If you live within three or four hours of Oklahoma City, join us March 28-29 at Super!Bitcon, a great video game convention that was a total blast last year. It will probably be even more fun this year!
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
The box for Space Raid for the says “Based on the real arcade game.” If you don’t remember Space Raid at your local pizza parlor or mall hangout, you’re not alone. There never was such a thing. Universal released a shooter called Space Raider in 1982, but that was a different game. Space Raid is actually a clone of Zaxxon, the Sega/Gremlin isometric shooter that blew joystick jockeys away with its futuristic graphics and wildly challenging gameplay.
Why, you may be wondering, would CollectorVision, an independent company cranking out some killer homebrews, create a Zaxxon clone for the Intellivision when Coleco ported Zaxxon to the console more than 30 years ago? Simple: While Zaxxon for the ColecoVision (which made the “100 Greatest” list) was a masterpiece of programming excellence, the Intellivision version, like its 2600 counterpart, was unrecognizable, replacing the isometric action of the original with a decidedly mundane top-down perspective. (Many classic gamers theorize that Coleco botched their Atari 2600 and Intellivision games on purpose so the ColecoVision ports would look even better by comparison.)
Given the relatively limited processing power of the Intellivision, Space Raid can’t hope to duplicate the visual grandeur of the original Zaxxon, of course—there’s no escaping the Intellivision “blockiness”—but it does capture the essence and gameplay essentials of that legendary classic, giving gamers a fun shooter with a fairly convincing isometric perspective. In addition, it includes mobots and rocket enemies, which the Coleco port of Zaxxon for the Intellivision lacks. Another nice touch is that the gun turrets rotate. The infamous Intellivision control disc works well in controlling the ship, but even experienced space pilots will find it a challenge to make it to the Zaxxon robot. Actually, the manual calls it a “Big robot.”
Speaking of the manual, here’s the booklet’s description of the game:
Space Raid is a stunning 3-D space game that takes you across alien asteroid fortresses on a special mission. The evil Robot and its fierce armies have conquered an asteroid belt. You must stop them before they enslave the entire galaxy! Fly through space and destroy enemy spaceships. Pass the barrier on the first asteroid, then dive to the enemy surface. Evade fire from gun turrets and mobots as you search for the Robot Warrior. Once you successfully cross the asteroid fortress, you must fly through deep space again. Avoid the enemy squadron combing the galaxy in search of your fighter! Can you defeat the evil Robot?
As you battle through space, you’ll need to make sure and destroy fuel tanks positioned along the fortress floors in order to keep your fuel gauge from going empty, a concept Zaxxon borrowed from such shooters as River Raid and Scramble. You’ll also need to dodge energy fields and fly over walls, which can be tricky. As in Zaxxon, it’s sometimes a little difficult to tell where your ship is in relationship to the enemies (especially in the blackness of outer space), but an altimeter along the left side of the screen does help in this regard.
Programmed by Óscar Toledo Gutiérrez (Toledo Nanochess), Space Raid comes packaged in a nifty, Coleco-style box with matching manual and two keypad overlays. When you boot up the game, you’ll be treated to a large flashing title screen. Unfortunately, there are no difficulty levels to choose from, and there’s no pause button.
So, should you purchase Space Raid? If you love the Intellivision, love cartridges, and want to fill a gap in your collection—that of a quality Zaxxon port—go for it, you won’t be disappointed. However, if you are perfectly content playing Zaxxon a number of other ways, such as unlocking the arcade port on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, you might want to think twice about it.
Either way, Space Raid proves that the Zaxxon formula is still fun after all these years. It’s also one example (among many) of passionate programmers keeping the classic consoles alive by producing fun, high quality games in slick, collectible packaging.
It's a fun (if sometimes expensive) time to be a retro gamer.
It's a fun (if sometimes expensive) time to be a retro gamer.
Monday, February 23, 2015
The sequel to , which was never ported to the , takes place in an enchanted forest filled with mushrooms. You control a magic wand that can maneuver in all directions along the bottom 1/4th of the field of play. From the top of the screen, millipedes, which break into independently moving segments when you shoot them, descend toward you one at a time through the mushroom field. When you shoot a millipede, the segment you hit turns into a mushroom. The mushrooms act as a maze for the millipedes, but you can shoot them for extra points or if you just want to clear some space in the forest.
In addition to millipedes, you will be pestered by bees, spiders, beetles, mosquitoes, dragonflies, earwigs, and inchworms, which when hit momentarily put the game in slow motion. The forest of mushrooms lowers one row when you shoot a beetle and rises one row when you shoot a mosquito. DDT bombs are scattered throughout the mushroom fields; when you detonate one of these bombs, a cloud of smoke appears, killing everything in the immediate vicinity. After every few normal waves, you are showered with bombing waves of insects. Your goal is to score as many points as possible by shooting everything in sight. The game is over only when you have run out of lives.
Fortunately, despite all these concessions to the console, the basic gameplay and many of the strategies remains intact, making for a challenging and fairly enjoyable shooter. This speaks more to the greatness of the original template than it does the quality of the conversion.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Sunday, February 15, 2015
The late, great Roger Ebert, in his 1989 essay, Why I Love Black and White, wrote that “black and white is a legitimate and beautiful artistic choice in motion pictures, creating feelings and effects that cannot be obtained any other way.”
Which is why some filmmakers still use this method for certain projects, even though color photography has been the cinematic norm for well over half a century, and even though many cinema goers are reluctant (or flat-out refuse) to see black and white films.
Nebraska, a 2013 road trip movie starring Bruce Dern, was shot in black and white, despite some hesitance from the film’s distributor, Paramount Vantage. According to director Alexander Payne (via thefilmstage.com), he filmed it that way to produce an “iconic, archetypal look," a sentiment shared by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who referenced the “poetic power of the black and white” in combination with the Nebraska landscapes.
Like other artsy films, black and white movies are a financial risk.
The Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), which paid homage to film noir of the 1930s and ’40s, failed to recoup its $20 million budget at the box office. Ditto Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1994), which earned barely half of its $12 million budget.
Thankfully, others have done surprisingly well.
The Oscar-winning The Artist (2011) had box office receipts of more than $130 million (worldwide), eclipsing its $15 million budget by a wide margin. Good Night, and Good Luck did boffo box office as well, grossing $54,641,191 (worldwide), nearly eight times its relatively meager $7 million budget.
Here are eight more color-era black and white films that earned a profit at the box office.
Rated R (retroactively)
Box Office: $32 million (domestic)
For Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock is often given credit for killing off the protagonist early on—an unusual move for a director, especially at the time—but that’s how Robert Bloch, the man responsible for the novel on which the film is based, wrote the story, which was adapted for the screen by Joseph Stefano.
Hitchcock, who financed Psycho himself, is also routinely praised for his choice of black and white photography, but he did so primarily as a budget-cutting maneuver, not an artistic choice (though he was influenced by the 1954 black and white French film, Les Diaboliques). Regardless, Psycho is a masterpiece of dread, tension and horror. (Avoid the pointless color remake, which Gus Van Sant foisted upon the public in 1998.)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Budget: $1.3 million
Box Office: $29,133,000 (domestic)
Set in the fictional West Texas town of Anarene, a bleak, depressing place that is losing its one escape—the old movie house—The Last Picture Show was directed by Peter Bogdonavich, who once told Roger Ebert that he shot it in black and white because “color made the town look too pretty.”
The film, based on a novel by native Texan Larry McMurtry, featured the cinematic debut of Sybil Shepherd and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, with Ben Johnson winning Best Supporting Actor and Cloris Leachman winning Best Supporting Actress. A disappointing (artistically and commercially) sequel, Texasville, followed in 1990, but it was shot in color, giving it a cheerier, less poignant feel.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Budget: $2.78 million
Box Office: $86,273,333 (domestic)
To fans of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, it’s obvious why Young Frankenstein wasn’t produced in color. The movie parodies those classic films—particularly Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939)—but director and co-writer (with Gene Wilder) Mel Brooks pays homage as well, from the black and white photography to the familiar sets to the hilarious dialogue and sight gags, which turn the serious nature of the Universal pictures on their (disembodied) ear.
Brooks followed Young Frankenstein more than two decades later with Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), which was filmed in color, wasn’t nearly as funny and tanked at the box office, grossing barely a third of its $30 million budget.
Budget: $9 million
Box Office: $39,946,780 (domestic)
It’s no secret that Bronx-born Woody Allen loves New York. He also loves shooting in black and white, as evidenced by such pictures as Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Shadows and Fog (1991). In Manhattan, Allen’s first and best black and white film, he plays a middle-aged comedy writer who hangs out with the cultural elite and dates a 17-year-old girl (played by Mariel Hemingway).
The plot is serviceable, but less important than the gorgeous cinematography and sweeping musical score. To quote the film’s opening: “He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion…to him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
The Elephant Man (1980)
Budget: $5 million
Box Office: $26,010,864 (domestic)
Directed by Twin Peaks auteur David Lynch, who also directed the black and white cult classic Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man is based on the life of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film), a severely deformed Englishman who died in a London hospital in 1890 at the age of 27. John Hurt played the tragic figure, famously wailing, “I am not an animal! I am not an animal! I’m a human being!”
To gain employment, Merrick, who had a troubled relationship with his father and stepmother, allowed himself to be used as a colorful sideshow attraction, but it’s hard to imagine the movie he inspired being filmed in color. The black and white photography at once mutes and makes more real the horrors of Merrick’s disfigurement.
Raging Bull (1980)
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $23,383,987 (domestic)
Widely regarded as the greatest boxing movie of all time, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull stars Robert De Niro as real-life middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, who, if La Motta’s memoir (1970’s Raging Bull: My Story) on which the film is based is any indication, was as tortured and as vicious outside the ring as he was inside.
De Niro, who had collaborated with Scorsese on three previous films (including 1976’s Taxi Driver), had to convince the director to take the job, since Scorsese claimed he didn’t like or know anything about boxing. Thankfully, he was a quick study. The boxing scenes, which were filmed inside the ring (unlike most previous pugilist films), are brutal, dynamic, immediate and, like the rest of the movie, beautifully shot in black and white.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $ $321,306,305 (worldwide)
Inspired by Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Steven Spielberg’s masterful Schindler’s List popularized the heroic efforts of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who was a member of the Nazi Party during World War II, but saved more than 1,000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.
Shortly after the release of the compelling, yet sobering film, Spielberg explained to the BBC’s Jeremy Isaacs why he filmed it in black-and-white: “My only frame of reference not only to the Holocaust, but the entire second World War is black and white because I was brought up watching black-and-white documentaries, black and white archival footage, black and white movies about that period…I don’t have a color frame of reference.”
Sin City (2005)
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $158,753,820 (worldwide)
Based on Frank Miller’s hardboiled, neo-noir graphic novel series, Sin City is the closest Hollywood has ever come to reproducing comics on the silver screen. Director Robert Rodriguez, partnering with Miller, follows Miller’s work slavishly, often recreating scenes panel-for-panel. The effect is mesmerizing.
Like the comic books, Sin City the movie makes brilliant use of black and white, contrasting the juxtaposed hues to heighten the drama, the tension and the dark mood of the trio of intertwining tales (the film adapts The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard). The movie adds judicious splashes of color, such as red blood, blue eyes and yellow skin, adding to the visual panache. If you enjoyed Pulp Fiction (1994) and Natural Born Killers (1994), or you’re a fan of experimental cinema, you should definitely see Sin City.
*Box office numbers courtesy of www.boxofficemojo.com
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
I ran across this podcast on IGN today and really enjoyed it. The guys are speaking off the cuff, so they don't get all the facts right (they say Attack of the Timelord! is like Gyruss and Tempest, for example), but they have lively and fun discussions about each game in The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987. I really appreciate them using my book to spur some cool conversations.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Valentine’s Day is nigh upon us, and it’s time to start making plans for a romantic evening. For many this will mean dinner and a movie.
Instead of braving the crowds on Valentine’s Day, why not eat out the night before? This will leave the 14th open for a cozy evening sending out for pizza, opening a bottle of wine and watching a DVD at home.
Contrary to the popular stereotype, relationship movies aren’t always sappy chick flicks. Luckily, there are some love stories out there both sexes can enjoy, such as:
City Lights (1931)
Ranked number one on AFI’s list of Top 10 Romantic Comedies, City Lights stars Charlie Chaplin in his famous “Little Tramp” role, doing his best to help a poor blind girl (played by Virginia Cherrill). To raise money for the desperate damsel, the Tramp agrees to fight in a crooked boxing match, leading to one of the most hysterical scenes ever filmed: Chaplin keeping the referee between himself and the other fighter as the trio dances around the ring. Released several years into the “talkie” era (The Jazz Singer debuted in 1927), City Lights is a silent masterpiece with laughs galore and a truly profound ending.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Bride of Frankenstein is hardly a romantic comedy in the conventional sense, but there’s inherent romance (of a gothic sort) in the notion of building a mate (Elsa Lanchester, doubling as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) for a lonely, sympathetic creature (played masterfully by Boris Karloff). And, thanks to William Hurlbut’s clever screenplay and director James Whale’s typical brilliance, the film is nothing if not darkly comedic. The Bride’s reaction at seeing the Frankenstein monster remains one of horror cinema’s most iconic moments, and, despite dated “humor” from the grating Una O’Connor, the film is a distinct pleasure for modern audiences.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
The title of this film refers to the notion that a man, after having been married to the same woman for seven years, will inevitably feel the need to cheat. While this may or may not be the case, it’s hard to fault Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) for being tempted by his upstairs neighbor, a gorgeous and sexy, yet clueless blonde played by Marilyn Monroe. In George Axelrod’s original play, Sherman is unfaithful, but in the Billy Wilder-directed film, he merely has elaborate fantasies. Keep an eye out for one of the most famous images in movie history: Monroe’s dress rising up as she stands over a subway grate.
Annie Hall (1977)
The movie that likely kept Star Wars from winning the Academy Award for Best Picture,
Annie Hall is a hysterical, emotionally complex delight. Woody Allen, who co-wrote and directed the film, stars as Alvy Singer, a neurotic (of course) standup comic fumbling his way through a series of quirky relationships, none of them built to last. In addition to a star-making performance by Diane Keaton (as Hall), look for inspired cameos by Paul Simon, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and others. Often referred to as “the Casablanca of romantic comedies,” Annie Hall remains Allen’s best film (despite stiff competition from the recently released Midnight in Paris).
While not every man fantasizes about hooking up with a hot mermaid (go figure), many men like the idea of dating a gorgeous, yet naïve woman. In Ron Howard’s Splash, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler named Allen Bauer (played by Tom Hanks) does just that, falling head-over-heels for a blonde beauty (played by Darryl Hannah) who walks ashore buck-naked on Liberty Island and eats lobster with the shell still on. Unbeknownst to Bauer, the object of his affection is a mermaid, whose tail becomes legs when she’s on dry land. Sweet, funny and sentimental, Splash is a true crowd pleaser.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Like the character Fred Savage plays in this great film, guys typically don’t want a bunch of “mushy stuff” in their entertainment. Fortunately, The Princess Bride is filled with action, adventure and, most notably, comedy—the kind that will make you laugh out loud, even if you are all alone (which would be a pity on Valentine’s Day). From Miracle Max advising the boys to “Have fun storming the castle” to Vizzini’s mind boggling battle of wits with Westley (“Plato, Socrates, Aristotle…Morons!”), The Princess Bride has memorable lines (and characters) to spare. And the romance ain’t bad, either.
Directed by Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters), Twins is a “bromance” that spins pure gold out of what could have been a one-joke throwaway film. Bulky, brilliant Julius (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and diminutive, despicable Vincent (Danny DeVito) are twin brothers, separated at birth. Yes, their contrasting images are hilarious (both Schwarzenegger and DeVito turn in stellar comic performances), but the movie has heart as well as humor. For example, when Vincent belts out the amusing refrain, “Tonight is your night, bro,” it’s clear that Vincent, in his own crass way, truly wants Julius to be happy with the new woman in his life.
When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
Directed by the highly versatile Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride, Stand by Me, This is Spinal Tap), When Harry Met Sally… is the most conventional “rom com” on this list, but it’s also one of the best. The titular couple, a very likable Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, run into one other several times over the years and eventually become friends and after that, lovers. With Nora Ephron’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, When Harry Met Sally… manages to be both predictable (in a comforting kind of way) and smart (the characters speak as though they are in a Woody Allen film).
Groundhog Day (1993)
Far superior to Scrooged (1988), which had a similar theme and also starred Bill Murray, Groundhog Day puts the famed comedian in the role of a cranky, contemptuous weatherman, reporting on Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog who lets the nation know each year whether it must endure six more weeks of winter. When Murray gets trapped in a time loop, in which he repeats the same day again and again, he uses this to hit on gorgeous women, including his beleaguered producer (played by Andie MacDowell). Murray, in one of his best roles, eventually finds redemption, but the story never gets preachy or overly precious.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
Given the title of the film, anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the conventions of cinema will be able to successfully predict the barebones plot (and ending) of Friends with Benefits: boy (Justin Timberlake of ’N Sync fame) meets girl (Mila Kunis of That ’70s Show), and the two have a casual, sex-without-commitment relationship, only to fall in love as their “friendship” grows. Fortunately, the film rises entertainingly above the fray with its quick pacing, solid acting, good-natured raunchiness and cheeky references to chick flick clichés. Hilarious appearances by Woody Harrelson and snowboarder Shaun White add to the fun.