Monday, April 28, 2008

Operation: Military Kids

The weekend before last, Meaghan and I got off our duffs and decided to do a little volunteer work. A member of her English cohort had sent an e-mail awhile back asking for people to help out with an event downtown at the Minneapolis Convention Center. This event turned out to be providing an afternoon of daycare for a bunch of 5-10 year old kids while their parents in the Army National Guard attended a series of classes. It was thrown together by an organization called Operation: Military Kids.

I don't mean to come across as an advocate here (there are plenty of worthy organizations in the world worth our time and energy), but let me tell you a little bit about it. OMK is basically the Army's new support organization for kids whose parents have been (or are going to be) shipped into combat. It hosts events where these kids can meet and interact with other kids who are going through the same things that they are and provides counseling, etc. as needed from trained military personnel.

The day started out rough. We were told to arrive at 11:30 to meet with the other volunteers and prep our activities for the kids' arrival (who wouldn't be arriving until 12:30). Of course, our space cadet of an event coordinator and the other NJHS-aged volunteers didn't arrive until 12:30 as the first kids were starting to show up. I have no idea where they had been, but they arrived just in time to avert sure disaster. We scurried to learn the activities that we'd be doing that day and then a group of 15 kids was thrown at us.

From that point on, it was pure gold. We made sock puppets, played with moonwalks and other inflatable toys, made polka-dotted stress balls, and attempted to make our own homemade ice cream. The ice cream didn't turn out so well, some bags ruptured creating salty ice cream, and others didn't quite congeal correctly due to lack of ice, but everything else was a lot of fun.

The best part was the connections that we made with the kids: all sorts of lil' tykes held on to my hand as we walked down the hall, I taught a couple kids how to use an automatic hand dryer, and we made funny faces for minutes without end with some of them. At the end of the day, we attended "Military 101", an overview of their parents' jobs, the equipment they use, and the difficulty of deployment. When the speaker got to the part about how difficult it could be for soldiers to come back one little girl confided in me, "That's why my parents got divorced." I'm normally not one to get real sappy about things, but befriending those young boys and girls was very special to me. I was sorry when we had to leave at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, you couldn't say the same of all of the high school volunteers. Hopefully it didn't impact the kids' experience at all, but they were screwing around most of the afternoon instead of keeping an eye on their charges like they were supposed to. When all of the planned activities had run out and we were waiting for parents to retrieve their children, we stayed in the hallway with the kids as they drew pictures and built robots that drew pictures. Meanwhile, the high schoolers played fantastic games with themselves in a different room like throwing M&M's high in the air to each other and catching them in their mouths.

Oh well. The important thing is that Meaghan and I enjoyed it so much that we're probably going to do it again with a different batch of kids down in the Roch the weekend of May 17th.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

#94: The Empire Strikes Back

I started this back in February, but never finished it for some reason.

It's true. It's taken me over five months to watch the stinkin' Empire Strikes Back. It originally came out in 1980, but it's on the list because of the 1997 "Special Edition" theatrical re-releases. Out of the movies in the original Star Wars trilogy, this is the one that holds up the best after all these years. From the Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth to Jedi training with Yoda on the swamp world Dagobah to the final desperate conflict at Cloud City in Bespin, Empire hits all of the high points that you'll remember from the 10+ previous times you've watched it.

Older and wiser than the last time I watched these, it's interesting to go back again now that the sheen of nostalgia has begun to wear off. Looking at it now, the original movies really are pretty much the same as the newer trilogy with a couple important differences. While it's true that the acting is pretty poor from everybody in all six of the Star Wars films, the notable exception (especially in Empire) is the presence of Harrison Ford. He has most of the good lines and delivers them with a panache that's sorely lacking in the new movies. There's a reason that "I love you/I know" is a classic film moment.

The other big difference is how small these older movies feel when compared to their modern blockbuster brethren. Yes, both series are laden with special effects (especially when talking about the 1997 updates), but whereas the new movies rapidly hop around from planet to planet showcasing more and more outrageous settings, the original ones linger on each location with the attention that each of them deserve. Taking Empire as an example, the movie clocks in at over two hours, but the majority of it takes place in only three locations allowing the viewer to focus on the characters instead of the pretty backgrounds.

Yes, the movie has its faults (goodness knows that the Jedi training sequence in the middle drags on for far too long - I remember almost falling asleep a lot as a kid when we'd get to this part), but it is the best the Star Wars franchise has to offer. These re-releases make for a good change of pace amidst all of the other things that early 1997 has had to offer me so far.

Coming up next is another special release, #95: the director's cut of Schindler's List, made for its broadcast television debut in 1997. Despite being #6 on IMDB's list of the top 250 movies of all time, this is a movie that I've never seen. I'm looking forward to it.

P.S. Can you believe the Wookieepedia? Crazy what nerds will do with the power of the Internet.

I'm Going to Disney World!

Meaghan and I had saved up some vacation money over the last year or so with the intention of visiting central Europe some time later this year. She wants to go back to Prague (where she taught English for awhile in the midst of her college career) and I'd like to see Munich and all of the crazy castles in the Bavaria countryside. However, the rapidly tanking dollar has caused us to put our European aspirations on hold for a little while. Besides, what sort of Americans would we be if we took our Bush rebate check and spent it in a different country?

So we considered a few options stateside and eventually decided that for the first time as independent adults (Meaghan's been 3 times previous; I've been 6(?) times) we would go down to Walt Disney World in Florida this July. So after a week or two of planning, I'm happy to report that we've finalized all of our flight, lodging, and dining plans. We've also put together a rough itinerary for the length of our visit. For those of you who've never been to WDW before, it's the kind of place that you can really waste a lot of time if you don't plan your trip out before you go. There are so many places to go, things to see, and other people to avoid that it can be overwhelming.

We decided to do it right, so we don't feel like we have to go back for awhile. We'll be down there from the 16th through the 26th and we'll take our digital camera with us, so I swear some pictures will appear here this time. We're staying at the All-Star Music (one of the gaudy, cheap resorts), but as long as our room is far away from these puppies (yes, those are ginormous cowboy boots) I'll be all right.

More details to come in July...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Night Trap!

A couple of weeks ago I discovered the joy of the old Usenet archives in Google Groups. This may not seem cool to you, but to a video game historian like me having the entire hierarchy dating back to 1987 is a pretty nice thing. Now I can search on a particular title to see what people thought about it when it first came out as opposed to reading modern-day reviews of old games that are jaded by advancements in technology.

When I initially stumbled on this treasure trove, I tried to see how far back it went and looked at the first few posts in They were from late 1993, just as the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO were poised to take over the world (they didn't - that role would be played by Sony's PlayStation) and Doom was about to be unleashed on PC users everywhere. Also happening at this time and being discussed were the Senate hearings on video game violence that eventually resulted in the creation of the ESRB.

A lot of people remember that games like the Mortal Kombat series and Doom had a lot to do with this debate (Fatality!), but few remember the impact that the advent of full motion video games had on the discussion. The thought was that when violence and horror was depicted by real living, breathing actors (albeit not very good ones) it would leave an even greater impression on the minds of helpless little children. We'll ignore the fact that most of these FMV games were so cheesy and bad that no one took them very seriously. (Note: If you happen to be looking for good FMV games, I highly recommend Gabriel Knight 2, the 7th Guest, and Wing Commander 3 & 4)

Enter Night Trap... the #1 scapegoat at the Senate hearings of 1992/1993. Released for the Sega CD in 1992, the game's footage was actually shot back in 1987 for use with Hasbro's Control-Vision. Never heard of the Control-Vision? Well, that's because it never came out. Apparently the world just wasn't ready for a multi-track VHS-based video game system.

Starring Dana Plato of Diff'rent Strokes fame, in Night Trap you had to help five coeds on a weekend getaway escape the clutches of an army of augers (comical half-vampires armed with a long-handled drill/hook thingy) and an evil vampire family. To perform this task, you were supposed to rapidly switch between eight different security cameras in the beach house and trigger various trap doors throughout the house. If you failed to save any of the girls, you were treated to a grisly scene of horror in which the girl was hooked, drilled, and yanked offscreen before losing your game. The most graphic and obscene of these being the infamous nightgown scene:

If you're still with me after all that horror, hopefully you're laughing right about now. I know that our standards of decency have lapsed a bit since the early 90s, but seriously? This is what the Senate got all up in arms about? My sense of decency is more offended by cheesy scenes like this one:

The hullabaloo was bad enough that the game was ultimately pulled from shelves in major stores like Toys R Us and recalled by Sega. It didn't help matters that apparently our well-informed congressmen thought the goal of the game was to help capture and rape the girls in the game, the exact opposite of the real goal. In fact, if you're playing the game the way it was meant to be played you'll hardly have time to watch any of the fantastic B-movie footage.

In the end, it's a good thing that the ESRB was founded to provide game ratings. Without it, a lot of the neat ideas that have flourished under the protection of a Mature rating might not have seen the light of day. Now all we need is for all you parents out there to actually pay attention to them.


If you want to see more Night Trap, I can help.

Watch a short documentary about the Senate hearings and scandal, complete with hilarious Senate floor footage.

Watch all of the footage from the game, cut into movie form. I guarantee it won't be the worst 45 minutes you ever spend. If you can't handle YouTube quality, you can watch a slightly better version at FMV World.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Sky is Falling...

To say it's been a rough couple of weeks in sports land for me would be an understatement. Not only have my Detroit Tigers made for horrible dishwashing companionship so far in this young season (that's 0-5 so far for those of you keeping score), but the dreaded "Doomsday Scenario" (all four #1 seeds making the Final Four) struck the NCAA basketball tournament this year.

Yawn. Wake me up when something interesting happens for a change.