This is an Update

Hello people!

This is just an update to inform my dear readers that my reviews, lists, and other such nonsense will continue soon enough (and I have a thing about not updating this site for nearly a week). I had to put some things on hold due to some unforeseen emergencies, but I will keep on keeping on.

In short, sorry updates have been sparse this past week, I’ll get back to business as soon as possible. Reviews, top 5/10 lists, the whole shebang!

I have a list of video games and movies I hope to review soon – including, as stated in a previous blog, the remaining 9.5 and perfect 10/10 games I’ve played – as well as a few ideas for top 5/top 10 lists that I’d like to get to. And of course there’s my annual Christmas/Anniversary special. So I hope you look forward to all of that, as well as what I have in store for 2018, including my long-awaited list of all-time favorite video games (which will probably be ready in February…or March…or April).

Sorry again for the delays. Keep on keeping on.

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Contra III: The Alien Wars Review

*Review based on Contra III: The Alien Wars’ release as part of the SNES Classic Edition*

Contra was one of the pioneers of the run-and-gun genre, made famous by its hectic action, steep challenge, and for popularizing the Konami Code. On the NES, Contra became one of the premiere third-party franchises for the console. It made perfect sense then, that Contra would make the jump to the Super NES, like so many other NES franchises did. But while the likes of Mario, Zelda and Mega Man found new life on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine, Contra’s leap to the SNES felt more like a continuation of the NES games, as opposed to their evolution. There’s still fun to be had with Contra III, though playing it today, it seems less impressive than many of its SNES peers.

The setup remains the same, with one or two players taking control of musclebound heroes who are armed with machine guns of unlimited ammo. You run, jump and shoot your way through stages, fight waves of enemies, and take on massive bosses.

It’s standard run-and-gun action, but there are some fun twists added to the mix. Notably, you can carry two different weapons at once. Picking up power-ups gives you new weapons – such as powerful lasers or the impossibly useful homing missiles – and you can carry two power-ups at a time by picking them up when a different weapon slot is selected. But should you die (and you will), you will lose whichever power-up you had in the selected slot when you died.

This makes it rather difficult to hold onto weapons, because Contra III is no slouch in the difficulty department, with a single enemy attack costing you a life. With how often the screen fills up with enemies, it can be hard to master your way around them to survive. And that famous Konami Code doesn’t work here, so there’s no easy access to extra lives. You have to tough it out the old fashion way.

On the bright side, you can find extra lives by defeating certain enemies or destroying certain objects, and you have a few continues to hold onto. On the downside, many enemy projectiles are incredibly small and hard to make out, so you’ll often get killed by an enemy shot that you didn’t even notice because of everything else that’s going on. Worse still, if you run out of continues, it’s back to the beginning of the game.

Admittedly, no matter how often you have to start over, you aren’t going all that far back, because Contra III only boasts a grand total of six stages. This means that Contra III is an incredibly short game, even for its day. While the SNES saw many franchises grow bigger when they made the jump to 16-bits, Contra III feels more like an NES game with a visual overhaul.

Back to the bright side of things, that visual overhaul comes with some benefits, the best of which being the second and fifth levels, which ditch the sidescrolling action in favor of a top-down perspective. Taking advantage of the SNES’ scaling and rotation capabilities, players can spin their character 360 degrees by the presses of the shoulder buttons. These stages make for a nice change of pace, and add a little variety to the equation.

Contra III: The Alien Wars remains a fun and exciting run-and-gun title, and provides a truly testing challenge, especially for two players. But it also feels a tad shallow, and maybe even a little outdated, due to its exceptionally short length. Though many still regard Contra III: The Alien Wars as an SNES classic, it feels more like a “pretty good” NES title that just happens to be 16-bits.

 

7.0

Strikey Sisters Review

Strikey Sisters is a modern day brick breaker by DYA Games. Though this genre has largely been left behind to gaming’s yesteryear, Strikey Sisters does a great job at reminding players why such a simple genre can be so appealing, not to mention addictive.

The goal of each stage in Strikey Sisters is to eliminate every block and enemy on a stage, with the blocks needing to be destroyed first, as their presence allows the enemies to respawn. Once the blocks are dealt with, knock out all the enemies and you’re ready to move on. It’s simple enough in concept, but Strikey Sisters throws enough curveballs to make for quite a challenging experience.

As is often the case with games like this, the players can only move left and right at the bottom of the screen, with one or two players being able to control either of the titular sisters. In order to break the blocks and defeat enemies, the sisters have to repeatedly strike magic balls, which then bounce around the stage dealing damage to enemies and chipping away at the blocks. Each sister has three hit points to start with, which are depleted if they are either hit by an enemy attack, or if they miss their ball and it falls off the stage. Things get all the more hectic with two players, because if both players strike the same ball (something that will be inevitable), then it belongs to both players, meaning if it goes off course, both characters lose a heart.

The pinball-meets-Kirby’s Block Ball set up is a lot of fun, especially with two players, and it’s made all the better by the inclusions of power-ups that mix up the gameplay. You can get bombs that target all on-screen foes, or lasers that will destroy any block or enemy in its path. You can even get an item that slows the balls down so they’re easier to hit and keep track of. The best such power-up, however, is the iron ball which – as its name implies – turns the magic balls into iron, allowing them to plow through enemies and blocks with a single hit for a limited time. Strikey Sisters also features some pretty tough boss battles, who bombard players with repeated attacks, making their stages all the more difficult to complete.

Should you get stuck on a particularly difficult stage, multiple levels usually unlock at once, so you can always move on to something else and come back to a tough stage later. Additional replay value is added to the stages by the inclusions of gems and character cards. A level isn’t fully complete until you grab a gem that will appear from one of the bricks, and manage to collect a card of every enemy type that appears on the stage. To collect a card, just grab the card power-up and throw it at an enemy. These are simple additions, but they do add that little something extra for completionists.

The game is also an aesthetic treat, with graphics that are reminiscent of Saturn Bomberman, music that sounds like a cross between Kirby and Nights Into Dreams, and sound effects that echo Mega Man Legends. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the visuals and audio really make Strikey Sisters feel like a love letter to the Sega Saturn and PSOne.

Indeed, fans of 2D gaming’s final run in the early years of the 32-bit era (before they saw a resurgence this last decade) are probably who Strikey Sisters is geared most for. Though any fan of simple gameplay, steep challenge and replay value can have a good time, especially if they bring a friend along.

 

8.0

Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting Review

*Review based on Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting’s release as part of the SNES Classic*

There is no questioning that Street Fighter II is one of the most impactful and important video games ever made. It single-handedly created the fighting game genre, and it could be argued that multiplayer and competitive gaming was forever influenced by it. Street Fighter II was such a success that Capcom continued to re-release the game under various new guises (a trend that continues even today with Ultra Street Fighter II on the Switch). Some of these subsequent releases featured notable changes such as additional characters, others had more subtle gameplay and balancing tweaks. The first such re-release was Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, which turned the four boss characters playable and allowed two players to pick the same characters. After that came Turbo: Hyper Fighting which, although containing the same detailed mechanics as the previous installments, is one of the lesser additions to the legendary title.

Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting retains the same basics as the original Street Fighter II, with a single player being able to take on the other characters in the arcade-style story mode, or two players can duke it out amongst each other in what was always the game’s biggest draw. The fighting mechanics of Street Fighter II were always deep and intricate, and that all remains true here (though so do the original game’s shortcomings, namely stiff character movements and many moves taking a good chunk of health, making for some disappointingly short matches). Turbo: Hyper Fighting also retains the four additional playable characters from Championship Edition, along with the eight originals, so there’s plenty of variety to be had in the combat.

So what’s different this time around? Well, true to its name, Turbo: Hyper Fighting includes a faster playing speed called Turbo mode, which makes the combat more hectic, and is definitely a test for one’s Street Fighter abilities. The characters also have a few new moves in their arsenal, such as Chun-Li now being able to throw a fireball and perform the Spinning Bird Kick in midair. Additionally, there are other, smaller tweaks to the game balance.

These changes are certainly welcome, and probably improve the overall experience. Likewise, the 16-bit graphics and iconic music are as pleasing as ever. But knowing that even more polished and enhanced versions of Street Fighter II were released shortly after, you have to wonder why Nintendo (or Capcom) decided to re-issue this relatively minimal version of Street Fighter II for the SNES Classic Edition. For its time, it may have refined the experience, but in a post-Super Street Fighter II world, it can be a little difficult to look back.

One change that isn’t so welcome is the enemy AI when playing alone. You’d hope that when refining the game, Capcom would have done the same with the AI, but the computer opponents of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting are frustrating for all the wrong reasons, as they spam the same moves ad nauseam. Fighting against a tough opponent is fine, but when Ryu starts cheesing the Hadouken more frequently than even your cheapest gaming friends, it’s more annoying than it is difficult.

Street Fighter II remains one of the most influential video games ever made, and one of the few that can boast it created an entire genre. But each subsequent iteration was an improvement over the last, which makes the previous versions lose a little bit of their luster when playing today. When the superior Super Street Fighter II Turbo, as well as Street Fighters III and IV exist, Turbo: Hyper Fighting comes off as a little underwhelming, competent and fun though it may be.

 

7.5

Super Punch-Out!! Review

The Punch-Out!! series is one that many Nintendo fans remember fondly from the big N’s golden age, and with good reason. Though it seemed simplistic, Punch-Out!! boasts the same level of intricacy and depth that Nintendo games are known for. But it also seems relegated to the lesser echelon of Nintendo titles, laying dormant once Nintendo made the jump to 3D up until the series made a triumphant return on the Wii in 2009; only to once again fall off the radar in the years since (but at least series’ hero Little Mac has made it into Smash Bros. now, though he probably should have made the cut a few entries earlier than he did). The series’ final entry in its heyday was Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES, which remains a stellar experience to this day…even if it can get frustratingly difficult at times.

In Super Punch-Out!!, players take control of a very different-looking, more blonde Little Mac, and fight their way through the boxing world to become champion. The game features three normal circuits to fight through, each consisting of four opponents (three foes to climb the ranks, plus that cup’s champion), with a secret fourth circuit being unlockable if you can make it through the other three without losing (and good luck with that).

Though the NES game displayed the action from a top-down view, the jump to the SNES meant the series could now take advantage of then-new graphical effects, with Little Mac being made transparent during fights to give players a much more welcome third-person perspective.

The controls are simple enough; move left, right and backward to dodge enemy punches, press B to throw a right hand, and Y to give your opponent a mean left hook. Pressing the buttons on their own strikes at the opponent’s body, while pressing up on the D-pad with the buttons takes a strike at their head. Additionally, every hit you successfully land builds up a meter at the bottom of the screen. When this meter completely fills up, you can press the A button to unleash more powerful attacks as long as the meter remains full. Of course, every time Little Mac takes a punch, the meter drops.

“Damn you, Dragon Chan!”

This is all simple in structure, but in execution it makes for some surprisingly deep strategy. You have to constantly play close attention to your opponents’ movements and patterns, so you know what kind of punch or dodge to use at which time. This is made all the more strategic by the fact that every opponent fights differently. Some may fake-out punches before going for the real thing, others have strong midsections and can only be hurt by a punch to the face, and others completely break the rules of boxing by jumping off the ropes. Learning every enemy’s strategy is key to victory, and if you can master them well enough, you can even manage to fell your opponent before the standard three knockdowns.

On the downside of things, there does seem to be a little bit of a trial-and-error method to some fights, particular opponents who posses one-hit KO moves. On its own that’s not a terrible thing, but seeing as you have to start a circuit over should you get a game over, it can get a little annoying when you finally manage to defeat some particularly difficult opponents, only to lose to one of the more trial-and-error fights and have to go through each opponent all over again.

Another questionable element is that every fight has a three minute time limit, and if you fail to knock your opponent out within that time, you automatically lose. You could potentially knock your opponent down twice, and take very little damage in return, but you’ll still lose if the clock strikes the three minute mark. Whatever happened to winning by decision?

“We all box down here, Georgie!”

These complaints are ultimately minor, however, when you consider how much fun the overall package is. Along with the deep combat, Super Punch-Out!! is bursting with personality. Every character is an outlandish cartoon caricature; from Bruce Lee knockoffs to Bob Marley parodies. There’s just so much humor and charm in every fight that it becomes all the more enjoyable.

The upgraded graphics from previous installments help bring out this personality all the more. The character animations are incredibly detailed, and you’d be surprised just how extravagant the character movements and expressions can be, considering this was on 16-bit hardware.

Super Punch-Out!! is a refinement of the NES entry in the series, and remains a whole lot of fun to play today. Only truly dedicated players will probably finish all four of its circuits, but Super Punch-Out!!’s simple controls, deep combat and boatloads of personality make for some great entertainment, not to mention replay value.

 

8.0

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown Review

This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but Pokemon 3: The Movie felt like the end of an era. Now, Pokemon’s popularity hasn’t exactly waned at all in the years since the film’s 2001 release (it’s still the biggest merchandise seller of any franchise in any medium, and the games remain best-sellers to this day), but this seemed to mark the end of the world’s initial Pokemania, when Pokemon was an inescapable phenomenon. This was the last Pokemon movie to have a wide theatrical release in the United States (subsequent Pokemon features were relegated to select theaters, before receiving the straight-to-video treatment), and it also seemed to be the point when “pet monster” anime was dying down a bit (even Digimon – the closest thing Pokemon had to a rival – fell off the radar with its third season). Pokemon’s fading omnipresence could be seen in Pokemon 3: The Movie itself, as it wasn’t anywhere near the box-office success of its predecessors. Maybe parents were tired of taking their kids to see Pokemon movies, or perhaps the dwindling box-office returns had something to do with the lack of new Pokemon in the movie, and kids didn’t have as much interest (it would be another two years before the third generation of Pokemon hit stateside). But Pokemon 3: The Movie’s relative unpopularity is a shame, as it might actually be the best of the three original Pokemon features, with strong themes and surprising emotional depth.

Although the hero of the film remains Ash Ketchum, it’s hard to refer to him as the main character this time around. The young Pokemon trainer, along with his friends Pikachu, Misty and a returning Brock may be the stars returning from the show, but Pokemon 3: The Movie primarily focuses on a new character, a young girl named Molly, for its emotional core.

Molly is the five-year old daughter of a research scientist named Spencer Hale, who conducts research on legendary Pokemon. During an expedition to study the mysterious, inter-dimensional Pokemon Unown, Professor Hale is spirited away to another world by the Unown. Molly’s mother has long-since disappeared (the movie never really mentions what happened to her), and now with her father gone, Molly is overwrought with grief. Her father’s assistant brings Molly an ancient, puzzle-like artifact as a memento from her father’s expedition. After tinkering around with the puzzle, Molly unleashes the Unown, who begin using their psychic abilities to bring Molly’s dreams to life.

The Unown’s powers begin to meld with Molly’s grief, and soon she begins to alter reality to make her happy. The Unown turn her hometown into a crystalline palace, she can become a young woman at will, and most importantly, her father returns to her in the form of Entei, Molly’s favorite Pokemon. Within this illusionary dream world, Molly becomes delusional and reclusive, preferring the happiness of the Unown’s illusions to the sadness of her real life.

One thing is still missing from Molly’s life, however; a mother. So Molly sends Entei to find a surrogate mother for her, which happens to be Ash Ketchum’s mother (Molly’s family are long-distance friends of the Ketchums). So Ash and friends journey to Molly’s manor-turned-fairy tale castle to rescue Mrs. Kethum and, hopefully, to help Molly out as well.

It’s a pretty simple plot, but it differentiates itself from its two predecessors by making the stakes more personal (saving Ash’s mom, as opposed to saving the planet from Mewtwo or nature falling out of balance), and with its emphasis on Molly, who is uniquely both the film’s protagonist and antagonist (okay, Ash is technically the protagonist, but this is Molly’s story more than it is Ash’s), it stands out a little more. Not to mention with its themes of loss, loneliness and grief, it’s perhaps the most emotional and deep of the original Pokemon trilogy. I mean, when the central dilemma of a film is a small child’s grieving, it’s hard not to get emotional.

The focus on a new character is a little bit of a double-edged sword, however, seeing as Ash and the other returning characters don’t get nearly as much character development as they did in the second film. I suppose by the third entry you need a bit of a change of pace, but it should say something that Meowth makes a fourth-wall-breaking joke about Team Rocket’s minimized role in this film compared to the second feature.

More on the bright side of things, the popular-for-their-time pop tunes that littered the first movie and had a presence in the second are nowhere to be found. On the downside, that may have been another indicator of the franchise leaving the public eye a bit at the time (having a popular band attached to Pokemon was great promotion back then). But I’d much rather here the cheesy-yet-indelible original songs of Pokemon than hear a distinctly yesteryear pop tune shoehorn its way in.

Following in the footsteps of Pokemon: The Movie 2000, Pokemon 3 has a surprisingly strong original score. I’m not sure if any one track reaches the heights of “Lugia’s Song” from the second film, but its still an effective and memorable score nonetheless.

Once again, the animation takes a step up from the TV show to better fit its presence as a movie. The characters move more fluidly than the TV show to be sure, though it does seem a little inconsistent within itself (sometimes the animation looks like a remarkable improvement, other times, merely an improvement). And like the second feature, we get some fun and varied locations to see, with the sometimes surreal world of Molly’s fantasies being a highlight, and making the first film’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs look even more bland in retrospect.

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown may not be a cinematic classic by any means – its structure is sometimes lacking, and certain plot elements feel rushed together – but it is a great reminder that Pokemon can be (and often is) more than the simple money-printing franchise it also very much is. I mean, how many more “legitimate” movie franchises have an entire feature about grieving, and trust that its young audience is wise enough to understand such a heavy concept?

It’s a shame Pokemon 3: The Movie came at the end of Pokemania’s initial run. Despite its (sometimes quite obvious) flaws, its heart is in the right place. And if any of the subsequent Pokemon features shared its heart, then it’s all the more disappointing to see them relegated to the straight-to-video section.

 

7.5

Justice League Review

*This review contains some spoilers, but nothing that wasn’t obvious already, really.*

You know what? I hate Superman. There, I said it.  I hate Superman, and watching Justice League reminded me exactly why I hate him. Despite being named after a team of super heroes, Justice League goes out of its way to display just how useless the rest of the team is compared to Superman alone. His super strength is stronger than Wonder Woman’s, his super speed is faster than Flash’s; plus he can fly, lift buildings, has heat vision, ice breath, and is basically indestructible. In one scene, he nonchalantly throws Batman to the side as if he’s garbage. I hate that Superman can just do anything. I hate that he makes infinitely better super heroes look like nothing by comparison. I simply, flat-out can not stand Superman.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the rest of Justice League.

Since its inception with Man of Steel in 2013, the DC Extended Universe has been a shallow attempt at recreating what Marvel has done with its Cinematic Universe. While the MCU wisely took its time in bringing its different super heroes together, the DCEU seemed to be in a desperate game of catch-up, rushing the crossover aspects together with its beyond-muddled second entry, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The DCEU has become so needy in its desires to replicate what Marvel has accomplished, that it seems to consistently forget to make coherent movies and strong characters to justify its extended universe.

But then, earlier in 2017, we had a glimmer of hope in the form of Wonder Woman. There was a movie that told a simple super hero origin story, but had a main character who was likable and fleshed out, not to mention it actually seemed to understand human emotion. Surely Wonder Woman signified a turn for the better for the DCEU? Surely these movies would learn from past mistakes and take notes from what made Wonder Woman work?

Nope. Here comes Justice League to undo all of that goodwill Wonder Woman established.

In all fairness, Justice League isn’t as much of a disaster as Batman V. Superman, nor is it as boring as Man of Steel. But it’s still a clunky, over-bloated movie that lacks focus and, even more disappointing, lacks any heart. It wants so desperately to be on the same boat as the MCU with its shared universe, but also makes the shared universe concept feel pointless with how insignificant everyone else feels compared to Superman. If one team member can take out all the others without breaking a sweat, why should we care that there’s a team at all?

Basically, the story here is that a being from another world named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) invades Earth looking for the three lost “Mother Boxes” which, when combined, can destroy a planet or something. And so with Superman dead after the events of Batman V. Superman, Batman tries to form the Justice League to defeat this otherworldly threat…before completely giving up on the idea and deciding to use a Mother Box to resurrect ol’ Supes because everyone is useless compared to him.

“Steppenwolf makes me miss the villains of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Yes, he’s THAT bad of a character.”

In all honesty, Steppenwolf is very likely the most boring, uninteresting villain in super hero movie history. I’m not exaggerating. Ciaran Hinds’ acting abilities are entirely lost on a character who is written without the tiniest shred of depth or motivation. So much as calling him a placeholder villain is giving him too much credit. I don’t even think he has a line of dialogue that isn’t about destruction or obtaining a Mother Box (which may as well just be called Macguffins). He’s an absolute non-entity. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a CG character who is entirely unconvincing. Every time he fights with the heroes, it looks like the Justice League is grappling with a PS3 monster.

Speaking of bad visual effects, Justice League is full of them. This is a movie aiming to be a big blockbuster, but one which appears the studios behind it didn’t have enough faith to put the extra funding into it.

The CG used to hide actor Henry Cavill’s mustache has already obtained internet infamy, and with good reason. It’s downright distracting. Apparently, Cavill has an obligation to another role that requires a mustache, so he couldn’t shave it. So the filmmakers just decided to CG the area in between his nose and upper lip, and it looks as weird as it sounds. Might I suggest a better option would have been to give Superman a mustache? Sure, Superman isn’t known for having facial hair, but with how often comic books – the origins of these characters – retell, retcon and flat-out ignore certain continuities, is adding a mustache to Superman really so out of the question? I mean, come on, you’re resurrecting the dude with a magic box, but a mustache? That’s just too far. Hell, if Superman had a Tom Sellick ‘stache going on I might actually like him (slightly) more. At the very least, it would be less distracting to see Henry Cavill’s actual mustache than to have a CG band-aid over it.

“Can somebody please get this bad CG off me?!”

The unholy trinity of bad visual effects in Justice League is capped off with Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a member of the Justice League whose mostly robotic body clashes obnoxiously with the human side of his face. It just looks really bad. I mentioned PS3 graphics earlier, but now I’m starting to feel like that was maybe a bit insulting to the PS3. I would much rather look at a ten-year old PS3 game than Steppenwolf’s ugly mug or Cyborg’s…visual awkwardness.

To be fair, not everything is outright horrible in Justice League. On the bright side of things, Gal Gadot returns as Wonder Woman, and is as charming as ever. Aquaman is portrayed by Jason Momoa, and actually seems to be into the character. Some of the action scenes are also decently successful in creating excitement, and unlike the oppressive “edginess and grit” of Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman, Justice League at least tries to lighten the mood at times. Sure, not all of the humor works – with the antics of the Flash (Ezra Miller) growing more exhausting as the film goes on – but I’ll take the attempt at fun over the forced brooding of Batman V. Superman any day.

Despite those few highlights, it’s hard to recommend Justice League. Even Ben Affleck’s take on Batman – one of the few positive qualities of Batman V. Superman – seems lackluster this time around, as though Affleck no longer cares following Batman V. Superman’s reception. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot is beyond thin, the pacing is cluttered and all over the place, it’s riddled with bad dialogue, and for a movie that needed to rely heavily on special effects, the effects in question are just really bad.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the seemingly pointless elements of the movie. A good example of this is the opening of the movie itself, which is presented as a video of Superman recorded by a couple of kids, asking the caped hero some questions after another rescue. The scene ends just as ol’ Supes is about to answer the question of “what is his favorite thing about Earth.” This scene doesn’t play into the main story, nor does it seem to have any thematic purpose. I honestly don’t know why it’s there.

At the very least, Justice League is the kind of bad movie I can get a kick out of talking about, which is more than I can say for Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman. But it’s also a blatant showcase of these DCEU movies not learning from past mistakes. And considering this is the follow-up to the delightful Wonder Woman, the results sting twice as much.

Maybe DC should just reboot this cinematic universe, but keep Wonder Woman canon and use it as the new starting point. Also, leave Superman out of it. Yeah, that’d be nice.

 

4.0