Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Greatest (playable) Final Fantasy Characters

No, I never beat Final Fantasy X. Barely made it halfway, in fact. And I never played a minute of XII, which I've heard is quite good. Still, I will state here and now that no one is more qualified to do this list than I am.

Doesn't take much of an intro, really. The title stipulates that only playable characters are eligible and I will further add here that I'm only counting the core series, games one through twelve, so no spinoffs of any kind. Perhaps a list of FF villains is something to think about for down the road. Worth mentioning on that note is that I think very highly of the main character of Final Fantasy Tactics, Ramza Beouvle, so if he wasn't ineligible, I would have to consider him very seriously for a top five spot. So for those that fall within the rules, the criteria is simple enough. How much of an impact do they make in the games in which they are featured? Are they fun to use in battles? How cool and likeable are they within the story?

As with any list I've made, if you find yourself disagreeing with me on any points, please know that you are wrong. Spoilers ahead, fools.

5. Kain (Final Fantasy IV)
Kain is the series's original brooding badass, appearing long before others like Shadow (FFVI) and Squall (FFVIII). I know that the whole betraying you, rejoining you, betraying you again schtick got old pretty fast but he's still a wicked character.

Final Fantasy IV was the first entry to feature characters with actually formed personalities and most of the cast wasn't really that deep. For the most part, they were little more than stereotypes. But Kain was more. He was complicated, damnit! His strong devotion to his duty as a warrior was probably his most striking trait and it would come into conflict with other aspects of his personality.

He was a dragoon and the whole honour thing mattered a lot to him. Then you had that honour being tested in the same way that Cecil's was - torn between his duty to the crown and his own personal sense of right and wrong. And his betrayal, while strongly influenced by Golbez of course, was still first made possible by his underlying jealousy for his friend who had the heart of the woman he (Kain) secretly loved. Golbez opened Kain's mind to the twisted possibilities that lay beyond betraying Cecil and, because he's not just a one-dimensional character and because he's not perfect, he gave in.

But he comes back to the right side and of course plays a major role in saving the world. But once things are set right, in typical Kain fashion, he leaves his friends to go off on his own and try to find himself. That shot of him with his helmet off (after his head being covered for the entire game) standing on the cliff still resonates as awesome even after all the other games that followed it.

4. Vivi (Final Fantasy IX)
Cute as any moogle, Vivi is a powerful black mage housed in the body of a shy existentialist. Although he is a mage of shrouded origins, in many ways he's like a typical kid of his age, often overwhelmed by the world around him.

When we first meet Vivi he's on his own, trying to get to a play. He's so shy and meek we immediately feel for him. And he's on his own! It's later revealed the one who raised him, who he called Grandpa (although they clearly weren't related), had passed away and left him entirely by himself in the world.

Despite this coupled with a lack of confidence, he proves to be heroic very early on and he only becomes braver and more dedicated as the game goes on. And all the while he's questioning his role in the world - this is a kid not afraid to ask the big questions - who are we, where did we come from, and why do we exist at all? And all the while he's just so darn cute.

Eventually Vivi does come face to face with some answers and they're disturbing to say the least. But he pushes on because he has discovered reasons of his own - friendship, loyalty, a sense of belonging and the drive to protect these things.

In battle Vivi is your primary offensive magic user and he has the ability to power up Steiner's sword techniques which makes him an even better team player.

Oh, did I mention he's cute?

3. Locke (Final Fantasy VI)
A swashbuckling adventurer who's also a skilled thief (but call him a treasure hunter or he'll rip your lungs out!!), Locke isn't as flashy as some of the other characters in FFVI but he has more depth and that's saying a lot considering that game's incredibly deep cast. And flashy or not, his steal ability is really useful throughout the game.

With greyish hair and sporting a blue bandanna, Locke is a character with an extremely tragic past for someone so young and he's really good at hiding it. Unlike certain more sullen and moody characters, he keeps a positive and enthusiastic attitude even in the most dangerous of situations which is actually pretty refreshing. He's always cheering his friends on and encouraging them no matter how tough things become.

Probably the most significant thing about Locke is his sense of loyalty and dedication. Although it might be true he has a bit of a thing for damsels in distress, when he promises to aid both Terra and Celes immediately upon meeting them, he never does go back on his word. We eventually find out a little more behind his reasoning for this but it really only makes us respect him all the more. Most people can relate to feeling guilt for something that's not even really their fault; I know I certainly can.

Locke's relationship with Celes throughout the game is one of the best romances ever done in any game as it's very layered and complex and anything but straightforward. It amounts to way more than just two people brought together through dangerous and extraordinary circumstances eventually falling for each other.

He's got some of the funnier lines in any rpg and in a game full of amazing music, his theme is just awesome, perfectly capturing his character. Locke is a hero you'd want in your party anytime.

2. Cloud (Final Fantasy VII)
Cloud first comes to us as a mercenary with a messed up past and as it turns out, it's even more messed up than he initially remembers. He starts out as kind of a jaded jerk but his compassion eventually comes through. Maybe the story of the loner who comes to see the value of friendship and maybe even love isn't a new one but it's still done extremely well with Cloud. The loyalty he has for his companions is exemplified over and over again through acts of extreme bravery and sometimes just...extremes (like dressing in drag to infiltrate a brothel). From his verbal jousts with Barret to his playful flirting with Aerith, we really do see some heavy character development that's very interesting and heartfelt. His date at the Gold Saucer with Aerith is the most romantic sequence in all of video games (as far as I'm concerned).

And as he discovers more about his past, Cloud actually goes right to the breaking point and even does end up broken for awhile. Because even for a video game hero, Cloud is messed up. And he doesn't just bounce back all at once. Even with all the fantasy that's going on, he is still very much human with flaws and weaknesses to balance his strengths.

Cloud's sword is all kinds of cool and his limit break techniques are the best in the game. The materia system keeps FFVII characters from having their own unique attacks but he still stands out as your heaviest hitter.

What easily could have been a one-dimensional character in the series is actually one of the very deepest and while FFVII is an amazing game in every capacity, the inclusion of Cloud as protagonist helps to push it into "masterpiece" territory.

1. Celes (Final Fantasy VI)
So much has been said about her I really don't know what else I could add, but I will try. In a series famous for being full of interesting and memorable characters, Celes stands above them all.

She comes to us fairly late in the game for a major character, even for an experienced player it takes about four hours of playing to get to where she becomes playable but that's just part of what makes FFVI such a wonderful game - it doesn't actually have one main character, instead relying on several to carry the load with lesser characters playing support roles. Anyway Celes is originally with the enemy but we find out that she wasn't loyal to them at any point - fused with magic, she'd simply been used by the Empire since her birth as a weapon. But as soon as she's in a position to defy them she does, even though it appears hopeless. We're only just meeting Celes and already we find out that she's bravely prepared to die rather than continue being a tool of evil.

Throughout the game it is mostly her relationship with Locke that stands out but she also interacts well with others, flatly refusing to answer wimpy Terra's dumb questions about "what love is" and staring down the other members of the party who don't trust her at first and threaten her. Although she was used by the Empire she at least makes good use of her training and is every bit as much a warrior as Cyan or Sabin. She also has an interesting relationship with a non playable character, Cid which seems almost trivial when first introduced but later on becomes quite significant.

At one point she is described as "cold as ice" by another party member and while she never gets annoyingly emotional like Terra, we do get to see her more tender side throughout the game, principally in her interactions with Locke. The opera scene has gained a fame that goes beyond even the game and this is not unwarranted. Besides all the other stuff like the music and presentation, that scene is also wonderful simply in the context of FFVI's story as we see the hardened warrior forced into a role she's never played before and actually pulling it off beautifully, perhaps discovering something about herself in the process.

Maybe Celes's greatest moment is on the Floating Continent in her showdown with Kefka and Gestahl. Her speech there is one of the most stirring and memorable moments in the entire series and its conclusion is punctuated by her daring actions.

Her runic blade is absolutely essential in some battles and always just fun to use in any situation and she's probably the game's strongest magic user when all is said and done. She's fair to the point of pale and hauntingly beautiful and feminine while remaining strong and forceful. Tragic, romantic and heroic, Celes is the best Final Fantasy has to offer. And that's saying a lot.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Players With Annoying Numbers

Anyone who knows me and has listened to me ramble on about hockey knows that I have EXTREMELY strong and particular opinions on player numbers. In a perfect world, I get to tell every single player exactly what number to wear. Unfortunately we don't live in that world (yet) but at least I do agree with the choices made by over half the players currently in the league and many more throughout history. This is partially because history helps dictate what kind of player should wear what number and it's one of the biggest factors in my own ideas. Some numbers like 4 and 9 are very easy to figure out as they've historically been enormously popular and have been handed down over the decades to a certain type of player. And numbers like 99 and 66 don't factor in at all because they are what they are no one is else is ever going to wear them.

So this list will just point out a few players past and present who bug me with their number choices. These are the players I want to go up to and just tell them that they are WRONG. In the case of the current players, there's still some hope I guess.

5. Brendan Bell #9 Ottawa Senators
While everyone knows I loathe the Sens, that doesn't mean I necessarily loathe all their players. Bell is a guy I've always liked and continue to like despite the fact that he is now playing for Ottawa. But the guy is a defenceman, and while he does have some offensive flair to his game, everyone knows that a d-man just never, ever wears nine. Nine is a number reserved exclusively for forwards and even more exclusively for dynamic offensive stars. It is the number of Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Bobby Hull. In today's NHL it is well-worn by players such as Mike Modano and Paul Kariya.

If you're a forward playing any level of hockey but scoring isn't your thing, then nine isn't your number and never will be. And if you're a high-scoring defenceman you should still understand there's a different set of rules for your position and you wear something like seven. And if you're Brendan Bell, you switch to a boring number under fifty and leave the forward-only numbers alone.

4. Jeremy Roenick #97 Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, LA Kings
JR was one of the rare American players to not only play junior hockey in the Quebec League but to also tear it up while he was there. He stepped into the NHL with the Blackhawks and established himself as a star almost immediately scoring 100 points in three straight seasons at one point, two with 50 goals. He did all this wearing a pretty good number: twenty-seven. Then he was part of a major trade to the newly arrived Phoenix Coyotes, and Roenick, a guy with lots of talent and even more ego, switched to the flashy number ninety-seven. Granted, defenceman Teppo Numminen was wearing twenty-seven when Roenick got there but ninety-seven? Come on. One can argue I'm being pretty hard on the guy since Doug Gilmour had donned the number ninety-three when he arrived in Toronto but I still see Roenick's choice as some sort of statement about how awesome he thought he was.

When he signed with San Jose in 2007, Roenick went back to his old twenty-seven claiming he didn't want to stand out anymore and wanted to be "just one of the guys" so I see that as an admission that he really was trying to be special when wearing the highest number in the league besides You Know Who.

3. Any Player to Ever Wear #25
I'll admit that I really shouldn't be blaming any players for this one. The problem here is that unlike pretty much every other number worn in hockey, not counting weird stuff that has been worn only by insignificant players or extremely briefly by others (say as rookies without a guranteed place on the roster) like fifty-four or something, I do not understand twenty-five at all. I just can't figure it out. To me, the number twenty-five has no identity in hockey despite the fact that it's fairly common and has been worn by some very notable players over the years. It seems to be slightly favoured by forwards and yet defencemen wear it too, most notably and recently Chris Pronger with the Ducks, changing from his old forty-four.

Here's a few of the most notable players to have regularly worn this number:
Jacques Lemaire - Gritty two-way forward with scoring touch
Joe Nieuwendyk - Big goal-scorer and faceoff specialist
Chris Pronger - Huge physical (downright nasty, really) defenceman with offensive punch
Vincent Damphousse - Flashy offensive star
Kevin Stevens - Bruising scoring power forward
Randy Carlyle - Defensive shutdown defenceman

Now what do these players have in common as far as their strengths and playing styles go? You guessed it - pretty much fuck all. Someone needs to come along and define this number for me.

2. Eric Lindros #88 Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs (gag), Dallas Stars
My hatred for little baby Eric has been well documented so we'll just stick to the numbers part here. His story is that he didn't pick 88 because he thought he was special. His story is that it's a tribute to John McCauley, a former NHL ref, now deceased, who was the father of a teammate of Lindros's in Junior B. McCauley wore number eight so that's what Lindros wore. But when he got to Major Junior with the Oshawa Generals, eight was already taken so he picked eighty-eight. Bit of a jump there, doncha think? It's worse than what Roenick did considering this was a KID and this was also back when high numbers were only just starting to be more widespread in the NHL. So you can either buy his story or you can believe the guy was just aching to claim a unique number once he reached Major Junior because he was buying into his own stupid hype.

Ridiculously dominant as a teenager, and admittedly for the first few years of his NHL career as well, Lindros was the only player to wear eighty-eight for any significant amount of time. Seems kind of like 66 and 99 to me. Not to mention people were referring to him as "The Next One" before he was even drafted - don't tell me that didn't go to the guy's head - remember that draft day? Quebec City sure as hell does.

In the last two years, young rising stars Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Peter Mueller of the Phoenix Coyotes have both come in wearing eighty-eight, which they also wore in junior and I'm glad someone finally has so they can take the mystique off the number. Because despite all his talent, Lindros will always be remembered for what a tool he is rather than anything he actually accomplished in the game of hockey.

1. Vincent Lecavalier #4 Tampa Bay Lightning
Another former number one pick turned superstar who thought he was something special, I can think of no bigger hockey number crime than Lecavalier's insistence to wear number four. If you don't know, perhaps because you're a moron or something, the number four is to defencemen as the number nine is to forwards except that it's actually slightly more accessible. Basically it is the ultimate number for those who patrol the blue line and it was worn most famously by the amazing Bobby Orr.

While defenceman wear all sorts of numbers these days the tradition remains that the numbers two through six belong solely to them (although six is possibly the most interesting number in all of hockey and I'm cool with some forwards wearing it). Before Lecavalier, the big exceptions to this were Boom Boom Geoffrion (number five) and Jean Beliveau (number four). But they started playing in the forties and fifties respectively and back then NO ONE had anything over thirty and the odd forward might dip as low as five and defencemen would sometimes wear something over ten (but NEVER did they wear nine). But as Beliveau's career went on, it was pretty strange for a forward, particulalry a high-scoring star, to wear four. But here's the thing: he was JEAN FUCKING BELIVEAU. He really was special.

Vinny, on the other hand, is a very good player but he's got a hell of a long way to go to, say, be considered for the Hall of Fame and even then, I don't know how to help you understand just how strange it is for him to wear four. I'll put it this way - if Steve Yzerman wore four I MIGHT have been ok with that (although it's pretty much impossible to picture him wearing anything but nineteen but this is just for the sake of an example).

What's funny is this rumor that just won't go away about Lecalvalier possibly signing with Montreal this off-season. Now, tons of players have to switch numbers heading there simply by virtue of it being the team that has retired the most numbers by far. But can you imagine if for some crazy reason four wasn't retired there? Fans would run him out of town if he tried to put it on, I can promise you. So dear Vincent - please go to Montreal so you are forced to wear a reasonable number because you really aren't that special.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Shane's Favourite Werewolves of Cinema

I love werewolves, and I know you do too. How could you not? However, I find for the most part that films about werewolves don't really live up to their potential. Every time I watch a werewolf movie I find myself being disappointed on some level. Whether it's poor design, cheap effects, a stupid plot, bad acting, unlikeable characters, etc. Especially in the last decade, it's been nothing but letdowns. I wasn't impressed with Brotherhood of the Wolf or Ginger Snaps. Cursed was entertaining at the time, but impossibly stupid. And I couldn't stand the cg werewolves in films like Van Helsing or the two Underworld flicks. Even Lupin's werewolf from Harry Potter looked like it suffered from bulimia.

So here is my list of my favourite werewolves. Let me be clear - this is not a list of my favourite werewolf movies, or what I consider to be the best werewolf movies. I honestly don't think I could make a list of five great werewolf movies as easily as say "the best vampire movies" or "the best zombie movies". Instead I'm simply picking 5 werewolves that stick out in my mind as being cool, or especially frightening, or violent, or simply having kick ass special effects. Also, spoilers ahoy!

5. Bad Moon (1996)
Why is this werewolf cool? Because he's a complete dick and most of the time he's fighting a family's dog, named Thor. They really should have named this movie "Werewolf vs. Dog", cause that's really what it is. At one point the werewolf punches a dude's guts open, yet he never seems to be able to defeat a German Shepherd.

The uncle (who is the werewolf) spends most of his time trying to get rid of Thor to keep his secret under wraps. At one point, when his scheme results in Thor being dragged off to the pound, we see him wander over to Thor's doghouse and smugly take a piss on it. What the f**k? This guys spends his days trying to outsmart a dog as a human, and his nights battling the dog as a werewolf.

A terrible movie, but an entertaining werewolf that is violent and scary enough for my books. The transformation scene, however, is weak for employing some shitty computer effects.

4. The Howling (1981)
A movie that is really atmospheric and dark, I was really impressed the first time we get a good look at one of the werewolves (pictured). This thing is freaking huge and imposing. Plus, it attacks this woman in a tiny room, so it seems all the bigger. It's genuinely frightening, and makes me want to panic.

The transformation of the werewolf is impressive as hell, and you can really see that a ton of work went into it. My only gripe is that it seems to take ages to fully transform, and Dee Wallace just sits there instead of trying to escape. Just run, lady! Also, I didn't like was how all the people who were werewolves in the film seemed to enjoy being werewolves and wanted to change more people to their side. Leave that sort of stuff to vampires, I like my wolfman as a tortured, cursed, "Run while you still can!!" type.

3. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Looks like '81 was a good year for werewolves. Yeah, so, how can I not include this movie? First time I saw it, I was thought it was good, but I didn't understand what the big deal was. Now that years have gone by, and I've seen many a werewolf movie, I've come back to watch it again and it's more obvious now. If this were the top 5 werewolf movies, this would take the top spot, hands down.

Anyway, since the whole movie is about the character, David, dealing with his impending fate of transforming into an inhuman monster, the movie allows you feel his fear and dread. Suspense builds, but your compassion for him also grows. When we finally reach the transformation scene (thank you, Rick Baker) it looks incredibly intense and painful.

Although, I'm more a fan of a bipedal design, this werewolf is insane. It's scary, vicious, and gets to wreak havoc in the streets. Heads get bitten clean off, people are mauled, cars pile up and people are run over and crushed. That's exactly how a werewolf in a city should play out.

2. Waxwork (1988)

This is an obscure movie, but it was one of my favorites from when I was a kid. And the main reason I liked it was for the werewolf. Although the werewolf only has a short scene, it scared the piss out of me. I remember watching it back when I was way too young to be watching something like that, and barely being able to avoid hiding my face in fear.

I know you're thinking, "What? You were scared of that? It looks like a cat had sex with an ewok!" Yes, I admit it looks weird and unconventional, but you can't deny it's complete creepiness. Looking back, the movie is cheesy as hell, but I still love that werewolf. He puts on a show.

Before transforming, the werewolf is played by John Rhys-Davies. That's right, Gimli as a werewolf. After changing, he bites a guy, and chews up another guys face. Then he tears him in half! And not top half/bottom half. I mean, he tears some poor bastard in half. Lengthwise! Like he was a newspaper! That's blows my mind, it's so cool. Even though the werewolf scene is sadly cut short, he makes one more appearance at the end of the film to sneak up behind a guy in a wheelchair and pull his head off. Man!

1. Monster Squad (1987)
Another favorite movie from my childhood, which is also not solely about werewolves. If you don't know this cult classic, it's about a group of children who love all things monster related and end up battling a bunch of them to save the world. But why should the werewolf stand out among the likes of the mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and swamp thing?

Well, first of all, I love the way it looks. It's like a perfect mixture of classic Hollywood wolfman meeting modern makeup effects. This werewolf was created by the late, great Stan Winston, so show some respect, fool! And the transformation scenes are top notch. At one point the wolfman, played by Carl Thibault, is in a phone booth trying desperately to warn the police when he changes. The transformation is short, convincing, and scary. No need to have him writhing for ten minutes like other movies. Watch it for yourself and try to tell me it isn't brilliantly to the point.

We all know that a silver bullet kills a werewolf, but this movie pushes it to the extreme. That means NOTHING else can possibly kill it. The werewolf get shoved out a window and blown up midair with TNT, and still comes back to beat up on some cops! That's extreme! Plus, this werewolf gave us the hilarious "Wolfman's got nards!" scene. What's funnier than a werewolf getting kicked in the balls by a fat kid? Nothing.

This werewolf is my favorite for being surprising dark and frightening in what is essentially a family film. When human he's desperately trying to protect those around him, and fight the inevitable, but completely loses himself to the animal inside. He is the center of some entertaining and gruesome scenes, but proves that a werewolf doesn't have to leave a huge body count in his wake to be interesting.