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Mon, Feb. 24th, 2014, 08:00 pm
Comedy, Harold Ramis & Modern Society

Harold Ramis has just passed away. This has spurred me to write this article, but for some time I have been thinking about the comedy of him and his peers. People like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Ivan Reitman, Rick Moranis... skip it, you know I mean the Second City/SCTV/Saturday Night Live crowd. But you can extend that a bit to people Ramis never worked with, like David Letterman and the better, usually older writers for the Simpsons (Sam Simon, John Schwartzwelder).

A quick aside, I know I only mentioned one woman in all this, and that's probably because society and showbiz has been much harder on women comedians. You can count Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig as the direct comedic descendents of this crowd, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

On the internet, everybody likes to dissect pop culture. It's what I'm about to do right now. And one of the things people are just now noticing about Ghostbusters - "Wait, does the movie support Reaganomics?"

And it sure looks that way. And I've seen fans of Ghostbusters have to work their way around this fact, or try to dismiss it for the necessities of the plot. But to understand this puzzle, that the human villain of the story is an Environmental Protection Agent, and the nutty protagonists of the movie are right when the bureaucracy of New York and the federal government is wrong, is to understand the comedy of Harold Ramis' generation. And it all starts with Watergate.

If you talk to the baby boomer and post baby boom generation of Americans, they'll tell you the Watergate Scandal in 1970 was a seminal moment for the US. Go do a google search and I'm sure you can find pundits talk about how it altered American society. It will seem quaint to younger people today, but you'll hear people who were alive at the time experiencing this shift from being able to trust the US government, to it being this mechanized bureaucracy, often with villainous intent. The Watergate Scandal also almost exactly coincided with the decline of hippie culture. Hippies were against the government for its oppression of minorities and war in Vietnam, to be sure, but if you were a white American you assumed the evils and mistakes made by government and "square" society was because they possessed old fashioned thinking. The war in Vietnam was a horrendous and ongoing mistake, but you didn't doubt the perceived narrow-minded, good intentions of past presidents. Hippies were also unrealistically idealistic, believing they could change all of society just by sticking to ill-defined axioms of love.

Then between 1969 and 1970 you had the killings at the Altamont Free Concert, the Charles Manson family murders and the Watergate Scandal. Hippie culture had failed, and what's worse, the US government was more broken than the youth had ever suspected. In the 1950s there was the American dream, where any (white) family could buy a car and a house in a good neighbourhood. America was a country designed for upward mobility. Fast forward to 1970, and the president is a crook. American government, no, society itself, was a well greased machine designed to fool the common folk. You could still live your life in prosperity, but your tax dollars are going to fund some slime ball politician and his corporate cronies, not help build something productive like a road or a school.

Harold Ramis was 26 in 1970. Ivan Reitman was 24. Bill Murray and John Schwartzwelder were 20. You get the picture. Comedy has always been about "truth to power," but for several generations American comedy had been pretty toothless. That's not me insulting comedy before 1970, I'm just saying that the Marx brothers scandalising members of the upper crust in their movies is not biting satire. Neither was Big Crosby and Bob Hope's wacky Road movies. Even the funniest man just before the baby boomer generation, Mel Brooks, fits into this mold. I think the Producers (1968) is probably the greatest comedy on film, but it has no political message other than that the Nazis were bad, and they had been gone for more than 20 years.

You see a shift in comedy after 1970. It's not a natural evolution of the art form, it's directly tied into society's change after the Watergate Scandal. In 1975 you get Saturday Night Live. It would openly mock public figures, including presidents. While the Watergate Scandal was American, the new trend of distrust in society extended to young Canadians as well. Basically the whole SCTV crowd of Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, John Candy, etc.

Examine this Saturday Night Live sketch. "Consumer Probe" from 1977, particularly the Halloween costume sketch. Jane Curtin plays the straight woman, a talk show host with common sense. Dan Aykroyd plays a sleazy businessman who is selling incredibly dangerous costumes to kids, including a bag perfect for suffocation and a black suit called, "Invisible Pedestrian."


I think this sketch is very funny, but can you imagine it if it was told in the 1950s? Viewers would have called it disgusting. The entire premise is based on children possibly dying. It's a precursor to a dead baby joke. By the way, I've never found a dead baby joke funny. Not necessarily because they are generally disgusting, but because there's no good satire or punch line. In this sketch, the humour comes from the unscrupulous business practices of Aykroyd's character. But this joke works in the context of a post-1970 society. "You can't trust the government. You can't trust businesses. You can't trust society."

This article hasn't been an in-depth look at Ramis' work. But to get back to him in, you get movies like Animal House. Sure, most of the students in Delta house are screw-ups and should never receive diplomas. That said, the conflict comes from Omegas (the youth of upstanding society) being assholes and the Dean going above and beyond trying to destroy some college kids. Meatballs is about some screwup kids, isn't it? It's been too long since I've seen that one. But Caddyshack is that same premise, with a kid trying to make headway in a sea of assholes, finally overcoming them by playing against Ted Knight (By the way, how great does Ted Knight make for a high society villain, huh? I wish he had done that even more).

Stripes is close to the zenith of the things Ramis' generation was lampooning. It began life as a "Cheech and Chong Join the Army" concept, but when Cheech and Chong wanted creative control and to personally rewrite it, the script was rewritten for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. Ramis never did consider himself an actor, only really doing bit parts for Second City as needed, but Ivan Reitman and Murray wanted him so badly he relented. Again, the plot is a couple of screwups, this time proving themselves superior to freaking United States Army! The idea permeates that one individual with eyes wide open, and always being skeptical of the world and its institutions around him/her, knows better than the rest of society. The misfits of society are going to see what's wrong with the popular kids, with school, with the rich people at the golf club, and even, apparently, the entirety of the US army, because the army's very strength comes from being an institution. The movie ends with a fake Newsweek cover, "The New Army: Can America Survive?" Of course the real US army doesn't give a damn about what some comedians were suggesting, but Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman saw this as an honest question. Where the hippies had idealism and love, these comedians had sarcasm and the ability to see fault in any institution. Can the US army, can the US government, can ANY institution, survive forever when they saw institutions as inherently flawed?

Ghostbusters is a strange beast because it marries that generation's comedic oeuvre, finding fault in every institution, with Dan Aykroyd's genuine enthusiasm for the supernatural. It being one of my favourite movies, I could write an entire article on what's going on comically in Ghostbusters. But to keep it short, Bill Murray and company are faced with the biggest scientific, supernatural, and spiritual discovery of all time, and their response is totally sardonic. OK, Aykroyd's Ray Stantz is boyishly excited, but even he goes along with the first suggestion to turn it into a business. Not to let scientific and religious leaders know about what they've found out, but to make a buck. Their discoveries don't change them or society, it just opens a business opportunity. The start of the comedy is their lackluster response when faced to the greatest discoveries of all time. Lines like, "Well, there's something you don't see every day," when faced with a giant marshmallow monster are inherently funny on their own, but also fit into the grand scheme of the movie, as well as the scheme of these men's careers. Approaching any topic, regardless of what it is - its strength or importance or ridiculousness, with a healthy dose of cynicism will grant you a better picture of reality, and better equip you to combat the shit life throws your way.

The second component to Ghostbusters is easier to see when compared to these comedians' past work. Walter Peck (William Atherton) from the Environmental Protection Agency wants to investigate the Ghostbusters and see if their equipment is dangerous. Bill Murray makes fun of him for the second half of the movie, so viewers go along with the idea that Peck really is this asshole who shut off the containment unit and nearly caused the apocalypse. But here's the thing, Peck is right! He's not even a jerk in his first scene. Bill Murray is totally playing the jerk to Peck's reasonable questions. Peck comes back with a search warrant, but the Ghostbusters (Venkman) didn't offer him any alternative.

Of course the movie is on the Ghostbusters' side. Ivan Reitman's favourite scene, and I would have to agree it's the best, is in the mayor's office. The Ghostbusters explain the world is about to end, and it comes down a decision between the guy from the EPA or these crackpot-sounding Ghostbusters. Bill Murray gives a great speech:

If I'm wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail. Peacefully, quietly, we'll enjoy it. But if I'm right, and we can stop this thing... Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.

That's fantastic. And it's a prime example of the comedy from these people. Venkman is speaking truth to power again, but framing it as a win-win scenario for the mayor. The Ghostbusters are right, the rest of the world is wrong, and it's only by showing the man in power that he's got nothing to lose by letting the misfit protagonists do their thing that he lets them.

I'll end off where I started, Reaganomics. So Ghostbusters, at its heart, is about some guys who discover the universe's greatest secrets (as represented by there being ghosts and monsters) and their reaction is deadpan. The cynical, misfit individual - or small group - knows what's going on when society, and particularly the government, are too much a part of a united, flawed system to recognise how right the individual is.

Ronald Reagan was the US president from 1981-1989, pretty close to all of the 1980s. There's no one thing that made him president - the public got rid of Jimmy Carter and the Democrats at the first opportunity, for one thing - but the same thing that made comedy like this popular also contributed to Reagan's popularity. Reagan preached the Republican party was better, yes, but more importantly he preached that LESS government was best. Lower taxes, and less bureaucracy intruding on Americans' lives. He was basically stating the same things Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman were saying through jokes: "You know what's best for you, and institutions get things wrong." It's an appealing message.

So yes, Ghostbusters has a villainous guy from the EPA for the sake of plot, but that plot comes from a group of people who are always showing institutions are wrong. Ghostbusters doesn't preach Reaganomics (small government, no interference, let businesses flourish) because they believe in Reaganomics. It preaches Reaganomics because Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman et al. approached the decade from the same way Ronald Reagan did, that institutions tend to screw things up. By the way, Ronald Reagan would go on to increase taxes. Perhaps that says something more about the comedy of that generation than it does about Reaganomics. Ultimately, institutions like government do screw everything up.

And the comedy from Ramis' generation extends to this day. Tina Fey's 30 Rock is about show business, and just plain business, and how simple things like putting on a TV show get screwed up by huge egos' competing interests. Ditto for the UK and US versions of the Office, but just strictly business and made funny because of how small the stakes often are. Harold Ramis directed several of the US episodes.

We might be entering a post-1970s cynical world in comedy. Dan Harmon's Community was, for its first three seasons, anyway, some of the freshest stuff in years. Main character Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is named after Bill Murray's character in Stripes, John Winger, and the two are very similar characters. The two actors look like they could be related, and Harmon even said he would have liked Murray to play Jeff Winger's father (a season without Harmon's involvement shot down that idea by using a different actor to play the dad). Jeff Winger is essentially a Bill Murray character 2.0. He goes through life with the same cynicism, the same vocal rhythm, the same sense of superiority over fools around him who are deluded by idealism, religion, group mentality (i.e. to the college), and more. But at some point in almost every episode his notion of self is challenged, and he realises the importance of being open to friends, family, and new experiences. It's kind of ridiculous that the character has learned this same lesson for over five years now, but it's a great show that's informed by Ramis and Murray's work, but is taking it a step further past the skepticism for the rest of society.

I look forward to new comedy! I'm considerably younger than Dan Harmon, but like him my sense of humour was largely shaped by the same people, including Harold Ramis. As a kid, I loved a variety of heroes, including Indiana Jones, James Bond and Peter Venkman. But I knew immediately I would never be as tough or as cool as Harrison Ford or Sean Connery. Bill Murray, though? I could model myself on that.

Extra Notes!
- You might think I'm overstating the importance of the Watergate Scandal. But ask some of those comedians, or just people of that generation about it. I don't think I am overstating it. Now perhaps other factors would have nudged society in general, and comedy in particular, to one of distrust and cynicism compared to WWII and the 1950s, but I think the fact remains that for North America it started at Watergate and then spread out to Canada and much of the worldwide society.

- Meanwhile over in the United Kingdom, you have interesting sketch comedies culminating in Monty Python's Flying Circus. The Python group have explained themselves that their comedy was a reaction to the orderly life of their parents, and all of UK society. The British "stiff upper lip" attitude and going to boarding schools didn't seem strange at all to their parents, but the baby boomer generation there were noticing the absurdities in the regimented life and culture in Britain. A lot of what they ended up doing runs parallel to North America, challenging institutional structures, the UK comedy at the time is decidedly more absurd, to just accentuate that life and society in general are absurd. Same fundamental messages, I suppose, but the Brits saw things as absurd while the Americans saw things as flawed (and which could be overcome on your own - now that's definitely American).

- I've neglected everything Ramis did post Ghostbusters! He started to branch out, sometimes returning to his generation's main theme. Year One (2009) - which I don't particularly like, but is interesting all the same - is a hybrid of poking fun at institutions, in this case Hebrew religion and what amounts to the Roman Empire, while also just making a commentary on weird stuff from the Old Testament. Check it out if you're looking to examine Ramis' work.
Ramis, like Bill Murray's acting career, also managed to completely branch out from this whole "against the system" thing I've been talking about this whole article. The Ice Harvest (2005) is not a comedy at all, but a straight up noir that just happens to have some moments of levity. It's a great modern noir movie and I highly recommend it.
Of course another whole article could be devoted to Groundhog Day (1993). It's brilliant, of course. It's also interesting in this whole discussion because it's basically transplanting the Bill Murray character he had developed (partly because I suspect it's not much of a character, it's closer to him) from Stripes, Ghostbusters and Scrooged, and putting him in a movie where his usual cynical self CAN'T win. Is the movie genius? Yes. Is Harold Ramis and/or Bill Murray geniuses because of it? Ehhhhh, I might not go far. As brilliant as it is, Groundhog Day is a comedic rip-off of a short story by Richard Lupoff (haha, rip--off, Lupoff) called "12:01PM" where a man is stuck in a time loop. It's serious sci-fi with a more horrific ending. Screenwriter Danny Rubin read this story, saw its potential as a comedy/romantic comedy and showed that to Harold Ramis, who did rewrites. Having stolen the time loop idea, now used for comedic effect, and knowing Bill Murray would be playing his jerkish character in the film, what is the logical resolution? Oh yeah, Murray should learn the value of helping others over "years" stuck in that loop. Ramis was supremely talented, but the ending is obvious when you have those other elements. So it's kind of by accident that one of Ramis' best creations eschews his usual ideas of a non-conformist being right and the rest of the world being wrong. I guess Bill Murray's character could have proven himself better or smarter than the entire universe and the trick it was pulling on him, but then you would ruin your movie's ending.

- A final note on Reaganomics and the idea of the lone person who knows best. While any country can have this way of thinking, you'll notice this is particularly in keeping with America. I won't disparage it. We've all had enough encounters with incompetent bosses, government officials or workers on the ends of telephones who are operating within the parameters given to them, incapable of seeing some truth that's easy for you to grasp. Unfortunately there were bad implications for this back in Reagan's time - bureaucracy might hamper businesses, but you need agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, and the EPA, to, y'know make sure everybody DOES NOT DIE - and now that idea is stronger and all over America's right. The Tea Party is entirely based around it, that governments screw everything up and the LONE INDIVIDUAL knows best. The lone individual might know what's best for him or herself in life matters - you don't want someone dictating what your job should be, or whether you can have gay sex or get birth control (cough, Republicans are hypocrites, cough!) but some Americans cannot fathom a government that can regulate society better than some Wild West free-for-all. Seriously, a lot of European countries have this society thing figured out. I don't even think Canada is the best country in the world, but most Canadians understand the value of the governments having societal regulations, being able to offer universal health coverage, etc. You know, and laws. Like a society. Point out all its flaws like any of these movies I mentioned, but it's a shame half of American politics today is about chucking away just about everything.

Tue, Jul. 23rd, 2013, 08:30 am
Disneyland Paris

"Euro Itchy and Scratchy Land! Who are you to resist, eh?"

Having seen just about everything we wanted to in Paris (churches, museums, Eiffel Tower, many neighbourhoods, Versailles outside of the city) we put aside one day to see Disneyland Paris. It's a 40 minute trip, and we were thankful that from our location we didn't have to make any transfers on the system. If you're staying in the city of Paris proper, you're probably going to have to get to Chatelet les Halles and go out from there like we did. This happens to be one of the more sensible RER lines (on its platform it lights up when the next train is going to Disneyland, something we didn't have going to Versailles). Unlike the Hong Kong line to its Disneyland, which had extra-clean metro train cars with Mickey windows and little Disney statues, this is a plain old train like any other.

Walt Disney Studios

The Hollywood/Movie themed park like they have in Disney World. We started here for two reasons - Crush's Coaster (the Finding Nemo Ride) is supposed to have the worst lines, and has no fastpass system on it. Secondly, this park closes earlier than the other, so it makes sense to start your day here if you're going to it. We got into the park at 9:50 am (the park "opens" at 10 am) but you could already go in and there was already a big lineup for this ride. It took us 50 minutes to get on, which is probably doing very well. I hear horror stories of people waiting close to 3 hours for this thing. Just an aside, this was the longest we waited all day, with only the Tower of Terror being 30 minutes and all the rest under 20.

Crush's Coaster is neat, with the gimmick being your car is a turtle shell that rotates on the track. It actually spins less than you might imagine, but it did change things for us a bit. I didn't know what I was expecting - I knew it was partly a dark ride with movie characters and a moment where a shark is suddenly in your face, but that's just the beginning. After that, it's entirely just a Space Mountain type ride that takes you fast inside a dark room. It's a good ride, and being one of a kind it's cool to check out, but if we had been waiting for much longer than an hour it would have definitely not been worth it. The novelty of turning is kind of lost when you're almost in complete darkness, and it can't go as fast as a Space Mountain, so it ends up being less thrilling.

They've got a Toy Story Land (like in Hong Kong). It's cute. We did the RC Racer, a half-pipe and the only ride not really suitable for the youngest children.

We did Twilight Zone's Tower of Terror, which is what you'd expect. Quite a lot of fun. We did the Aerosmith Roller Coaster, which again, is just like a Space Mountain with a different theme. The funny thing about this ride was someone in control had neglected to turn on the music, which is the main point of this ride. You're supposed to ride around listening to a different Aerosmith song each time, but there wasn't anything for our ride.

There aren't many dining options in this park. There's an expensive buffet place where periodically an animatronic Remi the rat from Ratatouille will come out on a cart and interact with kids. We went to a counter service place that was half High School Musical themed, half Pirates themed. It's very weird, and quite ugly, frankly. We had a good lunch, though, with a good salad and a croque monsieur.

The final thing we did was Cinémagique. It's the only unique attraction to this park after Crush's Coaster. This show is really good, and won awards when it debuted. Martin Short plays a man sucked into a movie screen, then goes through a lot of different movies and genres (black and white, gangster, western, Star Wars, Mary Poppins). It's sentimental and hokey as heck, but that's par for the course. There's some cute interaction too, like when it rains in the movie it'll rain a bit in the theatre as well. You might want to check it out on youtube. It will never go to another park because of its French language content.

We had skipped the Stitch Encounter show (which we did in Hong Kong and found quite fun there, and Samantha had been one of three people Stitch talked to), but nothing much else of note. A stunt show and a "movie studio" track ride based around a dragon movie that bombed are there. We left before 2 pm after poking around everywhere. I'll tell you, it's the smallest of all the Disney parks and you can definitely feel it.

Disneyland Paris
The original recipe Disneyland Park was a step up. Their castle is the most impressive one, at least until Shanghai opens its Disneyland. We checked out the dragon underneath the castle, which is significantly smaller than pictures online would lead you to believe.

Their Pirates of the Caribbean is now the only version that does not include Jack Sparrow and other movie elements. It's good as everywhere else, and I enjoyed it for how it changes things up a bit. Samantha prefers the California version, though. I believe this is also the only version of the ride that takes a photo of passengers on it. I always like to get one photo of us on a ride, so I got this at the gift shop.

In Disney parks Tomorrowland (here called Discoveryland) is generally my least-favourite section. They're bland with white buildings, and get dated quickly. Paris has my favourite version of this, though. They went for a Jules Verne theme, making it vaguely steam punk. There's a Nautilus submarine to walk through (not great, but an OK distraction). Its Space Mountain is what really shines, though. First, it looks like a cannon, the Columbiad. This is directly from the novel From the Earth to the Moon, a book I read when I was younger. Not only is the theming more fun, but their Space Mountain is the best version of it hands down (I've been on all the Space Mountains now except for Tokyo). The lighting and effects on the ride are great, and it's the fastest and most intense ride out of any in a Disney park.

Their Fantasyland is cute, pretty much what you'd expect. They have an Alice in Wonderland labyrinth, which we didn't try out but could see a lot of from outside.

There's an Indiana Jones ride - the Temple of Peril. It was down when we first visited it, but maybe because of that when we returned in the evening there was only a 5 minute waiting period. It has a vertical loop, which is cool. It's ultimately just an outdoor roller coaster, so it's nowhere near as awesome as the Indiana Jones ride in California, which is one of our favourites.
The only fastpass we used was one for Big Thunder Mountain, and I'm glad we did. Much like their Space Mountain, I hear this is preferred version of the ride in the world, and I can see why. It's fast and intense, and it's actually impossible to reach by walking. I mean the mountain is entirely surrounded by a lake, so you reach it from the "mainland" and the roller coaster takes you underneath the water to reach the island. It's pretty ingenious.

We ended with the Phantom Manor (in other words, the Haunted Mansion). It's about the same, but I like it that more care was taken for you to understand the audio. I don't know if they just paid more attention to sound levels or ambient noise or what, but it improves that aspect.

When we were at Pirates earlier in the day we actually made a reservation for the Blue Lagoon for supper. We had never eaten at one of these, and had always been kind of interested. It was neat, and we were seated next to the water's edge. Too expensive, but the only thing is it wasn't any more expensive than another nice meal in Paris. We had crab terrine, and for main courses had swordfish and barracuda. It was all delicious.

At the end of the day we waited 50 minutes for their night time show, Disney Dreams. It's fairly new, and what's impressive is that on top of using lights and fireworks, they use water fountains and project images on there and the castle, making it a variation of California Adventure's World of Colour. They play around with the castle a lot, turning it into Notre Dame, or turning the turrets into fireworks that are then launched - to which a real firework will shoot out at the right moment. What we found funny was that everyone sat down to watch this. Huh. I mean, I've been to fireworks shows where you lay on the grass too, but never in a crammed area on cement like this.

Here's a funny/horrible thing: Getting back to Paris. Disneyland Paris is the last stop on this RER line, and hundreds of people were waiting around, but trains took forever to arrive. One did come, but it just shut down for the night rather than take passengers. Another finally arrived, very, very late. It was like the transit system didn't know what it was supposed to do, which is funny and frustrating considering that means they either forgot the routine after twenty years of doing this, or it's a nightly occurrence that pisses people off when Disneyland closes.

Final Thoughts
First off, we had fun. Samantha and I always have a good time at Disney parks, and this time I think we saw and did just about everything we wanted to. About Walt Disney Studios - on the internet, people generally rank it as the worst Disney theme park, and I have to agree. It's small, tying with Hong Kong Disneyland for around the smallest - but when you take into account a fair chunk of land is devoted to a studio tram ride and a car stunt show, its walking/viewing area is really the smallest. A movie studio lot where no movies have ever actually been made is also necessarily going to be one of the worst themes to go with. There are those obvious false fronts that don't come off as endearing, but just bad. A good example of the theming problem was the place where we had lunch, which was half High School Musical themed which meant it could just look like a generic cafeteria, and who wants to eat in that?

There are some good attractions at the Studios park, however. Crush's Coaster is neat, and Cinémagique is a really great show (just a step down from Phillharmagic, the 3D Donald Duck show). We didn't do the Stitch Encounter here, but I highly recommend it from our experience in Hong Kong if you like the character at all.

The regular Disneyland Park... is a regular Disneyland Park. Its Discoveryland is the best looking version of Tomorrowland, and it has a more impressive castle. The rides - at least the ones we tried - are all solid, and maybe it's just because we went before peak season but we did really well when dealing with lines. Big Thunder Mountain was the only ride in this park that would have taken over an hour, but we had fastpasses and just breezed on in. We didn't need fastpasses anywhere else.

You might notice that I'm being measured with my praise. There are two significant problems with Disneyland Paris on the whole. First, its cleanliness. I wouldn't call it dirty, but they were in the worst states compared to all the other parks we have been to. Also, almost all the public water fountains were turned off. What's up with that?

Even worse was the smoke. Smoking in the parks is supposed to be restricted to certain areas, but no smokers bothered with this and no employees tried to enforce it. Smoking is just too much a part of the French culture. In Paris we could keep our distances from smokers, but not here, and even if a person wasn't smoking at the moment their clothes still reeked of it. This is coming from two people who are sensitive to smoke, of course, but it made us coughing and sick by the end of the day. It's not like we could do anything about it, but it just made the whole experience less enjoyable.

On the plus side, Disneyland Paris (both parks) is the best place for thrill rides at a Disney Resort. Crush's Coaster, Aerosmith Rockin' Coaster, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the Studios. Big Thunder Mountain, Indiana Jones, and above all Space Mountain in Disneyland. The funny thing, of course, is that you're better off going to a non-Disney park if you're after serious thrill rides, but Paris is the best place for them in a Disney park.

Bullet Points
+ Best thrill rides, with the best Space Mountain.
+ Cinémagique, found only here, is a really great show. Crush's Coaster isn't bad either.
+ Disney Dreams is an excellent night time show, sort of a variation of World of Colour.
+ My favourite themed Tomorrowland, called Discoveryland here and based partly around Jules Verne's work.
- Cleanliness could be improved.
- Smoking just about everywhere.
- Walt Disney Studios in general is small, and not great theming or layout. Also has few dining options.

Walt Disney Studios is definitely the worst Disney theme park. I wouldn't go so far as to call it bad, but we spent maybe 4 hours there (including 50 minutes waiting for the first ride) and that was enough. The regular Disneyland Paris is fine, but the smoking everywhere makes things less enjoyable. So I don't have the most flattering things to say about Disneyland Paris. If you ever go to Paris, and are doing like us and want to visit every Disney Park, I can recommend a day there and that's about it. Definitely don't do it if it means cutting out a day of something historic in Paris.

I read these two articles before our trip and agree with a lot this writer has to say. His review of Paris's Walt Disney Studios is spot on. His ranking of Disney parks is something I'd mostly agree with (I can't comment on the Tokyo parks, which I hear are the best but have never been to). Unlike him, we've been to Hong Kong Disneyland and while it's small, we have a lot of fondness for it (beautiful and better maintained than Paris, not crowded, and the closest thing approaching "deals" for a Disney park). He seems to like the regular Disneyland Paris park more than we did, which may depend on whether or not you're affected by second hand smoke.


Thu, May. 30th, 2013, 01:06 pm
My Paris Metro and RER Stories

Before leaving on our trip, I studied up on Paris's mass transit systems. There's a lot, but we basically relied on two: the Metro and RER. The Metro is as you would imagine it, different lines making frequent stops. I can't make any serious complaints about that setup. I've been on subways in Toronto, Hong Kong and Beijing, and must say Paris's is the most outdated and dirty, but being the oldest in the world that's to be expected. Stations can be labyrinthine in their layouts, but again chalk that up to being the very first subway.

Then there's the RER. You take this if you're going a longer distance, like to or from the airport, or out to Versailles. In principle, it's better to use this because it stops less and covers a greater distance. You really just use the Metro for getting around the core of Paris.

And the RER is great... when it works. It doesn't always. The RER branches out to different sections.

This is the simple version of the layout.</center>

And hey, we got that it branched out. This isn't rocket science. But we wanted to get to Versailles (the palace), which required Line C5. SOME RER stops will have lit-up signs. If the stop you want is lit, you know to get on the next train to go there. But here's the thing, some RER stops don't have any signs.

So we got on a train we knew was going in the right direction, and we knew it was a C train. The car inside likewise didn't have any signage to let you know if you were on a C5, or what the stops were. No announcements, either. And if you've been to Paris and you tell me, "I was on a train that did have announcements and did have clear electronic signs," well bully for you. We had clear signs, and sometimes announcements, on all our other trips as well. But for this one trip to Versailles, we left a station with no indication other than we were on a C train, and no signs inside to let you know what the stops were. So we had to figure it out from the signs as we pulled into each platform.

Guess when you'd figure out if you were on the right or wrong line, then? The station AFTER you branched out in the wrong direction. This wouldn't be a problem if signs at THAT station got you back in the direction before you branched incorrectly. Too bad the platform we went for Platform C, which you think would get you a C train, was really just a label for the platform and had no connection at all to the type of train that would show up. So yeah, to try to go back one stop and correct our mistake, we took a bigger mistake and went way off in the wrong direction.

An hour later, we finally got back to where we had started and chanced the same train. Once again, no indication that we were on the C5 we wanted, just that it was a C. We prayed, and when the moment of truth came this time, we were headed towards the right branch.

You can call us yokel tourists, but seriously, we listened for announcements and looked for signs, and there just weren't any. In Hong Kong when you use the subway almost all the cars have little lines lit up that show where you are and where you're going, as well as platforms with signage. They also have very loud, very clear announcements in Cantonese and English. Paris sometimes has the electronic signs you need, and sometimes announcements, but sometimes not. And it's an easy fix - spend some money installing all the signs that travellers NEED to be able to know where each train is headed. It's not a complicated solution.

You can tell this was the low part about our trip. We seriously rode the Metro and RER like experts all the rest of the time. But we were pretty upset that Paris just decided to not give a damn for a bit on signage.

Thu, May. 30th, 2013, 12:35 pm
Paris Part Trois

Let's try to wrap this up. Eiffel Tower! Some advice: They have a website and rather than wait tremendous times, you can go online and reserve a time in advance. You're gambling on if the weather will be nice, but you can show up and roll in relatively quickly. It's what you imagine. Very high up, very crowded, and very pretty.

When in Paris. By the way, people in Paris will totally stop on bridges, in parks, etc. and just make out for several minutes.

The Palais Garnier, aka. the Paris Opera, aka. Phantom of the Opera's Place. Very pretty, too bad if you're just in for a tour you don't get to see the actual theatre. I can understand closing it off if there was a practice going on, but otherwise that's kind of lame. The way to Box 5, the Phantom's Box, was blocked off too.

Rue de Cler is a famous little street, and you'll hear Rick Steves talk about it a lot. Locals in that area of Paris go there to buy fresh food: meats, cheese, desserts, bread, etc. It also has some good restaurants. I knew it was small, but was surprised that considering how talked up it is there isn't really more shops. There's actually just one fromagerie, when here I figured it would have more than one. We had some good desserts from a very crusty staff. It was a mother and daughter running the place and they spent the whole time yelling at each other.

I can't help but feel like a superior tourist. This is France's Military Academy, still in use - we saw some horse riders come out. This is also where Napoleon went to school. Locals know all about this, but I think few tourists do. I was reading up on Napoleon so just wanted to stop off here.

And not far at all is Les Invalides. It started as a retirement home for soldiers, and part of the building is still used as such. We saw a nurse take an old man out for a stroll in a wheelchair. The dome here was not part of that original construction, but added later for Napoleon's tomb.

It's rather hard to take good pictures of the whole interior. It's big, but something I think a lot of people don't realise is that it's totally Egyptian inspired without containing any actual Egyptian-style art. Napoleon's sarcophogi (they're layered one casket inside another) is totally like an Egyptian mummy's, and you actually get down there by passing two statues guarding a long staircase that's like walking into a pyramid. The whole place is entirely over-the-top, but the architecture, mimicking ancient Egyptian stuff Napoleon loved without using its iconopgraphy, is really fascinating.

I don't feel like we missed out on much in Paris. I did wish we had more time for the many museums at Les Invalides. We were short on time, so could only go to the Ancient Military Museum. There was a lot of armour and weapons, some of which owned by French Kings. You had to get up close to see the intricate designs on them. While the British are famous for their Navy, the thing that set France apart was that for centuries they had the best artillery technology. There were some cannons used during the later crusades.

This is what we really wanted to see, though. In 2010 Samantha and I went to the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. It was a beautiful, ruined park where in 1860 the French and English had demolished and stolen a lot of artifacts. Here, we got to two sets of armour stolen from 1860 - Armour from the Qianlong Emperor (with gold thread on the outside) and one of his generals. Of course the sign doesn't say that these were pillaged or that China wants them back, but Samantha and I got into a discussion (one we've had several times) about how so many museums throughout the world are based on stolen collections. Look at the Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum, or all the stolen Italian works right in the Louvre. Anyways, Samantha and I were sad but felt a sense of coming full circle in being both to the Old Summer Palace in Beijing and to see some of its treasures all the way in Paris.

To round things off, some more great food we had right near where we were staying. Salle a Manger is on Île de la Cité (one of the islands in the Seine). We know French dining is a slow experience you're not meant to rush, but there wasn't any way of getting around it that night - we were forgotten by the waiter more than once. Still, the food was excellent. The best foie gras we had, along with excellent duck and a cut of beef.

Tue, May. 14th, 2013, 02:02 pm
Paris Part Deux

It was actually on the day we went to the Louvre that we took a metro ride to the Arc de Triomphe. I'm going to have to write another post later just devoted to Paris's metro and RER.

Anyways, the Arc! Very impressive, of course. Did you know it's the largest triumphal arch in the whole world except for one in North Korea? Must mean North Korea is doing great, or else its leaders have an inferiority complex.

We were there at 6:30pm. Every day at that time a procession of soldiers' families walk up Champs Elysees and the have a ceremony where they re-light the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It's nice that they do this, and they stop all the traffic on the roundabout for close to 10 minutes! That's a huge deal.

We walked down Champs Elysees, back towards the Louvre, and while we went into a few stores and arcades (in France an arcade is really a covered walkway - basically the first malls) we didn't find anything interesting. Well, actually Samantha went to the original Sephora store and found a perfume she likes, but it made more sense to just get it back in Canada.

Here's the Luxor Obelisk. This is part of a set, and the other one is still in Egypt. Egypt gave this as a gift to France. Napoleon had conquered Egypt, but mind you he did that and then gave citizens equality and more freedom than they had known in hundreds of years, so they were pretty grateful. BEFORE this obelisk was put here, this used to be where a guillotine was set up. Louis 14th and Marie Antoinette, along with a lot of other famous French people, were executed on this spot. History!

The next day we took the RER to Versailles. Again, having a Paris Museum Pass was great because we skipped a long ticket line and instead went straight through security. Then we went inside.

It's neat to see, but once you get the hang of all these rooms named after Roman gods it kind of blends together. Then there's the Hall of Mirrors, which is impressive and pretty much what you see from photographs. Versailles was one of the few places where we decided to use little audio guides, and they didn't offer a lot of interesting information. It was all very focused on Marie Antoinette as well, ignoring what I find much more interesting about Versailles - the Paris Peace Talks of 1919.
At the end of the walk through the palace there's an Angelina Tea Room. Angelina is a famous pastry chain in Paris, something Samantha had been reading up on, so we stopped for a Millefeuille and their famous Mont Blanc. Both very good. We were lucky to find a table to sit down.

It was a windy day with some showers coming, so after just having a quick look around behind the palace we got in line to use les petits trains (not on tracks, a golf-cart kind of train that takes you through the grounds). It's really worth it - my sister, who has walked the park, has said she wouldn't do that again. I know there was more history to see at the petit palaces, and Marie Antoinette's little pretend farm, but we had our fill of palaces so we didn't bother going inside them.

Versailles is pretty and hey, if you're in Paris, you're probably going to go out and see this. I must say that having been here, the Forbidden City in Beijing and (later on) Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, this is actually the least interesting. While I'd love to go back to the Louvre or even up the Eiffel Tower again someday, I don't have any interest returning here.

Fri, May. 10th, 2013, 02:30 pm

So it's been a year? It's been a year.

This April Samantha and I went to Europe: France, Germany, Czech Republic (though we didn't stop there) and Austria. Here's a quick travel report! I'm going to partly write this as if it's giving tips to other would-be travellers, just because I found those helpful online before we left.

We went April 1st. A good day to travel, don't you think? Arrived on the morning of the 2nd.

After walking around just a bit our first stop was Musée d'Orsay. We saw Bartholdi's original model for the Statue of Liberty (it had previously been in Jardin du Luxembourg for over 100 years, but in 2012 was moved here - a lot of sources on the internet have not updated this change). Also saw, and gained an even greater appreciation for, Vincent van Gogh. Starry Night Over the Rhone glistens a little bit under proper lighting, and you can see the thickness of the paints he used. On the other hand there are things like his Les Deux Fillettes, which is pretty darn ugly and makes you understand why people alive in his day would think he's a hack if the first thing they saw was that. And we saw a whole lot of statues there.

Later, Notre Dame! Inside is very beautiful, and we got to hear the pipe organ going. Didn't go up, though. I read the Hunchback of Notre Dame not long before our trip to soak up as much French culture and history as possible. That book didn't help me any (in fact I hate that book, mostly because the heroine Esmerelda is a ditz).

What Samantha and I really enjoyed was some of the food on our trip. Here at a place called L'Ardoise (look it up, it's getting a lot of good reviews online) we had crab croquettes, lamb, wild chicken and soufflé for dessert. Quite good. Sat next to a young guy from New Jersey who stopped by on his own because he had likewise read glowing reviews, so we chatted with him that evening.

On the 3rd we went to the Louvre. Samantha and I agree this was our favourite part of Paris. I know it's said, "You can't see everything in the Louvre in a day," and while that's true, we did see ALL the highlights, EVERYTHING we wanted to see (I had a map and a list), all three wings and just about every big room. And I wouldn't say we rushed. We spent 7 hours there.
Here's how we did it, and I would advise new travellers to do the same. First, go there BEFORE it opens. An hour might even be a good idea, but we were there around 30 minutes ahead. Secondly, don't go to the glass pyramid entrance. Pick another entrance. We walked along rue de rivoli and and did this one. Seriously, if you just go to the Louvre's website and check out a map and some entrances, you can avoid spending hours waiting.


Finally, get a Paris Museum Pass, preferably not from here. It's expensive, but gets you into all the museums and monuments and is honestly super-handy. Even better than saving some money might be having not needed to wait in so many lines for tickets, we just walked by to the actual entrances of things.

So we were waiting in a line with around 50 people before the Louvre opened. We went in (you go through a security check and bags are X-rayed), briskly walked with everyone to the Denon Wing, followed the signs up the Mona Lisa, and were able to get very close to it. So do that first, because if you go later in the day that room will be packed. Also, spend some time actually LOOKING at it. Two scary statistics Samantha and I discovered: one is that something like 80 percent of visitors just go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, maybe Venus de Milo as well. Not a good sign, and probably a symptom of a lot of tours we saw advertised where people might spend a single day in Paris. The second statistic, done by the Louvre itself, found that people spend around 15 seconds looking at the Mona Lisa. Just knowing that, we planted ourselves there and looked at it for around 3 minutes. Did I gleen anything? I was most impressed by her hands, which appear close to being real.


We checked out everything in that room, as well as the Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese. In person you can see the horizontal gash that was made by Napoleon's soldiers. He wanted this Italian painting (along with hundreds of others that now reside in the Louvre), but it was too big, so it was cut in half and then kind of badly sewn back together. If that's scary, you can see on the right another section where Louvre staff members accidentally dropped it and scaffolding tore a large gash into it.

Even in this photograph you can't see where the painting was cut, so that's one of the things you appreciate in person.

Outside this room, in the hallway we came from, is the long hallway of Italian Renaissance artists. You can check out Leonardo's other work, which is not under glass and it's funny how way fewer people notice them. More than the Mona Lisa, my favourite Leonardo work I saw was Portrait of an Unknown Lady.

We went down the whole hallway and I saw Raphael (another Ninja Turtle, of course...). I always thought Raphael was a step down from Leonardo. I still think the same, but I have a better appreciation for his work now. In real life, close up, the colours are better and you can see he included more detail than photos might suggest.

After doing the main Italian Renaissance hallway and some side-rooms we did the main French Hallway that runs parallel. Oddly enough, this French hallway is NOT the French Renaissance stuff, which you need to go elsewhere for. But I digress, I read up a lot on Jacques-Louis David before we left, a genius of a painter and a thoroughly awful human being. But when you see stuff like his Oath of the Horatii and Lictors Bring Brutus the Bodies of His Sons you can totally get why he was a sensation at the time. They're electrifying to see. Samantha and I also love Vigée-Lebrun, one of the few women artists displayed at the Louvre. She's unique for painting pictures where people actually smiled. And this was considered indecent at the time! Of course we also saw great stuff like the Raft of the Medusa. Again, I advise people to read up on it because it was an actual event.

We sure were glad to go early, because now the museum was filling up. I'd hate to think what it was like in the Mona Lisa room at this point. We saw Venus de Milo. We all know she's missing her arms, but you don't realise until you see it in person that it's in kind of rough shape. There are dents on her chin and various parts of her body.

I should shorten this up. Went downstairs and saw a lot of Italian statues, including Michelangelo's Slaves. They're in kind of rough shape too, but that's because the pope at the time switched Michelangelo to working on the Sistine Chapel. It would be great to see these more properly finished. Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss was Samantha's favourite statue. That makes sense, as Flaubert called this statue "beauty itself." I think he was right.
(Digression: I played Flaubert in a play once, so I have a certain affinity for him.)

RIGHT underneath Michelangelo's statues you can find Italian frescoes. This is early Italian Renaissance stuff, and honestly not quite as impressive as other rooms, but it does have Donatello in there. Great, now I've seen all the Ninja Turtles!

The Denon Wing, aka. the greatest hits wing, took us over 3 hours. I'll do the rest of the work an injustice and just describe it in brief: We saw the ancient foundations of the Louvre (it was a palace, and before that a medieval fort). A sphinx and other treasures Napoleon took from Egypt. Saw all sorts of statues (Roman gods! Guards yelling at people not to touch things!). I sort of flipped out at Hammurabi's code, something I've studied over the years and have taught to high school students quite a lot. In the Richelieu Wing we saw Napoleon III's apartments and a lot of paintings that you kind of know. A lot of Scandinavian paintings and such, pictures of boats and fruit that would be great to have hanging up on your wall.

I'll end things there. So my points: If you're going to go, study up on art. Also study the museums you plan on visiting, including the map and opening hours. Definitely for the Louvre, use an entrance OTHER THAN the pyramid, be there before it opens, and have a Paris Museum Pass.

Fri, Jun. 1st, 2012, 09:07 pm
Mario Madness Pt. 4: Continue?

Super Mario Galaxy
On the other hand this game IS innovative. It builds on Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, and does something really special. Storytelling-wise, it's greatly influenced by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novel The Little Prince. This game also features a whimsical young person who lives in outer space, and even the art direction seems to be a marriage between Mario and the illustrations of the novel. This connection has not been highlighted by enough people, so if you have played this game I recommend you read The Little Prince or find some adaptation of it.

So it's got whimsy and a great art direction. On top of that the camera is never an issue and the controls are tight and natural. You typically do not have the power to fly, but you rarely need to. Mario shoots across levels propelled by shooting stars. The sense of complete freedom is back, even though you're actually on a track the game sets out for you. Running around planet and playing with gravity is a joy, and there is such a variety of environments and enemies to encounter.

Galaxy was voted the best game of 2007 by a lot of magazines and websites, and with good cause. While the Wii has mostly been relegated to an outdated piece of toy-tech compared to its rival systems, this game showed that better hardware does not necessarily make for a better game. In my mind it was the best video game of this console generation for sheer fun, whimsy, and freedom.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii
The Wii is pervasive in homes today, so it made sense to do a similar foray as New Super Mario Bros. did on the DS. It's largely the same game, only with the ability to play multiplayer (that apparently most people get frustrated with because it mucks up what you're trying to do). I thought it was great, and it had great level design. It was not significantly better than either Bros. 3 or World, which I'm finding to be a trend. The new penguin suit was a cute and fun power, and I appreciated seeing all the Koopa Kids as bosses again. Nintendo's recent emphasis on making sure anyone can play, despite any skill level, leads to things like the Super Guide here which will play the game for you. I can't help but wonder what's the point of something like that, though I see the reasoning for its existence.

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Everything about the first Galaxy applies here as well. What's interesting is that some of the logic that went into the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 gets used again. Rather than think of a NEW GAME, Nintendo knew they had such a great hit and instead focused on building new levels. Early on this title was even designed to be a software supplement rather than a new title, but then Nintendo figured it would make more sense to consumers if they just sold it as a proper sequel. There are new worlds, and Yoshi makes a grand return and he's actually kind of fun and useful here, unlike Sunshine where Nintendo wasn't entirely sure what to do with him. The only downside to this game is that it really is just more levels that could have been in the first. And the exceptional story from the first game, mostly based around Rosalina the Space Queen/Princess, has fizzled and disappeared. It's still a great experience, though.

There is something to learn from playing every major Mario game. In fact, there's more than one thing. The first, and most obvious thing is that Mario is a lesson in freedom and movement. It's telling that whenever the power of flight is available in a game, it is always the greatest and most freeing. Video games might seem contrary and even detestable to parents who encourage kids to go out and get exercise, but on a video game screen it is an engagement of the imagination. Players can project what kind of adventure Mario is having as he is running across landscapes. I would also argue that there are benefits for some kids who are either not very good at sports or have physical handicaps, giving them a chance to express themselves in a virtual-physical world. Of course the counter to that is that such kids would make better use of their time getting real exercise, but I think with good parenting it might not be an either/or situation. I grew up loving Mario and obviously playing a lot of his games, yet I remember at a young age running around outside and we would pretend we were in Mario's world, gaining his super powers and jumping on blocks and all.

This leads into the second, less obvious point I would make about the Mario series. If there is a story to all of these games it's not that Mario saves the princess, but rather that both Nintendo and players (initially children) started to see an iconography with the games and identify with the sprites. This might not sound like a big thing, but it's very important. To compare, Space Invaders is just an isolated game. There are no real characters in it despite the aliens having faces and the shooter presumably defending Earth. From Donkey Kong on Nintendo treated Mario differently. He is a character, a hero, and he has goals. There are bad guys with personalities, worlds that exist not just as obstacle courses (though that is what their programming actually defines them as) but as places the little mushroom people live in. In short, Mario lives in his own little world, just as Superman lives in Metropolis and Bugs Bunny lives in a hole in the ground. Though they are simple sprites, Nintendo figured out how to tell rudimentary stories with its video games even with Donkey Kong, and how to create fantastic words that kids pretend they go into.

Favourite Games
Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and the Super Mario Galaxies.

Least Favourite Games
Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japanese) for sheer repetitiveness and frustration. Outside of that, I find Super Mario Land 2 the most uninspired.

Will I continue playing Mario games? Hard to say. I find I'm getting diminishing returns playing most new video games. I have little interest in both the 3DS and from what I've seen of the upcoming Wii U, so I might be done with new Mario games (not to mention most new video games in general). I've got a big library of older games, though, so I can certainly waste a lot of time that way.

Wed, May. 16th, 2012, 07:40 pm
Mario Madness Pt. 4: Beyond Trilogies

Super Mario 64

Man, this was so darned impressive when you first saw it in 1996. I mean I, of course, but I'm imagining you as well. Video games had always been in 2 dimensions. There were cheats around this, some parallax scrolling and modes 6 and 7, etc., but here at last was a fully-immersible world.

In retrospect it's easy to see the game's deficiencies. Mario is sort of a floaty, weird thing to control again and the tightness and naturalness to the controls wouldn't be perfected until Super Mario Galaxy. The graphics are blocky, and the camera is something to wrestle with. But despite all this you still get a sense of freedom with Mario (culminating in him being able to fly around the castle at the very end, similar to how Bros. 3 and World understood flying is the greatest) and the level design is excellent. There is challenge, mystery, and above all variety in all the different areas. The developers were smart to also figure out that you could re-use certain levels if you changed the nature of the goals, in this case in order to win a certain star. On the first play-through of a level reaching the top of a mountain might be the goal. Next, it would be discovering all the hidden coins throughout the level (similar, but a lot more enjoyable than the tedious exercise from every level of Yoshi's Island). Then you might have to go into the mountain and win a race sliding down a slope. There really was a lot of variety to the stages, and lots of hidden surprises that followed up the best level design ideas from Bros. 3 and World, but now in a 3D environment.

Super Mario Sunshine

An improved Super Mario 64. The manipulation of the water sprayer/jetpack Mario used in this game might be awkward to some, but I found it a way to help facilitate movement again, always the most important aspect to the Mario series. Mario could spray bad guys and gunk, hover, rocket into the air on jet streams, etc. The camera and controls are tightened up compared to the N64 game, and the tropical settings complete with people to interact with lends to the idea that you're running around a real colourful world that exists. Yoshi, similarly tropical themed and always colourful, is added in a setting that makes sense but the game doesn't know how to properly make use of. Once again mentioning ideas that would be implemented in full later, some of the best stages in this game are ones that remove you from the storyline and setting and place you in a weird area suspended in space where you must navigate moving platforms. This is almost precisely what Super Mario Galaxy would end up being based around, and there they realised to go all the way and actually make the setting outer space.

New Super Mario Bros.

All this time, all this technical innovation, and people still played the good old 2D Mario platformers. It doesn't seem like it, but the last 2D game where you actually controlled Mario (not Yoshi or Wario) was 1992 with Land 2. Nintendo didn't have Miyamoto take part in this production, and again I don't think this makes for any less of a game. It's fun, it plays like a Mario Bros. or Land game only with polygons instead of sprites. This both improves the graphics and makes it kind of weird, as things are still a little blocky at times. There are special items to collect just like in Yoshi's Island, but now thankfully there are only three in each level, which is a sane number.

The design and mechanics to the levels are largely the same. The biggest difference I noticed is more rounded and circular ground, and sometimes this ground rotates like it's a giant wheel turning in the Earth. There are a lot of these, and it's surreal and fun. There are great new powerups, including the mega mushroom that grows Mario into a giant where he tears up a level, and the mini mushroom where you can skip across water like a pebble and float up into tiny pipes to reach new areas. All in all, it's just a great 2D Mario game. A few new ideas, but nothing innovative.

Tue, May. 1st, 2012, 08:10 pm
Mario Madness Pt. 3: Super!

Super Mario World
The things that applied to the last game mostly apply to World. There are more colours, more enemies and faster movement, but the ideas from Super Mario Bros. 3 are all present here. Flight is given even more meaning, and sometimes Mario must rely on his magic cape and ability to glide to get him through levels.

Yoshi is a great addition that was first envisioned as an ostrich as far back as Super Mario Bros., and even seen in prototypes as the enemy ostrich in Doki Doki Panic (where characters could also hitch rides on bad guys) and Kuribo's Shoe in Super Mario Bros. 3 that stomped enemies. The shoe only appeared in one level, but it left a definite mark on players and it's interesting that kids noticed its importance, as it was all essentially a prototype in practicing for Yoshi here.

Super Mario Land 2
Gunpei Yokoi takes charge over another technically impressive Gameboy game. Here the characters are bigger and more identifiable. It tries to follow the style of 3 and World, and succeeds to a large extent. But while the original Land was more dangerous and exciting, here it can't help but be a watered down version of the console games.

This game also introduces Wario, an evil Mario. It was sort of a brainless addition that makes sense ("Wa" is also a short form for "Evil" in Japanese, and has the added benefit of W being both an upside-down M and having the word "War" in it for anglophones). It's kind of weird that Wario has taken on a life of his own since then, getting more games and recognition than the character probably deserves.

Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3
Fractures start to appear in the Mario series. Not in its developers, but in the line itself, where Nintendo begins to see its main titles as important commodities. They are no longer pieces of software (Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2), but big summer blockbusters that must have McDonald's toys and cartoons built around them. This meant that smaller, and sometimes more experimental games using popular characters, should not be part of the main line. Capcom would learn the same lesson with Mega Man (Mega Man X and later other series), Squaresoft would learn it with Final Fantasy, and Sega would learn it with Sonic. This line of thinking has probably gone too far, with profitable characters' series fractured into tiny bits. It's only in recent years that Capcom decided to re-capture some magic and money by going back to Mega Man's regular line and make a 9 and 10 in the series, and after so many side-games and deviations Sega keeps attempting to recapture Sonic's original gameplay mojo. But I digress, we're talking about Mario.

Like the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2, you can see interesting wheels turning here. Nintendo wants another profitable Mario Gameboy game. Great, but how do you not retread over Land 2, which admittedly was sort of a watered down version of the recent console games? You need some new flavour, and some new power-ups would be nice. But now it's established, Mario's a good guy and he has powers like the fire flower. If you give him significantly new gameplay mechanics kids will say it's not what Mario is supposed to do.

Wario, the villain from Land 2, was likely thrown out just as a suggestion. But suddenly possibilities, both in gameplay and marketing, open up. The game can give the player a different set of skills. While Wario jumps, his main attack is a bashing move where he rams into enemies. He also breaks down blocks, and his power ups are variations on this. Since Wario is a villain/anti hero, the game's goals can also be built differently. Here, Wario is after collecting as much wealth as possible and a magic genie at the end. It's not unlike how in the DuckTales NES game where you must make it to the end, but part of the fun is trying to become the richest duck in the world.

This game started the Wario spinoff series. Wario's avarice would be a driving force for much of it. This game isn't so interesting in itself, or even in its launching of Wario's career, but in Nintendo and the rest of the video game industry's burgeoning model of creating a lot of spinoff series and treating its core games as something special. There's also, frankly, no reason why Mario can't have any freaking power or ability or gameplay mechanic at all. But now there are certain expectations, and Nintendo isn't going to deviate from certain types of abilities Mario can gain and certain adventures he is going to have.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island
Speak of the devil, another spinoff game. Mario is a baby here, and if you were a fan (particularly of things like the cartoons) his and Luigi's entire previous backstory of coming from Brooklyn is thrown out the window. Huh. I know fans have tried to reconcile this, but there really is none to be made. The Mario Bros. are both Italian Americans and native to the Mushroom Kingdom at the same time for some reason.

Back to the spinoff business, the Japanese version of this game doesn't even make mention to this game being the sequel to Super Mario World. The understanding is obvious to players; it's a Mario game, and you're playing with Yoshi who was in the last Super Nintendo game, but it's not really following in the main series' mold now is it?

Miyamoto spent a long time on Super Mario World, not to mention needing to focus on other SNES games like Star Fox and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. They were all vastly different, but with Super Mario World being his first foray with the system he felt like he had missed a lot of opportunities for Mario on the console. As great as everyone thought World was, it was basically a suped-up Super Mario Bros. game. He wanted to see what the Super Nintendo could REALLY do now.

The result is Yoshi's Island. Miyamoto was largely responsible for eschewing the pre-rendered graphics that made Donkey Kong Country look so impressive and rounded. Instead, he went in the opposite direction and asked for a game that looked like it had been coloured in with crayons.

There is some serious hardware under the game's hood. Miyamoto was familiar with working with the Super FX chip, the device that made Star Fox possible. Now Nintendo had a better version with the Super FX 2. For the purposes of this game the chip enabled Yoshi to throw and bounce eggs across the screen at all sorts of angles. It also made possible for small enemies to grow huge in size and have unique movement sets, which is especially apparent in the boss fights. Having never played this game until recently it never sounded particularly impressive to me, but after playing Yoshi's Island I understand what the chip is actually doing. When watching the eggs and especially the bosses you can see fluid types of movement that is never apparent in other Super NES games. If you ever play the game, check out the boss made out of goo especially to see what I mean.

Miyamoto has ideas that germinate, and frequently technology needs to catch up to him. This was true of the idea of scrolling screens from Donkey Kong only to be fulfilled in Super Mario Bros. He knew it would be fun for Mario to ride a creature in Super Mario Bros., and movements were made in that area but only really succeeded in Super Mario World. Here, he's starting to think about movement beyond both horizontal and vertical. Eggs spew out at weird angles, and in one telling boss fight Yoshi and Mario are launched up into outer space and fight on a little circle with its own gravity. You can run left and right, but really the only movement now is that the planet rotates underneath your feet. It's a trippy experience, and oddly enough exactly what Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 would end up being based around. Since those games are so excellent it's pretty exciting to see how Miyamoto's concepts blossomed.

This game is much-loved, and perhaps I'm being a bit harsh because I only played it more recently and not as a kid, but beyond some technical innovations I do not find it significantly better than Bros. 3 or World. Throwing eggs is neat, but sort of an unruly element. There is an emphasis on collecting different items, both 5 flowers and 20 red coins for every level. There is no real distinction between these items, there are simply 25 things the game wants you to collect. You collect them to open up secret stages and provide added value to the game. Previous games had secret stages to find, but this is really a bore, and it's sad that so many games (both Mario and in general) have fallen suit with making collecting arbitrary items such a big part of playing. Before you got to explore for exploration sake, but now it's usually to fill up some item you're missing in an inventory.

Wed, Apr. 18th, 2012, 01:48 pm
More Madness pt. 2: Too (2?) Many Sequels!

Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Japanese One, The Lost Levels)
This is the last game I have just played. It’s the Matterhorn of the series, the ultimate challenge for Mario enthusiasts. I beat it on the Super Mario All-Stars game, which allows you to save after each level, but I’m not going to let that in any way diminish my victory!

There are some interesting, though ultimately wrong lines of thinking developers put into making this game. How do you top the previous game? A whole new experience for Mario and Luigi with all-new mechanics might defeat the purpose of a sequel. So Nintendo figured they needed a game a lot like the previous. OK. But if you make a game a lot like the previous one, different levels but ultimately the same difficulty, won’t kids feel ripped off? This poses a conundrum for Nintendo.

Bring it!

The solution is to make a game very much like Super Mario Bros., only punishingly hard. You might need to make a jump running as fast as you can, land on a single block, then leap and jump again onto a moving object. Now do this again and again, and avoid every type of bad guy and projectile the game can throw at you. That’s the main source of frustration, needing to be both fast and extremely precise. It doesn’t help that exploration can at times punish you, sending you back to the start of a level or even several worlds, and sometimes you need invisible blocks in order to reach an area. That might not sound unfair at first until you discover that the invisible block was half-way through the level, and you have now been running through an area from which there is no escape.

By the way, I beat the game without warping at all, completing every level that exists. That's dedication!

So I think this game was misguided in its approach, but I see where its assumptions lay. I also appreciate it for really training me up as a better Super Mario Bros. player now. If I go back to the original, am small, and faced with two Hammer Bros? Phssh, not a problem. You find that fraction of a second between their hammers and breeze by. After painstakingly going over Super Mario Bros. 2’s levels a player becomes very familiar with the game, having a better understanding of the mechanics and what Mario is capable of at any given moment. This game hardens you up, so when you play Super Mario Bros. its obstacles become minor nuisances you can dance around.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Western one, Doki Doki Panic)
Props to the people at Nintendo of America who said the real Super Mario Bros. 2 was too damned hard and they shouldn't subject kids in North America to it. What else you got, Miyamoto? By his own admission he has another game he worked longer and harder on, Doki Doki Panic. As Super Mario Bros. is vaguely a progression of the working-man Mario combined with Alice in Wonderland and Western fairy tales, Doki Doki Panic is vaguely 1001 Arabian Nights, complete with falling into a storybook, magic lamps and keys. Slap Mario's cast over the original characters and away you go!

Despite people talking about its differences the game shares more similarities with the Mario series proper. You run, you jump, you have ends to levels and bosses to beat. Most of the differences are just improvements, such as being able to move left. You just throw objects (most comically vegetables plucked from the ground) and throw them at bad guys is all.

But more than game mechanics, which was really the driving force for innovation in both Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2's greatest achievements are cosmetic. The Mushroom Kingdom, cute as it was, was a world of plain skies and breakable blocks. Now you have grass and waterfalls, and platforms made out of hills rather than being a bare row of blocks suspended in mid-air. There are secret caves, icy areas, whales in oceans (that spurt water from their blow-holes!), deserts and piles of sand that you dig into, and ending with a journey into the sky to face the final challenge (a concept already used in Kid Icarus and The Lost Levels, but not quite as well realised as here). In short, appearances mattered, and it changed the experience of the adventure for children.

Super Mario Land
Moving to the Gameboy now. Nintendo knew they had the "must-have" game in Tetris to entice people to buy Gameboys, but how could they show off the new standard type of game Nintendo was becoming familiar for? Shrink a Mario adventure onto the screen.
Much has been made of the fact that this is the first Mario game without Miyamoto working on it, instead being produced by Gunpei Yokoi. While Miyamoto is the artsy non-programmer, the person who asked why the screens weren't able to scroll, Yokoi was the complete opposite, the man behind the technology and coming up with ideas like the + directional pad, and the majority of the Gameboy itself.

While I love Miyamoto's best work, I think this game goes to show he doesn't always need to be present. Using Super Mario Bros. as a model, what was needed for the Gameboy was a matter of technical know-how and translations, not innovation. Mario is a bit small to accommodate the tiny screen, but the game plays just fine and images are basic enough to work. I love the flavour of this game, borrowing music and imagery from places like Egypt, Easter Island and China. The designers also figured out the lesson from games like Doki Doki Panic that appearances mattered (even on a Gameboy screen), and had Mario move around in a submarine, an airplane, and a spaceship. There's no discernible gameplay difference between these vehicles, but each new stage is a little bit of joy for young players.

Touching briefly on the story, I guess it made sense to have Mario journey to lands other than the Mushroom Kingdom. I guess this is the reason why Yokoi and the rest figured there would be a different princess in charge to rescue (Daisy). The correct realisation that kids would want to finish the game flying in a space ship naturally led to the main boss being an alien rather than Bowser or some other type of monster. Nintendo was still feeling out the Mario series, and I think at this point they might have figured they would make game after game set in different lands and with different princesses to rescue. A girl in every port for Mario. Instead, they pulled back, kind of discovering through the cartoons and merchandising that they were building a cast of loveable character not unlike Disney or Looney Tunes, and that it made more sense to plunk Princess Toadstool back into the games whether she was in charge of the lands Mario was running around or not.

Also, it's funny that Nintendo ended up deciding to make Princess Daisy Luigi's girlfriend considering the only adventure game featuring her has Mario rescuing her and no Luigi at all.

Super Mario Bros. 3
I know I'm not sticking exactly to the games' release order, but I don't care. While Nintendo's technical wizard Yokoi was heading Super Mario Land, Miyamoto was in charge of the large and colourful Super Mario Bros. 3 for television screens. This game is the series coming full-circle, with Miyamoto and Nintendo understanding they had created a popular icon for a medium like Mickey Mouse or Superman, and they knew what they were going to do with him both commercially and on the game itself.

The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was something of an experiment. It was a software upgrade (it boasted no real story context beyond, "Here's some more levels for you."), a greater challenge, and a test at what kids were looking for in sequel video games. Super Mario Bros. 3 is the real fulfillment. Mario can go anywhere on the screen. Pipes not only lead to bonus rooms with more coins, but to whole alternate paths in levels. Each world has its own exotic theme (taking cues from lessons learned in Doki Doki Panic), sometimes with their own unique mechanics such as slippery surfaces on ice or water to swim through. And then there are power ups, which give players new and exciting ways to blast through bad guys. There is even a world map, which is ultimately just gravy, but it's a fun way to immerse yourself in this world and to also plan out how you are going to tackle the game. Plus, getting to Toad Houses and opening chests is fun!

Mario and Luigi's ability to fly in this game isn't just another power like the fire flower. Nintendo realised that while the Mario games are obstacle courses to run through, what the kids are experiencing is a sense of freedom in movement. Yes, yes, you can say how shameful this is considering playing these games instructs kids to sit in front of a TV. But there are a lot of kids who don't run fast and can't jump high, who don't hit the ball every time when swinging a bat. Here in the Mushroom Kingdom, suddenly they have a sense of freedom and movement that isn't available to them in the real world. Being able to soar over the bad guys and dangerous pits is especially wonderful for players.

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