I Has Pokemon Sword!

I now has (yes, has) Pokemon Sword version. Does Nintendo still use the terminology “version” to distinguish Pokemon games anymore? At any rate, this is cool not only because it means a new Pokemon adventure, but also because I have no more video games on pre-order for the rest of 2019! This, of course, means I will have ample time to catch up on my back catalogue, as well as my game reviews.

Sure, there are a couple of other 2019 games that look interesting, but I’m so inundated with games I’m just gonna have to stave it off for a while. Of course, Christmas is coming up, and if any of my more generous/bestest friends happen to be reading this, I’m perfectly fine with getting some games as gifts. *Hint hint wink wink*

Anyways, along with playing Pokemon Sword (what, you thought I was going to get Shield version? Is anyone getting Shield version?), I will try to catch up on other games from 2019 like Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice and Astral Chain, along with some older titles. As for the near future, I’m hoping to review Luigi’s Mansion 3, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga as soon as possible. That’s on top of some movie reviews as well, like Joker and Dojo Rabbit (I have no excuse why I haven’t reviewed them yet. Sorry). Also with It: Chapter 2 being released on digital platforms soon, I’ll (finally) get around to reviewing that duology. And of course, Frozen II is a must review for me, and hopefully I’ll have my review for the holiday special Olaf’s Frozen Adventure done before that.

I’ve reviewed most of the movies I’ve seen in theaters this year, with the exceptions of the above mentioned that I just haven’t got to yet (plus Judy. But I may wait to review that one until I get all these things done. No rush on that one). I’ve actually grown quite pleased with ow many movies I’ve managed to review that were released this year. Unfortunately it seems in regards to games, I was still buying more while I was still playing others. As a result, I haven’t finished a number of them and haven’t been able to review as many as I’d like. Here’s hoping these next few months give me the time to make up for lost time.

I’m really going to have to crank these out quickly in the coming days if I hope to stick to my plan of reviewing every Star Wars movie before The Rise of Skywalker releases in late December (sans Solo: A Star Wars Story, which I’ve already reviewed).

What am I going on about this again for? Didn’t I already ramble about this recently?

In short, with no more games on pre-order until Animal Crossing: New Horizons in March, it looks like I finally have a good window of time to catch up on things. And also yay Pokemon and all that!

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Terminator: Dark Fate Review

*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, Terminator: Dark Fate is an interesting exception where I feel the twists and turns it makes in relation to its franchise have to be discussed in critiquing it. So again, spoilers abound!*

Some franchises are so deeply embedded in pop culture and the public conscience that they can go on forever. Other franchises have their day in the sun, but need to know when to hang up their coat.

Unfortunately, the Terminator franchise falls into the latter category. That’s sad to say, because the 1984 original is a classic in both the action and sci-fi categories, while its 1991 follow-up, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, is widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest sequels, and arguably the best pure action movie ever made. Had it stopped there, the Terminator series would have easily ranked as one of the all-time great movie franchises.

But it didn’t.

In 2003, we had Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. It was an okay sequel that was more stupid fun than it was a worthy follow-up (though its ending seemed to undermine the whole point of the beloved second installment). Then came Terminator Salvation in 2009, which took audiences into the dystopian future mentioned in the previous films. Finally, the oddly-titled Terminator Genisys arrived in 2015 as an attempted reboot. None of these films compared to the first two Terminator features, and after the reboot tanked, Terminator: Dark Fate sought to get the series back on track.

Ignoring everything post-T2, Dark Fate serves as a direct sequel to Judgement Day, and sees series’ mastermind James Cameron return in a producer’s role. Although Dark Fate writes off the preceding three films as being “alternate timelines” and seeks to pick up as a ‘true’ successor to Terminator 2, it seems doomed to become nothing more than an ‘alternate timeline’ itself, as the changes it makes to the franchise hurt the legacy of the first two films perhaps more so than any of the other sequels did.

Before we discuss why Dark Fate does such irreparable damage to a beloved series’ legacy, let’s talk about the centerpiece for those first two films: John Connor.

In the original Terminator film, a T-800 model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The Terminator comes from a future in which an AI called Skynet has caused mass destruction around the globe, and uses its Terminators to eradicate humanity. The T-800 was sent through time to kill Sarah Connor because her eventual son, John Connor, is destined to lead a human resistance against Skynet, which eventually leads to humanity winning their war against the machines (sending the Terminator through time was a last-ditch effort by Skynet before it was deactivated).

Fast forward to Terminator 2, John Connor is ten-years old, and two Terminators are sent to this particular time period. One is the T-1000, a liquid metal killing machine that can change its shape, sent back in time to kill John Connor as a child. The other Terminator is another T-800, reprogrammed by the future John Connor to protect his younger self from the more advanced machine. Together with the T-800, Sarah Connor successfully protects her son from the T-1000, and they ensure a new, brighter future for humanity.

So how does Terminator: Dark Fate attempt to get the franchise “back on track” by ignoring the less-loved sequels and continuing the story of Terminator 2?

By killing John Connor in the first three or so minutes.

Yessir, this installment, which so desperately wants us to forget about the previous three sequels/offshoots and to be considered the “proper” follow-up to Terminators 1 and 2 begins by… rendering Terminators 1 and 2 pointless…

Honestly, this might be the biggest middle finger of a ‘twist’ I’ve ever seen in a movie franchise. I’ve heard more than enough complaints at The Last Jedi and its supposed disregard for its legacy (I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi, though I can understand a number of the complaints). But you could take everything fans disliked about Rian Johnson’s Star Wars film, as well as all three of the maligned prequel trilogy entries, put them all together, and it still wouldn’t be as disrespectful to the legacy of its franchise and its audience as this one move is here for the Terminator series.

Not only does John Connor die within minutes of the film, but it’s in such an unceremonious fashion. Although seeing actors de-aged (rather convincingly) with CG to re-introduce the Sarah and John Connor of the 1990s to audiences feels like a treat for a brief second, it’s a moment that’s instantaneously dashed once another T-800 simply walks up to John Connor while he and his mother are on vacation and shoots him. It even undermines the villains from the first two films. You mean to tell me that after all the crap Sarah Connor fought through to survive the first T-800, and the extravagant action sequences she and John endured at the hands of the T-1000, that another T-800 just casually walks by and gets the job done? It’s outright insulting.

Unfortunately, it’s far too grave of a mistake for the film to recover from. Even with some impressive action scenes, Terminator: Dark Fate – quite unintentionally – lives up to its title because of this one move. It sabotages the very core of the franchise to such a degree, that it may be the only thing on your mind for the rest of the movie.

All John Connor’s death ends up amounting to is a means to introduce a new character in his same role. Although the film at least acknowledges that the events of Terminator 2 did alter the future in their own way, John’s death alters it even further. Instead of Skynet, a different AI called “Legion” will eventually attempt human extinction with the aid of Terminators (why the evil AI gets an edge-lord style new name but the Terminators remain the same as the previous timeline, from their name to their appearance, is anyone’s guess). With this marginally altered timeline, a different individual is destined to become humanity’s savior in the war against the machines, Daniella “Dani” Raymos (Natalia Reyes).

Fast-forward to the present day (twenty-two years after John Connor’s unceremonious end), and Dani is a young woman working at a factory. Because she’s filling the exact same role as John Connor, two figures from the future are sent back in time to the present day, one to protect her, and the other to kill her. In the form of protector we have Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human woman who’s been augmented with cybernetic parts. And in the form of assassin, we have the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who – like all the post-T2 Terminator baddies – is essentially another T-1000 (though credit where it’s due, he comes with the fun twist of having a liquid metal skin, but a more traditionally mechanical skeleton, thus allowing him to separate himself into two figures).

Eventually, Dani and Grace are joined by an older Sarah Connor, who doesn’t need cybernetic implants to be badass. Later still, the team is joined by – and I kid you not – the same T-800 that killed John Connor who, after completing his directive and not having a purpose, slowly began to gain a semblance of a conscience, saved a woman and her son from an abusive husband/father, married said woman, and raised said son as his own. I admit it’s a fun setup for a character, but doesn’t it just sound more like a Terminator parody you’d see on a comedy sketch than from the supposed “true” follow-up to Terminator 2?

It turns out that after learning to integrate into humanity, this T-800, humorously referred to as ‘Carl’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger, obviously) began to understand what he took away from Sarah Connor, and is attempting to do what it can to set things right. Hence why it’s secretly helped Sarah Connor track down other leftover Terminators Skynet had sent to the past, and why it helps our current heroes in the fight against the Rev-9.

This whole setup just blows my mind on so many levels. One, if our new heroine was just going to follow the same character path as John Connor, why not make this another reboot instead of a sequel to Terminator 2? Two, if they just had to have this be a sequel to Terminator 2, why did they have to kill off John Connor, when they could have simply said the events of Terminator 2 altered the timeline so now Dani Raymos has taken his place in the future instead? Third, is the future in the Terminator franchise destined to be ruled by an evil AI before humans retake the planet thanks to the efforts of one destined individual? So if one ‘chosen one’ gets bumped off, the next in line just takes their place? Pretty much undermines the whole importance of Sarah and John Connor to begin with.

This just seems like a movie that had so many other, better options they could have taken the story. Instead, they decided to tell the same story as the past Terminator movies but with different characters, while keeping Schwarzenegger and Hamilton onboard so they could call it a sequel.

One of the best recipes for a winning sequel is “same characters, different story.” But Terminator: Dark Fate chooses the exact opposite approach, which has only ever proven to be a pitfall for sequels. And killing the central figure of the entire series within the first few minutes? Yeah, that’s got to be near the top of the list of things not to do in a sequel.

That’s not to say that everything in Terminator: Dark Fate is a total bust. Some of the action scenes can be quite exhilarating, the special effects are good, and even after all these years, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are still a joy to watch in these roles. If you’re someone only slightly familiar with the Terminator franchise, and just want to see some fun action scenes, you might have a good time. But if you’re invested in the franchise even just a little bit, it’s hard to recommend Terminator: Dark Fate. While it’s great when long-running franchises try their hand at something new, it amounts to nothing when the “new” is the same material as before, just with slightly different characters.

It’s the movie equivalent of when an actor leaves a sitcom, and the show replaces that character with another one who is basically identical in personality and characteristics. But here, we didn’t have an actor leaving the role, just a movie that completely disregards the character who was at the heart of the franchise within its opening minutes.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day remains one of the best sequels in movie history. Terminator: Dark Fate? Nope.

 

4

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Review

2019 has certainly been a busy year for Disney, and that is notably true of the Mouse House’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics. Dumbo and Aladdin both received live-action makeovers, while the Lion King got its own Not-Actually-Live-Action-But-Disney-Likes-To-Pretend-It-Is remake. Capping off the quartet of theatrically released Disney remakes of 2019 is a sequel to one of Disney’s earlier efforts in adapting one of their animated features of the past to a contemporary live-action film, 2014’s Maleficent.

You may be wondering if Maleficent needed a sequel. And the answer is no, it didn’t. Nor do I believe there was any particular demand for one. But that’s okay, not every movie has to be “necessary” to be enjoyable, and even though Hollywood still likes to believe there’s a stigma to sequels (because how dare these movies make them money?), there have been plenty of great movie sequels over the years. While Maleficent: Mistress of Evil may not be among those great sequels, it is a serviceable one that is on par with its predecessor. So if you liked the first Maleficent, then Mistress of Evil isn’t going to take anything away from that, even if it doesn’t necessarily improve on anything. Unnecessary it may be, at the very least, Mistress of Evil’s standing as a sequel to the 2014 film at least means it’s a live-action adaptation of a Disney animated film that isn’t a direct remake. So that’s something.

Appropriately set five years after the first film, Mistress of Evil sees its titular Dark Fairy, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), having become something of the adoptive mother of Aurora (Elle Fanning). Although Maleficent cursed Aurora into an eternal slumber, she ended up breaking her own curse with “true love’s kiss” (the mother/daughter spin on the material actually being pretty novel). Despite her good deeds, all people remember of Maleficent’s story is that she cursed Aurora, and she is still feared among many kingdoms.

Maleficent has crowned Aurora queen of the Moors (the magical forest realm), and soon enough, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) from the human kingdom of Ulstead, proposes to Aurora, and the two are set to be wed. Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent’s raven-turned-manservant, informs the dark fairy of Aurora’s betrothal, which doesn’t sit too well with her. Maleficent still doesn’t believe in love, though she wants Aurora to be happy more than anything, and so agrees to meet the king and queen of Ulstead.

That’s right, the sequel to the movie centered on one of Disney’s most iconic villains is about meeting the in-laws. Strange as it may sound, it’s a fun premise for a fairy tale, even if Shrek 2 beat it to the punch by fifteen years (though considering there’s not really been another such fairy tale since, and this film centers around a villain, it’s still covering pretty fertile ground).

As you might expect, things don’t go so well. Though Phillip’s father, King John (Robert Lindsey) is alright, his mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has a not-too-subtle prejudice against magic folk. Ingrith brings out the worst in Maleficent, who then goes into full villain mode. When it appears Maleficent has placed a sleeping curse upon King John, she is exiled from the kingdom, and Aurora’s faith in her mother figure is shaken. The king’s curse – and the framing of Maleficent – are Queen Ingrith’s doing, as she plots to start a war with the Moors. Suffice to say, meeting the in-laws escalated quickly.

The plot is a bit silly, but it’s well-intentioned. On the plus sides, Aurora is finally given the opportunity to develop as a character (it only took the sequel to the remake to get there). The performances – particularly of Jolie, Pfeiffer and Fanning – are memorable. And as stated, it’s kind of nice to see these familiar characters featured in a different story than that of Sleeping Beauty. On the downside, the plot takes a largely unnecessary detour when Maleficent goes into exile and encounters the remaining Dark Fairies of the world, and as much as this series has tried to subvert Disney traditions, both Maleficent and now Mistress of Evil feature the Mouse House’s oft criticized “evil parent” archetype more prominently than perhaps any of the studio’s animated features ever did (I speak not of Maleficent, but of King Stephen in the first film, and Ingrith in this sequel).

It’s that aforementioned sub-plot with the other Dark Fairies that is the film’s biggest undoing. Not only does it give us even more characters in an already crowded movie, but it also takes too much time to explain things that really aren’t necessary. For example, we find out that Dark Fairies are descendants of the Phoenix, and that Maleficent is the most powerful Dark Fairy  because she’s a direct descendant of said flaming bird monster. Like, why is that important? Why do we need an explanation for why Maleficent is the most powerful fairy? Why can’t  her magic just be the strongest and that’s all there is to it? And why a phoenix? Given the Maleficent character’s long-standing association with dragons, why not make it a dragon since the first Maleficent movie already denied us of that?

Am I getting sidetracked? Not any more than the movie itself.

The other big problem is, like the first movie, the visual effects still leave a lot to be desired. It’s not bad CG per se, but the creatures just look artificial. They don’t meld into the picture with the live actors, they stand out as visual effects in a garish way. This time around, Aurora’s fairy godmothers; Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville) no longer take on their human forms, so we’re stuck with seeing their uncanny valley versions throughout the entire movie. And a new character – a hedgehog-like creature called Pinto – joins in the proceedings, along with a mushroom creature. They’re obviously supposed to be filling the role of cutesy animal sidekicks, but the cuteness never shines through the glaringly artificial CG. It’s a similar complaint I have to the Harry Potter series, where every magic creature is unpleasant to look at. Though I suppose the creatures here aren’t all outright grotesque, so I guess the Moors are a step up from Hogwarts.

With all these complaints, however, I admit I still had some fun with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Again, the performances are good and it’s nice to see the characters working in some form of new material. And even when the Dark Fairy sub-plot enters the realms of gobbledygook, it’s at least the kind of needless nonsense I can have fun with (I actually got a kick out of the whole Phoenix stuff, pointless though it may be).

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is not a great movie, or a particularly good sequel. But y’know, if you liked the first film, Mistress of Evil does give you more of what you want. And I don’t think it’s any worse than its predecessor, either. It’s a perfectly serviceable sequel for its fans, if maybe not anything more. But hey, that certainly beats whatever Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was.

 

5

Maleficent (2014) Review

Disney has, in recent years, been leaning heavily on remaking their back catalogue of animated classics into live-action features. And while some of these remakes have been good (The Jungle Book, Aladdin), overall they beg the question as to why such remakes are necessary. If there’s one category of film that’s going to prove timeless, it’s Disney animated films, they never really needed to be remade.

Though credit where it’s due, the first two live-action Disney remakes of this decade were not only spread out by four years (compare that to 2019, in which we’ve seen four live-action Disney remakes in one year!), but they also attempted new spins on their source material more so than being straight-up remakes.

The first, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, while ultimately a bit of a jumbled mess, attempted to be something of a sequel to the original Disney animated film (or the Lewis Carol story itself). The second, 2014’s Maleficent, was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but from the perspective of its iconic villain.

Given how marketed Disney has made their villains over the years – and with Maleficent probably being the one most promoted as the “big bad” of Disney – the idea of making a movie entirely built around Maleficent made sense. Unfortunately, such a concept also risked changing the image of Maleficent entirely. It was unlikely that Disney would make a film about an entirely evil character, despite the fact that had been Maleficent’s appeal for decades (she was certainly more of a reason to watch Sleeping Beauty than Princess Aurora ever was). And, well, seeing as we rarely see the character marketed as Disney’s ‘big bad’ anymore, I think it’s safe to say that 2014’s Maleficent changed the general outlook on the character.

That’s not innately a bad thing. But it is the product of the film not so much being “Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s perspective” so much as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that paints Maleficent in a more sympathetic light, if that makes sense. She still looks the part of Mistress of Evil with her long horns, black robes, and penchant for being surrounded by green fire, but Maleficent never really feels like a villain in her titular movie, which kind of seems to defeat the purpose of building a movie around Maleficent to begin with.

That’s not to say that the film is a total bust, with its first half hour actually doing a pretty good job at setting up its story, and Angelina Jolie melds into the role of Maleficent with ease. But once the story enters the territory of Sleeping Beauty proper, the film feels rushed and cluttered. And some of the visual effects, while not bad on a technical level, can look too artificial.

The film begins by explaining that Maleficent is a dark fairy from the Moors, a magical forest realm that neighbors a human kingdom. When she was young, Maleficent befriended a human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, and the two eventually fell in love. But as they grew to adulthood, the two also grew more distant as they become more entrenched in their respective kingdoms’ differences.

The king of the human kingdom wages war on the Moors, but is mortally wounded in the ensuing battle by Maleficent. The dying king is returned to his kingdom, and declares that whomever can kill Maleficent will marry his daughter and become his successor. Stefen (Sharlto Copley), having grown consumed by his ambitions, takes advantage of the opportunity and his history with Maleficent. Stefen finds the dark fairy, and feigns to rekindle his friendship/romance with her. Stefen’s deceptions are dark, to say the least, as he drugs Maleficent with a sleeping potion with the intent on murdering her. Though memories of his friendship with Maleficent prevent Stefen from completing the dark deed, and decides to cut off Maleficent’s wings and takes them back to the kingdom as a trophy. Believing Stefen has successfully killed Maleficent, the dying king passes his crown down to him.

Meanwhile, Maleficent awakes in shock and horror at the loss of her wings. The depth of Stefen’s deception and cruelty have turned her into the ruthless ruler of the Moors, who transforms the once colorful forest kingdom into a place of dark magic, with walls of deadly thorns preventing humans from stepping foot in the Moors again.

Maleficent keeps an eye on the human kingdom by means of her raven-turned-manservant, Diaval (Sam Riley), who spies on Stefen’s kingdom for the dark fairy. One day, Diaval returns to Maleficent with news that King Stefen and his queen are to have a christening for their child, and Maleficent sees this as an opportunity to exact her revenge for Stefen’s betrayal. Maleficent appears at the christening, where she places (an oddly specific) curse on Stefen’s child. On her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, resulting in a death-like sleep. Stefan pleads for mercy, and Maleficent retorts by adding the caveat that the curse can only be broken by “true love’s kiss” which Maleficent doesn’t truly believe exists.

To protect the princess, she is sent away to live in hiding with three fairy godmothers: Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville). During the next sixteen years, the fairies (disguised in human form) raise Aurora (Elle Fanning), but the lost princess has an additional guardian in the form of Maleficent, who keeps a watchful eye over the girl for…some reason. Pretty soon, Maleficent grows fond of Aurora, and tries to undo the curse, to no avail (she said only true love’s kiss can break it, and she meant it). Meanwhile, Stefan’s paranoia of Maleficent’s curse drives him insane, to the point that he forgets the very reason he feared the curse to begin with.

Unfortunately, it’s the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora that ends up being the movie’s downfall. It’s a nice twist on the Disney fairy tale to center the story on a mother/daughter relationship, but the problem is said relationship just never feels believable.

Again, I stress that the first half hour (which covers up to about the point the curse is placed) is actually well done. It does a good job at painting both Maleficent and Stefan as tragic figures in different ways. Maleficent’s downfall comes across as sympathetic, and Stefan’s betrayal – as well as his reason for slipping into insanity – resonate well. And you have to commend the filmmakers for treading some seriously dark ground for a Disney movie (the scene in which Stefan drugs Maleficent and steals her wings is alluding to exactly what it sounds like). It certainly succeeds in making Maleficent sympathetic despite her villainous actions.

The problem with Maleficent as a film is that, once the storyline veers into the familiar Sleeping Beauty territory, it seems to thrown too many elements together all at once, and rushes through key plot points, to the point that some characters, such as Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) end up becoming bit players, and just like the original, we barely get to know Aurora as a character (you’d think rectifying the character’s presence would be a key reason for a remake). Hell, even Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon – probably the most iconic imagery of the original animated film – is undone and rushed through, and she’s not even the one who fills the dragon role in her own film (it’s one of the many forms she changes Diaval into during the film).

Maleficent is a two-plus hour film trapped in an hour and a half running time. The strong pacing and character moments are present in the first half hour, but the rest of the film feels so rushed going through the paces, that the story and characters end up suffering. The key victim, again, is Maleficent and Aurora’s relationship, which is supposed to be the heart of the movie. I’m still not sure why Maleficent decides to watch over Aurora as a kind of secret godmother. And her growing love for Aurora, which should be the crux of the film, just doesn’t resonate.

Then there are the visual effects. The visual effects of the film have a strangely garish look to them. They don’t look bad or outdated, just… fake. The Moors is home to many a fairy tale creature (the tree guys are pretty cool looking), but they all really stand out as visual effects. I know people love to belittle CG as looking “fake” in movies, but that’s often an overblown complaint fueled by nostalgia for the pre-CG days. But in Maleficent, I can understand the complaint a bit. It doesn’t look technically bad, just overly artificial. And the less said of the three fairy godmothers and their creepy uncanny valley, the better.

These Disney live-action remakes are so commonplace today, and stick so closely to the originals, that you sometimes forget that the earlier efforts were aiming for new spins on the material. And while Maleficent ultimately stumbles, it can be appreciated for what it attempted to accomplish through one of Disney’s most iconic villains.

 

5

The Obligatory “Coming Soon to the Dojo” Update for November 2019

Hey hey! It’s November…already. Did everyone have a happy Halloween? I know I did, even if I unfortunately didn’t manage to have a costume this year (I ordered a custom-made one, but did so too late, so I’m still waiting for it to arrive… there’s always next year).

Apologies that I once again failed to write a Halloween-centric top 5/10 list. I liked doing those back during the Dojo’s first two Halloweens. Hopefully next year I can go all out with the Halloween goodies. On the plus side, I did review the original Luigi’s Mansion to celebrate Halloween, so I didn’t leave the Dojo un-festive for the season. I would have liked to review Luigi’s Mansion 3, but Nintendo decided to release it on the day of Halloween. I guess I can understand what they were going for, but my beef is that Nintendo kept marketing Luigi’s Mansion 3’s release as being “just in time for Halloween.”

Releasing a game on Halloween is not “just in time” for Halloween. Releasing it any time in October before the 31st would be “just in time” for Halloween. Releasing it on Halloween is just that, releasing it on Halloween!

In short, I reviewed the first Luigi’s Mansion for Halloween due to the timing. Though I suppose now I’ve reviewed all the existing Luigi’s Mansion games so far (including the arcade title), so I guess now my review for Luigi’s Mansion 3 will feel all the more complete when it’s done.

Man, how many times have I already said “Halloween” and “Luigi’s Mansion” in this post?

Talking of Luigi’s Mansion (for the umpteenth time), I picked up my copy of Luigi’s Mansion 3 today. So I’ll do my best to review that in the near future, along with the following games that I’m ready to review…

Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

And of course, another Wario title sometime this month, as has been my 2019 tradition for no particular reason whatsoever.

In addition, I hope to get around to finishing Sekiro, Astral Chain, Ni no Kuni Remastered, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey in the not-too-distant future.

The good news is now that I have Luigi’s Mansion 3, I only have two upcoming games on pre-order, the smallest amount of pre-ordered games I’ve had in years. And one of those games is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which doesn’t come out until March. So it looks like I have a good window of opportunity to catch up on games and review them.

This of course brings me to another point. I mentioned in a post at the earlier part of this year that I’m planning on purchasing fewer games in the future. Certainly not because I’ve lost any love for them (technically speaking, they’re probably better on the whole now than they’ve ever been), but because they’re too damn long and too damn expensive. And I have other things I have/want to do with my time, and I don’t want to be reduced to eating cold beans with a stick. Plus, remembering how in my youth there would be a handful of games I would replay for years, I would kind of like to rekindle that quality over quantity approach. Getting games that I’ll want to play over and over, as opposed to ones that demand me to surrender entire days’ worth of time to them.

Although I kind of caved and bought more games this year than I initially intended, I did buy fewer games this year than the past few years. But next year, I’m really going to try and aim for like four or five full-priced retail games for all of 2020 (once again, there could be exceptions if a game I’d know I’d have to get – like a Super Mario Galaxy 3 or Bloodborne 2 – was announced for an imminent release after I’ve reached my self-imposed limit. But those are quite the exceptions).

As I’ve stated to the point of it becoming a running joke here on my site, I would like to further my studies of video game development, as to develop my own game(s) someday. And I would also like to do something video game related in video form at some point. So even though fewer new purchases would mean fewer reviews for contemporary games, I would still use this site to catalogue my game development progress, and post/link whatever videos I may make here as well.

Because video games have become such an investment and commitment, I have to limit myself if I want to seriously delve deeper into my creative outlets. But don’t worry, I still have plenty of retro games in my library I can review in-between reviews for 2020 releases (I also have a few games from a recent history that still need reviewing, key among them being Persona 5).  And even though I may be reviewing less new games, I could always write other types of blogs about the ones I’m playing (again, if I play a game I can keep going back to, why not find new things to write about them?).

Basically, I’m writing this post to reiterate things I’ve written here before… This site ain’t going anywhere, but reviews for new video games will unfortunately have to slowdown. On the plus side, that will open up my time not just for game development and video shenanigans, but also more time for movie reviews and those long-promised, oft-delayed top 10 lists. Hopefully this also means I’ll write less filler posts like this one…

Speaking of movie reviews, I have a few of those planned for the near future as well. Though I have an extensive checklist of reviews I hope to get to at some point, for the rest of November and December I will prioritize movies I’ve seen in theaters, and older movies that relate to them (and by that I mean the entire Star Wars saga in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker). I really have no excuse why I haven’t reviewed Joker yet. And since I’ve seen It Chapter 2 and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, expect reviews for those movies and their predecessors as well. I also really want to review all four Mad Max movies, but I may just do the first one in the near future, then wait until after I’ve reviewed the aforementioned movies before I do the rest.

Also, Frozen II comes out in three weeks from today. Of course that’s one I’m going to review. But since I’ve already reviewed the original (which is one of my 10/10 reviews, by the way), I’ll review the short film/holiday special, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure before then (a short film which, generic title aside, was rather charming).

So yes, hopefully the remaining posts I write in 2019 will be these, and other, worthwhile posts. And hopefully this will be the last “here’s what I’m going to write” post for a while. 2020 may see some changes to what I write here at the Dojo to some degree, but hopefully you stick around and enjoy. And once again, happy belated Halloween.

Luigi’s Mansion Review

Nintendo was in an interesting place in 2001. Though the Nintendo 64 helped revolutionize gaming (namely due to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), its sales numbers paled in comparison to the Sony Playstation. And with the Playstation 2 releasing in 2000, it’s safe to say that the GameCube was in a hurry to get out the door as soon as possible. As such, this meant that the GameCube’s signature Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, would miss the console’s launch, marking the first time Mario wasn’t present to cut the ribbon on the dawning of a new Nintendo console.

To fill that void, however, Nintendo had a separate game set within the Mario universe to make the GameCube’s launch. But it ended up being quite different from any other game set in the world of the Mushroom Kingdom. The game in question was Luigi’s Mansion, a kind of spoof on the survival-horror genre that marked the first official game in which Luigi received the starring role (wiseacres are quick to point out the existence of Mario is Missing from years earlier, but that title was an edutainment game that wasn’t developed by Nintendo, so it doesn’t count). Although Luigi’s Mansion never boasted the depth of Mario’s adventures, Luigi’s first proper solo outing nonetheless provided enough unique ideas and personality that it retains a charm of its own.

The initial concept for what would later become Luigi’s Mansion at first starred the more famous Mario brother, with the idea being to place Mario in a singular indoor setting. Originally conceived as a Japanese-style castle, the setting eventually became an American-style haunted house. With the change in setting, Nintendo decided to promote Luigi to be the star of the game for one very simple reason: Mario was known for being brave and adventurous, but now was the time to showcase Luigi’s personality, whose constance presence in his brother’s shadow made him easy fodder for a ‘reluctant hero’ character.

Though audiences saw glimpses of distinct personalities between the Mario Bros. through their television series and books, there was never any official, concrete characterizations between Mario and Luigi by Nintendo themselves in the formative years for the video game series. If Mario was the brave hero who would leap into action at the first chance, then it just made sense that Luigi would be the series’ ‘Cowardly Lion,’ as he shares a similar heroic spirit as his brother, but it’s buried far, far deeper. So it was a natural fit to have Luigi be the one to traverse a haunted mansion, facing his many fears as he tries to rescue Mario.

Luigi’s Mansion might be the first Nintendo game to be centered around one of their character’s personalities, and it remains one of their most successful attempts (the less said of Metroid: Other M, the better). Nintendo’s critics often deride the developer for a supposed “lack of character,” but that’s a gross misconception. While it’s true Nintendo rarely prioritizes actual storytelling and their characters tend to not have complex backstories (probably for the better. I again refer you to Other M), many of their characters are bursting with personality in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor Man. Luigi’s Mansion is a fine example of this. Between Luigi’s constantly chattering teeth (which kind of makes him look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit), shaky knees, and nervous humming of the game’s catchy theme tune, Luigi’s Mansion showcases its lead character’s personality – while simple and exaggerated – to be thoroughly entertaining.

It simply wouldn’t have been as good if it were Mario braving the haunted halls of its mansion. The game and its lead character both benefit one another in such a way that you wish more of the story-focused games of today would attempt to replicate that connection, as to avoid the common pitfall of gameplay conflicting with narratives and character motivation.

Even with Luigi’s personality leading the charge, gameplay is still at the forefront of Nintendo’s designs. And although it shows its age in certain areas, for the most part, Luigi’s Mansion remains a uniquely fun and charming game even today.

As mentioned, the game is all about Luigi trying to save Mario, who has gone missing in the new mansion Luigi supposedly won in a contest he never even entered (red flag there, Luigi). The mansion is, of course, littered with ghosts. Luckily for Luigi, Professor E. Gadd – a lifetime researcher of ghosts – has been studying the mansion, and gives Luigi his ghost-catching vacuum, the Poltergust 3000.

Yes, the gameplay is more reminiscent of the 1984 Ghostbusters film than it is any of its Mario series predecessors (Luigi can’t even jump in the game). Equipped with only the Poltergust and a flashlight, Luigi traverses the mansion fighting ghosts. The flashlight will stun ghosts, exposing their heart, which allows Luigi to suck them up into the Poltergust.

One of the most fun things about Luigi’s Mansion is the act of catching ghosts itself. The player of course moves Luigi with the standard joystick. But Luigi aims the Poltergust and flashlight with the GameCube controller’s ‘C-stick.’ If a ghost caught in the Poltergust’s whirlwind changes direction, the player will have to accommodate and pull the direction opposite to that which the ghost is heading, occasionally cutting some slack so Luigi can avoid a potential hazard in his way as the ghost pulls him along the ground. Essentially, it’s like an elaborate fishing game used as a combat mechanic.

It’s simple fun with the standard enemies, but the real treat comes in the form of the “Portrait Ghosts;” unique mini-boss-like specters whom the mansion’s many chambers are built around. Each Portrait Ghost has different tells and weaknesses, and can provide real tests of endurance for the player.

The Portrait Ghosts are memorable not just for how each one provides their own little puzzle for the player to solve, but also in their personalities and design. Most of the Portrait Ghosts are more humanoid than what we usually see in the Mario universe (keep in mind this was sixteen years before Odyssey brought realistic-looking humans into the fold), and although it would be difficult to call the game truly scary, the Portrait Ghosts’ appearances do make the game feel appropriately spooky and (relatively) darker than the usual Mario title. The mansion itself could be considered a character in its own right, given its strong sense of place.

It may not match the combination of cartoony characters with a dark and dreary atmosphere of Donkey Kong Country 2, but Luigi’s Mansion is probably the only other game I can think of that warrants a comparison in that regard. Luigi’s Mansion’s eventual 3DS sequel, though arguably an improvement in certain respects, lacks the original’s sense of atmosphere and character.

Luigi’s Mansion could be described as a “Diet Metroidvania,” with Luigi gaining access to more chambers of the mansion as he continues to capture Portrait Ghosts. Though perhaps one of the game’s drawbacks is that it could have taken an extra page from the Metroidvania sub-genre and had Luigi (or the Poltergust, as it were) gain new abilities to access more of the mansion, instead of it merely being a case of defeating sub-bosses for keys. The Poltergust does gain the ability to emit fire, water and ice, but they unfortunately never get utilized in any substantial way.

Another fun aspect of Luigi’s Mansion is finding the many treasures hidden throughout the titular abode. While Mario is always grabbing coins, here, Luigi is on a quest for coins, pearls, dollar bills, gemstones and diamonds. Though gaining these riches does little more than effect your score at the end of the game, it still proves to be a fun diversion to see how much treasure you can collect.

The biggest complaint most people seem to have with Luigi’s Mansion is its short length. If you know what you’re doing, the game can be completed in about the time it takes to watch a movie. Luigi’s Mansion could have done with just a couple more hours of gameplay, as some of its ideas don’t meet their full potential with the little time they’re allowed to have. On the plus side, I suppose the game’s brief time makes it one of the few titles in the medium that can be seen as a holiday tradition with annual playthroughs (Halloween in this instance, obviously).

Luigi’s Mansion was one of the earlier Nintendo titles to feature a New Game Plus mode after completing the campaign. Unfortunately in both its Japanese and US release, the differences between the main game and New Game Plus are little more than some stronger enemies and a weaker Luigi. The PAL version of the game (released well after the other versions) rectified this somewhat by making the post-game version of the mansion mirrored and changing the locations of certain treasures, but even that only goes so far. So unless you missed out on some treasures, or just really want to beat your high score, there’s not a whole lot of reason to play through the “Hidden Mansion” mode.

The short running time of the campaign is unfortunate, but it’s not the game’s biggest issue. Though the GameCube has aged better than the Nintendo 64 on the whole, it’s earlier titles still suffer a bit from the same kind of technical hiccups that plagued its 64-bit predecessor. And Luigi’s Mansion is no exception.

Some of the controls feel a little clunky, particularly in regards to handling the flashlight in conjunction with everything else. The flashlight is turned on by default, and pressing the B button turns it off. You turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust with the C-stick, and you suck up ghosts with a press of the R button. And while the flashlight stuns the ghosts, you have to stun them at the opportune time, or else they’ll disappear. It can feel a bit awkward to turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust while holding the B button to keep the light off and then release it to turn the light on when the time is right, especially in rooms with multiple ghosts.

Along with the standard enemies and the Portrait Ghosts, the Mario series’ classic ‘Boo’ enemies show up as the primary baddies. While seeing these secondary foes get a promotion in the same vein as Luigi is nice, there are some issues with the Boos’ presence in Luigi’s Mansion. The game features fifty Boos hidden throughout the mansion. But unlike the other ghosts in the game, Boos ignore the aforementioned “fishing” aspects of the catching process, with Luigi simply focusing the vortex of the Poltergust on Boos to drain their hit points.

That may not sound too bad, and at first it isn’t when the Boos have less hit points. But once you you realize Boos can travel from room to room, and they start getting more hit points, thus giving them more opportunities to do so, it gets a bit tedious chasing a Boo from one room to another, and downright frustrating when they exit a room to go into the hallway and back again repeatedly. It’s also a bit disappointing that, despite the game claiming there are 50 Boos in the mansion to be captured, there are technically only 35, since 15 of them are automatically captured as part of a single boss fight.

Another note Luigi’s Mansion should have taken from Metroidvanias is the implementation of fast-traveling. The game can only be saved by talking to Toads (who are perhaps a bit too far spread out from one another), or after catching a Boo. While the Toads save your game, they don’t act as checkpoints. Every time you reload your game, or defeat a boss, or die, you start back at the foyer of the mansion. Although you can return to the foyer by scanning mirrors, there’s no means to fast-travel anywhere else in the mansion. As you might imagine, backtracking to different sections of the mansion can quickly feel arduous.

Though these aspect do show that the game has aged a bit, the core gameplay, along with its undeniable sense of character, have helped Luigi’s Mansion remain a fun and delightful experience nearly two decades later. It is perhaps the perfect launch game the GameCube could have hoped for (if maybe not the one it sorely needed), as Luigi’s Mansion echoes the console itself in many ways. The GameCube may not have been the success story Nintendo was hoping for in the Playstation dominated market of the time, nor is it one of Nintendo’s more iconic or innovative consoles. But it has a unique appeal of its own, a small-scale charm that’s aberrant  among Nintendo systems.

Just the same, Luigi’s Mansion – though far, far away from being one of the best games set in the Super Mario universe – remains a unique and appealing offshoot of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. We may not have realized it in 2001, but in hindsight, Luigi’s Mansion seems to have encompassed the GameCube’s place in Nintendo’s history right out of the gate.

 

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Wario: Master of Disguise Review

The mid-to-late 2000s saw a new boom period for Nintendo, thanks to the successes of the Wii and the Nintendo DS, which introduced new innovations to gameplay and brought a much broader appeal to the video game world. The downside to this, however, is that these new gameplay ideas – like the Wii’s motion controls and the DS touchscreen – took some time for some developers to get the hang of. As odd as it may sound in retrospect, considering it became Nintendo’s best-selling system of all-time, the Nintendo DS had a particularly rough start, with its first few months on the market being starved of a title that justified its touch-based bottom screen.

As history tells us, the Nintendo DS did eventually find its groove and held onto its momentum. But even after the DS became a success story, there was still the occasional title that harkened back to those early days of the handheld, with games that stumbled trying to understand the hardware.

Sadly, such was the case with Wario: Master of Disguise. Despite being released in 2007, Master of Disguise felt more akin to one of the rougher DS launch games than it did one of the system’s gems post-Kirby Canvas Curse.

The 2000s were very kind to Wario. Along with some well-received Wario Land sequels, the anti-Mario found a newfound success during this time through the introduction of the WarioWare series. Though Wario Land was on a break during 2007, Master of Disguise looked to fill in the gap with a new Wario platformer. Whether it was planned to be a follow-up to Wario Land or a third cog in the Wario machine, Master of Disguise unfortunately failed to live up to either. Though not an all-out bad effort, Master of Disguise was just plagued by too many rough edges for it to live up to Wario’s legacy.

Similar to the Wario Land series, Wario: Master of Disguise sees the mustachioed villain don different forms in order to access different locations of the game’s various levels. Unlike Wario Land, however, Wario doesn’t gain these forms via enemy attacks or power-ups, but by the player drawing different symbols to switch Wario into one of his many disguises.

Wario’s default form is “Thief Wario” which allows him to jump higher than the other forms. There’s also “Genius Wario,” which allows our anti-Mario to see invisible objects. “Cosmic Wario” can shoot enemies with a laser gun. “Arty Wario” can draw large blocks that serve as platforms and can be used to press buttons that Wario can’t reach. And so on and so forth.

I like the idea of a platformer that has what are essentially permanent power-ups that can be switch to at any time. The problem with Wario: Master of Disguise’s costumes is in its execution. The earlier disguises use simple enough shapes to draw, like circles and checkmarks, but the later disguises are a little trickier. It’s not that the symbols themselves are particularly complex, but they often require pinpoint accuracy and precision in order for the game to recognize them. This is made all the trickier when you consider that you have to draw these symbols directly on top of Wario, as the rest of the screen is used to perform each disguise’s special ability with the touch controls.

What of the DS’s buttons? They’re used to move Wario around, same as the D-Pad. As you could probably guess, it feels a bit awkward, especially since jumping is performed by pressing up on the D-Pad (or X, the top button of the DS’s face buttons), which only ever feels clunky in anything but fighting games.

It just doesn’t make much sense. You have all these buttons, but all they do is move Wario, which the D-Pad already does. I can understand some of the disguise abilities being used with the touch screen (such as Arty Wario’s ability), but the game would have flowed a lot smoother if just some of Wario’s moves were mapped to the buttons. In case you’re wondering, yes, even Wario’s traditional charge attack is performed by tapping the touchscreen (while in Thief Wario form).

I have to repeat that, between the small amount of available space to draw the symbols, and how unresponsive the touch controls can be, it all becomes a bit of a mess. You’ll perform abilities when you’re trying to change costumes, switch to a disguise different from the one you wanted, or just fail to do anything. A few of the abilities – or just switching costumes – utilizing touch controls would be fine, but Wario: Master of Disguise is far too reliant on them. And seeing as they aren’t all that refined, the touch controls become all the more troublesome.

Wario: Master of Disguise faces other unfortunate problems as well. Though  previous levels can be replayed after gaining new disguises, thus opening up more areas of said completed stages, the level design is so convoluted you may not be too enticed to do the backtracking. While each level can provide some fun platforming, and even feature their own distinct goals, the layout of the stages is often cryptic and confusing. It can get so bad that I found myself stuck for over an hour and a half on some levels, just because it was so vague as to what I was supposed to be doing.

The ultimate goal of the game is to claim treasures hidden in chests throughout the stages. Unfortunately, even that simple premise is made more complicated than it needs to be. Every time the player opens a treasure chest (by, you guessed it, tapping the touchscreen), they are thrown into a touch screen-based mini-game. These aren’t the fun and creative mini-games of WarioWare, either. Instead, you get generic mini-games that you could have played in any of the DS’s launch titles, such as panel flipping and line tracing. Should you lose the mini-game, the treasure chest threatens to damage Wario with bombs. But after the bombs explode, you can just try again anyway, so what’s the point of having the penalty at all?

Another issue with Master of Disguise – as odd as it sounds – is its story. Now, this is a Wario game, so of course the story is ludicrous nonsense. That would be par for the course on its own, but the game just spends way, way too much time with the story.

Basically, Wario is watching TV and sees a show about a master thief named Count Cannoli. Knowing he could do the thief’s job better, Wario builds a helmet that allows him to travel into the TV show, in order to show the thief how it’s done (raising the question as to why Wario doesn’t just patent his miracle technology to earn a fortune). Wario ends up stealing the thief’s magic wand (which allows Wario to transform into his various disguises), and both Wario and Count Cannoli engage in a competition to retrieve pieces of a “Wishstone” that, when completed, will grant them a wish.

Normally, I’d be fine with Wario having such an insane story as traveling inside a TV show and altering that show’s ‘reality.’ But again, Master of Disguise, perhaps more so than any other Wario game, emphasizes this story. Not only does this mean barrages of overly-lengthy, flow-breaking text bombard the player at almost every turn, but what should be a delightfully weird plot just ends up raising confusing questions. If this wishing stone exists within the TV show, would a potential wish made by Wario only become reality within the TV show? Or would it affect Wario in his reality as well? I know I shouldn’t be overthinking the plot in a Wario game, but with how much emphasis Master of Disguise gives its plot, and the aforementioned quirks in gameplay preventing it from distracting from said plot, it gets kind of head-scratching.

Wario: Master of Disguise has some merit. The concept of switching between permanent power-ups is a nice change of pace for platformers, and it’s kind of surprising Nintendo hasn’t revisited the idea. And the music is surprisingly good. But the insistence of the touch screen controls, which aren’t even reliable, really hinders the game. As does its convoluted level design and flow-breaking storyline.

Thankfully, 2007 also saw the release of WarioWare: Smooth Moves on Wii, with the next year also seeing Wario Land: Shake It! arrive on the same platform, so Wario still had his tried-and-true series to rely on and recover. But Wario: Master of Disguise is so mishandled in execution it may rank as the weakest outing from Nintendo’s garlic-munching anti-Mario to date.

 

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