The Beauty of Saw

At face value, the Saw series may seem like your average, generic modern gorefest. Indeed, though the balance has shifted from gruesome and shocking fates to more of a detective drama over the course of five movies, there are still moments that will make you cringe or flinch. But after five movies, with a sixth and final one due out next year, I'm starting to appreciate the whole story.

When the original Saw premiered back in 2004, I don't know if anyone expected sequels. It told the tale of a mysterious killer known as “Jigsaw”, who would abduct people for reasons not immediately apparent, and put them in elaborate traps and devices. Every trap could be beaten, but not without sacrifice. Ultimately, we'd learn the psychology, that Jigsaw did not see himself as a killer. His victims could escape, but often couldn't stomach the self-mutilation required. Each trap was a test of just how strong the person's will to survive was. Pass the test, and you emerge with a new appreciation for life. In time, it became apparent that Jigsaw's victims were people he perceived as wasting their lives.

I think that's what I love about the series, beyond the oft-touted twist endings. Certainly the first two had the best twists, which I won't divulge any more than the identity of the killer, but it's the motivation of the person behind it that's utterly fascinating, a villain who truly believes he's doing good work. Jigsaw would give anyone in Batman's rogues gallery pause. What if someone like that existed in the real world, in a world without Batman or any superheroes? There are cops and heroes throughout the series, characters you'll root for and worry about. Some survive one film only to perish in the next. Thus far, this is a world in which the bad guy wins. The good guys come close, painfully close, but they're always a step behind or a clue short. Saw V's twist ending didn't elicit the same gasp as the prior endings, and indeed played out the way I expected. But it ends with a smile that, given the specific circumstances around that smile, might give Joker nightmares.

Saw V, through the use of Lostesque flashbacks, does a great job resolving unanswered questions from its predecessors. As the pieces fall into place, like a jigsaw puzzle, I find myself nodding in renewed appreciation of the pattern, recognizing the overall plan. Things I questioned in earlier films that didn't quite make sense were finally clear. Throwaway objects or characters suddenly were important. Like Jigsaw's traps, all the elements needed were in place from the beginning; I just needed to look. And of course, there was more than one loose end left dangling for the ultimate chapter.

I often feel like some of the films would be easier to comprehend with less than a year between them. People are always reminding me of characters and scenes that call back to earlier chapters. Maybe when it's all over, I'll sit down and watch all six from beginning to end. For now, I'll just bid you all a happy and safe Halloween.


Short Days; Long Nights.

I shouldn't be superstitious. Believe it or not, that's actually not part of the official teachings of the Catholic church. Over the years, a lot of Catholics have adopted beliefs of their own, such as touching objects such as statues to tap into healing powers. There's no room for concepts like fate or luck within a belief system that acknowledges a supreme being with a plan. Yet, given my consistent, almost predictable bad luck, I have to wonder. If God is testing me, I'd hate to find out what he's been preparing me for these past 33, almost 34 years.

Monday was an uncharacteristically lucky day. It's been a rough month or so at work. Every year at this time, our company comes up with new concepts that will be used in mailings throughout the year. Now that I've been there over a year myself, I've been given one of these assignments, on top of my regular workload. As odds often defy my expectations, this test proved easier than my regular assignments, and I found myself with back-to-back challenging ads, the details of which would bore the casual reader. But by Monday, it seemed like I was finally done, and everyone was happy. “You should frame those!” suggested one of my writers after we received complementary e-mails on a job well done. I just smiled, knowing from experience that if one takes credit, one must also be prepared to take blame. It's best to accept complements quietly and humbly, and be ready for the inevitable pitfall around the corner.

Monday hardly seemed like a Monday, and as I drove home lost in thought, I almost didn't see the shape in the road ahead of me. Something small and dark darted across the street. I was far enough back that it made it to safety, and as I slowed down to look, there on the steps of an imposing electrical plant sat a black cat, looking over its shoulder. Our eyes met, and I sensed her triumph. She crossed my path safely, but what effect would this have on my luck? I hoped that such a superstition, if true, would be canceled out by my already legen--wait for it--dary bad luck. No such luck...

On Tuesday I learned that the ads that had been approved on Monday needed further revisions after some more people reviewed them. Also our assignment logs had been rearranged, due to one of the staff being on jury duty, and I discovered my next assignment was going to be harder than the one I was originally slated for. Outside it was cold and raining, with a chance for snow flurries. By Wednesday we'd even have some hail. I planned to buy some new sneakers on my lunch break since the heel of one of my old ones had finally cracked and dug a hole in my ankle, but I only had time to run out quickly for a bite to eat.

Things calmed down by the afternoon, and I opted to hit Payless before the gym. It took me awhile to find a decent pair that I liked, and when I got to the register the girl asked me to wait while she mumbled something about cracking open a new roll of pennies. I asked her to repeat what she said, and she explained that she still owed me a penny. For one cent, I told her not to worry about it, and headed back out into the freezing rain.

As I climbed into my car, I heard a clattering sound in the distance. At the far end of the lot, a shopping cart was careening wildly, caught in the wind, and headed straight out into the street! It must have hit a pothole or something as it came to a sudden stop, only a few feet from certain disaster. I pondered whether I could leave it there in good conscience, having witnessed its perilous passage. It would be one thing if something happened and I wasn't around to see it, but I had seen it. Locking the new shoes in the car and zipping my jacket tight, I made my way across the dark and windy lot.

As I reached for the wagon, headlights blinded me as a car veered into the lot, dodging the wagon and, as a result, myself. I knew the wagon couldn't stay there and was glad I was doing something about it. I grabbed the handles and pulled, but the thing was stubborn. Did it have some antitheft wheel lock? We were still in the lot, and not that far from the supermarket. I pushed it and it rolled about an inch, then locked up again. Clearly some metal around the wheels had broken and twisted, making it very hard to roll. I carried it for a bit, struggling to lift the wet metal. I popped a wheelie to see if it rolled better on two wheels. This would work for about a foot before the front crashed back down and the wagon stopped short while I walked into it. I fought and struggled and finally got it up on the sidewalk. A few more feet and I got it locked in with the rows of wagons outside the store. Shivering and wet, my hands blistered, I stumbled back to the car and made my way to the gym.

Wednesday was a little bit better, and I have to think that all the unlikely problems I hit on Tuesday had nothing to do with a black cat crossing my path. Wednesday evening had a slight wrinkle, as Knight Rider was preempted by an infomercial by some guy with a questionable amount of funds buying a presidential election or something. Apparently it was on most networks, which is weird since that's almost like a media bias. At this point I can't be bothered by politics though. I'll vote for my candidates, and if they lose I'll shrug and hope for better luck in 2012. And Knight Rider was no big loss, as ABC was the one network that didn't sell airtime to one candidate, and aired a bright new episode of Pushing Daisies instead.

Who knows, maybe my luck will get better after all....


PBW: One Last Nice Day

Tuesday was a miserable day in New York. Cold, windy, rainy, and even some ice and snow flurries. I heard Pennsylvania already had full blown snow. It seems like we may leap from Summer to Winter with barely a hint of Autumn, but Sunday was a beautiful day with clear skies and changing leaves, perfect conditions for a Photo Blog Wednesday:

Click on any of this next batch for 1024 x 768 desktop goodness:




Ask a geek what makes him a geek, and apart from a total lack of interpersonal skills or a level of unpopularity in the social hierarchy, he'll probably cite some specific area of pop culture which he has an obsessive fascination with and excessive knowledge of. Maybe it's a video game system or a specific series of video games. Maybe it's a comic book. Perhaps it's a science fiction franchise, either in film or television of both. There is always overlap, and all geeks have some knowledge of areas outside their focus, but there's always one thing greater than the rest, the gateway through which all other geek doors were forever opened. Oh, I can recite plot points to movies, reference episodes of animated television series, and still recall artists and issue numbers from various comics. But when I was 10, like many boys my age, Transformers consumed me. Unlike most kids, I never completely outgrew it. That cartoon and toy line led me to other cartoons and toys, as well as comic books, and though I stopped short of dressing up like the characters, the temptation still lingers today.

The Transformers: The Movie was the pinnacle of that series, a high quality Japanese animated rendition released in theaters no less, with the most significant and impactful plot developments of any animated series I'd seen prior. Major characters died, while others changed drastically. It was an emotional rollercoaster imprinting such significance on my young mind that I'd see it many times in the future. I bought it on VHS, and twice on DVD thanks to a 20th anniversary special edition. I'm sure I'll be purchasing it in other formats in the future. I've watched it prior to major events in my life, from surgery to races. I can quote a lot of movies and television shows, but I probably have the bulk of the TFTM script committed to memory. I learned not to advertise this fact about a decade too late, long after the damage was done to my social standing in my local community.

The soundtrack was one of the many aspects of the show that captivated me, a collection of typical ‘80s rock and metal that complemented the scenes in the film flawlessly. The Transformers and other Sunbow cartoons shared many themes, but the music from the film, from the Vince DiCola score to the work of various bands took it all to the next level. Rocker Stan Bush contributed the most memorable songs to the soundtrack after the rock version of the theme song, namely “The Touch” and “Dare”. “The Touch” offers cheesy, simplistic lyrics and an excess of electronic sound, but appears during two key scenes in the film: the death of a major character, and the rise of his successor. Were I older than 11, I'm not sure it would have stuck with me. My mom's memory of the film is a color spiral during the opening credits, a nap, and closing credits. My dad doesn't remember going to the movies.

In 1997, while watching Boogie Nights with my girlfriend, I couldn't believe my ears when Mark Wahlberg's character sang his version of “The Touch”. After the movie, I excitedly explained why I was laughing at that part, but I'm pretty sure she lacked the same appreciation. She smiled quietly, happy because I was happy even if she didn't fully understand it, and hopefully that incident had nothing to do with her moving out of state and dumping me the following year. I'm sure it was only the first of many strikes against me.

Chuck is a show that strikes me as being unashamedly by geeks, for geeks. The song, movie and video game references that make it into each episode in the life of an ordinary tech guy with a brain full of downloaded government secrets astounds me, and I'm sure there are tons that I miss. A few weeks ago, there were enough Huey Lewis cues to make Back to the Future jealous. Last week, a high school reunion featured “classics” like ”Smack My Bitch Up” and ”Tubthumping” that simultaneously brought a smile to my face and made me feel old(10 years ago? Really?) Whether you grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s, or ‘90s, the show will have some nostalgic pop culture element you'll appreciate.

This week's episode has some nods to The King of Kong with a plot that revolves around the hidden video game past of one of Chuck's coworkers at the electronics store. It seems before this guy was a burned out nerd, he was the high score champion at Missile Command. In true Chuck fashion, this game is more than a game, as a code is hidden in the game's final kill screen. This code is needed to stop some terrorists from using a satellite to launch real missiles and set off a world war, so of course Chuck needs to convince his coworker to come out of retirement and beat the game. This sequence of events leads to a montage of preparation, over which a very familiar tune is heard. I didn't quite place it at first, wondering which ‘80s song they were taking me down memory lane with, but a few lines in a dorky smile of recognition formed on my face, and you can bet by the next commercial break I was sending off a message to my friends that might as well have read, “I AM A HUGE TRANSFORMERS NERD.”

I can't believe that song showed up in the episode, and while most people probably thought nothing of it, a generic tune bridging the scenes leading to the key moment where the rhythm of Rush's “Tom Sawyer” is instrumental in beating Missile Command, I recognized that somebody writing for that show was a Transformers fan. It was perfectly used, and another layer that makes me appreciate that people from my generation who grew up watching the same shows are now incorporating our tastes into the shows of today. It's a touching phenomenon to those in touch with our inner ‘80s geek.


Phantasmic Links 10.27.08

Not many people would exclaim, “YAY! It's MONDAY!”, and I doubt PHANTASMIC LINKS will change that, but hopefully they'll make the transition a little easier:

(1) We'll start with a scary one, then gradually move on to happier links: Here's why I may have to move my 401K in mattresses when(if?) Obama takes office.
Hat Tip: Rey.

(2) In a less terrifying, fun kind of scary, turn any photo into an animated Jack-O-Lantern Gif.
H.T.: Darrell.

(3) What if the objective of a game was for your character to lose all of his lives?

(4) Biden on the ropes?
H.T.: Rey.

(5) It's hard not to have political links so close to a major election, but this one made me laugh: Barack Obama: Fact or Smear?. I'll make that the last political link for tonight.

(6) An engineering challenge: build a structurally sound bridge to help these little guys cross to safety.

(7) 10 giant reasons to grow a beard are making me consider ditching my razor once and for all.

(8) What would you look like in old yearbooks? I think we all know what I would look like...

(9) Now here's some inspiration for my photo outings: creepy abandoned amusement parks!
H.T. Darrell.

(10) I'm sure I've posted The Top 50 WTF moments in Comics before, but I can't seem to find it in any of my old link posts. Perhaps I read it and forgot to post it, so forgive me if this is a repeat.
H.T. Rhodester.

(11) Speaking of comics, check out this Bat-load of DC wallpaper!.
H.T. Darrell.

(12) Finally, while we're on this road, check out what The Uncyclopedia has to say about Smallville.(contains some strong language and massive hilarity for those familiar with the show)

Have a link to a game, movie, article, or anything else you think might be “phantasmic”? E-mail me and it just might appear in an upcoming PHANTASMIC LINKS!



Wind Songs.

It was a little windy on Saturday morning, the kind of day when the bulk of the leaves are ripped from the trees and tossed to the ground below. As the day went on, a bit of mist joined the wind, which increased in its speed and ferocity. By the time I drove my mom to 5:00 mass, leaves were dancing in little spirals, and on one road a tree lay across two lanes of oncoming traffic: a tree, not a branch.

After mass, the rain and wind intensified. With foggy windows, I navigated harsh weather and idiot drivers opening their doors into traffic, managing to make it from my parking spot back to the front of the church where my mom waited in the lobby. For the most part, Saturday was a relaxing day in which I watched a few DVDs and ate way too many chocolate chip cookies. Around 8 PM, there was a loud buzzing sound somewhere in the distance. My computer and lights flickered, came back to full life for a second, and then I was in total darkness. My family was scattered. My dad was down the hall in the living room in front of a dark television, while my mom and Cubby were in my parents room, also in front of a dark television. Somewhere in my room Chirp lay curled in a ball, purring in oblivious contentment, while I carefully walked away from my computer, trying not to trip over empty bottles and laundry.

The hall was as dark as my room, as cries of “what happened?” echoed toward me from two different old people. I knew my mom had left an ironing board out with an iron on it, and I hugged the opposite side of the wall, even as I heard my dad shuffling from the living room to the kitchen to find a flashlight.

And then the power came back on.

So, I proceeded to reboot my computer, and started writing this. And, quite literally, the second I wrote “And then the power came back on”, as is my luck, we experienced a major blackout. My dad, after getting the flashlight earlier, fumbled about in the dark of the living room. I called out to remind him about the light, but he replied that he’d left it on the kitchen table. At his behest, I made it to a window to see if the neighbors lost power as well, in case it was just us, but as I suspected, it was pitch black outside. I saw headlights from a car slowly driving around the block, illuminating leaves and drops of water, and then it was gone.

It was only 9 PM but, like a bird with a towel over its cage, I felt a sudden urge to sleep. My parents had located flashlights as well as a battery powered radio, but I was already drifting off. Now it’s 4 AM. I don’t know when the power came back on. Outside, it’s eerily quiet. Inside, I can’t get back to sleep. Maybe some windy tunes will help...


Ego Boost

He walked through the mall, lost in the recesses of his own brain as always. After three years, his rechargeable batteries were not holding their charge like they used to, and so, on his day off, he was setting out to replace them. Twenty dollars for four batteries seemed like a lot of money, even if they would last him for years, so he decided to walk over to Best Buy to see if they had a better price than Circuit City, an almost certainty.

So oblivious was he to the outside world, that he didn't even see her until she was reaching for him. “Give me your hands,” said the beautiful girl, with a slight European accent he couldn't quite place. Even as his mouth opened to question her, his hands extended. He didn't know where she was leading him, but this was a rare development indeed. Most girls barely acknowledged his existence, let alone grabbed him by the hand. Had all those hours in the gym finally started paying off? Had this Groo been transformed into a Conan at long last?

“You are married....yes?” asked she. He was not. “Girlfriend, then?” Not at the moment. “Oh!” she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling, never leaving his even when his darted away in shyness, “How many then?” At this point, he noticed she'd led him to a perfume booth in the middle of the mall, and was opening a box of something even as she continued to hold his hands. She was seconds away from getting a bottle of some scent out and dabbing it on him, seconds from convincing him to buy something for the many girlfriends she speculated he had. It was all a play on his ego, all of it, in an effort to sell something.

“You know I...I really don't need that...” he stammered, trying unsuccessfully to take his hands back.

“Oh...?” she asked in dulcet tones, maintaining her hypnotic eye contact, “Why not?”

He managed to free one hand, with which he was able to extricate the other. “Um...you know what...I...I'll stop by on my way back,” he lied. “Okay,” she purred, and he could still feel her eyes on his back as he trudged away, the fog slowly dissipating.

It was a great sales tactic. The physical contact, the eye contact, the questions about his social status, and even the question of “how many” girls he was stringing along at the moment all made for a nearly lethal combination. But his willpower was as strong as his self esteem was low, and in the end he would not fall for any of it.

On an unrelated note, I have a few cases of perfume and makeup in my trunk now if anyone needs some...


MCF's COMMON Bondz 4

B13 and Lyndon both had some great guesses to yesterday's edition of MCF's COMMON! Some answers were right, and though some answers weren't the ones I was looking for, they weren't technically wrong. So, how obscure were the connections in each group? How big of a geek am I? Rhetorical though that may be, I'm still about to prove it:

(A) Hart to Hart.
(B) Suddenly Susan.
(C) Star Trek.
(D) Unsolved Mysteries.
This is going to be the most obscure set of all, and I would have bowed to anyone's geek superiority for noticing that each show counted among its stars Lionel Stander, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, and Robert Stack, respectively. Some of you may now realize that all four actors provided vocal talents in The Transformers: The Movie.

(A) Africa.
(B) Canada.
(C) Germany.
(D) Russia.
The X-Men were not always as popular as they are today, but they got their first big boost with the introduction of several diverse new team members in 1975's Giant Size X-Men #1. These popular characters are still around today and hailed from the countries listed above: Storm(Africa), Wolverine(Canada), Nightcrawler(Germany), and Colossus(Russia). And as Lyndon guessed, yes these are also all countries I've yet to visit.

(A) Keri Russell.
(B) Jennifer Garner.
(C) Evangeline Lilly.
(D) Anna Torv.
These lovely ladies have all held leading roles in popular J.J. Abrams series: Russell in Felicity, Garner in Alias, Lilly in Lost, and Torv in the new hit Fringe. And yes Joe, they are all HOT BABES. Abrams knows what he's doing.

(A) Chris Latta.
(B) Aron Kincaid.
(C) Scott McNeil.
(D) Rob Zombie.
These guys are voice actors who have played reptilian characters: Cobra Commander(Latta), Killer Croc(Kincaid), Dinobot(McNeil), and The Lizard(Zombie).

(A) Mass Increase.
(B) Fire Manipulation.
(C) Limited-time Invulnerability.
(D) Flying Raccoon Transmogrification.
I knew the last ability would give it away, but anything else would have made it impossible: these are indeed a list of upgrades that Mario has had over the years; Lyndon even specified Super Mario Bros. 3 as the one game in which all of those upgrades were available. He also had a frog suit in that game, as well as a leaf that gave him just the ears and tail of a raccoon, as opposed to his full-fledged Tanuki suit.




So, the other day I thought I had this great “new” idea about geek degrees of separation, asking readers to find the connections in various geeky lists. But, as I suspected after thinking about the idea some more, I realized my “new” idea was MCF's COMMON, a little game we haven't played in about a year.

It's a pretty simple concept. Below are 20 items broken down into 5 groups of 4. Within each group, there is some common bond. For example, if I listed apple, orange, grape, and pear in one group, the answer would be “fruit”. Of course, to make it interesting, the connections won't be that obvious. Or, in some cases, it might be so obvious that you second guess yourself and miss it. Most importantly, it should be fun!

20 items. 5 COMMON bonds. Can you name them all?

(A) Hart to Hart.
(B) Suddenly Susan.
(C) Star Trek.
(D) Unsolved Mysteries.

(A) Africa.
(B) Canada.
(C) Germany.
(D) Russia.

(A) Keri Russell.
(B) Jennifer Garner.
(C) Evangeline Lilly.
(D) Anna Torv.

(A) Chris Latta.
(B) Aron Kincaid.
(C) Scott McNeil.
(D) Rob Zombie.

(A) Mass Increase.
(B) Fire Manipulation.
(C) Limited-time Invulnerability.
(D) Flying Raccoon Transmogrification.



PBW: Friend of Misery

I've lived on Long Island for over three decades, but I've really only been exploring it with a camera for about three years. Just when I think I've been everywhere I could possibly go, I learn of or discover something new. When one of my friends told me about Mount Misery Road and the nearby West Hills County Park, all of which connected somehow to Long Island's highest point, a site I'd visited more than once, I was intrigued. I didn't expect we'd find the ghost of a state trooper with a head injury, mostly because we were going in broad daylight, but I did expect to hike some new trails and cover new ground. Some sights stood out more than others, particularly a weird stack of tires on a blood-red tree stump. For some reason every shot I took of those had a white spot in the center, from any angle. Perhaps there was a smudge on my lens, but I never cleaned it and the spot wasn't present in any photos before or after those tire shots. My friend suggested they might be orbs, photographic evidence of spirits. I'm skeptical, despite the fact that the trails seemed to shift and bring us back to those tires, when we couldn't possibly have been heading in that direction. In any case, I did get some good shots of the area for Photo Blog Wednesday:

Click on any of this next batch for 1024 x 768 desktop joy:

Finally, my buddy tipped me off to Todd Atteberry, a digital artist who's shot many of the same locations I've visited, and taken his photos to the next level with some amazing manipulations. Inspired, I messed around with one of the above images to see if I could achieve similar results:

I'm certainly not quitting my day job any time soon, but I may play with more of my photos in the future, and perhaps revisit some old ones.



Thanks, Kev Bayer!

After a day that included eight hours at the office, two hours at the gym, four hours of new episodes of some of my favorite dramas, and more, I wasn't sure what to write. At lunch my brain cobbled together the rough framework of a new game that might still manifest later in the week, once I work out possible similarities to games I've come up with in the past. Then I saw a series of questions over at Kev Bayer's, and recognized an opportunity to write something substantial without taxing a tired brain. Thanks, Kev Bayer!

01. What's the last TV show you saw?
Heroes, and OMG. I gasped. I laughed. I made snarky comments. And everything I hoped would happen did, except for the things that surprised me, which were equally awesome. Welcome back, SHOW.

02. What are you wearing at the moment?
Blue flannel button up shirt, not buttoned, and dark gray sweatpants.

03. Who is/was your favorite cartoon character?
Tough one...Bumblebee, Lion-O, Goliath, Rattrap, Homer Simpson and pretty much every animated incarnation of Spider-Man spring to mind. I'll be here all night if I list more, but I think I got a good variety of the major ones here.

04. What is your favorite scent?
Any bakery smell, especially vanilla.

05. What is your favorite drink?
Alcoholic: Corona with lime. Nonalcoholic: sports drinks like Powerade. Back before I cut out caffeine, Dr Pepper was my soda of choice.

06. What do you drink the most?
Powerade and water. I go through seven bottles a week, usually refilling them with water when I'm done(or almost done, so I get a little flavor in my water).

07. What is your favorite food?
I like pizza, especially with pepperoni, BBQ chicken, ziti, or ravioli toppings. I also have a weakness for snack foods, and I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that I don't need a bag of chips with my big deli sandwich. I love ice cream, and I love chocolate chip cookies, especially those Italian bakery cookies with the chips on top of the cookie.

08. What is your favorite Disney movie?
Aladdin for modern, Dumbo for classic, and Toy Story 2 for computer generated.

09. What did you want to be when you grew up?
A comic book artist. I knew all their names the way some kids knew athletes, and I wanted to be famous, to inspire kids to emulate my work the way I emulated my favorites.

10. What mythological figure are you?
Sisyphus. Or is it Kissyfur? No, no I think it's the first one.

11. What animal do you identify with?

12. What mythological/fictional creature would you most like to be?
Lockjaw, a giant teleporting dog that lives on the moon. I can't make this stuff up; I'd be famous if I could.

13. What is your current desktop?
At home, a nice neutral gray. At work, a nice solid black.

14. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is?
Kev Bayer didn't tag me, but he seems like a good guy. Husband, father, and geek; my kind of people.

15. What are you afraid of?
Change, especially big ones like the death of family, friends, or pets.

16. What's your favorite item of clothing?
A sleeveless gray shirt with a monkey in a baseball uniform swinging a bat with the word “BEAST” over it. For the friends wondering why they've never seen me in this shirt, I outgrew it over 20 years ago and to keep my mom from getting rid of it, I put it on my favorite teddy bear where it remains today. My favorite current t-shirt interestingly enough shows an ape evolving in to Homer Simpson. That usually shows up in my gym rotation since I don't get to wear t-shirts in an office. I miss college, where I could wear a flannel shirt as a jacket over my t-shirt. Those were some comfortable years.

17. What are you into right now?
Internet, television, Netflix, and my amateur photo expeditions. I'd get more specific, but it would be too shocking and surprising...

18. What did you do today?
Woke up ridiculously early because my dad was taking my mom to the hospital for a minor surgical procedure, spent a relatively calm day at the office after three crazy weeks, knowing it's a calm before the storm, walked to my favorite deli by the beach at lunch, worked out with the treadmill on a higher incline, ate dinner and watched a ridiculous amount of shows, and answered these questions. When I'm done I'll be watching the latest How I Met Your Mother.

19. What do you want?
After watching tonight's Heroes, I think I want the power to control people with a wave of my hand and a few spoken commands. That would honestly solve anything else I might list here.

20. What should you be doing right now?

21. What's the meaning behind your username/name/nicknames you go by?
I'm a Figure, and I'm Mysteriously Cloaked. The name and acronym first arose a few years ago in the midst of an improvised message board RPG. As for nicknames, most of the ones I've been given haven't been too flattering, usually describing cartoons or fictional creatures I resemble. There was one cool one I was reminded of recently, which makes a clever play off of my last name, but I certainly can't share that here...


Phantasmic Links 10.20.08

I did a lot of hiking this weekend, most of it uphill. It was good to get outside, to find wooded areas I didn't know existed, and enjoy pleasant weather even as temperatures are dropping daily. In a warm room, with a warm cat, sitting in front of a warm computer, I now compile warm PHANTASMIC LINKS:

(1) We'll start with Tower Bloxx, an online game of strategy and timing based on a cell phone version. Can you construct the towers on your block with the optimum configuration to gain the highest population?

(2) The Hallowindow may well be the coolest decoration I've ever seen, and certainly the best “Why didn't I think of that?” idea of the season.
Hat Tip: B13.

(3) Battleground States 2008 is an awesome way to handle an election. If only real life was like the internet!

(4) Words you thought you'd never see together: awesome xylophone solo.

(5) Rey also brings us the comedic stylings of McCain & Obama. I guess those are more words we never thought we'd see together, eh?

(6) The Top 10 Mad Scientists in History are quite real, and some of their experiments were quite disturbing...
H.T.: B13.

(7) Nathan Fillion and Aria Giovanni star in “Nailing Your Wife”, which is surprisingly more PG than you'd expect...

(8) Watch in anticlimactic anticipation as these machines almost fall over.

(9) Because there's an audience out there for everything, you can now find a site dedicated to photos of upside down dogs.

(10) When you learn the real names of popular rappers, you may understand why they changed them...

(11) A can of soda is more than a beverage. Removes blood stains, eh...?

(12) Here are 10 games that should be made. I'd say that article is preaching to the choir as far I'm concerned...

Have a link to a game, movie, article, or anything else you think might be “phantasmic”? E-mail me and it just might appear in an upcoming PHANTASMIC LINKS!



Unfair Platform

It took me some time, and 214 lives to complete The Unfair Platformer. It may be one of the most evil games ever designed. It seems harmless enough, with green grass, blue skies, and innocuous blocks, and it certainly has the familiar elements platform gamers expect. But there are lies and traps before you even move far enough for the screen to scroll. Spikes pop out of blocks when least expected. At any time, sections of the floor might disappear. One level starts your character in midair, and by the time you realize you need to press an arrow key you've already fallen to your doom.

But, complete it I did, as repetition taught me valuable lessons. Don't jump on that third block. Collecting those coins will cause the ceiling to fall; leave them be. And whatever you do, don't try to go to Sunshine Mountain! Every death was a lesson, although knowing what to do and actually timing everything perfectly was another story. I suppose there's a metaphor in there for life, that failures can teach us what to right the next time, and that there's no guarantee of success even with that knowledge. I suppose it can teach us patience, and help us stay cool and avoid frustration. But really, it all reminds me of Super Mario Bros.

I remember watching people play this game in a department store with utter fascination, my first exposure to a true platformer, to a scrolling screen that gave the player an entire world to explore. I remember my joy when my folks finally caved and bought me an NES, and the hours I dedicated to playing. Most of all, I remember the frustration of pits I couldn't jump across, or merciless hammer tossing turtles.

It's a miracle those early platforms didn't drive kids insane. These days, memory cards or built-in hard drives on game systems allow players to save progress. You can play for a few minutes or a few hours, and come back any time and resume where you left off. As some game plots take 60 or more hours to unfold, this is a very good thing. But on the NES, you had to play straight through, which was tough if your mom only gave you a one hour limit before confiscating your controller. I doubt I would have gotten much homework done if it wasn't for my mom, though I didn't appreciate it at the time. I'd beg and plead for just five more minutes, but she knew I'd try to stack and turn 5 into 10, 10 into 15, and so on. So she'd usually pull the plug.

Super Mario Bros. takes a lot more than an hour to complete. It consists of 8 worlds divided into 4 sections apiece. Throughout the game there are various “warp zones”, pipes your little plumber hero could enter to skip over worlds. With proper planning, I could cut 32 sections down to about 8, and even then I needed just about an hour to get through them all. It helped when I discovered that holding down the “B” button and pressing start after losing all your lives would allow you to start from whichever section you just were in. It really helped when I learned of a difficult trick of jumping on a turtle shell on just the right step so you'd keep bouncing and accumulating extra lives, or “1UP”s. Rumor had it that if you exceeded 99, you'd hit 0 again and die instantly, but I never tested this.

It took a lot of trial and error until I had the sequence of events memorized. Between a small controller and a big thumb, I could simultaneously hold down one button that made my character run while rolling my thumb on to a second button to make jumps. The patterns were always the same with enemies, so I eventually knew when a bullet, hammer, or evil squid was coming my way. I can only imagine what the description of this game sounds like to people outside of my own generation. Turtles? Squid? Plumber? Hammer? I haven't even mentioned my favorites, the Goombas, or the fact that some of the turtles had wings and could fly.

Each world was harder than the previous one. There were sections in world 7 that were nearly impossible, but 8 was the killer. 8-1 wasn't too bad, but 8-2 was the longest level of the game, and every level was timed. If the timer hit 0, you lost a life. I realize the irony of losing something I clearly didn't have in high school if I was playing a game instead of dating or going to parties, but that's a topic for another time. 8-2 had to be executed perfectly, dodging bullets and jumping off the right points to reach the end in the designated time. This left 8-3 to conquer, a much shorter section riddled with giant bullets and hammer-throwing turtles. If you made it to 8-4, you found a dungeon, like every dash-four section of the game. Here's where it got really evil. If you didn't run through the precise sequence of platforms, it was an infinite loop. I think the pattern was “bottom-middle-top-repeat”, or the opposite of that. Then you had to choose the correct pipes to take, and the wrong choices could send you back to earlier parts of the level, all while that timer kept counting down. As with every dungeon level in the game, King Koopa(later known as Bowser) waited at the end of a bridge, throwing hammers and spitting fireballs. If you had fireballs of your own, gained by picking a special flower and not getting hit by any enemies along the way, you could hit him six or seven times to defeat him. Otherwise, you had to run across that bridge, dodging his attacks, and either jump over him or run under him while he was jumping. At the end of the bridge you'd grab this lever or axe-looking thing, and the bridge would retract, letting your enemy fall into the lava below. Continuing on, a princess would be waiting for you. As with your previous 7 rescue attempts, the dialogue copy over this princess would read “We're sorry, but your princess is in another castle” This time, thankfully for your sanity, it would add the words “just kidding” and you'd know you'd saved your princess at last.

It was a fun game that still spawns sequels today, and inspired other popular platform series featuring heroes like Sonic the Hedgehog or Megaman. The basic overall objective of these games was the same, navigating a cartoon character through different colorful sections while collecting things and defeating “bosses”. Where Mario collected coins, Sonic collected rings, and it was these rings that allowed Sonic to survive one attack or impact. He'd lose all his rings when hit, and as they flew in every direction you had to grab a few before getting hit a second, fatal time. Where Mario could swim underwater indefinitely, Sonic had to surface for air, or find an air bubble to gulp down. The music would get tense when a 5 second countdown would warn the player that Sonic needed air fast. Megaman meanwhile offered more flexibility, allowing the player to tackle boards in any order. This freedom was deceptive, because for every boss Megaman defeated, he'd gain that enemy robot's ability, which another boss might be weak against. So if you were going to fight a fire robot, it might have been a good idea to take out an ice robot first to assimilate his ability.

Games today are longer and more involved. Their plots are much more complex, and your objectives are often more involved than “run from point A to point B and don't get hit”. My nostalgia for Super Mario Bros. and other games like it will never die, though The Unfair Platformer reminded me how aggravated I got when my character did. In the end, it's not all that “unfair”, and follows the same principles as the games it pays homage to. With enough practice and experience, you can memorize the proper sequence of action to navigate each world. I guess that brings us full circle back to the real world, after all.


Cloakfest: Heroic Epilogue

I’m not quite done with CLOAKFEST! As astute readers may recall, I asked for suggestions for humorous or unique superpowers, with the promise that I would then draw you wielding the powers you suggested. These were the responses I received:

B13: “How about the power of common sense? With a fish-eye glance you can get anyone around you to immediately have more sense than a doorknob.”

Wendy: “And the superpower that I'd like to have is the ability to instantaneously compute calculations in my head. Try drawing that one ;)”

Darrell: “A while back we were discussing our ‘dream super powers' with the kids ... and my stepson Liam said that his dream super power would be the ability to ‘fly and shoot lasers out of my butt.'

I can't top that.”

It’s been a while since I actually tried to draw, and longer still since I was doing it regularly. I may have pulled a muscle with this attempt. It’s always frustrating when I can see in my mind what I want something to look like, but no matter what my hands and my pencil will not cooperate. I managed to make it through the sketching phase without stabbing the pencil into my leg, but didn’t have the patience to attempt inking. So I scanned in my sketches and colored in those, which is another reason why these may be a little rough. In any case, here’s the world premiere of Loud-D, Equatia, and Fisheye Guy!: