Category: Video games and pop culture

When TV, Movies and other media cover video games.

Carmen Sandiego Out of This World: A bizarre album based on the game show.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is one of those rather ubiquitous edutainment titles of the late 80s and early 90s. A geography-driven game, the goal is to find clues around the world to stop Carmen’s henchmen from stealing some of the most notable artifacts from around the world, eventually leading to stopping Carmen herself.

A fair share of computers around the world had Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? installed, probably alongside Odell Lake or Number Munchers. But as time goes on, the video games have become only one part of what people remember about Carmen Sandiego as a franchise. If you’re in that generation of ’90s kids like me, you probably remember Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? not from a best-selling video game series, but through a rather popular game show.

(Rockapella intensifies)

Also called Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, it was a kids game show that was about the wonders of geography. This show was co-produced by PBS stations WGBH and WQED, and aired on PBS stations all around the country. Hosted by actor Greg Lee and featuring actress Lynne Thigpen as “The Chief,” it featured kids playing gumshoes at ACME Crimenet, answering geography questions to stop the theft of an artifact of the world from one of Carmen’s henchmen, with the final round having the winning gumshoe try to find Carmen herself to win a fabulous trip.

This show holds about as much nostalgia for kids of the 80s and 90s as most of Nickelodeon’s well known game shows did. It definitely rivals some of the greats on that network, what with it’s cool style, entertaining form of education, and fun quiz elements, giving a silly but fun vibe to the whole show. It lasted about 4 years on PBS before pivoting from geography to history, with a follow-up series called Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego? lasting two more years before ending production.

Naturally for a show that’s modestly popular like Where in the World… is, there would be loads of merchandising. The common T-shirts, video game adaptations, the works. Since the show featured a capella band Rockapella singing throughout the show’s 250+ episode run, naturally a soundtrack CD was also released. But there’s more than one soundtrack made for Where in the World…, and that one’s been mostly forgotten. Let’s talk about Carmen Sandiego: Out of this World.

Look at how happy Greg Lee is.

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Admittedly, I’m writing about this primarily because of an article I read about the game show that has been making the internet rounds lately. Christian Carrion of Buzzerblog, a noted blog about game show news, did some investigative journalism about a rumored long-lost episode of the show called “Auld Lang Gone,” where a contestant was visibly injured in the bonus round, causing it to be unaired. You can read about that tale over at Buzzerblog here, and it made me think about this album as a response.

This album features 10 songs about various things, from pop-driven songs about geography, to twangy country about families, to songs about bugs and Carmen Sandiego herself. A lot of these songs have fairly simple, cutesy lyrics, which tells me this album is clearly aiming for a younger demographic. Which is not a bad thing, children’s music can be fun and exciting like its adult counterparts without being fluff Yanni-esque fare.

So, you’d think an album based on the game show where a bunch of guys sing a capella would have Rockapella show up everywhere, right? Well, technically yes. Prominent member Sean Altman produces and co-writes most of the album with longtime collaborator David Yazbek, and does a handful of backing vocals on a lot of the album.

If you want to listen along with me, I’ve put up the entire album here. Legalities aside, the album’s been out of print for over 25 years, and with the exception of two songs here, the album isn’t available on YouTube or streaming services like Spotify. If that ever changes, or a record label objects to me having this music for some kids album freely available to download, I will take the link down.

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Homefront and its ugly product placement.

Over the years I’ve written about games, I end up writing about games from a certain genre, and that’s first-person shooters. It’s my genre of choice, with enjoyable action romps like Doom and Quake to more cinematic experiences like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Though for every Call of Duty, there’s a clunker of a single player experience, such as Homefront, which I replayed recently.

I tried to play this earlier this year, but then the US-Korean conflict was fresh in my mind, thus it felt like playing it would be in bad taste. Christ, 2018 feels like it’s been ten years long.

Homefront is a game developed by Kaos Studios, a development team consisting of people who made the popular Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 way back when, were the ones who worked on this infamous game. Backed by THQ’s ambitious marketing campaign, the game had the chance to be something really, really interesting. Except it wasn’t.

Prior to Homefront, Kaos Studios only made one game: the middling Battlefield clone Frontlines: Fuel of War. After the lukewarm reception that game got, they soon were hard to work on a spiritual successor in Homefront. According to a retrospective over at Polygon, the game was meant to be strictly a multiplayer-only experience – which makes sense, considering the developer’s pedigree – but executive meddling caused a shift in marketing to add a traditional single player campaign, causing it to drown out the carefully crafted multiplayer they had made.

It’s hard to tell in this screenshot, but Connor here kept running in place, stuck on a rock.
I had to restart the checkpoint to fix it.

I decided to replay this, on PC this time – my previous experience was through the streaming OnLive service around 2012 or so – and it hasn’t gotten any better. If anything, it’s much worse than I remember.

All Ghillied Up this ain’t.

Homefront’s single player campaign checks off every single thing Call of Duty did, but somewhat worse: there’s a section where you kick open a door and shoot everybody in slow motion like in Modern Warfare 2, a portion of a stage where you’re picking off enemies as a sniper as you infiltrate an enemy camp ala “All Ghillied Up” from Call of Duty 4, even a section at the very end has you using a CUAV drone to pick off targets on the Golden Gate Bridge much like a section in Modern Warfare 2.

It feels like someone up top at THQ said to Kaos, “Hey! Remember that thing that Call of Duty did? Do that!” and did so without having a say in the matter. A shame, really.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to write about the game’s product placement.

This screenshot, from Remedy’s Alan Wake, features product placement from Energizer, slightly breaking the immersion.

Product placement in video games is a sticky kind of subject matter. I can’t think of any recent game that used it effectively short of sports games, and even there it can get pretty bad at times. Homefront is littered with advertisements for so many brands that taints the atmosphere of the game, taking place in a modest town in the middle of the United States. For being part of “the resistance,” you sure see a lot of product placement.

Kaos Studios’ lead level designer once talked about using brands in their game, and how they were allegedly rejected by several companies in doing so. Though it sounded like there’s only a brand or two in the entire game, there are many, many more brands than what they say here. It also looks pretty ironic considering in this interview they condemn Infinity Ward for making Burger Town, a fictitious brand in Modern Warfare 2.

As I played through Homefront’s campaign, I started documenting all the brands I saw. Now I don’t think I got every single bit of product placement here, there’s likely a few I missed because there’s shockingly so many of them. I’m ranking them from the least offensive to the most egregious in the entire game. It gets pretty ugly in spots, so strap in.

Homefront starts with a section where protagonist Robert Jacobs – a successful graduate of the Gordon Freeman School of Character Development – is shoved onto a bus ostensibly to be retrained as an enemy fighter pilot. That gets stopped short by the supporting allies of the resistance, Connor and Rianna. Though it does give a glimpse of a few Pabst Blue Ribbon banners strewn throughout the city before the bus is flipped over.

Not long after Jacobs escapes, they slip through a certain restaurant chain – more on that later – and walk past a Full Throttle vending machine. An energy drink brand by Monster, it’s one of two brands they own that are featured in this game, the other being NOS, which shows up a little later into Chapter 3. Oddly enough, Monster itself is a no-show here. Guess they save the main brand for the real prestigious games like Call of Duty.

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Fall Out Boy meets Asphalt 8: This ain’t a crossover, it’s a god damn car race.

So I was playing Asphalt 8: Airborne, a fairly fun if grindy racing game, and suddenly this popped up on my screen.

Is the title *supposed* to look that weird?

Asphalt 8 meets Fall Out Boy, meant to advertise their newest album? Now that’s a crossover I wasn’t expecting to see.

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Like this car? It’s cool, huh?

Admittedly, I don’t listen to a lot of Fall Out Boy. I know a few of their songs, but I always kept confusing them with My Chemical Romance and similar “emo rock” bands that permeated the landscape in the mid-2000s. From the songs I have heard from them, they seem to be an passably entertaining rock band, and I’m surprised they’re still going in 2018.

You’re probably wondering why this crossover exists. They’re a pop-rock band that hasn’t really mentioned being big racing game fans, so it seems like an ill fit, right? Well, Vivendi, the French mega-conglomerate, owns Island Records, which is Fall Out Boy’s label; as well as Gameloft, the developer behind Asphalt 8. So while it’s not completely random like, oh say, KISS Psycho Circus, it certainly doesn’t feel like a natural crossover.

 

The event goes like this: You join a new racing league, the Fall Out Boy World Tour. In it, you must build enough hype to impress the staff and members of the band to win the championship and earn a brand new car, the BMW M2 “Special Edition,” which differs from the standard BMW M2 in game by having rear spoilers and a cool paint job. You’re given a whole week in real time to do this.

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This nerd deserves a swirly.

However, the fight will be tough as you’ll be facing stiff competition, including one from the “ultimate Fall Out Boy fan,” Adam Knowles. He’ll taunt you throughout, saying he has the best tuned-up vehicle and that you’ll never beat him. As you complete challenges and gain fans, you’ll eventually have to defeat multiple AI in head-to-head races to win the championship and the BMW M2.

Some of the challenges get pretty tough as time goes on.

So how does this work? You gain fans by completing challenges in each race. Most of them are fairly simple challenges – beat the race in the target time, get first place, knockdown more cars than your opponent – others more difficult, such as requiring you to do 6 flat spins off a ramp or drift for 4,000 yards. Successfully pull off the challenge and you’ll earn fan points and build up hype. Hype increases the amount of fan points starting at 1 times the value, to 1.5 times the value, all the way up to 3x the normal value. Every normal race is 200 points, whereas the championship racers increase drastically in value as the story progresses.

Guess this race was… DEAD! ON! ARRIVAL!

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Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland Soundtrack: Where rock meets punk.

I write about a lot of random junk here. Such as writing about about having a strange collection of video game related albums in the past. Sometimes just simple soundtracks of games, other times stuff like the soundtrack of the the first Tomb Raider film, or even a set of songs featuring the cast of the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game show. Struggling with what to write about to wrap up the year, I thought I’d grab one of those unexpected soundtracks and give a review to wrap up 2017.

So let’s look at the soundtrack album to the the once-yearly skateboarding franchise: Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. Or as the CD spine calls it, “TONY HAWK’S AMERICAN WASTLAND.”

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This looks so low-quality compared to the cover it’s based on, The Clash’s London Calling.

This is the second released soundtrack album for a Tony Hawk game. The first being a “music from and inspired by” album for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, which had a bunch of songs from people who didn’t appear in the game like Outkast, Papa Roach, and Drowning Pool; while omitting good stuff like Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.”

The soundtrack for American Wasteland only covers a small portion of the 64 (!) tracks that are in the entire game, and the 14 songs featured here are all covers of punk songs of the ’70s and ’80s like Suicidal Tendencies, Misfits, The Stooges, and even Black Flag. Considering Tony Hawk games tend to hit the gamut of multiple genres, it’s a bummer they focused on this and not the rock or hip-hop sides of the game’s soundtrack.

While I ended up finding the album at a thrift store for a pittance, you don’t have to do the same. The whole album is available on digital streaming services, including Spotify, so you can listen along with me here:

Some of these songs are by bands I’m familiar with thanks to their appearances in Rock Band or Guitar Hero — My Chemical Romance, Dropkick Murphys, Fall Out Boy, Rise Against — but the rest of the bands featured are pop-rock, post-punk or emo-rock bands that came and went. A fair share of these bands were modestly popular for the era, but unfortunately my music knowledge post-1998 is kinda like swiss cheese: it’s full of gaping holes everywhere.

Punk is also a genre I don’t know all that well besides the more mainstream representations of the genre, so in this case I ended up having to go back and listen to the originals to see if the cover is better than the original, and most importantly if it’s worth listening to Taking Back Sunday cover The Descendents.

The album starter is Senses Fail’s cover of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” which was originally a deluxe edition bonus track on their debut album Let It Enfold You. Senses Fail appeared on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock‘s soundtrack, with a song I barely remember because Guitar Hero III wasn’t that good of a game. As for the song, Senses Fail give the song a much harsher pop-punk kind of sound, complete with slightly changing the lyrics since the original songs reference the lead singer. It’s alright, but kinda lacks the raw, do-it-yourself feeling of the Suicidal Tendencies’ original. At least they didn’t cover “Cyco Vision.”

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Call of Duty and Halo Megabloks: A brick-building collection restarts.

Update: Since I wrote this original post, Mega Brands was bought by Mattel, which caused some restructuring of the brands. What was once Megabloks is now known as Mega Construx, with the Megabloks brand being used for the more child-like knockoff of Lego’s “Duplo” brand. For the sake of this article, I’m sticking with the original name for reference, as it was in late 2016.

Sometimes when you’re like me and you’re bored in a department store, you tend to wander around to other sections to find some amusement or cheap deals. In my case, I browsed the clearance section of a toy aisle. Suddenly I found these little beauties:

These were originally $8 each. Somehow they got even cheaper than this. Don’t know how, but hey, discounts are great.

They’re Mega Bloks tie-ins for Halo and Call of Duty. Since I hadn’t messed with Lego (or its derivatives) for years, it felt like the perfect time to rekindle my interest in brick-building toys. It also gives me something to do when not sleeping all day.

I used to have a lot of Lego as a kid. One of my birthdays I ended up getting about several Lego playsets, with the only non-Lego thing being a VHS copy of D3: The Mighty Ducks. Though my interest in Lego waned as I got older, we still have the bricks around somewhere, in a giant tub somewhere in the house. One of my dreams is to rebuild the old playsets, but that requires time and money I don’t really have.

So these are made by Canadian company Mega Brands. If Lego is Coca-Cola, Megabloks would probably be Dr. Pepper. They’re both fairly known, but one is more iconic than the other. Megabloks tends to get the video game licenses more than Lego does, likely more content with making playsets off much bigger properties and telling TT Games to churn out a new Lego tie-in game every year. Any major video game franchise you can think of in the past few years has a Megabloks play set associated with them: In addition to Halo and Call of Duty, I’ve seen ones for Assassin’s CreedSkylanders, and several others. Mega Bloks basically has the video game brick market covered, something I don’t see Lego really tackle these days.

This box was beaten to hell. I should’ve asked if I could get a deeper discount on damaged goods. So much for the resale value…

So let’s dive in. The Halo Megabloks features a covenant guard riding a Ghost, one of the iconic vehicles of the franchise. It’s no Master Chief in a Warthog, but it’ll do. The Covenant guard also has pieces that make them resemble Jul ‘Mdama, a character introduced in the current 343 Industries Halo games. Alas, my only experiences with Halo was some of the earlier Bungie titles and no later, so I don’t know if this character has any importance to the series’ plot.

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Imagine the hassle I had keeping this motherhumper upright to take a picture.

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