Monday, February 23, 2015

Eternals: The Herod Factor (one-shot 1991) [COMICS]

The Eternals, a race of super hero gods created by Jack Kirby, have always been part of the Marvel Universe that never did much for me.  Of them all, only Sersi became reasonably interesting to me because of the span of time she spent with the Avengers decades ago.  I can't even remember whether I've read Neil Gaiman's take, such is the lack of appeal the subject holds for me!

Eternals: The Herod Factor was a 1991 one-shot written by the always dependable Roy and Dann Thomas.  It begins with the Eternals on their remote mountain home of Olympia watching news footage of monsters attacking a high school prom in the U.S. The monsters seem Deviant (the Eternals ancient rivals) in appearance, and the Eternals debate what to do.  One of them, Phastos, arrives bearing an ancient scroll that holds a prophecy: that a pair of human twins, born of the union of Eternal and Deviant, will someday rule both groups.  Because the prom murders involved twins, and other attacks on twins have taken place near the same time, the Eternals suspect that the Deviants may be trying to stop the prophecy before it takes place--and although they're not sure whether the prophecy should take place either, the Eternals decide to investigate and stop the Deviants from murdering any other innocents.  It's an interesting premise for a story, and the Thomases always integrate past continuity well.

Whilst the leader of the Eternals, Ikaris, sneaks into the Deviant homeland for intel, another Eternal, Sersi, is approached in her New York apartment by Thena, the former Queen of the Eternals.  Thena admits that she is the mother of the prophesied twins, and relates a past liason with former Deviant warlord Kro.  The story is moving quite fast here, and it makes me wonder whether this was originally an outline for a longer series that got condensed into a one-shot.  Anyway, the Eternals track down the teenage twins, Donald and Deborah Ritter, and take them to Olympus for safety.

In a jumpy series of poorly-intercut scenes, monsters attack and kidnap the twins.  The Eternals chase the kidnappers to Lemuria, but they're captured and implanted with brain mines!  My notes are poorly written here, but suffice it to say, somehow or another it's revealed that the prophecy is fake!  (Joss Whedon would remember this whole theme when writing Angel years later!).  In fact, an ostensible ally of the Eternals, Dr. Damian, perpetrated the fraud for revenge out of anger of his daughter's death in a former conflict between the Eternals and Deviants.  Ultimately, a mind-controlled Eternal named Ajak kills himself and Dr. Damian to end the threat.

My summary is probably less comprehensible than the comic, which isn't half-bad.  It didn't make me *love* the Eternals, but I probably like them a little more than I did before.  Mission achieved, Mr. & Mrs. Thomas!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender [GAMES]


Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender was a 1992 point-and-click adventure game with an intentionally goofy premise and plot.  Space pilot Rex Nebular takes a commission to find a valuable vase in a mysterious sector of space where ships keep disappearing, only to discover a cloaked planet where all the men have died from a mysterious virus and only females are alive.  The game world consists of three large areas: the surface of the planet, which is full of low-tech hut dwellers; an underground complex of the surviving high-tech women; and a deserted city of the planet's men.  Rex, of course, runs around, encounters obstacles, gets into trouble, and has to use a wide variety of random objects to make progress in his quest.  The game isn't actually as funny as it wants to be (Flight of the Amazon Queen was more amusing), but the puzzles are pretty fair and enjoyable.  The fun with adventure games, despite the occasional frustration of getting completely stuck with no idea what to do next*, is when you're able to connect several disparate things to achieve that "a-ha!" moment.  For example, at one point:

I went through a lot of work to construct a timed detonator and explosives, with no idea why;

I manage to maneuver a large decorative boat from a theme-restaurant out into the street, with no idea why;

I needed to get to the top of a huge tower, but there was no way to climb;

One scene in the game is set in a room below sea level with a large glass window to view aquatic life

So when you figure out: I'll attach the explosives to the glass window, set the timer, run to the boat, flood the entire city, the water will raise the boat up to the top of the tower, and there you go.  Awesome.

The game has a ton of silly death and dismemberment animations when Rex screws up, but the game automatically starts Rex at the nearest safe screen so there's no frustration component.  Not a great game, but a good one for fans of the genre.

* My usual walkthrough confessions: (1) I completely overlooked the binoculars in the crashed spaceship; part of that is the game's fault, as the graphics make it very hard to distinguish items from background; (2) I couldn't get past the cannibal woman--first, I never noticed the pit, and second, I never noticed the branches to put over the pit, and third, I would never have guessed I could lure someone from another screen into the pit screen; (3) I didn't know that the teleporter would take me to the starbase to steal a ship at the end, because it you try it earlier in the game, you get disintegrated

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ultima I [GAMES]

Box Art
Fear not peasants, for the evil wizard Mondain has been slain and once again Sosaria is safe from his depredations.

Last night I finished Ultima I after many months of off-again and on-again playing.  My very first introduction to an RPG (computer or otherwise) of any kind was the NES version of Ultima III: Exodus, and I played that game for hundreds of hours until I got its various sequels.  When I saw that Good Old Games had Ultima 1-III as a collection for download, I acted quickly, having always wondered what the first two games in the series were like.  I can confidently report that Ultima I is weird.  If anyone's worried about spoilers for a three-decade old game, avert thine eyes now.

It's a very standard fantasy world with quasi-medieval technology and an evil wizard who must be defeated to save the realm.  Except, eventually you'll need to buy a space shuttle, blast off into outer space, dock at a space station, shift to a fighter ship, and blast 20 TIE-fighters to become a Space Ace!  I spent the entire game running around with a great sword and high-tech power armor.  The morality from later Ultima games is nowhere to be found: to advance in the game, you have to kill a court jester to get his key and then slay all of the (otherwise friendly) castle guards to rescue a princess.  And that's all so she'll give you a time machine!

The deadliest monsters on Level 1 of dungeons
I'm sure if you knew what you were doing, you could breeze through the game after a couple of night's play.  But playing it for the first time, like I did, and avoiding walkthroughs, was an eye-opening experience.  There's so many elements of the gameplay that are counter-intuitive to modern gamers: your character doesn't have a set maximum for hit points (other than 9999) and only has current hit points, which are increased every time you leave a dungeon (it's like temporary levelling).  Ability scores are increased by visiting magic signposts, but unlike most games, you can visit them over and over (as long as you don't visit the same one twice in a row).  The dungeons contain absolutely nothing besides monsters and gold, so the only reason to visit them is that certain kings in the game give you quests to kill certain monsters.  More, I was surprised at how large the game was (I naively assumed that it would be a simple, short game with a couple of towns and dungeons--instead, there's four continents, a couple of dozen towns, a couple of dozen dungeons, and several castles (the downside is that there's little in the way of difference between towns and no difference at all between dungeons apart from layout).  I had to go back to old-fashioned graph-paper mapping just to figure out where things were in the overworld.
Graph paper mapping

Here's my character just before the big final battle:

Temeris, Level 10 Male Human Fighter (Space Ace)
Hit Points: 9276
Strength: 67
Agility: 91
Stamina: 28
Charisma: 38
Wisdom: 22
Intelligence: 52
Coins: 113
Experience: 9999
Possessions: Reflect Suit, Great Sword, Frigate, Aircar, Shuttle, Time Machine, Red Gem (x5), Green Gem, Blue Gem, White Gem

Here's what the ending screen says when you win:

A rain of silver lightning heralds the death of Mondain.  Fleeting glimpses of fates avoided rush through thy mind as the arcane power of the mage's dying scream echoes in thy ears.  A thousand years pass in but a moment's time as a strange sleep overcomes thee.

Upon awakening thou dost find thyself in new surroundings.  A stately youth in violet robes helps thee to thy feet whereupon thou dost see the thousands who gaze upon thee in adoration.

"Thy selfless heroism hath saved our people, my worthy one.  Should our gratitude alone not be enough to sustain thee, know that I, Lord British, hereby ordain that the entire realm of Sosaria be at they service for all time hence-forth.  So let it be done."

Unfortunately, I've heard that the land is again threatened--this time by an evil witch named Minax.  I better grab that great sword and get to work!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy [NORTON]

The third book in my exploration of Norton Critical Editions is Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy, edited by Scott McMillin.  I knew this one might be a bit of a tough slog (attending plays can be fun; reading scripts can be far less so), but I persevered through 565 pages.  The first half of the book contains five English comedies:

The Country Wife (1675) is a good example of how bawdy these comedies can be.  The main character, a Mr. Horner, uses his friendship with a quack doctor to spread widely gossip that he's functionally a eunuch due to contracting venereal disease.  Horner's goal is to stop women from annoying him and getting him caught up in romantic intrigues, on the theory that they will be disgusted by the gossip and want nothing to do with him.   It turns out, however, that he's constantly asked and given the opportunity to spend time alone with his friends' wives because he's viewed as unthreatening.  He can't help but take advantage, and ends up cuckolding several of his associates.  It's a very funny, very dirty play full of talk of prostitutes, double entendres regarding sexual positions, and more.

The Man of Mode (1676) was a let-down after the sparkling wit of The Country Wife.  The story concerns a lady's man falling in love and the various romantic maneuvers he and his friends make, with the usual complications of the wrong people being in the wrong places, mistake of identity, etc.  There's one or two good lines, but otherwise it's forgettable.

The Way of the World (1700) started off slowly.  Too many indistinguishable characters and a complicated plot involving a scheme to bilk a dowager out of her estate.  I finally started to make sense of it in the final act, and then it was more enjoyable.  Far more moralistic than the past two, and less bawdy.

The Conscious Lovers (1722) was, self-professedly, a wholesome counterpart to the tendency of plays to be profane, ribald, and setting poor moral lessons.  I was prepared to be extremely bored, and it's true there's not a lick of wit or humor in the play.  On the other hand, it was quite readable and reasonably interesting.  The central plot is a dutiful son who has been directed by his father to marry a woman he does not love, and how he tries (virtuously) to extricate himself from the commitment.

The School for Scandal (1777) condemns the venomous gossip and back-biting that was seen by many as the vocation of the upper-class.  It makes the point well, and was fairly amusing.

A collection of essays makes up the second half of the book.  Not page-turners by any means, but there are some interesting themes developed: the definition and role of humor; the polemic against "immoral" stage plays written by Jeremy Collier in 1698 (and contemporary rebuttals); the development of stage dress and structure; the role of women on the stage, and more.

It's safe to say the subject of this book is far removed from any of my interests (personal or professional), but the purpose of an exercise like this is to be briefly immersed in an area I would otherwise absolutely no knowledge about.  It was eye-opening to read The Country Wife, because it's easy to forget that standards of decency fluctuate, and not all of English history had Victorian-style condemnation of anything prurient.