Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Police!

It’s the Freddy Krueger movie that never got made … primarily, because it would've sucked big time

Among hardcore “Elm Street” fans, the series’ sixth entry, “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare,” isn’t necessarily held in the highest esteem. Most fans I’ve talked to rank it in the series’ bottom three, with quite a few mentioning it as their least favorite of the films. Personally, I thought it was pretty disappointing, but to be fair, I thought the series had been on a downward trajectory since part 4, anyway.

By 1991, it was clear that Mr. Krueger was no longer the box office draw New Line Cinema so direly wanted him to be. After the bitter critical and financial failure of part 5 (which I think is actually the most underrated film in the entire series), Bob Shaye and pals decided to finally yank the plug on the once-mighty franchise. Of course, before “Freddy’s Dead” got green lit, multiple proposals for a sixth “Elm Street” film were submitted, including one inked by none other than Peter freaking Jackson.

Rachel Talalay, a long-time “Elm Street” producer and the eventual director of “Freddy’s Dead,” originally turned in a script for a hypothetical “Elm Street 6” which was WAY different from what was ultimately filmed. Co-written by Michael Almereyda, the screenplay hardly resembled “Freddy’s Dead” at all, tied directly into the end of “The Dream Child” and even had a VERY strong link to “The Dream Warriors” and “The Dream Master” -- alas, had the script actually got the cinematic treatment, there’s no denying it would’ve ended up the Freddy clusterfuck to end all Freddy clusterfucks. Believe you me, “The Dream Police” (not the script’s official title, but more than likely what would have been its subheading) made “Freddy’s Dead” seem as staid as early ‘50s Italian neorealism.

The script begins with Jacob -- the son of Alice from the last two films, and now a teenager himself -- on a plane. He complains about a whirring engine sound, and an old man and a flight attendant tell him it’s nothing to worry about (indeed, this scene very closely resembles the opening of “Freddy’s Dead.) Of course, the plane then gets sawed in half by a RED AND GREEN jet, with the stewardess and old geezer getting splattered in the collision.

Still in his chair, Jacob falls out of the wreckage. Showered with corpse chunks, a couple of grinning (and living) children start floating beside him, who slowly dissolve away into skeletons…who then proceed to attack him with scissors, before cutting him out of his parachute-like seat.

He crashes through the roof of a house. He wakes up in his bed, and says hi to his mom. He opens his bedroom window, and sure enough, the skeleton cherubs are back, indicating he’s still not awake yet. The house than starts plummeting again, and it eventually slams into a neighborhood, where a nondescript darkness emerges from the crater left by the falling home.

Jacob runs for dear life, as the black funk washes over an old lady and her dog, transforming them into mutant beings that, apparently, couldn’t care less about being turned into mutants.

Eventually, he runs to the city limits, where he encounters Freddy…who literally sucks the entire town into his stomach! Freddy reaches into his gut and yanks out Alice, whom he slices up in front of her own child. Right before Jacob can strike back, three android-like beings -- one described as bulky, another as feminine and one with an exposed mouth -- come rushing to his aid, with one of the Power Ranger-like characters screaming at Jacob to “Wake up!”

And so, Jacob wakes up in the middle of freaking nowhere, holding a bracelet with the name “Alice” etched on it.

So, he wanders around town, until he encounters a bunch of townsfolk protesting a halfway home. There, Jacob meets Karen, a 16-year-old, and she invites him inside. There, he meets the operators of the foster home, Mr. and Mrs. Ross.

Then, we’re introduced to the rest of the cannon fodder … I mean, central characters … Gina, Wesley and Scott. Scott’s is apparently a major league asshole, we deduce from the get-go. All of them live within the foster home, and all of them experienced horrific abuses as little kids.

While working at a lumber yard, Jacob starts having visions of the same mutant neighborhood from earlier. Later, Jacob has a nightmare Freddy buries him alive in roaches, and he wakes up holding a giant bug. Of course, it’s all a dream, and everybody looks at him funny because he’s thrashing all over the place. Jacob tries to tell the other kids who Freddy is, but they don’t believe him. Later, Jacob has another daymare, in which a mutant bush sprouts arms and legs, turns into his mama, and gets killed by Freddy all over again because, man, is Freddy such a dick.

Jacob has a seizure, and he’s wheeled off in an ambulance. Of course, he has a Freddy dream while in the ambulance, which results in our heroic Dream Police making the save once more. Eventually, Freddy spins out of his red and green sweater into stereotypical convict regalia, simply for the sake of making a stupid jailbreak pun.

So, these Dream Police people. One is called Sound Cop, the other Blade Cop and the other Power Cop. They attack Freddy using precisely the things their name implies. And if you haven’t deduced just who the fuck these people are supposed to be, clearly, you need to catch “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” ASAP.

Meanwhile, back at the halfway house, Freddy decides to kill Wesley by literally turning him into a cigarette and smoking him to death. You see, its because his dad used to burn him with cigarettes and shit. So, Jacob returns, and all of a sudden, all the foster kids kinda’ start taking his chatter about Fred K a bit more serious now.

Karen tells Jacob about how her dad killed himself after breaking her mama’s neck, and then Jacob tells her about the special dream powers he inherited from his mom, and he takes her to a magical dream forest to prove it. Then, Karen takes a detour into a Freddy portal, where Freddy beats the crap out of her mom -- who is literally in punching bag form. The Dream Police make the save again, this time by battling a gigantic Freddy (now in punching bag form himself) to the death.

Gina becomes Freddy’s next prey. He sucks her into an elevator filled with zombies, finally dropping her off in a scummy motel room in hooker apparel with a morbidly obese john. Jacob and the Dream Police momentarily stall Freddy, but he winds up kidnapping Gina anyway. He kills her by choking the life out of her with his Stretch Armstrong hands.

Mr. Silverman from Protective Services shows up after Gina dies, and takes all of the foster children away to a youth detention center. Using his dream powers, Jacob takes Scott and Karen into the mutant dream world -- which from the script’s description, would probably have garnered a copyright infringement suit from Tim Burton -- and the Dream Police show up to help track down Freddy. Scott wanders off into a mutant tavern, where Freddy agrees to give him Karen, the longtime object of his affection, in exchange for royally fucking up Jacob’s shit.

Freddy guts Scott for his efforts, and the Dream Police engage him in a live-action Tom and Jerry bar room brawl, with Blade Cop and Freddy literally liquefying each other in a sword fight. Freddy’s down, but not out, the Dream Police tell us -- they only way Freddy can be killed for good, they tell Jacob, is if he does in Mr. Krueger himself.

Karen decides to take the initiative and explores the old Krueger house by her lonesome. Rummaging through Freddy’s childhood bedroom, she finds something very interesting … a bunch of old papers with the name “Freddy Underwood” scrawled on them. Then she finds a photo of a very, very young Freddy with some mysterious older man. Hey, what do you know, Freddy was a foster care kid all along!

Blade Cop shows up, and … SWERVE! She’s actually Freddy, and she stabs Jacob to death. Freddy then proceeds to threaten Karen with RAPE, even going as far as to transform into her father before he gets going. Thankfully (and without any real explanation), Karen’s real mom just shows up out of nowhere and has a kung-fu fight with Freddy in her husband’s form. This allows Karen some time to flee, but eventually, Freddy pursues her again.

Ingeniously,  Karen decides to best Freddy at his own mind-fuck game by transforming herself into his hitherto unmentioned STEPFATHER and beating the living hell out of him. With the Dream Police cheering her own, she frees all of the souls he’s eaten, pummeling him until he’s nothing but a pile of black goop on the carpet.

Blade Cop said it took someone knowing Freddy’s “nightmare” to finally vanquish him. Jacob joins the Dream Police is an honorary fourth member, and Karen awakes in a beautiful, non-mutant-hellscape version of Springwood, holding a bracelet with Jake’s name on it.

And … fin.

Needless to say, that script was something else all right. And by “something else,” I meant “an absolute goddamn train wreck,” and I for one am glad it never got realized.

As goofy as “Freddy’s Dead” was, it at least tried to keep things within the horror genre. “The Dream Police” was just an outright cornball parody, really closer to “The Mask” than “The Silence of the Lambs.” Yeah, it was cool bringing back the Dream Warriors and all, but to turn them into miniature Robocops was just … well, yeah. Also, the kills in this one were just ridiculous, and the whole “Freddy was a victim, too!” subplot just wasn’t working for me.

There were some decent ideas in there, but there’s no way that muddle of a screenplay could’ve translated into anything other than sheer shit onscreen. I don’t think it would have been as bad as the 2010 remake, but it definitely would’ve been a big, fat, Ray Rice-sized black eye for the series as a whole.

Still, there may be even weirder “Elm Street” scripts out there. Did you know there was one “Freddy vs. Jason” treatment floating around where Jason gets put on trial for 2,000 counts of murder and its revealed that Freddy tried to drown him way back when and the two end up battling each other to death in a shopping mall before getting turned into two-headed freaks and killed, “Bride of Frankenstein” collapsing roof style?

Holy shit, I would have paid good money to have seen that one. Good money, indeed

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Drive-Invasion 2014!!

It's a kinder, gentler Drive-Invasion, with new ownership, a new attitude and an all new venue. But with so many changes, is the revered summer ritual still something to look forward to?

Labor Day weekend is arguably the busiest weekend in Atlanta: you've got SEC football at the Georgia Dome, NASCAR racing down south, a couple of book festivals and of course, that mecca for all things nerd (and for a time at least, a funding mechanism for a convicted pedophile), Dragon*Con.

The big overlooked ritual, of course, is Drive-Invasion, an Atlanta ritual now in its 15th year. Originally started in 1999 at the iconic Starlight Six Drive-In, the celebration of all things white trash (mostly, B-movies, muscle cars, psychedelic hillbilly music, cheap beer and cheaper women) has been one of my favorite autumnal rites since I started attending a few years back -- for a recap of what you missed lately, here's the IIIA rundown of the 2012 and 2013 hootenannies.

Alas, some mighty big changes have gone down recently. For one thing, the ownership group of the Starlight Six recently changed hands, and since they opted to go all digital projection, it was immediately apparent that 35mm prints of old films could no longer be shown there. Also, they implemented some downright Stalin-eqsue policy reforms (no more tofu dogs, a prohibition on cooking out, keeping the gates closed until damn near before the films start playing, etc.) and may or may not have purged the operation of every single minority employee. Very early on in 2014, the viability of Drive-Invasion looked incredibly faint.

Enter James Bickert, an independent Atlanta filmmaker who makes the kind of movies that are usually offered for free on YouTube. Ever the entrepreneur, he decided to turn the Drive-Invasion operation into a genuine LLC. His first move? Taking the annual event out of Starlight and moving it to a rather unexpected venue...

The Home of the Braves ... for a few more years, at least.

...the Atlanta Braves parking lot. The green lot, to be a bit more precise -- it's basically the skeletal remains of what was Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, and its big claim to fame is that it has a big tribute marker smackdab in the middle of it celebrating Hank Aaron's historic #715 homer. It's an unorthodox selection for a site, to be sure, but it kinda' makes sense ... after all, I strongly prefer watching movies outside, with the sneaking suspicion that Wayne Williams is lurking in the bushes adjacent to my car.

Back when the only performance enhancers baseball players needed were nicotine, cocaine and Clermont Lounge employees. 

With the venue change, a couple of other alterations followed. For one, the traditional date of the celebration -- Labor Day weekend -- was bumped up a week, presumably to give Atlanta-area hipsters an opportunity to traipse around the Marriott dressed up like cartoon characters AND enjoy some good-old fashioned shitty movies within the same seven-day period. And believe it or not, the masterminds behind the newfangled Drive-Invasion appeared to have tried to turn it into a family-friendly event, complete with an all-new kids' zone, appearances by the Falcons and Braves' mascots and totally age-inappropriate coloring book offerings.

If you drew on some aerolas, they gave you extra candy!

A lot of stuff was promised on the official Drive-Invasion 2014 brochure, but I didn't see much of the stuff that was advertised. Granted, I did get there a little late, but I must say I was disappointed plenty by both food truck alley (there was one there, and a table handing out coffee when it was 80 degrees out) or the musical tents -- which, basically, were just yard sale tents the bands could barely fit underneath. And with such star-studded acts as Roky Ericsson, Black Lips and Man or Astro-Man? over the last few years, I was REALLY down in the dumps about this year's big musical guest -- some local band called the Biters, who I must say more than lived up to their namesake.

Nothing attracts the ladies quite like saying you make sardonic Ric Flair wood art for a living. 

Equally disappointing were the arts vendors, who even by Drive-Invasion standards, looked plum pitiful. And where the hell where all of the tofu dog grillers and black bean burger stands? Keep in mind, there was no concession lobby around like in years past -- which means in addition to not being able to grab extra popcorn or Mr. Pibb whenever you wanted, you HAD to make use of a port-a-potty. And as Music Midtown 2013 so clearly demonstrated ... such is not a place you EVER want to be inside the perimeter.

The estimated attendance for the event? About 200 or so people, and from the smell of it, just one of whom elected to sport underarm deodorant.

There was some stuff going on next to Turner Field that evening, but us Drive-Invasion people weren't allowed to investigate.  As for as the special kids zone, I never saw anything of the like, and that much publicized Fangoria Magazine table? It must've been invisible.

Look at all that activity, ya'll!

But there was some good. For one, the sole food truck on the premises was pretty freaking great, additionally providing my new all-time favorite name for ANY kind of business -- "The Blaxican."

Imagine: a world where instead of shooting each other, the Trayvon Martins and George Zimmermans of the world instead swapped recipes

In case you couldn't have surmised as much by the namesake, the food truck specializes in fusion Tex-Mex/soul food. As much as I wanted to try the collard green quesadillas, I ended up opting for the blackened fish burrito, which as fate would have it, was mighty goddamn delicious.

Es muy bueno, Holmes!

With grilled tilipia, coleslaw and a nice wasabe sauce, this wasn't just an outstanding dinner, it was basically the best thing about the entire evening.

A nice almost-autumnal breeze picked up around 7:30 p.m. With films beginning at about 9 p.m., me and my other of significance decided to trek back to my car to nom and discuss how horrible my date ideas are.

Which brings us to the second biggest problem of the event -- the screen.

The best seat in the house, for sure!

Odds are, you've seen one of those inflatable jumbo screens before. Well, that's the kind of projection that was used at Drive-Invasion this year, which for what its worth, isn't too bad. That is, unless your car is parked more than 300 feet away from it, at which point it becomes downright unviewable.

And that, I am afraid, brings us to the absolute back-breaker for the entire evening -- the parking lot itself.

You see, drive-ins work because the lots are raised, allowing cars to park in front of each other WITHOUT obstructing the view. The Turner Field green lot, not surprisingly, wasn't elevated for the affair, so if you were any further away from the third goddamn line of cars, you couldn't see anything. Me and my gal had to drive around the stupid lot for twenty minutes before the first movie, just trying to find some spot out on the periphery where the entire screen was visible. Of course, we could've have parked the car and taken our lawn chairs to a special viewing section in front of the screen, but it's called DRIVE-Invasion for a reason -- and also, I didn't want my auto getting broken into by some fat kid with a beard and an ironic Foreigner tee-shirt.

Of course, the big draw of Drive-Invasion are the movies, and this year ... well, let's just say they could have done a LOT better with their selections.

"The Horror of Party Beach" (1964)

"I agree with the detective. We should all continue just fucking standing here and shit being white for awhile." 

Forced to move my car because a fucking ambulance parked right in front of us, it quickly became apparent that, despite all of that bellyaching and moaning about the Starlight's digital projection booths, the films shown tonight WEREN'T being projected in 35 mm. To me, that was the final disappointment atop a mound of disappointments -- you mean to tell me some schmuck at the drive-in COULDN'T have connected a Macbook to one of those damn things and done the entire shindig there instead? 

Oh, the movie. Almost forgot. At first, I had no idea what the film was, and about five minutes in, I recalled it from an old MST3K episode. Despite the clambake theme, the atomic monsters and the black and white visuals, "The Horror of Party Beach" is a film that actually came out around the same time Vietnam was flaring up. It's also a remarkable piece of shit, and a horrible Drive-Invasion selection, even as an "ironic" gag. 

Before we get into the film's inherent badness, let's talk about logic. On a projection screen that's poorly backlit, do you think it's really the wisest thing in the world to pick a black and white movie for a screening? The maze of automobiles made watching the flick difficult enough, and now these motherfuckers wanted us to squint our way through an entire motion picture. 

Needless to say, this thing was very forgettable. Radioactive waste seeps into the ocean, and it mutates a bunch of skeletons into crappy "Creature from the Black Lagoon" monsters who feed on the super-stupid residents of a beach community. Pretty much every pre-"Night of the Living Dead" sucky horror movie trope you can think of is contained herein; you've got long stretches of exposition that are basically just guys in suits smoking and talking for five minute interstitials, completely gratuitous musical numbers (complete with one of the most out-of-place closing tunes in film history) and lots of casual racism to go around, as one of the characters, a house maid, might as well have been plucked out of "Gone with the Wind." 

Spinning newspaper montages? Check. 

Idiots who keep encroaching upon the monster-occupied community, for no discernible reason whatsoever? Check.

A really, really stupid way to kill the monsters? You're going to need a mighty big check mark fella' because after hitting the indestructible gill people with tanks, mortars and ten billion rounds of ammunition, it's ultimately revealed that they're deathly allergic to ... salt. 

Even as a larf, this one was rather unpleasant to sit through, and a much needed reminder that as fun as watching good b-movies are, having to watch awful b-movies is every bit the torture eggheads like Leonard Maltin say it is. 

"Jaws" (1975)

Looks like we're going to need a bigger screen, am I right?

"Jaws," as far as I am concerned, was the death nail of American cinema as an art form. That's not to say the film is necessarily bad, or that Stevie Spielberg planned for the thing to take off the way it did, but I still see it as the dagger through the heart of what was Hollywood's finest era. From hereon out, movie studios were going to turn away from sensitive, adult films like "The Godfather" and "The Exorcist" and focus on rather juvenile, popcorn movies instead. Had "Jaws" not proven successful, we more than likely wouldn't have gotten "Star Wars," and from there, who knows what kind of high-brow, intellectual mainstream movies we would have gotten instead? 

Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of this movie. Some people utterly adore it, and while I don't hate it, I think it is way, WAY overrated. 

For one thing, I don't think it's a very suspenseful movie. There's like, what, two or three actual kills in the entire movie, and all of them are filmed in waters so murky, you really can't tell what the hell's going on. Furthermore, I've always thought the acting was pretty corny, especially Richard Dreyfuss's irritating bullshit. And don't even get me started on the uncredited screenplay nod to one Herman Melville...

Call me crazy, but I've always preferred the sequels to this one. At least with parts 2, 3 and even "The Revenge," the script KNOWS its fucking stupid monster movie trash, and the director treats said cinematic refuse accordingly. Yeah, I know full well all the stuff about the malfunctioning mechanical shark, but this is just a mediocre creature feature through and through. Until my dying day, I will fight to the death to defend my conviction that "Piranha" and "Alligator" are vastly superior to this movie. 

But the music was good. I'll give 'em that, at least...

"The Mad Doctor of Blood Island" (1969)

Even the opening credits were filmed in Spaz-a-Vision!

I've never been a big fan of Filipino horror flicks (think, all of those "Fu Manchu" movies) and "The Mad Doctor of Blood Island" reminded me exactly why.

Screened at about midnight, the flick began with a ceremonial "oath of green blood," where you were supposed to drink a home-brewed elixir you could actually pick up at one of the vendor tables. I didn't try the vial of liquid green gunk myself, but per the mini-van filled with junior high schoolers beside me, that stuff was, and I quote, "fuckin' nasty."

As for the film itself, it's pretty stupid. There's this one guy who goes to a remote jungle, where he makes out with like fifty villagers while crappy looking plant monster people periodically pop up and the camera shakes like Michael J. Fox being electrocuted. You may think there's more to the movie, but you, my friend, would be wrong.

Rather than recap a rather uninteresting film, I'll just tell you about two things I saw in the parking lot during the screening; one was watching Professor Morte of the Atlanta Silver Scream Spookshow jump off a car with a dead battery (yes, he was in full zombie get up at the time), and the other was watching this one dude who was absolutely drunk as a skunk shambling his way across the parking lot for what seemed to be twenty uninterrupted minutes. Eventually, he just disappeared in the woodlands adjacent to the stadium. The sounds of a train whistle were heard shortly thereafter ... let us pray that Darwinism took effect from that point onward.

This is the way traditions die: not with a whimper, but with nobody in attendance being able to see the motherfucking screen

All in all? I have to say I was really, really unsatisfied with this year's event. The venue didn't have the same character as the Starlight, the films weren't in 35 mm, the crowd was pretty dispassionate, the music sucked, the food options were far too scarce, there were hardly ANY vendors of any variety onsite, the films themselves were sub-par, the screen was too small, you couldn't actually SEE the screen half the time and the the lack of a lobby really made basic necessities a hassle. And on top of that, there appeared to be a 37 percent increase in on-premise SCAD Skanks (TM) over last year's event. Trust me, there's only so many morbidly obese, tatted-up graphic design majors with neon pink hair in tight clothing you can gawk at before your eyeballs melt.

Of course, some mighty big changes COULD come about for next year's event, but they would have to be remarkably drastic. If you can't have it at the Starlight, then why not schedule next year's event at the Swan Drive-In in Blue Ridge? The small-town vibe would really make for some great atmosphere, and they have some really good goddamn ice cream nearby as well.

I really admire Mr. Bickert for at least attempting to salvage what has been one of my favorite annual Atlanta events, but if this is the best Drive-Invasion can muster going forward, we're probably better off not even having one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Cop Hating Generation

The REAL reason today’s youth utterly despise law enforcement officials

“It should come as no surprise that many police officers aren’t the brightest crayons in the box. After all, a smart enough person would eventually begin to question the enforcement of arbitrary and immoral laws that put innocent people in cages for victimless crimes.”

-- Matt Agorist, The Free Thought Project

“He sympathized not with the student revolutionaries, but the police. The real victims of society, Pasolini said, were not the students, the spoilt products of corrupt bourgeois culture, but the police, the sons of the proletariat, forced by a lack of educational opportunity and chronic unemployment to take the jobs nobody else wanted.”

-- David Ward, Foreword for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Manifesto for a New Theater

Ever since the apocalyptic racial hootenanny that was Ferguson, I seem to hear the term “police militarization” come up on a near daily basis.

Per my Facebook feed, there seems to be a mini armada of homicidal policemen out there, gleefully blasting away scores of minorities left and right with War on Terror weaponry. In fact, they’re probably right outside your doorstep now, tossing flash grenades into cribs and blowing away trailer park dwellers for brandishing Nintendo controllers.

Indeed, razor sharp criticism of police forces - seemingly, on the mere grounds that they exist -- appears to be a generational hobby of sorts for my peers. There’s at least two or three people I went to school with who seem to do nothing but post news stories and click bait about the po-po doing something murderous or civil liberty-eroding; if you didn’t know any better, you’d think we all lived in some sort of Joey Stalin police state utopia.

Amid all of this unabashed cop-hating (a pastime of sorts I would comfortably say is as vitriolic and rabid among a large throng of today’s kids as gypsy hating was to Deutsche children in the 1930s), I am reminded of the words of Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War.”

The great life lesson he had for all of us? “Empathize with your enemy.”

For a moment - just a teensy, little moment - imagine you’re the officer. You just pulled a car going 85 in a 55 off to the side of the road. It has out of state plates, with an expired tag. The windows are so tinted, there’s no way your flashlight can penetrate the darkness.

It’s 2 in the morning. A lone highway. Nobody on the road for miles.

You tap on the window. The driver doesn’t respond. You tap again.

Again, no response. You take a step back.

You think about what your spouse looks like, and the last time you hugged your child -- when the window finally rolls down, you know it very well could be accompanied by a bullet to the face.

Now, repeat this episode, over and over again, for 30 or 40 years. That, my friend, is the nightmarish life of the American police officer - a line of work where mortal danger is the status quo and public appreciation is virtually nonexistent. And on top of that, I hear the dental plans are pretty crummy, too.

Are there bad cops out there? Sure, the same way there are bad nurses, bad MBAs and bad computer programmers, too. The argument I’m not going to buy, however, is this pervasive idea (ideal?) that police officers, inherently, are some sort of power-hungry, egomaniac storm troopers for Big Brother.

My two best friends in high school wound up becoming cops. Neither of them are racist, murderous, egotistical psychopaths. In fact, they’re both dedicated family men, with health care packages and benefits plans that are ten times lousier than those of college professors.

They’ve never gunned down any black teenagers. In fact, they’ve never even had to pull out their pistols while on their job.

So, uh, how exactly are these guys jack booted thugs and paramilitary aggressors again, when the most physical they've ever gotten with civilians is asking for a photo ID at a DUI checkpoint? Call me crazy, but I’m not sure I would consider receiving a $100 “failure to dim lights” ticket an act of state tyranny on par with having your testicles crushed by KGB agents because you looked at a statue funny.

Of course, a lot of people in the U.S. are indeed fatally wounded and occasionally choked to death by police officers. As to just how many, however, we really don't know.

Although US police forces are kinda’ required by law to submit information on justifiable homicides to the feds, only a small smattering of agencies actually send in their paperwork every year. For 2012, the (presumably) incomplete data showed approximately 400 police-involved fatalities (much, MUCH more on these numbers in just a bit.)

Interestingly enough, a Wikipedia listing of 2014 cop-involved homicides runs up about 200 or so deaths through August -- indicating either a sizable overcount of actual police-involved deaths or an astonishing downturn from two years prior.

Looking at the Wikipedia tally, it seemed as if a clear majority of the year’s cop-involved fatalities were unmistakable examples of justifiable homicides -- meaning, the perpetrators acted aggressively towards the officers first.

Strangely enough, when explaining the alleged “explosion” of police-involved fatalities in the US, very few seem to bring up the likeliest explanation for any incident of the sort; that being, the “suicide by cop” phenomenon. While data on the number of victim-precipitated police deaths that actually occur are very hard to come by, at least one scholarly analysis estimated as many as half of all police-involved deaths are the result of individuals goading police into lethal force as a means of ending their own lives.

Yes, snafus do indeed happen with the police, and they are sometimes tragic and infuriating. But even with higher end estimates for police-involved deaths reaching into the 400s, the statistics still shine favorably on the police compared to other demographics. For one thing, the OJJDP says you’re nearly twice as likely to be killed by an individual under the age of 17 than you are an armed police officer.

And the odds of being killed by one of your own family members? It's four times likelier than getting killed by a cop.

Even when the cops appear to be responsible for incredible downturns in street violence, they get chided for it. Last year, Chicago posted its lowest homicide rate in nearly 50 years -- thanks in no small part to the “Operation Impact” initiative, which had police officers working around the clock to bring peace to the city’s 20 or so least stable neighborhoods. What any sane human being would call a successful police action, you’d be gobsmacked by the numbers who, without detecting the slightest twinge of irony, considered such to constitute “racial profiling.”

As for the whole “police militarization” debate, I’ll let you do your own research on the 1992 L.A. riots. You know, the same riots that resulted in two Sandy Hooks worth of corpses. If a SWAT tank and a couple of tactical weapons will keep me from having my genitals spray-painted and doused in kerosene by a bloodthirsty mob, I say give the local sheriff a sniper rifle and pronto. Ironically enough, the incinerated QuikTrip in Ferguson more or less spells out the practical need for so-called “militarized” police units in big, red, white and black letters.

Which, of course, brings us to the racial element to the debate. According to USA Today, which is only slightly more respectable than those tabloids about Bat Boy, roughly 92 black people a year are killed by police officers. It’s a daunting number, indeed, until you take in two auxiliary statistics.

For one, nearly twice as many white people in the US are killed by cops than African Americans. And the real clincher? The number of blacks killed by other blacks in 2012 was 5,251 -- meaning African Americans are FIFTY-SEVEN times likelier to get killed by their own than a police officer of any skin hue variation. With that little nugget of wisdom in mind, fretting about police killing black people, ultimately, is kind of like worrying about a hangnail when you have a brain tumor.

So, why do kids today loathe the police so much? Well, it’s obviously not because they’re a bunch of militarized, racist exterminator squads -- the alleged “oppressed," tragically, have proven their own superiority at killing themselves off. As for the whole civil libertarian argument against cops, I find it just a bit interesting that so much hatred is tossed towards cops -- who, within the judicial framework, have little to no power -- while the individuals who are most responsible for ACTUALLY putting people behind bars -- that being, attorneys and judges -- receive hardly any ill sentiments whatsoever. As far as the public service  bureaucracy goes, its hard to think of any kind of civil servants who are MORE disempowered within the justice system hierarchy than cops.

Deep down, I think some people just like having someone to hate. The cops are great targets, because you can always use that whole perceived “oppression” angle as a predicate for your own non-directional, slobbering fury. It’s not so much the actions of the police kids today hate, I believe, as it is the concept behind police, that the social system politely asks them to cede just the teensiest bit of personal privacy for upkeep of the society as a whole.

Police represent authority outside of one’s own sense of entitled autonomy. Considering the arrogance and self-centeredness of Gen Y as a whole, I reckon a widespread disdain of the lawman is all but a given.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

LIVE(ish) Play-By-Play from Week One's Raiders vs. Jets Game

12:25 PM EST -- Well, another NFL season is upon us, folks. Needless to say, there are quite a few storylines heading into the first week of play for my beloved Raiders, beginning with our NINTEENTH starting QB since 2003, Mr. Derek Carr, taking snaps on his very first pro game that matters.

12:26 PM EST -- Just to let you know, the neighbor’s Wi-Fi sucks, so I probably won’t be able to give you all the up-to-the-second stats like normal.

12:28 PM EST -- On the CBS pre-game, the morning crew is talking about today’s Raiders/Jets game. Derek Carr is the only rookie QB, they inform us, getting a start during week one.

12:30 PM EST -- Wow, this is the most week one coverage the Raiders have received on a pregame show since…forever, probably.

12:31 PM EST --  In terms of other offseason additions, I reckon the two biggest on offensive and defense, respectively, are Maurice Jones Drew (perhaps the only halfback in the league MORE injury prone than D-Mac) and Khalil Mack, who very well COULD be the next Ray Lewis. And that’s not just because he wears number 52 … and hopefully, not because he’ll kill somebody, either.

12:34 PM EST -- Of course, if that homicide victim’s name just so happens to rhyme with “Hatin’ Canning,” I probably wouldn’t mind too much.

12:35 PM EST -- Breaking news from elsewhere around the League: apparently, Cam Newton won’t be under center for the Panthers today. If you didn’t already have Carolina in your death pool for the week…

12:37 PM EST -- Aww man, I should probably address all the Raiders relocation rumors going on, no? Earlier in the week, the city of Oakland said they were willing to play ball to finance an $800 million new stadium in the East Bay -- considering Tommy Boy’s executive decision making track record, yeah, that means the team will probably be playing in San Antonio this time next year.

12:41 PM EST -- In a complete and total shocker, the bar maid here has no idea how to change the TV channel. You’d figure they would do at least a week of training beforehand.

12:42 PM EST -- The bar is a hybrid Falcons/Vikings joint. That’s some pretty good synergy, having one team that can’t run and another that can’t pass given equal representation.

12:43 PM EST -- Last year, the city passed a ban on indoor smoking. You know who never got the memo? Everybody here, apparently.

12:46 PM EST -- Oh god, heaven help us all if the TV gets stuck on the Titans/Chiefs game…

12:48 PM EST -- Since it’s opening day, there’s a pretty god mix of fans here. So far, I’d have to say the Bengals faithful are the most rear-end-ugly.

12:51 PM EST -- You know what the funniest thing about Frank Caliendo is? Nothing.

12:52 PM EST -- I’m pretty sure I am the youngest person here, by about ten years. Either the NFL market skews towards an older demographic, or holy shit, does watching this shit week in, week out put the wrinkles on you.

12:53 PM EST -- And we are LIVE at the Meadowlands, with our hosts Jam Nantz and Phil Simms. Derek Carr is on the sideline; the last time a rookie Raiders QB had this much hype behind him, it was Jamar…oh, god, no!

12:56 PM EST -- And thanks to a torrential Atlanta downpour, we just lost our feed. God. Damn. It.

01:01 PM EST -- Well, your guess is as good as mine as to what the hell’s happening right now. Anywhere in the world, actually.

01:03 PM EST -- There are umbrellas and small shrubs flying around everywhere outside. I’m not kidding. Cue incredibly tasteless joke about it being ironic that the Saints are in town this weekend, if you want.

01:07 PM EST -- The radio just kicked on, and started playing “Mmmbop.” And I now have the Wi-Fi password, bitches!

01:11 PM EST -- Apparently, it’s a 3 and 21 situation for the Jets at the Raiders 43 or so.

01:12  PM EST -- Jets kick a FG for an early 3-0 lead. And now, the Raiders take the field…presumably for the first time today.

01:13 PM EST -- And LOL, CANADIAN Football is playing on the Falcons screen now, for some bizarre reason.

01:14 PM EST -- The Raiders will begin on their own 20.

01:17 PM EST -- Folks, the Carr era is set to begin. Third and six. A yellow flag on the Jets makes it a third and one. Doesn’t look like Oakland converts.

01:20 PM EST -- King punts it away. Jets start at their own 30, and they run it for close to a first down. But there’s a flag on the Jets, so it’s coming back.

01:23 PM EST -- WOODSON WITH AN INTERCEPTION! The Raiders get it back around the Jets own 20!

01:25 PM EST -- Second and 2 for Oakland. And it looks like MJD got dropped for a loss.

01:26 PM EST -- The Raiders pick up a new set of downs on a short shuttle pass. On first down, MJD barrels forward for about five.

01:27 PM EST -- Carr playing small ball so far. With the run to short yardage pass game, it certainly feels like the old Gannon and Garner years.

01:28 PM EST -- TOUCHDOWN RAIDERS! Rod Streator with a 12-yard reception to put the Silver and Black up 7-3.

01:31 PM EST -- And the Jets will be starting their next possession WAY behind their own 15. Will the Raiders blitz like crazy?

01:34 PM EST -- Third down coming up. And they convert, unfortunately.

01:36 PM EST -- And a shaky Geno Smith gets sacked behind the line of scrimmage as the first quarter concludes.

01:40 PM EST -- Third and eight for the Jets, and ANOTHER penalty sets them back even further. A third and 13 now. And Smith scrambles for a new set of downs.

01:41 PM EST -- Oh goodness, this pass defense could use some improvement…

01:42 PM EST -- And the Jets are in the red zone.

01:43 PM EST -- Geno tries to rush it in for a TD and HE FUMBLES THE BALL. The Raiders with their second forced turnover of the game!

01:47 PM EST -- ANOTHER Jets penalty gives the Raiders a new set of downs.  And a short, surgical strike down the middle gives the Raiders another first.

01:49 PM EST -- Following the millionth Jets penalty of the afternoon, the D-MAC rushes for another Oakland first down.

01:52 PM EST -- Third and three. The pass is NEARLY picked off by a defender, but the gods appear to be shining on Oakland today. Out comes the punting unit. The Jets get possession at their own 20.

01:54 PM EST -- The Raiders have 78 total yards compared to the Jets' 148. The real story here, however, is the penalty ratio. The Jets have been flagged seven times for 50 yards, while the Raiders have committed absolutely ZERO. Talk about an M. Night twist!

01:56 PM EST -- Third down coming up for the Jets. And they are going to have to punt it away.

01:57 PM EST -- And the Raiders will be starting their next drive at about the Jets' 40.

01:59 PM EST -- About a third and four coming up. On the run, and Carr's got to chunk it away. Out comes King to punt. And the Jets start at their own 20.

02:03 PM EST -- And over in Pittsburgh, we have ourselves a rare "kicking a motherfucker right in the face" penalty...

02:05 PM EST -- Third down coming up for the Jets. And Smith runs for a new set of downs.

02:07 PM EST -- The Jets are close to red zone territory now. To be fair, Chris Johnson is having a pretty good day on the ground. 1:54 left in the first half. The Jets have 208 total yards, while the Raiders have just 79.

02:12 PM EST -- Jets on the Raiders' 10. Second and goal.And now a third down. Thirty-four seconds left in the second quarter.

02:16 PM EST -- TOUCHDOWN JETS. A Johnson reception makes it a 10-7 game.

02:20 PM EST -- And we head to halftime, with a three point game. Admittedly, I haven't been that impressed by either Oakland's offense or defense. At this point, the team's lack of penalties and the Jets beating the shit out of themselves has kept the Raiders in the ballgame. But, yeah, the O-line is much improved, I suppose.

02:26 PM EST -- The big shocker of the day thus far? The Jacksonville Jaguars are currently blanking the highly touted Philadelphia Eagles, 17-goose egg.

02:27 PM EST -- The Raiders get the ball to begin the second half. Here's hoping for a third quarter offensive surge...

02:29 PM EST -- You know what kind of people share a passion for both NFL football and women's tennis? No kind of people, that's who.

02:33 PM EST -- And the Raiders will begin at the Jets' 40.

02:34 PM EST -- And MJD just attempted a field goal kick on second down for a 21-yard loss. And then the Raiders get hit with a delay of game penalty. F-M-L.

02:35 PM EST -- Second and 26. Now, it's three and 25. An absolutely pitiful three and out for the Raiders. The Jets will begin at their own 20.

02:38 PM EST -- Johnson is just chewing up the Raiders defense today. And the Jets are already at mid-field. And the Raiders are FINALLY able to drop #21 behind the line for a loss. And Justin Tuck is injured. Freaking great.

02:43 PM EST -- Third and 11 coming up. Oakland really needs a stop here. But that's cool, Woodson just got a holding call, so they get a fresh set of downs.

02:44 PM EST -- Well, Khalil Mack hasn't done shit today. Johnson gets smashed for a loss, so its third and seven for New York. And a Jets pass interference call negates what would have been a huge pick up! Third and seventeen now. Looks like the Jets are going to have to punt.

02:46 PM EST -- Hey, Mr. Carr? Now is probably a good time to, you know, start doing shit and stuff. Raiders begin around their own 15.

02:49 PM EST -- Third down coming up. And Carr gets sacked. The Jets will begin at damn near midfield.

02:52 PM EST -- You know, for the longest time, I thought the big problem with the Raiders was their QB situation. As it turns out, maybe the reason why the Raiders have sucked all these years is, you know, simply the face that they're the Raiders.

02:56 PM EST -- And the Jets get flagged for a face mask. Really, the Jets miscues have been the only thing keeping Oakland in this game. Smith scrambles to make it a 2 and 13.

02:59 PM EST -- Third and four, with the Jets eyeing the Raiders' end zone. And Smith gets sacked. A field goal makes this one 13-7, New York.

03:03 PM EST -- MJD has ZERO yards today. So of course, he would just turn around and break off a 10 yard reception.

03:05 PM EST -- About third and six coming up. The blitz is on, so Carr has to chunk it away. King punts. Jets begin at their own 30.

03:07 PM EST -- The Jets have over 300 total yards. The Raiders have about 70. End of the third.

03:11 PM EST -- Looks like about a third and five for the Jets. And the Raiders' D makes a much, much needed stop. The question now is, can Carr do anything once the ball is in his hands?

03:12 PM EST -- And Oakland begins on their own five. And three and 10 approaching.

03:13 PM EST -- And Carr has ANOTHER delay of game penalty. The Raiders have done literally NOTHING for the last half hour of this game.

03:16 PM EST -- And the Jets take control of the ball at their own 45. The Raiders have just 11 rushing yards on the day.

03:17 PM EST -- Oakland actually has NEGATIVE TWO YARDS the entire second half thus far.

03:19 PM EST -- 2008 Detroit Lions ... you might just have some company.

03:20 PM EST -- Third and three for the Jets. Chris Johnson has more yards than the entire Raiders team. But at least the D comes up for a pivotal stop.

03:21 PM EST -- Less than 10 minutes left in the game. The Raiders need a touchdown in the worst possible way.

03:23 PM EST -- And another third and 10 situation for the Raiders. I've seen more of Marquette King's ass today than my own girlfriend's.

03:26 PM EST -- Jets will begin at about their own 30.

03:27 PM EST -- You know what fall tastes like? Watery Mr. Pibb and disappointment.

03:29 PM EST --

03:30 PM EST -- A 70-yard touchdown gives the Jets a 19-7 advantage. Shit, at least Jamarcus Russell could fucking run a little...

03:33 PM EST -- Eight minutes left in the fourth. The Raiders will begin at their own 20. Third and fourth coming up. 

03:34 PM EST -- And a false start call negates what has been the Raiders first first down since the late 1970s. And a roughing the passer call gives the Raiders a new set of downs.

03:37 PM EST -- And a holding call gives the Raiders another set of downs. Less than seven minutes left in the game. Oakland is now at midfield.

03:39 PM EST -- Carr eats dirt. we still have Matt McGloin on the roster?

03:41 PM EST --And Oakland goes for it on 4th and 14. And they get a false start for their efforts. Here comes Marquette. 

03:43 PM EST -- Well, this team looks like utter fucking garbage. I think this may be a new franchise record for just how early I abandoned hope for the entire season. 

03:45 PM EST -- Well, the Raiders get a pointless stop on third and one, at least. 

03:46 PM EST -- Closing in on the two minute warning. The Raiders need two touchdowns. This shit will not happen in infinity years.

03:47 PM EST -- One minute, 57 seconds left. The Raiders are playing for nothing more than pride at this point. The most miserable, pathetic, saddest kind of pride that there is. 

03:49 PM EST -- Schaub on the sideline. Well, we sure as hell don't have a QB controversy or anything heading into week two. 

03:53 PM EST -- And the Raiders with pretty much a meaningless touchdown. But yeah, that one handed catch by Jacoby Jones was pretty sweet. And it's under review. Well, the 30-yard strike stands -- that might mean something to you if Carr's on your fantasy team, I suppose.

05:30 PM EST -- And my laptop decides to go dead with two minutes left in the game, which is actually a rather fitting homage to how the Raiders played today. Janikowski went for (and failed) on an onside kick, the Jets ran out the clock, and that's our ballgame. Oh well, at least catching the tail end of the Falcons/Saints game was fun. Is that what professional football looks like? 'Cause we sure as hell ain't going to be seeing that in Oakland anytime soon. 

05:32 PM EST -- Our final score from New Jersey? Jets, 19, Raiders 14. I hate football...with a passion. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Five Awesome Famicom Horror Games...

...that, for some tragic reason, never made it to the U.S.

There were a ton of horror themed games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and pretty much all of them not called "Castlevania," "Ghosts 'n' Goblins" or "Monster Party" sucked. Of course, there are quite a few guilty pleasures to be found on the NES, but for the most part, the console's "horror" selections were a lot more "horrible" than "horrific" -- as anyone who has ever played "Dr. Chaos" or "Beetlejuice" can surely attest to.

Interestingly enough, the genre offerings on the Famicom were FAR superior to the games we got over here in the States. This probably has something to do with Nintendo's import policies, which effectively kept most Japanese games with high violence and sexual content from making its way across the Pacific. And it's a damned shame, too, because some of the Famicom-only horror games were not only outstanding genre titles, but actually some of the best NES games to never make it to the United States.

With Halloween nigh approaching, I figured it was worth our time to highlight five terrific monster, demon and blood-soaked 8-bit frightfests from the Land of the Rising Sun which, in a just world, would've have likewise haunted all of our NES consoles back in the late '80s and early '90s...

Akumajou Special Boku Dracula-Kun

You've really got to wonder how this one never made it stateside -- how could a chibi-style "Castelvania" platformer starring Dracula himself not get the localization treatment?

Released in Japan in 1990, the game is something of a self-mocking homage to the "Castelvania" series by Konami themselves -- think, sort of what the did to the "Gradius" series with the "Parodius" games here. Whereas the "Castlevania" games on the NES where renowned for their steep difficulty level, this game is somewhat surprisingly easy, although a few of the later boss showdowns can get rather frustrating.

Visually and mechanically, the game is very similar to two other Konami games from the timeframe -- "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Monster in My Pocket." While the title is a bit slow for the genre, the level layout is outstanding, and the numerous odes to the "Castelvania" games are executed rather cleverly. Thankfully, the game did make its way to America in at least one incarnation -- the 1993 Game Boy offering "Kid Dracula" is basically a shrunken down port of this sadly non-localized NES game.

Getsu Fuuma Den

Not only is this game a dream hybrid of so many different (and awesome) games like "Dragon Warrior," "Castlevania" and "Ninja Gaiden," there is also a metric TON of gameplay itself to be found within "Getsu Fuuma Den." While most platform games on the system could be conquered in less than an hour, this is a title that's likely to take even seasoned genre fans seven or eight hours to complete -- if not longer.

Released in 1987, this Konami offering bears more than a passing resemblance to the first "Castlevania" game, although with levels that are much more linear. Like "Super Mario Bros. 3" and the latter "Adventure Island" games, the title uses an overworld map, which is without question the largest of any platformer to be found on the NES. For a game released this early in the console's lifespan, the sheer amount of content is pretty staggering.

You'll plow your way through scores of excellently designed dungeons, battling wave after wave of skeleton warriors, floating spirits and highly annoying severed heads, periodically taking detours to chat it up with villagers and upgrade your weapons. Like "Zelda," the game uses a tandem A-button, B-button/offensive weapon, defensive weapon setup, and it works very well. And probably the coolest thing about the game? Before each district's final boss battle, you have to navigate your way through a huge pseudo-3D catacomb, which in addition to being technically impressive, is also one of the spookier things you're likely to encounter in an 8-bit game. 

Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti 

If you thought a cutesy-version of "Castlevania" was weird, you haven't seen anything yet. Would you believe a kid-friendly offshoot of the hyper-gory "Splatterhouse" series made it to the Famicom -- and on top of that, would you believe it is one of the best platformers on a system glutted with outstanding hop-and-boppers?

Commandeering the cutest wittle Jason Voorhees doppelganger in history, it's your job to march across graveyards littered with kamikaze crucifixes to punch zombie monsters in half (some of which give you wrapped candies for bisecting their innards) on an epic, dismemberment-fueled quest to save your girlfriend from an evil floating pumpkin.

Whether you're fighting possessed roosters, dodging chainsaw attacks or karate chopping spider-monsters that pop out of the chest cavities of corpses, the game always looks bright and extremely well-animated. And in a complete divergence from the main "Splatterhouse" franchise, the game incorporates some truly novel platforming sequences. The level design is reason enough to give this one a try, and my goodness, what a great twist ending!

Sweet Home

Nintendo aficionados, take heed: not only is "Sweet Home" far and away the best RPG to never make it to the North American market, for my money its the absolute best role playing game released on the console, besting even 8-bit titans like "Dragon Warrior III" and "Final Fantasy."

Based on a fairly obscure Japanese horror film, this 1989 standout is a character driven RPG with some of the absolute best atmospherics to be found on either the Famicom or the NES. Using an ingenious team-based system, you're able to maneuver five characters -- all of whom have their own special functions -- at will across a massive, super creepy mansion. In my humble opinion, no video game before or since has really nailed the sheer B-horror ambiance of this one; more so than any game I can think of, this criminally underappreciated EIGHT BIT title from twenty five years ago makes you feel like you're really trapped inside a Reagan-era splatter flick.

Primarily due to its inspiration of the "Resident Evil" series, "Sweet Home" has become something of a cult favorite over the years. With far and away the spookiest plot of ANY NES game (spoiler: it involves LOTS of child murder), so many refreshing gameplay mechanics and the inclusion of multiple endings, this isn't just a game fit for the Samhain season -- indeed, this is one of the absolute best Famicom games EVER published.

Youkai Club

The graphics in "Youkai Club" may look a tad underwhelming, but everything else about the game is truly stellar. YEARS before the "Castlevania" series itself took the "Metroid" approach, this fairly obscure Famicom game pretty much gave us the first real "MetroidVania" game, featuring a HUGE vertical and horizontal game space, tons of kick-ass character up-grades and some truly awesome monster boss battles. Hell, I think this game actually outdoes the first "Castlevania" and "Metroid" titles at their respective games!

Released all the way back in 1987 by Jaleco (the same guys responsible for the NES version of "Maniac Mansion"), "Youkai Club" has you navigating your way up and down haunted castles, marching your way through creature-glutted swamps and spelunking through caverns filled with ghastly monsters and spirits. It may not win any awards for creativity, but the sheer fun of the game -- thanks in part to some great level design and some silky smooth controls -- is impossible to overlook.

Yeah, I suppose you could say the game is fairly repetitive at times, but through and through,it's a really entertaining little horror game. And on top of that, it has what may very well be the single greatest end boss in the history of video gaming: a a juggling jester who turns into a Cthulhu who spits Grim Reapers at you!

Monday, September 1, 2014

How to Make Vegetarian Meatloaf!

Believe it or not, it's possible to make a no-beef meatloaf that DOESN'T suck...

If you're like me, you probably spend at least an hour a week just perusing the vegetarian/vegan section at your local grocery store's freezer section. A few years back, I recall picking up a no-meat "meatloaf" dinner -- my high hopes were immediately dashed, when as soon as I took the patty out of its container, it more closely resembled a brown sponge than an actual ketchup-drenched slab of ground beef.

For years, I've been meaning to at least attempt a REAL vegetarian meatloaf dish. I mean, how hard could it possibly be? You brown some faux-meat, bury it in catsup, and you're all set.

Well, me and my gal-pal decided to give it the old collegiate try a few weeks back. The results, I must say, were surprisingly awesome.

As far as ingredients go, you're going to need quite a few items. A good meatloaf seasoning packet is recommended, as are a can or two of breadcrumbs. You see, veggie meat has an unfortunate tendency to not want to clump together, so you're definitely going to need something starchy to keep the faux beef together. Other things to add to your grocery list: milk, eggs, brown sugar, ketchup, and, of course, some delicious meat-less meat. 

I know opinions on the quality of Morningstar products fluctuate considerably, but as far as I am concerned, their Grillers Recipe Crumbles are among the better multi-purpose faux beef products on the market. The number of bags you use, of course, is up to you, but for our test run, we elected to use two whole bags. Obviously, you need to select a skillet large enough to handle the load. It seems like advice that need not stating but remember: the target audience for this here web blog hardly ever use any kitchen devices outside of a microwave, and for ritzier occasions, toasters.

Step one is unload the Crumbles. You'll need to put just a dab of olive oil in the (preferably non-stick) bowl before you dump the faux-meat (henceforth, referred to as "feat") into it.

From there, you're going to have to dump in the meatloaf seasoning, with about a half cup of milk. After that, crack one egg into the dish and add about a fourth of a cup of breadcrumbs. Then, you'll need to stir the compound together, until it resembles one nice, uninterrupted chunk of brown goop.

From there, you're going to have to get hands-on with the dish. After making sure the mixture is nice and coagulated, its your job to shape the feat solution into something that sorta looks like a regular meatloaf. Surprisingly, we had hardly any difficulties at all making the thing stand up on its own; as long as you have a good proportion of breadcrumbs in there, you shouldn't have any problems, either.

Of course, any meatloaf dish is only as good as its sauce, and our IIIA household recipe is one of the most delectable out there. The trick? You've got to add just a sprinkle of brown sugar to the ketchup, with a teensy bit of red pepper flake. It's simple, I know, but trust me, it REALLY takes the dish to the next level.

The rest, I reckon, is pretty self-explanatory. We cooked our feat for about 20 minutes on 350 degree Fahrenheit, and the end product was something that, to our jubilant surprise, actually looked like a giant chunk of beef. After that, we basted the loaf in our proprietary awesome sauce (trademark pending) and let the dish warm up for about five extra minutes.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I thought the final product was pretty damned delicious. Rather unexpectedly, the dish had a very, very traditional meatloaf taste and texture, and the feat definitely complemented an assortment of Southern favorites like stewed corn and boiled red potatoes quite well.

Considering the rollicking success of the dish, I'm beginning to wonder if other beef-and-pork-heavy favorites could translate to the faux meat treatment as well. Uh...does anybody know if fried veggie bologna sandwiches are any good?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Five: #010-#01)

The final installment of a five-part series celebrating the best SNK and pals had to offer! 

HEY! Looking for other installments in the series? They can be found at the links below:

PART ONE: Counting down games #050 to #041
PART TWO: Counting down games #040 to #031
PART THREE: Counting down games #030 to #021
PART FOUR: Counting down games #020 to #011

The Neo Geo is one of the most beloved consoles of all-time, and pretty much the definition of a gamer’s system. Originally released in arcade board form, the Neo Geo Multi Video System (MVS) delivered some of the absolute best coin-op titles of the 1990s, via an ingenious cartridge set-up that allowed gamers to play four different titles on one machine. With its impressive hardware specs, it provided gamers with some of the era’s most dazzling graphics, and introduced players the world over to such acclaimed franchises as Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug and Fatal Fury, not to mention tons of less heralded, underappreciated gems such as The Last Blade, Pulstar and Top Hunter. Not content with dominating arcade parlors, SNK also released the system as a high-powered (and absurdly expensive) home console, known as the Advanced Entertainment System (AES) which LITERALLY brought the arcade experience into players’ living rooms.

For almost 15 years, SNK and other developers published titles for the AES and MVS, giving it one of the absolute longest life spans of any console in gaming history. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the console’s official retirement, THE INTERNET IS IN AMERICA is rolling out a special, five-part series, counting down the 50 greatest games to ever grace the Neo Geo.

Before we continue, a few notes about the criteria for the list:

001.) Both MVS and AES releases are eligible for the countdown. Unless explicitly stated, the versions of the games referred to on this list are the MVS iterations.

002.) Only official games, produced during the console’s original lifespan, are eligible. Sorry, homebrew enthusiasts.

003.) SNK games from the era, which were not released on the MVS or AES, are ineligible for this countdown. In short, that means no Neo Geo CD or Hyper Neo Geo 64 games are in the running.

004.) Hey, did you ever play that one "Double Dragon" game on the Neo Geo? If so, my apologies.

With the fine print out of the way, who is ready to hop right into the countdown? All aboard, just say “S-N-K…”

Number 10:
Shock Troopers (1997)

I suppose in some ways, you could consider the sequel, “2nd Squad,” to be the superior offering: the semi-3D graphics are much improved, you can ride in vehicles ala “Metal Slug” and now, characters die in hilariously violent (yet bleakly comical) fashion. That said, as far as overall entertainment goes, “Shock Troopers” is a pretty damn hard game to top. At the end of the day, it very well could be the best bad game on the Neo Geo!

Granted, “Shock Troopers” may not exactly be a technical gem on par with “Samurai Shodown” or anything, but it’s certainly a whole hell of a lot of fun to play, regardless. Developed by Saurus -- the same folks who gave us the second “World Heroes” game and the sorta’ cult-classic “Irritating Stick” -- this game is your standard “Ikari Warriors” update, only with controls and gameplay that’s, you know, good.

This is the game “Smash TV” wished it could have been. The action is non-stop, the backdrops are diverse enough to keep you glued to the screen and the awesome team-based combat system -- which actually allots a bit of strategy alongside all of the explodey mayhem -- really makes this one a deeper experience than standard blast-a-thons like “Robotron” and “Total Chaos.” Am I ranking this game too high? Probably, but it’s just so enjoyable -- and weird as all hell -- that I think it deserves a spot in the top ten. I mean, shit, you can actually storm through a virtual middle east commandeering a rocket launcher-toting character named “Big Mama” -- how am I NOT supposed to fall in love with this game?

Number 9:
The Art of Fighting 3: The Path of the Warrior (1996)

“The Art of Fighting” series has always sorta’ been looked down upon as “Fatal Fury “ lite -- sometimes, it seems, even by SNK itself. While the franchise may not have ever reached the lofty heights of its genre cohorts, the “AOF” games were pretty good, with the third title definitely representing the franchise’s best.

Even for an SNK fighter, the cast of characters in this one is strange. Not only do you have a lawsuit-baiting main character named “Ryo,” but you also get to throw down with sword-wielding Persian princesses, muscular freak-o bodybuilder leviathans, a really, really fat dude carrying a backpack, some punk-rock chick that appears to be drag queen and not just one, but TWO separate avatars rocking dinner suits heading into mortal combat.

The visuals here are tremendous. The avatars are huge and well detailed, but the backdrops are definitely the game’s big aesthetic selling point -- some of the backgrounds are so beautiful, they almost appear lifted from a Disney film! Of course, no fighting game is worth a hill of beans without a decent combat system, and the more laid-back, combo-catering fighting mechanics in “AOF 3” are certainly a change of pace from the Neo Geo norm. It’s a big dumb button masher with a really convoluted, juvenile storyline -- but with that in mind, it’s probably the best big, dumb button masher with a really convoluted, juvenile storyline to be found on the console!

Number 8:
The King of Fighters '94 (1994)

It may not have seemed like it at the time, but "KOF '94" really was one of the most innovative fighting games of the decade. Would we have had all of those "Street Fighter vs (fill-in-the-blank)" and "Marvel vs. Capcom" titles had this mini revolution of a coin-op never been released? Seeing as how the core gameplay Capcom has made a mint of off is almost entirely swiped from "KOF," I'm not so sure we would've.

This, the first "KOF" offering, had a fairly simple, yet genius, hook. Combining characters from "Fatal Fury" and "the Art of Fighting," SNK made something of an all-star brawler, which in and of itself, was a pretty unique (and brilliant) concept. But where things REALLY got interesting is the combat system. Instead of doing best-of-three one-on-one battles, the "KOF" engine had players selecting three brawlers at once and taking on another trio in one long-assed endurance bout, "Survivor Series" style.

The gameplay plays more like "Art of Fighting" than "Fatal Fury" to me, which isn't really a negative. Granted, there are more complex and technically nuanced fighting games out there, but the novel gimmick of this one definitely makes up for whatever mechanical shortcomings the game presents. That, and you have to love the absolutely insane "national teams" herein, including England's all-girl ass kicker squad, Mexico's all-Japanese roster, Brazil's paramilitary-themed line-up and of course, Team USA -- which might just be one of the most unintentionally(?) racist depictions of urban America in all of video gaming -- apparently, New York consists mostly of burning trash cans and dudes running around in football helmets.

Number 7:
Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers (1998)

This game, for my money, is the single-most underrated fighting game on the Neo Geo. Yeah, there are certainly some genre games of the like on the system that are better, but what this game accomplishes on its own merits definitely puts its shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the absolute best brawlers on the console.

In "Real Bout 2," Terry Bogard, Duck King, Joe Higashi and all your returning favorites share the stage with obscure weirdos like Billy Kane and Bob Wilson. What makes the game particularly awesome is that it utilizes the same visual engine from "Real Bout Special" while reinstating the core fighting engine from the first "Real Bout" title. The end result is a game that looks as gorgeous (if not even better) then Capcom's late '90s fighters and plays as smoothly and technically as the best SNK offerings from the decade.

Okay, the stages may be recycled, but beyond that, I can't think of a single major negative for the title. It's a downright stellar, nuanced fighting game with super-smooth controls, a nice tempo and a combat system that puts just about every other fighting game from the timeframe -- safe a few notable offerings -- to shame. And to think: it's STILL not the best overall game in the entire series!

Number 6:
Garou: Mark of the Wolves (1999)

The poster for this one pretty much said it all: "Legends don't die ... they get better!"

Astute IIIA readers know I've already covered this one as part of my countdown of the top 100 Dreamcast games of all-time, so I figure I am allowed to plagiarize myself when recounting this game's inherent greatness: This game was one of the absolute best produced by SNK, and in many ways, one of the greatest technical fighting games in history. It's an astoundingly deep game with well-tuned, extremely-balanced characters and an extremely satisfying combat system - in addition to being beautiful and an audio delight, too...SNK made so many great moves with this one, starting with the "Tactical Offense Position" bar, which allows characters to unleash super-powerful projectile and grab-attacks - a variable that makes one-on-one matches very strategic and cerebral. Also brilliant is the inclusion of "defense" bonuses, which allows players to recover health by successfully blocking attacks - such a small addition that makes the game that much more competitive and riveting.

Really, what more needs to be said? It's the absolute best "Fatal Fury" game ever made, which by default, makes it the absolute best in a series that is universally recognized as one of the best fighting franchises ever designed. And, it bears repeating: how can anyone not cherish a game featuring a character known as "Khushnood Butt?"

Number 5:
Blazing Star (1998)

From my perspective, this is one of the most underrated SHMUPs in gaming history. Yeah, it's probably a bit controversial ranking this one ahead of its forerunner "Pulstar," but I still think this follow-up from Yumekobo (the same company as Aicom, really) outshines its much reverred predecessor in every way.

This is just an astoundingly fun game, with vibrant 2.5D visuals (think "Einhander," except better) and precisely the kind of super-enjoyable bullet-hell gameplay you'd expect. The game is actually a lot easier than you'd probably assume, which is the only real negative I can think of here; it's long, the stages are varied and oh my goodness, is the game just a hoot and a half to blast through!

I absolutely love the pell-mell nature of the title. The scaling and scrolling effects are terrific, and I love the power-up mechanics (basically, you can load up your laser attack, "R-Type" style, and turn it into a giant battering ram/shield combination ... trust me, it's every bit as awesome sounding as you'd imagine.) There's a ton of stuff to collect, the music is outstanding (it's the most rave-tastic SHMUP you'll probably ever experience) and the replay value is off the charts. What was I saying earlier about this being one of the most underrated side scrolling shooters out there? Well scratch that; it's one of the absolute best out there, too.

Number 4:
The King of Fighters '98 (1998)

The subtitle for this game was "The Slugfest," and boy, was that ever the appropriate moniker. "KOF '98" is pretty much considered the crown jewel of the venerable franchise, and for good reason: it's one of the most beautiful, finely-tuned fighting games out there, and easily one of the best offerings from the late 1990s in any genre.

Structurally, the game plays similarly to its predecessors. You pick three fighters from a huge roster of SNK all-stars, and then you engage in lengthy three-on-three marathon bouts until only one team stands. Retaining the "Advance" and "Extra" modes from "KOF '97," this iteration really feels like two separate games; without question, it's one of the deepest, most satisfying fighting games ever designed.

With outstanding visuals, one of the most impressive line-ups in any video game ever and a combat system that is so incomparably robust, it's not really surprising in the slightest that the game remains a favorite on the fighting game tournament circuit. This is a fighting game fan's fighting game, through and through -- if you haven't played it by now, you seriously need to rethink your commitment to the hobby of video gaming.

Number 3:
The Last Blade 2 (1998)

In my countdown of the top 100 Sega Dreamcast games of all-time, I said that "The Last Blade 2" might not be JUST the best SNK game ever, but quite possibly the best 2D fighter game in history. Well, as the final outcome of THIS countdown indicates, perhaps that little proclamation was a tad hasty. What isn't debatable an iota, however, is just how goddamn incredible this game is. If you will, let me quote my Sept 2012 self for a bit:

The weapons-based combat is smooth and technical, and playing defensively is every bit as fun as playing on offense. I really liked the slower tempo of the game, which made it feel more like “Fatal Fury” than “Guilty Gear” - a kinetic brawler, this may not be, but if you are in pursuit of a cerebral, rewarding and intellectual fighter, you’re probably not going to find a better title on ANY console ... the graphics - in particular, the sprite animations - are among the best you will see in a 2D game, and the title has one of the best scores in the history of the medium. Every character feels and plays differently, although the fighters are all expertly balanced. Pulling off combos isn’t too difficult, and the inclusion of “Super Desperation” moves - basically, fatality attacks - adds an element of unpredictability alongside the combat system’s strategic depth. All in all, “The Last Blade 2” is one of gaming’s greatest triumphs - and an oft-overlooked title that is long overdue for industry-wide celebration.

Needless to say, this is an absolutely stellar title that doesn't get anywhere near the love and adulation it truly deserves. It's certainly one of the best 2D fighting games out there, and it's without question one of the best SNK offerings ever.  And if you haven't played it, good god, do you need to find a way to, and pronto.

Number 2:
Metal Slug 3 (2000)

I would really need an entire article to truly put the sheer awesomeness of this game into words. Shit, for that matter, I'd probably need to double my current bandwidth to do "Metal Slug 3" the justice it deserves.

Do I begin with the outstanding visuals and world class animations, that put most late 1980s Don Bluth movies to shame? Or do I begin with the absolutely exquisite (and beautifully chaotic) run and gun gameplay? I could begin with the killer multiplayer, and the inventive levels, and the expertly designed stages (complete with branching paths), or the game's trademark humor -- which, at once, is both the most loving and caustic homage to "Contra" imaginable. Or maybe I could talk about the insane boss fights, complete with one of the hardest final battles in the history of gaming? I can only FATHOM the staggering number of quarters squandered on this game's beyond epic final level over the years -- my coin contributions alone probably put at least one SNK employee's child through college.

Ultimately, it's the small things, I reckon, that make "Metal Slug" the modern masterpiece it is. It's watching your avatar turn into a lumbering fatass after chowing down on one too many food pick-me-ups, and it's hearing the corny Ah-nold imitator yelp "rock-it lawn-chair" whenever you pick up the RPG. It's hitting the grenade button when you're all zombie-fied on level two and then puking voodoo death all over your foes, and it's discovering all of the hidden vehicles cleverly scattered throughout the game (my favorite? Definitely the elephant flamethrower!) Not only is "Metal Slug 3" the best in the series, its arguably the greatest parody in video game history, and quite possibly the single greatest run and gun title EVER. And if you think this game doesn't deserve to stand neck and neck with illustrious games like "Gunstar Heroes" and "Super Contra," clearly, you've never played it before.

And after reflecting on 49 of the absolute best titles the Neo Geo had to offer, we find ourselves staring down the absolute creme de la creme. With so many outstanding games available on the hardware, whittling the entire library down to just one defining title was undoubtedly a tough assignment. That said, considering the legacy of the system, and the top title's unmistakable impact on the video game art form as a whole, there was really only one game that could've wound up topping this countdown. Time to give the king its rightful crown, folks.

...and the number one Neo Geo game of all-time is...







Number 1:
Samurai Shodown II (1994)

One could argue that there are better games on the Neo Geo than this one, but I don't think anyone would dare say there's a more iconic Neo Geo title than "Samurai Showdown II." It may not have "made" the system, per se, but it certainly showed off the power and finesse of the hardware, and gave arcade enthusiasts the world over arguably the best 2D fighting game from the era -- absolutely no small feat, obviously.

"Samurai Shodown" was a very, very good game, but its sequel improved upon it in virtually every possible way. The roster is more robust, the visuals are even better, and the sound is utterly terrific. But the thing that strikes me most about this game isn't just one component, it's how all of those components gel into an utterly remarkable holistic experience. Beyond being a great looking and great playing game, this is a game that was expertly crafted and designed. The presentation in "Samurai Shodown" is about as cinematic as it got back in the day -- and even now, it doesn't feel aged or hokey one bit.

The gameplay is just sublime. While most fighting games from the era tried to imitate "Street Fighter" or "Mortal Kombat," this game was one of the few to go its on way, making the game about pacing instead of blood, guts and hyper-fast fisticuffs. The combat system is so nuanced and rewarding, with so many nice, cerebral touches -- it is the first game in the genre to showcase parrying, after all. But as I was saying earlier, it's not one thing that makes this game so memorable all these years later. It's the visuals, and the subtle musical cues, and the weirdo dialogue, and the smooth animations, and the attention to the detail, and the almost chess-like fighting mechanics and tremendously designed characters, all boiled together into an undeniably scrumptious goulash of sheer technical awesomeness.

In short? It was everything that made the Neo Geo, and SNK, so incredible to begin with.