Baseball, philosophy, video games, snarky anti-Bush rants, and all other various and sundry topics. Not necessarily in that order.

Monday, September 06, 2010

random





Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Star Trek Comics!

I'm three issues in to the first DC Comics Star Trek comic book series. I recently purchased EVERY Star Trek comic from 1967 to 2002 on one handy DVD.

Damn, Mike W. Barr is a good writer! He really knows the characters inside and out, gives them thoughtful and interesting dialogue, creates interesting subplots with secondary characters, and can build a good epic storyline with a palpable sense of danger and a fairly good dose of sci-fi to boot.

Too bad he didn't write the new movie!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

For me, reviewing this film is a tale of two approaches. One, as a movie, as if I were not a Star Trek fanatic. And two, from the "fan's" perspective.

So all right.

Here is the review "for the rest of you:"

"Star Trek" offers a bold re-imagining of a venerable television science fiction franchise. To a certain extent, it sheds much of the baggage accumulated over 40 years of television and films, giving non-Trekkies an easy entree into the universe.

We are given the tale of Kirk, Spock and McCoy taking the reins of the Starship Enterprise, in a galaxy populated by both humans and other races. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a brash young man who is set adrift by the attack of a Romulan villain upon the ship carrying his parents. Without the influence of his father, a Starfleet officer, Kirk has an aimless childhood, squandering his intellect and his drive on bar brawls and car thefts. Luckily, he is intercepted by the wise, gruff Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and challenged to make a better life for himself and to live up to his ability by joining Starfleet.

There, he meets fellow cadets Uhura (Zoe Saldana), McCoy (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and an irritating instructor, the cool, logical Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). Their contrasting styles immediately put them at odds with each other. Spock has grown up the child of two worlds, with a human mother, and a father from Vulcan, a planet whose culture has embraced logic and the shedding of emotion, except perhaps the emotion of racism against humans.

Before their education is complete, they are presented with the threat of the same villain who had killed Kirk's dad 25 years prior - Nero (Eric Bana). Turns out Nero is from the future, and is bent on revenge for the destruction of his home world, Romulus. Also, somewhat confusingly, he blames "Ambassador" Spock for this destruction, even though the Spock we know is younger and clearly not involved.

In a plot development somewhat like "Space Camp," for some reason every other ship is somewhere else, and there are no trained crew members available for the newly-built Enterprise. So the cadets are drafted into service right then and there.

Various plot twists and turns see Kirk marooned on an ice planet, where he meets not only Scotty (a very funny Simon Pegg) but also a much older Spock (Leonard Nimoy). This old spock explains that the visitor from the future has changed history, and that Kirk must team up with the younger Spock, melding their disparate styles and talents into a team that can defeat the threat.

Overall, the plot moves very quickly, and might be a bit confusing to those not versed in Trek lore. But the speed, noise, and bombast are such that pausing to consider holes in story logic (and there are several) is not really feasible until after the movie has finished. The effects, music, and performances are all flashy and dazzling, and it is hard not to feel aggressively entertained by the whole spectacle. Especially charming are Pine as Kirk and Quinto as Spock. Their chemistry works well. The villain, Nero, is somewhat less successful, as his motivations are rather obscure, especially to an audience not familiar with Romulans, time travel, and the like.

It is all done with ample brio and verve - enough panache to surmount its sometimes lazy storytelling and slipshod logic. It is certainly a three-star affair (out of 4). On a scale of ten, I'd give it a solid 7, perhaps even an 8. It is much more entertaining than the average Hollywood popcorn movie, mainly on the strength of the characters and the performances.


Now, for the Trekkies:

"Star Trek" is the product of Hollywood corporate committees, shedding "baggage" in such a way that it dilutes some of the core concepts and appeal of the show which gave rise to the Trekkie faithful.

The characters from the original series are brought together in a way which feels quite far from organic, presumably because Hollywood executives were worried that a slower tale that realistically developed their relationships would fail to satisfy audiences unused to thinking and realism. Instead of being members of a logically coherent military organization, each with careers and internal lives of their own, all of our principal characters are roughly the same age and have the same amount of experience, despite the fact that by the end of the film, they all have different ranks and specailties. Especially galling is the instantaneous promotion of Kirk from 25-year-old Starfleet cadet (in his third year of studies) directly to Captain of the fleet's newest and most advanced flagship. It would be akin to a fresh West Point graduate being given command of the D-Day invasion, or an Annapolis cadet being given command of an aircraft carrier. Why would anyone who had invested a lifetime in this organization respect any order that escapes his lips? Equally puzzling are the promotions of all the other crew members at the end of the film - why is Kirk a Captain, but McCoy a Commander, Uhura a Lieutenant, Chekov an Ensign? They all have the same amount of experience and "seasoning" (i.e., none).

This is the sort of world-breaking contrivance that litters the film. Which is too bad, because "Star Trek (2009)" ably captures the feel of the previous shows, mixing humor, fisticuffs, and dazzling gadgetry in nearly the perfect proportions. It fails, however, to add the integral piece - a logically consistent world, one that creates and follows its own rules, one that is similar enough to our own to be comprehensible, but different and better enough that it inspires admiration and wonder, and makes you yearn to live in it. It is a bit of a tragedy, since just a few tweaks and edits could have turned a story full of workd-breaking holes and missteps into pretty much the best Trek movie ever.

The actors do varyingly good jobs at capturing the essences of their characters, without directly aping previous actors' performances. There are really no clunkers in the group. The quality of special effects is above that of the other films and series, and will definitely impress Trek veterans who are used to less. Many in-jokes and subtler references abound, and will no doubt elicit smiles and chuckles from those who are "in the know."

But that certain something is missing. That special thing which makes something "Trek," and not just "Generic Space Opera #12." There isn't much "Real" science fiction, for one thing - black holes and space ships could have been substituted with quicksand and stage coaches - they are not concepts that drive the plot or the characters or the world, instead they are generic perils, and devices to surmount those dangers. But heck, that could be said of some of the other films, those films that, despite their failings, we would still call "real" Trek. What is missing is the logical consistency of the world. Continuity. "Baggage." In stripping "Star Trek (2009)" down to something that will appeal to a "mass" audience, the producers of this film have denatured it into something reminiscent, but not recognizable.

As Trek, I'd give it 2 stars out of 4, or a 5 of 10. It is better than "Nemesis" or "Final Frontier," to be sure. Those movies were within the "real" Trek universe, but damaged or broke aspects of that universe. This film, owing to its time travel contrivance, blessedly steers clear of "truly" changing any of the "canon." But it also fails to really "be" Star Trek.

So - how good is the movie if I were to attempt to meld (a Vulcan mind meld perhaps?) both perspectives? Well, watching this movie as a Trek fanatic can be something of a bipolar experience. I know I'm being entertained, but something is just wrong. Here's an example: "Star Wars" is a great movie. It is consistently entertaining, has very nice effects, and a surplus of charming performances. But what if it followed 40 years of prior entertainment that functioned by different rules, and broke a fair number of them? Would you care?

So the inner mental story of a Trekkie watching this film is one of trying not to care. Trying to turn the brain off. Trying to ignore something that we love to enjoy something that we like.

I guess it comes down to how rigid and dogmatic I'm feeling about it. It's somewhere between a 5 and an 8, right? It will never go above an 8 of 10, simply because of the lazy storytelling and internal continuity flaws. Whether it climbs above a 5 depends I guess on my mood and on what the seemingly inevitable sequel does to ameliorate these continuity issues.

So let's call it a 7. I guess I'm feeling charitable. But it reflects my ambivalence. I'll still buy it on Blu-Ray. I'll still watch it several times. But If I want a real Trek fix, I'll watch any of the TV series - the medium which, I think, suits Trek best - giving the characters enough time to breathe, villains enough time to develop, and cerebral science fiction stories plenty of opportunities to be tried, even if they fail, and tried again, over hundreds of hours of TV. It doesn't have to be rip-roaring and easy to digest in 2 hours or less. And if I want that, I'll watch Star Trek 2-4, three extremely entertaining films which are also great Trek.

On a more "meta" level, there is one question to consider when evaluating the success or failure of this film in terms of the franchise as a whole. If it inspires a renewed interest in the franchise among a larger cohort of people, what kind of Trek will be produced to meet this demand? Will it be pretty but vapid "Star Wars" style action movies, or will it be the more cerebral, and, to this fan, much more satisfying fare involving sci-fi concepts, philosophical issues, morality plays, and realistically imagined future societies?

I think this film, given the general ease with which it can be enjoyed, will do quite well financially, no doubt inspiring sequels. I just pray to the Great Bird of the Galaxy that those sequels are crafted with greater care and higher-minded concepts than this one was.

***************

What follows are some notes that I jotted down after watching the film. They contain many spoilers, and should only be read by those who have already seen the film.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

Why “Reboot?”
  • The ‘Kirk as rebel’ stuff didn’t contradict canon. Almost exactly the same story could have been told without a poorly developed time traveling villain.
Problems as a Movie
  • Is killing trillions really a logical (not Vulcan logic, but astory logic) means of safeguarding Romulus’ future from destruction by an astronomical phenomenon (indeed, how does destroying Vulcan and Earth stop a future supernova?)? Is there no dissension in the ranks among Nero’s fellow miners (not soldiers) in this aim? Is there truly no desire among this crew to simply return to the Romulus of ~125 years prior and simply start over?
  • Why would Nero “maroon” Spock on a planet with a Starfleet base upon it? Why not just keep him on the ship, where he’ll get a much better view of the destruction of Vulcan? Where is this other planet such that it can view Vulcan’s destruction with the same apparent size in the sky as a nearby satellite?
  • Time traveling villain necessitates long exposition of things non-Trekkies would not be able to (or care to) fathom.
  • Shooting at the long, spindly drill boring into your planet never occurred to anyone before the climax of the film?
Problems as Trek
  • So Kirk can be promoted from Starfleet cadet (not even graduate) to Captain, with no intermediate steps? Was everyone else on the SpaceCamp voyage of the Enterprise also granted immediate commissions? Why does Kirk get to be Captain, whilst Uhura is a lieutenant, Chekov is an ensign, etc.? Why would anyone who had been in Starfleet and earned various promotions in rank prior to this event take orders from Kirk?
  • “Transwarp beaming?” Seriously? And as something which Scotty has “invented” at least in concept, BEFORE the original series? Sounds like “transwarp lazy writing” to me.
  • So Engineering is a big warehouse with butt-loads of scaffolding, and no one around?
  • What the hell are the duties of the keepers of the "katric ark," and how effective are these duties, if they involve standing around while your planet is being attacked?
  • Either use Stardates or Julian calendar dates. Not both. Especially not in the same sentence.
Successes as a Movie
  • Good emotional core to protagonist character motivations (as opposed to antagonist characters).
  • Nice looking special effects.
  • Very good performances by the principal "hero" characters, especially Chris Pine.
Successes as Trek
  • Very good performances by most actors in roles, not straight imitation, but creation of character essences instead.
  • Enterprise exterior didn’t look nearly as bad in motion as preview stills looked.
  • Nice mix of space action, fisticuffs, humor, and character stories - very appropriate and reminiscent of "classic" Trek.
In case anyone is still curious about my opinions on movies and Trek, here are some quick and dirty ratings (out of 10) for all of the franchise's films:

7 - The Motion Picture
10 -The Wrath of Khan
8 -The Search for Spock
9 -The Voyage Home
4 -Final Frontier
7 -The Undiscovered Country
7 -Generations
8 -First Contact
6 -Insurrection
3 -Nemesis
7 -Star Trek (2009)

Here they are in order of my personal preference/estimation:

10 -The Wrath of Khan
9 -The Voyage Home
8 -The Search for Spock
8 -First Contact
7 -Generations
7 -The Motion Picture
7 -The Undiscovered Country
7 -Star Trek (2009)
6 -Insurrection
4 -Final Frontier
3 -Nemesis

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Hulu... creeping its way into my heart....

I've been watching a lot of Hulu lately, and it's made me rethink some of the statements below about Internet TV. I would upgrade the selection and reliability scores by 1 point apiece, bringing the total to 15 out of 25. It's not there yet as a completely viable replacement for cable, but it's making great strides. It's got shows in widescreen, commercial breaks are only one spot long (usually very short), I can stream it to my PS3 with a program called Playon, and it has shows from all networks but CBS (lam-oes!). I can catch up on stuff like Simpsons without having to schedule my life around it.

One show I've been enjoying the hell out of is "Kings." It's an alternate reality drama in which a modern day kingdom replaces the USA. It's beautifully shot, well acted, and only occasionally hammily scripted. There's lots of intrigue, occasions to think about right vs. might, the needs of the many over the few, etc. etc. Any sci-fi fan should like it - which means, of course, that it will fail on NBC. Hopefully, they will move it over to the Sci-fi network where shows like that (BSG, ahem) can actually succeed. Anyway, I recommend it to my friends, especially YOU, Kevin, since it has
a very prominent gay character with pouty lips whom I'm sure you would LOOOOVE to see naked.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The future of television isn't here quite yet...

Lately, the Internet has been rife with two sorts of stories: one, proclaiming that the future is here, and it is streaming, downloading, digital all the way. The other is that, correspondingly, all "old media" will be disappearing, if they haven't already, like dinosaurs withering under a comet's glare.

The
contrarian in me resists all such attempts to so neatly declare something so sweeping. After all, the last distributor of VHS just closed its doors, and people still cling to their vinyl, let alone ditching their CD collections.

But there is something to it. A new media marketplace is slowly gestating, one which offers a lot of exciting potential. But it's not here yet, and I don't think it will be truly functioning well for at least 5 years, with anything close to mass penetration 5 years after that.

One target that fans of digital content delivery like to pick on is
Blu-Ray. Why would anyone, they ask, want to purchase and keep a bunch of silly optical discs in their home, taking up shelf space, costing $15-$25, etc. etc.?

Well, let's look at the situation. I am a consumer with a taste for high quality audio and video. I do not have an extremely high budget, but I'm willing to pay for quality. So let's put it in these terms. I believe the average consumer wants several things from his or her media solution. These things are:

Price - the overall outlay in a month, or per view.
Selection - access to a wide variety of media, e.g. television shows, movies, and Internet videos.
Quality - the audio-visual fidelity of the media.
Reliability - Can you get it when you want it, without worrying about dropouts?
Convenience - Amount of labor involved, ability to tailor schedules.

So, to my mind, the best solution is the one which hits on all of these factors to the maximum extent. Also,
I want the content to be on my television, not on a laptop or PC. I paid big bucks for my TV and I want to watch my media on it. Therefore, for alternative media delivery choices, I want them to either stream to my TV from my PC or to be natively sent to my TV by a stand-alone device. Now let's assess the available content delivery systems that we as consumers have before us today.

Cable Television
Cable providers, not too keen on the idea of relinquishing their stranglehold on consumers' media wallets, have made strides towards increasing their offerings and improving in many of the major categories listed above.

Price: 1
Price has been and will continue to be cable's big downfall. Most basic packages start at $50, and many "fully featured" digital packages are $80 and up, per month. Aggressive nickel and diming of features, such as a very common $10 per month "HD Add-On" (as if they had to do something special besides tell your cable box to allow it), and $5 to $10 DVR "rental" fees (as if it just weren't another cable box, just like the non-DVR model) do not help. Basically, cable is a rip-off, big time.
Selection: 4 They have always ruled the roost in terms of Selection - carrying most or all broadcast stations, most or all cable stations, and many movie channels. Recent additions have included "video on demand," in which Cable company servers host videos and feature films from various channels and sources, which can be accessed at any time.
Quality: 3 Used to be very good, but an aging infrastructure has led to compression of signals. The service that your cable company touts as "all digital quality" actually may look worse than analog service from 10 years ago. It's simple math. If you've got a tube yay big, and you want to cram more information through it, the quality of each discrete piece of information will have to be compressed to allow it. HD on cable looks like crap, frankly, no better than 480p DVD, and usually not even that good.
Reliability: 5 Reliability is probably cable's biggest draw besides selection. If it's buried in the ground, chances are it's never going to cut out.
Convenience: 4 Used to be as bad as regular TV, but DVR-capable cable boxes have made convenience at least a middling proposition, now. On the plus side, you never have to leave your living room or couch. On the minus side, "On Demand" offerings are not yet comprehensive. If Cable companies really get their act together here, I think people will flock to it in droves, as long as they keep their prices under control.
Cable TV Total: 17 out of 25

Satellite TV
A subset of cable providers, satellite is essentially the same business model delivered by a dish on your house. All
of the factors listed above for cable are the same except for reliability. In a big storm or with a lot of snow on your dish, your signal might cut out. So minus 2 points on reliability, from 5 to 3.
Satellite TV Total: 15 out of 25


Netflix Streaming
Price 5: Netflix has loads of pricing options - but the bottom line is, you can get unlimited access to Netflix's streaming library for about $10 a month.
Selection 1: This is Netflix's great challenge right now. Only about ten percent (or less) of their DVD library is available to watch instantly. So there are lots of movies and TV shows, but it's very hit and miss. You'll find things to watch, but it's conceivable to run out of things in a few months' time, too.
Quality 2: Another thorn in Netflix's side is quality. To be fair, it is better than straight Internet TV sites. But it is not as good as cable, nor is it as good as optical media. Audio is strictly limited to stereo, and subtitles and special features are non-existent.
Reliability 3: It's essentially as reliable as your Internet connection. Which, for most people, isn't all that reliable, especially if wireless comes into play.
Convenience 5: Having unlimited access to a content library is great. Watch any TV episode or any movie at any time, all from your couch. This is what the future should look like.
Netflix Streaming Total: 16 out of 25

Netflix By Mail
Price 4: The same above applies here. You have lots of options for pricing, between 10 and 40 bucks a month, with all offering basically the same service, just at a higher or lower capacity (i.e. number of discs at a time). However, to get a comparable amount of programming to the streaming option, you will have to spend $20 instead of $10.
Selection 3: You have basically unlimited choice of anything that's been committed to optical disc. So the newest TV is out, but most networks are pushing their shows out pretty quickly onto DVD. Public television generally gets their documentaries out, but not their local interest programming. Movies are generally comprehensively available.
Quality 5: You can get DVD quality A/V, and HD quality A/V, with Blu-Ray disc rentals. The quality of a DVD is generally at or better than most cable television, and the quality of 1080p Blu-Ray HD simply blows cable, Internet, and broadcast HD out of the water. If quality is your number one concern, optical media cannot be beat.
Reliability 4: Broken discs have seemed to increase of late. Otherwise, if you get it unbroken, it ought to play, no matter what.
Convenience 2: You're at the mercy of the Queue, and how many other people want the same disc. If a disc is in demand, you might wait a month. You also have to leave the house to mail your returns. On the other hand, postage is paid for you, and you could conceivably copy the DVD content onto your hard drive or onto your own media, though I of course would have absolutely no knowledge of how to do such a dastardly thing.
Netflix By Mail Total: 18 out of 25

Itunes/Playstation Network/Xbox Live
Price 1
: The pricing schemes of these online providers are a joke. Prices generally range from $1 to $2 per episode of television. Time limited rentals of movies range from $3 to $5 depending on quality, and purchases of movies are usually $15 to $20. If you want to watch more than 10 hours of programming in a month, you'll have already surpassed Cable or Netflix in monthly costs. Simply unacceptable.
Selection 1: About as good as Netflix's streaming offerings. You will not find the newest TV or a complete back catalog of films.
Quality 4: DVD and HD quality video will generally be comparable, although some on the web claim slight degradation when compared to optical media. Audio may be limited to stereo, subtitles may be absent.
Reliability 3: The videos will generally play. If you're using a PC or Mac, your hardware reliability is the factor here. But what happens if the leasing/selling company stops operations? Will DRM keys expire and you will no longer have access to media you paid for? Worrisome.
Convenience 3: Having an online store and storing the content locally gives you basically unlimited scheduling power. But you are limited by your storage space, which for game consoles is usually not great, and for computers, there is the problem of sharing space with other computing necessities.
Online Stores Total: 12 out of 25

Internet Television
Price 5: How good is free? Sounds like a pretty good price to me. Yes, you pay for your Internet connection, but how many of us would not have had that already for other purposes? So yes, essentially, it's free. You are not paying extra for anything.
Selection 1: Ouch. Most companies limit their available catalogs to 4 or 5 recent episodes of a show. Hulu.com has made some strides in getting back catalogs of shows, but it is VERY spotty. No movies, either.
Quality 1: Ever watch a youtube video? That's the worst of what you'll see here. Blocky, pixellated mush. At best, you'll get a widescreen image that's a bit worse than DVD. Stereo only, and subtitles are not ubiquitous.
Reliability 2: some sites seem to crumble at random times, possibly due to server load. Netflix is way better, here.
Convenience 4: The same bonuses that Netflix Streaming has apply here. Watch whatever, whenever. You do, however, have to diddle with your computer to make sure it works.
Internet TV Total: 13 out of 25

Optical Media purchased a la carte
Price 1: Well, you can find movies on Amazon for $10 and TV shows on DVD can be found to average about $1 a show. But once you've bought it, you own it. But new stuff is premium-priced. So it's not much better than online stores on the price front.
Selection 3: The same as Netflix by mail. Older TV, all movies, many documentaries.
Quality 5: Again, like Netflix, optical media simply cannot be bested by any other format in terms of stable, reliable, high quality audio and visual fidelity. There is no compression based upon usage or program load.
Reliability 5: Have a DVD player? Has it ever broken because of the weather outside? Didn't think so. As long as you have working hardware, you also have a pristine disc from the package to play in it. No amount of DRM and no company going under will ever impact your ability to play the content you paid for.
Convenience 2: You have to order it from a store, go to a store, and then find a shelf to store your media upon. But you can watch it whenever you want.
Optical Media Total: 16 out of 25

Broadcast Television
Price 4: Free, with a but. You need a good antenna and a nice TV to pull in a decent HD signal from your local broadcast stations. These are extras, so the price rating goes down a tick.
Selection 1: Major networks, PBS, and a few local espanol stations. Nice if you want new TV and local interest programming, but pretty crap for anything else. Many sports broadcasts are also on pay TV now.
Quality 4: Generally better than cable and satellite, simply because there is less compression. There is still some compression, however, so optical still wins here. Digital over-the-air broadcasts are "all or nothing," so fuzz and interference are not a factor.
Reliability 4: Weather can play a role, unfortunately. Not as good as cable, better than satellite.
Convenience 2: Welcome to the old days. Watch the show when it's on, and at no other time. You can supply your own DVR, but the planning and programming you will have to engage in isn't exactly "convenient."
Broadcast TV Total: 15 out of 25


So, let's sum up. If you want quality, optical is the way to go. If you want price,
Netflix, Internet, or Broadcast TV are the winners. If you want convenience, Cable or Netflix are the best. If you want selection, Cable is king. But basically, none of these services hits on all five points across the board. If you care about more than one of any of these factors, you're going to have to pick and choose from each provider carefully. Most probably do Cable plus Broadcast, Cable plus Optical a la carte, or Cable plus Netflix.

So what does the perfect media solution look like? I would say it looks the most like
Netflix's streaming model, but with a much improved selection. If one company could combine the On-Demand capability of cable, the movie catalog of Netflix, the new TV and local interest shows of Cable and Broadcast, at the price of Netflix, you'd have a juggernaut.

Unfortunately, it seems the companies in the best position to do this are cable providers. They already have deals with local entities such as sports teams and local stations to provide their content. They are working to get a back catalog of movies to stream "On-Demand." They offer
DVR. but they do it at such an anal-raping price point that we still want to find an alternative.

To overcome that, one company, let's say
Netflix for the sake of argument, would have to negotiate with the networks to be able to stream their new shows, like Hulu.com, for a certain time window - let's say for 8 weeks after "premiere." The could negotiate pay-per-view agreements with sports teams (which they would LOOOOVE) to show their events. Hopefully this could be kept to 50 cents per game or so (which would total about $90 over 6 months for a baseball season, which is a lot less than 6 months of cable/satellite service). And they can expand their On-Demand movie catalog so that it is basically comprehensive. Can all this be done for $30 to $40 per month? If it could, I'd ditch cable and sign up in a heartbeat.

However, this is all future talk. If the question is: are any of these options going to die soon, I would say no. They all have a niche in the market, providing one thing better than all of the others. Until one provider starts really slamming its competitors out of those niches, I don't see any of them, whether it be optical media, broadcast TV, or anyone else, going away.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's inaugural speech

Well, JFK it wasn't. Wasn't FDR, either. It was decent, so-so, not too long thankfully, some highs and lows. So here are my reactions.

"My fellow citizens..."

I like this. It starts on a different note. Usually, it's "Americans," which is a mushier term that doesn't denote anything but being part of a big, privileged group of fat people. Citizen implies responsibility, membership in a polis, a unity of purpose and an ideology of commitment to living life as humans ought to live it, within a civilization.

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath."

Um, actually, only 43. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, but by most definitions was still the same person. Not an encouraging boo-boo. That's already a letter grade, Mr. Obama.

"Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."

Oh boy. I don't like this statement one bit. We are not in a declared war against any nation or entity. Is there a declaration of war against Al Quaeda or the Taliban? There can't be. They are not governments. We are engaged in military activities against small enclaves, sure. But buying into this war talk is a really frightening continuance of the Orwellian newspeak of the past 8 years, designed to justify any old thing that the unitary executive feels like pushing through the congress, or minus any oversight, through secret executive orders.

"each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."

Yay, someone is mentioning scienc-ey stuff! Also, it is useful, if not exactly stunningly original, to draw the parallel that our energy usage enriches governments who are not necessarily opposed to the types of organizations that we are engaged in combat with. It needed to be said, and finally it is said on a big stage. Ditto the mention of a warming planet being the result of our choices, not just God hugging us extra close.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

Just who is this supposed to be directed at? The Republicans on the rostrum, or the idiots who voted for them in the crowd? I am perplexed by this statement and really don't see much good which can come from it. Yes, they're stupid. Yes, they preyed on fear. But you won, dude. Trying deliberately to rebuke them is probably not the most constructive first foot forward.

"But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. "

In a sea of platitudes (regarding the crisis we're in, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, etc.) this sentence finally puts a little bit of a tooth into the mix. It's one thing to just spew a bunch of nonspecific crap about rolling up our sleeves and using a little elbow grease. But it's another to say: We have put off unpleasant decisions. This is about as far as Obama goes in saying that our government has been fatally shortsighted on things like national debt, social security, and global warming. But at least the implication is there.

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

This is pretty much the meat of the speech for techies and intellectuals. Restoring science to its rightful place is a good, specific jab at the past 8 years, not the sort of amorphous accusation that the previous 'hope over fear' stuff represents. It's a pretty clear implication that global warming won't be treated as a theory, evolution will be taught in schools, and stem cell research will be opened way up again. So Amen to that.

I'm kind of worried about "soil" in this mix, because it implies (to me anyway) ethanol cars and "clean coal" plants with buried carbon sequestration. These are stupid ideas which will just keep us on the path to ecological ruin. I wish he had said harness the atom instead of harness the soil.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. "

Ooh, awkward 'Bush is on the stage too' moment! I don't hate this. As opposed to the previous statement which seems designed to simply piss off Republicans in its overbroad reach and lack of specificity, this is a specific and more personal rebuke, and something which needed to be said. He goes on to say that we need to remember that strong alliances and cooperation between nations were keys in defeating fascism and communism, not just spending a butt-load on weapons and doing whatever the hell we pleased. It's not too hard to see who and what this is directed at.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."

A shout out to atheists! Woo! The Scientologists are probably feeling slighted though, perhaps Wiccans, too. It's nice to have atheism publicly mentioned as something other than a slimy scourge. Hopefully, this good feeling lasts - because the rest of the speech has so much God-talk in it that you'd never know that atheists were in fox-holes, too.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

I like this. Many people see our geopolitical stage now as a clash between "the west" and "the ragheads." It is good to acknowledge this, but also to see a path out by respecting common humanity. I wish it had been a bit more specific as to what those interests were, but oh well.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. "

Well, maybe this is the specificity, since many of the Muslims above are also in this category. Nice to mention minds in addition to bodies.

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

Very interesting that a Washington quote is cited here. I think it is apropos to the theme of the speech. He nicely picked up the imagery of crossing icy currents and the like, and it dovetails nicely back to the beginning, the theme of citizenship.


Overall, it was an OK speech. There was a lot of mush in there. I would have preferred that the things I cited above as strengths were expanded and fleshed out, while the weaknesses were simply excised. JFK's speech was a masterpiece of construction, whereas this came off as a bit flabby, with a few good ideas peppered within. This isn't a speech that will ring through the ages as one which inspired people. It will soon be forgotten. But speeches do not presidencies make, at least not usually. If progress can be made on putting the ideas into action with concrete and effective policies, that will be more than enough for me.

Overall grade: C+. Please revise and submit a new draft.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reboot my heart, please. Or... PARALYZED BY TREK-FEAR!!!

The ultimate post to a blog is, in my mind, "what some nerd thinks about Star Trek." Homer Simpson said it best - this is what the Internet was made for.

So let's cut right to it. Star Trek, according to some people who don't know a whole lot, is "in trouble." It needs a "reboot." This is Hollywood-ese for "reboots are hot right now, so what intellectual property do we have that can get on that gravy train?" (See James Bond, Batman, Superman, Get Smart, Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie's Angels... the list goes on...)

Trek is the newest property to rate the treatment. Apparently, millions of fans between ages 25 and 85 with shitloads of disposable income is not satisfying to CBS/Paramount. Also, happily for them, Gene Roddenberry is dead and the dynamic duo of Berman/Braga have been (rightfully) thoroughly discredited by Enterprise and Nemesis. So the handoff has been arranged to JJ Abrams, he of Alias, which word has it is a good television show. Is it Star Trek good? Well, I don't know, I've only seen a minute or two of it.

What I do know is what Trek is about and why it is good. Star Trek is the crystallization of an idea, a vision of the future. The idea is that mankind can learn, and when we do, we will progressively work our way out of the mire of violence, irrationality and fear that pervades all of human history thus far. We will lay aside our arms and our prejudices and work towards our betterment, both individually and collectively. We will graduate from our tumultuous childhood as a race and take our place as a self actualized adult species, among the stars.

This idea, and its dramatization, is very appealing to nerds and intellectuals. But it doesn't have enough tits or fistfights for Hollywood executives. So first, they tried Enterprise, a series which promised less of the talky high-minded blather of "classic" Trek like TOS and TNG, and more rough and tumble action, plus lotion-smearing nudity. It went over like a lead balloon. For some reason, intellectuals never warmed to Trek minus 20 IQ points, while people who enjoyed tits, ass and violence found better sources for their daily fix. Whodathunk?

The series went off the air after 4 seasons (the last of which had improved considerably, by actually respecting continuity and by doing things like [gasp!] introducing big ideas and developing characters.). Industry bigwigs fretted. Had Trek lost its mojo? Clearly, the once-dependable nerd segment had abandoned it. I mean, churn out any old chum and they'll buy it, right?

So it came time to "reboot." But when you reboot a franchise, why try out new ideas when old ones are so much easier and cheaper to exploit? Let's just redo the same story with the same characters, and let the performances of previous actors and the efforst of previous writers bedamned!

OK. OK. Calm down. Vitriol rising. The rational part of me tries to remind itself that it is OK to reinterpret great stories. Superman has been in comics and movies for 70 years. Batman nearly as long. Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, there's a reason these stories can persist for so long and through so many iterations. But the fanboy in me retorts: Trek, as a drama, is BUILT upon continuity and consistency. It rewards the nerdy obsessive by referencing its past. Its "world" lends credence to the animating vision of Trek - this is a real place, with real cultures, which could really happen.

So any judgment I make of a new movie which recapitulates territory already tread upon is going to be colored by this. I want it to FIT with the superstructure of all the things I love in Trek. I don't want it to contradict the thing I've devoted countless hours to enjoying, pondering, rewatching. It's a high standard, to be sure - one of the reasons it's so much easier to move forward in the Trek timeline, and so perilous to go backwards and do "prequels" (I think George Lucas has discovered this as well...).

OK. On to the trailer.

We start out in Iowa. Or something kind of like Iowa, because there's lots of desert-ey gorges and stuff. But clearly, the cherry red Corvette (WHAAAA???!?!?) which speeds through the frame is escaping a... hay farm... of some sort. Hulking silhouettes in the distance tell us that this is THE FUTURE.

I will say, it's a neat look. I like stuff that's futur-ey. I hope they establish that the car is a collectible and has had an engine swap out. Cars running on petroleum in the 23rd century strain my credulity and offend my progressive sensibilities.

Then a hoverbike gives chase. It's marked "POLICE" and is driven by someone who looks like this:
Umm... yeah. Since it still walks like a human, I'm holding out hope that it is a human underneath this stuff. Because if it isn't, we've committed continuity boo boo number one - there are no sentient androids in the Trek universe yet. (Don't get me started on Nemesis...)

Apparently Kirk is a juvenile delinquent. Well, that sort of contradicts TOS, which makes Kirk out to be "a walking encyclopedia," but I can take it. That was in the academy, whereas this may be earlier. We then get a voiceover, apparently delivered by Captain Pike, telling Kirk that he is a drifter with a destiny, to join the few, the proud, the Starfleet. Visually, we are treated to Kirk on his motorcycle (with wheels, apparently only the cops get hoverbikes) driving out into the wilderness, where a STARSHIP is being constructed.


OK. As much as I have issues with some of the alterations to the Enterprise's design, I will admit readily that this image is quite cool. There has been a raging geek debate as to whether a starship could be constructed on Earth, but I point to the dedication plaque in TOS, which states that the Enterprise was built in San Fran. So as long as this as San Fran, we're cool, right? (Grrr... anticipating being let down...)

Another potential continuity problem I have is the implied Pike/Kirk relationship. At no point in Pike's two episodes in TOS Trek was any such relationship suggested. Pike is not Kirk's mentor, that's that. MAAAAYBE he could be construed as Spock's mentor. And MAAAYBE this voice over is actually directed towards Spock. But those are some pretty big maybes.


Speaking of Spock, we then shift to Vulcan. Frankly, I have little to no problem with any of this footage. Sarek looks great, Amanda looks good (and decidedly non-Winona Ryder-esque), the sets look great, there's really just nothing in the trailer to make the Trekkie in me worry about Vulcan as a whole. There's no mention of logic or lack of emotion, but there's nothing which specifically contradicts it, either.

Okay, er, maybe there's that. But look carefully. CLEARLY, this is some sort of backwards anti-matter universe. So there's no inherent contradiction. Ha ha. Seriously, Spock is half human and has impulse control problems, and not just during Pon Farr if you know what I mean (I hear the Vulcan High Command has developed a soothing cream for delaying impulses in that area...).

After Vulcan, we shift in the trailer to what I will refer to as the "impossibly quick-cut action movie montage." Let's look at some vital bits.


Here in some sort of hangar, presumably on Earth, is a big bunch of people in red shirts, and a guy with a clipboard. They are apparently going to board some sort of personnel carrier with NCC 1701 indicia on the side. Who are these people? Why are they here? Hmm. Maybe this is supposed to be the Enterprise's first flight, and this is the initial crew. The fact that they're all in red either indicates that they are all engineering or security personnel, or that they're all going to eat it very soon, much to their chagrin I'm sure. But then, maybe they don't know the whole "Red Shirt" thing yet.


Well. They must not die yet, because here, presumably on the personnel carrier, are Kirk, McCoy, and some of said Red Shirts. McCoy at least is in civilian gear. Why is he boarding the Enterprise? Wasn't Dr. Boyce the ship's doctor before McCoy in Trek canon? Are they sneaking on? Are they prisoners? Are Kirk and McCoy friends with a relationship preexisting their time on the ship?

And now, it is time to gripe about canon:

Here we have Kirk, in non-captain gear, sharing the frame with Sulu on the right and Chekov on the left. How do I know it is non-captain gear?

Well, for one, here's a shot of Captain Pike and black-duds-Kirk together. If Pike is the captain, Kirk is not, eh? Sure, maybe it's an undershirt which the colored uni goes over, but still.

Then:

Here is Kirk as he says "buckle up!"

Yep, we had better buckle up if this montage of images is any indication. All reports have indicated that this movie will be (groan) a time-travel story. This conceit allows Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to be in the same flick as Young Spock (Sylar) and Young Kirk.

So somehow, this plot must take us from a time when Kirk is a Corvette-driving tot, a disaffected punk not in Starfleet as yet (see io9.com's spoilers to this effect), Pike is captain and Kirk is not, to a time in which Kirk is captain and Chekov is the navigator, and still be coherent?

There are two options. Either the above is somehow true (well, maybe not the coherent part), or they have tossed canon out the window. Young Kirk cannot be on the bridge with Chekov, who came aboard the Enterprise at least halfway into its first year of Kirk's five-year mission.

Various minor-spoiler-laden previews have indicated that "Nero" changes the timeline, such that various aspects of Kirk's life, including his bookishness, are eliminated, and that certain characters work to set the timeline straight. But I don't want to strain my brain any further trying to make the images cohere into a workable story with time travel (ugh). Instead, let's assume that canon has been dumped by Abrams and Co. The question becomes: should we care?

Perhaps there is an argument for a "reboot" which not only starts things over with better special effects, but also changes story elements and character biographies. Superman no longer is a reporten in the 1930's, right? James Bond uses a cellphone. Okay, fine.

On the other hand, this is THE FUTURE. There is no need to update it in any appreciable way. Sure, our technology can catch up with things and make the tricorder seem too big for its britches as a prop. But no twist of logic can make it necessary to make sure that all the principal actors of the series magically appear at the same time, regardless of relative differences in character age, except one: Hollywood dipshits looked at the project and said "Well, we'd better get all the characters the nerds love onto the screen, or no one will like it."

Except they are wrong. We Trek Nerds love consistency and continuity. They are our reward for watching every series and movie five times or more. They make the world seem more realistic - especially nice when it is a world we so desperately wish were real. It is not a detriment to have characters appear at different times in the narrative - it is a strength. Real military organizations have a real turnover of people. Pike was captain before Kirk. Kirk took over, after having had a full career on his own beforehand. Spock started with Pike as science officer, then was promoted to first officer by Kirk. Kirk brought his own choice of Chief Medical Officer on board, replacing Boyce. This is a rich, complex, and REALISTIC narrative. It cheapens and, dare I say, shits upon it to have all of the above characters (sans Boyce) on the ship at once. Not only that, the prospect of it really pisses me off.

Would you think it was cool if Simon and Schuster released a new "Complete Shakespeare" in which Romeo and Juliet survive at the end, or where King Lear and Lady MacBeth get together for tea? Oh, come on, you idiot purists, these ideas would be FUN!

No. Trek exists as a work of art, created by its writers, editors, and its actors. It should be respected just like Shakespeare or David Mamet or (just to twist the retcon knife a little) Star Wars. We don't have to eat shit and call it ice cream when you take the characters we love and "remix" them. Retconning fucking sucks, and that's that.

So I will go on record hoping that there is some explanation for all of this that somehow: ties it all together in a neat, continuity-preserving bow; and doesn't fall apart under the weight of its own complex absurdity.

I'll tell you, my hopes are not very high. Sigh.

Now that we're on the topic of movies which retcon and suck, let's talk briefly about Nemesis. Nemesis committed two or three unpardonable sins - both as a movie in general and as a Trek movie in particular. Retconning was out of control here. The Romulans suddenly had a myterious conterpart race, the Remans, who ran things behind the scenes and look like Orcs, ostensibly for some reason beyond being obvious bad guys. Then, you have B4, the mysterious android that Noonien Soong built before Lore and Data, although TNG specifically states that this is not the case. Then, you have the credulity straining Clone plot, in which a bald Picard (though he clearly had hair in his academy appearances in TNG) is somehow DNA-sampled without his knowledge a long time ago and hears nothing of it for years and years, and then somehow GIVES A SHIT when he shows up to BE THE VILLIAN, OOOH SCARY. Plus, he's in charge of everything for some reason, despite the Romulans being a fiercely xenophobic and racist/supremacist society.

In a word, well, two words, it SUCKED ASS. It took a formerly interesting and nuanced society within Trek and reduced it to a one-note, silly caricature, with an unbelievable leader who wasn't even a member of the race.

Here's Shinzon:
Ooh, scary, right? He's DRESSED IN BLACK, the universal symbol for "hey everyone, this is the BAD GUY."

Here's Shinzon's ship:
What's a villain without a gigantic, overcompensating and completely unrealistic BAD GUY SHIP? I mean, Darth Vader had one. Let precedent bedamned. Let logic bedamned! Who cares if it makes no sense that this SECRET SOCIETY WHICH RUNS THINGS BEHIND THE SCENES for some reaosn also has mega-gigantor ships which can kill us all?

OK, let's compara and contrast. Here's "Nero," the time travelling Romulan bad guy par excellence:
Ooh, scary, right? He's DRESSED IN BLACK, the universal symbol for "hey everyone, this is the BAD GUY." Plus, he has a big, pointy, scary stick.

Here's his ship:
OOH, scary and, well, completely out of fucking whack compared to anything in Romulan history,

Starting to see the resemblance?

Why does every movie have to have a BIG VILLAIN? Yes, it worked in Star Trek II. But: That was mother-frakkin KAHN, and he still had a whole cadre of people behind him, and represented a big sci-fi concept, genetic engineering. But after a certain point, it just becomes stupid. Who the heck are these races that they all have one big villain who runs everything, but the threat represented completely dissipates when they are vanquished?

I find it really insulting that writers and directors feel the need to simplify their stories to this degree. The Borg were MUCH SCARIER when they were a monolithic entity with no head, just an unstoppable collective force. Then, thanks to movies, we get the Borg Queen. Then we had the attack of F. Murray Abraham and the Sona, who looked suspiciously like Shinzon and our pal Nero. It's clearly movies that are doing this - we only have 2 hours to tell a story, so we'd better simplify and boil down the conflict as much as possible, yes?

I think it needs to be said: Star Trek works best as a television show. TV allows writers the time to develop stories, races, villains, plots, that don't need to be wrapped up in 2 hours. Even when there are singular villains, TV allows for the complexity of a Gul Dukat, Weyoun or Kai Winn, the slow evolution of a character from whiny dweeb (Wesley) or ethnic stereotype (Worf) into a complex hero with his or her own internal life as a character.

Movies just don't do it. There's too much pressure to be the over the top bad guy, or to develop a heroic character in the most simplistic way possible...

... to overload our senses with stupid action set pieces....
...
...or confound our brains with CGI shots that progressively numb us to reality and make us forget the plot, if any (a la Star Wars Episode 3)...

Ugh.

OK. Summary time.

Best case scenario: all of my fears are unfounded. Abrams and his team craft a story that is not only dramatic and entertaining, but also rings true to the Trek ethos, respects what has come before, and wins legions of new fans to the franchise, allowing it to spread its wings again on television, the medium which can best accommodate its big ideas and scope.

Medium case scenario: It's a dumb, pretty action movie which gains some fans, but turns off others. It is not true to the ethos and simply works to offend the faithful. It may result in more movies or perhaps another Enterprise-level show. This walk through with comments by Abrams seems to confirm this as the most likely, e.g. "This is a treatment of Star Trek with action and comedy and romance and adventure, as opposed to a rather talky geekfest."

Worst case: It's an incomprehensible disaster which turns off both the mouth-breaters and the intellectual Trekkers. CBS/Paramount decides to call the whole thing off and Star Trek ;languishes for decades, giving us nothing new to watch, enjoy, debate, love, or hate.

Which will it be? I don't know. You tell me. Here is an article which does nothing to quell these fears (the linked articles are informative as well. In the meantime, here's another pretty picture.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Modern Snake Oil: The "Upconverter"

I've finally lost it. I simply cannot take one more mention of, news story about, or claim that an "upconverting dvd player" will give you a picture which is "almost as good as HD."

A quick primer: digital devices display an image at a certain resolution. Many PC monitors, for instance, display at 1,024 x 768. This means the image is 1,024 pixels wide by 768 pixels tall, making for a total of 786,432 discrete pieces of possible information which can be displayed on your screen. Most TVs before the big HD/flat panel wave display an image at 720 x 480, which multiplies out to 345,600 pixels. Less information, right? Certainly you've noticed that your PC monitor looks sharper than your old TV. Most new televisions display images at 1280 x 720 or 1920 x 1080 resolution, equaling 921,600 and 2,073,600 pixels, respectively. This is significantly more detail than is possible with a 480i/p screen.

Wait: i or p? Don't fret. I stands for "interlaced" while p stands for "progressive." This simply describes the way the display renders the image on the screen. Have you ever seen a video of a TV screen on TV? Notice how it flickers? That's interlacing. The screen renders half the image at a time - faster than your eye can see, but not fast enough to fool a camera. Old style PC monitors have a setting called "refresh rate" which fiddles with the speed at which the screen interlaces. The higher the refresh rate, the less likely you will notice any flickering while the screen draws each half of the image. On the other hand, if you take a video or a still picture of a progressive screen, you will always see the entire thing, no flickering whatsoever. That's because the display draws the entire image and it doesn't have to refresh 24 or 30 times a second, instead the display merely needs to keep up with changes in the image (this is not refresh rate, but response time). It looks more stable than an interlaced image.

All right, i/p lesson complete. So: DVD was introduced the mid 1990s, with the intent of offering a good storage medium for computer files as well as a better video source than VHS. VHS plays an analog image at 330 x 480, for a total of 158,400 pixels on the screen. This is sort of a pseudo-480i image - it doesn't offer the full horizontal resolution. DVD, on the other hand, is encoded digitally at 720 x 480, for a total of 345,600 pixels. As anyone could plainly see, even on an old television, DVD offered a picture which was twice as sharp at VHS. All was good. We were all in video nirvana.

But then, TV got better. High definition televisions, or those capable of displaying 720p and up, hit the market. Programming was sparse at first, but eventually networks and PBS stations began offering programs recorded and encoded at 720p and even 1080i (but not p) over the air. Just as the comparison between VHS and DVD, seeing the difference between an image at 345,600 vs. one at 2,073,600 pixels was pretty glaring. Things look "real" at the much higher resolutions. We want THAT for our movies!

So, enterprising DVD player manufacturers set to work on adapting the most successful video format ever (DVD) to these new sets. Well, heck, if you can just show the 480p disc at 720p or 1080p resolutions, it will look better, right?

Well, no. Imagine that the 480p image is composed of 480 lines alternating between red and blue (forget for the moment why you would wish to watch such an image!). If you "upconverted" that image to 960p, what would you have? You'd have an image full of lines which are two pixels wide instead of one pixel wide. You are not seeing any more detail. There are still and always only 480 lines.

But remember that digital displays such as LCD monitors display everything at their native resolution, whatever it is. Many LCD screens used for home theater viewing, for instance, display at 1366 x 768. That's 1,049,088 pixels. Woo hoo! That's more detailed than DVD, right? Sure, if you feed it a signal that has more detail that DVD. But if you pop in a DVD, you will still see that same image of 480 alternating lines. They'll just be 1.6 pixels wide instead of 1 pixel wide... uh, oh... what happens when you "upconvert" an image to a resolution which doesn't neatly correspond to a multiple of the original image?

This is where the wonderful world of "scaling" comes in. 2 pixels can't display 1.6 pixels worth of information. They can display 0, 1, or 2 pixels. Those are the only options. It's like a Lite-Brite. There are only so many holes to punch those pegs into, see? So the scaler needs to do what your childhood brain does when you try to render a picture into a Lite-Brite: decide which lines can be lost and which ones can be stretched to average out into a picture which looks just as real to your brain as the original. (Of course, Lite-Brite pictures never look that real... but that's just because the resolution is so crappy! ;-) It involves lots of math and circuitboards, but essentially, your 720p LCD screen scales the 480p image from a DVD to fit the resolution of the screen., deciding which lines to add and lose to aberage out into a picture which looks to your brain identical to the 480p image.

But you only get what you pay for, right? Some scalers are better than others. Usually, though not always, the more expensive the TV you bought, the better scaler it has on board. Some TVs present a picture which seems to be swimming with jagged lines or "shimmering" - because it is making poor choices of which lines to add or drop. Better TVs make better choices, presenting you with a smooth, uniform image that delivers on detail but doesn't swim with extra noise.

THIS IS WHAT AN "UPSCALING" DVD PLAYER CAN DO FOR YOU. If you have a cheaper TV, it may well be that a DVD player with its own scaler will do a better job converting a 480p dvd image into a 720p or 1080p one. It will not ADD detail to an image. It will REDUCE unwanted "false information" from the image. It will make better choices as far as which lines to add or drop when converting the image. ALL TELEVISIONS AT 720P OR ABOVE "UPSCALE" OR "UPCONVERT" EVERY IMAGE FED INTO THEM. You do not need a new DVD player to do this. The question is simply whether a DVD player can do it better than your TV.

High definition images have 921,600 or 2,073,600 pixels in them. People who claim that they get an image which looks "just as good as HD" from a disc which has 345,600 pixels worth of information are either grossly misinformed, legally blind, or lying through their teeth.

The last option, for instance: during the whole Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD imbroglio, "upconverting" was being sold to the average consumer as a good alternative to upgrading to a new format. Oddly enough, most of these recommendations were being proselytized by the HD-DVD camp, in an effort to prevent people from buying Blu-Ray players, and likely in an attempt to get them to avoid HD disc adoption altogether, in preference for future digital download formats. Turns out, Microsoft was behind the "proselytizing effort," and its notoriously soft support for HD-DVD was seen by many (including me) as an attempt to prolong the format war, weakening both formats in advance of its own digital downloads.

Another thing to realize in the claim "just as good as HD"... just as good as WHAT high definiton? The cable going into your TV is capable of relaying a certain maximum amount of information. Which do you think has more information - an image with 345,600 pixels, or an image with 921,600 pixels? That's right, the higher one. So if you decide that of your 100 channels, you're going to switch 50 of them to 921,600 pixels, what are you left with? A bandwidth crunch. The coaxial cable can only push through a certain amount of data. When you reach that physical limit, something has to give. Some times, it's going to be that standard definition channels - heck, since they didn't look that good anyway, who cares if they look a teeny bit worse? Let's just send an image at VHS resolution, 158,400 pixels. Great! But the bandwidth savings there aren't as big as the savings in reducing the quality of high definition signals... what if you were to compress a 2,073,600 pixel signal down to, say, 800,000 pixels? That's a big savings in bandwidth. And it still looks "better" than a 345,600 pixel image, so great, everyone's happy. Most consumers won't be able to tell the difference, right?

Except we can, if we have the facts, and we have things to compare the crappy, compressed-to-shit images on cable services like Comcast and DirecTV to. Like Blu-Ray. Blu-Ray discs have a lot of storage space, and connections with precisely the amount of bandwidth necessary to display a 1080p image in perfect clarity and detail.

Look, I own an "upconverting" player, the Oppo DV971H. I think it's a fantastic player, and I do indeed have it set to scale from 480p to 1080i. Why? Because I think its onboard scaler does a slightly better job than the scaler in my Sony SXRD set. But I don't think that a DVD on it, let's say "The Prestige," looks better than a Blu-Ray of the same movie played on my Playstation 3. I've compared the two side by side (much to my girlfriend's chagrin...). There's a difference. It's not "near" anything. It's as good as a DVD will look on my setup, and I'm glad for it. But the Blu-Ray is WAY clearer and sharper, and has deeper colors, better blacks, and punchier sound to boot.

So please, please, please... don't go around saying that your "upconverting" player gives you a "near-HD" image. What your upconverting player is doing instead is giving you a near-480p image! If you had a 720x480 digital display, and a player which mapped the disc pixel to pixel, you'd have the best possible image from your DVD. But there are only ever 345,600 pixels of information. Blowing than number of pixels up to 2,073,600 does not increase the amount of information - indeed, it may end up losing information because of inadequate scaling from one size to another, since the multiple of the size is not a round number. An "upscaler" might blow the image up better than your TV, it might not. But the best it can possibly do is render the image in all its 480p glory and clarity. It will never look 720p, 1080p, or any number inbetween. And in all likelihood, it will look less than 480p.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Top 25 Video Games of All Time

Like many in my generation, I grew up with video games. I had seen and fiddled with Pong, the Fairchild Channel F, and various arcade games as early as age 5. But Video Gaming as a lifelong obsession began when my parents got me an Atari 2600. I was never the most athletic kid, and maybe video games had something to do with that (though I played a lot outside, riding my bike, in sandboxes, etc.), but video games provided me, a kid who wasn't going to excel in little league, with a world of excitement and imagination which was a great complement to my books, my legos, and my drawings. It added a technological element to the pursuit of fun which you can't really find otherwise. It was something both a solitary player and a group of friends could do.

My parents bought the family an Apple IIc (the "c" is for compact... hah!) personal computer in about 1984. And while typing and such were things that were pursued, gaming encroached on that machine, too. Then, the waiting began. When, oh when, would my parents finally consent to upgrade us into the true technological marvel of the 1980's, the Nintendo Entertainment System? One of my other backward friends and I clung to our Atari 2600's, jealously espying our more "fortunate" friends who were loading up with the NES greats. It must have been 6th grade before I was finally blessed by the presence of Super Mario, Link, Samus, and the rest. And by then, of course, we also had an IBM PC (as they used to call them) which ran DOS, then Windows 3.1, and eventually (gasp!) Windows 95. I skipped the 16 bit and 32 bit generations of console systems because of the PC, and portables like Gameboy, too. The PC was enough for me. I eventually bought a PS2 for myself in no small part to have a DVD player, and since then, have had a Dreamcast, Xbox, Gamecube, Xbox 360, and PS3.

So my path through video gaming, though by no means outrageously different, is individual, as is anyone else's. When I reminisce over my absolute favorite games, these reminisces are colored by what I had, what I was exposed to. So if I were to compile a list (Of COURSE I will compile a list!), it would have curious gaps and emphases.

So without further ado, here are my personal top 25 games of all time:

25. Microsoft Golf

I played this game to death during my last year of high school and my first year of college. It's a simple little thing, with rudimentary pseudo 3-D representations of golf courses, and what may be the first click interface in a golf game (though NES Open Tournament Golf may have it beat). I would put in a tape (!) of "Pretty Hate Machine" on the stereo in our computer room, and rock out while perfecting my score on Torrey Pines. It was a nice escape from the drudgery and general evil of high school cliques, and my lovelorn first year of college. Apparently, this is a singular obsession. I can't find a good, descriptive link to provide you with!

24. Karateka


This is one of the games that first blew my mind as to what a personal computer could do over and above a home console. I first played it in computer camp (yeah, I know) in 3rd grade. As far as action games go, I had played only Atari games before this one. The graphics, animation, the music, the storyline, it was just leaps and bounds above what I had experienced before. I don't think I had ever experienced that kind of tension in a game, such as when that mother-f$%^&-ing bird killed me over and over, or when I finally exploded the damn beast and beat Akuma. I also don't think I've ever been as shocked as when I approached Princess Mariko in a fighting stance by accident...

23. Missile Command

I experienced this on the Atari 2600, though there is a version with a track ball in the arcades. Nonetheless, I was freaked out by it. I knew what the game represented in the early 80s, when I was mortified by the prospect of nuclear war and scared nightly by the evil, malevolent face of Ronald Reagan on the TV news. Freaked out though I may have been, though, the game kept me coming back for more. It's definitely one of those "in the zone" games, where some part of your brain turns off while others are sharpened to a fine point. The trippy changing color schemes were also nifty, in my book.

22. Wolfenstein 3D

Seeing Karateka for the first time was what seeing Wolf3D was like. Mind blowing. It's charmingly quaint, now, but blasting Nazis in "3-d" corridors, getting attacked facially by evil dogs, exploring rooms, not knowing what lay behind each door, this was a new experience. It laid the groundwork for the whole FPS genre, which I promptly said a big "meh" to. Once you get over that initial rush of the new and different, you see them all as Wolf3D clones. At least I did.

21. Qix

I never played this game in the arcade or on a console. I discovered it in emulation a few years ago. Which, to me, is the best argument for it. The works of artists and craftsmen which otherwise would go forgotten can be enjoyed and appreciated anew by future generations. Damn, this is a fun game. It's so simple, almost like abstract art in a way. Subdivide the field to control it. Kind of like Tron mixed with Go. I can't recommend it enough if you have a MAME emulation program.

20. Taipan!

My other great Apple IIc obsession... this game is essentially a number generator with a threadbare story. You are an Asian sea-captain who wants to build a financial empire from your first borrowed ship. The dastardly moneylender Li Yuen will loan you some scratch to do it, but boy, when the debt piles up, he sends fleets of ships after you. Better upgrade those guns, buy some opium low and sell it high to keep the coffers full, and hope you can outrun that fleet of 150 ships! Brain-bustingly addictive, even though it is beyond simplistic.

19. Ikaruga

I think it's fair to say that a lot of boys who spent their formative years in a certain part of the 70's and 80's love space shooters. We grew up on Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (the cheesy one), and The Last Starfighter. So to play a game that captures that sci-fi feeling and mixes in zen-like "in the zone" gameplay is a treat beyond compare. Ikaruga is possibly the greatest refinement of the space shooter formula - you against a horde of enemy spaceships, saving something or other, one hit and you're kablooey. Ikaruga switches things up, literally, by having you change colors to absorb enemy fire. The patterns created are brain-bendingly mesmerizing.

18. Final Fantasy X

Japanese Role Playing Games can be an acquired taste. With their effeminate teenage boy protagonists, bizarre creatures and aesthetics, and sometimes punishing "grinding" style of level-up play, they can be a tough sell to adrenaline-addled American gamers. Final Fantasy X, however, found the right balance between the stylistic tropes of the genre and an engaging story, fun side games (the ballgames), and leveling up. This is still the only game in the series I've finished, though I'm working on 12, which is a great game in its own right.

17. Soul Calibur

Japanese fighting games, on the other hand, have never been very difficult for American gamers to sink their teeth into. The combination of ripped men, busty women, kicking serious ass, and beautiful backdrops, has not been a hard sell. Soul Calibur represents possibly the finest balance between a game which is easy to learn and hard to master, combined with incredibly fluid animation, pretty backgrounds, and great looking characters. When a game released on Dreamcast still looks good compared to today's best, you know you've got a technical marvel.

16. Frogger

I was introduced to this game on the 2600, but have played the arcade and Colecovision versions as well. This was a game which was so addictive, it infiltrated the way my friends and I played in the real world. We had a walkbridge to our elementary school which crossed a freeway. So we'd go to the bridge and "cross" it, having to "avoid" the passing cars. Were we dorks? The answer is... yes. Simple, elegant, arcade brilliance. Immortalized on Seinfeld, no less.

15. Knights of the Old Republic
When you start melding video gaming with other great nerd obsessions, you either create disasters which inspire the vituperative scorn of geeks everywhere, or you induce what is known, scientifically as "nerdgasm." KOTOR (as it is known) falls squarely into the second category. It does the nearly impossible: it created a character, not vehicle-based game out of the Star Wars intellectual property, it avoided the awful prequel plotline altogether even though it came out in 2003, and it kicked f#$%-ing A$$. You play an errant Jedi in the time of the ancient old republic, and you can decide to become good or evil, with portentous consequences for the galaxy. Customizing your costume and lightsaber only adds to the nerd-gastic possibilities.

14. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
If there were a property which might have the potential to incite nerdgasmic reactions if translated to video game that was any where near that of Star Wars, it would be Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, there just hasn't been a truly great LOTR game yet. But our consolation prize is Oblivion, which is LOTR in almost every respect but name. Customize your avatar from among several races, join a guild, and fight, live, learn, love in a hyper-detailed 3-dimensional world. This is one of the best games of the "current generation," whatever that means. Mainly, it means you need 3 ghz of processing power and lots of RAM to play it. Which, frankly, the best way to do in the current marketplace is on a home console like the PS3 or Xbox 360. Anyway, this game kicks some serious tookus. It really raises the bar for an interactive world, and makes the nerds among us salivate at the prospect of a game this powerful set in one of our favored geeky universes (I want Star Trek, myself...)

13. Ms. Pac-Man
Girls do it better. Was Ms. Pac-Man a blow for women's lib in the 1980s? I don't know. If anything, Centipede would be a better candidate. What I do know is that this game wipes the floor with the original Pac-Man any day. Sublimely addictive, with loads of color and variety, yet the same divinely simple gameplay as the original, this may be the ultimate "classic" arcade game out there to introduce a gamer of any taste to. I may have one or two which trump it for me personally, but the utter genius of design here cannot be denied. You go, girl!

12. Ico
Video games are known to incite certain emotions in players. Fright, tension, exhilaration in victory, ignominy in defeat. But love, caring, empathy? These are harder to come by in a universe of explosions and bludgeoning. Ico breaks the mold however, making your avatar an exiled boy who labors to save a mysterious, ethereal princess. Oh, geez, another princess story? Don't scoff. The subtle mechanisms of the controls, the gorgeous, dreamy graphics, and the way the characters interact will have you feeling for your companion in this game like no other game before. This game is a work of art, pure and simple. It excels visually, but it also creates art in a way that other media cannot, with interaction.

11. Tetris
Probably the most played video game, world wide, in history. Why? Simplicity. The blocks fall. You have to fit them into each other. This game takes a concept so simple that any child, from Albania to Zimbabwe, has experienced it in one way or another, and puts it on a screen. Addictive, infuriating, fun.

10. Crazy Taxi
Even if it were nothing else, this game would have the singular distinction of making the music of The Offspring palatable. But that's not all this driving game gem has to offer. It also has thumb blisters galore to offer. Because it is so soul-rendingly addictive that despite your bleeding, raw digits, pummeled into pulp by the notoriously unforgiving Dreamcast controller, you will still want to play "one... more... game..." You are a taxi driver. You have 60 seconds on your clock. Pick up fares in a pseudo San Fran, take them to Pizza Hut or Tower Records, among other destinations, and collect your fare while recharging your game clock. Simple, yes? Another great in the "easy to learn, difficult to master" category. Thank goodness it's on a home console though, because the quarters this would consume in an arcade would weigh down even the hardiest nerd specimen.

9. The Legend of Zelda
My first memory of this game was its color. Not the colors of the graphics, but of the cartridge. It was gold. GOLD! If there's a way to grab a ten year old's attention, that just might be it. What untold wonders would this bizarre, GOLDEN video game contain within? Well, thank goodness for Nintendo, it contained untold wonders aplenty. The amount of territory to cover, the obscurity of its clues, and the number of items to wield was just about mind-blowing. It controlled well, it looked great for its day, and it had in spades what few other games could compete in: wonder. You control Link, and guide him on his quest to reunite the pieces of the mythical tri-force, in order to destroy the evil Ganon. Shigeru Miyamoto may be best known for Mario, but damn, this dude knows his games. It's like being Shakespeare and Milton rolled into one. Creating two of the most enduring franchises ever is no mean feat, and it is well deserved. Zelda's gameplay stands up to this day, twenty years later.

8. Galaga

While I have a special place in my heart for the hot babe known as Ms. Pac-Man (even if she does have a kid...), this one reigns in my heart as the greatest arcade game ever. Why? Balance, Daniel-san. Namco took Galaxian, a fine game in its own right in the long line of Space Invaders clones, and improved everything about it, creating a supremely tuned top down space shooter which still sucks quarters out of pockets 25 years after its debut. It is faster, more difficult, and has more strategy (with the potential to "sacrifice" a ship only to win it back, creating a double-firing ship) than any other space shooter of its day. I'm of the opinion that this game represents the optimum balance between simplicity and complexity. Ikaruga and Gradius are great games, but Galaga did it both first and arguably did it better. This game created zones of focus and awareness that few other games can match. An absolute classic.

7. Super Mario Bros.

Speaking of absolute classics, how about these chops: a game which rescued an entire industry and whose title character has gone on to sell more games than any other. A game whose theme song will be burned into countless brains until their dying gasps. A game which redefined what was possible in video games. Super Mario Bros. was the game that blew the lid off my preconceptions (formed by the Atari 2600) of what video games could do. Seeing it at a friend's house for the first time, busting that first invisible block, descending down the pipes into the underworld, this was a down-the-rabbit-hole kind of experience. But let us not praise it for its place in history only - it is also a perfectly tuned gameplay masterpiece. The controls seem to melt away as you concentrate on your goal. You never fight the game, you fight the enemies the game presents you, and your own abilities to time jumps and reach goals. Future iterations of the series may have added things which are superior, but stripped down to their essentials, they are still Super Mario Bros. It is a perfect game, simple and deep, boundless in its ability to command attention and induce fun in its players.

6. Burnout 3: Takedown

This is where the list gets more rarefied, and more personal. How can Burnout 3 beat Super Mario Bros.? Blasphemy? Well, for one thing, the difference between a 7 and a 6 on a list like this is negligible. But also, it comes down to personal taste. I dig deep games with lots of options, that suck you into an altered brain state and addict you hopelessly, inspiring "just one more play..." And in that, Burnout beats Super Mario. This is a game, despite what the folks at Criterion Games would say, which was worlds ahead in quality of both its predecessors and its followers. It has the optimum balance between unlocking new cars, event types, graphics, and appeal for many players. Crash mode in particular is a standout - more a puzzle game than a racing one, Crash mode has you barrel into an intersection looking to cause the most monetary damage. Let me tell you, load up Crash mode in a room of the staunchest non-gamers, and see who can resist it. The racing is also hella-fun, with retina-searing velocities depicted on screen, excellent, twitchy tuning on the controls and on the cars, and a wonderful endorphin high earned upon a win (or a takedown, in which you smash a rival). If it weren't for sucky load times, this game would be perfect. Given its quality, the load times of a disc based system are excused.

5. Tie Fighter

Remember the rules of nerd-gasm? This one follows them all: Star Wars, technology, being awesome. It adds the extra cool element of letting you play for the bad guys, too. While I loved X-Wing, also for the DOS PC, Tie Fighter did everything that game did and did it better. Beyond its tight controls, great (for their day) graphics, interesting storyline, and sweet music, this game had something which could keep you glued to your seat even as you simply inspected enemy vessels or waited five minuted for an enemy ship to show up: atmosphere. It FEELS like being inside Star Wars. Nothing can beat that. As a side note, this game also had an unbelievably kick-butt 3-dimensional map utility which allowed you to see where ships were in 3-D space, and replay a mission from start to finish while analyzing your trajectory, weapons fired, etc. Wow. They don't make them like this any more.

4. Grand Theft Auto 3

After Super Mario Bros., could there ever be another game which so redefined the boundaries of video gaming? It seems unlikely. But quantum leaps happen now and again, and GTA3 represents one fo them. Formerly a top-down game of stealing and racing autos, the folks at Rockstar Games so improved its sequel that one wonders if alien influence is responsible, like Stonehenge, or the Pyramids. Migrating the game to a 3-d world, Rockstar creates an entire city for you to play in. And you don't just drive cars. You also walk around shoot things with dozens of weapons (in the car or out of it), you buy stuff, you pick up hookers, you play crazy taxi, you put out fires, you listen to one of a dozen radio stations with hours of content, you figure out whether you can fly an airplane into a baseball stadium. "Freedom" doesn't begin to describe the feeling a player got when he or she first experienced GTA3. And while its sequels have expanded those freedoms or improved graphics, music, and the like, the original quantum leap still stands as a great game to play on its own merits. Endlessly imitated but never equalled. Is there a higher accolade for a game to receive?

3. Metroid

As much as I think Super Mario and Zelda are spectacular, genre-defining games, Metroid is the one that really got me as a kid. I always liked science fiction, so its setting was perfect as a verdant field for my imaginings. The music, the black background, the persistent world with hidden rooms, out of reach doors, and exploration potential unrivalled at the time, all of these things had a profound effect on a young psyche. This game oozes atmosphere, is technically refined, fills the barest story outline with the imagination of the player, looks great, has amazing music, and is just simply the finest NES game, to my mind, ever. In an era before the Internet, a twisty, seemingly never-ending arrangement of paths defied the ability of a 10 or 11 year old to describe without lapsing into the kid-speak of the day: awesome, radical, cool, the superlatives just keep coming. My friend Joey Zappia and I played this game for untold hours, taking turns trying to reach a seemingly unreachable room, hoping against hope we had enough energy tanks to finally outwit the soul-draining Metroid monsters and take out the dreaded Mother Brain. And then, to top it off, once you beat the game, you realize that your character, Samus Aran, has been a GIRL the whole time? Woah, dude, total mind-f$%#!

2. Sim City 2000

Now we have arrived at the part of the list in which we transition from games which were great, which took up a lot of time, and get into games which sucked up on the order of 200+ hours total due to their sheer addictiveness, and inspired 6-hour at a time binges which last until the morning sun creeps over the horizon. For some people, the Grand Theft Auto series does this, for some it is a sports game like Madden NFL. But for me, it is this genre, the "god game." What does that say about me? I don't know (or don't want to know...). But what I can say with certainty is that these are the two games which I have to hide. There is an everpresent danger of them creeping back into my life and destroying relationships, schoolwork, hygiene, sleep. They're that good. Sim City 2000 places you in the role of city manager - a city manager who can erect or bulldoze any building, move roads, even raise and lower terrain, rechart rivers - as long as the budget permits. Sim City 2000 improved upon its predecessor Sim City Classic, by jazzing up its graphics from a nondescript top down perspective to an isometric faux-3d, by making the commercial model more complex (but not unweildy), and adding types of buildings and utilities that allow you to create truly sprawling megalopolises. You create sports teams and name them, lay zoos and parks and any number of cool structures. If a disaster strikes, and your city is big enough, a tiny superhero will even appear! (Danger... nerd-gasm alert...) So why SC2000 and not its sequels Sim City 3000 and Sim City 4? I've said it before and I'll say it again: balance. This time, not just balance of gameplay, but balance of performance. The other games, though they add some great improvements (and lose some, as well) and improve the graphics, do not truly innovate the formula, and run more unstably on an average PC because of their technological improvements (SC3000 is a close one to SC2K - it was tough to pick one). This game (and series of games) gets you to think on a macroeconomic scale, finely tuning your taxes and public services so that they achieve the best possible results. I think the game relies on a Laffer Curve theory of economics... but that is perhaps beside the point. The point is, this game is digital crack to the nth degree. It is perhaps eclipsed by only one other game in this respect...

1. Civilization 2

If there is a game which combines aspects that trump my love of urban planning, architecture and public policy, it is a game which stimulates my love of history, politics, science, technology, and the sweep of human events. Which is what Sid Meier's Civilization series is all about. Here is a game that starts you off in 6000 BC, at the helm of a group of nomads, founding your first city in the start of a great human project of creating and expanding a culture. Not only that, but the coolest way to "win" is to have your culture, usually around 2000 AD, design and launch a space ship to colonize nearby planets with! You research advances starting with agriculture and proceeding through atomic power, encourage artistic and creative expression, compete with other cultures around the globe to expand and dominate the world scene... it's just everything I wish I could do in real life, distilled into video game form. A humanist like myself is just tickled pink by a game which challenges the player to create the best society for its citizens. An addiction was sure to follow. And so it did... this is one of those games that I can start up, and ... whoops, how did 45 minutes just pass? Oh, no matter... wait, now it's 4 in the morning? It's sort of like delerium tremens for an alcoholic. Lost time, lost sleep, burning obsession. This is what video games can be. Try at your own risk, whether it be Civ 2 or any of its sequels. Civ 2 wins the prize for being the first in the series to add to complexity while keeping it manageable and easy to run on any PC. I've recently purchased Civ 4, though, so we'll just see which game is better in the end...

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So there we have it. 25 games, which I estimate I've logged a good 1300 hours with over my lifetime. It gets a little dizzying (and disgusting) when you chart that out. 56 days. 8 weeks. Eek. I'll just have to chalk it up to a recreational activity which lubricates and allows the other 30 odd years of existence to function efficiently and happily. Hmm. Yeah. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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Honorable Mentions

Katamari Damacy

Na na, na na na na na naaaaahh..... Trippy Japanese weirdness at its finest. You are a cosmic prince, who must repopulate the cosmos after your father's drunken bender had destroyed countless stars and planets. How to do this, you ask? Why, by rolling a giant ball of garbage around the neighborhood and picking up thousands of pieces of flotsam, of course! Royal Rainbow!!!

Rez

Trippy Japanese weirdness part deux... this on-rails shooter with thumping techno beats features a story about helping a computerized consciousness evolve (or something), and features graphics ripped from Tron.

Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore

Brought boob physics to the forefront of gamer consciousness. But in addition was also a kick-ass fighting game with loads of unlockable costumes, sprawling, multi-tiered fighting stages, and great button-mashing gameplay.

Homeworld

A BSG-style story before BSG was cool again. Married to an awesome 3-D RTS framework. And amazing, ambient music. The manual wasa great read, too, written by real writers and filled with a fun sci-fi story.

Jedi Knight

All the nerdiness of Star Wars, all the back cramping FPS mouse and keyboard gameplay of Wolfenstein!