Gamestuff: February 2009 Xbox Update

Xbox Live AvatarHere’s a rundown on the latest crop of Xbox 360 titles introduced to the International House of Johnson. Some (The Orange Box, Ninja Gaiden 2) were borrowed from friends, some (Braid, Catan, Marble Blast Ultra) purchased on Xbox Live Arcade, and the rest were previously-owned (or “gently-used”, if you like) titles I picked up at The Exchange, an awesome local store where I traded in my Xbox Classic and several of my old games.

  • LEGO Star Wars: The Complete SagaLEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. This game is currently king at the International House of Johnson. When I realized that my young apprentice was completely obsessed with LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy for the Xbox Classic, I decided that it was time to upgrade. Not only is there twice as much lightsaber-swinging, brick-smashing action, The Complete Saga includes Achievements, so the hours (and hours and hours) we play together have resulted in a 450-point increase in my Gamerscore.
  • The Orange BoxThe Orange Box. I liken this title to the can of frozen Minute Maid juice tucked away in my freezer: concentrated orange goodness. The Orange Box is actually five games on one disc: Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2 Episode 1, Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Portal and Team Fortress 2. To be sure, Portal is a very short game—I played through it in a single marathon session that concluded at 4am—and Team Fortress 2 can only be played online, ((I have yet to play any of my games online, mostly because I haven’t scheduled anything with my circle of friends and I’m not at all eager to play with random strangers.)) but the other titles appear to have some serious content and I’ve totally been sucked in to Half-Life 2. ((How sucked in? Up-until-3am-last-night sucked in.))
  • Grand Theft Auto IVGrand Theft Auto IV. The GTA series, beginning with Grand Theft Auto III, proves time and again just how easily distracted I am. I start the game in “mission mode”, intent on advancing the storyline, but inevitably I wind up running rampage through the streets of Liberty City (or Vice City, or San Andreas) trying to concoct new ways to get myself killed.
  • CrackdownCrackdown. I tend to think of this game as Grand Theft Auto plus superpowers minus the story. There’s a lot of the same freestyle play and off-mission challenges that make the GTA series great, but the main character (a genetically-enhanced Peacekeeper) has absolutely no personality whatsoever. There are no cinematic cutscenes to draw the player into the world, but it’s still crazy fun to wreak havoc on four separate criminal factions with guns, bombs and a roundhouse kick that can flip a speeding car.
  • Marble Blast UltraMarble Blast Ultra. I purchased this Xbox Live Arcade title because Kyle got a kick out of the demo. Think Marble Madness on steroids. Unfortunately, the difficulty ramps up fairly quickly and there are only a few levels that Kyle likes to play. Actually, the difficulty gets downright annoying after a while, so I don’t play this one much.
  • Far Cry Instincts PredatorFar Cry: Instincts: Predator. This first-person shooter is a sequel to Far Cry: Instincts, which was a console port of the PC title Far Cry. Predator is essentially the same game with a second chapter, or so I’m led to believe. I tend to prefer the keyboard/mouse control scheme for FPSes—I purchased Far Cry on Steam, Valve’s digital distribution platform for the PC—but the allure of more tropical island butt-kicking was too strong to resist.
  • Marvel Ultimate AllianceMarvel Ultimate Alliance. I played this game all the way through on the Xbox Classic, but I felt that there was enough replay value to warrant picking it up for the 360. Plus, it gives me a chance to play as someone other than Captain America. As an aside, Clive Revill, who provided the original voice for Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back, lends his talent as the voice of the nefarious Doctor Doom.
  • BraidBraid. This platformer is an Xbox Live Arcade title that borrows elements from both Super Mario Brothers and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In the case of Super Mario Brothers, “borrow” is probably an understatement, as the story (not to mention some of the gameplay) is pretty much identical: rescue the Princess from the castle. Whether you call it an homage or a ripoff, Braid puts a very clever twist on the classic platformer and adds an absolutely haunting soundtrack to boot.
  • CatanCatan. A port of the wildly popular boardgame, Settlers of Catan, this Xbox Live Arcade game is a steal at 800 Microsoft points ($10 US). I don’t think the implementation is quite as smooth as Carcassonne (which, admittedly, is a much simpler game), but the ease of play versus setting up the actual board (not to mention finding someone to play with) makes it a bargain.
  • Ninja Gaiden 2Ninja Gaiden 2. Blood, blood and more blood. I haven’t played much of this game, but what I’ve seen has been incredibly gory. Needless to say, this is a title that doesn’t get played until after Kyle goes to bed. The fighting is intense and the stunts are a lot of fun, but the rails are painfully obvious, especially when your uber-ninja—who can run along walls and perform elaborate, fliptacular airborne attacks—can’t jump over a low fence or other seemingly-insignificant obstacle.

That’s a whole lot of games there, but LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga really is dominating the console. The disc rarely comes out of the drive, and even when Kyle is in bed I’m probably trying to complete one of the chapters in “Challenge” mode or find the last mini-kit canister. I’m bound and determined to reach 100% completion on this title, and when last I checked I had 20.7% remaining. Must. Find. Canisters!

Bookstuff: Murder at Avedon Hill by P.G. Holyfield

Want to know how long it’s taken P.G. Holyfield to complete the audio version of his novel, Murder at Avedon Hill? Let me put it this way: I do one of the voices in the podcast novel and partway through the process I had to re-record all of my lines because puberty hit and my voice broke.

Yes, it’s been a long time coming. ((At the time of this writing, it’s still a long time coming, as there are two episodes yet to be released.))

But persistence (on the part of Holyfield) and patience (on the part of his 13,000+ fans) has certainly paid off. Yesterday, P.G. announced that Murder at Avedon Hill has been picked up by Dragon Moon Press and will be published late this year.

Here’s a snippet from the official press release:

“With what he’s done with his podcast, P.G Holyfield was on our radar,” notes Gwen Gades, publisher at Dragon Moon Press. “But fans tracking down a publisher to request the print version of the novel? We had to move on that.”

Now, I’m not one to encourage what amounts to stalking, but I suppose there are worse things a publisher could say about an author than “his fans demanded that we publish the book.”

Murder at Avedon Hill: A Land of Caern Novel tells the story of Arames Kragen, a monk who finds himself on the hunt for a killer in the town of Avedon Hill. Young Gretta Platt, Housemistress of Avedon Manor has been murdered, and Arames must bring her killer to justice before Lord Avedon will allow the monk access to the only pass through the Lantis Mountains. Solving the murder is challenge enough, but Caern is a world where gods walk among mortals and fantastical creatures are often more than the stuff of fairy tale and legend. Arames Kragen will need all his wits about him to find the killer…or even just to survive.

Welcome to Parenthood: When Ideals Collide

I could not think of a more perfect example how parenting priorities can clash than to compare what Laura and I are teaching Kyle to repeat.

LAURA: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

KRIS: “Knight Rider: A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man…who does not exist…”

I could tell you who’s been more successful thus far, but that might come across as gloating.

Non Sequitur: 25 Utter Lies About Me

There’s been a rash of “X Things About Me” nonsense going on within my ever-expanding circle of social networking friends, ((This is a term we use ever so loosely these days, “friends”. I have a lot of acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter and such—more than I ever imagined possible—but the number of true friends is pretty small. I will go on record as saying that I consider Rachel Ross, who tagged me with this list, a true friend, if for no other reason than she knows how much I love not telling the truth.)) and I admit that I recently enumerated 16 Things (and 7 Weird Things), but now they’re all wanting 25 more Things, and it’s coming to the point where I am rapidly running out of Things About Me.

Well, True Things About Me, at the very least. But at last we have something different: 25 Utter Lies About Me. Finally, a list of twenty-five seemingly random tidbits about yours truly that have one thing in common: none of them—not even the ones that sound plausible—are true.

Perhaps I ought to be posting this to Facebook, as that is where I was tagged, but I have a blog for a reason ((Ego.)) and I’m going to use it.

Truth, begone! There is no place for you here!

  1. When I was sixteen years old, I broke my left shoulder during a high school diving competition held at Northern Michigan University.
  2. My younger sisters each received a Barbie and a Ken doll for Christmas in 1985. The next day, I convinced them that I had eaten the heads off both Ken dolls. This prank backfired on me in a big way when Karen flushed both of the removeable fists from my brand new Optimus Prime down the toilet.
  3. I never met my real father; there is some speculation that I was conceived by midi-chlorians.
  4. I was thirteen when I first traveled to Japan and I have been back four times in the past twenty-two years. On the most recent trip I was there for eighteen months and taught an ESL (English as a Second Language) class.  I used the Back to the Future trilogy as a training aid. When we recreated scenes from the movie in the classroom, the most coveted role was that of Doc Brown, as Christopher Lloyd is a superstar in Japan.
  5. I was a contestant on an episode of The Weakest Link that never aired. Jeff Stitzler, another of the contestants, suffered a fatal stroke during the taping. Each of the remaining contestants was given $5,000 and sent home. I briefly considered buying a Segway with my “winnings”, but Laura convinced me to donate the money to the National Stroke Association.
  6. I’d rather be golfing.
  7. It wasn’t until my 10-year high school reunion that my classmates revealed that they had completely fabricated the story about what happened after I passed out from drinking spiked punch at my Junior Prom. I was both angered and relieved to learn that Junior Prom was not the night I lost my virginity.
  8. Against her better judgment, Laura bought me a pet tarantula for my thirtieth birthday. His name is Torquemada, and he has gone AWOL twice in the past five years. We are now much more careful about taking him out of his terrarium, and he has not escaped since before Kyle was born. Kyle calls him “Tortemala”.
  9. I am Superman.
  10. I have been involved in one high-speed police chase, but I was in the back of one of the cruisers the whole time. The officer driving the cruiser joined the pursuit despite the fact that it was against regulations to do so with non-police personnel in the vehicle. I could have sued the department, but they offered to drop the felony possession charges against me if I agreed not to.
  11. I moved to Cleveland after my first marriage fell apart. For the first three years after the divorce, my ex-wife and I were not on speaking terms, but after I took responsibility for the fire and agreed to weekly therapy sessions with an anger management counselor, we formed what could be called a tentative friendship. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change the fact that we’re no longer married, but I’d definitely change the circumstances surrounding the breakup.
  12. I do 30 minutes of yoga every morning.
  13. My brothers and I have a running contest in which we call our mother and pretend to be each other and see how long before she realizes which of her sons she is actually talking to. The current record is measured not in minutes, but in number of consecutive calls. My oldest brother, over a series of seven phone calls, convinced my mother that Laura was pregnant with twins last summer.  We are all dreading the day when caller ID becomes available in the Upper Peninsula, as it will likely mean the end of the game.
  14. I was born with a kink in my urethra. As a result, I am physically incapable of urinating while standing up.
  15. I invented the Internet.
  16. My first car was a 1982 Dodge Aries, which currently resides under sixteen feet of water. I was being stupid in late December of 1990 when the ice on the pond in my parents’ backyard cracked. I managed to get out of the car before it went under, and barely got my feet wet, but I wasn’t quick enough to save anything in the car, including all of my cassettes. There was some talk of retrieving the car, but it was deemed too expensive so we left it there.
  17. I actually have an Uncle Sam, who is married to a woman named Samantha, so I have an Aunt Sam, too. Though they were both born in October (15th  and 23rd, respectively), they celebrate their birthdays on the 4th of July.
  18. I am from the future.
  19. I have eaten the same breakfast—two eggs over easy, two pieces of whole wheat toast with raspberry preserves, three slices of bacon and a glass of orange juice—every Saturday morning since October of 1996. Laura and I always play three games of canasta over breakfast on Saturday; the loser does the dishes for the next week.
  20. I was invited to join a secret society in college, but I turned them down.
  21. I lost fifty-three pounds on NutriSystem.
  22. I was kicked out of the Boy Scouts because much of what I did while trying to get my Coin Collecting merit badge was technically theft. My grandfather was extremely cool about the whole thing, and told me a very interesting story about how he came to possess the coins in the first place. He would have been kicked out of the Boy Scouts, too.
  23. I played keyboards in a band called “Milquetoast Breakfast”. We played only one gig, which ended when our guitarist, Greg Felders, over-tightened his high E-string and it snapped. The audience thought Greg’s screaming and clutching his bleeding left eye was part of the act and it was nearly 10 minutes before someone called an ambulance. I have lost touch with Greg, but I understand that he now plays for a locally-popular band called “Carmen’s Second Nest”, whereas I have not touched a keyboard since.
  24. I shot J.R.
  25. I do not close my eyes when I sleep.

Comes the Bridegroom

I remember looking into her eyes as I slid the ring onto her finger. God, she was so beautiful; so happy. The very idea of spending the rest of my life with her brought an exhilarating rush of tumbling—sometimes conflicting—emotions, the most powerful being joy that threatened to burst my heart.

I remember hearing the words “kiss the bride” and bending to find her lips with my own. I remember how she smelled in that moment, before our first kiss as man and wife.

I remember pain and light and heat and noise and darkness. Darkness that was more than just the absence of light; darkness that shrouded not just my body, but my heart and my soul. Darkness that should have been eternal.

I remember killing them, the men who released me from that darkness. I reached out into the searing light and the deafening sound and my hand found metal and wood and I pulled. Thrust back into a world of pain, I lashed out, swinging the shovel without purpose and feeling the shock of metal against flesh, biting deep and finding bone beneath.

I remember their cries of pain and fear, and when they were silenced I found that I could see again. Two men—there may have been three; it was hard to tell—lay dead around the open pit that had once been my grave, their bodies twisted and ruined. The weight of the shovel felt right in my hand, so I didn’t let go.

I remember standing there for what may have been days or years or only a few seconds before the need stirred within me; the need to find her, where ever she may be; the need to be with her again and to destroy everything that stands between us.

I remember her eyes.

I remember her scent.

I don’t remember her name.

Welcome to Parenthood: Want some candy?

Belle PEZ DispenserThough I do not consider myself a collector of PEZ dispensers, I do have an assortment of the candy-disgorging hinged heads and I keep most of them on a shelf above the television in the living room. Every once in a while, I fill Batman or Spider-Man or Darth Vader with candy and give the dispenser to Kyle, who proceeds to eat every piece in a matter of about ten minutes.

Some time ago, my niece—who is, as one might expect a young girl to be, a fan of the Disney princesses—gave me a Belle ((The “Beauty” in Beauty and the Beast.)) PEZ dispenser. Disney princesses aren’t really my thing, ((Exception to the rule: Jasmine is hot.)) but it was a gift and I like PEZ dispensers so I gave Belle a place on the shelf next to Spider-Man and Chewbacca and the Unnamed Snowman.

Kyle and I have been enjoying LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga on the Xbox 360, so lately the Darth Vader ((“Darf Vay-to!” says Kyle.)) PEZ dispenser has been in heavy rotation, but something absolutely magical happened last weekend: after R2-D2 and C-3PO ((“Artie-pee-oh!” says Kyle.)) escaped from the besieged blockade runner, Tantive IV, Kyle wanted some PEZ.

“Daddy,” he said. “I want some candy. I want yellow Princess Leia.”

I’ll admit that it took me awhile to parse his words, but when I finally figured out what my young apprentice wanted, my heart was filled with joy. My son looked at Belle and saw Princess Leia dressed in yellow.

That’s my boy.