What’s The Problem With Playable Sonic OCs?

For months, the Internet had been speculating about the mysterious third playable character in the upcoming Sonic Forces game, throwing out guesses ranging from a tail-less Tails to Bubsy the Cat. Yesterday, Sonic Team put an end to the mystery by releasing a trailer revealing that the third character would be…a customizable avatar created by the player.

For any other game franchise, this move would have been greeted with applause and acclaim—after all, who doesn’t like giving their PCs a personal touch? The Sonic franchise, however, has a rather unique history with fan-created OCs (though in truth, this sort of thing exists in any fandom), causing the reaction to be split between “this is the greatest thing ever” and “repent, for the apocalypse is coming.”

Personally, I don’t understand where all of the negative reactions are coming from. Part of my confusion stems from the fact that I only ever owned a Sega Genesis and thus haven’t played a real Sonic game since Sonic The Hedgehog 2, so I never truly came into contact with the crazy OC designs that everyone rants about, and thus I lack the historical perspective that longtime Sonic fans have. However, my primary issue with the criticism is that regardless of how you feel about people’s custom hedgehogs, as far as I can tell these designs it won’t affect your personal experience with Sonic Forces.

Based on what we’ve seen of Forces so far, the game appears to be a completely single-player adventure, with no online or local multiplayer features. While could this change in the future, I have strong doubts about this, as straightforward Sonic games like this one aren’t a great fit for multiplayer action. Trying to keep the camera focused on multiple characters traveling in different directions in a game like New Super Mario Bros. was a royal pain in the neck; with Sonic characters doing the same thing at warp speed, it would be darn near impossible. Unless Sonic Team tacks some small minigames onto Sonic Forces (for example, something like the Chaos Emerald ring runs from Sonic 2), you’ll probably be playing this game by yourself.

What the above statements means is that while players can go crazy creating wild and wacky OCs, your in-game interactions with other players and their creations will be minimal to nonexistent. No matter how well- or poorly-designed someone else’s character is, it won’t impact your personal experience with the Sonic Forces story. Let people create invincible purple-striped wolves with tragic backstories and post their designs on Twitter if they want—your copy of the game will remain a pristine sandbox for you and you alone. Why get mad over something that won’t affect your game?

This is why I think the customizable OC option was an absolutely brilliant move on the part of SEGA and Sonic Team. It empowers players to let their imaginations run wild and bring their amazing creations to life, but doesn’t force them to deal with other OCs whose designs they don’t like. Sounds like a win-win to me! (SomecallmeJohnny also makes some good points about how character creation gives Sonic Forces a) a way to stand out from other Sonic games, and b) a feature to entice players into buying the game. I couldn’t agree more with the latter point: The gameplay seems a little scattershot and not terribly interesting thus far, but I’m genuinely intrigued by the customization feature.)

In short, I fully support Sonic Team’s move to bring OCs into Sonic Forces, as it fulfills the dreams on half the Sonic fanbase while minimally impacting the experience of the other half. Now, if you excuse me, I have a super-cool cat OC to create…

Song Review: Chris Young, “Losing Sleep”

The song may be called “Losing Sleep,” but it’s really a warning about what happens when a song loses focus.

Chris Young took a fair bit of heat for his last album I’m Comin’ Over, as several critics found the project to be incredibly bland and generic. Young had the last laugh, however, as all three singles ended up topping the Billboard airplay charts (and the last of the three, “Sober Saturday Night,” wound up as one of my favorites songs of 2016). “Losing Sleep” is billed as the leadoff single for Young’s next album, and while it bears some similarities to Young’s last leadoff single “I’m Comin’ Over,” the song is not nearly as effective because it is confused as to what sort of song it’s supposed to be.

The primary offender is the production, which is of two minds here. The song opens with a slick-sounding electric guitar and some synthetic percussion, establishing a sensual atmosphere and positioning the song as a run-of-the-mill sex jam (and unlike a lot of sex jams I’ve reviewed, this one actually sounded sexy). Once the song hits the chorus, however, it suddenly cranks up the volume and energy levels, and the listener is suddenly hit with heavier (real) drums and louder, in-your-face guitars. The abrupt change completely ruins the mood set by the first verse, and instead makes the song sound like more of an uptempo country-rock jam. The pattern repeats itself on the second verse and chorus: the sexy atmosphere returns, and then gets squashed again. The bridge tries to split the difference by turning down the guitars a little, but by then the damage is done, and the listener has absolutely no idea what to make of the track. It feels like the song is trying to be two different things simultaneously, but it doesn’t wind up as much of either one, and leaves me feeling ambivalent about the whole thing by the end.

The writing here isn’t all that impressive either, as the lyrics (which describe the narrator’s desire to make love with his partner) feel vague and generic through most of the song:

Light a candle
Turn all the lights down low
Baby let’s just lose control, lose control

I can handle
Every single curve, you know
That I love you, let me show you

It’s not irritating or offensive by any means, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve heard it all before (and that “every single curve” line feels like a direct callback to Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road”). The main hook also feels a bit awkward, as the repeated “when we’re losing” phrase feels a bit out of place and adds more confusion to the mix than anything else. On the whole, the lyrics aren’t awful, but they’re not terribly interesting either.

The track’s one redeeming factor is Young himself, as he delivers yet another standout performance on this song. Young is inarguably one of the best singer in the genre today, and where the lyrics come off as bland by themselves, he does an impressive job of selling the story and adding a desperately-needed dose of emotion and sensuality. However, he also dutifully follows the production’s abrupt shift in tone on the chorus, further squandering the song’s potential as a sexy mood-setter. While he certainly sounds both excellent and believable in the narrator’s role, his vocal’s are not enough to salvage this song and leave a meaningful impression on his listeners.

Overall, “Losing Sleep” is a song that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, and thus it misses its chance to be much of anything. Had Chris Young and his team just picked a direction and stuck with it, this song could have had some real impact and personality, or at the very least could have been “I’m Comin’ Over, Part 2.” As it is, however, it’s a “jack of all trades, master of none” that succeeds at being just one thing: Forgettable.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t lose any sleep over this one—you’re not missing anything.

What Console Should Pokémon Stars Appear On?

Image from Geek.com

There are certain dreams in life that are universal, such as world peace, the eradication of cancer, and playing a full-fledged Pokémon game on a home console. We’re still working on the first two, but Nintendo fans have been frothing at the mouth over the possibility of the third finally becoming a reality.

Pokémon rumors have been swirling around the Switch since before the new system was announced, but with E3 right around the corner, the current speculation is that a new version of the game (likely the usual “third version” of Pokémon Sun/Moon) will be announced within the next month or so. One important piece of this puzzle, however, remains unclear: What system will the game actually be released for?

On the surface, the choice seems obvious: The Switch is a shiny new system that features both a portable way to play and a ton of momentum (both in terms of buzz and actual sales), while the 3DS is an aging platform with considerably weaker specs. Pokémon is an immensely-popular game that can drive hardware sales (a lot of people bought a 3DS just for the game), which is exactly the kind of game Nintendo need to keep the Switch hype train going. The question isn’t why Pokémon should come to the Switch, it’s why shouldn’t it come to the Switch?

The problem, however, is that despite its disadvantages, the 3DS can still make a strong case for keeping the Pokémon series:

  • The 3DS may be aging, but it’s aging gracefully. Its install base is 66 million+ strong,* it just got a new hardware refresh with the New 2DS XL, and a bunch of new games are coming to the system this year. Its long-term future is still a bit murky, but it isn’t going away anytime soon.
  • The Pokémon series has never been known for stunning visuals—rather, it’s the gameplay that draws people in, and Nintendo has shown time and time again that Pokémon can thrive without cutting-edge graphics. Outside of the visual upgrade (and it’s worth noting that the Switch’s graphics aren’t exactly cutting-edge themselves), what upgrades does the Switch’s horsepower offer? Unless Nintendo wanted to radically redesign the franchise’s core gameplay (and I have to admit, the idea of wandering around a Breath of the Wild-style world while catching and battling Pokémon in real-time battles sounds pretty awesome), they don’t really need what the Switch offers.
  • I speculated earlier that the 3DS was being positioned as a cheap entry-level system for younger gamers to contrast with the Switch’s more-mature target audience. While many of Nintendo’s franchises either favor one of these demographics or have a logical split between the two, Pokémon is a universally-beloved game across basically every demographic you can think of. It’s perfect for hooking youths on Nintendo hardware, while its competitive battle scene, complex set of battle mechanics, and strong nostalgic appeal keep older players coming back over and over.

*Random fun fact: Worldwide 3DS sales (66.12 million) exceed the 2016 popular vote counts of both Hillary Clinton (65.84 million) and Donald Trump (62.98 million).

So which system should the next Pokémon appear on, the Switch or 3DS? I offer the following Socratic answer: Why does this have to be an either/or question?

If Pokémon is a good game for casual and hardcore gamers alike, then it should appear on both systems. Pokémon 3DS would be the classic Pokémon adventure we all know and love, along with some additions that would benefit new players (showing which attacks are super or not effective against an opponent the first time they see them, for example). Pokémon Switch, in contrast, could include some competitive-specific tweaks, such as the ability to view IV and EV counts directly (none of that poor/decent/above-average/best/etc. obfuscation) and perhaps a way to assess a wild Pokémon’s potential the moment you encounter it. Sure, Pokémon 3DS wouldn’t have the visual polish of its Switch cousin, but it would still be Pokémon, and that’s all that matters. (If Nintendo wanted to take this even farther, they could split their 8th-gen Pokémon games across the two consoles, give both versions some exclusive Pokémon, and let players on one console trade and battle with players on the other.)

In short, Nintendo’s strategy should be to get Pokémon in front of as many gamers as possible, and if they ask “Should the game be on the 3DS, or the Switch?”, my answer would just be “Yes.”

Song Review: Tyler Farr, “I Should Go To Church Sometime”

A wise man once said that “a man’s got to know his limitations.” Tyler Farr should have been taking notes.

Farr received his fifteen minutes of fame a few years ago, putting together a string of three straight top-five hits that was capped by 2014’s No. 1 hit “A Guy Walks Into A Bar.” His chart performance fell off a cliff after that song, however, and two of his last three singles failed to even crack the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart (and the third only made it to #26). “I Should Go To Church Sometime” appears to be slated as the second single from a new album (or perhaps the first single, if 2016’s #53-peaking “Our Town” is thrown in the trash), and frankly, I don’t see it making much more of an impact than the rest of Farr’s recent material.

The production here is mostly a standard country-rock mix, but with a few nods to the song’s religious underpinnings. The track opens with a quiet mixture of guitars (both acoustic and electric) and synthetic percussion, and then builds energy as it goes along by adding real drums and cranking up the guitars’ volume (so much so that it throws off the volume balance of the song). The piano stabs after the first verse do a nice job of adding weight to the “I should go to church sometime” lines, and the eventual inclusion of an organ and a choir of background vocals accentuate the song’s message of desired redemption, even if both are mostly overwhelmed by Farr’s vocals and the guitars. In short, the production is not the problem here.

The problem, unfortunately, is Tyler Farr himself, because he sounds terrible on this track. Much like we saw with Josh Turner’s latest single, this song is a really poor fit for Farr’s voice because it asks him to stray far outside of his comfort zone. The difference, however, is that Turner is actually a good vocalist who can put together a decent performance even when a song isn’t well-suited for him. Farr, in contrast, might be the weakest vocalist in the genre right now, and his raspy, labored delivery completely falls apart under this song’s weight. He handles the less-demanding verses pretty well, but the moment the song hits the chorus and asks him to pump up the volume and intensity, his tone disappears, his voice becomes shrill, and he struggles to hit the required notes—basically, he stops singing and starts screaming. Dropping the song’s key down a notch or two and reining in the production swell on the choruses might have helped here, but there’s only so much a producer can do when a performer just doesn’t have the chops to handle a song.

It’s a shame Farr can’t deliver the goods here, because the writing is actually pretty decent. The lyrics tell the tale of a man who is moved by the pain and suffering around him and feels he needs to pay more attention to his faith and become a better believer, starting by going to church more often. The song features some poignant lines like “wipe the dust off my bible more than once or twice a year,” and avoids being preachy by focusing on the narrator’s personal relationship with his faith rather than demanding that others follow his lead. While the scenes of despair are pretty generic (homeless man, kid dying young), it’s the kind of song that connects with listeners struggling with their own religious attitudes…until Farr hits the chorus and makes everyone’s ears start bleeding.

Overall, “I Should Go To Church Sometime” is a poorly-executed song that exposes Tyler Farr’s vocal limitations in the most painful way possible. In the hands of a power vocalist like Brett Eldredge or Chris Stapleton, this probably would have been a pleasant-yet-potent track, but with Farr behind the wheel, it’s just an earache that can’t finish fast enough. Farr and his team need to put a bit more effort into finding songs that he can actually sing the next time around.

Rating: 4/10. Spare your ears and skip this one.

Song Review: Josh Turner, “All About You”

Hey look, a Josh Turner sighting! But if this is the kind of material he’s come back to release, I’d have preferred that he stay missing.

Josh Turner’s first decade in country music was relatively successful, as he managed to achieve commercial success (four No. 1 hits and another two No. 2 hits) while maintaining a reputation as a staunch country traditionalist. Decade number two, however, has not been as kind: After his 2014 single “Lay Low” (which I thought was excellent, for what’s is worth) stalled at #25, Turner disappeared from the scene completely for nearly two years, prompting a lot of speculation (including from yours truly) as to why he had gone (or been forced) into hiding. When he re-emerged in 2016 with “Hometown Girl,” his sound was a bit more modern and trendy than I expected, and while the song eventually became peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart, it took almost an entire year to get there (and to add insult to injury, it was unceremoniously blocked from the top by Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” and had to settle for a Mediabase #1). “All About You” is the third single off of Turner’s long-awaited album Deep South, and it features Turner becoming even more modern and trendy with his sound, with disastrous results.

The irony of Turner’s production update is that he only made it into the Bro-Country era, which is already starting to feel dated. The song opens with a prominent drum machine and a banjo that, unlike the one from High Valley’s “She’s With Me,” just screams “token country instrument.” A dobro jumps in to assist the banjo in between verses, and some real drums and electric guitars eventually join the mix, but the whole mix just feels it trying too hard to come across as down-home and “countrified,” and winds up feeling choppy and inauthentic. (To be honest, the dobro makes the track feel more sleazy than anything else.) Turner’s sound has always been grounded in traditional instrumentation (fiddle, steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and even some mandolin, none of which are present here), and this sort of modern production does not suit or flatter him at all. Frankly, it sounds more like a Florida-Georgia Line reject that Turner’s label forced him to record.

Vocally, “All About You” is about as poor a match for Turner’s voice as you could possibly get. His calling card has always been his rich, deep baritone, and he can comfortably reach depths that few other artists would even dare to attempt. This song, on the other hand, traps Turner exclusively in the upper portion of his range (save for a deep dive on the outro), making him sound almost generic as a result. While Turner’s a good-enough singer to make chicken salad out of this chicken you-know-what (his flow is pretty good, and he still comes across as believable in the narrator’s role), the song just isn’t compelling or interesting, and without his voice’s most potent quality, Turner is powerless to do anything about it.

I’ve never considered Turner to be much of a songwriter, but even he could have done a better job with the lyrics than what we ended up with:

I don’t care what we do, what we don’t girl
I’m just freaking digging living in your world
You got the hot, I gotta get next to
Where we go, where we get, how we get down
Don’t matter girl, as long as we’re getting around
Just messing around, baby ooh, baby ooh

While the track avoids the outright misogyny of most Bro-Country tracks and tries to empower the woman is references by saying “it’s all about you,” the sentiment rings a bit hollow next to lyrics like those posted above. Additionally, the phrasing in this song is beyond clumsy (see the bizarre “got the hot” line above), and the use of terms like “hillbilly” and “that there boy” come across as a desperate attempt to boost the singer’s country credentials by making them sounds backwoods and folksy. Oh, and for good measure they threw in a reference to writing an ooh-ooh-ooh “song,” which Thomas Rhett already did (and did a lot better). Seriously, MCA Nashville waited five years in between Turner’s album releases and couldn’t find songs any better than this?

Overall, “All About You” is a Josh Turner song that doesn’t sound anything like Josh Turner. It comes across as a poorly-conceived, half-baked attempt by Turner’s label to “update” his sound and image to fit a trend that’s already on its way out, and the fact that the current trend towards a more-traditional country sound would have fit Turner’s classic style perfectly makes it all the more frustrating when we end up getting garbage like this instead.

Josh Turner deserves better than this.

Rating: 3/10. Stay away from this one.

Is The Switch’s Card-Saving Change Really A Good Idea?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that when users have a choice between convenience and security, they pick convenience every single time.

When the Nintendo Switch first came out, its eShop did not include an option to save a person’s credit card information for future purchases. It’s a feature that most e-commerce sites include and most consumers have come to expect, and thus Nintendo took a lot of heat for leaving out what seemed like an obvious feature. Fast forward to the present, and Nintendo recent eShop update (which adds a card-saving feature) is being met with sighs of relief and cries of “What took you so long?” Most people view this move as a Good Thing™since it makes purchasing eShop games a lot easier…but is there a downside to this decision?

As I discussed previously, the Switch is a potential (but poor) candidate for being used to spy on its user’s daily activities. However, there are lots of other reasons why someone would steal or hack a device, and perhaps the biggest reason of all is to obtain sensitive information (personal, financial, etc.) that the attacker could then use for their personal benefit. If the Switch starts saving credit card numbers and similar data, its value as a hacking target increases substantially.

After digging into the issue a bit, I’m afraid that it’s good news/bad news time once again, and it’s mostly bad:

  • It’s unclear exactly where your credit card data is stored once it is saved on the Switch. On one hand, there are strong hints that this data is stored “in the cloud” (i.e., somewhere on Nintendo’s servers) rather than the Switch itself: Nintendo has explicitly stated that credit card data is never saved directly on the Wii U or any member of the 3DS family, while also saying that “information stored on your Nintendo Account [via the Switch] can also be used for off-device purchases.” However, I can’t find a definitive statement from Nintendo saying the data is not stored on the Switch itself. It’s good news if the data is truly not saved on the actual hardware, but it’s worth noting that gaming companies don’t have a great track record of protecting data on their own servers (recall the 2011 Sony hack).
  • Speaking of server-side storage: As Polygon user VioletP notes, we also know nothing about how the credit card data is stored. Is this data encrypted in any way, or is it stored in plaintext for the world to see? (If you think that would be an obvious decision for any company, think again.) What sort of legal protections/regulations affect this data? (Do we even know which country, as thus which legal system, has jurisdiction over this data?) Until Nintendo becomes a bit more transparent on issues like this, we have to assume that this is bad news.
  • The Switch’s authentication infrastructure is a large step backwards from the Wii U (and most other e-commerce sites). Users are encouraged to put in Switch in sleep mode when not in use instead of turning the device off outright, and the only thing the system asks you to do when woken up is hit the same button three times (and I doubt they’re doing any machine learning to discern the true owner’s button-mashing style). Even worse, as you can see at the 1:30 mark in the above GameXplain video, the Switch’s eShop gives you the option of not having to enter your Nintendo Account password to confirm purchases, so any random user can just pick up your console and use your information to buy games. While the damage is limited to unauthorized eShop purchases, it’s still really bad news.
  • The Switch was hacked within days of its release, and it was done via an known iOS exploit. This indicates a lack of awareness and/or commitment to security during the development of this device, which is a huge red flag. Nintendo has since announced a bug bounty program aimed at discovering vulnerabilities in its hardware, but the fact that known bugs wound up in the system from the start is bad news for any data that might be living on it.

Thankfully, security-conscious users still have the option of not saving their credit card data and avoiding this thicket of uncertainty, and this is the strategy that I would recommend. (Seriously, how much time do you actually save through this change? Thirty seconds? A minute? Is that really worth putting your financial data at risk?) The fact is, however, is that most users will click that check box with a smile, thinking about the precious seconds they’ll save buying Puyo Puyo Tetris while also making it easier for unauthorized individuals to do the same thing. (But hey, at least the Switch isn’t storing your health care data…until the next Wii Fit game comes out.)

In short, Nintendo needs to be more forthcoming about the wheres, whys, and hows regarding user data, and beef up its authentication framework around the device as well. Until that time comes, we have to assume that saving any important data on the Switch is a bad, bad, bad idea.

Song Review: High Valley, “She’s With Me”

I don’t know much about the trade relationship between Canada and the US, but if High Valley is indicative of the quality of country music up north, Canada can export as much of it as they want down here.

High Valley is an Alberta-based duo (originally a trio) that has been recently finding some traction on the Canadian charts, scoring eight Top 10 hits since 2013. While similar success on the US charts has been elusive, the duo scored a moderate breakthrough with “Make You Mine,” a #5 hit in 2014 that reached #17 on the US chart two years later. The duo is taking the same approach with “She’s With Me,” a #6 hit in Canada from 2015 that is now getting an official single release in the US…and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see these guys improve on that #17 peak.

The production opens as an uptempo, bluegrass-tinged track driven by hand-clap percussion and a prominent banjo melody, starting the track off with a lot of energy before segwaying into a more-modern sound featuring real drums and electric guitars. The bright guitar tones establish a very upbeat and positive atmosphere, and the banjo’s role as the song’s melodic foundation gives the track an organic flavor that helps it stand out from the crowd. (This is not the token banjo of the Bro-Country era—this thing is truly a key piece of the mix, and for the most part it’s rolling just the way Earl Scruggs intended.) The song doesn’t rely on minor chords the way “Make You Mine” does, which gives it a strong sense of positivity, and you can’t help but smile as you listen to it.

Vocally, lead singer Brad Rempel delivers a solid performance, with good flow and a boatload of charisma. While his voice is covered in some strange effects (and that stuttered “me-ee-ee-ee-ee” at the end of the first chorus just sounds awkward), his delivery comes across as earnest and believable—he sounds like he’s over the moon over his significant other, and just can’t wait to share his joy. The harmony between Rempel and his brother Curtis doesn’t exactly set the world on fire (most of the time it’s not even noticeable), but it doesn’t detract from the song either. At the end of the day, the singer’s goal is to pass along the fun’s they’re having to the listener, and the vocals here do the job perfectly.

The writing here is nothing groundbreaking, as the song is your typical “my girl is awesome; let me tell you about her” track. What sets it apart, however, is the way if deftly avoids the many traps that artists often fell in to during the Bro-Country era:

  • There’s a refreshing lack of diminutive references to the woman in the song. The word “girl,” despite my description above, never actually appears in this song, and the only mention of “baby” is when the narrator mentions that she uses it to refer to him.
  • There are no creepy or misogynistic undertones to the song. The narrator chooses to focus on the woman’s love and devotion rather than her physical attributes, and the lyrics gives off the vibe that this is a consensual relationship, not a one-sided one.
  • The narrator comes across as a likable individual, emphasizing their disbelief that this woman chooses to love them rather than putting on an arrogant, braggadocios air about the whole thing. Part of this is due to Brad Rempel’s delivery, but the song’s smart word choice plays a role as well.

While the song gets a bit repetitive by the end (we get it, she’s amazing), it’s a minor quibble about a song that leaves you feeling pretty good when it’s over.

Overall, “She’s With Me” is an enjoyable track, and something you can hear and enjoy without any reservations. The sound feels organic, the lyrics feel respectful, and the vocals convey a strong sense of joy and happiness. The US and Canada may have their differences over the dairy and timber industries, but nobody can complain when music like this comes across the border.

Rating: 7/10. Definitely check this song out.