Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thank goodness for hockey

By Jeff

After a historic collapse by the Pirates in August, followed up by a similar embarrassment by the Steelers, my sports year was looking pretty miserable as the NHL lockout continued.

With no hockey, I would have had nothing to look forward to until March (Sorry, Spring Training, World Baseball Classic, NBA and NCAA basketball season all mean very little to me.).

Then we got hockey back and all was right in the world. The Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a great start, minus the whole Evgeni Malkin concussion. Sidney Crosby is healthy and playing great, Paul Martin is showing that last year was a fluke (He wasn't terrible in 2010-2011 like everyone seems to say he was), and Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't appear to be suffering any lingering effects from his dismal showing in last year's playoffs.

Of course, all this means nothing if the team chokes again in the postseason, which is very possible. Unfortunately, as we saw in the second Flyers game this season, Dan Bylsma still struggles with in-game adjustments. Actually, he may not know that they are allowed. It seems that he thinks the only strategy change a coach can make is change line combinations... Sorry, Dan, Tyler Kennedy is going to skate down the right wing and take a slapper at the goalies chest or glass behind the goal no matter who he's on the ice with.

Bylsma's inability to make strategic changes on the fly has been evident for the past three seasons. It is baffling. He may be the best coach in the league when it comes to preparing his team for each game. Just look at the way the Pens come out flying every game. I think they've scored first in all but four or fives games out of 20 this year. But then he gets stubborn. Other teams adjust and Bylsma keeps plugging away thinking his team's superior talent will win out if they execute his game plan effectively.

The sad thing is, he's not wrong. When the Pens "grind bitches down", forecheck aggressively, get out of their zone quickly and are healthy, chances are they are going to win. But this is hockey. It's a game where momentum is vital and can change in an instant. You also have moody players. With a long season in a phyiscally grueling sport, there are going to be nights where guys don't show up. It's these nights where you have to alter the plan. I don't see Bylsma ever doing that.

The guy is a great coach, but another early exit in the playoffs and it would be hard for me to argue against cutting him loose.

Other quick thoughts:
  • Why is Tom Brady being praised so much for essentially making more money? He is taking his salary as a "bonus" rather than "salary". He is being guaranteed more money than the previous deal. I get that it's opening more cap space, but big time players do this all the time (Roethlisberger will probably do it for the second year in a row this offseason.). It's a standard business move in the salary cap era. Brady isn't doing anything special or commendable. 
  • It's like when Cliff Lee signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for his mega deal a few years ago. People praised him for turning down "more money" from the New York Yankees. Well, he was actually making more money per year with the Phillies than the Yankees were offering. The Yankees just added another year. I just don't get praise.
  • DJ Gallo is pretty hilarious. Of course, this article would have been a lot funnier if Joe Flacco didn't just win a Super Bowl...
  • Where did Dwight Howard go wrong? A few years ago he was dressing up as Superman and everyone thought he was a great guy. The past two seasons he has basically been the cause of two head coaches to lose their jobs and will probably be a major contributor to a third losing his job. He complains about his role, and pretty much everything, while his number decline. Quite a 180 he's pulled.
  • I can't bring myself to get excited about the Pirates this year. Granted, I felt this way before last season and they proved me wrong. I'm just thinking that the May-June run was the fluke and the April, August-September team was the real thing. I hope I'm wrong.
  • "Looper" is a crazier movie than its previews even made it out to be.
  • "Taken 2" was maybe the most disappointing movie I've seen in quite some time. It was an obvious money grab. Not only does Liam Neeson seem to be tired and phoning it in, he even says in the movie that he is tired.
  • The daughter in "Taken 2" is just as annoying as ever. And someone please tell me how throwing multiple grenades off of rooftops in a major city like Istanbul doesn't get very much attention?
  • Almost finished with the game "Dishonored" and it's pretty sweet. Combat is a little limited and redundant, but still a refreshing game.
  • How would you fight an invasive snake species? Drop dead mice filled with Tylenol, duh! If your mind just pictured a bunch of zombie mice commandos parachuting behind enemy lines, you're not alone. Why didn't we try this with Hitler and Nazi Germany?
  • Hitler was a vegetarian, that's why.
  • Things my dog Lucy has eaten or tried to eat since we adopted her last May: Couch cushions, pillows, couches, two sets of blinds, cable remote, cable line, Pirates hat, phone book, chapstick, about 20 DVDs, a leash, the floor to her crate, christmas tree topper, incent candle, picture frames, a shoe, chess pieces and a burner on the stove.
  • Things my dog Yigo has eaten since I adopted him in December of 2008: a Phillies hat and a sock.
Pearl Jam - Baba O'Riley

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Top 10 music tracks from SNES games

by Mike Z

Well I'm back for a quick cameo after Jeff inspired me with all the video game posts. This is actually something I've thought about doing for a while, but finally got the motivation to put it together. Plus, I'm sure this is much more fun for everyone to read about than my typical WAR or xFIP posts.

My initial motivation to put this post together actually came from the Grammy awards if you can believe that. Journey, a PS3 game, was the first video game to ever have its soundtrack nominated for a Grammy. The score for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" won (sidenote - the music was co-written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; blew me away when I read that), but it was a big step, now recognizing how dynamic and powerful some of the music can be on video games.

Granted, nothing on this will ever be mistaken for Grammy-worthy, but these are some of my favorite tracks from some great games. What makes many of these songs great for me, weren't that they were simply fun to listen to, but augmented the game experience, whether it stirred emotions, or was so atmospheric as to capture the scene and moment of the game. With that in mind, I wanted to highlight some of these songs, many of which were ahead of their time for the early 1990s. When determining this list, I decided to go with 1 song per game, as otherwise every song would have been from either Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger.

Honorable Mention
Rick-Rolled by Chrono Trigger
I just had to lead off with this because we were all Rick Rolled by composer Yasunori Mitsuda, before that was ever a thing. Seriously, listen to this overlay/mash-up of Robo's theme and Never Gonna Give You Up. It just fits way too well. Get a good laugh out of that video, and then let's get going with the real list.

10. Fireburg - Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest
Yeah this isn't really that great of a game, and isn't actually a Final Fantasy game either, but I remember getting excited when I reached this town. It's such a fun, energetic song, while still keeping the feel of an atmospheric town setting, I just had to add it to my list. May not be too memorable for most, but it is for me.

9. Mission 1 - UN Squadron
This is considered one of the best side-scrolling shooters on the SNES, and the theme from the very first level helps in hooking you on the game right away. It's a high energy melody, with synth beats where you can easily picture where the electrical guitar should be. It fits perfectly into an aerial shooter, and adds to the anxiety and action of the level. It complements the level so well that it was pretty easy to pick this song rather than any of the other great tracks of the game.

8. Corneria - Star Fox
Sensing a theme so far? Another dynamic, aggressive track that immediately helps the player jump into the game from level 1. It fits into the frantic pace of the game, and does have the futuristic feel that fits in perfectly with the game.

7. Big Blue - F-Zero
I was never really a fan of racing games, but I used to love playing this game just so I could get to this level. It fits the gameplay and the futuristic setting perfectly, paralleling with Corneria nicely. Listening to this song while I type this, I can imagine where the turbo boosts should be and the sound of me hitting the walls and eventually blowing up. Memories like that, something you can re-create when listening to it after a long time, is what this music post is all about. You'll be seeing a lot more of this with the rest of the list.

6. Bloody Tears - Castlevania IV
If this doesn't get you revved up to kill some vampires, I don't know what will. It has the kinetic, lively beat of an action game, yet organ sounds and whistles to give it the horror feel. The song really helps you jump into the game, much like the others on the list, which led me to barely pick this over Simon's theme. Somewhat of a tangent, but I'm pretty sure I love the NES version more than the SNES version. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.

5. Spark Mandrill - Mega Man X
You simply cannot do a video game music list without including Mega Man on it. The music for the NES games were memorable in itself, giving X a lot to live up to, and this entire game alone had some of the best of the X series. If you want to try and persuade me that Storm Eagle or Boomer Kuwanger should be here, I don't think it would take much on your part to do so.

4. Dark World - Zelda: A Link to the Past
Surprised I didn't go with the classic Zelda theme here? Sure that is pretty iconic, but there is so much more behind this song. It gives the sense of mystery and intrigue of a foreign world, with the sense of it being dangerous, but at the same time the excitement  and motivation that you'll be able to conquer whatever you'll encounter. The image of this song starting the first time the song is played when Link is atop the pyramid is burned into my memory, and I'm a happier person for it.

3. Stickerbrush Symphony - Donkey Kong Country 2
Now we're getting into some pretty powerful stuff. The ambiance this music creates is breathtaking. Combined with the art for this level, really makes this a memorable experience. I remember starting this level and putting down the controller and just letting it play. So calm and relaxing, it really is a beautiful piece. There are plenty of covers for this song, that I'd recommend listening to if you have the interest. Putting real instruments brings back a ton of memories. You could make a great argument that this is the best song on the SNES.

2. Aria di Mezzo Carattere - Final Fantasy VI
Now this is how you put together as song as a defining moment in a game. Even though there is no voice track, it's still gripping and one of the most magnificent moments in all of gaming. Such an ambition scene for a 16-bit system with limited resources. This scene was one of the driving factors that led Nobuo Uematsu to partner with orchestras for the Video Game Live series, having full orchestras performing memorable video game music.

I'm sure I'm biased toward this game, but I can still listen to this song for hours. I've always thought this was the perfect ending theme to a game. It starts off melodic and captivating, upbeat because your group of heroes completed their task and were able to change the future. About 2/3 of the way through the song, it becomes almost melancholic, exemplifying how the group of friends will now be splitting up, heading back to their own time periods, and then unsure of what the future will hold for any of them. This song led to symphonies playing this entire soundtrack, another important piece in video game music history. That's why I picked it over some great track like Corridors of Time (I can still picture reaching Zeal for the first time), Frog's theme, Yearnings of the Wind/600AD, or Schala's theme (because Wiz Khalifa can't be wrong).

Agree? Disagree? Did I make any glaring mistakes? Let me know. Hope you can enjoy some of this music, and hopefully brought back some good memories if you played any of these growing up.