Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Mario Party 9

The Mario Party series has been Nintendo's staple multiplayer party franchise for well over a decade.  Over the course of fourteen years, twelve different games in the series have been churned out.  Save for a brief diversion from the formula in Mario Party Advance, all the games in the series played largely the same, simply receiving a few tweaks and a new coat of paint each year.  After Mario Party 8 and Mario Party DS were both released in 2007, the series disappeared.  Now, five years later, Mario Party returns in a refreshed and updated new form.  The result is Mario Party 9, a faster and sleeker installment that addresses many of the recurring issues that have plagued previous games but still hangs on to a few issues that have been present for the entire run of the series.

First off, the long time collectables of the series, stars and coins, are out.  Mini Stars and Mini Ztars are in, effectively combining both collectables into one.  Rather than saving up coins to purchase power stars, you continuously rack up a total of Mini Stars throughout the game.  Collecting Mini Ztars will, logically enough, remove Mini Stars from your total.  The person with the most Mini Stars at the end of the game wins.

The board game component of the series has also been giving a significant update.  Players now all move together on a linear path, rather than exploring a board one at a time.  Each turn sees a different player become the "captain" allowing them to roll the dice and continue along the path as well as sometimes receiving special bonuses for being the player in charge.  The spaces on the board have all kinds of effects, from shuffling the turn order, activating a mini game, and even triggering boss battles, all while working toward the end goal.  As minigames no longer follow every four turns and are instead encountered more sporadically, the pacing of Mario Party 9 is much faster than other games in the series.  Gone are the days of circling the board for hours playing out turns and playing minigames over and over.  Here you are making a beeline for the finish with only the occasional minigame sprinkled in to keep things interesting.  It's a great new formula that really keeps things moving.

Also gone are the days of having to put up with annoying computer controlled opponents.  Mario Party 9 no longer forces you to use four characters when playing with two or three players.  The game plays out the same way with any number.  You still have the option to include CPU opponents if you want, though.

The minigames are one part of the game that remain essentially untouched from previous installments.  If you've played any previous Mario Party game you know just what to expect from these bite sized games.  Some have you doing basic platforming, some require pressing buttons with special timing, and some just require shaking the Wii remote like an idiot.  The minigame offering is, as a whole, a lot stronger than what was seen in Mario Party 8.  The games that rely on motion control are still kind of dodgy, but for the most part the minigames remain a fun and enjoyable component of the game, as always.

Unfortunately, Mario Party 9, perhaps more so than any other entry in the series, places a large emphasis on luck.  The Mario Party series has always been known for game changing events where players can go from first to last solely based on the roll of the dice.  Mario Party 9, however, seems to go out of its way to emphasize this more than ever.  Every board contains events that can cause players to lose half of their Mini Stars, and these events pop up far more often than one may expect.  It's pretty harsh.  There are also still the requisite minigames that are purely luck based as well.  Luck has always been a major component in the series, but it can feel particularly cheap in this installment, especially on the occasions that the game seems to turn against you and throw everything it can at you to keep you behind.

As always, Mario Party 9 becomes extremely tedious to play when playing in single player.  The faster pace of the boards does at least mean that you spend less time watching CPU players take their turns.  They still have a nasty habit of ganging up on the single player, though.  Mario Party 9 really demands more than one player to fully be enjoyed.  It still retains the frustrating luck-based elements of the previous games in the series, but the new style of play provides a welcome breath of fresh air.  After a half-decade absence, Mario Party 9 brings the series back in fine form.  If you've got some friends to party with, I recommend picking it up.  If nothing else, you can at least get a laugh out of all the terrible puns used throughout the adventure!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Ice Age Continental Drift

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Ice Age films.  On one hand, I greatly enjoy the first film in the series.  It had a real nice relaxed pace to it with a some great quirky characters.  The film was also willing to shift from cartoon-y action packed slapstick to some genuinely quiet and heartfelt moments.  Overall, a very solid family film that almost anyone could enjoy.

And then they decided to make sequels, starting with Ice Age: The Meltdown.  The series managed to survive one sequel reasonably unscathed.  It was a lot goofier than the first movie but it managed to maintain some of the same tone that made the first movie so enjoyable and it still told a decent story that followed up Manny's character arc pretty nicely.  Then things really went off track with the third one, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  Sid sums it up pretty well in Continental Drift when he says, "We fought dinosaurs in the ice age!  It didn't make sense but it sure was exciting!"  Any semblance to the first film was gone by that point.  Subtlety and character development were abandoned entirely for over the top pratfalls and cheap jokes.  Not even Scrat, the acorn-obsessed rodent who consistently provides the best humor in the series, could save Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

But it made a ton of money and now we have Ice Age Continental Drift.  Scrat, in his never ending attempt to bury his acorn, manages to break through the Earth's core, causing Pangaea to separate into the individual continents we know and love today.  And, seriously, these continents are booking it.  Earthquakes abound as huge land masses break apart and drift off into the ocean.  It recalls the visuals of the ice bowl breaking apart in The Meltdown but on a much MUCH larger scale.  In the ensuing chaos Manny, Diego, and Sid are thrust out to sea on a tiny chunk of ice with no means of getting back.

Manny, of course, is desperate to return to his wife Ellie and their daughter Peaches.  Remember Peaches?  She was born at the end of the last movie?  Yeah, she's inexplicably a teenager already to try and draw in that ever lucrative tween demographic.  But we'll get to that later.  Sid is stuck keeping an eye on his crazy grandmother who was left in his care prior to the earth-shattering side effects of Scrat's antics. just kind of there, as he has been for the previous two films.  But not to worry!  He actually gets something to do in this film...

Bring on the pirates!  I'm not kidding.  Pirates.  More specifically animal pirates, led by Captain Gutt, a gorilla with a hairdo that conveniently resembles a pirate hat.  Gutt and his dastardly band of scallywags sale the seas and steal fruit from the...other animals who must be out there for some reason.  Seriously, how can they be pirates?  These are animals we're talking about!  How did they even get out there in the first place?  Are there animal sailors?  Animal ports to rob?  And what ever happened to those humans from the first movie?  Did humans go extinct?

Anyway, yeah, animal pirates.  Even though Manny, Granny, Sid, and Diego don't really have anything to steal, Gutt captures them anyway with the intent of either forcing them to be part of his crew or making them walk the plank.  Meanwhile, Manny tries to hatch a plan to capture Gutt's "ship" so they can catch a ride back home on a current.  And there's also some stuff about enslaving little Ewok-lookin' things and also a love interest is introduced for Diego.  (See?  I told you he has a  purpose in this film.)  Oh, and then some deadly sirens show up to menace the group for no particular reason, too.  Did you know that sirens existed during the ice age?  Me neither.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the continent continues to split apart causing a giant cliff to start rapidly encroaching on the herd's home.  So it's Ice Age 2 all over again as the pack of assorted animals heads out in a race against time to reach safety in the form of a land bridge that's safe because...Manny said it was.  Except, with Manny now off battling pirates it's up to Ellie, the only other adult mammoth around, to take charge and lead the way.  Meanwhile, Peaches struggles with the fact that she doesn't quite fit in with the other mammoths because she's half-possum (because that's hereditary?) and ends up insulting her molehog friend, Louis, while trying to impress a group of teenaged mammoths.  Awkward hijinks ensue.

Whew.  Let me catch my breath.  Apparently the filmmakers decided to take a page out of the Pirates of the Caribbean book, and made their movie as convoluted as possible.  Continental Drift suffers from an issue that has plagued the Ice Age franchise from the second installment on: there are way too many characters.  Plus, how are there other teenage mammoths?  Where are those mammoths' parents?  Manny and Ellie are the only adult mammoths shown.  What happened to all the other mammoths?  Oy.

Okay, I've ranted enough. Time to be more positive.  First, I can say this:  Ice Age Continental Drift is a massive improvement over Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  The franchise has definitely wandered to a place so far from what the original film was about that it's barely recognizable as the same franchise.  That said, if the filmmakers wish to take the series in a much more over-the-top cartoony direction and abandon the pseudo-reality of the first film, this feels like a much better way to go about doing so.  The pirates, though out of place, actually do make for some reasonably compelling villains.  And the love interest plot for Diego, though obvious and predictable, is handled in a way that really does seem to give Diego's character some badly needed purpose again.  And it's certainly a better subplot than being terrified of water.  Peaches' story is pretty painful to watch, but Ellie filling Manny's shoes as the leader of the herd is probably the best role she's had yet.

Series veteran John Powell returns to provide the score for the third time.  Powell both follows and breaks my number one rule about sequel soundtracks: retaining character themes and continuity with previous films.  While David Newman's character themes introduced and used to great effect in the first film are once again absent, Powell continues to weave the themes he introduced in The Meltdown into the score of Continental Drift.  So, at the very least, the three Ice Age sequels have a nice consistent sound to their soundtracks.

 It's also worth noting that Scrat is back in fine form this time around.  Whereas the increased emphasis on over-the-top slapstick feels odd with the other characters, it greatly benefits Scrat.  And, thankfully, Scratte, the awful love interest of the previous film, is nowhere to be found save for a very brief (and fitting) cameo.  Scrat is back to his usual acorn chasing antics and while his role is much less prominent this time around, it may be some of the funniest material with him yet.

So, in the end, Ice Age Continental Drift is a vast improvement on its predecessor, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  Some characters do get lost in the shuffle, but I really did find myself enjoying a lot of scenes and the film does manage to deliver some legitimately good jokes.  Including a few that aren't even in the trailer!   It still falls short of the original Ice Age, but of the three sequels that followed it, Continental Drift may be the best of the bunch.

Peaches:  "So, tell me.  When exactly will I be allowed to hang out with boys?"
Manny:  "When I'm dead.  Plus three days.  Just to make sure I'm dead."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Shameless Plug: The Phil Vischer Podcast

Howdy howdy, folks.  Welcome to the first edition of a recurring series that probably won't end up ever recurring again: "Shameless Plug."  In this one-shot recurring series, I link to other cool stuff online that's probably more entertaining than the blog you're currently reading.  Because after reading the nonsense I write here, I feel it's my duty to society to provide some legitimate entertainment to make up for it.  And today I'm shamelessly plugging:

I'm a longtime fan of Phil Vischer.  As the creator of VeggieTales, one of my favorite shows growing up, Phil has had a presence in my life for a great many years.  But after reading Phil's autobiography "Me, Myself, & Bob" I became much more interested in what Mr. Vischer was up to in the world today.  I strongly relate to Phil in his sharing of personal experiences, his opinions about the entertainment industry, and also his Christian beliefs and the way he applies them to his life.  His current DVD series, What's in the Bible?, is pretty much the best thing ever.

And now he has a podcast.  In every episode Phil Vischer and company discuss an unbelievable variety of subjects.  In just the couple of hours I've listened to so far, topics discussed include Disneyland, gender roles, robot uprisings, the negative connotations of being called a "baptist,"  Pixar movies, living in space, illegal tomatoes, the roles of fear in religions both Christian and otherwise, relationships, radioactive hawk poop, futurism, interpreting the concept of the "new Earth" from scripture, voice acting, and numerous other topics both funny and actually really deep and thought-provoking at times.

I'm impressed at how smoothly controversial issues are mixed with more jovial topics on this show.  The subjects vary from critiquing Disney films to discussing very challenging theological issues, but the tone generally remains relatively light and inviting.  Phil's typical wit and sense of humor are very much present and prominent, so even when discussing heavy topics the show remains fun and entertaining.  Even if you don't agree with all the views presented, you'll probably find it at least interesting to listen to.  And it's darn funny most of the time.  I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've heard so far, and I intend to continue listening for the foreseeable future!  And you should too.  (Because I'm always right, remember?)

You can check out the Phil Vischer Podcast on iTunes.
Or, if you are so inclined, you can also find it on Phil's blog.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ranking the 13 Pixar Films.

Happy Friday the 13th.  To "celebrate" I'm going to rank all 13 Pixar movies from my least favorite to my favorite.  See what I did there?  13 Pixar movies on Friday the 13th?  Eh, it's almost clever...

13. Cars 2
Yeah, it's the obvious pick for "Worst Pixar movie."  That said, I don't really hate Cars 2 either.  It doesn't come close the level of most of the other films Pixar has created, sure, but it's not the terrible unwatchable crime against humanity that a lot of people seem to make it out to be.  It's flawed, sure.  And, it has virtually nothing to do with the first film, which is kind of annoying.  But it does make the most of the "hillbilly tow truck in a spy adventure" concept.  And tell me that doesn't sound at least kind of funny.  Cars 2 lacks heart but it is at least entertaining.  And I was surprised that, small though their roles may be, just about every character from the first movie does get some kind of part to play in this one.  So it doesn't totally abandon the established world.  It's worth watching, but probably only once.
Plus, Finn McMissile is awesome.

12. The Incredibles
Yeah, it's the...actually really not so obvious pick for so low on this list.  Why is The Incredibles so low, you ask?  It's not because it's bad film.  It's not.  Until Pixar unleashed the behemoths that were WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, The Incredibles was a film that often seemed to top a lot of Pixar favorite lists I saw.  And I do understand why.  The story is very clever, the characters are remarkably well developed and it features lots of great homages to classic spy and superhero films.  Which is fun.  But the style of this film has just never quite worked for me.  I can enjoy this film, but whenever I feel like watching a Pixar film, I almost never pick this one.  So yeah, it's not a bad film because it's low on this list.  I just didn't care for it much.  Moving on...

11. Brave
Brave, I'd say, represents a lot of potential.  It's Pixar going in a very different direction by taking the Disney princess archetype and doing their own spin on it.  And parts of the film work beautifully.  The characters are mostly enjoyable.  The atmosphere of the film is gorgeous.  And it does make for an interesting twist on the Disney-type story by making the central relationship between the mother and her daughter.  That's pretty unique for this type of film.  Stylistically, it felt like a mash-up between How to Train Your Dragon and The Secret of Kells.  And that's a mixture that really does work quite well.

To me, though, it just felt like Pixar was maybe a little too far out of their element.  From a story standpoint, I felt Brave fell just a bit short.  The pacing seems a little slow at times and too fast at others.  And some of the plot points felt rather contrived, especially Merida's extremely vague description of what she wanted to happen to her mother when she was talking to the witch, among other things.  Such moments just felt like plot contrivances to move the story in a specific direction and didn't come off very naturally.

Overall though, Brave felt like a solid step in a different direction for Pixar movies, and one I hope they explore some more with other films.  It's just probably not going to be one I revisit real often on its own.

10. Cars
Honestly, there isn't that much I legitimately dislike about Cars.  Maybe it comes from my experiences playing the Putt-Putt series in my younger years (and on my iPod last week...) or something, but I take little issue to a world of living cars.  That always seems to be why people hate it so much.  And yes, it's an easy world to pick apart the logic of if you really want to, but I don't find it hard to simply enjoy the story that's presented. My biggest issue with the film is that's just a bit on the long side and the story drags a little at times.  Beyond that, predictable though it may be, I find Cars to be a genuinely entertaining film with some great moments sprinkled throughout.  Ka-chow.

9. A Bug's Life
My feelings about A Bug's Life are very much like my feelings about Cars.  The difference here is that I think most people actually like A Bug's Life as well.  I wouldn't call it underrated so much as just overlooked.  Sandwiched between two Toy Stories, it's an easy film to forget about.  But it's really worth watching. It's got a fun story, solid characters, a great score, and oozes that special kind of charm that only Pixar films have.  It doesn't quite reach the highs of some of Pixar's later efforts, but for only their second feature film, it's pretty dang good.

8. Ratatouille
 Ratatouille is a hard film to describe.  One one hand, it's a surprisingly dark and sophisticated tale that treats it's characters very seriously and doesn't shy away from scenes that really don't feel like they were meant for kids at all.  And, on the other hand, it's a movie about a rat who cooks by controlling a human like a puppet using his hair.  Ratatouille was definitely the first Pixar movie that really started pushing the envelope of keeping the goofy silly "kids movie" type elements and mixing in much more mature adult story telling, a trend they continued with their next three films.  The only reason this film doesn't rank higher for me is because it has some similar pacing issues as Cars.  It drags a bit at times.  And good luck getting all the way through if you happen to be watching a TV airing.  This film is nearly unwatchable with commercial breaks every ten minutes...

7. Monsters Inc.
I really wish I had a higher place on the list for Monsters Inc.  It's a real testament to the quality of most Pixar films that a film I like this much wouldn't even make the Top 5.  Because I really do love Monsters Inc.  I love it's characters, I love it's concept, I love it's humor.  Pixar is great at creating duos and Mike and Sully are one of the best.  Everything about this movie works very well for the most part.  The constant scenes in generic office-building hallways can be a bit tiresome and some minor plot holes do pop up.  But this is definitely a film where the overall end product is strong enough to make the small issues almost insignificant.  I just hope Monsters University can live up to it's...uh...sequel I guess.

Now put that thing back where it came from, or so help me...

6. Up
The opening montage, the scene where Carl flips through the Adventure Book, and the Ellie Badge.  If you don't cry you're not human.  Plus, Dug is pretty funny.  Adventure is out there!  *thumbs up*

5. Finding Nemo
Holy mackerel.  (Ha ha, get it?  It's a fish joke.)  By now you've probably noticed that a certain trilogy of Pixar films hasn't appeared on this list yet, and it's only thanks to them that Finding Nemo is #5.  This movie is perfect.  The humor is spot on.  The emotional scenes are spot on.  The music is incredible.  Never mind the fact that this film is absolutely gorgeous.  This film just hits all the right notes in all the right places to be a true masterpiece.  Plus, this film is home to yet another of Pixar's great duos: Marlin & Dory.  In fact, I'd be willing to say that Marlin & Dory are Pixar's greatest duo.  Watching the two of them interact is always a treat.  The writing and the voice acting in this film are spot on in every scene.  I'd love to end this paragraph with a quote, but there are so many good ones that I can't pick one.

4. Toy Story
And now for the Toy Stories.  I love them all.  My favorite movie franchise of all time.  All three Toy Story films are incredible and each in their own way.  Pixar found the perfect way to build on the previous film with each sequel.  Therefore, I ranked the films in reverse chronological order.  So technically, the original is my "least favorite."  But that barely means anything here, as it's still a great film.  Toy Story is definitely the least thought-provoking of the trilogy.  It's a buddy comedy and a very good at that.  It doesn't deal with the darker and more serious elements that two and three introduced, but it still tells a great story with great characters and great humor.  Plus the scene with Woody and Buzz trying to chase down the moving van at the end is one of the most fun and enjoyable climaxes in any film ever.

3. Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 took everything that the first film did and made it bigger.  And, in my opinion, better.  The cast grew significantly, with the Roundup Gang, Wheezy, Ms. Potato Head, and Zurg all being introduced.  And, unlike a lot of films with growing casts, all the new characters here fit perfectly with the old ones.  It's easy to forget that Jessie and Bullseye and the crew weren't in the first movie.   On top of that, old characters like Rex get to have lots more jokes and screen time in this film.  Seriously, Rex steals the show here.  He single-handedly makes this the funniest of the three Toy Story films.  Well, he and Al.  I love Al.  He's hilarious.  He cracks me up every time he's on screen.  Toy Story 2 definitely packs in more comedy than it's predecessor.  But, at the same time, when the movie takes a more serious turn in certain scenes it goes to a much darker and mature place than the first film ever did.  Woody's struggle about the future doesn't seem quite as deep in the post Toy Story 3 world, but Jessie's back story is still as poignant as ever.

2. Toy Story 3
In a lot of ways, I find parts of Toy Story 3 to be less entertaining than it's two predecessors.  For one thing, it's not nearly as funny as the first two films.  There are quite a lot of scenes that are virtually humorless and even the comical scenes tend to be a bit more subdued.  I also found that some of the new characters in Toy Story 3 didn't fit quite as seamlessly into the world as the cast additions from Toy Story 2.  So why did I rank it as the best?  Two reasons.

First; the film strikes a tone that's almost eery at times.  Given that the characters spend much of the movie questioning their future and, at times, fighting for their survival, there's a certain melancholy feel that invades the entire film.  Which, in some films would be a bad thing.  I've seen a lot of films ruined by trying to "go dark."  But the story is handled so well in Toy Story 3 that it makes perfect sense.  The humor is downplayed a bit but the story demands it.  On top of that, the last half-hour or so of this film is so emotional that it tops even Up-levels of tear jerking.  From the climax to the end of the film, Toy Story 3 goes from being heart-wrenching to heart-warming, triumphant, yet still bittersweet all at the same time.  It never quite goes into gratuitous levels of sappiness.  It gets just the right balance.

Second:  The film bookends the series in such a fantastic way that it actually changes the tone of the first two films.  Toy Story and especially Toy Story 2 suddenly take on a whole new meaning when re-watched after seeing Toy Story 3.  Despite coming out over a decade after it's predecessors, Toy Story 3 really does feel like the third act in one complete story.  It wraps up loose ends you didn't realize were there.  Because they weren't.  I seriously doubt that was the intent of the series all along, and it's incredibly impressive that Pixar was able to pull it off so perfectly.

In the end, as much as I love the three Toy Story films, WALL-E takes the top prize for me.  I've already described other Pixar films as being perfect.  So I guess that would make WALL-E perfecter?

The story is obscenely clever and fun to watch.  It's emotional and thought-provoking at times with a liberal helping of comedy and even some slapstick humor thrown in.  Having virtually no dialogue for the vast majority of the film gives it a unique a fresh feeling unlike any other animated film.  The environments are incredible to behold and the attention to detail is as meticulous as could be.  The cast, while small, is very good.  And the music, courtesy of Thomas Newman, is among the best ever to accompany a Pixar film.

But the biggest factor that pushes WALL-E into the number one spot for me is WALL-E himself.  I love that little robot.  I loved the character even before the film came out.  So, as you can imagine, I was relieved to see that the film he starred in was able to live up the great character created to star in it!  WALL-E's curiosity and naivety are extremely endearing and fun to watch.  His design is extremely appealing to look at and his voice matches his personality perfectly.  WALL-E is easily my favorite character from any film ever.  And it just so happens that the film that bears his name is just as good as he is.  And that's what makes WALL-E my favorite Pixar film.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Frisch's Top 5 Favorite Songs

Howdy howdy, folks!  Check your calenders.  It's been two years and I have something to write.  Okay, it's actually been two days.  Close enough.  Though my intention for this blog is to mostly write reviews...I kind of have to have something to review first before I can do that.  And unless I feel like reviewing some old stuff (which maybe I might do eventually) I don't have a lot of material to work with right now.  So here's a Top 5 list instead...

Frisch's Top 5 Favorite Songs:
Though I'm not much of a musician myself I do love music.  And, in particular, I love soundtracks.  One of the most important parts of any movie or video game for me is the soundtrack.  In fact, the soundtrack of a game often has far more influence on weather or not I like a game than the graphics or gameplay.  (More on that in a future article...)

Here's a list of my five favorite songs of all time and why they have managed to receive this, ahem, prestigious honor.  And for the songs that are commercially available, I'll include the links to buy them.  Because, obviously, if they're my favorite songs they should be your favorites too so you'll want to buy them right away.  I'm always right, after all.

What better way to start off this list than with an incredibly depressing Muppet song, right?  Okay, so it's kind of an odd choice.  And, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure why I love this song so much.  Obviously, Kermit the Frog is no stranger to singing the occasional melancholy melody.  (How's that for alliteration?)  Usually, however, Kermit's sad songs are infused with a sense of hopefulness.  And this one...kind of isn't.  It's just Kermit feeling grey instead of green.  Feel-good fun for the whole family, this song!

But one of the things I always enjoy about the Muppets is that they can be funny, sincere, and a little heart-wrenching at the same time.  And this song is definitely all of those things.  It's also kind of an interesting departure from the optimism Kermit usually displays, and I do love to see familiar characters have to deal with situations different from what we have seen them go through before.  And, even if the song isn't very hopeful, in context you never really question that the Muppet will be able to "harmonize for one more song" so it's really not as much of a downer as the lyrics suggest.  That said, the first time I saw Kermit take a little peek at that painting of Piggy under the curtain without being able to bring himself to actually sing about her, my heart was officially wrenched.

So, yeah, it's odd that out of the many many songs that the Muppets have performed, this would be my top choice.  But with 129 plays in my iTunes library to date, it must mean that Pictures in My Head is doing something right!  Or maybe I just like depressing Kermit songs.  Trust me, folks, it gets less depressing from here on out, I promise.

Pictures in My Head can be purchased from Amazon here.

I can say with great confidence that Grant Kirkhope is my favorite video game composer.  I love virtually every soundtrack I've heard that he created.  The music from the Banjo-Kazooie series has a real tendency to be perpetually stuck in my head.  His music for the Viva Pinata series is also phenomenal, even for one who hasn't played the games like myself.  In fact, this may not be the last time you see him show up on this list.  Kirkhope also created the score for Donkey Kong 64.
DK64 is a game I never got very far in back in ye olden days of youth.  I didn't play it until well after the GameCube had come out.  Collectathon platform games are among some of my very favorite titles, but DK just never quite clicked for me.  About a year ago I revisited the game in college and discovered that I now disliked it even more.  It's long and tedious and relies way too heavily on frustrating minigames instead of rewarding the player for simply exploring the levels.  Ugh.

But the music, courtesy of Grant Kirkhope, is still incredible and Crystal Caves is easily the standout track.  Combining a peaceful but slightly off-kilter melody with haunting orchestration, it suits the mood of the level perfectly.  Sorta goofy and sort of somber at the same time.  It's definitely one of the best examples of why I love Grant Kirkhope's music.  Though it's unlikely to ever occur, I would love to hear Crystal Caves performed by an actual orchestra someday.

The score of How to Train Your Dragon, composed by John Powell, is my personal favorite film score.  I love the movie, of course.  But, more than any other film score, I find that this particular score is very easy to listen to and enjoy independently from the film.  With a lot of soundtracks, there's usually that one track that I skip over because, while it works well for the scene it plays under in the film, it's not that fun to listen to on it's own.  There are no tracks I skip on the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack.

Forbidden Friendship is easily my pick of the bunch.  Not only does it underscore my favorite scene in the film, it's also spectacular on its own with a quiet sound that's easy to enjoy.  The soothing but building melody is excellent, particularly when the orchestra first starts to build up a bit between about 1:13 through about 1:40.  I love it when scores do things like that.  Forbidden Friendship is great in the movie and it's great on its own!

Forbidden Friendship can be purchased from Amazon here.  But you really ought to purchase the entire soundtrack.  Every track is enjoyable.

The first four games in the Spyro the Dragon series all had soundtracks composed by Stewart Copeland.  Copeland managed to create a very distinct sound for the Spyro series that is unlike any other video game soundtrack.  There's definitely a signature sound to his Spyro soundtracks that make them so enjoyable.

Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly was the fourth and final Spyro game to feature Copeland's music and it shows.  He was clearly at the top of his game when composing this one!  Though the game itself was rushed to completion, leaving the final product riddled with glitches and unfinished elements, the soundtrack stands out as perhaps the best in the series.  Cloud 9 is the pinnacle of Copeland's unique sound.  I've listened to it dozens and dozens of times since I first heard it.  It's Spyro music at it's finest.  With its catchy melody and unique combination of instruments and sounds, listening to it really puts you on...(wait for it) nine.

Though I have to give an honorable mention to Rainbow Speedway, which also plays in the same level.  It's similar to Cloud 9's main music and it's almost as good.  But the main level music itself wins out as the best for me!

I told you Grant Kirkhope would be back!  Much like Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly, the best part about Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts for the Xbox360 was its soundtrack.  Kirkhope's signature sound for the Banjo series translates perfectly to a full orchestra, creating a sound that would not be out of place in a Looney Tunes cartoon or an animated film.  It is without a doubt my favorite video game soundtrack ever.

Showdown Town is the main hub of the game.  It's the home to all the other levels.  And it's also home to the best piece of music on the soundtrack.  The Showdown Town theme is sublime.  From the moment I heard it the song essentially became the soundtrack to college for me, more often than not being the music I had on loop while working on a project or reading an art history chapter.  It has all the trademarks of great Banjo-Kazooie music and even features a callback to the theme of Jinjo Village from Banjo-Tooie, another of my favorite Kirkhope compositions.  Even almost four years later, very few days go by where I don't find myself humming the Showdown Town theme in my head at some point or another.  It's engrained into my mind forever.

But I can't talk about the theme for Showdown Town without talking about the nighttime version of the theme.  In addition to the main version of the theme, Showdown Town features five other variations that play at various points in the game, all arranged by Robin Beanland.  And the nighttime variation is by far the best.  It takes the already great main theme and transforms it into a soothing lullaby version of the song that is amazing to listen to.  Particularly at night!  This song, on loop, was played pretty much every night during my freshman and sophomore years of college.  And I still turn it on a lot of evenings to this day!  It's just that good.

Showdown Town was a no-brainer for the number one slot on this list.  This song alone convinced me to purchase an Xbox 360 so I could play Nuts & Bolts.  Unfortunately, the game itself didn't even come close to living up to the two original N64 games.  Eventually, I sold off the 360, and opted to just stick with a copy of the official soundtrack.  And that's what you should do too.

Showdown Town, in both its daytime and nighttime forms, is available on the Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts Original SoundtrackGo buy it now.  You won't regret it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Yes, that's actually what I'm calling this blog.

Howdy howdy, folks!  Welcome to my new blog, cleverly entitled Frisch's Big Blog.  Yes, that's really what I'm calling it.  Why?  Because, frankly, I couldn't come up with anything better.  Despite the fact that I loath being called Frisch's Big Boy, I can't deny that "Frisch's Big Blog" has kind of a nice ring to it.  It was the first name I thought of and, despite trying very hard, I never came up with anything better.  And it's kind of sad how easy it was to create that caricature of myself as the Big Boy up there in the header.  There is a slight physical resemblance.  But at least I'm a bit less nightmare inducing to look at.  I hope.

So welcome to Frisch's Big Blog.

For years people have suggested that I get a twitter account.  Which seemed pointless to me.  What could I possibly say in 140 characters that anyone on this planet would possibly want to read?  However, the thought occurred to me that I might have some interesting stuff to say if we made that character limit a little...longer.  Those who know me in person know that when I get to talking about something, you can't shut me up.  I feel the need to obsessively explain every detail about what I'm talking about.  And I can do that here.

For the two people out there who will ever read this, you might be wondering what to expect.  Mostly I plan to post reviews and things of movies, games, and soundtracks that I like.  You know, the kind of stuff you hear me talk about all the time.  Now the entire world can read my glorious ramblings for their own entertainment purposes.  Or something like that.  And who knows?  Maybe if I'm feeling especially creative, you might see some Toodles comics or something show up here.  It'll be fun!  I hope.

So sit back, get comfy, and wait patiently for two years until I come up with something else worth writing...