July 20, 2013

The History of the RPG: Ultima (1981)

Last Installment: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Around the same time Wizardry was teleporting gamers into walls and telling them to keep going left, another classic in the RPG genre was starving players to death and launching them into space. The game was Ultima, and much like it's counterpart, it would revolutionize the RPG and gaming in general*.

Ultima was bigger and deeper than Wizardry. This wasn't 10 levels of mayhem to defeat a wizard. This was wandering the countryside and entering cities...to defeat a wizard. But while the final goal was similar, how you got there was completely different.

Like I said, Ultima was the first RPG to give us a real "game world": the kingdom of Sosaria. The evil wizard Mondain causes mass chaos in Sosaria and cannot be defeated because of his gem of Immortality. As the hero, you have to travel to different cities and dungeons to gather gems that will enable you to power a time machine so you can go back in time and kill Mondain before he creates his gem.

Yes, I said "time machine". You also have to actually go into space. In order to finish the game you have to become a space ace and kill 20 enemy ships. Compared to permadeath, that's a tolerable added hurdle to cross.

Ultima also laid down the template for the future of RPGs in other ways. An open world map you could travel. Town and cities to visit with quests to accomplish. Dungeons in the wild. All these things we take for granted now (which find their ultimate expression in Skyrim) began with Ultima. The world map was top down, third person. You shifted to first person when in a dungeon. And those dungeons? Randomly generated, so the "pad and paper" mapping of Wizardry was pointless from game to game. And you didn't have to visit every dungeon, which was the first expression of the "open world" concept.

Character generation was similar to Wizardry, in that you had a limited number of race choices and class choices. Unlike Wizardry your initial stat points weren't a random total. You were given a set amounts and you could parcel them out however you wanted. One other thing...one of the races was a "Bobbit". Yes, it sounds like Hobbit for a reason**.

And as I said before, you could starve to death. Each move on the world map consumed a unit of food. If you ran out, you starved. This began a very annoying RPG trend that has only fully vanished in recent years***. And the Ultima series had some variation on this theme throughout most of its lifetime. I never liked this. Why not have a "balance your checkbook" requirement as well? I play RPGs for fun, not to monitor my nutritional requirements.

Once you got all the gems you needed and rescued the princess to get the time machine (and proved you could use it by becoming a space ace), you went back in time, killed Mondain and won. Sounds simple, but it wasn't.

Influence

World maps. Open world. Quests. Randomly-generated dungeons. Saving princesses. Time travel. All that began with Ultima. And all of them can still be found in RPGs today.

Descendants: Baldur's Gate. Dragon's Age. Skyrim. Any game that uses a world map and has quests. Which is pretty much every RPG worth talking about. Ultima may be second on my list, but it has had more influence in the RPG genre than any other game. Period.

Next on the list: Telengard

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* To be fair, Richard Garriott (the creator) had an earlier effort called Akalabeth, that he made as a teenager. It got the attention of California Pacific Computer Company, who bought the rights and paid him $5 for each copy sold. Garriott made $150K off of Akalabeth. Ultima uses a lot of code from Akalabeth, so it deserves at least a mention here.

** I can't believe Tolkein's estate never sued Garriott or Origin for copyright infringement. Bobbits (Hobbits), Akalabeth (AkallabĂȘth) and others...I am guessing they were either flattered or unaware.

*** Even the original Fallout had a water requirement. It's taking the "reality" aspect of RPGs a step too far. Like making your computer generated character look "too human". It is more of a distraction than an enhancement.

The History of the RPG: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)

Recently, I got to thinking about RPGs and how they have developed over the past 30+ years.

I have been there from the start, banging on Ultima on my friend's Apple II or staying up past midnight playing Bard's Tale on my Commodore. The line from those first efforts to the insanely deep RPGs we have today is a varied and long one. But you can see themes, ideas and influences from those early 1980s trailblazers in games today. And some of our favorites from today wouldn't even exist without some of the early efforts.

For me, my first exposure to the RPG was at the tender age of 9. One of my friends had an Apple II* and couldn't stop telling me about this new game his parents had bought for him. The name? Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord**. If you consider Wizardry, Ultima and Temple of Apshai as the Holy Trinity that began RPGs, I would personally put Wizardry*** in the lead role.

It was, for it's time, revolutionary. The first D&D style computer RPG to use color graphics. The first RPG to use party-based combat. For all of us kids who were getting into D&D on paper, to see those ideas "come to life" on a computer was a world-redefining event. We could actually be a good Dwarven Fighter or an evil Elf Thief. Wizardry was also the first "dungeon crawl".

It was genius in its simplicity. You create a party of up to six characters, arm them and then try to make it through 10 levels. The screen was mostly text, like this:

The view was first-person when moving through the dungeon. You find more valuable and powerful weapons and armor. If you make it to level 10, you try to defeat the wizard Werdna and get the amulet. If you do, you win.

And there was the catch: Wizardry was a stone-cold bitch when it came to trying to win the game. First off, mapping functions didn't exist in 1981. So if you were a good D&D gamer, you broke out your graph paper and drew the map as you went along. Because sometimes you would hit a square with a teleport spell and be sent into a random part of the level. Or maybe a wall.**** And if your character teleports into a wall, they are gone. Forever. Die in combat? You are done. If you run out of spells on level 3? You have to go back to the top to repower. And if you use the most powerful spell in the game (Mahaman) - which is only available once you hit Level 13 - you lose a level! You think grinding for copper in WoW is tedious? Try wandering a level for hours on end to kill enough monsters to get that level back. Oh yeah, and your characters age. So too many trips back to the top to visit the Inn and your Lord or Ninja will drop dead from old age.

Demon Souls is hard? Please. Kid, you don't know the meaning of hard.

And the kicker? The cherry on top? If you wanted any chance of successfully playing the next two games in the series, you had to beat this game so you could import your party*****. So when I have to reload a few times to actually kill a Frost Dragon in Skyrim? That's nothing, friend. Losing a party on the fifth level of Wizardry? That's pain.

But still...I love this game. Love it.

And remember: CONTRA-DEXTRA AVENUE

Influence

Any game that uses party-based combat owes a debt of thanks to Wizardry. Any game that is a "dungeon crawl" or a "hack-and-slash" has its genesis in Wizardry. Sadistic games that barely let you save or kill you seemingly at will? Blame Wizardry, which still does it better than anyone else. Or worse, depending on your point of view. first-person color graphics? Right here.

Descendants: Diablo. In a lot of ways, you can draw a straight line between the two games. Dungeon crawl straight down, returning to the top on occasion, teleporting to transition between levels. The only major differences would be the single- vs party-combat styles and the first-person vs third-person combat styles.******

Next on the list: Ultima

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* The Apple II line was amazingly long-lived. The first one came out in 1977 and the final version - the IIe - stopped production in 1993. The IIe was a wonder unto itself: a 10+ year run and only minor changes were ever made to the design.

** I am just calling it Wizardry for the rest of the piece. But we all know I am talking about the first one, right? Good.

*** This is obviously a matter of subjective choice and which you actually played first. Timeline-wise, Temple of Apshai was first. But does anyone ever say "I was really inspired to make this because of all the hours I spent playing Temple of Apshai as a kid"? No.

**** You have no idea how annoying this was. Bill Simmons at Grantland will talk about the Madden football series from time to time and mentions the "No F***ing Way game", where the computer simply decides you are going to lose and has Tyler Palko complete a 90-yard bomb with no time on the clock. Teleporting into a wall was the equivalent back in 1981.

***** Initially it was worse that this. At first, you couldn't even play the next game in the series unless you imported a party from Wizardry. Luckily, some genius at Sir-Tech realized this might impact sales slightly and the correction was made. Now, you could generate a new party for Wizardry II but they would likely die in the high-level beginning dungeon. In the land of Wizardry this is known as progress.

****** Yeah yeah yeah. I know..."what about Rogue?? It's coming. Most people didn't get to try it until 1984.

July 17, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1972

I decided to run down a list of my five favorite films from each year I have been alive. This doesn't mean I saw them in a theater (I was born the same year The Godfather came out, after all). It also doesn't mean they were the five best films (Cabaret won a slew of Oscars that year and I can't watch that movie for five minutes). They are simply my personal favorites from that year.

Honorable Mention – Godzilla vs. Gigan: I am a sucker for "man-in-suit" films. I love Godzilla. I'll watch them whenever and wherever they appear. This is one of the lamer installments in the Godzilla magnum opus. Nevertheless, I'll still eat up every second of it. Besides, the four-way battle at the end is pretty kick-ass.

5. What's Up, Doc?: I pretty much had avoided anything starring Barbara Streisand for most of my life before watching this. And while I think that is still by-and-large a good plan, I was an idiot for missing out on this. Funny, funny, funny. Great screwball comedy.

4. Sleuth: More people these days are likely familiar with the 2007 remake. But the original, based on Anthony Shaffer's play, is far superior. A husband and his wife's lover match wits in a deadly game. Real top-notch acting from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine*. The ending is fantastic.

3. The Candidate: This scathing look at politics in America is even more relevant today. The triumph of image over substance in our elections is still a concern, and Redford's Bill McKay is a candidate whose echoes you can see in our politicians today.

2. Jeremiah Johnson: Great western, incredible scenery. Another top-notch performance from Redford. This is one of my favorite westerns, and I would say probably a Top 20 all-time. The story of trying to avoid violence and becoming consumed by it is a common one in the genre, but Jeremiah Johnson tells it better than almost any other film.

1. The Godfather: Duh. Like you didn't see this coming. One of the greatest movies ever made, if not the greatest. Still defines an entire genre of movies. As watchable now as it was 36 years ago. You could run it in a theater today and it would likely out-earn most of the current films being showed.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Deliverance, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Last House on the Left, Solaris, Prime Cut, Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

And no jokers asking where Deep Throat is.

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* AKA - "The Most Awesome Actor in the History of Forever"

The Worst Movies I've Ever Seen: Leviathan

The year is 1989. It's a Friday night in March. Which, in north-central Connecticut, means its likely to be straight-out cold. So the options for a group of 17-year-olds is limited. And the one my friends and I almost always chose was the movies.

(Note: I have to admit, that isn't true. But since some of the other choices weren't, oh, I guess the word would be "legal", I am not mentioning them here. Not so much for preserving my image [which is beyond salvation at this point] as much as to keep my son from finding this five years from now and going "You hypocrite!")

There were a couple of theaters in the area, and the one we frequented most often was the Bristol 8, which had opened two years prior. Since then it has closed down and re-opened twice, only to close down again, mostly due to the 12-16 screen mega-theaters that opened around it. But in its day, it was a great place to see a film. There it is to your right. Looked a lot more impressive back in the day...well, slightly more impressive.

So that blustery March evening we went into the Bristol 8. The choices were slim. We'd already seen Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (that sentence makes me feel a hundred years old...), and the other choices were films like Lean on Me, the Corey&Corey flick Dream a Little Dream and Police Academy 6. In other words, nothing too great.

But then we saw Leviathan. It had Peter Weller, whom we all loved from Buckaroo Banzai and Robocop. It had Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters! It was about a mutant monster killing people underwater. It had everything! And I knew it was directed by George P. Cosmatos, who had helmed one of my favorite movies at the time: Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Aside: You know how flims tend to "cluster?" Like how Armageddon and Deep Impact came out at the same time in 1998? Or how these two Capote films came out one after the other? Well, 1989 was the year of the underwater horror/suspense film. Not only did Leviathan come out, so did The Abyss and Deepstar Six. In fact, Six had come out only two months before Leviathan. So, when you're complaining about too many torture-horror films coming out these days, it could be worse. Trust me.

So we went to see Leviathan, ready to be knocked off of our feet. And we were...just by the total crap the film turned out to be.

See, they're underwater miners down to their last few days on the job. They see a Russian ship wrecked on the ocean floor. They investigate and unwittingly bring back a bad bottle of vodka, which then gets someone infected. He and another crew member die. When their bodies are dumped into the water, they mutate into some creature which then hunts the crew. They try to survive until they can get to the surface. Which will be hard to do since their employer (the ice-blue eyed Meg Foster) has hung them out to dry and told the press that they're dead after a long search, rather than mount an actual rescue attempt. Think "Alien" underwater with a monster only 1/100 as cool as the Alien, and you get the idea.

So, it kind of meanders along. The build-up takes a loooonnnggg time. There are some deaths. The oxygen goes on the fritz, they're facing implosion and a scary monster, what will they do? At this point, it is an inoffensive but forgettable film.

So, at the end, three characters make it to the surface: Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson and Amanda Pays. The rescue helicopter from the faux rescue attempt sees them. The credit music begins to play. Oh, our heroes have made it! That's when the mutated monster (by now it has grown quite large) bursts out of the water....

AND EATS ERNIE HUDSON!!

When it happened, I and my friends were stunned. It was the classic movie cliche (black man dies at end of film) come to life. I still can't believed it happened. There's Ernie Hudson, escaping one second, and a mutant snack the next. And, at that moment, the film was utterly ruined. It ripped you right out of any state of enjoyment you were in and mocked it. I was offended. Not because the black guy got eaten, but because Cosmatos had opted to insult my intellgence.

We all walked out of the theater, bitching about the ending. That one moment instantly ruined the film beyond all hope and made it one of my personal worst films. To the point that I avoided Cosmatos' Tombstone like the plague, despite the fact I love Westerns like a fat kid loves cake. As Comic Book Guy would say "Worst. Ending. Ever."

1989 would get worse that year, with another horrible film, van Damme's Cyborg coming out in early April (which is a story all to itself). And then, all of a sudden, 1989 became the year for great movies.


  • April 14: Say Anything
  • April 21: Field of Dreams
  • May 24: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • June 2: Dead Poets' Society
  • June 23: Batman
  • July 7: Lethal Weapon 2
  • July 14: When Harry Met Sally
  • August 2: Parenthood
  • August 16: Uncle Buck (I will hear no ill spoken of Uncle Buck. You have been warned.)
  • November 22: Back to the Future Part II (Noticed that two-month gap, did you? Yes, September and October were pretty bad. Black Rain came out around then, which I like. But no else seems to for some reason.)
  • December 1: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
  • December 14: Glory

That's a powerhouse lineup. But those were all in the future. At that time in March, I was dreading the film season to come. And all thanks to Leviathan.

Movie Review: Machete (2010)

I learned the following things from watching Machete:
  • You can rappel out a window using the long intestine of a recently-eviscerated man...while he's still alive.
  • Lindsay Lohan can't act for shit...but her breasts are fantastic.
  • If you are ever in a sword fight, a machete trumps a samurai sword.
  • Steven Segal let himself go. A lot. The man is bloated. He almost looks like Tor Johnson. I don't know which man that comparison insults more.
  • It was no fluke that Robert Rodriguez directed the better half of Grindhouse.
This movie is what Grindhouse aspired to be like. Machete is ridiculous, bloody, over-the-top and uses a serious issue like immigration to make it even more ridiculous.

It was a fucking blast.

I am a Danny Trejo fan, so to see him get a whole film to do what he does (asskicking) was loads of fun. Wisely, Rodriguez doesn't have him talk all that much, as emoting isn't Trejo's strongest skill. But then again, he really doesn't have to talk that much. His blades and bullets tend to do that for him.

If you don't know the plot, Trejo plays an ex-Federale nicknamed Machete. After a takedown of a drug kingpin goes bad, he ends up in the US as a day laborer. He is hired to supposedly kill a Texas state senator who is demonizing illegal immigrants. But instead he is set up as a patsy. As you can likely guess, Machete doesn't do "patsy" very well. Blood and carnage ensue. Along with Lohan's breasts. And everyone learns to their discontent that they have indeed "fucked with the wrong Mexican."

The surrounding players do their parts admirably, although DeNiro as the state senator hams it up a bit too much. I wish Don Johnson's character had a little more screen time. Cheech Marin as Machete's gun-toting priest/brother was good. Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba were actually good as well. But the real standout was Jeff Fahey as Booth, the senator's right-hand man.

Fahey is a good actor. I remember seeing him in his first role in Silverado. And he gets how to play Booth, which is straight for the most part with just a slight hint of crazy. Trejo is the reason to watch Machete, but Fahey's Booth is the character that makes the film work.

A special note about Segal as the drug kingpin. He can't act his way out of a paper bag, but that actually works here. His role is the one that is supposed to be ridiculous. It's too bad for Segal that there aren't more "crazy drug kingpin" roles in Hollywood. Because the man can decapitate someone with real panache.

The bottom line is this - if you like action films, fun films, "Danny Trejo kicking ass" films or films with Lohan's breasts, then Machete is right up your alley. It is that all-too-rare event these days; a fun movie-watching experience.

Movie Review: 13 Assassins (2010)

What are the limits of honor? What should it require of us? Is there a time when doing the dishonorable thing is actually the right, or honorable, thing to do? These are questions asked in Takashi Miike's fantastic samurai movie, 13 Assassins.

Set in the 19th Century, a mere 20 years or so before Commodore Perry's arrival in the waters off Edo, we are immediately presented with a samurai committing ritual suicide, or seppuku. It has been done as a protest against the actions of the Shogun's half-brother Naritsugu. He is a sociopath who rapes and kills on a whim. In one chilling scene, he uses the remaining family members of the official we see in the opening scene as target practice, killing a child last. Since he is the Shogun's brother, he is untouchable. So Sir Doi, the chief justice for the Shogunate, quietly hires an aging samurai named Shinzaemon to kill Naritsugu. This is done without official sanction. This brings Shinzaemon into conflict with a colleague named Hanbei, who has tied his future to Naritsugu. Despite his knowledge of Naritsugu's evil, honor dictates that Hanbei should obey and protect his lord no matter what.

It is here where we see how the concept of honor and loyalty has been twisted beyond recognition in the waning days of the Shogunate. Nartisugu disobeys the order of the Shogun to leave the family alone, a dishonorable act. Yet Hanbei maintains his loyalty to a man he knows is dangerous and evil, preserving honor towards a man who deserves none but receives it because of an accident of birth. These are themes Miike brings up over and over again. A code of honor only works when everyone is worthy of it. All it takes is one man to abuse the system and it becomes a twisted version of itself. And then doing the right thing can be seen as the wrong thing.

13 Assassins is very much a movie in the vein of Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai. Shinzaemon gathers 12 men and they set out to assassinate Naritsugu. This plan comes to fruition in an epic assault that takes 45 minutes at the end of the film. The 13 Assassins have turned a small village into a killing trap. But Hanbei and Naritsugu have brought 200 men with them instead of the expected 70. The resulting carnage is exquisitely shot and is one of the best battle scenes you will see on film.

And the constant returning to the ideas about honor and loyalty, things which defined feudal Japan, tie the movie together. In their own ways, both Hanbei and Shinzaemon are being both honorable and dishonorable. The system has become a convoluted mess. The major difference between Hanbei and Shinzaemon is that the latter recognizes this, while the former still holds to the old ways.

Miike has really come into his own with 13 Assassins. People worried about seeing excessive gore or disturbing scenes (like in Audition, Ichi the Killer or Visitor Q) have little reason to fear. Aside from one scene that is essential to demonstrating Naritsugu's cruelty, there is no crazy gore. Even the scenes of seppuku are shot with the camera holding on the face. We hear the cut of the knife, and that is even more effective.

I cannot recommend this film enough. If you are lucky enough to have Netflix Instant, you can see it now. Otherwise, either buy, rent or acquire the DVD by some other means. It's that good.

Movie Review: Rashomon (1950)

What is truth? What is the nature of truth? Can we ever know what the truth really is? These are questions that are asked in Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon, the film that introduced both Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to a global audience.

The story is simple on its face. A samurai and his wife are accosted by a bandit. The wife is raped and the husband killed. But how those events occurred, and why they happened are what we cannot figure out. Each participant, including the dead husband (channeled by a medium) give conflicting versions of the events.

We learn of this tale from a priest and woodcutter seeking shelter from the rain at the Rashomon Gate outside Kyoto. The woodcutter found the samurai's body and, we learn later, also saw the events in question. His recounting of what happened adds a further layer of doubt and, despite being the most unbiased, cannot be taken at face value either.

Kurosawa's movie was daring in many ways. He gave viewers a plot that provided no answers (and confused a lot of Japanese film critics at the time). He shot many scenes along with his cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa into direct light, a long-standing taboo in film-making. He shot the film using multiple cameras so he could splice together different cuts depending on which he like the best. Rashomon was a major risk for Kurosawa to take, but it paid off wonderfully.

It's impact globally is obvious, with multiple films and television shows using the basic concept of "competing truths". But unlike Rashomon, they all provide us with an answer. Rashomon is defiant, not giving us the "truth" we want. In the end, we have to choose what we believe is the truth. And what we choose may be different.

To give a personal example, I went through a divorce a few years ago. If you asked me or my ex-wife why we got a divorce, we would likely give some of the same reasons but also different ones. If you asked our friends, you'd get more responses. All would share some basic commonalities but each would be different in the end. And each would be the "truth". And we would all believe our version was the right one.

It's a Hell of a topic to tackle with a film. And to not provide a definitive answer is what makes Rashomon more than a classic, but one of the best films ever made. Because that, as much as we may not want to admit it, is how it is in life.

Movie Review: Black Death (2010)

Historical horror isn't an easy film genre to pull off, for the very simple reason that you are dealing with history. You cannot have fantastical bogeymen or indestructible killers. The horror has to come from the time and the people. Black Death may be a bit ragged around the edges, but it is a fine film and definitely is successful in making history horrific.

The year is 1348 and the Plague is decimating all of Europe. In England, a knight named Ulric (Sean Bean)* comes to a monastery with his band of men on orders from the Bishop. They need a guide through the marsh to a village that has remained untouched by the Plague. It is suspected that necromancy is the reason why. A young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) agrees to lead them so he can rendezvous with his secret love, Avrill (Kimberley Nixon), in the woods.

You know no good will come of this.

The band fights through bandits and slogs through the swamp to reach the village. It is free of disease and led by Langiva (Carice van Houten) and her assistant Hob (Tim McInnerny). Ulric and his men pose as weary travelers, but that ruse does not hold up for long and...well, that's where the horror comes in.

What I like about Christopher Smith's direction in this movie is that it doesn't rely on blood and gore and close-ups of evisceration to get you to squirm. It cuts away from that and focuses on the face of the victim. Or it cuts away all together and leaves you with the screaming. It allows your imagination to fill in the blanks. And our minds will almost always create a more frightening and disturbing image. It does allow one moment of on-screen dismemberment towards the end. But it is visually effective and proper for the moment.

Dario Poloni's script feels somewhat rushed to me (the film is just 97 minutes long) but it works well and doesn't have a lot of down time. And the twist at the end is fantastic. It's a dark movie and it ends in that same vein.

The actors aren't asked to stretch too much in their roles. Ulric is a man of God, dour and battle-hardened, and ready to kill anyone who has turned from God. Osmund is a naive young monk who is going into a world he knows nothing about. Langiva is a strong woman in a world of men and that unnerves Ulric's band. But they all play their roles well and that is what counts. Better to have good actors in simple roles than bad actors in complex roles.

One other note: the cinematography by Sebastian Edschmid is good. The film's look is gritty and faded, which is how a film with this content should look.

The film this reminds me of, as I would suspect it reminds others, is Witchfinder General, the 1968 Michael Reeves film starring Vincent Price. Both deal with the inherent falsehoods in hunting witches and blaming events on the supernatural. And how that can corrupt people on either side of the equation.

This film is worth watching if you like the genre. But it is also a well-made film. It's available Netflix streaming.

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* Three guesses on the ultimate fate of Bean's Ulric. Let's just say the fate of his film characters is...remarkably consistent.

Movie Review: Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

I have been a fan of the kaiju "man in suit" monster films since I was 3.

Yes, three years old.

It was 1975* and we had just moved into our new home in Connecticut. It was an ungodly hot June day and my dad had set up this little 5-inch B&W television on the porch. The film Channel 3 was playing ... "King Kong vs. Godzilla." I sat there completely engrossed, watching these larger-than-life titans lay waste to half of Japan.

As I grew older, my love of these films grew as well. Most of my extended family lives in Rhode Island, so we made frequent weekend/summer trips there. At my grandparent's house, they got a Boston station (WLVI) that played the classic "Creature Double Feature" every Saturday. It was a lot of Hammer and Corman horror, which wasn't really my thing at the age of 6. But sometimes it was "Godzilla vs. Gigan", "Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster" or the geek-tastic "Destroy all Monsters," which basically was my Nirvava for these films.

But as I matured (in theory, as some might say) I lost touch with the films. When the original "Showa" period ended in 1975 and those films filtered onto TV, there were no new films in Japan until 1984. Then we were given Godzilla: 1985. And it sucked. S-U-C-K-E-D. The dearth of love for the film meant we didn't see anymore Godzilla movies for almost a decade. And if you got the Japanese VHS tapes, it was incomprehensible. Each tape had a different timeline and incomprehensible plot. Nothing made sense. And so the movies faded in memory. Add to that the abomination that was the Americanized "Godzilla" in 1998 (God, I hate that fucking movie), and the granddaddy of giant beasts was all but dead.

But somehow Toho pulled it out. In 2002 and 2003, they released "Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" and "Godzilla: Tokyo SOS", a duology that got good buzz. Riding that wave, for the 50th Anniversary of the franchise, they released "Godzilla: Final Wars"

And it kicks ass.

The plot...as convoluted as the others. Godzilla is flash-frozen beneath Antarctica by a UN-type organization. Then some time later, some of his old monster pals appear and start laying waste to the Earth. Only to be suddenly removed by aliens known as "Xilians" They say they come in peace, to warn us of a planetoid that will crash into the Earth. The only way to stop it: Fire all of Earth's weapons at it at one time to vaporize it.

Of course, when aliens suggest disarming yourself in any fashion, you know they're up to no good. Their plot is discovered, so they release the monsters again onto the Earth. With most of the planet a smoking cinder, our heroes take the only step left to them: releasing Godzilla. Which has it's own problems, since he's not on speaking terms with Humanity after his freezing. Nevertheless, he proceeds to kick a lot of giant monster ass.

It reminds me of an updated "Destroy all Monsters." Which is a good thing. That film was like crack to me as a kid. I'd move heaven and earth to catch it on television. Now I have a modern version of my own. With better SFX and battles. Even more monsters. The fake American Godzilla gets shived like a prison bitch. Can you ask for more than that?

"G:FW" rules the Kaiju genre as far as entertainment value. For actual emotional impact, nothing will haunt you like the original "Godzilla", made in 1954. It's so good I would put it up as one of the best Japanese films made, along with "Tokyo Story", "Seven Samurai" and "Ran."

But if you want extensive heavy-duty monster action, you cannot beat "G:FW". The DVD comes with limited extras, but one of the best is the B-Roll of SFX sequences. You get to see how they do...what they do. It's very cool.

"Godzilla: Final Wars" gets a rock-solid, tail-whomping 8.5. It drags a little in the beginning with a lot of character development and little monster action. But the last hour...wow.

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* I'm old, you may as well learn this now.

 

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