Alex Hunter: Lord of the Mind Platinum Edition (2013 - Windows PC)

So far, this is the best hidden object game I've played, which is to say it's the longest and most involved. Along with the standard hidden object scenes, there are oodles of puzzles and lots of exploration, so it's only a few steps away from being more like a traditional point-and-click adventure game than a straight-up HOG. As a detective, you're on the trail of a missing scientist in Victorian-era England. Your travels will eventually lead you to a strange alternate reality world, and there's a magnificent bonus chapter in which you explore a gangster's casino that's almost as long as the main game.

Like most hidden object games, there is the option to skip the puzzles, so you still have to limit yourself if you want a challenge (and also to get all the in-game achievements). Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm not real fond of sliding/flipping tile puzzles, and there are a number of those present here, so sometimes I'm actually glad that skip button is there, even if that is a terrible attitude for a gamer to have.

The game is visually decent, but it's annoying that only one song plays for the entire game, even for the bonus chapter. But still, if you've ever thought of giving a hidden object game a try, this is a good place to start.
Rating: 3.5/5


The Clockwork Man (2011 - Windows PC)

The Clockwork Man is the weakest hidden object game I've yet finished, which is kind of sad considering it has a few things going for it. The artwork and music are nice, it has the unique Victorian steampunk setting, and the scrolling/zooming feature for some screens is different, if not as big a deal as one might hope. But not only is the game far shorter than any other HOG I've actually paid for, but the objects are tiny, and this is the type of HOG that likes to tell you to find a hardbound book when there's a million books on the screen. Seriously, look at that screenshot - one of the objects to find is a medicine bottle - any one of those damn cylindrical glass things could be a medicine bottle.

I could describe the story as "fat people tell a prematurely grey woman and her robot to clean up a huge mess wherever she goes". It ends on a cliffhanger that isn't resolved in the sequel. You might be able to get a little more mileage out of it with the "freeplay" mode, but don't expect a fulfilling experience from this game.
Rating: 2/5


The Clockwork Man: The Hidden World (2011 - Windows PC)

A huge improvement over the first game. The artwork style has improved, the scrolling function has more of an impact both visually and gameplay-wise, and the developers seem to have taken a cue from Samantha Swift. Miranda and her robot now have puzzles to solve and some objects found in the HOG scenes become inventory items that are used to either solve certain puzzles or find other objects. There's also an occasional "scene-within-a-scene", which is common in the Midnight Mysteries games.

Yet, I still don't think this game goes quite far enough to be considered "great". While it feels drastically less cluttered than the first Clockwork Man, some items are still awfully tiny (good luck finding anything long and skinny, like a nail file, without resorting to hints), and you're still sometimes asked to find objects when there are a million things on the screen that could possibly be it. The story is awkwardly bizarre - the moral is that if humans found a way to live forever (or maybe just really, really longer), that would be bad because death is great for some convoluted reason. Okay, I know, everything that lives dies someday, but seriously? This lesson in a silly, otherwise child-friendly hidden object game?
Rating: 3/5


Midnight Mysteries: Devil on the Mississippi (2011 - Windows PC)

The third in the Midnight Mysteries series deals with the ghost of Mark Twain, and it is the best one I've played so far (although I haven't played the fourth one yet). This installment has come a long way from the simplistic hidden object hunting and braindead puzzle solving of the Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy. Many puzzles actually require some thinking (although a few are still no-brainers), and HOG scenes now have more purpose with items that are needed to surpass various obstacles.

However, much like the Poe game, there is some seriously revisionist history going on in the plot. Many events are based on things that really happened, like Mark Twain's brother being killed in a steamboat explosion, but then the facts of the events are altered to create a conspiracy that would make Oliver Stone jealous. And what the holy *F* at the Shakespeare subplot???
Rating: 3.5/5


Midnight Mysteries: Salem Witch Trials (2010 - Windows PC)

Much better than The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy, but not quite as good as Devil on the Mississippi. This is the second game in the series, so basically they were steadily progressing. This one involves Nathaniel Hawthorne. I'm not as familiar with him as Poe or Twain, but I'm guessing the story is just as revisionist as the others. I had a hard time following parts of it.

Um, Steam, or Mumbo Jumbo? Fix the damn achievements already!!
Rating: 3/5


Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate (2011 - Windows PC)

The biggest and best Samantha Swift, which means it's still rather short and easy for hardcore gamers, but as far as hidden object games go, it's right up there with Alex Hunter. Puzzles are generally a bit tougher, the game has more "areas-within-areas", and there's even a trophy room with achievements! The great artwork, ambient music, and Swift's crazy approach to archaeology that the series is known for are gleefully ever-present.

Only one word of warning - don't ever save midway through completing a hidden object scene. I did this once and when I reloaded my save later, everything had disappeared from my inventory, but didn't relocate to the environment. This meant I was stuck with no way to move on. I think these types of games need to include a "reset" option to start the current scene over again from the beginning to protect against bugs like that.
Rating: 3.5/5


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013 - DVD)

Has its moments, but not as good as the first one. Seriously, we're this late into the game and still recycling jokes from Saturday Night Live? And other movies that had Saturday Night Live alums in them? I mean, Ron Burgundy saying "black" over and over again to Meaghan Good was exactly like Austin Powers saying "mole" over and over again to Fred Savage in Goldmember. Burgundy going blind was just like when Ricky Bobby got paralyzed in Talladega Nights, only a whole lot weirder here.

And what the heck is it with Saturday Night Live movies having subplots about how you can't put your job ahead of your kids? Click and Elf also had that moral, and when it keeps popping up here, it overshadows and dilutes the subtext about how news has become more about being entertainment than informational. Either SNL people have regrets about spending more time on that show than with their kids, or they're all trying to be the next Mary Poppins, albeit very badly.
Rating: 2.5/5


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013 - DVD)

Many critics didn't like the first Hobbit movie, and I was one of the dissenters, but this one hit my breaking point rather early on. The dwarves go down white water rapids in barrels, fighting orcs along the way, and at no point does any barrel overturn or fill with water. Defenses I've seen of this scene are usually along the lines of, "But it's based on a children's book". Yeah, but the barrels were sealed shut in the book, and they weren't popping out of them and fighting orcs, then jumping back into the rapids just in time to land in a magically-appearing open barrel.

And then it's just, Legolas, Legolas, Legolas... I keep seeing people praising his inclusion here because it explains why he hated dwarves in the Lord of the Rings. Did I miss something? I thought it was Gimli who hated elves for no explained reason, not the other way around.

I feel like if I tried to describe the scene where they attempt to use a giant golden statue to kill Smaug, it would come across like Killdozer describing Bridget Jones's Diary, but I'm serious - that actually happens!

Really, Peter Jackson had enough time to add that ridiculously drawn out and pointless scene, but not enough to actually show the desolation caused by Smaug in a movie called "The Desolation of Smaug"??
Rating: 2.5/5


The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire
Author & Reader: Richard McCord
(Audiobook - 2005; Original Book - 1996)

The Chain Gang is an absolutely amazing true story of how a small newspaper (no, let's make that basically one man - the author) took on a huge, corporate newspaper chain that was using illegal and unfair tactics to drive smaller papers out of business. It reads like a great work of fiction, but it's actually autobiographical, which makes it all the more jaw-dropping.

Journalist Richard McCord is hired to a small town newspaper to write an article exposing the Gannett corporation. At first, he's not really liked or trusted by anyone around him, and the guy who hired him is almost never around to help. With little cooperation from his co-workers and boss, he's often left to fend for himself. But little by little, the project comes together, thanks in part to his resourceful nature, and slowly everyone starts getting behind him.

There are parts of this book that left me breathless with suspense. When the building gets flooded and you think all their hard, irreplaceable work has been destroyed, every step McCord takes down the submerged hallway is echoed with a heavy heart palpitation.

And then there's the big moment at the end, and...the sobering reality of the aftermath. It's like this man's life, and his experiences in this situation are, intentional or not, a greater metaphor for the way some things are in life. Sure, people can come together for a great cause, and even achieve that momentary success, but the next day, and then the next, and the next... who still continues to care? How much effect does any deed really have in the long run? And where do you go from there?

McCord reads his own audiobook, which gives him a great advantage in achieving perfect tone for every situation, since, well, it's his life, he knows it.
Rating: 4.5/5


Aliens Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: The Deluxe Edition (1987 - Digital Album)

James Horner's score for this favorite of mine (and many game developers for that matter) is definitely effective in the film, but I'll admit that the soundtrack album is only going to be of interest to those who know and love the movie. Although even if you've never seen Aliens, it's possible you've heard the climactic "Bishop's Countdown" in other movie trailers. Anyone who's seen the special features on the DVD likely knows the notorious amount of pressure Horner was put under by director James Cameron to compose the score in a short time frame, and considering that, it's amazing how good it turned out. The "Main Title" and ending credits ("Resolution and Hyperspace") are two of the strongest and most haunting melodies, perfectly capturing the feelings of loneliness and dreadfulness, and the mysterious nature of deep space.

But most of the music in-between, aside from the action scenes, is quiet and ambient with the occasional "shriek" when something jumps out of the shadows. It's not so listenable outside of the film. The Deluxe Edition contains music from the deleted scenes and a few bonus tracks that, well, seem kind of pointless. Really, percussion-only versions of "Ripley's Rescue" and the "Combat Drop" music are three-minute-long headaches.

So, even though Aliens is one of my top favorite films of all time and the score is perfectly matched to the movie itself, the album is not something I strongly recommend to a casual listener. Do yourself a favor and see the movie, and then decide later if you want the score.
Rating: 3/5


An American Tail: Fievel Goes West - Music From the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1991 - Digital Album)

As a Linda Ronstadt fan, no album on the face of the planet frustrates me more than this one, and I'm going to explain why. It's because this is the only album that has Ronstadt's "Dreams to Dream" on it (with the exception of a really expensive box set that I won't buy because I own everything else on it). Big deal, just buy it, right? Well, good luck finding it if you want a physical copy - it's almost as though it doesn't exist. And for a digital copy? Well, you can't buy the songs individually. You have to buy the whole album, and here's the problem: Everything else kinda blows. Well, the instrumental stuff isn't terrible per se, but it's definitely not James Horner's best work and it sounds really uninspired. And the lyrical songs are embarrassingly bad. I only saw this film once years ago and it left no impression on me, so I'm not sure if they work better in the movie itself, but to listen to those mousey voices out-of-context is enough to make me want to hide under my seat in the fetal position.

So, I guess sometime between when I borrowed this album digitally and now, the price on the digital version dropped from $10 to $6, but either way, I don't want to pay $10 or even $6 for just one song, even if it is a great song. So, yeah, I really shouldn't admit this, but I ended up bootlegging "Dreams to Dream". Can you really blame me? It's like it's the song that doesn't want me to own it.
Rating: 2/5


Dragonheart Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996 - CD)

I've owned this album for years, and after rewatching the movie back in January, I've come to the conclusion that Randy Edelman's work here exceeds the quality of the movie itself. The film isn't terrible, it just doesn't quite live up to the rousing epic masterpiece that the score suggests. The only problem is that, this being a movie score, some of the themes get repeated several times on different tracks - sometimes sounding nearly identical with little variation (for example, "World of the Heart", "Finale", and "Main Title"). Some of it, especially the stuff intended for the more comical scenes, sounds a bit goofy out-of-context. Einon's theme, on the other hand, is so cool, I wish the character had been a likable villain, rather than a complete prick.

So, if you love powerful orchestral fantasy music, this will lift your spirits, and in more ways than one if you've seen the film.
Rating: 4/5


The Land Before Time Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1988 - Digital Album)

The Land Before Time is probably not a great movie, but it's one that does hold a very special place in my childhood, and a large part of it is James Horner's magnificent score. (Can you tell I was on a James Horner kick this month?) I've seen people say it's his best work. Even if it isn't, it should certainly come close. Heck, I can listen to this soundtrack without even thinking about the movie, and I'll still get filled with emotion.

The sweeping, orchestral opening ("The Great Migration") conjures up images of this wonderfully prehistoric, almost alien environment, before making way for the sadder, tear-jerking theme used for when Little Foot, like Bambi before him, loses his mother. After much emotion and strife, the uplifting "End Credits" music, which always makes me feel a little giddy to hear, is well-earned.

The ballad, "If We Hold On Together", performed by Diana Ross, is also included, even though for some reason Amazon has "DO NOT USE" appended to it on the digital release. Uh, sorry, Amazon, I'll be using it quite a bit, thank you.
Rating: 4.5/5


The Muppet Movie Original Soundtrack Recording (1979 - Digital Album)

"The Rainbow Connection" and "Movin' Right Along" are two of the greatest songs to ever appear in a film, and this album has them. What more do you need? Well, how about a rockin' number from everyone's favorite Muppet band, The Electric Mayhem? Or a Rowlf the Dog/Kermit the Frog piano duet? A heartfelt solo ballad performed by Gonzo the Great? Throw in some instrumental score and a fantastic full cast finale and you have a nearly-perfect Muppet extravaganza! Uh, we can just ignore that love song with Miss Piggy, right?
Rating: 4.5/5


Pump Up the Jam (1989 - Digital Album)
Artist: Technotronic

My closet techno fan side is starting to come fully to the surface. Yes, I actually owned this album on cassette years ago, but neglected to update it to CD. Decided to get it digitally instead, it was cheaper that way. Belgian rap/dance group Technotronic had a couple of radio hits off this album in America in the late 80s/early 90s, including the eponymous "Pump Up the Jam", but I think they all had female rapper Ya Kid K on the lead vocals. Those who haven't heard the rest of the album may not be aware that a male rapper, MC Eric, shares or even leads vocals on some tracks.

I'm actually quite surprised the album has stood up well over the years, assuming one likes this sort of dance/house/pop music to begin with. "Pump Up the Jam" itself is kind of repetitive, but I actually think many of the other tracks, even if they weren't hits, are stronger. It has a definite 80s/90s vibe about it, but not really in a bad way.

Technotronic came and went in a flash, but not before creating another Milli Vanilli-esque controversy when they had a dancer named Felly lip-sync Ya Kid K's vocals in a music video, giving off the impression that she was the performer of the song (she was even featured on the album's original cover art). Thankfully, it didn't seem to go as far as the Milli Vanilli episode before whoever was responsible for that admitted it (I don't think Felly lip-synched in any concerts), and I was already aware of Ya Kid K because she did a rap song on the 90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie soundtrack. So, I think I'm safe to remember this strange little fork in the road of techno and rap music history fondly.
Rating: 4/5


Seal (1994 - CD)

I may have a hard time being totally objective with this review because Seal's 1994 eponymous album holds a very special place in my heart and mind. It is my number one go-to album when I'm depressed or even just feeling a little blue. This all started years ago when I was big into watching figure skating, and Brian Boitano skated a routine to his song, "Don't Cry". I was totally blown away by the song's musicality and lyrics, and Seal's amazing voice. It was during an especially bad time in my life, and it was the panacea that I needed.

"Kiss From a Rose" is actually the song on here that most people are probably familiar with because it became popular after being featured in a Batman movie and related music video. I do like that song, but I don't cherish it as much as "Don't Cry". In some ways, though, I'm not bothered that it's relatively unknown because if it got played on the radio as much as "Rose" did, I'd probably be desensitized to it by now.

"Prayer For the Dying" is another great song that, even if you're not dying, has an influential message. Anyone who ever saw my early message board signature that had the lines, "I'm crossing that bridge with lessons I've learned, I'm playing with fire and not getting burned...etc", yeah, that was from this song.

The rest is pretty good, too, including a heartfelt duet with Joni Mitchell, "If I Could". There aren't a lot of upbeat songs outside of "Bring It On", but I guess that wasn't really what I was after when I discovered this album.
Rating: 4.5/5


Verities & Balderdash (1974 - Digital Album)
Artist: Harry Chapin

If the only songs on this album were "Cat's in the Cradle", "Vacancy", and "I Wanna Learn a Love Song", it would be one of the greatest, if shortest albums ever. But the rest of the songs on here are so bad, they really drag the quality down - to the point that I say, get the MP3s of those three songs and forget the rest.

First, there's "Shooting Star"... I think this is about a man who is crazy or something and one of the reasons why is because he "sings lyrics to songs nobody knows". Well, nowadays we'd call that a "hipster". I have no idea what the point of this song is. Somehow this crazy guy has found true love, but he runs away for no reason at the end. I guess I'm just not "special" enough to understand it.

Then there's "30,000 Pounds of Bananas", about a truck driver who careens out of controls, spills his banana cargo everywhere, and is killed in the accident. This would be just about the dumbest song I've ever heard, except I find out, it's frickin' based on a true story! And the driver hadn't been dead 10 years yet and had surviving family! So, now it's one of the most offensive songs I've ever heard.

Just when I thought I was being too hard on him, I get hit with the bombshell of "What Made America Famous". Chapin tells the story of a house full of hippies that's set on fire and how nobody except one fireman wanted to rescue them. He repeats over and over that it's "The night that made America famous" before belting out, "Does anybody caaaaaaaaare?!?!" I'm thinking the whole time..."I'm sure this event was a big deal when it happened, but I don't know what he's talking about. I've never heard of this before. But even so, is this really what America is famous for? I know this country isn't perfect, but what about, I dunno, rock and roll, cinema, the light bulb, putting a man on the moon?"

Then I research it and find out...this is just something from a dumb musical he wrote! Now, I'm really starting to hate him!

It's a shame because I do think "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Vacancy" are great, and "Love Song" is okay, but the rest is, well, balderdash.
Rating: 2/5

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