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.

 

 

 

 

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My favorite game of 2017

It’ll be February this week. February! Of 2018!

Not too long ago, I shared my favorite movies of 2017. And about a year ago, I shared my favorite games of 2016. In a normal year, I’d be sharing my favorite games of 2017 right about now.

But, well, that’s not gonna happen. Sorry. Sorry! I’m sorry, sorry.

There are multiple reasons for this. The first one is that I really haven’t played that many games that came out in 2017.

The second reason is that I’ve put a lot of playtime into a few games. I’ve played almost 160 hours of Destiny 2. I put in 50 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda. Ditto that amount for my favorite game this year. Now that I’m married, I don’t play as many games as I used to. That’s ok. But when three games take up over 260 hours of playtime, that’s a lot of time that could be put into multiple separate games.

The third reason is that I played a lot of games that weren’t released in 2017. I’m not a game journalist, which means that I don’t have an obligation to constantly experience the cutting edge. So if I want to play Rocket League, God bless its beautiful calculated soul, I am going to play Rocket League, or Overwatch Furthermore, I finished the tremendous DLC for Witcher 3 last year, which sunk about 30 hours of my time, and I played another 30 hours of Cities: Skylines, a neat game that I missed when it initially came out. Oh yeah: I’ve also put in another 160 hours into NBA 2k17, which just sort of happened. Sports games are inherently rewarding and easy to return to, and I think are a little underrated in the modern game pantheon.

The fourth reason is that one game I played just blew the rest of them totally out of the water, making a ranking somewhat anticlimactic. At some point in the future, I’ll probably write about my full 2017 list – I have yet to finish Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I’ve got a few PS4 games like Hellblade and Uncharted: Lost Legacy to play as well. But for now, let’s cut to the chase.

GOLD MEDAL – Horizon Zero Dawn

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My own screenshot, wandering the lands as Aloy

AWWWW YISS.

To begin: Horizon Zero Dawn has no business existing.

First, it’s a single player game. Games nowadays are extraordinarily expensive to make; a standard estimate for a studio’s expense is at $10,000 per head per month. So a team of 100 people working on a game for two years results in a $24 million expense, with no income for the studio until the game is released.  The industry has instead moved towards ‘games as a service.’ These are games that contain an open-ended gameplay loop and an opportunity to utilize microtransactions. Horizon Zero Dawn has an expansive world but nothing beyond replaying it in a new game to keep customers around, its only downloadable content a standard issue expansion pack.

Second, Horizon Zero Dawn features a female protagonist. Yeah, it’s a game in 2017, but that truly matters, and it’s still rare. Look around at the other big releases of the year–Zelda, Mario, Cuphead, Destiny 2, Call of Duty: WWII–none of them feature you, the player, as a female protagonist and character.

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Third, and most importantly, Horizon Zero Dawn is a brand new intellectual property. Media, as a whole, has relied more and more on franchises. New franchises are awfully risky, let alone new franchises from somewhat unknown developers. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, games are expensive. To do something new and fresh, something that could fail, and take as many risks as Guerrilla Games did with Horizon is brave.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a video game overflowing with effervescent creativity; it fuses impeccable world-building, satisfying combat, and strong emotional weight to offer an experience that has stuck with me for months. That, I think, is its greatest quality. It is so boldly itself that you can’t help but be gripped by it. Like Aloy, the game is determined and confident in every facet. It is not perfect, but it does not need to be. There are other games which bear facsimiles to this one–open world games with endearing characters, good combat, and interesting narrative hooks. But none of them are Horizon Zero Dawn.

It is a wonder. It should not exist. And yet it does, and its wild success is appropriate and deserved. I love it.

My favorite movies of 2017

It’s that time of year again–time we go over what Things came out and celebrate (yay movies on this list!) or hate (boo Boss Baby!) them.

This will be like last year. Again, a disclaimer: I’m not a huge film buff. It’s not my thing. I often feel that film criticism tends to veer harshly into “my film taste is more advanced than yours” territory very quickly, whether it intends that or not. A lot of the time, I get the feeling that I should feel bad for liking something, which is not a tone that I perceive often in, say, video game criticism.

Another disclaimer: I’m not including Star Wars Episode VIII in my list because it’s Star Wars. Of course it’s my favorite movie this year. Anytime there’s a legit Star Wars Episode (versus, say, Rogue One) that’s going to be the case. As long as it’s not awful, that is. Looking at you, Episode I. Bless your heart.

HONORABLE MENTION – Thor: Ragnorak

Superhero films are inherently ridiculous. They feature random dudes with super powers, and then those random dudes claim dumb names (Spider-Man? Ant-Man? Batman? Wonder Woman?), put on dumb spandex clothing (BAT NIPPLE), and then fight bad guys who have equally idiotic names and costumes.

Thor: Ragnorak knows all of this, and rather than try and present itself as a second-rate sci-fi story like most superhero movies, it doesn’t take itself at all seriously and presents itself as one of the funniest comedies I have seen in a long time. It’s a superhero movie, so it’s in the ‘action-comedy’ genre, of course, but that just gives it even more opportunity for slapstick humor. Slapstick humor in space.

Also, Korg is the best. Long live Korg.

BRONZE MEDAL – Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a bit of a weird movie. It features an all-male cast, surprisingly few spoken words, and sparse character development. Those things deter a lot of people, and they should, except Dunkirk has reasons for all those decisions. It’s a period war film, which explains the lack of women. It eschews words in favor of actions, which are smart and help move the plot along (and, of course, there is speaking in the film, just not a lot of it). And Dunkirk’s lack of character development work inside its central themes.

Really, Dunkirk is what happens to an action movie if you suction out all the fat, distill the essence into something as pure as possible, and then stretch that out over a full two hour film length. It has an excellent score, and it’s a visual thrill. Most interestingly, it feels different than any war movie I’ve seen, which is a feat. It’s so easy to get into a rut when doing a war movie, no pun intended, and Dunkirk avoids it spectacularly.

SILVER MEDAL – Wonder Woman

I’m usually not a huge fan of superhero origin stories. They all feel the same after a while. Person acquires powers, person struggles with powers, person somehow happens to find worthy villain, person overcomes villain. Blah blah.

Wonder Woman gets around this in part by being very smart about it. It’s a period piece, taking place in World War I, a setting that is never touched by superhero films. As such, it’s able to make standard origin story beats feel fresh.

But also, and I can’t stress this enough, Wonder Woman is a shining example that film needs more women in charge of things. Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman with unnerving perfection as Wonder Woman, as if she was born for the role, but director Patty Jenkins is, I think, an underrated maestro. There’s a certain grace, strength, and twinkle in this movie that would not exist if a man had directed it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but Wonder Woman is refreshingly sincere and dignified in a way that most action movies aren’t. Representation matters, and Wonder Woman is a perfect example of why.

GOLD MEDAL – The Big Sick

What are movies but stories on a silver screen? And what are stories but ways in which we experience the world?

The Big Sick is a romantic comedy. For many, that might be enough to not watch it. But that would be a mistake. See, The Big Sick is authentic in a way that most movies aren’t. Don’t get me wrong: ‘authentic’ isn’t just a way of saying ‘it’s not that good but it means well.’ The Big Sick is a great movie. It’s characterization, pacing, and comedic timing are perfect. All the little things are checked and accounted for.

But The Big Sick is authentic. That’s its real strength. It communicates real humanity, both good and bad, in a way and a story that we don’t often see. It helps immensely that this is the real story of Kumail Nanjiani and how he met Emily Gordon. It also helps immensely that they are now married and it’s all just so adorable and lovable.

Watch this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

 

The eight best women in gaming

 

Today is March 8, which for some of you just means ‘Wednesday.’ That’s ok though, because it can mean something new for you: it’s International Women’s Day today!*

*If you’re hunched over your screen and sneering, “BUT WHERE IS THE INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY?”, I would like to shoo you away to read a list of American Presidents and another list of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and you may return as soon as you find a woman in either list.

Games have traditionally been about dudes doing dude things, which generally include dude violence and man strength. One of my favorite pictures is this collage of the standard middle-age, gruff, brown-haired white guys who are the heroes of their game.

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I like the one with the short hair

Some of those characters are really well-written characters! I even love some of them. But there sure are a lot of similar looking ones.

So today, let’s highlight some women in games. These women are awesome in a collection of ways, but they are all awesome. They are listed below by an extraordinarily scientific ranking system (read: MAH BRAIN) from #8 to #1. Eight characters for the eighth of March. Let’s do this.

#8: Elena Fisher / Uncharted series

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Uncharted is a series about Nathan Drake doing the most ridiculous things possible, repeatedly, and living through it. Drake is, basically, modern day Indiana Jones, replete with desert adventures and supernatural forces. Uncharted is tied to Drake and his adventures.

But that’s Drake’s thing. It’s not Elena’s thing. And yet…Elena perseveres, and she selflessly assists Drake in his adventures, which involve a lot of dirt, climbing and killing of bad guys. Unlike Drake, Elena thinks before she leaps, and is worried about what the type of work Drake is into does to him when he doesn’t. Still, she’s always there for Drake. Always. There is no Nathan without Elena, and their relationship helps drive the poignant final chapter of the series, Uncharted 4.

#7: Zelda / Legend of Zelda series

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There are a lot of versions of Zelda, coinciding with the many Legend of Zelda games. Let’s start there, actually. The playable character in those games is a green-clad elven man-child named ‘Link.’ Notice: Link is a different name than Zelda (citation needed). It is not the Legend of Link. Rather, it is Zelda’s legend. It’s about her.

So which Zelda do you prefer? Do you prefer the one in Ocarina of Time, who disguises herself as a literal ninja? Do you prefer the one in Wind Waker, who is a legit pirate captain before learning her royal lineage? What about Twilight Princess, where an archer Zelda helps take down the evil villain hand in hand with Link?

Pick your poison. Zelda will always be a legend.

#6: Liara / Mass Effect series

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For those of you who are particularly astute scholars of Mass Effect lore, you may disagree that Liara is specifically a woman. The Asari race, after all, is a single-gendered race, and ‘woman’ is not a term that can be used to specify one Asari (though they usually do adhere to female pronouns). I would offer a counter-argument that you are missing the spirit of the ranking, and would also like to give you a five yard penalty and a loss of down.

Liara’s journey from the first Mass Effect to the third is one that is rarely seen in gaming women. That journey is one of extended and multi-faceted character development.

In the first Mass Effect, Liara is a talented and brilliant scientist whose view of the world is narrow, her steps tepid. As the series progresses, Liara begins to aggressively pursue what needs to be done in any given moment, expertly leveraging her mind and skillset in order to achieve her goal. But she does so in a way that never feels contrived, and she stays true to herself even as she changes.

She’s also an excellent soldier and can cause mini black holes with her mind, so. There’s that.

#5 Ellie / The Last of Us

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Let’s say you are born in a post apocalyptic world. What would you be like if your entire life was devoid of a greater hope that your parents and elders grew up with?

You’d probably be cynical. That’s Ellie. You’d probably be deeply troubled. That’s Ellie. You’d probably do whatever you needed to do to survive, even if you didn’t or couldn’t think you could do it. That’s Ellie, too.

In the third quarter of The Last of Us, you play as Ellie for the first time. It’s a sobering, fascinating deeper look into her character as she cares for Joel like he cared for her for the months prior. Ellie is probably the most raw, real character on this list. That’s no small feat.

#4 Samus Aran / Metroid series

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Also known as the OG Space Badass, Samus has been kicking butt and taking names since ‘bush’ was known more as a type of shrubbery than a duo of Presidents. Character development for Samus is light, but that’s no biggie. She does what she needs to, and then goes home and ostensibly takes a nice long shower, just like any number of male game heroes.

When it was initially shown that Samus was a girl, it wasn’t a huge revelation. It was like Nintendo said, “Yeah, she’s a girl. What of it? Go shoot some more Space Pirates and explore some crap. Those Metroids aren’t blowing up themselves. Find another missile upgrade before your mom gets home and you have to eat dinner.” The gaming landscape wouldn’t quite be the same without her.

#3 Commander Shepard / Mass Effect series

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Commander Shepard can be either male or female, and is totally customizable. But, honestly, was there ever any doubt? The female Shepard, or ‘Femshep’ if you have a fetish for portmanteaus, is the best one. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is superb, and Shepard’s gravitas works seamlessly as a woman.

Mass Effect is all about choice (well, that, shooting robots, and banging aliens). Letting players play as someone they relate to as they save the galaxy through Shepard’s skill, poor dancing, and grim determination to defeat the Reapers at all cost is essential. Far too few big games from big developers give you a female lead with the amount of rope to play with that Bioware does with Shepard.

#2: Ciri / Witcher 3

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Ciri seems pretty high up in this list despite appearing in only one game, but you and I need to get one thing straight: Ciri’s existence not only drives the entirety of Witcher 3, which is no small feat in a game that sprawls almost grotesquely, but the entire Witcher franchise.

I’m not going to spoil the Witcher storyline, but let me tell you a few cool things about Ciri. She can use magic. She is the heir to a powerful empire. She befriended a herd of unicorns. She can move at will through time and space. She’s an expert, nay, a master at swordplay. She’s been the center of political power struggles since before she was even a teenager.

The brilliant thing about the Witcher is that Ciri is the Hero around which everything orbits. You, as Geralt, are merely witness to it, the Hero’s friend and father figure. For this to work, Ciri has to work both as a hero and as a believable character, an emotional anchor. She does it brilliantly.

#1: Lara Croft / Tomb Raider series

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Croft has been through a lot. She began her character life as a bit of a cheesy gimmick, but she has slowly gained realism and respectability. Tomb Raider is one of the few game franchises to gain popularity and fame in the non-gaming world, with an assistance from Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Croft in two Tomb Raider films in the early 2000s. Indeed, there is a reboot in the works, with Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander set to play the titular role in 2018 based off the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by developer Crystal Dynamics.

That 2013 reboot was, simply, an amazing game, and out-uncharts Uncharted. Its sequel, the 2015 Rise of the Tomb Raider, continued to do that on top of doing its best Metroid impression and wildly succeeding. The franchise is once again one of the biggest franchises in gaming. It does so through a realistic depiction of Lara Croft as a simple adventurer, hunter, and archeologist, with flaws and humanity.

There is simply no other female lead with as much history as Croft or as much industry weight. In a world where we still see so many more male names than female ones, especially as main characters in games, it’s heartening to see Croft’s success.

 

 

 

My favorite games of 2016

Just a few weeks ago, I posted my favorite movies of 2016. I’m not a particularly big movie buff, as I said. The same isn’t true for games, as video games are still my go-to hobby. As a big fancy adult, I have a gaming PC and all three current-gen consoles: Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U (until March’s Switch release, that is). I think I like video games so much because they offer truly unique experiences, and interactivity and skill components allow for a much wider range of experiences than passive films, books, or television.

The thing with games is that they take a lot longer to finish than movies do–I played 2015’s Witcher 3 in 2016, and it took 70 hours to get to the end of the game, which is like sitting through a standard-length movie 35 times. And some games are open-ended experiences with no natural close; I’ve played 413 hours of Rocket League to date, another 90 of Overwatch, and I’ll play more of each.

I’ve played a baker’s dozen games from 2016, some big, some small. Here are my top games of 2016.

HONORABLE MENTION – Uncharted 4

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I’m of two minds about Uncharted 4, which is why it appears on list list but only as honorable mention.

On one hand, Uncharted 4 is an amazing, fabulous game. The combat is by far the best in the series, the puzzles are rewarding, the characterization deep and intriguing. In 2016, when all big games look great, Uncharted 4’s attention to detail and excellent art direction are unmatched, as is the music. Naughty Dog, the developers, took a hard look at what made Uncharted great and brought the best of what the competition had been doing over the last few years to Uncharted. Uncharted 4 is the best action/adventure game you will play in a long, long time.

It is also completely unnecessary. This is the fourth one. We know what happens. Nathan Drake shoots, punches, and climbs in a valiant attempt to get to a legendary treasure. There are better-equipped bad guys who show up right when Drake finishes the next part of the puzzle to take his information. Functionally, this is like the other Uncharted games, except for the part that Uncharted 3 had a really nice, nonchalant, ‘ride into the sunset’ ending already, and it also did all the things that Uncharted 4 does (albeit less gracefully). Uncharted 4’s biggest difference is that it is ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic,’ both of which are ironic calling cards for a franchise whose main character is equal parts world-class climber, deadly commando, and invincible smartass. That Naughty Dog didn’t let it go is a disservice.

Thankfully, it’s a minor disservice, because the game is baller.

BRONZE MEDAL – Fire Emblem: Fates

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Fire Emblem: Fates is like Fire Emblem: Awakening, only not as good. Its characters are less consistently interesting, the marriage/child mechanics make way less sense, and though it changes things up somewhat, it doesn’t really introduce anything particularly new into the gameplay.

But you know what? Awakening is the best Fire Emblem ever and one of my favorite games of all time, so a lite version of that is plenty fine. Awakening is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Fates is his first–it’s not the best, sure, but it’s better than most other things. Besides, Fates does do something legitimately interesting, which is splitting the narrative into two sides of the same coin. You were raised by Kingdom B, but were born into Kingdom A. You can either decide to stick with Kingdom B, your adopted family you’ve known your whole life, or Kingdom A, the strangers who are your biological family. Either choice allows you to pursue justice, that being taking down Kingdom B’s evil sociopathic ruler, but from different paths.

The game is immense, and both versions of the story are technically their own game, with a third story available once you’ve beaten the other two. Still, they feel a part of a connected story–the varying versions of the game feel like expansion packs more than new experiences (remember when expansion packs were a thing and not DLC? oh, days of yore).

When I get into a Fire Emblem game, I get INTO IT. It consumes me for days, weeks at a time. Fates did that, too, for a long time.

SILVER MEDAL – Quantum Break

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There’s an awful lot of science fiction that deals with time, either time loops, time travel, relativity, or pausing of time. Quantum Break does all of that, and then it adds its own wrinkle: the End of Time, where time ceases to flow throughout the universe.

As a sci-fi geek, Quantum Break’s narrative premise hooked me immediately (not unlike Roadhog, HAHAHAHAHA #intergamejoke). It’s hard to present a new take on an old sci-fi standard, but Quantum Break somehow pulls it off.

From a gameplay perspective, you are Jack Joyce, who gets super time powers from a sticky situation involving a time machine accident. These powers add great flavor to an otherwise standard cover-based first person shooter. You can cause time explosions (yeah, I don’t know either), stop time to run over and punch someone, dash, put up a time shield (otherwise called an alarm clock), or place time bubbles around enemies.

I love Quantum Break for two reasons: these powers make the game fun, and that’s why you play games. But the narrative, a intriguing, layered, dense romp through and around time itself, adds more fun to the fun. Interspersed with the gameplay sections are honest-to-goodness live action TV episodes that flesh out the story, and the decisions you make in game will effect the show itself. Too bad the episodes are…bad. They’re bad. But the idea is interesting.

Look, Uncharted 4 is a better game. But I won’t apologizing for liking Quantum Break more. It presses all of the right buttons for me.

GOLD MEDAL – Titanfall 2

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Many moons ago, some of my friends and I were sick of playing the same things over and over again. That thing was, mostly, Halo 4, with some Minecraft thrown in. Then, this beautiful game called Titanfall came out, and it looked fantastic. So, we bought it day one, and we played it, and it was fantastic.

Then, two years later, Titanfall 2 came out, we played it, and it was even more fantastic. See, the first Titanfall was multiplayer only. Since it was multiplayer only, it was extremely polished, balanced, and fun. It did have this super bizarre ‘multiplayer campaign’ to simulate a single player campaign…but is was just a series of multiplayer games with longer intros before the game itself. The original Titanfall also split its player base by including paid DLC that nobody bought.

Titanfall 2 is a wholesale improvement on a great premise. Its multiplayer is just as good, and developer Respawn and publisher Electronic Arts wisely decided to follow the Halo 5, ‘all DLC is free’ model, so everyone will get the new things rather than a select few.

And: single player. Titanfall 2 has a proper single player mode. It plays as if Nintendo designed an FPS campaign. That is, more or less, perfection. It’s the best FPS campaign I’ve ever played, Halo and the original Modern Warfare included.

Of all the games I’ve played this year, none like Titanfall 2 made me say aloud, “Wow, this is amazing” as many times. That’s why it wins the Michael Phelps Medal (aka: Gold).

 

 

My favorite movies of 2016

Look: I’m not a film buff. My knowledge of film-making is superficial, I’ve never made a creative film, and my bar for enjoying movies is very low.

That being said, I like lists, I like good entertainment, and while I don’t have any film training, I have an analytical mind that can’t stop thinking about the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of something. So…I’ve a list!

I self-select for movies a lot, meaning I don’t go and see something I might like; I value my time and I am risk averse when trying new things. That being said, I still saw a dozen movies released this year, all in the theaters. Doing a top ten would be silly with that number, so I’ll stick with the tried-and-true method of assigning differently-colored metallic alloys to my top three films, with an honorable mention because this is my blog and I have that power.

Lacking ados of the further variety, etc.:

HONORABLE MENTION – Rogue One

Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars movie, but you get the distinct feeling that it doesn’t really believe that. There are an awful lot of sly references to the other movies, some of which are pretty neat, and others of which are the equivalent of a kid in school boasting about how his uncle knows Kevin Bacon (said uncle actually just ran into K-Bac one time at Denny’s).

The film also can’t really decide if it wants to be spy thriller, buddy comedy, or action movie, and it juggles some great characters (Jyn, K-2SO) with some that just sort of feel like they are just there because why not (everyone else).

If it feels like I’m harping on this a lot, since this is a Star Wars movie, I have to explain why it’s not one of my favorite movies and not the other way around.

I still like it a ton, of course. The music is fantastic and surpassed all my expectations (it’s the first and hitherto only Star Wars film without the legendary John Williams at the helm). It ends brilliantly. It’s fun and exciting. Darth Vader is in it and does things. It is consistently beautiful, not in the “nice CG” way but the “wow, this is fantastic art direction” way.

It’s a Star Wars movie. But it’s not a STAR WARS MOVIE.

BRONZE MEDAL – Arrival

Arrival is the rare science fiction movie that’s also a critical darling – it’s got a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a pair of Golden Globe nominations (one for Amy Adams for Best Actress, the other for Johan Johannsson for Best Original Score).

You know why? It’s amazing, that’s why.

To elaborate: it’s thrilling despite a lack of use of violence, thought-provoking without being haughty, personal at the same time as grandiose. It’s got an excellent score and, most importantly, feels unique, an extraordinary achievement in the land of big-budget science fiction glut.

Science fiction, at its best, offers a glimpse into humanity in a way that literally nothing else can do. Arrival is science fiction at its best. It’s a beautiful movie, too, on a micro and a macro level. It’s never cheesy, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and presents bizarre circumstances in believable ways. Go see it.

SILVER MEDAL – Zootopia

There was a moment in Zootopia where I sort of looked around the theater and thought to myself, “Gee, Disney, this is awfully on the nose.” The film tackles themes like prejudice, racism, redemption, and adjusting to a place where you are completely on your own and nobody believes in you.

At this point I would like to reiterate that, yes, Zootopia is an animated movie and, yes, it’s still a hilarious blast.

Zootopia has a great world filled with interesting characters and a story it needs, and wants, to tell. It’s funny when it needs to be, serious when it has to be, and is always charming.

It’s so confident of itself that its main trailer (embedded above) was just a clip of the movie. That was, in and of itself, a brilliant move.

Zootopia is so good, I hope it never gets a sequel. It will. But one can dream.

GOLD MEDAL – La La Land

Why do we watch movies? To get away from it all? To see spectacle? To emotionally engage with relatable characters and get swept off our feet?

La La Land does it all, a modern musical movie where that just doesn’t happen in live action film anymore. La La Land, or L3 if you want to be really annoying and hipster, wins the Gold for many reasons. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fantastic. The music is superb. I’m a sucker for unconventional and/or bittersweet endings, which the movie provides.

The biggest, though, is that it captivates and it never lets go. It reaches for the stars, knowing full well that reaching for the stars is impractical and impossible, but it does so anyway. It succeeds.