personal blog of Michael Crider

Texas-based web writer

zero dollars a day, plus expenses

 

Review: The Big Keep by Melissa F. Olson

As you might guess from the website URL and décor, I’m a fan of a good old-fashioned whodunit. The Big Keep is my first exposure to Melissa F. Olson’s detective Lena Dane, but it won’t be my last.

A brief outline: we’re introduced to Dane and her modern Chicago private eye agency just as she finds out that she’s pregnant. Selina Kyle Dane (the character, her family, and clearly the author are big comic book fans) has an oddly muted reaction to this. She feels neither the relieved joy of someone who’s been trying to have a baby nor the immediate trepidation of someone who hasn’t: it just kind of happens. Then there’s a new case, a teenager who wants to find his biological father, and we’re off to the races.

The Big Keep is intensely character-driven. We’re introduced to Lena’s extended and unique family, each of which informs and explains her character: the comic book shop dad who’s soft-spoken and supportive, the elementally mom-like sister who’s living the Chicago suburbanite dream, the somewhat idealized husband who’s always there to back her up. We also meet various contacts which, in the context of her pregnancy, show portions of her past and her possible future. They’re also real people who manage to advance the central case while making an impact on the reader.The mystery itself spins around Nate, a young man who needs to find a father who left him to avoid going into the foster care system.

Lena herself is an awesome female lead. Tough in spite of (not because of) her police background, her innate sense of natural justice is backed up by no small amount of street smarts, licenses for private investigation and concealed carry, and an enthusiastic and dangerous pit bull. She’s a force of nature to anyone in her way. What shocked me is that Lena is more than just the ideal Girl Power action figure: her internal monologue and surprisingly real relationships, with her husband, her sister, and with newcomer Nate, humanize the character in a way that’s rarely seen in detective fiction. And when she’s vulnerable, as she often is in this particular story, she uses it as personal ground to defend rather than a place to run away from.

The pregnancy that underpins the central case is of particular note, since it’s handled in a way that’s I’ve never seen before. While determined to keep her baby, as much for her husband as for herself, Lena isn’t particularly attached to it. (Despite being, well, attached to it.) This is a perspective on primigravida motherhood I’ve never seen in fiction before, and the very real and somewhat ambiguous attitude that Lena displays towards her baby (while remaining staunchly protective at all times) is intriguing if only for its novelty. The primary case is also interesting, in its presentation if not its kill-or-be-killed execution. Since Nate is very much aware that his biological father is “kind of a douchebag,” it’s desperation, not sentiment, that drives him to employ Lena to find his long-lost dad.

All that being said, I have to say that the characters and the setup are much more interesting than the actual mystery. Once we’ve discovered the big twist towards the middle of the book, there isn’t much more for them to do. This gives Lena time to think on her situation (which, as noted above, is handled in a fascinating way), but it leads to a disappointing conclusion to the actual detective story. Nate is also something of a golden boy: while Lena and her fellow characters make mistakes and are often in real peril, the sense of danger seems to evaporate whenever the super-intelligent and unambiguously good Nate shows up. His father, even painted as someone we probably wouldn’t want to know in real life, is much more interesting from a character perspective. The conclusion to his particular problem is a bit too easy, and may provide problems for the author in any sequels.

The world of Lena Dane is a unique one, even while it follows the formulaic necessities of the genre. I was surprised to find out that The Big Keep is the first novel in the series - it’s got enough personality and backstory that I thought the author had written at least three earlier books. I’ll be picking up more  when they arrive.

The Big Keep is available in paperback and Kindle editions. Full disclosure: the author provided me with a digital copy for the purpose of this review.

Review: Ansible 15715 by Stant Litore

I haven’t invested any serious time in the short story format since college, so when independent publisher Westmarch asked me to review Ansible 15715, I was a little shocked. I was even more shocked to discover that it’s a science fiction horror story, something I have almost no exposure to in literature (elements of horror, yes, but not straight-up scary stuff). So take this review with a grain of salt from someone who is quite out of his element… not unlike the main character.

Ansible 15715 is quite short, perhaps less than 30 minutes for an average reader, so I won’t go into much detail about the events after the start of the action. Before the narrative starts, humanity has cultivated both basic psychic abilities in some gifted individuals and primitive interstellar observation and communication. The powers that be on Earth have just enough technology to know that there are other humans out there, and they can “send” a chosen few by broadcasting their brain waves into the bodies of other humans. These astronauts of the mind will be completely without briefing or context - they arrive in an unfamiliar body on an alien world, with only the hope and the goal of making contact. The main character is a young woman inducted into this Starmind program, where humanity must leap before it looks.

What comes next is the horror part, and what I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say that the ideas presented are equal parts fascinating and disturbing: while the overall themes have been done before, they’re skillfully combined in such a way that makes the reader think. The terror, both of the character’s situation and its implications for everyone else, is palpable. The conclusion is something I honestly never saw coming. Horror as its presented in the narrative isn’t all that explicit (thankfully) - the oppressive sense of dread and anticipation is what will disturb you the most.

If I have one criticism, and it’s a small one, it’s the focus on body horror. In addition to the other themes presented here, the particular attention paid to Malala’s discomfort at her body-hopping travel distracts from the rest of the story. She has ostensibly trained for this and thus shouldn’t be all that unnerved, and the prose given to her out of body experience seems trivial in comparison to the rest of her problems.

I’d recommend Ansible 15715 to anyone who enjoys exploring speculative fiction about the expansion of the mind and cautionary tales, so long as you can stomach they horror inherent in the ideas presented. I’ve already bought the second story in this series, Ansible 15716, and added it to my Kindle. The short story is currently available only in an Amazon Kindle digital edition. Full disclosure: the author provided me with a digital copy for the purpose of this review.

A Musical Lesson In Humility

Irish folk has become one of my favorite genres of music. I came to admire it after studying the origins of two other genres: American country and southern gospel. My grandparents in Atlanta, Georgia were dedicated Baptists who would take me to church every Sunday and teach me the hymns, and I learned the lyrics to every Hank Williams song when my rancher grandparents in Texas would take care of me in the summer. As I studied the history of both forms of music, they began to sound similar, very similar in places.

I was surprised to find that in both cases, the progenitors of the music that rang through my childhood came primarily from Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants to the United States in the 1800s. Thus enlightened, I began listening to the likes of Makem & Clancy and The Dubliners, and other pioneers of the mid-20th century revival of Irish folk and their followers. I felt like I was getting the best form of the music that I loved, almost like a drug addict looking for the most pure kind of his chosen vice. 

Just a couple of examples: the Irish rebel song “God Save Ireland,” about three men being hanged, probably sounds pretty familiar to anyone who went to Sunday School in the States. There you’ll here the tune for “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” The music actually comes from a Confederate prisoner song from the American Civil War. The tune from “Danny Boy” comes from an older song, Londonderry Air, which was also used for the hymn “I Cannot Tell” by William Young Fullerton, born in Belfast.

So when I prepared for my first vacation in years and I was already planning to go international, Ireland was really the only place I wanted to be. I’ve sought out live Irish folk music at every opportunity in the United States, and I thought it would be the chance of a lifetime to go back to its country of origin and hear, as it were, the real McCoy. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Dublin to find that everyone was listening to basically the same pop music you might hear on American radio. My first day in that country I heard Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like A Woman,” for God’s sake.

No matter, I thought: when I get to the more old-fashioned pubs and a more discerning crowd, I’ll hear the real thing. I went to Sligo for the 2014 Fleadh Cheoil na Héireann music festival (and eventually I even learned to pronounce it). Most of the music there was what they call “trad,” instrumental jigs and reels, mostly with the violin, pipe, accordion, and guitar. It’s an acquired taste and can be a bit repetitive, so in the evenings I went to the local bars… sorry, pubs to look for some folk songs and ballads. 

When I went in, I found that the bands were playing all the songs I knew… just not the ones I wanted. In bar after bar, I heard Johnny Cash, Elvis, and even Garth Brooks. They’d play a few token “Irish” songs, but it seemed that what everyone wanted to hear was American country. I will say that they tended to pick the best of the bunch - none of the names you’ll hear slinging BBQ-flavored pop, with the possible exception of Nathan Carter - but it wasn’t what I had crossed the Atlantic for. In Sligo alone, during the self-styled “biggest traditional Irish music festival in the world,” I heard three different bands playing “Folsom Prison Blues.” 

It was the same in the next cities I visited, Galway and Cork. Galway in particular is known for its live music, but the only music I could find besides rock and the repetitive “trad” reels was, you guessed it, Cash and Elvis. In particular most of the older folks seemed to love the golden and silver age of American country, leaning heavily on the likes of Alabama and The Statler Brothers. And when we asked for some more traditional Irish songs, the players were happy to provide. (A special thanks to Mr. Gary Brogan of Brogan’s Pub in Galway, by the way, for a very fun evening.) But soon enough it was back to The Ring of Fire and Country Roads. 

Eventually I went with the flow and just decided to enjoy the country music - after all, it was pretty close to Irish folk. And I realized how arrogant I had been: if I could come to love Irish music from its ancestry in country and gospel, of course the people in Ireland would like American country for pretty much the same reason. They’d made the same musical journey I had, going forward instead of backwards, and no doubt aided by the 800-pound gorilla that is the United States media machine. How smug, how self-satisfied I was to think that I had been unique in my progression. 

Eventually I found a few places where I could indulge in some of the mid-century folk I was looking for, and ironically it was much easier to find in the shopping-heavy “touristy” sections of Dublin than in the smaller Irish cities where I was expecting it. But the trip humbled me, reminding me that whatever you’re thinking or doing, odds are pretty good that a lot of people have already been there and done that.

And while it’s often true that there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s just as true that Guinness tastes better in the bars down the street from St. James’ Gate. 

India And Ireland Bag Dump

This week I’m taking a two-week trip to India (for a wedding) and Ireland (for vacation). Since this will involve traveling in three different countries and total air travel time of over two days (counting flights and layovers), the contents of my bag had to be chosen with care and intent. I intend to keep it with me at all times, except during the various wedding functions. My standard phone is the DROID MAXX, an excellent combination of solid specs, great software, and extreme longevity. This is a Verizon phone, but Verizon LTE devices are world phones, and I should be able to pop a pre-paid SIM card into it just about anywhere. I’ve brought along a standard (unlocked) Nexus 5 as a backup.

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  1. Motorola DROID MAXX Developer Edition
  2. LG Nexus 5 (backup)
  3. LG G Pad 8.3 Google Play Edition in Incipio case
  4. Thinkpad 8 with smart cover and stylus
  5. Canon T1i and Tamron 18-270mm lens with hand strap
  6. Microsoft Wedge keyboard (cover doubles as tablet stand)
  7. Logitech Bluetooth mouse
  8. Anker 9000mAh external battery
  9. Canon charger and spare battery charger
  10. House of Marley in-ear headphones 
  11. Belkin 3-plug travel charger
  12. Indian and UK power adapters
  13. high and low-amp USB chargers
  14. folder with travel documents, USB drive with backup
  15. anti-theft travel wallet
  16. small carabiner with SIM card ejection tool
  17. various USB cords, pens, medication, and earplugs

I’ll be using at least some downtime to do regular work for Android Police, which means I’ll need a “real” computer. I’ve opted for the Windows-powered Thinkpad 8 tablet instead of my standard T420 to save on weight and space. The tablet has the added benefit of working well in a cramped economy seat and recharging with a standard USB cable. The travel-friendly Microsoft Wedge keyboard comes with a cover that folds in half to make a handy tablet stand, and since touchscreens still suck for text selection, I’ve added a Logitech Bluetooth mouse as well. I’ve thrown in a second tablet, my trusty LG G Pad 8.3, for access to downloadable Google Play Movies and TV shows for entertainment.

Power is a big part of all this. Belkin’s travel charger, with three US plugs and two USB plugs, is compact and versatile. I also have low-amp and hi-amp USB chargers for the phones and tablets. For keeping things charged on the plane I have the reliable Anker 90000mAh external USB charger. Various USB cables are thrown in, in case I have the opportunity to charge everything at once. Wall outlet adapters for both the UK (and Ireland) and India round it out. I’m bringing my ancient and gigantic Canon T1i on the trip, because I couldn’t find an alternative that was versatile, small, and cheap enough to justify just for this trip. I’m bringing my Tamron 18-270mm lens, a versatile super-zoom that should perform adequately (if not outstandingly) in any situation. The camera charger and a spare battery are included.

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Various incidentals are also going in the bag. The most important is my passport, which will go in an anti-theft wallet that secures in a belt loop along with any cash and the contents of my regular wallet. A plastic folder holds all my flight and hotel print-outs for verification. A small bag has all the medication I might need, and a pair of House of Marley headphones (with in-line controls and a braided cord for easy wrapping) and earplugs should come in handy for obvious reasons. Finally, a USB drive (with backup copies of the documents) and SIM card tool hang out on the smaller caribiner.

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Getting the bag organized is nearly as difficult as choosing the contents. I’ve used a standard Timbuk2 messenger bag for ten years now, and have found nothing that beats it for this function. I’ve strapped a BuiltNY neoprene lunchbag to one side of the bag’s larger strap. This handy zippable bag holds all the various plugs, cables, and chargers, making sure nothing is loose in the main compartment. A Caselogic DSLR holster is strapped to the opposite side. This way both of them are always in the same place and don’t bang around during transport. The tablets, keyboard, and documents fit nicely in the laptop sleeve, and the other gadgets and incidentals can be stowed in the various Timbuk2 pockets. I keep the small caribiner pinned to a tag, and it holds the USB drive, the SIM card tool, and my wrapped-up headphones for easy access. I think I’ve covered every contingency that’s possible on this trip. We’ll see how it all goes.

Bags:

  • Timbuk2 custom medium laptop messenger
  • BuiltNY lunchbag strapped to right side for loose power devices
  • Caselogic DSLR holster strapped to left side

Review: Starship Grifters by Robert Krouse

The rebel criminal with a heart of gold is a staple of science fiction, and has been so ever since Han Solo set the standard. His actions might not always be 100% lawful, but the guy will be your best friend for life. Even when he abandons you, it’s only so he can come back for a last-minute rescue. While he may put on a tough-as-nails show, you know he’s a good guy deep down, and he’ll always come out on the side of the angels. 

Rex Nihilo is not that guy. He possesses all of the anti-hero’s charm, luck, wise-cracking attitude, and silver tongue, but none of his, well, heroism. Rex is always looking out for number one, and he’d be a lot better at it if his charm and wit were backed up by more than a few microns of intelligence or common sense. Rex Nihilo, the protagonist of Robert Kroese’s Starship Grifters, is Frank Abagnale by way of Zapp Brannigan, with none of the former’s innate intelligence and all of the latter’s misplaced bravado.

Starship Grifters is told from the perspective of Rex’s female android Sasha, the straight-laced and logical Abbot to his Costello. It’s her job to keep him and (if possible) herself alive while he bumbles through his latest scheme, coincidentally giving the reader no end of backstory on Kroese’s farcical science fiction universe. While a capable if somewhat beaten-up robot partner, Sasha is hampered by an inability to process original ideas. The moment she does, she shuts down and reboots, a failsafe intended to keep her model of robot from gaining sentience and destroying all life in the universe. It’s a real hamper to a thinking robo-gal. She is unfailingly truthful (which isn’t always the same as honest) and impeccably accurate, and her tendency towards sardonic wit meshes well with Rex’s flamboyant showmanship.

The book follows Rex and Sasha as they win a worthless planet and the billions of credits of debt it’s saddled with, then try to scheme their way into an even bigger fortune by alternately screwing over the evil galactic oppressors and the inevitably heroic rebels trying to take them down. Along the way they’ll gain and lose ridiculous theoretical sums of money, tell lies bigger than a gas giant, and deal with opponents both shrewd and annoyingly idiotic.

I love pretty much everything in the genre I refer to as “absurdist fantasy,” which includes such popular authors as Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, and the late great Douglas Adams, whom Kroese is clearly trying to emulate. The overall plot is a pastiche of science fiction in general and Star Wars in particular, going so far as to include analogs for the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, Princess Leia and Darth Vader, the Death Star and Endor, and a half-dozen other characters and tropes from Hollywood’s biggest scifi series. Like I said, I do like a good absurdist novel, but even over-the-top comedy needs a little subtlety, and there’s very little on display in Starship Grifters.

There are some good ideas explored in the novel. Sasha’s inability to have an original thought is both played for laughs and used skillfully in the narrative, as is her penchant for torturously erasing Rex’s thoughts so that he can safely ransom them. A debtor’s prison that drives an entire civilization, a corps of bounty hunters that’s become lazy and complacent after turning over their duties to hunter-killer drones, a Rebel Alliance staffed by the high school dropouts of spacefaring society, and a disguise technique that spins you on a genetic roulette wheel are all high points that benefit from thorough narrative exploration.

But at the end of the day, Krouse’s on-the-nose parody of Star Wars kept getting me down. I’ve got nothing against ridiculous characters or nods to the pillars of the genre, but Starship Grifters returns to that particular well one too many times, then goes back for five or six more sips. There’s a lack of subtly in the setting and characters, with the exception of Sasha and antagonist Gavin Larvitron, that makes parts of the book very hard to get through. Whereas The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a send-up of sci-fi in general that still manages to stand on its own legs, Starship Grifters is only a few steps above the likes of Thumb Wars or Barry Trotter. It would have benefited from more focus on the admittedly entertaining central con man story and the satirical world-building, and less reference and attempted parody. I also found the ending, a classic deus ex machina, a little too tidy.

That said, the book is not without a few laugh-out-loud passages, and the previously mentioned science fiction ideas are alternately hilarious and interesting. Starship Grifters has just enough humor and originality to earn itself a shy recommendation, if you can manage to stomach its innumerable Star Wars references and shameless shattering of the fourth wall.

Starship Grifters is available in paperback, Kindle and other ereader formats, and on audiobook. Full disclosure: the author provided me with a pre-release copy for the purposes of this review.

PC Gaming On A Budget: Patience Is A Virtue

For the last year I’ve been running an experiment on myself: how much money can a PC gamer save if he or she only buys games below a certain price? Between March 30th, 2013 and March 30th, 2014, I decided that I wouldn’t pay more than $15 for a single game.

The amount of money I saved was staggering. in one year, I purchased a total of 36 games and DLC packages, mostly from Steam. If I had bought each one on the day of release, they would have cost me just under $1,040 altogether (according to this handy Steam pricing tool). By waiting for the prices to drop for sales, I paid only $274.82 - a savings of over $750 and a nearly 75% discount.

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(full chart image here)

But honestly, this isn’t all that surprising. Everyone knows that Steam has some amazing game deals during their regular sales, and other digital marketplaces like Amazon are starting to follow suit. Older games in particular are given huge discounts. The interesting part of this experiment comes when you consider just how many of these games were so new.

Most of the games that I bought were less than a year old on the day that I purchased them. In total, I bought 29 games that were less than 12 months old, and they would have cost about $740 altogether had I purchased them on the day of release. By waiting for a Steam or Amazon discount, I managed to get them for just over $245. That’s a final savings of $495, about 66%. Or, to put it another way, a brand new graphics card.

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Let’s say you don’t want to wait a year. The 17 games that I bought less than six months after their release cost me a total of $161, less than half of their original retail prices ($365). Of course, the less time you wait, the less you’ll save and the fewer options you’ll have. Cut those figures down to three months, and there are only 6 games that squeaked under my $15 limit (five of which were $15 or less at release anyway), for a total retail savings of 20%. It’s a much better idea to wait for the games you want, and use the savings to build up a backlog of cheaper games to tide you over.

A few caveats: one, a deal is only a deal if you want it. A lot of these games are titles I wouldn’t have bought or played had they not been so heavily discounted. That’s part of Steam’s business model: lower the prices to the point of impulse purchases. Some of the games I bought, particularly Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Poker Night 2, Strike Suit Infinity, and Skullgirls, were cheap enough to slide in under my $15 limit without any kind of discount. And of course, game prices go down in general as the game gets older. You’d still save money by simply waiting for a later date (about 35% for all the games I bought, closer to 25% for those less than two years old). I probably could have saved even more if I had kept an eye on more non-Steam markets, like Green Man Gaming, which generally offer Steam keys with purchase.

Here’s the moral of the story. When it comes to buying PC games, retail prices are for suckers. There’s nothing wrong with paying full price for a new game if you’re excited about it, but waiting to play it for just one year (and in some cases even less!) can result in dramatic savings. If you set a hard limit for yourself, you’ll save even more.

Full disclosure: I did cheat on two games. I bought Bioshock Infinite for twenty bucks in August during an Amazon sale (after constant pushes from a good friend), and I paid full price for Titanfall when it came out. I inserted the Steam sale price for Bioshock Infinite from December along with the DLC pack to keep the data relevant.

Five Fantastic 2D Games For Any PC

This year I decided to try an experiment: I’d see what kind of PC games I could play by never spending more than $15 on a single title. This is made possible almost exclusively by Steam and its never-ending cavalcade of awesome sales. I started my experiment last April, so I’ve got another few months to go, but it occurred to me that there was a crucial flaw in my process - it’s only applicable to people who have already spent a considerable amount of money on a gaming PC.

On the other hand, gaming isn’t just about triple-A titles with mind-blowing graphics. Steam is a friend to gigantic publisher and indie developer alike, and there are plenty of incredibly solid 2D games that are both cheap and compatible with almost any low-end computer. Here’s a handful of 2D games that I’ve enjoyed the hell out of this year, all of which are at least partially discounted during the Steam holiday sale. Most are also available on the Xbox and PlayStation download services. If you’re playing on a PC, you’ll want a controller for most of these titles.

Mark of the Ninja

This stealthy, stabby action game is every bit as good as the classics on ye olde 16-bit consoles. While Mark of the Ninja certainly has elements of both the Shinobi and Castlevania series, there is enough innovation in its mechanics that it feels completely fresh. It doesn’t hurt that the backgrounds and lighting effects are gorgeous. 

You are a nameless ninja on a quest to avenge your clan leader, which will incidentally mean that you kill lots and lots of people with a combination of brutal takedowns and clever equipment. Or not - the game is flexible enough that it’s equally enjoyable whether you want to be a merciful and stealthy shadow or a psychopathic whirlwind of blades.The variable equipment system and alternate power costumes will add replay value to an otherwise short game. Oh, and lots of blood means Mark of the Ninja is not for kids, despite the cartoony art style. 

Rayman Origins

I got turned on to the revamped Rayman after seeing the beautiful Rayman Jungle Run on Android. The new platformer series is a return to the character’s roots, and it’s better than anything Mario or Sonic have produced in the better part of a decade. The platforming in Origins is solid, but it’s the presentation that’s really fantastic: incredibly original character designs and environments will convince even the hardiest of hardware gluttons that 2D gaming has a place in the age of high definition.

Rayman Origins already has a sequel, Rayman Legends, which is still new enough that it’s on the pricey side compared with the rest of the games on this list. It’s also got a few 3D touches, but Legends should still be playable on laptops and desktops with integrated graphics.

FTL

An acronym for “Faster Than Light,” FTL tasks the player with running, maintaining, and defending a starship on a trek across the galaxy. FTL is unlike any game you’ve ever played, taking a few tips from real-time strategy games, management simulators, and the customization aspects of space shooters (without the shooter bits).

Most of the game is a series of seemingly benign decisions that force you along a branching path, managing your fuel and weapons carefully. The space combat itself is controlled chaos, a mix of ship-to-ship slugging, repelling boarding parties, and putting out fires both figurative and literal. FTL isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve ever wondered what the operations console on the Enterprise looks like, it’s right up your alley.

Guacamelee

Mark of the Ninja rewards careful and thoughtful action, but Guacamelee is (as you might suspect) about as subtle as a thrown brick. This nacho-flavored tribute to Metroid and its contemporaries mixes solid beat-em-up components straight out of Battletoads with upgrade-driven exploration and fantastic art.

The sharp, colorful graphics really do look like a stylized version of the native art that they’re imitating. Surprisingly modern touches include meme shoutouts and drop-in, drop-out cooperative play. Guacamelee is worth the price of entry for its visual and audio elements alone, but those who enjoy 2D fighters or Double Dragon-style brawlers will be especially well-served.

Breath Of Death VII

Breath of Death VII is the sequel to six non-existent 2D RPGs, both an homage and a pastiche of the JRPG genre as it existed before the PlayStation era. The setting is a comedic mix of post-apocalypse and fantasy, where the undead live in harmony after a world-destroying war. You play as a sarcastic skeleton just trying to destroy a nameless evil with the aid of a ghost, a vampire, and a zombie. Who aren’t evil, by the way. Or at least they’re noticeably less evil than the other evil people.

Breath of Death VII and its sister game Cthulhu Saves The World are unflinchingly retro in their audio and video presentation (which might be a turn-off) but they’ve got just enough new ideas and refinements to breathe life into the old standards. They’re dirt cheap, too - you can pick them up for three dollars together.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course, and my tastes in 2D games are unapologetically mainstream. I’ve tried indie darlings like Bastion, Braid, Papers Please, and Fez, and I didn’t see the appeal, so consider me a philistine in the face of the modern 2D renaissance. But the games above should appeal to anyone who’s ever had fun while holding a Genesis controller, and they will run on just about any Windows machine. All of them are currently less than $10 on the Steam holiday sale (links to the individual store pages are in the titles), which ends on January 3rd. 

And Now, A Brief Update

Good news, everyone: I’m writing professionally once again! I’m now an editor for the fantastic Android Police, which in cop terms is probably something like a sergeant. I’m contractually barred from telling you why I left SlashGear/Android Community, and indeed why I haven’t been writing about tech for a while. But my last post on the previous site was exactly 18 months ago, so connect the dots for yourself. 

In the interim I’ve had quite the time. I drove a train to the top of a mountain for about six months…

I ran from a forest fire… 

And I became an Emergency Medical Technician, among other things.

Regrettably my changing fortunes meant I had to move back to Texas, but I’m gathering my resources to head up to Colorado again. And I don’t expect I shall return.

In fact, I mean not to. 

There are times when I wonder if I might be happier if I had made different decisions - if, for example, I had chosen a more lucrative job over a more enjoyable and fulfilling one. The next time I start to wonder, I’ll remember these words from Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Waterson. The comic above was drawn by Zen Pencils artist Gavin Aung Than in Waterson’s iconic style, after he made pretty much the same decision. 

via Kotaku

Thoughts On Unofficial Sequels

For a moviegoer with the right attitude and a sometimes unhealthy amount of imagination, it’s almost impossible not to make connections between movies, actors, and roles. Hence the idea of an “unofficial sequel” - a movie that (by chance or intent) continues the story or theme of a previous work, without explicitly referring to it. Not to be confused with a spin-off, this is a movie that contains intrinsic elements that link it to another movie. Take The Rock. It’s easy to imagine Sean Connery’s incarcerated ex-MI6 agent as an alternate version of James Bond, who was locked up during the latter half of the Cold War.

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There are a few other movies that I’ve decided, at least in my own mind, are unofficial sequels. My favorite is probably Mr. Brooks, which I think makes a pretty great sequel to American Psycho. Consider: in American Psycho, Christian Bale plays a twenty-something 1980s power broker whose obsessive compulsive personality allows him to conceal the fact that he’s a serial killer. In Mr. Brooks, Kevin Costner plays a 40-something successful business owner and family man in 2007… whose greatest secret is a lifetime of meticulous, calculated murders. He even separates the killer part of his personality as Marshall (William Hurt) who to me represents the bloodthirsty, manic nature of Bale’s character in American Psycho.

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The clincher is a scene near the end of the movie, where Costner’s character reveals to a serial killer protégé that he used to be a very different person. “Before I was the Thumbprint Killer, Mr. Smith,” he tells the man, “I killed a lot of people in a lot of different ways.” Chainsaws are not explicitly mentioned.

Another movie with an easy connection to previous films is Gran Torino, for which Clint Eastwood both stars and directs. Eastwood plays a gruff, angry widower in Detroit, who feels isolated from the rest of his family and a neighborhood that’s becoming increasingly ethnic. While there’s no evidence for a direct connection (indeed, Eastwood would probably not welcome this kind of speculation) the Gran Torino character seems like an extension of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, San Francisco Police detective and Smith & Wesson enthusiast of the Dirty Harry films.

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Consider his proficiency with firearms, his intense hatred of injustice, his distrust of minorities (which might be expected, if not forgiven, in a 70s SFPD cop), his appreciation for American auto muscle, and general unwillingness to try anything new. By the end of the movie he’s let go of his anger and atoned for some of the less ethical things he did on the force. Of course, a lot of this draws on the fact that Eastwood is surly and angry in just about everything.

But the latest movie to draw more than inspiration from past work (and, I’ll be honest, the reason I wrote this story) isn’t even out yet. Take a look at the trailer for the upcoming R.I.P.D. below.

Now, this movie is pretty clearly a zombified Men In Black ripoff, and honestly, it doesn’t look all that good - typical matinee popcorn fare. The only reason I bring it to your attention is that Jeff Bridges plays the undead Agent K to Ryan Reynolds’ rookie Agent J. Bridges’ character is an Old West lawman, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later guy with a ten gallon hat and a six shooter. Who bears more than a passing resemblance to…

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U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn of the Coen Brothers’ 2010 True Grit remake, also played by Jeff Bridges. The supernatural storyline of R.I.P.D. (based on a comic book of the same name) allows us to stretch imagination a bit, and assume that the Marshal was recruited into zombie-killing service after his death at the end of True Grit. Surely he’d be counted among “the greatest lawmen who ever lived and died.” Good grief, he’s even got the same accent and haircut.

Once again, all these thin connections are entirely in my head. But they help me enjoy otherwise lukewarm movies (like Mr. Brooks and R.I.P.D.) that most people wouldn’t give a second glance. And when it comes to movies, I’m out for every bit of fun that I can have. If I find more interesting fare, I might just have to amend this article later.