Unbreakable Review

*Minor, non-specific spoilers included in this review*

 

Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 feature, has quite the interesting history. As Shyamalan’s directorial follow-up to The Sixth Sense, audiences and critics had a lukewarm reception to Unbreakable. The Sixth Sense made a huge impact at the time, especially with its big twist at the end (which, in retrospect, seems kind of obvious). Audiences expected another psychological thriller in the same vein as The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable was a subtle super hero film masquerading as a drama (the super hero aspect was underplayed in marketing, as Disney – who distributed the film under their Touchstone banner – felt the genre wasn’t “lucrative” enough. My, how times change).

Over the years, however, Unbreakable not only gained a cult following, but is now often regarded as M. Night Shyamalan’s best film. Shyamalan himself even regards it as his personal favorite film he’s directed. All this praise is with good reason: Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie.

Now, given the director’s shaky resume following Unbreakable (to put it lightly), that may sound like a backhanded compliment. But I say this is Shyamalan’s best film with complete sincerity, as Unbreakable was not only a great movie in 2000, but is a rare example of a film that has become deeper and more relevant with age. It would still be two years until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man turned the super hero film into the go-to genre for blockbusters. And yet, Unbreakable felt like a deconstruction and rethinking of that very genre before it really kicked off.

Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard and everyman seeking a purpose in life as his marriage begins to fall apart. On his way home from a job interview, his train (the “Eastrail 177”) crashes. Miraculously, David is not only the sole survivor of the train crash, but walks away from the disaster completely unscathed.

At the memorial service for those that perished in the accident, David receives a message to meet with the owner of Limited Edition, a comic book art gallery, who is fascinated with David’s situation.

The owner of Limited Edition is one Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a super genius born with Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition which makes the bones extremely fragile and easy to break, earning Price the monicker of “Mr. Glass” during his childhood. Price – a lifelong fan of comic books – has long held a theory that there may be some truth to the superhuman nature of comic book heroes, and that if someone with his extreme frailty exists, then there may exist his extreme oppose, a person who is more or less unbreakable. That is to say, a super hero.

David Dunn, naturally, believes Price to be a kook. But Dunn’s young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), believes there’s something to Price’s theory. The rest of the film is more or less an origin story, with Dunn coming to the realization that there may have been something more to his miraculous survival than sheer luck. And as David and his son try exploring and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities, they are under constant watch by Price, who begins an uneasy friendship with Dunn.

What really stands out about Unbreakable is that it’s a very grounded super hero film. Dunn may possess traits of invulnerability and superhuman strength, but it’s never presented as particularly farfetched. For example, Dunn begins learning of the depths of his strength when his son adds about two-hundred extra pounds to his daily weightlifting, far more weight than Dunn previously thought he could lift. It may not be ‘realistic‘ per se, but it’s an exaggeration of reality. David Dunn is not about to leap tall buildings or shoot lasers out of his eyes.

There’s nothing wrong with heroes with more fantastic powers, of course. But in this day and age when it seems every blockbuster features numerous characters who can destroy cities with their every grudge match, it’s really interesting to look back on a movie that – in 2000 – tried to subvert that. This was five years before Batman Begins grounded Batman, a super hero who already doesn’t have super powers. But Unbreakable tells the story of a man who possesses superhuman abilities, yet convincingly presents it as real. David Dunn never ends up donning a super suit, though he does end up with raincoat that reflects the capes and cowls of many heroes. Even when David Dunn confronts his heroic nature to stop an evildoer, it doesn’t culminate in an epic battle with a super villain, but saving a family from a (depressingly real) home invasion.

Elijah Price, knowing a thing or two about comic book heroes, often dissects the genre, its heroes and its villains when trying to help David find his place in this mythos. In retrospect, Unbreakable almost seems to be a commentary on the super hero genre, while simultaneously embracing and rethinking it. I enjoy the MCU as much as anyone, but Unbreakable seemed to predict the over saturation of the genre it loves and expresses a means to keep it fresh and unique years before the genre needed help in those departments.

It’s not just genre subversion that makes Unbreakable a captivating entertainment. It also works on a more human level, with David Dunn and Elijah Price being two brilliantly realized characters. Just as much of the film is focused on Dunn trying to work things out with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) for the sake of his son as there is to Dunn’s discoveries of his superhuman nature. And by description (a man who believes comic book superheroes are real), Elijah Price may sound crazy, but the film does a great job at understanding his mindset, and his yearning to discover his opposite.

Unbreakable works as both a character-driven drama and as an alternative super hero flick. It takes its time to tell an origin story that may only serve as the first act in any other super hero movie, and it’s all the better for it. If Unbreakable features one grave flaw, however, it’s the ending.

No, I’m not talking about the film’s twist (which, unlike many of Shyamalan’s plot twists, feels neither forced nor a crutch for the entire film to hold onto). That twist actually helps shake up the film from a character standpoint. But even Unbreakable’s most diehard fans will tell you that what comes immediately after said twist is disappointing. And that’s because, after the twist, the movie just abruptly ends…with on-screen text. It’s weird, because you can’t imagine there would have been all that much movie left anyway, but it would have helped the movie come to a far more satisfying close if we actually got to see these ending events unfold, instead of simply being told “here’s what happened.” It’s a popcorn fart of an ending to an otherwise captivating movie.

Ending aside, Unbreakable remains a standout feature in the super hero genre. And uniquely, it has only become a greater standout over the course of time, and the countless super hero films that have been released since. Unbreakable is a low-key character drama and innovative dissection of the super hero genre that has, like a fine wine, only gotten better with age.

 

8

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Inside Review

Playdead became one of the premiere indie gaming studios upon the release of their first game, Limbo in 2010. A monochromatic platformer, Limbo was a stylistic little adventure that spanned about an hour of playtime. Though the atmosphere garnered Limbo immense praise, I was in the minority of people who found Limbo’s gameplay far too shallow to make it worth the praise. Six years later, Playdead released their second title, Inside, a spiritual successor to Limbo which garnered even more critical praise than its predecessor. While Inside does suffer many of the same faults that plagued Limbo, even I have to admit it’s a step in the right direction for Playdead.

Like Limbo before it, Inside is a side-scrolling platformer with puzzle elements. Though it is visually distinct from its predecessor, abandoning the 2D silhouettes of Limbo in favor of 3D character models that have more color, but are often masked in shadows. It’s a more varied aesthetic than Limbo, and it, combined with its minimalistic music and ambient sounds, gives Inside a greater sense of atmosphere than its predecessor.

The player controls an unnamed boy, who has recently escaped from a mysterious government/scientific facility. The agents/researchers of this facility are on the prowl for the escapee, so the boy must elude them at all costs. All while solving puzzles and obstacles in order to completely escape from the facility’s reach.

The boy only has basic actions, such as running, jumping, pushing and pulling objects, swimming and climbing. Immediately, the game sounds like a retread of its Limbo, but Inside rises head and shoulders above its predecessor with two simple improvements: better level design, and better puzzle design.

While one of my biggest complaints with Limbo was how the puzzles were too simple (push this, pull that, and go right), Inside has learned from its predecessor to make puzzles that require a bit more thinking and exploration. Yes, it still uses the same game mechanics, but they feel far more creatively utilized this time around. While Limbo’s puzzles often felt spelled out for the player, Inside’s will actually give you a sense of “eureka” every now and again.

Among the game’s best puzzles are those that see the boy take control of the many, zombie-like victims of the facility. At various points in the game, the boy can attach psychic helmets to his head, which allows him to animate the seemingly lifeless bodies lying about the facility. These ‘bodies’ can help the boy reach new heights, rip open doors and gates, push and pull heavy objects, and operate machinery. In some of Inside’s best moments, the boy can lead a body to an additional helmet, thus the boy controls a body controlling more bodies. This element alone gives the game a much deeper gameplay element than its predecessor, and comes across like a dark and dreary version of Pikmin.

There are other key elements that make Inside a vast improvement over Limbo. Namely, that the puzzles and obstacles of the game keep building upon themselves, and each “chapter” of the game continues to introduce new types of puzzles to solve, and obstacles to overcome. There are underwater sections where the boy pilots a submarine, and in a section that feels inspired by similar stages from Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, the boy has to continuously hide behind objects to survive being blasted away by deadly shockwaves. The shockwaves have a timed pattern, so the player has to make sure to time everything just right to make sure they have enough time to make it behind the next object. And, without giving too much away, Inside’s finale becomes something of a grotesque version of Katamari Damacy.

In essence, Inside is pretty much a superior version of Limbo in pretty much every regard. Though it does still stumble in a few of the same areas as Playdead’s original title. Like Limbo before it, Inside is a very short game, though it has added an additional hour or two to the proceedings. That isn’t a bad thing in of itself (short games are a refreshing change of pace in this day and age), but there isn’t a whole lot of replay value to the game to make up for the brief campaign. There are hidden orbs to be found that – once all of them have been deactivated – will result in an alternate ending. But that’s about it. Perhaps more alternate secrets and endings could have extended the lifespan of Inside. Those who are engrossed in the game’s atmosphere and vague narrative may seek out the alternate ending, but everyone else may find the roughly three hour journey to be enough as it is.

Unfortunately, some of its predecessor’s control issues have sneaked their way over as well. Though it feels a little more polished, the boy of Inside often suffers from the similarly finicky physics and controls. The jumping still has that LittleBigPlanet-esque sense of imprecision, which makes some platforming feel more annoying than it should.

Similar to Limbo, it seems a few sections of Inside require a trial-and-error approach, forcing you to die in order to solve problems bits at a time with each respawn before figuring them out. This isn’t too big of a deal, since you  regenerate at the start of the current puzzle/problem, but it still makes some obstacles feel cheaper than others.

However, I can’t stress enough how much of an improvement Inside is over Limbo. Even these complaints, while still present, aren’t nearly as bad as they were in Inside’s predecessor. Limbo often felt hampered by its issues, as though Playdead’s confidence in their game’s atmosphere and visuals lead to some complacency when it came to their puzzle and stage design. With Inside, the game feels creative and well constructed enough that whatever issues it does have feel more like inconveniences in an otherwise exceptional effort.

It’s much easy to see how Inside garnered its praise than it is to see what all the hubbub was with Limbo. Pretty much everything about Playdead’s debut effort has been substantially bettered with their second go. Those who loved Limbo lavished Inside with even more profuse praise. And even someone like me, who considers Limbo to be an empty game, can consider Inside to be something of the “good version” of Playdead’s work thus far. Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

7

Ralph Breaks the Internet Review

Even though animated sequels are commonplace in this day and age, Walt Disney Animation Studios – the world’s most famous source of animated features – rarely creates follow-ups to their animated classics. Some might be quick to point out the flood of direct-to-video Disney sequels that plagued the 90s and early 2000s, but those were actually produced by the now (mercifully) defunct DisneyToon Studios. Those were products of their time, and never once have those straight-to-video sequels been considered a part of the official Disney Animation canon.

The beloved studio’s only true animated sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000, Winnie the Pooh (2011), and now, Ralph Breaks the Internet, sequel to 2012’s delightful Wreck-It Ralph. Though considering the Pooh movies work more like standalone episodes, and the Fantasia films are non-narrative, there could be an argument that Ralph Breaks the Internet is only the studio’s second animated sequel. No matter how you look at it, however, Ralph Breaks the Internet proves to be the best sequel Disney has yet made by an incomparable margin, and arguably the best Disney animated film since Frozen.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is set six years after the original (coinciding with the real gap between films). Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the lovable video game ‘villain’ of Fix-It Felix Jr., has become something of a surrogate brother to Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character from the cutesy, Mario Kart-esque racer, Sugar Rush. Ralph and Vanellope spend the days in their respective arcade games, while at night they jump from game to game goofing off. Ralph, having spent years as an outcast due to his role as a video game baddie, is perfectly content with his life now that he has a friend. Vanellope, meanwhile, wishes for something more out of life, feeling that her game is too simple, and her time with Ralph too routine.

Ralph, wanting to help Vanellope out with her problems, tries adding something new to her game. But, true to his name, Wreck-It Ralph’s good intentions make a mess of things. This results in the steering wheel controller for Sugar Rush’s arcade cabinet breaking. Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Niell), the owner of the arcade, unplugs the Sugar Rush game. A child at the arcade finds a Sugar Rush wheel on eBay, but Mr. Litwak deems it too expensive, and expects to can the game for good

Luckily for Ralph and Vanellope, however, Mr. Litwak has recently installed wi-fi in the arcade. And so Ralph and Vanellope sneak into the arcade’s wi-fi router, in hopes of traveling into the internet to find eBay and buy a new Sugar Rush wheel so that Vanellope (and all the other now-homeless Sugar Rush characters) can go home. Of course, being video game characters, Ralph and Vanellope don’t exactly know what they’re getting themselves into, and their ensuing adventure may just test their friendship.

It sounds like a simple setup, but like the other recent Disney films, Ralph breaks the Internet tells a story that’s made complex by the characters. Gone are the days when Disney simply utilized their stock archetypes to push plots forward, Disney’s recent output have told stories dictated by the characters, not the other way around. And Ralph Breaks the Internet continues this trend in a unique way. Being a sequel, Ralph 2 could have easily fallen into the pitfall of recycling the original’s material under a new guise. Instead, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its position as a sequel to build on the characters we grew to love the first time around, and give them new dimensions. In turn, this sequel may actually outdo its predecessor in the emotional department.

Like the first film, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its premise to create a wide array of different visual styles and art directions. It’s easy to go into the film being skeptical at the change in focus from the video game theme of the original to the internet theme of this sequel, but Ralph Breaks the Internet finds ways to make it work.

Not only does the internet world have a cleanly “retro future” look about it, but Ralph and Vanellope also find themselves visiting an online game called Slaughter Race, a grungy mix between Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo that beautifully contrasts the vivid colorfulness of the rest of the film. And – as has been greatly advertised – Vanellope even finds herself in the (very real) Oh My Disney website, where she encounters characters from Star Wars, Marvel and even her fellow characters from the Disney Animation canon, most notably the Disney Princesses (with all the more recent princesses being voiced by their original actresses). These scenes are among the funniest in the movie, though they do kind of make you wish we could get an entire movie about a Disney crossover…

With so many different worlds to explore – whether it’s the returning Sugar Rush or Fix-It Felix Jr., the internet itself, Slaughter Race, the dark web, or the worlds of Disney – Ralph Breaks the Internet continues what the first film started by making an animated feature that’s constantly rebuilding itself on the visual front. The Wreck-It Ralph movies are so good I’d love to see a third entry, but I wouldn’t mind a third one even just to see what other visuals they can come up with.

Like the first movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet also features a memorable musical score that channels the video games that inspired it. And this time around, we even get a big musical number, which is another highlight of the film.

Another interesting change of pace from Disney norms is that Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t have any real villain. It seems like Disney’s recent flicks have been doing new and different things with their villain scenario, finding ways to make them key to the plot without being the center of it like the Disney of old. And now Ralph 2 seems to just throw the villain element away entirely. As stated, this is a movie about Ralph and Vanellope, and they end up creating their own dilemmas for themselves (whether through conflicting interests or well intentioned accidents). There’s something really refreshing about that.

If there are any issues with the story, it might simply be that it can feel like it takes a fair bit of time to get going. As stated, searching for a video game steering wheel doesn’t exactly sound like it makes for a great adventure, and you may wonder where exactly the film is going for a while (albeit the charming characters and witty writing might make you not care), but once it picks up, it’s a consistently entertaining and heartwarming picture.

Fans of the original film may also lament that returning characters Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) have largely reduced roles. After marrying at the end of the first movie, Felix and Calhoun end up adopting all of the Sugar Rush racers (sans Vanellope) once their game gets unplugged. It had the potential to be a pretty funny sub-plot, but sadly it gets very little time overall.

New characters include Shank (Gal Gadot), a badass chick from Slaughter Race, Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk, who’s omnipresent in Disney animation these days), a search engine, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm on a YouTube-esque site, and J.P. Spamley (Bill Hader), a clickbait pop-up advertisement. With the exception of Shank, most the new characters don’t have too big of roles. But they all help push the main plot forward with Ralph and Vanellope’s journey, so they don’t feel underutilized in the way Felix and Calhoun do with their own sub-plot.

In the end, what makes Ralph Breaks the Internet such a winner is that it is a heartfelt story between its two main characters that helps them change and grow in a way a lot of sequels are afraid to do. It doesn’t simply continue what its predecessor started, but builds on it. The change in setting from video games to the internet may have been cause for concern going in (because really, which one seems the more fitting setting for an animated film?), but the story and characters win you over so strongly the change seems inconsequential. It seems a lot of CG animated films are defined by their setting – emulating the ‘themed movie’ approach of Pixar films without understanding the deeper story aspects – but Ralph Breaks the Internet lets its characters take the steering wheel, ultimately telling a story that delivers in entertainment and emotion, with a pretty heavy and mature message about friendship that may bring a tear or two to your eye.

Disney has rarely created proper sequels to their animated classics. But Ralph Breaks the Internet puts up a good argument that they should do it a little more often. It may have a slow start, but Ralph Breaks the Internet is a prime example of what a sequel should be. Fingers crossed that Frozen 2 can do the same.

 

8

The Inconsistency of the Smash Roster

I ramble about Super Smash Bros. a lot, and I plan to write my full review of Ultimate really soon, so I’ll try to keep this quick. But the other day, I saw a tweet that made a good point, claiming that Ultimate, more so than Brawl or Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS, has a list of Assist Trophies who should be playable characters, and playable characters who should be Assist Trophies.

Now, this person did leave out the first four announced newcomers in Inkling, Ridley, Simon Belmont and King K. Rool in their argument. Some people argued that that skewed the original poster’s point, but they emphasized that they left those characters out because they thought they were deserving newcomers. Hard to argue that, seeing as Ridley and K. Rool have been two of the three most wanted characters for over a decade, Inkling represents a contemporary Nintendo franchise, and Castlevania’s history with Nintendo goes without saying. But they pointed out that the remaining newcomers – including echo fighters – when compared to a number of characters who were relegated to Assist Trophies, leave a lot to be desired. And I kind of agreed.

Yes, I am aware that the echo fighters “don’t take up much programming space” yada yada yada. I get that. But let’s face it, they’re still difficult characters to get too excited over. Especially when we get reminded of the characters we could have had. And if the remaining newcomers are a little on the… ‘iffy’ side, well then those echo fighters are going to mean even less.

But let’s get back to the remaining newcomers. Isabelle is a choice that makes sense given Animal Crossing’s immense popularity. And you know what, I like that she’s in the game and think she’s very fun to play. However, whenever I remember that Shovel Knight and Bomberman are simply Assist Trophies, Isabelle’s placement as a playable character loses some of its appeal. Yeah, she’s a good addition, but if I – and many, many others – had a choice between Isabelle and Shovel Knight or Bomberman, well, I think we could all agree that’s a runaway victory for Shovel Knight and Bomberman.

“Even Incineroar is embarrassed he made it in before Geno.”

Then of course, we have Incineroar. Now, again, I completely understand the popularity of Pokemon, and have stated in the past that it’s one of the few series where it could potentially have as many characters as it wants. But, also again, when we look at characters who didn’t make the cut who fans have been begging for for years (Isaac from Golden Sun, anyone?), it boggles the mind that a Pokemon as random as Incineroar would be chosen instead. I mean, at least someone like Decidueye would be unique with his grass/ghost typing and emphasis on archery. But Incineroar kind of just seems to cover ground that’s already been covered in Smash being a brute character with fire moves. Again, I don’t hate Incineroar, but why are so many characters fans have wanted relegated to Assist Trophies in favor of random selections like Incineroar.

“Kill it with fire!”

Oh, but then we have the soon-to-be-released Piranha Plant. Now this is where I feel the selection was just a massive letdown. I mean, no one asked for a generic enemy (and if they had to add one, why not Goomba? At least Goombas are kind of the most iconic generic enemy in games, so they have that going for them). Some people claim Sakurai wanted to do something unexpected to surprise fans, but does a surprise really matter if it ends up disappointing? I mean, if someone ding-dong-ditched me and left a flaming bag of dog poop on my porch, I’d be surprised, but certainly not happy about it.

Sure, Piranha Plant could end up being a fun character to play. But its inclusion still seems like a slap in the face to all the fans who have been dying to see their favorite characters make the cut. I repeat, people really, really wanted Isaac, Bomberman, Shovel Knight, and many others. No one wanted Piranha Plant. And for a series as grounded in fanservice as Super Smash Bros., it just seems like a counterproductive move to so blatantly go the opposite direction of what fans want.

Yeah yeah, I’m going to bring up Geno again. Of course I am. But I don’t continuously bring up Super Mario RPG’s possessed puppet without reason. Fans have begged for the character’s inclusion for perhaps longer and more adamantly than any other character (wit the possible exceptions of K. Rool and Ridley), and yet, time and again, Super Smash Bros. fails to deliver on him. Granted, there’s still hope for Geno to make it as DLC, seeing as he doesn’t appear as an Assist Trophy. But there’s no guarantee to that. Some people think the fact that he shows up as a spirit deconfirms him, but that just sounds like a weak argument, since the spirits are just stock images that boost stats and don’t actually appear physically in matches.

But as I’ve stated ad nauseam, Geno’s continuous absence seems to personify the wonkiness of Smash’s character selections and omissions. I mean, if the most requested characters by fans can’t make it in, but Piranha Plant can, it seems to go against the very nature of the series.

Some people defend these selections by claiming that “it’s Sakurai’s game” and while that’s true, his is a game series built on fan service. It’s not like he’s telling a deep, personal story with the series. It’s Nintendo (and other) characters beating the crap out of each other.

What’s really annoying is when Sakurai apologists lash out against disappointed fans, as though they don’t have a right to be disappointed. We all love Smash Bros., but again, when the characters people want keep getting ignored while seemingly random selections make it in, it’s annoying. I love Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and I think it’s the best game in the series. But would I enjoy it more if I could play as Geno? Oh, hell yeah! Without question.

Look, I understand that not everyone can be pleased, and some fans are always going to be disappointed. But there’s a difference between certain characters not making the cut, and the characters people have wanted most for over a decade not making the cut in favor of characters no one asked for (again, that damn plant!). It just comes off as spiteful (even if that isn’t the intent).

Even K. Rool and Ridley, despite their demand, had to wait until now to finally make it into the series, with Sakurai always coming up with rather weak reasonings for their omissions in the past (the “character uniqueness” statement in regards to K. Rool was particularly laughable, given all the similar characters already present in the series). I don’t want to complain too much about that, since they’re here now. Better late than never and all that. But given some of the characters who made it in before them, it’s pretty head-scratching.

What’s particularly hypocritical of the fans who dismiss those who express disappointment is that they’ll often ridicule fans of a particular character when they’re not in, but once a character makes it in, they suddenly act like they were always onboard with the idea since Sakurai and company gave the green light. It’s like, what a bunch of trollish sheep.

Look, I hope I never sound too negative in regards to Super Smash Bros. I truly love the series. But that’s why I get so passionate about it, both the good and bad. It’s easy to love the games themselves, but it’s often hard to ignore what could have been… especially if what we get is Piranha Plant.

Again, I hope to have my review of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate up soon. And since the omissions of my (and other people’s) most wanted characters isn’t a serious fault in terms of game design, I won’t be talking much about this stuff in my review. Hence why I decided to get it out of the way here. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve ranted about the Smash roster, and it surely won’t be the last.

My review of Ultimate is definitely going to be mostly positive (except in regards to World of Light). So please don’t think I’m just a grumpy guys when it comes to Smash. It’s just that I, like many fans, have the right to be disappointed when the series, frankly, disappoints in certain areas.

The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game Review

 

“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

-Willy Wonka

 

The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is an indie title by Grace Bruxner released at the tail-end of 2018. The first entry in a planned series, this point-and-click adventure is something of a parody of the genre in which the hero is a frog detective simply named…Detective.

Detective is assigned a case on a small island owned by a sloth named Martin, who claims the island is haunted by a ghost. Strange noises have been heard on the island for about two weeks, and Martin hired a group of ‘ghosts scientists’ to try to find the apparition, with no luck. So Detective is here to find the source of the mysterious noises by investigating the island.

The game more or less revolves around a single puzzle. The mysterious noises are emanating from a cave, but the entrance was caved in. So in order to find a means to investigate, the frog detective has to blow open the entrance to the cave, which one of the ghost scientists conveniently can do for you, but he requires the proper ingredients to make the dynamite to do so (toothpaste, wool, pasta and gold, naturally). So Detective has to talk to the other scientists on the island, as well as Martin, to figure out ways to get those ingredients.

That’s really all there is to The Haunted Island. You simply have to talk to the island’s inhabitants and figure out who can help you solve one of the other inhabitants problems and reward you with the ingredients. And usually, the characters make the answers to their problems completely obvious. It’s a single puzzle game in which the puzzle requires almost no thinking. It’s as bare bones of a point-and-click game as you can get, and is more of an interactive short story, than anything else.

Normally, I might hate a game for being so empty on the gameplay side of things (especially in the case of indie games, which seem to get a free pass for “not being games”). And yet, I’m going to be a hypocrite and give this game a pass for the simple reason that the dialogue won me over with its innocence and stupidity.

“This character is protective of their collection of tiny shells, which are so tiny you can’t see them. Once you give them a normal sized shell, they will reward you with a magnifying glass, since they no longer need it to stare at tiny shells.”

The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is funny. It makes up for its lack of depth by being downright silly. The characters each have their own weird quirks, and they all talk about their own brand of nonsense. It has a silly sense of cartoon banter that reminds me of Adventure Time, and the dilemmas the characters find themselves in are so stupid it can’t help but put a smile on your face. The koala character is slow, and requests that you bring them a magnet so that they can latch onto a boat and move fast, for example. Meanwhile, Martin first became suspicious of a ghost after reading (some of) a book that stated you can’t see ghosts, and since he hasn’t seen a ghost, surely there must be a ghost.

As you might expect, the game is incredibly short, and it even advertises itself at being only about an hour long (in fact, after I watched the epilogue my Steam account claims that I spent exactly 60 minutes with the game). But it’s also incredibly cheap on Steam so you don’t exactly feel shortchanged.

“My favorite running gag in the game is that Frog Detective is constantly reminded by his boss that he’s only on the case because their best agent – Lobster Cop – is already on duty elsewhere. Rather than object, Frog Detective vehemently agrees that Lobster Cop is his better.”

Look, The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is not what I’d traditionally call a ‘good’ game. But it is a good slice of some harmless stupidity that is worth an hour of your time if you just want some giggles. I guess maybe after being exposed to a number of indie games that feel like having a pretentious, artsy attitude makes up for a lack of gameplay (it doesn’t), I just find it a little refreshing to find one that uses that same lack of gameplay to be the basis of a joke.

 

6

Wario Land II Review

Though the third entry of the Super Mario Land sub-series opened the door for Wario to become a video game star, Wario Land II completely kicked the door down for Wario to rewrite the rules of platformers. Though Wario Land II’s sequels would better the formula, this ambitious 1998 Game Boy title really set the stage for Wario’s unique place among Nintendo’s stars.

There are two key components that made Wario Land II such a standout both as a Game Boy title, and as a platformer: The first is that Wario Land II featured branching paths with its story, with players being able to alter the course of the game through specific actions (a feat that was a very bold move given the limitations of the Gameboy). The other key mechanic – the one that turned the platforming genre on its head – is that Wario is invincible.

That’s right, nothing can stop Wario’s path of destruction. You may wonder where the challenge is if Wario can’t be harmed. But Wario is out for treasure, and every enemy wants that same treasure. Instead of taking damage, Wario will lose coins and, subsequently, get a lower score when all is said and done. It’s a fun twist on platforming norms that has been duplicated many times since, with Kirby’s Epic Yarn being a prominent example of a game that studied Wario’s rulebook.

However, here’s where things get really interesting. The power-up helmets that were found in the first Wario Land are gone. And the concept of power-ups are instead combined with Wario’s invulnerability, with many enemy attacks having status effects on Wario that can benefit Wario with temporary abilities (in addition to serving as minor inconveniences).

By getting hit with an ice attack, Wario becomes frozen and slides backwards, and can glide across spikes unscathed. If Wario gets set on fire, his flaming backside causes him to run at super speed and can burn down certain obstacles blocking his path. And if Wario gets stung by a bee enemy, he will have an allergic reaction, with his head swelling up so much he can float like a balloon.

Having enemies inadvertently aid Wario not only serves as a fun twist on genre traditions, but also plays into the sense of humor of Wario’s character. While Wario was originally the ‘anti-Mario’ by being a dastardly villain, Nintendo quickly made him a more unique character by making him Mario’s opposite in terms of being a comical scoundrel. Mario goes off on daring adventures to save princesses, and gains super-powers like flight and shooting fireballs. Wario, by contrast, has to find success through his own misfortunes. Wario’s own games punish him for his greed, but also reward him in the end because, well, he isn’t such a bad guy. And there’s something kind of hilarious about that.

As you might expect, players often have to utilize Wario’s various ‘conditions’ to find new paths throughout the game, as well as uncover hidden treasures for 100% completion. Though some of the game’s branching paths are found by other player actions (in one of the game’s best gags, you can go through a whole other story route simply by doing nothing and letting Wario sleep through his alarm at the start of the game). Although some routes through the game are much shorter than others, they do add to the game’s replay value. And for completionists, you’ll have to go through all of the game’s routes and uncover every secret treasure to see the real ending.

Not all is peaches and cream for Wario Land II, however. The boss fights can feel a bit unpolished and finicky with how you’re forced to go back to the previous room if you’re even a pixel off with their patterns. Sure, with Wario invincible, they needed to do something to give bosses a challenge. But perhaps robbing Wario of more treasure would have been a less tedious consequence than having to start the boss process all over again.

Other than that, the only real complaint with Wario Land II is that – through modern eyes – it definitely feels rough when compared to its sequels, which perfected the formula (Wario Land III in particular, is often considered one of the best handheld games of all time). Wario Land II is still fun, and its Game Boy Color version (which is readily available for modern gamers to download on the Nintendo 3DS) still looks pretty great, all things considered. But the two subsequent handheld entries (as well as their Wii sequel) provide the more definitive Wario platformers.

Wario Land II may not be the best game starring the mustachioed anti-Mario. But it is the game that really helped shape Wario’s character. No longer simply the “bad Mario,” Wario was now the comic foil of Nintendo’s lineup of gaming icons.

 

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The Cat Returns Review

The Cat Returns was always one of Studio Ghibli’s smaller features. As only the studio’s second animated film not to be directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, The Cat Returns was aiming to be a means to groom a new director for the studio, Hiroyuki Morita. Strangely, The Cat Returns remains Morita’s sole feature film as director. While Morita may not have become the successor to Miyazaki or Takahata, his single feature remains a delightful if small-scale installment in the Studio Ghibli canon.

The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru, a Japanese high school student. She’s shy, quiet, and a bit clumsy, not to mention she tends to be late for class and other events. Basically, she’s the most uneventful student at her school. That is until one day when she saves the life of a cat that’s about to be hit by a truck. This cat turns out to be Prince Lune, the prince of the Cat Kingdom, who begins to speak to Haru and thanks her for her bravery, much to Haru’s astonishment.

That night, a parade of cats – which includes the Cat King himself – visit Haru at her home. They tell her that for her actions, she will be showered with gifts. Though these gifts are more cumbersome than anything, and include boxes of live mice (the cats being unaware of the difference between human and cat diets) as well as planting cattails (which Haru happens to be allergic to) all over her front yard. Things get even weirder for Haru when she learns that the Cat King has decreed that she will marry Prince Lune!

Understandably not wanting to marry a cat, Haru is desperate for a way out of the situation, as the cats seem entirely naive to her objections. Suddenly, Haru hears a mysterious voice that tells her to seek out a “big, white cat,” who will lead her to the “Cat Bureau.” Haru finds the obese feline, a marshmallowy cat named Muta, who guides Haru to the Bureau. There, they meet Baron Humbert von Gekkingen (or simply “The Baron”), a magical cat figurine who comes to life when people seek his help. Soon after meeting the Baron, Haru and Muta are whisked away to the magical world of the Cat Kingdom, with the Baron and his ally Toto – a crow statue who comes to life similar to Baron – giving chase to save Haru from becoming a cat herself.

It sounds like a silly plot, and that’s because it is. But it’s also sweet, charming, and has a bit of heart to it. It has a nice message of being true to yourself, and it’s often hilarious with characters (particularly Muta and the Cat King) and its visual gags.

Of course, being a film made to groom a new director, The Cat Returns is one of Studio Ghibli’s simplest films. It barely exceeds the hour-long mark by ten minutes, and just feels like a much smaller-scale picture than most other Ghibli features. There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Cat Returns, but when compared to the usual standards of Studio Ghibli, it does feel relatively uneventful.

It’s also of note that The Cat Returns was the closest thing Ghibli made to a sequel to one of its feature films. The characters of Muta and the Baron were originally featured in Whispers of the Heart (ironically the studio’s previous attempt at grooming a new filmmaker). Though the stories are largely unrelated, with the popular belief being that The Cat Returns is a story written by the protagonist of Whispers of the Heart, who was an aspiring author. The Cat Returns doesn’t quite match Whisper of the Heart, but it does serve as a fun, quasi-continuation.

Not being a Studio Ghibli masterpiece is hardly a complaint, however, as everything that is here in The Cat Returns is quite charming, and it’s all too easy to be won over by it. The Cat Returns is the kind of movie that’s impossible not to smile at.

Along with the fun and whimsical story and the cute characters, The Cat Returns features some truly stunning animation. Though a Ghibli film having fantastic visuals is stating the obvious, The Cat Returns boasts a unique look for the studio. The Cat Returns looks akin to a Mamoru Hosada film, with simple and clean character designs that are its own. The character movements are smooth and fluid, and every last scene is filled with life and color. The Cat Returns is simply a joy to look at from the very first frame.

Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that is somehow both energetic and soothing. It may not rank alongside Joe Hisaishi’s compositions for the best Miyazaki films, but the music by Yuji Nomi is a joy to listen to, and really adds to the film’s dreamlike qualities.

Per the norm, The Cat Returns also features a stellar English dub. Anne Hathaway provides the voice of Haru, and gives the heroine a strong sense of believability and sympathy, while still hitting the right comedic notes when necessary. Cary Elwes voices the Baron, providing all the dapper British charm you could hope for, while the late Peter Boyle adds a good deal of comedy to his portrayal of Muta. And Tim Curry provides the gravely, somewhat lecherous voice of the Cat King. It goes without saying that Tim Curry is brilliant.

The Cat Returns may be a small film by Ghibli’s staggering standards. But it’s an undeniable charmer that will entertain audiences both young and old. It should leave you with a big grin beaming across your face and a warm feeling in your heart by the time the credits roll.

 

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