Retrospective64 – F-Zero-X

The Nintendo 64 was my first console. It’s many cartridges, trident-like controller, and countless classics were the foundation for my video game experience. As quarantines and isolations continue to keep many, including me, at home, I’ve decided to look through my catalogue of N64 games and explore how they’ve stood, or fallen to, the test of time.

If I had to explain F-Zero X in just a few words, it’d be that it’s the “this ain’t your dad’s ___” of racing games. While other N64 classics, like Mario Kart 64, provide a night of family fun on the race track, this 1998 entry in the F-Zero franchise is as close to edgy as you’ll get from an in-house Nintendo game.

The game has excellent world building and builds on everything teased by its SNES predecessor. Each pilot and vehicle is unique and the vast major have proven memorable even when I go a good while without playing the game. I can easily recall drivers like Pico, Octoman, Bio Rex off the top of my head and of course the game features Captain Falcon, who’s Smash Bros.’ fame is larger than that of this franchise. The vehicles stand out equally. Like its driver, the Wild Goose was always a favorite of mine, but the Blood Hawk, Fire Stingray, and Red Gazelle are equally iconic.

F-Zero X advertisement art. Photo courtesy of Nintendo.

Much like Star Fox 64, this is generally a game that clearly knew how it wanted to look. The tracks themselves mirror this as much as the characters, with the likes of Mute City and Big Blue providing unforgettable racing experiences. It goes beyond the literal track though, the pixelated world around the tracks provides a look into a dangerous, dystopian world that echoes the edgy appearances of the pilots, all of which look worthy of an appearance in a Star Wars cantina or Jabba’s Palace. Like many Nintendo games of the time, F-Zero X is as fun to explore and exist in as it is to race through.

The game’s soundtrack was composed by Taro Bando and Hajime Wakai, who both provide a gritty series of rock anthems for the dark and stormy franchise. The music is toned down during the actual races, a reasonable choice given the chaos that ensues in almost every play through, but it’s present enough to help you feel like your at the center of something great. It’s a soundtrack that distances itself from the usual fun tracks we associate with 90’s Nintendo but that’s another aspect of why the game is so memorable. Not to repeat myself, but, this ain’t your dad’s Nintendo game.

The game is quite straight forward. The A button manages your thrust, while the joystick steers your vehicle. After you complete the first lap of any race, you’ll receive a boost ability that drains your shields every time you use it. That can be triggered by pressing B. The right bumper and Z buttons trigger an attacking move to your right and left respectively. Pressing both together causes you to spin and deal more damage to nearby vehicles, though attacking in general can slow you down.

There are four main modes for the game. The first is the GP, which is one of five race sets. These sets are the Jack, Queen, King, Joker, and X GP’s, with the last two being unlocked after certain achievements. There are also three difficulties: Novice, Standard, Expert, and Master.

The other three modes are Time Attack, Death Race, and VS. Time Attack has you complete a three lap track by yourself (a ghost competitor is optional) in an attempt to finish as fast as possible. Death Race has you go on to a special track in which you and the other 29 vehicles race endlessly until only one remains. It’s more or less a death match mode and certainly matches the film franchise it takes its name from. VS is the multiplayer mode of the game and sees you face off against up to three other players. All in all, F-Zero X has all the modes you’d expect. The combination of the GP’s, Time Attack, and Death Race provide enough to keep the player entertained for quite awhile, even for those like myself that don’t love racing games by default.

There are few N64 games I remember as fondly as F-Zero X. It’s one of those games that makes you feel like you’re in an exciting, dangerous world and gives you endless reasons to come back. I’ve played through each cup with dozens of different pilots over the years, always finding new challenges along the way and always coming back to the game when I find myself plugging the N64 back in.

If you love some old school dystopian sci-fi, racing, or seeing the edgier side of Nintendo in the 90’s, this is really the perfect game to get you started. 8/10

Four Unforgettable Matches

Allianz Field. Image courtesy of Minnesota United.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota United.

With the beautiful game in a constant state of change, writing about football has been an interesting pass time over the course of 2020. While I usually aim for larger articles looking to investigate a story, I’ve also decided post the occasional blog post while I seek out other projects. The following is one of those blog posts.

In search of a way to write about football while there’s no football being played, I’ve decided to take on a little thought exercise and write about five football matches I’ve attended that stand out as unforgettable moments for me. They’re listed in no particular order and each one has a special place in my heart.

Minnesota United host Portland Timbers (2019) – US Open Cup Semi-Finals

Played on August 7th, my birthday, this match was a historic one for Minnesota United in its MLS era. The club, after two years of struggling in the league, making virtually no progress in the domestic cup, and calling a college (American) football stadium home, had suddenly made a deep run in the USOC. Hosted at Allianz Field, the club’s beautiful new stadium, the semi-final against the Portland Timbers was the last key to qualifying for the final, which would be hosted in Atlanta.

Having attended only a few matches at Allianz that year, I had yet to see Minnesota win at home. The stakes were a little extra high this time around, for a few reasons: It was my birthday and I’d made a trip to see the game, the result would have a major effect on the team’s season, and (in addition to my parents being there) I had brought my girlfriend to see her first ever professional live match of football.

Darwin Quintero scored a penalty to give us the lead, before Brian Fernández equalized right before halftime. A long ball and glorious strike from Mason Toye would hand Minnesota the lead in the 64th minute and the scoreline would go unchanged for the rest of the match.

After singing wonderwall, we left the stadium and I was able to bask in an amazing day of football. I’d watched Minnesota United win one of their biggest-ever matches, and was able to share the experience with my parents and girlfriend along the way.

Duluth FC at AFC Ann Arbor (2018) – NPSL Midwest Region Final

2018 was the first of my two years working with Duluth FC as a staff writer and part of the travel staff. That year was a long journey of ups and downs. I had my car break down on an away day, saw us got a hard point on the road, a victorious three, and sometimes none. The staff were all volunteers for the club, so the long trips and work were all out of passion more than anything else. We qualified for the playoffs in our last regular season game against Med City and were then sent off to drive two vans from Duluth, MN to Ann Arbor, MI.

The ten hour trip was a long, entertaining, and strange one, but we finally arrived at our hotel the day before the first match. We would play a semi-final for the region the next day. If we won, we’d play in the final the day after. We beat Minneapolis City 2-1 in AET and logged a night of sleep before the big day.

Julian Villegas takes on an AFC Ann Arbor player in the Midwest final. Photo courtesy of Alex Ganeev.

The match against Ann Arbor in the final was a crazy one, ending 3-3 after 90 minutes with Kyle Farrar, Ryan Tyrer, and Joe Watt scoring for Duluth. AET resulted in chances but no goals, leading to a penalty shootout. Alberto Ciroi saved two penalties to put us a winning position if Liam Moore scored his. He did. The not-playing players and staff (including me) had lined up at the sideline with arms around each other for the entire affair. When Liam’s goal went in, we (and the players on the pitch) went insane.

It was one of the most fun nights of my life. We took pictures with the trophy, got our medals, and prepared for a long journey back home (and an eventual trip to Miami for the national semi-final). I’d enjoyed a lot of soccer games in my life, but this was the first time it felt like I’d been a part of something big. That was special.

Minnesota United host Real Salt Lake (2017) – First Win in MLS Regular Season

The 2017 season was a rough one for Minnesota United, especially early on. Countless matches ended in steep defeats and the club was holding tightly on to the occasional draw for signs of hope. Having attended the first home game, a horrible loss, I trekked back to the Twin Cities with the help of my dad to see the second home game against RSL.

The match started tough, with Luke Mulholland scoring for RSL just four minutes in. For many fans, it seemed like the same old same old was on the way. My dad and me stayed hopeful and our hopes were repaid in the 16th minute when Kevin Molino equalized. It was 1-1 at the half but over the last 45 minutes, Christian Ramirez would score twice and Johan Venegas would add a fourth to give Minnesota an eventual 4-2 win.

Singing wonderwall for the first time in MLS, the entire stadium was alive with pride and passion for their club. The season may have started horribly, but that win against RSL was a sign of the progress to come. It was a special night for the club and a special night for me.

Duluth FC at Miami FC (2018) – NPSL National Semi-Finals

Having won the regional final, Duluth FC now needed to travel to Miami for the national semi-finals to face former NASL members Miami FC. The team flew there this time around, arriving the day before our match, the first time the club had made the final stage of the NPSL playoffs.

The team trained at the field the day before the match, earning an absolute sweat storm along the way. This warranted a trip to a laundry mat, which I took on. In all honesty, it was a bit of a fish out of water situation.

We finally reached the match, having explored a few places to eat and South Beach, and faced off against the essentially-professional Miami FC. Issues with power to our locker room and a lack of materials promised by the hosts led to a slow warm up, while I stood out front giving tickets to various Duluth fans attending for the club and/or players they had connections to.

Eventually the game kicked off, with me now operating as the photographer due to our usual photographer, Alex Ganeev, not being able to come with the team. Using a camera rented from my college’s media lab, I did my best to take photos of the action while Duluth faced Miami. The match ended 3-0, with the hosts proving too good for our band of amateur all-stars. There was pride in the result, however, because we had made it this far. It was an important lesson in the value of a loss and three days of travel, preparation, and football that I’ll never forget.

Retrospective64 – Starfox 64

The Nintendo 64 was my first console. It’s many cartridges, trident-like controller, and countless classics were the foundation for my video game experience. As quarantines and isolations continue to keep many, including me, at home, I’ve decided to look through my catalogue of N64 games and explore how they’ve stood, or fallen to, the test of time.

Only a handful of games challenge Star Fox 64 for the top tiers of N64 legendary status. Released in 1997, the game built on the foundations of the original SNES title with a vast new range of graphical capabilities and continued focus on quality world building and sound design.

The game sees you take control of the Star Fox team through its leader, Fox McCloud. At your side are Slippy Toad, Falco Lombardi, and Peppy Hare. ROB64/NUS64 provides team management from the team’s flagship and offers supplies and hints throughout the game. Your mission, given to you by General Pepper, is to destroy the evil interplanetary mad scientist Andross. You do so by making your way through the system, planet to planet, destroying his minions.

The box cover of Star Fox 64. Courtesy of Nintendo.

The majority of the game has you traverse through the map in a sort of straight line, killing enemies as they come, though a handful of maps see you fight in a more three dimensional space, circling one central target.

Star Fox 64, and the entire franchise, is a masterclass in world building. Just like its compatriots in the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises, Star Fox oozes with well, Star Fox. You barely need to leave the menu and opening animations to get a grasp on the futuristic, gritty world you’re diving into. With every planet, you learn more about this strange universe of 80’s science-fi combined with a world of sentient animals. Every type of ship, tank, and robot has extreme detail and can frequently be identified from far away. Your own ship, the Arwing, is exquisitely designed and looks like it could fit perfectly into any top science fiction universe.

That quality of design is added to by a great cast of characters, both visually and audibly, who all stand out as well though out and developed. Each voice is unique and perfectly cartoonish, something shown by the meme-like power of Peppy’s one liners (i.e. “Do a barrel roll!”).

Both Hajime Wakai and Koji Kondo are collaborated on the soundtrack for Star Fox 64 and both knocked it out of the park with the job of creating a soundscape that both reflects the subtle horror of the countless monsters and obstacles you face in the void of space and the proud passion of Fox Team as they achieve victory mission after mission. The Star Fox Theme, the spine of the soundtrack, is a plane and simple classic from this era and one that lives in other Star Fox games along with the Super Smash Bros. franchise.

All in all, one of Star Fox 64‘s biggest accomplishments is creating such a consistent and strong series of images and sounds to immerse players in a world they may well be brand new to.

The controls for the game are relatively simple. The C buttons, along with the joystick, give you all the basic managements of your vehicle, including steering, braking, and boosting. The right bumper and Z button provide you some of your more fancy moves, including the famous barrel roll maneuver. The A button fires your main attack, while the B button launches the bombs you can collect. If you can handle a N64 controller, you can handle these controls. I hadn’t played the game in years prior to doing so for this review and got back into it instantly.

The game’s upgrade system, which is per planet, is quite straight forward. You can collect silver rings to regain health. Gold rings do the same, but when you collect three you will receive an armor upgrade which can prove vital in boss battles, which are the centerpiece of the campaign. You can also pick up laser upgrades which improve your main weapon. There is also a wing repair item and a 1-Up item.

One of Star Fox 64‘s best aspects, especially looking back, is the player’s ability to unlock secondary paths, new missions, and alternative bosses. These opportunities are spread across the game and allow for a brand new experience every run. This is especially useful for a game which is relatively easy to finish in an hour or so.

The hidden bosses and planets tend to bring an increased difficulty, but also a brand new wave of experiences and even a few new characters. While its gameplay may be more like a three dimensional cousin of the classic vertical scrolling shooter, it’s detailed personalization feels almost like an RPG of sorts.

Star Fox 64 is an absolute classic, something you shouldn’t need me to tell you. It’s aged remarkably well and is still an engaging futuristic shooter even in 2020. The design, on all ends, is impeccable and iconic and you’ll find that revisiting its countless enemies, allies, bosses, and maps is a welcome journey down memory lane. 9/10

Retrospective64 – World Cup 98

The Nintendo 64 was my first console. It’s many cartridges, trident-like controller, and countless classics were the foundation for my video game experience. As quarantines and isolations continue to keep many, including me, at home, I’ve decided to look through my catalogue of N64 games and explore how they’ve stood, or fallen to, the test of time.

Box cover for World Cup 98. Courtesy of EA Canada.

Note: To prepare for this, I played through the World Cup 98 campaign, which reconstructs the group stage and knockout stage of the tournament, with Romania. I chose Romania above all because they were a medium ranked team and provided a nice challenge. I’m happy to say that I took them all the way and won the final 1-0 over England.

World Cup 98 is, to put it simply, a wonderful slice of nostalgia. While modern FIFA players may find themselves horrified by its lacking mechanics and pixelated look, I can’t help but think of countless experiences playing the game with family, friends, and just myself over the years. The game was made by EA Canada and is one of the few games I’ll be discussing on here that isn’t made by Nintendo or a company closely affiliated with Nintendo.

Despite feeling quite different from EA’s more modern interpretations of the beautiful game, a lot of the basic controls are still there. The joystick of course directs motion. The A and B buttons give your basic passing, tackling, and shooting. The C buttons provide a range of tactics, including sliding tackles, through passes, and purposeful fouls. All in all, it’s a slightly more complicated and spread out version of the FIFA controls you use today.

Overall, it’s really the physics, not the mechanics, that differentiate the games. There’s a strange feeling to how the ball moves in this game and every time you took a shot on goal it seems like the game has decided every attempt has to look like a screamer, with even the most basic shot rocketing across the screen. The passes can be a bit frustrating to target and often a slight error in how your facing will result in a ball being cannoned across the pitch to a random opponent. This isn’t helped by the camera being quite close to the player with the ball, instead of a more zoomed out look as we often see now. I like the intimacy of the zoom in, but it does make it harder to navigate the pitch.

I, as much as I love this game, have to also mention that there’s a sort of delay in many of the commands that means you’ll often think you’ve planned out a great run and shot, only for the player to dribble it a few feet further because you pressed B too late and the keeper just comes and grabs it.

(music/sound) The sounds of this game aren’t all that different from most modern football games, in fact the crowd cheering sounds oddly similar. The menu has a nice tune but otherwise it’s pretty straight forward. The one bright light, albeit a strange one, is the inclusion of Chumbawamba’s hit(?) “Tubthumping” as the intro song. In comparison to the repetitive pop tracks that populate most games of the genre now, it’s a welcome risk, even if the song isn’t your (my) cup of tea.

If nothing else, World Cup 98 is a great bit of nostalgia. You can relive a great World Cup of the past on an already old school console and even get to play as some classic players. Playing it for this reminded me of the endless fun I had with it as a child, including goofing around with a friend to see how many players we could get red cards by slide tackling the head ref.

If you’re looking for a great football game, this probably isn’t it. It’s not especially realistic and frankly is probably more work than just picking up a modern alternative. That being said, if you have it or love yourself some nostalgia and have money on hand, I would highly encourage you to consider giving it a shot.

In a footballing world that’s more and more about clean new modern marketing, it’s nice to just enjoy a slap stick version of the game with some pixelated all-stars. It’s nice to remember when football was just a game played between some kids, that’s a memory football fans shouldn’t let themselves forget. 7/10

The View – East High School’s Ordean Field

With the beautiful game in a constant state of change, writing about football has been an interesting pass time over the course of 2020. While I usually aim for larger articles looking to investigate a story, I’ve also decided post the occasional blog post while I seek out other projects. The following is one of those blog posts.

Every now and then, you stumble upon a field or stadium that leaves a mark on you. Sometimes it’s because of what transpires there. Sometimes it’s because of a great design. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both. For me, Ordean Field, housed at Duluth East High School, is one of the those special fields.

A view of Ordean Field during an American Football game. Photo courtesy of Duluth East High School.

Ordean Field is technically made for American Football, but all my memories of it are as a home for the beautiful game. Duluth Football Club, an amateur club I volunteered with for two years, played its 2019 season at Ordean. That year was a tough one for the club in the NPSL, but every game at Ordean was a majestic experience. I saw Duluth FC win, draw, and lose at Ordean. I enjoyed tortas from Oasis del Norte and consisting stand pretzels alike in its stands and met up with good friends and colleagues at its parking lots. For a summer, it was a home.

All of this to say, however, that none of that was the cherry on top that made Ordean Field so special. What made Ordean the best spot in the city was its view. The field was positioned perfectly to give fans a view of the beautiful Lake Superior. For those unaware, Lake Superior is one of the five members of the Great Lakes. It has a surface area of 31,700 sq mi and touches the shores of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario. It is a truly huge body of water and the heart of this city.

Ordean’s view of the water, as shown at the top of the article, is an absolute gem in a city where most fight over the handful of areas where the lake isn’t blocked by trees or buildings. Seeing it coming into and out of games provided a crystal clear palate cleanser regardless of the result that day. Whatever may happen on the pitch, we knew we lived in and represented a beautiful city.

A view of Ordean Field from a nearby road, with Lake Superior visible behind the stands. Photo courtesy of Duluth East High School.

Ordean doesn’t have any of the shiny features of a good stadium. It is, after all, not a stadium. But I think there’s something to love about the more modest grounds you’ll find across the world, the sort of fields used by lower league clubs, or amateur clubs. I’ve been to Allianz Field, Minnesota United’s new stadium. It is a thing of absolute beauty and I feel lucky to have even stepped inside of it. That being said, there’s something different about the simple and straight forward fields of Duluth East High School and Denfeld High School, Duluth FC’s other home. A modest home is part of the character of a modest club.

Take a moment, amid the chaos of top tier football, to appreciate the amateur, non-league, and otherwise simple homes of the beautiful game. I don’t know what awaits me in the many coming decades of life, but I know a few things I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget Denfeld. I’ll never forget Allianz. I’ll never forget Ordean.

Fariñez to RC Lens – Why It’s Exciting

With the beautiful game in a constant state of change, writing about football has been an interesting pass time over the course of 2020. While I usually aim for larger articles looking to investigate a story, I’ve also decided post the occasional blog post while I seek out other projects. The following is one of those blog posts.

Recent news has revealed a very exciting move for la Vinotinto’s top goalkeeper, Wuilker Fariñez. The Caracas-born keeper joined Millonarios in 2018, following his heroics throughout the 2017 U20 World Cup and a series of senior team appearances, immediately announcing himself to the Colombian game. He made his debut in a pair of appearances against Atlético Nacional in the Superliga Colombiana, which he won. 

Since then, he’s been a constant face in the Millonarios lineup, in addition to Venezuela’s. The 22 year old’s roots in Caracas should not be forgotten. He played with Caracas FC at the youth and senior levels, making his name early in FutVe as a shot stopper. Further details on his skills can be seen in the Solovenex montage below.

Now, however, Fariñez is set to finally show his skills in Europe with the announcement of a move to RC Lens, who were promoted to Ligue 1 in the 2019-20 season. Lens were in second place with 53 points in Ligue 2 when French football chose to end their seasons early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They return to the top tier of France after being relegated down to Ligue 2 in the 2014-15 season. The club had the least losses in Ligue 2 after 28 games with five, three less than first place Lorient.

Fariñez move marks yet another key figure from the 2017 U20 World Cup run being rewarded for their efforts, as he joins the likes of Yangel Herrera, Samuel Sosa, Sergio Córdova, and Adalberto Peñaranda in the ranks of Europe. Fariñez has been rumored for quite some time with connections to Europe, with many wondering why he was still in Colombia despite already being one of la Vinotinto’s most important players.

Lens supporters showing their passion. Photo courtesy of RC Lens.

All of this being said, I’d like to look through the potentials of this move and give my thoughts on what it could mean for Fariñez.

For better or for worse, there is a certain status given to playing in certain parts of the world. Colombia, and certainly Venezuela, do not fit into that view of the great leagues of the world. These days even Brazil and Argentina struggle to stay high on that list for some, especially those unfamiliar with South America.

Wuilker Fariñez is, and has been for some time, one of Venezuela’s biggest talents. We have good forwards. We have good midfielders. We have good defenders. We have a supernatural goalkeeper. You cannot train reflexes like those shown in Fariñez’ various famous triple saves, like the one against Atlético Nacional in the above highlight reel. There is rarely game where la Vinotinto are not saved and improved by his presence and it’s easy to understand how the 22 year old is an automatic addition to the starting eleven.

The stats are not unkind either. In his 22 appearances for la Vinotinto, he’s kept eleven clean sheets. His defensive record expands to the Copa Liberatdores and Copa Sudamericana, where he’s shined for both Millonarios and Caracas. All in all, Fariñez has almost 200 professional club appearances between his two homes, impressing at both.

Despite the obvious talent, Fariñez’ lack of European adventures has left his career seeming less eventful in comparison to his many compatriots. How do outfield players still finding their footing manage to find homes in Germany, Spain, and England while an obvious star waits in the wings?

Now he’s finally off to France, seemingly with first team Ligue 1 football in his grasp. It’s a major jump for the Venezuelan spider and likely to prove a challenge. He’ll have to contend with the top clubs of France for points, and likely survival. PSG, Lyon, and Marseille are, to be frank, an utterly different animal compared to most of what Fariñez has faced at the club level. As part of a newly promoted club, the Venezuelan keeper will be asked to take on a huge task. That said, I think there’s no better challenge for a player who has been underestimated and undervalued for so long.

Improved quality of opposition and a vast new world of coaches, teammates, and influences would have a major impact on any player. For someone like Fariñez, who is already a starlet at 22, they could be the key to greatness.

With the remainder of their offseason work still unclear, it’d be fair to say Lens shouldn’t be expected to finish especially high on the Ligue 1 table, though given their strong Ligue 2 season and their apparent intelligence in finding strong hidden gems in the offseason, I’m beginning to feel they’re set to avoid relegation back to Ligue 2. One decent season with Lens could do wonders for Fariñez’ stock in the transfer market. I believe that “decent” season is very much in the cards. I expect Fariñez to impress, especially in the context of a young keeper making his European debut, and I expect that Lens will manage to lock in Ligue 1 football for the 2021-22 season.

This move, one which almost happened a year ago, will prove a vital step in the career of one of the most important active Venezuelan footballers today. It will be the year that Wuilker Fariñez man stops existing only in the bubble of South American football writers and fans. It will be the year he joins the likes of Herrera, Rincón, Chancellor, Osorio, and Machís as ambassadors of Venezuelan quality in Europe. Folks, it’s going to be quite the year.

I might be wrong, but probably not.

My Kits – Venezuela (2015-2018)

With the beautiful game in a constant state of change, writing about football has been an interesting pass time over the course of 2020. While I usually aim for larger articles looking to investigate a story, I’ve also decided post the occasional blog post while I seek out other projects. The following is one of those blog posts.

My kit collection is small, at least compared to some you’ll find in the closets of other football writers, or even just other football fans. That being said, the small collection contains immense importance for me. Without a doubt, my Venezuela kit is the core of the collection. The top, featuring the wine-like color that gives the team its nickname of “la Vinotinto” and a neon yellow trim, is my only national team top of any sort. It was used, from what I can recall, from 2015 to 2018.

Salomón Rondón celebrates his goal against Uruguay in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Venezuelan National Team.

The top was my first football top ever, aside from a few I used playing as a kid. By the time I got it, I had seen it used to bring glory in the Copa América Centenario in 2016 and the 2017 U20 World Cup. I had seen Salomòn Rondón score off a crazy rebound to beat Uruguay, Sergio Córdova slide one past Mexico, and Samuel Sosa curl in a dream of a free kick in the U20 World Cup semi-finals. I began to wear it regularly on my college campus, taking good care of it and ensuring it avoided even the slightest stain.

In many ways, the top represents the birth of my love for la Vinotinto, which was utterly reforged from a slow burn into a raging fire over the course of 2016 and 2017. The shirt allowed me to wear my pride in a way I’d never really experienced, and while most people were unable to identify its origin upon meeting me, I enjoyed explaining the top and la Vinotinto to them every single time.

The top is unfortunately associated with Venezuela’s troubled campaign to qualify. for the 2018 World Cup, but I never let that stop me from loving it. I saw Venezuela make U20 history in this shirt. I saw my favorite players score in this shirt. I saw the top teams, both U20 and senior, fail to defeat this shirt.

The shirt is my only current Adidas top, though I’m sure that will eventually change. While the white stripes that came before this version of the kit were probably a better color combination, I found myself loving the silliness of the neon yellow (or perhaps neon green?) stripes and trim that adorn the top. There’s something utterly fun about, something senseless. It reminds me how senseless it is to support this national team that all too often is the underdog and all too often seems doomed to stay the underdog. I don’t mind the losses. I don’t mind the neon trim. It’s perfect. It’s my team.

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Me wearing the top, under several layers, at a very snowy Minnesota United match.

Perhaps the point of this entry, my brief love letter to this kit, is to embrace tops that mean something to you on a deep level. You can buy a dozen fun designs, but the kit that warms your heart is always going to be your favorite. Don’t be afraid of your kit being low on clout, or lacking the stars of a century of victories, just buy the shirt that matters to you.

If there’s anything I can ask of the reader, it’s to post your own kit stories, whether that be on a post relating to this article or just on your own.

You’ll Find Change in the Wee Small Hours – Cultural Impact Written Analysis

Note: The following was an essay written for a college course that has since been placed here for archiving.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

The cultural weight of an album cover is an almost eternal detail to any EP or LP and has haunted the list of responsibilities for an artist long before our current era of imagery in media, where a good look can make or kill an artist. This is truly evident in the cover art for Frank Sinatra’s 1955 studio album, In the Wee Small Hours, his ninth and, to some, most important album.

Though often lost to the crowded list of over 50 albums released by Sinatra, many of which contained bigger hits like “Fly Me to the Moon” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, the album managed to go gold on September 6th, 2002, far from the only of Sinatra’s works to do so. In the Wee Small Hours achieves its importance in a different field than many of ol’ Blue Eyes’ discography; the field of emotional and cultural importance.

The album, which reached number two, a position it maintained for 18 weeks, on the Billboard album chart, achieved much more than the usual commercial-focused success of its compatriots. The Rolling Stone Magazine article, titled the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, summarizes the album as a mixture of somber moods and careful planning. “The first set of songs Sinatra recorded specifically for an LP sustains a midnight mood of loneliness and lost love – it’s a prototypical concept album. Listen close and you’ll hear the soft intake of his breath.” (Rolling Stone)

The article in question awarded Sinatra’s experimental masterpiece the 101st spot in its list of 500 albums. It is the only Sinatra album in the top 250 of the list, the only other on the complete list being Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, which was placed at 308. 

Cover of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, courtesy of Capital Records

In the Wee Small Hours is widely considered the first great concept album, as described in Jim Cullen’s Restless in the Promised Land, “The real originator of concept albums was Frank Sinatra, who in albums like In the Wee Small Hours(1955) and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely(1958) exploited the cultural possibilities of inherent in the then-new technology of long-playing vinyl records.” (Cullen, 98) While the concept album structure of the album is important for the music business to this day, it is perhaps the concept which the album builds around that is the most revolutionary aspect of Sinatra’s most vulnerable work. The album is commonly considered to focus on the topics of loneliness, failed relationships, and depression.

This observation is based both on the tunes and lyrics used in its contents and the events surrounding Sinatra’s life around the time the album was written and recorded. By this I refer to Sinatra’s back to back failed marriages with Nancy Barbato and Ava Gardner, who he divorced in 1950 and 1957 respectively. Gardner had been Sinatra’s mistress toward the end of the previous marriage and their relationship would itselfdeterioration due to the extramarital tendencies of both artists. Released in 1955, In the Wee Small Hours found itself buried into the midst of the toxic relationship. The publicly acknowledged connection has led the album’s many heartbroken songs to be known as “Ava Songs” (Taraborrelli, 205).

The album cover takes on the themes championed by the album’s music with a careful selection of colors, patterns, and placement. The cover portrays a detailed drawing of Sinatra himself leaning against an unidentified building while holding a lit cigarette at waist level. Sinatra is well dressed in a suit, fedora, and tie, and placed in front of a in front of a blue-tinted street, buildings and lit lamp posts on both sides, which leaves him alone in an undetailed yet clear night time scene. The Capitol Records logo is placed in a small form in the top left corner with the artist and album names written in small, thin, and white letters and in a simple font.

Sinatra appears to the viewer detailed to the point of nearing real life while his world seems lost in the middle of McCloud’s pyramid. McCloud touches on the nature of using realistic or abstract images in his book, Understanding Comics, “When pictures are more abstracted from reality, they require greater levels of perception” (McCloud, 49) Through this logic, we quickly identify and understand Sinatra’s presence, but must take more time to understand the world he finds himself in. 

The Sinatra shown to us on the album’s cover and contents, a Sinatra heartbroken and that has resorted to writing his “ava songs” to get by, is not the Sinatra most fans, contemporary or listening at the time of the album’s release, would be familiar with according to the majority of his discography. Remembered for his humble Italian roots and traditional yet crisp sense of dress, only one of the eight Sinatra albums released did not include an image of Frank Sinatra smiling. That album, Songs for Young Lovers, was released just one year before In the Wee Small Hours.

At the same time, Sinatra had become one of the famed Rat Pack, a collection of performers who shared residency in Las Vegas and performed together. The Rat Pack, on top of their reputation for popular musical performances, were both famous and infamous for their constant womanizing and heavy drinking. In many ways the group would represent everything wrong with masculinity in the 1950’s all the while gaining fans due to their Las Vegas antics, combining classic dress with constant drinking and sexual buffoonery. Left with the impression that the crooner was a smiling sex symbol surrounded by a lifestyle that represented a perfect combination of classy and fun.

The new face of Sinatra, one tortured by his extramarital lifestyle and reliance on addictive substances, would be a shocking site to any fan navigating his discography chronologically or by popularity. After all, only one song, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, from the album is featured Ultimate Sinatra, one of the most popular compendiums of ol’ Blue Eyes’ work, and none of the album’s tracks have made it on to the top ten list of Sinatra’s Spotify page, which tracks his most streamed songs. Confronted by the vulnerable side of the King of Swing and Vocal Jazz, no fan can see the same man they did when they first stumbled into the sweeping first date soundtracks and anthems of self-determination that form a majority of Sinatra’s career.

In a time when men were restricted in the field of emotional expression, In the Wee Small Hourscover provides an unexpected lighthouse as a beacon of emotional anxiety. It would not, however, work for anyone other than Sinatra himself. Sontag discusses in her book, On Photography, “the quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images” (Sontag, 19).Sinatra, already a nation-wide sensation by 1955 and a symbol of contemporary masculinity and success for time, was a perfect arbiter for a message so uncommon for its time outside of the arts and so against the grain. 

Tufte writes about three key visual techniques in his book Visual Explanations, which can be used to further analyze the cover. Tufte explains the importance of quantities, as shown through these techniques, in images as thus, “Our thinking is filled with assessments of quantity, an approximate or exact sense of number, amount, size, scale.” (Tufte, 13) These techniques are direct labels, encoding, and self-representing scales. The direct labels of the album, the artist’s and album’s names along with a recording label, are what you’d expect from many albums of the time. They are all presented in a soft white color and a thin font. They seem engineered to take away as little as possible from the rest of the image and foreshadow the less-than-excited tone of the album.

The encoding of the cover comes in the form of three key colors. The first is the mild skin tone of Sinatra, a standard beige similar to his real skin color. This is used simply to make the image of Sinatra seem real and accurate. The other two colors are a light blue and a range of gray to black. The blue is a clear signifier of Sinatra’s somber mood and creates an odd parody of the singer’s otherwise charming association with the color blue, often called ol’ Blue Eyes for his crystal blue eyes. Finally, the self-representing of the album is the long and winding road which lingers behind Sinatra and disappears in the distance, the lamp posts in the foreground and background, and the buildings appearing through the haze.

These various details provide scale to the image and establish the physical world surrounding the protagonist who is otherwise existing in an emotional and mental world. Through these portions of the image we understand that Sinatra’s struggles are real and grounded, but also realize just how empty and alone he finds himself to be. 

Frank Sinatra, the gleaming diamond at the head of the Rat Pack, allowed In the Wee Small Hoursto present a version of him that didn’t drink out of joy but instead smoked away the pain. By presenting an image of vulnerability, Sinatra caught the eyes of wandering fans who expected ol’ Blue Eyes to appear jolly and colorful on every album but instead found him sunken into the night. Sinatra opens a window into the emotional vulnerability of the 1950’s man, allowing his ninth studio album to become a therapeutic experience utterly different from the swinging rhythms that made him famous.

This is a Sinatra we would not see again for many decades, only reemerging later in life as he reached his final years in the industry. To the audience of today the album, which despite its acclaim is often left out of lists of his bests or most listened tunes, provides an unexpected twist whilst discovering a classic artist. The ironic twist of the contemporary listener being that Sinatra’s experimental deep dive into his own psyche would be all to normal today, when artists regularly explore their struggles or depression publicly and in song. It was the first concept album, the first concept cover, and the first great emotional cover; it would not be the last.

Works Cited:

“Restless in the Promised Land: Catholics and the American Dream: Portraits of a                        Spiritual Quest from the Time of the Puritans to the Present.” Restless in the Promised Land: Catholics and the American Dream: Portraits of a Spiritual Quest  from the Time of the Puritans to the Present, by Jim Cullen, Sheed & Ward, 2001, p. 98.

“Gold & Platinum.” RIAA, Recording Industry Association of America, www.riaa.com/gold-platinum/?tab_active=default/award&se=In%2Bthe%2Bwee%2Bsmall%2Bhours#search_section.

Rolling Stone. “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 11 Oct. 2018,www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/500-greatest-albums-of-all-time-156826/cream-fresh-cream-172702/.

“Sinatra: behind the Legend.” Sinatra: behind the Legend, by J. Randy Taraborrelli, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, p. 205.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Penguin Classics, 2014.

Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Graphics Press, 2012.