Review: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

The Dragonbone Chair is the first book in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series and one of the better traditional epic fantasies that’s out there.  The novel follows the young castle scamp Simon an apparently unassuming and unimportant young man who gets drawn into a dire events far beyond his meager station.  Apprenticed to the castle doctor Simon spends most of his days dreaming of being a hero but the machinations of an ancient evil soon creep into his own and Simon soon finds himself on the road and on a desperate to uncover the truth behind whats going on.  On the way Simon meets a troll (in Williams’ world of Osten Ard and hearty though diminutive folk) who rides a wolf, rescues an elf-like Sithi, a kindly witch, and even manages to fall for a princess.   If you’re a fan of epic fantasy and haven’t experienced The Dragonbone Chair it is a wholly familiar affair thought not without its own merits.

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Retro Review: NHL ’94 (Sega Genesis)

I’ve spent (or wasted, depending on your viewpoint) a significant percentage of my life playing videogames. And while there’s always some newly purchased game serving as the flavor of the week, most of my gaming time has been spent on a relatively small number of games. And with the NHL playoffs in full swing, it’s the perfect time to give you five good reasons to play one of them: NHL ’94.

Reason 1: Simple and effective controls. There’s only three face buttons on the normal Genesis controller: A, B, and C. And this particular game can really be played with just B (pass) and C (shoot/check) if you don’t feel like the dumping the puck in or changing lines. Sure, there’s a little bit of depth with one timers and wrist shots vs slapshots but in the end it’s just a couple of buttons. Fast forward to 2008 and sports games are pretty much dead to me.  I don’t want to play a simulation (unless the name is a hilarious misnomer) and that’s what the sports genre has inevitably pushed towards.  Now if you want to play sports game, you have to deal with a control scheme that’s more complex than Splinter Cell.  Do I need a button dedicated to blocking the puck during a shot?  Not particularly.  Apparently the EA team responsible for Madden thinks I need a “pump up the crowd” button.  They are wrong.  The only remaining hope is that Nintendo’s lust for leveraging the Mario brand (read: milking) by combining it with any and all activities will result in Mario Hockey and provide us with quality and simple arcade controls.

Reason 2: Quality animations. For its time, NHL ’94 had some excellent animations. Goalies dive and slide to make kicks. The players skate pretty well. But it’s not the normal stuff that makes this one of the five reasons to get this game. It’s the unique animations that show you somebody working on this game cared. If you check a guy near the bench, he’ll fold up over the wall and then fall back onto the ice. If you stop really fast, ice will actually spray up. There’s the elusive “shattered glass” scenario where the puck breaks the glass behind the goal. I’ve only had this happen to me once in my ridiculous number of hours playing the game. But my personal favorite (and the reason why I made this it’s own category) is that if you look closely, players will take one hand off their stick and swat at a puck that’s in the air near them. I don’t even know if the game is programmed so that they can make contact with the puck in that scenario but someone drew the sprites and somebody coded the animation anyway. Sweet deal.

Reason 3: Organ music. Organ music is dying out at most sporting venues. The Flyers have a great organist in David May and he gets to solo sometimes during the intermissions. Still, he’s not use nearly enough during the actual game and the replacement music is usually mediocre pop-rock. So for all of the people who’ve had their Mexican Hat Dance and Hava Nagila taken from them, this game has your back.

Reason 4: Anaheim Mighty Ducks. After playing this game for so long, you pick up lots of cheap ways to score that exploit the game design. You can loop around behind the goal, cause a defenseman to run his own goalie and grab an easy wraparound. Or on breakaways you can just drift to the side while shooting to the opposite post. The goalies never figure it out (probably because their AI is just slightly more advanced than the standard Goomba). Eventually crushing the computer becomes boring and you have to handicap yourself to bring the challenge back to a reasonable level. Enter the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. This was the year that Disney came up with the second greatest marketing idea ever (here’s the best): buy a major sports team and use that to promote movies about a fake sports team. As an expansion team, the Ducks completely got the shaft in NHL ’94. See, back in 1994 it was hard to distinguish player qualities like “puck handling” and “checking” because the games were so simplistic. So the easiest way to separate good and bad teams was to make the bad teams slower…everyone on the bad teams…even the fast players. The result is a Ducks team that looks like they’re wading through quicksand while the Red Wings of the world make a line change and still have enough time to stop your breakaway. The ability to handicap yourself (aka choosing a different difficulty level) gives this game added replay value (albeit in one of the goofiest ways possible).

Reason 5: Unsportsmanlike Conduct. In contact sports, hitting someone after the play is over is generally considered a bad thing. The primary reason is that the person assumes the play is over (he’s correct in this assumption) and then he gets blind sided. Well video games have always been about escapism and being able to do things you can’t do in real life. And NHL ’94 wasn’t programmed to punish extracurricular activities. Give up a goal? Check that lucky jerk into the boards. Score a game winner? See if you can knock down all five players from the opposing team before the game switches to the box score. You should buy this game just for the ability to duel with a friend after every goal scored.

Note from Mike:Check out this review of the NHL ’94 Manual from 10 Cent Freeze Pops.

10 Games

Jeremiah’s earlier post got my thinkin’ on my favorite 10 video games. This list is entirely subject and while not every game on it will be the “best game ever” my experiences playing the games (and often the people I’m playing it with) make them stand out from the pack.

10) Chu Chu Rocket (Dreamcast)
The goal? Get the mice (chu chus) to the rockets by placing arrows on a grid while avoiding hungry cats. Silly? Yes. Japanese? Very yes. Insanely entertaining? Hell yeah. There are few games that can top the manic insanity of four player Chu Chu Rocket. Not much can top John Engel’s frantic “Stop catting me!” as cat after cat devoured his helpless Chu Chus. This game would a perfect addition to Virtual Console. Check out the crazy japanese commercial:

9) Mario Tennis (Nintendo 64): Late night Mario Tennis ring shot matches probably kept the ‘rents up a bit late. I remember frantic screaming during 50+ ring volleys that would make or break the match. The GC version got a little too much with “super shots” and lost some of the simple pong like fun that the original title catpured. Classic fun. No good videos.

8.) Perfect Dark (Nintendo 64): Sure it had its problems, slowdown even with the expansion memory, but for stat tracking and sheer customability few titles touched PD. From the homebrewed “Against all odds” to n-bomb matches PD kept us occupied for quite some time. Not to mentioned the continuation of “Tower.” Stat tracking rocked in this game and there wasn’t much it didn’t record. In pure variety this game never really got stale.

7.) Goldeneye (Nintendo 64): Well, how could I not mention Goldeneye? Even Perfect Dark didn’t completely replace it. The varied skill levels of my friends gave birth to “Tower.” Played in Complex the number of kills didn’t matter but the win went to whoever had the designated “tower” at the end of the match, kudos to anyone who could also get the “victory view” at the end of the match. Goldeneye and PD gave birth to ever iconic “ca-caw” which, also according to John Engel if I’m not mistaken, was the sound a vulture makes.

6.) Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64): From racing to battle mode we had a lot of fun with this game. Double Dash (on the GameCube) is close a close second to this version but, of course, lacks the nostalgia to put it over the top.

5.)WCW/WWF games by THQ/AKI (Nintendo 64): This includes WCW vs. NWO, WCW Revenge, WWF No Mercy, and WWF Wrestlemania 2000. On those occaisons when we would order pay-per-view wrestling the “boring” matches would be replaced by our own courtesy of these games. Controls were simple, fun, and easy to learn. Matches were long and could swing any way. Good times.

4.) Baldur’s Gate II + Throne of Bhaal (PC): I don’t think I’ve wasted as much time any other game as I did on Baldur’s Gate. I would sit in class and daydream about the game, there hasn’t been an RPG yet that has come close to being as involved. Sure I enjoyed the new Bioware titles, but this one sticks with me to this day. Minsc put it best: “Adventure, excitement, and steel on steel. The stuff of legends! Right, Boo!?

3.) Duke Nukem 3D (PC): I remember playing modem to modem deathmatch with this game. One on one duels in the streets of LA, and God help any strippers that got in the crossfire. I admonish 3dRealms almost daily for fumbling a next-gen sequel to this game. While I wouldn’t have wanted a rush job the horrible joke of WID (when it’s done, the release date for Duke Nukem Forever) was a bit too far in the opposite direction. Fast furious, no thought, FPS action with over the top violence and cheesy sexual innuendo was the hallmark of this game. Duke is a charicature of an action hero from the muscle shirt to the T2 stlye shades and there was absolutely no reason to take him seriously. Damn fun game.

2.) Mario Party (Nintendo 64): We wore holes…in our hands. Seriously. Ripped open our flesh playing this game. For some of us it was both hands. Sure they later offered a glove, but gloves were for sissies. Who knew fishing for treasure could be so damned painful.

1.) Interstate ’76 (PC): This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my favorite game of all time. The year is 1976. The place is Texas. And you? Your an auto-vigilante. You drive a muscle car tricked out with guns and armor, your goal is get gas, to survive, and to avenge your sister’s murder. This game oozed atmosphere, from the main character’s name (Groove Champion) to your poetry spouting mentor Taurus. It had a great soundtrack and had both an involved single player game and great multiplayer action. Activision blew it with the sequel, Interstate ’82, and seamingly gave up after that. But, given the sucess of Full Auto, I maintain some small hope that this franchise will be resurrected. Because I love this game you get 2 videos: