Hello, friends! Welcome to another edition of Cool People Column. For many of us, the global response to COVID-19 has created more time at home than we’re potentially accustomed to. For us at Heavy Blog, it most certainly has facilitated some enjoyable forays into all sorts of content. From Netflix shows to model building or collectible card game battling, current circumstances have definitely compelled us to dive into some great hobbies and content old and new.
As always, we’re excited to share with you what we’ve been consuming and interacting with over the past month. We’re all in this together, so please let us know what you’ve been enjoying in the comments below. We hope that the media here can help you find new and exciting stuff to sink your teeth into. So sit back, relax, and enjoy another foray into what’s cool in the world of Heavy Blog.
What We’re Watching
Cobra Kai (Netflix)
OK, what if I told you someone made a web-series (as in, it first ran on YouTube) about the main characters from Karate Kid but set in the present? And that the protagonist was Johnny Lawrence, AKA the bad guy from the original movie? What if I now told you it’s actually really fucking good? I know, right? I also didn’t believe it but with the show now coming to Netflix, I could finally see for myself. And let me tell you, the people who recommended this to me weren’t wrong; this show is excellent!
There are many things which make it work: the acting (actually starring the two original actors) is excellent. The writing is solid and well done. But the main thing which makes it work is how it handles toxic masculinity. It approaches its two (male) leads with refreshing depth and subtlety. First, Lawrence; in him, we see the insecure loser, the dead-end job, the destroyed relationships, which lead to violence, racism, sexism, and more. But it’s not weaponized as an excuse; this guy is an asshole and the show doesn’t muddle that for a second. But you get to see context and history to his behavior, a much needed incisive look into how this kind of people is created and what they might need to fashion themselves anew.
Larusso, supposedly the good guy, is not much different. Sure, he’s not racist or sexist and he has a clean act; he’s a successful car dealer. But he also suffers from a case of toxic nostalgia; obsessed with his hay-day, he can’t let go of the traumas of the past. This makes him an inattentive father, bent on dominating his children into figures of his own lost past, and makes him take his Japanophilia into the realms of cultural appropriation. He is a man somewhat haunted by his past and crueler for it. He is unable, for example, to see Lawrence for what he is: a washed up nobody instead of a nemesis to be destroyed.
The show develops all of these ideas with a deft hand, never once making one of the million wrong moves it could have made. It is just exceptional quality TV from a left field group of producers (not counting one Will Smith, who’s an executive producer on this) based off of a story that sounds tired but ends up being anything but.
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline
The Hellraiser sequels, especially Bloodline (1986), get a bad rap. Yet, not only do I think the series has arguably the strongest and most interesting selection of sequels of all the big slasher icons – even if the mythology becomes entirely detached from the what made the original Hellraiser (1987) so appealing – but Bloodline might just be the best of the bunch.
The film is one of the infamous “Alan Smithee” films, although the attribution appears to stem from story disputes rather than quality concerns. I don’t see how Pinhead in space is any less ridiculous than the campy penis-headed doctor-demon chase-scenes that mostly occupy the second half of the beloved first-sequel Hellbound (1988), and the effects themselves are a lot more convincing. In fact, Bloodline’s production quality is surprisingly high, given the period and context in which was made – especially in light of some of the Hellraiser films to come. The overly serious horror-space setting of Bloodline is very much my “thing”, and the final twist is something I’m probably inclined to get behind more than most. However, there’s a surprisingly coherent and intriguing story at play here: one which wraps up the first phase of the series in a cohesive, (I’ll argue) satisfying manner, while setting the stage for cult quasi-sequel Event Horizon (1997).
Space, eighteenth-century “France,” Faustian toymakers, Satanic seductresses, sneaky holograms and the hunky debut of one Adam Scott; Bloodline has it all! Having treated myself to a special thirtieth-birthday re-watch this past month, I was genuinely surprised just how well Bloodline holds up, especially compared to the cheesy dross of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) – an entry I’d argue is the weakest of the series, save for revelations (and, yes, that includes Hellworld (2005)). If you’re a sci-fi horror fan who has avoided Bloodline because of its reputation, or just haven’t checked in on it in a while, it’s definitely worth a (re)watch. Whatever you think, it’s easily the best space-slasher to come out in 1996.
Middle school is hell. I don’t think I’ve met a single person here in the states who doesn’t agree with that statement. It’s basically just a nonstop barrage of hormone-induced awkwardness, shame, and cruelty. It’s when groups of friends really turn into cliques, when the level of intelligence and ability to cause harm to others begins to outpace self-awareness and empathy. But there’s a lot of wonder and unique discovery in that period as well. It’s the beginning of the stage of our lives that will be most formative in shaping the people we become for many years, for good and bad.
No single show has captured and explored the tension of that period as well as Hulu’s Pen15. If you’ve heard anything about the show, it’s likely the fact that the “tween” stars and protagonists of it are portrayed by the show’s creators, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, who are decidedly not tweens, or teens, or even young adults at this point. The two are in their early 30s but play versions of themselves from that age in the appropriate time period of around the turn of the 21st century. Thus we get a kind of time capsule effect as the show faithfully recreates the look, sound, and feel of growing up as a “90s kid.” For people of my age group squarely in the middle of the “millennial” generation, these aspects alone are enough to either sell you or scare you entirely from watching the show. The prospect of vicariously reliving that period of time, many warts and all, might be too much for some. It is truly a cringeworthy watch at points as Maya and Anna dig themselves deeper into predictable trouble.
Beyond its nostalgic veneer and awkwardness though, the success of the show lies in the extreme pathos and relatability Erskine and Konkle pour into their avatars. Much has been said about how much the two disappear into their roles in physicality and emotional performance, but it is truly impressive how little dissonance the duo’s ages create with the material. And if season 1 successfully established this world, the show’s tone, and the dynamics of the characters’ relationships, season 2 (the first half of which is currently available on Hulu) goes into far darker and deeper territory. What previously felt like a series of hijinks with little to no real-world consequences beyond some temporarily hurt feelings begins to feel a bit bigger and longer-lasting, especially in how the show explores the kids’ relationships with their parents.
That said, Pen15 is still above all a comedy, and every scene is packed with visual and spoken gags that land consistently. It continues to certainly be one of the most unusual comedies out there, but the team behind it have managed to leverage that inherent awkwardness into an art to create one of the best shows currently airing anywhere.
The Vow (HBO Max)
How much would you be willing to give to unlock the secrets of existence and live life to its greatest potential? How much of your life would you give to such an organization or individual promising to provide you with all the answers and tools to self-improvement? How good would it feel to find a community of like-minded people and work day in and day out for an organization that sought to bring its ethos and teachings to a wider audience in order to create a more ethical and just world?
These questions are familiar to anyone versed at all in the genre of TV, film, and books dedicated to dissecting the inner workings of cults and cult-like organizations throughout history. And in that sense HBO’s docuseries The Vow, which chronicles the rise and dramatic fall of the NXIVM cult from the perspective of the individuals who played critical roles in building it only to defect years later, isn’t exactly groundbreaking or subversive. NXIVM – founded by the sneakily manipulative Keith Raniere in the late 1990s and currently awaiting sentencing for sex trafficking, racketeering, and conspiracy – at first glance appears to be a combination of the odd and notoriously controlling practices of Scientology with the pyramid scheme-like business model and recruitment strategies of a multi-level marketing company.
What makes the case of NXIVM stand out though are the darker and more sinister undercurrents that grow gradually over time. It comes to a head in a special offshoot group called DOS (one thing that becomes apparent quickly is that the org loves acronyms), in which female members enter a slave-master relationship with other women, provide extortion material, enter a vow of secrecy and servitude, and recruit other women to join. It gets far worse from there, but I don’t want to reveal too much. Needless to say, Raniere is at the center of it all, and the true nature of his cruelty and sociopathy requires a long time to fully manifest.
As for the series itself, what makes The Vow stand out heads and shoulders above similar documentaries and fictionalized accounts of cults is primarily the sheer wealth of recorded and archival material the filmmakers have to work with. One of the central figures of the story is Mark Vicente, a filmmaker himself who joined NXIVM early on and dedicated a decade and a half of his life to documenting every aspect of the group. Between that and his own long-held practice of recording nearly every phone conversation he has with fellow members, as well as every in-person conversation he has with Raniere, there is a tape for nearly everything. What also is equally fascinating about the series is that the bulk of it takes place shortly after Vicente, his wife, and several other close friends in the organization leave themselves after being made aware of the extent and depth of Raniere’s role in DOS. So we get to see the process of reckoning for these individuals in near real-time, as well as the lengthy and intermittent process of trying to expose the crimes of Raniere and the org.
Combine that with exquisite production and editing, and The Vow has all the makings of a modern-day thriller that will keep you engrossed and hanging on every detail. I am not exaggerating when I say that this series is my favorite thing on TV right now. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Drag Race Holland
The Drag Race franchise kicked-off its fourth international variant this month with Drag Race Holland. Whereas the just-finished Canada’s Drag Race felt like a throwback to the rawness of the earlier American seasons, Holland follows original spin-off Thailand in so far showcasing far more polished, adventurous and often avant-garde-leaning drag. The season seems to be restricted to the WOW Presents Plus app, outside of The Netherlands. However, if the first few episodes are anything to go by, the $5–10 buy in is more than worth the investment.
Early money’s on Sederginne, ChelseaBoy (whose promo look coincidentally looks like one of the Elder Gods from Hellpoint (below)) and Envy Peru for top three, with Janey Jacké as a wild card. As both Thailand and Canada have shown, however, Drag Race’s international incarnations are often far less predictable than the American original.
What We’re Reading
The Bear – Andrew Krivak
When I picked up this book, I wasn’t ready. I knew it was about potentially the last people on Earth and their relationship with nature. But what I found was so much more. The Bear is a heart-rending (seriously, read with care) tale of survival, perseverance, death, loneliness, love, and nature. It is about the things we do for those we love and how they are, often, not enough to keep them around. It’s about climate change but in a very subtle, understated, and entirely hinted at way. It’s about rivers and seasons and mountains and oceans.
It is also extremely well written. Krivak has chosen a sparse, stripped down style to tell this tale, a marvelously fitting decision. This style accomplishes four things: first, it lends the story a sense of urgency that paints the challenges the characters are facing in stark colors. Secondly, it speaks to the necessary economy of surviving, no word out of place, no sound made that isn’t necessary. Thirdly, it makes the lost felt by the characters so much more abrupt and powerful. And, lastly and most importantly, it is a perfect vessel for a book that’s partly about how much deeper nature goes that human language, as if Krivak knows that his words pale in comparison to a real forest or mountain.
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church – Megan Phelps-Roper
In 2004, prominent American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, was struck by a startling epiphany at an annual meeting with the American Enterprise Institute that US involvement in the ongoing Iraq war was becoming increasingly botched and the reaction to American hegemony was being massively misjudged. Looking around at the buzz of excitement in the room at what was perceived as one of the biggest triumphs in US foreign policy, Fukuyama, an—up to that point—outspoken supporter of US military action in Iraq, was dumbfounded: ‘that’s the moment when I decided that these people were really nuts, they were so invested in seeing this as a success that they couldn’t see this reality that was growing right in front of their eyes’. Thinking back to that time and what initially sparked his change of mind on the brilliantly informative Freakonomics Radio podcast, Fukuyama lands on a pertinent message about how people come to form their most staunch beliefs: ‘they start out with an emotional commitment to a certain idea and then they use their formidable cognitive powers to organise facts to support what they want to believe anyhow, so the partisan affiliation comes first and then the reasoning process by which you justify it comes second’. He then adds rather dramatically: ‘It takes a really big external shock that clearly proves you wrong’.
Why the preamble? Well try and imagine the pain involved in moving away from problematic and prejudicial beliefs when the belief-system you’ve been enmeshed in runs three generations deep, is all you’ve ever known, promises eternal salvation and has earnt you the esteemed title of “ The Most Hated Family in America”. The adopters of this particular ideology would be the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and this is what happened to Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister Grace in 2012.
Westboro have gone down as a leading case study into the very extremes of religious indoctrination and dogmatism, despite being made up of mostly one family: the Phelps. Starting with “old school Baptist” and family patriarch Fred Phelps (Megan’s grandfather), Westboro have been picketing the likes of soldiers’ funerals and events or locations associated with the gay community for almost 30 years, weaponising bible quotes as if holstered at their waists to justify the use of abhorrent and offensive terms for gay people. Why have Westboro in particular risen to the top of public and media consciousness though? It’s not as if they’re the only fanatical religious group regularly pumping out hate speech. It’s difficult to know exactly, but the answer lies, at least partly, in the bullish and outright bizarre way that they assert their belief that they are predestined to eternal salvation as part of “the elect”. Detractors can spew all the reasoned arguments they want at them, but like a heuristic somersault, this will only further convince them of their righteousness.
Megan’s verbose account of complex family dynamics is some of the most revealing I’ve read. It is clear early on that she is her mother’s confidant in routine, but also in faith. Megan views her as somewhat of a superwoman: heroic, dutiful, caring. However, you also get the simmering feeling of tensions rising between them, which Megan paints as inevitable yet tragic. Foreboding symbolism pops up time and time again hinting at this disintegration, the most glaring example being when the church elders begin to enforce even more draconian modesty rules for subordinate women, leading Megan and Grace to veiled despair, which is represented by the morbid image of Grace’s compulsive skin-picking: ‘cover it up, and it will all go away’.
Even amongst the various lawsuits and daily provocations of being a member of Westboro, Megan devotes plenty of the book to fleshing out the layered relationship between herself and her mother. Despite Shirley Phelps-Roper’s clear negligence and psychologically abusive behaviour towards her children, you can tell Megan still holds so much love for her. She writes about her mother and the times they spent together in scrapbook-esque lamentations, so honestly and adeptly that while reading I would sometimes let my mind go completely astray imagining the irresistibly tender Marmee from the recent Greta Gerwig adaptation of Little Women. Snapping back to reality, I’d remember what I was reading.
When the ripples created by the brief glimpses of doubt throughout the book reach the shoreline as tidal surges, Megan’s cognitive spiral is stomach-churningly visceral. Each mantra and doctrine fracturing and exploding outwards like individual vertebrae in a spinal column, under the weight of an atlas stone of clarity. After this, after Megan’s epiphany, her story seems to accelerate, becoming hurried and frantic; you can feel her loss, her grief, her disorientation, now that the comfort of the church and its appendages are gone.
Knowing they can never see their family members again—the ones still remaining at Westboro—Megan and Grace are on their own now, to chart the world they had been shielded from for so long. Megan puts her unease in the most stark terms: ‘I now felt paralyzed each time I had to render an opinion about what steps to take next—as if decision-making were a muscle that had long since atrophied from disuse’.
Megan’s story is one of great sacrifice, of turning your back on comfort and duty, and jumping head first into a blinding expanse of perspectives. ‘A shredded heart for a quiet conscience’ is the bittersweet adage that she comes to. That’s why it’s truly wonderful to hear that she is now happily married with a daughter and living in South Dakota. It’s the least she deserves having escaped one of the most notorious fundamentalist sects in the US, and turning her grief into a document of integrity over dishonest assimilation.
What We’re Listening To
The Ezra Klein Show – “How to think about coronavirus risk in your life”
I’ve followed Ezra Klein’s career since his days at Wonkblog with the Washington Post, and that’s continued in his work with Vox and his podcasts. I’m not going to recommend his weekly interview podcast wholesale given that I understand why Klein’s politics and style is decidedly not for everyone. He occasionally puts out an interview though that I find to be particularly profound and really reframes or shapes my thinking around an issue or set of issues. Most of the time it ends up being about a topic that is not strictly political or partisan (even if it’s been ultimately infected by it).
Such an episode came recently in the form of an interview with epidemiologist and writer Julia Marcus. The episode was predictably almost entirely about COVID-19, but not in the way we’ve become accustomed to having these conversations. Marcus is of the opinion that we’ve spent far too much time thinking and speaking of managing risk of exposure to coronavirus as an all-or-nothing proposition, when in reality not only is that not feasible or sustainable, but it is not healthy in itself. If you are an elderly grandparent, for instance, the knowledge of being towards the end of your life and being told that you must spend a good chunk of your remaining time in almost complete isolation is not good. You will therefore likely prioritize being able to socially distance visit your children and grandchildren. If you are a parent in that position, you might prioritize flying cross country to visit your parents and quarantine in order to see them. If you are a teen or college student, the proposition that you cannot socialize with your peers at all is simply not a reasonable or realistic ask.
Given all of that, it’s vital then that we shape policy in response to the virus in a way that allows individuals to manage risk responsibly. Predictably, she very much believes that we need firmer mask requirements across the country. But she also believes that we should not shame people who want to resume in-person activities like church services, especially if it’s possible to hold them outdoors with proper distancing and mask wearing. It is a fascinating and insightful listen with a level of clarity and nuance generally not afforded these kinds of discussions.
Doug Bradley reads Frankenstein
In another example of the stars seemingly aligning to my particular tastes, Pinhead himself (and Cradle of Filth collaborator) Doug Bradley took to youtube this year to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818/1831). The novel is an all-time favourite of mine, and it has probably influenced my life more than any other single piece of media. Having spent the better part of the last decade studying Frankenstein, I normally have cause to revisit it at least once a year, and this was a refreshing way to go through it again.
If I have one complaint, it’s that Bradley reads the “popular” 1831, revised edition, rather than the superior, original 1818 edition, but it will hardly be an issue for most people.
I’d argue Frankenstein is in the running for the single most important piece of literature ever written, and this is a great way of experiencing it for the first time or the tenth. Bradly has also started reading other works by Edgar Allen Poe and A. A. Milne and I hope he keeps it up. What an absolute treat for the “spooky season”.
What We’re Playing
The Assassin’s Creed Series
Like everybody else in the entire world, I’m trying to find things to fill up my days. A few months back, the PlayStation store had a bundle of all of the games together for $70, so what the hell, said I. I had loved the original Assassin’s Creed, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is still on my personal top 10 list for a lot of reasons. But I basically gave up on the series after Assassin’s Creed III. I loved the game’s setting and the overall story, but it was also starting to feel pretty stale. I’ll never understand the whole yearly sequel extravaganza that started with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and AC, so I hung up the joysticks for awhile with the series.
Then my wife bought and played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and I watched her play some of it (she’s a mega-completionist and it’s a long game, did what I could), and that got me to install the series. And man, I committed like few have ever committed before. I just plowed right through them. Repeat play of Assassin’s Creed III, moving on to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, Unity, Syndicate, and now Origins. I even replayed the first game and the Ezio trilogy of Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations. While each game has its own unique set or pros and cons, a few things have stayed with the series over time.
The biggest thing I can think of is just how big each game’s world is. Before this year, I was never really a fan of the open world kind of games. Now that we’re basically all stuck at home, I see the great value in an open world kind of game. Not only is it really more bang for your buck (if you want to look at video games from an economics point of view), but it just makes you more immersed in the worlds the games create. Whether it’s traversing the US eastern seaboard during the colonial era, engaging pirates in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy, or maybe just revolutionary Paris, the settings and worlds are teeming with the life of bustling metropolises and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.
I’m also particularly in love with this series as I am a huge history buff. I’m all about a good fictional story, but I personally find human history to be an endless supply of engaging narratives because the events actually occurred. These games have covered particular favorite scenes for me, so seeing things like the Americans spending the winter in Valley Forge or the storming of the Bastille is very exciting for me. Most of the games also have unique narratives that weave in and out of the historical record, creating pseudo-alternative history stories. My god, the series really endlessly dips into these ideas in a way that I don’t find stale or tired. And now with the new RPG-style direction the series is going in, there are fantastic new ways to play with those ideas.
Is every game perfect? Of course not. I plowed through them regardless while incessantly complaining about “Assassin’s Creed controls,” which you know EXACTLY what I mean when I say that phrase if you’ve played the series at all. And the games have had their fair share of technical hiccups, too. I’ve only played the remastered version of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, but I’ve heard that the original release was buggier than a roach infestation. I did experience the myriad issues with both Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Syndicate. Bad NPC AI, graphical snafus, and completely inconsistent music was all around. And, yes, sometimes the fictional narratives going on around the historical events are sometimes boring with completely uninteresting characters (Arno Dorian and the Frye twins are particularly dull protagonists). However, these glitchy aspects of the series are the obvious low points and in no way represent the rest of the series.
I find all these games particularly delightful. I love seeing reinterpretations of historical fact like you see in this series, but I also love when the series has a historical backdrop I know nearly nothing about (very excited to see Valhalla and what they do with Vikings). Seeing these characters run into other famous historical figures makes you feel like you took part in some great historic event, and that is the history buff’s dream. If you’re at all interested in the series, I’d recommend maybe reading a review or two before any game in the series. But you should also know that even the lowest points of the series have interesting aspects to them. Unity is a little boring story-wise and has some technical problems, but it also greatly improved climbing and descending controls and a new and more fun combat system. Rogue didn’t do anything that Black Flag hadn’t before, but the story is far superior than others in the series and represents the high point. If you’re sitting around and feel like you need an adventure, there are 12 AC games available on PC and console. Getcha some.
Another month, another awesome Souls-like to recommend. If Event Horizon is a spiritual sequel to Hellriser IV, then Cradle Games’ Hellpoint (2020) can easily be a sequel to both. In another example of my specific interests intersecting, taking the tried and true Dark Souls (2011) formula and situating it in an abandoned space station full of torturous elder-gods is a stroke of genius seemingly tailored to my deepest desires and it sticks the landing. …for the most.
Although much vaster and more complex, Hellpoint isn’t as mechanically or aesthetically complete as Mortal Shell (2020). Nevertheless, it remains a thrilling an intriguing experience which – as one reviewer who I can no longer find put it – is about one coat of polish away from being a truly great experience (some more enemy variety, for instance, would be nice). There’s the basis of a really great game here, and I hope the makers are able to bring out its full potential with future updates and (hopefully) some more story-driven DLC. Hellpoint’s aesthetic does a lot of its heavy lifting, but the game has more than enough mechanical depth to back it up. Although not perfect, it remains highly recommended for anyone itching for mor sci-fi, horror and Souls.
I did it you guys: I beat Hades! Sure, it took me fifty-two runs and had way more to do with hard-earned avatar strength and build optimisation, but the sense of triumph was genuine. Also, get this, I can’t stop playing it. I’ve got a bunch of games lined-up that I’ve been waiting to move onto, but every time I sit down to start something else, I end up going for “just one more run,” which turns into two or three. Even though the rewards are minimal at this point, it just feels so good to be dashing through the underworld wrecking foes with my critical/lightning-charged “Blitz Disc” – all hail Zeus and Artemis! – or supercharging Cupid’s bow with stacks of Dionysus’s hangover and Aphrodite’s weakness-inflicting status effects and clearing rooms at light speed.
The game itself is essentially an isometric Dead Cells (2017). Yet, whereas that game quickly devolved into seeking out a specific build, the limited mix of random abilities you get in Hades (2020) makes every run uniquely stimulating, even if you’re essentially doing the same thing over and over again, and some builds and abilities are far more viable than others. Supergiant’s games have always been aesthetically and conceptually intriguing, but I’ve never enjoyed actually playing one; until now. Hades is an absolute all-timer.
What We’re Doing (hobbies and more)
Super Mario LEGO
As a budding creative-type kid in the 90s, I was bitten by the Lego bug. I had Legos everywhere, and I probably almost killed my parents via stepping on a Lego in a dark room about a dozen times. Of course, I eventually put “childish things” aside until a few years ago when I bought a few Star Wars Lego sets and realized, “Hey! You can play with Legos as an adult, too!” That was a nice feeling, but not as nice as hearing that Lego was taking on Super Mario as a new set theme.
The big announcement blew my mind. I can remember the number of times I actually made little Mario levels with my own Legos. Not only was I going to be building models of classic Mario themes, but they went one step further and made it truly interactive. Lego Mario is actually a Bluetooth device that can sense movement and its environment. There’s a sensor on the bottom that can read specific things. For instance, if you stand Mario on blue Legos, it thinks it’s walking in a water environment. Some items in the sets have little barcodes, like enemy characters or ? boxes, and placing Mario on those things gets it to react like in the game. Land on a Goomba, get a coin. You get the idea.
In the short time that the base set was released and now expansions have been released, I am missing a single set and only 2 extra enemy characters (Bowser’s Castle, Bullet Bill, and Boo/Peepa, for those wanting to keep score). I’m hooked. I’m feeding a capitalist agenda, and I’m truly sorry to the universe for such a thing. But this is a genuinely fun toy and nice distraction. With life being the way it is for everybody right now, sometimes you just want some bright colors and pleasantly catchy and simple music. And nothing beats getting a coin after jumping on your foes. I find myself coming back to the toys multiple times a day just to fiddle with pieces or characters or to even play a little round of Mario. It’s by far the nicest distraction I’ve discovered since getting stuck at home. If you feel like you need a little extra color in your life, I strongly recommend Lego Mario. Don’t worry, there are no boxes with a “Princess is in another castle” joke.
Gundam Plastic Models
Sometime around March I realized I had very little to do with my hands in this isolated bubble-world that didn’t involve sitting in front of a screen, with the sole exception of playing guitar. While I love noodling about on an instrument, I began to develop the urge to make something and get involved in a craftier hobby. I’ve known about Gundam Plastic Models, or GUNPLA, for quite some time, and appreciated it from afar; I know a few serious enthusiasts but never got into the hobby for a couple reasons. First, I’ve never really watched much of the myriad Gundam anime, and admittedly felt like I therefore couldn’t get into building the models without being some sort of poser. Second, my only other experience with model building has been a couple flirtations with the notoriously pricey Warhammer 40,000 and I assumed that GUNPLA was cursed with the same financial impenetrability.
Thankfully, my assumptions about the expense of GUNPLA turned out to be somewhat misguided, and although some kits cost quite a bit of money, the majority sit in the $15-$30 range, meaning it’s far less expensive at an entry level than I had imagined it to be. For the unfamiliar, GUNPLA are models that you build by cutting plastic pieces out of long, rectangular sheets called “runners” and then snapping said pieces together as you’re told by an instruction manual. There’s neither gluing nor painting necessary; it’s an extremely straightforward and easy to follow workflow. It’s fiddly enough that it requires some attention to manual dexterity but simple enough that there’s little need for higher-order brain functions.
There is quite a wide range of complexity, too, with the simpler kits being almost completely hollow and having joints made out of cheaper plastic and the more complex kits having fully articulated internal skeletons and strong joints that result in a pretty wild amount of poseability. They come in “grades” that denote their complexity and size, with High Grade being a diminutive 1/144 scale (about 5-7” depending) and the least complex, and moving up from there with Master Grade, Real Grade, and Perfect Grade. I’ve found that Real Grade is my preferred sweet spot: the models occupy the same 1/144 scale as High Grade, but have the internal skeleton, range of movement, and robust color palette of Master Grade. So far I’ve built a Real Grade Crossbone Gundam (the eponymous mecha from the Mobile Suit Crossbone Gundam manga), a Real Grade model of Char Aznable’s red Zaku II mobile suit from the original Gundam anime, and – my personal favorite – a Real Grade version of the EVA-01 suit from Neon Genesis Evangelion. I’ve watched and read some of the source material for these mecha, including the first season of the original Gundam and of 2015’s Iron Blooded Orphans (and I already love NGE), and I have to say, having some context for the models now makes it that much more fun to have these diminutive machines guarding my bookshelf.
My building experience is pretty straightforward. I tend to approach it as a meditative activity reserved for weekday evenings, less an active enjoyment and more a thing to do that occupies my hands more than it occupies my brain. I make a cup of tea, I throw on an album I like – my go-tos are Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire and Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior – and turn off my brain while I just snip, file, and build. It’s supremely relaxing and makes for a perfect antidote for the days where the maelstrom of stress we live in really begins to break me down. I have to admit that I don’t think I would have ever considered getting seriously invested in GUNPLA as a hobby without the circumstances of 2020, but I can’t imagine myself giving it up when (or if) the pandemic ends. It’s been an unexpectedly pleasant and relaxing diversion from the state of the world and it perfectly balances my needs for a vaguely crafty hobby while also being something I can do inside my apartment and without trips to Home Depot and the like. If you, like me, are always looking for stuff to do with your hands and don’t have the space for larger DIY projects, hey, give it a go! You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it too.
Magic: The Gathering
Staying at home, despite all of its distinct miseries, has brought back some interesting hobbies into my life. One that my wife simply does not understand and my wallet is less-than-happy about but has given me a great deal of joy nonetheless is my renewed interest in Magic: The Gathering. It’s been over 11 years since I last picked up a deck to wield sorceries and spells against an opponent, and I must say… it feels very good to be back.
For those somehow unfamiliar with the game, Magic: The Gathering is the most popular collectible card game on the planet, with upwards of 35 million regular players in physical and online mediums. Developed by Richard Garfield during his doctoral candidacy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993 and distributed by Wizards of the Coast (who were purchased by Hasbro in 1999), the game along with Dungeons and Dragons has become the benchmark by which most tabletop games are measured. It blends strategy, variety, mathematical precision, and a healthy dose of luck and chance into a rich amalgam that, for me, represents one of the apexes of tabletop gaming.
For those who are familiar with and/or play the game, good LORD has it changed in 11 years. It’s so good to dive back into what has become a fairly stacked metagame for modern play, and while standard’s utter domination by Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath definitely put a fairly large damper on my engagement with the format, its banning as announced on the 28th of September will hopefully make it more appealing for both newcomers and returning players like myself. But, for now, modern is where it’s at. Over the past few months I’ve been able to build out the UW Control deck I’ve always wanted to utilize (and thankfully now have the funds to create!), and it has been an absolute blast to play. Yet despite my excitement with some news toys to dominate with, the most important aspect of my re-engagement with this hobby is the company. I have four brothers, all of whom joined me in this obsession and have created multiple decks of their own. We have our own mini metagame going while COVID keeps in-person tournaments a distant memory, and trying to incorporate strategies and sideboards to outmaneuver one another has been a highlight of a relatively dreary summer.
While current events have sucked the enjoyment out of a great many things in our lives, it certainly feels good to be able to sink my head into a world that I didn’t even know I missed until I cracked open my old storage bin of cards. Connecting with my brothers through spirited play has been a highlight of the year for me, and if a nerdy collectible card game can facilitate so many enjoyable and competitive interactions, it’s worth every penny spent.