Update #1: New Sector M Website

Greetings Sectorians,

Just a quick announcement to let you know that the new Sector M website is now up and running.

*And there was much rejoicing.* Yaaaay!

In the coming months, I’ll be adding the Sector M store as well as Patreon support. Obviously, this site is a work in progress. I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think.

If you have any comments or suggestions on how the site could be better, there is an email form on the Contact page here. Don’t hesitate to use it, okay?

There’s more in the works, so watch this space for more updates.

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


My Journey to the Place of Red Corn

Late last year, I had the pleasure of visiting my first Mayan ruins at Chacchoben in the forests of Mexico’s coastal state of Quintana Roo. My tour group set out in the morning from Costa Maya on an hour-long trip by van inland to the ruin site itself. Our tour guide was a gentleman by the name of Gabriel, or Gabo for short.

Photos don’t do it justice. Trust me.

Gabo is an interesting guy for a number of reasons. First, he is the answer to the question he gets a lot from tourists: “Where did the Mayans go?” 

“We’re still here,” is his usual answer. Gabo is himself of Mayan descent. In fact, Gabo came from a place in Mexico where the Mayan language is spoken primarily. He learned Spanish as a second language as a kid in school. En route to the ruins, he gave us a bit of history on the Mayan culture, his heritage, and even the Mayan counting system, which used lines and dots with dividing lines to represent escalating multiples of 20, 400, and 8,000.

The leaf/football symbol represents zero.

We arrived at Chacchoben, which means “The Place of Red Corn.” It is located next to a brightly colored traditional Mexican cemetery. I’ll come back to that in a moment. The ruins were rediscovered in 1972 and subsequently excavated in 1994. The area still has places that have not yet been excavated. Occasionally you could see this with an otherwise ordinary hill revealing a fragment of a stone wall peeking through gaps in the dirt. 

This ficus tree is likely more than a thousand years old, possibly more.

Chacchoben is not nearly the largest set of Mayan ruins in Mexico, but they are in remarkable shape considering their age. They date back to the Classic Period of Mayan civilization from about 250 to 900 CE. I’ve heard different estimates of when these ruins were built, but it is likely around 500–700 CE. It can be hard to wrap your mind around just how long ago that was. I had to remind my young son that the buildings there were the oldest that he had ever seen, by quite a large margin.

The people give you a sense of scale.

We toured through plazas and temple complexes in a large loop that goes around the entire site, up and down stone staircases that are narrow enough that it’s easier (and safer) to traverse them sideways. Next to the main temple, there’s even an ancient cieba tree. The branches that grow straight out from the trunk were thought to represent the levels of the heavens, earth, and underworld.    

This is the Cieba tree near the temple in the picture above.

Oh, one other thing that Gabo mentioned, something he was very passionate about: Ancient aliens didn’t build Chacchoben, the Mayans did. None of us had asked him that particular question, but he said it early on in our conversation, almost as if to get it out of the way. I can definitely see why this might be a point of contention for him, especially since there are so many History channel specials out there that talk about ancient aliens.

One place I found of particular interest was one of its most mundane. There was a market square with rows of open stone bleachers that formed a perimeter around a large open space. Gabo explained that this would have been used for town meetings and ceremonies, as well as a farmers market. What struck me most about them was that they still could be used as a market today. Much like the Agora in many Greek cities, this was the beating heart of the community. Almost every citizen would have interacted with it at some point in their daily lives.

Just imagine what life was like here.

Gabo further explained that most of the stone would have been covered in a type of bright white paint. This would allow tradesmen to bring in goods at night when it was cool using only a tiny bit of moonlight.

Speaking of paint, the ruins would have been covered in plaster and painted all sorts of vibrant, almost neon colors. As magnificent as the ruins are as they stand today, we are just seeing the dull under layer. There was one place, at the back of one of the temples, where there is still a tiny bit of the original pigment and plaster. Here it is:

Amazing.

Even in that state, however, there is a definite sense of wonder that you get standing there. These buildings aren’t just for ceremony. No, this is where thousands of people made their home. The echo of their lives still resonates through that place.

Remember the cemetery I mentioned earlier? It’s possible that bright colors we see there are an echo of this tradition. Many of the paints used there are made from natural pigments, so it gives us a potentially tantalizing clue as to the amazing palate the Mayans might have used to paint their buildings.

Once again, photos don’t do it justice.

It certainly makes you wonder why the Mayans might have abandoned this place if they had taken such pains to build them in exacting alignment with the sun and stars. I asked Gabo that very question. He was of the belief that it might have been something as simple as an extended dry period. A crop failure of just one year could have been devastating enough, but if it had gone two or three years in a row, the Mayans might have been forced to find a new place to live just to survive.

This is the back of the of the temple next to the cieba tree. In fact, you can see it in the back ground, just to the right of center

Sooner than I would have liked, it was time for us to load up in the van and head back out to the port. I have to tell you that seeing these ruins has really reignited my interest in Mesoamerican cultures, something I’ve had since I was a kid. At some point in the future, I would dearly love to take a tour of the Mayan and Aztec ruins throughout Mexico and Central America.  

I don’t know if I will ever again have the chance to visit the Place of Red Corn, but I can tell you that I am incredibly grateful to have visited it this once, and walk in the footsteps of the ancients.


Fanboy Movie Review #14 — Spider-Man: No Way Home

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead for this movie, Loki and Hawkeye, so take heed.]

At the time of this writing, Spider-Man: No Way Home has taken the world by storm, clocking in at a whopping 1.6 billion at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s already surpassed Black Panther to take 4th place in the top domestic earners of all time and 8th place worldwide. That’s crazy in the best sense of the word. I only wish that Stan the Man was still with us to see not one but three versions of his famous creation save the day on screen. Together.

YAAAAAAAAASSS! (I might be a little excited.)

Since we are going to be talking about different actors playing the same character, I’m designating them in order of chronological appearance, so:

  • Peter-1 – OG Spider-Man/Tobey Maguire
  • Peter-2 – Amazing Spider-Man/Andrew Garfield
  • Peter-3 – MCU Spider-Man/Tom Holland

First Impressions:

There was no way I wasn’t going to see this movie. I wasn’t super keen on heading to a packed theatre to see it, but I did so anyway. Tom Holland has proven himself an inspired casting choice for Spider-Man, and seeing him in the role would have been enough to motivate me. The studio leaks that said that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would reprise their roles as the titular character gave me a little pause. Not because they weren’t great, but I was somewhat worried that too many things would try to be smashed together into one movie. You don’t have to look any further than 2007’s Spider-Man 3 to see how a story can falter for having too many elements going on at once.  That many characters on screen, even with a long run time, can be challenging to land just right.

All of my concerns proved unfounded, however.  To say that this movie sticks the landing is the understatement among understatements.

What I LIKED:

DAREDEVIL! – I let out an excited yell in the theatre when Charlie Cox showed up as Matt Murdock. And this within days of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk showing up on Hawkeye. It still remains to be seen how much they are like their Netflix appearances, but to have them as an official part of the MCU after being consigned to legal limbo is incredible. Now that it’s been established, I hope we start seeing Charlie Cox show up in other Marvel projects and eventually headline his own series or movie again. 

Peter-3’s Sense of Compassion – Peter didn’t take the easy way out. At any time he could have pushed the button and made the issue of the villains (literally) disappear. Even when they turned on him, his goal was to help them, a decision that ultimately costs him dearly. Yet, he still does it. At the battle at the Statue of Liberty, his goal wasn’t just to punch them, but to cure them. It all calls back to Peter’s innate humanity and compassion. Yeah, he got a little carried away with Green Goblin there for a moment, but it’s hard to blame him. And, wow, can Norman Osborn take a punch. That formula must’ve been really something.

Real Consequences – I’ve heard it said that nothing in the MCU feels like it has any real stakes since it can be undone or retconned easily enough. That’s less of a problem with Marvel movies and more an issue with comics in general, I think. But here, Peter’s choices have lasting consequences. From the looks of it, the aftermath of this movie doesn’t feel like it will be overturned.

Returning Heroes – If there’s a trope that’s my literary kryptonite, it’s the returning hero. Especially if the hero was thought lost or has been away for a long time. Seeing Peter-1 and 2 show up again is a warm hug straight to the heart. It’s great to see Tobey and Andrew step into these roles when we weren’t sure if we would ever see them wear the red and blue again. Love it.

“Maybe she didn’t die for nothing, Peter.”

Aunt May Says the Words – When Spider-Man showed up in Captain America: Civil War, I had assumed that this version of the character had witnessed Uncle Ben die as well. My guess was that after seeing that event happen twice on screen that the screenwriters (wisely) didn’t want to show us all that again. From how this played out, it looks like Aunt May might have been with Ben when he died instead. Spider-Man is, unfortunately, fated to lose someone he loves dearly. Yet, he always takes that loss and transforms it into something positive. We hear Marisa Tomei say the immortal words that Stan Lee left us with all those years ago, and it really hits home. Tom Holland brings such a wonderful vulnerability to the character, and his performance is so good in that scene that it feels like the loss we see on screen is really happening.     

Spider-Man vs. Doctor Strange – I normally don’t like it when superheroes fight, but I felt this one was justified, even if I think Strange should have at least heard Peter-3 out. While it would seem that Strange should just be able to roll over Spidey without issue, that Peter was able to use math to find a way to beat Strange at his own game shows us just how smart our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man really is.

The Scooby Gang – Some of my favorite moments in the movie are when Peter-3, Ned, and MJ are together as friends and trying to determine what they’re going to do. The chemistry of those three actors is fantastic. Spider-Friends…go for it!

Still got it.

The Sinister Six Five – Each of the villains had their moment to shine with stand-out performances by Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe as Doc Ock and Green Goblin, respectively. Seeing both of them step back into these roles is a real treat.

J. Jonah Jameson – If ever there was an actor who really nailed it in bringing a character from the comics to life, J.K. Simmons did that with the bombastic editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle in Peter-1’s continuity. Seeing him reprise his role in the MCU is a real bright spot. Any time we get hear him say, “He’s a menace!” I am there for it.

Happy Hogan – This one hurt. This really brought home the extent of what Peter had to sacrifice to win the day. We see the full extent of Strange’s spell in effect here. Jon Favreau helped start the wheels of the MCU turning with the original Iron Man. I’m always glad to see him as a recurring character. I hope he’s able to keep going with Happy for as long as he wants.

Venom – If I’m being frank, I haven’t been a big fan of either of the Venom movies that have come out. I didn’t hate them, but I wouldn’t say that I liked them. I was a bit concerned by the stinger in Venom: Let There Be Carnage. I didn’t really want that version of the character in the MCU. Thankfully, we got the best of both worlds. Tom Hardy’s character was banished back to his own continuity, but we got a trace of the symbiote left behind that could be a catalyst for other stories. Since Secret Wars is in the production pipeline, maybe that’s where it will come into play.

What I DIDN’T Like:

Doctor Strange’s Initial Spell – As a long-time D&D player, I have a special appreciation for the wish spell. Specifically, how you should approach it carefully and go into it with clearly defined goals and intentions. If you’re asking a wizard to cast wish on your behalf, you should probably have a bit of a chat beforehand, yeah? Make sure that you’ve thought it through, worked through all the possible ramifications, and set the conditions that are important to you. I know this is a plot device showing itself here, but it’s odd that Strange would put such a major spell in motion without knowing all the caveats Peter wanted in place. Also, from the way it’s presented, Strange would have blanked his own memory if the spell would have gone off. He has that wonderful “So long, kid,” moment at the end of the movie, but here it looks like he’s ready to edit Peter out of his life without hesitation.  

Doctor Strange’s Final Spell – I had a disconnect here, and I’m curious if anyone else had this as well. The first spell was designed to make everyone forget that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, not to forget Peter entirely. My understanding of it was that everyone would still know that Spider-Man exists, but they would lose all knowledge that Peter Parker was the one behind the mask. So, those who knew Peter personally, like say Flash Thompson, wouldn’t forget that he exists. When the spell is finally unleashed at the climax of the movie, however, it makes everyone forget who Peter Parker is entirely. Ned and MJ don’t just lose the memories of Peter-3 being Spidey, they don’t know him at all. Yet, everyone still knows that Spider-Man exists. Anyone else feel that this didn’t exactly add up?

Take my advice, I’m not using it.

Doctor Strange’s Sudden Lack of Empathy – Okay, I know it sounds like I’m ragging on Strange a lot here. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a great performance, as always. My issue with this portrayal of the character is that he’s willing to condemn the Sinister Five without much thought or contemplation on the matter. Where is his Hippocratic Oath in all this to do no harm? Even if it was their fate to die, clearly that can be changed as evidenced by the ending of the movie. He’s the one who said that simply killing people means that you lack imagination. If someone could find a way to defy fate, it’s the guy who literally messes around with the source code of reality. That he’s not willing to hear Peter out on the matter strikes me as weird and puts the characters into direct conflict with each other.

Some Connecting Scenes – Seeing the three Spider-Men fighting together around the Statue of Liberty was mind blowing. A few of the scenes of them interacting as Peter Parker, however, felt a little ad-libbed. Mainly, I’m talking about the lab scene and where Peter-2 is popping Peter-1’s back. The direction in those scenes felt suddenly unsure and flat, whereas much of the rest of the movie had a much more noticeable dramatic weight to it.

*mind blown*

Unresolved Questions:

How was Electro brought into the spell when he didn’t know Peter-2’s identity? What becomes of Peter-1 and Peter-2’s timeline since their villains were redeemed? Harry Osborn from Peter-1’s timeline became the Green Goblin (and subsequently died) only as a result of his father’s death. Does the newly reformed Norman Osborn returning to the moment before he died change all that? What about Doc Ock who went into the water near a raging ball of fusion? One hopes that Doctor Strange had the presence of mind to return them to someplace safe. Speaking of whom, how does the fracturing of the multiverse at the end connect to the same effect we see in the Loki series?

Beyond that, what will become of all three Spider-Men? Will we ever get to see Tobey Maguire in the role again? What about Andrew Garfield? Would that change the outcome where he lost Gwen Stacy? Regardless, if the studios haven’t approached Emma Stone about playing Spider-Gwen at some point, I feel like they’re missing a step.

Lastly, what will happen to our beloved MCU Spider-Man? When we leave him, he’s all alone in the world. He has no family left, his friends have forgotten him, and even the Avengers won’t remember him if they bumped into him on the street. While that means that he can operate as Spider-Man without the fear of a backlash to those he cares about, Spider-Man has never been a lone wolf. His relationships and attitudes towards other people have been a big influence on him. Where will he go from here?

Meta in the extreme.

Conclusions:

What a ride. What. A. Ride. I have enjoyed the MCU offerings post-Endgame, but there hasn’t been the same unified meta-structure as in the Infinity Saga. This movie feels like it sets in motion what Doctor Strange will have to contend with in Multiverse of Madness this May. That feels like the next big narrative thread that the next cycle of movies will explore. So, in addition to being an incredible accomplishment of its own, No Way Home gives us that next big landmark, and delivers it in a larger-than-life way that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I honestly could not ask for more from a Spider-Man movie.

Of course, it’s also a big reset button to everything we’ve built up for Peter-3 so far. I do hope that future installments (which given the incredible earnings of this film make them virtually guaranteed) will start to rebuild the Wall-Crawler’s interrelationships. We get a hint of that in the donut shop scene, but we need more of it. A lot more. Regardless of where the franchise goes from here, I think Spider-Man: No Way Home absolutely deserves every penny it’s earned.  

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


State of the Sector Address: 2022

My Fellow Sectorians,

Now that the holidays are behind us, I’m happy to come before you today to talk about 2022.

Geeks, nerds, pop-culture aficionados, lend me your ears.

I have big plans for Sector M, so I thought I would take a few moments to outline what I’m working on currently and let you in on my plans for the future.

So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.

A new day dawns, bright and filled with promise.

On the Horizon:

Website Update: First, my author website is long overdue for an update. I’m going through every page and link to see what needs to stay and what can go. My goal is to have a refreshed site somewhere around the end of February. [Update: the new site is live here.]

Patreon Revamp: I’m also in the process of completely overhauling my Patreon benefits. I’m going to add new tiers, new ranks, and lots of cool rewards. There will be ample opportunity for us to build something worthwhile together. So, if you like what I do, please consider supporting Sector M on Patreon when the time comes. My current plan is for the new stuff to go live in May. In the meantime, I’m pausing donations from all current Patrons until these new updates go into effect.

New Merch: While all that is going on, I’m reworking my merch store, too. It was on Redbubble, but I am planning to migrate my store over to another platform, possibly Printify. This will give me more flexibility to bring you all new designs, better pricing, and additional options beyond just T-shirts and mugs. I will unveil the new store here when it goes live, which I’m hoping is in the April timeframe. [Update: the new merch store is now live here.]

The Sector M Podcast: I am blessed to know a number of truly geeky people, and we’ve got opinions. Boy howdy, do we. Thus, I’m going to try my hand at podcasting to share our thoughts, hopes, and opinions with all of you on a whole host of geeky and nerdy topics. I’m still in a fact-finding mode on this, so more on it as it develops.

Σε έκανε να φαίνεσαι!

Now the Author-y Stuff:

Finished #6, Started #7: 2021 was a difficult year to be creative (for many reasons), but I was able to finish my sixth novel at the beginning of July. It’s a fantasy book that I hope will be the start of its own series. After a few months for edits, polishing, and querying (see below), I started my seventh novel on Halloween. This is my first excursion into the cyberpunk genre with some fun twists. It’s also a book that might truly be a standalone, a one-and-done. I’m trying to have a working draft by Halloween of this year.

I’m Querying #3: My third novel is a military sci-fi/space opera novel. Some version of this story has been with me for a long time. It’s changed a lot over the years, but I’m glad to finally arrive at a point where the on-paper version has aligned with my vision for it. As I said in my Alive and Kicking post, querying is not for the faint of heart. It can be pretty brutal, and it’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint.

The Sector M Blog: For a few years I haven’t been in a position to regularly contribute to this blog, but that is changing. My plan is to release an original piece of blog content on the third Friday of each month (with a few exceptions). The first one will post two weeks from today on January 21. In addition, I hope to have more announcement-style blog posts to keep you apprised of merch additions, writing updates, news, and more. Currently, these are the dates I plan to post a new blog entry:

Facebook No More: This happened a while back, but it bears repeating. I have put the Sector M Facebook page into indefinite limbo. I did not delete it, but it is no longer an avenue I use for communication. It just doesn’t align with what I want to do anymore, and I was at a point of diminishing returns with it. I would encourage you to follow me instead on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads. Also, I highly encourage you to follow to this blog.

Strange Reports from Sector M: If you’re new here or you want to get an idea of my writing style, my anthology of short fiction is available through Amazon in both an e-book and hard copy format. It’s 13 stories ranging from very short flash fiction to full-length novellas. A veritable sampler platter of genres, you’ll find urban fantasy, military sci-fi, and even some horror within its pages. You can find it here.

Say it with me: “Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Kodan armada.”

How You Can Help:

If you like what I do, here are some of the things you can do to help Sector M grow:

Follow this blog: If you’re reading these words, please follow this blog. This platform will be a large part of my online presence moving forward. The number of followers will be something of a barometer on how much I’m able to get the message out, so please join either by regular subscription (the “follow” button should pop up in the bottom right-hand corner), or follow by email.

LEAVE A REVIEW!: Sorry for the all-caps treatment, but leaving a review is one of the greatest things you can do for an author aside from buying a book. This goes for any independent author, not just me. Reviews, especially on Amazon, are the key to the site’s referral algorithm. So, please-oh-please, if you buy one of my books, please also leave a review. Please and thank you. 

Support Sector M on Patreon: As I stated earlier, I’m in the process of reworking my Patreon experience with new perks, new rewards, and more ways to be collaborative with the Sector M community. When it’s ready, I urge you to give it a look and see if it’s for you.

Tell a friend: No, this isn’t a pyramid scheme. It’s the fact that folks who love science fiction, fantasy, and geek/nerd pop-culture tend to flock together. Word of mouth is extremely important, so if you know of someone who might also enjoy my work, please tell them.

Contact me: I have a dedicated email address for all things related to Sector M. If you have an idea or suggestion to make things better, or just want to drop yours truly a line, you can contact me at: TheSectorM@gmail.com.

Well, that about wraps it up for the State of the Sector for 2022. It is my intent to make this kind of update a yearly thing in early January. Whether you are just now finding out about Sector M, or you’ve been here from the beginning, I appreciate you all.

Thank you, and may the stars shine for you alone.

Si vales, valeo.

-Matt Carson


Alive and Kicking

[No, not the Simple Minds song of the same name, but you’re welcome to listen to it as you read ahead. Go ahead, here’s the link.]

Howdy, folks! Wow, the last year has been quite a roller-coaster ride. I wanted to take a moment to let you know what’s going on with me and a little of my plans for where Sector M goes next.

It’s nice to add captions again.

So, I had to take most of the last year off of a lot of my side projects (like this blog) to be able to concentrate on my own health, the health of my family, and to settle into a new job unlike any I have had before. Definitely not an easy task when that’s all happening during a pandemic. The year 2020 definitely took its toll, and most of 2021 has followed suit. But, I am happy to report that all of my crew are present and healthy at the time of this writing.

My new job, while great in many respects, has taken up a lot of the mental bandwidth that I was using to run table-top RPGs, write blogs, create board games, and a dozen other projects I had going on in the background. It’s starting to even out, however. Slowly the lights in my mind are starting to come back on.

This *might* be a clue. Maybe. Possibly.

So, what have you been up to all this time?

While many of my side projects came to a halt, I am happy to report that I have made some modest progress on my books, which I’m happy to share here:

1.) I am actively querying the first volume in my military sci-fi/space opera series. For those who have gone through this, querying is not a process for the faint of spirit or weak of heart. Any positive energy, thoughts, or karma you’d like to send my way will be graciously accepted. 

 2.) I’m in the process of editing my 5th novel (fantasy). It’s going a lot slower than I would like, but I am making some progress. While many authors dread editing and revising, I find it refreshing. Filing down the rough edges and putting in the time to make the book better than it was sets my little fanboy heart  all aglow.

3.) I finished the first draft of my 6th novel (also fantasy) in July. First drafts are always a flaming dumpster fire, and this one feels a bit more flaming dumpster fire-y than most. Still, it was an experiment that succeeded far better than I thought it could. It might be a while before I get to walk in that world again, but I’m eager to return to the setting and the characters in the future. I’m already missing it.

4.) I started my 7th novel on Halloween of this year. Also an experiment, this is the first time I’ve written something so complex in the cyberpunk genre.  It’s certainly one of the more ambitious projects I’ve tried to take on. While many of my books have potential sequels and mark the first of a series, this one is meant to be a one-and-done. We’ll see if that holds up as I get more into it and get to know the cast of characters.

A little Optimus. You know, just ‘cuz.

What’s the future of Sector M?

I am working on the next State of the Sector address, which I intend to publish the first week of January. Here’s a little of what we’re going to cover:

New Blog Schedule: I am hoping to get back to releasing blog posts on a regular basis. Right now I’m aiming for at least once a month, possibly more. I was recently able to visit a few museums that deserve their own posts. Plus, I’ll be writing about a bunch of other geeky/author-y stuff to boot.

Merch Store Updates:  I plan to migrate my existing merch store over to a new platform. I hope to have some new designs ready to coincide with the launch. [Update: the new store is now live here.]

Patreon Revamp:  This will involve a ramps-down reconstruction of the Sector M Patreon with new tiers, exclusive content and swag, hangouts, and a bunch of other goodies.

That’s just for starters. I have some other initiatives in mind for 2022, but like anything it all comes down to time, availability, and money to get them off the ground. Thankfully, I have some fantastic people backing me up on these.

The gears have been turning slowly during this pandemic, but they have been turning. It is my hope that this new year will be conducive to getting back up to speed. If you’re reading this, I want to thank you for your support and interest in what I do. It means the universe to me. Several universes, in fact. 🙂

So, again in the words of Simple Minds, don’t you forget about me. Until next time, I’ll see you around the Sector!

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


On Defeating Chaos

Before the pandemic struck, we added an NES Classic to the household. This pint-sized replica of the original NES is pre-loaded with 30 vintage games. While I still have my original NES in a closet, along with many of the games I had back in the day, it was great to have them all right there in a single menu with absolutely no need to blow on the cartridge to get it to work.

You know what I’m talking about.

NES Classic

Who thought *that* length of controller cord was a good idea?

There are some games on there, like Balloon Fight and Kirby’s Adventure, that I never got to play when I was a kid simply because we never bought a copy. One of the games in it was one I did have as a kid, but lost along the way: Final Fantasy.

My first impressions of video game RPGs were shaped by Final Fantasy and the original Dragon Warrior. While I finished Dragon Warrior within a few months of its release (that green dragon in the tunnel still haunts me), I never got the chance to see Final Fantasy through to the end. At least, not with my own characters. I was present when a friend beat the game at his house.

And so their journey begins…

Incoming explanation, Captain…

My parents divorced when I was 11. Less than two years later, my mother had remarried, and her new husband was…not the most stable of sorts. When she split with him, it was spectacular. A lot of my stuff disappeared into the ethers, including all the games I wasn’t able to retrieve before everything went down. I lost a pretty cool compound bow in the deal, too.

At that point, I had tried (and failed) numerous times to finish the game and defeat the final boss, Chaos. My characters weren’t quite high enough level to get it done, however. I also didn’t know the importance of Ribbons in granting massive elemental protection.

For those reading this who may not know about the game, here’s a brief summation: You put together a party of four adventurers. These “Light Warriors” are tasked with defeating the Four Fiends, which correspond to the four classic elements. Here’s the rogues gallery:

Lich

Lich, the Fiend of Earth

Kary

Kary, the Fiend of Fire

Release the...

Kraken, the Fiend of Water

Takesis

Tiamat, the Fiend of Air

Each time you defeat one of the Fiends, you bring light back to one of the four elemental orbs. Once all four orbs are relit, you travel back 2,000 years into the past and have to face the Four Fiends again (where they are much stronger). After you fight your way through the past-incarnations of these four bosses, only then can you square off against Chaos.

In my previous attempts, I got to Chaos. This resulted in a TPK (total party kill). I was in the process of leveling up my characters to try again when the split happened, and I lost the game cartridge, and with it all my characters and progress. That was that.

Since the character names were limited to just four letters, I remember them well. Allow me to introduce you:

Sir Galahad the Pure

WOLF, the Fighter

Sir Lancelot the Brave

SAKI, the Thief

Sir Robin, the not-quite-as-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot

STAR, the White Mage

Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film

ORB, the Black Mage

With the NES Classic up and running, the party was remade and once again on their way. It’s remarkable how much I remembered about my original playthrough. A few of the details were worn with time, but for the most part, I was right back at it. This time, however, my young son was right there with me. He was intrigued by the idea of elemental bosses. Soon he began brainstorming stories of his own where both the villains and heroes had elemental powers.

When I defeated one of the Four Fiends, I found that I had my own adorable cheering section that would jump up and down, yelling “We did it! We did it!” His enthusiasm and curiosity about the game world turned what was a fun trip down nostalgia lane into something greater: a memory we made together. Folks, it did my gamer heart good.

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Remember this guy? I sure do.

He stayed with me through all the tedium that happens in a game like this. Final Fantasy notoriously lacked healing magic and restorative items. The only thing you can do to augment your White Mage’s healing is to buy heal potions.

Unfortunately, there’s just one such healing item the game, and there’s no way to buy more than one at a time. So, you’re left with spamming the ‘A’ button at a potion shop until you hit your capacity at 99.

At last, we had defeated each of the Four Fiends both in the present and then in the past. Only a few screens later, we faced Chaos himself, who is actually the first boss you fight in the game, Garland, caught in a time-loop. Chaos fills up the entire enemy portion of the combat screen.

Chaos himself

BOSS FIGHT!

Though it was a tough battle, our Light Warriors prevailed on the first attempt. This time I had access to online playthroughs and game guides to help me choose the best weapons, armor and spells to equip my characters. (I had no idea back in the day that some spells and protections simply didn’t work because of bugs that had never been addressed.) Also, our characters were beyond 30th level, where I think I had barely hit 23rd back in the day.

But most importantly, my son and I were in this together. He was right there with me the whole time, offering suggestions and strategies. I built my defenses, made sure everyone stayed healed up, and made liberal use of FAST to supercharge my fighters.

When Chaos finally went down, the screen rumbled as he slowly disappeared. Then we got the epilogue talking about how the time-loop has been broken. No one but the Light Warriors can remember anything about the whole affair since the Four Fiends were never able to assert their power in the present. Garland is somehow back and never turns to evil.

The important thing is this: Chaos is gone, and the land is at peace.

And, you know, that got me to thinking. There are many who question the validity of fantasy as a genre, some even in my own family. They don’t see how fictional narratives add anything substantive to our lives since they aren’t ‘real.’

I heartily disagree. Big surprise, right? This quote by Neil Gaiman sums up my thoughts on the subject quite nicely:

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Yeah, what he said.

Well, folks, there’s an awful lot of chaos in the world today. It seems more than we can bear at times. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, saddened, or hollow as events unfold around you. Believe me when I say that I’m right there with you. But even through adversity, we can prevail.

So, keep your loved ones by your side, and always remember: No matter what, chaos can be defeated.

May the ORBS always shine.

_____________________________________________________

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My latest book, STRANGE REPORTS FROM SECTOR M, is available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book format.


On Catharsis and the Ghost of Tsushima

One act of kindness can make all the difference.

This year has been one of loss and uncertainty for many of us. In the last eight months I have lost three people close to me, all pillars of my world. One of them was my grandfather. As you might imagine, I was devastated.

At the time that he passed, I threw my grief into the proverbial drawer and slammed it shut. Not the healthiest approach, I’ll admit, but one I felt was necessary at the time. In the weeks following his funeral, I became withdrawn and depressed. I found myself stuck in a cycle of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens.

Then, out of the blue, a friend of mine reached out to me. “Have you played Ghost of Tsushima yet?”

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I had seen the trailers. It looked like a dream game, but it was a PlayStation 4 exclusive. I didn’t own that game system. I had to put Ghost of Tsushima on the list with Horizon Zero Dawn, Marvel’s Spider-Man, God of War and a bunch of other fantastic games that were out of reach.

When I told my friend that I didn’t have a PS4, he replied. “I’ll hook you up.” I thanked him, thinking that he was going to send me a copy of the game for when I finally did get the system. A few days later, a brand-new PS4 showed up on my doorstep along with a copy of Ghost of Tsushima and Marvel’s Spider-Man. I was floored by his generosity.

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Toshiro Mifune set the bar pretty high for on-screen samurai.

My friend knew that I have a life-long interest in Japanese culture and samurai history, that I had been involved in martial arts at an early age (both my parents were teachers), and that I have a particular fondness for Akira Kurosawa films.

That is how the Ghost of Tsushima came into my life. One act of kindness.

[What follows contains major spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima, so turn back if you don’t want to know major plot points and/or how it ends.]

Everything about this game hit the mark for me, right from the start. The story, the cinematic cut scenes, the haunting soundtrack, the combat system, and most especially the breathtaking visuals — all spot on. This is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

Landscape

In it, you step into the role of Lord Jin Sakai, a Kamakura-era samurai fighting against the Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima in 1274. In the opening moments of the game, Jin and his beloved uncle, Lord Shimura, make a desperate charge to prevent the Mongols from taking Komoda beach. It’s hopeless, but they fight on against all odds. One by one the samurai around them fall, until only Jin and Lord Shimura are left standing. The Mongol leader, Khotun Khan, takes Lord Shimura captive and believes he’s killed Jin in single combat. (That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but I don’t want to give everything away.)

Jin Sakai

Lord Jin Sakai.

Saving Lord Shimura thus becomes your first major goal in the game. To achieve this, Jin has to employ tactics and methods that his uncle believes are not honorable, such as stealth and assassination. This marks Jin’s transformation into ‘The Ghost,’ a figure that strikes terror into the hearts of the invaders.

The relationship between these two characters is at the heart of this story. When Jin’s father is killed, Lord Shimura raises his young nephew as his own son. We get to see how their relationship grows over time. One of the combat tutorials is cleverly presented as a flashback to Lord Shimura’s lessons with the sword. These scenes show us what they mean to each other, even up to the very end. Lord Shimura represents the pure samurai ideal. He is a monolithic presence in Jin’s life. To go a little D&D here, he is the shining paladin that Jin aspires to be.

Lord Shimura

Lord Shimura.

Some of the best digital acting I’ve ever seen is between Jin and Lord Shimura. You can see the gleam of pride in the older man’s eyes. One of the most touching moments in the game is when Lord Shimura tells Jin that he has petitioned the Shogun to make Jin his legally adopted son and heir. He will cease to be Jin Sakai and instead become Jin Shimura, the eventual jito (territorial steward) and leader of Tsushima.

Unfortunately, it’s never quite that simple in a story like this one. Jin’s role as the Ghost eventually brings the two of them into direct conflict. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch these two fall out. They both love and respect each other, but the course of events has put them at odds. Lord Shimura believes that Jin has lost his way; Jin believes that Lord Shimura’s inflexible code cannot answer the realities they face.

The Ghost

The Ghost.

This is where real life crossed over with my experience in the game. What I just described is similar to the relationship I had with my grandfather (though, admittedly, there were far fewer Mongols involved). He was this larger-than-life figure when I was growing up, like a force of nature or a rock star. He was a cowboy as well, and those who follow the genre know how well Westerns translate into samurai stories, and vice versa.

I never fit into that mold. I tried to, I wanted to at times, but it wasn’t for me. As I grew older, we disagreed more and more about almost everything. You name it, we debated it. Sometimes things could, and did, get heated. We never came to blows, thankfully, and neither of us could stay mad at the other. Even if we saw things from vastly different points of view, I will always remember the times he helped me when things got rough, when I thought I couldn’t go on.

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So, at the time that I crossed swords with Lord Shimura at the end of the game, I had no idea that I was subconsciously working through the complicated relationship my grandfather and I shared. So much of it feels unresolved between us, both the good and the bad. It’s clear now that this lack of closure had become a major impediment to coping with the grief I had bottled up inside.

At the end of the duel, you have the choice to either spare Lord Shimura’s life or grant him a warrior’s death. While so much of what I’ve learned told me to honor Lord Shimura’s last request, I found in that moment that I couldn’t do it.

This is where we part

This is where we part.

After everything the two had gone through together, for the bond that they shared, and because Jin’s name (仁) can be found as one of the virtues of bushido to mean mercy or compassion, I chose life.

How could I not?

As Jin walked off into the distance to the sound of “The Way of the Ghost,” something in the soulful sadness and beauty of Clare Uchima’s performance moved me, and my long-absent catharsis came at last. To give full credit to Sucker Punch games, I would have been greatly moved by that ending even without the underlying metacontextual ties to my real life.

It took me several days of soul-searching to understand why that moment in the game had affected me so strongly. Then it hit me: Ghost of Tsushima, to me, is a story about letting go of the past while still honoring it, about becoming who you really are rather than who you were expected to be. That’s exactly where I was emotionally.

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I saw myself and my struggle mirrored in the story, if just for a moment. And seeing it play out before me like that gave me just the jolt I needed to break the cycle and start working through it. Like Jin, I may never have the full closure I seek, but in the end maybe that’s not necessary to accept the loss and continue living.

Life is strange like that. Sometimes it takes playing as a fictional samurai to teach you something about yourself. I won’t lie here, folks, opening up the floodgates has not been easy. Some days are easier than others, and I still have a long way to go in the grieving process.

Quiet Time

Just…breathe.

I’m a big believer in the healing power of art. In the past, books, music, and fandom have seen me through times of emotional hardship and loss. This time it was a video game. It’s often debated whether or not video games should be considered an art form. For all that it accomplishes, for all that it means to those who play it, I’d say that Ghost of Tsushima is the most compelling evidence yet for a definitive yes to that question.

And to think, on my previous trajectory, I would never have had the chance to see the world through the eyes of Jin Sakai and, in turn, learn to say goodbye to one of the brightest stars in my sky.

One act of kindness, folks. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

_____________________________________________________

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My latest book, STRANGE REPORTS FROM SECTOR M, is available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book format.


At the Intersection of Transformers and Life

Folks, I usually try to keep the details of my personal life off this blog. Today, I’m breaking that rule to some degree. The Sector M blog has always been about the things I enjoy, whether thought experiments, ruminations on movies, books, and games, or musings on toy and cartoon properties from the ’80s. I’m sure there are more than a few out there who might admonish me, a grown man, for ‘wasting my time’ with all this childish nonsense.

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My first ever glimpse of Optimus Prime.

What they may not realize is just how deeply I care about these things. They are a part of me. Once, I tried to deny them, but I was miserable. When I unabashedly embraced my inner geek, only then did I thrive. Those who don’t understand the fascination with fandom miss out on a key detail: I’m a fan because my life has intersected with each of these things in the past, often just when I needed it.

Star Trek taught me to be hopeful and optimistic for the future. Marvel comics showed me that there could be beauty in being different. Batman took personal tragedy and turned it into something  positive. Robotech was the first to show me that in any armed conflict, people die. And so on, and so on, I could go on all day. But the one that resonated with me the most was Transformers, which is no surprise if you’ve followed this blog. My office is filled with the toys, new and old. I’m thankful to still have many of the originals I had as a kid.

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I have something to say about pretty much everything here.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m sorry to say that I lost someone very dear to me a month ago at the time of this writing. It was completely unexpected, and I’m still reeling from the loss. This post is a tribute to her. My godmother famously hated funerals or memorials of any kind. I mean, no one likes funerals, but she had a particular hatred of them. In accordance with her wishes, I will not name her here, but I will use the nickname she preferred. She referred to herself as a Nanny bird, or simply “Nanny.”

Despite the name, she was much more than babysitter. My godparents were more like an extra set of beloved grandparents when I was growing up. Nanny herself was an interesting lady. She drove a white Chrysler Conquest sports car with leather bucket seats. (It was one of the first cars that would speak to let you know “Your door is ajar.”) She was tall with high cheekbones and a long Helen Mirren nose that she attributed to her Spanish heritage. (Her brother, in fact, looked like you could put him in a morion helmet and breastplate and he would have blended in perfectly with a group of conquistadors.)

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I always thought it looked like a Transformer.

She loved abstract art, jewelry, and bright colors, especially teals, purple, and yellow. Her favorite perfume was Giorgio that came in the yellow and white striped box. Later, she was a SCUBA instructor, an emergency medical responder, and a volunteer fire-fighter. More than all that, she loved everyone around her fiercely, and woe betide anyone who hurt someone under her protective aegis.

My godparents certainly did their best to spoil me rotten. My parents at the time weren’t in a position to buy me many toys, but my godparents were a different story. In fact, Nanny was the one who bought me my very first Transformer, and I still have him.

This guy.

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He still transforms, too.

This would have been in the autumn of 1984. We were in the old Walmart in Athens, Texas. I remember that we were on our way to the checkout when I spotted him. He wasn’t in the toy isle. Instead, he was on one of those miscellaneous shelves near the front (possibly where they were going to set up for Halloween). Someone had picked him up and then changed their mind. That choice set a trajectory for me as a kid. It was the combination of red and blue that caught my eye. The packaging design, with its action mural and stand-out metallic logo, was just really cool.

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This is where it all began.

I was already into GoBots at the time, but I found them somewhat lacking. Their names were often uninteresting (a tank was named “Tank,” and a helicopter was “Cop-Tur,” and so on) and their reason for being was not really developed. When I picked up Gears that day, I flipped him over and found his “tech specs” on the back of the package.

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This guy didn’t sound like a traditional robot. He didn’t like people, he was cranky, a pessimist, and a pain in the neck. Yet, he did this to cheer his fellow Autobots up. I was intrigued at the notion of robots with distinct personalities, with like and dislikes. They were robots who were like people. This was the spark that lit my imagination. Gears himself was no more complex in design than the simplest of GoBots, but he was part of a story that felt like it had substance.

I asked Nanny if I could have him, and she agreed. I think he was less than $4 at the time. So, she was there with me at the earliest dawning of my fandom. Gears was just the first of many. Bumblebee (both the yellow and red versions), Cliffjumper, Huffer, and a number of others in that original G1 line were soon to follow. Nanny thought they were neat in the way they could fold up to become a vehicle or into “metal man.” When the cartoons started on TV, she meticulously recorded them for me on VHS before they were ever available to buy.

Kmart

Years ago this building was a K-Mart. This was my other major outlet for toys, particular the Robots in Disguise.

That’s where I first heard Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime voice. With most other toy lines, I tended to like the villains more than the heroes. Transformers was different. The Autobots were noble, brave, and courageous. No one personified those high ideals more than Prime himself, and I had the opportunity to watch my favorite episodes play out at will thanks to Nanny’s wizard ability to program a VCR. For a kid who often had trouble relating to others and was painfully shy, Transformers was all about the power of teamwork and standing up for what was right. It found me at just the right time.

As a quick aside, my mother was the one who bought me my Optimus Prime. It was expensive for the time, and she asked my godparents not to get him for me (which they were willing to do). I had a bit of trouble in school back then, and my mom told me that if I improved my grades, the Autobot supreme commander was mine. Six weeks later, I turned in a report card with an “A” in every subject. On the way to the store to get him, Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” played on the radio. (There’s your earworm for today.) It’s funny what you remember, huh?

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This was my Holy Grail as a kid.

Anyway, as my Transformers interest grew, Nanny helped me build my collection. My godfather would scour the Toy R’ Us stores in Dallas for the stuff we couldn’t find in Athens or the surrounding area. All told, about 80% or more of the Transformers I ever had as a kid came from the two of them.

By 1985, the new series of Transformers hit shelves. Soon the Insecticons,  Jetfire (Skyfire in the cartoon), Omega Supreme, and the Constructicons joined the others in my collection. I remember the day that she took me into Daniel’s pharmacy in Athens, a store that had an unusually well-stocked toy aisle.

Daniels

It’s the Factory Connection building now.

Even though it was technically out of bounds to get so many at one time, she bought me all six of the Constructicons in their individual packaging. As I was opening them all up in the car, Hook’s legs broke off in my hand. The silver plastic they used back then would often break like that. Nanny marched back in and exchanged it for another one. As I opened that one up, the same thing happened. So, she did it again, and just like Swamp Castle of Monty Python fame, the third one proved to be fine. Sadly, only one of those original six figures has survived to the present. It’s Mixmaster, the concrete mixer truck. He is on a shelf in my office right now, once again reprising his role as Devastator’s left leg.

She was also the one who took me to the see Transformers: The Movie in August of 1986, which I wrote about here. So, Nanny was the one who had to deal with a crying kid when Prime, the very embodiment of what I loved about Transformers, died right before my eyes. (I also mentioned her as being the spark for my interest in Greek culture here.)

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A moment in time.

Fast-forward to present day. Now I run a tabletop RPG based on Transformers, in a system that I kit-bashed from at least two other games. It’s been running for almost ten years now. Besides writing speculative fiction, that game might be the single geekiest endeavor I’m a part of. (And, boy, is that saying something!)

My memories of the toys and cartoons have always been inextricably linked to Nanny. She was an active participant in enabling and building my most favorite of fandoms. And when I started making up stories about the characters, my first forays into storytelling, she would sit patiently for hours as I would tell them, and ask leading questions so I would have to delve deeper into what I had created. I will always remember that.

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But now she has left us, and there is large hole left in my heart and in my life. So much of who I am today can be traced back to her. I miss her with every keystroke I write here, folks. I’m to the stage where I will have periods of normalcy punctuated by spikes of grief that come out of nowhere. I won’t lie, it sucketh mightily.

And yet, here I sit in the Museum of Matt with so many reminders of her standing in silent vigil around me. I originally thought all those bots, all those memories, would make it harder to write this account, but I was wrong; they are physical reminders of the positive effect she had, and continues to have, on me. I’m grateful for that.

So never let anyone tell you your love for a particular fandom is silly or stupid. Our time on this planet is all too brief, so hold onto those things you love. Take it from me, okay?

‘Til All Are One!

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[P.S. – I started writing this post before COVID-19 really exploded here in the U.S. My family and I are practicing social/physical distancing, and I hope you are, too. Please be safe out there and wash your hands, okay? Much love from Sector M.  -MC]


City of Heroes/Villains: A Homecoming

[Quick Note: I have several partially formed blog posts I’ve been kicking around for months now. Unfortunately, I’m on less solid ground these days to give this blog the attention it deserves. My hope is that this situation will shift in the coming months. Please bear with me; there’s more to come!]

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The Freedom Phalanx

The End No One Wanted:

November 30th of 2012 was not a good night. I went over to a friend’s house to say good-bye to one of my favorite games of all time: City of Heroes/Villains. The community had held out hope that the beloved MMO would find a home, or at least some way to keep running. In a move that many (myself included) found particularly callous, NCSoft decided to kill the game, despite its popularity with die-hard fans. The servers were due to shut down at midnight.

I logged in, ran around for a little while, and finally picked a spot to bid farewell to not only one of my favorite characters but also the game itself (more on that below). I remember leaving my friend’s house, getting into my car, and bawling my eyes out in the cold—and I wasn’t even a regularly active player at the time. I know there are many things to cry about in this world, and a game is not usually one of them, but the tears came all the same. All the memories, all the colorful characters (affectionately called “toons”), the rich worldbuilding, the stories, the battles won and lost, all gone. Just tossed in the dustbin.

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Curses!!!

For years afterward, whenever the game would come up in conversation, I would feel a twinge of pain. I had lost a part of myself that night, and I thought it was forever. I had a  bank of in-game screenshots from way back in 2006, and they had somehow survived more than one computer crash. Whenever I would feel nostalgic, I would revisit them with a bittersweet smile, reflecting on the time I had spent in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles.

A Homecoming No One Expected:

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But then…

Earlier this year, I started hearing rumors of an active server somewhere on the web. Then in-game screenshots popped up in my social feed here and there. I didn’t think much of it. There have been many false starts over the years, and just like occasional rumors of a Firefly Season 2 in the works, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

In late June, however, one of my friends (the same friend whose house I was in that night) found the Homecoming message boards. It took a little bit of finagling, but she got on to the Homecoming server and recreated her signature Corrupter toon, the incomparable Darqueen. Not long after, she came over and walked me through how to make an account. Within minutes a blue banner popped up bearing the word “Loading…” in the City of Heroes font. Then this music started to play, and I felt the old fire rekindle in my heart.

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This screenshot was taken in 2006.

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This one was taken 13 years later.

I spent the next couple of days recreating the Hero and Villain toons closest to my heart. Those screenshots I mentioned? Those became invaluable for reincarnating my long-lost characters. I felt like a digital sculptor making sure I had exactly the right face, the correct color of hair or costume. The game gives you a featureless lump of digital clay to work with during character creation, and so I set about examining my old screenshots in detail to bring these toons back exactly as they had been before.

And when I started playing, I knew why the moniker “Homecoming” was entirely apt. Flying through the bright skies of Paragon City, or negotiating the dangerous back alleys of the Rogue Isles again is glorious.

It’s like coming home.

Why It Was/Is So Great:

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For those of you who’ve played the game, this part might be superfluous. You already know why it was so great. But for those of you who may have never heard of it, or only heard of it in passing, let me tell you why the game was able to evoke such sadness in those who lost it, and why its return has been so uplifting.

The World:

CoH/V really did make you feel like you had stepped into the pages of a comic book world, a literal dream come true for a geek like me. The writers and developers had the herculean task of coming up with an entirely new superhero continuity, along with a new pantheon of colorful heroes and villains to populate it. This was a world that was neither Marvel nor DC, but one which obviously took a strong influence from both.

On the blue side you have the Freedom Phalanx, protecting Paragon City. Their star-spangled leader, Statesman, is not unlike a blending of Superman and Captain America, complete with a propensity for inspirational leadership and defending the helpless. Joining him are Positron, a brilliant scientist who constructed an incredible suit of power armor, and Manticore, a billionaire who stalks the night as an expert archer, and many others.

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An actual clash of titans in progress.

On the red side you have Lord Recluse, the opposite face of the coin from Statesman, who controls the organization of Arachnos (basically Cobra from G.I. Joe if they were at all competent). Ghost Widow, a former assassin turned necromantic spirit, joins the rogues gallery along with Captain Mako, a mutated man-shark, and Black Scorpion, a deranged cyborg.

If anything, this world leans a bit more towards DC than Marvel with its monolithic characters, but there are enough differences and new elements to make this continuity uniquely its own. The lore for the game is also many levels deep. If you like to sink your teeth into a setting, and the stories that have taken place there, the mythology of CoH/V has all of that in spades. This is the world you step into when you don the mask, and I really can’t say enough good things about it.

Be Who You Want to Be:

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I’ve only ever fallen in love with an MMO once. I tried a number of them, but only this one could keep my interest for very long. A lot of that stems from CoH/V’s extremely robust character generator. It was so good that it ruined other games for me in that respect. CharGen for every other game I’ve played, online or otherwise, has always seemed lackluster by comparison.

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Oh, that’s not good…

CoH/V accomplishes this by adhering to a simple principle: What you look like has no bearing on your stats. In a lot of games, including WoW, your character is essentially a dress dummy for equipment. You might find a look you really dig and then level out of it. You might piece together a gear set that is statistically superior…but looks ridiculous.

In CoH/V you can look like an absolute badass at Level 1 if you want, and your ability to further modify your appearance is truly staggering. Want to match the color of your super powers to a specific costume? Done. Want to be 8-feet tall and wear full plate-mail right out of the gate? Done. There are so many options, and so many combinations, it really gives players the ability to bring their characters to life in a way that no game has accomplished before or since. In fact, if I were a comic book artist, this would be the ideal tool for getting a character’s look down quickly without ever putting pen to paper.

An Enduring Experience:

Going Rogue

This game came out in 2004, and was subsequently revamped a few times to improve its graphics. The last time this happened was somewhere around 2009 or 2010. Of course the graphics can’t compare to the photorealism and ultra detail of games we have now in 2019. But as I’ve said before, graphics aren’t everything. Anthem looks stunningly beautiful, and it’s…well, yeah, you know the rest.

To me, a game that is still fun to play, even after the graphics are hopelessly outdated, is still a good game. Two of my favorites, to this day, are Heroes of Might & Magic III (1999) and Lord of Realms II (1996). The game play, the story, and how engaged I am in what’s going on are all factors that can make or break a game for me. Star Wars: Battlefront, for instance, was gorgeous, but I was bored after about an hour.

City Scape

To CoH/V’s credit, the developers created a visual style that closely resembles comic books. It holds up remarkably well. While the powers and leveling mechanics get more complex over time, it starts out with game play that is elegant in its simplicity. Anyone can pick up it up quickly. Plus, there are so many power sets, and combinations of power sets that you could easily play the game for years still not explore them all.

And that’s just the base game. The Homecoming Team has already created new content for the game, and it is excellent. It’s made by fans for fans, and it shows. All of which is to say that, even though CoH/V isn’t quite old enough to be considered retro, this is a game that has some serious longevity. If it remains available, I foresee that I’ll be revisiting it again and again for many years to come. If it is something you are at all interested in, you should definitely check it out.

Final Thoughts:

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In a lot of ways, 2019 is a year of endings for the Geekosphere. Game of Thrones. Big Bang Theory. The MCU ended its first major arc and now Spider-Man is out, moving forward. ThinkGeek no longer exists. The Tick ended with Season 2. We can also see the end of other fan staples on the horizon with Supernatural, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, Man in the High Castle, Gotham, My Little Pony, The Good Place, and many more.

Often when we lose something in the geek and nerd arena, we don’t get it back. But sometimes, just sometimes, we get a resurgence of something we thought was gone. City of Heroes/Villains is that for me. It’s getting the movie Serenity when Firefly had been cancelled after only half a season. This is seeing Captain Pike walk onto the stunningly gorgeous bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek: Discovery, or getting to play the original NES Final Fantasy and Metroid with my son.

The return of this game is nothing short of reclaiming a little lost piece of my life, and to return to a place I love. For opening up the way to the Rogue Isles and Paragon City again, I would like to give the Homecoming Team a heartfelt thank you. Please keep the fires lit.

If you are interested in checking it out for yourself, follow this link to get set up:

https://forums.homecomingservers.com/forum/53-getting-started/

My universal chat handle is @Nights-Watchman. If you are on the Indomitable server, hit me up.

A Villain’s End: An Epilogue

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On the night in question, Night-Watchman left his comrades for the last time. Despite his villainous ways, he had come to think of them as his family, the only one he had ever really had. They wished to face their end in battle, but Night-Watchman was through fighting. It was time to take his final bow.

For a magical assassin in the service of Arachnos, he had found himself cast in a hero’s role more than once. He had saved the world no less than three times, joined the crusade against the alien invasion of the Rikti, and fought against dark gods and unspeakable horrors that might have consumed reality as he knew it.

Yet despite his many victories, the innumerable close-calls, the momentary triumphs and defeats, he now faced the true end of the world. Worst of all, the cause of this doom was not something he could not fight against, not an enemy he could bring low. Staring down his own extinction, the elite operative was suddenly something he had never been before: powerless.

He passed through the pillar of ice and flame, donned his ancient armor once more, and traveled to the Roman island of Cimerora. There, upon a narrow peninsula, he landed next to the sybil, Sister Airlia, the very image of his own beloved patron, Ghost Widow. Side by side, they stared out into the wine-dark seas in silence until the sun set on them.

And there he died.

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I recreated this moment as close to the original as possible.

But it was not the end…

Siren’s blared all around him in the Zig. The prison meant to hold super-powered criminals had been breached, and the prisoners were already in a full-scale riot. He was back at the very beginning. Things were different now, though; he was weak, weaker than he could recall being in many years, but he was alive. Somehow.

He had been reborn—to live again, to fight again.

This time the world would be his for the taking.

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Bwhahahahahaha!


Fanboy Movie Review #13 — Captain Marvel

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

Captain Marvel, the latest feature film from Marvel, debuted three weeks ago. Sure, there have been other comic book movies featuring a female lead, even one set in the Marvel universe, but this is the first time we’ve had one in the MCU proper. It’s also a sort of prequel that’s largely set in the late ’80s and mid-’90s.

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Yaaaas Queen!

One thing real quick.

Yes, it’s tempting to compare this movie to 2017’s Wonder Woman, since both are female superhero adventure films, and speak directly to things like the perception of womens’ roles, inspirational female empowerment, and breaking societal molds. Still, they are two different movies, emerging from two different continuities. Wonder Woman was a gem that came out of nowhere from the chaotic mess that is the DCEU. In contrast, the MCU has far more entries and is much more consistent in terms of tone, direction, and writing.

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Perhaps one day when Disney owns everything we’ll  finally get this mighty team up. 

Truth be told, I had always hoped that Marvel would get to this point first (*cough* Black Widow *cough*), but I am glad that Wonder Woman came out first. For one, it gave DC a much-needed win, but it also allowed Captain Marvel to do its own thing, since it also had to be more aligned with Marvel’s metaplot and serve as the set up for Avengers 4.

First Impressions:

Carol Danvers is a fantastic character in the comics. She’s a military officer, a leader, a fearless combatant, and practically a one-woman army. When it comes to the upper tier of powerful heroes, she is easily up there with Thor, the Silver Surfer, and the Hulk. And considering the poor state of the Avengers at the end of Infinity War, they desperately need new allies. Adding Captain Marvel to the battleline is one helluva reinforcement. The MCU has a pretty slick track record for transitioning heroes from the page to the screen, so count me in.

What I LIKED:

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Over 9,000!!!

THAT STAN LEE TRIBUTE! I thought there might be a Stan Lee tribute in this movie since Captain Marvel is the first release since he passed away. I was not prepared for this. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. The Mallrats cameo was also very touching. Excelsior…

The Captain Herself – There was a lot of talk about how wooden Brie Larson is in this role. I disagree. She might be poker-faced, but that’s perfectly in keeping with the character she’s playing. She’s a soldier, a fighter pilot, and essentially a member of Kree special forces. She’s a storm contained in human form, but one who decides where and when to focus that power. That level of stillness (almost Zen) and determination in the face of the enemy is exactly what I would expect. I think her performance is much more nuanced than is being recognized.

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I see you. 

Nick Fury – What movie can’t be made better with the addition of Samuel L. Jackson, huh? What I like about this is that he is playing a proto-Fury, a less experienced, less hard-edged version of himself. He’s not at the top of his game yet, and while he is moving up the ranks of SHIELD, he’s not the master spy we see in later films. I love being able to look into this period of the character’s life. That leads me to my next point.

Agent Friggin’ Coulson – Coulson was the common thread that brought together a diverse array of heroes into the Avengers, and his death cemented their resolve. I was overjoyed when he returned in Agents of SHIELD, even though he is remains the ‘unsung’ hero of the continuity. Seeing him as the new guy at SHIELD was great. It goes a long way to explain why Coulson is so loyal to Director Fury later on. Of course, I wish he had a larger role, but I was glad to see him at all. Thanks, Phil.

Talos – Ben Mendelsohn is a fantastic actor. He’s played the villain in a few high-profile films in the last few years, from Nolan Sorento in Ready Player One, to Orson Krennic in Rogue One. When he shows up on screen, I sort of expect him to be evil, which is why his casting for the role of Talos is so inspired. It’s a meta bait-and-switch to find out that, no, Talos is actually a sympathetic character who is fighting to ensure the safety of his family. Brilliant. If Ben’s game for it, I would love to see Talos appear in future installments.

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“Mind if I have a drink of your tasty beverage to wash this down?”

GOOSE – I love the running joke that everyone in the know is instantly terrified when they find out Goose is a Flerken. The big reveal that Goose is hyper lethal when he wants to be is a great moment of the film. The only downside is that I think they played the Goose card a bit too much in the last part of the movie.

Carol “Avenger” Danvers – I’ve heard that some folks didn’t care for the reveal of how the Avengers Initiative got its name. I thought it was a nice touch, especially since the alternate name “Protector” was more accurate for the idea Fury had, but was bland. Giving Carol the credit for naming the program is a nice way to include her in the growing mythology of the movies. Maybe that’s just me.

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Perhaps we’ll get a Photon/Pulsar on screen in the future, or even a second Captain Marvel. 

Lieutenant Trouble – Actress Akira Akbar plays a young Monica Rambeau, a character who grows up (in the comics) to take the mantle of Captain Marvel for a time. Her mother’s callsign of “Photon” was also fun, as Monica takes that as her superhero name later on. Since we are fast-forwarding back to the present in Endgame, perhaps we will get to see Monica grown upon Carol’s return, perhaps even following her mother’s example and joining the military.

Where’s Fury? – That post credit sequence was intense. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to explain the situation to her. Yikes.

What I DIDN’T Like:

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Good thing she was right. 

The “Light Speed Engine” – The central MacGuffin of the film, which also serves to give Captain Marvel her powers, doesn’t fit. We are told time and time again that it will end the war. How? When you have the ability to travel from the Kree capital to Earth by opening a single hexagonal wormhole, an engine that goes the speed of light would be unimaginably slower. It would take you 4 years and some change to reach Proxima Centauri. Reaching another galaxy would take millions of years, relatively speaking. So how would that affect the course of the war? If there was a piece of dialogue to explain this, I didn’t catch it.

Pacing – The first part of the film starts off slow, and could have used some tightening up. I will give them credit for framing a large part of the early exposition as Talos and company scanning through Carol’s memories. “No, no, let me drive.”

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Wait…wut?

Nick Fury’s Eye – If I recall correctly, the Ultimates Nick Fury lost his eye in a duel with Wolverine, thus the three visible scars across his ruined eye. Since Marvel Studios didn’t have the rights to the X-Men when the character first appeared at the end of Iron Man, we were left with the mystery of how the world’s foremost super-spy lost an eye. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Fury tells Cap, “The last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye.” Now we know it was Goose, who paws at his eye for no apparent reason. This is the MCU equivalent of finding out that Han Solo’s last name comes from some guy at starport customs. It’s underwhelming, and Fury himself doesn’t seem too upset about it. Almost any other explanation would have been better than this one. Ugh.

Nick Fury’s Retcon – It’s established in the early MCU that Nick Fury worked with Howard Stark. He even tells Tony in Iron Man 2 that he knew Howard better than his own son. Unless a senior member of the SHIELD’s steering committee, (who died a few years before the events of Captain Marvel, at the hands of the Winter Solider) took a very rookie agent under this wing, this doesn’t bear out. It also seems to contradict some of the back and forth between Fury and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce in Winter Soldier. I have to wonder if anyone at Marvel Studios acts as a sort of ‘line editor’ for the movies just to get these little bits of continuity right. Yeah, yeah, I know—it’s a fanboy nitpick, but consistency is the glue of any great continuity. It’s making sure that if the aliens attacked on a Tuesday in one place, they aren’t referenced as attacking on Saturday somewhere else. 

“I’m Just A Girl” – I’m all for ’90s music, which this movie has in spades. I’m also down for Gwen Stefani and No Doubt…just maybe not during a serious combat sequence. I get the message the song is sending, and it’s good one. Still, I like to imagine that when Captain Marvel steps foot on the battlefield that it’s like the rush of an oncoming storm. Something like Carmina Burana should start playing, or something rousing. Pinar Toprak delivered a wonderful score, one with remarkable depth and subtlety. Why not let her drive home the importance of this fight with an inspirational battle theme that’s uniquely Carol’s? Having the fight play out to “I’m Just A Girl” made it seem gimmicky and cheapened the moment.

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A bit anticlimactic. 

“I Don’t Need To Prove Anything To You” – A funny moment in the film to be sure, but one that seemed like a cop out. Earlier in the story we see Carol and Yon-Rogg sparing. I thought this would be the Chekhov’s Gun for later in the movie when they square off again. I wanted to see Carol defeat her previous mentor by outclassing him, and not just because she used her powers. Again. The most telling moments in Black Panther were when T’Challa didn’t have his powers, and still had to fight for Wakanda. I know why it played out this way, but I think it was a missed opportunity to show that Carol could be a badass even without her powers.

The Science Guy – Poor unnamed Skrull “Science Guy.” I’m not sure why he was left behind in the first place. Surely Carol didn’t think that he could stand up under Yon-Rogg’s professional scrutiny (smoking out Skrull infiltrators is kinda his job). Krill Vye the Science Guy seemed nice, if maybe a little bumbling and out of his scope. Too bad his allies left him to die like that. Tragic.

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Round 1…FIGHT!

Unresolved Questions:

There’s the usual stuff about why Fury didn’t use the pager during the Chitauri Invasion, which was led by a renegade Asgardian deity, or when a maniacal AI decided to build a vibranium mass driver. But I suppose we already have the answer to that in a real life sense.

Apart from that, it appears that Captain Marvel’s powers are derived from the Tesseract/Space Stone itself. Is it possible that Thanos might be able to take her powers away since he controls the blue stone? Or might it be the other way around and grant her some measure of immunity from that stone in particular?

As a fan, the real question I’m asking is: How will Captain Marvel interact with the surviving Avengers once she’s returned to Earth? What role will she play in the events ahead, and in whatever victory is to come out of all that. She will be joining a team that already has an existing dynamic and established leader, so how will that work out? I’m looking forward to finding out.

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See you in Endgame, Avenger.

Conclusions:

It’s strange that we are 11 years into the MCU and they are still producing “origin story” movies. And yet, they have it down to a science because I think Captain Marvel definitely works. The vibe inside the theatre was electric, and I could see wide smiles on the many young girls in the audience. For those little ones who wanted a sterling example of superheroism up on the screen, they definitely found it.

The best part was the energy in the lobby as I left the theatre. There were bunches of people all standing around discussing it, laughing, and recapping their favorite moments and quotes. Not even Infinity War had that kind of effect. (Maybe that was because we were all in shocked silence.) At any rate, the movie has its share of flaws and missteps, but so has practically every movie that Marvel has every released. Ultimately, I think that Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the MCU, and a fantastic character to add to the existing dramatis personae.

Thanos should be worried.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.