Nintendo Switch UK Premiere: Thoughts and Impressions

I was lucky enough to attend the Nintendo Switch UK premiere at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, a chance to get hands-on with the new Nintendo console for the first time, marrying a home device with a portable one (as evidenced by the entry corridor displaying both arms of Nintendo’s console timeline on either side, merging into one with Switch). I’m just going to talk about my experiences on the day and with the machine, rather than get in depth about pricing, Nintendo’s strategy, whether it will be a success or failure. All I’ll say is that I rarely ever get a console at launch (except for the NES Mini!) as it usually takes a few months for them to bed in, and I have plenty of games to be getting on with. Much will depend on whether I can resist the charms of Splatoon 2 come its summer launch, hence why it was the first game I rushed to once the gates were open.

Welcome to the Splatzone

Welcome to the Splatzone

Fans of Splatoon will be entirely at home with Splatoon 2. I played with the Pro Controller and the in-built gyro worked perfectly in replicating the motion controls of the Gamepad. I used the new dual pistol weapons which were really nicely done, with the special jetpack really fun to play around with, getting some juicy airborne strikes. The only thing to adjust to is the need to bring up the map with X in order to check your progress and jump to your team-mates. It’s an extra step and might force you to be more tactical, interrupting the flow of gameplay whereas a quick glance was fine first time round, but it will become familiar with practice. It’s apparently set 2 years after the first game, according to the helper at the stand, which would indicate some story mode is retained, which is a comfort. And the ability to play local multiplayer with fellow Switch holders as well as online is good thing indeed. Of course, Splatoon was mainly about online play, so we’ll have to see if the sequel has the same take-up given Switch owners will have to pay for online access this time.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was up next, and what we got to try was the intro to the game. Seeing other players wandering off in multiple directions within the 20 minutes or so play-time showed that even in the opening area (representing 2% of the entire map), there was much to explore and get stuck into. I fannied about a bit too much to make much progress, and mixed up buttons a fair bit, but I enjoyed the style and presentation and it seemed like offering much in terms of story and set-pieces as well as general larking around. Having been using the Pro Controller, we switched to the handheld set-up, and I was impressed with how crisp and bright and clear the screen was, something that could not be said of the screen on the Wii U gamepad. The button placement in relation to the right hand control stick was an issue, making it hard to hop your thumb between commands without rubbing up against the “look” stick, so I imagine the dedicated home experience with a Pro Controller will still be the ideal way to play. It’s been a while since I played a mainline Zelda instalment (i.e. not a 3DS spin-off), with Majora’s Mask probably the last one I properly had a go at (and that I didn’t even finish), but I’m determined to give Breath of the Wild a try, though I’ll be doing so on Wii U (hey, if Gamecube copies of Twilight Princess were anything to go by, could be a sound investment).

Breath of the WITCH?

Breath of the WITCH?

I also had a brief turn on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, racing with eight-player local multiplayer on handhelds, which was much the same as online play, complete with lobby filled with Miis selecting which course to try (we ended up with Baby Park, natch!). At least got to play as Inkling Boy and Girl and their new themed vehicles. For the updated battle mode, we played on the Splatoon themed stage, which seemed like fun, but this time playing on the dinky screen and using the Joy Con (inserted into one of those plastic steering wheels) made it a little tricky to manouevre as well as to make out your opponents. But on the big screen or handheld, it’d probably work out fine. As I already own Mario Kart 8 on Wii U, I can’t imagine the extras will be enough to justify purchasing again, it will just depend on online support for the Wii U version and how long that lasts and if I need the portablity.

Super Bomberman R remains a mystery in terms of what the R stood for (Revival? Remix? Retro? Romberman?), R just being one of those cool suffixes added to video game titles to make them seem cool, like X or Z. But any generation feels like it’s missing something if it doesn’t have a Bomberman title, and given the franchise’s long history with Nintendo and surviving the demise of Hudson, it’s a pleasure seeing it make a comeback, and as a launch title of all things (not that there’s much competition currently shown). And in many ways, the Switch is perfect for it, a portable gaming machine that encourages local competitive play. The core gameplay remains much the same, combining elements of past iterations into a refined and still entertaining whole. With added story mode and up to 8 players (if you can find them), its combination of cuteness and destruction continues to shine. It was also my first game played with a single Joy-Con and on the screen, and a simple game liked Bomberman worked fine with the miniature controller (the size isn’t much of an issue, being around the width of a smartphone, but a more complex game like Ultra Street Fighter II – which I didn’t play – may be more of a challenge). The tiddly screen was a bit squinty, so it’d better suited for a few rounds on the go than extended tournaments, but it worked well.

The only other third party game I played was a quick session of Just Dance 2017, and as someone who doesn’t tend to play these kind of dance games, it was fun. The track I played involved some unexpected dance moves, including circling my dancing partner, and lots of cute graphics – I sadly didn’t get to play as the blob. It all seemed to work pretty well, proving that Nintendo still remain commited to motion controls and that the legacy of the Wii still casts a shadow. It may not be at the top of anyone’s Switch wish list – or Switchlist, if you will – but the Just Dance series feels most at home on a Nintendo console, and it’ll be as decent an iteration as there’ll be available.

In that vein, 1-2-Switch seems the most obvious play at trying to engage with the “never play games but bought a Wii” crowd. In fact, the first game we played involved striking a dance pose and having to mirror the other player. But one of us properly messed up and still won, so how forgiving it is was not clear. We tried our hand at most of the games available, with Safe Crack and Ball Count offering impressive displays of the HD Rumble, but only time will tell how this would actually apply to other games beyond neat little gimmicks (and Ball Count suffering from showing each player’s guesses to the number of balls in the imaginary box they are holding, off-setting your own decision somewhat). Once we got a hand of it, the much-anticipated cow-milking game probably offered the most amusement, but that’s probably as much down to the bizarre concept ripe with innuendo as actual gameplay. All the mini-games last seconds, which is the case as well with the WarioWare or NES Remix games, so there’s past form, though the generic stock-photo art-style means it lacks character, even if it’s a somewhat cynical way of not alienating non-Nintendo fanboys (in fact, we came up with a suggestion that they could’ve made the whole game Wild West themed and at least added a weird angle to the activities – as well as stealing Red Dead Redemption 2‘s thunder!). It’s hard to imagine it will live past the first few months of the console’s lifespan once more games are released (as of yet it is unclear just how many minigames are featured, but I’d hope for at least 50 or so), but if you are a kid trying to justify your parent’s buying you yet another gaming device, it’s your best bet to convince them.

If Splatoon was the unexpected highlight of the Wii U, an original IP that looked somewhat silly at first but ended up being my favourite game on the console, then Arms would seem to heading in that direction. Though there are similarities to the Wii’s rebooted Punch-Out, there’s a bit more going on here while never feeling too complicated, making it easier to avoid resorting to flailing hands (the motion control version of button mashing) and asking you to pay a bit more attention to your actions and those of your opponent. But the character designs and arenas are charming and imaginative, and there seems to be a lot of opportunity for bright, colourful world-building to surround the surprisingly deep gameplay. I had a really good time with it, and the bumper number of set-ups available meant I got to play quite a few rounds and try out the different fighters on offer, and I could feel myself getting better and uncovering new techniques the more I played. If there’s still a place for boxing-style motion control fighting games, then I hope Arms finds its audience. It deserves a shot.

But the most welcome surprise was Snipperclips: Cut It Out Together, a novel co-operative puzzle game which is probably not too dissimilar to many indie titles that play on a central device – changing colours, perspectives, sizes, etc. – but wins you over with its expressive art style. The goal is to move colourful shapes around the play area to solve puzzles as a team, but you can also snip out parts of each other in order to better fit in place. It’s a good laugh trying to nail the tasks at hand, snipping the wrong chunk off a shape or bouncing on your teammate’s head or balancing a teetering pencil on top of each other, but the cheeky faces the shapes pull and their dancing little feet made me chuckle a lot. If you’ve got someone to play with at home, this could end up being your favourite of the bunch.

Overall, it was a well-organised and enjoyable event. Even when attending the late Sunday session and after a long weekend, the staff were excellent, remaining informative, friendly and enthusiastic, despite no doubt having to explain the controls and sit through the same demos over and over again. That tickets were limited meant I pretty much got to play everything I wanted (the biggest queues were for Zelda – as you got a good chunk of gameplay – and for Snipperclips – as only two set-ups available), and the complimentary food and drink and freebies were nice touches. There are still many questions unanswered about Nintendo Switch, and with not long to go before its release, how much will only become evident once people start to take them home is unclear, but I was generally satisifed with my first hands-on with the new machine.

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LIVE REVIEW: Celebrating David Bowie, 8th January 2017

The climax of "Heroes" - yes, from a bit way back

The climax of “Heroes” – yes, from a bit way back

I didn’t do a best of 2016 post on this blog this year (you can get a Spotify playlist here, and check out my Letterboxd list for films if you like), as it just seemed too hard to try and put into words everything that happened when the past twelve months were overshadowed. I was one of those types who responded with the news of David Bowie’s death that Monday morning by listening to his music back-to-back on the radio, eyes filled with tears. From such great lows came the highs of finding solace but also joy in his extensive – and right-up-to-the-moment – catalogue of music (few other artists could fill the airwaves for so long with such a variety of music, not just his own work, but artists with which he collaborated, produced, championed), and getting to be part of the grassroots GlastonBowie tribute at the Glastonbury Festival last year.

And then came the announcement of the Celebrating David Bowie concerts. With the promise of key members of Bowie’s touring band and frequent collaborators, taking place in his birthplace of Brixton, and on what would have been his 70th birthday, it would be as appropriate a tribute as could be mustered. But it was unclear what shape or form it would take beyond “Bowie People Performing Bowie Music Bowie Style”? In the end, it was very much a big old birthday bash, often ramshackle and free-wheeling but heartfelt and sincere – and all for a good fund-raising cause, Children & The Arts.

With longest-serving member present (and de facto MC) Mike Garson performing a piano overture to begin, when the first singer appeared on stage, I had a heart flutter. Was that DAVID BOWIE? Alive?! A micro-second later, reality kicked in, and then it became apparent it was none other than Gary Oldman. But dressed in attire not a million-miles-away from Bowie’s recent sartorial choices, in a fetching hat/glasses/scarf combo, and with a passing resemblance from afar, for a brief moment, it was like Bowie had joined us. Appropriate then that Oldman was singing a rather decent acoustic version of Dead Man Walking. The show then kicked off in earnest, leading to almost three hours of Bowie…without Bowie.

I mean, come on, it does look a bit like him.

I mean, come on, it does look a bit like him.

Given its rotating roster of performers on stage and perhaps lack of time for rehearsal, it was an audio technician’s nightmare, and the sound mix was indeed mixed. At different points, backing vocals overpowered lead vocals, strings were seen but not heard, and Sound and Vision made me wonder some times about whether they should’ve even bothered. Bowie himself didn’t always stick to the album inlay when it came to lyrics, so the odd swapped or repeated line was forgiven, but sometimes the guest vocalists completely lost their hold on the songs, the band having to play around them until they caught up or brought things to a halt. In these instances, Bowie’s absence and the lack of a leader was most pronounced, having hoped for at least some visual representation of him on screen or banner, if not even isolated vocals for at couple numbers (it didn’t help that special guests were barely introduced – hence having to look up the names of most of the non-super-famous or Bowie band regulars after the fact). Poor La Roux looked the part, and danced a neat dance, but ended up stranded in the loops of Golden Years. Bernard Fowler’s Rebel Rebel was a shaky start, but he made up for it with solid renditions of Diamond Dogs and Stay. For the big sing-a-longs of Life on Mars? and Starman, Tom Chaplin of Keane and Mr Hudson respectively probably were thankful for the crowd’s contribution lest they ended up similarly muted.

There were some great moments from the vocalists though, reminding us that as great as Bowie was as a performer, there’s much to savour in other interpretations of his work. Fishbone’s Angelo Moore made the biggest play for borrowing (not stealing) Bowie’s crown, not through mimicry in any sense, but by channeling Bowie’s approach to weirdo theatricality via Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and/or Baron Samedi, offered hugely entertaining renditions of Moonage Daydream and Ashes to Ashes. Gaby Moreno’s Five Years was an early highlight, while Holly Palmer added a hint of smokiness to Lady Grinning Soul, rendering it positively Bond theme-ian, as well as a haunting rendition of Where Are We Now?, the only (somewhat disappointingly, but understandably) contribution from this century. Otherwise, the setlist was representative and comprehensive as one could realistically expect, though ending the encore on Under Pressure seemed to dilute the theme of the evening just a touch. The big guns as far as guests came were Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon leading Let’s Dance – a decent match of singer to song (and period of Bowie’s career) – while Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley’s Changes was near faultless. Though it was Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott who seemed to make the most of his appearances, great versions of All The Young Dudes and Suffragette City (the first song Def Leppard ever performed together apparently, factoid fans).

But the real stars were the Bowie band, and when those big rocking numbers came, they delivered. Earl Slick relished his guitar solos, Garson’s piano a driving force as much as responsible for those wonderful melodies, and much applause offered for Gail Ann Dorsey’s contributions on bass as well as vocals – especially Young Americans and Space Oddity. It was the love for these magnificent musicians and the shared love of everyone in the room for Bowie and his music that really made the occasion feel special and charged the atmosphere. When the sound was operating at full capacity, the crowd were singing, and the band were rocking, it felt like the best shot anyone gathered would have to experiencing a Bowie concert once more – or for the first time, in my experience in any case.

The 2016 Advent Calendar Crap Christmas Cracker Joke Challenge

bingcracker

2016 has widely been considered the worst year ever. In order to help or hinder this trend (depending on your perspective), and having been FOUR YEARS since my last endeavour (not counting two Hallowe’en interludes), this December saw the return of my CRAP CHRISTMAS CRACKER JOKES.

On Twitter, I tweeted an original (at least, not intentionally plagarised, though it’d be pretty obvious if anyone were to attempt to lift most of these from me) made-up Christmas-themed joke. It was like an Advent Calendar, except even more disappointing. Here for your amusement/bemusement I have compiled the whole lot for you to entertain/mortify your nearest and dearest this HOLIDAY SEASON.

Q. How did the Spanish wise man find his way to Baby Jesus?
A. Sat-Navidad.

Q. How does Rudolph find casual hook-ups on his phone?
A. Reindr.

Q. Why does James Bond insist he is on telly every Christmas?
A. Because otherwise he’d threaten to use his TV licence to kill.

How hard can it be to put on a meticulously choreographed Christmas dance spectacular in New York? It’s not Rockette science.

Q. Which streaming service only plays Christmas songs?
A. Yuletidal.

Q. How do you turn a Polar Bear into a Grizzly Bear?
A. Drink Pepsi.

Q. How are Christmas trees officially ranked?
A. They are deco-rated.

Q. How does Donald Trump greet a pantomime dame?
A. He grabs them by the Puss-in-Boots.

Q. When does the song “Santa Baby” take place?
A. On the Thirst Day of Christmas.

Q. Which Babylonian king hates Christmas?
A. Nebuchadnezzar Scrooge.

Q. In which Christmas film does Bruce Willis play a wisecracking cop who can also emit light?
A. Diode.

Q. What do you use to drain vegetables for Christmas dinner?
A. An advent colander.

Q. Why did British and German soldiers play football together on Christmas Day 1914?
A. Their volleyball had a puncture.

Q. How come Darth Vader knew what Luke Skywalker was getting for Christmas?
A. Well, otherwise what kind of father would he be? #spoilers

Q. How do you remember which of Santa’s reindeer is which?
A. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, red nose.

Midge Ure: What do you call a blind dinosaur this time of year?
Bob Geldof: Do-they-know-it’s-Christmas-time-saurus?!
Bono: LOL

Q. In which film does Freddy Kringle appear?
A. A Nightmare on 34th Street.

Q. Why did Tupac refuse to sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”?
A. He didn’t like Biggie pudding.

Q. Which film often watched at Christmas is also a fish dish, served with fruit from which wine is made?
A. The Grapey Skate.

Q. How do you make yellow snow?
A. It’s not possible, because it’s a primary colour.

Q. Who lives under your Christmas tree but doesn’t speak?
A. Parcel Marceau.

Q. What do people who drink Budweiser say when they go carol singing?
A. WASSAIL?!

Q. Who delivers to Father Christmas what goes in naughty kids’ stockings and by what mode of transport?
A. Robbie, coal, train.
(Actual Cracker joke)

Q. Why is it customary to leave a glass of milk for Santa?
A. You ever tried reindeer milk?

That’s you lot for 2016, but if you are desperate for more (emphasis on the word desperate), you can find here my offerings from 2011 and 2012.

Viewing Gum Listening Post #35

  1. Ezra Furman – Teddy I’m Ready
  2. Martha – Christine
  3. Rival Sons – Tied Up
  4. Local Natives – Psycho Lovers
  5. PREP – Cheapest Flight
  6. METAFIVE – Maisie’s Avenue
  7. The Divine Comedy – Napoleon Complex
  8. Beyond The Wizards Sleeve – Creation
  9. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
  10. Adrian Younge – Magic Music
  11. Swet Shop Boys – T5
  12. M.I.A. – A.M.P. (All My People)
  13. Lizzo – Phone
  14. Crystal Castles – Ornament
  15. Tobacco – Gods in Heat
  16. White Lies – Hold Back Your Love
  17. Mystery Jets – Blood Red Balloon
  18. Wilco – Nope
  19. Jóhann Jóhannsson, Air Lyndhurst String Orchestra, Anthony Weeden – A Song For Europa
  20. Róisín Murphy – Whatever

Viewing Gum Listening Post #34

  1. Justice – Safe and Sound
  2. Todd Terje & The Olsens – Firecracker
  3. Compton White – Track 2
  4. The Strokes – OBLIVIUS
  5. Spring King – Detroit
  6. Bat For Lashes – Sunday Love
  7. Mitski – Fireworks
  8. Alexis Taylor – So Much Further To Go
  9. Christine and the Queens – Tilted
  10. Rival Consoles – Lone
  11. Floating Points – Argenté
  12. MSTRKRFT – Morning of the Hunt

FILM REVIEW: Ghostbusters

Ghosbusters

For all the hype and hope, all the fury and anger, Ghostbusters was always going to be just a movie. It’s a shame then that it’s not a very good movie. Which is frustrating, as it manages to get so many of the difficult things right that a blockbuster franchise reboot entails, but then messes up the simple stuff.

Simply put, Ghostbusters might be the most carelessly assembled tentpole release in recent memory. Okay, except Batman vs Superman (there’s nothing here as incoherent as that film at its clunky worst), and perhaps if the film was snappier and shorter (not that it ever dragged), the problems wouldn’t be so noticeable, but Ghostbusters is marred by sloppy editing at every turn. It’s not just nitpicking continuity errors, but scenes feel so obviously pieced together from a mishmash of takes, I found it hard settling into a decent groove without something jolting me out of the experience again. Dialogue cuts off abruptly (showing the cracks of unsuccessful riffing), little is done to make the off-screen action feel like it flows concurrently with what is happening on-screen (one moment, Patty is lying on the floor, the next she’s upright with a ghost perched on their shoulders), and there is no sense of time and space (two defenestrations take place through the same window, yet this is never commented on). It feels like the events of the film could be over the course of a few days, but Holtzmann somehow manages to create all this kit, retool all these devices and pimp their ride seemingly at the same time she is out and about with the rest of the team. At one point, Erin is split up from the group only to rejoin them at a crucial moment because…reasons?

Sorry to get all nitpicky. But co-writer/director Paul Feig also fails to get a handle on the big set-pieces. The ghosts and special effects looked decent, if lacking in imagination, but the crowd scenes lack atmosphere – the big heavy metal concert looks like all the oxygen has been sucked out of it – cheap-looking sets and unconvincing backdrops don’t help either. All this wouldn’t matter so much if the film was funny – and I guess it is, sorta? Its fun, generally, and there were a few good laughs, but Ghostbusters is stuffed with too many jokes that fall flat, lost in mumbly, improvy, overtalking, a register that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the film. I kept on thinking “Okay, that’s weird” fairly often, like a comic beat had been missed, or something in the script just didn’t translate to screen and then failed again in the editing room but stuck around anyway. And despite stealing pretty much every scene, I am still not sure if I really understand Chris Hemsworth’s part in all this. It’s a great performance, and I understand it’s a gender flip on the idea of the dumb but sweet natured bimbo who’s breezed through life on looks alone, but Kevin is a special kind of surreal stupidity (we’re talking beyond even Dougal from Father Ted). It’s nice that the jokes are spread around but it leaves the humour feeling imbalanced. You need the principal characters to bounce off someone that represents some semblance of reality, but here every supporting character is an oddball. Oh, and I still have an issue with the internet appearing prominently in films (yeah, it’s a vital part of all our lives, but any references to Twitter and Amazon and YouTube just makes me cringe – acknowledging the manbabies that have plagued the internet since the film’s announcement works against it).

But for all my petty gripes (easy to let slide on their own, but the cumulative effect becomes too much to bear), Ghostbusters certainly has its pleasures. And as mentioned before, these are mainly the elements that were harder to pull off, so credit for the creative team and cast is still due. I liked all the main characters and the dynamic they had with each other and how the team comes together. The performances from Wiig and McCarthy add a touching emotional element, and although McKinnon is largely played as an inconsistent bag of quirks, there’s enough about her unphased perma-grin that delights. And Jones for the most part sidesteps lazy “Aw hell naw” sassitude with a winning positivity and energy. The overarching plot is fine, if not necessarily the fuzzy motivations and glossed over know-how, using the vague skeleton of the original film but making everything else very much its own. Ghostbusters is at its best when its doing its own thing; affectionate cameos and references abound, some subtle and neat, others distracting or horribly dated (note: The Obsbournes ended over a decade ago).

And in that way, I hope for a sequel. And I am glad they made THIS Ghostbusters film. With the team in place and the pressure off, another Ghostbusters outing completely divorced from its predecessor would be enticing (hopefully the final post-credits tag is just a corny wink than a statement of intent). But maybe next time round, Feig should pass the torch on to a writer-director who can mix comedy, action and horror and make it work. Are Edgar Wright or Joe Cornish available – or am I being too obvious?

Viewing Gum Listening Post #33

Viewing Gum Listening Post the 33rd! And a bumper edition it is too! Listen here, or just stream below.

 

 

  1. DJ Shadow – Nobody Speak (feat. Run the Jewels)
  2. Metronomy – Old Skool
  3. Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend
  4. Kero Kero Bonito – Lipslap
  5. Wild Beasts – Get My Bang
  6. M83 – Walkaway Blues (feat. Jordan Lawlor)
  7. Shock Machine – Shock Machine
  8. Garbage – Empty
  9. Melt Yourself Down – The God Of You
  10. PJ Harvey – The Ministry of Defence
  11. ANHONI – Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?
  12. Jarvis Cocker – Theme from ‘Likely Stories’
  13. Tim Hecker – Collapse Sonata
  14. Radiohead – Burn the Witch