Reviews

Can 'Naughty Bear' Kill the Cult of Cute?

"Cute" is calculated and engineered to stir us to coo on sight and buy a product. As someone cynical about manufactured cuteness, I was looking forward to playing Naughty Bear.


Naughty Bear

Publisher: 505 Games
Format: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3
Price: $59.99
Players: 1-4
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Artificial Mind and Movement
Release Date: 2010-06-29
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There’s something almost perverse about the way that marketers and toymakers exploit a certain aesthetic many of us have an impossible time resisting -- cute.

From doe-eyed Precious Moment figurines to cartoon breakfast cereal mascots, cute is calculated and engineered to stir us to coo on sight and buy a product. The more exaggerated the eyes, the shorter the proportions, and the more pastel the colors are the better.

One of the most insidious perpetrators of the Cult of Cute were the Care Bears, an 80’s toy brand empire created (ironically enough) by a company already experienced in manipulating emotion, American Greetings. The Care Bears pushed cute to almost pornographic levels. They were small, cuddly brightly colored teddy bears with names like Funshine and Love-A-Lot Bear -- so sickeningly precious, you’d half expect them to shit Lucky Charms.

As someone cynical about manufactured cuteness, I was looking forward to playing 505 Games’s Naughty Bear. It looked like an amusing parody of cute overload by juxtaposing Care Bear-style kids toys with the over the top, hack n’slash violence of many M-rated video games. It’s something that the infamous Nintendo 64 game Conker’s Bad Fur Day achieved to a small degree.

The good news? Naughty partially succeeds as satire. The bad news? It doesn’t really succeed as a $60 video game.

The best part of the game is the first 10 minutes or so, where you first take on the role of Naughty Bear himself, a social outcast who lives alone in the shiny, happy domain of Perfection Island. In comparison to the Care Bear lookalikes of the the island’s other inhabitants, Naughty has a little gruff to him, a rip to his fur here and a chewed off ear there to give you a visual cue of Naughty’s dark heart. He’s a little like a violent (and stuffed) version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

As the game begins, Naughty flies into a murderous rage after not being invited to fellow bear Daddle’s birthday party and getting laughed at by his peers for the size of his birthday present. And thus, the cuddly psycho begins his campaign of maiming, murdering, and terrorizing all of the denizens of Perfection Island.

This is all narrated cleverly by an omnipresent British narrator (who sounds like actor Jim Dale), who heightens the atmosphere with an element of kindly childhood nostalgia at the beginning of the game with comments like, “Hey, Naughty Bear, why don’t you give Daddles a nice birthday present?”

Soon, however, the lilting tones of the narrator turn from the sounds of comfort something more like the tone of an Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, adding to the inappropriateness of the proceedings by constantly egging on Naughty Bear to commit random acts of violence and mayhem. He calmly asks, “Hey, Naughty Bear, I wonder what Daddles’ head would look like on a sharp stick?”

In other words, don’t expect a happily ever after ending here.

After the set up, Naughty Bear must leave his lonely hut and cause death and destruction in a number of ways to rack up “Naughty Points.” The system is set up to reward utilizing a number of different ways to kill or destroy things. You could choose to hide in the forest or sneak up behind an unsuspecting teddy bear and hack at them with a machete like something out of a slasher movie. You might also steal a ninja sword to set them on fire, shoot them in the face with a pistol, or use bear traps to capture and torture them. If you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you could use psychological warfare and slowly terrorize them until they go insane and commit teddy bear suicide with whatever weapon they happen to be holding.

The violence is pretty brutal, but it’s mitigated by the cartoonish nature of it. There’s no blood or guts or dismemberment, just fluff flies. It’s actually just a bit less tame than your standard Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

Things fall apart for Naughty Bear when you realize how shallow the game actually is. Instead of a singular narrative, the game has seven episodes that must be unlocked by collecting a number of trophies given out for high scores in the previous episodes. In other words, to continue on with the game, you might have to rehash the level that you just played several times. This seems like a pretty big no-no for video game design in 2010.

To make matters worse, each level doesn’t feel that much different from one another. They often follow the same path. Naughty Bear leave his cabin, goes to the village, and creates chaos. The combat is also flawed in it’s repetitiveness. There’s one button for hitting and another button to dodge. If your victim has been hurt enough, you can commit a Mortal Kombat -style “ultra kill” execution. These are funny the first time, but there is one specific animation per weapon. It gets tired after the second or third time.

Toss in an iffy third person camera and throwaway multiplayer, and you get a pretty shoddy overall game.

In theory, Naughty Bear could have been a vicious send up of the Cute Industry and a refreshing break from a video game world cluttered with war-based first person shooters and "me too" licensed titles. In the end, however, it appears it was the game developers themselves who were the naughty ones.

4

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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