My 10 Favorite Sitcoms of All Time

In my Twitter bio I describe myself as a “sitcom fetishist,” which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer considering I don’t derive pleasures of that nature from watching sitcoms (though perhaps Kelsey Grammer’s voice could be considered close), but it is most certainly an art from that I think has fallen to the wayside far too much. This isn’t to say sitcoms aren’t still around — they certainly are — but I feel that today’s sitcoms are somewhat unable to capture the magic that some of my favorites have through the years.

So, this list will be comprised of my 10 favorite sitcoms of all time, not the ones that I’m calling the greatest sitcoms of all time, since if I were to do such a list someone would probably expect classics like Seinfeld or Friends, neither of which I think are very good (sorry). Additionally, this list will only be comprised of straight-up sitcoms, which means comedy shows I love like Rick and Morty or Monty Python’s Flying Circus that aren’t strictly sitcoms won’t be counted. I’ll also only be counting shows of which I’ve seen every episode, for fairness’s sake. So great classics like M*A*S*H or Taxi, which would most likely be here, will be absent since I haven’t seen them in their entirety, and recent hits that are still ongoing, like The Middle, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Always Sunny, will be absent as well.

With all those rules you’d think it’d be difficult to come up with 10, but in fact I still had difficulty paring this list down to a solid 10. That said, you can rest assured that because of this, these are the 10 sitcoms I consider to be the cream of the crop, and some of the best comedic entertainment available. So, without further ado, my top 10 favorite sitcoms of all time.

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10. Scrubs

In a world of ER’s and Grey’s Anatomy’s, Scrubs gives us a refreshingly cartoonish and heartwarming look at the goings-on of a hospital and its staff — from doctors to interns to nurses to the Janitor. And, yes, we capitalize Janitor, because who really knows his name? Scrubs had everything. Musical numbers, cutaway gags, tearjerkers, homages, and, most importantly, a great cast of characters at the heart of it that made you actually care. Additionally, Scrubs had an incredibly strong list of supporting characters — who could forget the hospital’s sadsack a capella-singing lawyer Ted, Dr. Cox’s conniving ex-wife Jordan, or (most memorably) The Todd? While Zach Braff’s narrations and hilarious fantasy segments bookended the already tight framework of the various mishaps and tribulations that come with being a medical intern, the real heart of the show was the relationship between JD and his reluctant mentor Dr. Cox. To this day Dr. Cox remains one of my favorite sitcom characters of all time (beaten out solely on this show by Neil Flynn’s Janitor), and the tenuous father-son bond he grew with JD is especially heartwarming on a show that legitimately brought a tear to my eye more than once. And it’s even better if we pretend season 9 didn’t happen.

Best episode: “My Screw Up”

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9. The Office (UK)

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office was perhaps the instigator for the stream of “mockumentary” sitcoms that followed, but remains probably the best example of its usage. Set in the fictional offices of Wernham-Hogg paper, the UK version of The Office is dry, sharp, and relentlessly difficult to watch for all the right reasons. Martin Freeman excels particularly as Tim, and the will-they-won’t-they between Tim and Dawn seems rote now (and the US version is perhaps to blame), but it’s still a joy to watch. And, of course, the bumbling antics of the accidentally racist/sexist/terrible boss David Brent and his lap dog Gareth are still hilarious 15 years later. The Office represents much of what makes British comedy ever-so-slightly different than the US variety, be it the lack of a laugh track (thank God), the rapidity and dryness of the gags, or just their ability to elevate things beyond the standards by which Americans measure what’s appropriate. David Brent’s final words are that he merely wishes to be remembered as someone who put a smile on everyone’s face. And he certainly did.

Best episode: “Christmas Special pt 2” or “Quiz”

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8. Parks and Recreation

Off the heels of perhaps the most cynical show on this list we come to Parks and Rec, a delightfully goofy look at the local government of a small town in Indiana. Originally envisioned as a public-sector counterpart to The Office (which it indeed was for its first season), Parks and Rec evolved into a simply joyful sitcom wherein it was acceptable to have a song called “5,000 Candles in the Wind” written as a tribute to a miniature horse (it makes sense in context). Like many sitcoms on this list, Parks and Rec excels because of the strength of its ensemble cast. Amy Poehler’s giddy and obsessive Leslie Knope is perfectly counterbalanced by Nick Offerman’s breakfast food-loving libertarian Ron Swanson. The stupidity and childishness of Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer are complimented well by his eventual wife, the brooding jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold April, played superbly by Aubrey Plaza. And, of course, we can’t forget the perpetually cheerful and insanely health-conscious Chris Traeger, a perfect performance from Rob Lowe. God, there’s so much to love about this show. Interestingly enough it’s one of two shows to feature Henry Winkler in a recurring role …

Best episode: “Moving Up”

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7. Futurama

By far the better of Matt Groening’s animated sitcoms, Futurama is a delightfully satirical look at the future of the world 1,000 years down the line through the eyes of our hapless fish-out-of-water protagonist, Phillip J. Fry. Alongside the already strong main cast including the one-eyed spaceship pilot Leela (an excellent performance from Katey Sagal), alcoholic robot Bender, ditzy PhD student Amy, and Rastafarian accountant Hermes, we have a veritable rogues’ gallery of hilarious side characters like John Goodman’s Robot Santa, Lrrrr and his wife NdNd, and Dan Castellenata’s Robot Devil — and that’s not even mentioning all the characters played by Billy West (can you say Zapp Brannigan?)! Futurama deftly manages parodying and paying its dues to countless sci-fi classics, while also telling some great stories and building up some awesome character arcs. Bring it back, Matt!

Best episode: “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back,” “The Prisoner of Benda,” or “The Luck of the Fryrish”

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6. Cheers

Arguably the quintessential sitcom, Cheers had all the right elements for the making of a perfect sitcom: memorable running jokes (NORM!), a true bond between the characters, a recognizable set, a catchy theme song, and, at its heart, a romance for the ages (or at least the first five seasons). There’s a reason why Cheers is one of the most easily-recognizable sitcoms of all time (besides its enormous 11-season run). Cheers embodied something people needed to see on their TVs in the 80s (and still do today): camaraderie, friendship, and, well, a place where everybody knows your name. The creators are recorded as saying that they wished they’d had a neighborhood bar like Cheers in their hometowns, so they thought they’d bring one to everyone’s TVs. And for 11 years, they did. Cheers survived everything that would kill a TV series today — the departure of a lead actress, the death of a lead actor, terrible ratings in its first season — and still managed to bring people like Woody Harrelson and John Ratzenberger into the spotlight. Not to mention Frasier Crane, who we’ll be discussing later … With perhaps the greatest sitcom finale of all time, Cheers closed the door in 1993 on what was quite possibly the friendliest bar on earth. Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Best episode: “Thanksgiving Orphans”

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5. The Office (US)

Hey, The Office is back! This time, we’re talking about the Steve Carell-helmed Americanization, which arguably succeeded its predecessor in every way. To be fair, British TV is a cutthroat game, and I sort of see the American Office as a fully-realized version of what the original could’ve been, given time. Where the UK version was cold, cynical, and cringey, the American version (given a little time) gives us a deeper look into similar characters, and offers more heart and character development across its 9 seasons. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott is the obvious greatest character, offering the same clumsiness and lack of political correctness of his British counterpart David Brent, but bringing new angles to the character to make him a truly sympathetic character that the viewer is happy to root for. The Jim and Pam romance is also a treat, as well as every single thing Dwight, Kevin, or Creed do. Sure, it slowed down in its final years following Carell’s departure, but it never lost that shine of cheeky social commentary at the expense of the American workplace, and for that it’ll always be one of my favorites.

Best episode: “Office Olympics,” “Diversity Day,” or “Broke”

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4. Community

Community is certainly one of the cleverest sitcoms of all time, putting an exquisitely self-aware spin on the typical college comedy by giving us a look at Greendale Community College and its insane inhabitants. There’s so much to love about Community that it’s hard to compile a list, but I’ll try– The ever-classic “Winger speech,” the study group summoning Beetlejuice over three seasons, a bottle episode, Abed calling the bottle episode a bottle episode, Troy and Abed in the morning, Chevy Chase’s racist grandpa Pierce, a monkey named Annie’s Boobs, “I’ll have … a birthday cake!”, not one, but two Dungeons & Dragons episodes, just the right amount of LeVar Burton, and, of course, a Ken Burnsian documentary about a blanket pillow fort narrated by the illustrious Keith David. It’s impossible to explain any of that within context, but just the sheer fact that Community has a character who’s aware he’s on a sitcom is enough to warrant a watch. Six seasons and a movie!

Best episode: “Remedial Chaos Theory”

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3. Frasier

There are some who would lynch me for daring to put Frasier above Cheers on this list, but I just can’t help it — I love Frasier to death. As a supporting cast member on Cheers for 9 years, Kelsey Grammer brought a delightfully theatrical presence to the screen, something previously unheard of. Frasier was bombastic, melodramatic, and — most important of all — hilarious. In fact, Kelsey Grammer’s performances as Frasier Crane served as my primary inspiration when I played Much Ado’s Benedict a few years back, and indeed there’s something almost Shakespearean about the premise of Frasier (the show). We have a set of psychiatrist brothers, one who spends 6 years unable to admit his love for an enchanting Englishwoman, and the other who helps others on the phone every day with their familial issues who can’t even begin to deal with his own. Frasier was decidedly high-brow and clever, and you could tell with the live studio audience who sometimes took a few seconds to catch the joke — but when they did, it was a riot. Rounding off the main cast we have Niles, Frasier’s even more eccentric brother, Martin, his father, Roz, his producer, Daphne, his father’s home healthcare worker, and — who could forget — Eddie, his father’s relentlessly adorable terrier. Frasier ran for another 11 seasons, meaning Frasier Crane as a character was a household name for 20 years straight. And I wish we could have 20 more.

Best episode: “Dinner Party”

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2. Fawlty Towers

If I can’t put Flying Circus on this list, I’m sure as hell going to put Fawlty Towers on it. In my opinion, Fawlty Towers is straight up the funniest sitcom of all time. Husband-and-wife team John Cleese and Connie Booth gave us a look into the management (or mismanagement) of the rundown motel Fawlty Towers in Torquay. Every episode featured spectacular writing, some of the funniest character interactions ever put on screen, and ever-escalating lies that spin our poor protagonist Basil Fawlty into a knot. Fawlty Towers is England’s second-greatest gift to the world (right behind America), and firmly cements John Cleese as one of the funniest men of all time. Watch it, you won’t regret it.

Best episode: “Basil the Rat”

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1. Arrested Development

Ah, Arrested Development. How do I love thee? I don’t have enough time to count the ways. Arrested Development was simply too clever for TV. Rife with running gags and continuity out the wazoo, Arrested Development is far better suited to the Netflix era than the traditional one-episode-a-week format. In the Bluth family we find a true ensemble cast, and every single character gets their moments to shine. Within the family we get great characters like Will Arnett’s failed magician GOB (But where did the lighter fluid come from?), Michael Cera’s lonely George Michael Bluth, mama’s boy Buster, hapless double entendre-spewing Tobias (the world’s first analrapist [an analyst and a therapist, you see]) and the Bluth patriarch and his twin brother, both played by Jeffrey Tambor. Even the recurring characters like Henry Winkler’s Barry Zuckercorn and Scott Baio’s Bob Loblaw are a treat to see show up. And if you’re starting to sense a theme here, just wait til you hear Ron Howard’s narrations which expertly punctuate an already hilarious show. Arrested Development is simply a triumph for the comedic genre, and it’s one show I recommend everybody watch.

Best episode: Seasons 1-3

R20 – Caress of Steel

Moving on down the line, we have my #15 ranked Rush album, their second album from 1975, Caress of Steel. Their third album, and the second to feature Neil Peart on drums and lyrics, Caress is about as Rush as Rush ever got. It’s very proggy, very high-concept, and very, very strange. With only five songs, and the first to feature a sidelong epic in The Fountain of Lamneth, Caress of Steel simultaneously paved the way for their future success and nearly destroyed them as a band by being their most commercially disappointing record to date. The subsequent tour was deemed the “Down the Tubes” tour, as they expected a quick demise following the low record sales. That said, Caress of Steel has good parts, and while most of it is a bit verbose or pretentious, it’s still worth an occasional listen.

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Like every other Rush album, Caress opens with a great track, this time with the historically-grounded Bastille Day. Perhaps the only real winner on the album, Bastille Day is about exactly what you think — the French Revolution. And almost all of it works really well. The drums are pretty on-point here, Geddy’s early-career trademark high-pitched vocals are right where you want them, and the opening guitar riff is fun and, more importantly, ear-catching. Interestingly enough, Bastille Day is very similar in form to a much later Rush song, Headlong Flight. It shares many riffs and indeed seems to have paved the way for what is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best Rush songs of all time. That aside, Bastille Day is a great listen in its own right, and is perhaps the reason to buy the album.

We follow that with what must be the most out-there Rush song title ever, I Think I’m Going Bald. Ironic though it may be for a 22-year-old Geddy Lee to sing about going bald, there’s more going on in this song than you might initially think. It poses a fairly profound look at aging and wistfully looking back one’s youth, with pretty great lyrics like “Once we loved the flowers, now we ask the price of the land.” It’s not all depressing though, as the last lines are sure to note that “even when I’m grey, I’ll still be grey my way.” Of course, the 63-year-old Lee shows no signs of that today, but it still has a pretty solid message. The sound of the song is pretty straightforward rock-n-roll, and it’s overall not a bad addition to Rush’s early repertoire, but it’s ultimately overshadowed by much of their later work.

After that we get Lakeside Park, the only song on the album besides Bastille Day that ever got any significant concert play, and it provides another wistful look at one’s youth, this time to a park nearby where Peart grew up. The drum fill that opens the song is a favorite of mine, and the song is, again, pretty straightforward, but it’s easy on the ears (apart from a few of the screechier lines from Geddy), and the bridge verse is a guilty pleasure of mine to hear sung.

Everyone would gather on the 24th of May

Sitting in the sand to watch the fireworks display

Dancing fires on the beach, singing songs together

Though it’s just a memory, some memories last forever

And then we get weird. Real weird. The last track on the A-side is The Necromancer, Rush’s second real prog outing (after By-Tor and the Snowdog off FBN), which is a 12-minute piece about Sauron (yep) and it’s … it’s not great. From Neil’s too-quiet-and-too-artificially-deep-and-also-just-plain-weird narration at the start to the off-putting sound effects throughout to the awkward insertion of By-Tor, previously a villain, as the hero of the story in place of Bilbo, The Necromancer is just not great. There are a few good guitar riffs near the end, and the drumming and bass work are solid throughout, but … there’s just not enough here to warrant repeated listens.

We then come to the B-side, The Fountain of Lamneth, which I’ll discuss in sections, as unlike 2112 and Hemispheres after it, Fountain isn’t a true side-long song, as each section is distinctly an individual piece of the whole. The Fountain of Lamneth, as a whole piece, is meant to represent one’s life by way of using the allegory of a character searching his whole life to find the mystical Fountain of Lamneth. Yep. It’s pretty weird.

In the Valley begins our journey, dealing with things like birth and early childhood into adolescence. Perhaps the most straightforward and directly enjoyable section as its own piece, there’s a lot of good musicality and fast-paced singing happening here that I really like.

Then we come to Didacts and Narpets, representing the teenager’s struggle against authority from teachers (“didacts”) and parents (“narpets”). To listen to it’s actually just a straight minute of an angry, boisterous drum solo from Neil with Geddy occasionally shrieking things over top of it. Not sure I get it, but it’s there, I suppose.

No One at the Bridge finds our hero stranded on a boat amidst a storm, “lashed helpless to the mast” a la Odysseus. Representing the first years on one’s own with no one nearby to help, No One at the Bridge smacks of desperation and fear. The whole section is backed by a rolling guitar part by Lifeson that does a great job of representing the waves of the ocean, a technique he’d later use to great effect for The Spirit of Radio.

Then we have Panacea, wherein our hero falls in love. Featuring only acoustic guitar and Geddy’s vocals, it’s one of the softest things Rush has ever played. It’s also not very good.

We then come to Bacchus Plateau, the most straight-up catchy segment of The Fountain of Lamneth, wherein our hero has … well, a midlife crisis, resorting to drinking to relive his glory days. It’s probably my favorite section of the piece, and also features the first reference to Bacchus (Dionysus) who would later play a key role in Hemispheres.

And then the song ends with The Fountain, a reprisal of the first section, which does a really good job of tying the whole piece together. It follows the form of In the Valley in reverse, beginning with complex instrumentation and fading back into simple acoustic guitar and one-syllable words, referencing Shakespeare’s “second childhood” idea of elderly vulnerability.

The Fountain of Lamneth has a couple good sections and a couple not-so-good ones, but as a whole it’s okay. It’s not great by any stretch, and I can see why it caused the album to be a dud, but there are a lot of interesting ideas in play here. The reason I appreciate it is because it essentially paved the way for 2112 to be as great as it was. If Fountain is the price we have to pay for 2112, I’ll happily listen to it from time to time.

And if Caress of Steel is the price we have to pay for the greatness that followed it, I’m fine with that, too.

Best songs: Bastille Day, Lakeside Park

 

Astral Nights, Galactic Days — No Man’s Sky

Hype is kind of an awful thing, when you think about it. It basically ensures that every game, or at least every major one, is going to be a disappointment to some degree, especially in the age of Twitter and the like spawning armies of keyboard warriors ready to crap all over everything you love. I think No Man’s Sky is a game that’s suffered greatly from being overhyped. There’s really no way it could’ve ever lived up to the sky-high expectations laid out for it by E3 and other press conferences and videos that came out pre-release. And, naturally, it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t by a long shot. It’s not a great game. Honestly, it might not even be a good game. But you know what? That’s okay.

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Yes, I’m here to tell you that No Man’s Sky is not the Citizen Kane of video games that we were all led to believe it would be. But it’s not the Catcher in the Rye of games, either, which is to say it’s not terrible. It’s … it’s the Paul Rudd of games. It’s not awful, it’s not spectacular, but I don’t mind it a whole lot. Touting it as the game of a generation is an overstatement, but hating on it is perhaps a bit unnecessary. I don’t really know if that analogy makes any sense, but I’m going with it. Let’s get past it.

The real problem with No Man’s Sky is that there’s simply nothing to do in it. It strikes me as more of a tech demo than a full-fledged game. It’s like the developers said, “hey, look at this awesome universe we made!” but forgot to put an actual game in there. So we’re given Hyrule without a quest to embark on, or a Mushroom Kingdom with no princess to save. I’ve really got to stop with the analogies.

The promises that No Man’s Sky does deliver on are done very well. There is, in fact, a gigantic, vast, nearly infinite universe full of planets to explore, and it really is a joy to find new planets and name them after Rush lyrics (or presumably, some other, inferior naming convention you decide to employ). It’s great fun to be walking around the surface of a colorful world, hop into my spaceship, and fly up and into outer space to find another planet to land on, all without any (obvious) loading in between. It’s a technical marvel, and it says a lot about the love put into this game that it functions as well as it does.

Unfortunately, you really have no reason to go to any of these planets that’s explicitly given to you. I’m not advocating hand-holding here, but some direction or purpose beyond vague, cryptic messages you find at the start of your journey would go a long way toward me feeling as though I have a reason to be bopping around these star systems.

That said, it really is a lot of fun to explore these immense, visually diverse landscapes and see what wonders they all have to offer … until you realize that they’re all basically the same thing, barring some cosmetic differences. The animals look different, but they do the same thing. The landscapes are shaped differently, but they all house the exact same resources for your mind-numbing collection. The structures are in different places for each planet, but they all look the same and contain the same few things to help your quest for survival.

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The survival aspect, by the way, is an absolute joke. My first days in Minecraft, for comparison, were peppered with mistakes that ultimately led to many an untimely death, and they were mistakes that I was able to learn from and prepare for in the future. Minecraft did a good job of instilling a sense of ever-present danger if you didn’t get enough food, light your home well enough, or plug up that hole you thought you had. No Man’s Sky doesn’t do any of these things. Is your life support system running low? No problem, just shoot your laser at literally anything nearby and you’ll have more than enough to replenish it. Did you anger that robot drone by … cutting down a tree? That’s okay, just shoot it a whole bunch with your boring-ass gun. Oh, you died? Don’t worry about it, all your stuff’s right where you left it. You run out of fuel? Just hit the C key and walk ten feet to the nearest red lightning bolt.

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Despite all this, it’s somehow still very easy to get confused. No Man’s Sky is incredibly obtuse when it comes to telling you how to craft stuff or navigate effectively, and it will take you far too long to completely understand exactly how to do what you want to do. Which, I suppose, adds a bit to the survival aspect, but in all the wrong ways.

The thinness of the diversity is also echoed by the four alien races, who are fairly interesting in concept, but have almost nothing to do beyond standing still and spouting gibberish at you a la Spore’s “oh the gryle was gone” alien merchants. One thing I do love about them, though, is the player’s ability to slowly learn alien languages, one word at a time, by uncovering runes hidden on planets. This is a neat little feature, but I worry about it becoming meaningless once I’ve found them all (which, granted, will not be happening for quite some time).

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Performance-wise, No Man’s Sky is once again pretty disappointing, though this is something that most likely will get fixed (I devoutly hope). For a 2016 game, No Man’s Sky can get pretty ugly looking. Some textures don’t fade in remotely soon enough to not be incredibly jarring, and many of them do that thing I see a lot in Dreamcast-era games where they’re literally a stale, two dimensional image that rotates with your camera. So, you could be looking at a tree, for instance, and it would look the same from every angle, regardless of where you’re situated. That said, some of the higher-rez textures are quite nice to look at, and some planetary landscapes are truly beautiful to behold.

The combat and trade are just as boring as the rest of the game, and honestly, you really have almost nothing to do beyond, I suppose, getting toward the center of the universe by way of light-speed jumping between star systems on the unnecessarily frustrating and obtuse star map. Seriously, good luck figuring out how to get where you want to go on that damn thing.

This all sounds very negative, I know, but despite its flaws, No Man’s Sky has a lot of heart. You can tell the developers poured everything they had into it, and it’s really our fault we expected so much of it. Of course we were going to be disappointed. But it’s okay. It’s not the worst game ever, and I know I’m far from done with it. It really is amazing that such a vast universe is a tangible thing in a game today, I just wish we were given more reason to explore it as much as it deserves. Like Spore and Minecraft, the two closest things I can draw comparisons to, there’s enough of a sense of joy in discovering and naming new things here that I’ll still be drawn back to it for a while yet. I can’t say I expect the same from too many others, though.

Which is a real shame.

R20- Test for Echo

Hey! Been a while. But enough about that, let’s get down to brass tacks — a discussion of my number 16 ranked Rush album, 1996’s Test for Echo.

Test for Echo is widely called Rush’s worst album, and while I don’t think that’s a fair analysis (obviously there’s three others I’d put behind it), it’s not too hard to see where people are coming from. Like Presto and Roll the Bones before it, T4E suffers greatly from bad mastering, and while it never gets nearly as thin-sounding or just plain bad as Presto does, it definitely noticeably detracts from the overall quality of the album. With that said, let’s get into the thick of things.

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The opening and title track, Test for Echo, is a pretty interesting song, and definitely one of the better ones on the album. Every instrument gets something pretty neat to play here, with the guitar in particular jumping around a whole lot on the chorus hooks, and Neil Peart getting to some really neat tom fills and straight-up rock grooves courtesy of his tutelage under Freddie Gruber (with whom he studied intensively between Counterparts and T4E). That difference is notable through the album, but most strongly here. The song itself is a criticism of, well, television, specifically the way crime is covered thereon. It’s a weird subject to tackle, but that’s never stopped Neil, after all, and for all intents and purposes it succeeds. The bridge after the second verse has some of the best playing Alex Lifeson’s ever done, and Geddy’s voice here is the most mellow it’s ever been, but it hits the right tone. A solid song.

Next up is Driven, a pretty simple straight rock tune with some fun chord work from Alex Lifeson throughout. He also gets a few chances to mess around with an acoustic here, and that adds a little bit of texture to an otherwise fairly standard song. A pretty simple tune about personal limits, it’s made one of the better songs on the album because it just has a good, well, drive. The bass line, especially after the first chorus (usually turned into a full-on bass solo at concerts), is strong stuff here, and keeps things moving really nicely.

Half the World is a pretty weird track that pretty much seems to be about different sorts of people throughout the world. Lyrics like “half the world waits while half gets on with it anyway” and “half the world gives while the other half takes” make the lyrics a little bit repetitive, but Peart pulls a lot of good rhymes out of his hat here that tie things together. Musically this one’s pretty standard, and it’s actually not much to listen to. That said, there are a few nice harmonies between the chorus of Geddys here and it’s mercifully the shortest track on the album. There’s also some cool mandolin stuff in the background at some points.

The next track is The Color of Right, another thoroughly odd song, but this time with a clearer message — don’t waste time looking for the perfect when the good’s right in front of you. Neil Peart does some great stuff here with rim clicks, something he tends to underutilize, in this drummer’s opinion. The chorus has pretty weird lyrics, as “the color of right” as a phrase doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but eventually it makes some sense as the song goes on. The guitar and bass don’t do a lot that’s noteworthy here, but they aren’t bad, either.

Time and Motion rounds out the weird tracks on the first half, and to be honest I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell this song is going on about. I’d guess that Peart is trying to explain existence through the lens of, well, time and motion, but most of the words here are far too cryptic to be confident in any conclusions there. There are some great vocal harmonies, but the rest of it’s pretty standard fare. The bridge has some great bass work, and the guitar between the verses is interesting enough, but nothing stands out enough to make this one of the better tracks on the album.

Totem, however, is musically excellent. Neil Peart has tons of energy here, and it certainly shows. The joyful lyrics that simply list off the happier elements of every major world religion ( “I’ve got 12 disciples and a Buddah smile, garden of Allah, viking Valhalla, a miracle once in a while ..”) add to this energy, and the chorus is similar to Test for Echo’s, utilizing syllables in a way that makes Geddy’s voice sound like another instrument. A highlight of the album, if a bit of a fluff song. Also, “free to browse among the holy cows” is a fantastic lyric.

Off that high we go into Dog Years with a guitar/drum riff that would sound at home on a ZZ Top album. While not necessarily a bad thing, this song does sound very much like a stereotypical rock song. Again, this wouldn’t make it a bad song on its own, but the lyrics … Let’s put it this way — Dog Years is the only Rush song that I can unequivocally say is a dumb song. It’s dumb. It’s literally a bunch of dog puns. A few of them, admittedly, are clever, and hearing Geddy Lee sing “for every sad son of a bitch” is a guilty pleasure, but … wow. This song is dumb. And I love it for it.

Vrituality isn’t a dumb song, but it’s hard to listen to it without picturing Geddy, Alex, and Neil as a bunch of bitter old men. As the title suggests, this song is, in fact, about the internet. Which wouldn’t necessarily be bad if it wasn’t being used as a ham-fisted cautionary tale about … spending too much time on the internet. The chorus (which is made of some of the worst lyrics Neil Peart has ever written) all but directly states that relationships made online aren’t real, and that’s just not something I can get behind. I can give them the benefit of the doubt, as this was released in 1996, and the song sounds pretty good. Peart’s drumming here is on point, with some fun cowbell and hi-hat riding in the choruses, but his lyrics are not up to snuff here. Get off my lawn.

Luckily, we come off those two misses with Resist, the best song on the album and arguably one of the best songs Rush has ever made. I can’t really say what exactly I love so much about this song — the vaguely religious theme of surrender needing to come before any victory, the uncharacteristically soft sound, the serene piano hook at the start, the lilting guitar lines between verses — it’s just such a damn good song. Definitely worth a listen. Below I’ll link a version I love even more — an acoustic version from the Vapor Trails tour featuring both Geddy and Alex on acoustic guitars and (gasp!) no drums.

And then, for the third album in a row, we get an instrumental with Limbo, a song which I’m almost positive must be a pun on a particular talk show host (seriously, try Googling “rush limbo”). This one’s got a spooky vibe to it, and, like all their instrumentals, is just awesome. The bass work is chipper and plucky, the guitar is powerful, and the drums are as precise as ever. Plus, it samples Monster Mash. Seriously. The chains dragging and bubbles popping at the beginning and end of the song come straight from the Boris Pickett classic, as well as the voice saying “whatever happened to my Transylvanian twist?” and “Mash good!” at the bridge. That is … in some versions of the song. For reasons above my understanding, all evidence of Monster Mash is completely absent from both my downloaded and vinyl versions of the album, but they’re all there if I listen on Amazon or Spotify. Regardless, Geddy’s wailing vocals throughout are a treat.

Last, but not least, we have Carve Away the Stone, a song based on the story of Sisyphus and dealing with the idea that our own shame and guilt is what holds us back. To that end, Peart recommends that we, well, carve away the stone and basically get our shit dealt with, which I can appreciate. The instrument work here is standard, nothing too great or bad here, but the bass is particularly strong. Also sticking with the theme, if you listen real carefully you can hear Geddy whispering “Sisyphus” at the chorus, which is a little creepy but definitely cool.

Lots of people name T4E as the worst Rush album, and it’s not too hard to see why. The whole album sounds a little light (but not nearly as bad as Presto), and with stinkers like Dog Years and Virtuality, it’s not got their strongest fare as far as songs go. That said, there are a few gems here, as on every album, and at the end of the day I still like it a fair amount as a solid addition to their repertoire. I will say that while Neil’s drumming here is more straightforward and beat-driven, I can’t always say that his work with Gruber made him a better drummer, as it definitely sounds like he was afraid to do anything crazy or give us any Tom Sawyer-level fills. You give and take, I guess, and for Vapor Trails in 2002 he certainly came back with his A-game, for better or worse.

One last note — perhaps some of the hatred surrounding this album in Rush circles stems from the fact that many associate it with a dark period in Rush’s timeline. This was, after all, the last album released before a series of tragedies befell Neil Peart that had the potential to end the band as we knew it. So, for many, this was the very last Rush album for the better part of 6 years. And, given that it’s not fantastic, it’s easy to understand some bitterness surrounding it. That said, it’s not their worst, at least in my opinion, and you should give it a listen if only for Resist.

Best songs: Test for Echo, Driven, Resist

Why The Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter Wins the Internet

As any Sonic fan can tell you, having that title isn’t always the most fun thing. In fact, lately, it’s been kind of the opposite of fun. On the internet, especially in gaming circles, Sonic seems to be the butt of more and more jokes, and the performance and quality of his past few games make it fairly clear why. However, the thing about Sonic fans (and Rush fans, come to think of it) is that we’re loyal to a fault.

A true Sonic fan continues to buy and play the games even when they’ve become pretty disappointing, hoping for that one-in-a-million Sonic Adventure 2 or Generations that gives us enough faith to keep holding on for another five, ten years. Whenever there’s rumors of a new game, we tell ourselves not to get too hopeful, but we can’t help ourselves. We just want so badly for him to be good again.

Usually, when game companies aren’t doing so well in the eyes of the community at large, they enter a stage of denial. Perhaps they’ll insist that we’re simply not enjoying their media the right way, or that we’re missing the point. Peter Molyneux comes to mind as a pretty bad offender here, but no one’s really completely innocent of this.

Enter the Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account (or at least its recent management).

I’m not entirely sure who’s responsible for running the official Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account, but they are doing it so, so right.

While it’s become fairly commonplace for the Twitter accounts of game companies to try to be in tune with and respond to the latest crazes, fads, and memes on the internet, it’s very difficult to stay on top of trends. You can’t blame them for trying, of course, but memeing is an art. There’s a proper way to use memes, and an improper way, and the rules are simultaneously incredibly vague and set in stone. A proper meme is like pornography– you know it when you see it — and where everyone else gets it wrong, the Sonic Twitter gets it so, so right.

However, it goes deeper than just the ability to produce the very dankest of memes. The Sonic Twitter is the perfect response to the joking criticisms constantly leveled against Sonic by the folks on the web. Countless memes have been created to poke fun at various bad aspects of Sonic’s latest games, and rather than deny their existence, the Sonic Twitter jokes right along with us.

I’ll explain this one in case you don’t get it — Sonic ’06, considered by many to be the very worst of all Sonic games, and by some the worst game of all time, included an infamous glitch that let you, well, walk upside down and vertically. And here’s the official Sonic the Hedgehog media account making fun of their own game. And you have to love them for it. In addition to these excellent bouts of self-deprecation are great interactions with other Twitter accounts (lots of talk of going fast (naturally) and conversations with Totino’s Pizza Rolls, especially).

And even among the memery and masterful self-deprecation, there’s yet a deeper level. At the heart of all the joking and levity of the Sonic Twitter account, you can still tell it’s run by someone just like us, someone who has a deep appreciation and love for the character and his games. Back around 2009-2012, I was a very active member of the official Sega forums, and we had ourselves plenty of memes. I still fondly remember making hundreds of signature images pleading for Sega to allow us to play Classic Sonic in Sonic 4 (for whatever reason), spending hours and hours in the Random Hotel (before Luna killed it, of course), and berating Chip for producing chocolate from what appeared to be his rear.

I digress, but the point is that among all this fun, there’s a core that maintains a healthy level of respect for Sonic’s fans and their culture.

The above is a reference to an infamous line from 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog, in which our doughty protagonist says (with questionable emphasis), “now where’s that DAMN fourth Chaos Emerald?” The latter tweet refers to an obstacle from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (back in the Genesis days) that was regarded by many to be impassable back in the day. I expect both of these are jokes only Sonic fans would understand, and I love the Sonic Twitter for pandering to us.

In closing, I just wanted to give a round of applause to whoever’s in charge of the Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account. How they can stay on top of all those memes, reference the community’s ancient in-jokes, and still go fast is lost on me. Essentially, they win the internet.

Also, this might be the greatest tweet on the entire internet.

WASD Mechanical Keyboard Review

I’ve been using the same keyboard for almost four years by this point, so it’s become sort of like a comfortable pair of old shoes. I got my Logitech G19 back in the summer of 2012, and it was pretty much the first component I acquired of the gaming rig I have now. It’s been good to me, but like all good things do, it was reaching its end. The keys were spongey and getting spongier, strokes were unresponsive and sometimes failing to be registered, and the built-in LCD computer screen, while a fun novelty, has had basically no support by any games, and any of the games in which it’d actually be useful (such as Starcraft 2) don’t allow for its support. So, the time had come to get a new keyboard. I did a bit of research and decided on the WASD mechanical keyboard, mostly because it’s the one used by PC Gamer’s Large Pixel Collider. And it’s just as good as I had hoped it would be

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I haven’t used a mechanical keyboard in a long, long time, and I forgot just how much I loved them. For the uninitiated, the difference between a mechanical keyboard and the kind you’d most likely normally find on a desk is that, rather than having the key attached to a rubber mat to activate an electrical circuit that tells the computer which key was pressed, a mechanical keyboard is comprised of actual, physical switches beneath each key. The difference is actually pretty remarkable: better accuracy, faster speed, more tactile response, and — definitely my favorite perk — a whole lot of satisfying clickety-clacking when typing.

As someone who does a whole lot of writing for school and for fun, as well as spending a lot of time on my computer otherwise, I decided the added longevity of a mechanical keyboard would best suit my needs. My G19 still works for the most part, and that thing lasted me four years, so I needed another one that would also get me that far, which mechanical keyboards are also notorious for.

The reason I went with WASD over any other brand of mechanical keyboard (because there are quite a lot) was because of just how cool the customization options are. I was amazed to see how much of the keyboard you can customize — the typeface on the keys, the positions of the lettering, the coloring of each individual key, the type of switch used, the layout (QWERTY, Dvorak, and others), etc. — all of this customization might seem overwhelming, but it’s actually just a hell of a lot of fun.

Being the nostalgic prick that I am, I opted to make mine reminiscent of the classic IBM Model M keyboard, with a dark grey color on the function keys and space bar, a lighter gray on the alphanumerics, and navy blue on the WASD keys, because gaming. Also, I made Ctrl, Alt, and Del bright white, because I could.

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Just because I went with a particularly monochromatic design doesn’t mean that you don’t have a whole wealth of colors to choose from, because you do. WASD’s Twitter and Instagram accounts are full of really neat and colorful designs, and some of them look downright awesome.

As far as the functionality goes, the keyboard itself is incredibly simple. A big plus for me is that it doesn’t require a separate power cable like my cumbersome G19 did, but I do find myself missing the extra USB ports and the volume slider. Nothing a few peripherals I’ve already got won’t fix, though.

I’ve been using it for a few solid hours and I’ve already noticed a difference. My WPM went up from 97 to 108 (not a huge difference, but I was already a fairly fast typist), and it’s altogether just a more satisfying experience. Because it clicks a whole lot, and that’s fun. It’s got a really good weight to it, which means it’s only going to slide around my desk if I want it to.

The WASD customizable mechanical keyboard is a little bit of an “exercise in self-indulgence”, as seems to be my motto for this blog, but it’s no less an excellent keyboard that’s beautiful in its simplicity. You can order extra parts for it if you so choose to really get into the benefits of the customization, but even without that, for the price it’s one of the best. It ran me a good 50 dollars cheaper than my G19 did, and I can already tell it’s going to far outlive it.

One thing I would recommend is that you get the wrist guard, because the keyboard is just high enough off my desk that my hands start to cramp up after a few minutes of writing. Besides that, I really have no complaints about this keyboard. It’s simple and to the point, and excels at everything it says it is. One of my better purchases, if I do say so myself.

R20- Hold Your Fire

There are a few Rush albums like Snakes and Arrows with one or two really superb songs and a bunch more that are just okay. It makes sense. In fact, with most bands I find that to be the case with all of their albums. Few artists, at least in my opinion, can release  as many albums full of solid gold like Rush can (Journey, Styx, and Huey Lewis come to mind as rock bands with a few albums full of awesome, though). So, they can’t all be winners. Hold Your Fire has two fantastic songs on it. A few of them are good. The rest? Eh.

 

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The album opens with Force Ten, the final (and tenth) song written for the album. Much like New World Man off of SignalsForce Ten was kind of thrown together as an afterthought, but is actually one of the best songs on the album. It’s got a really great drive to it, with a constant, frantic motion, even in the quieter parts. Hold Your Fire is one of the most synth-filled Rush albums there is, but on a few tracks, Force Ten included, the guitar and bass still have a great presence. Wherever they’re not as present, the synthesizers actually accentuate the music really well, making Force Ten just a really fun song to listen to. The lyrics of the chorus even back up this constant motion underlying the song, being almost impossible to speak without singing them:

Tough times demand tough talk,
Demand tough hearts, demand tough songs
Demand…

The drums aren’t particularly noteworthy, but the beat that opens and closes the song is pretty great, as well. One of the best songs on the album.

The best song on the album, is, in fact, the second track, Time Stand Still. This song marks perhaps the only time Rush has collaborated with another singer (nothing else comes to mind), featuring sparse but excellent and fitting vocals from Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann. Something about her voice really fits with Geddy’s vocals on this one, and it just sounds spectacular. The song itself deals with the idea of wanting to sit back and enjoy life while you’ve got it instead of breezing through everything the way the band did early in their career. The arpeggio work on Lifeson’s part is masterful, as usual, and the lyrics are poignant without being pretentious. I recommend you listen to this one, even if you’re not a big Rush fan. It’s a significant departure from their usual sound. For the love of God, though, don’t watch the music video.

Open Secrets is next, and it’s a bit of a throwaway song. The lyrics deal with relationships, a topic not often brought up by Peart, and they’re not entirely awful. The choruses are pretty good, but some of the verses seem a little forced. Peart didn’t really hit his stride with relationship songs until Counterparts, after all. The bass work in particular stands out on Open Secrets, but the rest of the song is pretty forgettable.

Second Nature is the first of two environmentalist songs written by Neil Peart, though it is the better of the two. To the band’s credit, the song doesn’t come across as too preachy or evangelical, and there’s some really good piano work going on here that makes for a markedly softer song for Rush, but it’s still pretty weird territory to hear them cover. That said, the lyrics are still fairly ambiguous, so it’s relatively easy for listeners like myself to pretend they’re about a different issue than the problem de jour (for instance, ISIS).

The next track is one I really like, Prime Mover. One of a few of Peart’s songs that deal with deist concepts, Prime Mover has a really nice synth hook with some good bass work in the choruses. Like the opening track, it just has some really good drive to it, and it’s always a really fun song to listen to, if a bit light as far as musicality goes. I really like the constant antitheses in the choruses, too:

From the point of conception
To the moment of truth
At the point of surrender
To the burden of proof
From the point of ignition
To the final drive
The point of a journey
Is not to arriveAnything can happen…
Give it a listen.

Next is Lock and Key, another largely forgettable tune, which is rather unfortunate because it’s actually a pretty good song. Melodically, it’s a bit bland, but the lyrics are pretty complex and deal really smartly with how everyone tries to hold back aspects of their personalities to maintain a level of safety and decency. There are some really good drum rhythms in the bridge, and the verses have really great bass work from Geddy. Unfortunately, like many songs from their synth period, Lock and Key is pretty light on guitar, but when it’s there, it’s good.

The next song is another good one, Mission, they lyrics of which are the source for the album’s title. Mission is one of the most poetic Rush songs, and while it’s a bit more pop-sounding than their usual stuff, it’s a really great song that talks about the cost of creating art, which is even more poignant looking back on some of the things that happened in Neil Peart’s life later on. Mission is one of the better tracks on the album, which is why it’s so strange that it was the song left off on the vinyl remaster (which comes out today, in fact).

It’s cold comfort
To the ones without it
To know how they struggled
How they suffered about it
If their lives were exotic and strange
They would likely have gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane

We each pay a fabulous price
For our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision is a dream
With a mission

Turn the Page is another decent track, with some really bouncy lyrics that make it a lot of fun to listen to, if a little surface-level at times. The lyrics themselves are pretty simple, but they’re easy to sing and remember, which can’t always be said for Rush songs. There is some really, really good bass work on this one, but the guitar and drums are pretty forgettable.

And then there’s Tai Shan, which … I don’t even understand why this is a song. It’s just so … it’s so weird. It’s about … China, really. It’s about China. And … a mountain. And if you couldn’t tell it was about China, there’s plenty of panflute, temple blocks, taiko drums, and gongs to help you out. It’s not a terrible song to hear, but it’s one of the very, very few Rush songs that I would deign to call “silly”.  I’m not sure what they were thinking with this one, honestly.

The last song on HYF is High Water, a song about — you guessed it — water. Like many other songs on the album, it’s okay. The lyrics deal with how all life can be traced back to water and how, because of that, we feel a particular connection to it. Which, I mean, is cool and all, but it’s a weird thing to be writing a song about. Then again, they wrote a 12 minute song about Sauron, so I can’t really say this is weird for them. There’s some great tom-tom work from Peart here, but, again, the guitar gets left at the wayside. Kind of unfortunate, but it’s one of the more catchy tunes on the album.

Now, the thing about HYF as an album is that it all sounds incredibly samey. Besides the standouts, the first two tracks, nearly every song here sounds almost identical (with the notable exception of the incredibly weird Tai Shan). The guitar sounds the same every time, the drum work is exceptional but pretty dull most of the time, and the synths are pretty much there just to add some sound. There are some catchy tunes, and some with pretty good lyrics, but apart from Force Ten and Time Stand StillHold Your Fire just doesn’t really stand the test of time. There are highlights, of course, but it’s really not worth listening to more than a few times.

That doesn’t mean I don’t, though.

Best songs: Force Ten, Time Stand Still, Turn the Page

Sit in the Corner with a Bucket on my Head — Undertale

It could just be my obsession with quality sitcoms, but the entire time I was playing Undertale I couldn’t help but be reminded of, among many other things, NBC’s Community, specifically the character of Abed Nadir. The thing about Abed’s character was that he simply didn’t really make much sense within the context of actually being a character on a TV show. Of course, he worked excellently, since one of the things Community excelled at was being a very strange show. Abed’s shtick was that, most of the time, he seemed to be aware of the fact that he was on a sitcom, and it was taken as far as it logically could be within the scope of not having too large of a bearing on the plot.

Abed would constantly reference the mayhem and mania that took place on the show and point them out to the viewer through the lens of acting as if he were on a TV show, which, of course, he was. He would point out continuity errors, obvious plot devices, and gimmicks that only work on TV shows, and did so in a very tongue-in-cheek way that simply made the viewer feel like they were in on the joke, and not being patronized. TV Tropes calls this method of pointing out something that could otherwise be perceived as a flaw, and in doing so turning it into a joke, as “lampshading.” And Abed was excellent at it.

One particular instance involved a “bottle episode”, wherein, in order to preserve budget, an episode of a show (usually a sitcom) would take place all on one set, and with only the principle cast. Every sitcom’s done it, and Cheers’s entire first season comes to mind in particular as being made entirely out of bottle episodes. At any rate, when the bottle episode on Community eventually came around (it’s sort of a rite of passage for sitcoms these days, as they rely heavily on the quality of the characters and writing and not much else), Abed blatantly pointed it out, and said “This is a bottle episode. I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expression and emotional nuance.” Anyway, you get the idea. This is a long-winded introduction, but it really hits on what I love about Undertale. Abed was a great character because he had perfect awareness of the medium he was being portrayed in, and the writing used it to make great jokes, and ones that only fans of sitcoms would truly appreciate. Undertale does the exact same thing, but for video games.

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The great thing about Undertale is how brutally consistent it is. It’s also what makes it very frustrating, and also very funny. Much like my favorite TV show of all time (Arrested Development), Undertale really needs to be enjoyed all in a short span of time to really appreciate everything going on here. I played it over the course of three days, and loved its remarkable consistency and the perpetuation of a few key elements that the game’s creator decided at the forefront to include.

The game, after all, was largely made by one person — Toby Fox — and I laud his efforts here. It’s not much to look at, but that’s really the only downfall. Being a student of computer science, I naturally spend most of my time playing a game contemplating what went into it. Undertale’s interesting because it doesn’t really strike me as being that hard to make (which isn’t to say I could do it, by any stretch of the imagination). Some games are great because they’re a technological marvel, ie. The Witcher 3, but Undertale is great because the ideas here are so, so damn good.

The crux of the game is that it’s an RPG with lots of enemies to fight, and you don’t have to kill any of them. Which, okay, I guess other games have done that before. But not nearly in so great a way as Undertale does. Every single enemy you fight has a story to tell, and the path to avoiding conflict with it and progressing peacefully is hidden in a puzzle-like dialog tree wherein you need to figure out exactly what it is you need to tell this particular monster or do for it to get it to leave you alone. For instance, a dog-type enemy might want you to call it, pet it a few times, and then play with it a while before it falls asleep and lets you continue. A … horse mermaid … thing, with great abs, wants to engage you in a flexing contest, so you might have to flex a whole bunch of times before he “flexes himself out of the room”.

Of course, the fights aren’t easy, thanks to the ingenious bullet hell-type sequences that take place in between each of your moves. You’ll need to avoid their attacks a few times before you can actually do whatever it is you need to do to be able to “Spare” them. And every enemy’s attacks are different. That horse mermaid thing attacks you with flexing arms and beads of sweat. The dog enemies might bark at you sometimes, and other times they might just lie there and look at you, doing nothing at all. It’s clever, and it’s great.

Of course, what’s awesome here is that you can, of course, murder the shit out of everything you see, too. There’s a whole bunch of clever dialog options and actions to take if you want to play peacefully, but you also have the option to kill every enemy in your way, if you want. And the game knows.

There were several times at the beginning of Undertale when I was told about a certain way the game functions, and I said to myself, “there’s no way this can really happen through the whole game, is there?” But it did. Every single time. Undertale is consistent, sometimes ruthlessly so.

I chose to do my playthrough as a “True Pacifist”, killing no one, and it was far from easy. Every battle has a peaceful way out, but sometimes it was pretty difficult to find. But the thing is, you want to save everyone. But sometimes it’s not really that simple. I won’t explain what exactly I mean, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but not everything is cut-and-dry in Undertale.

The story goes that a long, long time ago, humans and monsters fought a war, and the humans won, locking the monsters underground with a magical barrier that can only be opened by seven human souls. Your character, a human (and any other details about them are completely ambiguous, which is great), falls in. You begin the game by giving them a name (so you think) and setting off. You’re immediately confronted by Flowey, an evil flower (right?) who has a stupid amount of plot significance, and is basically Undertale’s Abed Nadir. He knows it’s a game. He knows you’re playing it. He’s aware of the fact that you have a save file, and isn’t afraid to mess around with it. He knows when you do a soft reset to save someone you accidentally killed, and will chastise you for it. It’s amazing.

And he’s far from the only great character. There’s two fantastic skeleton brothers, named Papyrus and Sans, who speak in the fonts their names suggest. And they’re hilarious. There are a bunch of other plot-central characters, like an anime-loving scientist recluse and a warrior fish woman, but the main characters aren’t the only ones that matter. Did you accidentally kill that little frog minion at the beginning? Don’t worry about it. Actually, yeah. You should worry about it. Because it’s gonna come back to haunt you.

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Three other moments like this come to mind when thinking about how great Undertale’s plot design and choice trees really are. In the first city of the game, about a half hour in, I encountered a snowman who asked me to take a piece of him far away. I grabbed it and stuck it in my inventory, and was careful to keep it there the entire time. At the very end of the game, after all the boss battles, I got a call from a friend, who told me that I “made a snowman really happy.” I had all but forgotten about it.

In a dark cave I stumbled upon the fabled Temmie Village, a tiny town filled with Temmies, little cat-dog things. They’re adorable. In the “Tem shop”, one of the options is “pay for college,” at a hefty 1000 gold. Naturally, I didn’t have the cash, but hours later, when I finally did, I made sure to come back and pay for Temmie to go to college. He went for about five seconds and came back with a graduation cap. He was very happy.

In the very first area of the game is a “Spider bake sale”, where you can buy food from spiders. Made of spiders. It’s weird. I had a few bucks, so I bought a spider donut. Okay. 8 hours later, I come across another spider bake sale in a lava cavern. This time they’re selling donuts for 9999G. I didn’t have it, obviously, since I’d just paid for Temmie to go to college, and didn’t feel like generating infinite money by cloning Dog Residue in my inventory and pawning it off (it makes sense in context), so I kept on going. A few rooms later, I had to fight an angry spider woman, who was mad at me for being stingy with my money, but halfway through the fight she got a telegram and let me off the hook, since I’d bought a donut from her friend at the beginning of the game.

It’s little details like that that Undertale is full of, and it goes to great lengths to make all of its characters lovable and hilarious, from Sans and Papyrus bickering about spaghetti, to the anime-loving Alphys posting on social media that she’s about to post a selfie, and then putting up a picture of a garbage can with a sparkly filter. It’s great because that’s exactly how anime fans are, and only internet denizens would know it.

Undertale has tons of these little in-jokes and references to gaming and internet culture, and doesn’t hesitate to turn your expectations on their heads. One of the boss fights can be immediately finished by running away. Want to beat the “Tsunderplane”? Get close. But not too close. Want to go on a date with a skeleton? Sure, knock yourself out. Also, the fish with the spear is going to teach you how to make spaghetti. Okay.

Undertale can feel a little plodding at times, and it seems like it’s mostly just fun and games, but I recently realized that that’s probably because I was being a nice guy. I have no doubt in my mind that things would have been drastically different if I’d killed anyone.

Which leads to one of my few complaints about Undertale. This might get a little spoiler-y, but I won’t get too detailed. I played the game on the “True Pacifist” route, and it was basically all cute, fun-and-games type stuff. Until the end. Then everything went straight to Nopeville, USA. Like I said, I won’t spoil anything for you, but holy shit. The final boss is pants-wettingly terrifying. And some of the post-game stuff to complete that route is equally spoopy. It couldn’t’ve helped that I was playing this in the darkness of my living room, alone, last night at around 12:30, but even still. [“couldn’t’ve” is probably not a word.]

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that the game suddenly and without warning becomes scary, indeed it does so in a way that still subverts expectations (shutting your game off and corrupting save files and the like), but for someone who was playing through the game as a nice guy, it was jarring and seemed a little undeserved.

That said, the endgame is some of the best the game has to offer, and I urge you to check it out. If you sit down to play Undertale, play the whole thing. It really needs to be played in its entirety to understand its whole impact and what makes it just such a great game. Undertale is so far the only game I’ve encountered whose story can’t be told as anything else but a game, and for that it at least deserves a look.

Undertale knows it’s a game, it knows you know that it knows it’s a game, and it enjoys climbing in your brain and dicking around in there, all the while with a smile on it’s face.

After all, down here … it’s kill or be killed.

flowey

Sure to Result in Victory — Valkyria Chronicles

Anyone familiar with my gaming proclivities knows that one of my absolute, all-time favorite series is the Fire Emblem series. I bought a 3DS solely for Awakening back in 2013 (the limited edition Fire Emblem model, to boot), and it was my game of the year. In fact, as it stands right now, I maintain that Fire Emblem Awakening is my second favorite game of all, right behind Sonic Adventure 2 (which … yeah). I’ve played Fire Emblem Awakening through several times, and I recently grew tired of my attempts at completing it on Lunatic difficulty mode, which lives up to its name. I was searching for a replacement, and I briefly found one in XCOM, though complications involving save files and a rapidly-filling SSD made such endeavors … frustrating. I remembered that a friend of mine had sent me several games I’d put on my Steam wishlist through the years as a Christmas gift, and among them was Valkyria Chronicles. I’d heard great things, and was excited to try it out. It did not disappoint.

To be clear: to imply that Valkyria Chronicles is in the same genre as Fire Emblem would be a misstep; while they are similar in their art styles and presentation, the gameplay of Valkyria Chronicles is different from anything else I’ve ever played, and that works in its favor. A mix of tactical strategy and third-person shooter combined with some really smart resource management mechanics make Valkyria Chronicles perhaps the most challenging and rewarding strategy game I’ve ever played.

valkyria chronicles

The first thing you’ll probably notice about this game is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. The art style of Valkyria Chronicles consistently walks the line between anime and pastel, neither of which I would have expected to like as much as I do. The gameplay and cutscenes both utilize the same beautiful environments and character models, and I could be easily convinced that I was actually playing a long Miyazaki film. Not only is this apt from its appearance, but also from its storytelling and the way, not unlike the Fire Emblem series, you grow close to your various soldiers from their interactions on and off the battlefield.

The main gameplay sections take place on the battlefield, first giving you an aerial view of the map your units, and the enemy’s are inhabiting. The map looks like just that — a map — and a clever cartographic view at your units and their surroundings allows for a surprisingly deep amount of strategy and placement potential. Each turn, you have a set amount of Command Points you can use to move any number of your units in any combination. Your units range from the quick-but-weak Scouts, to the brute-force Stormtroopers (no, not the FN-2187 kind), to the centerpiece of your military: Edelweiss, a massive tank that takes two CPs to move. Proper movement and allocation of these Command Points is the key to victory, and one must be careful to end their turn with everyone in a good position to fire back at the enemy.

Upon selecting a unit to move, you zoom in on their icon on the map and suddenly the whole world comes alive and you’re controlling the actual person with an over-the-should camera reminiscent of a third-person shooter. The game world itself mirrors the map perfectly, with enemy units in stark contrast to the vibrant landscapes, all within the scope of the game’s art style.

valk chron 1

Again, like Fire Emblem, these units are by and large real characters with roles in the game’s story, if you choose to delve into the game’s lore a little deeper — and you will. There is a perma-death mechanic, but Valkyria is kind enough to include a Medic mechanic which allows you to emergency evac a fallen unit, just taking them out of the action until the end of the battle at hand. This is a smart way to handle things, and was pleasant in comparison to the constant restarting upon the death of any of my units in a Fire Emblem game. I was still penalized by losing their help (and, in the case of some units, the Command Points they provided me with), but not so much that I felt inclined to restart the battle unless I absolutely had to.

Valkyria Chronicles is a game of constantly weighing the odds, especially where the Edelweiss is concerned. The tank has a massive amount of offensive power, but it can’t move a whole lot on each turn (each unit has a particular amount of Action Points available to it that dictate how far it can move with each Command Point — the tank has very few), and if you happen to leave its backside vulnerable to a nearby tank or Lancer unit, you’re toast. If you lose the tank, it’s game over — the one exception to the Medic rule.

valk chron 2

In addition to this need for balance on the battlefield, there’s just as much required off of it. After each battle you get some of two resources — money and experience. Your money can be spent on upgrades to your units’ weapons and armor, and on augmentations for the Edelweiss. The experience can be spent on army-wide upgrades to each specific class. Early on these resources are plentiful, but they become more sparing as the hours go on.

Besides the upgrades is the actual question of who should make up your army proper. You have a set amount of people you can put on active duty, and fewer still you can bring in to each battle from there. It’s up to you how you want to make up your army, but the game itself is again weighed in your favor, allowing any and all upgrades to apply not just to whoever you’re using in a given battle, but to every single unit of that type. It sounds like a cop-out, but I was still grateful to have the ability to pick and choose and switch around between units to find exactly what I wanted without penalty.

valk chron 3

All of this is presented in the confines of a fictional book about the struggles of the fictional European country of Gallia. The cutscenes, battles, and upgrade menus are all accessed from this book, and it’s a clever and simple way of tying everything together.

The story in Valkyria Chronicles is endearing and entertaining, but it’s in no way the only draw.  Our principle characters are thrown together very quickly, and they’re all likable enough to care about what happens to them in the battles. The story plays out as a sort of fictional retelling of World War II in an alternate history, and it’s actually pretty interesting if you want to pay attention to it. Once again ever-merciful, Valkyria Chronicles also gives you the option to completely ignore the story and get right to the action, which is also nice.

Simply put, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s a little bit better on its native home, the PlayStation 3, but its PC port is a worthy way to play it as well. If you’ve got a few extra bucks and a decent computer, pick it up. You won’t regret it.

R20- Presto

As I began to write the next post in this series in which I rank my tastes for Rush’s albums, worst to best, I came upon a predicament. I knew I was going to have difficulty whittling down my exact order for the albums as I went along, but I didn’t know it would happen so soon. I initially thought 1996’s Test For Echo would be in my number 18 position, but as I listen to it more and more I’m having a hard time hopping aboard the hate-train that so many Rush fans seem to ride for that one. The most common complaints I hear are that T4E sounds bad, the songs are mostly weak, and it sounds “sleepwalked through”. I don’t really agree with those sentiments — I like T4E, though it’s certainly not one of my favorites — but I do actually find myself agreeing with all of them about this album, which I’ve chosen to place in my number 18 spot: 1989’s Presto.

Rush_Presto

Presto follows the oft-used Rush anomaly I’ve noticed of the first and last songs being the strongest on the record; indeed, the opening track Show Don’t Tell is another one of my favorite Rush songs. It’s got a really catchy, syncopated beat, some really solid and complicated drum rhythms, and the “chorus of Geddys” in the choruses sound really neat. The song itself plays out as a sort of mock courtroom setting, with plenty of law jargon thrown in among the likes of “I’ll give it due reflection” and “witness, take the stand”. On a deeper level, it’s about a guy who’s tired of taking other people’s crap. He wants them to stop lying, and give it to him straight:

You can twist perceptions
Reality won’t budge
You can raise objections
I will be the judge
And the jury

It’s got a really good bass solo at the bridge, too, and is one of the best tracks on the album.

Following is Chain LIghtning, which has a good hook but is ultimately a pretty paint-by-numbers tune for Rush. Peart delves pretty deep into his poetic ideals for lyricism on this album, and while most of it works, Chain Lightning is one of the rare cases in which it doesn’t. The message of the song is basically that strong bonds are forged by witnessing tragic or influential events, which, yeah, okay, but it’s really hard to actually decipher what the hell he’s actually talking about. I mean, with Peart, it’s always hard, but Chain Lightning in particular doesn’t feel rewarding for the work one puts in to learn the meaning behind the words. There are some great rhymes made here in the choruses, a pretty sweet-sounding guitar solo around the middle of the song, and a good punch in the bass line, but it’s overall a pretty forgettable song. We do get this great lyric from the second verse, though:

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

Also, what the hell is a sundog? At any rate, the best thing this song has going for it is the incredibly weird, out-of-place sounding, and hilariously lowered in pitch “that’s … nice” we get from Geddy at the very end of the song. All right, bud.

We now come to The Pass, the very best track on the album, and basically Rush’s own version of Billy Joel’s You’re Only Human (Second Wind). For the uninitiated (go listen to that Billy Joel song, because it’s really good), it’s essentially the ever-present-in-the-80s “teen suicide isn’t cool” kind of song. The difference is, while Billy Joel got his message across with an optimistic look at why to err is human, Rush goes at it in a much darker, and in my opinion much more effective way. The song, at the beginning, features some incredibly impassioned vocals from Geddy Lee, as though he’s speaking to someone considering committing the unthinkable. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, we have this heart-wrenching bridge, made ever better by Geddy’s impeccable inflection of the lines, growing with desperation:

No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salutes for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate
Christ, what have you done?

 

The Pass is just a great song, and one that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

This video is from the Rush in Rio concert, so it’s a pretty great version of the song, but perhaps not as good-sounding as the studio version.


Following that mass of tragedy, we get the up-tempo War Paint, a harmless but ultimately shallow look at … teenagers. With … raging hormones. It’s a weird topic for Peart to tackle, but nonetheless he does it justice with a look at the way teenagers of both sexes use mirrors; females to degrade themselves, and males to inflate their egos. It’s pretty accurate, if a bit on-the-nose, and the ultimate message is as the lyrics state, “let’s paint the mirror black”. It’s not a terrible song, but the musicality isn’t up to the caliber one would expect from Rush. It’s just an okay song, really.

We then come to Scars, which is … not a good song. I don’t know what it is I dislike about this one, but it’s really just terribly forgettable. It’s not a bad song, let’s be clear. It’s catchy, it’s got a good bass line, some cool bongo drumming going on by Peart, but again the message is muddled behind needless desire to sound poetic or interesting. The chorus goes as follows:

Scars of pleasure
Scars of pain
Atmospheric changes
Make them sensitive again

Your guess is as good as mine.

Then comes the title track, Presto. I really like this song; it’s on the stronger side of the spectrum for this album but not for their catalog in general. The message is a bit hard to come to, but it’s undeniably a bit of a mournful ballad to failed love. The crux of the title (and indeed the album artwork) comes from the repeated lyric, “if I could wave my magic wand, I’d make everything all right.” Peart’s pen comes back to the forefront, and Geddy Lee’s vocals again bring them life in a way no one else could. By 1989, he was settling into another phase of his sound, and it really complements this song in particular. His voice from Hold Your Fire to Test For Echo is one of my favorite of his eras of sound, but I think this song in particular made best use of it. Not the best track on the album, but worth a listen.

With a single cowbell smack at the beginning, we come to the rollicking, if bitter, Superconductor. It’s a fun song, but it holds a lot of the elements that make me not like Snakes and ArrowsSuperconductor is Peart’s way of making fun of the typical pop star of the time, and how the unwashed masses seem to gobble up everything they do for the mere shock value. A message that’s relevant and biting, to be sure, but again a little on-the-nose for Rush fare. It’s not a terrible song, it’s got a catchy guitar line brought to life by Alex Lifeson’s ever-dutiful arpeggios, but it’s ultimately just a “take that” to more popular musicians, which one would think to be beneath a 15-year 13-album veteran of the industry. I do like that cowbell, though. As Geddy says, “that’s entertainment.”

The next track is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, titled Anagram (For Mongo), a title which Mel Brooks fans will recognize as a reference to a scene in Blazing Saddles. (For whatever reason, some of my favorite artists have a tendency to reference the strangest, and almost most juvenile things they can. See: Coyote by Mark Knopfler) The song itself sounds fine, if a bit bland, and the whole melody is repetitive, but, God help me, I just love the lyrics to this one. Every line contains an anagram, as the title suggests, or at least a few words that can be made up from the same letters. It’s not their best work, and it’s a bit silly, but it’s just so fun and light-hearted.

Miracles will have their claimers
More will bow to Rome
He and she are in the house
But there’s only me at home
Rose is a rose of splendor
Posed to respond in the end
Lonely things like nights,
I find, end finer with a friend

Then is Red Tide, a song which I thought was about AIDS, but is actually apparently about the environment. … Okay? I guess the reason I thought it was about something else at first was because Neil Peart already wrote a preachy environmentalist song TWO YEARS AGO (Second Nature on Hold Your Fire). While the global cooling global warming global climate change extreme weather arguments have been around forever, I’m not exactly sure writing a song about it is a way to solve the perceived problem. I must say, however, that Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo in this one is great, and the keyboard riff that underlines the whole song is good. The song, however, is not. And the science is settled on that.

The penultimate song is Hand Over Fist, a song which seems to discuss the complexities of human interaction and loneliness by way of … rock-paper-scissors? It’s actually a really good song, which is a shame, because I constantly forget it exists. The story of the song is about someone who was perfectly fine living on his own, but opened himself up to someone who then dropped him for the next thing. Hand Over Fist deals with the fallout of him basically having to come to terms with himself again, and, somehow, rock-paper-scissors lends itself really well to that story. I have no idea why.

Hand over fist
Paper around the stone
Scissors cut the paper
And the rock must stand alone

I could disappear into the crowd
But not if I keep my head in the clouds
I could walk away so proud
It’s easy enough if you don’t laugh too loud

We now come to the last song, Available Light, which I just love. I don’t even have any idea what’s going on with the lyrics, but I don’t care. It’s very, very different from any other Rush song, and in all the right ways. A must-listen.

Now, reading through that, it sounds like I like most of the songs on this album, which I do. Why is it so low on my list, then? Well, there’s a couple reasons. It’s got good material, but even the great songs are sadly still pretty forgettable in comparison with some of Rush’s stronger work. Most of Presto is very different from anything else they’ve done, and when it succeeds, it goes above and beyond. But when it doesn’t, it falls very short.

However, even considering that, it should still be higher on the list. It’s at number 18 because the album itself sounds very bad. I don’t know what it is about Presto (I suspect it has something to do with the mastering, so it’s not really Rush’s fault), but the whole thing just sounds incredibly … thin. There are very few peaks and valleys, highs and lows, and the whole thing just sounds over-processed. Which is a shame, because there’s lots of good things on here which I think would benefit greatly from some greater depth of sound. It’s my hope that, someday, Rush pulls a Nintendo and gives us an HD re-release of Presto. I would like nothing more than for them to go back as they are now, and re-record every song on this album. It deserves it. But right now, it’s just disappointing, and a bit sad. Sorry, Presto.

Best songs: Show Don’t TellThe PassAvailable Light