The Fifth Elephant (Terry Pratchett)
Not only is The Fifth Elephant the second Discworld in a row to involve vampires (even if they're not the main focus), it's the second one in a row to delve into the theme of progress versus tradition, making the point that Vagrant Story summed up as "Without a foothold in the past we cannot walk towards the future." This time it's the Night Watch which is a plus.
The A story concerns a shakeup in the hierarchy of the Uberwald dwarves, and Vimes, Lady Sybil, and a core group of the Night Watch heading off to negotiate a trade deal. The dwarves are already on edge because they're split between two potential kings (which looking back at the conservative and liberal bent, might have parallels to presidential elections), and when a sacred artifact goes missing Vimes has to find it before shit hits the fan. This is the core of the "progress versus tradition" theme, like how dwarves practically deify a dangerous mining job that's rendered obsolete by technology. Or how all dwarves are traditionally "he"s, but outrage is brewing as more and more female dwarves want to be recognized as such. Gee, I wonder what this is an allegory for!
In the B story the werewolves have taken the instability among the dwarves as an opportunity the strengthen their grasp on Uberwald, prompting Angua to sneak off and try to handle the werewolves on her own. But where Angua goes, Carrot's not far behind. I suppose the connection here is that wolves don't care about the past and live soley in the present, and recognizing the past is what seperates humans (and other sapient beings in the case of Discworld) from animals.
Finally there's the C story, which threw me out of the book whenever it came up. Because both Vimes and Carrot have taken off to Uberwald, Colon is put in charge of the Night Watch and turns into a power-drunken cretin screaming about sugar cubes. Fortunately this becomes less and less prevalent as the book goes on.
Bob and George: The Comic Strip (Written and Illustrated by David Anez)
Unlike Dominic Deegan, I did seriously read this prior to now. Twice, in fact. The first time was when I was in high school and was reading it as it was being updated, but at some point I lost interest. I don't remember when, but if I had to hazard a guess it was around the Mega Man 4 storyline and the introduction of that fucking Ran character. The second time was a few years later, not long after it had finished and I went through the whole archive. Going in this third time I didn't remember many of the specific comics, but generally remembered it as a delightfully stupid parody that went completely off the rails as it went on.
And yeah, that's how I still feel about it.
On a side note, in their heydays there was some rivalry between the Bob and George and Neglected Mario Characters communities over which one was truly the first sprite webcomic and which one was better (or maybe only the NC side really gave a shit, I dunno). I don't think my history with NC is affecting my opinion of Bob and George, especially since I haven't been a part of it for over a decade, but I thought I'd throw it out and let you decide for yourself.
Despite toying with some hand-drawn dross a couple times, the meat of Bob and George is a Mega Man parody where everybody but Protoman is varying degrees of dumbass. Sometimes everybody's hanging around Dr. Light's lab in their Mega Man 7 sprites and making each other miserable, sometimes Mega Man is reliving one of his NES adventures, but either way it's consistently amusing or at least harmless enough. If the comic had been this kind of shit the whole way through, it would have been my kind of shit.
Instead, interwoven with the Mega Man buffoonery is a storyline concerning a bunch of
Mega Man sprite recolors original characters, primarily the titular Bob and George, trying to... do something. Bob is an evil pyrokinetic, George is electrokinetic and obstensibly the hero but is also an idiot. I didn't have a problem with the shoehorning of "original characters do not steal" into the Mega Man lore (well, except for the aforementioned Ran) so much as how overpowered they are. Most fight scenes amount to the protagonists getting the stuffing beaten out of them until they magically power up and start beating the antagonist, until they pull something out of their ass and start winning again. That is, when the author isn't literally coming down and solving things with a wave of his hand. I give a lot of leeway to this stuff when the creator is just fucking around for lulz, but even that slack was getting strained.
But the biggest problem with Bob and George is it just went on too long. The comic ran for seven years and doesn't evolve enough to justify that, instead spending most of its runtime waffling around. Maybe when it was being updated you could pop in, have a chuckle, and go about your day. Reading through the archives now you're sifting though a shitload of filler, particularly those anniversary party comics with the forum members that have aged like raw shrimp, and some of the running gags like everybody's ice cream obsession get old after a while.
The best it can manage is acting superficially more grown up, with a "darker" and "more elaborate" story about time travel, alternate dimensions, Mega Man randomly turning evil, and the "Cataclysm" that occurs between OG Mega Man and the X series that kills most of the characters and leaves Protoman a brooding tosspot. But it's this comic, where our wacky Mega Man spoof turns into blood and death and horror, where I could practically hear the *CRACK* of the comic losing me. And when it's not trying to be gritty and serious, it's spending strip after strip infodumping and reexplaining what happened in previous strips in tedious detail (but hey, it's still not as bad as Dominic Deegan in that regard). And god, what the hell was going on with the Mega Man X chapter?
The final chapter is this grand battle where all Hell breaks loose and the fate of the universe is at stake, which then ends with an anticlimactic "screw you." Do people watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail and think anticlimactic "screw you"s are the only way to end comedies? And come on, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was what, an hour and a half long? Not seven years only for it to end like that.
Rating: for roughly the first half, later on
Emperor Joker (Each issue is written and illustrated by different people so I dunno)
Superman is commonly criticized as being so righteous and overpowered he flies past "awesome" and circles back around to being boring, and that's not a sentiment I'm going to disagree with. But this storyline has two things I have a bit of a soft spot for: putting Superman in a situation he can't just punch his way out of, and the personal interaction between a superpowered individual and somebody they could smear on the wall with an ill-timed sneeze.
The premise is the Joker has stolen Mr. Mxyzptlk's* reality altering powers and remade the world into one where villains rule and heroes drool, and Superman is the only one who can stop him before he completely destroys space and time. It's a little weird that Superman is able to resist the Joker when the Spectre, who's supposed to be the embodiment of God's vengeance falls to him, but whatever, we'll run with it. Of note is that it's a lot darker than the episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold it inspired, since Joker repeatedly shooting Lex Luthor in the head, playing Poker with the rotting corpses of three Robins, and genociding the Chinese wasn't exactly going to fly in a children's cartoon. The black humor and cartoony artwork at least keep it from getting completely grim.
* Yes, this is the name of a comic book character, I didn't have a seizure here.
Sitting down to write this, I could barely remember the first half. The rising action of a story tends to be the part I have the most trouble with as that's when the pieces are being laid out, but this was jumping from location to location and introducing character after character, and there's a bit where Superboy and Supergirl go to Hell and talk with the devil for a bit that I'm pretty sure is just forgotten about afterward? It doesn't help that Bizarro is so prevalent, and I kept having to stop to parse what he was actually saying.
Then a switch gets flipped when Supes finally finds Batman, who's trapped in an endless loop of being tortured to death, then revived just so he can die horribly again. The comic tries to play up the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane, whom the Joker has remade into his world's Lex Luthor, but it's actually the (platonic, I should specify) bond between Superman and Batman that makes for the more interesting story beats. I certainly remember the Joker trying to break Supes by inserting him into Thomas and Martha Wayne's murder than the twelfth time Lois backstabs somebody. I think it has to do with the evil, fake Lois being so alienating that when Joker squishes her at the end, I couldn't bring myself to give a shit.
It's also Batman who Superman needs to anchor onto the finally beat the Joker, which I guess is fitting considering whose nemesis the Joker is, after all. This culminates in a melancholic ending and a final panel that made me audibly "Oof," but I might have been misunderstanding what was going on: The Joker is thwarted and reality restored in a way not dissimilar to the Brave and the Bold episode, but Superman and Batman still remember what happened, either because their minds weren't rewritten by the Joker at the time or they were present for the big endgame. As his torment catches up to him Batman's sanity begins to rapidly crumble, and the only way to save him is for the Spectre to transfer his memories to somebody else. Superman offers to carry them and from what I've read elsewhere Spectre goes with it, but when first read it I thought Spectre went "You're too kind, Kal-el, but I have a better idea" and threw them onto the Joker instead.
Torin's Passage (PC)
Before I dive into the Sierra text adventure "classics" I wanted to try something from the later end of their library. You know, when you could tell what the hell was going on in them.
One thing I liked was the game's hint system. As you solve puzzles you accrue points, and if you get stuck on a puzzle you can spend those points for clues. First you'll get a nudge in the right direction for one point, but if you keep buying hints for the current puzzle the clues will become more blatant, but also more expensive. I wish other point and clicks had some way of getting a little help so you don't have to go to GameFAQs and have the puzzle (and others you might accidentally look at) completely ruined.
The first two chapters are okay, but bogged down with animation bloat and mediocre voice acting. Or stupid bullshit like that house in the second chapter that, out of nowhere, is framed like a black and white sitcom down to every line of dialogue being followed by a laugh track even when the line didn't actually contain a joke. But my problems with the game didn't really start until the end of the second chapter, were you have nine plates with lines on them that you have to arrange to form a basic face. Except there are a lot of ways to make a face with the plates, so I had to keep spending hint points to figure out which face the game wanted me to make.
The third chapter is oddly short, consisting only of a few logic puzzles. The fourth world is utter bollocks. The puzzles in the first portion require cannonballs, and to get them you have to activate this carnival... thing built into a mountain, then watch the ball tumble through the machine for something like thirty seconds before it's finally ejected out. And if you're not standing in the right place when it's finally fired out, it falls into some lava along with your time. And you need to do this at least four times. And if you took too many balls because you didn't instinctively know how many will balance the seesaw, that too was a waste of time. Then there's the lava maze where you repeatedly click to sloooowly navigate Torin a few pixels at a time (but hey, if this was King's Quest you'd have to save every few steps while fighting with Torin constantly falling into the lava. But I'm getting ahead of myself). I was almost to the end of it when I saw something glimmering on a different path, thought "Oh fuck, I need whatever the hell that is, huh," and had to redo the whole damn thing. After that is a lava cave that plays like somebody at Sierra saw the one in Secret of Monkey Island and thought "Hey, what if we took out the item that shows the way through and left the player to bumble around and hope they're going towards the exit! And make the character walk tortuously slow!"
The fifth chapter returns to the inventory puzzles and overall, if you were to cut (or better yet, redo) everything from the face plates to the beginning of the fifth chapter you'd have a competent game. But puzzles are only half of a point and click adventure game along with the story and Torin's Passage's writing is frankly generic. The most creative thing is the game's world being five worlds nested in each other like a Matryoshka doll, which could have been a neat bit of world building but really only serves to split the game into five chapters. Instead of an exploration of the five worlds it's the story of a boring lost prince and his shapeshifting cat thing on a quest to save his foster parents from a witch, who herself is being manipulated by Torin's evil uncle who wants to steal the throne. You know, Disney Template #12b.
At least the backgrounds are pretty.
Howard the Duck Vol 2 (Written by Steve Gerber, Illustrated by Gene Colan et al)
There's an awesome Star Wars parody comic here, but overall I thought this was a bit weaker than the first volume.
Up until now Howard didn't really have a main antagonist unless you count the kidney lady but that's a bit of a stretch. So in any given issue he could be facing off against a mind-controlling turnip, a vampire cow, an old man in a beaver suit, or whatever other burst of insanity Gerber pulled out of his mad, mad head. The penultimate issue of volume one ended with Howard encountering a guy with a bell on his head named Dr. Bong (yup) who becomes the main antagonist for the second volume. Now, whether Howard has been kidnapped by a band of con artists disguised as a circus troupe or a cult of Wal-Mart smilies who feel it's their duty to purify the world by blowing it up, Dr. Bong is in the background. Maybe it's a problem of timing, because a neckbeard who feels entitled to a woman who clearly wants nothing to do with him and uses yellow journalism to destroy the lives of anyone he doesn't like isn't as absurd and/or funny in 2019 as Gerber imagined it in 1976. Or maybe there's just something about recurring antagonists in this comic that doesn't gel with me. The kidney lady started out as a harmless non-sequitur, but began to really piss me off after a while.
By the way, Mark Evanier co-wrote the "Duck-itis" issue. Yeah, the Garfield and Friends guy. Not one of the more memorable issues and the art is all kinds of wonky, but it's worth mentioning.
Some Retro Sierra Adventure Games (PC)
And now a look at some REALLY old Sierra games. I'm lumping these together and apart from Torin's Passage for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to complete Torin's Passage using only the in-game hint system. These ones are so obtuse and nonsensical I had to use a walkthrough to get more than a few minutes into any of them, so if you think that invalidates my opinion you're free to skip this chunk.
Second, these have a lot of the same problems, which I want to go over before getting into the specifics of each game. The interface is a frustrating shitshow, this being before the time you could click on objects to interact with them and had to type in what you wanted the game to do. Then retype it with slightly different wording because the game doesn't understand you. Then retype it after moving because you're not quite in the right place to open a door or feed a giant rat. Then reload your last save because you got two pixels too close to the giant rat and it killed you. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Maniac Mansion, but god, SCUMM has to have been the most important innovation for the genre. Second is the idea that the game shouldn't become unwinnable because you didn't pick up a random item an hour ago in an area you can't return to, and third is not killing the player because they looked under a rock or walked too close to a ledge.
Fuck's sake, Torin's Passage had some bullshit deaths out of nowhere, but at least it put you right back before your mistake instead of making you reload a save you might have not have updated for half an hour.
And the puzzles. Hooooly shit, the puzzles.
I started out with Leisure Suit Larry: Land of the Lounge Lizards because I thought the story of a dweeby guy and his misadventures in trying to get laid would be more interesting than a knight or prince who just want to be a goody good boy. The writing having more personality than Torin's Passage or King's Quest is something, but the actual gameplay is standard retro Sierra bullshit. For one thing you can't walk between areas or else you'll get beaten to death in an alley, so you have to take a taxi. And how you're supposed to know what locations to type in is anyone's guess. Also, you start the game with $90, but you need well over $200 to finish the game and the only way to get more money is to gamble at the casino. When you've designed a game that pretty much requires the player to save scum, it might be worth going back to the drawing board. Although it is refreshing to play a game that reacts appropriately when you inevitably get pissed off and start typing in curse words.
I think King's Quest: Quest for the Crown was meant for kids, what with its setting being patchwork quilt of fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel and graphics that look like a cross between MS Paint and a digital coloring book. But how the hell an adult much less a child is supposed to figure any of this shit out is beyond me. If you solved that Rumpelstiltskin puzzle on your own, check your house for unicorns and pixies and ethical oil tycoons because like them you do not exist. And don't get me started on climbing the beanstalk, where it seems to randomly kick you off and to your death. And maybe don't have stairs in your game if you can't walk diagonally? Especially when you can walk too far forward and fall to your death?
King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne shares its predecessor's love of moon logic and deaths out of nowhere, but drives home another problem I have with King's Quest, that being there's no reason for me to give a shit. Daventry wants to be a magical world of wonder where Atlantis, vampires, magic horses, Aladdin's lamp, and, uh, Batman all exist, but without the narrative or connecting framework to give it some cohesion it's just a Frankenstein mish-mash of random bullshit. Oh, and this along with the first King's Quest did this thing where some screens have a chance to spawn a wolf or ogre or evil wizard that kills you if it touches you, forcing you to leave the screen for no other reason than "fuck you." I bring it up now because King's Quest II once spawned the fucker right on top of me while I was halfway across the screen.