Rule of Three: Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

YouTube is fascinating. I’d like to say that it has democratized entertainment — putting programming into the hands of the people — but it’s not quite a democracy. Even unpopular channels can crank along, creating videos for an audience in the single digits with no risk of cancellation and no pressure to evolve or reach more people. It continues as long as the person who owns that channel stays interested. It’s a hobby, but one that just so happens to observable by people almost anywhere on the planet.

The vast majority of channels on YouTube are self-funded. We’ll ignore channels that are part of a brand’s marketing arm — their videos are essentially digital advertising — and focus on people who create videos, more or less regularly, about topics that interest them. These creators pay for a camera. They pay for their internet connection. They may — and often do — pay for more than that, but that’s all they need.

For a negligible investment and with the approval of no other human being necessary, people can start sharing their passions with the world.

It’s important to keep this in mind, because it’s exactly what enabled YouTube to flourish and become a legitimate medium of its own.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

In television, you have a crew. You have a cast. You have advertisers. You have censors. You have strict schedules. You have executives. In short, there are a lot of people you need to hire, keep happy, and work to retain long before you get to create and distribute any content.

On top of that, there’s the audience. People sitting on their couches with a remote control in their hands at 8:30 p.m. have a level of quality they expect from broadcast television. Not in terms of the writing or creativity, but in terms of the production. These are things of which they usually won’t be conscious. Things like the attractiveness of the actors, the familiarity of the setup, the rhythm of the show, the formula of the plot, and — we can’t forget — the precise length of the experience.

Do any of those things truly matter? Of course not, but audiences are comfortable with them. It’s what they expect. Mess with them and you don’t just end up with a show that doesn’t appeal to someone; you end up with something that feels wrong.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Let me use a real-world example here: This is the second-most-popular video by Technology Connections. (The most popular just happens to be video-game related, so we’ll skip that; I don’t want to overlap too much with what we’re going to say about The Angry Video Game Nerd.)

Click that link. You don’t need to watch beyond the opening second or two (though feel free to watch the entire thing if you are interested) to see that this is the sort of thing that would baffle audiences if they stumbled upon it on NBC…or even PBS.

I say that with love. Technology Connections is an excellent channel and — in my humble opinion — is a good representation of the absolute best of YouTube. Alec Watson is an intelligent person talking about fascinating things in a way that a fucking imbecile such as myself can follow.

Let’s imagine this same host with this same idea in 2004, the year before YouTube went live. Miraculously, Watson has landed a meeting with television executives. He pitches them the concept for exactly what you see in that video. How many confused looks would you see in that room? The answer depends solely on the number of executives present.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

He wants to do a show about air conditioning? No, he’d cover air conditioning in this episode, then color theory in another episode, then maybe hand-warmers, and then a ride at Walt Disney World. Okay, and he’ll explain how they work? Sometimes, but other times he’ll just point out things he finds interesting, or he’ll try to make his own lava lamp, or he’ll tell people why not to buy a product. Okay, well, that’s not going to fly with advertisers…who will host this? Watson will, with a disheveled head of hair and a thrift-store blazer over a nerdy T-shirt. Also he will write it himself and deliver puns with a monotone directed into one camera that never moves. Good lord…at least he can fill a time slot, right? Of course, except for the times when he can’t; depending on the topic he’ll produce an episode running anywhere from six minutes to an hour and a half.

Does Watson’s show make it to air? You already know the answer.

Even if the network wanted to move forward, they’d hire researchers so that he could cover more topics more regularly, they’d hire editors to keep everything snappy and engaging, they’d build a set instead of letting him use a cluttered background, they’d probably hire someone a bit more at ease in front of the camera…and once all of these things are addressed, is it the same show?

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Technology Connections could not have existed in 2004. Television would have been his only option, and his job wouldn’t be discussing household objects that he finds interesting; his job would be keeping his bosses happy and getting more people to tune in each week. I can’t speak for Watson, but the odds are good he’s passionate about doing one of those things more than the others.

2005 hits and everything changes. Technology Connections can exist as we know it and as Watson wishes to make it. Vloggers can exist, rambling about their mundane lives without preparation or direction. Musicians can find audiences without having to go through record labels or even their local music scene. Friends can write and produce comedy skits without trying — perhaps without even desiring — to get the attention of Saturday Night Live.

Suddenly, practically overnight, anything goes. Things that no network executive would ever commission are attracting legions of dedicated fans. People unbox toys on camera, annoy professional scammers, or throw eggs at things. Millions of people are suddenly enthralled by everything they would never watch if it were on television. Lucas Cruikshank can yell in a pitch-shifted voice, Tom Dickson can stick objects into blenders, and James Rolfe can spew profanities at old video games.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

And I don’t mean profanities that are humorously bleeped. I don’t mean TV-friendly profanities, like “Hell” or “frigging” or something that a scriptwriter made up because he couldn’t have a character say “fuck farts.” I mean long stretches of obscenity that may or may not contain the germ of valid criticism.

However much they despised a film, Roger Ebert or Rex Reed or Gene Shalit would have lost their jobs if they resorted to foul language when describing a film on the air. (And may have found themselves embroiled in scandal if they were taped doing so off the air.) For Rolfe, on YouTube, that would be his entire appeal.

There might be no better or simpler illustration of just how clearly YouTube served as television’s puckish opposite.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Rolfe — a film buff and budding director — created his Angry Nintendo Nerd character in 2004, before YouTube existed. There was no way to share those earliest episodes with a wide audience. They were confined to a VHS cassette, sitting in a drawer. Making them amused Rolfe and a handful of his closest friends. It could go no further than that.

When YouTube came around, he uploaded the two episodes he’d already made: reviews of NES games Castlevania II and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. With a virtual snap of his fingers, something that had once amused only him had a chance to amuse the world. And it did.

Rolfe continued reviewing games with his character, soon to be renamed the Angry Video Game Nerd, and he did it only because he’d found an audience who wanted more. Left to his own devices, he would have ended up doing something else with his life. Why not? He’d made his couple of profane game reviews and gotten his share of amusement from doing so. There would have been no reason to continue.

The AVGN was one of YouTube’s earliest true success stories. Rolfe inspired countless imitators who rarely had even a fraction of his appeal. He signed a deal with another website to produce videos for them. He found celebrity fans, including Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman. Allow me to emphasize that: The film director who created so many movies that had entertained Rolfe was now being entertained by Rolfe. I can’t speak for Rolfe any more than I could for Watson, but that must have been surreal.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Yelling bad words at old video games in his spare room first gave Rolfe an audience, then a source of income, then a career that continues to this day.

As his mass of imitators know — consciously or otherwise — Rolfe’s ascent is neither easy to understand nor easy to duplicate. There was luck involved, certainly. There was an element of perfect timing, with Rolfe having episodes ready to go in advance of YouTube becoming popular enough to support its own star. But the AVGN was more than the superficial thrill of seeing a man in a button-down shirt get angry at the same games that made us throw our controllers as children.

The AVGN was James Rolfe. Anyone could yell at a TV screen, but nobody else was James Rolfe.

I have to hypothesize a bit here, but I think Rolfe’s appeal was rooted less in what he was doing than in who he was. He’s an eminently likeable person. The AVGN is — and always was — a character. The actor behind the character was clearly soft spoken. His genuine love for the games he was yelling at was obvious. He was a funny person who understood the power of language, the cadence of comedy, and the necessity of careful editing.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

There was a person there, and he was a person we liked. The fact that he was on YouTube rather than CBS meant (among many other things) that we felt closer to him. There were fewer degrees of separation. There was no filter. Rolfe clicked “upload” on one end and we clicked “play” on the other. Nobody and nothing stood between Rolfe making a joke and us laughing at it, making him feel as much like a friend as he felt like an entertainer.

We will address this question more thoroughly in the next two films we cover, but for now it’s at least worth raising it: How, exactly, does somebody take this very particular appeal and translate it into a film?

With 2014’s Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, the answer seemed to be “quite poorly.” I say “seemed to be” because, prior to this review, I’d never seen it. I could only go by fan reception, which seemed to range from abysmal to “well, it looks like he was having fun.”

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

The truth is, of course, more interesting than that. Having now watched the film I can see why so many people dismiss it, but I’m not sure it is worth dismissing, even if it’s not great.

I don’t know what inspired Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, nor do I know what inspired the other two films we’re covering this year. It’s very possible that in any case or in every case, somebody woke up one morning with a profound desire to get one specific story out and then set about doing so.

More likely, I think, these creators realized that they had audiences. Real audiences, who would be willing to support other creative endeavors. Audiences who, hopefully, would be willing to take a chance on a decidedly different format from the one that attracted them in the first place.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Everybody believes that they have some film inside of them, or story or novel or painting or composition, and I’m willing to believe that every one of these people is correct. They may never spend the necessary time to develop their craft or may never end up with an audience interested in whatever they produce, but each one of us has something inside that we’re capable of producing.

When you already have millions of people tuning in regularly to see what you have to say, well, what are you waiting for? Show them what you can do.

Rolfe could — probably pretty easily — have just written and performed an extra-long game review. He could have covered a bunch of different games while a loose narrative unfolded in the background. He could have created an entertaining history — or even a documentary — about the making of some particular game or series. In short, he could have given an audience exactly what they were getting from him already, only more of it and with higher production value.

Instead, he pulled the camera back a bit and let the AVGN have an adventure that had nothing to do with anger, hardly anything to do with video games, and which had the word “nerd” in it a few times. It’s the same character, but not the same context.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

It’s taking a character designed and developed for one purpose and forcing upon it a different one. It’s sending Indiana Jones into space, or sticking Cookie Monster into a hospital drama. A character we enjoyed when he did A is now suddenly doing B, and whereas it cost us nothing to enjoy A, we’re being asked to part with our money to experience B.

Rolfe is an intelligent enough guy to understand this. He must be; he shaped the entire plot of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie around the character’s refusal to review a game. He’s aware of his audience’s expectations and he has a bit of fun toying with them. But being aware that the audience wants something different isn’t quite enough; it’s what you do with that awareness that matters.

Ultimately, he doesn’t do much with it.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

The film makes overtures at being “about” video games. Specifically, the notoriously terrible E.T. for the Atari 2600, a game which is frequently — and not totally fairly — blamed for the video game crash of 1983. The AVGN finds himself badgered by friends and fans to review the game, and early in the film he sets off to Alamogordo, New Mexico, the real-life location where unsold copies of E.T. were destroyed and buried.

All of which sounds like this film has quite a lot to do with video games. Really, though, E.T. could be subbed out for anything else. And, in fact, the film does sub it out at least twice: first, and most directly, for a copyright-friendly equivalent called Eee Tee, and then later for Area 51.

Half of the AVGN’s name stands for “video game,” but here it’s really just an excuse to get him on the road. That, in itself, makes sense; Rolfe may have had a road movie in mind with lots of jokes to make along the way. All E.T. (or any game) needs to do is serve as a destination; the journey is the story.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Or so it would be, except that the entire journey is skipped right over. The AVGN and his two hangers-on might as well warp directly to the New Mexican landfill for all that the trip itself matters.

That’s because the trip itself is no more interesting to Rolfe as a filmmaker than E.T. is. What he really wanted to make, it seems, was a comedy about breaking into Area 51. Everything else just happens, and any time it ties into video games — or, indeed, the AVGN — it feels incidental.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, Rolfe could obviously have made a non-AVGN film with very, very few tweaks to this script. James and Friends Meet an Alien would be damned similar to what we have here and it would be free from the expectations people have of the AVGN character.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

On the other hand, Rolfe — correctly — understood that far more people would watch (and purchase) the film if it had the AVGN name on it. If he wanted to make more money, it needed to be about the AVGN. Ditto if he wanted to secure distribution, if he wanted to attract talent, and if he wanted any kind of media attention at all.

He could make a movie without the AVGN, but then he’d be back to where he was before he created the character; he’d be making a film with pocket change and a few close friends that nobody else would care about. If you think I’m being harsh here, ask yourself how many people care about The Wizard of Oz Part III: Dorothy Goes to Hell or The Head Returns, two post-AVGN film projects by Rolfe that you likely didn’t even know existed.

Rolfe could make a film about three dimwits rescuing an alien or he could stick the AVGN name on it, feint toward some vague video-game content, and reap infinitely higher viewership and profit. He’d been doing the former for decades. I can’t and won’t blame him for trying the latter. I understand how tempting it must have been.

Of course, we all know what happens after the people who lined up for the AVGN actually see the film.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

I can’t and won’t blame them, either. Rolfe set an expectation for his audience, and it’s not his audience’s fault if the film didn’t match it.

Fans who had loved — and in some cases grown up — watching him play the old games they remembered and put into profanity all of the things they were never able to say watched a movie that contains none of the games they remember and nothing in the way of observation.

What’s worse — even if it’s understandable for an indie film — is that any game footage we do see is the same kind of off-brand equivalent we might see on a sitcom…a sitcom made by writers and executives who probably don’t care enough about video games to get them right, and won’t bother trying because they don’t think their audience will care, either.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Rolfe’s sincere love of the medium — the love that inspired the AVGN series and which was felt by every viewer who ever enjoyed it — was absent, because the medium wasn’t putting in any real appearance here at all. Rolfe has no nostalgia for the bland recreations we get here, the sort of thing we might have seen on Full House if the show ever had to let us see the TV screen for some reason. He can’t have any nostalgia for these games, because these aren’t real games. For the same reason, we can’t have any nostalgia.

The common ground we felt with Rolfe does not exist within the confines of this film. He can call it the AVGN, and dress up like the AVGN, and repeat the same strings of curse words we remember from the AVGN, but the very heart of the AVGN is nowhere to be found.

What do we get instead? I’m not entirely sure.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Each of the films we’re covering this year seems to fall somewhere between the creators making a movie and the creators making fun of movies. There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at the very concept of film — parody does sometimes outlive sincerity — but it can also seem like a crutch, as though the filmmaker isn’t confident enough in their own talent to play things straight. “I was only kidding” is an all-too-easy excuse. If an audience laughs, great. If they don’t, you don’t have to take it to heart.

Watching Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, I kept wanting Rolfe to take it just a hair more seriously. Some of the biggest laughs came from the parodic moments — his friend turning into a dummy whenever he takes a nasty fall, or a battle segment being played out by toys instead of people — but they didn’t help me to enjoy the film more.

They were a second or two of laughter rather than anything that enhanced or improved the experience of watching the movie. Instead, moments like this just muddy the film’s reality and make it difficult to know what we’re meant to take seriously.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Rolfe overall gets close to making a screwball comedy as opposed to a parody, and I think the film would have been stronger if he focused on that aspect of things.

There’s a scene in which he dresses up as an alien and launches a homemade UFO into Area 51. It’s in no way realistic but it is at least anchored in a recognizable semblance of reality. It’s a buffoonish sequence, but it works for a buffoonish character in a buffoonish movie. Cutting to a prairie dog puppet saying curse words simply because that’s ostensibly something somebody might laugh at…well, even if that does work, it’s incongruous. It doesn’t fit. (And it also doesn’t work, but that’s beside the point.)

For two more-easily comparable examples, we can look at the film’s pastiche sequences.

In one, the AVGN essentially finds himself in the middle of a zombie film. Rolfe, horror buff, gets to live out what I’m sure was a lifelong dream as he’s munched on by the undead. The AVGN then wakes up from the nightmare, and rightly so, because zombies would break the reality of the film. Rolfe, correctly, corrals this sequence off from what actually happens in his movie.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

In the other, the AVGN’s buddies essentially find themselves in the middle of a kaiju film. Rolfe, again a massive fan of the genre, gets to live out what I’m sure was a lifelong dream by directing a huge monster as it smashes through a model city. The difference is that this actually does happen in the movie. It’s not a dream. It breaks the reality as much as zombies would, except that this has no narrative handwave. We are just suddenly watching a little bit of a kaiju film when the majority of the movie was grounded in a world we recognize by a logic we understand.

Again, I mean to make clear that either approach is okay. You can have wacky stuff happen in dreams or you can have wacky stuff happen in reality, but you need to decide before you make the film what things can only happen in dreams and what things can actually happen in reality. There is no wrong answer, but if you don’t have an answer — or your movie makes it seem like you don’t have an answer — people will be confused at best.

Rolfe didn’t make a parody, but he wants viewers to excuse Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie whenever it briefly becomes one. The fact that it does keep abruptly becoming one (and then just as abruptly stops being one) is evidence of a lack of restraint on his part as a filmmaker. Then again, we may not need even need that evidence; the fact that Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie is almost two fucking hours long is evidence enough.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

It’s difficult to see a running time of 110 minutes on a YouTube vanity film and believe that the length is justified, and Rolfe seems to take every opportunity throughout the film to even further convince you that it’s not. Between fantasy sequences, montages of fans gushing about the AVGN, lengthy flashbacks, and a deeply strange animated tangent about his buddy Cooper’s wackadoo beliefs, the film didn’t just have opportunities for tightening up; it’s practically pleading with the audience to edit it themselves.

Speaking of tightening up, I guess I might as well talk about what little story there actually is in this film. I wish I could say that without sounding dismissive, but there are so many false starts, abandoned threads, and left-field developments that it’s less a narrative than a bulleted list of things that happen. Still, we’ve come this far…

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Cockburn Industries decides to develop an intentionally terrible Eee Tee 2, expecting it to sell well due to its predecessor’s infamy. Coincidentally, somewhere else, the AVGN exists. A woman who works at Cockburn decides to get the AVGN to review and endorse the game. This inspires the AVGN to do nothing. Coincidentally, somewhere else, the AVGN’s friend Cooper exists and is inspired to inspire the AVGN to do something. The AVGN says no and then says yes.

The two friends and the woman arrive in New Mexico via the magic of editing, where the Eee Tee cartridges are buried. This angers a bunch of soldiers and government officials, because the kids might find Area 51 which is in a different state. Meanwhile, only one person in the world can tell them the secret behind the development of Eee Tee. Instead of finding him, the kids find someone else who can tell them the secret behind the development of Eee Tee.

A soldier kidnaps the woman and brings her to Las Vegas while a giant monster rises from Mt. Fuji and the AVGN’s friend plays Eee Tee which either causes an alien to escape from Area 51 or doesn’t have anything to do with the alien’s escape from Area 51, so the AVGN and the alien fly a plane and then the AVGN and the alien get out of the plane. Then it’s night time and the movie ends.

Watching Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie is a weird experience, because it stumbles across as many terrible ideas as it does good ones and then can’t seem to decide what to focus on. It’s so disjointed that I often couldn’t even tell what I was meant to feel while watching it.

Near the end of the film, for instance, the AVGN’s friend kisses the woman, and they had so little to do with each other prior to that point that I expected it to be a joke, with the woman saying to him, “Why did you do that? Who even are you?” But instead I guess they’re in love. And, hey, good for them! Love is a wonderful thing. I just wonder if I should have seen any of it since I did watch the entire film and all.

Also, the woman pretends to be a nerd — I guess? — so that she can get closer to the AVGN and get him to endorse Eee Tee 2. But she also never makes a secret of who she works for or what she wants from him, so why bother pretending to be a nerd? And why does it feel like a betrayal when the boys learn that she doesn’t actually need glasses? She went through some degree of effort to lie to them, but the lie didn’t conceal anything at all. She comes to them in nerd form but is still openly trying to get them interested in endorsing Cockburn’s product. What was the point of lying if she wasn’t lying about the only significance she had in the story?

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

You can play with things like this — have plot developments happen due to expectation alone and have that be a joke — but I don’t feel as though the film actually builds to these moments as punchlines. They’re just things that happen, which might be another symptom the fact that the film can’t decide what constitutes its own reality.

It has some nice moments. I like the way it explores Rolfe’s own legacy, which is worth doing; there’s a reason I spent so much time discussing it myself up above. The fact that the vitriol he (sometimes literally) spews at terrible games results in people tracking down and playing those games instead of avoiding them is funny. It’s also a valid observation and a weird enough phenomenon that it’s worth poking fun at.

Then there’s the cast, and I can’t fault any of them. Rolfe is as naturally likeable as ever. Jeremy Suarez as his friend Cooper is perfectly fine. Sarah Glendening should get to do more than look pretty behind nerd glasses, but she’s fine with the material she gets.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

The film does manage to intermittently shine with a couple of bit parts. The first is the AVGN’s boss, played by the consistently reliable Eddie Pepitone. Pepitone is a riot here, shifting from flattering the AVGN to verbally abusing him to pulling a gun on him, selling every step in the process. I don’t know how much of his performance was scripted and how much was improvised, but it’s a great little scene that is elevated for its craziness.

The other, maybe not coincidentally, is another crazy old guy, this time played by Stephen Mendel. Mendel’s general is fueled by pure rage and is quick to violence, which usually ends with him getting gruesomely injured. He’s funny, and due to the nature of the sight gags I’d guess most of his performance was dictated by the script. If that’s the case, good on Rolfe and his cowriter Kevin Finn, who here did manage to create a zany character without throwing the film’s reality off kilter.

I also liked the alien’s voice, which I could have sworn I recognized. I looked him up and it’s Robbie Rist, who has been in too many things to mention and I can’t possibly narrow down where I thought I knew him from. I did learn, however, that he played the notorious Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch, so good lord am I glad the guy still had a career after that.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

I remember when Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie was released. It came to a tiny little movie theater just a few blocks from me, and I had every intention of seeing it. I had some other things going on in my life at the time and the theater stopped showing it before I had a chance to check it out. Then I heard about the film’s negative reception. I still wanted to make up my own mind, but I felt quite a bit less compelled to seek it out.

Fans weren’t happy. I don’t think I saw anyone saying they liked it, at least not without qualifying the statement by adding “for what it was.” At worst, people started accusing Rolfe of misusing the funds that fans had given to him to make the movie. They called it a scam. They called Rolfe a thief.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

They’re idiots. At this point I can safely say that I don’t like the movie, but I’m nowhere near moronic enough to suggest that I know how much the film should have cost or how much Rolfe obviously stuck into his pocket instead. Even carefully planned professional productions go over budget. They face unforeseen obstacles or see costs inflate from what they estimated. Nobody can know in advance what a film will cost; they do their best to estimate it and then do their further best not to exceed that estimate.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie was neither carefully planned nor professional. Whatever it cost, it cost. And, frankly, I think people know that Rolfe didn’t use this as some kind of elaborate embezzlement scheme. (There are far easier ways to steal money from fans; just ask the Nostalgia Critic.)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Instead, the accusatory blowback was the internet’s predictably awful way of saying, “I did not enjoy your film.”

That sentiment, at least, I get. Rolfe put the name of his show in the title of a film that had precious little to do with his show. He stuck his character into a movie that neither needed nor benefited from that character’s presence. He was willing to gamble some degree of credibility against the potential for a larger audience.

I understand that temptation.

In that situation — being loved for one thing and really hoping to transfer that love to something else — I quite possibly would have done the same thing. And, like him, I would also have known the risk of taking that bet.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Even now, after watching the film, after knowing it would sour a decent chunk of his audience on him, after seeing that people would accuse him of criminal activity expressly on the grounds that they didn’t think his space-alien movie was funny, I can’t blame him.

For whatever reason, he wanted to make this movie. He did what he had to do in order to make it. In a very large and legitimate way, that is an achievement.

And in another way?

Well, it looks like he was having fun.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Announcing: Rule of Three 2021

I’d like to interrupt this period of not watching “Spock’s Brain” to announce this year’s lineup for Rule of Three. If you aren’t familiar with Rule of Three, that’s your own fault; I provided a link to it at the end of the previous sentence and you chose not to click it.

In short, every April I take long, meandering, patently unhelpful looks at three related comedy films. The series begins April 1, with the second and third posts following one and two weeks later. It’s extremely complicated.

This year, I’m covering something I’ve been considering since the very start of this series: films made by YouTube celebrities.

You will probably read that and think it’s a chance for me to pick on some low-budget films and make fun of people I don’t like. And that does sound like a hell of a lot of fun! But in the interests of fairness and basic human decency, I’m choosing to focus only on YouTube celebrities I actually enjoy.

These are three films that — for one reason or another — I haven’t gotten to see yet. This series gives me not only an excuse to watch them, but to discuss the creators and their work.

Maybe I’ll enjoy the films. (I certainly hope I will.) Maybe I will not. Either way, these are people I respect, and critically discussing what they did when they asked audiences for 90 minutes of their time is my way of saying thanks. You know, like I said thanks to Purple People Eater.

At the request of a few kind folks, I am now providing links to help people watch the films in advance. Please know that these are not affiliate links; I make no money from any purchases you may make, so feel free to buy them from any other service that works for you.

And now, the schedule:

April 1: Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014) (Amazon Prime)
April 8: Space Cop (2016) (Amazon Prime)
April 15: Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013) (Vimeo)

Be sure to tune in Thursday, April 1, for my full review of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. Followed by, hopefully, some better movies.

Thank you all, as always, for your support. I hope you enjoy this year’s essays.

What the hell, I’ll keep watching Star Trek

I’m going to open my discussion of Star Trek: The Original series season two with some unexpected disappointment. Why not, eh?

My journey through Star Trek has taken place almost entirely offline. You got my summary post of season one, and I’ve exchanged messages with a few friends, but nearly all of my discussion about the show has occurred in reality, with the friends and coworkers I interact with normally.

They’ve been very — impressively, even — good at allowing me to come to my own conclusions. Very, very rarely do they tell me ahead of time of a development to come or how an episode is overall received by fans. When it does happen, it’s been stuff that’s pretty obvious. (Chekov joining the cast for the second season, “The City on the Edge of Forever” being rightly beloved, etc.) Beyond that, they’ve volunteered very little that I didn’t bring up — or question — myself in the course of conversation.

And yet — and yet! — there is one thing I heard many times over: Season two is a huge improvement over season one.

This made so much sense to me that I didn’t really think twice. Honest question: Can you name many successful series in which the second season did not represent a notable improvement over the first?

In a collaborative medium — such as television, of course — there’s a lot to learn. No matter how well you plan ahead of time, you’ll face a deluge of curveballs once things are underway.

Actors will bring with them their own talents and limitations. Costumes and sets will be limited by a budget, which itself is likely to fluctuate. Continuity (correctly, in my opinion) goes out the window as the writers discover better, more fruitful ideas as the series progresses. Tight deadlines prevent you from producing a show as strong as you might like. Injury or illness takes people out of the rotation when you need them most.

And that’s just a small sampling of very superficial considerations. My point is that you can’t predict or account for every obstacle you will face, and that’s especially the case in season one of whatever show you’re making.

By season two, you’ve necessarily had to adjust and account for those things at least once. New obstacles will certainly present themselves, but you’ve at least got a handle on the old ones. The pool of “unknowns” has shrunk. You are in a position now to create something that is more in line with the vision in your head.

So of course season two of The Original Series would be a huge step forward. I could have guessed that on my own, but it was nice to have it confirmed by long-time fans. It meant that I had something to look forward to.

Then I watched season two, and…man, I am not sure that I agree.

I do believe it’s better. Full stop. But I don’t think it’s better to any degree that is worth mentioning.

The great episodes don’t really stand above the great episodes from season one. The lousy episodes are no better than their earlier equivalents, either. And I’m not sure that there are a larger number of great episodes or a smaller number of lousy ones.

I think I can say that the baseline level of competence has risen, but not enough that it has any measurable difference on the quality of the season as a whole.

Of course, I ended up liking season one — quite a lot — so this is a relative disappointment only. I was prepared for season two to blow the previous season away, and it really, truly did not. I’d love to know what folks believe sets season two so high above season one, because as a newcomer I’m kind of baffled.

What I can say for sure is that the pacing is, on the whole, much better this time around.

Better pacing doesn’t turn a bad story into a good one (nor does poor pacing turn a good story into a bad one), but the journey is much more enjoyable for it. Rarely did I feel that an episode dragged (“The Immunity Syndrome” aside, as it was clearly intended to drag and is just as clearly fucking unwatchable), whereas the majority of episodes in season one had at least one dreary stretch that had me checking my watch.

But that’s about the only real improvement I can cite. I’m genuinely curious to know what other folks think.

The most obvious change is the addition to the cast of Chekov, played by the fucking adorable Walter Koenig. I love Chekov, but I can’t imagine that his debut is the reason people rate season two so highly.

Regardless, he’s an excellent addition. Everybody on the Enterprise has their lighter moments, but young Chekov has a far higher percentage of them, which means that nearly all of his scenes are pleasant and entertaining.

His youth also allows him to illustrate something we saw very little of in season one: a lack of discipline. Chekov is intelligent and accomplished (is there a greater intellectual honor than filling in for Spock whenever necessary?), but he lacks the gravity and authority of his older comrades.

In season one we definitely met some flawed crewmen, but Chekov registers more as someone who just hasn’t had enough time to iron out his flaws. He’s competent and capable, but needs a bit of polish. It’s an interesting kind of character to have as a fixture on the bridge.

In my season one post, I spilled a lot of ink wondering why it took until season two for anyone to think to fill the navigator’s chair with a single, recurring character. Ultimately, I let the issue drop because I knew this would happen with Chekov in season two.

…and yet, now that I’m here, I’m not even sure that that’s the case.

Chekov’s arrival coincides with Sulu’s absence. George Takei was unavailable for many episodes because he was off filming a movie, apparently. So I wonder, was Chekov introduced — as I’d assumed — because it was wasteful to invent / cast a different navigator for every episode? Or was he introduced because Sulu, the only other recurring character on that part of the bridge, would be absent for much of the season?

The amount of puzzlement the navigator’s chair has brought me is beyond measure, and I won’t belabor the point any further, but good lord, what a strange situation.

This is a case in which the BluRay running order is clearly much different from production. Surely Takei would have been absent for one long stretch of recording, but in my experience watching season two, Sulu is there one week, Chekov is there the next, then Sulu, then Chekov. Rarely are they both in the same episode; one really does feel like a replacement for the other.

That’s a bit disappointing, because some of my favorite material ended up being the rare interactions between the two.

Chekov and Sulu have this natural, recognizable sort of default camaraderie that comes from sitting next to each other every day. They don’t necessarily know each other very well, but they share little quips and commiserations out of proximity alone. They are coworkers who don’t dislike each other but who also — almost certainly — spend no time together after the shift ends.

That, to me, is so much more interesting than two lifelong chums would be. And it’s probably more believable, as well.

Surprisingly, Nurse Chapel becomes a semi-regular character in season two. She existed in season one, but only barely, appearing in just one or two episodes (if I remember correctly), and those were early in the season.

I was glad to see that a character who seemed forgotten ended up playing a larger role this time around. I’d be lying if I said she got all that much to do, but her presence meant that we could get scenes in sickbay whenever Bones was out gallivanting with the landing team.

Speaking of Bones, the only other casting change that I noticed was the overdue promotion of DeForest Kelley to the main credits. He appears in every episode now, which is very welcome as far as I’m concerned. The guy is still my pick for MVP from both an acting and characterization standpoint. There’s never a scene with Bones that is not elevated for his presence.

And since I’m destined to gush about Kelley / Bones all over again, I might as well tie it into my favorite thing about the season: its willingness to explore character.

We had plenty of opportunity to discover who these people were in season one, and I’d argue that just about all of the characterization was effective and well handled. Season two, though, gets to take it a step further. Since we already know who these people are, we are able to delve into what makes them that way.

Perhaps because Bones was already damned well realized in the first season, we don’t get too much that centers around him here. His “big” episode is “Friday’s Child,” which I quite liked in spite of its obvious flaws.

The crew journeys to a planet that Dr. McCoy has visited in the past, where he attempted to bring medical knowledge to the civilization there. His experience of this culture — his understanding of their nature and their customs — proves invaluable in a way that I thought was great. He even gets to do some excellent work with guest star Julie Newmar, seeing him pinched between his obligations as a doctor and his obligations as a visitor on behalf of Starfleet.

Overall, though, Bones shines mainly in support roles. I’m hoping we get at least another episode dedicated to him in season three, because I really do think the character can carry more than he’s been given, but the guy is so great as a sidekick that I can’t complain.

He’s insightful and hilarious by turns. The hardest I’ve laughed in a while came in “Bread and Circuses,” when he is tossed into a gladiatorial fight to the death. His opponent — who is a friend — goes easy on him, but tells Bones to at least defend himself. “I am defending myself!” he responds, and Kelley’s delivery is absolutely perfect. There’s surprise, frustration, and fear behind it, and yet it’s still comical.

In fact, “Bread and Circuses” might be one of his best episodes, even if his presence there is no larger than in most others.

There’s a lovely scene in which he and Spock are imprisoned together, and he’s worried to the point that he lets his gruff demeanor fall just enough that he’s able to speak to Spock like a friend, with genuine warmth. Spock responds…well, like Spock. Cold and detached, same as ever. “I’m trying to thank you, you pointed-eared hobgoblin,” McCoy says, and it’s funny and emotional at the same time.

I’ll give the writing its due credit here, but Kelley absolutely elevates this stuff, giving it resonance that works far beyond the words typed onto a script. (However good those words might be.)

Spock gets a pair of important episodes about who he is, and they’re both among the season’s best. Each of them focuses on the struggle between his Vulcan half and human half, and each of them tips the balance in a different direction.

“Amok Time” is by far the more famous one, showing his Vulcan urges completely overtake his humanity to the point that he finds himself in a fight to the death with his best friend. (McCoy is the hero of this one, settling matters in a way that’s both entirely out of left field and completely appropriate to the situation. Just need to toss my man Bones another high five.)

It ends with Spock asserting his human side, in spite of the fact that he knows his fellow Vulcans won’t understand. Having lost his betrothed to another man, he congratulates him, but then adds, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

It’s a pained and painful acceptance of the part of himself he works hardest to keep hidden, and it’s executed brilliantly.

The other one, “Journey to Babel,” approaches things from the other direction. Here, it is Spock’s humanity that is tested to the point of agony.

His father falls ill and is in need of a transfusion, which only Spock can provide. Easy enough, except that with Kirk indisposed, Spock is in command of the Enterprise. No Vulcan would shirk his duty for the sake of something as sentimental as saving a loved one. Spock’s father is one person, after all; there are hundreds aboard the Enterprise. Clearly the logical thing is to fulfill your obligation to them. No Vulcan would disagree. In fact, Spock’s father won’t even disagree as he finds himself at death’s door.

But that human side of Spock — personified in this episode by his human mother — won’t let the matter remain settled. He ultimately gives into this side, but bonds with his father afterward by picking on her (in a genuinely good-natured way) for her tendency to put emotion over logic. After an episode of human struggle, he snaps back to being a Vulcan.

Each episode raises the question of Spock’s nature, and each one provides a different answer. It’s interesting, and though I far prefer “Journey to Babel,” they’re both handled extremely well, with a level of care and intelligence I wouldn’t have expected.

Even Scotty — who I have to assume was an unexpected breakout character last season — is explored in a pair of episodes. In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” we see him fall in love with a woman who doesn’t quite feel the same way toward him, and he’s willing to sacrifice himself to keep her safe. In “Wolf in the Fold,” we see him work through some off-screen trauma, though it does land him in a different kind of hot water, which ends up being even worse.

Then there’s “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which sees him calm and clear-headed as a rowdy group of Klingons insults their captain…but he throws a punch the moment they insult his beloved ship.

His runaway highlight of the season though is his attempt to outdrink an alien visitor in “By Any Other Name.” The drunk acting between the two characters is a fucking delight. It’s played for obvious comedy, but there’s something genuine and identifiable about the way they go from being distant to being pally to seeming like they’re about to fight before they both pass out.

Absolutely wonderful stuff.

Kirk, understandably, gets the most attention as a character, and the criticism of Shatner’s acting that I’ve been hearing for years seems even further divorced from reality.

I’ll put it right out there: I love Kirk. He seems to have been written in a way that positions him as a role model, but also, crucially, as an achievable one.

He’s not infallible; he is a human being as flawed as any other, but he works through his flaws. He earns every ounce of respect and admirability he commands. Kirk doesn’t coast on his good looks or his charm, and he doesn’t take his success for granted.

All of which is very interesting, because season two explores him mainly through other characters. Characters in positions similar to Kirk, but who have let their flaws take over, or who have thought too much of themselves, or who have taken something for granted with disastrous results.

We encounter a number of other members of Starfleet who Kirk remembers fondly, and then we see just what could happen if Kirk were to fail to think through the results of his actions, or let himself take the easy way out at any point.

In “Bread and Circuses,” Captain Merik turns his crew over to a brutal world because he doesn’t have the integrity to fight back…and though he finds himself rewarded for doing so, it’s hollow, and feels like no kind of victory to him.

In “Patterns of Force,” a historian attempts to provide a framework for order to a chaotic society, without quite thinking far enough ahead to realize that Nazi Germany might not be the best example.

In “The Omega Glory,” Captain Tracey has manipulated a civilization into a state of eternal conflict simply to keep himself safe after being stranded among them.

All of these examples suggest alternate paths that Kirk could follow. He won’t, but he could. What’s more, each of these men could be said (to varying degrees) to have been doing what they felt was right, given their difficult situations. Kirk follows his gut on a weekly basis. Surely it’s just a matter of time before that gut leads him to the wrong decision…

In each of these cases, things have spiraled out of control. In each of these cases, the men in question probably got to enjoy a good, long stretch of believing everything has worked out correctly. In each of these cases, we meet them after they can no longer convince themselves that that’s the case. They’re lost, and the best they can do is try endlessly to justify to themselves what they’ve done, because nobody else is around to listen.

But these are all hypothetical paths for some alternate version of Kirk to take. There’s another alternate Kirk we meet this season, and it’s far less hypothetical.

In “The Doomsday Machine,” we meet Commodore Decker, who has lost his entire crew and his ship to a creature of unknowable power. He made the decision to beam them down to a planet, in the hopes that he could save them. He could not; when Kirk finds him, he is the lone survivor of the attack.

Decker made the best decision he could possibly have made at the time, but that didn’t matter. It was a no-win situation, and he lost. The experience broke him. It’s a tragic performance that does excellent work selling just how busted up this man is, just how much he’s lost, just how tormented he feels about outliving the crew that was entrusted to him.

He’s beamed over to the Enterprise for bed rest while Kirk attempts to get the disabled ship up and running. While there, the Enterprise spots the beast…and Decker, out of his fucking mind, assumes command.

He outranks everybody else on the ship. There’s nothing they can do aside from follow his orders. He single-mindedly pursues the monster that could — and certainly will — eat the Enterprise for lunch. The desperate glances between crewmen who reluctantly carry out the orders that will bring them to their deaths are chilling.

They are marching, step by step, into their graves, and there is nothing they can do.

In the end, surprise surprise, Kirk comes back and takes over. The entire crew is understandably relieved to have someone sane in the captain’s chair again.

They all mop their brows and say, “Whew!” A close call, but they will never serve under Decker again. Roll credits.

Then, many episodes later, we have “Obsession.”

Here, Kirk encounters a beast that killed his crewmates early in his Starfleet career. He always believed he made the wrong decision, though he was found to have not been at fault for the disaster. Regardless, Kirk unexpectedly crosses paths with it again, and is determined to destroy the thing this time. He orders the ship onward, toward the unstoppable beast, against all reason, against the counsel of his most trusted friends, against the protestations of his crew…

And suddenly they are serving under Decker again. But it’s Kirk. Which means they can’t sit around waiting for Kirk to beam over and get the crazy man out of the chair. Nobody else is coming.

Kirk meets many alternate versions of himself — versions with different appearances, ranks, histories, but versions of himself nonetheless — and gets to end each episode thankful that he’d never make the decisions that would get him to that point.

Except in the case of Decker, because he makes exactly the same decisions, endangers his own crew in exactly the same way, failing to learn one of the most important lessons this season tried to teach him.

In my rankings below, I honestly wasn’t sure whether to place “The Doomsday Machine” or “Obsession” higher. They chart similar ground and they each do so excellently. You can swap those two around if you like; I won’t mind.

Ultimately it came down either to giving the nod to a truly fantastic guest character, or to the horror of seeing Kirk drift so easily and naturally into the status of “cautionary tale” for whatever captain would happen to come along next. I went with the latter. I’d be no less satisfied with the former.

We get some other confirmations of flaws in Kirk along the way, though they aren’t given nearly as much time as we get in “Obsession.”

In “The Deadly Years” we see him clinging to command of the Enterprise well after he’s lost his faculties and mental acuity. In “The Ultimate Computer” we see him fret about losing his job to a machine, with McCoy both comforting and chiding him: “We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.” (Guys, McCoy is fucking great.)

Possibly not coincidentally, that episode also gives us an alternate Kirk: Dr. Daystrom, another hotshot who showed promise young, and then became desperate to avoid falling into irrelevance.

All of which sounds like this season was pretty excellent, right?

Well…yeah! Kind of. For the most part. At times.

Not all of the episodes I’ve highlighted above are actually good…it’s just that, as with season one, even the worst episodes have something to recommend them.

Also like season one, but which I didn’t discuss there, the episodes have a strange tendency to take a hard left turn at various points, becoming something else entirely.

“The Omega Glory” is a particularly egregious example; it begins promisingly, with the Enterprise finding a derelict ship full of crystalized crewmen. What happened? It’s a good mystery and, as cheap as it certainly was, a nice visual. Then we take a hard left turn to a planet on which Americans and Communists both sprouted up independently of Earth and Kirk explains their — also identical — U.S. Constitution to them in what I hope to Christ is the most embarrassing thing Star Trek ever does.

“Wolf in the Fold” is a strange one, too. It starts with a decently effective whodunit, at the heart of which is poor, baffled Scotty. He’s the only suspect in a series of grisly murders. We know he didn’t do it, of course, but we can still have some fun learning how, exactly, he was framed. Well, the joke’s on us because after a hard left turn the episode is about the ghost of Jack the Ripper who now haunts the Enterprise‘s computers.

It’s not always a bad thing. I really liked “By Any Other Name,” but I don’t know if I’m impressed or confused by how easily it swings from being an episode with a genuine threat to being overtly comic. Both halves work well on their own, but it really feels as though everyone involved with the first half of the episode died suddenly in their sleep and a completely different set of folks were brought in to finish it.

That about does it for anything I can really say with any thought behind it, but I do have a few other, scattered thoughts.

Firstly, Harry Mudd got robbed. Roger C. Carmel is an absolute riot in the role, but “I, Mudd” and last season’s “Mudd’s Women” are abysmal pieces of television. I’m told he doesn’t appear in season three, and that’s unfortunate because if any character needs an episode good enough to redeem him, it’s poor old Mudd. The guy should have been the show’s Sideshow Bob, but it feels like the writers just sort of shrugged and figured Carmel could carry his episodes on charisma alone. I can’t blame them — dude is amazing — but come on.

Secondly, I had somehow gotten it into my mind that “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was the episode with television’s first interracial kiss. I was wrong — that must happen in season three at some point — but I do sort of wish it had happened in this episode. It would have been one of the only redeemable things about that fucking mess.

Thirdly, “Mirror, Mirror” is a god-damned masterpiece. I think I still prefer season one’s “Balance of Terror,” but I was genuinely impressed by every last one of the choices made in “Mirror, Mirror.” It’s not surprising to me at all that the concepts of mirror universes and evil versions of characters became so common after this. Many Star Trek episodes have solid concepts, but this one nails the execution as well anything possibly could. It’s as brilliant as “Catspaw” is dumb. And “Catspaw” is really, deeply, profoundly dumb.

Fourthly, I prefer the theme tune without vocals. No idea how much sacrilege I’m practicing here but, well, there ya go.

Finally, I’m sorry, I almost touched upon this in my season one review but I can’t keep it inside anymore: Everyone on this show is hot as fuuuuuuuuck.

Shatner is gorgeous, and he’s gorgeous in a way that doesn’t lock him into “1960s heartthrob” status. He is just a genuinely great looking human being. Spock isn’t my cup of tea, but his beard in “Mirror, Mirror” absolutely had me swooning. Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov are all adorable in such very different ways. Uhura is quite possibly perfect; if there is a straight man out there who isn’t attracted to her, I’d have to ask what it is they find attractive about women; she certainly seems to satisfy every possible answer to that question. And Bones is probably the least conventionally attractive character on the show but let me be very, very clear about the fact that I would make out with him and I’d do it proudly.

Whew. Okay. Anyway, point is, season two was pretty great, but season one wasn’t much less great. If season two’s quality was inflated, I’m glad to hear it; all I’ve heard about season three is how much of a step down it is, so maybe that will turn out to be an exaggeration as well.

I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. I’ll be diving into that next. And I can finally reveal that, in all honesty, I only started watching Star Trek so I could eventually see the legendary “Spock’s Brain.”

Anyway, everything above is just my opinion and you are more than welcome to disagree. In fact, please do! I’d like to end on some indisputable fact, though, so here is every season two episode of Star Trek: The Original Series ranked from worst to best.

26) Catspaw
25) Who Mourns for Adonais?
24) The Immunity Syndrome
23) The Changeling
22) The Gamesters of Triskelion
21) The Omega Glory
20) A Private Little War
19) The Apple
18) Assignment: Earth
17) Return to Tomorrow
16) A Piece of the Action
15) I, Mudd
14) Wolf in the Fold
13) Patterns of Force
12) Metamorphosis
11) Friday’s Child
10) Bread and Circuses
9) The Deadly Years
8) Amok Time
7) The Trouble with Tribbles
6) By Any Other Name
5) The Ultimate Computer
4) The Doomsday Machine
3) Obsession
2) Journey to Babel
1) Mirror, Mirror

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

What the hell, I’ll watch Star Trek

What did you accomplish during the deadliest year any of us have experienced? If you’re like me, you’ve accomplished the square root of jack squat. But you’ve probably consumed a lot of entertainment, perhaps even stuff you’d never gotten around to experiencing before. For me, my big “late discovery” was Star Trek.

I’m a nerd. (DID YOU KNOW?) For whatever reason, though, Star Trek never appealed to me enough to sit down and watch it properly. I had an interest in it from a historical standpoint — it’s an important part of television history, before we even consider whether or not it was any good — but that was about it. I figured I’d get to it eventually, but there was certainly no rush.

Then 2020 happened, and nearly all of my time was spent alone, indoors. If not under those circumstances, when?

Let me say one thing up front: I will not be reviewing each episode of Star Trek. A friend of the website — and all around ace human being — has done that already. She’s done it better and more thoroughly than I possibly could. Go read those. If you’d like to pretend I wrote them, just imagine they contain a lot more spelling errors. Instead, I think I’m just going to record some loose and disconnected thoughts as I go. Lucky you!

Anyway, Star Trek. It was the first iteration of the show — what we now call The Original Series, the Kirk ‘n’ Spock one — that interested me. I had and have no doubt that the later series are worth watching. People adore The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine sounds like it’s right up my alley. It’s The Original Series that I figured I should start with, though. Even if it were terrible, I at least knew I could enjoy its importance.

It’s taken me a few months to get through the first season. That’s because…well, I have to be honest here: Much of Star Trek is rough going.

Prior to starting this proper watch through, my experience of The Original Series was limited to a few bits caught on TV here and there, some hand-selected episodes that were officially posted to YouTube around a decade ago, and The Motion Picture. When I tell people that, they say, “But that’s the worst movie!” Maybe that’s true, but I liked it; it didn’t sour me in any way toward whatever the show would or wouldn’t offer.

That was the entirety of my first-hand experience. I don’t remember why those episodes were posted to YouTube, but I imagine it was to celebrate some kind of anniversary. William Shatner provided some intro clips, but I don’t remember if I watched those. Some of the episodes I enjoyed. Some of them I did not enjoy. Nothing, apparently, encouraged me to sit down and watch the show from beginning to end.

Starting The Original Series in mid-2020, I wasn’t convinced I’d get much out of it. The season is very slow to start, and it’s clearly finding its footing. I mean that in every regard, by the way. The writing isn’t great. The actors don’t get much to work with. Characters change roles a number of times before they settle into their actual stations. (Or get ejected without comment.) The pacing is slow to the point that genuine boredom set in many times.

All of which…well…it’s a new show doing new things. It’s going Where No Man Has Gone Before. There’s bound to be some teething trouble. I’d find those things easier to excuse if there were interesting ideas behind them. Basically, I’d go easier on the execution if I recognized a strong vision or if it had compelling stories to tell. Maybe the show didn’t quite know how to tell its stories, but if they were worth telling, I’d sympathize with the difficulty it has in getting them out.

Instead, though, a long run of episodes in the first stretch can be boiled down to “something weird got on the ship.” It feels almost daringly uncreative. I realize that fans reading that sentence will think I’m being dismissive of the show, and I understand that perspective. Instead, though, I’m really just trying to convey my bafflement. The show isn’t uncreative, and yet it takes many, many episodes before it demonstrates its creativity in any narratively notable way.

Sitting down and setting an hour of my time aside to watch yet another installment in which Kirk and Spock try to identify and stop whatever weird something got onto the ship this time was not compelling to me. Each of those episodes, to some degree, had interesting ideas scattered around, but it felt so dull and repetitive that I’d have to make myself watch the show.

I’m glad I did, however, because around halfway through the season, something unpredictable happened: The show got very good, and reliably so.

I’ll mention here that I’m going entirely by the running order on my BluRay box set. I understand that the episodes may have aired in another sequence, and they were certainly produced in another sequence, but around the rough midpoint of the season as I experienced it, things actually started to click. The stories got more creative. The characters started interacting more believably. I wanted to know what weird something would get onto the ship next because I could count on it being entertaining.

At the beginning of season one, I wasn’t quite sure why I was bothering. Now that I’ve hit the end, I’m excited about the prospect of season two.

All of which is to say that season one of The Original Series retroactively became a fascinating study of a show finding its footing. Of course, we’ve all seen shows struggle a bit at the start, but The Original Series finds its footing so slowly — with so many false starts and dead ends and lessons stubbornly unlearned — that it’s ripe for autopsy. Whereas most shows make the bulk of their mistakes off camera, The Original Series seems to be making every last one of them in public. I’m sure that’s incorrect, but compared to most shows it feels correct.

My intention here isn’t to beat up on Star Trek. Its accomplishments are genuine and rightly celebrated, but I will say that there are clear examples of the show not quite understanding itself.

Sometimes it’s superficial. Spock’s Vulcan makeup gets less extreme (perhaps just better applied) as the season progresses. Also, he’s sometimes referred to as Vulcan and sometimes Vulcanian.

Even when terminology is consistent, the cast doesn’t always agree on how to pronounce it; it’s both Klingon and clingin’. Costumes change. The ship has a crusty old doctor with no personality until it gets McCoy, though the sequence of the episodes makes it feel like McCoy was the first doctor and was temporarily replaced. Yeoman Rand is an important recurring character until she vanishes and is replaced by rotating yeomen who are neither important nor recurring. Sulu was on the medical staff before he was suddenly, without explanation, the helmsman.

Then there’s The Guy Next to Sulu, the navigator, which is the most puzzling thing of all. I know Chekov shows up in season two, filling that role permanently, but how in the heck did that position survive all of season one without a regular actor?

This might take a bit of explanation, but bear with me, because it both irritated and fascinated me.

There are many miscellaneous crew members who dot the background, even on the bridge. That’s okay. I’d wager most of them only appeared in a single episode, but I can’t know that for sure because they’re rarely the focus of any given shot (and never the focus of any given scene). They come and go as extras do.

The navigator is another story. In every episode, a different person is in that seat, which is notable because that seat is near the center of the frame any time we get a good shot of the bridge. The navigator — whomever he is during any given week — is at the focus of many shots. What’s more, he’s sometimes even important to the plot. He gets lines. Kirk issues commands; he replies. He interacts with the others. He’s always a different person but he’s often involved with the larger goings-on.

Which means that — for each episode — they had to go through the trouble of finding somebody. Of auditioning him to make sure he could act. Of fitting him for a uniform and tailoring it to him. Of rehearsing with him. Of reshooting scenes when he inevitably botches his lines. It was a process to keep recasting that position. Surely at some point somebody would have said, “It would be easier to just cast one actor and keep him around.” Right? Well, maybe they did say that between season one and season two, but good lord, how did nobody say it sooner?

It’s strange. The easier solution — creating a character — was also the better one. They made it more difficult on themselves for no true benefit to the show, themselves, or the audience. Many positions on the ship had rotating crewmen, but this one was front and center in every episode. It’s bizarre.

Of course, the lack of a recurring character means you could do stories in which that character has a memorable disappearance. I’m thinking of Bailey in “The Corbomite Maneuver” or — more notably — Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” In neither case, though, did that character have to be the navigator. One just had to be kind of shitty at his job and the other only had to be on the bridge at an unfortunate moment. Those could be any position on the ship. And even if you disagree and feel that both characters had to be navigators for whatever reason, quietly rotating cast members for 29 episodes only so it could be important to two episodes is a monumentally lousy idea.

Again, though, I’m not intending to nitpick; as a study of television production and the creative decisions behind it, though, the omni-navigator is so odd and interesting to me. I can’t figure out the reasoning behind it, and I can even less understand the reason they didn’t cast someone the moment they realized the position might be an important one. There’s even precedent for it; as I mentioned, McCoy wasn’t originally the doctor, and Scotty and Sulu are both examples of permanent characters taking over previously rotating roles.

Ah well. Overall, once the series hit its groove at about the midway point, it got genuinely good. Okay, I admit not all of them were genuinely good, but they at least stayed interesting, and the characters were finally strong enough that it was worth spending time with them, even if you couldn’t care less about what any of them were actually doing.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise to me was DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, who is easily the best actor of the bunch. (Which I don’t say lightly. Read on.)

That was another puzzling thing to me; I’ve always heard people talk about Kirk and Spock in regards to The Original Series. Those were the two characters who took up the bulk of the discussion around the show. Every so often, to varying degrees, I’d also hear about Sulu, about Uhura, about Scotty. And that’s all fine and good, but why did I never hear much about Bones?

Sweet lord, McCoy is far and away the best part of the show. He’s the most consistently human and interestingly characterized person on the ship, at least so far. He’s competent but not infallible. He’s intellectual but able to fight back. He’s stern but fucking hilarious.

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy also get a nice range of material to work with, but with Kelley, I rarely feel as if he’s acting. When he’s invested in his work as a doctor, I believe he knows what he’s doing. When he pushes back against his superiors because he disagrees with them on moral grounds, I believe in his convictions. When he deadpans a killer punchline, I believe that he knows exactly how funny he is but isn’t impressed with himself. There’s so much going on nearly every time Bones is on the screen, and I was always disappointed when he didn’t show up at all in an episode. This is the guy I would have liked to spend time with.

As I said, The Original Series stumbles with some of its characterizations. For the most part, though, those are confined to the season’s earliest episodes. By the midpoint, they’ve settled into who they are. By the end, they seem to be fully formed. Bones, weirdly, had the opposite trajectory. He arrived fully formed, then, at the very end of the season, the show wasn’t quite sure who he should be.

He goes from being reliably (and crucially) competent to being a fucking boob and getting dangerously close to being a shitty doctor. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” he accidentally jabs himself with a needle, something no sober doctor has ever done in the whole of human history. In “Operation — Annihilate!” he blinds Spock as part of a medical experiment, learning a matter of seconds later that there was no need to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a bad day at work. But when it’s a doctor — and when that doctor’s bad days involve blinding crewmates and rewriting history so that the Nazis win the war — you really can’t write these things off as moments of inattention. He goes from being the crew’s prize asset to being its biggest liability.

That is, of course, a problem with the writing rather than the acting, and please allow me to say that the criticism I’ve been hearing for decades about terrible acting on The Original Series has been completely overblown. Nearly always, the moments of bad acting — which do exist — go hand in hand with bad writing. In short, nobody could deliver some of that dialogue effectively, and it’s wrong to blame the actors in those cases. When the writing is good, the actors inevitably rise to meet it.

This is especially true of Shatner as Kirk, which surprises me because he’s usually the one singled out for ridicule. Shatner does excellent work most of the time, and serviceable work in nearly all other cases.

People like to poke fun at how stilted his line delivery can be, and his seemingly unnatural pauses, but in context there’s nearly always a reason. Sometimes it’s because he’s shifting between demeanors, moving from a personally emotional response to a professional response of leadership. His pauses indicate an internal effort to move from one “voice” to another. Out of context, it sounds like an actor struggling to deliver a line. In context, it’s a character sectioning off parts of himself and opening up others.

I’ve noticed also that the “unnatural pauses” come when Kirk is thinking on his feet, buying himself time. When he’s on the spot — and potentially in danger — he chooses his words carefully. He starts a thought not knowing where it will end up because he has to say something. A lesser actor would communicate this by saying “ummm…” or “well…” or stammering, but Kirk has enough control that he’s instead able to parcel out silence as he navigates his conversational way forward. Again, out of context it seems like the guy forgot his line. In context, it can be riveting, as we discover Kirk’s next bluff or linguistic feint right along with him.

And since I’ve spoken about both McCoy and Kirk I might as well share my thoughts on Spock, which aren’t entirely solid at this point. I like Nimoy and I like the character, to be clear. What I like most, however, is how wonderfully his lack of emotion turns out to be bullshit.

One other thing I did during 2020 was work my way through the Witcher books. (I’ve finished all aside from one stand-alone novel.) In those books, Witchers — like Vulcans — are said to be without emotion. Yet, it’s not true. Geralt, our Witcher protagonist, falls in love. He fondly raises a young girl entrusted to him. He cares about his mentor. He regrets many of his decisions. He frequently helps others not for coin or through obligation but because it’s the right thing to do.

And yet characters in that world meet him, assume he feels no emotion, and treat him as such. He doesn’t correct any of them. Some folks see through him, yes, but Geralt himself allows them to believe this. He even, I think it’s fair to say, does his best to believe it himself.

Why? Because it is a very useful fiction. If Witchers don’t feel emotion, people won’t try to appeal to it. They won’t try to guilt him into certain actions. They won’t attempt to manipulate him, at least not in that way. They will deal with him on a more superficial level meaning he can deal with them the same way, and maintain a kind of distance from the reality of his situation.

Watching The Original Series, I see a lot of that in Spock. It’s a similarly useful fiction. Do Vulcans really lack emotion? They might! I haven’t seen enough of the show to know for sure, but I do know that half-Vulcan Spock does not lack them.

Instead, on some level he knows that if he allows others to believe that he lacks them — and if he convinces himself that he lacks them — he is able to maintain a kind of distance from others that both protects him from emotional pain and reinforces his value to the crew. Spock is often consulted when they need a strictly logical perspective. Anyone can provide a logical perspective, but Spock has made logic His Thing. Just as they might as well have Dr. McCoy patch up every wound, even though anyone can learn basic first aid. That’s why he’s there.

We see Spock demonstrate fondness. Playfulness. Selflessness. The only two-parter of the season, “The Menagerie,” is about his willingness to sacrifice his own career to give his disabled former captain a second chance at happiness.

I’m willing to believe Witchers have a reduced emotional capacity, but I’m not sure I do believe it. Similarly, I’m willing to believe Spock being only half-human means he doesn’t experience the full range of emotion, but I can’t say for sure.

At the end of “This Side of Paradise” he says he’d never been truly happy before. I believe him when he says that, but the fact that he’s never been truly happy doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being happy. That’s what he meant, yes, but I don’t know that that’s the truth. Certainly having to consciously stamp down your own emotions is an unpleasant experience; being freed of that obligation for the duration of the episode…well, of course that would be the first time he experienced happiness. He let himself experience it.

I’ll be interested to see what they do with this, but I love that they didn’t wait several seasons to peel back the “lack of emotion” aspect of the character and reveal the truth. Instead, they more or less immediately cast doubt on it, and continued casting doubt on it throughout the season. The lack of emotion is a coping mechanism for Spock, not an inborn limitation. What could have been a one-dimensional character trait is immediately revealed to be deeper. It’s good characterization and it leaves so much room for exploration.

One thing I knew I’d enjoy was seeing high-minded concepts collide with weekly television budgets. And, sure enough, you have aliens who are just people painted another color. You have parasites that I’m pretty sure are made of novelty rubber vomit. In one episode, you have Kirk and Spock fighting a giant Meat-Lover’s Pizza.

What I didn’t expect is how often the series is able to move beyond its cheapness and engage you in ways that are not bogged down by cost limitations. What I mean to say is that The Original Series has so far produced some truly compelling villains — however you’d like to define villains — and it’s done so while offering up visuals that dare you to take them seriously.

The best episodes let you understand what drives the force opposing Kirk & co. that week. A Godzilla Halloween costume in “Arena” ends up being in the right. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” a race fighting a centuries-long virtual war makes a damned good case for their horrifying reality. The pilot in “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is understandably mortified by the crew’s reluctance to return him home now that he’s seen a glimpse of the future. Our heroes are rarely revealed to be The Bad Guys, but they’re often shown to have their perspectives challenged, shaken, and broken.

That’s something else I ended up enjoying a lot. I expected all-American spaceman Jim Kirk to be the perfect hero. Several times throughout the season, though, he was shown to have an awful lot in common with his enemies.

The best example is the episode-length game of cat and mouse that was “Balance of Terror,” but there are a few other great ones as well. In “Errand of Mercy,” he has a similar mindset to the conquering Klingons about how to deal with a neutral planet. Different methods, sure, but ultimately both sides end up in frustrated alignment in a way that’s downright chilling. In “Space Seed” he even expresses his admiration for conquerors like Khan. It’s important writing; the difference between Kirk and his adversaries isn’t that one is Good and one is Evil. The difference is far smaller than it might seem, and that balance could always tip the other way.

In fact, in “The Enemy Within,” Kirk is split into positive and negative versions of himself in a transporter accident, allowing us to see exactly how much shittiness he carries within him. And the fact that the positive Kirk is almost completely worthless at addressing the situation shows us that it’s not “perfection” that makes the character who he is.

Don’t worry; we do get Perfect Kirk at various points. “Court Martial” is the worst offender, because it begins with a great concept — what if Kirk, under duress, made a bad decision that got someone killed? — and ends by painstakingly dismantling that concept so that we don’t have to question our hero after all. Even so, as of right now, “Court Martial” feels like the exception; Kirk often does make the right decision, but damned if we don’t see him suffer through the process of making it. He’s not perfect; he’s working hard, constantly, to get things right.

There’s not much I can say about the show that hasn’t been said elsewhere and better. But for such an important piece of TV history, I wanted to at least share that I’ve been watching it and get a few of my thoughts down in writing. All of them could be wrong. I might write up another one after season two and completely change my opinion.

For now, though, it’s been an interesting experience. Season one of The Original Series started as one of the most frustrating things I’ve watched and ended as one of the most intriguing. It’s given me bad television to pick apart and great television to savor. Honestly, that’s everything I could have hoped.

On to season two.

Oh, and, as your reward for being good, here is every season one episode of Star Trek: The Original Series ranked from worst to best. Come at me.

28) The Naked Time
27) The Man Trap
26) Charlie X
25) Shore Leave
24) The Squire of Gothos
23) Miri
22) Mudd’s Women
21) Where No Man Has Gone Before
20) The Menagerie
19) What Are Little Girls Made Of?
18) The Alternative Factor
17) Operation — Annihilate!
16) Arena
15) Court Martial
14) Return of the Archons
13) This Side of Paradise
12) Dagger of the Mind
11) The Corbomite Maneuver
10) The Enemy Within
9) Tomorrow is Yesterday
8) The Conscience of the King
7) The Devil in the Dark
6) The Gallileo Seven
5) Errand of Mercy
4) Space Seed
3) A Taste of Armageddon
2) The City on the Edge of Forever
1) Balance of Terror

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

My 10 best games of my 2020

Look! I haven’t died! Neither have you! Wonderful.

Anyway, a lack of posting isn’t for lack of things to talk about or lack of time, even. Everything’s just been a struggle lately, and I know that is far from unique to me. Here’s hoping by this time next year we can all breathe again.

For now, though, let’s talk about video games! I’ve played a lot of them this year, because if I go outside I will die. I’ve also read a lot of books, but I don’t think a single one of them was published this year, so don’t expect a list for those. Books don’t have as many guns to collect or even jiggle physics, though, so who cares.

As ever, there were a number of games I didn’t get around to, so a lack of those games doesn’t mean I disliked them. In this case, the big ones I wanted to play were The Last of Us Part II, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Cyberpunk 2077. Additionally, I haven’t upgraded to either the PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X (but, come on, it will obviously be the PlayStation 5), so none of the one or two games exclusive to those systems are in the running, either.

Before we start talking about my favorite games of 2020 by discussing games that are much older, though, here are my three favorite games that I overlooked in 2019.

My best games of 2020 (2019 edition)

3) The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III

Trails of Cold Steel III
Yes, I’m behind on my Trails of Cold Steel. SUE ME. The fourth game came out this year, but as of this writing I’m still working my way through the third game. I’m confident in saying it will end up being one of my favorites from 2019, both because it’s great so far and because games in 2019 sucked on toast.

The first game took a while to grab me, but once it did I was hooked. As the characters opened up and revealed their depth I was able to relate to them — or at least care about them — in ways I didn’t expect. You play as Rean Schwarzer, a student at a military academy. During field exercises, you are send to various regions to help the residents address their concerns and to learn about how the different areas behave and interact. For both Rean and for you as a player, this is a slight misdirection; you’re really touring the world to see what it’s like before war tears everything to hell.

Throughout the first two games, you balance your studies at the academy with maintaining peace as well as possible in the empire. And, of course, with flirting with the classmate or associate of your choice. (Fie is the correct answer.) The third game, however, takes place post-graduation. Rean is now a war hero and an instructor for a new group of students.

And it’s…kind of great. By interacting with them and struggling to keep their egos in check, you gain a genuine appreciation for your flighty old instructor Sara. In the previous games she was clearly competent, but she was also carefree and casual to a comic degree. In retrospect, as serious Rean bungles his relationships with his charges, you see just how effective she was at her job, and how valuable an instructor she really was.

It’s an incredible bit of character work that’s all the better because it takes us three games to get there. The length of the games in the series and the fact that they form one continuous story is probably enough to push many people away, and I don’t blame them. But those who dive into it and stick with it will be rewarded for their patience. Ditto the way in which so many background characters from the first game have grown into their own lives, roles, and personalities by this point, so that reconnecting with them is genuinely interesting and worth while. (Vivi is the correct answer.)

Of course, seeing how the empire has changed is another benefit of occupying this world for three games and counting. Sometimes you’ll see it with your own eyes. Sometimes you’ll hear about something you’re glad you didn’t have to see. Other times you visit for the first time locations you’d only heard about in the first game. Trails of Cold Steel plants so many seeds at so many points that if you hang around you’ll find many surprising things blooming around you. It’s lovely, and I’m excited to play the fourth game too late as well.

2) Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn
I rarely play games on PC. I’m not opposed to it or anything, but I don’t think I’ve ever own a computer powerful enough to play contemporary games and most of my career has involved the computer, so when it’s time to unwind, I don’t think to sit back down at one. This is to say that when Return of the Obra Dinn was released for PC in 2018, I didn’t go near it. I’d heard nothing but good things, but I was waiting for a console release if I were ever to touch it.

We got that release in 2019, and there’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t been said already, by people who are much, much more intelligent than I will ever be. If you don’t know what it is, somehow, I’ll at least say that it’s a kind of whodunit. You are an insurance agent tasked with figuring out the fates of the passengers and crew of the Obra Dinn, which vanished at sea and has returned to shore with no living creature aboard.

You accomplish this with a magic stopwatch, of course, which lets you view the literal final moment of various people’s lives. Sometimes this makes it very clear how they died. Often it doesn’t, but will shed light on someone else’s fate. You use clues from one vision to figure out what’s going on elsewhere. Describing it does it no justice whatsoever. Playing it is necessary to understand both the appeal and the craftsmanship behind the game.

That latter point, by the way, almost caused me to have a kind of breakdown as I tried to deconstruct the game afterward, mentally, trying to figure out how, exactly, it was assembled. It’s like a four-dimensional puzzle that makes sense as you put it together, but I couldn’t figure out how each of the pieces was constructed, how they fit together, how they allowed for people to discover them at (almost) any point and in (almost) any sequence and still make sense overall.

Of course, part of the magic is that mystery. I was more curious as a writer than I was as a player, though, and I knew there would be incredible lessons to learn from the method by which which this plot was created, segmented, and then scattered in such a way that allowed for multiple paths to correct reassembly, but I had to stop because I was genuinely causing myself grief and dismay. The game is that good!

It is sincerely one of the most creative and innovative works of fiction I’ve come across. The narrative itself is nothing that ever would have held my attention, but the presentation of that narrative is second to none. In a very real way, it’s a game about telling a story. You tell it to yourself as you go, and that would have been fascinating, brave, and brilliant even if it hadn’t worked. It worked, however. Good Lord did it work.

1) Control

Control
When I first saw an E3 trailer for Control, I had no clue what I was looking at. I did know, however, that I was interested. There seemed to be some kind of weird gravity mechanic, or perhaps the ability to disassemble and reassemble reality around yourself. Which, yeah, let me at it.

That’s not quite what the game ended up being, but the confusing nature of the trailer was appropriate. I never knew what to make of the game ahead of playing it, and I don’t know what to make of it now. It’s a rare thing for a game to turn so much of the interpretive duty over to the player, and I appreciate that Control did just that. I could tell you at various points the things I did, saw, or fought. I couldn’t tell you anything about what the game is, however, beyond the broadest of broad strokes. And that’s wonderful.

The game finds you wandering into a mysterious (and mysteriously open) government building in search of information about your missing brother. What you find is a series of loose meditations on reality, on the power of perception, and on what it means to exist. It’s heavy stuff, but it never feels heavy. At least, not until you’re done and you reflect on what you’ve been through. That’s when you’ll feel the weight of everything you put off thinking about. And that’s wonderful, too.

The odds are you won’t be thinking about these things until the game is over because Control keeps you so engaged throughout. It doesn’t necessarily distract you from these topics, but it does dazzle you enough that you’ll probably choose not to focus on them. After all, you get to rip parts of the building apart and hurl them at spooky enemies, flying around like Peter Pan as you do so. From a purely visceral standpoint, Control is excellent. The fact that it also makes you think long after the experience is over is just a perfect, unnecessary bonus.

In fact, since I played it early this year, I’ve been meaning to write an essay on this site about one character in the game. Not the player character, not the missing brother, not even a character you meet. Just one character who exists in this universe, who has given me so much to ponder for months now. Control is a rich game for the thoughtful. And if you don’t care to consider anything beyond what you’re doing at any given time, well, you’ll still probably enjoy it.

It’s funny, it’s weird, and it’s unforgettable. I wish it were a bit scarier — at times it creeps up to pure horror without ever quite pushing through — but that’s a personal preference thing. I think I wanted to be a bit more disturbed by what I was seeing instead of only intrigued. But, well, reality isn’t always what we’d like it to be, is it?

My 10 best games of 2020

10) Resident Evil 3

Resident Evil 3
Last year’s remake of Resident Evil 2 was my game of the year, and I stand by that decision. The moment I finished it, I started it over again. It was so much fun to play, ramping up the action from the original version without — in my opinion, at least — sacrificing the scares. With the exception of a few stretches (boss fights, usually), the game kept me on edge at all times, and did a great job of escalating the tension so that I never felt secure in my ability to survive.

I’ve played it many more times since. It’s an extraordinarily good game and one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. There is no reason Resident Evil 3 couldn’t have offered an experience of similar quality, but boy was it a big step back.

To be clear, it’s not a bad game. I think “Resident Evil 2 was better” is the sort of thing people will hear and therefore write this game off as an unmitigated disaster. It isn’t. But it seems to only superficially understand what made that previous remake so great. It indeed looks nice. It has great sound design. There are moments of exceptionally crafted atmosphere. But that’s really it. It’s the kind of game that works very well as a trailer or as a bunch of screenshots. Playing it is another story.

This time, I didn’t restart the game as soon as I finished it. In fact, I had to force myself to return to the game just for the sake of pushing through. Considering how short it is, that says a lot. I confess that the original Resident Evil 3 is nowhere near as good as the original Resident Evil 2, so the team definitely had less to work with. That’s hardly an excuse, however, especially when this game’s centerpiece, Nemesis, is equivalent to the previous game’s Mr. X. Mr. X was the highlight of the previous game, remaining a lurking, horrifying, genuine threat long after you think he’s out of your hair.

Dressing Mr. X up like Nemesis and calling it a day would have worked, if they were truly feeling lazy. Building on the threat of Mr. X and making Nemesis even more of a terrifying presence would have been ideal. Instead, they relegated Nemesis to a sort of quick-time-event generator. He pops up, you press the right buttons (sometimes indicated on screen), and he goes away again. That pales in comparison to the Resident Evil 2 remake, yes, but it also pales in comparison to the already pale original version of Resident Evil 3. There, Nemesis’ appearances had a degree of randomization, meaning you really couldn’t predict when you’d encounter him, even if you played the game multiple times. Here, his appearances are fixed and your way of dealing with him predetermined.

It’s far from an awful game, but it’s a big disappointment.

9) Bubble Bobble 4 Friends

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends
Upon further research, this game evidently came out at the very end of 2019. Oops. I can’t think of anything else to include because I hate most things, so I’ll just roll with it. Yell at me. I don’t care.

Anyway, Bubble Bobble and I go way back. I remember playing it endlessly as a kid. It was one of a handful of games I had for the NES, and if you were only going to own a handful, this was a great one to have. It was adorable, it was fun, it was easy to play, and it offered simultaneous two-player mode. It was also a long and challenging game, not that I cared about those things as a kid but, in retrospect, we got damned good value out of this one.

I remember ending up having to stop the game whenever I got to a certain stage that required you to bounce on bubbles up to a higher ledge. The timing on doing so wasn’t too bad, but as a kid, I couldn’t manage it. I’d get most of the way up, mistime a jump, and fall all the way back down. This was with two players, one of whom did nothing other than supply the bubbles. I’m sure it was possible to do it alone, but it was even more difficult.

Flash forward a decade and change. I’m in college and I meet a friend who had exactly the same experience with Bubble Bobble as a kid. We decide to break out the old NES and, finally, as what we thought qualified as adults, beat the fucking game. We set aside an entire weekend. We drank. We ate junk food. We had a mutual friend who joined us to relieve us in turns. It was enormous fun and it took us forever but, finally, we beat it. For the first time since we were children we watched the screen with our hearts in our throats and waited to see the ending…which never came. Instead we got a “BAD END” displayed on screen, because we neglected to pick up some certain item during the course of the game. We were disappointed, yes, but it was also hilarious. The perfect punchline to a wasted weekend.

Eventually we did beat the game properly, but my fondest memory was having the satisfaction of a job well done — a job 10+ years in the making — snatched away. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends won’t be doing any such snatching. It’s far too easy for that and quite forgiving. But as far as the fun goes, it’s right where the NES game was. This is what we saw in our minds when we played that version, and it’s a shame this game won’t get as much attention now as that one did then. For anyone with fond, distant Bubble Bobble memories, this will be a welcome return to them without any of the frustration.

In fact, they recently doubled the size of the game with a free DLC pack…which I’m realizing was released in 2020. There, that’s my excuse. Pick it up if you can. It’s sweet and cuddly and super fun and the DLC adds that ghost whale thing that will kill you for dawdling. It’s now perfect.

8) Spinch

Spinch
I’ve had my eye on Spinch since that stupid ALF E3 thing. I couldn’t really tell what the game was then, but it definitely had a great art style. It reminded me at the time of Atari games, but I wasn’t sure why; Atari games didn’t look anything like that. What it was actually reminding me of was Atari box art; abstract, cartoony, priming the imagination for the experience to come.

My imagination was barely primed enough for the reality of Spinch, which I say as a positive thing. Spinch is one gorgeously simple punishing platformer. It enemies are characters, but so are its environments. In a literal sense, even its projectiles are characters. Spinch oozes personality, and I’m choosing the word “oozes” deliberately.

It’s an extremely strange game, but charmingly so. I’d love to call it perfectly designed, but the fact is that that’s Spinch’s problem. It presents such a wonderful and unique world that not executing it perfectly feels like something of a crime. And, of course, falling short of perfection in a brutal platformer is a bit of a problem in itself.

Your jumps need to be accurate. Your timing needs to be tight. Your understanding of what enemies will do needs to be vast. When the game fails to be as perfect as it’s asking the player to be, that’s a problem. It’s very possible it’s only an issue with the Switch version — which is what I played — but if so, that’s only slightly less disappointing. If it’s being sold on the Switch, it should function on the Switch.

The game stutters regularly, which interferes with the enjoyable flow of the experience, and which also makes the timing of player actions far more of a crapshoot. And not to be rude — I love the way this game looks — but Spinch is clearly not pushing any hardware to its limits. Stuttering, in other words, isn’t due to ambition; it’s due to poor optimization.

When Spinch works correctly — which it does for long stretches at a time — it’s brilliant. The spacey techno-funk soundtrack feels like an excellent running joke in itself, which I also mean as a compliment. It’s a contrast to the sunny vibes of the art style just as much as the punishing difficulty is. There are things I’d tweak — give players more than one shot at the bonus levels; add another checkpoint to the longer stages — but those are nitpicks. What I want is Spinch to run smoothly so I can enjoy everything it does absolutely right, because there’s a lot of it.

7) 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
I am of two minds about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Possibly three minds. I bought it after hearing people praise the writing, as good writing is A Thing I Do Enjoy. Beyond that, I knew nothing. I expected a more or less standard RPG starring school kids, perhaps in the vein of Persona (or Trails of Cold Steel). I did not get that.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is divided into three distinct sections. There’s the storyline (which unfolds as a series of chapters similar to a visual novel), the combat (which is seen from overhead and mech-based), and the lore (which is collected in various ways through the other two modes). Seeing lore — essentially an index of terms and a chronology of events — elevated to stand beside the two “main” gameplay modes seemed strange to me, until I spent more time with the game and realized that learning about what is happening is just as much a part of the game as what is happening.

How much can I say without spoiling things? A bit, but nothing definitive. I will say, though, that “starring school kids” is both correct and completely wrong, and rarely will you meet anyone or experience anything without there being at least one more layer that you won’t understand until later. The various protagonists — from whom you can choose, usually, whenever you like — each have their own stories and histories that interact and overlap, both directly and indirectly. What you learn in one story can inform the way you interpret another, even if the protagonists of each don’t cross paths.

Amazingly, this works well. It’s nearly always more interesting than it is frustrating, as each character’s story — and each chapter within that story — makes sense. It will always operate on a kind of identifiable logic. You may not fully understand everything that is happening, but you will understand what is happening in that moment. It helps that every character is interesting in their own right, and that the chapters span a wide range of tones. Some are funny. Some are scary. Some are emotional. All are interesting, even if they may not seem so until they get going.

But the game has its issues. Poring through lore entries is indeed a valid game mode for this specific game, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. (And aside from learning about various types of real-life Japanese foods, I didn’t learn much from them that I wouldn’t have learned from the rest of the game.) Asking players to alternate between the visual novel sequences and the mech battles as they see fit both abdicates the responsibility of pacing and means someone can burn through all of the content they enjoy and then be left slogging through the content they don’t.

That’s unfortunate, because both the visual novel sections and the combat sections are good, but they do feel like two very different games elbowing against each other rather than two modes that work in tandem. What’s more, the combat was far too easy. It was fun, which is the most important thing, but I felt like I was earning S rankings most of the time just by not falling asleep while playing it. And the visual novel sections sometimes strand you with no clear way to progress. As an experiment, though, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an interesting one, and a more successful one than I would have expected it could be.

6) Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo couldn’t have possibly released Animal Crossing: New Horizons at a better time. Toward the beginning of the global pandemic — and during actual lockdown, at least in my area — we didn’t just get the cutest, most charming game imaginable, but we were able to meet with friends while using it. I know I’m not alone in the fact that I actually hung out with people I know in real life and spent time with them here, in this little virtual world full of friendly animal people and presents falling from the sky.

The game also does a great job of always giving you something to work toward, which I think is especially valuable in times of boredom and when we feel the need to escape reality. Again, perfect timing all around for Nintendo. Upgrading your house, adding facilities to your island, collecting crafting components, digging up fossils…everything leads to something else. There’s always something to do and something specific to aim for, even if that goal is just rearranging your island to look exactly the way you like it.

At one point I had to take a deep breath, put down Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and tell myself to move on. I remember how much I played New Leaf, the 3DS game, and I knew if I kept playing New Horizons I’d never eat again. It’s addictive escapism. That’s a good thing, to be clear, but I knew I needed to make a break for it if I were going to play or do anything else this year.

I will say that I’m not entirely a fan of the fact that Nintendo keeps rolling out more content for it. What a thing to complain about, eh? Really, I just mean that I’m not a fan of releasing a game in one state and then adding so much so regularly. Patch some bugs out, release DLC, that is fine. But when I buy a game, I don’t like knowing that it’s now a different game a few months down the line. I’m sure from a business perspective it’s the correct decision, and I know for a fact a lot of people enjoy it, but I don’t like knowing that I need to keep playing as long as new content keeps being added for me to actually experience the entire game.

There are things people are now doing in New Horizons that I wasn’t able to do when I played at release. And anyone stopping now won’t be able to do the things that other people are doing in a few months. It’s a complaint, yes, but it’s also personal preference. Some people love logging into the same game over and over to find new surprises awaiting them. I can’t blame them for that! It sounds like a lovely feeling, but it’s not a feeling I share.

I like to explore games at my own pace. I like to move on when I’ve decided I’ve had enough. Animal Crossing games already have seasons and holidays built into the experience to keep you coming back — not to mention various timed events and waiting periods — so I don’t think adding content and functionality that wasn’t on the game card to begin with is necessary. But that’s just me. If Animal Crossing is moving in a direction that doesn’t appeal to me personally, that’s okay. That may even be a good thing. I’ll get my life back.

5) Fury Unleashed

Fury Unleashed
Fury Unleashed has such an unremarkable title that I’ve looked it up twice while typing this sentence just to make sure I remembered it correctly, but it’s a hell of a fun game. It plays like a version of Rogue Legacy that focuses on firearms rather than melee weapons, and that in itself would probably be enough to convince me to give it a spin, but it stands as its own experience as well.

And it’s a brutal one. In a good way! I loved Rogue Legacy, to be clear, but the longer I played it, the more the difficulty receded. I’d encounter a tough enemy, boss, environment, whatever, and I’d die a bunch of times. Dying those times gave me the chance to upgrade my abilities, meaning when I returned I was stronger than they were. I’m simplifying, and the process isn’t quite as quick to unravel as it may sound, but the fact is that simply facing tough enemies often enough will allow you to surpass them. Instead of the game challenging me more as I progressed, it challenged me less.

With Rogue Legacy, it got to the point that I wouldn’t hit a wall of difficulty unless I got exceptionally unlucky with the randomized levels. With Fury Unleashed it’s the opposite: I’d barely make progress unless I got exceptionally lucky with its randomized levels.

I still can’t beat the first area reliably. Often, sure, but not reliably. I’ve upgraded my character many times over, but none of that makes up for carelessness. Stop paying attention to what you’re doing, even briefly, and you will likely suffer damage so severe you’ll massively reduce your chances against the eventual boss. I’ve hurled many profanities at the game, but really I was hurling them at myself. The game is fair, almost mockingly so. You’ll die frequently and have nobody to blame other than yourself.

It’s not my favorite game of the year, of course, but it’s difficult to identify many true flaws. The leveling is a slow process, but when comparing it to Rogue Legacy’s issues, that may be a good thing. The controls feel slippery, but only until you get used to them, at which point they feel perfect for the game. The close-quarters melee combat is a bit wimpy, but that’s surely by design in a game that wants you to use your guns.

There’s nothing Fury Unleashed does that I can’t justify, in other words. Its missteps are differences of opinion. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and writing about it is making me want to play it again.

4) Panzer Paladin

Panzer Paladin
Panzer Paladin had a very real shot at being my favorite game this year. Every one of the ingredients was there, and, honestly, I’m probably being more harsh on it than I really should be simply because it was so close to being great. If it did few things right and bungled the rest, it would be easier for me to engage with it for what it is. Instead, because it’s so close to being exactly what I wanted, it’s difficult to focus on much other than the small gap that keeps it from getting there.

I am a sucker for so much of what Panzer Paladin is by default. It’s a work of gorgeous pixel art. It has a genuinely incredible soundtrack. It takes design cues from some of my favorite 8-bit games, including Mega Man and Blaster Master. That’s the surface-level stuff and because it nails that, I enjoy it.

Surprisingly for a game about a gigantic robot, Panzer Paladin focuses on melee weapons. And I don’t mean that in terms of combat alone. Melee weapons are broken down at the end of stages to fund upgrades. They break with repeated use but can be destroyed before that point in exchange for a health bonus, defense boost, or other one-off effect. They also serve as checkpoints; embed one in a pedestal and you can start there if you die…but you really are leaving it behind. If it was your only weapon — or only good weapon — you are making the screens to come much more difficult for yourself.

All of this is great, in concept. By tying so many functions to the weapons you pick up (there are more I haven’t discussed, such as opening certain passages or hurling them as projectiles), you take one of the most basic givens of platformers and elevate it to a level of ongoing consideration that I’ve never seen in a game of this style. Every use of your weapon — and those potential uses are many — constitutes a decision. It’s brilliant. It adds a memorable wrinkle to the gameplay without ever interrupting it.

As I said, it’s so close to greatness. So damned close. And yet it falls down in other areas of the design. The game being difficult should indeed be a given; I am glad my big robot is so easily destroyed by traps and enemies. I am less enamored of the fact that its stiff, tiny jump leads to falling into pits so frequently, ending my run no matter how well or poorly I was doing up until that point. I am less enamored of the sparse checkpoints, which often require me to redo huge portions of the level due to failing one of those jumps. I am less enamored of the blind jumps and unforeseeable death traps. You can have one or two of the things on this list in your game, but when you’re combining impossible-to-predict death with rare checkpoints, you will court frustration.

There’s also the problem of fighting without a weapon. Since your weapon can be destroyed, lost, consumed, or sacrificed at so many points along the way, you need to be able to fight without one. Panzer Paladin allows this, but with a punch with such a short range that it’s difficult to use without taking damage yourself. You’ll find yourself fighting bosses with unclear hitboxes long after you’ve run out of weapons, and a little bit of grace there would help them feel more sporting. Everything is so close with Panzer Paladin. So close. It might be my most frustrating game of the year.

3) Spelunky 2

Spelunky 2
I honestly can’t say enough good about Spelunky, which quickly became one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the rare non-retro games that I still boot up to take for a spin years later. To be clear, I’m not saying this to brag about my skill or anything; Spelunky is brutal and while I keep getting better at it I never quite get good at it. My deaths are frequent, avoidable, and hilarious. I love the game for what it is, in other words, and that’s not bolstered by any feelings of superiority or accomplishment.

Spelunky 2 could have given us more of the same and it would have ended up on this list. Which is good, because that’s basically what Spelunky 2 did. Everything feels familiar. The art style, the music, the physics (for the most part). The different environments even call back to those in the first game, even though this time we’re on the moon. The items are similar. The mechanics are similar. The enemies are similar.

And that’s half of the problem. With a procedurally generated game like Spelunky, it’s endlessly replayable. (So long as you actually enjoy it, that is.) In other franchises — say, Mario — you buy a new game even if it doesn’t change much because you get the new levels and enemies and powerups and all of that fun stuff to play with. Those things are still true of Spelunky 2, but enough of those things were already in the first game that it often doesn’t feel much different. Spelunky 2 has new content, but it’s spread out enough that it sometimes doesn’t register.

Is that a complaint? Not really. I do think Spelunky 2 is worth a buy (it’s on this list, after all), but it doesn’t usually feel different enough to justify the sequel. That’s the other half of the problem: When it does feel different enough, it’s not as good.

The features it adds feel either pointless or frustrating. An example of the former is the fact that levels are layered now; you can walk through a door to enter a “background” portion of the level, and then come back out again. As many times as I’ve done this, I think it’s only ever led to a few snakes or bits of gold. Rarely have I explored a background layer and felt that it was a good use of my time. In the frustrating category, we have enemies that are difficult to predict, such as burrowing ones that pop out and bite you before you can react. Are they impossible to avoid? Of course not, but part of the brilliance of Spelunky was that if you could somehow zoom out and view the entire environment at once, you’d see easily which hazards would threaten you at any given point. Here, they’re far more difficult to predict. Sometimes an enemy pops out and kills you, and that ends your run. That’s nowhere near as fun or fair as being speared by an arrow trap because you were paying attention to the wrong thing.

Overall I don’t think it’s quite as good or as fun as the first game, but I’ll keep playing it. It’s rougher around the edges, but it’s still a great time.

2) Wasteland 3

Wasteland 3
I loved Wasteland 2. It felt like a step back into the early days of Fallout. I am of course aware that Fallout grew out of Wasteland, but it also presented itself, its world, and its mechanics very differently. Wasteland 2 felt — in a superficial sense — like it was taking after Fallout 2 more than Wasteland. The snake nibbled its tail.

That in itself is a welcome service to provide. Fans who came to Fallout with Fallout 3, Fallout 4, or Fallout: New Vegas would almost certainly end up curious about what the earlier, isometric games were like. Maybe they’d boot them up. If they did, I’d wager a huge percentage of them gave up quickly. The games seem more confusing than they really are, but the difficulty is massive for a newcomer. For many fans of the series, they remain historical artifacts. You might walk past them in a museum and nod. Very interesting. Next exhibit…

Wasteland 2 essentially updates that style of gameplay to be less impenetrable. The challenge is still steep, but it’s easier to accept as a deliberate part of the experience rather than as a symptom of unintuitive design. It presents a post-nuclear landscape that is relentless, bleak, and relentlessly bleak. Fallout cuts its horror with humor, which I love, but Wasteland 2 relegated the humor to the sidelines. Fallout would lock you out of earning a fun weapon or handy armor if you made the wrong decision in a quest. Wasteland 2 would literally wipe an entire location from existence before you got to explore it. Fallout gave you an objective to strive for. Wasteland 2 asked you, and not even firmly, to just try to make the world a little less shitty.

You were a Desert Ranger, basically one member of a group of mercenaries who represented the closest thing this world had to justice. You were sometimes mediator, sometimes jailer, sometimes executioner. The moral dilemmas were many, and it was rarely as easy as solving that dilemma for yourself; you’d often have to back up your decision with brute force, with firepower, with luck. Make a decision you know is right and you can still find your squadmates gunned down under the desert sun because the person you sided against disagrees.

Wasteland 3 is more of the same, and yet unique in many ways. It’s more forgiving than Wasteland 2, which felt to me like a step backward, but which will probably be a genuine selling point for many people. It also relocates the action from Arizona and California to Colorado. This makes a superficial difference — it’s snowy instead of sandy — but little else. In fact, Wasteland 3 commits the sin Fallout is now so fond of committing: Your buddies from the previous games all show up so the studio audience can applaud. Honestly, the characters I remember most strongly from Wasteland 3 are ones I actually met in Wasteland and Wasteland 2. That wouldn’t be the case if the new characters got to occupy some space of their own. It almost makes me wonder why we changed settings between games at all if everyone would make the same trip with us so we wouldn’t need to miss them.

All of which is to say, Wasteland 3 wasn’t as interesting or clever to me as Wasteland 2, and yet it was a genuinely great experience. It’s somewhere between the brutality of Wasteland 2 and the accessibility of modern Fallout. It feels like a transition between Wasteland 2 and whatever Wasteland 4 will be, rather than a game with its own identity. And that’s okay; it’s more entertaining as a transition than most games are as finished products. But only rarely were the moral dilemmas, combat, and exploration as tricky for me as I wanted them to be.

1) Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise
Deadly Premonition is a weird game, and I’m speaking about more than its tone and content. I’m speaking about the way in which you need to engage with it. If you treat it like any other game — something that provides outputs to your inputs, illustrating success or failure — you will get absolutely nothing out of it, other than periodic bafflement. But it you treat it like…well, like a unique artistic experience, and you keep yourself open to what the artist behind it means to say and is trying to do, it’s genuinely unforgettable.

In the years since its release, it’s become a fascinating game to study. There are things it does wrong from a design standpoint, but it’s still fun. There are narrative decisions every author would be cautioned against making, but it’s still engaging. There are exaggerations of characterization that shouldn’t happen outside of a Looney Tunes short, and it’s still moving. Deadly Premonition is a rare game that doesn’t just succeed in spite of its flaws, but is strangely enhanced by them. Everything the game does “wrong” somehow elevates everything it does right. I could spend literal hours speaking about the game’s serious problems, and that same speech could serve as my justification for why it’s one of my favorite games overall.

All of which is to say, a sequel was a fucking terrifying prospect. It could either iron out the “flaws” of the first game, robbing it of at least some of its unique identity, or it could lean into them, aware of the “joke,” trodding all over its accidental charm. Somehow, Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise does neither. That perfect blend of roughness and brilliance that almost certainly came together accidentally for the first game comes together again, intentionally this time but no less effectively. It’s an absolute miracle.

Deadly Premonition 2 is a prequel and a sequel, following FBI Agent Francis York Morgan on a murder investigation that unfolds both before and after the events of the first game. It’s serious and silly by turns, and it’s often one when you’re expecting the other. You’re investigating a grisly dismemberment that requires mastery of a bowling minigame to solve. You’ll narrate key information to yourself as you skateboard through town, stopping mid-thought because you’ve been struck by a motorist and flung into somebody’s yard. You’ll have a tagalong moppet who seems to add nothing at the start of the game but who becomes a crucial, emotionally significant part of the overall experience.

Everything about Deadly Premonition 2 should be in conflict with everything else, and maybe it even is. Maybe that’s the magic. Maybe internal conflict somehow moves the game ahead of where it otherwise would be. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s clever, it’s unnerving, it’s emotional, and it’s cartoony. Deadly Premonition shouldn’t have worked, but it did. And it did so better than many other games that, technically speaking, did far more things correctly. Deadly Premonition 2 can’t work, and in spite of that it does. Right in front of you. As you watch. Amazed by whatever sorcery it’s employing to take so many things that don’t work together and arrange them in such a way that it’s the best game of the year.

I don’t know how developer SWERY managed to get the blend just right for the first game, and I don’t know what demon purchased his soul in exchange for getting it right a second time. SWERY is either one of the most brilliant artists making games today, or he’s by a country mile the luckiest one. Either way, you owe it to yourself to experience the madness.

Merry Xmas, happy new year, continue to not die. I’ll see you on the other side.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...