TCW 7.10: “Phantom Apprentice”

This Siege of Mandalore arc is adding so much nuance to Revenge of the Sith, which is already an above-average Star Wars film.

I love how much Maul recognizes and has figured out Sidious’s vision–how close he was to figuring it all out in time, how much he realizes he was just a pawn in a grandmaster’s game, how he could have almost destabilized it all. When he is foiled, because Maul is always foiled, I could sort of feel for him. He knows what is coming and he’s going to fail to stop it.

I love the moment when Maul and Ahsoka have something approaching a parley, and how that moment feels like one of the critical shatterpoints (to use Mace Windu’s preferred term) of the entire saga. Someone on Twitter suggested the following quote from the Revenge of the Sith novelization as the epigraph for this arc, since these episodes have eschewed that Clone Wars tradition:

This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it.

I found myself thinking about that in relation to the episode. It fits so well, and it really pops in context of the Ahsoka/Maul confrontation. You can’t help but feel that if Ahsoka had sided with Maul, everything could have played out very differently. Maybe the Sith would have still ruled, maybe the galaxy would have descended into chaos…or maybe a weary and battered Jedi Order would have been able to rebuild the Republic (or something better) over time. I felt as though Ahsoka was facing options that could have completely reprogrammed the outcome of Revenge of the Sith–but of course, her fate and the fates of her friends are already set in stone. There was fantastic tension, not only for this story, but for the bigger story whose outcome we already know in full.

I love how Obi-Wan was really trying to reach out to Anakin. He knew the Jedi Council was wrong and felt awful for giving Anakin the assignment of spying on the Chancellor. That much was clear in Revenge of the Sith. But it’s heartbreaking that Obi-Wan tried to turn to Ahsoka, knowing she would understand how Anakin felt in facing the hypocrisy of the Council, hoping that she could get through to him–heartbreaking because we know she’ll never get that chance.

I love the beautiful, wild, jaw-dropping lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul. The mo-capped choreography is incredible. The wide-ranging setpieces used to host the sprawling fight are impressive, as well. The final high-beam fight has a dangerous, acrobatic energy comparable to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight.

I even love the tacky episode title, living up to the spirit of the goofy serial names of the other films, nodding to The Phantom Menace of Sidious’s grand plot against the Republic and the Jedi, and (it would seem) ultimately referring to Anakin, who has been groomed to be Sidious’s new apprentice all this time, as Maul now knows.

I love so much about this beautiful, exhilarating, emotional episode. Only two more left, and then The Clone Wars will be complete!

My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

TPM on the 20th

Like many people, I celebrated The Phantom Menace‘s twentieth anniversary today by watching the film. I remain very much so someone on the outside looking in on fandom, but it has seemed to me that fans of the movie have become more vocal in celebrating it over the past five or ten years, and general opinion has mellowed.

I have a bad habit of providing opinions amplified by several layers of hyperbole in person, and so I know over the years that my expressed opinion on the films has changed rather a lot. I was ten years old when the movie came out, and still a fairly new Star Wars fan, and so I was the perfect viewer in that moment. I loved it. In my adolescence, as a result of the combination of vehement criticism from older fans and my natural teenage aversion to anything silly or earnest, I joined my friends in decrying the film–typically in the context of condemning the course of the prequel trilogy as a whole (Attack of the Clones has always been my least-favorite Star Wars movie, so at the time, it felt like the movies were getting progressively worse). It was in college that I started to come back around to the film, returning to it as to an old friend. My opinion today is tempered. I think it’s a fine but flawed film, and it typically lands in the middle of any personal ranking of the franchise installments.

My personal criticisms of the film, despite my broader changes in attitude toward it, have remained relatively consistent. The podrace scene is too long and bogs down the story. It’s unclear why Palpatine’s Sith identity is treated like a secret withheld from the audience, even while the camera lingers over him ominously in many key scenes and everyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi knows how this all turns out. The scatological humor, while not unique to this episode, isn’t funny. Anakin is too young, with too much of an age gap, to take his childhood crush on Padmé very seriously, and to the extent that she reciprocates it (“my caring for you will remain”), it’s just creepy. Despite the increased diversity of the human cast, many of the new aliens pick up uncomfortable racist tropes in their characterization. And while a common complaint is that the plot is boring in its focus on trade route taxation, I’d counter by saying that it’s actually a rather action-packed adventure that expects its viewers to jump right into the setting and come along for the ride, resulting in gaps in exposition that actually make that trade conflict, and the associated governmental and commercial bodies, rather muddled, simply dressing up a MacGuffin to get things going. (In general, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels as a whole is that they provide a lot more complicated galactic society but do a very poor job of properly framing how these complicated pieces actually function and fit together.)

Despite all that, it’s a really fun movie that takes risks both as a film and as an installment in the Star Wars saga, and it feels incredibly invested with the vision of George Lucas. It quickly introduces new characters that millions of people now relate to and admire deeply–including a character like Qui-Gon Jinn, who is given considerable humanity in this one-off appearance through the performance of Liam Neeson. More broadly, all of the performances are effective, and I would push back at those who claim that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman were stiff or wooden in their roles here. There’s a lot of affection and yet tension between McGregor’s Obi-Wan and his master. Portman is reserved and imposing as Queen Amidala, yet when she dons her handmaiden identity, she often allows herself to be frustrated, angry, affectionate, and engaged.  (Furthermore, the distant identity and elaborate clothing and makeup as Queen Amidala allow Padmé to use a handmaiden as her double–and it is impressively difficult to tell Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley apart when the makeup is on.) Ian McDiarmid is always incredible as Palpatine, and here we first got to see the mirage of a warm and endearing politician, even as McDiarmid portrays a depth of hidden meaning in his distant frowns and tiny smiles. If we look at Ahmed Best’s performance, and the special effects work that went into creating Jar Jar Binks, I think we could all agree that it’s impressive, even if you can’t get behind Jar Jar’s goofy slapstick or the uncomfortable echoes of minstrelsy. Ray Park is scary and compelling as Darth Maul, a character with an iconic visual design, and the fight scenes between Jedi and Sith are some of the best in the franchise–especially that final fight set to “Duel of the Fates,” which in turn has to be a franchise highlight for John Williams’s scores. Even Jake Lloyd does a good enough job as Anakin, despite having to deal with ridiculous lines like “Yipee!” His farewell with Pernilla August as his mother Shmi is a heartfelt, beautiful, earned moment that always touches me.

While I’m sure that some fans will look on The Phantom Menace with a special sort of purity, even as others continue to view it only with contempt, I’ll still enjoy it as an imperfect and unique episode in my favorite film franchise. I think, all in all, it’s stood up to the test of time better than many might have expected twenty years ago.

Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I liked Solo. It was better than I expected, and even knowing about its troubled production history, I didn’t see anything about the movie that made it appear jagged or flawed or thematically inconsistent. Ron Howard’s mid-production step into the director’s seat appears to have been a good decision, and he delivered a slick space action flick.

At its core, Solo is a heist movie, and it’s a really fun one at that. We see young Han, played charmingly by Alden Ehrenreich, escape from an oppressed life on Corellia, join and then defect from the Empire, and meet his loyal friend Chewbacca (this time portrayed by Joonas Suotamo, who seems to have done a very good job of capturing Peter Mayhew’s physicality down to small gestures and cocks of the head) and his less-than-loyal frenemy Lando Calrissian (with Donald Glover absolutely nailing the role, even if a few moments leaned past Billy Dee Williams imitation to perhaps even parody) as he gets involved with an outlaw crew in a job that quickly goes south, putting them in the debt of terrifying crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany switches fluidly from charming to violent, his personality always domineering and seething with energy). To work off the debt, Han’s new crew attempt to steal Coaxium, an explosive hyperfuel McGuffin, from Kessel and deliver it to a refinery outside of the Empire before it goes boom.

The ensemble cast rounding out the crew Han associates with is great. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is folksy, rough-spun, and charming; someone who could be a mentor figure if it weren’t for his unreliability. Harrelson’s delivery suggests a worn and worldly character looking to survive, and the plot gives him the classic heist leader drive of wanting to do one more job to get out of the game. Thandie Newton’s Val presents a cold veneer and trusts no one, but in her softer moments she shows her love for Beckett. Rio, voiced by Jon Favreau, is a sort of weird uncle. Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is an eager dreamer when we first meet her, but when Han rediscovers her after escaping Corellia, she already hides a thousand sorrows and sins. Clarke does a good job of tinging Qi’ra’s manner with guilt and broken spirit, but Qi’ra is also a survivor and a pragmatist and a fierce fighter. We can tell that things will never work out between her and Han as soon as they are reunited–and it’s not just the fact that she’s not around by the classic trilogy. There’s a distance between them, a distance imposed by Qi’ra herself, something we see in her eyes and hear in her voice, even though she still obviously has love for him. It’s a complicated performance and in some ways seems like a dark mirror or inversion of Han’s relationship with Leia (who is an idealist and who refuses to outwardly portray her affection for Han).

Lastly, there’s Lando’s copilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a cranky droid revolutionary who secretly loves her captain. There is so much warmth and chemistry between the two. And L3 raises some genuine issues about the treatment of droids in the Star Wars galaxy. Her big moment midway through the film draws a clear connection between the restraining bolts and memory wipes used on droids and the chains and prods used on organic slaves. Disappointingly, most of her revolutionary attitudes are used for laughs, often seemingly at her expense. On one occasion, Lando asks her if she needs anything, and she quips, “Equal rights,” which makes it seem almost as though she’s in on the joke too. Even that big moment I mentioned is initiated by L3 through an incidental afterthought gesture; the fact that it spirals into something bigger is initially an obvious joke and only turns serious as it goes on. Of everything in the film, L3’s portrayal might have been the least tonally consistent. I loved L3, but I didn’t love how she was framed. The character concept was cool, and Waller-Bridge was great, but the droid was played for easy laughs for much of the film. At one point, Lando even jokes that he would wipe her memory if her navigational databanks weren’t so valuable, which seems an incredibly cruel thing to say to someone who is a friend and who is so personally outraged by the treatment of her kind. His joke really only works to the extent that we don’t take L3 seriously and view her ideals as absurd.

I want to circle back to Ehrenreich for a moment. He does a fantastic job of portraying a young, good-at-heart Solo who desperately wants to be a rogue outlaw (even if he’s always going to be a hero). He was funny, he was charming, he was clever, and he managed to convey Han’s often-backfiring efforts to quick-talk his way out of every situation. I liked him. I like that Star Wars was able to recast a major character and was able to find someone who had a loose physical resemblance to Harrison Ford but who, more importantly, could capture the speech and body language of the character. Even more so than Glover’s take on Lando, Ehrenreich’s reinterpretation of a classic character is less imitation and more adaptation; he brings something new to Han Solo, and I think Star Wars benefits from it. (But let me be clear: Glover is a tremendously joyous delight as Lando, and I love him more with everything new I see him in. I’d love to see a Lando film starring Glover getting up to wacky adventures.)

Interestingly, the plot of the film leaves young Han revealed as a fundamentally good and heroic person who can’t just walk away from people in trouble. By the end of the film, he’s had to make some hard decisions and he’s seen a lot of people die, but he’s still largely done the right thing whenever he has enough information to know what the right thing is. Sure, he steps away from open rebellion against the Empire at the end, but it certainly feels like he’s deluding himself into thinking that he can stay away from an idealistic cause for long. Quite a lot more must have happened to Han to make him the cynical criminal of A New Hope, but he’s still got plenty of years and employment with a certain Hutt to go by the end of this film.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Solo is that it is a film that can be enjoyed basically on its own, with very little understanding of the larger franchise, yet it has so many clever allusions to Legends and the new canon and provides an interesting new way to view The Empire Strikes Back [minor spoilers to follow]. I might go so far as to say that Solo is to Empire what Rogue One is to A New Hope (makes sense, given that the elder Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Empire).  We even get a new way of conceiving of Han and Lando’s relationship with the Falcon! Han’s relationship to Lando, in particular, feels very fresh and explosive and dynamic. A lot of the little attempts to explain Han’s background felt cheesy at worst and unnecessary at best, but I thought that giving Billy Dee Williams’s consistent pronunciation of Han a layer of irony-laden meaning was quite clever! (For an example of one explanation I didn’t like: how Han got his name. He has no family, so the Imperial recruitment officer assigns it to him? That’s fine, but it seems contradicted by the fact that Han reminisces about his dad working in the shipyards before he was laid off. Even if Han was lying to the Imperial recruitment officer, why would he continue to use Solo after deserting? Sure, we can fill in some possible reasons–maybe he didn’t like his dad, for instance, though he seems to remember him fondly and with heartbreak). While I liked the charisma between Han and Lando, I would say that Jonathan Kasdan’s assertion that Lando is pansexual is pretty flimsy within the film itself (his played-up flirtiness with Han in the Falcon as seen in the trailers is largely in response to a sarcastic comment from his copilot L3-37, and outside of that moment his flirting is basically directed toward females, specifically attractive human females for the most part, even though Glover’s delivery does always project a simmering self-confident sexuality).

Oh, and as for references, there are so many that I’m sure I missed a lot. Some that I noticed include:

And before I get into larger spoilers, I’d like to point out that Solo feels rather like Rogue One in showing more of a gritty, boots-on-the-ground, everyman’s view of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The hot rod enthusiast, street-racing young punk Solo, the grimy and broken-down environments, and the consistent action tinged with genuine emotion suggest to me that George Lucas himself might rather like this film. But it also has great attention to tone. We start off in a Dickensian sort of setting, and Corellia does have an industrial nineteenth-century vibe to it. When Han gets caught up in the Empire, he has to slug it out as an infantry grunt on Mimban, where the muddy trench warfare, senseless deaths, and even the uniform designs evoke World War I. And I know I’m not alone in noting that, as Solo becomes more heroic and his prospects for a more exciting future, free from servitude to a street boss or military officer, grow brighter, the film’s lighting in turn grows brighter, away from shady, dingy, mucky locales to environments that often pop with color. So at the least, I think director of photography Bradford Young and costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon did some excellent work (not to mention the colossal art department–and it should be mentioned that the variety of aliens new and old was great, too!).

I had some issues with the film, but to discuss them involves bringing up BIG SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading now. Though I hope you’ll come back to finish after you’ve seen the film–I’d love to hear others’ thoughts!


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My biggest complaint with the film is more of a nagging sensation, really. I don’t love how the film treated women. But at the same time, they were equals in capability and importance to the plot. And while the background figures still had a male-dominated bent, the main cast was closer to balanced than most films in the franchise.

The film used several characters’ deaths to motivate our central protagonists. Val and Rio die early on. Val dies in a way that hardens Beckett, makes him even more self-interested, and prompts him to repeatedly caution Han not to trust anyone. Rio, dying, tells Han that you shouldn’t die alone. And L3 dies later in the film. I don’t think her death counts as fridging because she dies in a significant way, and she dies accomplishing her life’s mission–starting a revolution. Her death is still about her and not about furthering another character’s emotional journey (though it hits Lando really hard). It was also incredible to realize that her processing core becomes one with the Falcon’s computer–she is the ship in a very real way. It certainly puts a different spin on how Han and Lando talk about the Falcon, right? Suddenly the metaphoric seems more literal.

I say that I don’t think L3 is a fridged character. But I’m not sure if anyone is. While being stuffed into a fridge isn’t exclusively a trope about women, its sexist overtones certainly arise because of the tendency of female characters to be fridged for male protagonists’ emotional development. Characters become plot devices when they’re fridged. Are Rio and Val fridged just because they die early? I don’t know. The trope might apply here, but at the same time, it’s less odious when it’s not just women dying in that role and when there are enough women in the cast that losing one doesn’t substantially deplete the non-male presence. Women viewers might disagree with me, though! And I’d be inclined to listen to those women viewers who express dissenting voices. Maybe the fact that it was a little uncomfortable to me should be enough to tell me that representation of women in this film is still somewhat problematic. At the very least, it was weird to have Val and Rio portrayed fairly significantly in promotional materials when they would have so very little screen time.

On the other hand, there are some cool women characters here. The surprise reveal about Enfys Nest’s true identity and actual purpose is awesome, and Enfys becomes a really cool early rebel figure! Now I want to know more about her backstory–and more of what happened to her after Solo. (Probably nothing good–was that one of the Two-Tubes lurking around in her posse, or am I being a fantasy racist who thinks all Tognath look the same?) L3 brings droid rights to the center in a Star Wars film, and she’s got a sarcastic attitude that makes her a perfect counterpart to Lando. Val is cool, though we see very little of her (I can’t help but draw comparisons to Brand, though, and wonder why black women can’t have other roles than ice queen assassins in Star Wars; even Sana Starros fits that mold to some degree). And Qi’ra is a complicated character acting in her own best interests; she has her own narrative. As Beckett tells Han, “It was never about you.” I was so glad to see that the filmmakers found a way to sever Han and Qi’ra by the end of the film without needing to kill her off. Too bad she squarely falls into the outdated femme fatale trope.

I guess what I’m saying is, the film did some things right, but I’d echo the many women out there who say that Star Wars needs more women in creative positions to improve representation in the stories that appear. Men–here, Howard and the Kasdans–don’t typically set out to tell stories that are disrespectful to women. I think everyone here tried to tell a good story and wanted fully developed men and women. But women in the writing room, or a woman directing, might have led to some improved outcomes here.

I have two other complaints. Both are fairly small.

First, before this film, I could just assume that Han picked up Shyriiwook some time over his life as a smuggler and outlaw. It didn’t really matter how; it was just an interesting element to his character and reflected his bond with Chewbacca. This film, however, answers a lot of minor questions about Han but now makes this language question one of the central mysteries remaining. Han knew Shyriiwook before he met Chewbacca; he understood it pretty well and could even speak a little bit of it. He meets Chewie three years after he leaves Corellia, and that time in between was spent in the Imperial Academy and then in the infantry. So…when did he learn it? Probably not on Corellia. Corellia was locked down by the Empire, and Han was on the low end of society. He probably didn’t take Shyriiwook in school, for however long he even was in school. We don’t see any Wookiees hanging out on Corellia, and we know that the Empire basically enslaved all of Kashyyyk, so there shouldn’t be very many free-roaming Wookiees anyway. I don’t recall anything that suggested that Han’s close girlfriend from his youth knew Shyriiwook, either. If not Corellia, why would it have been the Empire? The Imperials on Mimban, even those guarding Chewbacca, don’t understand Shyriiwook (actually, why was Chewbacca in a mud pit on Mimban? He’d been enslaved for a while–did they bring him there specifically to torture him and feed him deserters and traitors?). We know from Aftermath that the Empire discouraged foreign language learning: “The Empire had little interest in learning the ways and tongues of other cultures. They didn’t even want their people to learn on their own time” (p. 33). Maybe this was yet another act of rebellion by Han. But why did he pick that language over any other? It’s a really small thing to be bothering me, but in answering so many questions, the film starts boxing in Han’s character and highlights the mystery even more. And by the way, Life Debt reintroduces the concept of Chewie’s life debt to canon–nothing in the new film directly contradicts Life Debt, but I am curious about when Chewbacca got around to swearing that oath.

Second, I’m really conflicted by the reveal that Darth Maul was the true leader of Crimson Dawn. Maul makes sense here in the timeline. There’s a gap between The Clone Wars Son of Dathomir and Rebels. Maul had criminal connections, and it would make sense that he would try to quietly rebuild a criminal empire but would be more inclined to rule from the shadows after his defeat in Son of Dathomir. It’s a cute nod for fans of the animated series. And it’s a ridiculous thing to spring on the general movie-going public. It’s a really bullshit thing that I would previously have associated with Marvel, a need for hyper-connectivity for uber-fans that I had hoped wouldn’t spread to my favored franchise. And yet, here we are. Why is this so awful to me? Because for most people, those who are casual viewers or who are fans of the movies or who just never bothered to watch the animated series, Darth Maul died in The Phantom Menace. And not just of a simple stab or fall. Dude got cut in half and fell down a seemingly bottomless shaft. It was absurd that he survived, and The Clone Wars took time to build him back up into a threat and to make this seem credible. New audiences don’t have that. Their reaction probably wouldn’t be, “Oh, cool reference,” or, “Holy shit! Maul’s back!” I’d guess it would be a more resounding, “HUH?!” Maybe I’m wrong (though I will say that while there was some scattered applause and laughter throughout the film during the screening that I attended, the room was silent throughout Maul’s reveal). As someone who understood why Maul would be here, it wasn’t shocking to me–I didn’t anticipate it, but I’d heard there was a major character from one of the older trilogies, and Maul made sense. There’s the other thing: Maul’s presence wasn’t radically shocking. And it didn’t really add anything to the story. It was the equivalent of a Marvel end-credits sequence (although it was, at least, in the film itself). Qi’ra could have reported to any higher-up crime boss. Bringing Maul into the film itself was weird, but I’ll admit that it was cool that they used Ray Park, the original physical actor, and Sam Witwer, the voice actor from the animated series, to fill the role.

All in all, I had a lot of fun, and I felt that the flaws were overshadowed by the film’s strengths. I could easily watch this movie again and again. It’s not one of my top three Star Wars films, but I think it’ll join those flawed-but-fun films like The Force Awakens and Rogue One, entering regular rotation along those two as a frequently viewed title in this franchise that I continue to love.

Machete Viewing?

I watched the Star Wars films again over the Thanksgiving break, in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi. To try to give myself a novel perspective, I decided I’d play with the “machete” viewing order I’ve heard so much about. Now, I believe that normally calls for a viewing of IV, V, II, III, VI, but my goal was to watch all the films, not trim things down. What I settled on was R1/IV double-feature, V, I, II, III, VI, VII. It was in some ways illuminating and made me think about how these movies were conceived and how they are viewed.

I took notes while viewing, and they raised questions that I might probe further at a later date. For now, I just want to briefly talk about my viewing experience as a whole. It won’t be comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a start.

What most surprised me about my viewing was how dissonant Rogue One and A New Hope actually are. Of course, Rogue One has a darker ending than any other Star Wars film except perhaps Revenge of the Sith, but I was surprised to realize that when watched back-to-back, the films don’t bridge well together even with A New Hope picking up almost exactly where Rogue One left off. One of the biggest elements of discord: Rogue One is specific, whereas A New Hope is mythic.

A New Hope lays out the visual language and storytelling tools used in all the other saga films. We deal with archetypes, not just heroic archetypes or film tropes but in broad principles and institutions. Jedi Knights (whatever they are, exactly) defended the Republic for a thousand generations before the Dark Times, before the Empire. There is a Rebellion against that Empire. There is an Emperor. There was a Senate, but no more. Vader is all menace, seemingly completely removed from the military chain of command. He is almost a force of nature. Contrast with Rogue One, which has all the lore to work with of every film that has come since then. Rogue One shows the specifics of the Rebel Alliance, with political infighting and uncertainty over how to proceed. We see special forces operatives making bad calls. We see something approaching more specific, real organizations. Even Vader is not quite so removed. It’s sort of the nature of the film; where A New Hope is intentionally mythic, Rogue One fills in the details. It’s still bizarre.

Almost as disconcerting to me is how Rogue One seems to only loosely honor the connection to A New Hope. While Vader says he knows that plans were “beamed aboard” the Tantive IV, we know that the transmissions were actually to a capital ship; Vader saw the plans physically handed off to a courier who boarded Leia’s own ship. Leia outright lies to Vader about her purpose even though her crew barely escaped from an active war zone and Vader’s physical presence moments before his arrival. And Vader becomes more and more active and powerful in every new Star Wars installment so that it is curious why he becomes a lead-from-the-rear officer and conservative fencer by the time of the classic trilogy. Nothing is outright contradicted, as far as I can tell. People make mistakes; they lie; they alter the truth. This certainly happens in Star Wars. And Vader maybe has reasons for his varying degrees of displayed power. It’s not ruinous, but it just creates nagging moments of disconnection between the two films.

And while Rogue One adds further urgency and importance to the delivery of the Death Star plans with the lives lost and faint glimmer of hope at the end of this prequel, A New Hope, by way of being a preexisting entity, cannot take advantage of that urgency. The film is a much slower-paced title. The MacGuffin of the Death Star plans only becomes vital to the viewers when we realize that the Rebel base will be destroyed–meaning Leia and 3PO too!–if Luke isn’t able to blow the bad guys up in time. Rogue One’s fast burn dissolves into a slow sizzle. After the opening battle of A New Hope, everything slows.

At the end of the day, Rogue One is a fairly safe film that fills in gaps that don’t really need to be filled in. Its changes in focus and urgency and tone don’t really connect with the feel of the original film. On this re-watch, I appreciated more than ever the questions and dangling threads and implied epic scope of A New Hope. It’s a great film. It doesn’t really need Rogue One, and while I still enjoy R1 for its beautiful planetary vistas and the chemistry in its ensemble cast, I am realizing more and more that it’s simply an unnecessary film.

Unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite film after the viewing. I watched the special editions of the classic trilogy this time, in contrast to the “theatrical” versions that came with the DVD release, and I think that Empire benefits most from the retroactive editing. The wampa cave scene and the Hoth battle scene are improved. And Bespin is just absolutely stunning with the addition of more exterior views. The special edition makes Empire feel bigger. Regardless, this viewing order neither helps nor hurts it.

Jumping back to Episode I was interesting at this point. If you were a new viewer, and you just learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, finding this little boy to be Anakin Skywalker would be incredibly jarring. Maybe Vader was lying, you might assume, without the guidance of Return of the Jedi. Maybe Anakin and Vader really are separate people somehow. How could such a sweet boy become Vader? As I recall, many fans of the original films were annoyed by this little, dorky, sweet version of young Anakin. It was an over-share. We don’t need to see Anakin as a child! But I’m thinking about how it would feel to go from V to II, or to live in a world without The Phantom Menace. And frankly, if your first exposure to Anakin is in Episode II, I think you lose something. That Anakin is already tortured by his fear of losing his mother, already tempted by a girl he met years ago, and quick to do very evil things in moments of anger and grief. That Anakin, though whiny, is someone we can immediately believe to be Vader. That even a good person can become evil, that even a seemingly normal person can harbor such great demons or grow into them, is a far more interesting message, and I think I understand more what George Lucas was trying to do with Episode I. There are larger problems with that film–chiefly, the time distance means that Episode I feels more like a prequel to the later two prequel films rather than a part of the trilogy, very little of narrative significance happens in this film since most of Anakin’s personal concerns are established in Episode II again anyway, and the pod race is excessively long and fairly pointless. But Lucas had purpose even if the delivery was flawed.

Watching Episode I after V gave me something to think about. I parallels IV in that it is a happy-go-lucky sort of film with a big explosion at the end and a big celebration after victory; both films inform the later films in their trilogies, but they are somewhat apart from them. If I were coming up with my own viewing order, I would probably remove Rogue One (it’s not a main saga film anyway) and start the viewer with A New Hope followed by The Phantom Menace. A new viewer would interpret Anakin to be Luke’s father without the knowledge that Anakin is Vader. Vader’s absence from The Phantom Menace would be a gnawing tension; where is the future threat? And viewing IV and I back to back shows them as companion pieces, kindred spirits, both about the journeys of Skywalkers. Follow The Phantom Menace up with The Empire Strikes back, to progress Luke’s story further and make the connections between both trilogies explicit; this viewing order also makes a reveal out of both Palpatine’s and Anakin’s true ultimate identities. Now that this darkness in Anakin is revealed, we can jump back to finish up the prequel trilogy…

And finish up the prequel trilogy I did. Maybe for the first time in my life, I somehow found Anakin charming and liked many aspects of his romance with Padme in Attack of the Clones. I don’t know exactly how this happened. I don’t know why it did. I think the new viewing order disrupted my default opinions about the films. Maybe I was able to shift away from popular opinion a little bit. Yes, Anakin can be creepy or intense, but he’s sensitive and caring and a bit of a flirt. Yes, he can be awkward–but in the way that many young men are awkward, for better or worse. This isn’t a flaw; Lucas clearly wants you to view him as awkward, angsty, still growing up. He lingers on Anakin’s flailing moments, plays up shots of others reacting to him, pairs the images with music that drives home the discomfort. It works. I can’t and won’t defend the failures in dialogue present, but I would point out that Lucas has always written fairly artificial and awkward dialogue into the films.

The most frustrating thing about Episode II is still that Anakin murders a whole village of indigenous people and somehow is not already branded as a Dark Sider. You don’t get much more Dark Side than that, no matter how big your anger and grief. No matter how Padme felt about Anakin, it’s also a shocking lack of judgment on her part that she would (a) simply accept Anakin afterward without reprimand and (b) not report Anakin to the authorities. They weren’t even in a relationship!

I think Attack of the Clones is still my least-favorite saga film, but Obi-Wan was charming as hell, I got more out of Anakin/Padme than I usually do, and the final battle was enjoyable as always (though the Yoda/Dooku fight has become more and more ridiculous to me with time).

Revenge of the Sith remained strong as always. You either buy into the tragedy or you don’t, I think. My wife and I both buy into it. Watching Return of the Jedi afterward provides a lovely bit of symmetry and a satisfying conclusion to the entirety of the saga, as well.

Interestingly, while The Force Awakens replicates so much of the previous films and nails the tone, on this viewing I found it to be rather peripheral and irrelevant (though still great fun). Then again, the same could be said for A New Hope or The Phantom Menace in isolation. We’ll have to see how the rest of this sequel trilogy goes.

All of the above is to say that changing viewing order did get me to rethink each of the films and their place in the larger saga. I think that the most logical viewing order remains either release date or sequential order, but I don’t begrudge the experimentation.

And if I wanted to do my own bit of experimental viewing order, that hopefully creates the most dramatic interconnection I could manage just by remixing the sequence, I think I’d go: IV, I, V, II, III, VI.

George Lucas, Star Wars, and Race

It is more difficult than it might seem to make a coherent and consistent statement about George Lucas’s views on race. This is, in part, because those views appear to be rather complicated, if not fully developed, and rather confused/confusing.

After the release of The Phantom Menace, there was of course some (often quite reasonable but sometimes hyperbolically pearl-clutching or bizarrely wrong) backlash to the minstrelsy evidenced in the hijinks and accent of Jar Jar Binks, the anti-Semitic stereotyping of Watto the Toydarian junk dealer, and the Asian caricatures imbued in the greedy Neimoidians like Nute Gunray (examples here, here, and here). But The Phantom Menace also brought us competent black heroes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Master Mace Windu and Hugh Quarshie‘s Naboo Royal Guard Captain Panaka. The later prequel films broadened the previously limited (human) racial mix of Star Wars with the addition of prominent characters like Captain Typho, Queen Jamillia, and Jango Fett (played by Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who would also be the face of the clone troopers), as well as background parts like Bultar Swan and Depa Billaba. Thus Star Wars looked a little less white, with a range of characters with different ethnic backgrounds who could be heroes and villains, and yet that change came about along with some loaded ethnic stereotyping that hadn’t really been present in the films beforehand.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid ethnic stereotyping when the only humans in the room are white people (mostly men) speaking with American or British accents. In the classic trilogy, there was only Lando (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, though voiced by James Earl Jones when the mask was on, was of course portrayed, over the course of the films and their various editions, by David Prowse, Sebastian Shaw, and Hayden Christensen). There may have been people of color hidden as background actors in the streets of Cloud City, and there are a couple of black and Asian pilots who appear just long enough to blow up in the Battle of Endor, but Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is the only prominent person of color in the entirety of the visible Star Wars galaxy throughout the original three movies.

Overall, this suggests growth on the part of George Lucas. Maybe he realized that representation of people from non-white ethnic backgrounds was important. Maybe he was just responding to critical and consumer complaints. I’m not sure if he really knows. One of the most awkward passages in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays comes from an excerpt of an interview with George Lucas. Lucas says:

At one point in the original Star Wars, Han Solo was going to be black. I was in the casting, and one of the finalists was a black actor, and I just decided that I liked Harrison the best. It didn’t have to do with race at all. I had a lot of different ideas. At one point Luke, Leia, and Ben were all going to be little people, and we did screen tests to see if I could do that. At one point Luke and Leia were going to be Oriental. I played with various ethnic groups, but when there are four main characters, it seemed better to have them all be the same race. But I had been interested right from the very beginning to get ethnic diversity into the project. So when I got to adding the Lando character, who was not originally written as a black man, there was a chance to put in variety. You know, at the time Star Wars came out, a lot of critics attacked the film for not having one of the characters be a black person. They also said that it was a chauvinistic movie. And I thought, Wait a minute, Leia is not a man, she is tough and independent, how can that be chauvinistic? The film got attacked for everything.

I don’t exactly have graceful oratory ability, and I put my foot in my mouth rather often, so I’m sympathetic to the possibility that Lucas just did a really poor job of conveying what he meant. But I’m not quoting out of context–that’s the entirety of the excerpt provided. He reads as defensive to me. It certainly seems like any addition of diversity was specifically a response to criticism. And remember, The Annotated Screenplays were published in 1997, so Lucas had these thoughts as he was preparing for the prequel trilogy.

I also think those comments feel misguidedly progressive. I think George Lucas probably wanted (and wants) to do the right thing, but for some reason does not quite know how or know whom to ask for guidance. Ethnic backgrounds seem almost like tokenistic check-boxes to him. Lucas claims he always wanted diversity, but somehow he could only find room for one significant non-white role in the entirety of the original trilogy? And why, exactly, did it “seem better” to have all the protagonists of the same race? Again, I think he wants to do the right thing, but it really feels like he misses the point of the criticism and rather belligerently dismisses the idea that there could have been anything that could have been improved with his creative choices or casting decisions.

Look, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Lucas (even though I know it might be hard to believe, especially if you could see everything I said about the prequel trilogy as an adolescent). He created a fantasy world that means so much to me and millions of others. He’s a talented visionary, but he has flaws. Some of those flaws–for instance, as a writer–he has openly acknowledged. But it can be very hard for people to admit to flaws regarding race and sex because it is really an ugly, yucky feeling to admit that something you did is racist or sexist. Racist or sexist is coded, correctly, to mean bad, but the reality is that we can all do bad things and think bad thoughts. We have to strive to be better people; none of us is born perfect. I certainly struggle with the reality that sometimes I do things that are racist or sexist. It can be easier just to defend yourself, to deny, rather than to recognize the flaw and work to improve. I think because George Lucas appears to have been so defensive, he set himself up for other failings even as he made improvements–as evidenced by the presence of a Jar Jar and a Watto next to a Mace and a Panaka.

In that light, Disney’s new ownership of Star Wars is positive. It seems like Kathleen Kennedy and crew have given real thought to those flaws, even while having a great history with and intimate understanding of the intellectual property. And so we continue to see more people of color and more women (and sometimes, though sadly still rarely, women of color) in new installments; we even have actual Hispanic actors in Star Wars, something surprisingly lacking for decades now. The Star Wars universe continues to feel truly more diverse, and not just with the inclusion of more exotic aliens.

Race day race games

Today is, of course, the day of the Indianapolis 500. The race should be well under way by the time that I finish this post.

I’ve gone to a few race day parties with family and friends over the years, but I don’t really care about the race. More generally, I’ve never had much interest in any sort of professional sporting event–which makes me a bit of an outlier in Indiana, home of so many very vocal and proud fans of various professional and amateur sports (especially basketball, football, and auto racing).

I might not care much about the race itself, but it offers a convenient opportunity to reflect on racing games I’ve especially enjoyed. I’ve never been much into serious racing simulator games, although my wife and I had a lot of fun playing the racing simulators at last year’s Gen Con.

Honestly, the racing games I’ve enjoyed a lot have been the more cartoony party games. Therefore, Nintendo consoles have typically been the media through which I’ve played the most racing games. The N64 era was a high point for me, with titles like Mario Kart 64Wipeout 64Cruis’n USA, and Wave Race 64. But my favorites from that era–and games that I still remember fondly–were Diddy Kong Racing and Star Wars Episode I Racer.

swracer.jpgEpisode I Racer is probably not a surprise if you know much about me. It’s a Star Wars game that came out in my childhood; of course I would love it. When I watch The Phantom Menace as an adult, the film’s racing scenes feel like a gratuitous action sequence that disrupts the movie with fairly low-stakes content (no matter how much Qui-Gon bets on it). But as a kid, the race was my favorite part of the film. I accumulated a lot of the Micro Machines podracers, and I would simulate little races through the living room, looping into the kitchen, and down the hall back to the start. And as I have previously written, the learning of peripheral lore was one of the earliest things that really drew me into Star Wars, and the racing scene introduced me to so many quirky racing pods and so many exotic alien drivers packed with personality even in their short cameo appearances. So when Episode I Racer came out, it was a game that already strongly appealed to me.

The surprising thing, though, is that Episode I Racer is actually a decent racing game. There were so many varied courses, and it was fun to race through the vast majority of them. You gradually unlocked different racers with different pods; each racer/pod had different characteristics with their own strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, there was a small degree of customization, as you could swap out key components in your ride to improve (or potentially worsen) its performance, purchasing parts from Watto’s junkyard with your winnings from races. Even though the tracks were fairly linear, the environments varied wildly; some races were on the deserts of Tatooine or the toxic wastes of Malastare or through stormy jungles or barren and exposed asteroids or through tunnels deep underwater. The vehicles controlled pretty well, and you had to balance maneuverability versus useful boosts; if you extended boosts too long, an engine could overheat, and then you would lose valuable time with repairs. There was a great sense of tension and speed. I revisited the game some time in college, and it held up well, though I haven’t played it since then.

Something else that stands out to me is how the game used authentic Star Wars characters and environments and built an authentic tone, yet did not care at all about being “canon.” As a kid, this was unremarkable: it was a fun game, a sandbox to play out Star Wars racing fantasies. But while I’ve only been a peripheral member of Star Wars fandom, I’ve been on that periphery for a relatively long time, and I’ve seen how intensely many fans have worried about whether something is or is not “canon.” Especially with the canon reboot (and apparent worry from some fans about whether or not “Legends” branded content is somehow devalued as a result) and with new stories that play in a gray, canon-lite area, it’s interesting to see how nearly a decade ago a game came out with such little disregard for the whole matter. It wasn’t that there were obvious continuity errors or anything like that; where the story fit into the larger lore was irrelevant. Here, Anakin Skywalker could and did participate in races on various planets, not simply stuck on Tatooine, apparently not just a slave. The characters and settings were lifted into a fun experience that didn’t worry about drawing larger connections, and the game was better for it.

DKRboxart.jpgDiddy Kong Racing was another racing game that was more fun than it had any right to be. I’ve never played a Rare game that I didn’t like, though, and the same level of sheer fun and attention to detail Rare invested in its other games is on display here. It’s easy to pass Diddy Kong Racing off as a Mario Kart clone, but it’s way more than that. While I know there are tournaments for more recent Mario Kart games, the series is known for its randomness, for the ability of the guy in last place to get an item to upset everything and come back to first. It’s a fun party game but not necessarily a good test of skill.

Diddy Kong Racing demanded more. There were three different vehicles (car/kart, hovercraft, or plane), and there were eight characters to choose from that fell across three distinctive weight classes (heavy, medium, or light). Each vehicle and character handled differently, and some weight classes fared better at certain vehicles over others. To get and keep the lead, you had to become a master of timing and precision controls, figuring out when best to hit the gas at the start of the race to get an early boost, how to take a corner or a boost pad, finding and utilizing shortcuts (which often were accompanied with some degree of risk), and optimizing the use of items. Items were limited to basically three forms–missiles, mines, or boosts. However, these items, collected from balloons, were not random, and they could be powered up twice over. Figuring out where balloons with certain items were set on the tracks, and figuring out when a race called for a quick use of an item or hoarding for a later power-up, became important. On top of all that, the game had different environments that produced different operating conditions for vehicles.

Once you mastered a set of courses, new challenges would manifest–for instance, after beating a region and its local boss for the first time, you had to play through the courses again, this time collecting all silver coins in a level while still finishing in first place. And after finishing a region, you could then take part in the tournament race through the courses, attempting to place high enough in most of the back-to-back races to win.

Not only was the racing quite fun and potentially competitive, but the game was more than just a racing game. It had a whimsical and goofy story of sci-fi magic; Timber the Tiger’s island home was invaded by an evil space pig, and Timber recruited his animal friends (including Diddy Kong) to defeat this Wizpig in a series of races with the aid of a blue elephant genie. As with many Rare Nintendo games, Diddy Kong Racing was bursting with color, personality, and cutesy fun. And outside of the races, there were special battle challenge modes–and a whole open world island hub to explore, with many collectibles and some hidden characters to unlock!

The absolutely lovely and cheery game soundtrack certainly helped too.

I think this game is still an absolute blast to play, but I’ve also learned that it’s hard to get new players interested. The absolutely wretched N64 controller certainly doesn’t help. Most of these controllers don’t seem to have held up well over the years, and the analog stick sensitivity often seems to be way out of calibration, which is a major detriment for a game requiring such precise control inputs. But that complaint is almost overshadowed by just how bad the N64 controller design was; with the ease of use of modern game controllers, it can be difficult to adapt to the retro device. On top of that, the game does have a steep learning curve (especially given that it’s a kids’ game), making it frustrating for the new player to enjoy even a casual race.

Probably the best way to take in Diddy Kong Racing now, if you have no past experience, is to play the solo adventure mode, at least through the first dinosaur-themed zone, before you take on any human opponents.

If you’d like to do something racing-themed for race day (besides, or in addition to, watching or listening to the race itself), consider pulling out an old N64, inviting some friends over, and giving one of these older games a try!