Saturday, May 31, 2008

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

A friend has hooked me up with an advance copy of the AD&D 4th Edition rules and I am very impressed. We've just spent twelve hours or so doing back-to-back dungeon crawls with an accelerated levelling curve and it was a blast.

You need to know that AD&D still does not support roleplaying. I'm happy to say that it does not specifically prevent roleplaying. I guess. I mean, it's not like it will kill your family if you try. But 4th Edition knows that dungeon crawling is its core territory and it zeroes in on this concept like a fundamentalist sniper with a bead on a presidential candidate.

Roughly three quarters of the core ruleset is about combat in one way or another. If your game isn't stuffed full of delicious combat goodness then 4th Edition has little to offer you. Luckily, combat is so indecently entertaining that it feels strange to do it with your clothes still on. You'll need to be playing on a grid with miniatures or tokens to get the full effect, but once you're geared up then it's like someone turned on the "fun" tap and just let it start flooding your bathroom. Each and every class is now balanced for combat, including Clerics, and you'll be happy as a pig in mud whether you're cracking heads with a Rogue, Wizard, or even a Warlord.

Warlords, by the way, are one of the new core classes. What's happened here is that the core party roles have been split up. Melee DPS comes in a bunch of forms: the traditional fighter now appears to be an area-effect melee guy, while the paladin provides focused tanking, the rogue provides focused burst melee, and the warlord offers melee-based tactical support. Spellcasters get an at-will ranged magic attack from level 1, so running out of spells no longer gimps robe-wearers. Warlocks focus on targeted damage, teleportation and battlefield finessing, while Wizards are your traditional glass-cannon nukers.

The entire healing system has been reworked, with healing based off a supply of "healing surges" that each character possesses. Healing spells and abilities allow characters to consume one of these surges, which will heal a character for a quarter of their max HP. Almost every class has some kind of conditional healing ability, which means you can get down to the serious business of murdering goblins without having to drag around a preachy dedicated healer. I think it's a positive step forward for everyone; that whole co-dependant relationship Clerics used to have with other adventurers is a thing of the past, and priestly-types now get to show that they can throw down just as well as anyone else in a dungeon-based streetfight.

The races have also been changed, for no obvious reason. Half-orcs and gnomes are gone; high elves are now called Eladrin (and have an at-will blink power). Half-demon Tieflings are in, as are Dragonkin. While I'm loving the class changes, these race shifts are just bewildering and take away a bit of the AD&D flavour. It's like waking up and finding a mysterious "Uncle Bob" suddenly living in your house and everyone pretending like he's always been there.

Also the old nine-point alignment system is out the window; characters may now only choose from Good, Lawful Good, Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Unaligned.

If what you're looking for is a system in which to tell a story, then in the name of sweet zombie Jeebers try any other system but this. But if what you're here for is levelling up and looting then no-one does it better than AD&D, and now AD&D is doing it better than ever.

Import Gaming In 60 Seconds

Thanks to Juri, I've recently had the chance to spend a half-hour or so with each of a bunch of imported Nintendo DS titles. As a result I'm able to give a quick run-down on where the fun is at, although my shortened experience with each and the fact I don't read Japanese prevents me from doing full reviews.

Daigasso Band Brothers: This game is absolute gold and I have no idea why it hasn't been Westernised yet. It's essentially a rhythm game where you're pressing the DS face buttons to play the music. The first gimmick is that you can play any instrument in any song; typically songs have six to ten instruments. The second gimmick is that you can play multiplayer with up to eight friends using only the one card, or with unlimited friends if they all have cards. Each player selects an instrument and together you play as a band.

The single player mode is decent but not special. However, playing with a full band is a one-of-a-kind experience. There's a fairly large list of songs drawing from anime, game themes, and Japanese and Western classics. Plus you can buy an expansion pack which plugs into the GBA port on the DS and roughly doubles the song list. If that's not enough, you can input your own songs, and the whole thing is remarkably friendly to those who don't read Japanese.

Doki Doki Majo Shinpan: The infamous "witch-touching" game turns out to be nowhere near as dubious or lurid as internet legend would have you believe. Although it's still pretty dubious. It turns out that one or more 14-year-olds at your local school may in fact be a witch, and it's up to you to stalk them like a creepy pervert and take photos of them doing incriminating things like, uh, saying hello to a cat (?).

Once you've amassed a weird little shrine of evidence, you can engage them in a battle, in which they'll throw fireballs or somesuch at you. Throwing fireballs apparently is not sufficient proof that they're a witch, because you'll then have to inspect their body for a witch mark. This is the "witch-touching" bit, and it's pretty rubbish; you merely have to tap on a still image until the witch changes pose, and repeat until her "witch mark" turns up. There's neither nudity nor ecchi involved. This is rubbish as hentai, rubbish as a traditional dating sim, and generally just a bad game. Plus there's more Japanese text than you can poke a stick at, so those who don't speak the language are going to be floundering.

Taiko no Tatsujin DS Touch de Dokodon: Aka Taiko Master DS, this is the DS port of Namco's successful arcade drum game. The bottom screen displays a traditional Japanese taiko drum, and the top screen has a scrolling list of drum beats. Red drumbeats require players to tap the face of the drum, while on blue drumbeats you need to tap outside the drum, symbolising striking it on the sides.

It's a bit watered down compared to the arcade machine but it's still a heap of fun, especially considering you can play four-player using only a single card. The song selection is a bit weak, with some classical offerings being the highlight, but this is still immensely recommendable to fans of rhythm games. You can play just fine without knowing the slightest bit of Japanese, too.

Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS: 7tsu no Shima no Daibouken: Aka Taiko Master DS 2, it's the sequel to the first Taiko game. The main upgrade is a better song list, including such odd selections as the theme to SoulCalibur, so it's really less of a sequel than it is an expansion pack, I guess.

There's also apparently a story mode this time around although I didn't get to try that. The multiplayer is just as good as the first one, and once again you'll only need one card between four players.

Electroplankton: Strictly speaking you can buy this title in Australia, but it's the import version I played. It's just a collection of miniature game-like scenarios where you make interesting semi-musical sounds by interacting with the environment.

It's not musical enough to make actual songs, and it's not gamelike enough to actually have goals or progression, so while it's an interesting experiment it's unlikely to keep you occupied for more than thirty minutes total.

Oshare Majo: Love and Berry: Aka Fashionable Witches Love and Berry. This is a port of the Japanese arcade game. The original featured collectible bar-coded cards that you bought separately and swiped at the machine; each card depicted an item of clothing and by swiping the cards you unlocked that clothing for your in-game avatar. Core gameplay consisted of a dancing rhythm game where to beat your opponent you not only had to out-dance them but also be wearing a more stylish outfit.

The DS version keeps the card-swiping intact and even uses the same cards as the arcade, allowing for some portability in the unlikely event you live near one of the machines. The game comes with some basic cards but if you want more you're out of luck as they only sell from fairly rare dispensers inside Japan. It's a shame, because it's a reasonably decent game provided that fashionable witches are your thing.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Nintendo Channel

Wii owners will want to know that the Nintendo Channel just launched in Australia, and it's all kinds of awesome.

First up it's got streaming video of all the currently running Nintendo TV spots (Australian versions only in Australia, unfortunately), plus I can only assume that that feature can be used for other purposes like, say, Nintendo keynote addresses and suchlike. The connection's so good it makes you wonder why the Wii Shop Channel is so hideously slow.

Secondly you can download DS demos. Currently the Australian list is Mario Kart DS and the three "Training" games (Brain Training, Sight Training and Maths Training).

Thirdly you can offer feedback on any game you've played longer than an hour. The little mini-survey wants to know what gender enjoyed it most, the age of the person who enjoyed it most, how good you thought it was, and whether you think it's for gamers or non-gamers, casual or hardcore, and best enjoyed alone or with friends. They're exclusive propositions; left me a bit stumped for games like Excite Truck that are equally enjoyable but completely different whether played alone or with friends.

Finally you can view a list of all upcoming Wii and DS titles and see details such as a brief synopsis, how many players can play, and release dates. (Super Smash Bros Brawl is apparently finally appearing Down Under on 28 June, says Nintendo.)

It's pretty much the perfect implementation of a Nintendo information/advertising channel, and I'm fairly impressed. After the rubbishy Shop Channel and the sub-par internet browser I thought that Nintendo were just never going to master online content; apparently I stand corrected.

SIDE NOTE: Between this and Wiiware, you may notice your Wii memory getting a little strained. These little consoles have a pathetically tiny on-board memory, especially compared to the mighty XBox 360. It's unfortunate that some Wii games have ridiculously huge save files; in particular Super Smash Bros Brawl and Eledees. It's probably something to do with those games having level editors.

On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

The Penny Arcade game turns out to be surprisingly competent, sufficiently funny, and only occasionally ulcer-formingly irritating.

The Penny Arcade webcomic is centred around gaming, pop culture, and the magic of the digital age. The game, therefore, is set in an alternate steampunk 1920s, so as to make absolutely sure to capture none of its source material's magic.

You, as the player, take control of a create-a-character of indeterminate gender. If you're playing on the XBox 360, your character's name is set as your gamertag, and I couldn't work out how to change that, leaving me controlling a dapper young fellow with the unlikely moniker of "GregT 314".

You're quickly teamed up with protagonists Gabe and Tycho in a semi-epic search for a giant robot known to PA fans as the Fruit Fucker. There's maybe six or seven hours of gameplay to be had all up, mostly consisting of fighting things.

This is essentially a Japanese RPG. You wander around, examine things, find loot, talk to townsfolk, and combat evil murder hoboes. There's no random encounters, and there's only a certain number of enemies in the world, so you don't get to level up as much as you might like. As a result, combat can be quite challenging, especially considering that everything happens in real-time.

Actually, the combat's some of the worst I've seen in an RPG since the last time I played Shadow Hearts, but it's still reasonably okay. It won't, for example, make you want to make spicy meat pies out of babies.

The real reason to play OTRSPODEO is for the funny, which the game doles out in big steaming spoonfuls. All of the dialogue is written by Tycho, complete with gross abuse of italics, and there's no denying that that man can write. Every item in the game world has a semi-unique description to read, and there's also a rather large amount of conversation strewn around. Sometimes it's laugh-out-loud, and other times just entertaining, but it's the text that'll get you through to the end.

For a downloadable game, it has a hell of a soundtrack. The background music is exceedingly well done, although there's really only three or four such tunes. Plus Hothead Games clearly took a lesson from Portal, because the end credits feature the game's best music, being the work of geek icon MC Frontalot.

All up, this game is actually pretty recommendable, given that you're only shelling out about $25 AUD to get it. I suspect, however, that when we get Episode Two it'll all look a lot less fresh, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the game revisiting the same locations and using colour-swapped enemies.

Still, definitely check this one out, particularly if you're a Penny Arcade fan. Seriously, you get to beat the crap out of mimes.

Afrika Lives

Hey, remember back at the 2006 Tokyo Game Show, during the Sony keynote address? They showed this extensive tech demo for the PlayStation 3 called Afrika, full of cheetahs and rhinos and suchlike.

Despite not having heard anything further about that for two years, the thing's apparently still got legs. There's an actual game in the works, a safari simulator of some kind, although the chances are it'll be Japan-only.

Full story via Gamespot; check out the original 2006 trailer below.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Zack & Wiki: Quest For Barbaros' Treasure

Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure is a wonderful, charming game that's recommendable to all Wii owners, and you need to keep that in mind as I rip it to shreds below.

Zack is a young boy who wants to be a Pokemon master mighty pirate. With the aid of his electric mouse flying monkey he journeys the land on an epic quest to collect Pokemon treasure, while outwitting the dastardly forces of his rival, Team Rocket Rose Rock.

Zack & Wiki is essentially a point-n-click puzzle game, of the sort where you use the crowbar to flip the lever to make the boulder roll onto the switch to release the snake from the cage to scare the frog into the hole. Instead of carrying your inventory from area to area, each stage is a single self-contained puzzle. There are about 20 stages and each one will take anywhere from three minutes to half an hour to complete.

It's a well-dressed game. The levels and items look fantastic, and the various piratical characters are so cute you'll want to pinch their thieving little cheeks. The music is top-notch, featuring both stunning original compositions and a selection of tarted-up Capcom nostalgia. The visual interface is great and it's easy to tell relevant items apart from the background.

The puzzles are mostly well-designed; most interactions are reasonably logical, and the things that aren't so obvious (like the food chain of snake-eats-frog-eats-worm) are introduced slowly and carefully. Every so often you're thrown into a boss battle, which are normally tighter and more focused stages where the aim of the puzzling is to deal damage to a single oversized enemy. The boss battles are some of the best stages in the game.

For all of the above reasons, Zack & Wiki makes an excellent first impression. Unfortunately, in the late game it makes a left turn into Stupid Street and proceeds to take a long frustrating stroll towards the National Nun-Punching Championships.

Reason number one is that you can die. It only takes a single stab to Zack's internal organs to send him to the hereafter, and as the game wears on the stages are packed with more and more ne'er-do-wells who would like nothing better to explore Zack's intestines with something pointy. Plus, there's a whole mess of lethal traps, and the game isn't consistent about warning you before sending you plunging towards a spiky doom. Death means restarting the level or spending an expensive "golden ticket" in order to continue on with a permanent penalty to your score.

Secondly, you can mess up the levels. You can work levels into a state where it's impossible to complete them without restarting the stage from the beginning. The game doesn't give you any indication that you've done this, so you can spend ages trying to solve a puzzle that can no longer be solved before you realise that the game has been busily sodomising you for the last hour.

The third reason is that the game is a fan of unique motion controls. Early in the game it's kind of cute when you have to pull the wiimote like a lever in order to actually pull a lever. But later on the required motions get steadily more obscure with little real guidance, and when you're developing RSI from failed attempts to throw an anchor during a timed boss fight you'll be wanting to cry like a little girl and pay hitmen to wreak bitter vengeance on the developers.

Those three problems are some fairly significant defects in the game and they're almost enough to ruin it. Almost. But the game's just so damned charming it's hard not to forgive it. There's something about pirates who are also rabbits who are also Elvis impersonators that will grab your heart and not let go.

There's nothing else quite like Zack & Wiki available for the Wii, and it's absolutely the sort of game we want to see more of, so grab a copy, enjoy as much of it as you can, and then start waiting eagerly for the inevitably improved sequel.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Escort Service

The escort mission is broken.

Game developers have been screwing around with this concept for years. It basically goes like this: you're playing a game, and you've done the first few levels, and you're feeling pretty confident in getting around without seeing a "game over" screen. So to mix things up a bit you're given the task of escorting a non-player character safely from point A to point B, while along the way some enemies try to stop you.

Escort missions have one thing in common. They suck. Calling an escort mission "relatively painless" is the equivalent of showering it in praise. They're never good. No one raves to their friends about "that awesome escort mission".

It's not that escort missions are being done badly. It's that escort missions are inherently a losing proposition. They're fundamentally flawed. Here's why:

1: Shift of narrative focus
Your game is a narrative, whether a shallow one or a deep one. It tells the story of the player's journey through an environment. The player is the protagonist; he or she is the center and driving force of the plot. Escort missions, by their very nature, shift the narrative focus onto the character being escorted. They marginalise the player, making them a spear-carrier in their own story.

2: Non-flexible pacing
Escort missions move at a set pace. Sometimes that's dictated by the escortee moving along a fixed path, and sometime's it's just that the escortee can only take so much damage before you fail the mission. Either way, it removes the ability of the player to determine their own pace. You can never do an escort mission slower than the game intends, and it's rare to be able to do one faster. Removing a player's ability to experience your game in the way that they most enjoy is seldom a good move, and certainly not worth doing for the sake of a lousy escort.

3: AI
Escort missions have a history of being notoriously buggy. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, even with escortees who only follow a fixed path. Event triggers can misfire and enemies can fail to spawn or spawn too early. With escortees who follow a variable route you face added problems of pathfinding, clipping and basic intelligence. If the AI is expected to defend itself it becomes exponentially more complex. You're ultimately making the player's success or failure dependant upon another non-human character; if the AI is poor the player will frequently lose and become frustrated, but if the AI is too good the player's input will be redundant and the mission will be trivialised. If the escortee is a named character in the game's story, creating this kind of scenario is a great way to destroy the player's sympathy and respect for that character.

4: Non-core gameplay
Whatever your game is good at, it's probably not escort missions. With the exception of Ico, no one builds their core game mechanics around escorts. They build gameplay around fighting, or jumping, or exploring, and then realise that those mechanics could support an escort mission. But in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, it's a trap. Core gameplay shines stronger when the player's interaction with it is pure and unfettered. If your core gameplay is honestly so dull that you need an escort mission to spice it up, then forget the escort mission and spend the time fixing your core gameplay.

In short, stop trying to fix escort missions. There is no good escort mission, just like there is no fun ebola. Give up, move on, and make something that will actually be enjoyable to play.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

By The Way: Echochrome

... is out, on PS3 and PSP. No, don't buy either of those systems, but if you've never heard of this game you should definitely watch the trailer.

Monday, May 26, 2008

EA Chooses Quality Over Quarterly

I somehow missed this from the other day:
[...] EA CFO Eric Brown explained that [EA] would henceforth only be releasing annual guidance as the games industry "is hit driven, seasonal and significantly impacted by the release dates for our titles," which he said "creates uneven quarterly comparisons, both sequentially and year-over-year."

Explicitly, Brown said that "if we delay a title for quality reasons from one quarter to another in the same fiscal year, while good for the long-term future of the franchise, it could have a significant impact on our quarterly performance without necessarily affecting our annual performance."

Quote via Gamasutra.
Now, any concept that includes the words "fiscal year" is not generally my area of expertise, but I think I'm correct in reading this as EA saying that the continued high quality of its titles is more important than titles meeting their arbitrary release dates?

If so, that's a big step forward for the notoriously bottom-line-focused EA, and by extension the gaming industry. Huzzah.

(Gamasutra goes on to note that EA's stocks dropped 10% on Wall Street following this announcement. Ouch.)


Like a force of nature.

If you're a gamer, you've felt it. The horizon where skill and intuition coincide and you become brilliant, unstoppable, and archetypal.

If a game's good, you can expect that as the sun begins to set on the narrative, that moment will be waiting in the twilight. If a game's good, it will take you on a journey to that curve in the land where every twist and turn in the gameplay is illuminated in a hyper-real light.

But if a game's very good, that's where you'll start.

Superhero games labour under a curse. Straight up, they're licensed properties, so creativity is constrained and development schedules are tight. And for reasons of intellectual property and business, they often end up being developed by very mediocre companies.

Iron Man is the latest superhero-themed game to take a long bath in the mud-pool of averageness. Reviewers agree that it's repetitive, clumsily structured, and stupefyingly difficult.

Difficult? This is Iron Man. The most difficult situation this man faces is deciding what type of cocktail to have with his breakfast. Iron Man should have been a game about heavily customising a high-tech metal suit, and then flying it around New York. Followed by more customising. Then some flying. Actual combat could have been a side-quest and the game would still have been gold.

Games don't have to be difficult. Look at kids. Kids don't enjoy difficult. Did growing up change us? Taking two toy cars and ramming them together is not fun despite being easy, it is fun because it is easy. The magic of telling stories with dolls or toys is not that you can influence the narrative, but that you are in control of the narrative.

Superhero games are the apex of this theory. Throwing a tank at another tank is not awesome merely because you can do it. It is awesome because of how easily you can do it. Superhero games should be massive sandboxes designed for the sole purpose of giving the player total intuitive control of their amazing powers from the moment they power on the system through to the inevitably fantastic ending.

Anyone who's played a Grand Theft Auto knows that the excellence is not in the missions but in the freedom and control that comes between them. Anyone who's played Katamari Damacy knows that time limits and scores are just window dressing on the visceral fun of pushing around a giant ball.

Not everything needs to be challenging. Not everyone needs to be mortal. Not always must you take the lows with the highs.

Sometimes it's okay to be flawless.

Please visit the Round Table's Main Hall for links to all entries.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On How Not To Use Achievement Points

I love the XBox Live Gamerscore system. It's great. A persistent and public souvenir system was a wonderful idea and one of the reasons that my XBox 360 gets so much love.

It just frustrates me how little thought goes into the system by some developers.

Gamerpoints are not separate from a game. They are a surprisingly well integrated part of the 360 experience; you can't consider a 360 game separately from its points system. Each and every 360 game has this list of goals, with a point value next to each goal.

These are not sub-goals. This is the first place developers go wrong. These goals are not subordinate to the goals set by the gameplay. The player experience is not about reaching the end credits first and earning gamerpoints second. This is because of how achievements are worked into the 360 interface. A player can view the list of achievements for a game at any time after they have first launched it; if they have a friend who's played it, they can see the achievements by accessing the friend's gamercard, whether they've played the game themselves or not. The achievements, and the overall number of points earned for the game, display every time that a player reviews their own gamercard.

Achievement points are the over-goal in a 360 game. Finishing the core game experience is a stepping stone in the task of getting a perfect point score. Achievement goals are reinforced before, during, and after gameplay, and persist after a player loses interest in the game.

What that means is that each core gameplay goal should be reinforced with an achievement. There should be an achievement for completing each level, one for finishing the game, and one at the end of any collection task. For large collection tasks, there should be achievement points at each meaningful milestone along the way.

Achievement points should not reward the player for bucking the core game experience. Don't give out points to players for playing in a non-standard way. You may be rewarding a small percentage of players who like doing this stuff, but you're also encouraging a much larger percentage of players to spend time experiencing your game in a sub optimal way.

Examples: Guitar Hero III gives out points for playing through campaign with a standard controller instead of the guitar. Dumb. Penny Arcade gives out points for finishing the game without having any of your characters knocked out during combat (necessitating a huge number of unnecessary reloads). Dumb.

I'm not saying don't encourage the player to experiment with new play styles. That's great. Just don't ask them to sustain those play styles if they're not the strength of your game. In the above examples, GH3 should have given the points for finishing a single song with a regular controller, and Penny Arcade should have awarded the points for completing, say, three consecutive battles without a death.

Weight core gameplay goals higher than ancillary ones. The lion's share of rewards should be doled out for playing the game in the way that was intended. Esoteric or very difficult challenges should have only token rewards. Let's look again at Guitar Hero 3, which gives out only a token number of points for finishing the Easy and Medium difficulty campaigns, while shelling out the big bucks to the 0.05% of players able to finish Through The Fire And Flames on Expert. Let's face it - a player who spends the time to overcome GH3's nigh-on-impossible upper echelons is no longer motivated by achievement points. From my experience with the game, the biggest milestone for most players is finishing Medium, and that's something that should be appropriately rewarded.

Achievement points can be a fantastic tool for directing and focusing player effort on the best experiences that your game has to offer; using this system to funnel players into your lame sidequests and hokey minigames is just plain stupid. Think it through, people.

Assorted Gaming News

While I was doing the 100 Must-See Movies a few tidbits of news went past that I know some readers will be interested in.

- Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain) has been cast to play the Prince of Persia in the upcoming movie.

- The Penny Arcade game is out on XBLA for 1600 points (about $25 AUD). I'm downloading the thing as we speak, but my expectation is for it to deliver only an unremitting torrent of pain.

- The next Guitar Hero's going to have Rock Band-style additional instruments including singing and drumming.

- WiiWare is now available for download in Australia, featuring a six game launch line-up. None of the initial offerings are particularly wonderful but it's only a few short weeks until Telltale releases the first installment of Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People. Yes, there's a Square-Enix game available via the service (Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A King) but by all accounts it's very average.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Great Moments In Gaming History #1: Daikatana

This advertisement ran in gaming magazines in mid 1997. It informed gamers in no uncertain terms that Alfonso John Romero was about to start doing unspeakably homoerotic things to their face. That, to be fair, is the sort of thing you'd want to be warned about.

John Romero gave us Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. I think possibly he also invented democracy, ghostwrote for Tolstoy, and defeated Hitler in a kung-fu face-off. Like unto a god, he was known to periodically descend from gaming heaven and shower shotgun-themed bliss upon the huddled masses.

So when this paragon among men instructed you to "suck it down", you damn well weren't going to complain just because it made you feel violated and soiled inside.

Now, John Romero was not going to make you his bitch in any ordinary way. This is a man in whose veins runs machine code instead of blood. When Romero desires bitches, he generates a machine to make them. He builds a device, towering and unspeakable, whose gears are oiled with the blood of virgins. He called this device "Daikatana", and he set the hour of its unleashing as "Christmas 1997".

If the apocalypse had indeed occurred in 1997, and Daikatana's fell aura had crept snake-like across society, then things may have gone well for John Romero, and even now he would be lounging among piles of gold coins while his numerous bitches peeled for him the succulent grapes of Eden. But the game did not emerge in 1997. Neither did it come forth in 1998. In fact, it was not seen until 2000, when futuristic archaeologists unearthed it from within the mouldering coffin of John Romero's industry reputation.

Three years is a long time in the gaming world. In 1997, Quake II was considered revolutionary, and it was this world-sundering technology on which Daikatana was based. However, in the period that it languished, there were developments, not the least of which were Half-Life, Unreal Tournament, and Quake III. These games were the charming urbane businessmen of the gaming world; next to them, Daikatana looked like a chimpanzee which did nothing but sit in its cage and play with itself.

And it's not like under its dirty, dirty skin there was a heart of gold. This was a game that wallowed in its crapulence. It was an entire title built around escort missions. The powerful AI subroutines would strain mightily while you played, driven by primal forces to march your henchmen to their inevitable and game-ending deaths. Time after time the game would spit in your face as you tried futilely to extract the slightest iota of fun from its stygian depths.

The only saving grace of the game was, in fact, its plot. The main character, whose name is Hiro, embarks on a time-travelling adventure using a magical Japanese sword as he attempts to save the world from an oncoming future disaster. History and network television have since proven that that isn't as inherently stupid as it first sounds.

Today John Romero hides from mortal eyes from within his Fortress of Evil. Twisted and deranged, he plots the downfall of human civilisation and dreams of the fateful day when he will, finally, make us all his bitches.

No More Heroes

No More Heroes is an interesting game with occasional moments of genius, but for every one thing it gets right it makes two frustrating rookie mistakes.

This is from developer Goichi Suda, also known as Suda 51, and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture. Their last prominent effort was the rail shooter killer7, which was deeply interesting but nigh-on unplayable. No More Heroes is a vast improvement, but is still a long way from perfect.

You play as Travis Touchdown, a California-based otaku with pretensions to being a professional assassin. When he meets the attractive Sylvia Crystal, he agrees to work his way through the professional assassin leaderboard by way of a series of lethal duels, all in the hope of possibly getting into Sylvia's pants.

By the time you get control of Travis the plot's already well underway. Actually, all of the set-up and character introductions happened in the game's promotional trailer - the game seems to assume you will have watched this on YouTube or something prior to playing. If you've got an American copy of the game you can actually find the trailer included as a bonus on the disc but if you're in one of the PAL territories you're out of luck.

While we're talking about the trailer, the Valley Girl voice acting first used for Sylvia Crystal has been replaced in the finished game by a ridiculous French accent. It's an inexplicable change, especially considering the thrust of the game's narrative.

In any case, the game's centred around a series of boss fights. You'll have to wade through a small and deeply unchallenging army of goons to get to each boss, and in between boss fights you get to drive around the town of Santa Destroy on your motorcycle, completing sidequests and suchlike.

Sidequests come in two flavours. There's assassination missions, in which you have to kill yet more goons, sometimes without getting hits. There's also side-jobs, which see you doing things like mowing lawns or exterminating scorpions. You need to do a certain number of these things between each boss fight in order to scrape up the "entry fee" for the next level.

The whole Santa Destroy bit is completely without merit. The town itself is very generic, so it's not as if you're going to enjoy sightseeing. Travis' bike handles like a pig and is prone to crash if you so much as clip a traffic cone. The side-jobs are initially amusing but are stupidly easy and lose their charm after around 90 seconds, and while the assassinations are mostly okay they vary dramatically in difficulty and will leave you wondering why they couldn't have just been worked into the main mission structure.

One of the chief frustrations with Santa Destroy is that assassination missions and jobs are given out from a couple of central buildings. After accepting a side-quest, you have to drive for a couple of minutes to get to the location where it occurs; if you then fail the mission, you have to drive all the way back again to re-acquire it. You can fail some of the assassination missions within seconds; having to do four minutes of driving to try three seconds of gameplay is the sort of thing you'd expect from a cheap movie tie-in, not an ostensibly A-grade game from a well-known developer.

Santa Destroy may be deeply lame, but once you get into the ranking fights the gameplay improves. Travis fights with a beam katana; you select a stance by holding the wiimote vertically or horizontally, and then bust loose on hapless goons by mashing the A button. Occasionally you'll stun an enemy, which gives you the opportunity to follow up with one of Travis' pro-wrestling moves, which will typically KO your opponent.

The fighting's fast and fun, although it's a little repetetive. It's one of the game's strongest points, and although it's good, it still doesn't measure up to something like God of War or Devil May Cry.

The goon sequences flow into the boss fights, which are the highest point that No More Heroes reaches. The big ranking fights are comparable to boss levels from Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear Solid. I say comparable, but they come off second-best in that comparison. You'll need to have mastered the fairly large repertoire of beam katana moves in order to beat the fights, but once you understand the combat system they're actually pretty easy.

No More Heroes probably would have been better if it had been content with being a regular game. The pacing is reasonably competent and there are a lot of good ideas in the action sequences. Unfortunately, it keeps trying to be clever, without actually succeding. It frequently pokes fun at itself, parodying its own gameplay and that of other computer games. It's not funny, though, which means that all it's doing is drawing attention to its own flaws. It has pretensions to commentary on violence and capitalism and media and... I don't know, something... but it totally fails to make its point or even provoke any thought.

The game obviously lost something in translation from the Japanese; it's entirely possible that it was better in its home language. But I suspect not.

On the Wii, No More Heroes really has no competition its strange little genre, which is the only reason that I can remotely recommend buying it. If you're looking for something action-oriented for your motion-sensitive win-machine then you'll probably find No More Heroes isn't quite so offensive as I'm making out. But if you've got more than one gaming platform at your disposal then you should know that this game doesn't even remotely make it into the upper echelon of what's out there. It's not nearly as interestingly quirky as it wants to be, it's not half the action game it could have been, and it's ultimately a sadly missed opportunity for everyone involved.

100 Must-See Movies

The complete list of 100 movies, in no particular order. Click through the links to see the details for each movie.

1 to 10
1: The Sting (1973)
2: Poltergeist (1982)
3: Clerks (1994)
4: American Beauty (1999)
5: Birth of a Nation (1915)
6: The Killing (1956)
7: Donnie Darko (2001)
8: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
9: Crash (2004)
10: Taxi Driver (1976)
11 to 20
11: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
12: Trainspotting (1996)
13: Amelie (2001)
14: Blade Runner (1982)
15: Heathers (1989)
16: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
17: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
18: Scream (1996)
19: Duck Soup (1933)
20: Vertigo (1958)
21 to 30
21: Aliens (1986)
22: The Shining (1980)
23: Perfect Blue (1997)
24: Dark City (1998)
25: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
26: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
27: Mulholland Drive (2001)
28: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
29: Toy Story (1995)
30: Cabaret (1972)
31 to 40
31: Gladiator (2000)
32: Jurassic Park (1993)
33: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
34: Spellbound (1945)
35: Labyrinth (1986)
36: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
37: The Last Detail (1973)
38: Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
39: V for Vendetta (2006)
40: Reservoir Dogs (1992)
41 to 50
41: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
42: William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (1996)
43: Gojira (Godzilla) (1954)
44: Fight Club (1999)
45: Brazil (1985)
46: Amistad (1997)
47: The Breakfast Club (1985)
48: Shaun of the Dead (2004)
49: High Society (1956)
50: The Matrix (1999)
51 to 60
51: Seven (1995)
52: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
53: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
54: Strange Days (1995)
55: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 - 2003)
56: Wild Things (1998)
57: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
58: Paths of Glory (1957)
59: Empire Records (1995)
60: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
61 to 70
61: The Exorcist (1973)
62: Bugsy Malone (1976)
63: Ocean's Eleven (2001)
64: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
65: Full Metal Jacket (1987)
66: Goldfinger (1964)
67: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
68: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
69: Pulp Fiction (1994)
70: Cube (1997)
71 to 80
71: Om Shanti Om (2007)
72: The Ring (2002)
73: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
74: Ghostbusters (1984)
75: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
76: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
77: Paprika (2006)
78: 12 Monkeys (1995)
79: The Princess Bride (1987)
80: Rocky (1976)
81 to 90
81: Primer (2004)
82: Hot Fuzz (2007)
83: Memento (2000)
84: House on Haunted Hill (1959)
85: 3:10 To Yuma (2007)
86: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
87: Casablanca (1942)
88: Children of Men (2006)
89: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
90: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
91 to 100
91: Star Wars (1977)
92: 28 Days Later (2002)
93: Sneakers (1992)
94: Saw (2004)
95: Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
96: Scent of a Woman (1992)
97: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
98: No Country For Old Men (2007)
99: Schindler's List (1993)
100: Citizen Kane (1941)

If you've enjoyed my 100 Must-See Movies posts, please leave a comment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 91 to 100

91: Star Wars (1977)
The original Star Wars by all rights should never have been a huge sucess. A pulp space-opera that placed a cast of largely unknown actors in a universe replete with jargon and loose ends, on face value it appeared to be identical to a range of mediocre B-grade titles that preceded it.

The genius, of course, is in the execution. The main cast has a wonderful presence and chemistry, the special effects are revolutionary, the signature John Williams score is amazing, and a host of creative energy is visible in every aspect of the production from its alien designs through to its special effects.

92: 28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later is Danny Boyle's great revival of the zombie horror genre. Cillian Murphy plays a man who awakens from a coma to discover that while he slept a terrible plague has ravaged Britain, turning its victims into violent madmen.

Like all the best zombie films, 28 Days Later is less about the zombies than it is about the survivors; the film explores a range of individual reactions to the disaster and the real danger eventually turns out to be not the zombies but the un-infected. The movie is particularly memorable for striking cinematography depicting an abandoned London. This is a landmark in genre cinema which will continue to attract audiences for a great many years.

93: Sneakers (1992)
The formula for a good caper movie is simple to grasp yet difficult to execute; it requires a strong ensemble cast, a range of clever cons, and a well-paced script to tie them together. Sneakers is a good example of getting it right.

Robert Redford plays the head of a "tiger team", taking money from companies to test their security via attempted penenetration. However, his criminal past catches up with him when the CIA blackmail him into using his team to steal a revolutionary cryptographic device. The range of supporting stars includes Dan Akroyd, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix and Mary McDonnell, who together make for a highly entertaining film.

94: Saw (2004)
Saw is the movie that kick-started the sub-genre of "torture porn", also known as torture horror, which along with the influence of Japan has been one of the driving forces behind horror cinema in the 21st century. It's a movement that has been perhaps justly criticised for its gratuitous and disturbing content, but it's important to remember that a good film is a good film regardless of its genre.

Saw is a good film. It tells the tale of the Jigsaw Killer, who places each of his victims inside a gruesome but escapable deathtrap designed to make them reflect on their life. It's clever, it's well-filmed, and it justifies each of its nightmarish set-pieces in the context of a suspenseful and gripping plot. Regardless of your opinions or apprehensions about torture horror, don't make the mistake of lumping Saw with its contemporaries, and take the chance to check it out. Possibly in a well-lit room in the company of friends.

95: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
A big-budget pirate movie was never likely to be totally awful, but Pirates of the Caribbean turned out to be something enduringly special, becoming a blockbuster adventure that captured the spirit of classics such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars.

Certainly Gore Verbinski's directing played a large part in the film's success, but the centrepiece of Pirates is unquestionably Johnny Depp's outrageous portrayal of the antiheroic Captain Jack Sparrow. The usual array of ancillary excellence is on show around the edges: a scintillating score, captivating visual design, and supporting performances from Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and the scene-stealing Geoffrey Rush.

96: Scent Of A Woman (1992)
Al Pacino is a fantastic actor, and it's rarely as obvious as in Scent of a Woman, a remake of Dino Risi's 1974 Profumo di donna. Pacino plays a retired lieutenant colonel suffering from blindness; he bullies a local school student (Chris O'Donnell) into acting as his aide on an unannounced visit to New York. It soon becomes clear that the lieutenant colonel plans to make this his last journey; after completing his final days in New York he intends to commit suicide.

What makes the film work is the way it introduces you to Pacino's character. What initially seems like a loud, crass, domineering soldier eventually turns out to be... well, a loud, crass, complex soldier. It's a plot arc that could only work with a truly magical performance in the lead role, and Pacino delivers in style.

97: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski's adaptation of Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby is a landmark horror thriller often overlooked in favour of later creations such as The Exorcist. Mia Farrow plays the titular Rosemary, who falls pregnant after moving into a new apartment with her husband. The pregnancy seems anything but normal, though, and soon Rosemary becomes convinced that she is the target of a Satanic conspiracy.

One of the great things about this film is how it starts out as a romantic comedy and becomes a creepy psychological horror almost by stealth. Another strong aspect is its exploration of societal attitudes towards pregnancy; Rosemary's concerns are dismissed as the delusions of "typical female hysteria", and to be fair she is irrational and hysterical, although for apparently good reason. On a historical note, Rosemary's Baby was the last movie Polanski made before his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of Charlie Manson's cult.

98: No Country For Old Men (2007)
Once again the Coen Brothers deliver an offensively anticlimactic ending, but it's at the end of a film so intensely well made that you can't help but forgive them after poisoning only two or three of their pets. Josh Brolin plays a Texas redneck who stumbles across a fortune in drug money; Javier Bardem is the sociopathic killer hired to track him from Texas to Mexico and recover the money.

This is another of the Coens' "regional" films; here the region in question is Texas and the dialogue is filled with drawling accents and charming idiom. Brolin and Bardem are both fantastic, as is Tommy Lee Jones as a sherriff who never quite becomes important to the plot despite taking up a surprisingly large amount of screen time. This is the most technically accomplished film in the Coens' repertoire and its lasting beauty will remain with you long after your violent anger at the ending has passed.

99: Schindler's List (1993)
Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List was a radical shift in style for the prominent director. Where previously he'd been an industry icon known for churning out family-friendly adventure laced with cutting special effects, in Schindler's List he delivered a miserable black and white drama dealing largely with the Nazi extermination of Jews.

The movie tells the real-life story of Oskar Schindler, businessman and Nazi collaborator, who ended up saving hundreds of Jews from German death camps in the closing days of World War II. This is easily Spielberg's best film, powerfully mixing audience expectations with the real stories of Holocaust survivors to create a compelling and heart-wrenching cinematic experience.

100: Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane has a kind of legendary status in the world of film, frequently listed as the greatest movie ever made. It's not the greatest movie ever made. It's unfocused and poorly paced, and the famous "Rosebud" angle creates an artificial narrative drive that conceals the weakness of the central plot.

But it is good. I'd go so far as to say it's very good. And it's tremendously historically significant. If the 1920s are the birth of cinema, then Citizen Kane is its coming of age. Orson Welles brings together a range of technical and artistic devices, none of them original, and uses them together to achieve a deliberate effect in the mood and perception of the viewer. It's the point at which film went from being merely an extension of photography or theatre and became a complex and unique medium in its own right. Even if only to dislike it for your own unique reasons, this is a film that you absolutely need to see.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 81 to 90

81: Primer (2004)
Filmed on a mere $7,000, Primer is the best time-travel movie ever shot, despite never using the words "time" and "travel" in the same sentence. Its dense scientific jargon and frequently subtle plot twists mean that it may take several watchings before you see everything there is to see, but the film is presented in such a well-paced manner that it's a pleasure to rewatch.

The thing that stands out most in the film is how real everything feels; the discovery that leads to the time travel occurs in a way that feels believable and the technology has practical limitations that eventually turn out to not be so significant as first believed. The two main characters have very human reactions to their discovery, and the low budget brings the action into houses and garages, creating a domestic down-to-earth feel for the whole film.

82: Hot Fuzz (2007)
The second cinematic team-up between Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright is as strong as their first. Hot Fuzz is ostensibly the story of a big-city cop in a small England town, but along the way it plays with the conventions of Westerns, buddy comedies, and small-town conspiracy movies.

The first act is a little slow, but if the film spends a lot of time loading guns up front it's only because it fires so many at the end. The climax is non-stop brilliance. Hot Fuzz is easily one of the funniest British comedies ever made, and like Shaun of the Dead it carries a strong and coherent plotline behind the humour.

83: Memento (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Memento is the tale of Leonard, a man unable to form new memories after suffering a traumatic incident. Keeping track of his life with photographs, notes, and tattoos, Leonard is engaged in a search for the man who raped and murdered his wife. The film plays out backwards, starting with the conclusion of Leonard's search and moving earlier in time with each new scene, effectively keeping the audience in Leonard's situation of not knowing the past except by the notes he has left himself.

Guy Pearce is fantastic as Leonard but the real power of the movie comes from its script, written by Nolan himself after adapting it from a short story by his brother. It's a moving, thought provoking, and powerfully depressing movie that leaves the viewer stunned.

84: House On Haunted Hill (1959)
House on Haunted Hill isn't a good movie - it's a great one. But more, I suspect, for horror movie afficionadoes than average filmgoers. It's by William Castle, famed "gimmick" director, who claimed to have filmed the movie in a new technique called "Emergo". Surprised cinema-goers discovered that "Emergo" consisted of a fake skeleton on a pulley which would fly over their heads during the film's climax.

Gimmicks aside, the action on screen is still highly entertaining. This is classic Vincent Price, and forms a good education as to why Price is a horror icon. Here he plays an eccentric millionaire who has invited a group of strangers to spend the night in a haunted mansion, where those who survive the night will be paid $10,000. The movie is actually more psychological thriller than ghost story, but Price's performance dominates the film, aided by Carol Ohmart as his manipulative wife and Elisha Cook Jr and Julie Mitchum in supporting parts. House on Haunted Hill exists as a black and white original, a colorised update, and a 1999 remake; if you can get your hands on it, the original is definitely the one to watch.

85: 3:10 To Yuma (2007)
James Mangold's remake of the 1957 film 3:10 To Yuma is one of the finest Westerns ever made. It's the struggle of one man (Christian Bale) to save his farm and win the respect of his son by escorting a notorious bandit (Russell Crowe) to the 3.10 train to Yuma Prison.

Beautiful landscape photography goes a long way to establishing the mood of the film. Christian Bale's complex characterisation of the protagonist makes an interesting contrast to Crowe's suave charisma. 3:10 To Yuma does a bit of everything, and does it consistently right, reminding you exactly why the world once loved Westerns so dearly.

86: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Simultaneously a clever horror movie and a loving exploration of the age of silent film, Shadow of the Vampire is set during the 1922 filming of the movie Nosferatu. The plot explores the notion that real-life Nosferatu star Max Shreck was in fact a vampire himself. Shadow of the Vampire narrates the outrageous lives of the cast and crew, while simultaneously delivering a horror story that mirrors the events of Nosferatu.

Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck and John Malkovich as filmmaker FW Murnau are the heart of this decidedly odd creation. It's a movie about a silent movie, shot in the style of a silent movie complete with title cards and artificially-added film defects. It's clever, it's highly original, and it's more than a little unsettling.

87: Casablanca (1942)
Ingrid Bergman is amazing in everything she touches; Humphrey Bogart's performance is far above his norm. There's romance, and stoicism, and some Nazis who are, on average, thwarted. But even that can't really explain exactly why Casablanca is so good.

This is a tale of separated lovers who reunite in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during its Nazi occupation; Bogart plays an expatriot nightclub owner while Bergman is the wife of an important resistance leader seeking to escape the city. Sometimes movies just come together to be more than the sum of their parts; Casablanca is one such indefinably excellent film.

88: Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men may ostensibly be a science fiction film, but the sci-fi takes a back seat to real human drama and disturbing political commentary. It's directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who has a genius for creating this kind of pensive fantasy. Clive Owen plays Theo, who lives in a world where no child has been born in eighteen years; the world economy is in chaos and Britain, under the rule of a totalitarian regime, is under siege from an unceasing tide of refugees seeking political stablity and freedom.

The film concerns Theo's journey escorting the world's only pregnant woman to the custody of the near-mythical Human Project, all the while hunted both by the government and by revolutionary extremists. It's an amazing film from start to finish, particularly the technically complex battle scenes in the third act. It's a tragedy that more people haven't seen this movie.

89: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Cruel Intentions is a movie based on a film based on a play based on a book based on allegedly real events. Dangerous Liaisons is one step simpler, being the film based on the play, and is by a process of logic therefore an exponentially better movie. Attempts to extrapolate this logic into some sort of blessing of the play or the book are unsafe and should not be attempted.

John Malkovich and Glenn Close play rival 18th century nobles, who obtain their chief amusement through the seduction and ruination of the innocent. The two leads are amazing, particularly Close as the complex Marquise de Merteuil. Period dramas like this rise and fall on their wit, costuming and visual authenticity, so it's no surprise Dangerous Liaisons won Oscars for its screenplay, costume design and art direction.

90: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson has one of the most enviable careers in Hollywood; his list of Oscar nominations alone is longer than the entire resume of many actors. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is yet another of his signature roles, in which he plays criminal Randle McMurphy, who schemes his way out of jail and into a mental ward in the belief it will allow him to finish his sentence in luxury. However, he finds himself and his fellow mental patients under the jurisdiction of Nurse Ratched, a petty tyrant who runs the ward with an iron fist.

Told in the style of a jailbreak film, Randle's struggle against Ratched is the classic story of one man against an unjust system; Nicholson is absolutely perfect in the role and does full justice to the poignant script. There's very little to criticise about One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and it well deserves its place in film history.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 71 to 80

71: Om Shanti Om (2007)
It's hard to be more Bollywood than Om Shanti Om. Not only is it the highest grossing Hindi film of all time, but it features no less than 32 A-list Bollywood stars together in one movie. Om Shanti Om is like two movies back to back. The first act is a romantic tragedy in which Shahrukh Khan plays a bumblingly loveable would-be actor who falls for a glamorous Bollywood diva. The second act sees Khan reincarnated as a wealthy but brilliant playboy who is driven by visions of his past life to wreak revenge upon an evil film producer.

The narrative is littered with Bollywood parodies and in-jokes which are likely to be mostly lost on Western audiences, but the humour and enthusiasm shine through regardless. More importantly, the plot is solid and exceedingly well told, built around a showstopping performance from Khan. Each and every musical number is catchy, dynamic and perfectly choreographed, both complementing and advancing the plot. If you're new to Bollywood, then Om Shanti Om is what the fuss is all about, and if you somehow get a chance to see it on the big screen then you should quietly murder your own family in order to do so.

72: The Ring (2002)
People regularly try and tell me that the Japanese Ringu is better than the Western remake. With all due respect, I just don't know how they could possibly think that. It has everything that worked in the original, with the added benefits of Gore Verbinski's stunning direction and Naomi Watts' incredible perfomance in the lead role.

The movie relates the tale of a cursed video that sentences its viewers to seven days of horror followed by death. Despite its horror origins, this is a beautiful film. It's filled with stark and powerful images, not the least of which is the footage comprising the cursed video itself. Other memorable shots include the "burning tree", and the death of the mad horse. Not only is this an eye-wideningly well made film, but it single-handedly reshaped Western horror for the 21st century by exposing audiences to the bleak and inexplicable Japanese explorations of the genre.

73: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Often seen as "the British answer to Pulp Fiction", Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is an ensemble-cast crime film written and directed by Guy Ritchie, a man probably now more famous for being married to Madonna.

Along with Snatch, also by Ritchie, Lock Stock is responsible for triggering a short-lived revival of the British crime sub-genre. Featuring great performances from Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham, Lock Stock is an enjoyable tightly paced ride through London's underworld driven mostly by clever dialogue and a labrynthine plot.

74: Ghostbusters (1984)
Sci-fi comedy isn't always something that works particularly well, but one of the reasons people keep trying is just how entertaining it can be when done right. Ghostbusters is the gold standard in the genre; a fantastic cast, strong writing, unique ideas and a solid plot come together to form a timelessly enjoyable film.

Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis play three parapsychology professors who go into business as "ghost busters", claiming to detect and trap "spectral entities" with the aid of their custom technology. Initially regarded as a laughing stock, the three become uniquely placed to save reality when New York is threatened by the invasion of the Sumerian god Gozer. If the three main Ghostbusters aren't enough to sell you on the film, then try memorable supporting performances by Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver, or fantastic set pieces including the capture of the green ghost Slimer or the battle against the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

75: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Western buddy film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid follows two turn-of-the-century bandits through the tail end of their career. After a failed bank robbery, Butch (played by Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) become the target of a determined manhunt by lawman Joe Lefours; the film follows them as they take to the road, leaving a string of robberies in their wake.

Much like The Sting, the core of the movie is the on-screen chemistry of Newman and Redford, and the light-hearted and frequently funny dialogue between them. Although based on real events, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is unapologetic in romanticising its subject matter, which ultimately results in its memorable and often-parodied final scene.

76: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
This is the greatest jailbreak movie of all time. Tim Robbins stars as a man unjustly sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in Shawshank Prison. Morgan Freeman plays a fellow lifer with a heart of gold, and doubles as the film's narrator. The story tells of Robbins' heartbreaking experiences in prison and his decades-in-the-making escape plan.

This is the signature performance of both Freeman and Robbins; their ability to command the audience's attention is the fuel that keeps the film moving. It's based on a Stephen King novella, and directed by Frank Darabont, a man who's made his career out of adapting King to the big screen (other Darabont films include The Green Mile and The Mist). The Shawshank Redemption is cleverly and sensitively made, and hugely powerful and moving.

77: Paprika (2006)
Where Perfect Blue was a plot-focused murder mystery, Paprika is a film which wilfully ignores story and structure in order to present a beautifully psychedelic visual odyssey. Like Perfect Blue, Paprika comes from director Satoshi Kon. The narrative of Paprika focuses on a new psychiatric therapy that treats patients by allowing the therapist to directly enter the patient's dreams. However, soon after its development signs are revealed that patients' dreams are merging into a single nightmare, into which is sucked protagonist Atsuko Chiba and her dream-state alter-ego Paprika.

The movie looks and sounds astonishing, particularly the opening sequences. At times it feels more like an extended music video than a story. Despite all that, the movie remains satisfying from beginning to end and is a generally uplifting experience.

78: 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam's time-travelling end-of-the-world story 12 Monkeys has the unfortunate curse of being middle child in a decade of exemplary science fiction. While not forgotten by audiences, its unique charm often suffers for being released so close to classics like Dark City, Cube and The Matrix. In a world ravaged by the aftermath of a terrible plague, Bruce Willis plays a prisoner who "volunteers" to take part in a dangerous experiment: to travel back in time to 1996 and identify the source of the plague that destroyed mankind. However, when he goes off course and lands in 1990 instead of 1996, he is committed to a psychiatric institution where he begins to doubt that the future he came from ever really existed.

A great performance by Brad Pitt makes up for a decidedly lackluster one by Madeleine Stowe. Paul Buckmaster's catchy off-beat theme music helps set the tone of the movie as it examines questions of sanity, memory and predestination.

79: The Princess Bride (1987)
Rob Reiner's comedic fairytale The Princess Bride ranks next to (or just below) The Labyrinth as the finest fantasy movie of the 80s, and until the release of The Lord of the Rings had a strong claim as the finest fantasy ever made. Telling an unlikely tale of romance, kidnapping and revenge, it succeeded in winning over audiences of all ages, despite returning only a modest profit at the box office.

The outrageous narrative is carried by the charisma of all of the leads, with Robert Wright Penn in the title role as Buttercup, Cary Elwes as her lost love Westley, and supporting parts from Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant and Billy Crystal. The excellent script has led to The Princess Bride being a regularly-quoted pop-culture icon.

80: Rocky (1976)
If a court were ever to put Sylvester Stallone's career on trial, Rocky would be the star witness for the defence. Stallone plays a third-rate amateur boxer who gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance when he is picked to fight in a promotional match against the heavweight boxing champion.

As well as starring, Stallone is also the man behind the script, and its lack of polish works to its advantage in making the characters seem like real, fallible people. That feeling of flawed humanity is what makes the film exceptional, continuing into the complex figure of Rocky's trainer Micky, and the movie's ending, which is far from typical Hollywood fare. Regardless of the experiences you may have had with other Stallone films, Rocky is something special.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 61 to 70

61: The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin's adaptation of The Exorcist is one of the best and most significant horror movies ever filmed. The plot deals with the possession of 12-year-old Regan MacNeill by an evil force, the reaction to that event by her mother, and the subsequent attempted exorcism. The Exorcist is very much in the vein of Roman Polanski's earlier film Rosemary's Baby but where that movie was really more psychological thriller than horror film, The Exorcist is definitely out to shock and scare.

Linda Blair in the role of Regan is forcefully unsettling, and at release the film traumatised many audiences both with its confronting and arguably blasphemous content, and with its regular superimposition of demonic faces onto the screen at near-subliminal speeds. Two theatrical versions exist - the original cut, and an extended "version you've never seen". Personally I feel the latter is by far the better but some fans prefer the more concise original; watch them both and make up your own mind.

62: Bugsy Malone (1976)
A 1930s gangster musical with all the roles played by children? It sounds like a recipe for disaster but somehow became one of the most lovable movies ever produced for the big screen. An itsy-bitsy Scott Baio plays Bugsy, a two-bit boxing promoter who gets fast-talked into working for mob boss Fat Sam. When gang war breaks out between Fat Sam and Dandy Dan, Bugsy is caught in the middle, while at the same time he strives to win the affections of girl-next-door Blousey Brown.

The majority of the child cast is good, but 15-year-old Jodie Foster as the sultry Tallulah blows her co-stars out of the water. The musical score is catchy and poignantly delivered, and the script is sharp and peppered with well-honed jokes. Watch out for cameos from pint-sized versions of Press Gang's Dexter Fletcher and Doctor Who's Bonnie Langford.

63: Ocean's Eleven (2001)
With all due respect to Messrs. Sinatra, Martin and Davis, the 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven is easily the better version. George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, who collects an ensemble cast in order to perform the heist of a lifetime by stealing from a legendary Vegas casino vault. Matt Damon and Brad Pitt co-star, and the rapport between the lead actors is the heart and soul of this first-class film.

Wrapped around the dynamic central cast is a genuinely clever heist plan, snappy dialogue, and a host of well-used cameos from Hollywood and Vegas notables. Considering that it's directed by Steven Soderbergh, the man who made the annoying Erin Brokovich and the interminable Solaris remake, it's all the more surprising that Ocean's Eleven is one of the most thoroughly fun films that America has to offer.

64: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Four movies later, it seems the original is still the best. A charismatic performance by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and an iconic musical score by John Williams are the backbone of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shot on the relatively low budget of $20 million, the film re-invigorated Steven Spielberg's career after his poorly-received 1941 and ended up making back close to $350 million at the box office.

Themed on the pulp serials of the 30s and 40s, the success of Raiders is in its non-stop over-the-top adventure, the real humanity of Jones as a character, and in the presence that Harrison Ford invests the role with.

65: Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War opus Full Metal Jacket initally suffered unfairly from comparison to Oliver Stone's Platoon, released around the same time. History seems to have largely come to the conclusion, though, that Full Metal Jacket is the superior film. The plot initially deals with the traumatising of awkward new recruit "Gomer Pyle" by his now-iconic drill sergeant, and then moves to Vietnam to follow an army reporter on a journey across the country towards a fateful confrontation with a Vietcong sniper in Hue City.

Full Metal Jacket starts with an impressive script adapted from Gustav Hasford's novel The Short Timers, and fleshes it out with strong performances, excellent directing, and one of the best uses of a licensed soundtrack in any movie ever. It's a war movie that manages to be simultaneously traumatic and a lot of a fun, and is well worth anyone's time.

66: Goldfinger (1964)
If there's one film that perfectly summarises everything that James Bond is about, it's Goldfinger. The magic starts with the Shirley Bassey theme song, and continues through a cast of unforgettable characters including the hat-throwing Oddjob, the absurdly named Pussy Galore, and head villain Auric Goldfinger himself.

While GoldenEye and Casino Royale both lay strong claims to being the greatest Bond movies ever made, Goldfinger is ultimately the movie that best captures the outrageous over-the-top charm that makes Bond so enjoyable.

67: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Sometimes an amazing script can drive a movie to greatness despite some distinctly sub-par directing, and that's the case with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It has both the amazing luck to be written by Tom Stoppard, and the cruel misfortune to be directed by Tom Stoppard.

The story follows, unsurprisingly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as they attempt to live normal and fulfilling lives, despite being poorly-defined and ultimately ill-fated supporting characters in another person's play. Surpassingly strange and brilliantly written, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is highbrow British humour at its finest, despite being, as it turned out, filmed in Slovenia.

68: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
It's a matter of debate whether you can best describe the career of Tim Burton as "memorably average" or "on average, memorable". He keeps churning out these beautifully quirky stench-piles with names like Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice and the public just keeps nodding appreciatively and asking for more. I can't stand the things personally but a kind of deep-seated masochism makes me keep paying money to see them. In any case, it just wouldn't be a 100 Must-See Movies without mentioning Burton somewhere, so I'm throwing in the only one of his creations which I would actually recommend to people who I like.

Sweeney Todd is an adaptation of the similarly-named Stephen Sondheim stage musical, and follows the quest for revenge of one Benjamin Barker, a barber-slash-convict who turns out to be at least five beers short of a sixpack. After slouching his way through earlier Burton films, Johnny Depp apparently went away and learned how to act, and returns to inhabit the title role as if he was born for it. Helena Bonham Carter is so excellent as Mrs Lovett that you're almost tempted to forgive her the rest of her career. Stage musicals don't often work well on screen so when one is as uncompromisingly high-quality as this it's a rare and quite special treat.

69: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino's stylish crime adventure Pulp Fiction is not often compared to Citizen Kane, which is perhaps a shame. The genius of Kane was using a wide variety of cinematic techniques, none new, in concert to achieve a comprehensive, deliberate and powerful on-screen effect. Pulp Fiction pulls off much the same trick.

The narrative is presented non-sequentially, not just to aid in telling the story but as a deliberate challenge to audiences to pay attention and think about what's taking place. The soundtrack makes use of Tarantino's signature laid-back 70s surf rock to set a tone both evocative of spaghetti Westerns and often deliberately at odds with the action on screen. The pacing alternates low-key comedic dialogue with gruesome violence to dramatic effect. However, against everyting good in this film, it should be remembered that this is also the movie that brought John Travolta's career back to horrible, shambling, brain-devouring life.

70: Cube (1997)
Focused, bleak, and cerebral, Cube is one of the best science-fiction movies ever made, and is all the more amazing for having been made in Canada on a budget of less than half a million dollars. It concerns the plight of a group of apparently average people who wake to find themselves in a three-dimensional maze of cubical rooms interlaced with lethal traps.

The film moves quickly from the opening shots and doesn't stop to let the audience draw its breath, even when the plot starts to work in some reasonably complex mental mathematics. Part psychological thriller and part cabin-fever horrorshow, Cube is a movie that will stay with you long after its breathtaking final scenes.