If I was feeling a little more patient, this would be my 120th post and I would be smug with the fittingness of it all. But hey ho, sometimes reality gets in the way…. ‘What were they smoking when they thought that one up, eh?’ Don’t you just hate it when people say that? Any time there’s something a little bit original or strange thrown into your medium of choice, someone, somewhere, is bound to respond with this tired bit of ‘wisdom’. Have people always said that? Did peasants in the 1600s raise a knowing eyebrow to one another and say, “Well, that William Shakespeare, eh? What was he smoking?” If you do hate it, then a disclaimer is needed: if you play Super Mario Galaxy 2 in a shared living room, then expect to hear it a lot. We are, after all, talking about a game in which friendly bombs approach you to ask favours; in which fortresses transform into colossal fireball-firing tanks; in which you ride a dinosaur which eats grumpy mushrooms with its long tongue and craps out stars. Thing is, those kinds of things have always been in the Mario games. The recent Galaxy games just shine a light on it. It could be because of the shiny graphics, perhaps the contrast with the gray-and-brown state of modern games. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the constant emphasis on ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. Nothing’s really new here: it’s the same set-up, worlds and game mechanics as every Mario ever. Princess gets captured, jump through hoops to save her, in the form of a series of quick-to-play objective-led one-shot levels. It couldn’t be a more traditional game. And yet it feels fresh. Which is impressive, given that the first Galaxy game seemed to explore every part of the new gravity-orientated approach to platforming. There are tweaks, here and there, but never contains anything as outright mind-blowing as the first time you leapt from planet to planet, terra firma shifting under your feet. What it adds, instead, is a polished game of much greater length and complexity. Which is to say, difficulty. The brilliant bit is, all the particularly difficult stuff is essentially optional. You can blitz through and get 60 stars and beat Bowser fairly easily, dodging hard levels. But to get 120 stars, every levels has to be revisited, be mined for hidden Comet medals, played with a new twist. Of which there are plenty. Every level has an alternative objective: sometimes just a speed-run, or collect-‘em-all, or adding Mario clones which follow his every step, meaning you can’t retrace your own steps. Occasionally, though, it’s something much more inventive, a full skewing of the concept the level is built on. The whole game is a series of twists; it is itself a beautiful extension of the first one. It’s not always something new, but it is something special.
FILMS Kick Ass I’ve written about already. It already seems weird, looking back, how much the world was taken aback by it. Its impact has been somewhat reeled in since. I’m hoping Scott Pilgrim is going to deliver the finisher on comic-book-movies-blowing-peoples’-minds-a-bit, minds softened up by 10 rounds with Kick Ass, Watchmen, and chums. Cemetery Junction seemed so likely to disappoint. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant finally doing a film together, after Ricky did The Invention of Lying (which, though I’ve never seen, maintains a certain … reputation); the long-discussed move into drama (which was definitely the most interesting thing about Extras, in the end); the words “Hollywood does small-town England” apparently supposed to sell it to me. We’ll do small-town England our own way, thankyou very much, and that’s small-minded and depressing. And then it had the gall to go and be really, really good. Full of charming, well-drawn characters; warm in just the right way (a very English way, edged with the right amount of cynicism); a genuinely – damnit – a genuine feel good film. Uplifting and memorable and reinvigorating and traditional but somehow fresh… I eagerly await the next Merchant/Gervais surefire-disappointment. The ‘Staying True to the Source Material’ Award has to go to Iron Man 2 Good solid superhero film which, like a good superhero comic, kept me entertained as I flipped through but has now more or less slipped from my memory. I liked it more than some people I expected to like it more. Sometimes the tone of a film can be completely changed by who you watch it with. Otherwise terrifying horrors become hilarious comedies of errors. Watching Four Lions, the screening swelled, my eyes getting wider with disbelief: a full house for a comedy about suicide bombers? Maybe they were here for the outrage? But, no, an entire cinema screen, fuller than I’ve ever seen in the West Midlands, making the air thick with laughter. I’d gone in expecting that sharp Morris satire, some serious drama and a bit of thoughtfood to chew on otherwise. I got those, in various portions. I just hadn’t expected it to be so funny as well. COMICS Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men being one of the most endlessly recommendable superhero comics I’ve ever read, I was a bit suspicious of the use of the monicker. I’m protective of that comic, in the way of possessive comic book nerds. I don’t really like Wolverine. Yet, here I am, about to call Jason Aaron’s Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine, on the strength of its first issue, one of the best comics I’ve read in a while. …Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine is one of the best comics I’ve read in a while. It out-Morrisons Grant Morrison’s (excellent) Batman & Robin in finding a fresh, weird take on the straight superhero story. It’s full of ideas, both in content (I don’t want to give away any of the set up of this issue) and form (there’s some really nice use of layouts and symmetry which is the kind of thing only comics can do and really isn’t done enough). I write this having only read one issue, but it’s brilliant. It left me, in a way I haven’t had since the early days of Ultimate Spider-Man, dancing round the house and wanting to be Spider-man. Thwip! And, having mentioned it in a way that might, to the unobservant eye, seem negative, I am legally obliged to say: damn, Grant Morrison on Batman (in all its forms: Batman & Robin, Return of Bruce Wayne, even that not-quite-great anniversary issue) is absolutely killing at the moment. We passed the point where you start to realise, oh, this is going to be one of the character’s defining writers a few miles back: a peculiarly comics idea, I must say, this peculiar hall of fame, and one that comes dangerously close to deserving its own essay. In superhero comics, example after example rolls off the tongue, even for stuff I’ve never read. Ennis’s Punisher; Miller’s Daredevil; Simonson’s Thor. You just get to know this stuff after a while. To non comics-reader readers, I’m trying to think hard of an analogue. Occasionally, a writer (generally, one who has already had success elsewhere, often sporadic) clicks with an existing character (often one who has languished out of the spotlight for a while), and the issues shared by that character and that writer are gold, in a way that doesn’t even necessarily align with the quality of the stories. It’s alchemy of the highest order, essentially. GAMES Shh. I’m playing Mario Galaxy 2. Bugger off, I’ll talk to you later. Just need to finish … this … level … Be with you in a minute.