Most of you folks probably don’t buy music anymore, and if you do, it’s highly unlikely that you’re purchasing physical media (unless you’re one of those trendy vinyl collectors). Other than myself, I know of only two other people who still buy compact discs. Due to personal listening and audio quality preferences, I’ve been buying nearly all of my music on the medium for decades. But we all had to start somewhere.
I bought my first CD player in September 1992, a Sony boombox model complete with tape deck. Since it was also the first CD player in the house, every now and then, my folks would borrow it. Of course, when I bought the machine, I wanted to buy at least one CD to go along with it, and that ended up being America’s Least Wanted by Ugly Kid Joe.
I was already a big fan of the band from their debut EP As Ugly as They Wanna Be, and I’d heard the new single “Neighbor” over the summer. The new record had just come out, anyway, so it was an easy purchase. Since it was the only CD I owned until Christmas of that year (hey, those things were expensive back then, especially to a teenager not yet old enough to get a job), it was on constant rotation. Fortunately the album was (and is) very good.
Here we are, over twenty-three years later. There are plenty of CDs that I grew out of and parted with over time, but I still have my original copy of America’s Least Wanted, and I still love it.
That thing has come with me through high school, college, multiple moves to different apartments, three different cars…you name it. Rather than just nostalgia talking, I believe it is genuinely a good record. Their followup Menace to Sobriety in 1995 was great, too, though I feel that Motel California a year later was a serious misstep. That didn’t stop me from listening to UKJ’s older material for the next few decades. I’m sure most metalheads look back on the “radio-friendly” era of UKJ with scorn and derision, but I’m clearly out of step with popular opinion, as with most things.
(Endnote: This post was inspired by the fact that UKJ recently put out the new full-length album Uglier Than They Used Ta Be, their first after nearly twenty years. And it’s a solid return to form!)
Despite my love for the medium, I was never a video game expert, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the realm of fighting games. I’ve mentioned them off and on on this blog more than once, but today I’m going to delve a little deeper into my personal history with the genre. I was a teenager when those games really took off, and it all began with Ryu fireballing a green mutant in the face.
There was a 7-Eleven between my home and school, and it was of course a loitering point for my peers and I. We often spent what little money we had on snacks, and since the store had three or four arcade games along the front window, it ate up our spare change as well. I admit to dropping way too many quarters into Atomic Runner Chelnov, RoboCop, P.O.W., and Aliens.
But one day, they got a brand new machine called Street Fighter II.
For most of us, this was our first exposure to the game and the series, plus a proper introduction to the fighting game genre as a whole. Sure, we had played the likes of Pit Fighter and whatnot, but nothing came close to this. All of us immediately fell in love with those larger-than-life characters, the digitized voice samples (which sounded hilariously garbled; “Fiber uppercut!”), and the excellent fighting action. Nearly every day before and after school, there was a crowd around that SFII machine. 7-Eleven must’ve made some serious bank off of that thing.
There was plenty of trash talk and the occasional heated argument, but nothing got out of control. People understood the rule of placing your quarters on the rim of the display to denote who was up next, and the store clerks made sure no one got too rowdy. Even though it was a highly competitive game among highly competitive teens, everyone just had fun playing SFII. I sucked at the game, and so did others, but no one cared. Surprisingly, no one picked on us about it, either.
Meanwhile, my friend Joey absolutely dominated the game; his fighter of choice was Blanka, but he was skilled enough to defeat any and all challengers with any and all characters. Joey was also the one who got SFII for the SNES the day it came out, so we spent a lot of time at his house after that instead of shelling out coins.
SFII was absolutely responsible for the fighting game genre exploding in popularity in the 1990s. Clones and ripoffs appeared everywhere, but there were some gems among the dross. Less than two years later, Mortal Kombat rapidly became my fighting game of choice, but I didn’t just write off SFII like so many others. To be honest, aside from the blood ‘n’ guts, I think the other reason MK took the spotlight is that it came out with brand new games at a quicker pace, whereas we just got new iterations of SFII with tweaks here and there. Great for tournament players, I guess, but for us regular folk? We didn’t give a shit. We wanted new blood.
After my family we moved across town, we had befriended our new neighbors, who had both an SNES and a Genesis. Wouldn’t you know it, they loved fighting games, too. That’s how we got into playing stuff like Fatal Fury, The Art of Fighting, Killer Instinct, Primal Rage, and World Heroes. All of those were arcade games first, of course, but few of them appeared in our local arcades (we had one at the mall and another at a mini golf course, but SFII and MK games ruled the roost there).
By the time I got to college, SF and MK were practically dead. However, I do remember being blown away by Street Fighter III in New York City during a theater trip my freshman year. And man, if you thought I sucked at SFII, I was practically fighting one-handed at SFIII. Eesh. Beyond that little anecdote, like I said, those pillars of the genre were all but forgotten in my neck of the woods. Most folks at school had moved on to Tekken 2 and 3, and the original Super Smash Bros. was a staple on my roommate’s Nintendo 64, despite it not being a “traditional” fighting game.
After graduation, I barely played fighting games anymore. I had few local friends, arcades rapidly disappeared, and the genre went right back underground as first-person shooters on home consoles really took off. Those and smartphone games have been on top of the mass-market popularity list ever since, but they’re really not my style. I’ll still play fighting games casually — like the expected classic SF and MK titles, and I still love the Super Smash Bros. series — but I have zero interest in the fighting game tournament scene, and since I’m terrible at video games anyway, I rarely if ever partake in online matches. No need to get my ass kicked in seconds by someone halfway across the globe. It’s much better to lose in minutes to one of my friends sitting on the couch. Then at least I can exact revenge by farting or something.
That 7-Eleven is still there, but the video games are not. The arcade machines were removed sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s when the store was renovated. As with most arcade games and such, the only place you can find them now are specialty locations like Barcade. My brother and I make it a requirement to go there whenever we visit New York City, and I earned myself a solid ass-whuppin’ in Mortal Kombat II and X-Men: Children of the Atom. (I hadn’t played the latter since maybe 1993! At least I won a few matches using Wolverine.) But just like the 7-Eleven days of old, I was just having a blast playing these classic games, win or lose. All of the other patrons clearly felt the same way given the shouts and cheers that constantely erupted across the bar. SFII and its brethen still hold up very well, and hopefully these niche locations will stay in business so random visitors can discover them anew.
I’ll never own a house, but if I did…I would need one with a wizard’s tower.
They look a lot better in real life.
That’s obviously not the official name for this architectural feature, but whatever that may be, I like my name for it better. I must’ve come up with that moniker when I was a kid, and it’s stuck ever since. It’s simply a tower-like structure built into the corner of a house. For what it’s worth, the thing must be octagonal or cylindrical, not the rectangular ones sometimes seen on houses. That’s a church steeple!
I’ve lived in towns with a lot of older houses that had wizard’s towers; there’s a particularly awesome brick one right around the corner from my apartment now, and I’d kill for that place to be up for rent. (I’d provide a photo, but I refuse to stand outside some stranger’s house taking pictures. They’d probably think I was a creep and call the cops. Hence the crude sketch at the top of this post.)
So why would I require a wizard’s tower? Simple: that’s where I’d put my workshop. Not for building death rays or crafting shrinking potions or opening portals to the netherworld; nothing nearly that interesting, I’m afraid. My workshop is where I’d build model kits, draw crappy pictures, obsess over heavy metal, and other dumb shit.
A wizard’s tower certainly beats an extra bedroom or unused storage space. It’s arguably even better than a garage; the latter’s got the edge in space and cool factor, of course, but at the expensive of a large drafty door. In my wizard’s tower workshop, I’d be free to work on my nefarious plans without any care for frigid weather.
As long as I’m fantasizing, maybe I’ll just wish for a castle instead.
As the lean years began, my life wasn’t going so well. After living at home for maybe a month after graduating from college, I was feeling quite stressed and depressed. That’s when I found unexpected solace in a video game about robots.
That seems like no surprise, especially since the game in question was another Mega Man title, but something about this one stuck with me more than most. Mega Man X5 is neither a perfect nor particularly difficult game, and it’s not the best game in the series — that honor goes to either the first or fourth installment. But it’s easily my favorite part of the MMX saga for personal reasons. (Déja vu: it’s another Mega Man game with the number five in the title!)
Allow me to explain. As graduation rapidly approached during that autumn long ago, I was still looking for a job, and really starting to get nervous about it. My degree ceremony came and went, and still no employment. I moved back home, and soon settled into a sad routine, as I’ve mentioned in the past: my days back then consisted of job hunting, playing video games, and little else. I had few friends, and my funds dried up quickly.
Things went from bad to worse, as I was getting crap at home about finding work. Even though I spent hours every day searching through online job listings as well as want ads in the newspaper, I often got a vibe from my folks that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I tried explaining to them how online job listings worked, and that many companies were eschewing printed ads, but they didn’t seem to get it. Either that, or they just didn’t believe me. I did score a few small freelance gigs, but even those caused problems at home.
So you can see how my life wasn’t so hot, but at least I had a new Mega Man game to look forward to. I was broke, but I had already paid for MMX5 in full when I preordered the game before graduation. I had done this just in case I didn’t have a job lined up right away, which was unfortunately prescient. Anyway, I moped my way over to the mall and picked up the game on a snowy Friday night. (The game was officially released on Thursday, February 1, 2001, but I know I got it on Friday, for whatever reason. Maybe the shipment was late to my local store due to the winter weather?)
I fired up the PlayStation as soon as I got home, and MMX5 drew me right in. I ended up playing it for a good chunk of the night, and resumed later the next day after my usual job hunt. Despite this, I sadly recall that my folks saw me playing it and remarked again that I should be using that time looking for work instead. Bear in mind, I had spent all morning digging through the want ads, as per usual, and this was on the damned weekend. I couldn’t catch a break; is it any wonder I retreated to X’s world whenever possible? (Look, I don’t want to sound like I’m just bitching and moaning about my home life, but those issues were a big part of this time period, and thus relevant to this story.)
Enough of that depressing shit. Let’s move on to all of the cool stuff about MMX5 that I love.
The gameplay was largely the same as its predecessors. MMX5 didn’t really break any new ground, but what really stuck out to me was the great character design, music, and story. The MMX series has always had really cool boss designs, with plenty of details to make them look noticeably different from the other Mega Man series. Once the MMX games moved on to the PlayStation and Saturn architecture, Capcom wisely did not immediately switch the series into 3D like so many other games. Instead, they leveraged the systems’ impressive 2D capabilites to create even more detailed and fluid characters.
That’s been apparent since day one, but in MMX5‘s case, it’s the little stuff that brings even more life to the Mavericks, like the scar on Grizzly Slash’s face, Izzy Glow’s mustache, or Dark Dizzy’s monocle. (More on their weird names later.) Giant Mavericks like Duff McWhalen were loaded with detail and personality, and MMX5 also introduced a seemingly ridiculous concept like a Maverick based on a rose. But somehow, it worked out great; much better than previous oddities like Wire Sponge, for sure.
The soundtrack in MMX5 kept up the hard-charging synth-rock that the series was famous for, with the music for Izzy Glow’s stage as a particular standout piece. But let’s back up for a second: I knew I was really in for a treat when it came to the music during the game’s intro movie scene. Starting right off with a natural progression of Dr. Light’s theme, it launched into a high-energy piece that perfectly set the tone for the action-packed game that followed. Surprise, surprise: MMX5 is my preferred soundtrack from the X series. I even tracked down a CD copy and I remember listening to it a lot while I worked on freelance projects during that frigid winter and subsequent pollen-infested spring.
Last but not least, the story. Beyond the main “X versus Sigma” plot, which is expected, I enjoyed the larger world that MMX5 created. New characters like Dynamo and Alia were cool, but I more enjoyed the concept of the Sigma Virus affecting X and Zero in drastically different ways, leading up to a battle between the two heroes towards the end of the game. Sure, story’s hardly a big deal in a platformer, but I just loved this one. The game’s cliffhanger ending (with X) was actually supposed to close out the X series and lead into Mega Man Zero…but Capcom went forward with Mega Man X6 and the series’ storyline became more muddled as successive games came out. MMX5 also strongly implied the return of Dr. Wily in some form, but subsequent games dropped the ball and completely ignored these revelations for the remainder of the series. What a waste! Still, those great story hooks made the game far more interesting than the usual run-and-gun.
Even the more random stuff in MMX5 made me stupidly happy, especially the throwbacks to previous Mega Man titles. There was the remixed Bubble Crab stage music, the insidious force beams from Quick Man’s stage reappearing in Sigma’s fortress (which can be dealt with in a similar fashion, using the Dark Hold weapon), and the return of a Devil-series guardian.
I actually beat MMX5 the day after I bought it, but that didn’t stop me from playing it over and over again in the coming weeks and months. I hunted down every hidden item and secret, and played through the game in different orders with both X and Zero. I became absolutely obsessed with MMX5 in every detail. When the family TV was in use by someone else, or if I just wanted some peace and quiet, I often played MMX5 (and other PlayStation games) using Connectix Virtual Game Station on my ol’ Power Mac G3. The game ran incredibly well, and it was nice to relax in my room without interruption. This also came in handy when I started writing a FAQ for the game. (Yeah, I used to do that.)
My enjoyment of MMX5 went beyond the game itself, as I collected as much online media as I could find, as well as trying to nab some Japanese toys. I tried to find some of the model kits, as I had with a few previous X games; unfortunately, they were hard to find as well as expensive back then, and they’re even more so now. I did find a set of tiny figurines, though, so that was better than nothing. They adorned the top of my old computer monitor for many years.
Now they rest in a storage tub…until I get another display case, that is.
As I was home and spending a lot of time on the Web, I often discussed the game with fellow fans on message boards, and I noticed one thing above all else: other fans fucking hated that the English names for the Mavericks were altered to resemble the bandmembers of Guns N’ Roses. (That’s not a joke.) I didn’t mind so much; maybe it’s because I’m a GN’R fan, or maybe it’s because the new names didn’t change the Mavericks’ personalities or actions. If Axle the Red was belting out lyrics, then I’d be annoyed. Besides, if you really can’t stand the GN’R-esque names, you can use the original Japanese ones. Or, better yet, fan-translate ’em yourself in your headcanon: Spiral Pegasus, Tidal Whale, et cetera. (I did much the same thing with Mega Man X6, as that game didn’t even bother translating the Mavericks’ names into proper English at all. After later games had the same failing, I just gave up.)
Okay, I’ve been rambling long enough. Due to its fun factor as well as its critical importance in getting me through a rough patch in my life, Mega Man X5 is one of my favorite games of all time. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve played it. Time to fall in love with the game all over again!
The autumn is upon us, and that means an onslaught of “pumpkin spice”-flavored foodstuffs. (That’s in quotes because for most of them, there’s no real pumpkin or spice in there.) I love pumpkin pie and some pumpkin spice-flavored products myself. But even I think that this season’s gone far beyond the pale with this shit. We don’t need pumpkin spice everything, and that’s practically what fall has now become.
Pumpkins have been a seasonal staple since time immemorial, but the reason for their heavy injection into modern snacks and such can be traced back to Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, which remains vastly overrated. This beverage is so popular that the company maintains a Twitter account for it. For a fucking drink. That’s something so stupid my brain wants to pop like a flashbulb, and I refuse to link to such a thing here. Consider it proof that modern culture has gone helplessly insane.
Anyway, I’m not a fan of Starbucks in general — their overpriced “coffee” has the bold flavor of a dirt pile — but in the interest of fairness, I went out and purchased one of their famous lattes to see if anything had changed in the past decade.
I feel like I’m in enemy territory.
Nope. The “coffee” part still tastes like shit, but the real problem is that there’s little coffee taste to begin with. Any kind of flavored coffee is supposed to taste like coffee with a hint of [insert added flavor here], not the other way around. Starbucks’ latte is like hot pumpkin spice sugar water with coffee as an afterthought, plus a plasticky aftertaste. Granted, I’m not the beverage’s target market of twentysomething white girls, and many people who profess to liking coffee actually prefer heavy flavoring over the roasted bean brew. I may not drink my coffee black as night like a hardcore purist, but come on now: if the coffee part’s at a bare minimum, then the drink is as much coffee as Milk Duds are milk.
Let’s move on to some of the other nonsense that’s hit shelves this year. As I enjoy the normal version of the cereal, I tried Pumpkin Spice Frosted Mini-Wheats on a whim…and they tasted like a candle. In fact, a lot of these “pumpkin spice” items taste like the overpowering stench of a jar from Yankee Candle Company. As with the coffee example above, people are missing the fucking point. I’ve also seen pumpkin spice peanut butter, pumpkin spice margarine, pumpkin spice tortillas…come the fuck on. On the other end of the spectrum, many other snacks just don’t have much taste at all, like Pumpkin Spice Oreos. The added fake flavoring cancels out the entire thing, leaving us with a bland cookie indeed.
And here’s the kicker: if you’re truly addicted to pumpkin spice stuff, you can buy puréed pumpkin or pie filling and spices all year. Make the shit yourself whenever you want instead of paying too much for the next batch of artificial crap! Even my local coffeehouse serves their pumpkin pie latte year-round. And it tastes like coffee with a touch of pumpkin, the way it goddamned should.
Hot or iced, consider the mic dropped.
When it comes to contemporary culture, most people treat me like Doctor Noonien Singh: often wrong. Yet I dd not care. This pumpkin spice overload needs to stop. I put this crap in the same category as Christmas junk showing up in stores as early as September.