mystictowersIn the early 90s, Apogee had a nice little market. They’d take a popular console game, hack together a PC clone, and distribute it via the then-popular “shareware” model (episode 1 on the house, episodes 2 and 3 available through BBS and mail order). They made simple games that were FUN, something not every game remembers these days between their 200 page design documents and procedurally generated worlds and Hollywood voice talent.

Now and then, though, they released titles that were a bit different. Take Mystic Towers…how would you sell this game?

Most Apogee titles are child friendly. This game has portraits on the walls of naked pin-up girls, and you play an elderly man who scratches his balls from time to time. It’s not an adult game, like Leisure Suit Larry, but you can hear the whisper of an envelope being pushed.

Additionally, the game is not terribly fussed about sticking to a style and at various moments plays like an RPG, a dungeon crawler, a shooting game, a puzzle game, and a platform game. Combining RPG and action gaming became a pretty trendy thing when that say-Devil-in-Spanish game came out but Mystic Towers is a bit different, more redolent of a real pen and paper RPG rather than a stat-grinding action game.

You must enter a series of towers, destroy all the monsters, destroy the monster generator that is spawning the monsters, and find the large red tower key that allows you to leave. You have lots of abilities at your disposal. Your wizard can drag boxes around to make a stack and reach high-up places, use powerups to fly or become invisible, and collect coins with which he can buy weapons. It’s all pretty simple, there’s no stats or classes. Beating the game requires exploration, patience, and a Rain Man-esque ability to memorize floor layouts.

Graphics are impressive by shareware standards. The game uses an isometric perspective for that classy pseudo-3D look. Sprites in Mystic Towers are drawn so that they look like they have depth and exist in real space. There’s some basic environmental interaction, such as dragging a statue backwards to uncover gold coins, and flipping light switches to illuminate rooms. (Why do medieval towers have 20th century light switches? Because they’re mystic towers, reprobate.)

The game is cool and original, but not perfect. I hate the obsessive exploring and item collecting, I hate how the player must go around and around in ever increasing circles. To unlock a door on floor 3 you need a key on floor 2 that is protected by a force field with a switch on floor 5 which is guarded by a monster that can be beaten with a weapon on floor 1…Mystic Towers depends heavily on “whoops, you triggered a trap” level design and this also gets old fast. There are hidden bombs that drop on your head, invisible tiles that poison you, and other annoying things that can’t be anticipated.

The controls are a bit too mystic for my blood. You can only move in four directions, so sometimes you need to walk an awkward zigzag path to get to a destination. Basic movements (such as stepping to the side) aren’t allowed. Fighting monsters is often difficult due to the control scheme, although unfortunately not for any legitimate reason. Killing monsters involves lining yourself up to one and blasting the Ctrl key until it dies.

Playing Mystic Towers is like watching a movie where the director was sacked halfway through production and replaced by someone with completely different ideas. It’s confused and confusing, and a showcase of good ideas in a merely acceptable game.

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Some books suck ass and are completely worthless. This book is even worse. Parts of it are good.

Garbage is something I can deal with. Garbage mixed into fine cordon bleu is another. Cows has a good idea, and it’s written well. Unfortunately, it’s charley-horsed at every step by its own identity: it’s a transgressive fiction book full of extreme gore and sex. This book doesn’t need extreme gore and sex. It would have been better off without it.

It entails a young man (with a dysfunctional home life) who gets a job slaughtering cows at an abattoir, and how that job begins to warp his mind. His meathook-inspired self-actualization is simple. At home, he’s a downtrodden worm. At work, he has the power of a Biblical god over an endless procession of animals. But he’s the same man he was at home, so why doesn’t he bring Muhammad to the mountains, as it were?

Cows is never more powerful and unsettling than in quiet scenes of the main character watching TV, dreaming of a better life. Cows is never so cartoonish and boring in its scenes of the protagonist shitting into his mother’s mouth and raping cow carcasses. The shock value soon stops being shocking, like a ten gallon drum of sugar will soon stop tasting sweet. Cows soon sickens into something annoying and even a bit comedic, like a Paul Jennings book for the William S Burroughs crowd.

Starting halfway through, Cows starts going off into various surrealistic directions, which damages the plot integrity still more. Cows works fine when it plays things straight. Talking animals, however, queer the pitch.

Cows illustrates an interesting fact about transgressive fiction: it is hard to get right. For a book of this kind to succeed, it needs something extra…whether that something is a sharp poetic edge (Aldapuerta’s The Eyes, Havoc’s White Skull, or Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden), an umbilicus to reality that denies the reader the safe distance of fantasy (Peter Sotos’s books), or satire and social commentary of some sort (American Psycho, some Palahniuk things I suppose).

I think Stokoe was going the satire route (parts of the book read a little like Fight Club), but the outrageous OTTness is the least successful thing about it, and tends to spoil the more subtle and textured parts of the book. The result is something like a dark Chopin movement drowned out by random blasts of white noise. There’s moments of genuine depth juxtaposed by ridiculous scenes where not just a single bull is crashing through a china shop but a whole herd of them.

Cows never delivers on its potential…but it never disavows its potential, either. Parts of the book are effective. The character’s sense of alienation is real. Cows could have been great if Stokoe had been satisfied with something milder, but he piles on tired “transgressive” stuff as if he has a quota to meet, and the result is a corresponding disappointment. It’s a shame to see a book ignoring its own strengths.

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mfadMark Twain once made a funny joke about “idiot member of Congress” being a tautology. I could make a joke about “Aerosmith comeback album” being another tautology. It wouldn’t be funny, though. The joke has been going on for thirty six years, and repetition is the enemy of humour.

Basically, Aerosmith cut some albums in the mid seventies and have spent the next four decades trying to escape their shadow. Nearly every Aerosmith album since Rocks has been considered a comeback effort by someone, somewhere…each comebackier than the last, and each more easily forgotten by the time the next one rolls around. The band has been unable to make lightning strike twice, with their output ranging from okay (Draw the Line), to uninspiring (Done with Mirrors) to revolting (I do want to miss a thing…that hellish song…).

To be fair, they managed a fairly legit comeback with Pump, which had the scorching “F.I.N.E.” and “Janie’s Got a Gun”, a song that even people that hate this band often like. But given their track record, does Aerosmith really have the air (aer?) of a rock and roll legend? Honestly, they seem more like a decent band that sometimes gets lucky.

Music from another Dimension is AC/DC’s Black Ice all over again. It’s clearly written by the same band that once put out classics, and it’s clearly not destined to join them. “Love XXX” sports a catchy main riff but doesn’t really go anywhere. “Legendary Child” has Perry reaching into his bag of tricks and coming out with an interesting harmonised lick. This song sounds greasy and driving and would have made good filler on Toys in the Attic.

“Street Jesus” is good – fast and furious, like “Rats in the Cellar”. The only thing that hurts it is the clean and slick production. Aerosmith’s music used to sound hard enough to cut a De Beers diamond, not nice and inoffensive. This is music that bows and scrapes and asks “Please sir, may I have permission to rock?” “Something” is a weird and sprawling thing redolent of Magic Mystery Tour-era Beatles.

By “Up on the Mountain” we’re on to the blatant idea recycling, with the band writing “Love XXX” all over again as if they’d forgotten that they’d already recorded that one. “Lover Alot” is silly fast rock with none of the old Aerosmith bite. Unfortunately, the band doesn’t restrain itself to “boring”, some songs here are actually repulsive. “Beautiful” has some brash swagger mixed with a godawful annoying chorus that sounds like Creed gone even more wrong. “We All Fall Down” is a slow dance piano ballad written by that chick who wrote “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”…good, just what Aerosmith fans want to hear.

That they’re still coasting on Rocks’ glory thirty seven years later is a favourable comment on the quality of their early albums. Will those days ever be revisited? I will never say never, but it hasn’t happened here. Forget writing the anthems of an age. Aerosmith is struggling to write the anthems of the next five minutes.

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