Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Episode #6: Be Careful What You Wish For…

There’s a fundamental problem with gambling: Sometimes you lose.

When last we left Ophilia, the Phili Five were on cruise control, rocking Rock Tunnel, schooling Cyrus, and dominating the Celadon Gym on the way to our fourth badge. With the Game Corner, Pokémon Tower, and Fuschia City quivering before me, there was nary an obstacle in sight.

So I decided to make an obstacle instead…and naturally, I got just what I deserved.

Team at Journal Start Team at Journal End
Lv. 34 Venusaur Lv. 16 Growlithe
Lv. 34 Nidoking Lv. 39 Nidoking
Lv. 34 Golbat Lv. 16 Machop
Lv. 34 Dugtrio Lv. 38 Dugtrio
Lv. 34 Hypno Lv. 39 Hypno
Lv. 13 Oddish Lv. 13 Ekans

But let’s start with the good times, shall we?

The House Doesn’t Always Win

Yeah, that’s not suspicious or anything.

With Erika out of the way, I was free to explore the rest of Celadon City, which admittedly took all of about three minutes. I picked up a few trinkets at the Department Store, stared longingly at the Eevee I couldn’t have (thanks to the five different Eeveelutions I’ve used over the years), and eventually made my way over to the Game Corner, where Ophilia’s crew decided to copy Ocean’s Eleven and knock over the biggest casino in town.

Some people make well-thought-out plans for heists like this. I just kick in the front door.

Once we were inside, the crew performed an exhaustive breadth-first search looking for the elevator key that would give us access to the boss. I’d like to say that the Rocket lackeys wandering around offered some sort of challenge, but they didn’t. The only concerning moment was when Luna switched in to an Selfdestructing Koffing to cover for Will, but she was enough of a tank by this point that it didn’t even turn her health bar yellow. Eventually I found the key, rode the elevator and came face-to-face with Team Rocket’s infamous boss Giovanni.

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m your worst nightmare.

Giovanni turned out to be a weaker, Ground-focused version of Erika, and Earl made short work of his Pokémon. The Silph Scope was mine, but after yawning my way through another disappointing dungeon, I was beginning to wonder if I’d sucked all of the challenge out of this Nuzlocke run.

Who You Gonna Call?

The next stop on The Phili Five’s tour was Pokémon Tower, where my shiny new Silph Scope meant the local ghosts were now visible and beatable. Sadly, the Tower turned out to just as underwhelming as the Game Corner, and with both Cubones and Gastly unavailable due to prior usage, there really wasn’t a lot to do here.

I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

I quickly cleaned up the possessed Trainers and made my way to the top of the tower to tackle the ghostly Marowak and free Mr. Fuji. Even at Lv. 30, the mighty Marowak was efficiently dispatched back into the arms of the Sacred Flame, and the only concerning moment came when facing the trio of Rockets guarding Mr. Fuji, as Luna ate another Selfdestruct trying to cover for Will.

I suppose this beats “your princess is in another castle.”

With yet another day saved, Ophilia returned with Mr. Fuji to his home and picked up the Poké Flute as a reward. The road ahead was clear: Unblock the way to Cycling Road, make my way south to Fuschia City, wipe out everything in my path with my OP monsters, and profit. There was just one problem with this plan:

Trinity was right: I’d been down that road before, and this time it would end with the most ho-hum Nuzlocke journal in the history of history. Things had gotten pretty stale in Kanto, and I was looking for a way to spice things up…and the hot tea I’d randomly picked up in Celadon was just the spice I needed.

Going Rogue

*sigh* So much for that bottled water I bought you…

Fuschia City didn’t hold much promise for me, but with a Psychic Gym to test Phili’s Poison Posse, Saffron City sure did. Technically Sabrina is the sixth Gym leader and my OCD usually prevents me from doing things-out-of-order like this, but this run was for the people, darn it, and the people want drama and suspense! I wasn’t sure exactly what I would be walking into, but with five monsters at Lv. 36 (plus whatever levels I could wring out of Silph Co. and the Fighting Dojo), I was confident that they could handle anything. (I was almost right, but we’ll get there…)

Skyscraper, Starring The Rock Ophilia

Just make sure you spell my name right when you do it, okay?

Using the same breadth-first technique as in the Game Corner, I methodically worked my way up the Silph Co. building, smiting any and all bad guys that dared cross my path. (The number of double-agent scientists I met surprised me, but hey, when you run out of grant funding, you do what you have to do.) The battles still weren’t terribly hard, but at least they were tough enough to make me start respecting type matchups again (no more tossing Will against Flying-types). Once again, despite canvasing every floor and opening every Card Key door, the only real moment of panic was when Luna ate a third Selfdestruct in the name of keeping Will alive. (I hope he sends her a thank-you card when all this is over…)

Amazingly, I actually remembered which tiles took me directly to the boss on the top floor, but I had one prior appointment before I re-introduced myself to Giovanni:

I’m not afraid of you. Bring it on!

To his credit, Cyrus had actually done his homework this time, and his team was roughly at the same level as mine. Still, by working the one-on-one matchups in my favor, I quickly gained the upper hand: Luna knocked the Pidgeot out of the air, Bram Wing Attacked the Exeggcute into oblivion, Suzy shut down Gyarados with Sleep Powder and Leech Seed, and Will sent Alakazam packing with a single shot.

This battle is mine, I thought as I tossed out Earl to face…wait, WHAT?!

Um… This isn’t going to end well, is it? (Original LeBron image by MrBoulderShoulders)

The Charizard Catastrophe

Much like LeBron James, Cyrus’s Lv. 40 Charizard was a superhuman (superPokémon?) mix of speed, strength, smarts, and skill, and he came out spitting fire like he was Kendrick Lamar. Worse still, his extra Flying typing meant Will was no longer viable against him, and apparently my assumption that Ground types resisted Fire attacks was not based on reality. Earl went from full HP to 4 HP in a single turn, and the race was on.

I burned one of my Hyper Potions on Luna, but it bought me a measly two rounds in which I could barely do any damage. Unlike the random AI of other battles, Charizard just kept spamming Flamethrower this time around, and he put the entire team on the ropes very quickly.

Eventually, I was forced to make a decision: No one could switch in a stand up to another Flamethrower, so someone had to be sacrificed to put the team back on equal footing with the rampaging fire beast. This was an easy decision: Oscar the HM Oddish saw his first and last battle action of the run, giving himself up to set a key block for…

For…

…For who, exactly?

Okay, now what?

By this point, the only Pokémon I had with any HP at all was Suzy, and everyone knows what happens when Grass meets Fire in a Pokémon game. She had Sleep Powder and Leech Seed, though, and those were the kinds of moves that could make or break a close match like this one. I crossed my fingers, prayed to the Sacred Flame that Suzy still had a Speed advantage over Charizard, and sent her out.

We make our move.

Suzy is faster!

Sleep Powder connects!

…And that’s about where my brilliance ended. Razor Leaf wasn’t going to do squat against a Fire/Flying Pokémon, and Tackle is, well, Tackle. That left Leech Seed to do some stall damage while I thought of a better plan.

Charizard wakes up. So much for stalling.

Charizard uses Flamethrower.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in Saffron — mighty Suzy has struck out.

—Original words from Ernest Thayer’s “Casey At The Bat”

I don’t remember exactly what I said when this happened, but whatever it was prompted someone nearby to ask if I was okay. I was not.

I was officially in panic mode now, and when you panic, you tend to make bad decisions. Mine was to send out the Pokémon with the most HP left (Bram) as Charizard’s next challenge. While this made sense from an HP perspective, Bram had been paralyzed by Exeggcute earlier in the match, and thus was a sitting duck for Charizard to outrun him and turn him into a pile of ashes.

I was beyond panic mode now: I had attempted to inject life into my Nuzlocke run, and now it was on the verge of collapsing around me. I looked down at the three remaining members of the Phili Five, none of which were in any shape to fight, and then stared up at the sky and posed a question to the Sacred Flame: What the @#$% do I do now?

At that moment, the clouds parted, and a booming voice (that sounded a lot like the God character on The Late Show) called down with an answer:

Charizard is fast, my child…but he is not Dugtrio fast.

Up to this point, I’d been complaining a lot about Will’s performance in relation to his peers. While Suzy, Earl, Bram, and Luna were generalists that could be tossed into nearly any situation, Will’s abysmal HP and Defense made him more of a specialist that needed to pick his spots carefully, and he often needed to be rescued when a situation turned against him (and after taking three Selfdestructs to the face, you know Luna was telling Suzy, “You bail him out next time. I am done.”).  On the flip side, however, Dugtrio is officially the fifth-fastest Pokémon in G1 (and remains in the Top 40 even in G7!), so if he could get one solid attack off, it might be enough to escape with the win.

By sheer luck, Will had made it to Lv. 38 just before the fight, meaning that I could finally replace his mediocre Scratch with the much-more-potent Slash attack. I took a deep breath, gave the command, and…

Ballgame! I was so psyched over the win that I forgot to take a picture, but this sums up the battle nicely.

Will channeled his inner Craig Kimbrel and slammed the door on Cyrus, sending him to his sixth defeat. He took it with his usual grace and humility:

No Cyrus, you’re a monster, and one of these days you’ll pay for everything you’ve done.

I collected my money, flipped Cyrus the longest, stiffest middle finger I could muster, and made a mad dash back to the Pokémon Center to sort out my losses.

Conclusions

Well, I guess I accomplished my goal of putting the challenge back into my Nuzlocke run! The Phili Five is down to the Phili Three, I’ve lost my HM Oddish, and all the depth I thought I had (Growlithe, Machop, and Ekans) is suddenly being pressed into service. Just how big of a pickle am I in?

  • Losing Suzy is not only a huge psychological blow (you never want to lose your starter), but hurts me in three major ways:
    • Loss of Tank: I hope Luna isn’t too sore about her defensive duties, because she’s about to take on even more of them.
    • Loss of Grass type: Losing Suzy and Oscar means I don’t have any Grass-type options at all, and the picking are slim going forward. Basically, if I don’t get something good out of the Safari Zone, I’m stuck hoping to get a Tangela on Route 21.
    • Loss of Pokémon catcher: With Leech Seed and Sleep Powder, Suzy was my go-to Pokémon for capturing monsters (and I haven’t missed a catch yet!). Without her, capture battles could be a whole lot more tricky and dangerous.
  • Losing Bram leaves several type holes in my roster (most notably Flying, but she also had my only Dark move). Given all my other Flying-type restrictions, I have two options: Catch a Doduo on my way to Fuschia City, or stock up on Max Repels and take a shot at Articuno or Moltres. (Scyther is also a possibility, but again the Safari Zone is far from a sure thing.)

There’s still a silver lining here: Luna is a real beast and the closest thing I have to a Suzy clone, Will is fragile but has a knack for coming through in the clutch, and above everything else, Earl is a survivor, and if he makes it past the Viridian Gym, he’ll be a survivor with Strength/Return and Earthquake. With plenty of both current options (Growlithe, Machop) and future ones (one of those Snorlaxes will be mine, dang it!) to fill my empty party slots, we may have to abandon our Saffron City plan and clear out Fuschia City first, but we’re not out of this thing just yet.

Tune in next week as we rebuild our roster and attempt to conquer Fuschia City!

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Song Review: Jon Pardi: “Night Shift”

I’m starting to think Aaron Watson might have ruined all future country sex jams for me.

I’m a little confused by what Jon Pardi and Capitol Nashville are doing here.  California Sunrise was released over two years ago, and while the album had a good run and produced three No. 1 singles, the mediocre showing of single #4 “She Ain’t In It” (it missed the Top 20 despite being my favorite of his singles thus far) indicate that the public have moved on and was ready for some fresh new music. Instead, Pardi and co. have released a rare fifth single from the album “Night Shift,” and while it’s a perfectly tolerable track, it runs up against the same wall that Blake Shelton’s “Turnin’ Me On” did: It’s completely shown up by Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” and after hearing it, Pardi’s attempted sex jam does absolutely nothing for me.

On the surface, the production here is very similar to “Run Wild Horses”: They have similar guitar-driven melodies, the same traditional components (Pardi throws a steel guitar in with the fiddle for good measure), the same hard-hitting percussion, and similar dark tones. The problem is that while the two songs feature many of the same components, Pardi’s track just seems to has less of everything across the board. The guitars here are slicker and have less bite than Watson’s, the energy level is lower and makes the song feel a bit too slow, and the major-chord-dominated progression detracts from the desired sexy atmosphere, making whatever passion is present feel methodical and controlled instead of raw and unstable. (Even the extended outro, which finally turns the electric guitar loose, pales in comparison to the minute-plus jam that closes “Run Wild Horses.”) The result is a mix that just doesn’t have the power or emotion it needs to hook the listener, and after hearing Watson thrown down the gauntlet with authority two months ago, this song just makes me yawn and shrug.

Unlike Shelton, at least Pardi steps up and puts some feeling into his performance, especially on the choruses. Unfortunately, Pardi is the same annoyingly-nasal vocalist that he’s always been, and while he seems to have a bit more tone to his voice this time around, his flow is too stiff for the subject material, making the song feel downright awkward at points instead of sultry (although this is partially the writing’s fault as well). He shows off enough charisma to convince the listener that he’s passionate about the other person, but not enough to be able to share that passion with the listener, leaving them feeling more “Oh,” than “Oh my…”. It’s a passable performance overall, but when looked at through the lens of “Run Wild Horses,” it just doesn’t measure up.

Lyrically, the song takes the classic comparison between work (a job the narrator does not like) and love (a job the narrator does) and tries to package it as a steamy sex jam. It’s an interesting twist on an old topic (Clay Walker went for a fun vibe on “If I Could Make A Living,” while Ronnie Milsap didn’t push the sexy angle this much on “Daydreams About Night Things”), but it’s done in the most boring, uninteresting way possible (the second verse is just a list of vague and/or overused concepts), and the “night shift” hook isn’t cleverly used at all (in fact, outside of the “racking up the overtime” line, it’s barely connected to the song’s theme). The early focus on the narrator’s real job tries to tie the work/love metaphor together, but it ends up detracting from the song’s emotion by taking its focus away from the passionate portions. The lyrics, in a word, feel clumsy, and paired with Pardi’s awkward delivery and the lukewarm production, it’s not the sort of song I’m interested in hearing twice.

“Night Shift” is yet another sex jam without much sexiness to it, and it wilts in the face of serious competition. While Jon Pardi and his team use the same recipe that made “Run Wild Horses” so successful, they fail to get the ingredient levels right and wind up with a track that doesn’t make the listener feel much of anything. If nothing else, it shows that the sun has set on California Sunrise, and Pardi’s crew should focus on their next steps instead of leaning on their past ones.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve got better songs to listen to instead.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: August 12, 2018

I think this is the first time I’ve been able to say a feature on this blog was “back by popular demand”!

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-defunct Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment?

Last week, I examined Mediabase’s airplay chart to see how the mainstream charts had changed since then. The response with big enough that I decided to bring it back as a weekly feature (ideally on Wednesdays, but occasionally on Thursdays depending on my schedule). The methodology is as follows:

  • Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s official numbers are from Mediabase’s August 12th publication. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Brett Young, “Mercy” +2 (7/10)
2. Jason Aldean ft. Miranda Lambert, “Drowns The Whiskey” +2 (7/10)
3. Thomas Rhett, “Life Changes” +2 (7/10)
4. Luke Bryan, “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” (5/10)
5. Morgan Evans, “Kiss Somebody” -1 (4/10)
6. Chris Lane ft. Tori Kelly, “Take Back Home Girl” -1 (4/10)
7. Old Dominion, “Hotel Key” +1 (6/10)
8. Florida Georgia Line, “Simple” +2 (7/10)
9. Dylan Scott, “Hooked” 0 (5/10)
10. Carrie Underwood, “Cry Pretty” (5/10)
11. Lady Antebellum, “Heart Break” +1 (6/10)
12. Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma” 0 (5/10)
13. Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End” +3 (8/10)
14. Keith Urban ft. Julia Michaels, “Coming Home” -1 (4/10)
15. Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl” +5 (10/10)
16. Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” -2 (3/10)
17. Garth Brooks, “All Day Long” +3 (8/10)
18. Justin Moore, “Kinda Don’t Care” +3 (8/10)
19. Carly Pearce, “Hide The Wine” 0 (5/10)
20. Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” 0 (5/10)
21. Eric Church, “Desperate Man” +1 (6/10)
22. LANco, “Born To Love You” +1 (6/10)
23. Chris Young, “Hangin’ On” 0 (5/10)
24. Maren Morris, “Rich” -1 (4/10)
25. Mitchell Tenpenny, “Drunk Me” 0 (5/10)
26. Kane Brown, “Lose It” +1 (6/10)
27. Brothers Osborne, “Shoot Me Straight” +1 (6/10)
28. Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” +2 (7/10)
29. Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me” +2 (7/10)
30. Kip Moore, “Last Shot” -2 (3/10)
31. Kelsea Ballerini, “I Hate Love Songs” +2 (7/10)
32. Midland, “Burn Out” +5 (10/10)
33. Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man” +3 (8/10)
34. Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire” 0 (5/10)
35. Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” 0 (5/10)
36. Tyler Rich, “The Difference” 0 (5/10)
37. Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” -2 (3/10)
38. Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” -1 (4/10)
39. Craig Campbell, “See You Try” -1 (4/10)
40. Dustin Lynch, “Good Girl” 0 (5/10)
41. Aaron Watson, “Run Wild Horses” +4 (9/10)
42. Riley Green, “There Was This Girl” +1 (6/10)
43. Granger Smith, “You’re In It” 0 (5/10)
44. Scotty McCreery, “This Is It” +1 (6/10)
45. Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” -3 (2/10)
46. Little Big Town, “Summer Fever” 0 (5/10)
47. Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk” -1 (4/10)
48. Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” 0 (5/10)
49. Carlton Anderson, “Drop Everything” -2 (3/10)
50. Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” -1 (4/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +20
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +9
Overall Pulse +29
Change From Last Week -3 😦

Best Song (tie): “Drunk Girl” and “Burn Out,” 10/10
Worst Song: “Caught Up In The Country,” 2/10
Mode Score: 0 (14 songs)

Gone:

  • Kenny Chesney, “Get Along” (recurrent)
  • James Barker Band, “Chills” (down to #52)
  • Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” (down to #53)

Leaving:

  • Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” (down from #13 to #16 – why is it still here?)
  • Keith Urban ft. Julia Michaels, “Coming Home” (down from #1 to #12)
  • Lady Antebellum, “Heart Break” (up from #14 to #11, but it’s aging and lost its bullet)
  • Justin Moore, “Kinda Don’t Care” (holds at #18, but it’s aging and lost its bullet)
  • Little Big Town, “Summer Fever” (down from #43 to #46)

In Real Trouble:

  • Brothers Osborne, “Shoot Me Straight” (aging, lost points this week)
  • Kip Moore, “Last Shot” (aging, lost points and spins this week)

In Some Trouble:

  • Chris Lane ft. Tori Kelly, “Take Back Home Girl” (up from #7 to #6, but its gains was weak and it’s got strong competition behind it)
  • Carrie Underwood, “Cry Pretty” (down from #9 to #10, its gains were weak, and it was passed by three song this week)
  • Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl” (only at #15 after 32 weeks)
  • Carly Pearce, “Hide The Wine” (only ay #19 after 31 weeks)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” (up from #46 to #38, only 2 weeks on chart)
  • Riley Green, “There Was This Girl” (up from #47 to #42, only 3 weeks on chart)
  • Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma” (up from #17 to #12)
  • Luke Bryan, “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” (up from #8 to #4)
  • Old Dominion, “Hotel Key” (up from #11 to #7)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Jon Pardi, “Night Shift”
  • Dan + Shay, “Speechless”
  • Danielle Bradbery ft. Thomas Rhett, “Goodbye Summer”
  • Chase Rice, “All Eyes On You”

Overall Thoughts: The top of the chart looks even stronger than before: Young, Aldean, and Rhett have risen to the top, Old Dominion and Florida Georgia Line took some big steps forward, and mediocre offerings from Evans and Lane seemed to have stalled out. (What Dylan Scott is doing in the middle of all this, I’ll never know.) However, the storm clouds on the horizon also seem to be getting bigger as well: The slight pulse drop is almost entirely due to some toxic material bubbling up from underneath the Top 40 (Anderson’s re-entry is the biggest problem), and with Justin Moore and Lady A looking a little shaky in the teens, things will probably get worse before they get better.

There are a few rays of sunshine, however, as “I was Jack (You Were Diane)” and “Coming Home” should be departing soon (and even with Owen reappearing with “Down To The Honkytonk,” his Mellencamp ripoff was so bad that the trade is still a net improvement), Kip Moore’s “Last Shot” is weakening, and Atkins’s “Caught Up In The Country” turned in another mediocre week and still hasn’t found any traction (too bad Ray is coming in to replace him…) Watson’s drop to #41 makes me a little uneasy, but Green’s five-slot surge is a pleasant surprise.

So what do you think? Are the numbers better or worse than you expected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Song Review: Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk”

So Jake Owen has a new single…and like Justin Moore, I “Kinda Don’t Care.”

Dustin Lynch and Jordan Davis might draw the most complaints from me, but Jake Owen isn’t far behind them on my disgust scale: I’ve reviewed three singles from him thus far, and none of them have scored higher than a 4/10. Unfortunately, country radio doesn’t really care what I think, and after back-to-back flops with “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” and “Good Company,” his awful Mellencamp ripoff “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” soared up to be become his seventh #1 single and first since his generically-boring “American Country Love Song.” Buoyed by his uncreative rebirth, Owen now returns to the charts with “Down To The Honkytonk,” a song that tries way too hard to push the narrator’s country credentials and not hard enough at actually making me care about the story. In the end, it comes off as an half-baked, uninteresting wall of noise that should come with an FDA warning about operating heavy machinery under its influence.

The production opens with an awkward mix of retro and modern elements, tossing a 70s-era electric guitar on top of a synthetic hand-clap percussion line to give the sound a swampy feel similar to Florida Georgia Line’s “Smooth” (which isn’t a surprise given that FGL’s longtime producer Joey Moi also produced this song). However, instead of going full-on Bro-Country and cranking up the volume and guitars, the mix here is more measured and leans on classical country instruments (steel guitar, real drums, even an organ in the background). While the hand claps are a reoccurring (and annoying) theme, the mix does a nice job establishing a positive, carefree atmosphere that suits the song’s message, while also generating just enough energy to keep things moving along. It’s easily the best part of the track, but it lacks that special something that really hooks the listener and makes them pay attention, which ends up being a big problem when the singer and writing end up dropping the ball.

Technically, Owen delivers a decent performance here: He shows off much more range than I expected (his lower range is particular impressive), and his flow is untested but smooth and easy. However, it’s the artist’s charisma that makes or breaks this song, and while this is usually Owen’s strong suit and he does enough to feel believable in the artist’s shoes, he can’t get the next level and actually make me care about the narrator’s life. Although he admittedly doesn’t have a lot to work with here (more on this later), the best artists can sing the phone book and get the listeners invested in the song, and Owen just doesn’t make it happen here. Looking back, it’s a bit ironic to see Owen’s charisma put him in a deeper hole when playing creepy, annoying narrators, but absolutely desert him when he tries to play a more-conventional role.

And then we get to the lyrics, which are basically a watered-down version of those chest-thumping “I’m so country” songs that are forever plaguing the genre. The writing is incredibly weak on the whole, especially on the boring laundry lists that are the verses:

I got a house, down a backroad
I got a flag on the front porch
I got a dog named Waylon
I got a driveway that needs paving
I got a boat with a two stroke
A couple guaranteed to make you laugh jokes
I got friends in low places
Yeah, life is what you make it

…Okay, so you have a dog, a driveway, and a Garth Brooks tape. That’s…good for you?

The chorus reveals the ultimate irony about this song: The narrator declares that they will never be noteworthy or memorable, but they’re going to have a good time…except that the listener does not have a good thing because the song isn’t noteworthy or memorable! The narrator is as flat and boring as a piece of paper, and song does absolutely nothing to interest the listener in their story. (And don’t even get me started on the song’ other issues, like the repetitiveness of the bridge or limp lines like “I got a job that gets the job done.”) Even if we consider that the narrator is trying to take an everyman approach to reaching their audience (“hey, I’m just as boring as you are!”), it’s just not a terribly convincing ploy, and there are other artists currently on the charts (Brooks, anyone?) who are doing this is more interesting and successful ways. The only things this song moves listeners to do is yawn and wonder when the darn thing is going to end.

“Back To The Honkytonk” is a bland, boring, forgettable track, and while it’s still an improvement over Jake Owen’s most-recent material, it’s not a song or a story that I’m interested in revisiting or remembering once this review is posted. Owen needs to skip the honkytonk and go back to the drawing board, because after two years of putting up with his baloney, I’m ready to revoke his recording studio privileges and give them to someone (say, Rachel Wammack?) that actually has a story to tell.

Rating: 4/10. No.

Song Review: Rachel Wammack, “Damage”

Wait…since when has Adele starting sending singles to country radio?

Rachel Wammack is an Alabama native who signed with Sony Music Nashville in Feburary and released a debut EP in April, but didn’t release her debut single “Damage” to radio until late last month. I’m surprised it took Sony this long to unleash their new artist, because outside of Carrie Underwood no one else is running in this “country power balladeer” lane, and Wammack seems to have all the tools to fill that role. It’s a restrained but moving look at how love can cut both ways during/after a relationship, and features a strong combination of sound, singer, and songwriter. It’s the kind of song that deserves a chance to do some “Damage” on the radio, but likely won’t get it.

If it’s a serious song in Nashville, you can bet it’s centered on a somber piano, and this song is no exception. However, the piano isn’t at prominent as you might expect, as it sharing time with an acoustic guitar at the start of the song and slips into the background as more instruments (drum set, steel guitar, and eventually an entire string section) are tossed into the mix. In truth, the piano functions more as the backbone of the song than the percussion, combining with the strings to create a warm, intimate atmosphere that fits the evening barroom setting perfectly. The tones here are a nice mixture of light and darkness, mirroring love’s creative and destructive power and highlighting both the pain and the recovery of those in the story. All in all, it’s a nice mix that helped the song form a bond with a listener and draws them into the story.

The Adele comparison is actually Rolling Stone’s, not mine (the first person that jumped into my mind was Underwood), and while I don’t think Wammach quite reaches their level in terms of sheer power (in fact, I think “Damage” tries to hold her back with its understated approach), her strong, bright vocal tone suggests she could really blow the windows out of the place if she wanted. (In fact, her vocals inject more light into the track than the instruments do!) While the song’s shackles causes her to sound a bit breathy at times, they don’t impact her earnestness at all, and Wammack demonstrates enough charisma to own the narrator’s role and forge a connection with the listener. A song like this places a huge burden on the artist to come across as believable, but Wammack succeeds here without even breaking a sweat.

The writing, in which a bartender reflects on their observations of love as both a source of joy and source of pain, is not the most novel topic in the world, regardless if we consider the perspective of the patron (Michael Peterson’s “When The Bartender Cries,” Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff”) or the bartender (George Jones’s “Bartender’s Blues”). Still, the lyrics here stand out by being exceptionally sharp and observant, especially in the opening verse:

I’m a bartender
Best friend pretender
I make drinks to help forget and help remember
Beautiful humans
I am a student
And I’ve seen it from all sides winning and losing

We don’t get a ton of details about the bar patrons in later persons, but there’s enough here to paint a picture in the listener’s mind and make them reflect on the pain in these peoples’ lives (and perhaps their own as well). (Also, there’s certainly more depth here than most of the other barroom tracks I’ve heard recently, such as Garth Brooks’s latest single.) It’s a nice reminder that bars aren’t just places where people go to party, and that some serious issues often lie underneath the alcoholic veneer. I’m not entirely sure the song would stand up in the hands of a lesser singer, but when paired with Wammack’s emotional vocals and the production’s perfect atmosphere, the whole thing (especially the narrator’s self-reflective turn at the very end) becomes something special.

“Damage” is a quality song and Rachel Wammack sounds like a quality singer, which makes it even more frustrating when you consider the song’s likely fate: A wall of radio ambivalence, a cameo in the Top 50 if the powers that be are feeling generous, and an undeserved trip to the dustbin of history. If I were Sony, I’d open up the vaults and do whatever I could to get Wammack some airplay, because this song indicates that she’s got some serious potential.

Rating: 7/10. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Episode #5: The Beat(down) Goes On

According to Newton’s Third Law, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This law apparently does not apply to Pokémon, because Ophilia’s crew keeps forcing the issue and the reaction since Cerulean City has been markedly less than equal.

When we last left everyone’s favorite Sacred Flame rep, her team had just hit the Vermilion Gym like a freight train, flattening everything in their path and collecting a shiny new Thunder Badge. Unfortunately, thanks to some annoyingly thirsty guards at the Saffron City gates, we were going to have to reach Celadon City by way of Rock Tunnel and Lavender Town, which is roughly the equivalent of driving from Austin to San Diego by way of Seattle. With four strong monsters and a fifth on the way, however, Phili was more than up to the challenge.

Let’s begin this week’s journal said fifth monster, shall we?

Sleep: It’s Good For Your Health

At Lv. 13, Luna needed a fair bit of care and feeding before she became a viable option in my top six. While she turned out to be more “tank-like” than anyone else on my team (decent HP and Defense, exceptional Spec. Defense), her poor attacking stats meant she just got kicked around a bit more slowly than the other Pokémon. This meant yet another trip back to Route 4 for some extended grinding (plenty of Poison-types to unleash Confusion on) while I waited for Luna’s moveset to improve.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind by “improve”…

In truth, her moveset didn’t seem to improve as much as Luna herself: As she moved over to Route 24 and received a steady diet of Abras and Oddishes (with a stream of Caterpies for good measure), Confusion got noticeably more powerful over time, and her Attack improved enough that Headbutt became a decent-enough second option when needed. Toss in the strengths she already had (her defensive stats compared favorably with already-evolved monsters like Suzy), and Luna’s argument for staying in my six-stack was pretty compelling.

And then she evolved…and suddenly I had a Reinhardt Wilhelm clone in my party.

The grinding regimen eventually led me back to Diglett’s Cave and Route 2, where I stumbled across one of Prof. Oak’s aides carrying the Flash HM. I’d mostly forgotten about Flash until now (it’s been slowly de-emphasized since Red/Blue), but my Oddish was more than happy to learn the move and keep me from stumbling around Rock Tunnel in the dark. Once again, the first rule of RPGs (“explore everything“) had paid off!

Beware Of Obscure Rules

With a battle-tested Hypno and the Flash HM, I finally cut down the tree east of Cerulean City and strode confidently onto Route 9. The Trainers I found were only marginally tougher than those Routes 6 and 11, but there was one tense moment when Will stepped up against a Lv. 21 Geodude and I forgot my prior training…

Long ago during my Pokémon XD playthrough, I found a whole bunch of “Battle CDs” that let me play through simulated battles that put the player in a challenging situation that taught them about some of the more obscure rules of Pokémon battles. The important CD for this story was Battle CD 07, which showed players that Pokémon that used Dig would take double damage from Earthquake while they were underground. However, there was one other move besides Earthquake subject to this damage bonus:

[In G2 and G3] “The [Dig] user can now be hit by Earthquake, Magnitude, and Fissure during the semi-invulnerable turn, and will receive double damage from Earthquake and Magnitude.”  Bulbapedia (emphasis added)

Fast forward back to Route 9: Magnitude’s variability had been getting on my nerves, so I had Will open the battle with Dig. He goes underground.

The Geodude uses Magnitude.

My mind flashes back to that XD Battle CD. Double damage.

This is bad.

Will is already short a decent chunk of HP, and his Defense is not good.

This is really bad.

In baseball terms, this was going to be a bang-bang play at the plate, and I was testing the arm of the RNG god in right field. I braced myself for the call…

SAFE! And the crowd goes wild!

Magnitude six! Move variability had once again broke in my favor: Anything higher, and Will would have likely been toast. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, chalked it up as a lesson re-learned, and hurried back to the Cerulean Pokémon Center.

Building The Bench

With Luna flourishing and my HM-holding Oddish clogging up my final party slot, I was in no hurry to add new monsters to my team. It’s a good thing, because neither Routes 9 nor 10 held much potential for recruiting a cool new Pokémon to the Sacred Flame’s banner. (The only new option that had been added was Voltorb, and my LeafGreen Electrode rendered that option moot.) Once again, there was a single Pokémon for me to catch…

And of course it’s a Poison-type.

Ekans had been following me around for a while now (had I not bought Benjamin, I would have gotten one on Route 4), so I knew it was only a matter of time before I ended up catching one. One Poké Ball later, “Baroness” (a G.I. Joe reference, since Baroness worked for Cobra) was on her way to Bill’s PC.

But hey, at least I might get something cool in Rock Tunnel, right?

Wrong.

Machops are one of those monsters that show up in darn near every Pokémon game, and while they’re useful for carrying HMs, I’ve never had much interest in putting one in a six-stack (and while I’ve said the same things about Nidorans and Zubats, I wasn’t as desperate to fill my party as I was before). Still, it was nice to know I would have a few options available if Will got caught underground by Magnitude again, so I grabbed the Machop, named it after Ronda Rousey, and sent it to be roomies with Baroness.

Whaddya Mean It Can’t Evolve?

While Pokémon FireRed is technically a remake of Pokémon Red, it’s still a G3 game, and thus is well aware that some of the original Pokémon evolutionary lines have expanded since the late 90s. Unfortunately, when it comes to those new monsters, the game takes a strict constructionist approach to the topic:

“To keep the same spirit of the originals, players can’t evolve their Pokémon like Chansey and Golbat until the National Dex is obtained.”  Serebii (emphasis added)

Blissfully unaware of this, I was really excited when Bram reached Lv. 30 and suddenly acted like it was about to evolve. The usual cut scene started, things started to flash, and then…

What?! I didn’t hit the B button!

So from now until either Bram or the Elite Four falls, I have to go through this bizarre charade every time he levels up, without any explanation? (What’s worse is that while an Everstone is available from Oak’s aide at the Rock Tunnel Pokémon Center, you need to have caught 20 monsters to get it, and I’d only gotten 17 at the time.) I know that any software is going to have issues like this, but at least tell the player what’s going on next time.

Rock On

So…yeah. Rock Tunnel happened.

I’d like to say there were some moments of excitement and drama as I crawled through the dark to Lavender Town, but there really weren’t. Not only were my Pokémon more than powerful enough to smack down everything in their path, but anytime there might have been a hint of danger (Gasp! A Lv. 25 Slowpoke is challenging Bram!), Ophilia’s team stepped up and delivered some killer blows (*yawn* Another critical Bite—bye Slowpoke).

Okay, there was one interesting development. Just when you thought Suzy couldn’t get more OP…

By the end, I was flaunting my power by intentionally tossing Pokémon into awkward situations (i.e., Will against Flying-types) just to test the limits of the Sacred Flame’s protection. Even with a bonus bunch of Trainers waiting to ambush me just outside the tunnel exit, “The Phili Five” just could not be stopped.

My team’s post-tunnel status. If only Will hadn’t taken that Pidgey’s critical hit…

Laying Rivals To Rest

Lavender Town presents players with a bit of a dilemma: Celadon beckons from Route 8, but Route 12 also teases you from the south, and the Pokémon Tower looms ominously above you. Where should you go next?

My Marowak from Red and Genger from SoulSilver meant that there wasn’t anything I could catch in the tower, but I could sense an evil force within its walls that I just had to investigate. It turned out, however, that the force wasn’t actually evil—it was just lame:

How convenient: Once I’m through with Cyrus’s Pokémon, he won’t have to go far to bury them!

It seems that Cyrus had already forgotten about his embarrassing showing on the S.S. Anne, because he was ready to have his head handed to him once more. His Pokémon was slightly stronger this time around (with levels in the low to mid 20s), but they were still badly outclassed by Ophilia’s Lv. 30+ monsters.

Still, like any good rival Cyrus knows how to press our buttons, and after Bram sliced through his first three Pokémon without breaking a sweat, he introduced me to a new member of his team:

YOU POISON SON OF A BEEDRILL. That was supposed to be my Gyarados!

First this joker keeps me from realizing my dream of having a Gyarados, and then he goes and gets his own?! I let Suzy stomp his Gyarados extra-flat in response, and then turned Will loose on his Charmeleon to wrap things up. Cyrus left the tower in shame, and his Pokémon became the newest headstones in Pokémon Tower.

Optical Optional Illusions

Beyond schooling Cyrus, however, there wasn’t much else to do in Lavender Town. Without the Silph Scope, the monsters there weren’t even useful for grinding, and they didn’t seem to want me around anyway.

Darn it, where’s Luigi when you need him?
Oh… Right. (Image from The Daily Dot)

I decided to check out Route 12 first, but outside of a few unmemorable Trainer battles (even the Lv. 27 Goldeen was about as much of a nuisance as it was in Super Smash Bros.), there was nothing to do without a better Fishing Rod. All trails eventually led back to Route 8, and while the Trainers still couldn’t match the intensity of The Phili Five, there was one encounter that caught my attention:

Whoa, I didn’t expect to see you here…

Growlithe is one of those Pokémon that I’ve always thought was kind of cool, but for whatever reason I never seemed to get the chance to add it to my party. While I had already earmarked the last slot in my top six for a Water-type Pokémon, Growlithe/Arcanine might be an option in case one of my current starters falters (Will has looked a little shaky today, although it hasn’t always been his fault, and despite being 1800+ words into this journal I haven’t mentioned Earl’s name until now).

Growlithe’s moveset made this capture a bit tricky (she had Bite for Luna, Ember for Suzy, and thank goodness her only Roar failed), but eventually “Lassie” was burning in the service of the Sacred Flame.

Don’t worry—I’m special for way more reasons than just this. 😉

Time To Kick Some Grass

By the time I made it to Route 7, I was beginning to wonder just how long this week’s journal was going to be, so I decided to leave Celadon City’s usual tourist traps (Dept. Store, Game Corner, etc.) for episode #6, and made a beeline for the Celadon Gym. There were a ton of Trainers hanging around for a change, but Will, Luna, and Suzy made quick work of them all, leaving Earl and Bram to deal with Erika herself.

I’m kind of on a tight schedule, so let’s make this quick.

My opening strategy was simple: Set Earl on the ground in front of Erika’s monsters and calmly dare them to beat him. The best Victreebel and Tangela could do was paralyze him with Stun Spore, and based on how little damage their attacks were doing, he could have probably spotted them another dozen hits and still clobbered them.

My impatience led me to bring Bram in to one-shot Vileplume, but in the end it didn’t matter who I used: Erika’s Pokémon were no match for The Phili Five. In fact, Gym battles seem to be getting more one-sided the deeper I get into this game.

Now there’s the understatement of the century.

The Rainbow Badge was mine, but I had one last piece of business to handle: Recognizing Earl’s impressive stand against Erika as his crowning achievement, and…well, crowning him:

Get it? ‘Cause he’s a Nidoking? …Okay, I’ll stop now.

Conclusion

You know things are going well on a Nuzlocke run when your only worry is that your Pokémons’ raw power are draining all the challenge out of the game. (After all, people tend to get tired of teams who just win all the time.) I know fortunes can change in a hurry in these sorts of challenges, but I just don’t see any problems on the horizon. Koga has absolutely no chance against this squad: Everyone resists Poison (even my puny HM Oddish), and Will, Luna, and potentially Earl will have super-effective counterpunches. Sabrina’s Psychic Gym still looms, but given all the dungeons in between now and then (Game Corner, Pokémon Tower, and Silph Co., not to mention Cycling Road and the entire coast of Southeast Kanto), Ophilia’s team could be pushing Level 45 by the time she gets there, or maybe even 50!

Tune in next week as we tackle games, ghosts, and Fuchsia City!

My Reaction To The Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Direct

When Masahiro Sakurai declared this to the ultimate version of Super Smash Bros., he wasn’t kidding.

Nintendo is banking this year’s entire holiday season on two of their biggest franchises, but while Let’s Go! Pikachu/Eevee has been doling out small chunks of information at a moderate pace, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has been given the royal treatment, getting a ton of airtime at E3 and now  receiving its own dedicated Nintendo Direct this week. While I’m not on the SSB express hype train that a lot of my peers are riding, there’s no denying that Sakurai and Nintendo have pulled out all the stops to make SSBU a personalized experience for players, giving them a multitude of tools to customize the game any way they see fit.

I’ll get to my specific thoughts on the Direct in a moment, but first I need to addressed the green-hatted specter in the room…

Dead Luigi: My livestream crashed multiple times at the start of the Direct, so I didn’t actually see Luigi get his soul ripped out by Death until I rewatched the recording. While I thought using Luigi’s Mansion to tie Castlevania to the SSB universe was a logical choice, I’m torn on the inclusion of the death scene for two reasons:

  • It was jarring and graphic enough that I’m concerned how younger children might have reacted to it.
  • It lit up Twitter so much that it overshadowed the actual reveals of the trailer. Simon Belmont is a great add and the Dedede/K. Rool troll was hilarious, but it was the fall of the plumber that people were talking about instead.

If you’re in the “no such thing as bad publicity” camp, it was a smart move that really got people’s attention. Personally, I would have rather seen more attention given to the actual game content and not the death scene.

Speaking of actual game content…

  • Simon and Richter: While I admit my reaction to Richter was “who?”, I was familiar enough with the Castlevania series to know that this was a big get for SSBU. The character’s range/speed tradeoff should make for an interesting dynamic on the battlefield (anyone who’s been splatted by an Explosher in Splatoon 2 knows slower attackers are still very dangerous in the right hands), and the Dracula’s Castle stage takes hazards to the extreme (but only if you want them; more on that later). Also, the demonstration of Alucard’s powers suggests that assist trophies, which can now be KO’d for points, are going to step up their game in response.
  • Chrom and Dark Samus: As someone who is not terribly familiar with Fire Emblem and Metroid, these characters just confused me more than anything else. Chrom is a major part of FE: Awakening and Dark Samus adds more villains to the series, so they certainly have strong cases for inclusion. Additionally, as Echo Fighters the development burden is assumed to be lighter than for characters built from the ground up, so the time/resource investment makes sense even if they’re niche characters (hey, if people wanted to play as actual Daisy instead of a recolored Peach, I imagine Dark Samus had a similar vocal fanbase). For me, however, neither character passes the Pichu test (as in “I’d rather play as Pichu”), so I though the reveal was pretty meh.
  • New/Old Stages: The stage work the SSBU team has put in here is nothing short of amazing. Over 100 stages, each with Omega and Battlefield versions?! The ability to switch stages in the middle of a battle?! Stage Hazards are now a option that can be toggled?! Sakurai and company are really trying to put power in the players’ hands, letting battles be as random or structured as people desire.
  • Music Options: The customization extends to the sound as well, with over 900 tracks included in the game. Playlists can now be created for specific stages (depending on the series the stage is based on), and your Switch can basically become an MP3 player even when you’re not playing. Once again, it’s all about giving the player the freedom to experience SSBU any way they want to.
  • Custom Rulesets: Of course, the rules are still as flexible as ever, with stamina battles joining time and stock as regular modes and several new stage selection options (ex. loser picks next stage) tossed in for flavor. Chargeable Final Smash meters, Squad Strikes, Smashdown mode… I’m a broken record at this point, but it’s all about flexibility and a personalized experience.
  • New Items/Pokémon/Trophies: Items are most useful for quick turnarounds and increased chaos anyway, so the new ones shown off here unsurprisingly take this to the extreme (also, the Banana Gun is just hilarious). Same goes for the Pokémon, although these feel a bit more standard (I have to admit though, the teleporting Abra idea seemed especially inspired). In terms of the Assist trophies, what stood out was (as Alucard showed earlier) how much more deadly they seemed this time around: If they’re going to count for KOs, they aren’t going to go down without a fight! (Especially Rathalos.)
  • Menu: Well…er…it’s a menu. I mean, it looks a lot like recent SSB menus, and the dashboard suggests that friend requests and other messages can be handled without leaving the game, but…yeah. It looks fine, I guess.
  • K. Rool: As ham-handed as the Luigi scene was, the Dedede scene was the exact opposite, a perfect troll head-fake that wound up adding another villain to the roster. K. Rool has been a really popular request from the SSB fanbase, so everything lined up perfectly for his inclusion. I have to say, tossing in all these bad guys could be setting up one heck of a Subspace Emissary-like campaign…

All of these reveals boil down to one major truth: Sakurai and the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate team are giving you the ability to play the game in whatever way that maximizes your enjoyment. The title caters to casual and hardcore players, orderly and chaotic players, Melee and Brawl players…it bridges darn near any fighting-game divide you can think of. (If there’s one thing I’d like in Splatoon 3, it’s this level of battle customization and control.) SSBU is aiming to be a game that speaks to any player no matter their background, skill level, or personality, and as good as Breath Of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey were, it may well be this one that defines this console generation.

So…can we stop whining about Waluigi now?