Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

I’m a sucker for a good sports story. I’ve watch a lot of the ESPN 30 for 30 specials, more baseball documentaries than I can count, and of course, the Last Dance. When I saw the preview for Winning Time, I didn’t question it at all; I was going to watch it. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed the characters and performances, even though everyone claims it’s not accurate. Honestly, everyone is great! My surprise favorites were Jerry West as a rage-aholic. It is something to behold and Jason Segal and Adrian Brody play the two most sympathetic characters in the show. There’s controversy as to the accuracy and depiction of most of the people, it’s probably justified, because everyone is almost cartoonish in their personalities. There’s an emphasis on entertainment, not accuracy. The basketball was fun, the story is good, but the unique thing is how it is filmed. They did some very fun things to make it look vintage. A lot of it looks like it was actually shot in the early 80’s. Winning Time has a lot of style, for sure!

I did leave the show somewhat dissatisfied and I’ve tried to figure out why. The show starts with Magic going to the doctor to presumably find out he has HIV. That was in 90-91. Then the show goes to 1979 and never mentions it again. Why did it start there? It made the entire show feel like a dramatic bomb would drop at any moment, but it never does. Magic definitely gets around in the show, but that’s a dour note to start the show, that isn’t going deal with it. It’s essentially sitting an elephant in the room. Also, Winning Time treats women very poorly, which I assume is to be period accurate, but when one time someone is called out for being horrible, he says, “That’s enough!” and seems like he’s about to learn a lesson. Well, the next time you see him, he uncomfortably forces himself on a the woman he was called out about. There is no recourse. No lesson. No follow-up. In a show that is happy to take liberties with characters, why not take a few more liberties to make things less awkward? It’s a weird choice. So while I love the premise of the show and I found most of it quite enjoyable, the show is quite surface level, except when it isn’t, and then it feels a little incomplete. In the end, the show is worth watching for Larry Bird portrayal if nothing else. Which, even if it is completely made up, is perfection.

Elden Ring

This review is coming from a big FromSoftware fan who really likes the sense of achievement from a really good boss fight. If you dislike boss fights, FromSoftware games are not for you. If you dislike boss fights and still want to play one of the biggest and most interesting games I’ve played in years, Elden Ring is for you! The reason I bring this up is that there are more ways to get through this game than just throwing your corpse at a boss for hours. You can spend an hour or two, quite early in the game, grinding for some levels and items and just exploring. I lost track of the number of times I was astonished by the scope and size of the game and was continually surprised by all the content and how varied it was.

The thing about Elden Ring is that you can customize your play style better than most RPGs I’ve found. You can be a wizard, a brute, an archer, Sonic the Hedgehog (google it), whatever your imagination can come up with. I watched a video of someone beating the entire game as a pacifist. He beat the entire game without ever doing direct damage to anything in game! You can make Elden Ring your own in ways other RPGs only dream. FromSoftware gives you more tools than ever to be successful and “getting gud” is entirely optional. The most inaccessible part of Elden Ring is the lore. It’s buried in the item descriptions and in the world building. Some of my favorite parts of experiencing this game was watching explanations of why things were a certain way after playing it. There is a much deeper meaning than, “That guy is a snake” if you want to look for it. That being said, I spent hundreds of hours beating the 160+ bosses blissfully unaware of what any of it meant, then I watched a couple videos explaining things and the richness of it all helps me enjoy it more. Story is optional. I can’t recommend it highly enough, that is, if it’s your thing.

Scarf

Scarf is a 3D adventure game that favors platforming and puzzle solving over combat. That’s usually right up my alley, but Scarf takes too many missteps for me to give it a recommendation. It’s a shame, too, because I don’t think it would take much to fix this game. Simply making the hero run a little faster and jump a little higher would already help tremendously. I was holding the run button down for the entire game, and it still didn’t feel like I was moving very fast. You do get a double jump early on, too, but that just means you end up over relying on it for even the smallest of steps and gaps. They also need to break the levels up. There are only three levels in the game, and they are loooooong. This kills any incentive I have to backtrack and find missed collectibles, because you have to play the entire level again with all skills reset.

Despite not liking the controls and level structure, I was still tempted to replay levels for those elusive collectibles, though. These items mostly boil down to art and cutscenes, but they complement the story at large. Sure, Scarf isn’t that heavy on story, but the bits of lore you do get are interesting. I appreciate the world that they’ve built here. It looks amazing, after all. But that’s the third issue with Scarf: it’s graphically not optimized. I have a decent gaming rig and was playing on the lowest settings, and the game still chugged and stuttered at times. I won’t even pretend to know how to fix that, and maybe it can’t be fixed. But if the controls and scope of the levels were ironed out, I’d feel much better about giving this a thumbs up, even if it continues to run a little janky.

Pine

This is a game that’s very rough around the edges, but I enjoyed it, anyway. Pine is a bite-sized, open-world adventure that probably drew a lot of inspiration from Breath of the Wild. It feels like a case where an ambitious indie studio bit off just a tad more than they could chew, though, and didn’t have the technical prowess to iron out some of the kinks. This game is a buggy mess at times. Frequently, my character got stuck in a wall, and the only way out was to quicksave and reload. Combat is also pretty clunky and got a little frustrating near the end. Fortunately, there are only a few instances where you are forced to fight. Most of the time, you can easily run away from danger or pay off the other tribes to leave you alone.

That gets into the cool part about Pine: its world building. The world is inhabited by several intelligent species who rarely get along. They especially hate humans, and so you have to win them over by donating to their villages. But as you befriend one species, it’ll cause other species to hate you again. Sadly, you can never make peace with everyone at once, but it’s still a neat mechanic that makes the game more dynamic and interesting. Like, is it worth allying with this particular species so you can safely complete the quest in that area, or are you better off holding onto your resources to craft better armor? I really liked having to weigh these options, though I almost always regretted giving up my resources. Some items are just really hard to find again.

The world is fun to explore, though. Er… when the platforming mechanics behave, that is. But there’s a lot to uncover, and no resource or reward feels pointless, because you can always donate or trade it if it serves no purpose to you. There are also three dungeons/vaults that unlock special abilities, and you can do these in any order. The caveat is that you can only do one per story beat, and the wait time between Vaults 1 and 2 is pretty long. That means a good chunk of the game plays very differently depending on which ability you unlocked first. Being able to tame wild animals is a fun and useful skill, so it would suck if that was the last one you got, and you didn’t get to actually use it much. All that said, Pine gets an A+ for what it tries to do. The execution, however, is disappointing but still mostly enjoyable.

Grow: Song of the Evertree

I absolutely loved the developer’s previous game, Yonder, so I was quick to jump on Grow. It wasn’t quite what I expected, though, but it’s my own fault for thinking they were just gonna make Yonder again. Where that game was pretty open-ended with an emphasis on exploration and side quests, Grow is more linear in how you progress and focuses on farming and town management. Unfortunately, the farming aspect of the game is very repetitive and tedious. You’re presented with mini worlds that need to be “cleaned up,” but you don’t have any creative control over where things are planted or how much work you actually want to do on each world. I did like how creating these worlds was somewhat random, so you never knew what the next one was gonna look like. But taking care of them is still a slog.

I stuck with it, though, because farming provides the resources needed to open up the rest of the game. Large sections of the main world are blocked off until you can raise a town’s happiness level, which requires building houses and shops and assigning people work. The town management is fairly simple but rewarding to see come together. Plus, a lot of the shops you build actually serve a purpose. Pro tip: build a tailor shop as soon as you can, because you can buy new clothes there on a daily basis! It’s fun to check in on the shops before heading off to explore the town’s surroundings. Exploration isn’t as integral to the game as it is in Yonder, but I still enjoyed finding what few secrets I could. Each district also has a nearby temple/dungeon to complete. The challenges inside are… not challenging. But it adds that much more to the variety in gameplay, making this a very unique experience overall.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Paper Mario is such an odd franchise. This feels like a series of games where Nintendo does whatever the hell it wants. You can’t even say they are consistently turn-based RPGs, because Super Paper Mario on Wii changed that up. And Origami King is only partially turn-based. Smaller enemies and boss battles are still turn-based, but there are several medium-sized enemies that you fight in real-time. I wish they’d just ditch the turn-based battles altogether, because this series has stopped doing them well since the Gamecube. The gimmick this time around is that you have to line up the battle field before you attack. Against smaller enemies, this becomes a tedious chore that I’d rather flee from (if fleeing didn’t have such a high failure rate).

The boss battles are actually pretty fun, though. Instead of lining up the enemies, you need to create a path for Mario to follow that will stop at useful power-ups along the way. Bosses also have different gotchas that make each encounter feel fresh, as opposed to the repetitive minion battles that boil down to “use hammer or jump.” I did appreciate that you could smash and kill an enemy in the overworld to prevent a turn-based battle, but it was never clear which enemies were susceptible to this trick. It’s supposed to be tied to how strong you are, but the only indicator of your strength is how much max HP you have. And since battles reward no experience points—hell, there are no experience points in this game—the only way to increase your health/power is to stumble across explicit upgrades in the overworld.

For me, the best thing about Paper Mario games now is simply exploring the world. Uncovering hidden Toads in Origami King was a fun side goal, and the environments were always fairly clever and visually stunning. I didn’t care for the “flat paper vs origami” storyline, but I will admit that the origami art style is cool. In typical Nintendo fashion, though, they hit you over the head with the story. Yeah, Paper Mario games are always on the wordy side, but didn’t they recently trim down the dialogue in Skyward Sword? Nintendo hasn’t learned its lesson here. Your travel companion will not shut up and has to comment on everything. This is when we need voice acting. It would have been great to listen to Olivia talk while you’re moving about. But being forced to stop and read her dialogue turns this into more of a slog than it needs to be.