The Lego Ninjago Movie Review

The Lego Movies have to be one of the more interesting movie franchises of today, for the simple reason that it’s become more of a style of movie in and of itself, as opposed to a series that leads from one traditional sequel to the next. The 2014 original was based on the Lego brand itself, and took advantage of the toy line’s connections with various other media franchises to squeeze in as many cameos and references as they could. The second installment; The Lego Batman Movie, was released earlier in 2017, and took things to the next level by actually being an entry in one of the world’s most established pop culture franchises, while simultaneously paying homage and parody to said franchise. Now we have the franchise’s third outing, The Lego Ninjago Movie which – although perhaps a step backward from Lego Batman in concept – nonetheless delivers on the laughs and energy this series has become known for.

I say The Lego Ninjago Movie is a step back in concept simply because, well, Lego Ninjago is a ninja-themed line of Lego toys. The Lego Batman Movie’s greatest joy was that it was very much a Batman movie, but one where the characters could openly reference the different cinematic continuities of the franchise, have some fun at the expense of the 60s TV series, and in which the Joker could ally with Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. By simply reverting to a specific line of the Lego toys, the allure of seeing one of the most iconic pop culture franchises turned on its head is no longer present. Lego Ninjago is still a good time, and at times quite hilarious, but it does lack that extra punch that stemmed from established characters like Batman and Joker acting so out-of-character.

One major difference between The Lego Ninjago Movie and its two predecessors is that it begins with a live-action sequence, in which a young boy walks into a Chinese antique shop, where the shop’s owner (Jackie Chan) tells the story of the rest of the film, which is presented in animated, Lego form.

The rest of the movie takes place in the land of Ninjago, which is something of a parody of franchises such as Power Rangers, where modern cities are frequently attacked by megalomaniacs in giant mechs, which are then consistently defeated by a team of heroic ninjas, who pilot their own, animal-shaped mechs.

The villain here is Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who dreams of conquering the world of Ninjago. He is constantly thwarted, however, by the efforts of a group of young ninjas, lead by the wise Master Wu (also Jackie Chan). These ninjas are all assigned a different color and element: Kai (Michael Pena) is the red ninja of fire. Jay (Kamail Nanjiani) is the blue ninja of lightning. Nya (Abbi Jacobson) is the silver ninja of water. Cole (Fred Armisen) is the black ninja of Earth. Zane (Zach Woods) is the white ninja of ice… and also a robot. Finally, the hero of the story is Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), the green ninja of…green (his lack of a proper element is a running gag in the film), and is also Lord Garmadon’s estranged son.

That relationship between Lloyd and his super villain father is at the heart of the movie, with Lloyd being shunned in his personal life due to his dad “ruining everything,” and hating that battling his own father on a daily basis has become his job. After Lord Garmadon creates a mech that’s too powerful for the ninjas to take down, Lloyd attempts to defeat Lord Garmadon once and for all by using “the Ultimate Weapon,” which only makes matters worse for Ninjago by inadvertently releasing a monster on the city. Garmadon finally succeeds in conquering Ninjago (by means of climbing the tallest building and putting a flag on top of it), and soon finds out that the green ninja is his son Lloyd. The ninjas set out on an adventure to find the “Ultimate Ultimate Weapon” which can defeat the monster, and Garmadon, not wanting the monster to destroy the city he tried so hard to conquer, decides to join the ninjas on their quest (he may also want to get to know the son he abandoned, but is so caught up in his cartoonish villainy that he doesn’t realize it himself).

The premise is pretty simple, and even evokes The Lego Batman Movie’s key relationship between hero and villain, albeit depicting them as father and son, as opposed to two friends having a spat. The adventure at hand is a lot of fun, and the humor is as strong as ever (I laughed out loud on more than one occasion). The main plot may be simple stuff, but the moment-to-moment punchlines and gags help elevate it into a satisfying piece of family entertainment. Lord Garmadon, in particular, is one of the best characters in any of these Lego movies so far.

The animation also remains pleasing to look at, with the mock-stop-motion visuals still being as lively than ever, even if the novelty of its look has worn off a bit by this point.

If The Lego Ninjago Movie has any notable drawbacks, it’s that it lacks the inventiveness of its predecessor. As consistently funny as it is, Lego Ninjago never pulls off the surprising gags, references and wit that Lego Batman delivered at pretty much every turn. And when the film comes to its “emotional” finale, well, it’s so similar to the finales of both of its preceding Lego Movies, that it gets to the point of detracting a little bit from it.

While The Lego Ninjago Movie is a lot of fun on its own merits, it lacks that little something extra that made The Lego Batman Movie one of my favorite films of 2017. Ironically enough, by having its own original characters instead of beloved franchise icons, it actually feels more restrained creatively. It isn’t able to tinker around with decades worth of source material in order to create something fresh and new like its predecessor did.

These Lego Movies have a lot going for them, with their ability to capitalize off so many series and brand names to shed new light on familiar faces. This series has provided an appropriately similar sense of fun to playing with toys to create stories, and it seems like there’s a lot that can be done with it before it starts showing signs of fatigue. It’s a little underwhelming then, that Lego Ninjago will be followed by a more direct sequel to the original Lego Movie (though hopefully it can find ways to branch out and separate from its predecessor). The Lego Ninjago Movie is another fun trip to the toy chest. But here’s hoping that soon enough, the series will once again dig as deep into that toy chest as they did with Lego Batman, and recreate that joy we all once had of playing with toys of our favorite characters to tell stories that, frankly, had no right having those characters be a part of them.

 

7.Arm Ripped Off*

*7.0

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Robonauts Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

Robonauts is certainly one of the more ambitious indie titles to hit the Nintendo Switch’s Eshop. With an opening cinematic that looks like a theatrical CG animated film, 3D graphics, and an electrifying techno soundtrack, Robonauts certainly feels a lot bigger than many other titles released under the same umbrella. But while Robonauts has a lot going for it in many respects – including some inventive level design – there are a number of more frustrating elements that end up holding the game back.

One could say that Robonauts is something of a run-and-gun platformer, but with the twist that its stages are based around spherical planetoids a la Super Mario Galaxy.  The player controls a robot who is equipped with a primary and secondary weapon, who has to blast his way through hordes of enemies and jump from planet to planet to make his way through the game’s twelve stages.

Despite only having such a handful of levels, Robonauts manages to find a good range of variety in its objectives. Most stages have you destroying enemy nests before an exit opens up, but others will have you activating lasers, escorting a hacking robot, or are simply platforming gauntlets, where you have to navigate the spherical worlds, avoiding deathtraps in the process. During stages, you can pick up different power-ups, which change the capabilities of your weapons, and can grab small green blobs called “Gloobs” to refill health.

While the spherical level design can be fun, and the alternate objectives bring out the best in them, the stages that simply have you destroying enemies quickly grow redundant, and the sheer amount of enemy spawns will grow frustrating even in levels with more unique objectives. Enemies will repeatedly spawn from their nests until destroyed, which makes sense. But there are too many instances where the enemy hordes just get out of control, to the point where you get lost in all the commotion. Robonauts almost seems to treat its stages as though they’re in the bullet hell genre, but the player character doesn’t have the means to justify such bombardments of enemies.

Very few of the weapons effectively defeat multiple enemies at once, and those that do have very limited uses before you go back to your default weapons. Not to mention your character automatically aims for the closest enemy, so if a more dangerous enemy is just a little further away from a less worrisome one, you won’t be able to attack it until you either move closer to it or destroy the weaker enemy. Considering there are some enemies who can drain your health in seconds (and there are no checkpoints, so every loss takes you back to the beginning of a stage), it all becomes incredibly tiresome.

There is some fun to be had with Robonauts. It has some good stage design, a pretty impressive presentation, and you can even play local multiplayer with cooperative and competitive modes. But even though the developers had a decent go at adding some variety into the mix, the game is just too short to fully capitalize off it, and the senseless hordes of enemies often feel like a cheap means to add more difficulty to the game (especially once you play the levels that are strictly platforming, and see how much more enjoyable they are).

There is a good game at the heart of Robonauts, but its shortcomings are ultimately too prominent for the game to leave much of an impression. Perhaps a sequel could fine-tune things a bit, and add a bit more to the experience. As it is, Robonauts is okay in the fun department, but doesn’t quite hit the mark it could have.

 

 

5.5

Soldam: Drop, Connect, Erase Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

The falling block puzzle game is one of gaming’s most reliable genres. Though they tend to be simple on the surface, the gameplay of the genre that Tetris built tends to be deeper and more complex than it at first appears, making for immense replay value and pure, unadulterated gaming fun.

One of the more popular falling block puzzlers of the early 90s was the arcade title Soldam, which has found its way onto the Nintendo Switch with updated graphics while still maintaining its classic charm. Though Soldam (now boasting the subtitle of “Drop, Connect, Erase”) may not be one of the best block puzzlers out there, its simple twist on the genre is another reminder why these types of games will always be fun.

The basic premise of Soldam is the same as any other title in the genre: blocks fall from the top of the screen, and threaten to fill up every last space. You need to match up the blocks by their respective colors to eliminate them. The more you manage to eliminate, the higher your score. But should the blocks make it to the top of the screen, it’s game over.

Soldam comes with a twist, however. Instead of falling blocks, it’s fruit that falls down from the heavens (called “Soldam fruit,” in case you were wondering where the strange title comes from). The fruit always comes in groups of four, thus still technically making a block. You can rotate each quartet of fruit in order to match the colored fruits up with other fruits of their corresponding color, with an entire row needing to be made the same color in order to eliminate it.

There’s another major twist in the usual puzzle gameplay in the form of “flanking,” which ends up being Soldam’s biggest draw. You see, even if you run into a tight spot and need to place mismatched colors in an otherwise consistent row, you can still rectify it by placing the proper color on top of (or to the side of, or diagonally from) the misplaced color, which will then “flank” the misplaced color, and change it to the desired color.

For example, if you have a row that consists of mostly red fruit, but contains one or two yellow fruit, just place more red fruit over the yellow fruit in such a way that makes the yellow fruit a “bridge” between red fruit. Once the yellow fruit becomes sandwiched by the red fruit, it will become red, thus completing the row.

Of course, you’ll have to be extra careful as the game goes on, because if you make too many mistakes, it will be all the more difficult to try and flank them. And as a match goes on, additional colors will be added (you start with only two). And you can only flank through one color. If a blue fruit gets in the way of the yellow, the red fruit can’t flank through it.

It’s a really simple concept, but it proves to be a lot of fun the more you play it. It may not turn the genre on its head like Tetris Attack or Tetris Battle Gaiden, but Soldam is nonetheless addicting and mentally stimulating, as any self-respecting puzzle game should be.

On the downside of things, Soldam doesn’t boast a whole lot of variety.  Along with the traditional mode of trying to get a high score, there’s also an “endless mode,” two-player versus matches, and challenge mode, which puts you into a series of quick objectives (eliminate so many rows within a set number of turns, destroy several rows at the same time, etc.). There’s definitely fun to be had here, but none of the additional modes add a whole lot to the experience.

Soldam may not rank as one of the best falling block titles I’ve played, but its simple mechanic of flanking proves to be a very engaging concept, and the game is complimented by cute visuals and characters, as well as a catchy soundtrack. Soldam may not be the perfect puzzler, but it makes for a fine addition to any collection for fans of the genre.

 

7.0

Nioh Review

The way of the Samurai is glorious…

The trials and tribulation of the Souls’ series is a rather novel experience for myself, as I originally dipped my toes into this amalgamation of impeccable construct and design with 2015’s Bloodborne. Its exquisite Gothic, Victorian setting was unquestionably appealing and its faster, visceral combat improved on Dark Souls’ meticulous combat design. Dark Souls III continued to expand on this concept by notably increasing the speed of the series’ combat design, while maintaining the inert core of the beloved franchise. However, Team Ninja’s conspicuous take on the established Souls formula is arguably the best iteration yet. Nioh’s dynamic combat is practically flawless, with its innovative stance and Ki (stamina) recovery system acting as the glorious cherry on top. Its level of difficulty is relatively on par with From Software’s repertoire, but enemies rely on the same defined rules and mechanics as the player, incorporating an additional layer of fairness. In regards to level design, Nioh follows the immaculate steps laid out by Dark Souls developer, From Software; Nioh is beautifully atmospheric and chock full of impeccably designed shortcuts, secrets, and other hidden goodies, imploring that key sense of exploration and back-tracking. Its fictitious take on the late Sengoku Period is exquisitely beguiling; from the charismatic encounters with historian legends such as Oda Nobunaga or Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the exhilarating key moments in history such as the Battle of Sekigahara, Nioh is an intriguing period piece that is surprisingly informative as it is entertaining. As an action RPG, Nioh is an absolute triumph in game design and player accessibility, as its level of flexibility and gratification is beyond dynamic, catering to an abundance of different preferences. Nioh takes the basic foundation of the Souls formula and expands it exponentially, incorporating dynamic systems to create a novel gameplay experience that surpasses anything that came before it. Continue reading

Milon’s Secret Castle Review

Milon’s Secret Castle is a prime example of a decent video game concept gone awry. Developed by Hudson Soft for the NES, Milon’s Secret Castle had the potential to put a new spin on the platformer genre by setting all the action in a single location (the titular castle), in which you must uncover secrets to delve further into its chambers. Unfortunately, Hudson went a wee bit too far with these secrets, which end up being so cryptic that getting through the castle no longer feels like a series of puzzles, but one big guessing game.

On the bright side of things, Milon controls well enough. You can walk around, jump, and shoot magic bubbles from a wand. The bubbles are used to defeat enemies, as well as uncover hidden items behind breakable blocks, and reveal invisible doors. If there’s any complaint to be had with Milon’s sense of control, it’s that the only way to run is simply build momentum, which can often be difficult in the castle’s cramped walls. And seeing as Milon was released after Super Mario Bros., there’s really no excuse why a run button couldn’t have been implemented.

The setup of the game goes like this: you traverse the chambers of the castle, looking for hidden passageways and money, which is used to purchase items from shops, which themselves are often hidden. The items are used to make Milon more versatile, improving the damage of his bubbles, or giving him more ways to traverse the castle, like bouncing on springs and shrinking (by the baffling means of being hit by a boxing glove). Additionally, honeycombs can be found hidden within the castle, which add to Milon’s total hit points.

Because of these character-progressing elements, the game almost has an RPG or Metroidvania-type of appeal. This is greatly detracted, however, by how utterly cryptic the game is. Granted, the game is all about secrets, but we aren’t simply talking about solving puzzles to unlock these secrets, but just randomly shooting bubbles at every last pixel on the screen and hoping you get lucky and find something. What’s worse, some of the game’s hidden items randomly generate in different spots, which only makes things that much more of a guessing game. Thankfully the random items are less frequent than the fixed ones, but in a game that’s already so cryptic, adding any random element into the mix was never going to end up well.

This overly cryptic nature prevents Milon’s Secret Castle from reaching its potential, and turns what might have otherwise been a good game into a mediocre one. But the grave flaw that demotes Milon’s Secret Castle below that is that you have no extra lives, and no continues. If you die just once, you have to start the game from the beginning! 

Rarely is a game that gives you no extra chances a good idea, but for a game that already alienates the player with its cryptic elements, the lack of extra tries turns the whole thing into a giant, tedious, trial-and-error affair.

Milon’s Secret Castle had the potential to be something memorable, and had it been developed properly, may have made an impact in the Metroidvania scene. But it’s inability to challenge the player’s thinking, and instead insisting on making the experience feel like a guessing game, coupled with its unforgiving punishment for a single loss, really make Milon’s Secret Castle a massive missed opportunity.

 

3.5

Karate Champ (NES) Review

Just because a game helped shape a genre, doesn’t always mean it’s good. Sure, the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Tetris are timeless classics that remain entertaining even today, but not all influential games are so lucky. Look for no further proof than Karate Champ, a title which helped shape the fighting genre in its early days, before Street Fighter added depth and fun to the genre.

In Karate Champ’s defense, it probably fared a little better in its original arcade form, in which one or two players would take on their opponent using two different joysticks to perform moves. It still would lack substance, seeing as both fighters are identical in appearance (save for gi color) and moves, and there’s no deeper mechanics to speak of than “land the first hit.” But at least the moves might be at least a little responsive to the joystick controls.

I can’t say that’s the case for sure, seeing as I’ve never even seen a Karate Champ Arcade cabinet. But surely something was lost in the translation in bringing the game to the NES, because Karate Champ can be called nothing short of unplayable.

As stated, the battles really are as simple as landing the first hit to score a point. Score two points and you move on to the next fight. It’s basically just rinse and repeat from there, because every fight is exactly the same. The player (or player 1 if you’re exposing another human being to the game for some reason) is dressed in the white gi. While the CPU (or player 2) is in the red gi. The game couldn’t even be bothered to change the opponent’s gi color per level. The scenery changes (though each stage is just as ugly as the last), but that’s about it.

Things go from shallow to outright disastrous, however, once you try to control the game. Karate Champ on NES is up there with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, World Games (both also NES) and Dark Castle (Genesis) for the title of most uncontrollable game.

Simply put, you can’t control Karate Champ. You can press buttons, and the character will react, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind the action the character decides to make. You’ll walk towards your opponent and attack, only for the character to perform a leg sweep behind him. Or your enemy might get behind you, and you try to attack him by holding back on the D-pad and striking, only for your character to kick in front of him. It seems no matter what direction you’re holding or which button you press (both A and B perform attacks), the player has no say-so as to which action the character performs. Winning a match ultimately comes down to sheer luck then. I had my best performances simply by standing still and hitting one of the attack buttons once my opponent got close enough. It didn’t always work, of course, but it seemed to give me the best chance of actually landing an attack.

On top of all this, Karate Champ also suffers from some extreme technical issues. Sure, a lot of NES games are susceptible to such technical problems, but Karate Champ seems to constantly be plagued by graphical glitches, freeze-ups and crashes. These issues turn what is already a mechanically unplayable game into a technically unplayable one.

Perhaps the arcade versions of Karate Champ helped pave the way for the fighter, but no doubt pretty much everything that was created in its wake surpassed it by a great margin. And the NES port of Karate Champ may have actually devolved the experience all the more. At the very least, the two player mode may have you and a friend chuckling for a few minutes as you randomly swipe away at each other and see who manages to get lucky and actually hit the other. But it’s a short-lived joke, if anything. The bigger joke may just be how a game this broken eventually lead us to Street Fighter.

 

1.5

Leap! Review

If one were to judge Leap! by it’s marketing, you would probably assume it’s a run-of-the-mill animated feature with a “follow your dreams” premise. After seeing Leap!, I can confirm that it is indeed a run-of-the-mill animated feature with a “follow your dreams” premise. But hidden beneath the movie’s more lackluster qualities does lie a beating heart. So while I can’t flat-out recommend Leap! due to its shortcomings, I did find myself wanting to like it while I was watching it, and that’s an achievement in and of itself.

Perhaps it’s the fact that – not so long ago – The Emoji Movie was released, that I feel a bit more forgiving of Leap!’s missteps than I otherwise might. The Emoji Movie, after all, was so bottom-of-the-barrel in concept, and so incompetent in execution, that it can be seen as a new low standard for animated storytelling. By comparison, Leap!’s simple story of an orphan girl wanting to become a ballerina felt very refreshing. It may be standard animated fare, but I’ll take it over the desperation that spawned The Emoji Movie any day.

The plot really is little more than a young orphan girl, Félicie (Elle Fanning) escaping from an orphanage with a young boy named Victor (Nat Wolff), who make their way to Paris, where Félicie hopes to become a ballerina, and Victor looks to become an inventor. It’s simple stuff, but it’s made a bit more lively due to the period setting. Taking place in the 1880s, the Paris in Leap! still sees the Eiffel Tower under construction (as well as the Statue of Liberty, which is mistakenly already given its greenish color in the film).

There are of course bumps in the road for the two orphans, with Félicie quickly finding a rival in Camille (Maddie Ziegler), who is dedicated to learning ballet due to the demands of her overbearing mother, Regine (Kate McKinnon). After Camille proves to be a bit of a brat, Félicie ends up stealing Camille’s admittance letter for the ballet, and begins posing as Camille in order to live her dream, with the only people knowing of her real identity being Victor and Regine’s cleaning lady, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who ends up being Félicie’s dance teacher via Karate Kid-style training techniques.

The premise on its own is fine. It’s safe and predictable, to be sure, but it has good intentions. Problems with the film arise, however, with some questionable pacing. Too many plot points – particularly those early on in the movie – come across as incredibly rushed, and don’t feel properly developed. And sadly, by the end of it, Regine goes from a cold-hearted woman to an outright cartoonish villain, chasing Félicie with a mallet in an entirely unnecessary action set piece that takes place on the aforementioned Statue of Liberty. And I kid you not, the villainess even makes an MC Hammer reference during these events. So while the majority of the movie, even when it feels rushed and obvious, still boasts some heart and charm, that ending set piece definitely comes off as a jumping the shark/nuking the fridge moment. There are also some pop songs featured in the background at times which feel almost as out-of-place as the MC Hammer reference, seeing as this is a film taking place in 1880s France.

Well, after seeing Leap! I decided to do some research on it, and there might be something to these misplaced elements. While I was aware going into the movie that it was a French-Canadian production originally released under the more appropriate title of Ballerina, it was only after seeing it that I discovered this American version actually made some notable changes to the film, which differ from the already-English language version of the film released elsewhere, and have even lead to vastly different critical receptions between versions.

While Elle Fanning and Maddie Ziegler’s vocals remain unchanged, Nat Wolff and Kate McKinnon replace the original voices for their characters, and additional bits of dialogue and other edits have been added for inexplicable reasons. I may have to check out the alternate English version of the film, which I have a sneaking suspicion is absent of the MC Hammer line, and maybe even the pop tunes. I’m not sure if the pacing would be any better though.

This is all a crying shame, because while the film may lack in originality in many respects, I still found a lot of promise in Leap!. The animation may not be remarkable, but it looks a lot better than many other CG animated films that don’t come from the big studios, and the dancing sequences are beautifully and elegantly animated. I also liked the two main characters, as well as Elle Fanning’s and Maddie Ziegler’s voice work. And even with its predictability, it still has enough heart to make it a mostly worthwhile viewing for its target audience (again, we live in a post-Emoji Movie world, we should be thankful that an animated film about an ambitious young girl even exists right now). I don’t think it would be a great film under different circumstances (the ending set piece would still be there, and it would still be a pretty by-the-books animated feature), but I can imagine Leap! might live up to its promise a whole lot more without lines like “it’s hammer time!” tossed in it. That line wasn’t even funny in Ninja Turtles III, back when kids would actually get the reference.

Though I’m going to rate Leap! on the lower half of my rating scale, I actually do so with a bit of disappointment. I didn’t go in to Leap! with any real expectations, but when I did enjoy it, it was quite charming. It’s just a shame the elements that do drag it down prevent the better pieces from coming together to make the movie they should.

But hey, at least the plot doesn’t resolve itself due to a text message. I can certainly appreciate Leap! for that.

 

5.5