Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64’s 26th US Anniversary!

Yeah, it’s another celebratory anniversary post here at the Dojo. I will get back to reviewing movies and games as soon as possible. But I’m in the process of moving so I haven’t had the time to prepare and write something more substantial. Apologies.

Anyway…

Today, September 29th 2022, marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of the release of the Nintendo 64 in North America! And with it, the release of one of the most influential, innovative and revolutionary video games of all time, Super Mario 64!

The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo’s first console capable of polygonal, 3D graphics. And was the first console built around such concepts (the Playstation and Sega Saturn were originally designed as 2D consoles). While on the downside, that did mean many designers had to start over from square one, meaning that a number of N64 titles felt experimental and thus have succumbed to age over time, on the plus side, it opened the door to many kinds of games that just weren’t capable before.

Super Mario 64, despite being a launch title for the N64, is one of the console’s few truly timeless games. For the first time ever, Mario could roam around a 3D environment, had a new set of acrobatic moves, and levels now had a mission-based structure, as opposed to simply getting to the end of a stage. While I’m in the camp that believes some of Mario’s later 3D efforts bettered 64, there is no denying that Super Mario 64 has earned its place as one of history’s best games by being so forward-thinking in its day, that developers are still using its design for inspiration even today. And those opening words of “It’s-a me, Mario” are surely the most famous in gaming history. It’s a true classic.

As an added bonus, today is also (somehow) the fifth anniversary of the Super NES Classic Edition, the “mini retro console” built in the image of the N64’s predecessor that came with twenty-one SNES games built in (though sadly, Donkey Kong Country 2, Chrono Trigger and Kirby’s Dreamland 3 somehow weren’t among them). Though the mini-console craze has died down somewhat in the half-decade since, the SNES Classic Edition can still boast to be the best example of the mini-console trend of the past few years thanks to the classics it had bundled inside. I wouldn’t be mad if Nintendo announced an updated version of it or a mini-N64 or Wii down the road…

Happy 26th (US) anniversary, Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 And happy 5th anniversary SNES Classic Edition!

Spirited Away’s 20th US Anniversary!

Yes, Spirited Away may have officially turned twenty last year (and I even wrote about that), but today marks the twentieth anniversary of when the film was released in the United States. And much like the SNES is my favorite console so I wrote a thirtieth anniversary post for both its Japanese and US anniversaries, Spirited Away is my favorite film, so I’m writing a second twentieth anniversary post in honor of its US release.

Now with all that unnecessary explanation out of the way…

It was twenty years ago today – September 20th 2002 – that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Spirited Away, was first released in US cinemas. A watershed moment in the history of animation and cinema, Spirited Away set a new benchmark for animation the world over. I honestly don’t think there’s been an animated film released since whose influence has been as far reaching.

Hayao Miyazaki’s name was still obscure in the US of A at the time Spirited Away was released stateside, with only three of his films having had official releases in the western world beforehand (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, if you were wondering). Though all three films received immense acclaim in America, they were still a bit under the radar, with both Totoro and Kiki being released straight to VHS, and Mononoke having such a quiet theatrical release, that calling it a ‘limited release’ would be underselling it.

Thankfully, Spirited Away had top names from Disney and Pixar backing it, which resulted in the film breaking barriers like never before, even winning an Academy Award in the process.

More important than any awards though, is the impact and influence Spirited Away continues to have in animation and cinema. Everything from live-action films, anime, the films of Tomm Moore, and even television shows like Gravity Falls have been influenced by it. It’s also no coincidence that Pixar’s films started becoming more artistically rich following Spirited Away’s release (there’s an argument to be made that Inside Out was basically an elaborate homage to Spirited Away. No wonder it’s the best Pixar movie).

Most important is how Spirited Away continues to touch the hearts and capture the imaginations of audiences the world over. Myself very much included.

Happy twentieth (US) anniversary, Spirited Away!

Magnavox Odyssey Turns 50, and Super Mario Bros. Turns 37!

First thing’s first, I must apologize that the Dojo has slowed to a crawl as of late. I have a lot going on at the moment, and I haven’t had the time to write. Hopefully within the next few days and weeks I can get back to posting content more regularly.

Anyway, the world of video games has a lot to celebrate, as today marks the thirty-seventh anniversary of Super Mario Bros., and this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first commercially released video game console.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find an exact date for the Magnavox Odyssey’s release, and I’m not old enough to have experienced it firsthand. Still, the fact that video game consoles are now officially five decades old seems like the kind of thing to celebrate, even if I may not know the exact day in September 1972 that the Odyssey was released. But seeing as today is also the anniversary of Super Mario Bros’ release in Japan, now felt like a good time to write about it.

To say the games on the Magnavox Odyssey were primitive is an understatement. They were so rudimentary, so bare bones, that they consisted of little more than controlling lights on the screen. And since graphics and animation hadn’t been created for video games yet, each game came with an overlay to put on the TV screen to differentiate them from each other (seriously). And though the games had gameplay rules written in their manuals, there wasn’t really anything stopping the players from moving their respective lights wherever they wanted on the screen to just goof off. Again, it was primitive, but video games had to start somewhere. And you could say the system lived up to its name, as it began the odyssey of gaming itself. Oof, that was cheesy. But I meant it.

So here’s to the big five-oh of the Magnavox Odyssey and, by extension, video game consoles themselves! Thanks Ralph Baer!

Fittingly, the same month we celebrate the first commercial video game console, we also celebrate what is most likely history’s most impactful video game: Super Mario Bros.

Released in Japan on September 13th 1985, Super Mario Bros. revolutionized video games, lifted the medium out of a dark age, paved the way for Nintendo’s many franchises (and Mario’s many sequels and spinoffs), and continues to influence game design to this day. Simply put, the world of video games would be a whole lot less enjoyable had Mario (and Luigi! Can’t forget Luigi) not adventured through the Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Peach from the villainous Bowser. It’s still a true classic.

September is apparently a very influential month for video games, and has given players many reasons to celebrate. Hell, just today Nintendo officially announced Pikmin 4 will be coming to the Switch next year! So throw that on the pile of video game things to celebrate today!

Happy Video Games, everyone!

As an added bonus, tomorrow, September 14th 2022, will mark the twentieth anniversary of when Kirby: Right Back at Ya debuted on the FoxBox block on Fox! And that means it’s been twenty years since the world was introduced to this little beauty…

Pokémon Puzzle League Review

Panel de Pon, Nintendo’s reverse falling block puzzle game, is one of the finest products of the genre. Though the original Japanese game had a bit of an underwhelming lineup of characters, as they looked like generic Sailor Moon knockoffs. So, whenever bringing the game outside of Japan, Nintendo has given Panel de Pon (AKA the “Puzzle League” series) a number of facelifts using their more established (and more charming) characters. The SNES received Tetris Attack, which implemented characters, graphics and music from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. And when Nintendo decided to release a Nintendo 64 version of the game in 2000, they chose Pokémon to fill the role. Pokémon was still white hot and at the height of its powers in 2000, so it was a fitting way to bring Panel de Pon to the N64. Thus, Pokémon Puzzle League was born! Interestingly, Nintendo chose to use characters, artwork and music specifically from the Pokémon anime, making Puzzle League one of the few Pokémon games to actually be based on the TV show.

The gameplay of the series is as it’s always been. Working as something of an inverted Tetris, the blocks don’t fall from the top of the screen but rise from the bottom. The blocks come in different colors (here representing different Pokémon types, with red being fire, blue being water, and so on), and players can swap two blocks horizontally to try to match them up with three or more blocks of the same color (either horizontally, vertically, or both) to clear the blocks. By chaining together combos, players can send ‘garbage blocks’ to each other, which create an additional obstacle that needs to be removed by matching more blocks adjacent to the garbage blocks. Should the blocks pile up to the top of the screen, it’s game over.

Like the best falling block puzzle games, the gameplay is really easy to explain, but difficult to master and incredibly fun. Pokémon Puzzle League even features additional modes that weren’t present in previous releases. Most notably, there’s a 3D version of the gameplay that takes advantage of the N64’s hardware.

In the 3D mode, the usual flat grid where the gameplay takes place is replaced with a cylinder, with players shuffling through the cylinder to give the gameplay something of a 360-degree perspective. It’s an interesting take on the series’ formula, though I do admit the gameplay of Pokémon Puzzle League is better suited on the 2D playing field, as the cylinder makes it hard to keep track of where things are, thus making it more difficult to strategize your moves.

Other, more traditional modes are present, such as a story mode (which sees Ash Ketchum battling through the original Gym Leaders, his friends and Team Rocket to become the Puzzle League Champion) or an ‘Endless Mode’ where players see how long they can keep the board from filling up as the blocks gradually start rising faster, trying to beat their high score along the way. And of course, there are multiplayer options, with players being able to choose one of fifteen different Pokémon Trainer characters, each one boasting three different Pokémon (which change the background graphics and soundbites, but have no effect on the gameplay itself. That may seem superfluous, but it’s a nice touch as it adds some extra Pokémon flair by being able to select different Pokémon with your trainer). Ash, of course, has Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Squirtle at his disposal.

Besides the characters from the Pokémon TV series, Pokémon Puzzle League also features instrumental remixes of songs from said series (specifically the album 2.B.A Master). I have to say this is an amazing addition to the game, as the dub of the Pokémon anime really went all out in the production of its songs back in the day (cheesy though the songs may be). While I normally try to avoid the “back in my day, everything was better” mentality of my generation, one thing I have to admit really was better back in my day were cartoon theme songs. These days, an American studio wouldn’t put that kind of effort into their own homegrown animated series, much less the dub of an anime. But in the late 90s, the sky was the limit! The music is a reminder that, back then, Pokémon basically ruled the world. My point being, it’s great to hear those early Pokémon songs in some capacity in an actual Pokémon game.

“The game even features a few brief cutscenes that features the original voice actors from the Pokémon dub. Boy, that takes me back.”

The core gameplay introduced in Panel de Pon remains some of the most fun and addictive in the entire falling block puzzle genre, and with the added Pokémon characters and music, it makes Pokémon Puzzle League a really easy game to revisit and get engrossed in. I do have to admit, I still find the Yoshi-centric makeover of Tetris Attack makes that game the definitive entry in the series, but Pokémon Puzzle League is probably a close second place, and a worthy successor. Seeing as the Tetris Attack version may not see a re-release (Nintendo didn’t go through the proper steps to use the Tetris name, creating a bit of a conundrum), Pokémon Puzzle League is probably the most accessible way for westerners to experience one of Nintendo’s unsung classics.

Plus, any game that features remixes of Viridian City and Double Trouble is an easy win.

8

Mario Strikers: Battle League Review

Mario Strikers: Battle League is the third installment in the soccer-like Mario Strikers series, and the first entry to be released in fifteen years! Suffice to say that fans of the series had their patience tested, with a follow-up to Mario Strikers Charged being one of the more requested Mario spinoffs of the past decade and a half. While fans’ pleas for a new entry may have been answered, it comes at the expense of depth, as Mario Strikers: Battle League – while fun – lacks the substance to make a more lasting impression.

The idea of the game is simple enough: like soccer, each round of Battle League sees two teams try to get a ball in their opponent’s goal while defending their own. The team that scores the most goals within the time limit wins the match. Each team consists of four characters, plus an NPC goalie. You can kick the ball, pass it to team members, tackle opponents, dodge, pick up and use items, and perform a ‘hyper strike’ once you’ve grabbed a special orb.

It’s a simple enough setup that makes the game easy to understand, though there are a few cumbersome elements present. Notably, it often gets difficult to keep track of which character you’re currently controlling amid all the chaos of a match. You have the option of automatically switching to whichever character has the ball (you still control whoever had it last if the enemy takes the ball) or being able to manually switch character at your own pace. Although the latter option sounds more ideal on paper, I find that I can’t get used to either option, as they both end up feeling awkward. For a game that otherwise is pretty simple to pick up and play, the clunky switching between characters is a huge drawback.

On the plus side, the gameplay is otherwise entertaining. True to the Mario sports titles of yesteryear, the “Mario-ness” adds a fun and chaotic twist to the sport of soccer. Not only can you perform the aforementioned tackle (which would be an illegal move in any real soccer match) but doing so gives the other team an item box, and vice versa. The items include your usual Mario fare like mushrooms that give you a speed boost, banana peels to trip opponents, green and red shells to knock opponents down (with red shells tracking the nearest target), Bob-bombs that send players flying, and power stars to make your current character invincible for a short time. And should you grab the special orb, each character has their own hyper strike that can be charged up with timed button presses (the more accurate the timing, the more likely it is to score a goal). Goals gained with hyper strikes are worth two points, but if the enemy tackles you while you’re trying to time your shot, you lose the opportunity for the special move altogether.

Elements like this are what make Mario Strikers: Battle League fun to play. Unfortunately, the game is so lacking in other areas that it makes Battle League a game that’s best played in quick bursts, as it quickly becomes repetitive.

An interesting addition to the game is that each team chooses their half of the stadium, choosing from a handful of different themed stadium inspired by the Mario series and its offshoots such as Bowser’s Castle, Luigi’s Mansion, and a jungle out of Donkey Kong Country. It’s an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t amount to much because not only are there only a small handful of choices, but they also have no effect on gameplay. It would be nice if the different stadiums had their own gimmicks and quirks to keep players on their toes. Instead, the only differenced I noticed is that a stadium with two different halves has original music, but if both teams choose the same stadium theme you get a remix of music from the game that inspired the stadium (as a big fan of video game music, it’s a nice touch. But it doesn’t really seem like enough to justify the setup).

You’ll also find that the playable roster seems a bit thin, with ten characters in the base game: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Rosalina, Wario and Waluigi. Developer Next Level Games is slowly adding additional characters in free updates, which is fine, but it is difficult to get very excited for an addition like Princess Daisy. It’s also kind of a shame that the ‘sidekick characters’ from the previous Mario Strikers games are no longer present, which takes out a whole element from the series’ gameplay. Battle League also seems to be a victim of Nintendo’s bizarre trend of recent years of not allowing characters from the broader Mario universe (other than Donkey Kong himself) to show up. For example, the goalies in the past Strikers games were Kremlings from Donkey Kong Country. Now they’re Boom Boom from Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s not as egregious as the limitations being forced onto games like Paper Mario, but it is unfortunate to see the Mario sports titles are also falling victim to this questionable trend.

Each character has their own stats, with Mario of course being well-rounded, Bowser is your go-to powerhouse, Toad is quick on his feet, etc. This time around, you can customize the characters further. By playing the game you unlock coins, which can be used to purchase new uniform pieces for each character, which increase different attributes (at the expense of others). It’s another fun little idea that may add a little bit of replay value to the package, but it can also feel like certain uniform combinations give players too much of an advantage. That’s doubly a shame considering that this game emphasizes multiplayer (maybe to a fault), so the players with all the uniforms are given a sometimes unfair advantage. Perhaps this is an instance where the uniforms should have just been cosmetic?

Where Battle League really seems to drop the ball is in its lack of variety when it comes to game modes, particularly single player options. Granted, the online is considerably smoother than most other Switch titles are, but basic matches and tournaments are pretty much your only options. And when it comes to single player, you have basic matches against the computer AI, or a small series of cups. Though both tournaments and cups ultimately just amount to a series of the same standard matches. One reason why Mario Kart endures is because – despite being a racer – it also includes its famous battle modes, which uses the same mechanics as the racing to create a very different experience. It would be nice if Mario Strikers could do something similar and provide some greater gameplay variety with a different mode or two. With the stadiums already providing nothing different between them in regard to gameplay, the lack of variety in play styles is all the more apparent.

On face value, Mario Strikers: Battle League is a lot of fun. It brings the same chaotic energy and fast-paced action that Mario and company often bring to their sport outings, but it’s also a game that’s sorely begging to be more. Perhaps with updates, Battle League will get the depth it so desperately needs. But it’s becoming a concern trend with Mario’s sports titles on the Switch how they keep needing multiple updates just to feel like a complete game. And with how long fans had to wait for Mario Strikers: Battle League to become a reality, it’s all the more a shame that it couldn’t buck that trend and become the new MVP of Mario sports.

6

Thor: Love and Thunder Review

When the first Thor film was released in 2011, I don’t think many people would have guessed that it would be the first series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (outside of the Avengers movies) to reach a fourth entry. The 2011 film was decently fun, but was hardly as beloved as Iron Man. Meanwhile, the 2013 sequel Thor: The Dark World is widely considered one of the weakest MCU movies. But in 2017 the series headed in a new direction with its third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, with the Taika Waititi-directed film reinvigorating the series with a greater emphasis on humor and spectacle. With a newfound popularity for Thor, Marvel brought Waititi back for this fourth installment, Thor: Love and Thunder.

The good news is that if you loved Ragnarok, Love and Thunder provides a similarly good time, even if it may not be the breath of fresh air that Ragnarok was when it was released.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been travelling the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy, helping them save various civilizations from evil threats (with Thor causing a bit of collateral damage along the way). However, a distress signal from an old friend has Thor travelling back to New Asgard, located on Earth after the events of Ragnarok.

A being known as Gorr (Christian Bale) has come into possession of an ancient weapon called the Necrosword, which grants him the ability to slay gods (at the expense of infecting Gorr mind, body and soul). Now known as Gorr the God Butcher, he has been slaying god after god across the universe, with the Asgardians being his next targets.

After Thor and company dispatch of Gorr’s monsters, they realize that the God Butcher has kidnapped the children of New Asgard. So Thor, alongside the new king of Asgard, Valkrie (Tessa Thompson) and his rock friend Korg (Taiki Waititi himself), sets off to find Gorr and rescue the children. But Thor has a new superpowered ally in his old girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who was last seen in The Dark World. Unbeknownst to Thor, Jane is dying of cancer, and with her treatments failing to improve her condition, she desperately turned to the Asgardian magic found in New Asgard for help. As fate would have it, Thor inadvertently placed a spell on his old hammer Mjolnir back when he and Jane were dating, a spell that dictates the hammer would always protect Jane. So in the present, the hammer’s shattered pieces reform, and deem Jane Foster worthy to wield the mighty Mjolnir, thus giving her the power of Thor. Though she gains the strength and ability equal to that of the god of thunder, the effects are only present when she wields the hammer. Without it, Jane’s health continues to decline.

That’s some pretty heavy stuff coming from the sequel to Thor: Ragnarok, and I’ve heard some people fault Love and Thunder for a perceived inconsistent tone. But I actually appreciate that Love and Thunder attempts to tackle some heavier material, instead of simply betting everything on the comedy that made Ragnarok work and have it overstay its welcome. The more serious elements are what set this film apart from its predecessor. It was admittedly a risky move to use something like cancer as a plot element in a Marvel movie, but the film ultimately handles the subject delicately.

Speaking of the film’s serious elements, Gorr the God Butcher provides Thor: Love and Thunder with one of the MCU’s most complex villains. After wandering the broken remains of his world with his daughter, praying to his god for help and safety, his daughter succumbs to the elements, and he’s left wandering alone. Feeling his prayers fell on deaf ears, Gorr is summoned by the Necrosword to meet his god, who callously ignores Gorr’s plight. Gorr then uses the sword to kill his god, but with the Necrosword’s influence, it begins to warp his mind and ambitions, as he now seeks to kill all gods.

In a way, Gorr kind of reminds me of Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2 in how the combination of personal tragedy and an object infecting his mind leads him down a path of villainy. Although I don’t think any on-screen Marvel villain has equaled Doc Ock, Gorr the God Butcher is probably in the top three villains of the MCU. He’s even a visually cool villain with the way he travels in and out of shadows, lurking towards the screen like some kind of Dark Souls boss. The MCU has often been criticized for a lack of compelling villains, but between Gorr the God Butcher and Wenwu from last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it seems Marvel’s villain scenario is seeing some major improvements.

Before I start making Thor: Love and Thunder sound like it’s all serious subjects and dark and dreary villains, I do have to reiterate that the film retains the sense of humor and fun that audiences loved about Thor: Ragnarok. Granted, there are those who didn’t appreciate Ragnarok’s sense of humor and felt that it turned Thor into Guardians of the Galaxy. But I think the more serious aspects mixed into Love and Thunder may win over some of Ragnarok’s critics, while still providing plenty for returning fans of Ragnarok (special mention has to go to Russel Crowe as the Greek god Zeus, who might just steal the whole show). It’s one of the most fun MCU movies in quite some time.

Something else I can very much appreciate with Thor: Love and Thunder is that it (again, like Shang-Chi) is one of the increasingly rare MCU films that stands as its own movie, unburdened by excessive crossovers of other Marvel characters or having the overarching MCU story shoehorned into the proceedings. Even the mid and after-credits sequences still relate to Thor’s story, rather than tease someone else’s. Considering the recent Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sacrificed the setup the first Dr. Strange left open for the sequel in favor of catering to the bigger MCU plot, Love and Thunder’s insistence on just being a Thor movie is all the more commendable.

I do have to admit that even with all my praises, Thor: Love and Thunder doesn’t exactly bring new creative heights to the MCU. The more serious plot elements and its standout villain set Love and Thunder apart from its predecessor, but it still does follow much of the same MCU formula. It’s certainly a more solid MCU entry than we’ve been seeing as of late, but I don’t think it necessarily breathes new life into the mega-franchise either (something which you could argue Ragnarok did). But I think most audiences will be having too much fun to care about that (though they may be bummed that the Guardians of the Galaxy have a minimal role, despite the film’s marketing).

Thor: Love and Thunder is an undeniable good time that should leave any Marvel fan with a smile on their face. And for once, it may just tug at their heart a little bit too.

7

Minions: The Rise of Gru Review

Minions: The Rise of Gru is the fifth overall installment in Illumination’s Despicable Me franchise, and the second that shifts the focus away from Gru in favor of the ubiquitous Minions. Though, as the subtitle suggests, Gru has much more of a role here than he did in the first Minions movie (in which he appeared as a background Easter egg in one scene, and then had a speaking cameo at the end, which made the aforementioned background Easter egg kind of superfluous). Because of Gru’s more prominent role, you could argue that this seconds Minions movie is more of a Despicable Me prequel than it is a Minions spinoff. But that may be for the best, considering how the first Minions movie didn’t seem to know how to have its titular, Twinkie-shaped creatures carry the story on their own (its villain seemed to get more screentime than the Minions themselves). In that sense, Minions: The Rise of Gru is an improvement over its predecessor, but whether or not you enjoy it may depend on how well you can tolerate the Minions themselves.

Children (and Facebook moms) can’t seem to get enough of the Minions, while many other audiences find the antics and gibberish ramblings of the Minions irksome. I’m a bit indifferent to them, myself. I can understand why many find the Minions annoying, but I also know I’m not the target audience for the characters and find their antics harmless. Their worst crime is resurrecting the trend of animated sidekick characters purposefully upstaging the main characters. In short, I may not be a fan of the Minions, but I don’t hate them, either. If you’re someone who does enjoy the Minions, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Minions: The Rise of Gru, but if you aren’t a fan, then this movie certainly isn’t going to convert you.

The story here takes place in the 1970s. Gru (Steve Carell) is still just a kid with aspirations to become a great supervillain. Now that he has the Minions as his, well, minions, he’s a step closer to his goals. The Minions help Gru commit petty, bullyish crimes, like cutting in line at an ice cream shop, stealing some ice cream, and then eating said ice cream in front of a gym to taunt the people inside trying to burn calories. If the movie has one notable strength, it’s that this is the first time since the first Despicable Me that we’ve seen Gru actually be a villain. And isn’t that why people liked this series in the first place?

Anyway, the plot sees Gru invited to join his favorite supervillain team, the Vicious Six, after their former leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), is presumed dead (in reality, he was given the boot for being too old). The Vicious Six have recently stolen an ancient treasure, the Zodiac Stone (which is actually a medallion). When Gru is denied entry into the Vicious Six for being too young, he steals the Zodiac Stone from the villain group. The Vicious Six, lead by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), then swear revenge against Gru. But before they can track Gru down, the aspiring villain is kidnapped by Wild Knuckles, who also wants the stone.

Unbeknownst to Wild Knuckles or the Vicious Six, one of Gru’s Minions, Otto (voiced by Pierre Coffin, as all the Minions are) has traded the stone for a Pet Rock with a neighborhood kid. Once Gru is kidnapped, three of his Minions, Kevin, Bob and Stuart set out to rescue their leader, while Otto goes to retrieve the Zodiac Stone. Meanwhile, Wild Knuckles starts to take a liking to Gru, who becomes the apprentice of the one-time Vicious Six leader.

To be honest, there’s not much more of a plot than that. A recurring issue with Illumination’s movies is that they feel less like animated films and more like episodes of a television cartoon stretched into a feature length. It’s no unforgiveable sin, and not every animated film has to be an emotional masterpiece, but after a while you start to wish that Illumination would at least aim for something more. Sadly, Minions: The Rise of Gru is another example of Illumination settling.

On the reverse side, if there’s one thing Illumination deserves credit for, it’s the quality of the animation itself. Illumination is known for making their films on a relatively smaller budget than other mainstream animation studios, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Illumination’s films are always colorful and pop with a visual liveliness, and that’s very much the case here with this Minions sequel.

Minions: The Rise of Gru has something to offer fans of the series: there’s some genuinely funny moments, the animation is as eye-popping as ever, and it’s fun to see Gru go back to his cartoonishly villainous roots. There’s also a fun sub-plot where Kevin, Stuart and Bob study kung-fu from an acupuncturist named Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh). But again, this is a movie that isn’t going to win over those who aren’t already initiated into the material. The Minions are still very much the Minions, and the movie follows Illumination’s trend of being just entertaining enough to be adequate. It may provide some fun when watching it, but it leaves no lasting impression.

To many audiences, Minions: The Rise of Gru may be as bland as a potato. But for the young tykes who can’t get enough of the Minions, they may just go bananas.

5

The Fourth of July 2022 Post

Happy Fourth of July, everybody! Here’s the customary picture of Captain America punching Hitler!

“Hell yeah!”

If only there were a follow-up panel of Cap kicking Hitler in the crotch…

The best Muppet. I mean besides Statler and Waldorf.”

I know these past few years have been a really rough time for America (and the rest of the world), and it sometimes feels like there isn’t reason to celebrate. But there is always room for hope. The spirit of America and freedom endures even when the physical America may fall short. Or something like that. I think you get what I’m trying to say.

So grab yourself some de-licious barbeque, set off some fireworks (safely, of course), and spend some quality time with friends and family. Just don’t get those really screechy fireworks that scare dogs and other animals. Come on, don’t be a jerk.

Happy America! Happy Fireworks!

And to everyone not from America: you have a super, swell day too!

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! Have fun, stay safe, and be good to each other!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge Review

More so than most other licensed properties, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have gone hand-in-hand with video games. The Ninja Turtles rose to prominence throughout the 80s and early 90s, the same time video games were reaching new heights. Not to mention the colorful characters, fun personality and emphasis on action of the Ninja Turtles made them a perfect fit for the video game medium.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles starred in many games during their initial boom period, most notably the beat-em-ups made by Konami, such as Turtles in Time. Over the years, however, Ninja Turtles games have become less frequent, and the beat-em-up genre has largely become a thing of the past.

That’s why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is such a breath of fresh air in the current gaming landscape. Developed by Tribute Games and published by Dotemu, Shredder’s Revenge is a beautiful revitalization of the beat-em-up genre, and a return to form for Ninja Turtles games.

Shredder’s Revenge is classic beat-em-up action at its best. You could argue that the genre isn’t exactly deep (simply fight waves of enemies on each screen, make your way to the end of the stage, beat the boss, and repeat), but there’s always been something very satisfying and entertaining about the simplicity of the beat-em-up, especially when played with others. That is especially true here.

Up to six players can take on Shredder’s Revenge, with players able to choose between one of the four titular turtles (Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo), their rat sensei Master Splinter, news reporter April O’Neil, and unlockable character Casey Jones. Each character plays identically, but with different levels of speed, strength and reach between them. By keeping combos going long enough (or taunting), players can fill up a meter that, when full, allows them to perform a special attack. Perhaps best of all, the game allows players to drop in and out of multiplayer at any given time, even when playing online. It really is a game that would feel at home in an arcade.

Naturally, players revive each other with a slice of peperoni pizza.”

That’s not to say that Shredder’s Revenge is stuck in the past, as the game makes some notable attempts to bring some modernization to its genre. The stages will spawn more enemies depending on how many players are present, something beat-em-ups simply couldn’t do back in the day. And most notably, Shredder’s Revenge not only features a traditional arcade mode (in which players go through the game’s sixteen stages uninterrupted with limited continues and no saving), but also includes a story mode that features a world map, sidequests, and a levelling up system.

The world map is a great addition in that it allows players to replay stages in the story mode whenever they want. The levelling up system is also a welcome inclusion, with players levelling up each character (up to level 10) based on the number of enemies they defeat. As the characters level up, they gain new special moves or get more health, extra lives and additional special meters (up to three), with the third allowing players to go into ‘Radical Mode,’ which temporarily boosts the character’s strength considerably. On the downside, the sidequests feel a bit half-baked, and simply consist of finding character cameos on certain stages, and then finding objects pertaining to those characters on others. Not only are the characters and objects barely hidden, but the rewards for finishing the sidequests are just points to help level up whatever character you’re currently using a little quicker. While I appreciate the idea of trying to implement sidequests in a beat-em-up, it is unfortunate that Shredder’s Revenge’s optional objectives feel so shallow.

It should also be noted that the game can get repetitious pretty quickly. There’s an argument to be made that such repetition is par for the course for the genre, but with the attempts Shredder’s Revenge makes with trying to modernize the beat-em-up, it feels like a missed opportunity to not include a little more variety in the stages. There are a few courses where the players ride on hoverboards that are automatically scrolling, but they aren’t very different from the standard stages otherwise. Even just a couple of shoot-em-up stages or mini-games would have added some variety without detracting from the simple pleasures the game provides.

Repetitious though it may be, that will hardly matter when you’re playing with friends. Though playing online with players around the world means there’s a better alternative to playing alone (in which the fun can only go so far), playing Shredder’s Revenge with friends brings out the absolute best in the game. Things may get so chaotic with all the enemies and special moves happening on-screen that you may even temporarily lose track of your character. But it’s the best kind of chaotic fun.

Perhaps Shredder’s Revenge’s biggest triumph is how well it captures the spirit of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. More specifically, the original cartoon that debuted in 1987. Every character, enemy and boss appeared in the ’87 series at one point or another (including some deep cuts), and through the game’s colorful graphics and vibrant animations, it brings out the personalities of each character. From Michelangelo’s taunt of a goofy dance while shouting “party dude!” to Raphael’s more intense animations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is just oozing with charm.

Complimenting the game’s visuals is a terrific soundtrack that similarly captures the spirit of the Ninja Turtles, without simply aping all the same tunes from the show. The soundtrack was composed by Tee Lopes – who also did the excellent soundtrack to Sonic Mania – and also includes some vocal tracks from artists like the Wu-Tang Clan! It’s one of the catchiest, coolest and best video game soundtracks this year.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge works as both a revival of beat-em-ups and of Ninja Turtles video games. Some of its potential with modernizing the genre feels missed, and there’s only so much the game has to offer when going solo. But when playing multiplayer, especially with friends, Shredder’s Revenge provides an exceptionally fun throwback to the golden age of a genre and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cowabunga!

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Lightyear Review

With all due respect to Woody, I think it’s safe to say that Buzz Lightyear is the fan favorite Toy Story character. With his myriad of gadgets, lasers, the ability to fly (or fall with style), and combat skills with which he saves the galaxy, it’s absolutely no mystery why Buzz usurped Woody as Andy’s favorite toy. It really was only a matter of time before Buzz Lightyear got his own movie. After twenty-seven years since Toy Story first hit theaters, Pixar has finally given Buzz such a movie in the form of Lightyear, a sci-fi adventure that serves as the in-universe movie that inspired the toy.

It’s a very fun and creative idea for Pixar to make the Buzz Lightyear movie that made Andy from Toy Story such a fan in the first place. Although it has to be mentioned that the idea technically already happened with the Disney animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command in the early 2000s. But now the origin story can be told by Pixar themselves. And as the Disney+ series Monsters at Work proved, Pixar’s creations are best left in Pixar’s hands. Being Pixar’s own take on the in-universe Buzz Lightyear concept, Lightyear is the definitive origin story for the iconic Space Ranger.

Definitive though it may be, Lightyear – while ultimately a solid and entertaining science fiction film – may not be the kind of science fiction adventure you would expect from its namesake character.

The story begins with Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and the Space Rangers of Star Command – lead by Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) – investigating an alien planet. They find that the planet provides the air and resources to make it habitable, but its monstrous creatures and plant life prove too dangerous, and Star Command issues an emergency retreat from the planet. Buzz takes control of Star Command’s ship, but a miscalculation during the escape leads to the Space Rangers being marooned on the planet.

Star Command makes the best of the situation and builds a colony on the planet over the next year. Buzz – taking responsibility for the current situation – volunteers to be the test pilot to see if he can make hyperspace, as Star Command’s primary ship won’t be able to leave the planet without it. Buzz doesn’t quite reach hyperspace, but finds that when he returns from his four minute flight that four years have passed on the planet’s surface.

Though Hawthorne objects to Buzz making any more flights, the Space Ranger is too determined to call it quits. With his robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) testing new formulas for fuel (using the method of “Crystallic Fusion” mentioned in Toy Story), Buzz continues flight after flight after flight, with roughly four years passing by with each unsuccessful test.

While Buzz has barely aged a day, his test flights have added up to him being gone a total of sixty-two years. During that time, Commander Hawthorne has passed away. Feeling he let his best friend down, Buzz is now more determined than ever, and with Sox perfecting his formula for hyperspace fuel over the past sixty-two years, Buzz finally makes a successful jump to hyperspeed. But in doing so, an additional twenty-two years have passed. In that time, the Star Command colony has been occupied by the robotic forces of a being known as “Zurg.”

Thankfully, a small band of ragtag, would-be Space Rangers have slipped away from Zurg’s occupation. This includes Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), who hopes to live up to her grandmother’s legacy; Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), a good-hearted but clumsy oaf; and Darby Steel (Dale Soules), an elderly convict trying to work off her sentence. Though this team may not seem cut out to be Space Rangers, Buzz will have to rely on them – as well as Sox – if they are to bring down Zurg’s robots and deliver the hyperspace fuel to Star Command.

I don’t want to say too much else as to avoid any major spoilers. But I have to admit that the setup to the plot as described above actually takes up a fair bit of the film’s runtime. And I imagine that may not exactly be to everyone’s liking. The whole ordeal of Buzz’s test flights provides some interesting storytelling, and is reminiscent of the recent Top Gun Maverick, with a little bit of Intersteller worked in there for good measure. It’s entertaining in its own way, but it’s probably a far cry from what you would expect from the Buzz Lightyear movie that supposedly inspired an eight-year-old’s obsession with the character.

That may be the biggest issue with Lightyear, although it’s ultimately a good movie, it seems to be the wrong kind of science-fiction story. Some might say that’s my own expectations getting in the way. But given all the information the Toy Story movies gave us on the Buzz Lightyear character and his world, I’d say Toy Story itself had those expectations. Given all the dialogue and bits of insight the Toy Story series gave us on Buzz Lightyear’s in-universe character, I think most people would probably expect a fantasy-adventure set in space, akin to Star Wars. So the more grounded science-fiction approach of Lightyear comes off as a bit jarring, even disappointing.

Yes, I understand that this movie and its characters are supposed to be separate from their Toy Story equivalents, but as is the case with many adaptations, you still expect a level of faithfulness to the source material. And bizarrely, Pixar’s own adaptation of a character they created feels strangely unfaithful to the world we’ve been teased with for nearly thirty years.

Buzz Lightyear the toy thought himself to be the actual character he was based on, and believed his undying heroism could do no wrong. So it’s kind of weird to see the “actual character” of Buzz Lightyear be depicted as he is here; making continuous shortsighted mistakes, rarely trusting others, being haunted by the past… It’s a more human Buzz Lightyear, but he seems far removed from the person that the toy Buzz Lightyear believed himself to be.

Without spoiling too much, there’s also a twist involving the villainous Zurg that I really think will prove divisive to longtime Toy Story fans. Sure, it’s a twist that makes thematic sense with the movie at hand, but it all goes back to the movie’s deviation of what Toy Story told us about these characters. It feels like a twist that belongs in a different movie, because the story itself often feels like it belongs in a separate movie. Though I didn’t predict the twist itself, I did predict that there was going to be a twist with Zurg quite a while ago, because there’s always a twist with villains these days. While I usually prefer deeper, more complex villains, I can’t help but feel Evil Emperor Zurg could have just been Evil Emperor Zurg and nobody would have had a problem with it. But evil emperors can’t just be evil emperors anymore, it seems.

That kind of sums up the issues Lightyear runs into. It wants to be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story, but simultaneously feels like it has its own sci-fi story it wants to tell that doesn’t really feel like it should be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. Pixar is renowned for the maturity they impart in their animated features, but I feel like Lightyear should have been the one time Pixar went into full Saturday Morning Cartoon mode (albeit with the trademark Pixar heart at its core). Lightyear oddly feels like a more serious, grownup sci-fi movie that just happens to star Buzz Lightyear.

If you can get passed the misplaced tone of the film, Lightyear does have a lot to offer. As you would expect from Pixar, the animation quality is top-notch. While I would argue the film needed some more lively color, it still is interesting to see Pixar tackle a more conventional sci-fi aesthetic. The bulky armors, hefty machinery and insectoid aliens all evoke a loving tribute to classic science fiction, all brought to life with the studio’s impeccable attention to detail.

The film is also excellently cast. While Tim Allen is perfect for the often-delusional Buzz Lightyear toy, Chris Evans seems to be the perfect fit for the heroic “real” Buzz Lightyear. Evans somehow manages to capture the same bravado of Tim Allen’s Buzz, but in a younger, more serious way. The supporting characters are also well cast, with particular praise going to Pixar animator Peter Sohn as Sox, who gives the robotic cat a similar “innocent robot” appeal to Baymax from Big Hero 6 or Ron from Ron’s Gone Wrong.

Another fun highlight of Lightyear is the film’s references to Toy Story, with Buzz quoting his toy-self on a number of occasions, and other little callbacks sprinkled throughout. The film is never overburdened with the references, but it’s an appreciated way to keep the DNA of the Toy Story series intact.

Lightyear is ultimately an entertaining and thoughtful science fiction movie, but I don’t think it ranks among Pixar’s best largely because it seems to be emulating the wrong kinds of science-fiction stories, given the legacy of its titular character. It may not be the Buzz Lightyear movie we expected, but Lightyear proves to be another solid entry in the Pixar canon, even if it doesn’t soar to infinity and beyond.

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