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Not a song this year (I’ve largely just been appreciating old favorites), but a phrase. A fragment of last year’s Doctor Who Christmas special. “Halfway out of the dark.” My tastes are what they are, and the world as I experience it is defined by them, after all.

But by the world at large as well. It is difficult to think of 2011 as anything but “the dark.” Both personally and in the larger, political sense (and as the famed feminist maxim points out, there isn’t really any separating of those two spheres) it has been a year of constant upheaval. Let’s start with the most idiosyncratic for me – the gut punch that was the death of Vaclav Havel.

I have few enough heroes in the world that eliminating all the ones who worship fraudulent Roman snake gods represents a massive culling of the list. But Havel has long been one of my heroes. A playwright who led a non-violent revolution and then governed his country with surprising deftness. To not admire Havel is simply wrong. I’ve taught classes based in part around Havel and his work twice now. It’s slightly outside my usual interests – enough so that people don’t expect me to be well read on the subject. But it’s a topic I absolutely adore.

My favorite bit of Havel is, perhaps unsurprisingly, his landmark essay “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he proposes that the fundamental revolutionary act is “living in truth.” Here is how Havel describes this act, using the example of a greengrocer who suddenly refuses to keep engaging in the empty and meaningless ritual of hanging propaganda posters around his store:

“He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremenly dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”

I have been trying to do more living in truth. Not just over the last week since Havel died, but in general. To stop engaging in the classically liberal (a word I use in its Enlightenment context, not its modern political context) farce that politics are just personal opinions. So let’s dispense with any illusions that the existence of a sentimental Christmas post is in some way an occasion to suspend honesty. If this is to be Christmas, it must be Christmas in the world that is.

That is a world in which my generation is being destroyed. Four straight years of economic downturn that were preceded by an infamously “jobless” economic recovery have eviscerated us to the point where we already are a lost generation. Even if the economic situation were to turn around in the next year – and the odds are overwhelmingly against that happening – it would be too late for most of us. Our education and skills are a few years out of date. There are gaps in our employment history, or dead-end jobs. We will be competing with younger and more attractive candidates on every front, and we will suffer for it. Just as we’ll suffer on the other end of our careers when the calamitous wrecking ball of the Baby Boom decimates our social safety net. To be in your 20s in America – indeed, in much of the world – is to live in a profoundly hostile environment with few if any long-term prospects.

But worse, it is to live in an environment that feels profoundly like a lie. To turn on the television and hear politicians (of both parties) talking about how America is the greatest country on Earth and a land of opportunity does not ring hollow so much as ring with the soft thud of boots kicking a prone and broken body long after it’s gone down. It is not merely the complete obliteration of all visible prospects in the world that stings but the sheer callousness with which much of the world is willing to ignore this, and the sheer injustice of the systems that preserve it. The numbing consistency with which it turns out that those who defend the system are also profiting from it. Whether we’re talking about bankers who have socialized risk but privatized profit or about people tearing families apart while violating the creed they cite as justification in their own lives, there is a sense so constantly reinforced as to have lost its horror that the world is simply run by con artists.

More than anything, this year has been defined by a growing sense of fury at this state of affairs. All the discussion of the supposed lack of unity or clear goals held by protesters of various stripes in the world misses the forest for the trees. The protests that have colored 2011 are not policy statements but howls of rage. They are the sight and sound of a system cracking under its own weight. Of the accumulated degradations becoming too much. They are the sound of the camel’s back breaking. To focus on a lone piece of straw is to miss the point.

Personally has been little better. My friends get sick and are too poor to seek treatment. They work themselves to exhaustion and destruction in jobs they are miles overqualified for. They eat shit and hurry from crisis to crisis. Nothing good happens here, and if you dare to have something go right the other shoe stands prepared to drop like a hammer. It’s the slow exhaustion of being worn down, the one step forward two steps back motion of a slow decline.

I spent much of the year living in squalor. My landlord botched the repair when my kitchen floor began collapsing inward and left me with a kitchen in which one window was impossible to close and a bathroom with a wall consisting primarily of black mold and fungus. Pair with a series of excruciating delays in construction on the apartment I was moving out of it into and a pissed off landlord and I got to enjoy a house as it went through a slow motion series of death spasms. The heat going out was a highlight. So was the electricity going in half the house.

The new place is better. Gorgeous, in fact. Living in truth cannot simply mean pissing and moaning constantly. We must be equally honest about our blessings. A set of extraordinary family circumstance essentially means that I have a luxury apartment in my parents’ basement. A fully private entrance, brand new high quality furniture, my two pinball machines (which I’ve had for a while, but which lived at my parents’) in my living room. I’m writing this sitting at a mahogany bar listening to Christmas music on a brand new plasma television. This is a beautiful place, and I am blessed to have it and be in it. And of course Krypto, the black lump of fur and laziness that kindly saved my life a few years ago remains, as I type, curled at my feet. To treat life as unrelenting misery is as unfair as pretending that there is such a thing as straightforward hope.

But it’s equally true that there are dark flip sides, and not just the lack of windows. As thankful as I am for the generosity and kindness that insulates me from the harsher aspects of the world, there is also the irreducible sense of being trapped. Western Connecticut is a supremely awful place to be 29. I have no friends here, and not for lack of trying. The resources that would allow me to make progress with the writing career I’m attempting to fall back on having failed at academia (no phone interviews for the second year running. Time to cash out, I fear) are all in cities, but moving to said cities requires money of the sort that requires one of those job things that don’t exist for people like me. It is difficult to escape the sense of living in a gilt-edged prison, although again, the edging really is bloody spectacular.

But in the end, there is perhaps nothing so in the spirit of Christmas as this. My tastes in Christmas are well enough documented. I have always taken the darkness of it seriously – always found more that is sacred in the fragile mixture of darkness and light than in the mere fact of joy. For me it has never been about the brightness of one guiding star, but rather about the darkness in which it glimmers.

I believe in Christmas far more than Christ, and have for some time. The obsession with keeping Christ in Christmas – a trivial feat of lexicography if we are being honest – so often misses the larger concern. We would do better, by and large, to keep Christmas in Christ. If I am to believe in anything, and some days I almost do, it is this. That some light survives in any darkness. That there always remains some warmth to gather around. That at the lowest moment, writhing on the blade end of a callous and selfish world, there is some light of the divine.

No. There is more than that. It is not merely that light still exists in the darkness. It is that the star shines all the brighter for the long night in which it rests. It is not merely that the divine is still with us in our lowest and darkest moments. These are our most sacred places. The protester beaten half to death in the name of health and safety. The jobless twenty-something coughing up blood that can’t afford to go to the doctor. The rape victim sitting in the courtroom hearing how she was asking for it. It is not merely that God still exists in those moments.

No. That is not the story that we tell today. The story we tell today is of a God who descended from the shining light of heaven to the cesspool of the world. Who came into being among the shit and the straw of a manger in the midst of a long and cold winter. This is not a god who merely exists in our darkest moments, but one who is defined by them.

Or perhaps not. I believe in Christmas, as I said. I believe in the worth of celebrating this story on this day. I believe in gathering around a small fire in the dark and sharing a day in love and kindness. I believe in the small rituals that create this flickering star within the cold of winter. Do I believe that it is enough? No. It is something, yes. It is everything. But enough? That, I fear, is only hope.

But I believe in the possibility of it. That there is some faint path from here to the light. That this star can lead us out of this long and bitter night. That we may, at long last, be halfway out of the dark.
Happened to stop by this site to look at an old entry, and it left me curious. So, quick poll - do me a favor and leave a comment if you read this. I'm curious how narrow the reach over here is these days. Or how much more robust it is than I expect. Either one. We'll find out, I suppose.
With the last social circle I had on this site rapidly decamping for Dreamwidth, and the realization that right now my friends page has next to no substantive posts from anyone I've actually met in real life, I've decided its time to finally turn the lights off on this aspect of social networking. The Nintendo Project continues happily at its website, and I'm on Facebook regularly under Phil Sandifer. Feel free to add me there if you haven't.

Night, everyone.
For what is I believe the first time, today we have two games that are actually quite good and well-regarded: Konami's Blades of Steel, and Sunsoft's Blaster Master. Both hail from the 1988 Christmas season, and, perhaps more interestingly, both are completely bizarre and perverse experiences. Having discussed the question of what 1988 is last entry, today, I suppose, I shall focus on perversity.

Blades of Steel is a classic hockey game. Although the image might suggest that the reason it is perverse is that the teams are comprised entirely of frost giants, that is not the issue. What is the issue is that Blades of Steel is the most disturbing celebration of wonton violence I have ever played.

Full post at The Nintendo Project
I am going to venture a hypothesis. Actually, no. I'm going to speak authoritatively for the whole of humanity based on a minimal amount of thought and evidence. Nobody has ever enjoyed a childhood fishing trip. (To clarify, if you disagree and have enjoyed a childhood fishing trip, you are a liar and I will cut you.) I would say that nobody has actually ever enjoyed fishing at all, but this appears untrue. Not for the reason you might think - that a massive industry of fishing gear exists. No, no. This is a world where the electric knife was released on the market not because anyone would use one (market research said they wouldn't) but because they would buy them for other people. The mere fact that people spend large swaths of time and money doing something has nothing to with its actual pleasure. No, I will agree that somebody has once enjoyed fishing because my uncle apparently quite likes it, and he owes my sister graduation money, so I'd rather not anger him because I like my sister.

My own childhood fishing experience involved a child size fishing rod that in my mind was made by Fisher-Price, but I suspect this is a lie. It was on a family vacation that involved a cabin. I remember reading the novelization of Ghostbusters, and playing with a sort of spinning top fighting toy where you released two tops with robot heads on a bowl-shaped arena and let them "fight." I am fairly sure I caught nothing but sharks while fishing. A brief and token amount of research suggests that there is no chance whatsoever this is true, because I am reasonably certain I was fishing in freshwater. I should clarify that this is an inordinately hazy memory that it is possible I completely made up. In any case, fishing mostly consisted of disappointment. I still did better than some people.

All of which is buildup to discuss Black Bass, a game that really I have no business talking about. Black Bass sits in the vast ocean of casual games, an ocean that I generally avoid venturing into because, well, it annoys me. The overlap between the casual pool of video games and the pool of video games I usually play is minimal. Occasionally something like Tetris will vault over the gap. Usually, though, you've got something like Deer Hunter, one of the most popular video games ever, despite it lacking anything visible in the way of quality, at least to a standard issue video game player.

Black Bass fits neatly into a major genre of these games, the fishing sim - a genre that eventually went on to have its own peripherals for most video game systems. Here's a rough summary of my time with the game.

Minutes 1-20: Sitting, fruitlessly waiting for a fish to come play.
Minutes 21-25: Reading a FAQ to learn how to fish.
Minutes 26-30: Catching a fish.

In this regard, it coincides 2/3 of the way with my actual experience fishing. And yet these games are popular - Black Bass, in fact, spawned a sequel, Blue Marlin, which we'll be getting to in two entries' time. This despite the fact that, so far as I can tell, fishing in Black Bass is a matter of, if not pure luck, at least painfully systematic trial and error. But there is a simplicity to the game that is, perhaps, appealing. To someone else. Possibly the same mythical person that likes fishing in the first place.

Which is why I say casual games and "mainstream" games are fundamentally divergent markets. Because a game like Black Bass or Deer Hunter appeals to people who, ordinarily, would like to go fishing or to shoot Bambi in the face. Whereas, and this is fundamental, a game like Halo or Half-Life 2 appeals to people who are cowardly wimps who are never going to touch a gun in their lives. Here. We'll do a comparative illustration.

One of these men is a hunter. You can tell because he has a bloody deer carcass in front of him that he killed with a bow and arrow. The other picture depicts Halo players. You can tell because the man in the other picture could kill them with his bare hands. These two pictures do not depict people who like the same things.

On a similar note, we have this picture. This man does not have a bloody dear carcass in front of him. However he does have a massive gun and a bionic arm. Clearly he is the Bionic Commando, a fabled figure in video game lore. Bionic Commando presents an interesting problem for several reasons. It is unquestionably a massive classic for the NES. It is also one of a handful of games that are both mind-wrenchingly difficult and still widely regarded as great games. Part of the difficulty of Bionic Commando is that the game aggressively fails to work in the standard side-scrolling platformer mode. For instance, as it turns out, Bionic men can't jump. Instead, they can pull themselves up with their bionic arms, and swing around. This makes the game hard enough, since it completely eliminates all default assumptions a player has about how to approach a problem. Add to this the fact that health is scarce, continues are scarce, and there are a lot of people shooting at you and you have a legendarily difficult game.

Despite the difficulty, though, the game is quite good. The changes to the mechanics mostly work - the bionic arm is a bit persnickety at times, but there's something strangely alluring about the mechanic, as it turns even relatively banal parts of the game into interesting tactical puzzles. Its status as a classic is deserved, but also strange - like Battletoads, this is a classic that most people have not meaningfully experienced.

The lack of full experience of Bionic Commando, is perhaps a larger issue than that of Battletoads. Bionic Commando, you see, is tragically better known by its US title than its far superior Japanese title, The Resurrection of Hitler: Top Secret. Today, with the Internet, it has become common knowledge that Bionic Commando ends with a gruesome graphic of undead Hitler's exploding head.

I swear to you I am not making any of this up.

The thing is, the game is really well known for this now. To the point where when they remade Bionic Commando for the XBox, they kept exploding Hitler. What's weird, though, is that because Bionic Commando was so ruthlessly hard, I don't think much of anyone knew about exploding Hitler in 1988-89 when the game was in its heyday. I certainly had never heard about it, despite having a familiarity with the game. The odds that you knew someone who had beaten Bionic Commando were pretty slim.

I have talked before of secret histories. By this I mean the history that was going on unseen while you were busy experiencing your own version of history. Secret histories weave their ways in and out of lived experience. Two months before Bionic Commando came out, Ministry released The Land of Rape and Honey. One month after that, Milli Vanilli's debut album came out. The month Bionic Commando came out, Vanessa Hudgens and Roy Orbison traded places in the world. That year, My Neighbor Totoro came out. So did Crocodile Dundy II. This confluence of facts was known to few people in 1988, and yet it somehow across these facts is the core of the historical experience - the truth of what 1988 was, buried far away from how anyone actually lived 1988.

Bionic Commando poses an interesting problem for memory, however. Simply put, it is now remembered for and in a way that has precious little to do with its actual historical experience. Exploding Hitler, a massive part of the game's legacy, could not possibly have been a large part of its reception. He could only have been known to a handful of players, who lacked the mass communication tools to form a community around this knowledge. Its secret history was more of a secret than most, uncovered only now, grafted back on as a history almost totally unexperienced.

Did Gina Hudgens sit, eight months pregnant, watching the election returns come in for the first President Bush and listen to Ministry? Was she a lover of Japanese cinema who realized the massive shift that was happening as Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro all came out? Did she, shortly before giving birth, play Capcom's Bionic Commando and beat it? Did her water break to the image of exploding Hitler?

And if not, does anyone truly understand 1988?

Pictures are available at the real version of this entry at The Nintendo Project
It is an ironic fact that memory is a collective act, while the actual relics of historical experience are personal. Case in point - I am a nerd. Accordingly, of the following three cultural touchstones, only one is distinctly part of my memory: monster truck rallies, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and NASCAR. Thus it is unusual that these three games - Bigfoot, Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, and Bill Elliott's NASCAR Challenge - should be presented sequentially.

Playing these games, absolutely none of which are even remotely good, I came to realize something, though. Although monster truck rallies are in no way part of my memory, they were distinctly a part of my past. I can't put my finger on exactly when monster trucks crossed the thin line from awesome to redneck, but it is clear that at some point they did. I remember growing up, however, that monster trucks were simply a part of my cultural landscape, and they were awesome. Reconstructing this signifying chain is a challenge - they were inexorably linked to Hulk Hogan, and thus to professional wrestling, which accompanied them across the line to redneck. (In the 80s, professional wrestling was not redneck. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that, in the 80s, professional wrestling was gayer than Justin Bieber.) Past that, I'm not sure. I suspect these things existed as part of the general cultural mishmash that was Saturday morning cartoons. (There is an entry to be written about the role of Saturday morning cartoons in creating cultural hegemony and collectivism, in which I argue that the preposterously large margin of victory Obama enjoyed among 18-29 year olds is primarily due to Saturday morning cartoons. This is not that entry.)

Somewhere on the road from the 1980s to today, however, monster trucks passed out of my cultural background. This is in many ways a pity, because the fundamental idea of gigantic machines crushing other machines is not redneck at all, a fact that Battlebots, Mythbusters, Transformers, and the bulk of giant robots will readily attest to. Bigfoot, then, represents this earlier, naive time period in which a man could drive a giant truck over cars without shame or cultural judgment. Regardless of whether this act is fun (and in Bigfoot it amounts to little more than a generic car stunt game of the most disposable rent-only kind), it is something that ought to be part of our culture.

I can readily imagine, on the other side of this seemingly insurmountable cultural divide, someone sitting at a monster truck rally. A sense of sorrow creeps over them. They are past the point where their childhood imagination ever took them, past having grown up and into some strange twilight state their childhood never made room for. For no reason, a pang of memory strikes, and they remember an afternoon watching a scratchy VHS tape of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Their intake of science fiction is limited now to the culturally prescribed mass appeal movies. They have no concept that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is, among other things, an elaborate send-up of Doctor Who, the longest-running science fiction show of all time. They are unaware that most of the best jokes in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey come from parodies of The Seventh Seal. All they know, and even this they know in a way that is beyond words, is that there is some secret history, some alternate mode of being contained in this thing that is not a memory, that is an uncanny other to their entire cultural apparatus. Before a tear can form, a gigantic truck crushes a mobile home, and all is forgiven.

If memory is the personal treason that rewrites history into a cultural milieu, nostalgia is the drive to connect impossibly with lived experience. It is nostalgia that sends one to the dust-ridden gray rectangles of NES games, where these strands of lost history coexist. That Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure is a tedious piece of drek involving a lot of awkward isometric dodge-sprite, just as Bigfoot is an unmemorable entry into a basically uninteresting genre is, perhaps simply an idiotic historical accident of poor design. Or perhaps it is a crowning arch-metaphor for the impossibility of reconciling memory to actual lived experience - of the impossibility of carving a cultural position where the individual love of giant cars and sci-fi can co-exist.

The fantasy that this cultural hegemony that separates giant robots and giant trucks forevermore is in some way permeable underlies the film Billy Elliot, in which we learn that the harsh realities of fading Welsh mining towns and the cultural elitism of ballet dancing exist on opposite sides of a gauzy piece of tule. Is it mere coincidence that this British film appropriates the name of a NASCAR driver whose name was in turn given to the first licensed NASCAR video game? Is the film itself a fugue on cultural permeability, suggesting the bleed from male ballet dancing to the ultimate in masculinity? One is adapted by Elton John into a musical. The other is appropriated by Rush Limbaugh to define an agrarian fantasy of America. One plays at the other's wedding. This is surely a false history, constructed from coincidence and culturally determined memory.

But the Other plays at all weddings. The line between memory and experience is a haze of noise that we endlessly ascribe signal to. In that din, who can tell the difference between a Wyld Stallyns concert and the roar of a monster truck engine?
An oft unremarked upon aspect of the famed RCA Dog is that its fundamental concept of the image is that the dog is entranced specifically by the sound of his dead master's voice coming through the gramophone. The game today is Big Bird's Hide and Speak, and as you can see, we're setting up for a cheery little number.

Caroll Spinney, the voice of Big Bird, is well past the life expectancy for an American male. Despite this, he still both wears the quite large Big Bird suit and provides the voice for Oscar the Grouch, which, he claims, is actually the harder character to perform. Nevertheless, and I am not the first to note this, the very real fact is that Caroll Spinney is going to die, and this event will most likely occur in the relatively near future.

Big Bird's Hide and Speak contains what is a surprisingly good rendition of Big Bird's voice for an 8-bit video game. The rendition is skillful enough to form a major part of the game's presentation, as it explicitly credits Spinney as providing the voice of Big Bird in the game. I am not privy to the technical details - I do not know how much the voice is in fact based on actual recordings of Spinney. Let us, however, assume that the game is as presented, and in fact it is one of the earliest games to use actual sound recordings of people. (Is it perhaps the first? I assume not, but I've no particular proof for this assertion)

The core concept of the RCA Dog is that the phonograph is a physical remnant of his master's life. That is, ther eis a specific uncanny artifact that the dog peers puzzledly at. But Big Bird's Hide and Seek differs in two regards. First, it is functionally infinitely copied. Because NES games have been reduced to transmissible ROM files of relatively small size, they have been decoupled from physical media and physical devices upon which they can be played. A reasonably large number of people have downloaded or copied the ROM file, and it can be played on dozens of different systems. For my part, I have no fewer than four devices capable of playing Big Bird's Hide and Seek right now, and I'm pretty sure I've got about eight more on which it could be installed with a touch of jiggery pokery.

This is distinct from fetters. For me, there are two fetters of Caroll Spinney worth remarking upon. The first is Big Bird’s Red Book, a Little Golden Book in which Big Bird fretted about where he put the red thing he was going to show the reader, as various other red things whiz about. Eventually, he sits down on a paper bag and crushes the tomatoes he was going to show the reader. I liked tomatoes. (See also Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)

The other is the Electronic Talk ‘n Play, which I affectionately remember as the Big Bird Computer. It was a tape player with four colored buttons and specially made four-track tapes that would change tracks depending on which button you pressed, allowing the tapes to pose interactive puzzles and games. The best of the set was Grover’s Don’t Push the Red Button, in which Grover implores you not to push the red button, and you, no doubt, push it anyway, you bastard.

I have neither of these fetters anymore. I looked, yesterday, for Big Bird's Red Book at the town book sale. It was not there. Nor was the best of the Sesame Street Little Golden Books, The Monster at the End of this Book, a book notable for many things, including having one of the best examples of Wikipedia prose as art in its article, which describes it drolly as "a post-modern children's book." They did have the pointless sequel, Another Monster at the End of this Book, which Wikipedia notes features the "ubiquitous Elmo." The Big Bird Computer is as abandoned as the cassette medium it depended on. These things pass not into history but into the awkwardness of memory - the fetters are irretrievable.

Big Bird's Hide and Speak is different. As opposed to being bound up in a fetter, this element of childhood is spread vastly, transmitted throughout the Internet, perfectly iterated, undistorted by the vagaries of memory. Big Bird's Hide and Speak perfectly preserves this voice, ironically squawking the now impossible commands - find Grover. Find Elmo. And perhaps most tragically, find Ernie. Poor Ernie, the Muppet most marked by death following death of Jim Henson. There are, in my childhood, few celebrity deaths I have any sense of. Jim Henson and Roald Dahl are the only two that spring to mind. Jim Henson's death was, of course, marked with one of the greatest Muppet specials of all time, with the heartbreaking moment of the Muppets looking down and realizing that there are people down there... but one of them is missing.

As all of these things, Spinney included, pass to history and memory, Spinney's voice is perfectly preserved, compelling us to find what is lost. With the rise of wireless transmission and networking, packets of Caroll Spinney's voice whiz around, past, and through us. A waste transmission, mis-aimed, spreads upwards, outwards into space, a whisp of noise floating out towrds the edges of creation. Right now, my body may be permeated, run straight through with the voice of Caroll Spinney.

Our childhood, then, is well preserved. But this preservation is contingent on our continual storage and transmission of the data. A fetter is mildly self-preserving - indeed, through something approximating random chance, we have what we now call the history of the Western world. But this ghost is preserved only by our own transmissions and receptions of it. Perhaps Spinney lives forever, transmitted in wave form out into space, but this wave is always ahead of us - the signal cannot be caught up with. Spinney is immortal for everybody but us - we depend on the continual transmission of the signal.

The tragedy here is that the moment of this ghost has already passed. The game is a preposterously simple game consisting of selecting among four windows to spell words, identify characters, et cetera. All four directional buttons simply move clockwise around the windows. A and B do the exact same thing - select the current window. Start and Select also do the same thing - exit and let you pick a new minigame to play. It is a game that one grows out of exceedingly quickly. On top of that, it is, like all Nintendo games, a matter of archeology - an experience that belongs distinctly to another time.

Caroll Spinney has outlived his own ghost. Were it that he could outlive childhood.
I was getting ice cream yesterday, and behind me in line was a very upset child. I am usually one of those people with a certain minimalist tolerance for the reproductive errors of others. Not childfree by any measure - I desperately want kids. But my attitude towards them is much like my attitudes towards dogs - I intend to like my children. Other people's can bugger off. But I digress.

This kid, I found tolerable, indeed endearing. His initial objection, indeed his objection through most of the line, was that because he could not read, he could not know that he was ordering the ice cream that he wanted. Accordingly, he was insistent that his father read to him the entire menu board. This struck me as a fundamentally rational request. His problem was not so much that he was not getting what he wanted as that he understood enough to have a clear and cogent vision of how the world ought to be, and he was deeply upset that it was failing to adhere to this understanding.

Continued at The Nintendo Project.
Sorry for the lengthy absence - moving left my access to the games themselves out of commission for several weeks longer than I expected. We now return to your irregularly scheduled programming.

So, Battletoads. This game is, somewhat perversely, a classic. No. Not somewhat perversely. Really perversely. This is possibly the least likely game to be tagged as a classic of the system ever, for one basic reason - it is basically completely impossible.

Continued at The Nintendo Project
The knockout rounds begin!

Match 49: Uruguay vs South Korea

Why You Should Watch: The four teams playing today form the most unusual quadrant of the bracket, as it contains no favorites to win whatsoever. Which means that a cinderella story is going to be showing up in the semi-finals. This match, featuring Uruguay, has the closet thing to a favorite, up against South Korea - a team that did extraordinarily well in 2002, not that well off home soil in 2006, and now seem to be back to winning ways, having had a fabulous group stage. This, in other words, is a corker with no clear favorite. South Korea are overperforming beautifully, and are good. And this marks the start of the knockout round - someone has to win. Someone has to lose. Period.

Player to Watch: South Korea have a surprising depth of good players, but I've kept on with Park Ji-Sung, and I stand by it.

Friendly Bet to Make: Put your money on South Korea. They may break your heart, but they'll do it excitingly.

Match 50: United States vs Ghana

Why You Should Watch: The United States are playing beautiful soccer, and exciting soccer with the seeming philosophy "never put off til the 80th minute what you can put off til stoppage time." Full of heart, full of belief, full of flair, the United States are actually winning me over - they're playing a game worthy of respect. And they're playing a game that is thrilling to watch. This is the first time I've ever been excited to watch the US and to cheer for them. Ghana... I want an African team to do well in the World Cup, but look, Ghana have gotten lucky - they've not scored except on penalty kicks. They're not that great, and I think the US can do them in. And it's nearly impossible not to root for the US.

Player to Watch: Landon Donovan, the US's best player, who is having an outrageously good tournament. He's glorious to watch.

Friendly Bet to Make: Don't bet against your own country. But be sure to put your bet in just before betting is closed.
Games 45 and 46: Portugal vs Brazil and North Korea vs Ivory Coast

Why You Should Watch: The group is all but a foregone conclusion with Portugal racking up a preposterous +7 goal difference to Ivory Coast's -2, but there's one big reason to watch all the same, and that is a clash of the titans with a Brazil/Portugal game. Or, if you prefer, the final hammering of North Korea. Take your pick, really.

Rundown of Outcomes

Brazil are through
Portugal are through unless they lose, Ivory Coast wins, and the combined margin exceeds nine.
Ivory coast are through if Portugal don't make it.
North Korea cannot advance.

Which Game to Watch: Brazil may well field their B-team against the Ivory Coast, but if they do they risk having to face Spain in the round of 16, and Argentina in the semis. Whereas if they win, they move to a considerably easier half of the bracket. Portugal may also field their B-team, but that risks dumping them out of the Cup. So Brazil vs. Portugal is probably the game to watch.

Predicted outcome: Brazil and Portugal are going through.

Games 47 and 48: Chile vs Spain and Switzerland vs Honduras

Why You Should Watch: It never should have come to this - Spain with a must-win final game against Chile. But it has, and the group is a nail-biter as a result. And this is a great match-up, since Chile is a fluid, attacking side, as is Spain. On the undercard is Switzerland and Honduras. Honduras have been awful, but can theoretically pull it out. Switzerland haven't been great, while Chile have, and could make it in on the back of their lucky win against Spain. But this group features high odds for a great team to falter.

Rundown of Outcomes:

If Chile get a point, they're through, and they're also through as long as Switzerland doesn't win, or as long as the combined margin of the games in a Spain and Switzerland win is no more than 2.
Spain are through if they win, or if both games are a draw, or if Honduras wins and they draw, or if Honduras wins and the combined margin of their win and Spain's defeat is less than five.
Switzerland are through if they win by two more than Spain wins by, or if they win and Spain draws or loses, or they draw and Spain loses.
Honduras are through if they win, Spain loses, and the combined margin exceeds five.

Which game to watch: With the attacking flairs of Spain and Chile, and so much on the line, that is probably going to be a better match than Brazil-Portugal.

Predicted outcome: Spain and Switzerland to make it, with Chile getting the harshest elimination in the tournament.
Games 40 and 41: Slovakia vs. Italy and Paraguay vs New Zealand

Why You Should Watch: Because WTF - Italy and New Zealand are in exactly equivalent positions. Can New Zealand manage the upset of the century and actually make it through?

Rundown of Outcomes:

Paraguay are through on a draw or better, or on a loss if the other game is a draw, or if Italy lose and the combined margin is less than 4.
Italy are through if they do better than New Zealand and none of the Slovakia conditions come true, or if they win.
New Zealand are through if they do better than Italy and none of the Slovakia conditions come true, or if they win.
Slovakia are through if they beat Italy and New Zealand don't win, unless the combined margin exceeds four.

Which Game to Watch: Italy offers you a team desperate to pull it out and advance in the World Cup. New Zealand offers you a team desperate to continue an extraordinary run and advance. Odds are the Italy game will be the decisive one, but on the other hand, the New Zealand game would be one talked about for years.

Predicted Outcomes: Paraguay either way, Italy or New Zealand, take your pick on safe vs. awesome.

Games 42 and 43: Denmark vs Japan and the Netherlands vs Cameroon

Why You Should Watch: Because it’s a straightforward single elimination game – the Netherlands are through, Cameroon are out, and Denmark and Japan are playing to decide it, with Japan needing only a draw to advance. Neither team were shoo-ins for the knockout stage, and honestly I favored Cameroon over both, so this will put an interesting team through. And given that they have to face off against Group F – an unusually weak group – you have a team with a serious possibility of making it to the Quarterfinals here.

Rundown of Outcomes:

The Netherlands are through.
Denmark go through if they beat Japan.
Japan go through if they beat or draw with Denmark.
Cameroon cannot possibly advance.

Which Game to Watch: Definitely Denmark/Japan – the Netherlands will field their B team and likely lose to Cameroon 1-0 as Cameroon try to salvage some glory. Meanwhile, Denmark/Japan will have one team – Denmark – coming out flying trying to win, and one – Japan – trying to keep that from happening.

Player to Watch: Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner, a fabulous striker who will need to score if Denmark are to advance.

Predicted outcome: Japan to advance.
Games 37 and 38: Slovenia vs England and United States vs. Algeria

Why You Should Watch: One of the more straightforward groups at this point – with the exception of Algeria, anyone can make it for sure if they win. Nobody is guaranteed. This is a pair of climactic games. Every team has motivation to go out and play.

Rundown of Outcomes

Slovenia will go through if they draw or win against England, or if the US fails to beat Algeria.
England will go through if they win against Slovenia, or if they score two more goals than the US and both teams draw.
The US will go through if they win against Algeria., or if they score no more than two fewer goals than England and both teams draw.
Algeria will go through if they win against the US and England does not win against Slovenia.

Which Game to Watch: Given the stellarly bad performance of England against Algeria, I’d watch the US, who’ve been playing with passion and heart. Mind you, I’ll watch England.

Players to Watch: Landon Donnovan for the US, and … hopefully somebody for England. Anybody. Please.

Friendly Bet to Make: Slovenia and US to advance.. Unless you want to get friends to watch England with you, in which case predict a rampaging Rooney.

Games 37 and 38: Ghana vs Germany and Australia vs Serbia

Rundown of Outcomes:

Ghana are through if they get a win or a draw against Germany, or if Australia beat Serbia and the combined margin of victories are less than 5, or equal to five with Ghana scoring no more than one goal less than Australia.
Germany are through if they beat Ghana, or if they draw with Ghana and Serbia fails to beat Australia, with two unlikely scenarios stopping that described below.
Serbia are through if they have a better result than Germany or, if they both win, if they score three more goals than Germany does and keep a margin of victory of three or larger.
Australia are through if they beat Serbia and Ghana beat Germany, or if they beat Serbia and Ghana draw with Germany with the combined margins of victory of the two games exceeding 7.

Which Game to Watch: Ghana vs. Germany has the two better teams – the Australians have been torrid, and Serbia will likely cruise there, so Ghana vs. Germany has real potential.

Player to Watch: The Ghana strikers, who have yet to score except from a penalty kick.

Friendly Bet to Make: This is not looking like Africa’s World Cup – bet on Serbia and Germany to make it.
Missed game #30. Darn. In any case, it was worth watching for a 7-0 drubbing.

Game #31: Chile vs. Switzerland

Why You Should Watch: Chile are flying high, and having seen Spain drop points, have a clear opportunity – if they can pummel Switzerland, they probably top the group, which can save them from having to play Brazil. They’re an attacking team, and more to the point, their best strategy is to rack up a huge goal difference. Which is to say, they don’t want to win 1-0 and defend. They want to win 5-0.

Player to Watch: Gotta go with the Chilean strikeforce again, who are going to be shooting like mad.

Friendly Bet to Make: Chile 4-0.

Game #32: Spain vs. Honduras

Why You Should Watch: Switzerland beating Spain was the upset of the first set of games. And now Spain simply have to win their remaining games. Period. Their options are this: 1) Win. 2) Start looking at flights home. So, you know. This should be a fun time. The best team in the world up against the wall. It’s the sort of thing that’s why you watch the World Cup.

Player to Watch: Fernando Torres, along with David Villa, are two of the best strikers in the world. One of them will be responsible for Spain’s salvation, or both will be responsible for Spain’s downfall.

Friendly Bet to Make: Eh, be the guy who slags Spain and bet for a 1-1 draw.

Games 33 and 34: Mexico vs. Uruguay and France vs. South Africa

New feature for these next few entries – the final matches of group stages are played simultaneously to prevent a repeat of an ugly incident where two teams basically stopped playing for 90 minutes because they had a result that had them both advancing. So you basically have to pick one game. (As a result, this should be called “Why You Should Watch 56 Games of Soccer in a Month, but hey) So I’m doing the games as joint sets, picking which one to watch, and, as an added favor, covering the advancement situations for every team, which are at times hilariously convoluted.

Why You Should Watch: For the history! France will likely slump out at the group stages for the second time in three World Cups. In fact, France will accomplish the bizarre feat of, since 1998, alternating between either crashing out at the group stage or making the finals. South Africa will likely be the first host country to fail to advance!

Rundown of the Outcomes:

Uruguay goes through if they draw or win against Mexico. Mexico go through if they draw or win against Uruguay. That’s the simple. Furthermore, unless South Africa/France produces a winner, both Uruguay and Mexico go through.

Here’s how France or South Africa can get through. First, they have to win. Second, someone has to win in Mexico/Uruguay. Then some complicated things have to occur.

If France beats South Africa, then France has to make it so the sum of their margin of victory and the margin in the other game exceeds 4 if Mexico wins, and exceeds 5 if Uruguay wins. If Uruguay wins, France can also make it through if they score at least 3 more goals than Uruguay does and the total of the margins equals 5.

If South Africa beats France, then South Africa has to make it so the sum of their margin of victory and the margin in the other game exceeds 6 if Uruguay wins, or exceeds 5 if Mexico wins. If Mexico wins, South Africa can also make it through if they score at least 3 more goals than Mexico does and the total of the margins equals 5.

In both of those last scenarios (the at least three more goals one), at three goals the winner would be determined by drawing lots.

Which Game to Watch: Uruguay and Mexico have no incentive to play – on a 0-0 draw they both go through. So that game will probably suck. France/South Africa is a game where to have any chance, the players need to run up quite a margin, so I’d probably watch that one.

Player to Watch: Nicholas Anelka – the most underscoring, sulky striker ever to walk

Games 35 and 36: Nigeria vs. South Korea and Greece vs. Argentina

Why You Should Watch: This group is completely nuts – nobody is actually guaranteed to go through, and only Argentina are masters of their fate. This is a good group – Nigeria are a solid team, Argentina are attacking mavens, and South Korea are shaping into my favorite underdogs. Greece, well, Greece sucks.

Rundown of the Outcomes:

Argentina advance if they get anything from their game against Greece, and fail to advance only if Greece beats them by 5 and South Korea beats Nigeria by 6. In other words, Argentina are almost certainly through.
South Korea will go through if they beat Nigeria unless Greece beats Argentina by more than South Korea beats Nigeria, or if they draw with Nigeria and Greece loses, or if they draw with Nigeria and Greece draws with Argentina while scoring less than two goals more than South Korea does in their draw. (I know.)
Greece will go through if they beat Argentina so long as South Korea does not beat Nigeria by an equal or better margin, or if they draw to Argentina and Nigeria beat South Korea., or if they draw to Argentina and South Korea draws to Nigeria while scoring at least two fewer goals than Greece does in their draw.
Nigeria will go through if they beat South Korea and Argentina defeat Greece.

Which Game to Watch: Tough to say. The possibilities that involve Greece advancing all require them to get a shock point against Argentina. If Argentina could so imperiously conquer South Korea, the much weaker Greece, who needed a moment of blinding idiocy from Nigeria to win, should be toast. That means that game is about 70% likely to be a predictable but flashy affair, and 30% likely to be an absolute thriller. Except, honestly, a side as defensive as Greece is unlikely to make the draw condition work, so let’s call it 90/10%.

Meanwhile, Nigeria and South Korea is a game that has seemingly guaranteed thrills, because you have a team (Nigeria) that cannot afford a draw, and two good teams. So do you want predictable but flashy, or unpredictable but less flashy (while still flashy)? If the former, Argentina. If the latter, Korea.

Players to Watch: Messi, always, for Argentina. Park Ji-Sung for South Korea.

Friendly Bet to Make: Argentina and South Korea to advance.
Game #27: Slovakia vs. Paraguay

Why You Should Watch: One of the two groups to go draws all around in the first round. In theory, Italy have a walk in the park and should get 7 points out of the group. But then, a few days ago in theory they should get 9. But in theory, second place comes down to this game, with Slovakia and Paraguay fighting to win. Paraguay has the advantage, given that Slovakia dropped points against New Zealand, while Paraguay snuck one against Italy. So a draw favors Paraguay. But a win decisively favors whoever wins it, so Slovakia have everythign to play for, and Paraguay do too. In other words, a classic “someone’s gotta win this” game.

Player to Watch: Stick with Santa Cruz, who will firmly be the best attacking threat on the pitch.

Friendly Bet to Make: Paraguay 2-0.

Game #28: Italy vs. New Zealand

Why You Should Watch: Because it is impossible for New Zealand to beat Italy. Impossible. Cannot possibly happen. It would be the upset of the tournament. It would be one of the great upsets of the century. In 50 years, we would still be talking about this match if New Zealand won. No way it’s going to happen. None.

Of course, New Zealand are flying high after a spectacular result against Slovakia…

And Italy were awfully creaky in their draw with Paraguay…

Nah. Can’t happen.

Player to Watch: Federico Marchetti is in for Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon is one of the great goalkeepers of the world. Marchetti… well, he’s a goalkeeper. Again, New Zealand can’t win. But if they get a goal, expect it to be because an inexperienced goalkeeper from a mediocre team had to step up to the biggest stage in football and couldn’t cut it.

Friendly Bet to Make: You’d be a fool to bet on a New Zealand 1-0 win. A fool. Don’t do it.

Game #29: Brazil vs. Ivory Coast

Why You Should Watch: Brazil conceded a goal to the theoretically pathetic North Korea. Ivory Coast, without their best player, held the theoretically great Portugal to a draw. Here is where we start to really learn who is and isn’t as great as we think. If the Ivory Coast is better than we think, they could surprise here and throw the group into chaos.

Player to Watch: It pains me, but the biggest chance of an upset in this group is Didier Drogba, my least favorite player for the Ivory Coast.

Friendly Bet to Make: Bet on the Coast 2-1 - not because it will happen, just because it's cool.
Game #24: Netherlands vs. Japan

Why You Should Watch: Attacking flair vs. attacking flair. The two favorites to advance out of the group. One of them can win this and be done. This is, honestly, a great game – two good teams, and a really interesting result on the line – if the Netherlands win, Japan has it all to do against Denmark. If it’s a draw, the group blows open, especially if Cameroon/Denmark turns into a win. If Japan wins, well, it doesn’t set up as good a final game, because the Netherlands are clear favorites against Cameroon, but on the other hand, it means this is a thrilling upset.

Player to Watch: Let’s go with the Netherlands’ Dirk Kuyt, with, again, a teaser for the possible appearance of Arjen Robbens. Kuyt is a workhorse – he gets the ball, and he hustles with it. As a result, he’s likely to be involved in any goals that happen.

Friendly Bet to Make: Japan with a 2-1 upset.

Game #25: Ghana vs. Australia

Why You Should Watch: Because Ghana’s dismantling of Serbia made them the leading African team in the tournament. Money is on an African team doing pretty well. Ghana surprised given that they lacked Michael Essien, one of the finest players on the planet, but they look good. Australia… didn’t, and are probably done for, especially given that they got their best player, Tim Cahill, red-carded. Look for this game to be where Ghana stamps their authority on the group – a delicious proposition given the shock Serbia win over Germany that threw this group into chaos. Ghana winning sets up a magnificent showdown with Germany.

Player to Watch: I honestly don’t know. Ghana’s best striker is Asamoah Gyan – so I would look to him to seal the deal for Ghana.

Friendly Bet to Make: Ghana 1-0, but a tense 1-0.

Game #26: Cameroon vs. Denmark

Why You Should Watch: These two teams died on the table in their first game. That means that there is only one result here that does anybody any good – a win. Make no mistake – a draw is doomsday. A loss is even worse. Both teams have to win this, and they know it. Expect caution to be thrown to the wind and to see a no holds barred game of fury here.

Player to Watch: Still gotta be Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o – the man who can become a hero with a win here, at least until an unenviable meeting with the Dutch.

Friedly Bet to Make: Cameroon 3-2 Denmark.
Game #21: Germany vs. Serbia

Why You Should Watch: Because Germany’s decimation of Australia was one of the best games of the first round of the group stages, whereas Serbia crumbled painfully against Ghana. This is it for Serbia – they’ve got to rescue a point out of this or they’re doomed. But as we saw, Germany is very, very good. But Serbia are good. Or at least, they should be. Their form against Ghana suggests otherwise. So here it is – all or nothing. Glory or ignoble defeat. A nation’s hopes on the line, blah, blah, blah.

Player to Watch: Serbia’s best player is defender Nemanja Vidic – one of the best central defenders in the world. But is he good enough to squash a rampaging German offense? He’s got good support, but it’s a big ask to step up against an offense this good.

Friendly Bet to Make: You’ll lose, but the socially interesting bet is a 1-0 Serbia win.

Game #22: Slovenia vs. USA

Why You Should Watch: For all the hype of the US getting a point against England, it is easy to forget that right now the favorites are behind Slovenia in the group. The US got a good point against England, but now they have to go get three against Slovenia. Make no mistake – if they lose this, they’re probably done. They’re favorites to advance, but only if they can take down the Slovenes, who are no slouch of a team.

Player to Watch: Jozy Altidore, a blazingly fast striker who, while he struggled for his club team last season, is a giant on the international stage, and provided the most thrilling moment of the England game.

Friendly Bet to Make: Don’t be a dick. Bet on a US 2-0 win.

Game #23: England vs. Algeria

Why You Should Watch: Were it not for Robert Green’s appalling error, England would have had the US dead to rights. They’re a good team, and the return of Gareth Barry from injury for this game should improve them. Some tactical shuffling needs to happen, but England’s manager, Fabio Capello, is as good at that as they come. England, in other words, are a good team, and I expect to see them play authoritatively in this game.

Player to Watch: The goalkeepers. Algeria’s goalkeeper managed to up the game when it comes to howling errors with an absolutely awful non-stop against Slovenia. Who will be the worse keeper?

Friendly Bet to Make: England 3-0.
Game #18: Argentina vs. South Korea

Why You Should Watch: South Korea dazzled against Greece. Argentina… got a win. But they were unconvincing in front of goal. Whereas South Korea were damn convincing, with Park Ji-Sung getting a gorgeous goal. Argentina is still favored. They have to be. But South Korea is good. There are few games in the tournament I feel like are this ripe for an upset. On top of that, you’ve got two flair, proud, attacking teams. Those wondering where the goals are in the World Cup could well be satisfied here.

Player to Watch: There can be only one, and he is Lionel Messi. He was good against Nigeria, but couldn’t get a goal. If he shows up a little more here, Argentina will win. Simple as that.

Friendly Bet to Make: I think a stoppage time equalizer in a 2-2 draw.

Game #19: Greece vs. Nigeria

Why You Should Watch: Because this could be it for the group – if this is a draw, South Korea is going to go through. If Greece wins, South Korea is going through. If Nigeria wins, though, then it sets up a thriller in their match.

Player to Watch: Oh, I dunno. Obafemi Martins. Nigerian striker.

Friendly Bet to Make: If you’re with people who know their stuff, bet on a Nigeria win. But if you’re trying to sell people on watching with you, go with the 2-2 draw that will make this the decisive game of the group.

Game #20: France vs. Mexico

Why You Should Watch: It’s the opposite of Game #17, honestly – here you have two teams that dropped points in games they should have won. They’re in trouble, and need to pull it out and get some points. On paper, France is the better team, but they were shambolic against Uruguay, while Mexico were hard-done by the draw against South Africa. This could go either way.

Player to Watch: Nicholas Anelka is a fantastic striker, but he looked lost up at the front of the line against Uruguay. If France are going to win, it’s going to be because he plays better. If they lose, it’s because he’s going to slump to ignoble disappointment this World Cup.

Friendly Bet to Make: Mexico to make a thrilling upset with a 3-0 win.
Game #12: New Zealand vs. Slovakia

Why You Should Watch: Because someone should? No, really – I confess, this is not likely to be a good game.

Player to Watch: Martin Skrtel, of Slovakia. Because his name sounds like a Pokemon. Look, I’m dying here – this is a 7:30 AM game. I can’t even get myself to wake up for this shit.

Friendly Bet to Make: That anyone who says they’ll show up to watch the game is a liar. Seriously. This game is so boring I FORGOT TO POST ABOUT IT BEFORE IT HAPPENED. (Though that goes to show me - shock stoppage time equalizer on what was actually a great game.)

Game #13: Ivory Coast vs. Portugal

Why You Should Watch: Because this is Group G. Three of the best teams in the world are in it. Assuming Didier Drogba recovers and can play, this is a clash of attacking titans. Look for goals aplenty. There are three decisive games in this group, and they’re the three that don’t involve North Korea. Brazil are favorites to make it out, so the winner here is automatically favorite for second. So this is one of those great games that’s a climactic game off the bat – it’s absolutely must-win between two of the most aggressive, attacking teams in the world. The loser only has one recourse to make it out of the group – beat the best team in the world. Good luck.

Player to Watch: Well, I despise Didier Drogba, so let’s go with Cristiano Ronaldo – one of the absolute best players in the world. He’s slept with Paris Hilton. Real Madrid shattered all transfer records buying him from Manchester United. And he’s never really been on fire for his country. Is he going to change that?

Friendly Bet to Make: Agony for all in a thrilling 3-3 draw that makes the games against Brazil absolutely crucial.

Game 14: Brazil vs. North Korea

Why You Should Watch: Do you like goals? Do you like games where one team scores a whole lot of them? Then this is the game for you. Simply put, North Korea do not have a chance in hell here. They’re screwed. This group consists of three of the best teams in the world, and them. Brazil - #1 team in the world. Portugal - #3. Ivory Coast - #27. North Korea? #106, edging out Rwanda. They’re screwed.

This game is, therefore, going to be pure, hilarious spectacle. By fart he World Cup game most likely to end with some ridiculous score like 7-0.

Unless… a lesser team like North Korea will usually play a hard, defensive game. Every once in a while, that works out. Not for a win – but what if they can shut down Brazillian scoring? I mean, it’s not likely – probably at best they can only lose 2-0. But what if they get the 0-0 draw? Brazil has suddenly dropped two sure points. Their World Cup campaign is in trouble from the get-go. Let’s be clear – Brazil are the favorites to win the tournament. Will they start out acting that way?

Player to Watch: Well, it’s gotta be a Brazillian, you figure. But who. Brazil has gotten interesting in the last few years – a lot fewer big name international stars make the national side. Huge names like Adriano and Ronaldinho will be watching from home. Their best player is probably Kaka, a gloriously good attacking midfielder. But he’s not been great this season. Will he revive his form for the World Cup? Watch and see.

Friendly Bet to Make: If you’re encouraging friends to watch with you, tempt them with a spectacle of 7-0. If you’re watching with mildly savvy friends, go with “I think that North Korea might be underestimated – I could see a 0-0 happening.” You’ll lose, but you’ll lose classily. If you’re completely drunk and want to make a fool of yourself, 0-1 North Korea.

Game #15: Honduras vs. Chile

Why You Should Watch: Remember how I said there are no defensive South American teams? Well here you go. Chile – one of the most furiously attacking teams in the world. Honduras – actually, I have no idea about Honduras. They’re Central American, not South American. Total wild cards for me – I’ve heard of some of their players. Looking at their squad, they look defensive. But I’ve got nothing. Could be anything. Chile, though, are always entertaining.

Player to Watch: Chile’s strikers, Alexis Sanchez and Humberto Sauzo. Two of the top scorers for their country. They should be the key to an entertaining as hell game.

Friendly Bet to Make: I assume Chile 2-0.

Game #16: Spain vs. Switzerland

Why You Should Watch: It’s Spain. They’re probably the best team in the world. Favorites to win. Attacking mavens. Very possibly unbeatable. If you want to see what people are talking about when they call it the beautiful game, watch Spain. They are the beautiful game.

Player to Watch: Jeez. Anyone Spanish. But probably David Villa, who just completed a blockbuster move to Barcelona, and who is one of the best strikers in the world. He burst out of the gates in Euro 2008 with a hat trick in the first game, managing the feat of being the tournament’s top scorer despite only playing three full games and going out injured 34 minutes into a fourth.

Friendly Bet to Make: 3-0 Spain.

Game #17: South Africa vs. Uruguay

Why You Should Watch: In round one, both of these teams eked out the underdog draw, holding better opposition down. Uruguay against France as a 0-0 draw wasn’t inconceivable, and South Africa coming out screaming against Mexico isn’t unheard of, but it was a paor of, if not upsets, at least surprises. And by each getting an unexpected point while rivals dropped two, you’ve got now a thriller – either team can, with a win, become favorites to advance. And both teams, as they say, play with heart. This has some real potential to be a great game.

Player to Watch: Siphiwe Tshabalala. Scored what is likely to be one of the top 10 goals of the tournament in the opener. Will he reproduce the form and go for being the player revelation of the tournament? The sort of player that rockets to the world stage in the World Cup? Right now he plays for a South African team – the Kaizer Chiefs. Will he move up in the world?

Friendly Bet to Make: I think fun is betting on South Africa to shock with a 1-0 win.
Game #9: The Netherlands vs. Denmark

Why You Should Watch: Because in only 32,000 square miles of land are 22 of the best football players in the world. The Netherlands punch above their weight in all things, and football is no exception – they pioneered the best attacking style, basically, ever. Denmark are no slouches either. You’re not an idiot to bet on both countries advancing from the group. This is a game of roaring mice, and it ought to be a corker.

Player to Watch: The Netherlands are swimming in good attacking players. If Arjen Robben recovers from his injury enough o play, he’s probably my pick, but really, the entire squad is fantastic.

Friendly Bet to Make: Never bet against the Netherlands. 3-1.

Game #10: Japan vs. Cameroon

Why You Should Watch: Because in the end, Cameroon is probably the best African team in the competition – it’s them or the Ivory Coast, and with the Ivory Coast’s star Didier Drogba likely to miss out due to injury, it’s probably Cameroon. Japan are easy pickings who are unlikely to make it out of this group. So this is a chance for an African team to make a good solid start. But on the other hand, as always, the underdog team needs to impress. If Japan can snatch a point here, the race for second turns no end of exciting. And Cameroon’s hopes lie in the mercurial Samuel Et’o, which brings us to

Player to Watch: Samuel Et’o. One of the best strikers in the world, and a raging egomaniac. He’s moody and almost quit the team once already. Can he get it together and play for the honor of his country and continent? Or will Cameroon slump ignobly and drop points against Japan?

Friendly Bet to Make: I’m gonna bet on Cameroon coming out flying with a 2-0 win.

Game #11: Italy vs. Paraguay

Why You Should Watch: Actually, it’s tough to recommend an Italy game, given their stunningly and maddeningly defensive tendencies. Thankfully, there’s no such thing as a defensive South American team, and Paraguay should come out swinging. All the same, if I’m going to be honest, Group F sucks. Italy will walk away with this, probably with Paraguay following them out. But if Paraguay’s attacking flair can make this game watchable, you’ve actually got a bit of an exciting group.

Player to Watch: If Paraguay can make this group tolerable, it will be because Roque Santa Cruz, their best striker, is on fire.

Friendly Bet to Make: Italy 1-0. *sigh*