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 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, we have the celebrity couple, and other 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.

5

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. The chameleon, realizing being a stranger in a new place is the opportunity to “be anyone,” 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 humorously 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. Yeah, 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 (for example, 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 2000s (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? If I learned that someone was making a popsicle shaped like me, I wouldn’t figure they were planning to turn me into a popsicle and panic, I’d probably just think it’d be cool to have my own ice pop like Sonic the Hedgehog or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

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.

4

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus*

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grateful for the save feature in a video game than I am for that of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. The original Oddworld title, 1997’s Abe’s Oddysee, is a unique puzzle-platforming experience whose gameplay and imagination stand the test of time. But it’s also hard as all Hell, and only saves your progress at widely spread out checkpoints, making its trial-and-error moments needlessly time consuming as you inch closer and closer to victory with every attempt, but have to start a sequence all over again whenever Abe gets shot, chopped up, flattened or blown to smithereens.

Thank Odd then, that Abe’s Exoddus, the unplanned 1998 sequel, implemented a quick save feature. You can now pause the game, and either save your progress on any screen (resuming your progress from that point when you restart the game), or you can quick save at literally any time to respawn in that exact spot when you die. And should you be a jackass and quicksave right before an impending death (something my younger self enjoyed doing a little too much), you can select the “restart path” option to go back to a checkpoint. To cap off this streamlining of saving, when you load your game, your most recent save file will always be on the top of the pile, in contrast to the first game listing them in alphabetical order by area (with the areas being listed as abbreviations, which could make things tricky).

This alone makes Abe’s Exoddus a vast improvement over Oddysee. But the improvements don’t stop there. Exoddus is a much bigger game than its predecessor, with just about every element of Oddysee being expanded upon in fun and meaningful ways.

It’s something of a shock then, when you gain the knowledge the game was entirely developed – from planning stages to release – in a relatively short nine months. After Abe’s Oddysee – the first installment in the planned five-part Oddworld Quintology -became a surprise hit, developer Oddworld Inhabitants was pressured into making a sequel to meet the next holiday season. With a short timeframe to make a new game, Oddworld Inhabitants held back on the second Quintology entry (Munch’s Oddysee), and decided to make a direct sequel to Abe’s Oddysey which could use the same assets and thus shortening development time to meet their deadline.

Series creator (and voice actor for basically every character) Lorne Lanning made no secret of what a nightmare he thought this rushed development process was, and how it burned out the development team. Though that’s an understandable reaction from the game’s creators given the circumstances, they should at least take solace in knowing that their efforts paid off. Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus was not only an improvement over Oddysee is pretty much every way, but was also one of the best games to be released on the original Playstation console. And due to the adjustments and additions it made to the formula, it has stood the test of time a lot stronger than its predecessor.

The game begins immediately after the events of the first game. Abe, the Mudokon savior who rescued his fellow slaves from becoming minced meat from Rupture Farms, has a vision from long-dead Mudokon spirits (humorously named “the Three Weirdos” in the game). The Weirdos inform Abe that sacred Mudokon burial grounds are being disturbed, and the bones of their ancestors are being dug up by unknowing Mudokon slaves (their eyes have been sown shut, so they don’t know what they’re digging) under the SoulStorm Brewery corporation (Mudokon bones being the secret ingredient for the brew).

So Abe sets out with a few friends to liberate more Mudokon slaves and save the sanctity of their dead. That’s easier said than done, however, as the destruction of Rupture Farms has made Abe public enemy number one to the Glukkons, whose many corporations are now under heavier security.

Although Abe’s Exoddus uses the same engine and assets as the first game, pretty much everything has been given more depth and variety. While the first game had ninety-nine Mudokon slaves to rescue, Exoddus expands that number to three-hundred. The player can still use the “gamespeak” feature to communicate with these Mudokons, but now Abe has more things to say, and certain Mudokons will require different interactions.

Along with the “hello,” “follow me” and “wait” commands from the first game, Abe can also say “sorry,” “stop it,” “work” and even slap a Mudokon in the face. Sorry is used to apologize to depressed and angry Mudokons, while stop it is used if they are bickering amongst each other. Work is used to have them help out when a problem requires multiple sets of hands (like multiple switches needing to be pulled in unison to open a door), and to have them resume their duties when a Slig guard passes by, to avoid suspicion. Finally, the slap is used on Mudokons who have been exposed to laughing gas, and are recklessly running around in need of a good slapping. There are also the aforementioned blind Mudokons, who rely solely on Abe’s voice and can’t follow the character himself, making for some notably tricky moments.

Best of all, however, is the “All of ya” command. In Abe’s Oddysee, many moments could grow tedious if they included multiple Mudokons, as you would have to talk to each one individually, and often have to repeat a process as many times as there were Mudokons in the area. But with the All of Ya command, you simply get the attention of every Mudokon on screen. Like the new save features, it’s the best kind of streamlining.

Of course, Abe still has his chanting, which is not only used to open portals to free slaves, but also allows Abe to telepathically control enemies. In Oddysee, Abe could only control Sligs, using them to infiltrate enemy lines and utilize their fire power, since Abe himself can’t attack. in Exoddus, there are also flying Sligs that can be controlled, which come in handy as the traditional Sligs can’t jump. Wild Paramites and Scrabs can also be controlled by Abe this time around, and it’s clever how the game utilizes their established behaviors from the first game for the sake of gameplay (Paramites attack in packs, so you can communicate with others when they’re under your control, whereas Scrabs are extremely territorial, and will fight each other on site). Later in the game, Abe can even possess Glukkons! Though the Glukkons aren’t built for fighting (under their suits they walk with their long arms, like Sebulba from The Phantom Menace), Sligs will do whatever they say without hesitation or suspicion. And of course, Glukkons can access important areas that no one else can, due to their high standing in Oddworld.

Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Abe has the ability to possess his own farts. Yes, Abe could fart in the first game, but more as a pointless joke (and the occasional game of “Simon Says” which utilized the voice commands). But here, Abe’s flatulence have more utilitarian use in gameplay. If Abe comes across a SoulStorm Brew vending machine, he can have a drink which will fuel his next fart. If Abe farts after drinking a brew, said fart will explode where it stands within a few short seconds. But if Abe chants within that time, he can possess the fart, and use it to find enemies, bombs or drones (which prevent chanting and possession) and blow them up with it. Admittedly, it’s a little weird within the context of the story that Abe would drink the brew (though I suppose it’s a “using their own weapon against them for the greater good” kind of thing), but the fart control does give Abe a fitting means to attack without taking away the puzzle-solving strategy.

Like its predecessor, there are still a number of moments in Abe’s Exoddus where it really feels like the developers packed on the trial-and-error with some of the puzzles, and there are some secret areas with hidden Mudokons that you can miss (in my review of Abe’s Oddysee, I complained that there are a couple of hidden areas hiding behind large, obstructive objects in the foreground, but there’s at least one such secret in Exoddus that’s hiding behind a barely obstructive object in the foreground, which is probably even more annoying). But these elements aren’t nearly as frustrating as they were in the first game due to the aforementioned save feature. You can literally save after each individual step of a puzzle if you want (the quicksave is instantaneous to boot), and if you miss a secret, you can more easily load a previous save file to find it (though if you’re going for 100% completion, I recommend having a guide or walkthrough handy, because you wouldn’t want to undo too much of your progress just to backtrack to one secret). So even though some of Oddysee’s drawbacks are still present, they are much more tolerable this time around thanks to the improved saving.

Video games are an art form, I don’t know why that’s ever in dispute. But video games are at their strongest artistically when they embrace their game-ness. The first two Oddworld titles may be the most overt example of this. Oddworld was one of the earlier example of a video game pushing the narrative merits of the medium (with its environmental and sociopolitical themes). While Abe’s Exoddus may have come about due to commercial demand as opposed to Oddysee’s more inspired creation, the sequel is by far the superior work because it’s a better game. I think there’s a lesson a lot of today’s developers could learn there.

8

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee Review

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

In 1997, an odd little game arrived on the Sony Playstation by the name of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Developed by the aptly-named studio Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe’s Oddysee was planned to be the first installment in the five-part Oddworld Quintology (yes, Pentology is the proper term for a five-part series, but quintology just sounds better, I suppose). The game was a surprising critical success, and even performed commercially well. Though additional Oddworld games would follow, only the second installment in the quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, was produced (the other two Oddworld titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath, were considered “bonus” games that built on Oddworld’s mythology). Oddworld Inhabitants had notorious relationships with publishers, and eventually left the gaming scene for close to a decade, before they returned with a remake of Abe’s Oddysee titled “New N’ Tasty” in 2014, to start the series over.

The Oddworld Quintology may be continuing anew, but it’s a shame the original vision of the series never came to light, because Abe’s Oddysee certainly got things off to a great start. In many ways, Abe’s Oddysee was ahead of its time, with gameplay that still feels unique to this day, and an equally unique world to go with it. Though it has to be said that the experience of playing Abe’s Oddysee today is hampered a fair bit by a steep difficulty curve (including some outright cheap moments that go against what the game instills in the player early on), which is made all the more difficult by a convoluted save feature.

The story is set on the titular planet Oddworld, and the game does a pretty terrific job at giving the player a good insight into its world with very little exposition. Rupture Farms is the biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld, and slaughters the creatures of the planet with reckless abandon (“We used to make Meech Munchies… until the Meeches were through”). In Oddworld, certain species are born into different social classes, and Rupture Farms is no exception: at the top of the pecking order are Glukkons, suit-wearing, cigar-smoking businessmen. Sligs are miserable creatures that are born to be the hired guns for the Glukkons. And at the bottom of the totem pole are the Mudokons – humanoid creatures that looks like a cross between Gollum and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 90’s movies – who have become slaves to the Glukkons’ many corporations.

Abe is one such Mudokon working for Rupture Farms, notable for being more blueish-gray than the Mudokons’ usual green coloring. Late one night when waxing the floors, Abe passes by the boardroom, and curiosity gets the best of him. He listens in on a board meeting, where the Glukkons are discussing Rupture Farms’ decreasing sales. The Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’ most popular meat sources – are starting to turn up thin. But CEO Mullock has a “great” idea for a new product: Mudokon pops, which are little more than Mudokon heads stabbed on a stick (at least in the US version. International versions of the game censor it as a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head, which lessens the impact). Horrified at the fate the Gluckons have planned for him and his fellow Mudokons, Abe hopes to escape from Rupture Farms, and free as many slaves as he can (for gameplay purposes, there are 99 in the game to rescue).

There’s an obvious environmental, sociopolitical element to the game. But what Oddworld managed to do to great effect is expressing these themes without ever feeling self-righteous. It has a good balance of imagination and humor to go along with the political aspects (one button even allows Abe to fart, just because), which prevents the game from feeling too pretentious or in love with itself. There are far more story-heavy games made today (whether artsy indie titles or AAA games that think emulating movies equates to art) that get such praise for their narratives upon their initial release, only to be laughed at as egotistical hot air in hindsight. When you make the comparison to Oddworld, such games end up with even more egg on their face.

In terms of gameplay, Abe’s Oddysey is a puzzle-platformer. Abe is no fighter, and if one Slig catches him he’s toast in a second’s time. But Abe has some tricks up his sleeve: he can sneak and hide in shadows, roll into small spaces and, crucially, he can chant to telepathically possess Sligs.

The chant is also used to open portals to free your fellow Mudokons, but it’s only one of several voice commands Abe can make. Abe can also communicate with Mudokons with “hello!” “follow me!” and “wait” (as well as the aforementioned fart, which makes both Mudokons and Sligs giggle). This is important because, once puzzles are solved and the dangers are gone, Abe will have to guide Mudokons to the nearest portal. This “gamespeak” was truly innovative in its day, though there’s an unfortunate caveat in that Abe can only guide one Mudokon at a time, which makes certain moments with multiple Mudokons more than a little tedious (it should be no surprise that Abe’s Exoddus, as well as the remake, fixed this and allowed Abe to communicate with groups).

Another issue with the game is when the focus becomes more action-based (mostly in the middle section of the adventure, when Abe is often chased by wild Paramites and Scrabs). Abe controls well enough, but he controls well for the slow paced nature of the majority of the game. When things get hectic, and Abe needs to run, jump and roll in quick succession without missing a beat, it just feels off. Abe just isn’t made with the same kind of precision as characters like Mario or Sonic, but these chase sequences often play out as if he does, which makes them feel clunky.

There are additional problems when it comes to rescuing Mudokons. The process itself is simple enough (make sure it’s safe, guide them to a portal, chant to open said portal), but there are several hidden Mudokons that -should you miss them – you don’t get a second chance to rescue. And some of them are hidden in really esoteric places (gee, I never would have thought that there was a hidden room I could climb down to behind the large, obstructing object in the foreground, because why would I?). What’s all the weirder is that the majority of these secret rooms and hidden Mudokons are in the earlier portions of the game, whereas things are more out in the open later on. So these missable Mudokons feel like one big beginner’s trap. You probably wouldn’t think of how you find some of these secret areas until later in the game, long after you’ve missed your chance to rescue the poor souls. I’m not sure if this was intended to incite replay value (with the knowledge you have by the end of the game you can redo the beginning and get everything), but it feels like a cheap means to achieve it.

There are a number of other beginner’s traps in regards to the puzzles. While some of the puzzle solving is clever and leads to genuine “aha!” moments, there are more than a few where the game will feel like it’s throwing one cheap death after another on the player, prolonging certain sections by forcing the player to make only a little more progress with every try. Trial-and-error isn’t unforgiveable in video games, but it certainly isn’t ideal. And sometimes, Abe’s Oddysee just takes things way too far. It’s one thing if the trial-and-error is the result of my own mistakes, but how am I supposed to just know when dropping down a hole will put me right in a Slig’s line of fire, or when I casually stroll to the next screen just to be greeted by a hungry Slog (it’s like a Slig’s dog) two feet in front of me?

Granted, you have unlimited lives, so you can keep trying a section as many times as you need to get it right. But the game can be really stingy with the checkpoints, meaning that sometimes you’ll have to replay decently large sections multiple times over just because of one tricky little detail (what’s worse, if there are secret rooms and Mudokons within that timeframe, you’ll have to rescue them again every time until you reach the next checkpoint). I’m all for a good challenge, but when difficulty teeters into tedium, a game loses me.

On the subject of checkpoints, the save feature is the game’s single biggest drawback. A game this demandingly difficult should at the very least apply checkpoints liberally. Not only are these checkpoints in short supply, but the game actually does have a manual save option in the pause menu, but it still only saves at the checkpoints! I’m guessing this means the checkpoints themselves only save your progress when you die, but not when you quit playing the game, whereas the save option ensures you can reload the game from that checkpoint the next time you play? But then why separate the two? Either just have the checkpoints save the game, or let me save my progress on whatever screen I need to!

To further convolute things, when loading a saved file, the checkpoints are listed in alphabetical order, which isn’t how they appear in the game itself (it’s easy to find the levels themselves, but the checkpoints of the levels are often out of numerical order, which gets confusing). Goodness, why do I have to jump through so many hoops just to save and load my game?

By now things are sounding largely negative, but these drawbacks have merely been magnified with age. I still feel like there’s enough good to make Abe’s Oddysee a worthwhile gaming experience.

The gameplay is unique and fun, especially when you get to possess a Slig and infiltrate the enemy (sometimes there are drones that prevent Abe from chanting to possess a Slig, giving you another obstacle to overcome by finding a way to destroy the drone or luring a Slig away from it). The graphics, while aged, give the game a distinctly dark (sometimes gruesome) atmosphere, as does the music. Abe’s Oddysee was years ahead of its time in regards to merging gameplay and story. But perhaps best of all is Oddworld itself, one of the all-time great video game worlds. So much about the game is dedicated to its worldbuilding, and the world it builds is really unlike any other in the medium.

Better things laid ahead for Oddworld (the two “bonus” titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath were the best entries, oddly enough), and with the series set to continue in 2021 from where the remake left off, better things may still be in its future. And while going back to where it all started may be rough around the edges, it’s still sure to leave an impression.

6

The 2020 Christmas Special/6th Anniversary Celebration

Whoa whoa! Hold up… It’s Christmas already?!

Yes, in this wild, crazy year that at once felt like it was moving at light speed and a snail’s pace all at the same time, we have finally fought our way to the jolliest of days. Thank goodness this miserable year is almost over, here’s to a happy, healthy 2021.

And with that…

Merry Christmas!

Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Kwanza!

Happy Festivus!

Merry Decemberween!

Happy Rusev Day!

Happy holidays to everyone! Whatever you celebrate, I hope you have a great one!

December the twenty-fifth is always a means to celebrate the things that are important in life: family, friends, peace on Earth, goodwill to men, curmudgeons like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch learning to not be jerks, and jolly fat guys breaking into houses via chimneys to eat cookies and deliver Playstations.

Ever since 2014, Christmas Day has also been a means to celebrate this site! That’s right, paisanos, Wizard Dojo launched on Christmas Day of 2014. Makes it easy to remember.

So let us now take the time to celebrate this festive season, and by extension my wonderful, wonderful website, with a good dose of nonsense. Is there any better way to celebrate something?

Now let’s get this party started old school, yo!

Continue reading “The 2020 Christmas Special/6th Anniversary Celebration”