Friday, December 23, 2011

The Star Wars Holiday Special teaches us to hate Christmas, life

In accordance with ancient Pointless Side Quest Christmas tradition, I'm once again posting a revised and expanded version of my post on The Star Wars Holiday Special. Please to enjoy, for a certain value of "enjoy."

It's the Christmas season once again. To celebrate, this is the time of year when this blog make a foray beyond the world of video games into the larger world of holiday entertainment. Sadly, there is a dark side to Christmas. I'm not talking about the weather, or the parents rending each other apart like rabid beasts at Toys R Us, or the built-up resentment that can explode at family gatherings, or those horrific modernized versions of Christmas carols that every place of business in the state of Illinois is apparently required by law to defile my eardrums with for the entire month of December. No, I speak of something much worse...

The Star Wars Holiday Special has appeared on American television once, in 1978, and oozed into various foreign markets to make similarly brief appearances over the next few years. It has never been rebroadcast in the US and has never been released on home video in any format. George Lucas, who would probably release a boxed set of the prequel trilogy with an added bonus DVD containing 90 minutes of footage from the parking lot security cameras of Skywalker Ranch and call it the "Star Wars Ultimate Edition" if he thought anyone would buy it, disavows it and has refused to make it available.

Scorned by legitimate society, it exists only in the form of unauthorized copies made from VCR recordings of the original. Like so many other blasphemous tomes of daemonic horror bearing unspeakable eldritch knowledge never meant for the eyes of Man- Friedrich von Junzt's Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon, Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy Trilogy- it circulates covertly in the dark corners of the world (I think that's an entirely fair description of most file-sharing networks) where students of the grotesque and unnatural risk their very sanity to seek it out.

It was in 2006 that I acquired a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special, complete with the original 1978 commercials. It should have been a fine year: Neal Asher, David Drake, and Stephen Baxter all had multiple new books rolling off the presses. Ace Combat Zero came out for the PlayStation 2, and the release of the PlayStation 3 paved the way for me to actually buy one three years later. Iron Maiden, Evergrey, In Flames, Norther, Strapping Young Lad, Tool, Motorhead, Blind Guardian, and Týr released new albums. Instead, there would be only the taste of ashes.

Now, one thing I share with several of my friends is the ability to enjoy crap. From 1950's skiffy schlock, to watching a near-comatose Richard Burton mumble his way through the uncut version of The Exorcist II, to Sylvester Stallone's arm wrestling epic Over the Top, to the climactic scene of The Satanic Rites of Dracula where Christopher Lee is killed by running into a small shrubbery, to Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy and a bunch of stupid teenagers trapped on a boat where they are picked off one by one by an evil hybrid cat/rat/godawful puppet in The Uninvited, to a seemingly endless horde of Godfrey Ho "ninja" "movies" created by buying the rights to various Asian films, redubbing them, splicing them together with new footage of white guys in brightly colored and sometimes rhinestone-studded pajamas running around and doing flips in what appears to a small municipal park, and feebly attempting to tie them together and pretend that the resulting Frankensteinian abomination was a coherent story, we've seen it all. We take that sort of thing in stride.

I want you to have that context in mind when I say that my first two attempts to watch this had to be aborted within the first half hour because the guys I was watching it with couldn't stand it any longer.

The plot, such as it is, is that Chewbacca is returning to his home and family on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate "Life Day," one of those vague holidays characters in kids' fantasy shows would celebrate when it was snowing and they wanted to do something festively nonsectarian. But the system is in the grip of an Imperial blockade fleet commanded by recycled movie footage of Darth Vader, and... Well, basically, there's a string of largely unrelated, godawful variety showesque events set in something that resembles the Star Wars universe featuring various C-list celebrities until things finally shudder to a halt what seems like several geological epochs later.

It's got all of the heroes from the movie making their return, plus James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. The only major actors from Star Wars not present- unless one also counts David Prowse, who appears only in the form of reused movie footage, or Carrie Fisher, whose soul appears to have departed her body and wandered for much of her screen time- are Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi and Peter Cushing as Tarkin, whose characters were saved from appearances here by the sweet, merciful embrace of death.(Which makes it suddenly seem very suspicious that Kenobi and Tarkin both met their ends because they conspicuously chose not to protect themselves from imminent danger, and either possessed supernatural powers that included the ability to sense horrible, cataclysmic events or hung out with people who did.) What could possibly have gone wrong?

There are some things the human mind cannot explain, only try to describe. Some of the thrilling spectacles we're treated to include:

Over ten minutes of Chewbacca's family screaming at each in Wookie, sans subtiitles! This is what the show leads off with. Little-known fact: Lucas actually wanted the first 20 minutes of the original Star Wars to focus on R2-D2 making random beep-bloop noises while doing routine maintenance on the Tantive IV's cafeteria vending machines, but was forced to start the movie with an exciting space battle instead when the studio said that his original cut of the film was too long.

Chewbacca's elderly father Itchy groaning in ecstasy while watching virtual reality porn! You have no idea how badly I wish I was making that up. NO idea.
Ever wondered what an elderly Wookie having an orgasm looks like? Of course not, but now you know anyway.

Reused footage from the movie!

Reused footage from the movie tinted bright green, so that a shot of the Millennium Falcon approaching Yavin can double as a shot of a bright green Millennium Falcon approaching Kashyyyk! Alternately, if you're a die-hard Star Wars fan desperately trying to escape from the implications of this monstrosity actually being a canonical part of the Star Wars universe, it could be interpreted to mean that the entire special is actually taking  place inside the Matrix. In which case it's arguably a better Matrix film than Matrix Revolutions.

Several minutes of Chewbacca's repulsive son Lumpy watching miniature holographic acrobats! That's right, Chewbacca's immediate kin consists of two guys named "Itchy" and "Lumpy." Presumably, the name "Chewbacca" is a human-pronounceable approximation of the Wookie word for "Scabby" or "Oozing."
Lumpy! I've already mentioned his role in the Special's events, but the very existence of this... this thing appalls me so much that it warrants its own entry. With the possible exception of that loathsome, soulless homunculus wrought in obscene parody of a human child from Son of the Mask (the CGI baby, not Jamie Kennedy), nothing has ever filled with such instinctive horror.


Harvey Korman in a dress! And in two other separate parts, as an amorous Tatooine cantina patron and a cyborg instructional video announcer (a cyborg who announces in an instructional video, that is, not an announcer in an instructional video about cyborgs) who appears to be suffering from some sort of degenerative motor neuron disorder. Not since Peter Sellers in Dr. Stranglove has there been such a multi-role tour de force!

The musical stylings of Bea Arthur! This is actually the closest we get to a high point.

Harvey Korman trying to get into Bea Arthur's pants! Though anyone hoping for some actual on-screen Hedley-on-Maude action will be disappointed, sadly.

An animated segment featuring the  most repellently butt-ugly animation in human history! It does have the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett, which some people may be interested in. Frankly, I've always considered Fett one of the most overrated characters in fiction. It's a damning indictment of how low our society's standards of masculinity have fallen when possessing some basic tracking abilities, dressing like the Rocketeer, flying around in a big metal shoe, and being killed by a blind man is enough of a résumé to be declared Biggest Badass Ever.

One odd thing is that the cartoon, like a number of other segments, is actually introduced as something being watched by Lumpy. Which implies that this segment depicts events that are fictional not only to us but to the characters, and that the cartoon itself actually exists within the Star Wars universe.

Which, I just realized, means that Jefferson Starship does, too.

A brief appearance by an incredibly bored-looking Harrison Ford, who doesn't even try to conceal his utter contempt for the proceedings!

Mark Hamill wearing more makeup than Queen Amidala, Bozo the Clown, and Dick Clark combined!
Usually I'd be reluctant to say something nasty about this, since it's probably to conceal the injuries Hamill had suffered in a car crash the previous year, but The Star Wars Holiday Special exists on a plane where human concepts of morality and decency are not merely absent, but meaningless. If you gaze into the bellowing unsubtitled Wookie abyss, the bellowing unsubtitled Wookie abyss gazes also into you.

Carrie Fisher singing a festive Life Day carol set to the tune of the classic Star Wars theme while clearly stoned out of her mind! But you don't have to take my word for it:

She's no Bea Arthur, I'll tell you that much.

Eventually, Chewbacca makes it home for the holidays with his repellent family. To the best of my recollection, no one learns a valuable lesson about The True Meaning of Life Day, if in fact it has one.

I really can't do justice to how teeth-gratingly bad it is. I have no strong personal stake in Star Wars. I liked the original movies and a few of the tie-in books, but I've never had the strong emotional attachment to Star Wars that some people do. I didn't like the prequel trilogy but never had the sort of "I have sworn a Sicilian blood oath of vengeance upon George Lucas' and his entire family line because he murdered my family, burned down my village, and deflowered my house pets" response that is often seen on the Internet. The idea of crap with the name Star Wars on it is not some sort of personal affront to me. Given that sitting through this made me want to gouge out my own eyes and just run through the streets of Chicago gibbering like a lunatic until my heart and/or lungs burst, I can only imagine how devoted Star Wars fans feel about it.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Definitive, Absolutely 100% Petty Complaining and Pointless Digression-Free Guide to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

With the recent release of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the Marvel vs. Capcom roster is now bigger than ever before. (Provided one defines “ever” to exclude Marvel Vs Capcom 2.) With 48 characters to choose from and no ability to select multiple iterations of the same character so that you can just pick three Sentinels and crush everybody like in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, selecting your team of three can be a daunting task. Fortunately, my friend and guest co-author Kevin Folliard- screenwriter of the Press Start Adventures online animated series and the two Press Start live-action films from Illinois-based independent film company Dark Maze Studios and an innovator in the field of video game parodies that have actual jokes instead of nostalgic references standing in for jokes- and I are here to provide guidance with this piercingly insightful look at some of the characters, both new and old, who will be doing battle in Ultimate Marvel v. Capcom 3: The Fate of Two Worlds. So, without further delay, let us begin, starting with perhaps the only character renowned and fearsome enough to march in the vanguard of so mighty a host:

Tron Bonne

John: A returning character from Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Tron Bonne appeared in the Mega Man Legends games and her own spin-off, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. Tron Bonne was one of four Mega Man characters to appear in MvC 2, along with Servbot, Roll, and Mega Man himself. In Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the developers had a great idea- make Mega Man's red-armored, sword-wielding, and still-reasonably-masculine-despite-that huge-blond-ponytail comrade-in-arms Zero playable. Alas, this time they could only dedicate two playable character slots to characters from the Mega Man universe.

So, they did the obvious thing: Ditched the central character of the franchise and one of the most iconic characters in the history of video games so that they'd have space to keep one of the secondary antagonists from a short-lived Mega Man spin-off series that last had a game released over a decade ago. Which makes sense, because... because... Kevin, help me out here.

Kevin: I think that.... Well it makes sense due to her…. Mega Man has always been loathed and….. I’m afraid I’m of no help to you. Not only is Tron’s inclusion over Mega Mann a bonafide headscratcher, it has also opened a Pandora’s Box of outrage from scores of pissy Mega Man fanboys throughout the internet. The level of self-importance and immaturity from the E-outcry has been growing exponentially since the Blue Bomber was snubbed yet again in Ultimate MvC 3, and a growing cesspool of childish pouting and image spam has begun to suck out what little shreds of dignity might have existed in the fan community. For God's sake, Capcom, please give us Mega Man. It’s not about his iconic status at this point. We need to quell this embittered mass of negative emotion before it becomes sentient.


Kevin: Albert Wesker, the main antagonist of the Resident Evil series, has finally made it into the Marvel vs. Capcom universe. But like some other characters, he has something of a complex. Wesker seems concerned with maintaining an image of intimidation. With every teleport and counter he implores: “Do I frighten you?! Do I frighten you?! Do I frighten you?! Do I frighten you?! Do I—Do I—Do I frighten you?”

Yes, Mr. Wesker,” I want to reply, “you frighten me very much. It’s going to be okay.” My current theory is that the machines of Wesker's Tricell Genetics Laboratory are somehow fueled by fear, like the society from the movie Monsters Inc.

John: Insert lazy political joke about the politician, political party, or socioeconomic system of your choice here.

Kevin: In any case, however, at this point the motivation behind his obsession with frightening his opponents remains unclear.

John:Well, I'm not ashamed to admit he frightens ME. The combined effect of Wesker's all-black clothing, coldly disdainful expression, and pale ultra-Nordic blondness always makes him look like he ought to be in some sort of creepy German electronic band that Dieter from Mike Myers' old “Sprockets” sketches would listen to. I half-expected his victory quote to be, “Ve believe in nothing, Redfield! NOTHING!”

Phoenix Wright

Kevin: The heroic Capcom Lawyer Phoenix Wright is perhaps the most controversial addition to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. It seemed like half the fans were psyched to see what form his play style will take, while others feel slighted that a legal professional has been invited to go toe to toe with some of the most powerful fighters in fiction. I say, lighten up! Marvel characters have been getting beaten up by lawyers for decades. There’s She Hulk, there’s Daredevil. There’s that little-known story in which the Carnage Symbiote got on Johnnie Cochran. And who can forget when Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor got her hands on the Ultimate Nullifier?

John: I was never a big fan of that issue, to be honest. Sandra Day O'Connor was so overexposed in the early 90- she had her own series, she was a member of the Avengers, she was in what seemed like half of the X-books, she kept popping up in The Punisher for reasons that never really made sense, the whole Sandra Day O'Connor/2000 AD/Stormwatch crossover... Just got tired of it after a while.
Phoenix Wright makes his closing argument before the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals during the historic case of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms v. von Doom.

Kevin: Honestly, they can make Phoenix as goofy as they want for all I care. This is a game that asks questions like “Who would win in a fight: Tron Bonne or Dormammu?” At this point, adding a clumsy lawyer to the mix can only make it more serious.

John: I mostly just enjoy the fact that there's a character in the game with a “projectile “attack- for lack of a better term- that consists of some girl running in from offscreen while flailing her arms like a 5-year old. I also like the move where she rushes out in front of you to create a defensive energy barrier; “hero who uses a woman as a human shield” had always been an underutilized design niche until now.


Kevin: You can’t have a Capcom Fighting game without Akuma! Why… why can’t we please have ONE god- forsaken game without him?

Akuma was introduced in Super Street Fighter II Turbo as an overpowered hidden fighter who throws fireballs down from the air, growls at everyone, and performs the highly questionable “Raging Demon Attack” which is censored for some reason by those little exploding flicks that happen when Street Fighter characters punch one another. Since then, he has continued to be both “hidden” and overpowered in nearly every appearance he makes. For almost two decades, he has caused the expression “Here Comes a New Challenger” to grow and swell exponentially in its irony.
In MvC 3, they’ve tweaked him quite a bit to distinguish him from the already-included Ryu. Akuma now has a fireball, a hurricane kick, and a shoryuken uppercut. Which makes him a worthwhile inclusion because....

Son of a bitch!

John: Agreed, Akuma was a very poor choice for inclusion. The Tron Bonne of contemporary East Asia, if you will.

Strider Hiryu

John: My all-time favorite 1980s action game character named after a mode of ambulation makes his return in Ultimate Edition. My favorite thing about Strider has always been his weapon. It's basically a tonfa, an old Okinawan weapon with a short handle perpendicular to a long wooden shaft- already inherently cool because the hero in Suikoden II used them- except instead of a long wooden shaft there's a giant sword blade. Because, well, why not?

More weapons need to take a cue from Strider and incorporate swords. Flail? Sword on a chain. Handgun? Swordgun, even though I have no idea how the hell that would even work, or whether it would be a sword that can fire bullets or a gun that fires swords, or what. Nerve gas? Cloud of microscopic swords that enter the bloodstream and dismember the enzymes in people's neurons on the molecular level. Plasma cannon? Fires blasts of highly energized copper ions produced from vaporized bronze swords. And so forth.

Kevin: You're forgetting Strider's best weapons of all: his army of robotic birds and sabretoothed tigers! What is not to like about this guy?

John: Those robotic birds need to be replaced with motorized winged swords immediately. The sabretoothed tiger is fine as-is.

That's all for now. Join us next week- that's right, you're not getting off that easy- as we delve deeper into Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3: The Fate of Two Worlds. Will Mike Hagar's ability to hit people over the head with a pipe be enough to fell the all-powerful Galactus, devourer of worlds? Will I resist the temptation to go for the obvious joke about Dr. Doom's “hidden missile” attack? Will Kevin's loathing of Akuma fill him with so much rage that he succumbs to the dark power of the Satsui no Hado and becomes the very thing he hates most? Will either of us ever say anything with any sort of actual gameplay relevance? Join us next week to find out!

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