Hark, fools, the NINE-MONTH OF THE SEVEN-NAME has failed to kill me for the 33rd time. Better luck next year, fucko. N–not really, actually, you came pretty close this time, don’t–don’t do better next year.
Here’s what I’ve been up to this past month when I wasn’t reading, writing this nonsense, or selling my days to the Man one at a time to atone for the sins of my fathers. (This is a little late, for which I apologize; September was short and brutal like my friend Kyle, and also I had to work unexpectedly this weekend. I know nobody’s like, holding me to this, but still.)
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In The Heat Of The Night
Following our time in Rome, Wisconsin with Picket Fences (and recommended to me by my pal and fellow Roman Chris Daly, the birdingest motherfucker you’ll ever meet), we thought we’d tackle another beloved series that deals with issues like racism, sex work, suicide, religion, sexual assault, The Youth, gun violence, socioeconomic inequality, and cops being forced to realize they’re the bad guy every week. This is, amazingly, a real-time sequel to the 1967 all-time incredible picture of the same name, starring none of the same people but honestly, really damn good ones; Harold Rollins and Carroll O’Connor aren’t Sydney Poitier and Rod Steiger, but they aren’t trying to be, they’re trying to be versions of Virgil Tibbs and Bill Gillespie that won’t spontaneously combust from intensity build-up if you leave them on for a whole season at a time. It’s rad, and like ALF we’re watching it on Freevee (it’s also on the Roku app), which trades free television for absolutely egregious numbers of commercials, although probably not as many as we got during actual broadcast-TV days, and to us that’s a fair deal.
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
Oh my GOD what a good little guy. MTSWSO is one of the newest offerings from A24, which should tell you most of what you need to know re: whether you’ll like it; it’s a very sweet, gut-shreddingly hilarious in a very small way, and profoundly sad story about a little dude who’s all alone in the world, has more challenges than most, and could just really use a friggin’ hand here, okay?
I’m not being obfuscatory for fun–well, not just for fun, anyway–but it really is best if you go in knowing as little as possible, not so much for spoilery reasons but because the basic facts of the premise are…difficult to describe in such a way as to make watching it a convincing prospect for many; I brought my wife into it 100% cold, she didn’t even know the name of the movie we were watching, and she agrees it was the right thing to do. Just do yourself a favor and put it on when you need something warm and funny and sad in a good way, trust me.
What We Do In The Shadows
Continuing our slate of shows based on movies, this nonsense! Like all truly wonderful things, it has permanently altered the way I speak.
It’s pretty impossible to have escaped at least some osmotic knowledge of this, but just in case: a bunch of wampire live together in an house in Staten Island, with their familiar, and they go about their vampiric business while being bad at the modern world in hilarious ways. Like they time they remembered they had email accounts and got a chain letter warning them to send it to ten acquaintances, but they realized they didn’t know enough people:
That’s it, that’s the joke, and it works every time. It’s just an endlessly funny, incredibly smart half-hour show whose cast is partially people of color and entirely LGBT+; just give the pilot a try, you’ll know pretty immediately if it’s for you or not.
Fair warning, it is incredibly profane and vulgar, but in a…wholesome way that’s really hard to describe? Like Nadja and Laszlo above are absolute ravenous omnisexual horndogs in a very loving open marriage, and in fact one episode involves Laszlo wanting to show a century’s worth of erotic film that he starred in at the annual vampire orgy, but there’s never any on-screen sex or nudity if that’s a thing for you, and all of the sexual content is really too goofy and/or impressively inventive to be offended by.
How do I even fuckin–okay, so 99PI is, allegedly, a ‘design’ podcast, meaning its an examination of the ways humans interact with the physical world and how we account for them. In practice, it’s deep-dives into every possible niche topic you can imagine and the people and events that led to the creation of the systems around us, curated and narrated by wonderfully granite-throated Roman Mars. If you love to learn about things you never even knew existed, this show is an absolute must-have; the early episodes are much shorter and rougher but still great, and I’d recommend starting with a later one whose topic catches your eye, like I did with this one about the creation of the ‘international’ aisle at the supermarket and why things like ramen and lentils ended up there but salsa and pasta didn’t, despite those also absolutely being ‘ethnic’ foods. There are over 500 by this point, and even if every topic hasn’t been actively interesting to me, I always learn something, and with that kind of backlog there’s plenty to learn even if you just cherry-pick through topics you already like, such as architecture, the Soviet Union’s cookbook, and why pinball was illegal until the 70’s in many states.
The only caveat, besides the very real danger of annoying your loved ones by starting three sentences a day with “So I was listening to a 99PI about”, is that it is a publicly-funded show and does have a sheer volume of advertisements that would make almost any other show unlistenable, but they’re clustered at the beginning and end of every episode so you can just hit ‘skip’ a few times.
The Adam Ragusea Podcast
The Guse! So, for years now I’ve been an avid fan of The Greatest Generation, a podcast wherein two very intelligent, hilarious pals who used to be film production professionals watch through every Star Trek series, starting with The Next Generation. Their theme song was created by one-time music-producer and now famous, beloved YouTube chef Adam Ragusea, who has now launched his own podcast and it is delightful.
First, he’s terrifyingly intelligent AND actually good at explaining things, which you’d think would be a given with smart people, but, vague gesture; he goes into the science of food and cooking in a very accessible, entertaining way that’s well worth the listener’s time even if they shouldn’t be scientifically inclined. The asking and answering of listener questions is also a regular feature, and there’s plenty of non-cooking and non-food content, all of which is extremely listenable because he’s an experienced audio production professional and makes one of the best-sounding shows on the air.
An excellent place to start if you’re curious but can’t be bothered to hunt down an episode with a topic you like would be this one, where he covers how much salt is too much, why some people like salt more than other people, when a salt isn’t a salt, and the secret origins of Gatorade and why it absolutely is not ‘Gatoraid’.
Let’s Learn Everything!
You’ve probably detected a theme in my listening choices, which is informed by one of my personal credos: Stop Learning, Start Dying. Of course, it helps if the people you’re learning from are charismatic, hilarious and adore each other, as is the case here, where two British and one American host, all scientists or academic professionals and all best pals, just teach each other things, and teach us by proxy. I just gave this one a try so I’m still at the start, but it’s a young show and catching up will be easy; I recommend that you start with the very first episode, where we learn about bees and why they’re electrified, the surprisingly compelling but still completely batshit evidence behind the ‘Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare’ conspiracy theory, and how your brain edits your perceptions to make time work, because otherwise we’d be catastrophically disoriented our entire lives.
This May Hurt A Bit
I stumbled onto this delightful little production because Dan McCoy of The Flop House guested on this episode about Final Destination 2, and I was instantly hooked, like a teen with a terrible secret about what they did last summer.
This one’s simple: two smart, hilarious buds and the occasional guest watch through entire horror franchises and provide their takes and some shockingly deep trivia and production stuff; much like with the above-mentioned The Greatest Generation, both hosts are media-production professionals, and bring that perspective to their reviews and observations to fantastic effect. As with most media-review shows the sort of assumed idea is that you’ll watch the pictures, then follow along with their episodes, but I’ve burned through their back catalogue with only my memories of these movies and their descriptions, and I’ve been having a ball.
A man needs his exercise as he gets a little older and also learns that he has a congenital predisposition to dangerously high blood pressure, and Pokémon Go isn’t a reason to exercise but it sure makes power-walking the sizzling streets of my neighborhood a lot more bearable.
Like everyone who was alive at the time I signed up at launch, and like most who did so I dropped off shortly afterwards because, like all living-product video games, it was shipped basically unfinished and unplayable. I’m very happy to say that the core experience has improved tenfold since then, and there’re a simply staggering array of seasonal timed events (with exclusive Mon and exclusive variants of Mon) and quests that award usable prizes, as well as a robust friend-system that allows you to send actually useful items to friends all over the world along with postcards of their Poké Stop locations, so you can–as I have–collect snapshots from France, Hong Kong, England, China, all over these United States, and more.
The game is still heavily monetized, but now offers many more ways (like the above quests and friendships, as well as individual efforts) to play the game meaningfully without spending a cent; I myself drop mayyyyybe ten bucks every other week, for Remote Raid Passes that let me join my pals in faraway places for challenging group-effort battles and for incubators that let me work toward hatching more eggs at a time.
It’s just dope, and like, I’m already walking from one Mormon church to the other listening to podcasts, so I might as well catch some critters and toss some prizes to my bud in Alabama while I’m doing so. If you’re already a Trainer or join up after reading this, add me, and we’ll get our asses kicked together by a Very Bad Horse or something that’s guarding a Gym; find me at 5332-3062-4383.
Apparently a sequel to a series from the mid-teens, OlliOlli World is not my kind of game and I am bad at it and I love it so much. You’re just a 2D skateboarder of completely customizable appearance in an aesthetic not unlike that of Adventure Time, and you zoop through Radlandia’s zones, doing as many grinds and tweaks and slams and similar as possible, and meet with its many denizens in pursuit of becoming the prophesied Skate Wizard–they whose steez is pure and whose shred is true–and ascending to Gnarvana with the help of the Skate Godz. It’s wild and delightful and endlessly positive and inclusive and beautiful, but its number one-selling point, the reason I’ve been playing it as much as I have despite not being very good at it, is that it has the single shortest failure-to-reset loop I’ve ever seen in a game: at any point, including the literal moment of failure, you can hit X (or local system equivalent) and instantly, as in truly without delay of any kind, voip right back to the start and keep going with zero break in gameplay. No game-over animation, no “Aw bummer” message that’s only two seconds but adds up, just voop and keep going, it gives you NO reason not to keep playing and try again, it’s genius.
There’s also an extensive challenge-system based on points and pulling off specific tricks or other actions particular to a given stage (e.g. “boop all of the giant bees, pull three midair tricks for the giant crab at the waterslide, high-five Dave”); these are keyed to unique aesthetic unlocks like new clothes, tattoos, hats, hairstyles, skateboard decks, trusses and wheels, etc. All of it is completely optional, so if a given challenge is too hard or not fun you can bail without worry, but sometimes you see a particularly sweet board design and simply must have it, so you get good, scrub.
Check this out if you like skateboarding, minimal failure-punishments puns, scrambling your sticks in every direction to rack up points like in Tony Hawk, bright colors, good goofs, and FUN.
Star Ocean: First Departure R
Ah yes, the Switch remaster-port of the PSP enhanced remake of the SNES classic.
Ah, I joke, I joke; like that’s true, but this is such a great game, especially with the added quality-of-life improvements from the PSP remake, that I am not at all mad and am indeed jazzed to get the chance to buy it again. Admittedly, I’ve still got my PSP, and I’m pretty sure my copy of this very game, and could’ve dug it out if I wanted, but as extremely good and sexy a little handheld as the PSP was, I think we can agree that the Switch is the platform of and for today in most ways, starting with screen-size alone.
Star Ocean was notable for being one of the first free-movement action RPGs, where there are still random battles but instead of a turn-based rotation you have full movement inside a bounded area, running around and doing attacks and such, which you learn more of and which level up with a certain number of uses; think any of the Tales games and you’ve about got the idea. (Mainly because, a bit of research reveals, Tales Of Phantasia came out a year earlier. Welp.) But more than its now fairly-ubiquitous battle-system, it was one of the earliest branching-path RPGs, with multiple recruitable and missable characters with their own stories and parts to play in the main narrative, some of which were dependent on recruiting or not recruiting others. Each of these characters has a unique skillset that can be further customized and enhanced with a surprisingly deep skill-and-specialty system that grants everything from passive stat-bonuses to cooking and crafting-trees, to overworld abilities like mining and pickpocketing, to metagaming like reducing the point-cost of other skills or manually raising or lowering the random encounter rate; some skills and specialties are actually secret and have to be discovered by learning certain combinations of others, or by failing at others a certain number of times, like developing a passive skill that protects agains the Poison status effect by failing at Cooking a certain number of times, which the reader must agree is hilarious.
It’s a really accessible little slice of JRPG history with some extremely valuable quality-of-life implementations, and I recommend it both as a story to actively engage with and as a great passive EXP-grind activity while you’re on the phone or otherwise engaged with something else.
Whoa, nelly what a thing. Okay, so, Tunic is a Zeldalike, common enough on Switch (your Oceanhorn, your Blossom Tales, etc.) but available on every other platform as well, and it is a sterling example of why good artists borrow and great artists steal: you start the game and there’s a princess trapped in a PHANTASMAL DODECAHEDRON, you gotta get a Blue, Red, and Green thing to save her, you get your sword and shield and bombs; it is immediately clear that you’re playing One Of These, and that this is interested in being a very, very good One Of Those while still doing its own unique thing. ALSO YOU GET TO BE A WEE FOXUM! 🦊 🦊 🦊
Now all of this is great; we love a Zeldalike because they offer a lot of chances to do fun and innovative stuff with a solid, proven formula that’s instantly familiar and understandable, and because they’re usually much smaller-scale than an actual Zelda game would be, so they take less time and are less expensive. So I would’ve been onboard if this was just The Legend Of Check Out What We Did With The Link’s Awakening Aesthetic, but it goes an extra step, holds me down, and inserts a fishing-hook directly into my fucking mind by doing this:
Tunic‘s most unique feature, besides its overall extremely high quality, is that you find pages of the game’s manual scattered throughout the world and, like all signage and text in-world, most of it is written in an artificial script that you can decode if you, like me, have a brain that is deeply broken and bad and obsessive about certain things. I’ve been collecting artificial writing systems since I stayed up all night decoding the text along the bottom of Artemis Fowl‘s pages in 7th grade, and a surprising number of video games have pretty good ones, like Dead Space‘s Altman Cipher, which I still use to this day for journaling, doodling, and et cetera alongside four or five others. (I recommend the reader to both Omniglot.com and r/Neography if this sounds intriguing.)
The game just came out on Switch and I’m an adult human with a job that would notice if I wasn’t doing it, so I’ve only made it so far and had so much time to work on the script, but it has been canydland for me:
I’m fairly certain it’s not just a one-to-one substitution cipher; for example I think vowels only go on the bottom line and that top-right-to-bottom-left diagonal stroke is ‘E’, based on a couple of the examples above, but I’ve also seen a few things in-game that make me think neither of those is always true??? I don’t even KNOW, man! IT’S THE FUCKING BEST! And of course I could just look it up, but the whole ‘manual you can’t entirely understand’ thing is an enormous nostalgia-bomb for me, takes me right back to sitting on my couch as a five-year-old, leafing through the NES Zelda manual but not actually having the game, trying to understand what ‘these bracelets give Link great strength’ or ‘these enemies spit rocks but can be defeated with a shield’ actually meant; it’s an echo of the age before ubiquitous guides and well before GameFaqs (big ups to PsychoPenguin and DingoJellybean for their Final Fantasy V and VI guides), when traded rumors from classmates and outright lies from big brothers were the very clay of gaming-bricks.
Anyway good lord, go play the hell out of this game.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 still!
Look! It’s a long game! And some of us like to do the Squad Stories and Extra Stories! I was playing it last month and I’ll probably be playing it next month! I HAVE A JOB, GUYS! Pr–probably I have a job? I should check in with them.
So that’s some of what I got up to; I’m also rereading Words Of Radiance and Gideon The Ninth (so I can reread Oathbringer and Harrow The Ninth ((so I can finally read Rhythm Of War and the just-dropped Nona The Ninth))), and cracking along in Babel, which is just so, so unbelievably good and which I recommend unreservedly if you have any interest in linguistics, how the colonized feel about colonialism (hint: not big fans for more reasons than you’ve ever thought of, I promise), academy-fiction, and LANGUAGE BEING THE MECHANISM OF ENGRAVING MAGIC INTO SILVER AND KEY TO THE BRITISH EMPIRE. You can bet there’ll be a full review…eventually. I really admire the stamina and focus of many of the other book bloggers out here who manage to get their reviews out hot on the tail of a release; of course, I also envy their ARC copies, which probably help.
ANYWAY, I’ll be back with more miscellany for you all next month! Until then, be good to yourselves, be good to each other, wear your goddamn masks, and go play Tunic or face my wrath.
All the boys could’ve gone to school
All the girls were pretty enough to play the fool
Something about the danger zone
Wouldn’t leave the bunch of us alone
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