toxic Avenger like epic with a group of individuals surviving on naiveté, guts, and far too many stale cheese sandwiches may seem like a pie in the sky suggestion. But if Poultrygeist can make it work (albeit in a rather painful manner) why can’t other independent filmmakers?


Of course, the answer is obvious - few in the post-modern motion picture world have the kind of dedicated demo that Kaufman and company possess. For over 35 years, they’ve delivered the slapstick splatter that directors like Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez have built their entire career upon. Luckily, instead of its swansong, Poultrygeist suggests that Troma is just getting back into the ball game. As this amazing DVD set illustrates (and it’s a limited edition offering, folks, so get while the getting’s good), you don’t need Hollywood’s overinflated sense of self - and mega-multi-millions - to crank out something significant. All you really need is the voice of the people, and Poultrygeist has that in offal-accented spades.


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