Pokemon: The Movie 2000 Review

In the year 2000, Pokemon was at the height of its popularity. With the second installments – the now-beloved Gold and Silver versions – on the way later in the year, and after the box office success of Pokemon: The First Movie in 1999, Pokemon: The Movie 2000 was sure to be a hit, especially with its emphasis on some of the new Gold and Silver Pokemon. Pokemon: The Movie 2000 didn’t quite reach the ticket sales of its predecessor –  though it is the only anime film that comes close to it in the US box office – it is actually a better movie, with improved character development and a bit of a stronger story.

Pokemon the Movie 2000 sees Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum, his friends Misty and Tracey, and, of course, the adorable Pokemon Pikachu on an adventure that takes them to Shamouti Island, after a massive storm sends them on a little detour from Ash’s usual Pokemon journeys. The group soon learns that the people of the island are in the middle of a festival, celebrating an ancient prophecy based around the mythical Pokemon Lugia and the three legendary birds; Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.

The prophecy states that the elemental birds of ice (Articuno), lightning (Zapdos) and fire (Moltres) will lose their balance over the world’s climate, and their ensuing war amongst each other will awaken Lugia, the guardian of the sea, to try to ease the warring birds and bring balance back to nature. But Lugia will need help from a chosen hero and a special song.

A young girl named Melody is the festival’s maiden, and selects Ash to be the “chosen one” of the festival. As the chosen one, Ash is to retrieve three crystal orbs from the islands of the legendary birds, take them to Shamouti’s Shrine (located in the middle of the three islands), where Melody is to play Lugia’s Song.

This turns out to be more than a ceremonial ritual, however, as an obsessed Pokemon collector named Lawrence III seeks to bring the prophecy to fruition – by means of capturing the legendary birds with his immense, flying fortress – in order to awaken Lugia, which Lawrence believes to be his ultimate prize.

Suffice to say Ash’s role as the chosen one ends up being more vital than simply being part of a festival, and due to Lawrence III’s actions Ash’s duties hold the fate of the planet in the balance.

The plot may be a bit simple, and storylines being built around prophecies are always a bit of a tightrope to walk (more often than not, they tell you exactly where the story is going). But Pokemon has that innocent charm about it that makes it hard to resist, and with Lugia’s presence as a mythological creature, it’s a fitting story.

What gives Pokemon the Movie 2000 extra points in the story department, however, is its improved character development. While the first film focused more on Mewtwo’s backstory, 2000 gives Ash the chance to show a more heroic and selfless side, as if his actions towards the end of the first movie carried over and continued for the entirety of the sequel. Misty – though perhaps needing of some more screen time – is also given time to grow as a character.

Perhaps most notably is how this sequel actually gives Team Rocket something important to do, and gives them new dimensions. While they primarily served as bumbling, villainous comic relief in the series (and still do a bit here), Team Rocket’s Jessie, James and Meowth end up playing an integral role in the plot. It’s a shame that the series would more or less retcon all these character changes away, but hey, they’re still enjoyable to watch during the movie.

As is often the case with Pokemon, 2000 has a go at some emotional moments, and is surprisingly effective with them. Look, it’s obviously not Pixar levels of making audiences cry, but its heart is in the right place, and the emotion resonates more than you’d expect from a movie based on a TV show based on a video game.

Much like the first movie, Pokemon the Movie 2000 has improved animation over the TV series. Though it isn’t without some notable limitations, the jump to the big screen gave Pokemon a new visual life. Plus, the island setting and environmental changes (not to mention Lawrence III’s fortress) gives audiences a wider variety of scenery than the first movie’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs.

An even bigger improvement over the show and the previous film is the musical score. While the English version still contains some pop music of the time, they’re mostly saved for the end credits (and hey, we get a Weird Al Yankovic song out of it, so I can’t complain too much). But the original score of Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is surprisingly good, with “Lugia’s Song” in particular being a standout, and seems to have more than a little bit of inspiration from Princess Mononoke.

Pokemon: the Movie 2000 still suffers from some obvious shortcomings; the plot is nothing special, the animation – though improved – still can’t stack up to other anime features of the time, and its villain needed a bit more time on screen for his motivation to resonate.

But y’know, when you get to see Ash Ketchum, Pikachu and Team Rocket traversing a frozen ocean while Lugia has an elemental battle in the sky against three magic birds, it’s all too easy to look past Pokemon the Movie 2000’s flaws as a film and just enjoy it for what it is. It may not be great cinema, but Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is a good Pokemon movie. It got its fanbase hyped for Pokemon Gold and Silver back in the day, especially with its emphasis on Silver’s mascot Pokemon Lugia (who remains my personal favorite legendary Pokemon to this day). Better still, if you’re a Pokemon fan, Pokemon the Movie 2000 is still worth the occasional revisit for its improved characters and overall sense of charm and fun. Plus, Lugia is just so cool.

 

7.0

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Why Kingdom Hearts Fails at Storytelling

“Meh.”

Kingdom Hearts storytelling is a disastrous mess.

With that sentence, I have made countless enemies within Kingdom Hearts’ questionably diehard fanbase, who seem to hold Kingdom Hearts storytelling capabilities on a pedestal. But I’m sorry, Kingdom Hearts is simply a failure at its narrative, which is more often than not little more than gobbledygook.

I know, Square-Enix fans often seem to be quick to deride those who criticize the studio’s storytelling of just “not understanding complicated stories,” but that’s just the thing, Kingdom Hearts’ storytelling isn’t complicated, it’s just convoluted nonsense. It seems many people within the gaming community these days believe that more story automatically equates to good storytelling, but that’s just not the case (after all, the Sonic the Hedgehog series began to go off-the-rails once it started emphasizing cheesy cutscenes over polished gameplay).

There are plenty of well-written, complicated stories in video games, just as there are great, complicated stories in movies and TV shows. But thinly-veiled insults towards the intelligence of anyone who dares question the narrative abilities of Kingdom Hearts as simply “not being able to understand something complex” just shows off a great deal of immaturity, which is perhaps not all that surprising, since Kingdom Hearts’ supposed complexity is little more than a faux-complexity.

Admittedly, Kindgom Hearts isn’t alone in this, as the Final Fantasy series began to add layers upon layers of convolution to its plots once Tetsuya Nomura got heavily involved. Seeing as Nomura is also behind the Kingdom Hearts series, well, I’m guessing its no coincidence that they share many similarities in such nonsensical storytelling.

By nonsense, I’m not simply writing off the more weird fantasy elements of Kingdon Hearts (if anything, those are its good points). But Kingdom Hearts is a series whose idea of storytelling depth is to simply cake on as many needless details as possible, fill it with numerous cop-outs and deus ex machinas, and make retcons whenever it’s convenient.

A good example of this can be found in the series’ primary villain, Xehanort (or Xemnas or whatever the Hell his name actually is). In the first (and most playable) entry in the series, he went by the name of Ansem, But then in Kingdom Hearts 2, we discover that Ansem is actually an entirely different character, and that the Ansem from the first game was actually Xehanort. Or at least his Heartless (more on that in a moment). But actually, that’s not even the case, as the Xehanort who was Ansem in the first game is actually the Heartless form of Terra-Xehanort, which in itself was created when the original Xehanort forced his heart into a character named Terra. Terra-Xehanort is a hybrid of two humans, and it splits its heart to create the “Nobody” Xemnas and the Heartless called Ansem from the original game.

“Yes, please explain these details to me in an obnoxiously long cutscene, only to alter/retcon these details later because reasons.”

Geez, how many retcons does that description alone reveal? That’s not “complicated storytelling,” that’s just Square-Enix pulling a bunch of details out of their ass and then rewriting them in an attempt to make things complicated. So many details about that one character are so needlessly tacked on, and the series is full of such things.

Going back to the Heartless and the Nobodies (one of the series’ better world-building elements), they are entities that are created by the splitting of one’s heart. When the heart is split from the body, the heart becomes the Heartless, and the body becomes the Nobody (you’d think it’d be the opposite, given their names). That’s all well and fine, but the series often uses this element to create duplicate characters who, frankly, only make the series more convoluted.

For example, Kingdom Hearts 2 introduced the villainous Organization XIII, a group consisting of thirteen Nobodies, some of which were established (and later to be established) characters. One of them, Roxas, even turns out to be the Nobody of the series protagonist, Sora. I don’t immediately dislike the idea of Organization XIII, but the inclusion of Roxas really just adds another unnecessary element to the series, as he’s essentially a second main character.  By that, I don’t mean he’s a deuteragonist, but an additional main character with a story of his own. That could work, if Kingdom Hearts decided to dedicate a series of off-shoots to the character, but all too often the franchise likes to keep all these different narratives going on in the same game. It lacks any shred of focus.

But wait, things don’t end there. Organization XIII itself isn’t even the real Organization XIII. Though Organization XIII served as the main antagonists for Kingdom Hearts 2, they were later retconned to being a secondary Organization XIII, and the Real Organization XIII (yes, adding the word “real” is what differentiates its title) is a group consisting of (wait for it) thirteen different incarnations of Xehanort?! 

Geez, certainly getting a lot of mileage out of that Xehanort character, aren’t they?

I haven’t even mentioned the worst aspect of this convoluted disaster yet: every Kingdom Hearts game is integral to understanding the overall story. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer in many cases, but we’re talking about a series that has released on several different platforms over the years. It would be one thing if the titles released on handhelds were some kind of spinoffs, but nope. They play into the main story as well (which makes the impending Kingdom Hearts 3 actually the twelfth game in the series, not the third).

So, in order to understanding everything that’s going on in this overbloated narrative, you’d have to play the games on PS2, GBA, DS, PSP, 3DS, the upcoming PS4 game, and an episodic mobile game! That’s asking a whole lot of players to delve time and money into all that just to have a semblance as to what’s going on.

Now, Kingdom Hearts fans try to justify this by saying you can now purchase the collections that include the various different games in the series, but that’s an incredibly poor justification, considering these bundles were released years after the fact. If anyone wanted to follow the series in all those years in between, they’d have to own all those different platforms. It’s one thing when a series gets a new entry on a subsequent console of the same brand, since you would assume you’d have the same audience moving on to the next system in that line. And it would be fine if, again, most of these entries were spinoffs. But spreading things out to so many different platforms just to get the full story is ridiculous, especially when the story is as convoluted as it is.

Kingdom Hearts (or, perhaps more accurately, Tetsuya Nomura) simply doesn’t understand how to tell a story in any coherent manner, nor does it (or him) know how to tell a story within the video game medium. It’s bad enough that most Final Fantasy titles these days feel so narratively confused, but at least they’re (mostly) self-contained. But Kingdom Hearts takes the negative aspects of modern Final Fantasy storytelling, and spreads it across an entire series, making what little it does have to tell become thinner and thinner, and then trying to add depth by adding in a bunch of fat and retcons.

This isn’t even taking into account it’s lack of emotion. Now, Kingdom Hearts makes an attempt at pulling at the heartstrings from time to time, but it fails miserably because it seems to not have any understanding of the emotions it’s trying to convey.

Again, this isn’t something that’s exclusive to Kingdom Hearts, as I’ve seen a number of other video games, as well as anime, that seem to have a computer’s understanding of human emotion. Some might say it’s a cultural thing, but considering there have been plenty of Japanese video games and anime that have touched me emotionally, I don’t think that’s it.

A few years ago, Hayao Miyazaki famously (or infamously, depending on how you like your anime) said that he believes modern anime is suffering, due to their creators having a lack of understanding of human emotion and behavior; claiming that many such creators are “otaku” who liked anime and such growing up, and try to emulate it, but without understanding that something extra that gave them meaning. I can say I agree with his sentiment, and I even think this lack of understanding of depth has found its way to video games. It isn’t strictly Japanese games, mind you, but I do feel Kingdom Hearts has become a prime example of a game trying to be deep, but without any knowledge of how to do so.

“Between all these classic Disney villains like Hades, or the cardboard personalities of Tetsuya Nomura villains, guess which ones Kingdom Hearts emphasizes?”

This makes things all the more sour for me personally, because I am a Disney fan. With all the Disney characters and worlds that appear in the Kingdom Hearts series, and being produced by one of the most acclaimed game developers in history, I really wish the series lived up to its potential. But the Disney material that is present isn’t even utilized very well, always playing second fiddle to the (pretty generic) original characters (and the Final Fantasy characters end up getting an even shorter end of the stick). The inclusions of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters almost feel entirely cosmetic, and don’t add anything meaningful to the narrative.

I can’t help but feel that Kingdom Hearts would be insurmountably better – at least narratively – if they actually got some of Disney’s people to do the stories for the games. At least that way, the narrative wouldn’t be so muddled, and it may actually be able to resonate. I would hope that Square-Enix could fix things up themselves, but seeing as the series’ narrative continues to implode in its own convolution, I don’t see things picking up for Kingdom Hearts without a little outside help.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone but the most diehard of Kingdom Hearts fans could be looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3 at this point (if it ever resurfaces, that is). Sure, I’m curious to see what other Disney worlds make the cut, seeing as they seem to be focusing more on recent Disney films as well as those of Pixar (instead of recycling Halloweentown for the umpteenth time). But then I think of all the baggage that’s going to come with it, and I don’t think even Arendelle could save it for me. And boy, is that saying something.

Warning: Positivity Approaching!

Well dang, here we are again. I’m writing another blog about my long-delayed, soon-impending list of favorite video games of all time. And yes, I’m well aware that “soon-impending” is redundant.

So why am I writing about this again? For a very simple reason, I hope to review the remainder (or, at the very least, most) of the games I’d score a perfect 10 or a ‘near-perfect’ 9.5 before then. Since I still hope to make my official list in February, I better get cracking at them.

Suffice to say I’ll start to look a little more like an easy grader, considering I’ll have to pop a few of these high scoring reviews out in the next couple of months. But seeing as I can think of only a handful of additional titles that I’d give top honors to, I guess that means there could be an extensive dry spell of 9.5s and 10s after the fact (unless 2018 somehow repeats 2017’s ludicrous high quality in game design).

I actually have a short list of the games I need to review. Some are more fresh in the memory, and I know they’ll score highly. Others I haven’t played in a while, and need to revisit to see if they hold up. Thankfully, a handful of these games are readily available to me via the SNES Classic Edition.

Don’t worry, I still plan on reviewing some more recent games as well. I’ve been meaning to review Persona 5, Nioh, Nier: Automata, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, and Metroid: Samus Returns for a while now. So hopefully I can get those done soon as well. Not to mention I just picked up Pokemon UltraSun and UltraMoon versions, so I should review at least one of those within the next while. And of course I still plan on catching up on my animated movie reviews, and it would be nice to review the Star Wars movies in time for The Last Jedi if possible.

Okay, I’m just rambling at this point. Mostly, I guess I just wanted to give a little update seeing as I haven’t written anything in nearly a week. So I hope you enjoyed this post, and look forward to my future reviews. Even if I may be squeezing in some all-time greats close together.

Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strike’s Back Review

Go back to 1999. Pokemon dominated the Earth. The monster collecting video game franchise got its start in Japan in 1996, but by the time it made its way to the western world in 1998, the games had a wildly successful anime and a trading card game to go with them. And they all hit stateside at the same time, creating a pop culture phenomenon that I don’t think has been equaled in my lifetime.

It’s not hard to see what made Pokemon popular: It’s ever-increasing roster of Pokemon give it a seemingly endless supply of cute and cool characters, its emphasis on collecting, trading and sharing makes it engaging, and its kid-friendly exterior hides a deceptively deep set of rules and mechanics, whether its in its original video game form or the other media that have spawned from it.

Despite being a marketing goldmine (its merchandise sales exceed that of Star Wars even today), Pokemon was always more than that. As stated, the games were (and are) much deeper than they let on, and the TV series – though often lacking in structure, heavy on repetition, and having its share of cheesy moments – similarly made the effort to be something more. It’s shortcomings were still there, of course, but the Pokemon anime made many attempts at pulling at the heartstrings with its themes of friendship, love, and even loss. It wasn’t simply a fun little franchise, but something that really resonated with its target audience.

A Pokemon movie was inevitable, and it arrived sooner than anyone could have guessed. Going back to 1999, a mere year after Pokemon made its way westward, the Pokemon generation was elated to see their beloved franchise make its way to the big screen.

Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back was a big deal in its day (it remains the highest-grossing anime film in North America, with only its immediate sequel coming close), and it remains a nostalgic treat for those like me who were at the center of Pokemania in 1999. Although I wouldn’t classify Pokemon: The First Movie as a great film by any means, I would still label it as something more than a mere guilty pleasure, seeing as it – much like the TV show – made the effort to be something more than the cash-grab cinematic transition it also very much was.

As the title makes quite clear, Pokemon: The First Movie centers around Mewtwo, the legendary Pokemon who was – at the time – the most powerful Pokemon of all. While most Pokemon are like animals, and the other legendary Pokemon are akin to mythological creatures, Mewtwo was engineered by humans in a laboratory, by means of cloning the “first” Pokemon, the legendary Mew.

In the film, Mewtwo’s creation was commissioned by Giovanni, the mysterious leader of the villainous Team Rocket organization. Giovanni manipulates Mewtwo to be his own personal weapon, but as Mewtwo gains greater sentience and begins pondering his existence, he abandons Giovanni in hopes of making a greater purpose for himself. Mewtwo plans on creating his own cloned Pokemon to inhabit the Earth, after he rids it of humans and the Pokemon of the natural world (beginning with a massive storm that Mewtwo is creating using his psychic powers).

It’s a pretty heavy story for Pokemon, with the point being hit home when Mewtwo destroys the lab that created him (killing all the scientists therein) within the first few minutes. No one died in the TV series up to this point, so that shift in subject matter definitely made this feel like Pokemon the movie.

Mewtwo decides to prove the worth of his clone Pokemon by posing as “the world’s greatest Pokemon master,” inviting trainers over to New Island to do battle. Among these trainers are the series’ original heroes Ash Ketchum, Brock and Misty. The trio – like the other trainers invited to New Island – are unaware of Mewtwo’s identity and of his clone Pokemon, and are only looking to test their Pokemon battle skills. When the trainers arrive and discover Mewtwo’s intentions, they find themselves trying to stop the legendary Pokemon’s plot.

It’s not exactly anything Earth-shatteringly new, but as stated, it certainly made Pokemon feel more dire than it did on the small screen. On the downside of things, the English version of the movie shoehorned a “fighting is wrong” message into the film, which is repeated ad nauseam in a single scene towards the end. Given the nature of the Pokemon franchise, with trainers battling each other with their Pokemon, it’s kind of hard for an anti-fighting message to resonate very strongly. Sure, the point the movie tries to make is that the fighting caused by Mewtwo is something truly brutal, as opposed to the competitive skirmishes of Pokemon battles, but all the movie does to make that point is say “Pokemon aren’t supposed to fight… not like this.” Granted, I understood that even as a kid, but I was familiar with Pokemon. I can’t imagine the parents who took their kids to see this movie in 1999 could understand the difference between a Pokemon battle and what the movie refers to as “fighting.”

It’s simply a forced message that doesn’t really work with the movie that’s presenting it, and it’s made all the less impactful due to the climactic battle between Pokemon and clones being accompanied by a pop tune that’s only included for the sake of a pop tune, which only clashes with the movie.

The Japanese version of Mewtwo Strikes Back better emphasizes the message of man playing God and its consequences, what with Mewtwo’s search for a purpose and all that. The English version may have benefitted both narratively and (perhaps) critically if it focused on that message instead of one that clashes with the nature of the franchise.

There are also some notable flaws with the translated version, with at least three Pokemon being referred to by the wrong name (confusing Pidgeot for Pidgeotto and Sandslash for Sandshrew are at least understandable, but when Team Rocket refers to a Syther as an Alakazam, it’s a hilariously glaring error to any Pokemon fan). Though at the very least I suppose there’s a bit of nostalgic irony to be had with these mistakes, but you do have to wonder if the translators had any reference material to avoid such errors.

In terms of animation, Pokemon: The First Movie is of course an improvement over the TV series, with more fluid character movements and more detailed backgrounds. Granted, it still has its visual limitations, but in its stronger moments, Pokemon: The First Movie has that distinct “90s anime” look that has held up pretty well. And excluding the shoehorned inclusions of 90s bands such as *NSYNC, the music is actually not bad, and hearing that original Pokemon theme brought up to scale for a movie still gives me goosebumps.

Pokemon: The First Movie suffers from some obvious flaws and shortcomings (including a brief running time, with the film’s theatrical release being accompanied by a Pokemon short film to add an extra 20 minutes). But what elevates it to being something more than a mere guilty pleasure of nostalgia for me are its attempts at emotional moments, some of which are actually quite successful. One scene towards the end in particular, is surprisingly effective. Hey, when Pikachu is crying, it’s hard to not get a little misty-eyed.

In the end, Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back is far from a great movie (its sequels – though flawed in their own right – were improvements), but it makes enough worthwhile attempts to be something more that it still provides some entertainment. Despite all the blemishes, Pokemon: The First Movie is still a nostalgia trip that I don’t feel guilty about taking from time to time.

 

6.5

Super Mario Galaxy Turns 10!

Super Mario Galaxy was released on the Nintendo Wii on November 12, 2007, meaning that today is the tenth anniversary of its (western) release. Wow… I feel old.

Anyway, the ten-year milestone is always a big one, but I feel this is an exceptional cause for celebration in the video game world for a couple of reasons.

The first such reason is that Super Mario Galaxy can be seen as a resurgence of the Super Mario series, which is still going strong these ten years later. Sure, the Mario series never got into any real slump (he’s not Sonic, after all), but aside from the two Paper Mario titles on the N64 and GameCube, it felt like the series had been missing that little something extra after Super Mario 64. But then Galaxy came along and brought the series back to its strongest. Here was a game that could ranked alongside any of Nintendo’s best. And because of it, we later got the holy-crap-it’s-somehow-even-better Super Mario Galaxy 2 a few years later. Sure, Super Mario 3D Land was a bit of a regression, but Super Mario 3D World, while no Galaxy, delivered another Mario great shortly thereafter, largely because of the impact Galaxy made to the series, and its influence on Nintendo’s designers.

“Super Mario Galaxy also introduced us to best girl, Rosalina.”

This influence stretched past Nintendo’s doors, however, as many other developers sang the praises of Super Mario Galaxy. It also seemed to shift the industry as a whole in a more positive direction. After the early 2000s seemed to transform gaming into “edgelord” mode, where everything was dark and gritty, and vengeance seemed to be the go-to motive for the armies of “anti-heroes” of the time; Super Mario Galaxy’s high praise and strong sales seemed to lighten things up a bit, and reminded people that a colorful, cheerful game doesn’t equate to a bad one. Thankfully, we see a much wider variety of tones and styles in games today then we did in the 2000s, and although that’s not all on Galaxy’s shoulders, it probably is the centerpiece of this shift thanks to its acclaim and influence.

“Galaxy reintroduced Mario World’s constant sense of invention to the series. There was never a dull moment in Galaxy.”

Now perhaps this is just me talking, but I feel like Super Mario Galaxy revived the “perfect 10” in video games. That’s entirely subjective, of course, but I think if you look at most publications’ records of perfect scores, they seemed to pick up in numbers with the release of Super Mario Galaxy. I don’t think critics are any easier in giving perfect scores, I just think games have gotten better, and are at a height they haven’t been in since the 16-bit days. Again, it’s not that Galaxy magically made perfect 10s possible, but it can be seen as the beginning of this high level of quality.

Even on a more personal level, there were plenty of games I enjoyed greatly during the early 2000s, but at the same time, there aren’t a whole lot I’m quick to point out as some of the best games I’ve ever played if asked today. That’s certainly not a knock on those games (again, many of them were great), but as stated, I think Galaxy resurrected that timeless quality in games that hadn’t been seen since the Super Nintendo era.

I mean, when the worst thing I can say about Galaxy is that Galaxy 2 and Super Mario Odyssey are even better, that kind of speaks volumes about it.

Happy tenth anniversary Super Mario Galaxy! An all-time classic, without question.

Sonic Forces Review

Oh, Sonic.

To say that Sonic the Hedgehog has had a rough history ever since he made the transition into 3D is more than a little bit of an understatement. From games that were decent in their day but aged horribly (Sonic Adventure) to flat-out stinkers (Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric), Sonic has become something of a joke.

It finally seemed like Sonic the Hedgehog would make his triumphant return to greatness in 2017. Not only did the series receive a new, 16-bit sidescroller in the form of Sonic Mania, but it also received something of a follow-up to 2011’s Sonic Generations, one the few 3D entries the series could be proud of.

When Sonic Mania was released during the Summer, it really seemed like this was to be the year of the hedgehog, as Sonic Mania captured the very essence of Sonic’s best outings and created a fun and creative successor to the Genesis titles we’ve all waited over two decades for. But alas, despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic just can’t seem to keep his momentum. All the good will established through Mania has seemingly run straight into a brick wall with Sonic Forces, a title whose potential seems continuously squandered through a rushed, unpolished execution.

Like Generations, Sonic Forces looks to combine both 2D and 3D Sonic gameplay. As in the 2011 game, players take control of either pot-bellied “Classic Sonic” whose stages are strictly 2D, or the trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool Modern Sonic, whose stages switch between a 2D and 3D perspective.

Modern Sonic is equipped with a homing attack, which really only makes things feel like mindless button-mashing, since you just have to repeatedly hit the button to blast through enemies who can’t do anything against it. What really hurts Modern Sonic’s stages, however, are the sections that have Sonic blasting through a stage in 3D perspectives, largely because you can’t make out what’s in front of you until you crash into it. You’d be surprised just how often you slam into a robot and lose rings because you thought it was a speed booster, and many of the deaths you’ll encounter feel more attributed to an inability to see what’s ahead, as opposed to player error.

It should come as no surprise that Classic Sonic’s stages are the highlight of the game. Classic Sonic retains the “drop dash” from Sonic Mania, though he doesn’t control as smoothly as his recent 16-bit counterpart. Classic Sonic’s stages benefit from the 2D perspective and actually being able to see what’s in Sonic’s path, but better still is that you actually feel like you’re doing something more than pushing forward and spamming the homing attack. The Classic Sonic stages may not stack up to anything from Sonic Mania (or even Generations, for that matter), but at least they actually feel like there’s something to them.

“I tried to make an old-timey cartoon character, but it ended up looking like something far more sinister.”

But wait a minute, a third playable character joins the Sonics this time around, in the form of the player’s own created avatar. Yes, it appears as though Sega has been paying attention to the countless, eye-rolling Sonic OCs on Deviantart, and has given players the ability to make their characters (somewhat) canon. You can choose a species for your avatar (including hedgehogs, dogs, cats, wolves, and others), select different eyes, gloves, shoes, etc. The character customization is somewhat limited, but you gain more customizable items by performing well in the stages and meeting certain requirements.

“Some levels have your created character teaming up with Sonic, fulfilling the second biggest fantasy of the Sonic fanbase.”

Though the prospect of playing as your own character actually had some potential to add a new twist to Sonic gameplay, the levels in which you play as your avatar are perhaps the weakest of the lot. Instead of customizing abilities to make your avatar actually feel like a Sonic character, your avatar is instead equipped with a grappling hook and a weapon, the latter of which can be swapped out in between levels with any other weapons you’ve managed to unlock.

This is where things start to go off the rails. These abilities just aren’t fun. The hook basically works like a stiffer version of Modern Sonic’s homing attack, while all the weapons are just overpowered moves that you can just spam on mindless enemies who stand in place and pose no real threat.

“Where the hell is my character?!”

The avatar stages play closer to Modern Sonic’s, which means they also suffer from annoying perspectives in 3D sections. What’s all the worse is that even the 2D sections with the avatar get muddled with how small your character often ends up on the screen. And when clunky wall-jumping mechanics are suddenly introduced late in the game, it brings whatever fun the avatar stages had to a dead stop.

One of the worst aspects of Sonic Forces is its plot. Somehow, Dr. Eggman from the Modern Sonic dimension has found the Phantom Ruby from Sonic Mania, and has used its power to create a super being called Infinite. The ruby – and subsequently, Infinite – possesses the ability to alter reality, being able to create replicas of past Sonic villains Shadow the hedgehog, Metal Sonic, Chaos and Zavok (and no one else apparently, as Infinite just keeps recycling those four).

Anyway, Infinite defeats Sonic the Hedgehog in battle, and the famous blue hedgehog is believed to be dead by his friends (before his survival is unceremoniously revealed on the map screen…yeah). Turns out Sonic’s been captured, and in is absence, Dr. Eggman has finally succeeded in taking over the world. Knuckles now leads the resistance against Dr. Eggman, and has recruited the small army of goofy animal characters that have been introduced to the series over the years (not that most of these characters even matter, seeing as they only ever seem to show up to, well, show up). The player’s avatar is the “rookie” of the resistance, and Classic Sonic shows up after being sucked into a wormhole in Sonic Mania. Together, the resistance plans to rescue Sonic, defeat Eggman’s forces, stop Infinite, and bring freedom back to their planet.

The plot is just far too serious for its own good. There was a time when Sonic games being more story heavy was at least a novel concept, but the plots of the series have become something of a bad joke with how cheesy and forced they are, and Sonic Forces might be one of the worst offenders. I don’t have a problem with serious storylines, but considering this is a series about a cartoon hedgehog who runs really fast and fights robots, seeing it trying to be so serious and edgy really just makes it feel silly. It is possible to make meaningful stories with cartoony characters, but trying to turn Sonic the Hedgehog into something so dramatic just doesn’t work.

“Not creepy at all…”

Sonic Forces isn’t all bad, however. Along with the Classic Sonic stages bringing some fun to the table (though also reminding you that you could be playing Sonic Mania), the game looks great visually, and its musical score is actually quite good (just turn the volume down a bit when it comes to the vocal tracks). But whenever Sonic Forces starts to look like it’s getting better, it ends up stumbling and wasting its potential. Along with all the gameplay fumbles, the level design is nothing special, and the boss fights are particularly unmemorable (just catch up to them and spam that homing attack some more).

Sonic has certainly been in worse games than this. But Sonic Forces showcases many of the attributes that have lead to the series’ drastic fall from grace. And seeing as it’s coming off the heels of the exceptional Sonic Mania, the shortcomings of Forces are only magnified all the more.

If given some extra development time and polish, Sonic Forces could have been pretty good. As it is, well… it’s a 3D Sonic game.

 

5.5

Ittle Dew 2 Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

Ittle Dew 2+ is a pleasant surprise. Originally released in 2016, Ittle Dew 2+ makes its way to the Nintendo Switch, and brings with it a fun homage and parody of the classic 2D Legend of Zelda titles, with a unique sense of charm and humor to boot.

The top-down, dungeon-crawling adventures that Link popularized on the NES and SNES are made anew in Ittle Dew 2+, but with a few twists. Instead of the high fantasy setting like Hyrule, Ittle Dew 2+ takes place in a more contemporary, lighthearted setting. The hero is a young girl named Ittle, who is accompanied by her flying dog Tippsie. The two “crash” onto a strange island filled with dungeons and loot. Stranded on the island, the duo has to adventure through eight dungeons in order to get pieces for a new raft to get off the island (Tippsie makes a joke as to why they can’t simply make a raft from one of the many nearby trees).

It’s a cute and silly premise, given all the more personality by the fact that the game’s world seems to mostly take place in a kid’s imagination (whether or not it’s literally supposed to be Ittle’s own fantasy world, I’m not quite sure). The first dungeon takes place in a pillow fort, while the second is a giant sand castle. Even a junkyard becomes a menacing dungeon in Ittle Dew 2+.

I say “first” and “second,” but the truth is all but the eighth dungeon can be done in whatever order the player chooses. It has a level of freedom similar to the Zelda games that inspired it, and finding every new dungeon or location is fun in itself.

Ittle starts her adventure armed with little more than a stick, but along the adventure, you pick up new weapons and items like the Force Wand (which pushes objects from a distance and deflects enemy projectiles), dynamite to destroy blocks, and eventually upgrade your stick to better weapons like a flaming sword.

The personality and charm of Ittle Dew 2+ is prominent at every turn, whether it’s the weapons and items, or the nature of the dungeons themselves, Ittle Dew 2+ is a game that oozes charm. Even the equivalent of Zelda’s heart pieces are boxes of crayons. How charming is that?

It’s those aforementioned dungeons that steal the show. Though the dungeons are on the short side, the puzzles they house are some of the most fun in recent memory. Each dungeon contains numerous puzzles, some of which can be decently head-scratching. Some of the best ones even have multiple means of figuring them out, and will leave the player to get creative to solve them.

Unfortunately, combat against enemies and bosses isn’t quite as joyful. Later dungeons include many instances in which enemies swarm the player, which isn’t so bad in certain instances, but other times, these enemies might have contradicting patterns (one may only be able to take damage from behind, while another might require you to back them against a wall and attack from the front). When you get into situations that throw multiple different enemy types at you all at once, it can get a little hectic.

Similarly, the boss fights have a considerable leap in difficulty from the rest of the dungeons that they’re featured in. While each boss has their own pattern that you can figure out in a few tries, they tend to do massive damage, meaning they often end up being trial-and-error affairs. The boss fights are never bad, but given that the dungeons themselves aren’t particularly difficult, the boss encounters may become off-putting to some players with their difficulty spikes.

One other minor complaint is that the load times can be notably lengthy. They’re far from the longest load times I’ve seen, but they can take a decent chunk of time just to load a single-room cave.

Still, it’s hard to complain too much about how much Ittle Dew 2+ gets right. Ittle controls just as smoothly as Link ever did in his 2D adventures, while the cel-shaded visuals only add to the game’s bountiful charm, and the musical score is as whimsical as anything else in the game.

Ittle Dew 2+ may be over quickly if you only seek to finish Ittle’s raft, with each of the dungeons only taking a short amount of time to complete, with the next in line being displayed on your map at any time. But Ittle Dew 2+ has some good staying power with its sidequests. The world is littered with optional caves that contain secret items, and there’s even a dream world that can be visited for a more expansive detour. And the fact that Ittle Dew 2 leaves the first seven dungeons and side content to be done in whatever order the player chooses, the pace of the adventure can be as quick or as leisurely as the player sees fit.

Ittle Dew 2 is a lot of fun. It pays both beautiful homage and hilarious tribute to The Legend of Zelda, while also having a standout personality that’s all its own. It may be a little on the short side, and some of the combat sections leave a bit to be desired. But its inventive puzzles, smooth gameplay and oodles of charm help elevate it to a real delight.

 

7.5