Friday, February 27, 2009

Interview with: Freezepop (disc review below)

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Music: Freezepop, a synth-pop group most commonly known for their fan-favorite contributions to several music-genre games such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero, FreQuency, Dance Dance Revolution (and others) were kind enough to take a few minutes out of their day to talk with me in support of their most recent full-length CD release, Future Future Future Perfect. A review of this disc immediately follows the interview.
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For those not familiar with the band, Freezepop consists of Jussi Gamache (aka Liz Enthusiasm, vocals), Kasson Crooker (aka the Duke of Pannekoeken, vocals, synths) and Sean Drinkwater (aka The Other Sean T. Drinkwater, vocals, synths)
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… So what's up with the band?
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To start off the interview I'd like to ask a question that usually comes at the end… is there any one thing you'd like people to know about Freezepop right now?
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J: We are awesome.
S: We are so awesome.
J: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.
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Well I'm a big fan of your music, so no argument on my end.
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S: We are only being somewhat facetious.
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How did you originally get together? How and when? Did you all just to bump into each other at the mall? What's the story there?
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K: That's exactly what happened; we were all at Spencer gifts.
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S: I was helping some of the girls at Rave, and we all sort of looked at each other and definitely decided we should form a band. (laughter) No, actually I think Kasson was looking for a singer and he had asked one of our friends about it. I answered the phone when he was making the call, and that's how I got into the band. Well I mean, Jussi and I were roommates at the time and Kasson and I had known each other from being the keyboard nerds in our respective bands before that, so we struck up the conversation and I was like, “it sounds like a really fun idea”, so Kasson had the idea to form a band around the little QY70 (a Yamaha keyboard) with a female singer, and I sort of tagged along.
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So what were you all doing at that point? Was it '98 or '99? Did you all have part time jobs or wha?
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J: It was '99 so this is our 10 year anniversary, kind of crazy.
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S: We were all in other bands.
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J: Well I wasn't really, but we had a little record label though.
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S: Kasson and I were both on bands that were ostensibly on the same label based in Boston, so we were all a little bit connected anyway
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Where did you get the name ‘Freezepop’? Where did that come from?
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S: Depends on who you ask. My version of the story is that Kasson wanted to call it Rocketpop and then I suggested Freezepop, but there is some disparity on that.
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K: I do remember liking that name, but definitely Freezepop is a much better name.
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Jussi, did you have your own version of that story?
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J: Well the whole Freezepop thing came around because my house had a fourth of July party and we were like “Oh, we got freeze pops.” We had like 500 of them, we put them in the freezer overnight and we thought that would be enough time for them all to freeze. Only like 10% of them froze, so basically the rest of the summer we were stuck with a freezer overflowing with freeze pops. So anyway, that was the freeze pop summer and Sean basically lived on them.

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Kasson, I know you call yourself the Duke of Pannekoeken, so are you from Minnesota or of Dutch descent somehow?
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K: I actually don't really know. I tried to figure out the derivative of my name, and I’m descended from the pilgrims somehow. Some of the pilgrims were either Dutch or English, but I think it’s more that I have an affinity for their pancakes, so I changed my name to that at some point.
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What was it before?
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K: It started off as the Duke of Candied Apples, and then when we were in Belgium I switched it to the duke of Belgian Waffles. A year or so later we were in Amsterdam, and clearly I found my breakfast food of choice, so I settled on that and it has been that ever since.
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Are you eventually going to make your way through other breakfast foods? Perhaps blintzes or crepes, or something like that?
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K: I’ll never say never, but I’ve stuck with this one for awhile.
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S: The Duke of Turkey Bacon? Perhaps veggie sausages.
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I usually do a lot of game reviews (and that's how the person from your label found me originally) so forgive my ignorance but I was going to ask: what programs or instruments are you using these days? How much is PC work in front of your keyboard to get your songs together, and how much is in a more traditional studio setting?
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S: Kasson and I both have studios that are somewhat similar. We’re using a lot of the same software. Some of the same hardware we have, like analog synthesizers. We both like a lot of hardware, and we’re kind of a getting into a neat process of working now… But we’re never in a traditional studio as such, at least I don't think.
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So when you guys are recording your tracks, are you together or apart?
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S: It’s been totally all over the map. The normal process is Jussi will send some lyrics over to Kasson, and he’ll lay down some tracks and match up the lyrics to the melodies. Then she'll go over to his place and do the vocals.
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Do you always come up with the lyrics first, or do you start with a melody in mind?
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J: I come up with most of the lyrics and hand them off to the boys, and then they do their thing with it and kind of match it up to the song they already have going or write a song around it. There’s a lot of back and forth, too. We don't have one typical way of writing.
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K: For me, I am usually most inspired programming some drum sounds on synthesizers, and then I end up with a pattern or two that I really like that has a chord progression and some interesting sounds. For me that's the starting point. That’s what I feel I do most naturally, but we’ve done other things where we have a full set of lyrics and have written a bed for it.
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How much do you guys tour, and how much time do you spend doing other things? I mean, are you full-time musicians now? Kasson, I know you work for Harmonix (the developers behind several music games such as Rock Band) but do you other two have game industry jobs?
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J: Sean and I work freelance so we have a schedule that's flexible. I’m a graphic designer and Sean does all sorts of audio composition stuff. Generally when we tour, Kasson can't usually come with us so we have another sort-of member (a stand-in member for him) and the three of us tour. We’ve been touring kind of a lot the last couple of years. We try and go out for two weeks at a time and then come back for a couple of weeks, so that we can continue on with our actual day jobs.
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S: That’s so we can recharge our batteries. Going on tour for two months at a time is very draining, so we'll go out for three weeks, come back for a month, go out for twenty days, then come back for thirty days. By the end of the year we've been on tour for a couple of months, but not all in a row-- we don't want to hate each other and not want to be in a band together again.
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(laughter)
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How much is domestic versus international? Do you find you have a bigger fan base outside of the U.S., or do you know what the breakdown is?
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J: It used to be true [that more fans were international] but since the whole video game thing happened, it’s definitely evened things out a bit more.
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So you feel that most of our domestic fans are from your exposure in games?
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J: Oh yeah, definitely.
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In relation to that, do you find you sell most of your music through electronic channels, or how are CDs doing for you? What's the breakdown?
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K: It's actually been surprising. Our back catalog sells a lot more digitally than I think we do in CDs, but for our most recent CD with Cordless (their label) we actually sold more physical copies. The hard thing to gauge, though, is that a lot of people who buy the music online don't buy the full album-- they just buy individual songs. It is a little bit harder to gauge traditional album sales versus individual tracks. From a revenue point of view, we make more money from selling music online than CDs, but I think at this point it’s pretty much split, I think. A few years ago I thought we would be doing tons and tons of digital sales and less CD sales.
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While we’re on the topic, what do you guys think of copy protection for MP3s? Now that restrictions seem to be easing a bit, do you have feelings either way?
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S: Not really
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(…long silence…)
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K: I used to struggle with the whole DRM issue and I’m actually happy that most of the industry is going non-DRM. The downside that there are still a fair amount of problems. Artists are writing songs and getting exploited, so it's hard to sell music. Fortunately for us, it's not like we’re living off the music and stuff. If I was trying to live off my music, my feelings might be a little bit different on IP protection and DRM. At this point I really don't care. The thing about tour fans is that when they buy our music, they know they’re supporting us and that the money isn't being fed into a giant corporation. We actually have a really good deal with our record label, where it is very beneficial to us in terms of the master recordings and stuff. I’ve met many people over the years who have said they've found our music online, and now they’re buying our CDs. In the past sometimes, they would just PayPal us money for the MP3s they had gotten over the years, so it's pretty cool having fans like that.
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So you guys feel like you have a pretty tight connection with your fans?
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K: Yeah totally, we use our website and MySpace, and now FaceBook and LiveJournal to be able to connect with the fans. One thing we’re dabbling with is a premium service where people can sign up and get access to exclusive content that they wouldn't normally get, so we’re kind of seeing how that goes and if people are interested and that kind of thing.
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J: Yeah our fans are pretty hardcore and it's awesome, it's really great. I think we are just underground enough, when they find out about us it's exciting.
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You mean you're not in the ‘oversold, not cool anymore phase’?
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J: Yeah, exactly.
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Just to lighten it up a little bit, out of your catalog, what do you find is the most popular, or most requested song when you play concerts? Along with that, what are your own personal favorites? Do you each have a favorite song that you do?
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S: There are a few, I would say.
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J: There are a couple that are pretty standard ones.
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S: Kind of the perennial favorites… Stakeout, Less Talk More Rokk from Guitar Hero 2, which is obviously one of our most popular songs.
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J: I would say those.
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S: I really like Harebrained Scheme.
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K: Harebrained Scheme continues to be one of my favorite early songs. I have an affinity for Vangelis, and I really like Outer Space too.
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Are there any songs where you think "Oh my god, I wish I could have done that over" or "we totally screwed this one up"?
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K: I’ve gone back and redone songs when I wasn't happy with the recording, which is not good. We rereleased Freezepop Forever so we had to repress a bunch of CDs and get it remastered, so we took that opportunity to make a few minor tweaks-- like to a few songs on the album where I wasn't happy with the mix. Some of our older songs, we're not super fond of the lyrics and we don't perform them anymore, like Robotron 2000. I think out of all the songs that I dislike and would want to go back and redo, I think the first one would be Shark Attack. We perform that live and it’s lots of fun and has lots of energy, but when I listed to the album version of it, I’m bummed out.
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I also wanted to ask, what’s the story behind the one you did in Japanese, Tenisu no Boifurendo? How did that come about?
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J: Um, I took one semester of Japanese and I basically learned enough to write that song. very very elementary Japanese and unfortunately I’ve forgotten most of everything else I learned, but I remember the lyrics to that song. It would be very hard for me to carry on a very simple conversation in Japanese now.
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S: We are going to be really big in Japan though.
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J: Oh let's hope so, I would love to tour there.
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You covered the theme song to Jem... which one of you is the fan?
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K: I’m a pretty big Jem fan.
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Do you think she's truly outrageous?
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K: Well, I have an MP3 collection of every single song from that series, and there's some cheese in there for sure.
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S: The woman who created those songs wrote to us.
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J: Yeah she really liked it. I thought that was really awesome-- plus she wasn't suing us.
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Along lawsuit lines, I saw you doing a Journey cover online. Do you have any plans to release that, or do a covers album?
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S: No
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(silence, followed by laughter)
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K: We've done a few covers over the years. They tend to be obscure things like the Jem cover and we covered a Raymond Scott song. We’ve recorded two other more traditional covers-- a Dépêche Mode track and a Sparks track. We tend to save the Journey and the Final Countdown stuff for our live shows because they tend to go over really well live.
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Are you guys planning on playing PAX again this year?
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J: If they'll have us back. I would love to, that was such a crazy experience both times. Those are by far the biggest shows we've ever played.
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Changing gears a little bit, since I am going to be covering this on a game website I have to ask some game questions. So, I know you have a lot of fans from your exposure in music games, but do you guys actually play? What is your relationship with games?
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K: I have Lego Star Wars. I play a fair amount of games, and we play all of the music games just to see what other people are doing. I’m particularly fond of Parappa and Rez. I’m fond of other Japanese games like Loco Roco, and Katamari was really fun. I just finished Patapon and now I’ve just been getting the little iPhone games for my phone. I’ve been playing Rolando which is a total rip off of Loco Roco but it's still pretty fun.
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Anyone else?
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J: Colecovision Smurfs. I’m actually really bad at video games but I enjoy watching people play them. Like, I can sit and watch someone play Guitar Hero forever. It's very mesmerizing.
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Speaking of that, there’s been some talk in the games industry about whether the music game genre has run its course. Do you guys have an opinion on that?
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S: As long as there are innovations and products keep becoming more interesting…
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K: I think if all the companies stop putting in resources and stop innovating, then they'll end up being just like the other franchise games like Madden or Tony Hawk. DDR is a really good example; it's a pretty good idea and it's fun, but 25 games later and it still looks kind of bad and still has a lot of cheesy music in it. The last thing we want to see in music games is for that kind of thing to happen. So far it's been pretty good.
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S: If we get to Guitar Hero 9 with the glow-in-the-dark strap, you'll know that they ran out of ideas.
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I just have one more question. It’s kind of off-the-wall but I ask this one and I get some pretty interesting answers… So, let’s say an alien lands and tells you that you have to pick between rice, wheat and corn-- you can only pick one. The other two will vanish off the earth completely. Which one would you pick and why?
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K: I’m going to have to go with rice because I love sushi.
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J: But corn is so versatile.
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S: And it feeds the most people. Is it personal taste, or are we trying to keep the species alive?
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No, just you personally.
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S: I would probably pick corn since I like corn chips so much. I love tortillas and I love nachos. I just think corn does amazing things.
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J: You can do pretty much anything with corn.
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S: There's corn in Coca Cola.
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K: There's corn everywhere, that's for sure.
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S: I would vote for rice if it was to keep the species alive, but my personal vote is for corn.
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So what's the final decision?
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J: I’m going to vote corn, but I would miss rice. I probably wouldn't miss wheat that much.
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S: so it's rice, corn, and corn.
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Well, I guess Freezepop has no love for wheat. Sorry, wheat.
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Infinite thanks to the members of Freezepop for their time, and also to Pavla at Rykodisc/Cordless for helping to arrange it. For more information on the band or to check out some of their sounds, go to:
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their site: http://freezepop.com/
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their MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/freezepop
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their PR page: http://cordless.rykopress.com/freezepop/media/
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And if you like their music, you can check out other bands at their label:
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http://www.cordless.com/
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And now, for that review
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Future Future Future Perfect (Cordless/RykoDisc, 2007)
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Track 1: Less Talk More Rokk
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard this song. Odds are, you probably love it. I do.
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Track 2: Pop Music Is Not A Crime
Cute and catchy. Hard not to get into this one.
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Track 3: Frontload
Their latest single, and it's got a nice, epic feel.
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Track 4: Thought Balloon
Probably my favorite song on the entire disc. Winsome, subdued, and really, quite beautiful.
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Track 5: Ninja of Love
It sounds exactly like you'd expect it to: kitschy, yet still awesome.
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Track 6: Brainpower
Loose, jangly and raucous. It jumps in, jumps out, and leaves you wanting more.
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Track 7: Do You Like My Wang?
Best. Title. Ever. This 8-bit plastic love machine has an addictingly sinuous pace.
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Track 8: He Says She Says
I love the driving beats and alternating vocals.
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Track 9: Do You Like Boys?
It's light and airy, but if there’s a weak link on this disc, it's this song’s repetitious lyrics and shallow feel.
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Track 10: Swimming Pool
With sweeping scope and a new-age tone, this song is hypnotic.
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Track 11: Afterparty
Darkly,oppressively ominous, this quasi-humorous tale is an odd way to end the disc.
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In total, these eleven tracks are very well balanced in terms of content and variety of style. It holds together excellently as an album, and none of the songs (except perhaps track nine) would feel weak or out of place on their own. In fact, the disc carved itself a spot on my heavy-rotation stack without even trying. Recommended!

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Rating: 8.5/10

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My anniversary, Beneath the Ashes, and Freezepop (not yet)

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Misc: Today was my third wedding anniversary, and I must say that I've never had a better three years.
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My wife is the best!
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Games: The new Tomb Raider: Underworld DLC came out today. Titled Beneath the Ashes, this new add-on level starts off with Lara in her father's study, hidden underneath the burned wreckage of Croft manor. For those who haven't played Underworld yet, the story basically veers off towards Norse mythology elements, and Ashes has our heroine going deeper underground into a new secret area that was underneath the first secret area. Allegedly there’s an artifact down there that can create and control the undead thralls that populated the latter stages of Underworld proper, and Lara’s not one to leave vital artifacts unmolested, natch.
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I watched a ‘developer's diary’ video on Ashes a few weeks ago, and one of the folks putting it together spent some time saying that the TR team really worked hard on the puzzles and were able to dig in and give it their best. I appreciate that they probably put a lot of effort into it, but frankly, I don't see it. Although it's shorter and more focused than any of the levels in the retail release, it still suffers from a heavy feeling of blah, not being very visually interesting and lacking any real personality. There were also a few spots where I was stuck-- not because I couldn't figure out what to do, but because the areas still have a vaguely too-open feeling to them which was often complicated by Lara not jumping where I wanted her to. The two things combined led me to believe that I wasn't performing the correct action, resulting in some minor frustration and wasted effort.
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I still call myself a Tomb Raider fan, but out of the three titles that Crystal Dynamics has had a hand in, I would rank Underworld dead last behind Anniversary and the stellar Legend. This DLC does nothing to change that, and continues the mediocrity that was present in its parent title. Additionally, this new level is overpriced at 800 points ($10) since most players will be able to get through it in less than two hours. Unless you’re an absolute Tomb Raider fanatic, I'd say that it's not worth the download.
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Music: I'm in the process of putting the finishing touches on the interview I did with Freezepop, so check back for that soon.
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I love their music and they were a lot of fun to talk to, but doing interviews over the phone is something I usually try to avoid because the transcription afterwards is an absolute bear. It's a slow, painful process and I was seriously tempted to hire a stenographer temporarily. Props to the wife for her valuable assistance in getting through the tedium, and the fruits of our labor will be posted here shortly. Apologies to the band for the delay.
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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chris (Face 344)

Flash Update: Persona on the PSP

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Games: Atlus announced today that a remake of Revelations: Persona will be released in Fall of this year. Including a new localization, new content, and gameplay enhancements, this update should be the definitive version of the 1996 PlayStation original for those who missed it the first time.
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There were no images or further information available, but this is plenty to go on for fans of the series. Heads up SMT fans, and keep your eyes pointed at Atlus for more info.
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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Snoozing, Blood Diner, and Manhunt

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TV: Tried watching the Academy Awards tonight and just lost interest, even with fast-forwarding courtesy of my DVR.
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I didn't see very many of the films that were nominated, nor did I have much desire. The most interesting thing about it was that Twitter started getting hammered with minute-by-minute updates from everyone who was watching the show… I had to stop checking the feeds after a while. The talk just got too monotonous.
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Film: Watched Blood Diner last night via Comcast’s FearNet. I was tempted several times to turn it off before I got to the end, but I managed to make it through.
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By the time credits were rolling, I couldn't decide whether it was a fantastically bad piece of trash, or totally brilliant satire. If you've got access to FearNet, check it out (all the movies there are free) and let me know what you think.
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Games: Finished Manhunt (PS2) today for the first time. It was an interesting experience. Although it certainly lives up to its reputation as being an extremely graphic and gory game, there was a lot more to it than just that… the story and setting (death-row convict is rescued from the chair only to be thrust into a kill-or-be-killed game of hide and seek) were engaging, and the work with tone and mood were excellent. The stark, brutal feel and incredibly bleak outlook of the game’s entire world were very well-realized. There's also quite a bit of meat to chew on for people who like to delve into meta-commentary, but I'll save that for another post.
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The reason I ended up coming back to this came after so many years was that I feel a certain responsibility to experience games that are notable or important for one reason or another in order to expand my repertoire as a critic. Manhunt was certainly a title that should be examined, and I'm glad I gave it another shot. Once I got over the stupendously bad camera, the cumbersome, frustrating controls, and just accepted that the game was twice as long as it should be, there was a lot to like if for no other reason than very few games have attempted to explore the pitch-black subject matter.
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I think the first Condemned game on the 360 is in the neighborhood, but Manhunt still outdoes it in terms of sheer nihilism and apathy towards humanity -- It's not a place I'd like to live, but it's good to visit once in a while.
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Art vs... Art?

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Games: This has been an eventful week for downloads on the PlayStation 3. Flower and Noby Noby Boy are now both available through the Store, and although I think it's correct to put them both in the same general category, my reactions to both couldn't be more different.
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Flower is fantastic. I don't necessarily think it's the second coming as some seem to report it, but it is most definitely the kind of thing that makes a player step back and re-examine their entire conception of video games.
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Taking control of a single petal from a flower, players guide this petal towards other flowers located in expansive, grassy fields and other natural environments. Upon contact, another petal is removed from the new flower to join the first, the number of petals growing to eventually become a giant, swirling spiral of color as more and more are collected. Although this is a fairly accurate description of the mechanics, Flower is much more than that. After playing through its entirety and thinking through it for a while, I think it's clear to see that Flower is almost a poem; or at least, the developer’s attempt to sidestep the notion of traditional gameplay in order to communicate feeling, or ideas.
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Best played in one continuous session, there is a very definite emotional arc communicated solely through the environment. Starting in a very idyllic, peaceful setting, the game eventually takes players to darker and less hospitable areas before coming full circle with nothing less than a redemption of sorts as the flowers and the wind that carries them cleanses the land. It's difficult to fully describe in words what this new sort of language is trying to say, but it's not hard at all to experience it. I think this title is very worthy of praise, and is a beginning step towards the maturation of video games as a medium.
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The other title, Noby Noby Boy… well, let's just say it's not nearly as inspirational.
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In this title, players are put in control of something best described as a squat worm with four legs. Its head is controlled with the left stick and its tail with the right. Players can make it jump, freeze position, and eat (among other things) with the central concept being nothing more than to provide players with the character and an environment to exist in.
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The brainchild of Keita Takahashi, creator of the breakout hit Katamari Damacy, this project is much more difficult to embrace. After starting the game and being let loose in the first “world”, small events happen as the player begins to test the rules of this virtual creature. Random people and animals will hop on for a ride as the worm grows, or some things can be knocked down if the worm wraps itself around them. It's interesting to see what kind of effects can be made to happen, but after further experimentation, I experienced a growing wave of boredom and apathy.
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There is no real point to the game. There are no goals, no challenges to overcome, and thus far, I haven't felt as though there's any real message trying to be communicated. I have to admit, I fail to see inside Takahashi’s mind, and I cannot fathom his reasoning for creating this project. Simply creating a virtual space and having a few things to interact with does not strike me as being very sophisticated, intriguing, or even entertaining.
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Although Flower and Noby Noby Boy both remove the majority of conceits that people would consider to be ‘gameplay’, in Flower’s case I feel as though it was done with a very specific intent, and with much consideration for the experience of the player. Noby Noby Boy seems almost the opposite; the developers have stripped away convention, but don't seem to have replaced it with anything at all. Although I certainly don't challenge its right to exist, it strikes me as a novelty for novelty's sake, and I ended my session feeling completely unmoved and uninterested.
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Although I personally would say that only one of these unique projects was successful, I can certainly appreciate that they both were made available to players. Continued exposure to things that push the boundaries of what is expected of video games can only be positive, and I certainly applaud Sony for helping each of these creations find their way into the hands of those curious enough to stray from the usual First-Person Shooters and Madden updates. Regardless of the result, I'm thrilled that this kind of experimentation is happening.
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Thursday, February 19, 2009

The PNWA monthly meet, and screwing with GameFly

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Writing: Just got back from the PNWA monthly meet (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) over in Bellevue, so sort of a late night this week. Late in comparison to the previous three days, anyway.
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As soon as I arrived, one of the board members waved me over since they knew I do SF, and wanted to introduce me to a newcomer. This person was nice enough, but one of the first things they asked was whether I could recommend an editor or agent to handle their book. Look, I realize that's what every writer wants and that it's what we're all looking for, but when you just meet someone, it's sort of inappropriate to ask for an "in" when you don't know the first thing about them. I smiled and mentioned that probably everybody else in the room was after the exact same thing before we went our separate ways, but I mean, seriously. Come on, people.
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Tonight's speaker was Joni Sensel, and she gave a good, basic talk about writing queries. Although I have to be completely honest and say that I didn't learn anything new, she did hand out some good resources. Besides that, it's always a comfort to hear someone who knows what they're talking about completely reinforce what you're doing.
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I'm still sort of debating whether or not to go to the summer conference this year, but I think I'm leaning more towards going. If for nothing else, the cost of admission would be worth it just for the chance to actually bump into some editors and agents in person. Any readers planning on going as well?
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Games: After receiving notice that I would be receiving my #17 pick despite several of the games ranked higher being listed as “medium availability”, I decided to modify my GameFly queue to do a little experiment.
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dude, I just got #37 on my list of 50... SO EXTREME!!!
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Although GameFly lets you have up to 50 games in your wants list, I deleted the bottom 40 and left only ten titles that I am absolutely ready to start playing right now.
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I'm hoping that this will force them to start sending things that are higher up on my list, although I don't know what will happen if none of my selections are available. Maybe I will start getting the things I actually want sooner, or maybe they'll just delay sending me something if nothing's on hand. We shall see...
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Felicita (Face 342)


It's my Birthday today. Posting this reminds me that I should go and find some cake. I need to get my priorities right.




Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Flash Update: Nathan Fouts on the Podcast

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This weekend on the podcast, we'll be having our first guest. Joining us from Mommy’s Best Games is Nathan Fouts, creator of Weapon of Choice and formerly of Postal 2, and the Ratchet & Clank series.
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There's an interview with Nathan here on the blog and a review at GameCritics in case you missed them, but if any readers have any questions or comments you'd like me to share with him this weekend, please post here or email me directly and I'll be glad to do so.
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Thanks!
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Bunch of Random Stuff!! Attack!!

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Tonight's the night for clearing up my cache of random odds and ends….
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Games: I happened upon this screenshot when surfing through some articles on game violence. According to the caption that came with it, this pic is from Postal 2 and the character is using a cat as a silencer.
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Funniest damn thing I've seen in a week. I think I may even frame it.
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Although I haven't had a ton of game time lately, I took advantage of the extended weekend and spent some time with two download titles, Lit and Flower.
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Lit is from WayForward (Shantae, Contra 4) and makes its home on the Wii. An intriguing mix of Puzzle and Horror genres, the game’s hook is that touching darkness or shadows is instantly fatal. Naturally, the player must make his way through twenty-five rooms (and five boss battles) by taking advantage of paths and safe zones created by lamps, televisions, broken windows, and so on. My review is in the can already and should be making an appearance soon, but in a nutshell I'd say buy it if the subject matter appeals to you, just be prepared for some frustration due to a few poor design choices.
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Flower seems to be on everyone's lips these days, and with good reason. Coming from ThatGameCompany (fl0w) it's no surprise that it's an extremely unconventional experience which defies most attempts at genre classification. For those who haven't played it, it's best described as something between an electronic poem and a brilliant deconstruction of what people expect from a videogame. I'm still sort of mulling over what I think of it, but without a doubt I am a fan.
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One last little games bit here: You may recall that The Maw released on XBLA a little while ago, and if you tried it, the odds are that you probably liked it. The folkss at Twisted Pixel put out word that the first of the three planned DLC add-ons (titled Brute Force) should be available tomorrow for the low, low price of $1.25. Be sure to check it out. I know I will.
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Comics: The Emerald City Comicon is coming up April 4 & 5, and it's happening at the Washington State Trade & Convention Center downtown. It's put on by Jim Demonakos, a real nice guy who used to be my regular dealer until I moved further south.
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Anyway, he put out a press release today stating that they will have a limited edition art book for sale (850 copies) with illustrations from a number of really sharp pencils like Howard Chaykin (!!!), Ben Templesmith and Frank Cho. Check it out HERE for more info.
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Food: Being in Seattle, I'm fortunate in that I have easy access to a very wide variety of Asian foods. Vietnamese in particular is something I'm rather partial to, and just before work I stopped into a little place up on the south edge of Lynnwood called Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches.
Not quite sure how to pronounce that name, but I think it probably sounds a lot like “Holy sh!t, this is awesome!”
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I ordered the salmon sandwich (which was the first time I'd ever seen such a thing in a Vietnamese place) and it was probably the best salmon I've ever had in a restaurant in addition to being the best Vietnamese sandwich I've ever put in my mouth. Sliced thin and roasted (possibly braised) in a lightly sweet teriyaki sauce, the salmon was perfect. It was firm, had great flavor, and wasn't fishy at all. The sandwich itself was huge, and had tons of carrot and daikon. Jalapeno was optional.
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I've had tons of Vietnamese sandwiches, but this one was by far, nay -- by a mile the best one I've had. The place is practically on the campus of Edmonds Community College and hidden behind a fruit stand, to boot, so it's a little bit out of the way if you don't regularly travel north. That said, it’s certainly worth the drive.
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Sunday, February 15, 2009

God Hand Revisited - PS2

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Games: In preparation for this week's podcast (just wrapped up recording a few hours ago) we asked readers at the GameCritics boards what title they'd like us to talk about, and they selected God Hand, from now-defunct Clover Studios. In all honesty, I never saw that one coming.
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I picked up a copy back in ’06 when it was brand-spanking new, and I think I logged somewhere around an hour or an hour and a half with it before I tossed it aside. I seriously hated the game at the time, my patience for its cumbersome controls and infuriating camera to be basically nil. It also didn't help that the game has an absolutely terrible first level, and does the bare minimum to introduce players to what it's all about.
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Anyway, we’re all about giving the readers of the site a voice, so I figured I should put my initial misgivings aside and go back into it with as open a mind as possible. What could it hurt, right? At worst, all of my issues with the game would be reconfirmed. At best? Well, I didn't think there'd be any ‘best’.
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Well, surprise of surprises… After this second attempt with God Hand, I have to admit that I actually started to warm up to it after a while.
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I don't know why I was able to tolerate it and get into the groove this time; it's pretty rare that my first impressions with games ever change, but that was indeed what happened. I still hated the first level but I hung in there, and the game definitely got better, although ‘better’ is a subjective term.
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For those who have never played it, God Hand is basically the equivalent of Final Fight or Streets of Rage (2D side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups) brought into the third dimension and given a massive dose of absurdist, usually juvenile humor -- Poison chihuahuas, gorilla wrestlers, clumsy samurai, rock stars, demons, afro boxers, light S&M, and all that sort of stuff.
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The other hook besides the massively irreverent tone is that the main character literally has a god’s hand (the whole arm, really) and with it he's able to unleash superpowered beatdowns and crazy combo chains that the player can create themselves. Imagine spanking people so hard that they fly across the screen or punching someone a hundred times faster than the eye can see, and you'll get the idea. There's a little more to it than that, but all anyone really needs to know about it is that the point of the game is to beat the holy hell out of everyone you come across, and under no circumstances is anything onscreen to be taken seriously.
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I just completed the game earlier tonight, and after all was said and done, I'm glad that I did. Although there's no disguising the fact that God Hand is deeply, critically flawed in many ways (camera, controls, balance, difficulty) I will say that the humor of the cutscenes was not lost on me, and the over-the-top, outlandish combat took on a charm of its own after a while.
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I would definitely not recommend it to anyone looking for something quick and easy to jump into, but if you're a fan of No More Heroes or Killer 7 and you’ve got a high tolerance for frustration, the ability to power through a few incredibly cheap boss battles, and no qualms about using cheesy tactics to survive, then this one might just be worth a look if you missed it the first time around.
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Kylie (Face 340)

Preview: Tokyo Beat Down - DS

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Games: Another peek into the inner workings of fan-pleasin’ publisher Atlus, they were kind enough to send along some photos and information on their upcoming title Tokyo Beat Down for the Nintendo DS. Unless you're the type of player that regularly picks up golden oldies, I'm guessing that it's been a while since a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up has come your way.
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Developed by Success (the folks behind one of my favorite games from last year, Operation Darkness) comes this madcap excursion into what can only be described as Miami Vice meets Final Fight meets Japanese insanity.
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Taking on organized crime in the districts of Japan, officer Lewis Cannon and the rest of the so-called “beast cops” put the smack down on thugs, mercenaries, and other assorted bad guys. It's tough to keep a lid on the chaos, so these cops are doing the smart thing – they bring guns to a fistfight. (They still bring fists, though.)
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Hitting shelves with extreme prejudice on March 31, go HERE for more info and be sure to check it out.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Interview with: Nathan Fouts, of Mommy's Best Games

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Games: For those of you who've been paying attention, a great little game called Weapon of Choice hit the Xbox 360’s Community Games area, and it's been on fire ever since. After spending time with it and doing the research on where it came from, I was a little surprised to discover that this title was essentially the work of one man—Nathan Fouts, formerly of dev studios Running with Scissors and Insomniac. Having worked on games such as Postal, Ratchet & Clank: Future, and Resistance: Fall of Man, I had to know more.
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(And for those of you who haven't played the game yet, you can read my review HERE)
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What can you tell us about yourself?
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I love donuts, long distance running, and any movie that starts with “a group of scientists”.
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What's the story behind being a part of Running With Scissors and Insomniac, and then going solo with Mommy's Best Games?
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Downloadable games seemed like they could sustain a small company. I started Mommy’s Best Games to make the weirdest, funnerest games that I could squeeze past the censors. The best part is that on Community Games, while they do have ratings, there is no overbearing, money-hoarding publisher trying to rain on your game design parade. Consequently, no one stopped me when I started adding udders to the Teat Walker or various strands of drool to Pitcher Mouth.
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Your wife is listed as the game's producer. How has going independent affected your life and your family?
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Well it’s definitely neat to hear words like “side-scroller” and “laser orbs” being spoken by your wife. She’s not professionally trained as a producer, but she was definitely able to help me prioritize at times and keep somewhat focused. Having her more involved on the project also means she had a real interest to make sure I was doing my best and could focus. If she just thought it was a hobby or there wasn’t that much to gain from it, I probably couldn’t have gone full-time with the project.
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The 16-bit influences on WoC are pretty obvious, but are there other influences outside of games that had an impact?
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Certainly, influences come from all over, even outside of games. For instance, I help my dad harvest pumpkins in the fall for his fruit and vegetable stand. He drives his tractor with a large, side-walled trailer that has a low ramp on the back. He slowly travels up and down the rows of pumpkins and gourds, making stops to load them up. Sometimes, rather than getting on before he starts up the trailer, I like to wait till it’s moving, walk along side it, then hop on board.
I think that trailer was a template for the Teat Walker (the massive, udder-laden creature in the first level of the game). I wanted a lumbering slow moving creature that you could hop on and off, that pretty much doesn’t even notice your existence (unless you shoot it in its soft spot). Of course… the pumpkin trailer didn’t have milky strands having from it, or spider-like legs… but it was definitely an inspiration.
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Not to intentionally stroke your ego, but there are several elements in the game which really shake up what a player would expect from a 2D shooter of this sort. It's instantly familiar, but at the same time a complete revamping of traditional formula. Did you come up with the new elements solely based on your own personal experience, or what was the creative process like in this aspect?
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Thank you, good sir! I love the genre so very dearly and I wanted to play a new game!
Unfortunately, the 2D, run-and-gun genre doesn’t get contributions too often. But I’d been building up ideas for a while, so I had a lot I wanted to add. It was a blend of saving ideas over time, but also seeing how the game played and being inspired to add new things along the way.
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Some of the weapons are truly inspired and bizarre. Were there other ideas for weapons you had that didn't make it into the game? If so, what were they?
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Yes! Dozens and dozens of ideas didn’t make it. Honestly, I’m saving the good ones in case I ever get to a sequel. I’ll give you some we may still use, but they just didn’t make it in to this one. Some examples:
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Lens gun: Floating lens focuses various laser beams on to a single point. You can vary the lens focal distance by squeezing the trigger.
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Burn ring: Ring of damage/effects appears around you. It can also change enemy shots to work for you, causing them to orbit the player and damage enemies.
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Spectral Flower: Giant energy sunflower forms at the tip of the gun. Shoots off exploding petals in each direction, successively which fly out quickly then slowly fall to the ground.
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How was WoC actually created? Did you use only the XNA development tools, or was there other technology involved?
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I exclusively used XNA to make the game. Actually everything is completely factory--the retail Xbox 360, XNA and even my copy of C#. I don’t have a fancy paid version of Visual Studio; I used the free Express version. The big difference is I spent over four months writing proprietary game creation software. The two programs are Mommy’s Best Level Editor and Mommy’s Best Object Editor. The latter also has a built-in animation suite.
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It’s a little wacky to make your own tools, but I knew what I wanted to do, and after looking at lots of software out there, the benefits of making my own tools won me over. I now have a jump on our next (secret) project, with full control and intimate knowledge of my tools.
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How long did WoC take to come together? Can you describe the creation process and how outsourced talent played a role?
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Weapon of Choice took over a year to develop. I spent the first four months building the tools to make the game. The last eight months were making the actual game, but I spent a good while coming up with ideas before I started writing any code. For several weeks in advance, I would figure out the specifics in terms of what I was to be working on. Since I did the design, animation, texture work, programming, and sound effects, I had to juggle a lot of things, but it was great because I knew exactly how everything was going.
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From the start I had a friend writing the story and the dialog. He’s a much better writer than I am, and it helped not having to worry about that. Along the way we picked up Hamdija Anajovic to do the music. He was able to bring the unbridled, head-banging fury we needed for the tracks but work with us on professional schedule, meeting deadlines appropriately.
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Near the last few months, I had an old friend build the “Peak Bridges” level for me, which took some work from me to keep up with him, but it was really nice having him do all the layout work. I also had two texture artists help me on color and shade some of the textures. And along the way, I had another old friend program some of the enemies, which was fine, but I wished I could have offloaded more work.
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What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about attempting to put a Community game together?
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Don’t be afraid to let people play your game and give you feedback. You don’t have to do exactly what they want, but you should definitely consider everything that people have to say about your game. It may make it better. And take your time. There have been a lot of games that get slapped together too quickly. Polish the game for longer than you think you should.
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How successful has WoC been? Were your own personal goals for the game met, and what kind of return have you seen from sales?
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Well I’ve been really happy with the great fan response we’ve gotten from the game. We get fan mail occasionally and the forums have been really positive. I wished the bigger game sites had reviewed the game but they seem to be unsure how to handle Community Games as there are some good games but lots of poor quality ones as well.
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As for sales, we still don’t know yet. It’s been really painful not knowing but Microsoft says they’ll be able to reveal sales this March. I’m dying to know how it’s selling.
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The good news is we’ve been in the Xbox Live Top Ten sales charts for Community Games since launch. The list for the week of Jan 26th was our 10 full week. I’m very hopeful we’ll make enough money to continue to make crazy games. Tell your friends about Weapon of Choice and help keep us on the Top Ten list! Buy war bonds too! And plant a Victory garden while you’re at it!
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Are there any plans for a WoC sequel, and what are you working on now? For any future project, are you staying with Community, or do you have other designs?
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I would like to stay with Community Games. I like the freedom and the lack of red tape. It’s been great so far.
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We are currently in pre-production for our next game, which just means I’m trying out some gameplay and art experiments and fixing up tools before we move forward on everything. The new game will be 2D, feature hand-drawn art, but fairly different from Weapon of Choice.
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Being connected to GameCritics.com, I have to know: games as art...? Discuss.
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The mere fact that many books exist trying to define “art” makes it problematic for a new medium, such as video games, to be able to be critically considered art. Nevertheless, I’ll throw my opinion into the fray.
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I think an individual’s acceptance of specific mediums as “art” is developed on a personal basis. With each medium, such as paintings, books, movies, etc. individuals have to evaluate each particular painting, book, and movie and ask whether or not it qualifies as art to them --that is if they’re even interested in doing this. With subsequent paintings, books, and movies they encounter, they can compare the new with those previously evaluated to more quickly determine if they qualify as art. Once someone feels comfortable with enough examples of a medium being art for them, it’s easier to label the entire medium as art. Generally though, when pressed, each medium contains examples of work that people concede do not qualify as art to them (at least when they are forced to consider things). For example, is the painting of a waterfall I personally painted considered art? What about a painting by a child? What about paintings done for advertisements?
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Personally, I don’t consider every painting art. Some are simply pictures and but some are actually art. I feel the same way about games. Some are simply fun ways to pass the time and others are art. Beautifully, games get to be both fun and art sometimes. I can pass the time by staring at a painting, listening to music, or playing a game... and each of those things, in my opinion, could also be works of art. I consider many games to be art; a quick list includes: Ico, Lunar: The Silver Star, You Have to Burn the Rope, Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, and Rez. I’m sure something in that list probably offends just about everyone reading this. That’s my point. Each person will consider each game themselves and decide if it’s art to them.
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My easy test for art, specifically in video games, is whether a game has any culturally redeeming value. For instance, does the game make me consider life? My relationships? Ethics? Society? Once a game makes me think about any of those issues or others, in a new or meaningful way, or sheds light on any particular area, I think it transcends a time-passing activity and becomes art.
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As time continues, more people will more quickly and more easily be able to relate to even more games that they accept as art. As this number increases and more games are publicly acknowledged as art, I think the medium as a whole can eventually achieve that label. For some people, games are not yet art, but for me, I respond with a hearty YES!
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That was quite the answer! Finally, how much gaming do you get in yourself these days? What titles are keeping you occupied, and what console gets the most play at your house?
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I play a variety of consoles. I just finished playing some Space Megaforce on my SNES a moment ago. I’m also playing House of the Dead 2 on my Wii. I’ve been getting into gun games recently--Link’s Crossbow Training has been great. I also just finished playing The Maw. I’m looking forward to buying R-Type Dimensions on XBLA. Even though I think a 3D remake of all those tasty sprites is nearly heretical, watching it blend back and forth is mesmerizing.
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Immense thanks to Nathan Fouts of Mommy’s Best Games for the interview, and as you can see, he's a man with something to say. So much so, in fact, that he's agreed to appear on an upcoming GameCritics.com podcast. We originally covered Weapon of Choice on Episode Nine, so check that out HERE if you haven't already, and keep your eyes peeled for more with Nathan, coming soon.
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Monday, February 9, 2009

The Kingfish Cafe - Photos

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Food: A few days ago, I had some praise for local restaurant the Kingfish Café, but at the time I had forgotten to upload the photos we took over dinner. Since I'm tired and haven't yet met my nightly word count on the new book I'm working on, I will forego the usual blog entry in lieu of these delicious photos.
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Seriously, if you're a Seattle resident and you've got a hankering for some Southern cooking, this place is fantastic. On 19th at the top of Capitol Hill… go check it out.
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A fantastic trio of spreads (catfish, black-eyed pea, and one other I can't recall) served with grilled bread and some different types of crackers, this was a huge appetizer.
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Hush puppies (my favorite!!!) served with a delish duo of dips.
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Something funky happened with the camera here, but this is supposed to be a picture of breaded catfish, grits, and some greens. the greens were amazing (sweet, with a bitter edge) and the catfish was done just right... not too soft, not too greasy. the grits... well, I can live without grits.
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The wife's dish was a gumbo packed with all sorts of good stuff. Chicken, shrimp, sausage, and that big orange thing on the left is a crab leg. That was some good eatin'!
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We ordered a slice of coconut cake for dessert,and the thing was huge. unfortunately we forgot to snap a pic before we tore into it, but trust me... one slice is more than enough for two, maybe three people.
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I've got nothing but good to say about the Kingfish. We will definitely be eating there again.