Friday, November 28, 2008

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist seems to take place in some alternate, sanitized version of New York City where everyone is under twenty-five, attractive, and white (except for one or two non-threatening Asians), the Empire State Building is visible everywhere, and there's immediate parking available in front of every building. It's too cute by half, bleeding indie music and self-aware witty dialogue from its pores. But despite all this I found it immensely likable. It has to be approached with an extremely noncynical eye, but taken as a little character piece it is, while not as blisteringly laugh-out-loud funny as other comedies from this year like Tropic Thunder or Pineapple Express, an energetic and (dare I risk my masculinity by saying it) cute little flick that put me in a cheery mood.

How well you'll like the movie probably leans 95% on how well you like Michael Cera, who is up to old tricks doing another turn at the wheel of his trademark comedically awkward, well-meaning, low self-esteem "George Michael" type previously honed in Arrested Development, Superbad, and Juno. If that's gotten old for you, then you can probably skip the entire movie, if you continue to like it, as I do (George Michael was always my favorite part of Arrested Development), you'll probably like Nick & Norah. Kat Dennings is perfectly cute as his romantic interest which is good since some 75% of the movie is watching them fall for each other, but Michael Cera has to do the vast, vast majority of the comedic heavy lifting. Thankfully for me, his awkward schtick continues to crack me up.

I also love that the movie was actually shot in Manhattan. I hate when movies and TV shows set in New York are obviously shot in "New York" (aka Toronto or Los Angeles), and Nick & Norah doesn't hesitate to pimp out its Manhattan location shooting at splatter it all over the screen with scenes set on Broadway, near Times Square, down in the Village, and so on (and as previously mentioned a lot of shots with the Empire State in the background). There's even a scene set at Broadway & 11th Street, across from the Blockbuster Video, which I thought was tight because I walked through that corner nine out of ten days for like four years. An exceptionally shallow reason to like a movie, yes, but I'm a sucker for authentic New York location shooting.

As I mentioned, the "indieness" of the music playing over every frame of the movie is a little sledgehammer (although a lot of it isn't half bad) and some of the dialogue is a bit too forcedly quirky (though nothing to the degree of Juno). But it has a brisk comedic rhythm, likable characters with pleasant if very familiar character arcs, Michael Cera being awkward, and Manhattan. I give it a seal of approval with a mild slap on the wrist to tone down the quirk a hair.

3 Stars out of 5

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Eagle Eye

Eagle Eye is cinematic gibberish on a level unseen since The Core, a heightened exercise in babbling nonsense and jaw-droppingly bizarre plot twists that will have you shaking your head in embarrassment if you aren't howling with laughter. That's not to say that it isn't mildly entertaining, because there's car chases and bus chases and airplanes and machine guns and rockets and explosions and robots and murder and a huge body count, the stuff great cinema is made of, but ultimately I couldn't help but be disappointed because the trailers made it look like a solid "wrong man, wrong place, wrong time" thriller.

I love those types of thrillers - Collateral is still one of my favorite movies of the decade. But while I guess Eagle Eye's protagonist is a traditional "wrong man," in this case receiving a series of cell phone calls from an all-seeing, all-knowing malevolent force trying to coerce him into aiding in a political assassination, the other interesting thing about a thriller beyond the wrong man and the action is the unravelling of the villain's conspiracy / plot, in this case some hilariously retarded science fiction nonsense with no more of a foot in reality than Men in Black.

Again, outside of the screenplay there aren't any huge problems. Over half the movie's runtime is probably someone running or driving away from pursuers or guns being fired or something blowing up, and director DJ Caruso handles all this madness just fine, not immensely memorably, but well enough that it would be acceptable amid a better story. The budget is all up there on the screen in exploding vehicles.

The performances are all good. Shia LaBeouf acquits himself well even though he's playing a very similar "troubled young man" to what he played in DJ Caruso's superior thriller Disturbia. Billy Bob Thorton is always entertaining. Most noteworthy to me was Michelle Monaghan; even though her character is a worthless cipher shoehorned in so Shia LaBeouf has someone to bounce exposition off of, she is incredibly naturalistic and engaging onscreen and I hope she continues to get major work in (better) big movies.

But ultimately, it's just too silly. I'm a big, big believer in suspension of disbelief, and I can go pretty goddamn far in accepting ludicrous plots in my TV shows and major motion pictures if it strings along the entertainment. But it's just too much here, even for me. I wouldn't accept swiss cheese that was more holes than cheese, and I can't accept a story that's more plot holes than plot. It may be entertaining if you can just absorb yourself in the action and spectacle, but turn your brain all the way off first.

2 Stars out of 5

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quantum of Solace

The 22nd James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is an occasionally messy, occasionally bold, briskly-paced adrenaline blast of entertainment that for better or for worse gets more experimental with the underlying Bond formula than any film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service gave us romantic montages and time lapses and Bond getting married 39 years ago. The movie falls short of joining Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, Casino Royale, GoldenEye, The Spy Who Loved Me, and You Only Live Twice in the top echelon of Bond flicks, but for whatever gripes I may have it's still miles above and beyond Generic Hollywood Action Movie X.

Daniel Craig continues to embody Ian Fleming's original "blunt instrument" to a degree that no other 007 actor has. That's not to say that he has in any respect become the only 007; Sean Connery's dangerous, edgy cool is immortal and I continue to treasure even Roger Moore's eyebrow-cocking charm, but Daniel Craig is cold, brutal, and calculating while remaining defiantly charismatic in a way that truly captures what was on the page all those years ago. I'm a huge fan and look forward to seeing him in what is supposedly going to be three more movies.

I also have to give props to the nearly equally badass Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. As with Casino Royale his part is tragically small, but if the rumors that they are scouting New York City locations for Bond 23 ring true I hope that means we can see a massively-expanded part for the CIA and by extension Felix next time. He definitely warrants it.

The movie has a very steady stream of action from the opening seconds straight through to the end, which is often thrilling if occasionally a mixed bag. The fight scenes are pretty much all really cool - Bond's fight with Mr. Slate near the film's beginning packs almost all the brutality of Bond and Red Grant's fight in From Russia With Love into about 1/6th the time - but Marc Forster isn't really a born action director and overcompensates in certain other scenes by flirting with shakeycam and cutting what seems like several times a second. This can serve to actually obstruct some really cool stuntwork and choreography, such as one otherwise cleverly-conceived scene involving pulleys, more than enhance it. The smooth cameras of Martin Campbell's action scenes in Casino Royale and GoldenEye or Jon Favreau's in Iron Man are closer to the direction I would like to see the Bond movies take.

The Bond girls fare well this time out. Olga Kurylenko's Camille is a well-sketched character who manages to get in on the action without any of the aggravating "warrior princess" shit that plagued Halle Berry's character in Die Another Day, and although Gemma Arterton's Fields isn't particularly deep she's super cute onscreen and makes what she has engaging and funny enough to make me wish she had a bigger part.

But what really makes a Bond movie is the bad guy; the very term "Bond villain" rightfully carries a half-century of weight and expectation behind it. And unfortunately this is where the movie stumbles a bit even as it shows promise for the future. Dominic Greene, a classic Bondian evil capitalist trying to corner the market on a precious resource, is well-portrayed by Mathieu Amalric with sneering, condescending flair, but the script fails to make him a threat to someone as badass as Craig's James Bond. He is never given anything memorably evil to do onscreen - there's definitely no iconic Greene moment to stand up with Goldfinger's laser threats, Max Zorin's mine massacre, or Le Chiffre's sack torture - made more frustrating by the fact that he actually commits a few potentially iconic evil acts OFFscreen.

And we need a return to great Bond villain henchmen (this gripe also applies to Casino Royale). Long gone seem the days of classic number twos like Oddjob, Jaws, and Red Grant; the last awesome Bond henchman was GoldenEye's Xenia Onatopp and that was thirteen years ago. Please, Bond producers, put ample time and effort into Bond 23's henchman.

And Greene's plot, a classic monopoly-grabbing that while certainly selfish and evil and certain to make him rich, doesn't have enough urgency to it. There's no "ticking time bomb" that Bond has to stop lest the world suffer the consequences. That's not to say everything needs to be as dramatic as nuclear war and space lasers like Bond films of the past, but Casino Royale had the threats of a terrorist attack on Miami Airport and terrorists receiving $150 million from Le Chiffre, both of which are grounded enough to be "real" but heightened enough to be "Bond." I hope Bond 23 can find an equally satisfactory balance.

Ultimately the villainy here is probably the Bond series' weakest since The Living Daylights, seven movies and twenty-one years ago, coincidentally for the same reasons - lack of onscreen evil and a relatively unthreatening ultimate plot.

However, I do think that the introduction of Quantum, a new SPECTRE-style global network of criminals and spies and assassins and terrorist financiers that has people everywhere, is brilliant. I couldn't be any happier about this development, and I think that if future Craig Bond films expand on this idea and up the stakes, Dominic Greene's plot will retrospectively play better when viewed as the launching point for something bigger, much as Bond films once considered small-scale like For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights became viewed more favorably years after their release.

As for the way the movie shifts the Bond formula, I have both praise and scorn. The way that the plot of the film unfolds, while occasionally a hint messy, is ultimately more satisfying than in the Roger Moore films of old where Bond's mission is explicitly outlined by M in nearly the opening scene; here, there is spying and improvisation on Bond's part as the various disparate pieces of the villain's plot come together. The film's sense of humor is also probably blacker than any other Bond film. Not that quips haven't been made at the expense of dead henchman before, but when the kills are as brutal as they are here these quips take on a twisted new meaning. I love black humor so I'm all for it.

There are certain alterations I protest though. I am all for dropping comic one-liners and sci-fi gadgets, and I can even make my peace with leaving behind Moneypenny and Q if the producers don't feel we need them in the rebooted series. But I do protest how little the 007 theme song is used in the movie, just a few small hints in the entire picture. I didn't mind in Casino Royale because when it exploded fully-formed over the end credits I assumed that Bond 22 would resume using it. I was unfortunately mistaken, and it's barely here. I just don't understand why; the 007 theme song is the most pulse-pounding pop instrumental of the 20th century, and imagining an aggressive version of it playing over the plane chase instantly makes the scene that much better. David Arnold remixed the theme brilliantly in Tomorrow Never Dies a decade back and I hope they let him unleash it again in the next film, because there is absolutely no reason not to.

And, if I may nerd rage for a moment, it is called the gunbarrel INTRO because it goes at the BEGINNING of the movie. Again, I liked what they did in Casino Royale by placing it at the end of the intro scene as James Bond "became" 007, and I assumed it would be back to normal here, but for some godforsaken reason they moved it to the END of film. No no no. This may be my equivalent of the Star Trek Asperger's brigade freaking out over the redesigned Enterprise, but when the dots and gunbarrel didn't open Quantum of Solace it left a sour and disquieting taste in my mouth through the entire film. You open a James Bond movie with the gunbarrel. Period. End of story. It's a half-century fucking tradition. Don't change it. Change it back the way it was for Bond 23 and never speak of this alteration again.

Speaking of: what are my hopes for Bond 23? Keep Daniel Craig as Bond the ruthless but charismatic killer, Quantum as the new SPECTRE, the black sense of humor, the quality Bond girls, the brutal fights, the grounded sensibility, the cool cars, and badass spying. Just ramp up the evil of the villain and the stakes of his plot, smooth out the cameras during the action scenes (I would be totally fine with bringing back Martin Campbell to direct), expand Felix Leiter's part, bring back the 007 theme song, and PLEASE move the gunbarrel intro back to the head where it belongs. Then we'll be in business hardcore.

3 Stars out of 5

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #8 - 1

8. Banjo-Kazooie (1998)

Pros: Banjo-Kazooie is probably the all-time greatest Super Mario 64 rip-off, if also the most blatant. Rareware took Mario 64's exact formula - Mario explores several large 3D worlds interconnected by Peach's Castle, collecting coins and Stars to open up new worlds - and xeroxed it verbatim, replacing Mario with Banjo bear and Kazooie the bird, Peach's Castle with Gruntilda's Lair, coins with notes, and Stars with Jiggies. They even swiped the flying mechanic and replaced Mario's butt-stomp with an identical "beak-stomp." It's shameless, it's brazen, it's offensive. It just happens to be forgivable because the game is really, really good.

Name any element, and it's top of the line for 1998: The worlds are large but not aimless, full of variety and personality (my favorites being the beach level Treasure Trove Cove and the snow mountain Freezeezy Peak). The gameplay is an excellent mix of platforming, puzzles, action, and exploration. The graphics are gorgeous with enormous color and detail and zero fog or pop-up. The music is great. The control is smooth. It's challenging but always fair. It even has a sense of humor and characters with distinct personalities. Banjo-Kazooie is truly the best possible game about a bipedal honey bear who wears homosexual biker shorts.

Cons: Banjo-Kazooie was the first game I really noticed the doo-dad collecting in; it was present in Mario 64 but so well-integrated I never thought about it. In Mario you have to collect a little over half of the Power Stars to beat the game and the coin collecting is completely optional, but in Banjo-Kazooie you have to amass nearly every one of the hundred golden jigsaw pieces and nine-hundred notes. The notes are particularly brutal since there are a hundred spread through every world and hunting for just one missing note can take an hour. It's under control but it started Rare down the dark path of doo-dads that led to the excess of Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie.

7. Star Fox 64 (1997)

Pros: In a world where forest creatures walk on two legs, speak fluent English, and are involved in an intergalactic war against the armies of an insane madman, I wonder who the fuck came up with this unholy madness. In terms of gameplay alone I think that Star Fox 64 is the greatest on-rails shooter of all time - the pace, sleekness, and sheer frenetic madness of its shooting action will never be topped. It's wild entertainment and the bosses are awesome. But it wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable if not for the inherent absurd charm of its earnestly-presented story of military science-fiction, genocide, genetically engineered bio-weapons, betrayal, dead fathers, and personal angst all starring bipedal foxes, frogs, rabbits, and birds.

It's also the most quotable game in the history of the medium. Lines like "Do a barrel roll!", "If I go down I'm taking you with me!", and "Hey Einstein, I'm on YOUR side!" will haunt me even on my death bed. My last words will be "Sorry to jet, but I'm in a hurry!", leaving everyone present not in tears but utterly baffled.

Cons: "Fox! Get this guy off me!" SHUT UP SLIPPY.

6. Mario Kart 64 (1997)

Pros: Mario Kart 64 is not only the best racing game on Nintendo 64 but also among the greatest series reinventions in gaming history. Don't get me wrong, I loved Super Mario Kart back in 1992, but that game's flat Mode 7 tracks and relatively straightforward gameplay were shattered by the hills, peaks, valleys, terrain variety, obstacles, hazards, and corner-grinding madness of Mario Kart 64. It's an upgrade in literally every feasible way; it's like finding Internet porn after five years of whacking off to black and white Victoria's Secret models in the local newspaper.

Nearly every track is a unique experience. Some of them like the traffic-filled Toad's Highway are fun, wicked insanity and some of them like Mario Raceway are clean, fast, and perfectly constructed for time trials. In classic Nintendo tradition the game is super-easy to pick up and play but deceptively deep as it controls so tightly that the more you play the better and better you get. The multiplayer is just phenomenal, both the racing and the battles; party game brilliance that will cause friend to swear at and strike at friend, shatter relationships, and ruin lives. And that's what gaming's all about.

Cons: Unlike Star Fox 64, which remains the highlight of the Star Fox series, Mario Kart 64 has been one-upped multiple times over by Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Mario Kart DS, and Mario Kart Wii, which trump it in speed, gameplay depth, visuals, character / kart / level variety, and in the case of the latter two, online multiplayer. It does, however, have more memorable music than any of them.

5. Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (2000)

Pros: We come to it at last. The great RPG of N64's time. Sure, it's only competing in a field of five games - itself, Paper Mario, Hybrid Heaven, Quest 64, and Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, the last of which is only just barely preferable to most genocides - but it would be a really fucking good game stacked up against the library of any console in gaming history.

As a strategy RPG where you have dozens of characters, all of whom will likely have to get in on the action at some point between protecting your bases and engaging the enemy, Ogre Battle 64 is first and foremost a micromanager's wet dream. You'll have to customize the weapons, armor, classes, and alignment of dozens of individuals one at a time before organizing these soldiers into units and legions, giving it plenty of depth and endless number of nuances to tinker with even between battles.

It also has a pretty elaborate and entertaining high fantasy narrative, in classic RPG tradition starting off fairly small-scale but eventually expanding to encompass the fate of the kingdom and then the entire world, with plenty of engaging heroes and villains and enough plot twists to shake a cock at. It was also the first Nintendo game I remember where they regularly swore, and I would giggle whenever they said "shit," because I'm twelve. I will always be twelve.

Cons: Ogre Battle 64 has multiple endings. By itself this isn't a problem; Chrono Trigger had a dozen endings and that's one of many things people recall fondly about it. But Ogre Battle's six endings range from mega-happy to depressing depending on how well you play the game, which means that once you're sixty hours in you probably have your ending set and it's too late to change it. It's frustrating to sink the equivalent of three days of your life into a narrative and not be able to see the mega-happy resolution without YouTube.

4. Super Mario 64 (1996)

Pros: Super Mario 64 is the greatest technological leap forward in the history of video games. It's been baby steps before and since, watching graphics, control, technology, and genres gradually evolve, but it needs to stand in history that Super Mario 64 was a ridiculously bold and risky leap into the unknown, Nintendo gambling their most bankable intellectual property and perhaps the fate of their new console on a fledgling genre - the 3D platformer - that they were essentially constructing wholesale from the ground up. It was a complete success. Super Mario 64 rightfully shook gaming at its very core.

I've slathered numerous other 3D platformers with praise for elements that Mario 64 pioneered - the variety of worlds and tasks and the mix of platforming, puzzles, and bosses - but the main reason Mario 64 still makes me pop wood all these years is the controls. There's a certain lightness to the control that's as tricky to verbally nail down as explaining why a food item tastes good. Not looseness - the control is incredibly tight - but Mario moves with a slick and incredibly fun speed both in the air and on the ground that no other franchise has matched. Twelve years later, the only two 3D platformers with smoother and more intuitive control than Super Mario 64 are Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy.

This is also the game that changed Princess Toadstool's name to "Peach," which weirded me out at first until I realized that since Toadstools are a race in the Marioverse her old name made about as much sense as a fictional President of the United States being named "President Human."

Cons: None.

3. GoldenEye 007 (1997)

Pros: Until I played GoldenEye 007 I didn't really like first-person shooters. Sure, I was primarily basing this opinion on Doom, but Doom was very popular and I figured that if I didn't care for the most beloved game of a genre I probably wouldn't care for the genre as a whole. It took one Agent 007 James Bond to show me the folly of my ways.

While GoldenEye has a few levels of pure run-and-gun action (and does them well because the engine is a lot of fun), the majority of the game is centered around stealthy spy missions. Sneak through levels while being silent as possible and keeping a low profile, sniping bad guys with silenced pistols or avoiding them when deemed prudent, disabling security systems and shooting cameras, stealing documents and hacking computers. It really makes you feel like motherfuckin' James Bond. The single-player mission is superb.

But that is, as we say in the old country, merely the tip of iceberg. It was this game's stupidly fun multiplayer death match mode that gave it years and years of replayability. It's simple as can be in concept, just dropping you in levels from the game and letting you shoot each other to death, but in 1997 it was about as much fun as four people could have sans orgy.

Cons: GoldenEye's multiplayer mode would eventually be trumped by Perfect Dark, but as a product of its time I have no gripes except that the single-player mode's storytelling is a little whack. It's a very, very rough recreation of the movie's narrative that you can follow if you've seen the 1995 film but otherwise I'm not sure it would make any sense at all. Also, despite playing as James Bond, no matter what button I push I can't convince any of the digital women to sleep with me. Fucking technology.

2. Super Smash Bros. (1999)

Pros: Between 1999 and 2001 I needed Smash like a drug addict needs heroin - constantly and right into my vein. It's funny; like with GoldenEye and the shooter genre, I wasn't particularly crazy about fighting games until I played Super Smash Bros. Sure, I played Street Fighter II some during the 90s, because you weren't no one if you couldn't bust out a Hadouken, but Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Virtua Fighter, and so on held no more interest to me than vaginas hold to a Catholic priest. But come 1999 I found a fighting game seemingly built for my heart.

Smash Bros., how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. One, it draws deep and shamelessly from a generation of Nintendo nostalgia, amassing in one game a large collection of Nintendo characters, locations, items, theme songs, and general iconography. I'm a Nintendo junkie, so I dug that. Two, each of the twelve fighters (except Mario and Luigi) plays completely and totally differently than each other, with completely unique attacks, jumping ability, speed, strengths, and weaknesses, leading to endless battle variety. And three, the controls actually resemble a Nintendo platformer more than a conventional fighting game, with none of the stiffness I typically associated with the genre.

It all adds up to a ridiculously crack-like multiplayer mode that headlined the "Holy Trinity" of itself, Perfect Dark, and Mario Tennis that my old N64 crew played nonstop from 1999 - 2001. I must have put a thousand hours into this fucking game. The folly of wasted youth... the joy of smashing Pikachu in the face with a baseball bat.

Cons: Super Smash Bros.' massive character variety is also its one downfall - there are a few fighters that stand very clearly head and shoulders above the rest and no matter how well you play some of the lesser characters, such as Yoshi, Link, and Donkey Kong, you will always be at a severe handicap. It's also, as I've mentioned with a few other games on this list, overshadowed by its sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. Melee's battles are lightning-paced and the original feels sluggish when you go back to it.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Pros: If 1985's Super Mario Bros. is the Citizen Kane of video games, taking every element available to its young medium and simultaneously surging every one of them forward in one package, then The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is The Godfather of video games, the culmination of a more mature art form that has had time to grow and experiment, an epic that revolutionizes while embracing the best traditions of its medium, sublime in every element. You could easily mount an argument that Ocarina of Time is not only best game on Nintendo 64 but the best game of all time.

The general format of Ocarina is typical of its genre - you explore towns and find secrets and gather items and most notably journey through nine monster and puzzle-filled dungeons. Between dungeons there are plot events and subquests and set pieces that open up the next dungeon, and so on and so forth up to the end - basically the same format as previous Zeldas.

But the execution is just flat-out better than any other game of its type. The dungeons are atmospheric, brilliantly designed webs of interlocking puzzles. The jaw-dropping, often massive bosses are terrific. The high fantasy plot unfolds with the streamlined beauty of myth. The artwork, design, and music are among the best of any console. The variety of items and weapons you get is without equal. The minigames, such as the fishing hole, are good enough that lesser companies might have released them as their own games. There's endless secrets and subquests. The game radiates an unparalleled at the time sense of style and elegance. You even get to ride a goddamn horse.

Total victory. Best game on the Nintendo 64 and certainly one of the top five games of all time.

Cons: There are exactly two imperfections in Ocarina of Time: I wish that the overworld music in the future was the classic Legend of Zelda theme song, and I wish that the final battle against Ganon was more challenging.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #16 - 9

16. Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (1996)

Pros: I hereby declare Shadows of the Empire awesome and decree that all haters immediately report to my house to suck on my balls. Okay, okay, I'll admit it's flawed (and we'll discuss that in a second), but I first played this game when I was a little kid and Star Wars was the most important thing on earth. I loved it back then and that kind of warm nostalgia reigns eternal.

Even haters admit that the first and last levels - flying a Snow Speeder in the Battle of Hoth and facing off Xizor's Skyhook above Coruscant, respectively - are cause to jism. The Rogue Squadron series would later expand on these ideas. But I like the third-person shooter levels in between too. You face off against Stormtroopers, wampas, dianoga, an AT-ST on foot, and Boba Fett, fly a jet pack, hijack a train on Ord Mantell, and infiltrate Imperial strongholds - and it's badass. Except for the whale-sized dianoga you're forced underwater with in the Coruscant sewers, that was just horrifying and gave me nightmares for a decade. What the hell, LucasArts.

Cons: I'll agree with the haters on one thing - the play control in this game needed tightening. The jumping is looser than a six-time mother's vagina and makes platforming over bottomless pits a terrifying gamble with death every time, although finding the jet pack thankfully alleviates the issue. The storytelling is also a bit whack. I read the Shadows of the Empire novel so I understood everything, but for anyone else the cut scenes between the levels are vague enough to have you saying "What the hell is this? What's going on?!" Here's my guide to the complex nuances of this drama - Rebels: Good. Empire: Bad.

15. Paper Mario (2001)

Pros: The fourth of the N64's five RPGs (previously covered: Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, Quest 64, Hybrid Heaven) and the first must-play amongst them, Paper Mario glues Super Mario themes, characters, settings, jumping, and classic gameplay elements together with RPG-style towns, exploration, level gaining, and turn-based combat. Like chocolate and peanut butter, baby - the union was meant to be. And for some reason all the characters are flat like paper / Keira Knightley, which is unexplained but gives it a unique and vibrant visual texture. The game also has a refreshingly self-deprecating sense of humor, constantly taking the piss out of itself, Mario, RPGs, and gaming in general.

The turn-based battles themselves may have seemed graphically simplistic in 2001 - well into the post-Final Fantasy VII RPG age of having every attack accompanied by fourteen hours of FMV animation - but since everything moves lightning quick and is super streamlined you blitz through the battles; because of this the combat has arguably aged better here than in those PS1 Final Fantasy games. Clever boss fights, too.

Cons: I kind of like how all the other Mario RPGs introduce original villains - be they alien invaders, sealed demon gods, interdimensional beings, or whatever else - with worldwide stakes that eventually force Bowser to either sidekick with them or join up with Mario. In this game the plot is just "Bowser kidnaps Princess, go save her." Which is great for a sidescroller but a little lacking in an RPG. I'll also admit that the game is overshadowed by its superb GameCube sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, in basically every conceivable way.

14. Blast Corps (1997)

Pros: Blast Corps rocks because it's totally original. There's absolutely nothing else like it. Basically, an unmanned nuclear missile carrier (gee, how could anything have gone wrong??) has gone haywire and begun driving relentlessly forward in a straight line through several populated cities. The missile is leaking and volatile and if the truck rams into a single building then it's instant nuclear holocaust - the only option is to lead it miles out of civilization into a safe area it can detonate.

So you must take command of bulldozers and missile launchers and giant mechs and a bunch of other vehicles and make sure the carrier's path is never disturbed, which typically involves leveling every single fucking building in its way. This is genius, allowing for a lot of super-satisfying mindless destruction in early levels but also requiring thoughtful analysis of complicated terrain in the later stages where you have to experiment and map out the quickest path. There's also puzzles, such as the carrier heading for a river and forcing you to line up boats for it to drive over. Action, shooting, puzzles, nuclear apocalypse - goddamn game has it all. Also, the giant jet pack robot ("J-Bomb") is just fun as hell to play.

Cons: My only complaint is one vehicle I don't really enjoy using but you have to in several levels, a dump truck called "Backlash" that you have to grind in fast circles to destroy buildings by pegging them with the back corner of the truck. It's tough to use and in a decade I still haven't really mastered it.

13. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (1998)

Pros: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is basically the poor man's Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I mean that in a nice way, though; being the poor man's Ocarina of Time is like being a less hot Scarlett Johansson - the fact that you've invited the comparison in the first place is a compliment. That's right, baby, I just meant that you're ugly in comparison, don't cry like that.

Like Zelda, Mystical Ninja is a fantasy adventure game where you travel across the world, visiting towns, crossing plains and climbing mountains, gaining new items and abilities, and most notably exploring dungeons and conquering the monsters, puzzles, and massive bosses therein. After beating one dungeon the plot opens up to allow you to reach the next one and so on and so forth. Adventure gaming 101, and in this case executed with panache.

And what separates it from Zelda, you ask, voice hoarse with anticipation? Well from a gameplay perspective not terribly much except that there are several first-person giant robot battles, which is hilarious and awesome. In terms of mood and aesthetic it's extremely different; in contrast to Zelda's dark high fantasy, Mystical Ninja is super-lighthearted and super-Japanese, with cheesy anime songs sung in undubbed Japanese and everything. The main villain is a theatre buff wearing all purple named Spring Breeze Dancin' who wants to turn the world into his stage. This is exactly as absurd as it sounds and it all just adds to the charm.

Cons: I may be getting soft in my old age, but I have no real direct criticism to offer. I could point out some matters of degree - the graphics aren't superb and the enemy design is sometimes bland, and most of the puzzles are pretty simple. But all in all I just think everyone who enjoys adventure games should play it, it's great.

12. Mario Tennis (2000)

Pros: I can't say enough good things about Mario Tennis. The multiplayer is more fun than doing blow off a hooker's tits. For a couple years it was part of what I call the "Holy Trinity" of N64 games that me and my old gaming crew played nonstop circa 2000 - 2001, and it never got boring in the least because following the basic Nintendo mantra of being easy to pick up and play but deceptively deep and difficult to master, you will just get better and better at Mario Tennis the more you play it. You'll be able to make the ball do things you had no idea were possible when you first picked it up, you'll master your trick shots and figure out how to psyche people out and maybe even how to ace them. And if you're playing the same opponents then they'll just get better and better along with you.

Unlike the relaxed experience of playing Mario Golf, a great match of Mario Tennis, with the ball rocketing back and forth and an unholy tension simmering, will have you drenched with sweat your veins pumping adrenaline. Mario Tennis is awesome.

Cons: Mario Tennis introduced Waluigi, who is such a goddamn loser I can't believe it. I am in awe that one character can suck so much. Waluigi is a child molester.

11. Bomberman 64 (1997)

Pros: I LOVE THIS GAME. Hudson Soft musta did some kind of game-making steroids before designing this because it's by far my favorite Bomberman game of all time. Chucking off the trappings of the series' typical enclosed rooms in favor of Super Mario 64-inspired large, open, elementally diverse worlds, Bomberman 64 has all the good stuff you could possibly ask for from an action-adventure game: Fun level design. Awesomely huge bosses. Puzzles involving logic and geometry. Power-ups. Secrets. Even great music. There's staggering variety and with just twelve levels and twelve bosses it's extremely well-paced while remaining quite challenging. I was obsessed with this game's single-player quest for like two months when I first played it.

And on top of that there's a wicked fun multiplayer death match mode, a Bomberman series staple. It's fucking lunacy, especially if you put the time limits on. When time begins running out stage hazards take effect - water starts rising, the walls start closing in, meteors raining down, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Real men play with the time limits on. And the same real men piss their pants and shriek like girls when the walls start closing in. That's gaming magic.

Cons: I have nothing bad to say about the single-player except for pointing out a minor bit of doo-dad collecting with the Gold Cards you have to find all of to access the final secret world. But I will say that the multiplayer, while an insane, chaotic, and fun party game, is trumped at least in terms of depth by Bomberman '93 on the TurboGrafx-16. The tight controls and degree of strategy in that iteration's death matches have not been topped.

10. Mischief Makers (1997)

Pros: If you ignore the kinda gay title you'll find in Mischief Makers an underlooked gem of a game and my personal favorite sidescroller on Nintendo 64. It has an entertaining (if very anime-esque) narrative with an unfolding rebellion against an evil empire, plenty of unique characters (a couple of whom even get killed off!), some plot twists, fun stuff. It also has great sprite-based visuals that I think have aged better than a lot of equally old 3D games, and the music is just superb the whole way through. The presentation is charming.

But it's the gameplay that makes it pop. Game developer Treasure (probably best known for Gunstar Heroes) is famed for frantic, satisfying action and awesome bosses, both of which this game delivers in spades. Unlike Gunstar Heroes you don't have a weapon; your character just grabs things. Grab the enemy, throw him into the wall or spikes or a pit or another enemy to kill him off. This hands-on approach to mass murder is satisfying as hell. The level design is wildly diverse, with nearly every stage tossing some unique twist or vehicle or puzzle or even new player character in with the action. And the bosses are staggering, showstopping events unto themselves. I love this game, I want to fuck it.

Cons: Honestly not much. I guess the story is kind of cheeseball and some of the voice acting is goofy, but if you like 2D platformers then there's absolutely no excuse to have not played Mischief Makers.

9. Perfect Dark (2000)

Pros: This sci-fi first-person shooter is Rare's spiritual sequel to the immortal GoldenEye 007; the setting and characters are original but it takes its wicked gameplay engine from GoldenEye almost exactly. Pumping bad guys full of lead is still super satisfying and it has clever level design with well-implemented stealth just like GoldenEye did. The plot, involving the gradual revelation of an alien conspiracy that could destroy the world, is also good fun. It wouldn't make for classic sci-fi literature but I don't think it'd be a bad Sci-Fi Channel movie either. It's also M-rated and has a lot more blood than GoldenEye; sometimes when you shoot a bad guy he cries out "I don't want to die!" Hahaha, that's awesome.

But while the single-player is a hell of game in its own right it's the multiplayer that defines Perfect Dark, making it the second game of the "Holy Trinity" I mentioned earlier. It takes GoldenEye's death match multiplayer and adds more levels, fully customizable weapons, and more advanced AI. The death matches are intense as hell but even the ancillary modes like capture the flag are fun enough to play for hours if you have three friends. Second best multiplayer on the N64 for my money.

Cons: It may trump GoldenEye's multiplayer in every facet but the single-player quest falls just short of its predecessor; a few of the missions have obtuse objectives and meandering design that may force you to look at a guide online to figure out exactly what the hell's going on. The Chicago Streets level comes to mind immediately - trying to get a grasp on what the deal was became a bit frustrating. Also, your hot female protagonist actually dresses like an agent would in black combat suits and bullet-proof vests and never shows any skin like a female gaming protagonist is supposed to. Why would you do this Rare.