Review: Stranger Things – Netflix’s best original series yet

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I just want to say that keeping up with Orange Is the New Black is a chore. The pace is glacial at times, characters that are interesting and plot threads that seem to be moving in interesting directions are often pushed aside in favor of boring or far less interesting ones (I’m looking at you, Piper). Season 4 was definitely an improvement over last (that cliffhanger scene is pretty damn good) but for me personally I feel like I really have to push myself to see what happens next as opposed to excitedly moving on to the next episode.

I had a completely different experience with Stranger Things, the newest addiction for Netflix’s strong contingent of binge watchers (myself included).

Created by the Duffer Brothers – who are, in fact, not a failed tag team from WWE – the story concerns a boy who vanishes on his way home in 1980s Indiana, and his family and friends who frantically try to find the boy. As they get closer to what happens, they unravel a conspiracy involving another young girl with psychic powers, a secret government research facility, and something even deeper and more dangerous.

Stranger Things is bolstered by a particularly talented cast. Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, mother of Will Byers who disappears at the start of the show, and she does a fantastic job portraying a single mother in a race against time (and against the doubts of others) to find her son. David Harbour is spectacularly understated as police chief Jim Hopper, a man with a tragic background who is investigating Will’s disappearance and becomes more and more involved in the conspiracy as the show progresses.

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Perhaps the most impressive members of the cast are its youngest, something exceedingly rare in a world where a child actor can sometimes make or break a scene. Millie Bobby Brown, the bald-headed, super powered Eleven (nicknamed El by the others) shows off an enormous range through a limited vocabulary – something done intentionally by the show’s writers in an effective way of showing El’s level of isolation and how much she has to learn from her cohorts.

Speaking of which, Will’s three friends who are heavily invested in tracking down their missing friend, are superb. Finn Wolfhard plays Mike Wheeler, perhaps seen as the ringleader of the four friends, with Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair, and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson in two. All three have fantastic chemistry throughout the series, and even from the opening D&D campaign there’s a real sense of friendship that bleeds through each scene. Matarazzo in particular steals every scene as Dustin, who serves as the intelligent (if very laid back) voice of reason at times and willing to embrace El’s differences, if only with a child’s naiveté at first.

The rest of the cast is great, with Natalie Dyer playing Mike’s sister, Nancy Wheeler, and Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers, Will’s older brother. While I did admittedly find myself waiting for Nancy’s scenes to end in the first few episodes – I remember thinking to myself “Alright, this part of the plot needs to go somewhere” early on – both she and Jonathan become more and more intertwined as the season rolls on.

Matthew Modine is also particularly creepy as hell as Dr. Martin Brenner, the antagonist for much of the show.

Aside from a slower start with Nancy’s plot and how it ties into everything, Stranger Things gets high marks from me for its pace. Every single scene moves the plot along at a rapid, but not overwhelming pace. Flashbacks from El’s time spent under Dr. Brenner are peppered through each episode. The audience experiences these as emotional reactions to triggers in certain scenes, explaining certain fears and providing context often with minimal or no dialogue at all.

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The Duffer Brothers channel the best of Stephen King in his prime with a sharp script with smart characters who avoid falling into some of the more annoying tropes of stories dealing with government conspiracies or those with horror elements. Motivations and actions are clear for every character, and unlike shows where characters will do the exact thing no normal person would do simply because it’s the only way to move the story along, the characters in Stranger Things are nuanced and smart without being crafty to a point where you wonder if they’re carrying around a script in their pocket.

Chief Hopper in particular comes across as a believable character. He’s certainly no genius and the show avoids any sort of convenient ability or knowledge to brute-force the plot along. (No “Boy, sure am glad I used to be a scientist form the government!” or “My training in the military sure comes in handy!” moments).  Hopper makes mistakes from time to time, but is clearly motivated and reasonably intelligent when it comes to finding Will and digging deeper in a broader conspiracy.

Also, did I mention the soundtrack? The score by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein is great, too, and sounds like a solid and authentic 80s soundtrack while keeping away from being a distracting imitation of the era’s music.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but I would be completely fine with the show ending here. The show’s ending leaves plenty of questions unanswered, though not in a way that detracts from the experience (Lost, anyone?), but I’m not particularly sure if a second season is entirely necessary if only to have another go with some truly entertaining characters. The show has just enough to mystery to keep you guessing, but doesn’t overstay its welcome, resulting in a show that’s probably Netflix’s best original series to date.

“Nintendo NX will be super dope” – Nintendo Uncle

The Nintendo NX will be a nVidia-powered toaster, complete with 12GB of RAM, a bidet, detachable VR controllers, an optional headset, vacuum, and will be Keurig KCup compatible, sources close to Johnny’s uncle at Nintendo have confirmed.

“He said he couldn’t tell me because it was a super secret – like, mega secret, top secret – but my dad has been making Nintendo for 20 years,” Johnny said. “He had pictures and everything he drew for me.”

While no reputable service or primary source could be cited in the latest round of rumors from Johnny’s uncle, according to previous reports his dad was correct at least one other time. He previously said Nintendo was preparing to manufacture a new “Regular Nintendo,” likely connected to the new mini NES the company will be launching this year.

“It’s gonna be really cool,” Johnny said. “My uncle said they were going to make my game too.”

Johnny also provided this blog with more evidence of Nintendo’s newest plans, including schematics drawn with crayons and links to vague Reddit posts belonging to other relatives of Nintendo employees and “game testing” employees themselves with wildly conflicting but 100 percent accurate information

Johnny’s game, while currently untitled, is based on his fanfiction post from 2009 in which Mario enters a grimdark fantasy world with adult themes that would be “awesome and really really bloody,” Johnny said.

While only vague bits of information have been leaked by Nintendo officials and others regarding the new console, set to launch next year, the information provided by Johnny’s uncle represents the most reputable evidence yet that Nintendo’s new console will be completely cool and not “dumb and gay” like the Microsoft Xbone.

Other points we know about the NX:

  • It will have the capability to both download games and play them.
  • Selecting an online option in any game will autoplay an apology by Reggie Fils-Aime in which he apologizes profusely for the creation of Friend Codes.
  • Wiimotes can be paired with the system to allow users a chance to commit virtual seppuku.
  • Sonic will be on it and it will be “great, the best and coolest Sonic game ever and Mario and Cloud Strife will be in it,” per Johnny’s uncle.
  • The console will be available in two packages – one with Windows 98 sideloaded and another command-line only interface with a braille keyboard (sold separately).
  • Connecting to a WiFi network called VirtualBoy will change the screen to 3D.
  • The console will be completely detachable from a power base that plugs into an outlet and requires $400 worth of attachments to achieve full functionality.
  • NX will be more powerful than “Playstation Five but somewhere in between dad’s computer and his laptop,” per Johnny’s report.
  • It will be backwards compatible with Game.com games.
  • Sources have also told us that instead of cartridges, games will ship on coasters that mom will scold you about if you don’t use them on your coffee table.

Johnny’s uncle could not be reached for comment as he was too busy making the next Super Smash Bros. that would also be ported to PC because “Nintendo doesn’t make money anymore,” Johnny said.

Oh dear god my eyes were burning at Distant Worlds

logo.jpgI am a complete and total nerd and there are times I am ashamed of this.

Of course, I wasn’t completely ashamed enough that I wasn’t totally willing to shell out money for Saturday’s great Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert at the Jones Hall. Final Fantasy games have been a bit hit or miss for me – games earlier than the fourth don’t get much attention (and with good reason as the remake of FFIII is horrendous) and I think the eighth has one of the weakest stories out of the entire series. But the one thing every game has had going for it is the music.

The opportunity to hear 8-bit, 16-bit, and more modern soundtracks being played with an orchestra as talented as the Houston Symphony sounded great. I even dragged along my less-than-excited girlfriend Rachel for the ride and she ended up enjoying the music and performances, though not for the same reasons I did obviously.

What I really want to talk about though is everything else. The performance was great, the videos they showed were good (we’ll get to that), but there is something that always inherently bothers me any time I attend some of nerd-centric events in a major city like this.

Nerds themselves.

I mean it. If there is one thing that is absolutely insufferable in this world, it’s people whose only frame of reference is whatever pop culture icon, genre, or hobby they partake in and I’m not saying everyone in the audience at Distant Worlds was like this. Quite the contrary – there were a ton of people at the event who were well-adjusted and socially competent human beings.

The ones I sat next to and around, however, were not.

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Dear Febreze, deliver us from evil.

Let me clarify – there is nothing wrong with people who are socially awkward or may have anxiety with crowds or being around new people. I understand the litany of reasons of why some of the people with these issues find solace in some of the nerdier hobbies out here. I’ve known plenty of people like this, but there is one difference between the ones I have known and those that surrounded my girlfriend and I at Distant Worlds.

The ones I know all had the ability and self-awareness to maintain even the most rudimentary levels of hygiene.

We all know the stereotype of the utterly sedentary gamer who spends more time raising their MMR in Dota or trying to get a higher rank in CS:GO (or trying to swindle other nerds out of cash by betting on skins), subsisting on Doritos and Mountain Dew and failing at all things related to being a responsible adult, particularly hygiene. Fortunately it’s a stereotype that has slowly begun to wither away as the industry itself became more and more “mainstream” throughout the 2000s into today. In any group of enthusiasts, you will always come across a handful of people that fit a bad idea of what one would expect from the more “hardcore” side of the hobby.

The cloud of BO that hovered over us during Saturday’s performance was nauseating on a level that I simply wasn’t prepared for in a public space. I’d imagine that after the evening performance, a Hazmat team had to enter Jones Hall and systematically decontaminate the premises to avoid some sort of citation from the health department. Alternatively, just set the concert hall on fire and build it from the ground up again.

To make matters worse, I had to ask the person sitting next to me to stop humming along with the orchestra loudly twice. Look, we’re all here for the same reasons. We know the games, we know the music (mostly), no one will be impressed that you happened to know a theme song at a video game concert. We all know them. Please shut up.

I think what was more frustrating than anything was when I asked if they were, in fact, humming as I didn’t want to be wrong, the person not only admitted it but said it in such a flippant way they appeared to be proud of the fact that they humming along and others could hear them.

I don’t have the expectation that a crowd at any show or performance I see is going to be the most respectful, but anecdotally I can say I’ve never been to a concert and had to ask anyone to do something like this. Not sure if that makes me lucky or what, because I do know this was the first video game music performance-type event I’ve ever been to and it was a whole different beast compared to other concerts/festivals I’ve been to in terms of the smell.

Needless to say I was happy to get out of there and get some fresh air, or about as fresh as air in downtown Houston can get anyway.

Regardless, I was very happy with Saturday’s performance. Of note, the show marked the debut of the series’ Battle Medley, which played a series of battle themes throughout each game. Hearing the boss theme from FFIV was a great experience as was the general battle theme from FFVII which has been forever burned into my brain.

As much as I didn’t enjoy FF8, Balamb Garden was also fantastic.

The encore performance was worth the price of admission – as many guessed, they played fan favorite One Winged Angel from FFVII but again I felt disappointed that, instead of footage from the final battle against Sephiroth they opted to show footage from Advent Children. Personally, I found AC to be an overly convoluted, boring, poorly directed mess of a move that really added nothing and stands as a poorly made epilogue to a game that really didn’t need anything expansive as a follow up and certainly nothing that incomprehensible. (I think I might be in the minority when it comes to liking the somewhat minimalist ending to VII.)

Another strange thing was all of the footage that was shown came from the Japanese versions of the games. I found it odd, as other video game performances like the Legend of Zelda’s Symphony of the Goddesses used footage from the English translated games. Hope non-fans in the audience weren’t expecting to actually get a sense of what they were watching because they were pretty much SOL unfortunately.

It was also a shame that no one sang along with the Chocobo song after conductor Arnie Roth encouraged the audience to do. I know that makes me a bit of a hypocrite as I didn’t shout out the letters to Chocobo, but I’d imagine in a different crowd it might have been fun.

I was a little sad Nobuo Uematsu wasn’t in attendance but he obviously can’t make it to every performance. I can’t help but feel a little selfish in my disappointment.

Also on sale were shirts, bags, CDs, and other merchandise but I had my fill of nerd cred for the day. Also the shame usually prevents me from buying such things, minus my Doom shirt. Everyone should own a Doom shirt. Doom shirts transcend being nerd attire.

It was a great show with no major issues to speak of but I would love to enjoy such a performance without having to hold my nose but I guess given the sort of crowd that attends these events, perhaps I’ll just have to grin and bear it, particularly when the Symphony of the Goddesses rolls around in a few months.

Dear nerds, please shower, thanks in advance.