Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael and Farrah

There are probably, oh, 50 or more posts that could deal with fascinating territory about Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and their place in American culture.

My guess is that the barrage of media coverage yesterday (Thursday) has obscured something simple: Our connection to Michael Jackson was complicated, extremely divided and not very warm, while our attachment to Farrah Fawcett was far more heartfelt.

I'm not saying that legions of fans weren't deeply fond of Jackson. I'm talking in sweeping generalities -- relevant, I think, to how they'll ultimately be remembered -- and I think Jackson's baggage is far greater than the immediate flood of media coverage conveyed. I heard at least half a dozen reporters refer to his weirdness over "the last few years.'' Please, the bizarre and alienating stuff was a loooong-running saga.

And what really counts about celebrities is whether we end up feeling close to them, as if we've bridged the gap between the distance that's inherent in observing a performance and the bond we value with friends and family members. Some so-called stars seem to walk right at our sides, touching our lives in treasured ways, even as they move across an international stage.

In that sense, I think it's Fawcett who leaves behind the only kind of legacy that really counts. An admiration for Jackson's immense talents and a respect for his path-breaking career aren't enough to overcome the many barriers that frequently made him a remote and obviously troubled figure. At least to me and, I'd guess, millions of others.

RIP, Michael. RIP, Farrah.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The new Tiger on the Wii

"Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10'' for the Wii ought to be the Nintendo console's signature game. Using the Wii remote as a full set of of virtual golf clubs, as well being able to interact with simulated versions of challenging and gorgeous courses -- well, that's a formula that should maximize all the Wii's strengths.

But Electronic Arts managed to blow the opportunity for a couple of years running. Indeed, the 09 edition was a stunning atrocity because of a mangled putting mechanism. If the recently released Tiger 10 was seriously flawed in any way, EA's basic competence would be under scrutiny.

The good news: Tiger 10 is a very good game. It's annoying that it's not great -- it damn well should be by now. Still, it's a tremendous value, given how deep all the game's features are and how overwhelmingly well it plays in general. In order to do justice to the long list of positives, I'm going to review the game in a series of posts instead of one windy opus. And I'll start by explaining where the game falls short, even as it solves its most nagging problem:

There's a new way to putt, "precision putting,'' that's adequate. Or slightly better than adequate. That's a big deal. When the putting is broken, everything else -- driving down the fairway, competing for scores and victories, reading the greens -- is for naught. So being able to adequately enjoy a complete golf experience is pivotal. And with Tiger 10 you can.

Now the hitch: "Adequate" is far below ideal.

The system works entirely on touch. Your feel for just the right amount of backswing and contact, with adjustments for downhill and uphill rolls, determines success or failure (as well as some built-in adversity, which for me, on a "medium" overall difficulty setting, has meant seeing some nicely struck putts lip out). Yes, this does emulate what the manual notes is a "more true-to-life golf simulation.'' The more hours played, the more experience with the nuances of a green-to-green touch. So what's wrong? One major thing: The touch that's required is, in almost every instance, just a minor variation on a light tap. There's almost never a putt that demands giving any oomph to the attempt. It's all about the most delicate type of gradations. It's hard to distinguish a two-foot putt from an eight-footer; it's just about as hard to distinguish some 25-footers from some 10-footers. That's no good as a simulation, even though it does function as a manageable challenge, albeit an excessively tricky one at times.

Nothing else in the game -- actually, what I should say is, nothing else I've encountered so far -- is this marginal. But it's not a game-killer. Far from it. The putting works. It's squeaking by, but it works.

Next: The benefits of the new MotionPlus attachment for the Wii remote.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The collector's eye

This blog has been silent for too long, for all sorts of reasons. More on that in the days to come.

One good thing: I'm swimming in material that I think will promote the kind of conversation that makes regular posting so rewarding. Let's start with this: Did I find a truly cool collectible at last month's Super-Con event in San Jose or was I just an impulse buyer who succumbed to his worst fanboy tendencies?

I bought what was billed as -- and genuinely seems to be, based on my research so far -- the uninstalled display glass from one of Bally's 1978 "Star Trek'' pinball machines. Here's a link to a Web site with some background on the machine (my purchase is the glass panel with Capt. Kirk in the foreground).

To my way of thinking, I got a neat piece of pop culture artwork (yes, art!) and maybe (probably?) a relatively rare item that would excite a lot of Trekkers. Or did I just drag something home (it was heavy!) that will make only one contribution to my family's life -- additional clutter.

You tell me. I paid $250 after some skillful haggling. Did I make a great find? Prize or booby prize?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A pop-culture gem in San Jose

I was at the Super-Con event in San Jose Saturday (on a press credential, to be clear), and it exceeded my expectations for a combination of friendly little-con ambience and big-time collectible opportunities.

A couple of specifics: A number of the dealers had merchandise that was out of the ordinary -- unusual, or older and harder to find, or even unique in some way. In other words, far from the typical inventories of recent comics and toys, anything and everything manga and anime and reams of import and sub-culture DVDs. My purchase -- I'll get into this more in future posts -- was the illustrated, uninstalled glass back from (I think) a 1978 Bally pinball machine with a "Star Trek'' theme.

Also, that ambience I mentioned was conspicuous in numerous ways. One highlight: A local video-game store was hosting a "Street Fighter 4'' tournament with a cute incentive: beat the employees and win store credit.

The crowd (during late morning and early afternoon) was big enough to lead to lines of about 10 deep for well-recognized comics artists who were doing sketches (for a price). But it wasn't as if the panel discussions were anywhere close to filling up (at least not the three I checked on), and the sidwalks around the convention weren't bustling. The upshot: This is nearly the perfect convention eah year to attend if you're a knowledgeable fan who knows how to take advantage of all the up-close-and-personal sociality of a still-growing event. But sure, it lacks a bit of energy and excitement at times.

One asterisk: It's difficult to know what to say about the aging, fading, minor and less-than-minor TV and movie celebrities who charge to be photographed with fans. People pay, so there's a market. But it varies, with some "celebrities" looking awfully lonely much of the time. Tackiness overwhelms nostalgia. And the behavior of some of these marginal personalities can be offputting. I'll deal with it in a later post.

My wish: That Super-Con keeps growing, but not too much.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Super-Con reminder (it's Saturday and Sunday)

I'm on record about the exceptional atmosphere at this up-and-coming comics and pop culture convention in San Jose. The latest news from Super-Con, which I'm a bit late on conveying, is that Margot Kidder has been added to the guest list.

I'll recap and update a bunch of Super-Con info in the next day or so, but make your plans now: The event takes place this weekend at the San Jose Convention, South Hall (425 S. Market).

Here's the Super-Con web site.

(I'm going to be there, barring some unexpected problem. Wouldn't miss it).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

About the Star Trek movie

Saw it Saturday and loved it. A film that understands Trek's core appeal -- the characters and their relationships. Heart and humor, humor and heart. No surprise that it's a big hit. Almost everything works just right. Trek history isn't trashed, but the new stuff is genuinely fresh instead of handcuffed with baggage. The movie is visually fun without being a slave to effects. A five-star movie.

Still, I gotta ask: The plot hinges on a time-travel paradox and isn't that just a tiny bit disappointing? Even when well done, must that always be the crux and the crutch?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Scrubs'' does it right

(I've been away from the blog for a bit. You've heard the TV commercial -- "We had a health concern, but it turned out to be nothing.'' Maybe not an exact quote, but close. In my household, there have been some health concerns. They were something, but they're receding. So, I'm back)

Wednesday night's one-hour "Scrubs'' episode may have been a series finale (or so contend the nation's TV reporters). I hope so.

I'm saying that even though -- leaving the unique "Seinfeld'' aside -- "Scrubs" is probably my favorite TV comedy ever. When you care enough about a series, you want appropriate closure when the time comes. And I've been astounded over the years at how many final episodes are horribly botched.

Wednesday's "Scrubs'' was pitch perfect. It had heart. It alternated between outrageously funny and subtly funny. It was smart. It was tender. It was everything that has distinguished the series. It was proof that network TV isn't creatively bankrupt, at least not completely. For many of the cast members, it will be a career high point, even if they go on to other good things.

The closure was more than appropriate, more than satisfactory. It was sweet. Say it out loud: SWEET!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

John Madden, part 2

The stories that people relish most about John Madden, I think, are those that capture the humor he brought to his broadcasting work, as well as all the things he focused on away from the field -- from tailgating to bocce -- that made him the ultimate representative of the everyday fan.

Understandable.

But I want to devote this post to the memory of how his career spanned very different eras. In many ways, Madden is a symbol of a changed America. If I had to pick just one thing to point to, it would be how his peak analyst years coincided with a period of ostentatious power and wealth for network TV. I remember a Super Bowl at which the premier event -- at least to me -- was a ritzy CBS dinner that featured Madden discussing the state of the NFL. Getting an invitation to that insider's evening felt more privileged than being at the game. Oh, how the glitz and prominence of network broadcasting has faded since those days.

One other strong recollection: Before the existence of the Madden Cruiser super bus, our hero made many trips through a historic railroad hub -- Meridian, Miss. Check out the Wikipedia entry. That was before the time of the ubiquitous cell phone, so catching up to Madden for an interview meant waiting for him to call from Meridian in between making connections. Eventually, he might have been one of America's great authorities on trains. But the bus took him off the tracks and put him on the highways. I'm a little wistful about it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

John Madden, part 1

All other pop culture news takes a back seat to John Madden's announcement of his retirement from broadcasting. Madden is special, and he has permeated the national culture.

Sure, everything he influenced stemmed from his work as a TV football analyst. But I think people -- millions of people, including lots of non-football fans -- are going to remember him most vividly for commercials (I think first of Ace Hardware), or for the long-running video game series built on his name, or for his fear of flying and what he told us about America as he traveled by train and bus, or for his opinions about food (and how it applied to tailgating) or for the way he described the fascinating people he encountered, be they celebrities or folks he met at restaurants along the road.

I suspect he's going to remain in the public eye fairly prominently. But his broadcasting retirement sparked a ton of memories from the many years when I covered him regularly as a TV or video-game columnist. I'm going to spread out these recollections over a series of posts; the one I want to start with makes me laugh as hard as when Madden originally got me going:

He had an apartment in New York City at the famous Dakota building, where there were plenty of famous residents. Madden told me there was a unique downside for him: close neighbors included conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and singer Roberta Flack. He was hearing a little too much of their musical genius. I can't instantly put my hands of the story I wrote back then, but I don't think I've messed up the details. Madden -- whose signature style features words like "boom" and "bam" -- appreciated the elegance of their talent. But he had to laugh at himself for finding it, well, noisy.

More on Madden soon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A sense of obligation

A couple of other bloggers have given SectorEarth a nice plug recently, and more people are starting to comment -- the true heart of a blog, I think. And yet it has been a number of days since I posted anything. Basically, some family matters got in the way. That's a relatively good reason for temporary silence, I suppose, but I'm unhappy about it. I feel a sense of obligation to post regularly, and tonight marks the start of what I hope will be far more frequent reporting and commentary.

By the weekend, I want to mention the bloggers who have mentioned me -- there's some synergy in what we're doing. And there has been a lot of breaking news with a pop culture slant over the last two weeks. Some of it screams for discussion, so I'll try to ignite as much of that as possible. But at this given moment, there's just one thing I want to highlight: a new book about erotic horror comics drawn by Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, who apparently did the work when he was down on his luck in the 1950s.

USA Today gave the book -- "Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster" by Craig Yoe -- fairly prominent coverage in a Monday article by David Colton. Wrote Colton: "What makes the illustrations more than simply a curiosity of the times is the disturbing fact that many of the characters look exactly like Shuster's Superman and Lois Lane.''

Disturbing? Maybe a better word is revealing. Or tragic. See what you think. Head to Amazon's site, where you can get an idea of what the book adds (or subtracts?) in terms of comics history.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My question about the Fallujah game hubbub

The pop culture news that has intrigued me most over the last couple of days is the coverage of Konami's plans for a video game about U.S. military action in Iraq: "Six Days in Fallujah.''

GamePolitics.com delivered an excellent outline of the controversy that started percolating. Read that synopsis and pay particular attention to this: People objecting to the game are quoted as referring to the war in Iraq being trivialized, as characterizing the concept as flippant, and as being upset over a "massacre" becoming entertainment.

To me, there is an obvious tone that is dismissive about a video game in a way that we'd be unlikely to hear if "Six Days in Falljuh'' were going to be a movie, play or even, say, a graphic novel. Sure, this is pure conjecture on my part. But I think that much of the criticism of video games comes on two levels: There's always a specific flash point -- in this case, the Iraq factor -- and then there's also an underlying (and wrongheaded) contempt for video games as being without artistic or social value.

You think?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mark your calendars for Super-Con

Keep these dates in mind: Saturday May 16 and Sunday May 17. That's when the fourth Super-Con -- a comics and pop culture convention of maturing quality -- will be at the San Jose Convention Center's South Hall.

I'll have a lot more to say about the event as it gets closer. But here's why I'm emphasizing it now: It's still a little under the radar even though last year it presented a terrific balance of informality and value. There was a solid lineup of celebrity guests and panels wrapped around a wonderful throwback atmosphere of true fans who were enjoying conversations with each other as much as any other activity. Super-Con simply blew away WonderCon in terms of hospitality.

This year's guest list (as it stands now anyway) has some extra appeal for me: Marina Sirtis -- Star Trek The Next Generation's Deanna Troi -- is scheduled to be there. So, OK, that fanboy part of me is now on the record, publicly.

More about Super-Con later this month. But plan now, if only because fun can seem scarce these days. Go on day one and I think you'll go back on day two.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Comic book distress

A long-time Bay Area comics-shop owner -- I've known several of them pretty well for, oh, probably a decade or longer -- was in a casually candid mood this week. The most inside revelation: He has been dealing with sales declines in the 30 percent range as the economy has tanked. And he said other comic-store owners are telling him they're more or less in the same boat.

That's not to say every store is under stress. There may be a lot of variation based on unemployment rates in the immediate vicinity of each shop. Located in Silicon Valley with customers who tend to be young high-tech workers at firms undergoing lots of downsizing? That won't be good.

Most interesting to me: The guy I talked to has felt direct impact from the lousy material the major publishers have been putting out. Marvel's despicable "Brand New Day'' Spider-Man story line led to a stream of lost sales. DC's incoherent "Final Crisis'' series changed habits: Some customers stopped showing up with regularity on new comics day each week (and that includes me).

Comic books are the seed product that bred generations of fans for the high-quality comics movies that now are flourishing. "The Dark Knight'' (the best, I think), "Iron Man" and "Watchmen'' are all recent and extraordinary examples. To have the core product -- print storytelling of a fabulously imaginative nature -- be floundering so badly is frustrating and sad.

"Thor," said this comics retailer, "try that.'' OK, when I happen to be near a shop.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Amazon's video-game trade-in program: a good first impression

If you haven't tried Amazon's new video-game trade-in program, here's some insight from one transaction -- mine.

First, some caveats. Trading in a video-game ultimately involves some fairly complicated decision-making about where and how you're originally purchasing games (new or used, for instance, is just one aspect that affects the final value of everything you do). Moreover, you've got choices besides Amazon, but they vary greatly in terms of the amount of effort they require (such as becoming an online seller yourself or taking games to a brick-and-mortar store that buys used games).

Over time, I'll examine a few of the more complex wrinkles. But I started out with a simple goal: I happily accepted Amazon's advertised offer of a $19.50 gift-card deposit in my account in exchange for sending in my copy of "Resistance 2,'' a PlayStation 3 shooter that I found monumentally disappointing (and that I bought new from Amazon for $60 in October). What I wanted after that was convenience.

Mostly, I got it. As part of the transaction arranged online, Amazon e-mailed me a prepaid mailing label that was a snap to print out and put on the envelope I used for easily dropping the game in a mailbox. I hoped the process -- and the availability of my $19.50 credit -- would be lickety-split. But that was unrealistic, I think, especially given that the trade-in games actually are purchased by third-party merchants.

A week after mailing the game, my account was showing it as not yet received. That was misleadingly worrisome, suggesting to me that perhaps something had gone wrong in the mails. An e-mail inquiry I sent to Amazon was partially helpful (informing me that the merchant involved categorized the transaction as "pending"). When I told Amazon -- which solicits feedback on its responses to e-mails -- that I wasn't completely satisfied with the explanation, I got another reply that represents one of the better demonstrations of customer service I've been graced with in a looooong time. The information itself remained a little confusing, focusing on time lines for my "return" and "refund" (as opposed to a "trade-in"), but it was clear that the item involved was "Resistance 2" and -- this was the clincher for me -- the tone was exceptionally reassuring. To quote the Amazon representative:

"I will personally follow-up your return and the refund status to ensure this issue is taken care of, so that you do not have to contact us again for your refund on this order.

"Rest assured that this matter will be resolved to your satisfaction. Your patience and understanding are greatly appreciated in this regard."

The upshot: I got e-mail notification today (the two-week mark since mailing) of the transaction being completed and the deposit of the gift-card amount in my account. Overall, the convenience of the whole process rates pretty high with me, and Amazon's solicitousness is even more impressive.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A celebration of doodle art







Last weekend, I attended a benefit that celebrated two things: doodle art and a good cause. Let's start with the cause: support of an organization named Shakti Rising. I suggest taking some time to click the link and delve into the Web site. But this excerpt from the FAQ will give you a sense of the work being done:

"What is the Shakti definition of recovery?
Recovery is the decision to live and to take responsibility for your own life, which begins by admitting you have a problem and acknowledging that you want to change. It is a restorative healing process requiring willingness to let go of addictions and self-destructive attitudes while embracing change. The process uncovers the underlying emotions that triggered your self-destructive reactions. Old behaviors and attitudes are replaced with an awareness of your Self, deepened interactions with others, and reconnection with your sense of Spirit."

The benefit, organized by an extraodinary woman and mom named Catherine O'Brien, offered contributors the opportunity to obtain framed doodles from a wide variety of celebrities and public figures. This was the kind of intersection of pop culture and philanthropy that didn't make me think twice about heading out on a chilly, rainy night. And I went home delighted.

Now in my possession: A teleprompter script that NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer doodled on in the era when the PBS show was co-hosted by Robin MacNeil (the last line is "GOOD NIGHT, ROBIN''). The doodle features a signpost that says "Dixie Sunshine Depot,'' a reference, apparently, to his (at least then) futile quest to find a Dixie Sunshine line sign for his collection of bus memorabilia.

Also now mine: What I'm calling (for now, anyway) my Roman soldier doodle, created by acclaimed writer and Stanford professor Tobias Wolff. I've read a couple of his short stories; I'll be a student of his work from here on.

Don't want this post to get too long, but to close: The exhibit catalog can be ordered online in hardcover or softcover (proceeds to Shakti Rising). Here's the site:

Monday, March 23, 2009

How to follow this week's Game Developers Conference

Do it through VentureBeat (www.venturebeat.com).
That's where you'll find the coverage of my former San Jose Mercury News colleague Dean Takahashi (we blogged as "Dean & Nooch).
Nobody -- absolutely nobody -- covers a convention more thoroughly and indefatigably.
Dean and I disagreed about lots of issues over the years (mostly in an entertaining way, I think) but he always had one edge: He couldn't be outworked.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rorschach, the "Watchmen" flick's hero?

I really liked "Watchmen," and I think I could devote at least 20 posts to the issues raised by the differences between the film and the comics. But one stands out to me above all others: In print, I found Rorschach to be a man in much more psychological distress. In the movie, I found him psychologically challenged but with a prevailing nobility. If the film could be said to have a hero -- which is a stretch -- it would be Rorschach.

In print, the story's nuances are triumphant. There is more room to interpret, and there's more depth. In the movie, there are moments of overwhelming emotional power that dwarf what a comic can deliver. These moments are sometimes raw, sometimes sweet and generally big and boastful, with much less ambiguity than the comics celebrate.

As a character on pages, I found Rorschach as troubled as he is intimidating. On the screen, I found him to be constantly extraordinary and ultimately beyond defeat, regardless of what compulsions were driving him. These are the questions I'm left with: When you think of the movie Rorschach, do you empathize? Would you like to be just as pure in spurning compromise, no matter what other horrors that forces you to embrace?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Facebook, the blog sinkhole

I resisted Facebook -- out of sheer ignorance -- for quite a while. Once I discovered its power professionally as well as socially (the latter still being most valuable), I became a huge fan.

Now it poses a substantial dilemma. This blog format is a far better way to deliver commentary, foster conversation and perhaps even do some hard-news journalism. But Facebook is a great way to direct people here and build some momentum for wide-ranging discussions. Indeed, Facebook proved impressively helpful when this blog launched. But then the other shoe dropped.

As I've continued to tease to topics on this blog, people have registered their thoughts right then and there on Facebook, accompanying whatever little synopsis I had hoped would drive people to this site. Facebook is a one-stop convenience for all sorts of expression -- an amazingly sticky destination that easily can deter a side trip to Blogger land. I understand that; I respect it. But I think it could end up offering too easy a way for people to share ideas. Too lazy a way, to be honest.

I think we could have some deeper exchanges here at SectorEarth, along with plenty of fun. Those of you kind enough to have paid some attention so far, please spread the word. Coming soon: Some thoughts about the "Watchmen" flick and Amazion's new video-game trade-in service.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Watchmen": Re-read the comics before seeing the movie?

My answer is yes.

One of my best pop culture pals batted this around with me before the flick's opening. We agreed: re-read. So my chum on the opposite coast headed into a local comics shop for the paperpack collection.

My pal told the woman at the counter about the plan to read before seeing.

"She was like, 'Oh no, you should go see the movie, because the movie will be good on its own, but if you read the book first it'll ruin it -- you should try to enjoy the movie.' "

My pal: "I said, 'Oh, but I'm really looking forward to being one of the people in the audience who knows what to look for in every scene.' " Clerk resisting sale: "Then you should see the movie, then read the book, then see the movie again."

Among other things, my pop culture ally notes that "She overestimated how much money and time I'm planning to devote to the whole endeavor."

But I think she miscalculated more deeply, too. It shouldn't be so hard to separate the reading from the viewing, with the reading providing an upside only.

The rest of you think?

Monday, March 9, 2009

More "Killzone 2" thoughts: Terrific -- for what it is

The more I play this game, the more impressed I am with it as visceral interactive entertainment. I'm comfortable with its violence, and I'm thrilled with its intensity. My sense of engagement is off the charts, and the technology, while not perfect, makes me feel challenged personally as well as tactically. Yes, personally, because it demands that I call on just about everything I've learned during a decade (or close to) of reviewing first-person shooters.

And here's something I know from experience: If I can be that specific about why I like a game -- as opposed to settling for "It's fun, so there'' -- we're not talking about your run-of-the-mill game.

Isn't it interesting, then, that "Killzone 2" is also a testament to the video-game industry's continuing shallowness. The game is devoid of any artistic depth. It's not without some artistic elements, and it conveys a reasonably absorbing sci-fi milieu. But it has almost exponential powers of silliness in its dialogue and other pretensions toward humanness.

Honestly, I'm not knocking it. It is what it is, and I'm hooked. But someday, games are going to combine raw strength (as found in "Killzone 2") with genuine literary qualities. I'm still waiting for that era to begin.

(Oh, and yes, I'm writing this before finishing "Killzone 2," but folks, video games don't find their muse in the 10th, 15th or 20th hour of a shoot-'em-up).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Thanks . . . Oh, and Mr. Ebert, please hurry back

Many thanks to those of you who have found this blog and have e-mailed me or started commenting. Those of you who know me best won't be surprised that I'll often respond one to one, but yes, I'm hoping this blog also builds enough readership to nurture a lot of conversation from post to post.

This evening, I was bouncing around the Web in pursuit of many of the week's pop culture stories, and the "Watchmen" flick was at the top of my list. As it happened, the now disastrous "At the Movies'' TV show came on across the room, reminding me of the void we've been left with since two forgettable (why name them?) non-personalities were given the reviewing platform that belonged to Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper at the program's last heyday. After Ebert became ill and Roeper teamed with various guest critics, the show was less engaging but still highly watchable. Not now.

For me, the release of an event movie is less fun without Ebert and Roeper swapping observations about it. But as I kept spinning through Web sites -- while the current hosts chattered hollowly about "Watchmen" -- I found a number of references to Ebert having recently written that he and Roeper will soon announce a new review show. That will make me as happy as a well-cast Green Lantern movie.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Killzone 2: A first reaction

Two hours in and yes, yes, finally a game that looks as if it will live up to its promise.

I've always been sensitive to price as an important part of the review equation, whether I was getting promotional copies from game publishers or buying within my personal budget. Last year, the broken putting in the Tiger Woods game for the Wii made me feel as if I'd thrown money away, and the surprisingly silly mechanics in big parts of "Resistance 2'' (PS3) made me think that the experience was way too expensive for the value. I waited for those games with great anticipation and ended up seriously disappointed.

The just-released "Killzone 2" (PS3) has been on my radar for a long time, and my instant reaction after one session with it is easy to summarize: It appears to be one of those rare games that's distinguished by the intelligent and balanced challenge it presents. Players have to react to smart opposition -- the game's a shooter, if you didn't know -- but on the other hand, nothing early on raises the specter of overly intimidating action. I'll obviously have more to say as I play deeper, and I can't imagine that I won't have some quibbles (the hype is awfully, awfully high around this game). But so far, the game's smarts have translated into gripping video-game fun.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Xbox 360, Peter Moore and me

Every now and then when I was at the San Jose Mercury News, a story or blog item that I'd written would take off, getting far-flung attention and showing up all over the Web in all sorts of new contexts.

One such item: A 2007 interview with then-Microsoft video-game executive Peter Moore. It was posted in a series of chunks on the blog I co-wrote with Dean Takahashi, now at VentureBeat. A variety of subjects were discussed, including the Xbox 360's hardware problems. Some of Moore's phrasing -- most notably two words: "things break'' -- generated intense reaction.

Late last year, Moore (now with Electronic Arts) used another interview to reflect on that conversation with me, but his remarks seemed to me to be at odds with something that could be easily checked: the original material I posted on the Dean & Nooch blog and still internationally perusable. But the new Moore interview began to be cited widely without any reference to how it did or didn't jibe with his previous quotes.

I thought that was ominous. The mainstream media certainly has been its own worst enemy for many years, but Web journalism, well, yikes, it teeters between lame and horrifying. I couldn't get anyone interested in providing some perspective except for editor Patrick Garratt at Videogaming247.com . I remain extremely grateful to him. But what about all the other folks who seemed to have no interest in any context that might be, gee, overwhelmingly relevant to Moore's new quotes? Oh, and did it matter that my name was being raised without any input from me? Apparently not.

I was well gone from the Mercury News when all this percolated, and I was without any good platform for addressing the issues directly. I've got this blog now, and it's way too young to have the kind of readership that would level the playing field. Maybe some day. But for starters, let me revisit everything by repeating below what Videogaming247.com posted -- thanks again Patrick -- and getting it all on the record in yet another place:

----------------------------

Moore was not "pushed hard" on 360 failure issues, says Antonucci: full interview transcript
Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Mike Antonucci, the San Jose Mercury News journalist named by Peter Moore in his recent Guardian interview as “really pushing hard” on the issue of Xbox 360 failure rates, has contacted VG247 to set the record straight on the subject.

Antonucci, who’s now moved on from the paper, conducted the interview in which Moore famously said that “things break” in relation to the RROD problem.

Antonucci told us this morning that both he and Dean Takahashi - author of The Xbox 360 Uncloaked - had mailed the Guardian to show that Moore hadn’t been “pushed” in the interview, or that Antonucci had taken his remark out of context, saying that, “Perhaps the loss of context is a reference to other reporting that quoted my interview with him.”

The note went ignored, apparently. You can read the full mail sent to the Guardian after the break, which includes a full transcript of the interview in question. We’ve bolded the section containing the quote.

Dear Mr. Stuart [Keith Stuart, the journalist that conducted the Guardian's Moore interview - Ed],

Happened across the Peter Moore interview in which he mentions me. I’m the former San Jose Mercury News reporter he referred to.

For the record: I’m not “called” Mike Antonucci — that’s my name. :-)

I left the Merc a couple of months ago (in case anyone wants that context).

Moore was not “pushed hard” by me (the question put to him was from a reader/consumer and I relayed it), nor was he taken out of context by me. Perhaps the loss of context is a reference to other reporting that quoted my interview with him.

All of this is easy to track. He’s referring to one part of a multi-part interview with him and here’s the full version (as it’s still easy to find on the Web).

I would appreciate you posting this (or summarizing it) out of fairness. Moore was given enormous room to comment as he wished and is totally responsible for his own remarks.

I’m cc’ing Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat, who shared a blog with me and takes a key interest in Xbox failure issues.

Peter Moore interview, part three (answers to readers’ questions)

Posted by Mike Antonucci on May 7th, 2007 at 5:24 pm Categorized as General, Mike Antonucci, Nooch on Gaming

OK, here we go with the last portion of my roughly half-hour interview with Microsoft’s Moore on April 19.

There’s an occasional contribution from me (flowing naturally from the conversation), but this is mostly Moore responding to questions that readers hoped I could squeeze in.

The first question was about Xbox 360 backwards compatibility, and, only by coincidence, Microsoft had made an announcement on that subject a few hours before the interview. So I put the released info on this blog the following day (April 20), and therefore I’ll skip the question here and just attach the info for your convenience.

In a day or so, I’ll also combine all three parts of this into one for-the-record post (although I generally try to stay away from posts of such length).

Part three:

Q (from reader): Gosh darn, all this talk about the portfolio, but all I see on Arcade are more shooters, and every other game announced for the system seems to be a shooter. Whatcha gonna do about that? I feel like I need to purchase a Wii just for some variety. I loved “Viva Pinata” but there’s gotta be more than just shooters and racers right?

A: So, they should have gone out like 290,000 people did in the first five days and bought “Guitar Hero II,” which is my latest addiction, ’cause i love it. And an old guy like me picking up a guitar and playing, if I can do it, anybody can do it. And then they should start looking at all of the movie games that are coming out. I just looked at all of our blockbusters for movie games — “Ratatouille” and all the stuff that’s coming out this summer. They should go to Xbox.com and take maybe a little bit more of a deeper look at all of the games that are coming out.

Q (from reader): Has Microsoft given any thought of producing a CG animated “HALO” series? The CG footage at the end of the “Gears of War” game was awesome. If Halo produced something of this standard (or the even the CG effects from the Halo Wars RTS game footage) and maybe started out by following the scripts from the Halo novels, it would be a big winner for all (Microsoft, “Halo” fans and animated fans in general).

A: So, CG isn’t cheap, and if read into that, you’re almost saying, “Let’s get the ‘Halo’ movie back on track again.”

Q (Antonucci): Well, “Star Wars” fans, for instance, get all that “Star Wars” animation. So I think he’s just hoping that “Halo” will have the kind of animated outlets that . . .

A: And I would love to talk about “Halo 3,” but I can’t talk about “Halo 3.”

Q (Antonucci): But that’s not animation (in the context of the question).

A: No, it’s not animation, but there’s enough stuff in there, in the stuff that I’ve seen, that’s going to get people excited. And y’know. I’ll back down a little on getting into detail on this because we’ve got some stuff (but) I just don’t want to give the game away.

The next question was about the Xbox Live Diamond Card program, but there was some confusion about what the reader meant, so we mostly put it aside. Some e-mail exchanges with the reader followed and I’ll eventually deal with those in a separate post.

Q (from reader):With the success of the Wii Controller and the encouraging words from developers about the (Sony) Sixaxis does Microsoft plan on, or have the ability to, adding a motion sensitive controller to their system?

A: We certainly have the ability. Whether we believe it’s something that we need to do, in the current state of where we think our business is, is probably a better question. We have already done this before with a controller called the Freestyle, which many of your readers will remember, which actually had a very similar motion to the Sixaxis. It was for the PC. . . . We admire — I’m on record ad nauseum — what the Wii is doing with the Wii remote. And the Sixaxis, I’ll maybe be a little bit more critical of the reader’s comment that there’s a lot of positive (momentum), because I don’t see a ton. But I’m sure I don’t know what’s in the pipeline from developers working on the PS3. But I feel pretty comfortable where we are.

At this point, I made reference to feedback I’d been getting about a story I’d done on the PlayStation 3 being used in medical research, with PS3 owners running software simulations as part of Standford University’s Folding@Home project. I rephrased a blog question into something a bit broader:

Q: Are we overlooking or is there anything in the works that would make the Xbox that kind of multi-purpose device?

A: We continue to look at this and see whether there’s real value. (Moore mentions that Bill Gates “quite frankly has had a conversation about this” and notes that Gates is interested in applying “philanthropic processing power to big problems”). But I’m not quite sure yet whether we’re seeing real tangible results from the PlayStation 3 Folding@Home initiative.

Q (Antonucci): There seems to be an enormous amount of participation that’s leading to a lot of speed-up in that research. A: Then if we truly believe that we can in some way marshall the resources of a much larger installed base of Xbox 360 owners, with a processer that’s of equal power to the PS3, then you have my commitment that we’ll look at that. And if we believe we can add value to solving a gnarly problem such as the medical problems and the health problems that Folding@Home seems to be doing, then we’ll certainly look at that very strongly.

Q (from reader): I’d like a straight answer on issues with hardware quality (have suffered through 2 defective 360’s in a 7 month span and am about to call it quits with this system). MS claims an ‘accceptable’ 3% failure rate but I imagine the actual number to be much higher — perhaps 2x or 3x more?

A: I can’t comment on failure rates, because it’s just not something – it’s a moving target. What this consumer should worry about is the way that we’ve treated him. Y’know, things break, and if we’ve treated him well and fixed his problem, that’s something that we’re focused on right now. I’m not going to comment on individual failure rates because I’m shipping in 36 countries and it’s a complex business.

Q (from same reader): Also, will future models be designed to run quieter? The fan noise generated from my 360 is so loud as to distract.

A: Noise is something I don’t bury my head in the sand about, and it’s primarily the DVD drive. People get confused with the fan noise, but it’s actually, in some instances, the 12x spinning of the disc that annoys some people. The great majority of people actually don’t notice it, but it’s something we continue to look at. We take that feedback very seriously from consumers, and we’ll continue to look at it. Can’t tell you, can’t make you any promises, that it’s something that’s going to be fixed overnight. I don’t notice it, but maybe I’m different. But I am not oblivious to the fact that some people do.

Q (from reader): What is the most important thing for Microsoft to accomplish in this calendar year?

A: Continue to broaden our base. If you have an installed base that continues to grow, then good things happen. If we can maintain our attach rate as strongly as it is, (good things happen) for the eco-system, the multi-billion-dollar eco-system that surrounds us, whether it’s our publishing or development partners around the world. We need to continue our momentum. We of course need to have great success with games like “Halo 3,” which I think will be the story of 2007.

Q (from same reader): It seems like consumers are identifying with the Wii. What do you believe are the current reasons for the Wii success and how is Microsoft positioned to address these?

A: So I think the Wii is a combination of innovative input — and I’ve been on record (about that) for two years since I first saw it in Tokyo when Iwata-san brought those controllers out — but price is also a major advantage for Nintendo. Their intellectual property has always been strong, has been for a decades. The question is going to be, as we get further down into the life cycle, how sustainable the experience is going to be, how much third party support is going to continue to grow for the platform. And we’re not blind to the fact that we continue to need to make our platform more approachable. Our work with Activision in making “Guitar Hero” such a success over the last couple of weeks, I think, is the tip of the iceberg of some of the work you’re going to see around a more approachable platform. At the same time, I don’t want to lose my hard-core guys, who I love to death and who are huge fans of what we do.

Q: (Antonucci): Last question. I’m going to let you read this one out loud yourself, because there’s a name in here that apparently this reader thinks you’re going to be familiar with (but) that I’ll probably butcher the pronounciation of.

A: “What is Microsoft’s current relationship with Tomonobu Itagaki and why not purchase a Japanese company to gain a foothold in Japan?” Itagaki is a great friend of mine. Itagaki-san is the key developer behind such great games as “Dead or Alive” or Ninja Gaiden.” And of all the Japanese developers, from the very git-go, he believed in the Xbox platform. I’m talking Xbox, not Xbox 360 . . . and more recently through Xbox 360. I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve spent a lot of time with him in Japan. Y’know, he’s a unique individual with the glasses and the long hair. And his games are always interesting of course. The way that the DOA girls show up is always popular within the gaming ranks. . . . I’m a huge fan because of the commitment he gave us early, particularly in the face of ridicule from the Japanese developers and publishers who thought he was an idiot for getting behind Xbox. We now look at great cases like Capcom, who have come to the fold and are are doing phenomenally well with Xbox 360. . . . As regards purchasing a Japanese publisher, we’ll never comment on our acquisition plans at all.

Q (Antonucci): But the larger issue is making more headway in Japan.

A: And you may argue that purchasing a publisher would do that. I’m not totally sure that would be the case, because if you purchase someone, that makes them a first party, and that actually dilutes the value of what you’ve just done, so there’s a business reason why that becomes difficult. I would rather focus on what I’ve done for many many years, which is travel on a regular basis to Tokyo and build relationships with those publishers. One thing I’ve seen — and I’ve been going to Tokyo now for eight years, probably 50 times in the last eight years – is there’s a more global outlook now from Japanese publishers than there has ever been. Capcom (is) the best example of that with “Dead Rising” and “Lost Planet,” with which they’ve done incredibly well. They realize the Japanese domestic market is insufficient to sustain them without globalizing, and, quite frankly Westernizing the way that they go to market. Konami, Sega, Capcom, Namco — all does that same thing. And that bodes well for us, because obviously they see our strength in the Western world and they’re becoming great partners of ours.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why pop culture matters so much: example 3,274:

I see Rush Limbaugh quoted on the Web tonight by CNN as saying:

"We conservatives have not done a good enough job of just laying out basically who we are because we make the mistake of assuming that people know. What they know is largely incorrect, based on the way we're portrayed in pop culture, in the drive-by media, by the Democrat party.''

He has this much right for sure -- pop culture's influence is just that strong.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Comic books and the national mess

What do we know about the country's economic biliousness? That greed played a huge part. That politics played some part. And that basic incompetence remains a force to be reckoned with, even in an age when cynicism should have taught us to doubt the credentials of anyone claiming special expertise. In anything.

We go to people for an array of services we can't provide for ourselves, short of becoming contemporary financial and technological da Vincis. And to our repeated horror -- as well as uncomfortably belatedly in too many cases -- we discover there's no real buffer between the illusion of proficiency and bona fide knowledge and skill. Pick any profession, in fact, and so it goes.

People were chasing pots of gold in the financial scrums and also barely understood the paperwork they were shuffling. The clueless hired the foolish who honored the fakers. Corruption just added the rhinestones to the whole cheap fabric.

This all makes me think of comic books. Of all the self-destructive industries I covered as a reporter, the comics biz was always the most consistently suicidal. Here was this marvelously American font of both accessible and inspired art and storytelling, but it never failed to waste an opportunity.

We've arrived at a peak moment for the comics culture, thanks to two sensational movies, "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man." And what did DC Comics just wrap up? A big-event tale, "Final Crisis,'' that showcased its iconic characters and was unreadable. It wobbled from incoherent to arcane and back to incoherent. How about that for blowing an opportunity? How about that for putting another impediment in the way of people reading things?

I can understand how "Final Crisis" got made. I can understand how the writing and editing process went off the rails (been there, seen that). I just can't understand how it got published. Or perhaps, as I look around at the state of American know-how, maybe I can.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another blog?

As a pop culture fan, I can't find the kind of commentary and discussion I'm hungry for -- not for video games, not for comic books, not for TV, not for DVDs, not for gadgets . . . and so on. There's a lot of it out there, but it tends to come up short on journalistic cred and fundamental civility. I've had some experience trying to blog without those failings (see About Me) and without being a doddering snooze. Gonna try again, starting now.

I'm sure I'll be tempted at times to become one of the many new media pundits whose punditry is about the troubled world of media. Enough ex-newspaper types are doing that, and some quite well, actually. I'll force myself to abstain.

For me, it will be enough to stick to Batman and the Watchmen, to "Scrubs" and "Hell's Kitchen,'' to the Wii and PlayStation 3. Next post: a few words about DC Comics' "Final Crisis."