Archive for the ‘fantasy’ Tag

[50/50] Computer Game #2: “Warcraft II”

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Computer Game #2: “Warcraft II” (1996)

warcraft-ii-tides-of-darkness-pc-016Long before World of Warcraft borgified the internet, Warcraft was a clever and humorous real-time strategy game where you chopped down trees, built castles, raised troops and raided your buddies’ kingdoms. While you could take on the missions laid out like chapters in a sprawling narrative, the real fun of the game — as always — was playing against your friends, no matter where they were. Warcraft II’s battle.net helped coordinate team play in the early days of the web, and enabled you to join forces with a co-worker and beat up your brother in Baltimore. Good times.

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[50/50] Story #7: “Queen of the Black Coast”

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Story #7: “Queen of the Black Coast” — Robert E. Howard (1934)

conanIf J.R.R. Tolkien was the sire of high fantasy, Robert E. Howard was the mac daddy of pulp fiction that would eventually be called “sword and sorcery,” heroic fantasy concerning great warriors cutting great bloody swaths across savage realms. Howard’s influence was equally broad and memorable, which is surprising considering how short his writing career turned out to be. He wrote a few dozen short stories and created several famous characters — including Conan the Barbarian — before shooting himself at age 30.

Howard never left central Texas, instead bringing the world to him through adventure stories he sold to magazines like Weird Tales. When the market for paperback books exploded in the 1950s, his work was rediscovered by another generation of readers and writers, a few of whom picked up the mantle and continued to create tales with the same characters. Reprinted and expanded upon again in the late 1960s, these dark swashbuckling adventures became a huge influence —for good or for ill— on comics, movies, and genre fiction. Games like D&D and, well, most modern video games, owe a great deal to Howard’s inventions.

conan100Like Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Warlord of Mars, I discovered Howard via Marvel Comics in the ’70s, through Marv Wolfman and John Buscema’s epic adaptations of Conan. They capped off a great run with a retelling of Conan’s most famous story, “Queen of the Black Coast,” as the grim barbarian and his girlfriend, lusty pirate captain Bêlit, terrorize the seas of Hybornia. Alas, Conan loses his soulmate when they go after a cursed treasure, but not before she returns from the Great Beyond as an avenging angel to block a fatal blow and save the muscle-bound hero from certain death. <sniff> Ah, true love.

“Queen of the Black Coast” has been adapted numerous times for comic books (and was pretty much half the plot of the 1982 movie that made Ahnold a star.) There has been a revival of Howard’s work in recent years, as scholars, fans and critics have attempted to reclaim his rip-roaring originals and separate them from the many adapters, imitators and usurpers. You could do far worse than going back to the source: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600961.txt

[50/50] Album #39: Led Zeppelin IV

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Album #39: Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Zoso.svgIn the only real music debate I ever had with Grayson Currin, our music editor at the Independent, he expressed disappointment when I said Led Zeppelin IV was their best album. “What? III is the better record,” he replied authoritatively, standing in the lunch room while waiting for the microwave to ding. Sure, I agreed, Led Zep III IS the better record — but IV is still my favorite. He shrugged dismissively, as if to say, how can you base an argument on that?

Soaked in Tolkien references and faux mysticism, the band’s fourth studio album marked their transformation from a mere British blues-rock group to LED ZEPPELIN; by the time we caught up with them in the mid-70’s they had already become the bloated rock leviathans “Spinal Tap” would eventually so accurately mock, yet at the time it was still new to us, and my brother and I proudly wore our Zoso t-shirts until they shredded.

Led_Zeppelin_-_Officially released with no title — and adorned only with medieval drawings, a strange photo of a woodsman, and the aforementioned runes — Led Zep IV suffered from the collective scorn of having “Stairway to Heaven” as one of its tracks, even as it ensured it would be Zeppelin’s best selling album ever. But IV was also the home of “Black Dog,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” Rock and Roll,” “Going to California” and other songs that are still in heavy rotation on a radio station somewhere, probably this very minute.

While overexposure has no doubt worn IV’s welcome thin, it still has one song that calls out to me — literally. At about the 1:36 mark in “The Battle of Evermore” — Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s ultimate fantasy mashup — a clash of voices in the chorus conspire to sound like someone is saying “JP?” I first noticed this, back in the misty days of middle school, while listening to the track through headphones. Thinking my mom was calling me from the kitchen, I took off the headphones and went to see what she wanted. It went something like this.

“Yeah, mom?”

“What, dear.”

“Didn’t you just call me?”

“Nope.”

“OK.”

I went back to my dad’s office, where all his recording equipment was set up, and started the song over. Again, I heard my mom yell for me from the kitchen.

“What.”

“What?”

“I just heard you call my name.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Are you sure? I heard you yell ‘JP'”

“No, I’m sure.”

“Oookay.”

Again I went back and put on the headphones — and there it was clear as day. In the chorus, you can hear two voices collide in something that sounds almost exactly like “JP?” … I lifted the needle again and again to try and isolate the sound. “JP?… JP? …JP! … JP!?” — Suddenly, my mom ripped off the headphones.

“HEY! I’VE BEEN CALLING YOU FOR THE LAST FIVE MINUTES!”

“Wha? But — but, the song! It’s in THE SONG!”

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? DAMMIT, TURN OFF THE STEREO RIGHT NOW, I NEED YOUR HELP IN THE KITCHEN.”

I later played the track for my brother, to see if I was crazy or not, and after he too heard it he took off the headphones and said, ‘Okay, that’s weird.”

Magic: The Revisiting

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Over at the AV Club, Steve Heisler has a sweet and even touching look back at the game “Magic: The Gathering,” how we become nostalgic for something, and if it’s possible to re-experience a sense of wonder for something that was once important to you.

Context is what turns objects into artifacts. To most people, things are just things, unless we’ve decided to attach value—a memory, an explanation.

The whole thing is worth reading, especially if you’re a gamer — and particularly for me: his experience ran somewhat parallel to mine. I’m reposting a piece I wrote on it five years ago, partly for context, but mostly because the blog it originally appeared on has since been wiped out.

Equilibrium

14 years ago, in the late summer of 1993, I remember reading about this game called “Magic: The Gathering.” It was played with cards but you and your friends actually bought different random decks so everyone had a unique mix. What intrigued me (other than the art, which looked fabulous) was that no two decks were alike. It was a fascinating concept, and I recall quite clearly holding this idea in my head that we would each carry around this one unique deck.

Remember that line, so you can laugh at it later.

Being a Trostle, I of course filed away the article, fully intending to check it out “some day” (… hey, games came out all the time and I still had many I had bought we had yet to play, so what was a few months or years, right?) A few weeks later, a guy from one of my regular gaming groups called up all atwitter, said we had to come over that night and try this new game he had discovered. It was, of course, Magic. Bastard had stolen my thunder.

No matter. Magic tore through our group — and the gaming world — like a lightning bolt. We stopped playing anything else for almost a year. Even my wife remarked on it, and for her to notice anything about the games we played, well — the observation was telling. (Funny, too, but when we first started playing everyone remarked how like “Talisman” the card game seemed; years later, when we dusted off Talisman, we all remarked how much it reminded us of “Magic”).

My friends and I managed to catch the tail-end of the first release, before the initial print run sold out and cards became hard to find. It was all new and fun and challenging, and there was this heady headiness to it all like, I’m not kidding, falling in love. We played as often as we could and when we weren’t playing we were thinking about playing. In retrospect, that period lasted all of six weeks, maybe less, and I think the rest of the time we were trying to recapture that first high. The same was probably true of the publisher, Wizards of the Coast, who was caught off guard by the success of their creation. They threw their original game plan out the window and flooded the market with new sets and reprints.

Magic shook up the entire gaming industry in fact, and pushed me to the point were I got interested in getting back in the business — I even applied to Wizards of the Coast for a job but luckily (if this story is to be believed) didn’t get it. Personally, it was all downhill as well — when new sets came out, gamers bought cards by the shovel-load, and I couldn’t compete monitarily. When one friend eventually sold his collection he counted over 15,000 cards — 250 decks worth! — and bought a new top of the line computer with the payoff.

The sense of mystery and discovery were gone as well. I came over the night after one set was released, looking forward to opening a few bright new packs — only to find that two of the guys had taken the day off work, bought several cases of the release, and opened and sorted them all already. This was about a year after the game had originally been published, and already it had become mechanized, automated, all about volume.

WOTC put out new versions where the printing was poorly handled (some said deliberately, to drive up the secondary market on original cards), tournament rules were constantly changed to force you to buy more cards, snotty gamers sucked all the joy out of trading and even casual play, and during one convention, someone stole my most valuable card. Dare I say it: the magic was gone.

We ran a couple of small leagues, which admittedly were fun, but overall the game became a burden. Eventually, 3 or so years after first playing it and bitter, I sold my collection. My best guess is I broke even. I kept a handful of favorites and enough cards to make about 2 decks (which was how I first envisioned the game) and moved on.

+ + +

Fast forward to the next decade. Magic was still around and bigger than ever, even if it was a souless money-making machine and now looked like Pokemon. When our neighbor’s 12-year-old son found out I used to play, he brought his cards over and challenged me to a duel. I crushed him. Then I showed him how to build a better deck.

Over the next few years, Eli and his friends picked up thousands of cards. He entered and won tournaments, and began giving me tips on deck construction. Even though I absolutely hated the new card designs, WOTC had flooded the market with so many sets over the preceding years, you could find decent older stuff for cheap and I started buying cards again, if only to compete with Eli. The old obsession had returned.

As Eli got ready to go to college however, I realized I was going to lose my main (ok, only) competitor. Like so many other things in my life that have recently folded themselves up and put themselves on the shelf, it was clear it was time to put the cards away again.

Anyway, I helped Eli sort thru all his cards — which had been literally dumped in a drawer some years ago as he discovered girls and guitars — and got them organized as he packed for school. I couldn’t stand to see them languish there. He talked of selling them to help pay for school, or passing them on to the younger brother of a friend, but he’ll probably keep a deck or three with which to play. Then, I got out my own collection and divided them up. This time I am keeping five decks (symbolically enough the number of colors in Magic.)

I gave all the rest to Elliot, the 6-year-old son of my friend Kevin. He was overwhelmed by the gift, and excited by each and every card in the box. They are ALL new and mysterious to him, and he and his father are having a great time discovering the game together.

As for me, I am done buying cards. No really. Here’s how I know. The last card I bought from my last buying spree on eBay finally arrived in the mail yesterday.

Appropriately enough, it is titled “Equilibrium.”

[Originally posted August 8, 2007]