When Marnie Was There - Japan and US Trailers

It's about time that we started discussing Studio Ghibli's latest feature film, Hiromasa Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There. Here are the Japanese and US trailers for viewing.

As always, there are a lot of things to discuss about this movie in the coming weeks, as GKids Film rolls out the US theatrical run. The not-quite-hidden gay subtext being among them, of course. I'm not yet decided whether this was overtly intended, or if we "straight people" have cracked the secret code to gay and lesbian characters in literature and movies, the "wink-wink" code of Fried Green Tomatoes and Thelma & Louise and Anne of Green Gables. Oh, and all those Expendables movies. Can't forget those.

A fair warning: Marnie contains a large spoiler, which I'll kindly advise everyone to keep a secret.

Studio Ghibli is scheduled to release Panda Kopanda, Jarinko Chie, Gauche the Cellist, and Sherlock Hound on Blu-Ray and DVD in Japan this July 17. What a surprise! It appears that Ghibli is turning some attention to the "pre-Ghibli" eras of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's long and storied careers.

None of these titles will feature the "silhouette" design reserved for the Ghibli catalog titles, since all pre-date the studio's founding by a number of years. But the cover designs do feature the original movie posters, in keeping with the remastered Ghibli DVDs.

Jarinko Chie is Isao Takahata's 1981 viciously funny comedy, rooted in the Kansei-region city of Kobe, and featuring the voice talents of one of Japan's popular comedy troupes (somebody out there, please help me with the names!). It's episodic structure is similar to My Neighbors the Yamadas, but more tightly wound around a central plot of a young girl (Chie) her struggles to fit within her dysfunctional family. The comedy leans heavily towards the slapstick and the gross-out, which is highly unusual for Takahata, and helps this movie stand out. Longtime friends and Toei Doga alums Yasuo Otsuka and Yoichi Kotabe served as the film's animation directors. It's a personal favorite of mine, and it remains criminally overlooked.

Gauche the Cellist is Takahata's 1982 feature, one of his true masterpieces. Lovingly crafted over the span of six years, this movie is pure poetry, masterfully blending historic melodrama, beautiful music, and a nostalgic longing for Japan's long-lost agrarian past. I want to live in Gauche's world (which is really Ludwig Van Beethoven's world), the fields and the forests, the gardens, the rainstorms and fiery sunsets, and the small yet tightly knit community, where modernity has yet to destroy nature.

Sherlock Hound was Hayao Miyazaki's 1981 TV series, which was created in collaboration with Italy. The production was scuttled after only six episodes were created, owing to copyrights issues with the Conan Doyle estate. Several episodes were shown alongside Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and finally arrived on TV several years later...unfortunately, with a completely different animation team that was nowhere near as talented as Miyazaki's crew. This Blu-Ray features the "theatrical" version of the Sherlock episodes (meaning, we don't have the wonderful music from the TV show).

Finally, Panda Kopanda was created by Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe at the A Productions studio in 1972, hot on the heels of the infamous scuttling of their much-anticipated Pipi Longstockings animated project. Many of Pipi's ideas quickly found their way into this short movie, which played the opening slot for one of Toho's Godzilla pictures. The movie became a hit, and a sequel, Panda Kopanda and the Rainy Day Circus, was quickly commissioned and produced. They're both terrific little movies, and I often enjoy the second one a little more. I do wish more Panda cartoons had been made, and future animators seeking to continue Miyazaki's legacy may find inspiration here. And, as everyone knows, Panda could easily pass for Totoro's uncle, complete with a pipe and hat and that big, silly grin.

These Blu-Rays will retail for 5,800Yen, and the DVD will sell for 4,700. I don't yet know which, if any, will include English subtitles. Both Panda Kopanda and Gauche the Cellist previously had quality subtitles, so that's good. Jarinko Chie's prior BD/DVD releases did not include subtitles, which is too bad; a fansub translation has been available for a few years, and I really wish somebody had the sense to send copies of the script to Ghibli HQ. I don't think the previous Sherlock Hound BD included English subtitles.

Finally, will there be a US release for any of these titles? Discotek Media has released Panda Go Panda (the Westernized title) and Sherlock Hound on DVD. A Blu-Ray release isn't beyond the realm of possible. I know I would be thrilled to work on any of these projects. If you'd like that to happen, please send an email or letter directly to Discotek.

Outside of the United States, I would think that these movies would arrive in the usual territories sooner or later. As the Studio Ghibli catalog winds down, publishers will look to the earlier Takahata/Miyazaki films and find a host of hidden gems. It has to happen. It's only a matter of time.

Umi ga Kikoreru (I Can Hear the Sea/Ocean Waves) Blu-Ray July 17

And the Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray feature film collection is now complete.  Umi ga Kikoeru ("I Can Hear the Sea," aka "Ocean Waves") will be released on Blu-Ray in Japan this July 17. Word was made public on Disney's Japanese website this week. The high-definition disc will retail for 6,800Yen.

Umi ga Kikoeru's DVD release from 2003 is still available, but I would expect to see a "remastered" edition, in keeping with the recent DVD remasters from the rest of the Ghibli catalog. I purchased this disc a decade ago, and it remains a prized addition to my movie library.  In addition to the main feature, a 40-minute documentary reuniting the production team was also include (but, sadly, no English subtitles for this extra). We should expect to see everything translated to the BD.

Umi was Studio Ghibli's 1993 "made-for-TV" feature, broadcast on Japan's NHK network, who are longtime collaborators with Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, dating back to Future Boy Conan in 1978. This production was created by Ghibli's young staff, many of whom had graduated from the studio's in-house animation school, which was founded to nurture new animation talent.

Outside of Japan, we should expect to see Umi released in Australia and the UK, under the "Ocean Waves" title, as they have previously released the DVD edition years ago. Please don't ask about Disney releasing a Blu-Ray in the US. It's never going to happen. Perhaps GKids Films could step in and secure the rights? Please Please Please...I recommend that you start harassing them with emails as soon as possible.

I highly recommend this movie. It's one of Studio Ghibli's neo-realist films, a "slice-of-life" drama in the style of Omohide Poro Poro, Mimi wo Sumaseba, From Up on Poppy Hill, and The Wind Rises. A teenage romance with wit, humor, longing, and a keen sense of wisdom, with an climactic final scene that sweeps you off your feet (and openly quotes Yasujiro Ozu). "I Can Hear the Sea"...Ghibli always loved to give their animated movies such flowing, poetic names. They demonstrate a mastery of an animation form that isn't even being conceived here in the West. This style of art does not exist on our shores, and it's a damned shame, and I'm getting tired of repeating this same phrase, year after year. We await a new generation of animation storytellers, inspired by these works, to create naturalist animations of their own. It can be done. It should be done.

Special props should go to the Ghibli fan crew at the Blu-Ray.com forums, who first broke the news that Umi was being prepared for BD. Thanks to everyone for their due diligence.

Overnight Thread ("Simpsons April Fools")

A couple years ago, I came up with the ultimate Ghibli Blog April Fools Day prank: I announced that Disney had just bought out the studio and would begin cranking out My Neighbor Totoro sequels. It spread across the internet and caused mass hysteria and panic for months. It was great fun. The only downside is knowing I can never top that.

And so I had the idea of completely scrambling the daily programming for this year's April Fools, publishing a stack of older essays from Daniel Thomas Vol 4. If I had the time, I would have messed around with the site's art assets or color scheme. Ah, well. Most of you were probably not too impressed, but I enjoyed the absurdity of the stunt.

I also had the ulterior motive of wanting to share some of my non-Ghibli writings, as all of my blog work is being translated into book manuscripts. I spent this evening on a bunch of music essays, as well as slowly working my way through the Ghibl Blog archives. I have no idea how many books we'll have by the time we're finished. Walking around downtown during my lunch break today, I got the idea of publishing everything in short, five-dollar paperbacks, instead of massive volumes. Eh, maybe, maybe not. We'll consider all options once the manuscripts are finished, rewritten and edited.

Tomorrow, it's back to the regular programming schedule, such as it is.

Some Thoughts About Miles Davis' Pangaea

Courtesy of one dedicated Miles Davis fan, we have the entirety of the 1975 acid-funk album Pangaea available to listen. You won't have to touch anything, since all the Youtube segments are on a running playlist. Just hit play and enjoy the brilliant music.

Pangaea is the final fusion album from Miles Davis, the second in a stunning double bill in Osaka, Japan, on February 1, 1975. The afternoon show was recorded for the Agharta album, and the evening show became Pangaea. Shortly thereafter, Miles finally retreated from performing music. He would not return for nearly six years.

I'm a great fan of Miles' 1973-75 acid-funk band, which was captured on the 1974 studio LP Get Up With It, and three live LP's, Dark Magus, Agharta, and Pangaea. All four were double albums and were immensely long. We must remember that the double album was a rare event in pop music during the 1970s. It was something rock bands did once, to prove their chops and their musical output, but largely to follow in the footsteps of The Beatles' White Album. The Rolling Stones had one, Led Zeppelin had one, even Stevie Wonder had one.

It's stunning when you realize that Miles Davis hurled out so many double-LP's, and in such a short period of time. His fusion era only lasted six years, really, if you begin at 1969's landmark In a Silent Way. In that short period of time, Miles had thrown the music world on its ear, revolutionized popular music, and split the jazz community right down the middle. It's a schism that still exists, even though the wounds have greatly healed. It also helps that the future generations have caught up to what Miles was brewing.

The twin shows Agharta and Pangaea represent the final peak of that great and stunning era, the grand summary of everything Miles Davis had furiously sought after. Pangaea, especially, reveals a lot of mellower, more otherworldly music that reminds me of "He Loved Him Madly," Miles Davis' masterfully haunting tribute to Duke Ellington from side one of Get Up. Reminds me of Silent Way, too.

Of course, the spectacular heavy funk jams get all the attention, as well they should. The music on Magus, Agharta and Pangaea is the heaviest music on the planet. This band was so far beyond '70s rock that it wasn't even funny. On the two Osaka shows, the afternoon concert (Agharta) gets all the attention from funk and thrash freaks. But don't discount the first ten minutes of Pangaea's evening show, which is absolutely incendiary.

Pete Cosey's wailing, shredding guitar solos...absolutely spectacular. Guitar God, sandwiched perfectly between Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. And Michael Henderson's growling bass riffs, Al Foster and Mtume's drumming - this is as good as it gets. There's a confidence, a boldness, to the rhythm section that's a thrill. Sometimes I think they steal the show, especially on the first disc.

There's no question that Pangaea is overall more subtle than Agharta, and we shouldn't be surprised when the band performs two full concerts on the same day. I'm deeply grateful that Miles and crew don't repeat the first setlist on the evening show. Pangaea's vibe is very different, alternately heavier and more ambient. In three hours and four discs, you get the complete Miles Davis experience.

Listen carefully to the Gondwana disc. Its first ten minutes are mellow, mysterious, the Duke Ellington funeral dirge reborn. Then the energy slowly burns brighter and brighter, slowly builds around Pete Cosey, Guitar God. By the 20-minute mark, voodoo funk-metal is in the house. Yeehh....the mood swings are organic, natural, smooth. The visable seams in Magus are invisible now.

One of the great thrills of Agharta/Pangaea is spotting the classic Miles riffs. There's the bassline from "Kind of Blue." There's a couple jams from "Jack Johnson." And there's "He Loved Him Madly," and "Calypso Frelimo." Great ideas for improvisations, of stealing moments instead of performing the full songs. Everything is consumed in the giant organic stew.

And through it all lies Miles Davis, his aching body breaking down, his years of fighting the fusion revolution taking its toll. There's been enough said about Miles state of mind in 1975, and I suspect much of it is merely myth-building, to fit into the readily assembled narrative about burnout and retirement and eventual resurgence. It's hard to say where the real Miles lies. It has always been thus.

The evening concert ends, everything has been said, every ounce of energy left on that stage. I have the feeling that Miles couldn't play another note if he tried. He gave all of himself on these two shows, and you can hear it. There's a tone of sadness in the final minutes, the final dissonant organ wails that hang in the air. This spectacular era of Miles' long career, so reviled and misunderstood, so far beyond its time, is coming to its end.

Hovercraft - Been Brained (1994)

One of my favorite pop-rock albums of the 1990's, the debut ep from Minneapolis locals Hovercraft. Been Brained is very short - five songs, seventeen minutes in length - but it's a perfect album from start to finish. Each song stakes its own terrain in the grunge landscape, each song stands on its own, and pretty soon you'll be switching the CD player to replay.

This was an album I could listen to for hours. That should really tell you something. Jay Hurley, the frontman, fell on hard times, and unfortunately, Hovercraft wasn't able to reach mainstream success. A tragedy, of course. Been Brained was hailed as a triumph, and this was especially helpful because the major record labels were still scooping up indie bands right and left, hoping for the next Saint Cobain to emerge. 1994 would prove to be the peak year for the grunge era, and Hovercraft were ready for their chance.

The band was signed to a major label, which then proceeded to put their next album on a boutique, "indie" label. Then two tragedies struck.

First, it was revealed that "Hovercraft" was also the name of an experimental Seattle noise band. This wouldn't normally be an issue....but the band leader happened to be the wife of Eddie Vedder. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, at this time, are arguably the biggest rock band in America, so his wife won the battle of the band names. The Minneapolis Hovecraft was forced to change to Shatterproof.

Shatterproof made a couple lineup changes - a new drummer, and expansion from trio to quartet - and recorded their second CD for the Fort Apache label. "Slip it Under the Door" was a solid album, but oddly enough, it couldn't shake itself free from the mighty shadow of Been Brained. Good songs, solid songs, yes. But they mostly sounded the same, standard-issue '90s indie pop. Been Brained really was a perfect album, and I think much of that was because of its length. Perhaps if the Shatterproof CD was similarly shorter, it would have fared better. The classic sophomore slump.

Enter tragedy number two. MCA folded the Fort Apache label suddenly, almost shockingly so. Shatterproof became one of the many indie groups of the '90s to be caught in the corporate undertow. Their album became almost impossible to find. Even today, I'll wager that you could score that first, classic ep more easily among the CD shelves in the Twin Cities.

I saw Jay Hurly around Dinkytown (at the U of MN campus) for many years, working the Espresso Royale coffeeshop. Always humble, always taking my endless praises in stride. I even got his autograph for my CD once, just for kicks. He deserved it. He deserved to be one of the giants of that era. He's still making music and releasing albums.

With the age of the internet, I remain hopeful that he could finally receive his due. Somebody's going to have to work on that. But indie rock remains stubbornly cliquish, Minneapolis more so. Success is always treated with contempt, as something to apologize for. It's complete nonsense. Do you want Jay Hurley to be working coffee shops the rest of his life? Or do you want him to create music? You never see this self-richeous navel-gazing in the rap community. Success is a good thing, something to flaunt, something to celebrate.

That said, Hovercraft's Been Brained is one of the finest rock albums of the 1990's. It deserves to be in your music collection. Get it any way you can, by hook or by crook.

Here's the Amazon link.

If I Were a Carpenter (1994)

This is one of my favorite albums from the last Great Year in Music, 1994. The idea of a Carpenter's tribute album might seem snarky or bizarre, but that sense of irony was absolutely perfect in the year that saw the deaths of Richard Nixon and Kurt Cobain. 1970s revisionism was at the heart of '90s rock, especially with the Seattle bands that brought us out of the dark abyss of phony hair metal and processed pop. So an album like this fit in perfectly.

That's probably why If I Were a Carpenter was the best tribute album of the '90s. These weren't merely retreads or simple cash-ins. It had a point. And it was a showcase for the sheer diversity of pop and rock of the time. History may only remember grunge, but this album lays testament to how wide and free the music was. It was a fantastic time for music, and 1994 was the fantastic peak to the decade.

Thank goodness for Bit Torrents, I say. This CD is impossibly hard to find anymore, and I've long ago sold off all of my discs (to my eternal regret, despite my devotion to vinyl LPs). Once again, the internet gives life to the Long Tails of the music world.

My favorites on this album? I really can't pick one. They're all terrific, every one of 'em. Sonic Youth did a bang-up job, as did Shonen Knife, Buffalo Springfield, Matthew Sweet, and 4 Non Blondes. Hey, even Babes in Toyland contribute a song, the goofy and carefree, "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." You'd never expect such a fiery band to record something so silly, but it works perfectly. Just like this album.

This is the best kind of compilation album: the kind that makes you want to seek out all the bands and performers. Everyone on Carpenter were entering their glory days of success, and they all deserved their fame. Some persevered, some faded eventually, and some never got their chance. But this is the way of things. We all start out full of energy and hope when we're young. We don't yet know who will still be standing 15 years down the road. I can't believe it's been 15 years since that great, fateful year. Joy and sorrow, life and death, creating something new in the shadow of the old. And above it all, the death of Saint Cobain, whose rise and fall marked our era. Every rock album in 1994 after April 8 was a Cobain tribute album, and don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Pearl Jam - Backspacer - An Essay That Reveals Absolutely Nothing About the New Album or Why it's Spectacular

Pearl Jam's newest album, Backspacer, has been released this week. I waited until today to get the vinyl LP version, where the cover design truly shines. Tom Tomorrow's surreal pop collage design perfectly evokes the spirit of Vitalogy and No Code, and that's where the heart of the music lies.

Back in 1991, I owned only two CDs - Van Halen's live album, Right Here, Right Now, and Pearl Jam's Ten. I've been a devoted fan ever since the beginning, and Pearl Jam has always been the great rock band of my generation. Yes, even more than Saint Cobain, but had he lived, everything would have been different. You see, it's really Cobain's fault that Eddie Vedder hurled his band into the wilderness for a decade. Had April 8, 1994 passed by without incident, the incindiary and masterful Vitalogy - Pearl Jam's true masterpiece - would never have happened. It certainly would have been a very different beast, and maybe Vedder and crew would have continued their uneasy alliance with rock stardom. It's impossible to say, really. That direction points to a different universe.

Saint Cobain took one last fix, pulled the trigger, and we have all felt the shock waves ever since. And Pearl Jam rebelled with shock and horror, then escaped into the wilderness. Oh, I still remember how truly shocking No Code sounded in 1996. It took me several years to finally accept it on its own terms. A masterful collection of songs, true. There's brilliance in its confusion, brilliance, and sense of discovery. The kings renounced the throne and entered exile - now what do we do?! That question haunted the next three albums, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act. All three are uneven, confused, and occasionally great.

Maybe this is one of those things you have to wait out. Wait for middle age to settle in. Wait for the musical tides to roll everything away once or twice. Of course, the 2006 album had to be simply called Pearl Jam. Like that other great mid-career eponymous album - Metallica - the Great Rock Band of My Generation renewed itself, rediscovered itself. Pearl Jam finally came back home. When you reach a certain age, you truly love and appreciate the miraculous power in these comebacks. Most of your youthful idols have withered away, grown fat and lazy, drifted away into "respectable work," or died. When you're old enough to say you've outlived your best friends, everything changes.

That's why Pearl Jam's "Blue Avacado" album is a masterpiece. That, and the fact that it totally kicks. It's a spectacular rock album by any stretch, and it's the kind that seasoned veterans must conjure to prove to the kids who's really in charge. Have I mentioned how much this album kicks? Hoo boy, three years later and Pearl Jam Blue has never sounded better. It's intense, angry, emotive, and fiercely passionate. It's such a rush to hear Eddie Vedder sing with his mouth open again, no longer hiding within the shadows of his early greatness.

On my best days, I'll argue that Pearl Jam Blue is the band's greatest album, or certainly deserving to sit alongside the first three, which were deified into a Grunge Era Holy Trinity long, long ago. That first album is simply untouchable, and there simply won't ever be another rock album that topples it from the minds of Generation Xers. That's just the way these things roll. But I always thought Vitalogy was better, and I think Blue is, too.

Which brings us to the end of this lost decade, a decade when the American Republic was gang raped by criminal vampires who now howl about that black man who stole their thrones. This was the decade when the music business as we once knew it died, smashed by their own greed and a computer revolution quietly instigated by '60s acidheads. This was the decade when turntables became fashionable again. Remember when Pearl Jam released Vitalogy on vinyl two weeks before the CD? That was an act of anarchic rebellion, wasn't it? What the heck happened to this decade?

I'm rambling. So what does any of this have to do with the brand-new Pearl Jam album, Backspacer?


Nothing whatsoever. Other than this is a smashing fantastic album by the Great Rock Band of My Generation. Eddie Vedder once feared that he'd meet the same end as Saint Cobain.* Now he's lived long enough to bury all the Nirvanawannabees, all the poseurs, all the fakers. He's lived long enough to bury the music industry itself. Buy the black t-shirt at your nearby Target and download to your iPod. Or pick up the vinyl LP and really mess with your parents' heads.

Just get Backspacer, already. Get with the program.

*If you don't understand why I always refer to Kurt Cobain as "Saint Cobain," you should probably find some older person to tell you horror stories about '80s Hair Metal. Go watch an hour's worth of Stryper videos on Youtube. Then throw on Nevermind and see what that does for you.

Videogame Classics - Street Fighter 3: Third Strike

Is Street Fighter 3: Third Strike the greatest fighting game for the Sega Dreamcast? Normally, it's Soul Calibur that's hailed as the masterpiece, and given the thunderous reception to its unveiling in 1999, to say nothing of its influence on videogames, it's hard to argue. But I can't think of a better 2D fighting game than Third Strike. And I remember the days when Street Fighter was the hot trailblazer.

Funny how times change. Street Fighter 2 became a sensation on the Super Nintendo, very nearly saving the console after being beaten senseless by the Sega Genesis in 1991. Two console generations later, and the release of Third Strike on Dreamcast was barely noticed. The dedicated fans knew the score, of course, but the general gaming public? The gaming press, the prozines? Shrug. 3D polygons were hot, and 2D was passe and old. We'll never mind the fact that nearly all polygon games from the '90s have aged terribly, while Capcom's fighters look as sharp and exciting as ever.

John Lennon warned you kids about instant karma. He wasn't kidding.

No doubt Capcom had burned many bridges by the end of the decade, watering down their brand with too many sequels and spinoffs. Sega made the very same mistakes themselves. Of course, Third Strike would appear on Dreamcast - the two were meant for each other. Interesting, also, that this was the final Street Fighter game for the better part of the decade. This really was the peak, wasn't it? Yes, there is now Street Fighter 4. But it's squarely a retro remake, and with polygons, at that. That will likely be final resting place for the series. It's far cheaper to peddle in nostalgia once you reach a certain age.

Street Fighter 3 went through two installments before Third Strike arrived, and there was a backlash because the game was too new. Too many different and strange characters, and only Ken and Ryu to represent the old school. Third Strike found the right balance, not only adding Akuma and Chun-Li, but finally refining the newer characters so they felt like the older ones, while retaining a unique flavor. This guy is sort of like Dhalsim. That guy reminds you of Zangief. That one guy is just like Guile, only more of a 1970 Deep Purple vibe. And so on and so on.

Third Strike found the perfect balance, that elusive center. It was familiar, it continued the tradition. Yet it was new, fresh, vibrant. The hip-hop soundtrack is another masterstroke. This is the best music in any fighting game, ever.

I remember at the time that Third Strike was hailed as a "back to basics" game that stripped down the excesses of all the sequels and focused on the core fighting of the original Street Fighter 2. This was interpreted as being slow or lacking flash, as somehow there was less game there. How wrong we all were. That the game was sleeker, slimmer, more efficient....yes, very true. But it was also the fastest, fiercest, most intense fighter in the series. You can see that today on all the tournament videos roaming the internet. Once the competitive gamers figured this out, a new game was revealed.

I think games like Street Fighter Alpha 3 and the Vs. series - Marvel Vs. Capcom, yadda yadda - present a more manic form, more chaotic. Street Fighter 3: Third Strike feels more tactical, more intelligent. It's slower, but never slow. The intense combat is some of the fastest action around. And it's far more fluid and kinetic than the Street Fighter 2 series. Just watch some Youtube videos and see for yourself.

Street Fighter 3: Third Strike looks absolutely spectacular, and it's arguably the high point for sprite-based graphics. I'm running through my mind, and I cannot come up with a single title this decade that has surpassed it. This is the sort of thing that can only come out of anime culture. You must have a true love for the hand-drawn craft, and you must have the skills to understand. I'm thinking of the wonderfully fluid motions of the fighters, of the stylish poses in portraits, of the way they walk onto the screen before a match.

Backgrounds, too, are drawn in spectacular washes of color. wonderfully saturated in warm and cold tones. Street Fighter has never looked better, and it stays unique. I never cared for the look of SNK's fighters. They were always a little too bright, the fighters shaded like CG renders. Third Strike feels grittier, sharper, less overly cartoony. The hip-hop vibe permeates. I also especially appreciate that all the graphics are rendered in sprites and not polygons. No doubt Capcom took some hits for this artistic decision. Marval Vs. Capcom 2 has those wonderful polygon backgrounds, and it became a great hit on Dreamcast. Flash sells first impressions in a way that quiet confidence cannot.

But flash will quickly fade. Confidence lasts. It's 2009 and we're still talking about Street Fighter 3: Third Strike, and we're still talking about Sega Dreamcast. All of which brings us back to my original thought: is this the greatest fighting game on the DC? The easy money's on Soul Calibur, or perhaps the Japanese version of Dead or Alive 2. Can't argue with those games; they're classics and earned their respect. But here lies another fighting classic, one that might possibly stand as the last great 2D fighting game. The fans need to stand up and argue the case.

Videogame Classics - Steep Slope Sliders

Steep Slope Sliders - Cave for Sega Saturn - 1997

Ah, yes, I knew I'd forget one of 'em. Steep Slope Sliders. I picked up a couple Saturn games at this game shop in Edina's Southdale Mall (trivia note: America's very first indoor shopping mall), and, since there was a buy-two, get-one-free deal, I picked up Winter Heat. Then I was told that game was lost, so I went back to the shelf and took Steep Slope Sliders. Imagine my luck.

There probably aren't too many gamers who have heard of this game, even the dedicated Saturn fan, since it was released in the States at the very end of the console's lifespan, just when Sega's Bernie Stolar made the impressibly incompetent decision to kill Sega's 32-bit console in favor of the Dreamcast project (which wasn't anywhere near finished yet). And, of course, as these things turn out, this was just when the Sega Saturn was finally hitting its stride, churning out one masterful masterpiece, or near-masterpiece, after another. Great timing, guys.

Steep Slope Sliders is a snowboarding game meant to compete with UEP Systems' popular Cool Boarders series on the Playstation. Another example of one game that was good for its time, and another that seemed destined for the ages. What's the deal with that, anyway? The best Saturn games are practically the best games ever made for their respective genres - how many can you name? Guess the most and win a prize.

Okay, I'm kidding. There aren't any prizes.

Anyway, back to the snowboarding. Sliders was released in 1997, which was one year before Tony Hawk Pro Skater was dropped and completely revolutionized the whole realm of punk/slacker/raver/extreme sports games. At that point, Tony Hawk became the gold standard for how to pull off a sports game with lots of cool stunts.

Did Neversoft have a Saturn tucked away, with Sliders in tow? This is the thing that immediately grabbed me - this game controls just like Tony Hawk. One button for jump, one button for grabs, one button for flips, shoulder buttons for rotations. Combos are built up from mixing and matching tricks. You know the drill by now; it's been burned into your brains a hundred times over. Well, kids, turns out Steep Slope Sliders was actually the first to pull this off.

The really weird irony is that Neversoft eventually branched out into a snowboard title - trying to recapture the Tony Hawk magic in every stunt sport - and it didn't capture the freedom and speed of the skateboarding original. And most snowboarding titles, from Cool Boarders to SSX to 1080, seem obsessed with this idea of crouching down and building up strength to hop into a move. Who the hell was responsible for that stupid idea? Hold down A, then press in a certain direction, while still riding on the ground - then hop into the air and release for the stunt? What the hell is that?!

Here's another bit of wisdom the prozines will never be polite enough to divulge, kiddies - that's a crappy way to make a videogame. And all the aforementioned snowboarders suffer as a result.

So the only ones to get it right was Crave, that little team responsible for a couple thousand arcade shooters, and Neversoft one year later. And the Neversoft crew got all the credit. Another reason to hogtie and hurl tomatoes at the Sega execs. Great timing. Friggin' losers.

Enough wandering off the reservation. There's this snowboarding game on Saturn you've never seen called Steep Slope Sliders. It's only a one-player game. You only race on one course at a time. There's no tournament mode. But it's damned near the best snowboarding game ever made, and it played John the Baptist to the greatest extreme sports game ever made.

If you need more needling, there are a large number of extras, stuff like hidden courses and bonus boarders. I think there's a UFO or a dog in there somewhere, continuing the slightly warped tradition of the Daytona USA racehorse. Oh, and the music kicks, too, and the graphics are detailed and solid in that way that Saturn games never were in 1995, when it mattered most. Pity that it took everyone three years to finally crack it, but that black box could sing. Have I mentioned that the suits were dumber than a sack of hammers? Are we sure Stolar wasn't still on the Sony payroll? There's something oddly Dick Cheney-ish about him; can't put my finger on it.

Somebody oughta throw up some gameplay videos of Sliders in action, just so you see what the fuss is all about. Add it to the Lost Sega Saturn Classics pile over there, on top of all the others.

Videogame Classics - Worldwide Soccer '97

Here's a screenshot from one of the finest sports games ever made, Sega's Worldwide Soccer '97 for the Saturn. For a console that was legendary for being difficult to program, titles like this were like lightning in a bottle. There are a number of Saturn games like Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop 1 & 2, Sega Rally, NiGHTS, Burning Rangers, and the three Panzer Dragoons, which boasted some of the best polygon graphics of its day.

I don't recall if the American prozines gave much attention to this game. Probably not, for a variety of reasons. They were far more enamoured by Playstation, soccer remains an obscure sport in this country, and so on. Next Generation, thankfully, was the notable exception, giving Worldwide Soccer '97 tremendous praise and considerable exposure.

To their eyes, this was the best soccer game ever made. Today, it still holds up wonderfully, sitting right between Sensible Soccer and Konami's Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer series. The last time I owned a Saturn was around five years ago, and this game was nearly always being played at the house by other roommates.

WWS' best qualitites include the terrific graphics and animation, and the play-by-play commentary of the action. For me, there's something else this game does that I've never seen in any other sports game since then. That quality is tension, simple, nail-biting tension.

Let me explain how this works. It's very simply, really, and it all comes down to penalties. Under most sports games, when you incur a penalty, the computer flashes it up immediately. Doesn't matter if you're talking American football or soccer or basketball or hockey. If you get fouled by the refs, the game tells you immediately.

Here's what Worldwide Soccer '97 does. Say you're on defense, and you tackle the ball-carrier from behind. The whistle blows, and the referee walks up to the players. He stands for a moment, and then either takes up the ball or reaches for a card.

If he's going for a yellow or red card, he still stands there. He reaches in his pocket, and he waits! He waits for a second, and then he pulls out the card.

Aw, crap, he pulled out a red card! I'm dead! Fuck, fuck!

This is really fantastic tension, because once you've been fouled, you don't know what's going to happen. And the referees hand out yellow and red cards like it's water. If you like to play aggressively (and I often do), you're going to collect a lot of cards. Standing there and waiting for your punishment can be sheer terror.

Sega made another update, Worldwide Soccer '98, which features smoother graphics and better passing and a second color commentator who sounds like he's completly drunk off his ass. But they took away the fouls - the refs hardly ever handed out any more cards. So, needless to say, I didn't enjoy this version as much, and we all went back to WWS '97.

Why other developers like EA haven't discovered the thrill of this is beyond me. Issues like penalties and injuries in Madden would be much more tense if the players had to sit and wait for the situations to resolve. Visual Concepts figured this out, and in NFL2K they included the occasional referee conference on the field.

All the prozines and gaming websites have ever focused on are graphics, graphics, and graphics. Don't they understand that there are other things that make a great game succeed? Aren't they aware that technology renders all graphics obsolete? Perhaps they've bought into the corporate hype that we have to constantly consume, consume, consume.

There's a reason why "videogame journalism" has never been taken seriously. If you're working to bring about change, then you'll have to liberate yourself from those childish notions of hype. You've got to stop playing salesman for the advertisers. You've got to discover just what makes a game work.

Man, oh, man, I really wish I still had a Saturn.

Pebble Beach Golf Links (T&E Soft, for Sega Saturn)

Pebble Beach Golf Links was one of the early titles from Sega Saturn's notoriously early launch in the summer of 1995. An installment of the popular golf sim series by T&E Soft (which appeared on the PC), this was the very definition of a "launch title." That is, it's a videogame that is servicable, not very impressive, and largely present to satisfy early adopters before the real software titles arrive.

My first impression with this game was at a local Funcoland (remember those?), and was none too impressed. With the imminent arrival of Sony's Playstation taking all the buzz, Sega's early Saturn launch felt like a desperation move, and such wimpy titles were not winning us over. However, first impressions can be deceiving, and once I bought a Saturn myself (because of Panzer Dragoon, which just knocked my socks off), I picked up Pebble Beach, and it grew on me. Within a few weeks, my opinion completely turned around, and I saw this humble sports game as one of Saturn's early triumphs.

Pebble Beach Golf Links is still easily available at retro game stores for very little money, usually under five bucks. I think that's a great bargain, and heartily recommend it to any Sega Saturn owners or classic videogame collectors. It just plays a very solid game of golf, and even if only one 18-hole course is available, it's a very nice course, one of the best. You can't do much better than Pebble Beach.

One of the main selling points to this game is the inclusion of PGA golfer Craig "The Walrus" Stadler, who appears in video clips, narrating each upcoming hole on the course, and even competing against you. Now this is where I really love this game, and not for a reason you'd expect: Stadler is a real jerk. He's a selfish, condescending know-it-all who knows you'll never play at his level, and we're all just lucky to bask in his greatness. And we all know that Stadler himself will never reach the heights of a Tiger Woods. Especially him. And so Walrus takes it out on us.

Playing against Stadler definitely brings out his bad side. I know the developers wanted to inject some friendly competition, but his snide comments and taunting just become comical. "You're gonna have to practice a lot more," he sneers when you botch that third hole. "Think you can beat that?" he boasts when his tee shot on the seventh lands inches from the hole. I suppose it's meant to inspire me. But I just want to whack him with my club and knock him into the ocean. In that sense, yes, it's very satisfying to beat him.

The graphics in Pebble Beach Golf Links serve as a time capsule of that era, when 3D polygon graphics and CD-ROM technology were new, and software developers had yet to figure it all out. There are digitized graphics and full-motion video clips (which Americans were obsessed with at the time), pre-rendered CGI sequences, and even some rudimentary polygon graphics that never quite held up. I tend to turn off the "ball cam" when playing, and stick with the basic view. Graphics are quite colorful, richly textured, and sprites of your golfer and other objects are very large. Much of the background artwork is pixelated, and this is, again, a snapshot of that era. It would have been nice if T&E Soft had rendered new graphics for the Saturn, instead of a simple PC port. But this is what launch titles are often like. Again, we're only passing time until Virtua Figher 2 drops.

Two of my favorite features in this game: the music, which is laid back, mellow, almost like "elevator music" but without the "please stay on the line" irritation; and the mid-game break, which shows off a series of digitized postcards of the Pebble Beach clubhouse, then allows you to get up and stretch your legs for a "coffee break." It's a very nice touch. This is especially helpful for a long session with your friends.

The only real complaint I ever had with Pebble Beach Golf Links was that judging the power of your swings was difficult to gauge; but that's true of just about every golf videogame ever made. This genre has barely changed at all since US Gold dropped Leaderboard Golf onto the 8-bit home computers 30 years ago. The Nintendo Wii Remote offered some needed innovations, but even then, the core gameplay hasn't budged. This is probably why I remember this title for its little intangibles; the little touches are all you've got. Pebble Beach is the textbook definition of "hidden gem," and Sega Saturn owners should definitely scrounge up the five bucks to add it to their software library.

Miles Davis - Get Up With It

Some cool pics of the 1974 double-lp Get Up With It. This is the final studio album of the Miles Davis electric "fusion" era, and as such contains the heaviest, hardest, and wildest music of his career.

This wasn't conceived as a studio project per se, not in the sense that On the Corner was. Miles was rushing in and out of recording sessions with regularity throughout the '70s, and while the bulk of the album features the "Pete Cosey lineup" (that's the easiest way for me to remember this voodoo funk-metal period), some of the tracks are recorded a bit earlier.

No doubt, at the time, this gave the impression that the album was a collection of leftovers, like the numerous Miles Davis albums of the '70s like Directions and Circle in the Round and Water Babies. But like the 1974 release of Big Fun, which was composed of tracks recorded 1970-72, Get Up With It has a cohesion to its sound. To my ears, it sounds very much like a modern album. Okay, a '90s rock album. It's not my fault this decade's music was so terrible.

'90s rock was defined by a lot of experimentation, and it was common for the greats to jump across genres every couple of songs. It's not the musical brew of the late '60s, but more of a channel-surfing thing. Maybe everyone was just taking cues from Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Who knows? My favorite '90s albums - Soundgarden's Superunknown, Stone Temple Pilot's "Purple," Hole's Live Through This, Radiohead's The Bends and OK Computer, Metallica's Load & Re-Load - have that jukebox attitude. Get Up With It carries that very same vibe, and I think that's the reason why I love it so much.

The two epics, which fill sides 1 and 3, couldn't be more different in mood and texture. And the shorter songs range from boogy blues to trip-hop dance to dissonant noise. And yet it all feels so similar. There's a similar plan of attack from Miles and his bandmates, and to my mind it comes down to two things.

One, Miles on the keyboards. While piano and keyboards were always a staple, at this point Miles takes the keys himself, but he uses the instrument almost purely for assault. It's there to bludgeon you, shock you, to hit you upside the head until you're kissing canvas. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Miles did little more than just punch the keyboard, or mash his forearm down for dissonant effect. Which brings us to...

Two, these songs are angry. Very angry. And very dark. That dark, violent side to Miles Davis was in full evidence on the 1970 landmark Bitches Brew, even though the spirit of the early fusion years was one of exhuberance and discovery. But genius does come with bits of madness, and it's that darker side that emerges. The move into fusion split the jazz world down the middle, and

When On the Corner dropped, the conflict just exploded, and the furious backlash over that album has become the stuff of legend. It's famously said that On the Corner baffled, frustrated, and angered the entire music world, and while I'm sure there were genuine fans who "got it," Miles disappointment was very real, and the music continued its angry, dark voodoo funk descent.

This isn't to say that Get Up With It is a dark or heavy album. There are so many moments of beauty to be discovered. But that's my own judgement, based on the music of my generation - hip-hop, punk, grunge, thrash metal. '70s Miles Davis was the heaviest cat on the planet. Today? He's just another one of us. Good Lord, the dissonant noise and chaos on some of these songs are enough to melt the walls. Certainly more than the hippie or disco kids were willing to handle.

Anyway, I'm rambling on here, as I often do when I'm still figuring things out. This is such an astonishingly deep and layered album that I find myself having to sit and reflect after playing each side (yeah, even when playing my digital needledrop copy). It's very difficult to play through start to finish, not because it's difficult listening, but because there's just so much to absorb. And I'm remembering different moments each time. That is the hallmark of a great album, a truly great album.

On the Corner is widely regarded as Miles Davis' most overlooked, least understood album, but I don't believe that holds anymore. I think Get Up With It holds that honor now. This final phase of Miles Davis' fusion era was pretty much dismissed out of hand. I don't think anyone but the diehard fans (whoever they were back then) and the truly brave were willing to give this album its proper due. And the younger generations, those of us who discovered Miles after his death, well, we're a bit backlogged at the moment. Do you know just how many albums this man released during his life? Do you have any idea how intimidating it is to wade through all of this?

Yes, Kind of Blue is the universal touchstone. In college, it was the default "jazz" album in everyone's CD collection. But just try to work your way past that without devoting several years as a music scholar. I don't think older folks appreciate this. When I told Marcee that my Miles Davis library had reached 25 albums, she was stunned. Then I told her I was only half-way finished.

So is that enough to write about for now? Good Lord, I've barely touched upon the music. Just wait until "Rated X" hits your ears. Does "techno/speed metal" even exist yet? There's probably a half-dozen new musical mutations on this album that have yet to be discovered by the rest of us. Whatever. That's enough for now. Just get your hands on the album, already. It's a monster.

Black Sabbath Vol 4

I've been lucky enough to hear several versions of Black Sabbath Vol. 4. The first one I bought was the Earmark reissue, with the nice clear vinyl. The sound was pretty good for me, and I enjoyed it more than either the standard CD or the Black Box. Unfortunately, the Earmarks are all digital, and the inferiority really shows when you listen to the album in analog.

My second Vol. 4 is the 180 gram NEMS reissue. I have no idea where this album comes from, but the NEMS pressings for Vol. 4 and Paranoid are regularly stocked at the Uptown Cheapo in Minneapolis. I've yet to learn just who is responsible for this, whether it's even new or just some old stock pulled from a forgotten warehouse someplace. In any event, that doesn't matter, because this version completely kicks ass.

The NEMS 180g of Vol 4 is one of my favorite sounding records. The guitars just growl, the drums kick and thump all over your walls, the dynamics are terrific, and of course there's that mysterious tape echo that follows guitar riffs. The album cover is orange, instead of the usual yellow, and I think that sums up its sound. It's more colorful, darker, heavier. It has more grit and texture.

I've been bragging about this pressing as long as I've owned it. You really should give it a try and see what it does for you. If the vaunted Vertigo originals are better than this, I would really be amazed.Needless to say, poor Earmark just gets shattered to pieces in mere seconds. Ditto for all the digital versions. And I think that's also the case for the '70s WB pressing as well.

I did pick up a WB Vol 4, and it was nice to have a gatefold sleeve (NEMS has none), but the sound is more mellow, a little bit more watered down. It's in keeping with the other WB Sabbath albums I've heard (although Sabotage for some reason is far better sounding than the others). Here's my personal theory for why this is, and I'll throw it out there so you can debate it.

Vol. 4 was the first time Sabbath was completely in charge of the production. It was in keeping with the move to California and the expansion of their sound. They were really working to expand and grow, and especially put more effort into the production. But it's pretty clear that Tommy Iommi and crew don't have much experience behind the soundboard. They commit what I expect is a rookie mistake - the sound of the album isn't properly equalized.

I'm not sure if that's the right term, but I mean that the finished album has to balance its sound across all the songs, so it's all on an even level. That didn't happen here. The volume levels of the songs, the guitars especially, vary from track to track. St. Vitus' Dance is the perfect example. Or maybe F/X would be another...I'm sure Sabbath took a lot of flack for this at the time, but funny enough, I think this unbalanced sound is one of Vol. 4's greatest strengths. It gives a real dynamic style to the sound. It shows that an album can be greatly varied in tone and volume, even if they're all guitar rock songs. For me, this is a great revelation, because of its influence on my favorite music period of my lifetime - the Seattle grunge rock scene.

To my ears, Vol. 4 is one of the cornerstones of the Seattle sound. Master of Reality would be the other. I suppose Neil Young would fit in as well. But the heavy swampy sound from Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Soundgarden is all taken from here. That wonderful '90s obsession with guitar tones, so varied and wild and free, owes its very existence to this Black Sabbath album. At least, that's my take.

Listening to the WB version of Vol. 4 seems to confirm this theory. To my ears, it sounds as though the Americans tried to balance out the volume and tones across the tracks, and it does sound more even as a whole unit. If that's your definition of a good sounding rock album, then you'd be happy. But I think the crazy anarchic spirit of the original recordings is compromised. Why do the American record labels always insist on making edits and changes to these classic albums? They always tried to "improve" those old records, and the results were so often the same.

Anyway, that's my take on Black Sabbath Vol. 4.

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