Top 7: Video Games

Top 7. Because 5 is never enough, but I’m too lazy for 10.

I was going to say that I wasn’t a huge gamer growing up, but thinking about it, that’s totally not true. When I was a kid, we had an Intellivision. I loved playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons on that sucker (even though I’ve never played D&D in real life). We also had an Atari 400 — many of the games came on audiocassettes, and you’d put them in a special player that took a half-hour to load the data onto the computer. The game I remember the most from the Atari was called Preppie, and it was a Frogger clone involving a caddy out fetching golf balls on a busy course.

Then we moved on to the Apple IIc. We had games galore on the big 5″ floppies, some of which we’d attacked with a hole punch so we could put data on both sides of the disc. That Apple also had our first modem, a lightning-fast 300bps model that transmitted written material slightly slower than the average person’s reading speed. I played many a multi-user dungeon on various local dial-up BBSes using that little beauty.

As technology improved, I moved up to Windows (386!) and various consoles. Although I was a latecomer to the newer consoles — I missed out on machines like the Genesis, SuperNintendo, and the PS1, and picked up with the original Xbox, the GameCube, and the PS2.

All that said, here are my personal top 7 games ever. At least, to date. Because we haven’t bought Portal 2 yet.

7. The Saboteur – Xbox360, 2009

This little-known gem is a third-person open-world game. I have no memory of how we discovered it — maybe by chance, maybe by seeing a review on G4, or maybe while we were looking for information on possible sequels to Mercenaries, another excellent open-worlder also made by Pandemic. The story of The Saboteur centers around an Irishman in Nazi-occupied Paris, wreaking havoc and destroying everything possible. The game itself is beautiful, and has a fantastic soundtrack. The dialog can get clunky in spots, but everything is forgiveable when you can load out with a silenced pistol and a silenced machine gun. This is the only game in which I’ve earned 100% of the Xbox achievement points (which took me about 50 gameplay hours).

6. The Neverhood – PC, 1996

I was on some sort of gaming break between college and marriage. Hitching myself to Scott also meant hitching myself to his Windows computer, and in the year of our marriage, we found both the original Tomb Raider and The Neverhood. I watched Scott play through as Lara Croft, and we quickly developed our system of him playing while I spotted treasures and bad guys. But The Neverhood was the first modern game I played through myself. Claymation characters, a weird-cool soundtrack, and the incredible weirdness of it all have stuck with me through the years. We still use certain lines from this game as in-jokes.

5. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! – GameCube, 2003

There have been many other iterations of Mario Kart, but for me, this one is the tops. It’s even better than the Wii version — a lot of the classic tracks that they imported for the Wii really suck, plus the GC version allows two people to have what we call “a race around the world” — a cup made up of all 16 tracks. Sure, it takes over an hour, and afterward your fingers feel like hamburger. But it’s all worth it when a pair of unlikely teammates (Peach and Birdo, anyone?) win the gold.

4. Sly 2: Band of Thieves – PS2, 2004

I’ve played all three Sly Cooper games. In fact, Sly is the only reason we still have our PS2. But of the three, the middle game is the best. It improved on some of the wonky mechanics from the first game, and was the perfect balance of missions, free-range destruction, and collectibles. The third game took away most of the collectible aspect, which broke my heart. The second game also includes a nice soundtrack (the great Peter McConnell), some fun dialog, and a not-too-easy but not-too-hard level of gameplay. The only problem I have with it is the player’s inability to invert the controls. It was hard to get into the groove of pushing the stick one direction to turn, when my instincts wanted to push the stick the other way.

3. Assassin’s Creed II – Xbox360, 2009

We tried playing the original game back when it first came out in 2007. The missions were repetitive, it felt like you had to ride a horse for hours to get anywhere, and the main character, Altaiir, was a dick. So when ACII came out, we didn’t pay it much mind until a friend told me how amazing it was. We borrowed his copy and fell quickly in love with Ezio, the suave and charming lead. (In exchange, I introduced that friend to The Saboteur, so we’re even.) The game is a massive improvement over the original AC, with a huge but easier-to-navigate open world and side missions galore. Sure, sometimes Ezio veers off in weird directions, but every game has its little glitches. The soundtrack, by Jesper Kyd, is an example of how video game music can be better than the music in most movies. I’m sitting at 995 out of 1000 achievement points on this one, since there’s one fighting move I just can’t master. But no matter. Maybe I’ll try to tackle it during my third playthrough.

Oh, and yes, I’ve played Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. It’s great! And I love the ability to build a squad of trained assassins to do jobs for you. But some of the missions were incredibly long, and felt like there were 10 parts to them. Plus, the ending of the Ezio’s story part was kind of weirdly abrupt and confusing. So an excellent game, and a worthy follow-up to ACII, but II still wins as the best AC game.

2. Psychonauts – Xbox, 2005

This is, far and away, the best game you probably haven’t ever heard of. Even though it got great critical reviews, sales were poor. Which is a shame, because it’s a fun, beautiful, weird, charming game. You play Raz, a kid at the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. You learn how to invade people’s minds and help battle their various neuroses. I know it sounds weird. It is really, really weird. But it’s full of fantastic characters, gorgeous settings, an awesome Peter McConnell soundtrack, and an entertaining storyline. I’ve played it through probably 6 times, and will most likely go through again the next time we’re in a drought for new games. It’s backward-compatible, so go out and get a cheap used copy to play on the 360.

1. BioShock – Xbox360, 2007

I’m not normally a first-person shooter girl. As you can tell from the list above, I lean more toward third-person games, either open-world or platformers. But BioShock is in a world all its own. Spooky situations, beautiful settings, an amazing soundtrack, and nice clean gameplay work together in the best game I’ve ever played. The first time through, I watched Scott play (and provided spotting support). Then I played through, and discovered a ton of new stuff (he’s a straight-through storyline guy, while I’m an explorer). Then I played through again, and again. A wide variety of weapons, both hand-held and physical, make it easy to find your favorite combat methods. The locations are so unique and distinctive, you can’t wait to go back to see them again. Heck, just writing about it makes me want to fire up the game and revisit Rapture.

BioShock 2 is a good game, but much of the surprise of Rapture is gone. Still, it’s well worth a play. We can’t wait for the next game, BioShock Infinite, which is scheduled for a 2012 release. Let’s hope we get a chance to play it through before the world ends.

Top 7: Pink Floyd Songs

Top 7. Because 5 is never enough, but I’m too lazy for 10.

I’ve covered my favorite band, Duran Duran, already. (And I just bought their new album All You Need Is Now over at Amazon so I don’t have to give any money to the devil iTunes.) So now we move on to my second favorite band, Pink Floyd.

That’s right, Pink Floyd. Because I was raised on a hearty musical diet of ’70s wuss-rock, adult alternative, and psychedelic concept albums. I’ve seen them (and various versions of them) in concert several times, and own most of the stuff after Syd Barrett left. Not a big Barrett fan, I. And just like when fans of the Beatles have to declare a Lennon/McCartney preference (McCartney, FYI), so must Floyd fans declare Barrett/Waters/Gilmour. Personally: Gilmour.

Onward to my top 7!

7. “Us and Them”The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

So Dark Side is the earliest album that will appear on this list. And it’s an amazing album in its entirety — if you haven’t seen it yet, check out the episode of Classic Albums to see some of the amazing, ahead-of-their-time the guys did. Oh, and it’s also available on Netflix streaming. Seriously, it’s worth it alone for the live footage in the studio. As for “Us and Them,” it’s a gorgeous song with a great sax solo. And the original instrumental done for the film Zabriskie Point (again, see the Classic Albums episode) is gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

6. “Coming Back to Life”The Divison Bell, 1994

This song has it all. It’s a ballad, which you know I love. It’s all Gilmour-ish, with guitar solos galore. The lyrics are deep and dark and meaningful, and yet the song itself is in the upbeat key of C-major without sounding like peppy pop.

5. “Learning to Fly”A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987

I don’t recall my parents buying The Final Cut in 1983, so this was the first fresh Floyd in the house since the late ’70s. And in 1987, I was in the midst of my teenage years. So the album must have been good, to suck me into listening into parent music. This song struck me with the literal interpretation (I wanted to learn to fly [still do, and one day I’ll finish flight school, dagnabbit]) and with the metaphorical meaning — reaching out and trying something new and different and exciting. Plus, of course, Gilmour all over.

4. “The Great Gig in the Sky”The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

This is one of my all-time favorites for singing along in the privacy of my car. I’d also choose this as my entry if I ever got involved in a professional whistling contest. It’s even more amazing when you know that Clare Torry’s vocals are completely improvised. And like any good improviser, after she was done she apologized to everyone for being so terrible.

3. “Terminal Frost”A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987

I love it when bands put an instrumental track on their album. This one is all about Gilmour and Mason (Wright wasn’t there, so the track uses a drum machine), as well as two saxophones (one of them clearly the sax player for Supertramp). For some reason, a bunch of the saxophone parts make me think of Trevor Jones’s instrumental tracks on the sountrack for the movie Labyrinth. This is one of those songs that’s best when you put on a pair of big can headphones and block out the rest of the world.

2. “Comfortably Numb”The Wall, 1979

Of course, the entirety of The Wall is incredible. A one-of-a-kind concept album, the likes of which we may never see again. And there are a ton of good songs on that album. But this one has always stood out for me musically. In looking up information online right now, I see that it’s one of the few songs on The Wall that wasn’t completely written by Waters, so that may be part of it. Another part is that it’s one of the first songs I learned on the ukulele. Which sounds like a joke, but really, the chords are dead simple on a uke. (“Mother” is even easier.) Next I’m working on the guitar solos. I’ve actually sat with the uke and the chords and played through most of The Wall while listening to it — Waters wasn’t exactly all about the hard chords.

1. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (parts I-VI)”Wish You Were Here, 1975

If anyone out there wants to get technical and say that this is five songs, I say to you: suck it. This rips from the CD as one 17-minute track, so I’m calling it one song. The thing is, for all seventeen minutes, it just rocks. Weirdly enough, it totally kicks the ass of parts VII-IX. It’s like they frontloaded the best stuff into the whole “Shine on” suite. Although on my CD, it appears that part VI is both at the end of the first set and at the beginning of the second set, bookending the rest of the album content. I use the 4-note theme (technically at the beginning of part II) as a ringtone on my phone. And when we lived at our old apartment, I’d occasionally use this song as a timer for my drive home, which usually took between 15 and 18 minutes, depending on how generous the traffic signals were. It just hits all of my Floyd sweet spots: sax solos, guitar solos, lots of Gilmour, instrumental chunks, slow tempo. Oh, and it’s my second choice for a whistling contest. So come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and SHINE!

Top 7: Jobs

Top 7. Because 5 is never enough, but I’m too lazy for 10.

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. Like many, I started my work career at age 15-1/2, which was something of a labor-law rule back in the 80s. Is it still? Anyhoo, ever since that first job bagging groceries (with the title of “courtesy clerk”), I’ve moved around through a lot of workplaces. Retail? Restaurant? Outdoors? Office? Hospitality? Been theres, done those. From customer service to bank teller to webmaster.

But of all of my jobs, there have been favorites. Heck, there are some that I’d go back and do right now, if I could. Not that I don’t love my current job, but some of these remind me of a lot of fun times.

7. Intern, KJR Radio

Back in the 70s of my youth, KJR was the biggest, bestest radio station in Seattle, playing all of the hot hits. So when the time came for me to do a college internship for my broadcasting degree, I jumped at the chance to work at KJR. It also helped that, at the time, the station was trying out a new “greatest hits of the 80s” format. Yes, it was unpaid work, but I got a priceless look into how radio worked in the real world (None of the vacuum tube-driven machines, like we had at school!) and it eventually led to my first post-college full-time job at KJR’s sister station KUBE. Plus, even as an intern, I got to do occasional voice-over work. (One of my voiced ads was even nominated for a “Soundie” award.)

6. Bass Ale Ambassador

This was a hilarious part-time job I did in my mid-20s. A group of us went around to local bars, speaking in fake English accents, talking about the deliciousness of Bass Ale and giving away free Bass Ale merchandise. The thing is, in most states, the ambassadors were able to give out free samples of Bass. But Washington state had (and probably still has) draconian liquor laws where nobody was ever allowed to give away free drinks. So our program was much changed from the other programs nationwide, and the Washington program was shut down pretty fast. But it was good while it lasted, and our leader always bought us a Bass after our giveaways were done.

5. Children’s Theater Usher

I worked day shifts at the Seattle Children’s Theater, ushering for the school shows. The job was basically meeting up with busloads of kids, making sure they got to their seats, keeping an eye on rowdiness during the shows, and knowing where the huge barrel of kitty litter was kept in case a kid puked. Nobody else ever wanted to sit in the auditorium during the show, and I LOVED drawing that particular straw, so I ended up seeing Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse at least 30 times, and The King of Ireland’s Son maybe a few times less. What a delight to watch kids enjoying the theater.

4. College Cafeteria Pizza Chef

I worked many a job in my dorm’s cafeteria — cashier, grill cook, sandwich maker … but no job was more pleasant than the late-night pizza chef gig. It was a prized job, because it paid a little more due to the late hours. Fortunately, I had prior experience from cooking at a pizza place in high school, so I got the choice gig. From 8pm until Midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, two of us had the entire cafeteria kitchen to ourselves. We turned The Police up loud on the stereo and made pizzas for our hungry peers. Since I wasn’t exactly a dating machine at that time (my idea of fun was playing Pinochle in the dorm lounge with a group of like-minded geeks), I didn’t mind working on my Friday and Saturday nights. Easy, fun, and all the pizza I could eat. No wonder I gained more than the freshman 15.

3. Summer Camp Arts & Crafts Counselor

Every summer while I was in college, I worked at a city-run day camp. The first year, I was a regular counselor, in charge of a group of 10 like-aged kids every week. But the three years after that, I moved up in the world. My title was a huge combo platter: “Arts & Crafts Counselor / Assistant Camp Director”. For the assistant part, it meant I got to do fun things like shop for snacks at Costco and arrange use of the 15-passenger van, but the director herself got to deal with irate parents and permission slips and such. Perfect. As for the arts & crafts part, every group of kids came through my craft room once a week, where we worked on a one-hour project. I loved researching and putting together activities — we did everything from tie-dyed shirts to paper bag puppets to homemade ice cream using coffee cans, ice, and rock salt. And when I didn’t have any official duties, my job was to go find groups of campers and join in whatever fun they were doing.

I’d totally do that job again, but I’d be the odd duck now. At the time, the bulk of us were all college kids, but we’d usually have one or two counselors who were older — substitute teachers, for the most part. A couple of them wanted to party with us, but it was always awkward. I don’t want to be that creepy older person. But what a great job that was. I had a fantastic tan, got more exercise than any time before or since, and got to work under an assumed name: those kids still only remember me as “Charlie Tuna”.

2. Casino Party Dealer

I went to casino dealer school in my early 30s. It seemed awesome, and turns out, it was. I worked in a real casino, but I also worked for another company that did casino events and parties. I prefered the fake-money parties; they were much less stressful than having someone dump hundreds of dollars at me. Screw up with fake money, and nobody cares. I dealt all of the stand-up games: Blackjack, Spanish 21, Three-Card Poker, Four-Card Poker, Red Dog, Caribbean Stud, and others I’ve probably forgotten. I also learned Roulette from the party company, although I never chose to deal it — too much math for me. I also dealt all of the popular poker games: Texas Hold’Em, Omaha Hold’Em, and all of the various Stud games. The pay was awesome, I always had a great time, I got to wear a name tag with a fake name along with my suave tie and cummerbund, and a surprising number of people tipped us real cash for dealing a fun fake-money game. If only the big casinos weren’t an hour away, I’d love to deal again part-time (fake or real money).

1. Comedic Actor/Improviser

I’m lumping two workplaces into this category: Jet City Improv, where I worked for ten years (the longest I’ve spent with any company), and Walt Disney World (One more year until that 5-year Pluto pin!). Actually, if you tack on the group I was with for a couple of years before Jet City, it means I’ve been improvising for about seventeen years. That’s crazy! Jet City was where I honed my short-form chops, but I also had the creative freedom to develop and direct a show, as well as work on side projects like Twisted Flicks, a show I still miss like crazy. And thanks to those skills, I got to work at WDW’s Comedy Warehouse for the last 18 months of its life. That place was an amazing high-pressure improv machine — I did more shows in that year and a half than I did in the 14 years before. And the great job is continuing now, in my role as a game show host (part scripted, part interactive/improvised). When we took those “what will your career be” tests in middle school, actor was always the first item on the list. (Writer came up frequently in second place.) How cool is that? I’m doing for a living the thing I’ve been inclined to do since before I was a teen. And I love it!

Top 7: Duran Duran Songs

Yes, top 7. Because 5 is never enough, but I’m too lazy for 10.

What better way to launch a new category — my personal top 7 lists — than with the songs from my favorite band, Duran Duran. They’re still as fantastic to me now as they were 28 years ago. I have to make some tough choices, since their discography includes 14 albums, as well as numerous B-sides, demos, and other rare songs that didn’t make it onto an LP. My MP3 collection, which is incomplete (but has some remixes, demos, and live versions) contains 137 songs. Tough choosies!

7. “Someone Else Not Me”Pop Trash, 2000

This is probably a song you’ve never heard of, from an album you’ve likewise never heard of. Unless you’re a big ol’ Durannie. But it hits me right in my mellow sweet spot — Duran Duran made great party music, to be sure, but they also really knew their way around a ballad.

6. “Serious”Liberty, 1990

Again, you ask: what? From what? That’s right, another track from a little-listened record. Not only is it the best cut from Liberty, it’s really the only great song on that album. The rest are fair to good, but this album suffered from musical musicians and the boys figuring out what they were doing. The band liked the song enough to play it on MTV Unplugged in 1993, so there’s that. A great ballad with a great sound.

5. “Rio”Rio, 1982

Wait, what? “Rio” isn’t the number one song? Not for me, it’s not. Although it’s an excellent piece of work, with an upbeat tempo, full of fun, and a bassline I’ve always loved. It is, however, hindered by that long super-quiet lead-in, which always makes me think my CD player is suddenly on the fritz. But the big problem is, Rio is an amazing album full of outstanding songs. Which means for me, personally, the song “Rio” isn’t even the number two song on that record.

4. “Lonely in Your Nightmare”Rio, 1982

Because this song is my number-two from Rio. The third track on the album, sandwiched between radio giants “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf”, has always been one of my favorites. And it’s made even more awesome by a game we play at the House of Meyer, where we try to fit whatever we’re saying into the cadence, “if blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, let me in.” So just remember: if it’s time to fold the laundry, let me in. (Now please excuse me for a moment, because it actually is time to fold the laundry.)

3. “What Happens Tomorrow”Astronaut, 2004

I just about exploded when I first heard that the original five were getting back together for this album. I fretted greatly that it wouldn’t be good, but my frets were unfounded. The album as a whole is quite good, with a few songs that stray into great territory. They managed to capture a lot of the fun positivity that made their early stuff successful, but they also tweaked things enough to be current. “What Happens Tomorrow” is a perfect combination of hopefulness and smooth ballad.

2. “Save a Prayer”Rio, 1982

Okay, so you may have realized by now that I like ballads. Probably 80% of my music collection in general consists of slower songs. And this is one of the best damned ballads ever made. What girl who heard this song didn’t want to be the one whose one-night-stand Simon LeBon called “paradise”?

1. “Girls on Film”Duran Duran, 1981

I have three versions of this song in my collection. One from the original album, one from 1984’s live Arena album, and the “night version” from the 12″ single. The song is peppy, and fun, and vibrant. The full Godley & Creme video was shockingly full of boobs, while the concert video from Arena had leather-and-lace girls playing roller derby. Which was awesome. But it’s the song’s personal staying power that puts it in the number one spot: whenever I make a new mix CD for the car, a version of this song is always on it. In fact, my current car mix has both the Arena version (I put the whole album on this one, except for I omitted “Wild Boys”) and the night version on it. Just hearing it makes me want to dance around. Or skate fast in a circle. (But not in leather and lace.)