Sonic the Hedgehog Turns 30! (And Nintendo 64 Turns 25!)

It’s been thirty years to the day that the original Sonic the Hedgehog game was released on the Sega Genesis, with its titular hedgehog instantly becoming a gaming icon. It also gave us one of gaming’s greatest foes in Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik.

The Sonic series has had a colorful history, to say the least. For every classic it’s produced, it’s had one or two disappointments, and even flat-out stinkers. For every Sonic 2, there was a Sonic Boom. For every Sonic CD, a Sonic: The Fighters. For every Sonic Colors, a Sonic ’06. Heck, even Sonic Mania – the best game the series saw in decades – was followed-up mere months later by the incompetent Sonic Forces (as if Sega took offense to Mania’s warm reception and goodwill, and made Sonic Forces out of spite). It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of Sonic himself that no matter how low the actual games got, Sonic remained an icon.

Sonic has made a name for himself outside of video games as well, starring in more animated series and comic books than any other video game character, and as recently as 2020 had his own actually-pretty-good movie (with a sequel on the way). It’s safe to say Sonic isn’t going anywhere, and nor should he.

Happy 30th birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog (and Robotnik too)!

That’s not the only video game anniversary today, though. June 23rd also marks the anniversary of the Nintendo 64, which launched in Japan on this day in 1996.

The Nintendo 64 is one of Nintendo’s best consoles in an historical sense, if maybe not in the timeless sense like the Super Nintendo. That is to say, the Nintendo 64 marked a pivotal moment in gaming history, and many of its games were great for the time, but only a few small handfuls of them have withstood the test of time (namely those with Mario, Zelda and Banjo in the title).

Of course, the Nintendo 64’s unique place in history as being the first real 3D console gives it a special kind of nostalgia (the Playstation and Saturn added 3D games as they went, but the N64 was built with them in mind, in case you thought I forgot about them). It was something completely different from the consoles that came before it, and just about every console since has built on what it started. Of course, being such a pioneer in gaming means that much of the N64’s library feels unpolished today, but you have to start somewhere. And the stuff that has held up on the N64, has held up surprisingly well.

So a fellow happy 25th birthday to the Nintendo 64!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play some Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Party. Or maybe I’ll meet down the middle and play some Sonic Shuffle… No. I won’t play Sonic Shuffle.

New Pokemon Snap Review

Twenty-two years is one hell of a long time to wait for a sequel. Yet that’s exactly how long fans have had to wait for New Pokemon Snap, the long-awaited follow-up to the 1999 Nintendo 64 original Pokemon photography game.

It’s pretty odd that we had to wait so long. Pokemon Snap was one of the earlier Pokemon spinoff titles, and was released during Pokemon’s initial red hot booming period. It quickly became a fan favorite, partly because it was among the first instances many people got to see Pokemon in a video game outside of the Gameboy, but mostly because it was a great concept: combining the world of Pokemon with photography, taking pictures of the titular creatures in their natural habitats. It’s easy to see why it won Pokemon fans over so much.

Of course, not every game withstands the test of time. Though the original Pokemon Snap is a fun little endeavor, time has revealed it to be a bit on the shallow side. Released during Pokemon’s early years (when “catching them all” was actually plausible), Pokemon Snap only featured 63 of the original 151 Pokemon. Its stages – which worked with on-rail mechanics, where the player would be able to interact with and influence scripted events as they automatically went by – were short and fun, but rarely required revisiting. Though the game included some puzzle elements (figuring out how to get a Pokemon to pose for the perfect shot, unlocking the passageways to the next levels, and the like) they were once again in limited supply.

I myself obsessed over Pokemon Snap in the N64 days, and while I was ecstatic when it made its way to the Wii Virtual Console, the experience wasn’t quite the same. Sure, it was still fun, but lacked the depth to make me delve into it like I once did (that didn’t stop me from buying it again on the Wii U though).

If anything, the shortcomings of the original Pokemon Snap only made its fans yearn for a sequel even more (self included). The concept of Pokemon Snap is just too good, and was always begging to be expanded upon. Fans of Pokemon Snap deserved a follow-up that lived up to their memories of the original.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what New Pokemon Snap is. We may have had to wait an excruciating twenty-two years, but New Pokemon Snap delivers on the sequel we’d always hoped for: It features the same core gameplay of the original, but expanded on it in every way, with a newfound depth and replay value that make it the most fun I’ve had with a Pokemon title in I don’t even remember how long.

New Pokemon Snap takes players to the Lental Region, where they meet Professor Mirror, who is studying both the Pokemon of the region as well as its “Illumina phenomenon” which causes Pokemon (and some plants) to emit a mysterious glow. It’s up to the player to photograph the Pokemon so that Professor Mirror can better study their behavior and the effects the Illumina phenomenon has on them.

Like the original, the stages are played on rails, with the player taking photos as they automatically pass by. Also like the original, New Pokemon Snap is one of those rare, relaxing games where the player can’t really lose. The goal is to simply take the best pictures you can. You can take up to 72 photos every time you play a stage, and use them to photograph whichever Pokemon you want. You can snap multiple pictures of any Pokemon you see, but you can only take one photo of each Pokemon you photographed to the professor every time you play a stage, so be sure to send in your best photo of each for the best score!

There is a bit of a change to how the professor grades your photos this time around. You’ll still receive points for things like the composition of your photo, whether or not the Pokemon is facing the camera, how close the Pokemon is, etc. But now the actions the Pokemon in the photo is doing will earn the photo a rank of one to four stars (if a Pokemon is just standing there, expect a one-star photo, but if you can get a Pokemon to do something more, the rank will be higher). The player’s photodex can contain four photos of each Pokemon registered, one for each star rank. So that alone already gives players more incentive for repeat visits to stages.

That isn’t the only source of replay value New Pokemon Snap provides, however. Now, the stages themselves are constantly changing! Though the courses in New Pokemon Snap remain pleasantly short, there’s a lot more to them. For starters, playing a level enough times and earning enough points will level up that stage, which will then introduce new Pokemon and pathways to that course. Some stages even include separate day and night versions, with the player being able to level up both versions of a stage to unlock even more! Eventually, levels will introduce branching pathways, and like the original, some even include puzzle elements that can unlock additional paths and stages. And if you miss the way a certain level used to be when you first visited it, you can revisit the earlier versions of stages any time you want. It’s really quite impressive how much New Pokemon Snap can get out of even a single level.

As you play through the game, you’ll also unlock new features. As in the original game, you can throw Fluffruit (basically an apple) or play music to get a Pokemon’s attention or make it behave a certain way. Replacing the original game’s Pester Ball this time, however, are Illumina Orbs, which will give Pokemon that aforementioned glow for a short time, and often change their behavior. You can now also scan a stage to get a briefing on all the Pokemon in your immediate area (as well as select which path to take when you reach a fork in the road), but the scan will also affect certain Pokemon. There are even some instances where combining these items will give additional results.

Basically, even though New Pokemon Snap features the same style of short, on-rails stages as the N64 original, there’s so much more to them. At any given moment, there’s so much going on around you, that it really is impossible to get everything in a single trip. It’s pretty fun to decide which things you want to focus on during a specific run of a stage, and which ones can wait until later.

It doesn’t even stop there, however. Now, when you save photos to your album, you can edit them with filters, frames and stickers, and then share them online if you want. You can ‘like’ other people’s photos (referred to as giving “Sweet! Medals”) and hope they do the same for yours. As you play through the game, you unlock more editing features (frames, filters, stickers, as well as decorations for your personal profile). Again, there’s a lot of fun to be had with all this (though the limit of 28 characters in a photo’s description has prevented me from making many a desired reference, unfortunately). As an added bonus, if someone has taken photos of a Pokemon or area you haven’t seen yet, it will be blocked unless you choose to see it, which is pretty cool.

My only complaint with the photo sharing is that you have an odd limit of only six photos to be uploaded at any given time. The professor can also (randomly) choose two additional photos of yours to share online, but that’s just two more slots for photos I could be uploading myself! Granted, you can swap which six you want in and out at any time, so it isn’t a big deal, but why such an odd limitation?

If there’s a more notable drawback to New Pokemon Snap, it’s that some objectives are strangely vague. This is true of unlocking some of the branching paths, though most of those aren’t too hard to figure out. When it comes to Requests, on the other hand, many of them are so vague in their descriptions that I’ve had to look up guides to see what they mean. And even after watching some guides, I’m left baffled as to how I was supposed to know that’s what the request was asking of me.

These requests are essentially little side missions. After you discover a certain Pokemon or reach a certain point in the game, you’ll receive a request asking for a specific picture in relation to those discoveries (taking a photo of a Pokemon doing a specific action, finding out what Pokemon lives in a particular cave, things like that). Some of these requests reward the player with some of the aforementioned customizable items for your photo album (but some don’t reward anything, which is pretty weird in itself). They’re fun in concept, but too many of these requests don’t make the objective clear enough.

Something that New Pokemon Snap really deserves credit for are the visuals. New Pokemon Snap is a gorgeous game to look at! The Pokemon themselves have never looked better, and the environments are so beautiful to look at, I sometimes take photos of just the scenery so I can look at it in the album later. It’s weird how the mainline Pokemon games like Sword and Shield continue to look kind of behind the times, but a spinoff like New Pokemon Snap is one of the best looking games on the Nintendo Switch.

“Praise the sun!”

The music is also joyful, and really fits the relaxed nature of the game. It may not be among the best Switch soundtracks, but it’s appropriately atmospheric for each stage, and simple and fun in between them. It was perhaps a missed opportunity to not feature new versions of any of the tracks from the original game, however. You don’t want to overdo it and rely completely on returning music, but considering this is the longest gap between a Nintendo game and its sequel to date (I believe), it would have been a nostalgic euphoria to hear two or three musical pieces from the original make a return.

“Don’t cry for me. I’m already dead.”

New Pokemon Snap is something of a dream come true. Even as I’ve lost my enthusiasm for the mainline Pokemon games, I’ve still longed for a follow-up to Pokemon Snap that could build on the original’s concept. To not only have a Pokemon Snap sequel after all these years, but to also have it be the game we thought we could only wish for in how it adds so much to every aspect of the formula, can make it seem like an almost surreal experience. While it may take something away from Pokemon Snap if we started getting sequels as regularly as other Pokemon games, I do hope we don’t have to wait another twenty-two years for a third entry. New Pokemon Snap really is the Pokemon Snap title worthy of our memories of the original.

Now that we’re on the subject of long overdue Nintendo sequels, how about Super Mario RPG 2?

8

The 1000th Blog!

That’s right, Kevin! The big day has finally arrived! It’s Wizard Dojo’s ONE-THOUSANDTH post! Huzzah!

This has been a long time coming. Both because it took a long time to write 1,000 posts, and also because my updates have been so slow these past few months it really dragged this out. But how great to finally be here, eh?

Here’s the short film “Fresh Guacamole” by PES, the shortest film ever nominated for an Oscar!

Ah, yes. Everything about that short is satisfying.

A big thank you to everyone who reads this blog, and double thank you to the people who have been reading it for a good while and stuck with it. And an additional thank you for the people who read it in the past, forgot about it, and then came back to it. You’re like Palpatine: somehow… you returned!

To quote the great philosopher Herman Munster: “I would like to thank all the little people who helped make this possible… I would like to, but I can’t, because I did it all myself.”

Have I referenced that before? Seems like I have. Ah well, it’s a great quote, and Herman Munster was a badass. So I regret nothing.

Anyway, what are we doing spending so much time on the thank yous? Let’s get down to business (to defeat the huns)! Let’s dedicate the rest of this thousandth blog milestone to a number of things I’ve been meaning to write for a good while, presented as different ‘chapters.’ You know, like Paper Mario. Back when Paper Mario was good.



Chapter 1: My Favorite Film of 2020

Finally! It’s been a long time since I revealed my favorite film of the year before the last few months of the next year. I mean, I’m still really late in doing this, and for that, I apologize. But it’s an improvement.

Go ahead and call me repetitious, but my favorite film of 2020 was an animated film. And no, it wasn’t Pixar’s Soul.

Sure, people might say I’m biased, as every year that I’ve named my favorite film of the year ever since I launched Wizard Dojo, the winner has been animated. But I’d argue that we’re simply in a great era of animated filmmaking. You always hear people complaining that movies these days are “getting worse” or that they’re dumbed down, but I believe people who say such things are ignoring the animated side of things (which, sadly, seems likely). Sure, maybe blockbusters are getting repetitious, art films are getting too self-absorbed, and indie films ironically feel like they’re coming off a conveyor belt. But animated films have continued to shine throughout the new millennium. So fans of animation, such as myself, are witnessing a kind of golden age for the medium.

Is that enough needless justification for my stance? And is it really such a bad thing in the first place? I mean, the Oscars select the same kind of dramas year after year (and continue to lose ratings. I wonder if there could be a connection there). So is it such a crime that some random dude on the internet is won over by animated films time and again?

Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. My favorite film of 2020 is…

Winner: Wolfwalkers

Director Tomm Moore and his studio “Cartoon Saloon” have provided some of the best animated features of recent memory. Although Wolfwalkers is only the studio’s fourth feature film (and Moore’s third), the artistry and craftsmanship that has gone into them ascends them near the very top of the animation totem pole. Moore’s previous film, Song of the Sea, was one of my favorite films of the 2010s full stop, and Wolfwalkers is a more than worthy follow-up, being the best film of 2020 in my book.

Moore, who has appropriately been dubbed the “Irish Miyazaki,” has made three stunningly beautiful, hand-drawn fairy tales that are among the few works that deserve that Miyazaki comparison. There is an emotional depth and sensitivity to Tomm Moore’s films that make you feel for their stories and characters right from the get-go. Here’s a filmmaker who intimately understands fantasy storytelling, and makes films aimed at children that never once talk down to their target audience. They’re equal parts fun and captivating to audiences of any age.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of two girls: Robyn Goodfellowe, a hunter’s daughter, and Mebh, one of the titular Wolfwalkers, a being who takes the form of a wolf when her human body sleeps. While the two girls’ burgeoning friendship that serves as the heart of the story will certainly entertain kids (especially Mebh), the film also has a lot to say from a societal and philosophical perspective. Robyn is continuously forced to toil in a scullery, her proud father is reduced to being the whipping boy of a fanatical general, and poor Mebh and her wolves are in constant danger simply for existing.

I love this movie. It’s deep and beautiful and fun and magical, like all the best animated fairy tales. Pixar’s Soul was a good movie (though far from Pixar’s best), it had some important things to say, but often stumbled in trying to express them. Wolfwalkers didn’t suffer those issues. It’s a film that shows how everyone wants (and deserves) their freedom, though society doesn’t always seem to want that for them. It just so happens that those issues are told within a lovely fable of profuse visual splendor.

Song of the Sea was one of my favorite films of the 2010s (hopefully I’ll make a more concrete list on the subject soon), and seeing as I think Wolfwalkers is the best film of the only finished year of the 2020s as of this writing, I guess that makes it my favorite film of this decade so far. Together with 2009’s The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore’s output already reads like an all-time great.


Chapter 2: Some Changes

Wizard Dojo has been around a few years now, and in that time I’ve written hundreds of reviews for video games and movies. I originally used a .5-based 1-10 rating scale when this site launched in 2014. In 2018 I converted to the more streamlined 1-10 scale using only whole numbers (and altering every score accordingly). Sometimes I miss the ol’ 9.5s and 8.5s, and wonder if I made the right choice. But then I remember that any of the “.5” scores below that are insanely arbitrary, and that confirms I did indeed make the right choice. I mean, what the hell is a 3.5, anyway?

What I’m getting at here is that I’m no stranger to altering some scores when need be. And I do feel that, with this 1,000th blog milestone, I may use this as an opportunity for another soft reboot of sorts. I have been tempted to change the scoring system again (like an A to F scale or something), or even omit it entirely, but I’m not going to do anything that drastic right now. But I do think I will be reviewing some of my past reviews (review-ception!), and altering them every here and there.

Some might say that’s unprofessional to change scores. But come on, people’s opinions change, they might see things in new lights. It’s not like I’m grading algebra papers and there are definitive right answers here.

Interestingly (to me, anyway), this all mostly applies to the video game side of things, though there may be some movie review score I might adjust. I guess there’s just something about the interactivity of games that makes it all more flip-floppy.

Some video game scores I’ve already altered. Others I may have to replay a bit so I can make the proper changes to the written review itself (which is the actual review, after all. The scores are just numbers to easily sum it all up). Though keep in mind it may take some time to get around to re-writing.

Some games whose scores have been altered include:

Kirby’s Dreamland 3 (SNES) – Promoted from an 8 to a 9/10: It’s the best Kirby game, and one of the most charming games ever made. Also one of the greatest (and tragically underrated) art styles in the medium’s history. Why haven’t the Animal Friends introduced here made subsequent appearances? Nago the cat is my home skillet!

Tetris Attack (SNES) – Promoted from an 8 to a 9/10: Honestly, Panel de Pon is one of the best falling block puzzle games of all time (even if the blocks don’t actually fall, but rise). The addition of the Yoshi’s Island characters, story and music of its Tetris Attack incarnation makes it the best version of the game. If only this version could see a re-release…

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA) – Promoted from an 8 to a 9/10: I say this as a Nintendo fan, but when it comes to Metroidvania, I actually prefer the Castlevania side of things. Though Symphony of the Night is (rightfully) hailed as the best entry in the series, Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance comes closer than you might think. For a game to reach similar heights and depths to Symphony of the Night with the limitations of a handheld console in 2003 is one hell of an achievement.

Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin (PS4) – Demoted from an 8 to a 7/10: Despite the extreme views fans of the series may have, Dark Souls 2 is not a disgrace to the series. But I will admit it is the weakest entry of the SoulsBorne series nonetheless. The limited spawns of enemies can make it difficult if you need to pick up additional souls and items, but can also be a strange combination of easy and tedious if you re-light the bonfires after the same few enemies over and over just to exhaust their spawns and clear your path. And don’t get me started on the Shrine of Armana. Beautiful to look at, but the worst area in the entire series to play. Blech!

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (Switch) -Demoted from an 8 to a 7/10: Mario + Rabbids is a good game. The simple fact that it’s a good game involving the Rabbids is some sort of small miracle of its own. No one expected much out of it when it was released in 2017, but it ended up surprising people, myself included. While I still think it’s a good game, in retrospect I think maybe that surprise factor may have boosted our opinions of it. Yes, it’s a fun tactical RPG, but when I started replaying it some time ago, its flaws were more apparent. Primarily, its trial-and-error approach, which may work in a faster paced game. But in a turn-based, tactics RPG? It makes things a little too slow. Still a good game, I want to stress that, but not one of the best Mario spinoffs.

Battletoads (NES) – Demoted from a 5 to a 3/10: Ah, Battletoads! I seem to keep going back and lowering my score to this one. I feel kinda bad about that, since some people still swear by this game. But the sad truth is that the so called “legendary challenge” of Battletoads is more accurately described as “poor game design.” The game presents its levels as challenges that require one-hundred percent accuracy, yet the actual mechanics of the game are so stiff and clunky, that they just don’t allow the precision that the game demands. Some might say I just need to “git gud.” But if you don’t mind my bragging for a second, I get the platinum trophies in Fromsoftware games. I’m fine with a steep challenge. Battletoads is just a bad game. At least the music’s good. And I hear that newer Battletoads game is actually decent.

Some games whose scores I’ve been thinking of changing include:

Bloodborne (PS4)- Upping it from a 9 to a perfect 10/10: Honestly, Bloodborne is probably the best entry in the SoulsBorne series by Fromsoftware. And being the best in a series that has to be the most influential in the medium for at least the last decade has to amount to something. Maybe I just didn’t have enough insight the first time around to give it a perfect score?

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U/Switch)- Upping from a 9 to a perfect 10/10: Have I bragged up any game more on this site than DKC: Tropical Freeze? It’s hands down the best 2D platformer since the genre’s heyday in the 16-bit generation, has some of the best level design I’ve ever seen. And it has an all-time great soundtrack. Sure, I still wish there were more variety in the bonus rooms, and that there were more Animal Buddies other than Rambi, like in the old DKC games. But is that really enough to deny what is otherwise one of my favorite games of all time a perfect score?

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Gen) – Upping from an 8 to a 9/10: The most acclaimed Sonic game of all time, and the most popular Sega Genesis game of all time. It was also my favorite entry back when I was a kid. Though as I’ve gotten older, I do think Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were improvements. And Sonic Mania probably deserves the crown as the best in the series now. So basically, the reason Sonic 2 is an 8 is because I think it has similar but superior sequels, meaning it’s not the best such game to play today. Still, considering Sonic 2 has held up as well as it has after all these years, am I wrong to not rate it higher than I did?

I have also been considering changing some scores on the movies I’ve reviewed. Namely, depending on how I want to continue with how strict I want to keep my grading, Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, Ponyo, and Princess Mononoke are all worthy of perfect 10/10s (Castle in the Sky, in particular, is probably the best animated action film ever made). The only reason those films sit at 9s is because I’ve currently been doing the whole “minimal perfect scores” things by means of comparing a creator’s works, and only giving their absolute best perfect scores. And since Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are both at perfect 10s, the above mentioned are at 9s. But the more I think about it, that’s pretty bogus. Am I just denying deserving movies of perfect scores just so I look more strict? That’s kind of pretentious of me. Perhaps being more open with my grading is the way to go, at least with movies. Video games seem more appropriate for stricter scoring, for whatever reason.

Or maybe all this is proof that I should do away with all this scoring nonsense…


Chapter 3: 2021 Video Game Awards

Huzzah! I’m getting my video game awards done at the same time as I named my favorite movie of the year! And it only took until mid-June of the next year. I’m really catching up!

As always, my video game awards are presented in mostly-traditional categories. So without further ado… here they are!

Best Sound: Demon’s Souls (PS5)

Is it cheating to award Best Sound to a remake of a game from 2009 that used pretty much the same sounds now that it did back then? If so, well then give this award to Crash Bandicoot 4. If not, then Demon’s Souls has to win.

From Software’s “SoulsBorne” games simply have the most atmospheric sound design in video games. And it all started here with Demon’s Souls. Clanking armors, the shrieks and grunts of some horrible monster around the corner, it’s all here, crisper and clearer than ever. Even the sounds that emanate from the PS5 controller are satisfying.

Given that I’ve awarded Best Sound to Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III and Sekiro in the past, it seems only fitting that the game that started the Souls lineage should triumph in this category as well.

Best Music: Hades

Supergiant Games are no strangers to memorable soundtracks, and their most recent work, Hades, is no exception. Although the music of Hades isn’t quite at the forefront of things as it were in, say, Bastion, It still provides a mix of atmosphere and heat-pumping action that is more than fitting for the game.

Best Visuals: Demon’s Souls (PS5)

I don’t care if it’s an upgrade of a game originally released on the PS3 in 2009, the Demon’s Souls remake is gorgeous! Perhaps now that we’re deep into 2021, the Playstation 5 has seen more titles that are stronger showcases of the console’s graphical power. But there’s still none that I like to look at more than the Demon’s Souls remake. The textures, the colors, the lighting, everything. New PS5 games be damned. When it comes to pleasing aesthetics, Demon’s Souls has them beat.

Best Multiplayer: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

It’s such a shame so much of Fall Guys’ thunder was stolen by Among Us shortly after release. For one, Fall Guys is a much better game than Among Us (Fall Guys actually has gameplay, which is a bonus), but it’s also sad that such a cute and charming game was on its way of becoming the new biggest thing in gaming, only to be spearheaded by a two-year old game that isn’t half as good.

Still, while Fall Guys’ popularity may have taken a hit, the sheer fun of it hasn’t. I’ve heard some people complain that Fall Guys doesn’t have enough depth to it, but that’s kind of what I like about it. It’s a throwback that suggests that *gasp!* fun gameplay might be enough to have players coming back.

Taking the popular battle royal genre of today, but giving it a lighthearted, platforming twist inspired by shows like Takeshi’s Castle and Wipeout, Fall Guys is always good fun. I still pick it up from time to time and have a blast every time.

Best Remake: Demon’s Souls (PS5)

When I originally played Demon’s Souls, it was after the other Souls games. As such, Demon’s Souls felt like it was lacking in certain areas, and it was easy to see where its successors improved on the experience.

Well, for whatever reason, the PS5 remake won me over much more strongly. Granted, there are some obvious improvements (excess items automatically going to your character’s storage is a huge improvement), but not so many obvious changes that it makes the source of my newfound appreciation for the game too apparent. It’s still very much Demon’s Souls, and there are still some areas that could have used some updating to be more like the subsequent Souls games. Yet somehow, I love the game way more now.

Simply a case of right place, right time? I don’t know. Maybe. But the point is the PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls made me see the game in a whole new, more positive light. I originally thought of Demon’s Souls as the weakest entry in the Souls series by a wide margin. And while it still may not be Dark Souls or Bloodborne, I now feel like Demon’s Souls can more properly be talked about in a similar light. That’s quite the improvement. As such, Demon’s Souls gets Best Remake!

Best Remaster/Re-release: Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Yes, it’s true, Super Mario 3D All-Stars is NOT what it could have been. Nintendo missed the opportunity to really spruce up the visuals of the games, as opposed to simply giving them a coat of HD gloss (which is what they did). The fact that the game lacks any extra features for players to delve into or read up on Mario’s history is questionable. Sunshine’s countless unpolished elements are left untouched. And where the hell is Galaxy 2?

Basically, if one series deserves better, it’s Super Mario.

Even if it were something of a missed opportunity, Super Mario 3D All-Stars still includes two all-time greats in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and a decent third game in Super Mario Sunshine. You simply can’t go wrong.

Yes, Super Mario 3D All-Stars should have been something more. But considering that 64 and Galaxy are already so much more than most games, maybe we’re asking too much?

Best Content: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I know that the PS4’s “Dreams” would seem to fit the bill here, considering that people can potentially create entire games within it. But “potentially” is the key word there. As initially amazed as I was with Dreams, it quickly became apparent that the majority of content people made was unfinished at the best of times, and outright crap at its worst. Sure, people made a lot of crap with Super Mario Maker, but you’ll find a lot more excellent Mario Maker stages than you will Dreams creations.

So yeah, Dreams doesn’t win this.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons does win this, however, for the sheer number of tasks you can do at any given time. And in traditional Animal Crossing fashion, you can go about it at your own pace. Between fishing, bug collecting, crafting, digging for fossils, diving, visiting other players, having other players visit you, there’s just always something to do in Animal Crossing. No matter how big or how small.

Between lengthy play sessions and small bursts of play, my total playtime in Animal Crossing: New Horizons stands tall over any other game on the Nintendo Switch. New Horizons is simply a treasure trove of fun things to do.

Best Gameplay: Hades

Hades is a game of surprising depth. Its rogue-like setup and hack and slash gameplay make it instantly engaging, but you’ll constantly be surprised by just how much there is to pretty much every aspect of the game. The six primary weapons, as well as the acquired upgrades and items you get along the way, would already give the game great variety, but combine it with all the powers you gain (and lose) with every run through the underworld, and Hades is a game that’s always changing and evolving.

With so much variety on top of what is already smooth and fun action, Hades is one of the most addicting action games in years.

Best Indie Game: Hades

See above.

Supergiant Games are no strangers to making acclaimed independent titles, and Hades is most likely their best work to date. An engrossing, action-packed indie classic that also manages to have a pretty interesting narrative.

Best Handheld Game: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Now that I’m including Nintendo Switch titles for the title of Best Handheld Game, this was a really tough choice between Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Hades. In the end, I went with Animal Crossing, simply because it can be easier enjoyed in short bursts as well lengthy play sessions, which seems ideal for gaming on the go, while Hades is a little more demanding of your time. Hey, I had to pick one, okay!

New Horizons may not be the first handheld Animal Crossing, and I understand the complaints some have that it’s lacking some of the features of its 3DS predecessor. But New Horizons is still a prime example of why the series works so well on handheld platforms. Its relaxing “play at your own pace” gameplay, and the hidden depth therein, make it a perfect fit for gaming on the go.

Best Platform: Nintendo Switch

Uh oh, I gave the nod to Nintendo over Sony. According to the internet, that makes me a blind fanboy. But c’mon, the PS4’s biggest game of 2020 was an overhyped sequel to 2013’s most overhyped game, and the new, state-of-the-art PS5’s best game was a remake of a PS3 game. 2020 may not have been the Switch’s best year, but Animal Crossing and Hades alone really helped propel it.

Maybe a B+ year for Switch overall, but it still managed to shine brightest.

Game of the Year 2020: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I only played Hades more recently, and that recency bias almost forced my hand to name it Game of the Year. It certainly would be a deserving choice, to be sure. However, I started thinking about those first few months Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out, the countless hours I poured into it, and how it basically ruled the minds of all those who played it.

Importantly (and go ahead and call this cheating), those first few months coincided with the first months of the dreadful Covid-19 pandemic. In such a dark time, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was that tiny ray of light that brought some happiness and normalcy to the world. That’s something that can’t be taken for granted.

Both Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Hades are worthy for the title of best video game of 2020. But due to unprecedented circumstances, it’s the latest iteration of Animal Crossing that I feel deserves to take the honors.

Though even without said circumstances, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has so much going for it. Yes, the coffee shop and a few other features from the 3DS version are absent, but what is present represents Animal Crossing at its peak. Collecting items, building up your island, visiting friends, hording those sweet, sweet bells. Few series provide such simple enjoyment as Animal Crossing, and New Horizons provides it better than the series has before.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my island and pull some weeds…

Runners-up: Hades, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time


Chapter 4: Somehow Palpatine Returned

No, I don’t care to elaborate.


Chapter 5: Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads

First, some apologies. I’m sorry my site has really slowed down with the updates since the last quarter of 2020. Things looked like they would improve in 2021 when I reviewed all five Oddworld titles (before SoulStorm’s release) in January. But since then, I’ve slowed right back down again. For the first time since I launched this site, May of 2021 was the first month where I didn’t post a single update. And for this slowness, I apologize.

On the plus side, as I’ve been writing this 1000th post, I’ve also written a few additional reviews, which I will make public in the days following this celebratory post.

I’m hoping that my updates will once again pick up in the coming weeks and months, though I do have to admit my actual reviews for movies and video games may not be as frequent as they once were. Simply put: I can’t keep up with them all. As much as I would like to review every game that catches my eye and every movie I see, that’s just not possible, unless this were to somehow magically become a full-time job.

By this I mean that, in the past, I would often buy games (sometimes when I really didn’t have the money to spare) just so I could get an extra review on this site. To give myself a compliment, I feel that commitment to something (in this case, creating content for a website) is admirable. But if I’m being realistic, I just can’t keep up with that pace (notice I still need to actually write my reviews of the aforementioned Animal Crossing: New Horizon and Hades). Partly because of life, and partly because (as I’ve complained about so many times) modern video games are just too damn long. And of course they’re expensive. As for movies, well, there’s just so many of them, and while I appreciate movies of all kinds, I admit there are certain types of films that I certainly enjoy writing about more than others (or, at the very least, where the writing comes to me more naturally than others).

Don’t worry, I still hope to pick up the pace and get a steady flow of content in the future. But, aside from my 400th video game review milestone (which I’m just so close to already), I won’t be rushing myself to get to the next big milestone for a while. Maybe expect a small handful of reviews every month, and maybe an additional piece of writing and (hopefully) a top 5/10 list. I’ve been meaning to catch up on making such lists, so maybe an easier flow of reviews will help me finally get to those lists.

Another reason why I may not be racing to get as many reviews done as possible is – as I’ve stated so many times in the past I’m now kind of tired of saying it and not pulling through with doing it – I would like to get started on other creative endeavors. Doing something in a video format would be interesting, and something I’ve given a lot of thought into for quite some time, so maybe it’s time I finally do it (I could always post those videos here as well). And more importantly, I really need to start delving deeper into learning video game development. I’ve never been one who could just simply enjoy things like movies and video games. I’ve always wanted to make my own creations, ever since I was a kid.

While I will continue to update this site as much as possible, suffice to say if I were given the choice between reviewing stuff made by other people, or making stuff of my own, the latter option is the one I would describe as my dream come true. So it’s about time I started taking the appropriate steps to making that dream a reality.

So don’t worry, Wizard Dojo isn’t going anywhere. I just have other things to do, and places I need to be.


Chapter 6: Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles (2021 Edition)

Here we are at the THIRD edition of my list of the best video game launch titles. The first time I did it was a simple top five (with runners-up) that I posted on the launch day of this site. The second was a proper top 10, and happened in 2018, when I did a sort of “soft reboot” for this site. Since I like to think this 1000th post constitutes another kind of new beginning for Wizard Dojo, it seemed appropriate to include a third edition here.

So here now is a (slightly) updated installment to my list of the best launch titles in video game history. The games that released right alongside their console (sometimes in the same box!) and set a high standard right out of the gate. Oh, and keep in mind these entries were all released on the same day as their consoles, so even though Super Smash Bros. Melee and Pikmin are often considered launch games for the GameCube, they were only released around the same timeframe, not the same day. So they aren’t here.

So here now – again – are my top 10 video game launch titles!

10: Demon’s Souls (Playstation 5)

The Playstation brand has produced some great consoles. But you know something, they’ve never really been too good with launch titles. Every time I think of great video game launch titles, I can’t say a whole lot of games from Sony’s consoles come to mind (and by that I mean none do). Well, it looks like the PS5 has finally given the Playstation brand it’s first truly great launch title… and all they had to do was remake a Playstation 3 game from eleven years earlier.

Okay, perhaps Demon’s Souls on PS5 is a little something of a cheat. But it’s also the first time a Playstation console has had something truly great right out of the gate, so that has to count for something, right?

Although some of Demon’s Souls’ design choices may be rough around the edges when compared to the subsequent Souls games, the PS5 remake does a great job at streamlining some of the more cumbersome elements of the original 2009 game to bring this influential title a bit more up to date.

Sony may still be waiting on that launch game that really encapsulates what its console is all about, but Demon’s Souls’ intricate combat, deep design, and unforgettable world make it the best game to launch alongside a Playstation console to date.

9: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii)

In its earlier years, Nintendo would use its star franchise, Super Mario, to ring in a new console. But in more contemporary times, it’s Nintendo’s other premiere franchise, The Legend of Zelda, that simultaneously ends one console and ushers in the next. This unique trend started in 2006, when The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess closed the door to the GameCube and helped bring about the age of the Wii.

Like Demon’s Souls on PS5, Twilight Princess was perhaps not the best showcase of the Wii for this reason (the motion controls were kind of tacked on, but still fun), but the sheer quality of the game itself has to earn it a spot on the list. It’s certainly the ‘biggest’ of the traditional Zelda titles, featuring terrific dungeon design and some of Link’s greatest gadgets and gizmos.

With the two follow-up console titles in the series trying to change up the Zelda formula (to varying degrees of success), Twilight Princess is kind of like the last traditional Zelda game. That gives the game something of a bittersweet appeal in hindsight. But if Twilight Princess were to be the last traditional Zelda title, it was a high note to go out on.

Perhaps Twilight Princess isn’t the most “Wii” of Wii games. But its still one of the biggest and best Zelda titles, and Wii owners didn’t even have to wait to play it (unless they played a certain other launch title first).

8: SoulCalibur (Dreamcast)

Yes, SoulCalibur was originally in arcades. But its port to the Sega Dreamcast as part of that console’s launch was considered a nearly-perfect port of the weapons-based fighter. Considering even the likes of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were considered to have sacrificed some quality in the transition to home consoles, it’s quite the achievement.

SoulCalibur was to 3D fighters what the aforementioned Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were to 2D ones. Intricate combat coupled with a varied cast of characters made for a deep fighter. And with the Dreamcast version losing nothing from its arcade counterpart, SoulCalibur was, at long last, the “arcade at home” experience fans had been looking for. It’s still one of the most acclaimed video games of all time! Also, jiggle physics!

Sonic Adventure was another memorable launch title for the Dreamcast. Though I’d be lying if I said Sonic Adventure stands the test of time, even with my nostalgia for it. SoulCalibur, on the other hand, has held up surprisingly well. Considering SoulCalibur was a pioneer in the 3D fighter genre, that timelessness is all the more impressive.

The SoulCalibur series may not be as acclaimed as it once was. But rest assured, the original’s place in video game history is well secure.

7: Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox)

Dang, it hurts to put Halo at only number seven on this list. Honestly, it’s at this point where things got reeeally hard to rank, even this third time around. Make no mistake about it, however, Halo’s placement is no indictment of anything it did wrong as a launch title. It’s only a testament to the accomplishments of the remaining games on this list.

Without Halo, would the Xbox brand be such a prominent force in gaming today, twenty years later? I honestly don’t think it would be. Remember, the original Xbox was competing with the white hot Playstation 2 (and to a much lesser extent, industry mainstay Nintendo with the GameCube). Without something truly memorable at launch, the Xbox brand may have been doomed to have just been “that other guy” in the video game console equation.

Thankfully for Xbox, it had Halo.

Goldeneye 007 may have been the game that made first-person shooters work on home consoles, but it really has nothing on Halo.

Halo streamlined what needed fixing in the genre (only two weapons at a time, so no more endless cycling through your arsenal to find the weapon you’re looking for), and also added so much to it. The multiplayer of course speaks for itself. Anyone who owned an Xbox spent countless hours with friends and family in deathmatches and capture the flags. But for a great change of pace for the genre, Halo even included a great single-player campaign that was worth playing again and again. You could even play said campaign with a second player!

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of good games on the Xbox, but suffice to say Halo’s appeal transcended all of them. It wasn’t until its own sequel hit store shelves three years later – with added online functionality – that Halo: Combat Evolved was usurped as the biggest game on the console.

6: Wii Sports (Wii)

Maybe I just shouldn’t make these lists, because placing Wii Sports at number six is kind of killing me. No, it’s not the deepest game on this list, but it – perhaps more so than any other game – expresses exactly what its console is all about. Sure, Twilight Princess filled the need for a new installment in a beloved Nintendo franchise, but it was also originally conceived as a GameCube title. But Wii Sports was the Wii game.

Wii Sports is good, simple fun. Anyone, no matter their prior experience with video games, could pick it up and play. You had five sports included (tennis, golf, bowling, baseball and my personal favorite, boxing), all of which were played with motion controls. Simply move the Wii remote, and the character would move accordingly. It’s kind of weird how so few other games (on Wii and elsewhere) would end up utilizing motion controls half as well. Wii Sports came right out of the box, and got everything so right.

Oh, and you can’t forget the Miis. These simplified, player-created avatars became such a staple for Nintendo, that they continue to this day on Nintendo Switch, surviving long after the Wii name itself. Wii Sports just wouldn’t have been the same without them. Seriously, imagine the same concept of a game, but with a realistic looking baseball player. It’s just not the same, is it?

Wii Sports was just that perfect storm of components. Its simple, addictive, player-friendly gameplay combined with the innovation of the console itself made it an unforgettable experience. Even with a new Zelda ready and waiting, Wii Sports was the first place most Wii owners went to on their homepage (well, maybe after the Mii Channel).

No doubt the appeal of Wii Sports helped the Wii become the phenomenon that it was, which in turn helped gaming as a whole become more accepted as a mainstream pastime.

5: Tetris (Game Boy)

Although Tetris actually predates the Game Boy, it’s on Nintendo’s original handheld juggernaut where it became a phenomenon. It was a match made in heaven: Tetris’s simple gameplay of aligning falling blocks worked perfectly for the handheld console. Tetris was the kind of game you could play for a few minutes or for hours at a time (provided you had the batteries).

Sure, being on the Game Boy may have brought Tetris worldwide recognition, but I’d argue Game Boy was the real beneficiary for having Tetris be a part of it. No doubt the infectious, deceitfully deep gameplay of Tetris helped boost the Game Boy’s sales early on, and even throughout its lifetime.

Other titles such as Super Mario Land, Kirby’s Dream Land and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening helped the Game Boy continue to grow, and the Game Boy is one of the only consoles (maybe the only one) to get a second life when it was supposed to be at its end, due to a little game called Pokemon. But the Game Boy would have never made it to Pokemon if it weren’t for Tetris. This falling-block puzzler even went on to transcend the Game Boy and consoles themselves, being released on virtually any available electronic and digital platform in existence at this point.

To this day, Tetris remains one of the best games of all time. The Game Boy may have helped Tetris in its ascension towards world domination, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Nintendo’s long dominance in the handheld gaming market (which even continues today with the Nintendo Switch) owes a lot to the fact that Tetris was available on the Game Boy right from the get-go.

4: Super Mario Bros. (NES)

I have to stress this every time: if we’re going by influence alone, Super Mario Bros. would top this and every other list. Although it may seem hard to believe nowadays with how far video games have come since, but no game showcased a bigger leap from what came before than Super Mario Bros. did in 1985.

The sheer fact that Mario could start one level on land, enter a pipe, and then be submerged in water with accompanying mechanics, was unlike anything else at the time. Before Super Mario Bros., if a game was going to be underwater, then that’s what the game was in its entirety, all on a single screen.

Super Mario Bros. brought adventure to video games. Even better, it did it while also having pitch perfect gameplay. It set the standard of forward-thinking ideas and flawless execution that would come to define the series. It singlehandedly made the NES the console of the 80s and set the stage for Nintendo’s many other franchises to follow. Not to mention it did it all during something of a dark age for the video game medium. Its impact and influence can’t be overstated.

Sure, there are plenty of better Mario games now (a couple of which you’ll be seeing on this list), but the original Super Mario Bros. remains a timeless classic in its own right. Which is no small feat for an NES launch game.

3: Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

If one of a launch game’s biggest jobs is to showcase what a new generation can do that its predecessors could not, than no game has ever matched Super Mario 64 in that regard, and I don’t believe one ever will.

Super Mario 64 wasn’t the first 3D video game, but it may as well have been, as it was the first to truly bring the concept to life. For the first time, a character could roam freely in a 3D environment, player’s could go about the game world as they pleased. And thankfully, the exquisite design Super Mario had been known for remained fully intact.

Just as Mario reinvented video games in 1985 with Super Mario Bros., he did it all over again with Super Mario 64, this time elevating 3D gaming from a mere novelty into being the direction the medium would traverse going forward.

It may be hard for some to appreciate these days with how far gaming has come, but the sheer act of moving Mario around the courtyard of Princess Peach’s castle was a revelation. Mario now had acrobatic moves, like a triple jump, a wall jump and a punch/kick combo. Some of his moves (like that weird crouching, breakdance-like kick) seemed to exist just because they could in Mario’s new 3D environment. Never before had the sheer act of controlling a character in a video game felt so special, and it’s seldom been approached since.

Sony’s Playstation was the new kid on the block at the time. It may have been the “cooler” console with the fresher faces. But it was one of gaming’s oldest icons who paved the way for the future.

2: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)

History repeated itself in 2017 when – just like Twilight Princess simultaneously ended the GameCube era and ushered in the Wii eleven years earlier – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, after many delays, closed the book on the ill-fated Wii U and started a new chapter for Nintendo with the Switch. Though this time, instead of a hefty traditional Zelda title, we had one that reinvented its series.

At the expense of saying something controversial, Ocarina of Time had held the Zelda series back for too long. While Mario was constantly changing the rules of his series, Link’s adventures felt like they didn’t want to walk too far out of Ocarina’s shadow (itself kind of an extension of A Link to the Past’s shadow, if we’re being honest). They remained great games, to be sure. But their more conservative tendencies may have prevented them from building stronger individual legacies.

Thankfully, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild changed all that, rethinking and rewriting the rules of how Zelda games are played. Hyrule was now a vast open world, Link has a constantly changing arsenal of weapons, he learns all of his key abilities right out of the gate, you can even go straight from the beginning of the game to the final boss, if you’re brave or fool enough.

Nintendo previously seemed to think making such drastic changes to The Legend of Zelda would have been sacrilegious, but the changes Breath of the Wild brought with it should only restore faith into the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild is as fun and deep as any entry in the franchise, but is swimming in ideas and concepts that are all its own.

Yes, it was originally planned as a Wii U exclusive, and who knows how that system’s fortunes may have differed had things gone to plan. But like Twilight Princess, its late-game transition to the next console in line gave it that special feeling that only the best launch games can generate. And Breath of the Wild is so good, it should rank near the top of any list of launch titles.

But there is one greater still…

1: Super Mario World (Super NES)

On the surface, Super Mario World may seem like it’s “merely” a bigger sequel to the NES Mario games, but it shouldn’t take long to realize it’s so much more than that.

While Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced the world map into the equation, Super Mario World turned the world map into a level itself. Now stages included multiple exits, the map featured branching paths, there were secret worlds, and secret worlds inside of secret worlds! You could unlock new paths in earlier levels within the later levels of the game, and find warps to travel to different points in the world map. You could try to find the quickest route to take down Bowser, or uncover every last one of Super Mario World’s many secrets, essentially creating both speedrunning and completionism as we know them today in one fell swoop.

Levels were no longer completed simply by going left to right. Now, Mario often had to travel upward, downward, over and into the levels themselves to find every hidden exit. Metroid and Castlevania (the collective “Metroidvania”) understandably get credit for their emphasis on exploration, but Super Mario World kind of beat them to the punch.

World refined the flight mechanics introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3 through the now-iconic Super Cape power-up, which allowed Mario to travel and explore levels like never before. More importantly, Super Mario World introduced us all to Yoshi! The adorable dinosaur was a (literal) game-changer, and became so popular he starred in games of his own soon after. Has any character addition in a video game sequel ever had a bigger impact?

Something few people seem to mention about Super Mario World these days is that it was the first example of a new entry in a beloved franchise launching new hardware. Though Mario is a constant presence in gaming now, Super Mario World had to prove that to be the case. If the game failed, the Super Mario series may have faded with the NES. So Super Mario World had a hefty task at hand in proving Mario wasn’t simply a product of the 80s. Suffice to say it passed the test with flying colors.

Super Mario World showcased nex-gen capabilities in a way not dissimilar to Super Mario 64 (Yoshi simply wasn’t possible in the NES Marios), and features the same kind of franchise reinvention that would later define Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And it ensured Mario was here to stay.

30 years ago, Super Mario World showed us the best way to introduce a new console. And now, 30 years later, it hasn’t been matched. The best launch game of all time.

Honorable mentions: Sonic Adventure (Dreamcast), Luigi’s Mansion (GameCube), Nintendo Land (Wii U), New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U)


Chapter 7: The Last One

Did I say the chapters in this post made it like Paper Mario? But I only made it to seven chapters, as opposed to eight… So I guess it’s more like Bug Fables. Still better than Sticker Star, Color Splash or Origami King. That’s for damned sure!

Yes, sadly, we come to the end of my one-thousandth post. There were some other things I wanted to include in here, but seeing as it took me so long just to get this done, they’ll have to wait for another day. I mean, I haven’t posted anything in two months! I can’t keep delaying this.

So I wasn’t able to make this 1,000th blog post everything it could be, but I hope you had some fun despite this. I’ll keep those additional ideas handy, either as their own posts (which might get them more traffic anyway, come to think of it), or as part of my Christmas Special or some other such post. Hopefully this site won’t have another draught like that between my review of Raya and the Last Dragon and this 1,000th post for quite some time.

Thankfully, I have a few movie and video game reviews that I’ve completed as I wrote this in bits and pieces. They’ve just been waiting for me to post this 1,000th post (so that it would actually be the 1,000th post). So now I can start posting those reviews in the coming days.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be off now. There’s more writing to be done, and all of that other stuff I mentioned earlier, too.

Once again, a very big thank you to everyone who reads this site. It’s been a fun ride, these past 1,000 blogs. Here’s to one-thousand more. And a lot more after that. It’s not like I plan to stop at 2,000 or anything. Why am I explaining this to you? You knew that “here’s to one-thousand more” doesn’t mean “and that’s it.”

Thanks for stopping by! Keep on keepin’ on! And have a nice day!


Secret Bonus Chapter: Chapter 8: Ranking the Paper Mario Games!

Wait? You mean there are eight chapters here? Well then, I need to think of something to write…

I got it! With the above mention of Paper Mario, here is my “unofficial” ranking of the Paper Mario games (unofficial in that I haven’t played some of the entries in many a year, and am mostly going by memory). Hopefully I can get around to replaying the entries I haven’t reviewed (including slogging my way to the end of Origami King), as I would like to properly review them all some day.

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the Paper Mario series.

7: Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Tragically, Sticker Star kind of marked the end of Mario RPGs. The Mario & Luigi series would continue with two more entries afterwards, but both Dream Team and Paper Jam (the latter of which served as a crossover between Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario) were watered down disappointments of what came before (Dream Team at least still had some original characters, but Paper Jam went all in with the bizarre “No more originality allowed!” mentality that Sticker Start started). This isn’t about Mario & Luigi, though, it’s about Paper Mario.

That’s the sad thing about it though, Sticker Star effectively killed everything people loved about Paper Mario. No more RPG elements, no more partners, no more original characters, no more strategy, no more…anything really.

But at least it had that sticker gimmick! Guh-hyuk! Let me see if I can make any sense of Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s Sticker mechanic: Instead of Mario and a partner having their own moves for battle, all of Mario’s actions used consumable stickers. Because this game hates RPGs (while still using a turn-based battle system), you didn’t gain experience points and level up to get stronger. Instead, your rewards for winning battles were either A) more stickers or B) coins…for buying more stickers. So you use these consumable items in battle, so that you can get more of these consumable items for battle… There’s absolutely no point to the battle system.

Worse still, boss fights could only be won by using very specific stickers (I think they were referred to as “Things.” The creativity is just astounding). Without those “Things” the boss fights were literally unbeatable. So again, no strategy, just use the boss-specific “Thing” and that’s it, you win!

Honestly, I think Sticker Star is up there with the likes of Metroid: Other M as one of the worst games Nintendo has ever made. It killed the Mario RPGs. That right there is heartbreaking.

6: Paper Mario: The Origami King

It was tough deciding which game was worse between Color Splash and Origami King. While Color Splash continued with Sticker Star’s nonsensical formula, it at least improved it somewhat. But Origami King tried to (needlessly) change up the Paper Mario formula once again, and created something that was every bit as pointless as Sticker Star (though with maybe some added charm). So I decided Origami King is the worse of the two.

The thing that really irks me about Origami King is how it pretends like it’s trying to reach out to fans of the original Paper Mario games. It acts like partner characters are back, except these partners are controlled by AI, have literally one attack (which usually misses anyway), and are characters like a generic Bob-omb named Bob-omb! The Bob-omb named Bob-omb even mentions that he used to have a friend, a fellow Bob-omb who was also named Bob-omb! Isn’t that totally funny? It’s not like it’s an example of the many drawbacks that come with the series’ bizarre enforced limitations to not introduce original characters or anything.

Then there are the battles. Origami King would have you believe proper turn-based battles made a comeback, but again, it’s just a huge gimmick where you have to line up enemies in a set amount of time, and though the items aren’t one-time consumables anymore, they still wear out eventually and you have to replace them. Naturally, you don’t gain experience points or level up for battling, you just get coins to buy more items for battling that wear out during battle. Again, what’s the point?!

And don’t get me started on boss battles, where you have to move to a certain space on the board in order to attack the boss, but the bosses can often change the board around as you’re moving, rendering your strategy pointless.

All the more baffling is that these changes were made to supposedly make the game more kid-friendly. But it’s so convoluted I can’t imagine very many kids would have much fun with it. Kids seem to like the RPG elements of Pokemon, so what was so bad about Paper Mario being an RPG again?

5: Paper Mario: Color Splash

The Wii U edition of Paper Mario was revealed to little fanfare. Probably because it decided to go the same route as Sticker Star, and Nintendo knew people wouldn’t be happy about it. It’s one of the most obnoxiously stubborn video games ever made.

At the very least, Color Splash is an improvement over Sticker Star, even if it shares many of its poor design choices (consumable items for battle, no partners, bosses that require the use of a specific item). Though at least this time around, there was some semblance of character progression, since Mario needed to paint the environment with his hammer, and battling could result in Mario levelling up his hammer to have more paint. Hey, any improvement over Sticker Star is something.

I suppose at the very least, Color Splash’s insistence in following suit with Sticker Star meant it didn’t pretend like it was trying to bring back old fans as well, like Origami King would eventually do. Stubborn though it may be, at least this entry was honest.

4: Super Paper Mario

I’m going to be a little controversial here, because some people absolutely love this game to death. But I feel like Super Paper Mario is where things started to go wrong for the series. Now, it’s not a bad game like Sticker Star, but it did start the trend of Nintendo and Intelligent Systems way overthinking what changes needed to be made to Paper Mario.

Change can be a good thing, of course. The mainline Mario games are always changing, and it’s a big reason why I think it deserves its praise as gaming’s best series. But did Paper Mario really need to change so drastically by its third entry?

To be fair, at the time, Super Paper Mario’s changes were a one-off experiment. That’s fine, but it’s a shame Nintendo decided from then on out, Paper Mario needed to be completely revamped.

I have fond memories of Super Paper Mario. It was fun, funny, and contained some original ideas. It abandoned the turn-based nature of the previous two Paper Marios in favor of a platformer with RPG elements. It’s not a terrible idea, though the fact that the mainline Mario games are already platformers does make the change a bit questionable. Maybe a more Symphony of the Night-style Mario action game would have justified the change more? But I digress.

The issue with Super Paper Mario, though, is that despite the change to a much faster paced genre, it has even more story and dialogue than the previous Paper Mario games. One reason why stories, cutscenes and dialogue boxes work for turn-based RPGs is because they’re already a slower paced genre. But turning an RPG into a platformer, while doubling down on the RPG storytelling seems conflicting with itself. I’m not saying platformers can’t have stories, but when Super Paper Mario has more story than the RPG Paper Mario games, it brings thing down to a crawl.

I remember enjoying Super Paper Mario, and hopefully I’ll revisit it in the near future. But it was the game that made the cracks in the foundation of the series.

3: Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling

And now the quality ramps up considerably.

Nintendo fans have made it no secret that they crave the return of the original Paper Mario formula. And for some unknowable reason, Nintendo continues to ignore them. So a small independent studio who were fellow fans of classic Paper Mario decided if Nintendo isn’t going to listen, they’ll just make their own Paper Mario instead.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling really is classic Paper Mario in all but the names and faces. A wonderful (kind of) return to form for something fans have been starved of for far too long. It should also rank alongside games like Undertale, Shovel Knight and Hades as one of the best indie games (and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Does that count as indie?).

Turn-based battle system with action commands? Check. Paper-thin characters but no overbearing paper gimmicks? Check. Character progression? Check. The only thing missing are partner characters, but that’s because Bug Fables has a set team of three characters. That’s fine. It had to do something different to stand out.

I think my only real issue with Bug Fables is that the difficulty can be a little inconsistent. I actually found some earlier segments to be more challenging than some later stages of the game. It’s not a big deal, but I guess you’d ideally want a game’s difficulty to gradually increase as you go (though it’s not an RPG, Donkey Kong Country 2 is probably the best example of a game increasing in difficulty piece by piece).

Somewhat hilariously, Bug Fables made its way to the Switch mere months before Origami King. While the latter may have boasted the Paper Mario name, Bug Fables was the Paper Mario you’d been looking for.

Oh, how wonderful it was (and is) to play a game like this again. Why oh why can’t Nintendo see why people love this so much?

2: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

The second entry in the Paper Mario series seems to be the fan-favorite: Partly because it was a fantastic game, and partly because it was the last time Paper Mario was the Paper Mario we knew and loved. Like many great sequels, The Thousand-Year Door is bigger than the original in almost every way: the story is darker and more serious, the writing is more colorful and witty, there’s more sidequests. Overall, a great sequel.

With that said, I do find some of the partners to be a little bit of a downgrade from the first game (the first few partners even come across as the B-team counterparts to those of the N64 original), and while there’s nothing wrong with the battle system, there’s nothing wrong with it because it was basically just carried over from the first game. My point being that The Thousand-Year Door is bigger than the first game in pretty much every way, but maybe not as innovative in the little details. But now I’m being nitpicky.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose. It certainly beats the “we know fans love the original, but we’re choosing to ignore that and strip away everything they loved from the series” mentality of later entries.

It’s easy to see why The Thousand-Year Door remains so beloved. It took the foundation of the original Paper Mario, and made it into as grand and epic of a journey as any Mario has ever seen. It should rank highly among any list of Nintendo RPGs (a category which I feel doesn’t get the credit it really deserves).

Of course, I think I’ve made it obvious what my number one pick is…

1: Paper Mario

Sometimes, you just can’t beat the original. Though I guess in this case, Nintendo stopped trying to do that long ago. But again, I digress.

What makes the original Paper Mario still stand out twenty years on is the purity of it all. This is the most “Mario” of the Mario RPGs. But I mean that in a meaningful sense, not in the “it can only have characters from the main series and nothing original” sense of the newer entries. It’s the most “Mario” in that it feels like a mainline entry turned into an RPG: Bowser is the villain, but there’s a twist in that he now possesses the wish granting Star Rod to make himself invincible. Peach still needs rescuing, but there are moments between Mario’s adventure where the player takes control of her which prove her resourcefulness. Classic Mario enemies return, but often as friendly NPCs and even Mario’s party members. And while its battle system is turn-based, the action commands make it still feel like a traditional Mario game.

Granted, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars beat Paper Mario to the punch on the whole (and at the expense of undermining this whole ranking, I think Super Mario RPG is the superior game. But it’s also like my favorite game of all time so no harm there, I suppose). Though Super Mario RPG kind of feels like its own thing (one that Nintendo and company really should revisit someday, mind you), whereas Paper Mario feels like it could be part of the mainline Mario series, despite its change in genre.

Paper Mario may have been the only noteworthy RPG on the Nintendo 64. But if the console could only have one, it was lucky to have this one. It’s probably my favorite Nintendo 64 title (though Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Tooie need to be mentioned), one of the system’s few truly timeless games, and one of my favorite RPGs.

The Thousand-Year Door may have added to it. Bug Fables may have paid homage to it. And subsequent Paper Mario games have done… whatever the hell they’ve done to it. But whenever I think of Paper Mario at its best, I always go back to the N64 original.


Chapter 9: The Actual Last One

Well, that last chapter certainly was totally planned from the start and not hastily written at the eleventh hour. Okay, so actually it had been planned for this 1,000th post, then it was one of the ideas I dropped from this celebratory post so I could get it done. But then, like the madman I am, I decided to add the Paper Mario ranking in here after all at the last minute.

There are, however, still those few extra ideas I had that will have to wait for another day. I actually mean that this time. They’ll have to wait. Hopefully you like them in the not-too-distant future.

So yes, now I’ll leave you with a big, fat T H A N K Y O U ! Thanks for your readership, whether it be continued or first time readership. And also thanks to movies and video games for being so great and giving me something I want to write about.

It took a while to get to this 1,000th blog, but I enjoyed every minute of it (well, except maybe when I reviewed CrazyBus and Super Man 64. Those were hard times). Here’s to many, many more!

Stay beautiful!

Raya and the Last Dragon Review

Raya and the Last Dragon is the fifty-ninth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In recent years, Disney has seemingly reclaimed their crown from sister studio Pixar as the leading force in animated blockbusters, reaching new critical and commercial heights with the likes of Zootopia, Moana and, of course, Frozen. Disney Animation has never been as creatively robust and varied as they are now, and that remains true of Raya and the Last Dragon, which sees Disney try their hand at an action-adventure film with greatly entertaining success.

Disney has admittedly attempted some action-oriented animated features in the past, most notably in the early 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Though it’s safe to say neither of those films are remembered as Disney classics. But with Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney seems to have found the right balance of making a satisfying action film with all the making of a Disney classic.

Perhaps I should say “most” of the makings of a Disney classic, as Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a musical, like most of Disney’s best works. But as far as Disney’s animated non-musicals go, Raya and the Last Dragon is among the best, maybe even the best of the lot.

Set in the Southeast Asian-inspired world of Kumandra, the story of Raya and the Last Dragon begins five-hundred years before Raya herself enters the picture: Kumandra was once a unified continent in which humans lived in harmony with magical dragons. This all changed when evil spirits called “Druun” appeared, and turned every living thing they touched to stone. The Druun spread like wildfire, engulfing human and dragon alike. Eventually, only one dragon remained, Sisu (Akwafina), who concentrated all her magic into a gem that cleansed the world of the Druun and revived all the humans, though the dragons remained stone, and Sisu herself disappeared. The people of Kumandra then had a power struggle for the “Dragon Gem” and split into five tribes, each named after part of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Heart, being the epicenter of Sisu’s last stand, is where the gem remains.

Fast-forward five-hundred years, and the other tribes still envy Heart over its possession of the Dragon Gem. Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart and protector of the gem, still believes in a unified Kumandra, and hopes to make peace with the other tribes. Benja invites the leaders of the other tribes to Heart for a feast as a sign of goodwill. All seems to be going well, with Benja’s daughter, a young Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) becoming fast friends with the princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan). But after Namaari wins Raya’s trust, Raya – who is training to be the Dragon Gem’s next guardian – shows Namaari the location of the gem. Namaari alerts the other members of Fang, and when Benja goes to defend the gem, the other tribe leaders follow him. A struggle ensues between the tribes for the gem, which results in Benja being injured, and the gem being broken into five pieces. Each tribe takes a piece, but the damage has been done, and the gem’s fracturing has reawakened the Druun, who once again begin turning humans to stone, including chief Benja himself.

The remaining members of each tribe use their gem pieces to repel the Druun, and find refuge around water (which the Druun also hate), but the majority of people have already been turned to stone. Fast forward six years, and Raya, now a young woman, has been on a quest to track down Sisu, who is rumored to still be alive, in hopes that the dragon can fuse the gem back together and heal the world.

Given that the name of the movie is Raya and the Last Dragon, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Raya does manage to find the resting spot of Sisu, and summons the dragon. After filling Sisu in on the situation (the dragon still thinks it’s the same day from five-hundred years prior upon awakening), Raya and Sisu set out to claim the other pieces of the Dragon Gem so they can set the world right. All the while, Namaari, hearing of Raya’s quest, hopes to stop Raya and claim the Dragon Gem for Fang.

That may seem like a lot of backstory for a Disney movie, but I kind of like that about Raya and the Last Dragon. Between Raya and Frozen II, Disney seems to be giving their films legitimate worldbuilding and lore (while not letting such things get in the way of the story at hand, which is crucial). We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when everything in a Disney movie was built around the moment when two hot people would make-out.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon from this point has a simple adventure structure, but there’s nothing wrong with that when things are executed this well. And in typical Disney fashion, the film introduces us to a number of memorable characters, and has a nice message about trust to boot (having been betrayed by Namaari, resulting in the world’s ruin, Raya has a hard time believing in her father’s more positive outlook on the world, which clashes with Sisu’s childlike optimism).

Along their adventure, Raya and Sisu are joined by different colorful characters from the different tribes: Boun (Izaac Wang) is a ten-year old boy from Tail who captains the group’s boat, which also doubles as a restaurant. Noi (Thalia Tran) is a baby from Talon who, along with her three monkey-like companions, is a con artist. And Tong (Benedict Wong) is a warrior with a heart of gold from Spine with a peculiar manner of speech. And of course Raya has her own animal sidekick in the form of Tuk Tuk, a kind of giant armadillo/chipmunk hybrid whose sounds are provided by Alan Tudyk (because who else would it be in a modern Disney movie?).

This may seem like a lot of characters to juggle, and while some of them could do with a little more screen time, Raya and the Last Dragon actually does a nice job at giving this diverse group of ragtag heroes their own distinct personalities.

The characters are a lot of fun, and so is the adventure they find themselves on. Disney has long-since showcased that animation is the ideal medium for the film musical, but Raya and the Last Dragon is among the rare animated films – like Castle in the Sky or even the Kung Fu Panda movies – that shows that action sequences may also be best suited for animation. The real world has its limitations, and special effects can get distracting, but animation creates a reality of its own, allowing for the action to only be limited by the filmmakers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s one-on-one fight scenes or chase sequences, Raya and the Last Dragon provides some exhilarating set pieces. And it’s all perfectly suitable action for younger audiences too. More cynical people might balk that such things would dumb the action down, but that isn’t the case. Children deserve a variety of movies as much as anyone, so it’s great that something like Raya and the Last Dragon can produce these elaborate, creative set pieces and still present them in an accessible way for its target audience. Atlantis and Treasure Planet could feel like they were “trying to be cool” through their action, which might explain why they don’t exactly feel timeless. But Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it has the heart of a Disney classic, but presented in an action-adventure film, as opposed to the musical we’re accustomed to. Raya should prove to be an exciting movie for audiences of all ages.

The animation is similarly captivating. The visuals of a lot of big budget animation studios can kind of blur together these days, but Disney has found a way to still make its character designs stand out. And with the Southeast Asian-inspired setting, the world of Raya has a distinct beauty from other Disney fare. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, especially when Sisu is performing one of her feats of magic.

Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney’s current hot streak of modern animated classics, and does so in a way that makes it stand out from the pack. It may not be the best film Disney has put out in recent times, but Raya and the Last Dragon is that rare, satisfying action film that still manages to have a beating heart. That in itself is worth celebrating.

8

Tom & Jerry (2021) Review

Tom & Jerry are arguably the most prolific of the classic cartoon stars. Sure, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny may be more widely known, but in terms of the short films themselves, I think it isn’t too far of a stretch to say Tom & Jerry boast the most acclaimed resumes (at least in the days of their MGM shorts. We could all do animation history a great service by forgetting the era when Tom and Jerry were thrown into those poorly-animated Czech shorts). While Mickey may have had a role in Fantasia, and Bugs Bunny has starred in a movie or two (including 1990s fever dream Space Jam), Tom & Jerry have never had a feature film deserving of their names. Though that isn’t for a lack of trying.

1992 saw the release of the aptly-named Tom & Jerry: The Movie, an animated feature so misguided that it gave its titular cat and mouse duo cutesy cartoon voices! The less said of that disaster, the better. During the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s, Tom and Jerry were thrown into cash-grab straight-to-video movies that featured gimmicks like pirates, wizards and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory thrown into the mix. 2021 finally saw Tom & Jerry return to the big screen (which was given a simultaneous streaming release on HBO Max) with a film simply named after the franchise itself. Could this finally be the Tom & Jerry movie that does justice to its two iconic cartoon stars?

In short, no. It isn’t. Though this live-action/animated hybrid film is an improvement over Tom & Jerry’s previous feature-length efforts, it will surely be a disappointment for anyone hoping to see the slapstick royalty of Tom & Jerry stretched into a 90 minute film.

Some might say that Tom & Jerry, the tale as old as time of a cat and mouse wanting each other dead, wouldn’t work as a feature film. But how could we know, since no one has ever actually attempted that simple transition? Studios always feel the need to include human characters or some big plot that Tom and Jerry somehow find themselves entangled in. Yes, movies are a storytelling medium, but storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to mean plot. The classic Tom & Jerry shorts could provide top notch entertainment by the situations the cat and mouse’s rivalry would take them to. We can’t know if their schtick can carry a feature film if no one tries.

Shaun the Sheep is a series of fifteen minute animated shorts about a sheep and a dog doing human-y things behind the farmer’s back, with no dialogue outside of some animal noises and mumbles. I bring this up because Shaun the Sheep has now had two feature length films that utilize the same formula as the show, and they’ve been some of the best TV-to-movie transitions I’ve seen. If Shaun the Sheep can carry two movies, why has no one had enough faith in Tom and Jerry to carry a single movie by themselves? Why do there always need to be humans and their troubles and bigger stories thrown into the mix?

The primary human here is Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), a resourceful young woman who manages to fudge her way to a job at the Royal Gates Hotel after passing someone else’s resume off as her own. A big problem with the film is that it spends far too much time on Kayla’s work life in the hotel and her trying to avoid the suspicious event manager, Terence (Michael Peña), and not nearly enough time on the chaotic battles of Tom and Jerry. Though credit where it’s due, Chloë Grace Moretz is always charming, and she does a good job at making the audience care about Kayla.

Things get more complicated for Kayla, when Jerry moves into the upper-class hotel. The Royal Gates Hotel is set to host a major celebrity wedding, and the hotel staff worries a mouse living in the hotel could ruin their image before the big event. Kayla attempts to catch Jerry herself, but when the mouse proves craftier than she expected, she ends up getting Tom a job at the hotel as well, so that he might help catch Jerry.

Honestly, that’s a fair setup for a Tom & Jerry movie. Take their usual antics, but put it in a big, fancy location as a means to distinguish it as a “bigger” motion picture makes sense. The issue is, again, that Tom and Jerry’s actions are often in the background, and the film dedicates too much time to its subplot of the celebrity wedding. I can accept a human character like Kayla being added to the proceedings, but the film should have stuck with her, Tom and Jerry. Instead, the celebrity couple and the rest of the hotel staff members become players in the plot. It’s just so unnecessary.

Now, Tom and Jerry do get a few moments of slapstick battles and chase sequences, but they are too few, too brief, and too spread out. The movie even teases a big, chaotic finale on the day of the wedding, but when it occurs, it’s over with as quickly as it begins.

I don’t want to sound completely doom and gloom in regards to Tom & Jerry’s 2021 outing though. I admit there were some bits that made me laugh (though I could live without the bathroom humor centered around Spike, who here is the pet dog of the celebrity couple). I also liked the look of the film. Though it would have been nice see Tom and Jerry hand-drawn as they were back in the day, the film does the next best thing by giving the CG characters a cel shading that makes them look like their painted past-selves. In fact, all the animal characters in the film are cartoon characters, which is a nice little touch. With all the big budget sci-fi and super hero movies we have these days, live-action and animation have never coexisted as regularly as they do now. Usually, however, the animation is used as a special effect to enhance the visual look of a live-action world. So a movie like this, where the animated characters are blatantly animated characters interacting with real humans, has become something of a rarity. And call me a sucker, but I appreciate some of the film’s sentiment and the little lessons it has to say to younger audiences (even if some of these lessons feel a bit shoehorned in). Maybe I’ve grown a bit soft, or maybe the rough times the world is currently living in has just made me appreciate these things more in movies, even when they have shaky execution.

Though I may be going a little easy on this 2021 Tom & Jerry (young audiences might really like it), I can’t deny that the film misses the point of Tom & Jerry. Just because something is family entertainment doesn’t mean it has to be sentimental. And if any cartoon duo should be allowed to go the Godzilla route and simply have their movie “let them fight,” surely it’s Tom and Jerry.

4

Rango Review

Rango is something of an animated anomaly. Released in 2011 by Nickelodeon Pictures (if you can believe it), directed by a usually live-action filmmaker (Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame), with animation by visual effects studio Industrial Lights and Magic. Rango is an American animated film aimed more at the adult movie buff, but is still kid-friendly enough to not be completely niche. Even watching it today, a decade after its release, Rango still feels like a delightfully surreal experience. One that, sadly, the movie world hasn’t really seen since.

Rango tells the story of a pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who prides himself as something of a thespian, though that might be a cover for his ongoing identity crises. The chameleon’s life gets thrown into chaos when his terrarium flies out of his owner’s car during an accident, stranding him in the desert. He meets the cause of the accident, a sagely armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who points the chameleon in the right direction to survive the brutal heat of the desert.

The chameleon eventually finds himself in the old west-style town of Dirt, populated by various desert animals. Realizing being a stranger in a new place is the opportunity to “be anyone” that he’s been looking for, the chameleon takes on the name ‘Rango,’ and concocts an elaborate backstory as a badass gunslinger who can take on anyone and anything, which the town humorously accepts with very little question.

The newly-named Rango is quickly put to the test when a hawk invades the town. Due to sheer luck, Rango survives the encounter with the hawk, with the townsfolk comically interpreting his bumbling and lucky circumstances as some kind of ingenious strategy. So the people of dirt arrange for Rango to meet the mayor (a tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty), who appoints Rango as the new sheriff of Dirt.

But all is not well in Dirt, as the town has been suffering a severe draught, to the point that the townsfolk have resorted to using water as currency (even depositing water into their local bank). The water used to flow into the town every Wednesday, but it has suddenly stopped. A local woman – a desert iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher) – has noticed water being dumped in the desert, and suspects a conspiracy. She and Rango then set out to investigate the cause of the missing water. Meanwhile, an additional threat looms over Dirt. With his natural predator the hawk dead, notorious outlaw Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) might return to Dirt.

Honestly, any synopsis I give can’t do Rango justice. It’s a Blazing Saddles-style western spoof while simultaneously being a genuine western in the vein of Sergio Leone. It’s an animated film with talking animals in which none of the animals are ever made to be cute (in fact, they’re wonderfully ugly). And it’s filled with enough movie references to make Quentin Tarantino blush.

Even ten years later, the animation of Rango is something to behold. The film finds the perfect balance of making things look both realistic and caricatured. Take, for example, Rango himself. His finer details (such as his scales) evoke a real chameleon, but his eyes are comically asymmetrical, and his crooked pencil neck should not be able to carry that bulbous head of his. There’s a lot of imagination at work in the character designs in making them weird, gross and interesting. It’s just a fascinating film to look at, and the results are still captivating a decade on.

The biggest joys of Rango, however, are the characters and writing. The voice acting is top notch (with Bill Nighy being a particular highlight, making Rattlesnake Jake a truly memorable villain despite relatively little screen time). Rango is a funny film, but in a much different way than most animated fare. There’s no particular comic sidekick designed to be the fan favorite, instead, the film manages to squeeze humor out of all of its characters (sans the villains, who are dead serious), no matter how small and inconsequential their part may be in the story. While there is some slapstick at play, most of the humor in Rango stems from the characters themselves. Whether it’s their eccentric personalities (Rango’s dimwittedness being mistaken for heroism is another highlight) or just the strange things they say (“It’s like a puzzle! Like a big mammogram!”), Rango’s is an off-beat sense of humor that still stands out.

That’s one of the best things about Rango: It’s intrinsically funny because of its weirdness. Sure, there’s still some bathroom humor and the occasional wink to the adult crowd, but it never feels reliant on such things in the same way a lot of modern animated comedy does. The film could bring out a smile or laugh out of someone simply by the way it and its characters go about things (such as Dirt’s weekly ritual of celebrating the arrival of water, which includes the townsfolk dancing and slapping each other, because why not). It’s funny by being itself, which is always a rare treat for any movie.

Despite garnering critical acclaim, Rango never quite caught on. It seems to have fallen a bit into obscurity these past ten years, being remembered for winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and not being a Pixar movie) but rarely being brought up outside of that piece of trivia. That’s a real shame, because Rango was certainly one of the more original animated films to come out of the early 2010s (scratch that, one of the more original films of that timeframe, period). Studios and filmmakers would have done themselves well to take a page or two from its book.

I like that Rango exists in this weird space where it’s like the adult version of a kids’ movie. It’s aimed at the older crowd but isn’t really inappropriate for kids, either (maybe a bit scary for younger children at certain points). It’s an animated film that respects its audience, young and old, and doesn’t feel like it needs to dumb itself down for the former or lazily fall back on sexual innuendo for the latter. I honestly don’t know why such a concept is as hard to find in western animation as it is.

Rango may not quite be an animated masterpiece (the more dramatic aspects of Rango’s journey of self-discovery can get a little lost in the silliness), but it is a consistently fun and funny motion picture that deserves far more attention than it gets. It’s stunningly animated (its craftsmanship making its ugly characters somehow beautiful to see in motion), complete with some great action sequences. And its personality is entirely its own.

Rango isn’t really a kids’ movie, but it isn’t exclusively for adults. It’s just a movie. And a pretty great one. How about that?

8

Pixar’s Soul Review

Soul is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, a studio that needs no introduction by this point. Though Pixar hit their first rough patches during the 2010s (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), for the most part, they’ve had a nearly-unprecedented streak of classics. As such, the release of a new Pixar film usually serves as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of any given year. That was to be the case for Soul as well, with Disney heavily promoting it alongside the likes of Frozen 2 a year before its planned 2020 release. Of course, like so many 2020 films, Soul saw a number of setbacks and delays, before finally being made available as a streaming exclusive to Disney+ on Christmas Day.

Soul is directed by Pixar’s new head honcho Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, effectively making him Pixar’s most imaginative and whimsical filmmaker. While most of Pixar’s films are easily identifiable by a specific theme (toys, cars, fish, bugs, etc.), Docter’s films tend to be more abstract or ethereal (Monsters, Inc. probably fit in more with Pixar’s usual “themed” films, though even then the concept of closet monsters makes for more imaginatively fertile ground than the others). This was made most apparent with Inside Out, a film that presented the inner emotions of a little girl as its leading characters, as they ventured through different avenues of the human mind. In a sense, Soul is like a spiritual follow-up to Inside Out, using a similarly existential idea as the basis of its story. While Inside Out took audiences into the world of thoughts and emotion, Soul takes things a step further by exploring the human soul itself.

Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has always dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. He doesn’t hate his job as a teacher, but does feel stuck and held back by it. His seamstress mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his musical aspirations, further dampening his attitude towards his life’s situation.

Things start looking up for Joe, however, when a former student – who now plays for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – informs Joe that there’s been an opening in Dorothea’s band. Joe makes an impression in his audition, and he’s personally asked by Dorothea to perform with her band later that night.

Ecstatic that his dreams could finally be coming true, Joe is a bit careless on his way home to prepare for the gig, and ends up falling down an open manhole. Joe now finds himself as a blobby, blue soul, riding a kind of escalator to transport him to “the Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death on the day his life finally started to turn around, Joe stumbles off the escalator and finds himself in “the Great Before,” the place where souls gain their personalities before they go to Earth.

Here, the unborn souls are watched over by cosmic beings who all go by the name “Jerry” (abstract creatures who are simultaneously two-dimensional and three-dimensional). The various Jerrys mistake Joe for a “mentor,” an experienced soul who takes an unborn soul under their wing before the former ascends to the Great Beyond and the latter makes their journey to Earth. Joe decides to play along until he can find a way back to his body on Earth, and winds up as the mentor to a troublesome soul named “22” (Tina Fey), who has spent millennia in the Great Before as countless mentors (including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa) have failed to instill 22 with the inspiration she needs to find her ‘spark,’ which is required before she can go to Earth.

I feel like I can’t divulge any more of the plot without spoiling the specifics, but suffice to say that Joe has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to reconnect with his body and help 22 find a reason to live. Their adventure will span both this incorporeal realm as well as a few trips back to Earth (in unexpected ways), and takes a number of twists and turns.

Visually speaking, Soul is among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The human world looks more realistic than the usual Pixar fare (with the humans still having a cartoonish and exaggerated look), while the afterlife (or ‘betweenlife’ or whatever you want to call it) is a serene, visually arresting animated world, the kind you know will long stay in the memory. The aforementioned “Jerrys” as well as the “lost souls” should rank near the top of Pixar’s best character designs.

Like Inside Out, Soul seems to be having a ball exploring its concept. Not just for the visual splendor of it, but also for the creativity of its story and humor. We learn that passionate artists in the living world enter an ethereal plain simply called “The Zone” when they get lost in their art, but that the Zone can also transform souls into their “lost” selves, should obsessions and anxiety take hold. There’s a sign twirling guru named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who is willingly able to travel to the Zone through meditation. And the Jerrys question why they send so many souls into the pavilions that teach self-absorbtion. I don’t think Soul quite reaches Inside Out in making the most out of its concept, but like any of the Pixar greats, it certainly does bring a lot of charm and creativity out of it.

I feel like I’m referencing Inside Out a lot, but I feel the comparison is close to unavoidable, given that Soul is Docter’s follow-up feature to Inside Out, and that its concept makes it feel more inline with Inside Out than any other previous Pixar picture. And I’m afraid it’s in that sense that I feel Soul falls a bit short. For all the merit Soul does have, I don’t feel like it ever reaches the same heights as Docter’s previous masterpiece, whether through emotion or story.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high in regards to Soul. After all, I consider Inside Out to be Pixar’s greatest film full-stop. But again, it’s hard not to make the comparison, given the similarities between the two in both narrative DNA and as the works from the same filmmaker.

I suppose it’s not too critical of a complaint to say Soul falls short of what I believe is Pixar’s best effort, but there is that extra something missing from Soul that prevents it from sitting alongside Pixar’s very best. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, since I don’t think that Soul does anything particularly wrong, so much as it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.

Inside Out used its concept to strip Pixar films to their bare essence, exposing their heart and soul (ironically enough). Pixar films have often been noted for bringing audiences to tears, and Inside Out basically expressed what every Pixar film aimed to achieve emotionally. I feel like Soul has similarly deep and meaningful things to say about life and why our passions may not necessarily be our purpose, but I feel like it doesn’t always know how to express these themes. I admit it actually took two viewings for me to appreciate what Soul was trying to say, though even now I don’t feel it in the same way I did for Inside Out.

Soul is a great movie on its own merits, don’t get me wrong. It tells a great, imaginative story with some of the best visuals Pixar has created. It has terrific vocal performances, a strong musical score and – like Ratatouille and Coco before it – has an infectious love of music and the arts. And yes, I even think the message of the film is potentially as profound as any Pixar has done. It’s just in the way that Soul often stumbles in conveying that message that holds it back from reaching the same staggering heights of some of its Pixar predecessors. With that said, even with its flaws, Pixar’s Soul is, much like Pete Docter’s previous work, a beautiful movie, inside and out.

8

Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty*

Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, or Stone Cold Steve Austin emerging from “The Ringmaster,” Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath took the Oddworld series in a bold new direction after the disappointment of Munch’s Oddysee. From there, it seemed like the sky was the limit for what Oddworld could be.

Aaand then Oddworld Inhabitants put a halt on all game development shortly after Stranger’s release.

Disillusioned by turbulent relationships with publishers, Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning and company decided to try a new venture and create an animated film titled Citizen Siege, though the economic downturn of the late 2000s put an end to that dream as well. Things turned around for the better for Oddworld Inhabitants when, in 2010, Indie Developer Just Add Water jumped in to help bring the Oddworld series back into the spotlight. Though the partnership between Oddworld Inhabitants and Just Add Water has since dissolved, their tenure together was successful in relaunching Oddworld, first with HD re-releases of Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath, and then notably with a full-on remake of Abe’s Oddysee, titled New ‘N’ Tasty, which was released in 2014.

Though New ‘N’ Tasty suffered from some bugs at launch (many of which have been worked out in the years since), and some fans were displeased with some of the cosmetic updates it made to Abe’s Oddysee, New ‘N’ Tasty proved successful enough that Oddworld Inhabitants decided to use it as a launching pad to reboot the series, with its upcoming 2021 follow-up, SoulStorm – a quasi-remake of Abe’s Exoddus – replacing Munch as the second proper installment in the originally planed five-part “Quintology” of Oddworld titles.

While it may be a tad disheartening that the only “new” Oddworld game released since Stranger’s Wrath is technically not a new entry at all, Abe’s Oddysee, though a classic of its time, was definitely in need of some updating. And well, that’s exactly what New ‘N’ Tasty provides: a faithful recreation of Abe’s original adventure that still finds time to make some much-appreciated modernizations to the game. Though it also has to be said that there are still some notable bugs present in New ‘N’ Tasty , and that its faithfulness to the original game may come at the cost of some missed opportunities to be something more.

The story here is identical to that of the original release, told with a much stronger graphical sheen, of course: Abe is a Mudokon slave at Rupture Farms, the “biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld.” With the Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’s favorite meat sources – starting to turn up thin, CEO Mullock the Glukkon decides to turn their Mudokon slaves into their newest food product, which Abe happens to overhear after eavesdropping on a board meeting (for reasons I don’t understand, the remake uses the image of a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head found in the censored international version of the original game for Rupture Farms’ “new and tasty” product, as opposed to the Mudokon head on a stick found in the US version of Abe’s Oddysee. I can understand if the original image was considered too graphic, but why replace it with a popsicle? It kind of takes away from the severity of the moment).

Realizing that he and his fellow Mudokons will soon be the next item on the lunch menu, Abe decides to escape from Rupture Farms and free his fellow Mudokon slaves.

The cutscenes are recreated word for word, but with modern graphics and a few extra cinematics implemented on occasion. I can’t complain, Oddworld always did a great job at telling a meaningful story, but doing it in a way that’s still expressed with the simplicity of video game storytelling of its time. If anything, the excessively movie-esque games of today could do well for themselves by taking a page from Oddworld’s book on how to tell a video game story.

The gameplay is also largely the same as it was in the original, albeit with some modern tweaks to make Abe control more fluidly (for the most part). Players still run, jump, sneak, hide in shadows, and talk to their fellow Mudokons. Abe can also chant to open portals to free any Mudokons following him, and to possess Sligs (the guards that patrol Rupture Farms) in order to infiltrate enemy lines.

A few notable changes have been made to the proceedings, however. First and foremost, there’s now a difficulty setting, with the easier difficulties giving Abe some added health, while the hardest difficulty brings back the original game’s challenge of everything killing Abe in one hit. Purists of the original will probably swear by the hardest difficulty, but honestly, I think the additional options are a welcome way to ease more audiences into Oddworld.

Another change is that, while the original release of Abe’s Oddysee separated the action into different screens (with Abe moving like he’s on spaces on a grid), the world of New ‘N’ Tasty is a lot more seamless, only needing to load when entering a bonus stage or new level. This makes Abe’s movements a lot smoother, with the awkward exception of his jumping, which still works as if Abe still plays like he used to. It’s unfortunate, because otherwise Abe controls so much smoother than he once did, so to have his jumping still feel so stiff is pretty jarring.

The most appreciated change, however, is carried over from the original game’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus: the quicksave!

In its original release, Abe’s Oddysee would only save your progress at annoyingly spread out checkpoints. This could make things grow tedious as you’d have to replay decently large stretches of game just because of one brief instance of trial-and-error. Though Exoddus was just as difficult, it had the wherewithal to give the player the ability to save wherever they pleased. Stuck on a particularly tough puzzle? No problem, just save after every step so you don’t have to redo the whole thing after every mistake. New ‘N’ Tasty still includes checkpoints (which are more mercifully frequent this time around), but the ability to save your progress anywhere and everywhere is a real godsend.

Another attribute New ‘N’ Tasty adopts from Exoddus is the ability to speak to multiple Mudokons at once. Again, this is a greatly appreciated change to the proceedings, as the original Abe’s Oddysee could really try your patience in moments with multiple Mudokons, which required the player to communicate with one at a time, and sometimes even have to go through a puzzle/bonus stage as many times as there were Mudokons to save. So again, having New ‘N’ Tasty carry over this element from Exoddus makes the experience a lot more enjoyable.

This does, however, bring up one of New ‘N’ Tasty’s missed opportunities. Abe’s Oddysee featured a total of ninety-nine Mudokons to rescue, while New ‘N’ Tasty brings the number up to two-hundred and ninety-nine (one shy of Exoddus’s three-hundred). You might think, going into New ‘N’ Tasty, that the levels may be bigger or they may have added more secret areas to accommodate the additional Mudokons. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Despite adding two-hundred Mudokons into the mix, the layout of every level and bonus stage is exactly the same, right down to the locations of the secret areas. There’s just a lot more Mudokons in many of the same places. So…what’s the point of the extra Mudokons?

Another issue that arises from these changes is that very few of the puzzles and bonus areas have been tweaked to accommodate them. Some puzzles that may have taken several steps to ensure the safety of multiple Mudokons can now be finished much sooner as you can talk to every on-screen Mudokon at once. Granted, I’ll take the easier challenge here over the difficulty created through tedium of the original, but it would have been nice had the game found a way to tweak more puzzles and bonus areas to keep the difficulty intact even with the changes.

Because the game no longer works in individual screens, some of the puzzles that are changed have only been altered for the wrong reasons. Namely, the drones that would prevent Abe’s chanting used to affect an entire screen (if you shared a screen with a drone, you can’t chant, leaving the player to find a creative way to destroy the drone or lure a Slig away from it). Because the game no longer plays out by screen, the drones now all have a (not entirely clear) area of effect, so you can sometimes simply solve a problem by standing at a safe enough distance away from the drone. It’s not a big deal, but again, if you change certain key features of the game, you have to adapt the obstacles to them in order to retain the obstacle in question.

One thing’s for sure, the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. I’ve heard a lot of fans claim that the remake doesn’t capture the same atmosphere of the original, so I was a bit hesitant going into New ‘N’ Tasty. Though I can agree that Rupture Farms itself may not be as dark and gruesome to behold as it once was, I don’t think the atmosphere is completely lost. There’s a lot of prominent lighting effects in the game, which might explain why Rupture Farms doesn’t look quite as grizzly as it once did, but I think the complaints are more than a little exaggerated.

There are also still a few persistent bugs to be found in the game, mostly graphical ones, but the game did crash on me a couple of times. And to my fright, the game went back to the startup menu right as I was about to claim the platinum trophy, with my game file seemingly having been erased. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and after restarting the game everything was just as it was.

It certainly is odd that the complaints I’ve heard thrown towards New ‘N’ Tasty are either that it plays too close to the original to feel like a worthwhile update, or that it streamlines things to the point that it isn’t faithful enough to the original. Of course, with two such extreme opposite viewpoints, I think it’s safe to say the real answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty serves as a great introductory point to the series (both because it’s literally a remake of the first game in the series and because it lacks the frustration of the original). The changes it makes are for the best in terms of playability, though it seems like an oversight for the puzzles to largely remain as is despite the changes. As does the fact that they tripled the number of Mudokons to rescue without expanding or adding to any area in the game.

Still, even the original Abe’s Oddysee, while aged in a number of respects, remains a fun and unique experience in gaming. To be able to play it with some modernizations to bring it up to date a bit probably do make New ‘N’ Tasty the ideal way to experience Oddworld’s original Oddysee today.

7

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*

And now for something completely different.

That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.

After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.

Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.

After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.

Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.

You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.

It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.

Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.

“The 2010 HD update still looks pretty impressive.”

If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”

When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.

What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.

Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.

The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.

Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.

The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.

Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).

The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.

Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.

Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.

Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.

Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.

It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.

There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).

I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.

And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.

9

Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the updated Steam release of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee*

The Oddworld series has had a turbulent development history. Originally envisioned as a five-part “Quintology,” the series quickly expanded to include “bonus games,” after the success of the first entry in the series, Abe’s Oddysee, lead to the development of an unplanned direct follow-up, Abe’s Exoddus. The second “proper” installment in the Quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, would then see a number of road bumps in its own development. Originally planned as a Playstation 2 exclusive, all the work developer Oddworld Inhabitants made for that version of Munch went out the window and had to be rebuilt from the ground up when the game transitioned to the Xbox. And with the pressure of releasing Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Microsoft’s then-new home console, many of the ideas and concepts series creator Lorne Lanning and company had for Munch had to be trimmed down, cut short, or removed entirely.

It should be no surprise that Munch’s Oddysee is widely accepted as the worst entry in the series by both fans and critics then. Even Lorne Lanning has publicly expressed his disappointment with the finished product on numerous occasions. Munch’s reception would shift Oddworld Inhabitants’ focus onto a bonus game once again, as the next Oddworld entry, Stranger’s Wrath, was created with the intention of separating itself from Munch’s Oddysee as much as possible.

That was the end of the line for Oddworld for a good while. The series would end up having more cancelled and unrealized games than it did actual releases. Squeek’s Oddysee, the planned third entry in the Quintology, was never released, nor were multiplayer title The Hand of Odd or the spiritual sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. It wasn’t until 2014 with the release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty – a remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee – that the series would return. At that point, Oddworld Inhabitants chose to reboot the series, using the remake as a launching pad to start things over. 2021 will see the release of SoulStorm, a “complete re-imagining” of Abe’s Exoddus which is now being reworked as the second installment of the Quintology, effectively making Munch’s Oddysee completely non-canon (Stranger has hopefully escaped this fate, given how little it had to do with the previous games anyway).

It probably didn’t help the game’s reputation when the four Oddworld titles were bundled together on Steam in 2010, with the port of Munch suffering from so many bugs and glitches that it continued to receive patches and updates all the way into 2016.

Playing Munch’s Oddysee today, twenty years after it debuted alongside the original XBox in 2001, its shortcomings have only been magnified. It’s a shame, because in terms of ideas, Munch’s Oddysee has no shortage of creativity. But it’s now more obvious than ever at how all these ideas were only partly realized. The sacrifices made in its development make Munch’s Oddysee feel like a series of missed opportunities and lost potential.

The titular Munch of the game is a Gabbit, an amphibious creature with a large head and a single leg. Actually, Munch is believed to be the very last Gabbit, as the species became popular hunting game for their eggs (considered a delicacy by the Glukkons, Oddworld’s dominant species of businessmen), and for their powerful lungs, which are compatible with most of Oddworld’s other species (with Glukkons being such heavy smokers, Gabbit lungs come in handy). Gabbits were also used for experimentations by Vykkers (who are under Glukkons but above most other creatures in the Oddworld pecking order, filling the roles of scientists and doctors).

Unfortunately for Munch, he ends up kidnapped by a couple of Vykkers, who perform a series of experiments on the poor Gabbit, installing a sonar device onto his head. Munch manages to escape the lab with the help of the Fuzzles – small, round creatures that look like fuzzy versions of those old chicken McNuggets characters – another popular subject of Vykker experimentation.

Meanwhile, original Oddworld hero Abe returns, being instructed by a being known as “The Almighty Raisin” to find the last Gabbit. With the help of Munch, Abe can rescue more of his enslaved Mudokon brothers. And with Abe’s help, Munch might just be able to track down the last known can of “Gabbiar” (Gabbit eggs), and save his species from extinction.

Munch’s Oddysee obviously continues the series’ environmental themes, but it’s pretty apparent early on that much of the story didn’t make it into the final game, with a number of plot elements feeling rushed or forgotten. The plot also gets a little silly later on, with Abe and Munch trying to make a particularly “lazy and incompetent Glukkon” wealthy, so that Abe can use his telepathy on said Glukkon to win the Gabbit eggs at an auction (why Abe and Munch can’t just sneak into the auction and possess whoever happened to win it is a detail that maybe needed some explanation).

It seems Munch’s Oddysee fully embraces the more comical and cartoonish aspects of Oddworld, which isn’t a bad thing in an of itself, but it’s a bit sad to see the series’ darker and more gruesome elements disappear, as it’s that combination of grimness and cartoonish antics that help make Oddworld feel so unique. Even the environments look brighter and more colorful than in Abe’s solo outings.

Whereas the “Abe” titles were 2D puzzle-platformers, Munch’s Oddysee took things into the 3D platformer route. Perhaps the shift to 3D was another hurdle for Oddworld Inhabitants (aside from Nintendo with Super Mario 64, can you name a developer who got 3D right in their first go?), though credit where it’s due, Munch’s Oddysee had some innovative ideas for the genre that still feel unique all these years later.

Notably, both Abe and Munch are distinct characters not just in appearance, but in gameplay as well. Abe can move faster and jump higher on land, but is unable to swim. Meanwhile, Munch may be slower by default, but he can find wheelchairs to move faster, and is a capable swimmer to boot. Abe can once again possess enemies, while Munch – using the sonar device in his head – can hack into machines to control them. Abe still communicates with his fellow Mudokons, with the native Mudokons becoming soldiers that can go into battle in place of the defenseless Abe, and can even be upgraded to have melee and ranged weapons (giving the game a light RTS twist). Munch, meanwhile, can free Fuzzles from their cages, and can similarly command the vicious creatures against enemies.

I love all of the gameplay ideas in concept. Sadly, none of them feel like they reach their full potential. What’s even worse is that, despite being Munch’s game, he definitely feels like he gets the short end of the stick between the playable duo.

Due to the shift in 3D, Abe’s chanting now works differently here, requiring the use of “Spooce Shrubs” to produce a telepathic light, which the player then controls until it finds an enemy or runs out of time (you can use up to 10 Spooce to make the light last longer). Not only is the Spooce found everywhere, but Abe can instantly regrow a shrub after picking it up, which Munch can’t do. And even though there are still moments that prevent Abe from chanting, there are far more opportunities for him to possess enemies than there are for Munch to hack into machines, which only happens on a few occasions. There are even more than a few moments where you can cheese your way through a stage by using Abe’s possession abilities to clear an area of its foes, instead of working through the level the way I think it was intended given the layout (I can’t help but feel Oddworld Inhabitants intended to include the drones that prevent Abe’s chanting in these segments, but just forgot to include them).

There are also more levels that include Mudokon soldiers than Fuzzles, and as stated, you can upgrade the Mudokons (once again using Spooce), but the Fuzzles lack variety or advancements. The Fuzzles also have trouble keeping up with Munch when he’s on his wheelchair, nor can they follow him into the water, effectively making his soldiers much less useful than Abe’s, on top of already being less interesting.

It’s things like this that make Munch feel underdeveloped from a gameplay standpoint. He’s a cute little fella (well, as cute as anything in Oddworld could possibly be, anyway), but I feel like Oddworld Inhabitants could have done the character better had they settled on one idea for him, like his preference for water. If Munch had some kind of aquatic soldiers and had water-based puzzles to solve, his gameplay would probably feel a lot more fleshed out. The developers should have leaned into the idea of Munch’s amphibian nature, instead of throwing in the sonar device and hacking and Fuzzles. Munch is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas Abe’s gameplay is more concrete (albeit his jumping feels pretty awkward this time around). As a result, Munch feels like the sidekick of his own game.

Of course, the concept of “too many ideas and not knowing what to do with them” kind of sums up Munch’s Oddysee as a whole. Abe’s Exoddus also had a rushed development, but because Oddworld Inhabitants knew what it was (a bigger, better sequel to Abe’s Oddysee), the end result was fantastic. Munch’s Oddysee feels like Lorne Lanning and company had a lot of ideas for the game, but didn’t settle on any one of them by the time development was pressured into meeting the XBox’s launch.

I can’t help but feel the way to go for Munch’s Oddysee was to build on the “3D platformer meets RTS” aspect (with Abe on land and Munch in water). The game just isn’t nearly as interesting in the levels that are absent of the Mudokon and Fuzzle soldiers. It tries to implement puzzles like in Abe’s titles, but these puzzles quickly become repetitious. One notably lackluster stage is literally just Abe doing some platforming to reach switches to open doors so Munch can pass through repeatedly. Another requires Abe to possess a “Big Bro Slig” to take out the other Slig soldiers in the stage, without informing the player that the Sligs in this particular stage respawn numerous times, and you have to exhaust their respawns in order to make things safe for Abe and Munch. That’s just tedious and cryptic.

There are other examples of shortcuts and cut corners taken: Paramites and Scrabs reappear for one level apiece, but they feel like token appearances this time around, instead of part of Oddworld’s unique setting (they even act identical in this game, further devaluing their appearance). Even the stages and their progression feel unfinished, with levels ending simply by having Abe and Munch stand on pads with their faces on them, which takes players directly into a loading screen and then immediately throwing them into the next stage (I have nothing against linear structures in games, but surely a world map at the very least would make the game feel far less fragmented).

Despite the years of fixes and patches the PC version of Munch’s Oddysee went through, I still experienced some notable bugs during my playthrough for this review. Three in particular stood out: the camera in the game is already more than a little messy, but when it was meant to focus on a particular object for a key moment in a stage (like unlocking a door after solving a puzzle), it would seemingly lose all control before only kind of focusing on the intended object. The second involved possessing enemies, as the ball of light that Abe conjures when he chants would sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) only move when jumping. Finally, the most confusing bug involved the run button. Normally Abe and Munch just walk when using the control stick, and you need to hold a button to make them run. But in some stages, it was the opposite, and the characters ran by default, and walked when I held the run button.

Whether or not bugs such as those were present in the original Xbox release, I can’t remember. Either Munch’s Oddysee was always a much more technically flawed game than I remembered, or the PC port is still a mess after years of fixes. Either way, it doesn’t help the game’s reputation as the low point in the Oddworld series.

I love Oddworld. It’s one of gaming’s most unique settings, as interesting as its creatures are ugly. And it delved into deeper lore and worldbuilding long before that became commonplace in popular culture. But it’s also a series whose creative ambitions have often been out of reach for what its developers could realistically achieve (and what its publishers were willing to do). That’s evidenced by the unfinished nature of the original Quintology, and the numerous cancelled games besides. But it’s perhaps epitomized through Munch’s Oddysee, a game chock-full of brilliant concepts that end up haphazardly realized.

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