Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Last day of school

It seemed fitting that the summer solstice occurred at 4:09 pm today, exactly as I walked out of the school as a teacher there for the last time. Ever. It's getting to be an annual tradition that I clean out my classroom and say my goodbyes for good at the end of the school year. In this case, the school did not see me as a good fit, and I agreed with them. For the past six months, I've been seeing the writing on the wall, and I was fully prepared for this decision. I think it's the right move for both the school and me, as I don't think it was quite the right fit for me. With that said, it's still difficult to go through this process with my third school in five years. I've had only one calendar year - 2009 - without any transition, and I have not yet had a school year that was not my first or last at a school. I have, in essence, completed my first year three times, and I still haven't been able to build any programs or any kind of longevity. The first year is hard, and in each of my "first years", I've had to learn new grades, new curricula, and new strategies, all with an incredibly steep learning curve. I had always seen that ten year mark after convocation as a kind of marker that I would have made it: after a couple of years of temporary contracts, I'd get into a job that would take me to age 35, at which point I would have my student loans paid off, a family started, and I could start seriously thinking about the next stage in life - maybe going back to school for a Master's. Now I'm halfway to that mark, and I have five years of experience and no job to show for it. I've spent the last two years working through this, and I'm actually okay with where things are at, but it still doesn't change what I really wish for: to be in a school with a good fit, where I can be myself, have a good mentor, and enjoy teaching what I'd like to teach. I know it's going to happen, but I still wish it would happen sooner rather than later. And I'd like for my next "last day of school" to be different.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Wii Legacy

With Nintendo's less-than-spectacular showing of the WiiU at E3 last week, I thought it might be time to reflect on the Wii's tenure and give some of my thoughts on the console's legacy. When the Wii launched in 2006, it changed gaming. As part of the seventh-gemeration of home consoles, along with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, it introduced motion control as a viable option in home gaming, and it has outsold both of its competitors by a 3:2 margin, along with having outsold its predecessor, the Gamecube, by almost five times.
It created a market in which many gamers felt the need to own a Wii and either the XBox 360 or PS3, and it jump-started a market for families, young gamers, and non-typical gamers. I maintain, however, that despite the Wii's commerical success, it is the worst of Nintendo's five home consoles; I know a lot of people would put the GameCube in that fifth-place slot - and the argument that the Wii plays GameCube games notwithstanding - but there are several reasons why I think so.
The main driving force for me to buy a console is whether it has games I need to own and play and replay. The Wii, despite a library of 1220 games (!), has the worst library of any Nintendo home console. Quick: name 10 "must-own" Wii games. (Mine would be: Super Mario Galaxy 1+2, Super Paper Mario, Mario Kart Wii, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and probably Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort.) There are at least ten titles worth owning, but it's a shorter list than any other Nintendo console. The fact that the Wii plays GameCube games redeems its library significantly, but the Wii still has a lot of terrible third-party games that try to make up for quality in quantity.
I think that one of the big drawbacks was that it did not seem like Nintendo did many "new" things in their game development. Each previous system had featured an innovation in its library, either in developing a new series or revisioning an old one, but the only really "new" series the Wii introduced was its "Wii" series of games (Sports, Fit, etc.); the GameCube, however, had several - Metroid Prime, Toon Link, and Pikmin, to name three.
I remember that I was amazed by the fluidity of the motion controls the first time I played Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort. It was unbelievable then, and it's still incredible now, several years later. I know that Move and Kinect have edged in on the market, but I still think that the Wii's motion control system is superior. Of course, there were ups and downs: some games integrated the motion technology seamlessly and in some games, it was just kind of kitschy at times (Metroid Prime 3, I'm talking about your "puzzles" that required manipulation of the controller). Then there were some games that had absolutely nothing to do with the motion controls, like Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Some games contributed to the rise of repetitive stress injuries (ie. "Wii wrist"), and could have benefited from a refinement of the control scheme. Overall, I think the motion control was a boon to the system, but aside from a few notable examples (Skyward Sword), the idea was not fully effectively utilized.
Ultimately, I think Nintendo did not upgrade their hardware soon enough. The Wii in a lot of ways is just a GameCube with motion controls, and many of the games for the system did not demonstrate a significant graphical improvement over their GC predecessors. It says a lot about Nintendo's gameplay innovation that they're essentially running on decade-old technology, but it's time for an upgrade. I think what might have been best is if Nintendo had developed an intermediary Wii system - not a new version like the WiiU - that had increased the online connectivity, HD capabilities, and better technical specs. Maybe there was no way to do that without completely redeveloping the hardware, but I'd like to think that it could have happened, say, in 2012, right after the Wii had its last slew of really great titles in 2010. Instead, Nintendo limped along through 2011 with its Wii, releasing only two signature games that really should have been developed and released earlier (Kirby's Return to Dream Land and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword). The Wii needed an update at least a year ago.
I also think that Nintendo has been too sluggish on developing some of the online features that have enhanced gaming in the past few years. There were some, to be sure, but most of the connectivity of the Wii is more unwieldy than it is effective. I look forward to a time in which I can have a Nintendo account that tracks my downloaded games, my Nintendo friends, and which allows for better online play. I know that the Big N is intending to remedy some of these issues with the WiiU, but they really should have happened about five years ago.
Don't get me wrong: I still have really enjoyed my Wii, and I will continue to enjoy it. I was glad when I bought it used in June 2009, and I have gotten a lot of play out of the system. It has satisfied most of my gaming needs in the past three years, and it will stay a vital part of my collection for a long time. I just think when you look at library, gameplay, and technological wizardry, that it left a lot to be desired, that it stayed a little too long, it missed out on a couple of key features (online and HD) and that it didn't match up to Nintendo's previous consoles. I still have significant hope for the WiiU - even if that hope is a little dimmer after last week's lackluster E3 showing - and I'm sure I'll pick one up sooner or later. I have, after all, been a primarily Nintendo owner and player for 25 years; even a bad year or two isn't going to change that. And, just to show you that I'm providing a balanced viewpoint, here are my top 6 things I have appreciated about the Wii, in no particular order.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Unlike its predecessor, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword is a Zelda game that was designed to be used by the Wii controller. The game does have some minor flaws, but it is a visual and virtual treat.

2. The back catalog. Not only did the Wii play Gamecube games, but its Virtual Console channel allowed many gamers to revisit classics for old systems. Of course, I still have many of my original copies, but there were a few that even I didn't have and that I was happy to be able to play.

3. The Super Mario Galaxy games. The two entries were some of the most immersive and imaginative games I've ever played, and their ingenuity made me wish that there had been just one more on the system to appreciate.

4. Retro-style 2D platformers. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was genuinely one of the best games on the system, especially in multiplayer mode. Donkey Kong Country Returns reinvigorated the SNES series with a new entry that was both visually stunning and at times "Nintendo hard" (or at least more difficult). Kirby's Epic Yarn, while somewhat cutesy, did feature some very innovative and intuitive gameplay. Mega Man 9 and 10 brought the classic NES blue bomber back, and several other series (Castlevania, Contra, Gradius, Bubble Bobble, Sonic the Hedgehog) were upgraded with new entries via WiiWare.

5. Physics-based puzzlers. The Wii was able to do things with its controllers that made manipulating physical environments a lot of fun. Although some (such as World of Goo or Boom Blox) were released on other systems, the Wii versions seemed to have an extra something to them because of the controls. There were some really great short and simple games, but the best of the bunch (other than Goo) was Nintendo's Fluidity, a remarkably intuitive game in which the player plays as water.

6. Casual and multiplayer gaming. One of Nintendo's strengths since the N64 has been its focus on the casual gamer and creating a fun experience for groups of players. The Wii only further expanded their library of casual games; in addition to new editions of the well-established Mario Kart, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., and various Mario sports franchises, Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort provided a lot of entertainment (and repetitive stress injuries).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Kings Among Men

Finally! I got a series completely right. I predicted the Kings in 6, and that's what happened. It didn't quite happen the way I thought it might, and it took some heroics from Martin Brodeur to get there, but the Kings did it. Every Cup-winning team is special in its own way, but I don't think we'll see a run like this for awhile. Thoughh it's not unusual to see a team dominate through the playoffs and win the Cup losing only six games - the 2007 Ducks and 2008 Red Wings lost five and six games, respectively - it's very unusual that a team that is so dominant was not the (or at least a) Cup favourite at the beginning of the playoffs. The Kings were a popular dark horse pick to start the season, but they had fallen so far out of favour that they were barely regarded by many pundits as they entered the playoffs as an 8-seed. Their systematic evisceration and emasculation of the Canucks suddenly propelled them to "favourite" status at the beginning of round 2, and they never looked back. The Kings not only beat the top three seeds in the West in the first three rounds, but they beat them from the lowest possible seeding - the only 8-seed to win a title in any sport - and they won ten road games in a row to do it. This was a run on par with the 1993 Canadiens in terms of unexpected dominance and lasting resonance; it is no coincidence that these Kings have redeemed the 1993 "curse of McSorley" and leave the St. Louis Blues as the only remaining 1967 expansion team that has not won the Cup.
The connection to the 1993 playoffs has been somewhat uncanny: an unexpected team rides a hot goaltender and features gritty Canadian and American team players, a dominant defensive scheme, and a long-suffering coach looking for that elusive Cup, creating an unbelievable 10-game streak as they face unexpected foes who upset favoured opponents in both the Conference Finals and Cup Finals. Those playoffs - which I would argue are still among the best I've ever watched - occurred when I was 10 years old, and formed my knowledge and love of the game. I could have been a Kings fan - I had, after all, cheered for the Oilers in my formative years when they dominated in the 80s - but I started as a Canadiens fan; they did, after all, win the Cup, and they featured a number of players I really liked at the time. I even had my parents buy me a championship hat; it was (mercifully) stolen soon thereafter, and I never looked back to being a Habs fan. The Leafs ripped off 10 wins in a row to start the next season, and I switched my (then fickle) allegiance to the team it has rested with since: the Maple Leafs.
Bill Simmons expressed it as well as I've ever read anyone write it in his column "The Consequences of Caring" - a must-read if you have any doubt about why sports matters or what it does to us. It has stuck with me that I could have just as easily started cheering for any other team, and so I have a deep appreciation for what true Kings fans are experiencing right now. I understand that pain as acutely as any fan of my age could. After all, it's a short list of twelve teams that have not won the Cup since the Leafs won in 1967, and after the Kings' victory, it's one team shorter. There are six teams that have made it to the Finals at least once - the Panthers, Senators, Sabres, Capitals, Blues, and Canucks - and six teams that have never made an appearance in the Finals: the Jets/Coyotes (in 32 years), the Sharks (in two decades), and the still-young Wild, Blue Jackets, Thrashers/Jets, and Predators. Any time one of those teams has a chance for success, the part of me that suffers with them wants to see them break out - though I do take considerable glee in the failures of the Senators and Canucks (as their fans do in watching the Leafs fal short each year). Then again, if the Kings can surprise everyone and go from an 8th-seeded team to one of the most dominant Cup runs ever in a couple of months, who's to say that the Leafs can't overcome the curse of Kerry Fraser and finally even just make the Stanley Cup Finals. There's always next year for us Leaf fans; for Kings fans, there will always be this year, 2012.

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