Strange World Review

Say what you want about Disney’s overall slate of live-action remakes and an over-reliance on Marvel and Star Wars in recent years, but the Walt Disney Company’s animated output has never been better than in has over the last thirteen years. Starting with the Princess and the Frog in 2009, Walt Disney Animation Studios seemed to find their groove again, often rivaling and occasionally surpassing sister animation studio Pixar. The past decade-plus has seen Disney Animation release worldwide phenomenons like Frozen and Encanto, and additional acclaimed hits like Moana, Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ output has never been more consistent and varied. The animation giant’s sixty-first feature film, Strange World, adds another notch in Disney’s recent versatility in storytelling by hearkening back to pulp fiction adventures of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, while Strange World continues Disney Animation’s recent winning ways in terms of versatility, it doesn’t match up to the same consistent quality as its recent predecessors. It doesn’t fall so short as to make me think the studio’s hot streak is broken, but Strange World does leave me wondering if said hot streak is winding down.

Strange World takes place in the land of Avalonia, a kind of Jules Verne world of flying machines, adventurers and retro futurism. Avalonia is surrounded by mountain ranges so large that even their most advanced airships can’t get past them. One notable Avalonian adventurer is Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), who is so tough he shaves with a piranha. Jaeger is joined on his adventures by his much less brave son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jaeger has conquered seemingly everything Avalonia has to offer, with the sole exception being the discovery of what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia, which is to be his life’s accomplishment. During the Clades’ expedition of the mountains, Searcher discovers a new type of plant that gives off energy. With the mountains proving too treacherous to conquer, Searcher and the rest of the crew suggest that the new plant (which they dub ‘Pando’) is world-changing enough of a discovery, and decide to return to Avalonia. Jaeger, hellbent on accomplishing his goal, abandons his son and continues onward through the mountains.

Fast-forward twenty-five years, and Pando has indeed changed Avalonia by becoming the land’s power source. Searcher is seen as Avalonia’s new hero for his discovery (he has a statue right next to his father’s), and he has since become a farmer of Pando along with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Jaeger, meanwhile, is long-since presumed dead.

All is not well in Avalonia, however, as Pando crops are dying at an alarming rate. The leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) – who was with Jaeger and Searcher on their mountain expedition all those years ago – shows up at Searcher’s house to recruit him on a new expedition. Massive roots of Pando have been discovered in a sinkhole to the north, and Callisto believes these roots lead to the source of Pando’s power (the “Heart of Pando”), and that finding the source may help them solve the issue of Pando’s rapid decay. Searcher is reluctant, but having more knowledge of Pando than anyone else, agrees to embark on the adventure. Unbeknownst to him, Ethan stows away on Callisto’s ship (he’s always dreamed of going on adventures like his grandfather), with Meridian following in pursuit of her son

Unfortunately for the crew, the sinkhole not only leads underground, but into an entrance way to a whole other world beneath their own (the titular Strange World) and their ship crashes. This Strange World is a land filled with dangerous creatures and terrain, so Ethan and the rest of the crew will have to survive this Strange World if they hope to save Pando and return to Avalonia. But they’ll have some additional help in the form of Jaeger, who had fallen into the Strange World long ago, and has survived by building a flamethrower and feasting on the smaller creatures of Strange World (I don’t consider Jaeger’s survival a spoiler. It was shown in the trailers, and even if it wasn’t, these kinds of films always have this kind of character to guide our heroes on their adventure).

Again, the film has a very strong throwback vibe, hearkening back to the days of pulp magazines and movie serials, and unabashedly flaunts the expected tropes of such genres. On one hand, such sincerity in genre filmmaking is hard to come by these days, and has a certain innocent appeal to it. But it also means that Strange World doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises in store. Still, even a cliched story can be made special by its execution, and I’d rather have a good predictable movie than a bad movie that features twists just for the heck of it. Though I must admit it’s in that execution that Strange World becomes a bit of a mixed bag.

I think my main issue is that the action of Strange World is serviceable, but unmemorable. Considering the film is aiming for that ‘BANG ZOOM’ action of yesteryear, the action scenes should be one of the film’s highlights. Instead, Strange World simply seems to make due with its action scenes. Disney Animation hasn’t had the strongest history with action films, but they did do it right recently with Raya and the Last Dragon, so it’s a shame that didn’t translate here when it would have been even more beneficial. Strange World could have brought the action of movie serials up to date and, with the benefit of animation, gotten really imaginative with it. Unfortunately, the action scenes here are decently entertaining but overly familiar.

Where the film shines, however, is in its animation. The titular Strange World is a sight to behold, with its sharp reds, magentas and oranges making everything pop. Better still are the creatures that inhabit it, many of which are faceless blobs of varying shapes and sizes (one of which, dubbed Splat, is rightfully the film’s mascot). Others are stone-like brontosauruses that shed pollen from their backs and have legs as thin as pipe cleaners with feet like giant mushroom caps. I’m always a sucker for creature designs, and I get the impression the Disney animators had a lot of fun coming up with the creatures of Strange World. Even the world of Avalonia, the supposed ‘normal’ world of the film, is a joy to look at with its combination of history and fantasy.

The film also deserves credit for injecting a bit of heart into an otherwise by-the-books action-adventure, tying in a generational trauma theme seemingly carried over by Encanto, with the three generations of Clades (Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan) often butting heads with their worldviews. It doesn’t tug at the heart in the same way as other recent Disney animated flicks, but an action-adventure doesn’t really need to. Of course, with the action failing to lift Strange World up to greater heights, perhaps a little more effort trying to reach the same emotional heights of a Frozen or an Encanto may have been the key to making Strange World something special.

Strange World is a solid entry in the Disney Animation Studios canon. But in a time when Disney’s animated storytelling has never been stronger, simply being ‘solid’ does mean that Strange World is in the shadows of the studio’s other recent films. It isn’t that Strange World is bad, just that – much like the characters in the film – it often feels lost and stumbling amidst a land of giants.

6

Super Mario Galaxy Turns 15!

Fifteen years ago today, on November 12th 2007, Super Mario Galaxy was released on the Nintendo Wii in North America!

Of course, Super Mario Galaxy was first released in Japan, and in that case, its fifteenth anniversary was on November 1st. But since I only kind of mentioned that on a post the day after the fact, and because I’m American so the US release is more personal to me, let’s celebrate Super Mario Galaxy now!

Goodness gracious, where does the time go? I remember the buildup to Super Mario Galaxy more than most games: that 2006 demo that looked pretty different from the final game, checking the Japanese website for updates, hearing the Gusty Garden Galaxy theme for the first time from a making of video showing an orchestral recording session… I even remember when the game was at Wii kiosks at GameStop, I’d actually take a few minutes to nab a star or two (though the same star or two every time. Didn’t want to spoil too much of the game ahead of time).

Super Mario Galaxy was the third 3D Mario game, but it felt more like the proper successor to Super Mario 64 than Sunshine ever did. Like 64, Galaxy felt like the next evolution of the Mario series, combining elements of its 3D predecessors as well as elements from the 2D Super Mario titles, and using the idea of outer space to add its own bag of tricks into the proceedings, like spherical planetoids and gravity (it seems odd in retrospect that it took Nintendo that long to combine a series that so heavily features jumping with gravity).

Galaxy even expanded on Mario norms in fun and meaningful ways. After being toned down in 64 and entirely absent in Sunshine, Galaxy marked the proper return for power-ups in the Mario series. Not only did the Fire Flower make a long-overdue comeback (and for the first time in 3D!), but new power-ups such as the Bee Suit, Boo Suit and comical Spring Suit left an impression (I’m still wondering why the original version of Ice Mario seen in Galaxy hasn’t returned, being replaced by the less creative New Super Mario Bros. version thereafter). Super Mario Galaxy even brought back Luigi, after years of being sidelined from the main Mario series post-SNES. We even got a new addition to the Mario canon in the form of Rosalina, who has become a Mario mainstay ever since.

“Super Mario Galaxy even had a (relatively) stronger emphasis on story than other Mario games, including a genuinely touching sub-plot about the character Rosalina’s backstory.”

Combine all of these elements together with some absolutely stellar level design, pitch perfect gameplay, and one of gaming’s greatest soundtracks, and Galaxy proved to be one hell of a Mario game.

And what a game it was! Super Mario Galaxy not only succeeded where Sunshine fell short, it set the bar for the Wii, and was something of a new benchmark for not only the Mario series, but for Nintendo itself. It was one of the most fun and imaginative games of its day, and fifteen years later, age hasn’t effected it at all.

I also feel like Galaxy started something of a renaissance for the Mario series. Although the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games were great, for the most part, the Mario series hadn’t really seen the same critical heights as it once did after Super Mario 64 (though again, the Mario RPGs really deserved a bigger spotlight). Sure, the Mario Karts, sports games and Mario Parties were fun, but not exactly the defining gaming experiences Mario was once synonymous with. Super Mario Galaxy brought back the pedigree of the Mario series. Galaxy earned a critical reputation that very few games could hope to claim, and rightfully so! And since then, the Super Mario series has seldom looked back, being on perhaps a longer winning streak now than it ever had before. Games like Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Odyssey have continued Mario’s winning ways, and titles such as Super Mario Maker and Mario Kart 8 raised the bar for the spinoffs (it’s just a shame the RPGs seem to be the only aspect of the series that haven’t shared in this renaissance). Even the music of the series remains elevated post-Galaxy (Mario games always had great music, but I feel like now it has the most consistently great soundtracks in gaming).

Okay, so things may have looked like they peaked with Galaxy 2 there for a minute, seeing as 2011 and 2012 were extra safe years for the series, but then Super Mario 3D World was released in 2013 and the world was happy again. So those two off years were just little blips.

In short, Super Mario Galaxy was a special game that took the Mario series to new heights (literally! He was in space!). And even now, fifteen years later, this Wii classic is still one of Mario’s finest hours!

Happy Fifteenth (US) Anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy!

Wreck-It Ralph Turns 10!

Yep, another anniversary post at the Dojo. This time for something that’s only kind of/sort of related to Super Mario. We’re talking about the Disney animated film Wreck-It Ralph, which is somehow ten years old today!

Yes, another thing to make me feel so old. Wreck-It Ralph was released on November 2nd 2012. It’s become something of a semi-classic in the Disney canon, but it still probably ranks in my top 10 favorite Disney animated films, to add some personal perspective.

Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of an old arcade video game villain (the titular Ralph), as he grows tired of the stigma that comes with his job as a gaming baddie, and sets off to prove himself a hero. Admittedly, the premise does seem to echo previous animated films such as Shrek, Despicable Me and Mega Mind, but Ralph is the best film of that lot (sorry, Shrek fans). And it has more than enough charm and visual inventiveness to stand on its own.

Ralph was one of the earlier entries in Disney Animation’s ongoing resurgence, which began with either The Princess and the Frog or Tangled (or Bolt, depending on who you ask). And while Disney Animation is still going strong, the early 2010s were particularly great thanks to the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen the next year. Interestingly, both films were also accompanied by fantastic short films (Paperman in the case of Ralph, and the best Mickey Mouse short, “Get a Horse” ahead of Frozen). Disney was really at the top of their game at that point!

Wreck-It Ralph is definitely worth a look for fans of Disney, animation and video games, and people who simply like a charming story. It’s 2018 sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, is almost just as good. I honestly wouldn’t mind a third entry.

Happy Tenth Anniversary, Wreck-It Ralph and Paperman!

Also, as a bonus, yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of Super Mario Galaxy’s release in Japan (you had to know we’d get back to Mario). Since I missed out on writing a proper post for the occasion (I also missed out on my Halloween post, sadly), I will be sure to write something on the fifteenth anniversary of Super Mario Galaxy’s US release a little later this month. As well as some actual reviews and such.

Happy (belated) fifteen, Super Mario Galaxy!

Super Mario Odyssey’s 5th Anniversary!

Yeah, it’s another anniversary celebration blog at the Dojo! And it’s another one involving Mario. It seems the Super Mario series has had a lot of milestone anniversaries this year. Today, we’re celebrating Super Mario Odyssey, which was released five years ago, on October 27th 2017!

That’s right, somehow it’s been half a decade since Super Mario Odyssey was released on the Nintendo Switch. On one hand, that makes me feel old. But on the other hand, Super Mario Odyssey is amazing, so let’s celebrate!

The Nintendo Switch really did have an unprecedented first year (the best of any console in history, if I say so myself). Not only did the system launch with the long-anticipated The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but within months you also had games like Splatoon 2, ARMS and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (a crossover that shouldn’t have worked but somehow did), to name just a few. But the Switch capped off its first calendar year with the newest release of gaming’s most venerable series, Super Mario Odyssey.

And damn, what a game it was! Super Mario Odyssey is a game of constant invention, bountiful imagination, and non-stop fun!

What set Odyssey apart from other Mario games is that it abandoned Mario’s usual power-ups in favor of focusing on a singular, ever-changing ability: Cappy!

Cappy is a sentient hat who’s also a ghost (it’s Mario, don’t worry about it), with which Mario can “capture” enemies, objects and friendly NPCs, taking control of them and the abilities that come with them. This leads to so many creative ideas, with most of them being enough to carry most other games in their entirety.

Super Mario Odyssey also brought back the more open-level game design of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, after the series had taken an extended hiatus from the format. Though you could also claim that Odyssey’s structure was even closer to Banjo-Kazooie than its own predecessors (making it the closest thing we’ve got to an actual Banjo-Kazooie 3. Sorry Yooka-Laylee. Not so sorry, Nuts & Bolts). Odyssey features some of the best open 3D stages in gaming, while also housing many classic 3D platforming gauntlets in the vein of Super Mario Galaxy and 3D World. Odyssey is a master of all trades.

Interestingly, Odyssey is still the most recent “mainline” Mario game five years on (unless you count Bowser’s Fury. Though seeing as that was a bonus game released alongside a re-release of 3D World, and re-uses 3D World’s assets, I don’t think it does count as a mainline Mario game, even if it was a new game). So unless you do count Bowser’s Fury, this is the longest drought between mainline 3D Mario games since the gap between Sunshine and Galaxy!

Granted, Odyssey was always going to be a tough act to follow, and maybe Nintendo knows that, and is taking their time to figure out where the series goes next. Suffice to say, the hype is real!

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Super Mario Odyssey was released. In that time it’s proven itself to be one of gaming’s all-time greats. It’s still the best game on Switch (Sorry, Breath of the Wild). And as much as I absolutely love Elden Ring, it can only claim to be my second favorite game of the past number of years, because Super Mario Odyssey exists.

Super Mario Odyssey has built up quite the reputation in these past five years. It’s one of Mario’s finest adventures, one of Nintendo’s greatest triumphs, and one of the best video games ever made. A modern classic!

Happy fifth anniversary, Super Mario Odyssey!

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

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

Anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

Spirited Away’s 20th US Anniversary!

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

Now with all that unnecessary explanation out of the way…

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

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

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

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

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

Happy twentieth (US) anniversary, Spirited Away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Video Games, everyone!

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

Pokémon Puzzle League Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8

Mario Strikers: Battle League Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thor: Love and Thunder Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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