Random thoughts on the SNES Mini Classic

After Nintendo last week announced the release of the SNES Mini Classic (I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into a tedious explanation/analysis of the various titles this system goes by), the diminutive console has received plenty of attention – not all of it positive.

Ahead of the September 29th launch,  here are a few general thoughts:

Games

With a game selection of just 21 (compared to 30 for the NES mini), almost every SNES fan will have a few games they’d love to have been included. There were three omissions that disappointed me – with Donkey Kong Country 2 being top of that list.

Diddy’s Kong Quest is widely regarded as the finest game in the DKC trilogy, and while the original deserves its place in the roster, DKC2 improves it in every aspect – graphics, music (oh, the music), controls, level design and humour.

The NES Mini had Mega Man 2 but not the original, so Nintendo’s policy can’t be “we can’t have a sequel and not the original.” Given a choice between DKC and DKC2, the second one wins every time for most of us and it’s a pity it isn’t there.

Then there’s Pilotwings. A launch title that was basically a showcase for the SNES’s Mode 7 capabilities, Pilotwings is a short but fun game that rewards practice and patience, and is very satisfying to master. It’s an integral part of SNES history and it’s surprising to see it left out.

Super Bomberman is a wonderfully frantic game with great graphics and music and has always been a personal favourite of mine. If the SNES Mini had featured 30 games then there’s a good chance this would be included, although there’s a good chance it’s simply a licensing issue (the same reason there are no Turtles games).

I’m looking forward to revisiting all my old favourites, of course, but I’m most excited to play games such as Super Mario RPG, Secret of Mana, Mega Man X and Earthbound that I’ve heard so much about but never played.

Price

At £69.99 for 21 games, the SNES Classic represents great value. £3.50 per game for some of the greatest ever made? There really is no filler here, with hundreds of hours of entertainment to enjoy, plus the extra controller means multiplayer is available straight out of the box.

Availability

After assuring the public that it would not experience the same availability issues as it did with the NES Classic, Nintendo has seen pre-orders snapped up in minutes at the major UK retailers. Every few days, a new batch will appear before selling out before most people know it’s there.

Sadly the issue of resellers buying up vast quantities and plonking them straight is a very real one, although eBay and Amazon have both taken steps to restrict buyers to a single console each.While people are prepared to pay £200 on eBay, scalpers will prosper and we can only hope that Nintendo produces enough consoles to leave these ghouls with dozens of SNES Minis they can’t shift.

Appearance 

The SNES Mini (and the Japanese Famicom version) is a lovely, detailed reproduction of the smoothly-curved original, while less said about the blocky, bland ‘NTSC’ version the better.

Having a hinged fascia hiding the new controller ports is a nice touch, although it seems players will have to spring the flap open themselves. It’s a shame they didn’t choose to use the obsolete eject button to open this port, but it’s a minor quibble.

And as long as the power button switches with the same satisfying ‘clack’ as the original, I’ll be a happy man.

 

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Hodgson looks to avoid doing a Taylor… and a Houllier

ginola-envoie-houllier-au-tribunalAs Roy Hodgson stalks his technical area over the next two England matches, stroking his chin as if it were a much-loved moggy, he will be desperate to avoid the fate that befell Graham Taylor in 1993. That fateful World Cup qualifying campaign saw England beaten under harsh circumstances in Holland during their penultimate game, where a draw would have seen them in prime position to head to the USA for the following year’s tournament. Put simply:

  • At 0-0, David Platt was heading towards goal when he was hauled down by last man Ronald Koeman.
  • Koeman received a booking instead of a red card.
  • The free kick was not scored from.
  • Minutes later, Holland won a free kick at the other end.
  • You don’t need me to tell you who scored it.
  • OK, it was Koeman.
  • Dennis Bergkamp scored shortly afterwards and England needed a miracle.

England’s final match in San Marino, which featured a new low for all concerned, was rendered irrelevant as Holland sealed qualification by winning in Poland. Taylor resigned, Terry Venables replaced him and things got better. For a while.

Anyway, if you think that’s grim, that same autumn wasn’t so good for France manager Gerard Houllier. In October 1993, France were cruising towards the World Cup, with just a single point needed from home games against Israel and Bulgaria. On October 13 they were 2-1 up against Israel with just seven minutes remaining. Eyal Berkovic equalised, but as injury time approached France were still on the plane. In the 93rd minute, Israel launched an attack which was converted spectacularly by Reuvan Atar to leave Gerard Houllier thoughtfully stroking his chin (take note, Roy). It was Atar’s first-ever international goal, and it gave Israel their only win of that qualifying campaign. They finished bottom of the group and the goals they put past France that night were three of only 10 scored from as many matches. So not the best night for Houllier and France.

But never mind – Les Bleus still had a final home game against Bulgaria from which to get that solitary point. This was a French team including Desailly, Deschamps, Blanc, Petit, Papin, Ginola and Cantona, so as they trotted out at the Parc des Princes on 17 November, the crowd were confident that their team was heading to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. This was no dead rubber for Bulgaria though – a win would put them through at France’s expense.

An Eric Cantona goal on 31 minutes was cancelled out by Emil Kostadinov six minutes later to stretch Houllier’s nerves, but there was no further scoring as the game headed into the final minute. What happened next made Stuart Pearce’s blunder and England’s desperate failure in Bologna on the same night seem quite creditable. With 20 seconds of normal time remaining, France won a free kick deep in Bulgaria’s half, a few yards from the corner flag. Vincent Guerin played a short pass to Ginola, with even the most adventurous-minded Frenchman willing him to simply stick his backside out and shield the ball in the corner to see out time. That wasn’t the winger’s style, though, and he instead opted to shellack the ball into the box where it sailed over Eric Cantona’s head -the only French player in the area -and into Bulgarian possession. Still, there were only 13 second left – what could possibly go wrong?

kostadinov

Bulgaria worked the ball forward and as it fell to Kostadinov he was faced with awkward control and a narrow angle, but overcame both to thwack a stunning volley past Bernard Lama and stun the French while sending his side to America.

Houllier publicly blamed Ginola for France’s exit, and has not forgiven him to this day. Deschamps said simply: “We’ve made real asses of ourselves.”

Bulgaria made it all the way to the last four of the 1994 World Cup, dispatching Germany in the quarters before being beaten by Italy. France went on to better things, of course, with the World Cup and European Championship won in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Houllier wound up at Liverpool, where he asked Roy Evans to budge up on the manager’s seat before bumping him right off it.

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7 things to listen out for at the World Snooker Championship

1. Former champion and full-grown man Terry Griffiths saying “lickle” instead of “little”.

2. Willie Thorne, whose success in the game can be measured by the fact that he’s most famous for being bald, demonstrating his worryingly detailed knowledge of the game’s betting prices: “He was 6-2 to pot 13 balls in the first three minutes here, and he’s done just that.”

3. John Virgo announcing the climax of a match-winning break by referring to the player as “this young man from (insert town/city).”

4. Dennis Taylor referring to a shot that needs to be edged as a “thin snick”.

5. When a player is faced with a tricky shot, Thorne leaving himself in a win-win situation by saying: “Ooh, this is risky. Not sure I’d be taking this on.” If the player misses he essentially rewords the phrase “I told you so” as his negativity is justified. Should the player make the pot, he says: “What a great shot, he deserved that for taking it on.”

6. Taylor remarking on the audience’s habit of applauding when a player has potted the ball that leaves their opponent needing snookers by saying: “Very knowledgeable crowd here at The Crucible.”

7. And, of course, Virgo erupting as the white goes nowhere near a pocket: “WHERE’S THE CUE BALL GOING?!”

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10 great music moments in Goodfellas

Director Martin Scorsese’s ingenious use of music is one of his many trademarks, andgoodfellasmain Goodfellas provided a perfect platform for him to show off his talents. Made in 1990 and based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas traces the life of low-level gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from his teenage years in the 1950s to his betrayal of those closest to him three decades later. The time period covered opened up the perfect opportunity to soundtrack Hill’s excessive lifestyle and turbulent marriage to wife Karen with a mix of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues (the proper kind), doo-wop and more.

Scorsese wanted every song to be true to the time period portrayed, so all music heard in the film is from the era shown or earlier. The music isn’t just thrown into the scenes, though – Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker painstakingly ensured beat changes coincided with key cuts and lyrics fitting to the action on screen came in at the ideal moment. The result is an exhilarating, breathless journey, and I’ve chosen 10 great music moments from it, in chronological order.

1. ‘Rags to Riches’ – Tony Bennett

What a way to start a film. We’re told it’s New York, it’s 1970 and that what we’re about to see is based on a true story. We then join an exhausted Henry Hill driving cronies Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) home in the early hours. Theygoodfellasopening hear a thudding noise and pull over to see what’s up. As Henry prepares to open the boot, Tommy produces a knife, which we later discover was procured from his mother’s house on the way. When the boot swings open, we see a bloodied man wrapped in tablecloths pleading for his life – more of that later – whom Tommy stabs repeatedly (complete with gruesome sound effects). Jimmy fires four shots into the body before Henry steps forward and, via voiceover, says: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” The end of the last word is followed immediately by the combined sound of the boot slamming shut and the blast of the opening trumpet notes from ‘Rags to Riches’.

The timing of this moment is sheer perfection – we’re still trying to take in the horror of what we’ve just seen and Scorsese whisks us into the titles with a brilliantly bombastic piece of music. The breathless pace of the film is established, and the viewer already knows they’re in for a hell of a ride.

2. Then He Kissed Me – The Crystals

Quite simply one of the finest scenes in film history. Henry, at 21, is already immersed in the underworld and dating the beautiful Karen (Lorraine Bracco). She accompanies him to the Copacabana, where Henry’s influence becomes clear when they bypass the long queuegoodfellascopa and enter through a side entrance. They make their way into the club via the kitchens – staff greeting Henry at every turn and a waiter having a table placed right at the front especially for them. To emphasise Henry’s privileged entrance, Scorsese captures it with a wonderful single Steadicam shot – an unbroken three-minute masterpiece that begins outside at Henry’s car and ends with comedian Henny Youngman on stage.

The use of ‘Then He Kissed Me’ – a classic girl-meets-boy song – in its entirety sums up Karen’s giddiness as Henry sweeps her off her feet: “When he danced he held me tight / And when he walked me home that night / All the stars were shining bright / And then he kissed me”.

3. Ain’t That a Kick in the Head? – Dean Martin

The first of three songs encompassing the film’s pivotal moment, ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’ precedes the killing of ‘made man’ Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) in The Suite, a bar goodfellashenrycashowned by Henry. Up to this point, we’ve followed Henry’s rise and rise as his mob life makes him rich and his happy relationship with Karen results in marriage. Henry’s approaching a downward slope though, and the song’s title playfully suggests not only this, but also the manner in which it will come about.

Heard over a montage of  ‘happy family’ moments, this song is a great example of Scorsese’s fondness for black humour as its use also predicts Jimmy’s contribution to his and Tommy’s brutal murder of Batts.

4. He’s Sure the Boy I Love – The Crystals

After a ‘romantic’ moment between Henry and Karen, we cut to an establishing shot of The Suite, with the camera tracking slowly towards it. At the moment of the cut the ominousjune111970 baritone saxophone opening note of ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love’ is heard, which sets the scene perfectly for what’s to come. Inside, Henry is holding a ‘welcome home’ party for Billy Batts who has just been released from prison after six years. After Batts makes a flippant remark to the volatile Tommy, the latter explodes and before leaving urges Henry and Jimmy to “keep him here.”

5. Atlantis – Donovan (warning: contains violence)

Tommy later returns to The Suite as we hear the dreamy opening narrative of Donovan’s ‘Atlantis’. A drunk Billy Batts complains about having to provide for his kids so soon after battscoming out of jail, with Jimmy keeping him occupied. Henry spots Tommy at the door and makes his way to guard it. Facing Batts, we can see Tommy approach him from behind, but the victim-to-be is unaware. At the moment Batts turns to see Tommy, ‘Atlantis’ kicks into its chorus with a rapid drum roll. Tommy strikes Batts to the ground and he and Jimmy savagely beat the man as a horrified Henry watches on and the chorus repeats: “Way down below the ocean / Where I wanna be / She may be”.

Scorsese could not have chosen a more peaceful and unthreatening a piece of folk-pop and it’s for exactly this reason it’s such a wonderful choice of song. The juxtaposition of the horrific violence and the beautiful music means we’re both uplifted and disgusted at the same time. As well as brilliantly manipulating our emotions, it’s also another great bit of black humour from the director.

6. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones

A Scorsese favourite, the incredible ‘Gimme Shelter’ was also used in Casino and The Departed, the latter featuring the ominous opening section of the song to get the filmgshelter started. In Goodfellas it’s used as we see Henry promising boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino) he won’t get involved with drugs, before a cut to a shot of a huge amount of cocaine being mixed with playing cards. The line “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” bridges the cut so that the cocaine scene begins with “Murder, it’s just a shot away” – a suggestion of what’s to come. The line “A storm is threatening my very life today” is equally prophetic.

7. Monkey Man – The Rolling Stones

Another classic Stones song, ‘Monkey Man’ is heard twice, Scorsese using different sectionsgoodfellascadillac in two separate scenes. Firstly, as we see Henry bringing in cocaine via his ‘Pittsburgh connections’, the song’s opening lines are heard: “I’m a flea-bit peanut monkey / All my friends are junkies”. Later, as a paranoid, drug-addled Henry and Karen tear around a corner in their car the song re-appears, Mick Jagger’s screeching of: “I’m a monkey” and the riotous guitar riff echoing the couple’s chaotic existence perfectly.

8. Frosty the Snowman – The Ronettes

It’s Christmas time and Henry and his cronies have just pulled off the ‘Lufthansa heist’, a $5 million robbery of John F Kennedy Airport. Jimmy’s has advised everyone to maintaingoodfellas jimmy angry a low profile as the police keep them all under scrutiny. This includes not buying anything flashy that might attract attention.  So what happens? At a party shortly afterwards, Johnny Roastbeef (Johnny Williams) arrives with his fiancee and a brand new Cadillac. Suffice to say, Jimmy is not happy. This is before Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) turns up with his wife wrapped in a mink coat, sending Jimmy over the edge.

A scene of high tension – and De Niro raging as only he can – is soundtracked perversely (and hilariously) by The Ronettes’ ‘Frosty the Snowman’. As Johnny walks in we hear the opening line: “Frosty the Snowman was a jolly happy soul”, a darkly ironic precursor of Jimmy’s soon-to-be sour mood.

9. Layla – Derek and The Dominos

His associates buying expensive and attention-drawing items isn’t Jimmy’s only problem. Morrie (Chuck Low) is pestering Jimmy for his share of the loot and ‘Stacks’ Edwards (Samuel L Jackson) was supposed to get rid of the truck used in the robbery but instead got stoned and fell asleep, leaving the police to find the vehicle with his prints all over it. This leavesgoodfellas layla Jimmy paranoid and eager to cut his connections to the robbery. After we see Morrie and Stacks killed, a scene begins with a shot of Johnny Roastbeef’s Cadillac parked under a railway bridge. Some inquisitive kids approach the car and the moment we cut back to it, the instrumental section of Derek and The Dominos’ ‘Layla’ kicks in. This sweeping, melancholy piece is the background for a montage revealing Johnny and his fiancee dead in the car, bodies discovered in a garbage truck and Frankie frozen stiff among slabs of meat in a lorry.

The music isn’t edited down to fit the scene, it’s a meticulously-planned four minutes that again divides our emotions – grim discoveries of corpses versus a beautiful song. Scorsese had the song playing in the background during filming of the scene so that certain key changes could match cuts and moments on screen. The viewer only receives this subconsciously, but it’s what helps make this sequence one of Goodfellas‘ most memorable.

10. What is Life – George Harrison

This song is one of several heard during the frantic sequence in which we see a drug-addled Henry trying to sell gun silencers, doing cocaine and convincing himself he’s being trailedgoodfellasyeahyeah by a helicopter, all whilst he runs errands and helps prepare dinner at home. The uplifting, catchy and intoxicating music enhances an already exhilarating scene.

This is why Scorsese’s music choices – along with Schoonmaker’s masterful editing – are so crucial to the frantic pacing of Goodfellas. The 145 minutes fly by at a blistering pace, mirroring the rise and fall of Henry’s mob life.

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Great moments in film #2: It’s a Wonderful Life – The richest man in town

Along with turkey, mince pies and family arguments, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Lifeiawlending ought to be an essential part of anyone’s Christmas. The film premiered in New York in December 1946 and sees George Bailey (James Stewart) contemplating suicide before being shown by an angel named Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) what the world would be like if he’d never been born.

Stewart had only just emerged from World War II service and was unsure he’d be able to take the role of George, but his tremendous ability to portray both youthful exuberance and later-life world-weariness made him ideal for a part encompassing a couple of decades.

The young George has dreams of escaping Bedford Falls, the small town in which he feels suffocated, to see the world but fate and his good nature conspire to keep him there running the family’s Building and Loan business. On Christmas Eve, George’s uncle inadvertently gives an $8,000 bank deposit to Henry Potter, an avaricious, cold-hearted slumlord who has long wanted to see the Building and Loan’s downfall, and after a frantic search it does not turn up.

A frustrated George, the family business ruined, takes his anger out on his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four children before leaving to beg Potter for a loan. Potter revels in turning George down and announces he will see him arrested for bank fraud. A desolate George gets drunk before crashing his car into a tree and making his way to a bridge, intending to commit suicide because his life insurance means he is worth more dead than its-a-wonderful-life-jumpalive.

At this point the angel Clarence, needing to prove himself in order to ‘get his wings’, jumps in the water to be saved by George, before showing him what Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born. The horror that George experiences as he sees the now-sleazy town renamed Pottersville (echoed nicely in the ‘alternate’ 1985 of Back to the Future Part II) and the devastating impact his absence had on his family and friends makes him return to the bridge and pray for normality.

Thus begins the most uplifting 10 minutes in cinema history, as George realises he is alive once more and dashes back to his family, stopping to greet people and landmarks on the way (“Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”).

Upon returning home, George learns that the whole town have heard about his financial trouble and have contributed what they can to help him. The money is enough to save the business and, with all his family and friends around him, George realises just what a wonderful life he has. Only those with the coldest heart would be unmoved by the toast raised by George’s younger brother Harry:

After two hours rooting for George, an incredibly likeable character played by everyman James Stewart, the ending pays off perfectly and It’s a Wonderful Life leaves us with the satisfied glow that only copious amounts of turkey and chocolates otherwise could.

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The Thick of It: do the right thing, Armando

The brilliantly vicious, sweary political satire The Thick of It has ended after seven years and 24 episodes with its creator Armando Iannucci saying there will be no more. No more ttoiMalcolm Tucker (“Iago with a BlackBerry”), no more Oliver Reeder (“Looks a bit like a Quentin Blake illustration”) and no more press-hating Peter Mannion (“Run those fuckers over. Fifty pounds for every one you maim”).

When a successful series ends, within a couple of years there’s generally a clamour for more, and even those writers who have squeezed every last idea out of their creation are tempted to bring back their show for one last outing.

But that wonderful condition hindsight shows that this is generally a mistake. John Sullivan hauled Del Boy and Rodney out of their well-deserved luxurious retirement for three more Only Fools and Horses specials from 2001 – 2003 and the result made pretty grim viewing. A talented cast overacting in order to compensate for a weak script was a sad sight and meant the show, which had originally gone out on the perfect note, tarnished its reputation forever.

Red Dwarf returned in 2009 (and again this year) for the first episodes in a decade when rdbtethe show had in truth lost its spark long before – co-writer Rob Grant’s decision to leave left Doug Naylor trying to maintain the standard alone after series VI. The scripts simply weren’t up to scratch and a move away from filming before a live studio audience gave the sitcom a cinematic feel that simply didn’t suit it.

The success of Columbo had led to Peter Falk, who played the titular detective, becoming the highest-paid actor in television at $500,000 an episode in the 1970s. The series’ initial run ended in 1978 but was resurrected 11 years later. Having originated in a decade famous for cool clothes, cars and hairstyles, the series didn’t quite fit in the early 1990s – Picturesan era most certainly not known for cool clothes, cars and hairstyles. Bold, attention-grabbing direction (a young Steven Spielberg took the helm for an early episode) and good use of music were replaced with bland, formulaic production values. Coupled with some woeful supporting actors and plots stretched over a longer, more advert-friendly running time, the later Columbos pale in comparison to their predecessors. From the mid-1990s the show appeared only sporadically before signing off for good in 2003.

Then there are series that just don’t know when to stop. Friends outstayed its welcome by around half of its ten-year run and The Simpsons is now such a runaway money-making behemoth that it’s hard to see it ever ending – despite a 15-year decline.

Shows that finish at the right time are rare but tend to be those of the highest quality. Fawlty Towers famously lasted just 12 episodes, but John Cleese felt he and wife/ex-wife/co-writer Connie Booth had explored all their ideas and has to date resisted the huge financial incentive to bring Basil back (luckily this German remake never got past the pilot).

Similarly, The Office finished after only 14 superb instalments with everyone happy and sopranosendone big loose end tied up. The Sopranos, a 70-hour masterpiece, signed off with a perfectly written, directed, acted and scored scene of pure art, which stayed true to the series’ hallmark of letting the viewer use their own intelligence to work out the meaning of what they’ve seen.

With Armando Iannucci’s fingers in some stateside pies, there’s plenty to keep him occupied for now. Fans of The Thick of It will be hoping he resists temptation for the long term and leaves a legacy of greatness rather than regret.

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Read for free on the London Underground!

There‘s always a plentiful stock of complimentary reading material on the London Underground. As you pass through a Tube station, you’ll notice stacks of free newspapers. Even if you miss these, you’ll see many discarded copies perched on the small ledges behind the seats when you board your train. Ignore them. Any passenger worth their salt does not have the energy to hold up their own paper so will read over the shoulder of the person nearest them.

Deep in the moral cesspit that passes for public transport in the capital, etiquette relating to personal space, invasion of privacy and leaking earphone-based noise pollution is completely dismissed. It isn’t a modern problem either – the above photograph proves that over-the-shoulder-reading has been going on for some time. It also proves that there were no contemporary images available at the time of writing.

Most people just shrug their shoulders and accept that their reading pleasure is being hijacked, like someone watching TV through your window or enjoying the smell of a steaming hot pasty you’re eating. However, if you want to fight back, here are a few tips to deter such parasites:

  • Ask them if they have finished reading the current page and if it’s OK for you to turn over.
  • Hold the paper open on a double-page advertising spread for several minutes. Even the hardiest freereader will look away eventually. Sadly, as soon as you turn the page you’ll likely see their head snap back towards the paper, eager to consume the latest on west London parking charges or how Britain was 0.2°C hotter than Barbados yesterday. If this should happen, there is one sure-fire way to reclaim your reading space…
  • Simply take one of the many copies of the same newspaper from behind a seat and offer it to your co-reader. Either they’ll take it or finally get the hint and stop looking at yours.

Be sure to come back and read more London Underground-inspired bitterness in the near future!

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