13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is Something Special

Every once in a while, a video game will make an appearance that reminds you why you enjoy gaming so much in the first place. Maybe it has a fun gameplay loop that is inherently fun, rewarding, and addictive, such as Rocket League. Maybe it’s in how it connects you to its characters, such as in Persona 5. Maybe it’s how it unfolds a story to you, like in Life is Strange. All the games I mentioned have a special place in my heart for those reasons.

But 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, a title I had never heard of before a few months ago, is truly something special. It’s an example of how video games can tell a story in a way that no other media can, connecting you to its themes, characters, plot, and world through unique gameplay devices and storytelling. The game isn’t perfect, but no game is. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, however, achieves something special as a greater entity than the sum of its parts.

Sentinels, as I will refer to it for the rest of this here blog, tells its story through the eyes of its 13 protagonists, all high schoolers in 1980s Japan, via gorgeous 2D interactive novel “levels”. Additionally, it features a strategy element that comprises the core gameplay of the game, where said 13 protagonists fight in giant mecha against a kaiju invasion. In other words, it’s one part Persona, one part Fire Emblem, and one part Pacific Rim, with some Robotech thrown in.

Robots, just a Seaside Vacation away

Of course, describing what the game is similar to is selling it short. Sentinels simply has one of the best sci-fi narratives I have ever experienced in any medium. Not only does it include nearly every trick in the book—time travel, artificial intelligence, nanomachines, artificial personalities, you name it—but Sentinels tells its story in a nonlinear fashion that simply can’t be accomplished in any other medium.

The true brilliance of Sentinels is in how it carries out its nonlinear narrative. It’s up to you to decide in what order to tackle the stories. Are you interested in Natsuno Minami and her quest to aid an E.T.-like robot in search of a data core? Go for it. Want to figure out alongside Shu Amiguchi how and why a pop star is talking to him from his television set late at night? Select his story!

As you’ll quickly find out, not everything is as it seems. By splitting the core narrative between so many protagonists whose stories intertwine and weave across each other’s, it creates an endless parade of “aha!” moments as you discover things both big and small about the world and the story. Furthermore, the game does a brilliant job of revealing its biggest secrets how it wants to by locking certain events behind specific gates, which provides an irresistible incentive to explore every character’s story. It also makes it as easy as possible to keep track of what’s going on with a codex of sorts that you can further unlock by going through the narrative and strategic portions of the game.

Gotta put on a show for Yuki-chan…

Yes, sometimes the light puzzle aspects in the narrative portion of the game can be obtuse. Yes, the strategic gameplay is not quite complicated enough to be enough to truly stand on its own, and you have to play it on the highest difficulty setting for it to be remotely challenging. Yes, even with an extended codex that has information about every event, character, place, and item in the game, it can be hard to remember what exactly is going on, especially if you don’t play it for a few days. However, these are ultimately minor quibbles.

Sentinels manages to pull off a narrative structure that would be impossible for any other medium, but its story also happens to be excellent. Sentinels manages to juggle many different protagonists, but its protagonists also happen to be distinct, lovable, and memorable characters. Sentinels features a delicious Chili’s Triple Dipper of sci-fi concepts, but it also happens to employ them in wholly unique ways. And that’s not even mentioning Sentinels’ absolutely stunning visual aesthetic, or its pitch-perfect soundtrack, or its excellent English voice dub, or its ability to evoke nostalgia at will. Oh yeah—it sticks the landing in the ending, too.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an unforgettable experience and it deserves far more accolades and attention than it has accrued—though it was just nominated for the Game Award for Best Narrative, which is nice. But its niche status almost makes me love it more. It is a wonderful experience at every step of the way, and I’m so thankful that I pulled the trigger on buying the game. If you have a PS4, you owe it to yourself to play this one.

Anime journal part two: movies and more

A few years ago, a game called Doki Doki Literature Club swept through the internet. To explain it properly would take a while, but it was mostly just a psychological thriller/horror game disguised as a dating simulator. It was set in Japan, as its name would suggest, and had some really sharp writing and interesting characters.

While the twist of the game made it great, I was honestly surprised I enjoyed the slice of life aspect of the game as much as I did. Before I started it, I was prepared to mock that part of it. But the whole package was interesting, not simply the thriller part of the game for me.

I started Neon Genesis Evangelion and Robotech for different but specific reasons—Evangelion because it was highly recommended by multiple friends, and Robotech because I wanted to relive a part of my childhood. But I continued watching more anime because I realized that I liked it. American animation is great, but Japanese animation has a distinct quirkiness and style that makes its worlds and its characters just that much more colorful.

So in 2020, when everything has sucked, watching a bunch of cool new shows and movies in a shiny, brand new medium has been one of my anchors to things that don’t suck. Here is part two of my anime journal.

A Whisker Away (film)

One-sentence description: Girl becomes an adorable cat to escape her problems only to encounter different ones, aka Life Goals: the Movie

Should you watch it: Yeah, especially if you like cats or pets.

One of the reasons why I didn’t get into anime initially was because I thought that there were so many elitist fans who championed subs over dubs. Throughout this process, I have been only watching dubs. A Whisker Away came out this year, and my wife and I watched it before there was dubs available. And while the movie was loads of fun even subtitled, I watched portions of it dubbed when it was available, and I just wish we could have watched it dubbed initially. But I think it’s wonderful that this medium has two very distinct ways of consumption, and that’s something special that other mediums just don’t.

Mirai (film)

One-sentence description: Insufferable child is jealous at his baby sister, but time traveling shenanigans help him come to terms with his new life.

Should you watch it: Maybe; your mileage will vary whether you think the protagonist is pitiable and empathetic or the anime equivalent of nails on a chalkboard

While Mirai is a creative movie that fully earned its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, watching the protagonist of Mirai is an exercise in restraint because I certainly wanted to strangle the poor kid for being so annoying at every possible moment. The structure of the movie is fun, and the story is good. Again, your mileage may vary.

Weathering With You (film)

One-sentence description: A teenage weather maiden and a teenage runaway fall in love with the world and each other.

Should you watch it: Yes.

Weathering With You’s only real problem is that it is impossible to evaluate without also thinking of Your Name. It’s a great movie in its own right, but there are enough frayed edges that are so obvious simply because Your Name has no frayed edges and is right there, sharing similar themes and plot points. Both movies, however, inspire a truly special kind of wistfulness as their beauty transports you to another place.

A Silent Voice (film)

One-sentence description: A deaf high schooler and her former, now contrite bully help each other overcome their respective traumas years later.

Should you watch it: Yes, please yes.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a better depiction of disability in a film, especially as it relates to growing up and how it shapes the person with a disability, their loved ones, and the ones they love. It’s a wonderful and empathetic work of art.

K-On!

One-sentence description: Five high school students get distracted by snacks and tea, occasionally playing music along the way (sounds like my life tbh).

Should you watch it: K-On! is not everyone’s cup of tea because it doesn’t have action or great drama, but that is precisely why it’s a great quarantine show.

K-On! is a show about five girls who participate in a music club where they play in a band together, when they’re not eating sweets and drinking tea. In other words, K-On! slaps. There are no stakes. There are no broken hearts. There is no romance. Just adorable girls being great friends with each other, playing catchy music, and having a good time. It is the perfect anti-COVID show.

Persona 5: The Animation

One-sentence description: The anime version of the best JRPG of all time, it is the story of how becoming friends with a weird cat leads to thievery and righteous dissemination of justice.

Should you watch it: If you’ve played the game, absolutely. If you haven’t, I honestly have no idea how much you’ll enjoy it.

I finished Persona 5 Royal in a startlingly short amount of time because quarantine. When the P5A dub was released on Funimation months later, I couldn’t not also experience what it was about. While animation quality was often poor, the show itself did an admirable job of distilling a 100-hour epic into its 20-something episodes. And having a voiced protagonist, unlike the game, was fantastic.

Toradora!

One-sentence description: A tiny ball of fire and an intimidating looking but otherwise kind dude make unlikely friends at school. Rom-com hijinks ensue.

Should you watch it: If you are a romantic comedy fan, yes. If you are not, also potentially yes.

By this point in my anime journey, I had started to see some repeat voice actors who I really liked. I started following Cassandra Lee Morris, who had voiced Morgana in Persona, Leafa in Sword Art Online, and Ritsu in K-On!, on Twitter. She very ecstatically tweeted when the Toradora dub became available on Netflix, and that was enough for me to give it a shot. True enough, it’s a top-tier slice of life show with romance and comedy in equal measures.

An anime journal and recommendations from someone who didn’t used to like anime

When I was in fourth grade, we were slated to watch a movie during the last week of school. Our teacher told us to bring a VHS tape (ah, 2000, how we adore thee) of a movie we wanted to watch—G or PG only, naturally—and we’d vote on which movie we would watch.

I do not remember what we watched. What I did remember was that I brought the direct-to-video Toy Story animated spinoff Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. Nobody voted for it, but it was also the only animated movie up there. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t as grown up as those other kids.

I’m an adult now. I am secure in my knowledge that animated movies are awesome. Still, it wasn’t until late last year that I dipped my toes into anime, specifically. Growing up, I watched some Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh and whatnot, but I thought Dragonball Z was…dumb. I never got into anime. It was too weird, too Japanese, too nerdy. I had too many other non-nerdy things to do, like studying, playing video games, practicing the french horn, and being too scared to ask the cute redhead I liked on a date.

I see the irony. Don’t push it.

Anyway, as Covid-19 reaches into our very core to slowly drag our sanity through our eyeballs as we stay at home for the eighth (or is it 14th?) weekend in a row, I have finally embraced anime as an unexplored facet of animation, an un-mined treasure trove of gems to be watched as the world burns around me.

So, hey, I’d like to let you in on what I’ve been watching and whether it’s worth watching. See, I’m not a ride-or-die anime fan. I like the visual style, and I like aspects about the genre, but I am the furthest thing from a purest you can get and, therefore, a reliable source on anime quality. Here’s everything I’ve watched over the past year, and whether or not it’s worth watching.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

One-sentence description: A mech show and a teen drama show get married and get philosophy degrees before tripping on some serious acid.

Should you watch it: Yes, you should. But it is extremely weird. Be warned.

Maybe don’t watch this as your first real anime like I did, because there is absolutely nothing like this show. Nothing. The first half of the show is a pitch-perfect mech show. The second half rather quickly descends into a psychological horror show, of sorts? It’s hard to explain. You’ll be thinking about this one for years.

Robotech

One-sentence description: A retro 1980s space opera about transforming robots and alien dogfights serves as window dressing for a dope love triangle.

Should you watch it: Yes, but only the first 36 episodes; it’s quite literally a different show after that (but I won’t get into Robotech history here).

I started watching Robotech on Toonami when I was naught but a child. The show ruled. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. On its surface, it may seem like a dumb 80s Transformers knockoff built to sell toys, and in some ways it is, but the show itself is much deeper than would think. Yeah, some of it is hokey, but it’s an iconic show for a reason. Don’t sleep on the love triangle, either, which is the emotional core of the show.

Violet Evergarden

One-sentence description: Former child soldier navigates trauma and emotions in an early 1900s-era alternate world that has metal arm prosthetics for some reason.

Should you watch it: Yes, but don’t expect constant action. It’s not that kind of show.

Violet Evergarden is all about feelings and the power of words. That it sprinkles in some great action at times is an added bonus. It moves deliberately, but not slowly, and it resists the tropes that would hamper a lesser show. Just be sure to have some tissues ready.

Your Name (film)

One-sentence description: An unconventional and earnest high school romance told through body-swapping and some surprisingly high stakes.

Should you watch it: Absolutely.

I watched this in the heart of quarantine, and it really left an impression on me; it’s ultimately about the importance of connecting with other people and empathizing with them. Your Name is sincere, exciting, and visually gorgeous. It also features a great and memorable soundtrack. It was a worldwide phenomenon for a reason—it is a superb movie that connects with everyone.

Your Lie in April

One-sentence description: Boy with trauma meets girl, girl shows boy how to love music again, show reminds viewer what ugly crying is like.

Should you watch it: Yes, especially if you’re a musician.

Your Lie in April is simply a beautiful show. It tells the story of a piano prodigy who became unable to play after the death of his mother and how meeting a passionate and energetic violinist changed his life. The show depicts music performance unnervingly accurately, and it adeptly navigates themes that would, on the surface, seem to clash tonally. It is the most touching show I have ever seen.

Death Note

One-sentence description: The protagonist does murders with a book, repeatedly, while frantic authorities try to stop him from doing book murders.

Should you watch it: No, but lots people like it (and love it) so you could get some mileage out of it.

If you could kill people anonymously by simply writing their name down in a book, would you? This a fascinating question that Death Note does not ask because the main character goes from “hey, what is this book” to “I guess I’ll kill some people to find out if it does what it says it does” to “I WILL BE THE GOD OF JUSTICE FOR A NEW WORLD” in the span of the first episode. It’s a waste of a potentially fascinating character arc, but that’s not the story it wants to tell.

*I stopped watching Death Note after the sixth episode, though I did poke around and watch some portions of other episodes later

Garden of Words (film)

One-sentence description: Two humans bond over rain, gardens, and dreams, all while blatantly disregarding their social obligations.

Should you watch it: Probably, but you could skip it and not lose out on a whole lot.

A short film that lasts 45 minutes, Garden of Words tells the story of a high school senior who yearns to be a shoemaker and an unexpected yet repeated encounter with a woman in a garden in the rain. It’s unique and has some truly beautiful visuals.

Sword Art Online

One-sentence description: A bunch of poor gamers get trapped in a game that will kill you for realsies if you die, and then decide to play more games afterwards for some reason.

Should you watch it: Sure, if you’re ok with it being what it is (a bit of an empty, visually appealing power fantasy, and not good). Otherwise, no.

This show is infamous. If you decide to watch it, watch the first 14 episodes–the main arc about being trapped in the VR game Sword Art Online–and then stop. After that, the show’s writing flaws, pacing issues, and lack of interesting characterization just snowball out of control. It’s a frustrating enterprise, because it is soooooo close to being really good. It’s a fun watch, though.

*I stopped watching in the middle of season 2

Fireworks (film)

One-sentence description: Start with Your Name, take everything good about it and make it discernibly worse—serve cold or extremely hot.

Should you watch it: No.

Fireworks is pretty! But it’s not good. If you saw the trailer or saw it pop up on Netflix and think about watching it, just go see Your Name again instead. It’s not bad, and I didn’t actively dislike it, but there is no weight behind its narrative.

Cowboy Bebop

One-sentence description: Cowboys and Aliens, but in space; Han Solo and friends, but in our solar system; a Western, but on a spaceship with a corgi instead of a horse.

Should you watch it: Yes; it’s a classic.

I’m in the middle of watching Cowboy Bebop, so I can’t speak to the show as a whole. But it’s definitely a classic for good reason. There’s nothing quite like Cowboy Bebop, and it has been influential to all kinds of anime since its heyday in the 90s. It’s no Evangelion, but Cowboy Bebop is indeed worth a watch.

*I have not finished this one yet

Song remixes are basically music magic

There’s perhaps no other song that represents the 2010s musically than The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey song ‘Closer.’

If you haven’t heard it yet–do you not have radio or go literally anywhere where music is played?–here’s the lyric video. It’s quite catchy, and even if you’re not a fan of this type of electronic synth-pop music it’s the type of song that is somehow much more magnetic than it should be.

Let’s be honest: Halsey is a big reason why this song is successful. She has a unique, colorful, strong voice, and is as confident and purposeful an artist as any in the music industry.

As far as why this is sort of a scion of 2010s pop songs, well, there is a kaleidoscope of reasons. First, it almost exclusively uses synths, keys, and programmed percussion. Second, the synths that it uses aren’t afraid of being electronic, unlike the 80s when synths tended to imitate other instruments like piano or guitar.

Third, the song uses the ‘drop’ in its song form, which is a decidedly recent phenomenon. The term ‘drop’ comes from electronic music and DJs, and you might have heard of the ‘bass drop,’ which is used in dubstep as a sort of chorus. Closer uses a drop, an instrumental break after the pre-chorus, in the same way. Its chorus is not sung, rather being played by the synths, which is an odd choice traditionally but something you’ll find a lot nowadays.

It’s a good song because it’s catchy and, like any good pop song, knows how to ratchet up tension and excitement as the song progresses to lead to an exciting climax.

So you’d think that Closer would be such a 2010s song that it would sound out of place in any other context, right? That its structure and core is definitively in a modern soundscape?

Well, you’d be wrong.

I was clicking around on YouTube and found this. I clicked on it for a few giggles and, guess what? It’s AMAZING.

It’s also fascinating, and it illustrates that pop songs are a bizarre, weird animal. Whether you think that the 80s version of the song is better or not is immaterial, because we can all agree that the 80s version, while completely different, is the same song.

Pop songs, of whatever flavor–rock, rap, metal, whatever (and yes, those all fall under the umbrella of ‘pop music’)–are different from art music because pop songs are their recordings. A Beethoven symphony is what happens when you play what’s on the page, but a Beatles song is the recording that they spliced together in Abbey Road studios.

That difference is gigantic, because any deviation from the written music for a symphony is a deviation from the piece itself. But the same isn’t true for pop music. When Taylor Swift performs a song in front of a stadium of people, she and her band do not just press play on a recording; rather, they play the song live, which everyone agrees is the same song despite it not being a note-for-note and instrument-for-instrument recreation of the song’s recording.

What that means is that even songs tied to a specific decade sonically can be re-arranged to fit an entirely different decade’s structure, harmony, and instrumentation and still retain its soul.

So what is a pop song? What is the song itself? The core part that can be transported and tucked into a snug bag of an entirely different size and color? The amazing part is that I have no idea. I’m not sure anybody else does, either. But we know it when we see it.

Movie tie-in novel covers need to go away forever

There are a lot of sad things in this world. Homeless kittens. Cleveland Browns fans. Income inequality. The color taupe. Political corruption. Musicians whose audiences can’t reliably clap on two and four.

But one of the saddest things in this world, just gosh-darn tragedies, is when book publishers feel the need to slap a logo on a book which is going to become/is becoming/has become a featured film or–even worse!–when book publishers create a new version of the book with promotional pictures from the film.

I have an omnibus of the Chronicles of Narnia. It is a beautifully-designed book, just a paperback, but it’s very nice. It looks like this:

chronicles of narnia, aslan, fire

This is a fabulous cover. Aslan (who is the lion, if you’ve lived under a rock for six decades) is more or less the centerpiece of the entire series. This cover portrays him with the requisite gravitas. I mean, his mane is literally fire here. Lit.

Well, I lied a little. It looks like that, but has one tiny edition that threatens to ruin all of it:

major motion picture, narnia, lion the witch and the wardrobe

This little thing is a travesty. It’s 2018. NOBODY CARES THAT THERE WAS A THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE MOVIE. These things just rapidly become quaint anachronisms very quickly. Like the little patches that appeared on Lord of the Rings books before Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Aw, honey; the first movie is almost old enough to vote. Everyone already knows that they’re movies, dear. All that patch is doing is ruining your nice book cover.

Not all patches ruin the cover, thankfully. I bought Ready Player One to read before watching the movie, I’m pretty sure that it has some sort of “Spielberg is making this into a movie” patch, and the fact that I don’t remember is a strong testament to how thoughtful they were with the design. Furthermore, some of these patches are actually stickers, which can be removed and tossed into the fire and brimstone from whens they came. Unfortunately, most are not, and are printed into the book like some sort of demonic branding.

What’s worse is when publishers change a perfectly good cover, swapping out marketing images from the movie it inspired. At best, it’s tacky. At worst, it’s a bait-and-switch that torpedoes great cover art for images that could possibly be totally unrelated to the book.

As an example, take a look at this. It’s the cover for Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I bought it alongside Ready Player One. Its cover is gorgeous. And its inside cover is almost better:

 

Ohhhhh yeah. Fantastic.

The film Annihilation is fantastic, too, but it is its own thing. It isn’t strictly an adaption, although it technically is one. Rather, it is a story inspired by the book. Its core story is only tangentially related to Annihilation’s core story, and it features practically none of the plot beats in the book. Again, that’s fine; the film is smart enough to do its own thing, and it’s a great movie.

But inflicting this horror on the book is just one step too far:

horror, not safe for life, the biggest problem in the world

My feelings for this cover can’t be put into exact words, but let’s just say this is legitimately one of the worst book covers I have ever witnessed when you take into account the cover it takes the place of.

Not only does it feature three characters on the cover who aren’t even in the book you’re about to read, and not only does it also feature an inane review quote at the top, but it also slaps the “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” badge in the corner for good measure, as if you didn’t already surmise that from NATALIE FREAKING PORTMAN being front and center.

This is depressing me too much, so I’ll just leave one more example that’s probably equally as egregious and then go eat some chocolate.

 

Ugh. Hold me.

Facebook’s vestigial organs and pages are nostalgic ghost towns

Facebook is a great tool to engage in nostalgia. But what happens if the tool you use destroys the record of those memories?

Facebook, undisputed king of social media for years, has been more or less the same way for a long time. The ubiquity of smart phones, the Facebook app, and access to 4G or LTE data has coagulated the experience into one that has remained remarkably similar in a fast-paced internet ecosystem.

It didn’t used to be that way. Facebook was originally a social media website for college students, and you had to have a university email ending in .edu to join. After its immense success, Facebook slowly opened its doors more and more, allowing high schoolers to join and even some hip adults.

When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site had already went through multiple iterations. It had rapidly acquired millions of users by that point. And in 2008, Facebook rolled out a major new redesign. The name ‘New Facebook’ will send shivers down your spine if you were an active user of Facebook at that time. It was a cataclysmic and highly divisive event.

Facebook, like all social media, is a digital scrapbook. Part of its fun is going back and reliving what happened. But unlike scrapbooks, which stay the same once they are completed, Facebook changes, morphs, evolves. None of it is in your control. And as such, the rapid alterations can and do leave behind vestigial pieces–appendixes and wisdom teeth and dude nipples–things that don’t matter now, even if they used to, and things that are forced to the periphery by the forces of Zuckerberg.

It is these pieces that are the true nostalgia of Facebook, ghost town elements that were once something but after countless redesigns barely function if they do at all.

I was looking through my groups, managing notifications on some of the new ones I had joined, when I truly recognized the extent of this. Seven years ago, Facebook essentially eviscerated groups created before 2011, when they mandated that groups be transitioned to the new format. If you didn’t, your poor group wouldn’t continue to function.

But while they didn’t functionally survive, they technically survived. They’re now ghosts. Distributed among the legitimate groups of which I am a member are these ghosts.

I vaguely remember creating a page called “The horn is the best instrument ever” and inviting my horn friends to join. It is entirely empty. I am the admin. No posts survived.

Apparently, my 16-year-old self though joining a page called “Sorry to burst your buble, but it’s ‘Merry Christmas'” was a good idea. I am the admin and only member. Eight posts from 2007 still exist, somehow.

My high school debuted a ‘Health and Wellness’ policy which took away many of the sweets and snacks from the vending machines. Of course there was a group. Four complaints litter the ground of the discussion tab. I am the admin. One other member technically exists, but it looks like he has since deleted his Facebook account.

A few more exist. Some groups from college, with actual members. Some without admins, Facebook pleading with me to become an admin to ‘help the group thrive.’ Some groups which revealed that friends of mine had defriended me for reasons unknown.

I’ve found that there are two types of nostalgia, and while both including pining for something that you can’t have again, the point of view between those types is entirely different. One type is happiness that the event happened. The memories have color, sounds are sharp, and they are almost alive.

But these broken Facebook groups force you to remember memories through the second type of nostalgia. This nostalgia is aware that those moments are dead. You will never experience them again. To remember is your only tool in accessing those moments, and if the tool you use to remember those memories purposefully breaks them, what’s the point?

My top 10 favorite coasters

I once lived less than an hour’s drive away from Coaster Mecca: Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. I rode my first coaster there. I fell in love with coasters there. And, like real life Mecca, I make a pilgrimages there, usually every four years or so.

It’s cold and dark winter, which means no coasters. But when it warms up, the screams of riders, the smell of hot asphalt, and the joy of climbing into the first coaster of the season will occur.

This is not necessarily a list of the best coasters I’ve ever ridden, but a list of my favorite coasters. When putting this list together, I thought about three things: the ride experience itself, the atmosphere of the ride, and personal context. I present to you my favorite roller coasters.

10. Griffon – Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been an explosion of ride varieties, due to the globalization of the amusement park industry as well as leaps in technology and construction skill.

One of the most interesting ones is called the ‘dive coaster,’ and its hook is exactly as it sounds: it dives. Straight down. About 200 feet or so on average, depending on the ride. Furthermore, these coasters feature oversize tracks and few rows with many seats–between two and four rows and between six and ten seats, again depending on the ride. This means that some riders won’t have any track below them for the entire duration of the ride.

For some of you, that might sound completely insane. For those of us who love coasters, it’s a recipe for a great ride. Griffon is neither the tallest nor largest dive coaster I’ve ridden–the other two being Sheikra in Busch Gardens Tampa and Valravn at Cedar Point–but it is the first one that I rode, which counts in the nostalgia factor. It is also the best experience among the three, as it swoops under a bridge and features an exciting splashdown, and its ten-wide rows make the outside few seats truly special.

9. Raptor – Cedar Point

I can’t fathom being a coaster enthusiast prior to the 90s, as there was just too much innovation that happened during that decade. The biggest one was that of the now-ubiquitous suspended roller coaster designed and built by Swiss company Bolliger & Mabillard. Good ol’ B&M are titans in the industry today, as they should be.

But despite a few decades of honing their suspended roller coaster craft, the Raptor remains my favorite. You begin with a fantastic view of Cedar Point’s beautiful midway, and then are immediately plunged down and into a quick loop, and off you go. What sets the Raptor apart is its intensity: it’s unrelenting, has lots of inversions, and curls in and around itself which makes it seem even faster.

Certainly better than one of the ten billion Batman rides built by Six Flags. Design something new already for Pete’s sake.

8. Prowler – Worlds of Fun

I know that a lot of coaster enthusiasts love wooden rides because of their old-timey feel that is impossible to replicate by steel rides. They are simple, with few gimmicks, and each one is bursting with history.

Personally, I find this to be hogwash. You know what else is old-timey, impossible to replicate today, and bursting with history? Dying of smallpox. While wooden coasters won’t kill you, most are borderline un-rideable due to their shakiness and roughness. Steel is just a much better material.

That being said, there are newer wooden rides that capitalize on wood’s strength and minimize its weaknesses. One of those rides is the Prowler, my favorite wooden coaster that happens to be in my backyard of Kansas City. It’s not too big or fast, limiting its roughness, but it is devilishly compact, swerving and dipping like a panther in pursuit of its prey.

This is also, hands down, the best coaster to ride at night. It’s in the woods and purposefully not lit up. You can’t see anything.

7. Behemoth – Canada’s Wonderland

This ride is my most recent addition to my top ten list. I took a road trip with my wife and two of my best friends to a handful of theme parks last September, and this beauty was one of my favorites.

Like Raptor, this ride is a B&M ride, one of the so-called ‘hypercoasters’ due to its size. Hypercoasters are relatively simple: they feature no inversions, and have uncomplicated out-and-back layouts. But they are my favorite type of coaster, because they do the two best things a coaster can do better than any other coaster type: 1) speed and 2) airtime. Speed is self-explanatory–hypercoasters are fast because they are over 200 feet tall and feature large drops. And for those of you who don’t know, airtime is the feeling of weightlessness you get at the crest of the hill as you experience zero downward Gs.

Behemoth is a great ride, but what places it here is our experiences on it. We rode it a lot: in the day and at night, with no wait and a long wait, with all four of us and with a stranger or two. Two nights in a row, our train was the last to go through for that night. It was cold, we were tired, but our fraying sanity made for funnier experiences than should have been possible on a simple roller coaster. Long live Behemoth.

6. Apollo’s Chariot – Busch Gardens Williamsburg

A lot of parks are situated in boring places. Highways and houses are all well and good, but they do not make good scenery on a ride.

And while that doesn’t affect most rides–coasters are coasters, after all–great scenery can take a good ride to the next level. It’s part of why Cedar Point is so magical, and it’s part of why Canada’s Wonderland is, well, not.

Apollo’s Chariot is a great ride. It is B&M’s first hypercoaster, and while it doesn’t have as many bells or whistles as some of their other ones, its scenery takes it to the next level. There are no other rides near Apollo’s Chariot after you go down the first hill. All you see are trees rushing by, a lake beneath you at the turn back towards the station, the purple track glistening in the sunlight. The woods add a feeling of speed and immerse you in the ride.

5. Top Thrill Dragster – Cedar Point

Top Thrill lasts all of 17 seconds. You go out, you go up, you go down, you come back. The whole thing is in view. There are no tricks. It is what it is and that’s that.

But what it is is a completely unique and exhilarating experience where every part of the ride adds to the suspense and release once you rocket down the track. You can see every car as you wait, watching the faces of the riders before and after The Launch. Once you get to the station, sound effects and music keep up the suspense. You get in the car, continuing to hear the varying noises and a voice recording. Keep your arms down, head back, and hold on! You think you are prepared. After all, you’ve seen it a bunch of times as you waited your turn. Despite that, your heart races. The suspense is building.

You are launched from zero to 120 miles per hour in four seconds. You go 420 feet straight up, glimpse a beautiful view for two seconds, and go 420 feet straight down. Turns out you were not prepared for that.

Top Thrill is a ride that you must experience once, but should experience at least twice. It’s such a gigantic and unique rush that you need to ride it multiple times to fully comprehend the thrill. If that’s not a good coaster, I don’t know what is.

4. Mamba – Worlds of Fun

I was nine years old when I first rode the Mamba. It was my first Big Ride, my first hypercoaster. When I stepped onto the train after waiting excitedly, a voice came over the intercom…

Welcome to the Mamba, one of the tallest, fastest, and steepest roller coasters in the world!

Eighteen years later, there are taller, faster, and steeper roller coasters on this list. No longer does a disembodied voice boast that to a station of riders.

That doesn’t change the fact that the Mamba is a great ride. It has a fantastic, 205-foot drop that immediately shoots you up a second hill, almost as large, for some intense airtime. It ascends again, descending into a tight spiral with a cool effect. As you go down and around, the coaster supports get lower and closer to the train. When the supports almost seem close enough to lop your head off, you pull out of the helix, and then the coaster merrily sends you back a bunch of nice bunny hills before lunging back towards the station.

But what really separates the Mamba in my mind is my relationship with the ride, which at this point can almost vote. I’ve ridden it with friends, family, and total strangers. I’ve ridden it in rain and in sunshine, in daylight and in the dark. I’ve ridden it once in a trip, I’ve ridden it a dozen times in a day.

Yes, there are more intense rides, faster rides, better rides than the Mamba. None represent the coaster comfort food that is the Mamba. I know that ride inside and out, and I get excited to ride it every time I walk to the station.

Welcome to the Mamba…

3. Diamondback – King’s Island

I rode the Diamondback in 2011, during a college road trip in May. It was dreary, with slight drizzle going on every once in a while. We went there before school got out for the summer, so there weren’t too many kids there.

So, obviously, my friend John and I road this eight times in a row. Without any wait.

Diamondback is a B&M hyper, just like Apollo’s Chariot and Behemoth. It features an odd seat configuration–two up front and two elevated behind, but further each side so that the formation looked like a trapezoid. All four seats have a full view of what’s in front of you, and the side seats let you stick out your arms and legs as far as they will go.

Those seats were a revelation for me. They are the best seats that exist. And they made a great ride even better.

2. Maverick – Cedar Point

There’s nothing quite like riding the Maverick. Most rides either go big or go loopy (sometimes both), but the Maverick does neither. Rather, the Maverick feels like you’ve been placed on a metal stallion that has lost its heckin’ mind.

You start on a drop that’s greater   than straight down–meaning it curves back into itself–and off you go. You twist, you turn, you slide around a lake and between giant rocks, giving the appearance of even greater speed. While you go upside down, the ride’s signature sections are the instances that it snaps you sideways and back straight before you can comprehend it.

Then, halfway through the ride, you slow down into a shed and are catapulted from 0-70 MPH in three seconds. Outside you go again to finish the ride. The result is that Maverick never slows down, and the ending sections are just as quick as the first ones.

Ride it in the very front seat on your first ride of the day sometime. It’ll really wake you up.

1. Millennium Force – Cedar Point

There are few rides with the cultural significance of Millennium Force. Built in 2000, it is an icon that is known even among those coaster fans who have never been to Cedar Point. It represents the great coaster arms race of the time, and its giant sleek track have come to also represent Cedar Point in general.

To this day, it remains one of the biggest and fastest roller coasters in the world. It ascends to 310 feet, offering a stunning view of Lake Erie and the Cedar Point peninsula, a view that is unmatched by any other ride I’ve ridden. From there, you drop 300 feet, and then the ride is on. It reaches a max speed of over 90 MPH, and sends you zipping through tunnels, over hills, and hanging off overbanked turns. It’s a long ride, and it snakes through and around the woods and over water.

The Golden Ticket Awards are the amusement park industry’s Oscars or Emmys. There are a bevy of awards, including Best Steel Coaster. Since there are so many coasters, they supply a ranking of the top 100. Every year since its construction, Millennium Force has been either first or second. That’s 18 consecutive years.

Unlike some of these rides, I don’t have a specific emotional connection to Millennium Force. It’s just the best one.

 

 

 

 

I have no desire to see Whiplash again, and that’s a testament to how perfect it is

Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. Heck, it might just be one of the best movies I’ve seen in my life. Critics loved it, too; it has a 94% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and picked up three Academy Awards out of five nominations (one of which was for Best Picture).

Look no further for an example that financial success is no indication of the quality of the film: despite its critical acclaim, Whiplash grossed only $13 million domestically and an additional $35 million internationally. With a budget of only $3.3 million, it did make its money back and then some, but it wasn’t as if millions of people were rushing to see the film.

At its core, Whiplash is both a film about one human relationship, that of main character Andrew Neiman and his teacher Terence Fletcher, and about the relationship between Andrew and his drive to become the greatest musician he can be. The film explores the morality of certain types of teaching, how professional drive can affect a person and their relationships, and what it means to try to be truly great.

There are two lines that define the conflicts in the film. Fletcher presents one:

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

Neiman himself presents the other:

I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.

Whiplash is as much a perfect movie as can be. It’s shot beautifully. It is wonderfully acted (with J.K. Simmons rightfully earning that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Fletcher). The music is impeccable from every angle. The plot, pacing, and ending are masterfully done.

Like I said in the first sentence of this post: Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

That I don’t want to see it again–at least, not for a long time–is just another feather in its cap.

The movie’s plot exists because of Fletcher’s abusive teaching style. The film’s most favorite scene is one of its best: it encapsulates the relationship between Nieman and Fletcher perfectly.

It’s also a great example of why I can’t watch this film again.

This scene is such a perfect recreation of what happens in rehearsals every day throughout the country that it is really quite uncanny. Music directors like Fletcher exist everywhere, and every musician who has continued to perform into their college years, like Nieman, has encountered a situation like this.

Well, not quite like this. Fletcher’s explosion of anger is greater than what most people see. But the brilliance of Whiplash is that all the emotions are there, and so believable. Even non-musicians can empathize, as similarly hard-nose teachers and coaches exist outside the music sphere.

Whiplash’s greatest strength is its uncanny ability to channel intensity directly into your soul from the pixels on the screen. You can feel Fletcher’s anger. You can feel Nieman’s cocktail of emotions in response. You can feel the effect of Nieman’s drive to be great on him and his relationships. You know the stakes in lots of movies. But to feel it? All the pretty cinematography in the world can’t substitute for strong emotional communication.

That is, I think, what makes Whiplash truly great. Yes, it’s well-written, well-acted, etc. etc. Those are all parts. The whole is a deeply emotional journey, and its glaring intensity is recognizable and persistent. Watching Whiplash is almost like having somebody yelling at you in your living room.

Not everything is sunshines and rainbows. Whiplash isn’t. It’s why it’s great. That I don’t want to see it again is proof of how great, proof of how well it communicates its emotions.

Sports games let us make unique connections with real people

Mario isn’t real.

Lara Croft isn’t real, either, neither the triangle-breasted adventurer of yore or the gritty explorer of today. Star Fox has no equivalency in reality. Rivia isn’t a thing, and Geralt of said Rivia isn’t, too. Luke Skywalker is vaguely real, in that a real life person played him in a movie, but there are too many degrees of separation there for Luke Skywalker to be real. Likewise with Mass Effect’s Miranda, whose shared visage with Yvonne Strahovski is purposeful–but it doesn’t make Miranda the character any more real in our world, the one in which we move and breathe.

Our connection to video game characters is well-documented and real, but the characters themselves aren’t. Making a character feel real is one of the great achievements of a developer.

Dragan Bender, however, exists both virtually and not. Bender was born in Croatia and grew to be a giant of a man, a 7′ 1″ behemoth who plays in the National Basketball Association for the Phoenix Suns, ostensibly because he can touch the sun if he gets a running jump.

I have never met this man, who would tower 15 inches over me. But Bender is just the best. I love the guy. I acquired him to play for my basketball team in multiple alternate realities.

dragan_bender_nba2k17

Of course, I’m referring to a sports game; in this case, the game to which I am referring is NBA2K17. The game, which I bought on a whim during the Summer Steam Sale, has a mode where you take over as the General Manager for any of the 30 NBA teams or for one of a handful of hypothetical expansion teams.

The great thing about sports games is that, through interaction with an intermediary medium, sports games can forge a connection between the player and a real life person. It’s the transitive property at work: the player likes an athlete in the game, which translates to enjoying that athlete in real life. No other medium allows for this.

I’m incredibly fond of Bender, a spindly man from eastern Europe who can dunk a basketball by barely hopping off the ground. That fondness is a direct result of my virtual time with his likeness. The actual Bender didn’t play for my team (at least I hope not), but rather an avatar in his image.

And that bizarre connection can have very real consequences. Bo Jackson’s legacy is influenced in part due to his godlike status in the game Tecmo Bowl. Troy Aikman and Ken Griffey Jr.’s stardom was solidified by having legit video games named after them.

That video games can in some capacity forge a real fondness for real human beings through a digital avatar of that person is nothing short of amazing. It’s weird, too; don’t get me wrong. But it’s a great insight into the relationship between real people and a fictional world in which they exist, at least in part.

This is the best tweet of all time

For a good half decade, the social media landscape has been relatively stable. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the Kings, and though others have risen and fallen (Vine, Snapchat), the bedrock has remained mostly untouched.

Importantly, though, it didn’t used to be that way. In the early 2000s, after the Dot Com Boom and when broadband internet gained widespread usage in the United States, entrepreneurs created a bevy of social media websites and services. Their names will conjure intense nostalgia for those who lived through it: AIM, Xanga, Friendster, Myspace. Generation X will not remember this, but at one point Myspace was as ubiquitous as Facebook is now.

One of the bands I was into in high school–The Afters–included a song called Myspace Girl on their 2008 album Never Going Back to OK. At the time, it was a sweet and quirky tune about how one of the band members met his future wife by finder her on Myspace after a chance meetup at a fast food restaurant.

Now, the song seems incredibly outdated, which is fascinating because it is only nine years old. Myspace terms like ‘Top Eight’ and a play on words about turning ‘Myspace’ into ‘Ourspace’ are bizarre, and after almost 15 years of social media etiquette having developed this seems more like a particularly egregious case of digital stalking than something that deserves to be a song.

The point is: back in the late ’00s, social media was new. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2006 that anybody could join; it didn’t turn from ‘place where high school and college kids hang out’ to ‘place where adults make racist remarks in the comments section of a news article’ until 2009 at least .

And Twitter–oh, Twitter–Twitter was a totally different place in 2007. People were just learning to use it. At the time, it seemed idiotic, at least to me: what’s the point of Twitter at all? It’s just the ‘status’ line from Facebook? Laaaame.

whoops

I joined Twitter less than five years later and it is so much more useful than Facebook has ever been, especially for my work with Royals Review. Suffice it to say, this status did not age well.*

*In multiple ways! Remember when statuses said by default ‘YOUR NAME is’ and then what you put? Then, remember when they got rid of the ‘is’ and you could use any verb you want? Now, your name is not even attached to any status–or ‘post’, I suppose it is now. Social media is whack.

Twitter was lifted out the primordial internet soup in 2006, and it will celebrate its twelfth anniversary this month. As for any social media service, it took people a few years to learn it and utilize it properly.

And that led to this, the Greatest Tweet of All Time:

Yes, that’s the official National Football League team the Los Angeles Chargers tweeting about needing to go to PF Changs. And before you ask–yes, that was the Chargers’ official Twitter account back in 2007.

How did this happen? Well, Rodger Sherman over at SB Nation looked into it and has an explanation. Essentially, Joel Price, a digital media employee for the Chargers, snagged the @Chargers handle and began tweeting both personal and Chargers things. After a few months he got his own handle, @joelprice, and the @Chargers account became the official account of the team, as is standard practice nowadays.

But they never deleted Joel’s early musings. So now, it just looks like the Chargers have an undying love for PF Changs.

This tweet is also just pure comedy gold. Everything is perfect. He’s not ‘so’ hungry; he’s ‘soo’ hungry. He could have said he needed to ‘meet his wife’ or ‘go with the wife,’ but he used the much more colorful ‘find my wife,’ as if exploration is a common precursor to food consumption for him. And PF Changs is the type of perfect specificity that makes comedians’ jokes work: it’s well-known enough that pretty much everyone has seen one or been to it at least once, but it’s off-the-wall enough to add a level of ridiculousness to it all that makes it even funnier.

Are their funnier tweets? Sure. Are there better ones? Sure. But this is the perfect tweet: it’s an insight into the history of social media, a hilarious declaration of hunger, and a bizarre anachronism all at once. It is the best tweet of all time.