Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review

Before Mario entered the Mushroom Kingdom, met Princess Peach and found an archnemesis in Bowser, there was Donkey Kong. Before Luigi was introduced to the world, before Mario was even named Mario, there was Donkey Kong. Mario and Donkey Kong were gaming’s first legendary rivalry, the dynamic in which all of Nintendo was built on.

But it was not to last. Though they were enemies in the early 80s, as Mario joined up with his brother and began having adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Donkey Kong was phased out. It wasn’t until 1994 that Donkey Kong saw a complete reinvention, turning a new leaf and becoming the hero of his own adventures starting with Donkey Kong Country (of course, this is actually a different Donkey Kong, so I guess the name is like a title that gets passed down or something). However, earlier in that very same year, the Nintendo Gameboy saw a supposed re-release of the original 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. But after besting the original four levels from the arcade classic, this version of Donkey Kong (unofficially dubbed “Donkey Kong Gameboy” or “Donkey Kong ’94” by fans) unraveled into a brand new adventure, with nearly a hundred new levels all modeled after the single screen platforming of the classic game, with additional puzzle elements added into the mix.

With Donkey Kong Country becoming a big hit, that served as the foundation of the Donkey Kong series from that point onward (something I very much appreciate, being a DKC fan myself). The downside to this was that Mario and DK’s rivalry was once again put on hold. That is until 2004, when Nintendo released Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance, which was created as a kind of spiritual successor to the original Gameboy’s cult classic.

Mario Vs. Donkey adopts much of the same style as the 1994 Gameboy title, with stages that are comprised of two, single-screen segments (some of the later stages are only slightly larger). Each of these screens serves as a platforming puzzle. In the first screen of a level, Mario must find a key and take it to the door to the second screen, in which the goal is to grab a “Mini-Mario Toy” that’s incased in a glass bubble. And for completionists, each stage also houses three presents (one or two on a screen) that will require extra thinking and acrobatics to collect.

The first six stages of every world work this way, with the seventh stage of a world seeing Mario guide the six collected Mini-Mario Toys to their toy box – which will only open if the Mini-Marios collect the T-O-Y letters scattered about – avoiding dangerous obstacles along the way. The eighth and final stage of each world is a boss fight against Donkey Kong. For most of the stages, a single hit from an enemy or obstacle will do Mario in. During the boss stages, however, Mario’s hit points will be determined by the number of Mini-Mario Toys the player managed to guide to the toy box on the previous stage (for an obvious maximum of six hit points).

It’s a really simple setup, but it works thanks to some fun puzzle design and Mario’s acrobatics. Not only does Mario partake in his usual jumping here, but he can also do handstands, backflips and swing on bars like a gymnast. The levels feature puzzles built around mechanics like red/yellow/blue switches that coincide with similarly colored platforms, timed electrical barriers, and other such trinkets and traps that will test the player’s reflexes and skill.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is a fun game, but it has admittedly aged a bit. The structure of the game eventually becomes repetitious, and you may find yourself wishing the game would deviate from itself after a while (does every world need the same amount of levels here?). Additionally, the aforementioned Mini-Mario stages can become a bit tedious, and even some of the worlds can overstay their welcome when they lean too heavily on a specific gameplay gimmick (the best Mario games are acclaimed for never letting any idea linger longer than they need. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong didn’t get the memo, I suppose).

I just think there needed to be more variety within the stages and puzzles. When you think of how massively the 1994 Gameboy Donkey Kong expanded the original arcade game, it feels a tad underwhelming that the Gameboy Advance successor released a decade later doesn’t really feel like it adds to the formula all that much. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still provides a fun time in the same vein as the arcade original and the Gameboy remake, but you know the GBA could’ve done more with the gameplay.

The aesthetics might also be a mixed bag for some. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong utilizes pre-rendered character sprites (a nod to DKC’s influence to the Donkey Kong series), which admittedly look unique for the system, and Mario’s animations are surprisingly fluid. The music and sound, on the other hand, might quickly wear on you. The music isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable (which seems like a sin for a Mario game, doesn’t it?), and the sound effects are mostly recycled sound clips from previous games (Super Mario 64 for Mario, Donkey Kong 64 for DK, and Super Mario Sunshine for Toads). And while the Mini-Marios’ cry for “Mario” may be cute the first time one of them gets lost, it may start to get on your nerves when you start constantly hearing it as they stop following Mario due to the tiniest obstruction in their path.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong remains a fun game in its own right, but one that you can’t help but feel could have been better. It lacks the variety and challenge that could have made it more engrossing (though again, completionists will have a bit of a challenge trying to claim high scores and unlock the secret ‘Expert’ stages). And sadly, this is the current end-of-the-line for Mario and DK’s age-old rivalry. Sure, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong spawned its own sub-series (some of which included level editors, a feature that was originally planned for this title and really would have benefitted the finish product), but each sequel put more focus on the Mini-Marios and gameplay associated with them, and less on its titular rivalry (one entry even replaced the “Vs.” in the title with “and,” which really hit home the change to the series). So as far as the gameplay produced by the original Donkey Kong goes, it has now been on its longest hiatus (if you can believe it), with the original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still being its most recent offering.

That’s a real shame. Even though Mario Vs. Donkey Kong has unraveled a bit with age, it still shows that the formula originally conceived in 1981 still has something to give.

 

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Toy Story 4 Review

When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 (eleven years after Toy Story 2), it seemed to mark the end for the series that made Pixar Animation Studios famous. Toy Story 3 was a fitting, emotional end to the journeys of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (the perennial John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Their owner, Andy, was grown up and heading off to college, and the ending saw him passing down his beloved childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. Given the overall reception of all three Toy Story films, an argument could be made that it was the best trilogy in film history.

It was a bit concerning then, when Pixar eventually announced that they were creating a fourth Toy Story feature, especially since the studio has fallen under some criticisms for its reliance on sequels during the 2010s (though in all honesty, most of their sequels have retained the studio’s high quality). Considering how conclusive of an ending Toy Story 3 was, a continuation seemed entirely unnecessary. It was all too easy to get a bit cynical and assume that Pixar simply saw more dollar signs in the property and nothing more. Combine that with some notable production issues, and things were looking grim for the continuation of the Toy Story franchise.

Thankfully, not only does Toy Story 4 prove to be one of the few fourth entries in a series that can hold its own, but in doing so it beautifully puts that aforementioned cynicism in its place. Toy Story 4 is a delightful and entertaining film that retains the series’ emotional storytelling. Though with that said, Toy Story 4 does nonetheless fall short of all three of its predecessors.

While Toy Story 3 acknowledged the eleven year gap between it and the previous entry, Toy Story 4 – for the most part – takes place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3. The exception being the film’s opening, which takes place nine years in the past (which I guess would make it two or three years after Toy Story 2, depending on when exactly the rest of the film takes place). This opening explains why Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – the porcelain doll who served as Woody’s love interest in the first two films – was absent from the third entry.

After another daring rescue of one of their fellow toys, Bo Peep was packed in a box, and given away to a friend of Andy’s family. Woody briefly considers leaving with Bo Peep, before he remembers his loyalty as Andy’s toy, and the two are then separated (preventing a time paradox for Toy Story 3 in the process).

Fast-forward to the present, and the toys have found a new home as Bonnie’s toys. Though Woody has been having a harder time adjusting to the change than the rest of the gang, with Bonnie often leaving him in the closet while she plays with the other toys.

When Bonnie is frightened to start kindergarten, Woody – desperate to keep her happy – sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to help cheer her up. When no one sits at Bonnie’s table for arts and crafts, Woody gathers a number of discarded items and sneaks them onto Bonnie’s table.

With a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, glue and googley eyes, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly raises Bonnie’s spirits. Much to Woody’s surprise, Forky soon comes alive, much in the same vein as he and his fellow toys. Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy, but having been created from trash, Forky still believes himself to be trash, and is dead-set on throwing himself away. Determined to keep Bonnie happy, Woody spends day and night preventing the suicidal utensil from throwing himself away.

This proves especially difficult when Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, bringing her toys along for the ride (as kids do). During one especially tiresome night for Woody, Forky manages to jump out of the RV, leaving Woody to give chase.

Woody reunites with Forky, and manages to make the utensil understand his place as a toy. But getting back to Bonnie will prove to be a difficult task both physically and emotionally. Bonnie’s family is at an RV park sitting next to both an antique store that serves as the home of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a doll determined to steal Woody’s voice box at any cost – and a traveling carnival, where Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (who has become a lost toy), leaving him to question what he truly wants.

Considering how conclusively Toy Story 3 seemed to end the series, it’s actually a little surprising that Pixar managed to concoct a plot as strong as they did for Toy Story 4. It manages to be consistently entertaining and delivers some genuinely emotional moments. There are, however, a few cracks in the foundations of Toy Story 4’s plot.

The first issue is that – aside from Woody and Bo Peep – the returning characters have very little presence in the story. Even the heavily-marketed additions from Toy Story 3 get minimal screen time. The worst example of this is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie have seemingly nothing to do throughout the film!

I understand that Woody is the main character of the series, but the original Toy Story presented both Woody and Buzz with equal prominence in the narrative, and Toy Story 2 beautifully continued that trend, with Buzz Lightyear reminding Woody the importance of being a toy, just as Woody had taught him in the first film. Toy Story 3 reduced Buzz Lightyear’s role to mere comic relief, which was one of my big complaints with the third installment. But instead of rectifying this gross misuse of one its best characters, Pixar has doubled down with the underutilization of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 4.

It would seem the filmmakers at Pixar have misjudged one of their greatest creations in Buzz Lightyear, focusing only on the comedic aspects he brought to the first two films, and associating the series’ heart with Woody alone (did they forget the “I Will Go Sailing No More” scene from the first movie?). The Toy Story films released in the 1990s starred Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but the latter half of the series has foolishly relegated its deuteragonist to a bit part.

“Visual dramatization of Pixar shoving Buzz and Jessie to the sidelines.”

And poor Jessie, whose introduction in Toy Story 2 brought a new emotional depth to the series, literally only has a single scene in which she does anything in this fourth installment. At what point, I have to wonder, did Pixar forget that the heart of the Toy Story films was shared between its main characters, and decided that only Woody boasted stories worth telling?

Buzz may have had a reduced role in Toy Story 3, but at least there, it didn’t have a direct affect on the story at play. But here, Buzz Lightyear’s minimal role prevents the film from resonating as much as it should. Without spoiling anything, the direction the plot takes in its third act really required the classic Toy Story characters (specifically the main ones like Buzz and Jessie) to have bigger roles in order to achieve its full impact. But because Pixar forgot how to properly implement them into the plot, the story at hand suffers a bit.

“Bo Peep gets her own sidekick in the form of Giggle McDimples (ally Maki), a Polly Pocket-esque police officer.”

Toy Story 4 seems to place a greater emphasis on its new characters, which includes not only Forky and Gabby Gabby, but also a duo of carnival plush toys Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure whose over-the-top antics and boisterous personality often steal the show. I don’t have anything against the new characters (though at times, Bunny and Ducky can feel more like a means to get Key and Peele in the movie than they do genuine characters), but it’s a shame to see the old Toy Story cast get tossed aside.

Pixar has made a few sequels which focused on the secondary character of the original (Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, Dory in Finding Dory, and Helen Parr in Incredibles 2), which worked to great effect in adding to those characters and distinguishing the sequels from the originals. So it seems weird that Toy Story has failed to do something similar by its fourth entry. Especially when you remember just how great of characters Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are. Even if Woody were destined to be the main character once again, I do have to reiterate that Buzz and Jessie (and the returning characters in general) needed a bigger role in the story in order to really hit a homerun with the direction the story takes.

“Credit definitely has to go to Gabby Gabby’s character design which, depending on the situation, can be either sympathetically cute or creepy.”

Still, the new characters have their charms. Forky, Bunny and Ducky are all cute and add some good humor to the proceedings, and Duke Kaboom, again, is a highlight of the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is Gabby Gabby, whose own story arc may be more emotional than Woody’s this time around.

“It seems weird to suddenly put the relationship between Woody and Bo Peep at the forefront…”

The film also places a strong emphasis on its re-introduction of Bo Peep. Toy Story 4 can on occasion feel like it’s giving itself a pat on the back for Bo Peep’s newfound independence, and while it’s nice that Pixar decided to give its original female character an actual personality this time around, Pixar themselves seem strangely ignorant to the fact that they had already accomplished so much more through a female character in the form of Jessie. Why not promote the character Pixar got so, so right from the get-go, instead of bringing back a character who had so little presence in the series they were left out of the third film, and try to bring more out of them at the expense of the stronger characters? Again, it’s nice that Bo Peep has more to do this time, but because it comes at the expense of Jessie, it feels self-defeating.

This reflects what I think is the fundamental problem of Toy Story 4: with how Toy Story 3 ended, Woody’s story felt completed. He saw Andy grow up and move on, he faced his greatest fear of loss/abandonment, and found new purpose with Bonnie. It felt like it completed what the first two films started (the first film having Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy usurped by Buzz, and the second having him contemplate living in a museum forever instead of facing the pain of heartbreak as Andy grows up).

If Toy Story 4 had to exist, it should have been Buzz and Jessie’s movie.

I was at the D23 expo’s animation panel in 2015 when the basics of the plot were first announced. When they were first describing Toy Story 4, Pixar referred to it as a “standalone sequel.” That seemed to make sense. The overall arc of the first three movies had ended, but Toy Story 4 could be its own little adventure starring the beloved toy characters. Pixar then announced that the film would be “a love story…” which – given Buzz and Jessie’s budding romance in the previous two movies – briefly indicated that they might be the focus of Toy Story 4, which would have further justified the continuation of the series. But then I remember when the panelists continued with “the love story between Woody…and Bo Peep.”

“He’s the hero the franchise deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

I remember being somewhat baffled at that point. Didn’t Woody already get the spotlight to himself in Toy Story 3? And wasn’t Bo Peep left out of that installment entirely? Again, why take things in this direction when they already had a love story blooming on the side in the second and third films (a romance which, by the way, is never so much as brought up in Toy Story 4)?

Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel particularly “standalone” by the end of things, either, as it seems to find more ways to try to close the series as a whole. This also puts things in a weird spot. Toy Story 3 was a fitting end to the series, but a standalone sequel could justifiably stand on its own merits. But by trying to conclude the series again, it feels like the Toy Story saga has two different third acts (which kind of cheapens Toy Story 3, when you think about it).

By now I may be sounding a bit negative, but I have to emphasize that these complaints are all relative to the exceedingly high standards set by the Toy Story series. The first three films are all among Pixar’s best, which in itself is a hefty claim. Toy Story 2 in particular, is a perfect movie.

Toy Story 4 is still a well made feature with strong characters and storytelling, and it certainly does the best job it could with all the tools at its disposal. But it’s an undeniable sting to see so many of the classic Toy Story characters get the shaft, especially since a story focused on Buzz and Jessie would have justified this entry all the more. At the very least, giving them more to do would have made Woody’s latest story arc more meaningful.

To be the weakest of the four Toy Story movies isn’t too bad of a detriment, however. It just means that Toy Story 4 is a highly enjoyable movie whose older siblings happen to be all-time greats. I watched Toy Story 4 a few times in preparation for this review, and greatly enjoyed it every time I saw it. But it’s also the only Toy Story film that wasn’t constantly buzzing in my head afterwards. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, but it somehow doesn’t resonate and stick with you like the preceding three films did (and still do).

Yes, Toy Story 4 is more than a good enough film that it should silence the hypocritically predictable cynics who cried fowl at its very existence (can we just admit that sequels can be art just as easily as original films now?). It tells a solid story that makes the best with what it has, and does so with some of the most colorful and vibrant animation yet seen in a Pixar film. But the fact that Pixar saw fit to stretch out Woody’s story arc while making the rest of the returning cast less important than ever doesn’t exactly justify the necessity of the series continuing past Toy Story 3’s conclusion.

While the Toy Story series is known for bringing adult audiences to tears, I feel that Toy Story 4 – though delivering on emotion – is only able to go so far with it. It creates something similar to what the other films did in regards to tugging at the heart strings, but only to an extent. We’ve seen Woody go through such existential crises before, so to see his inner turmoil boil back to the surface seems redundant, and somewhat undoes some of the development the preceding films gave him. Perhaps if Buzz or Jessie were given a chance in the spotlight, Toy Story 4 might have felt less like it’s treading familiar ground (even this entry’s Randy Newman song, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, seems like it’s going through the motions, and feels like the film rushes to get it out of the way early on).

Toy Story 4 is an interesting case. Yes, it is indeed a really good movie that I greatly enjoy. But it also seems like Pixar missed an opportunity here to delve deeper with the other Toy Story characters, which would have made the continuation of the series feel more earned. For all its merits, with the story Pixar chose to tell through Toy Story 4, it feels more like Toy Story 3-2. On its own, Toy Story 4 is a winner. But when you remember what it’s a following act to, it does fall short of its series’ exceedingly high standards.

 

7

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge Review

I love Banjo-Kazooie. I love the Gameboy Advance. This makes it so disheartening that Banjo-Kazooie’s oft-forgotten GBA spinoff – Grunty’s Revenge – is forgotten for a reason. Despite a surprisingly accurate translation of the gameplay from Banjo-Kazooie’s N64 duology at first glance, Grunty’s Revenge boasts none of the depth of its predecessors, and ranks as the worst game the bear and bird duo have starred in (yes, even Nuts & Bolts had more going for it).

Strangely, Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge was the first game released by developer Rare after they had been purchased by Microsoft. The game had gone through a few different development phases over a couple of years, and by the time Rare became Microsoft’s property, Grunty’s Revenge was too far in production to scrap entirely. Thankfully for Rare, Microsoft’s lack of a handheld gaming platform meant they could still legally release the game on Nintendo’s handheld, but required a middleman publisher since neither Microsoft nor Nintendo could do the honors (which seem so silly in retrospect, now that we live in a time when Xbox Live can be played on Nintendo Switch). THQ ended up being that publisher, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge saw release in 2003, to little advertisements and fanfare.

To bring in a bit of personal history, I didn’t even know about the existence of the game ahead of its release. I just opened one of my birthday gifts that year, and lo and behold, Banjo and Kazooie were in a Gameboy Advance game…apparently. I was excited, to be sure. But it didn’t take very long into the game to realize that Grunty’s Revenge was something of a step backwards for handheld gaming, harkening back to the times of the original Gameboy when the transition of a franchise to a handheld usually meant the compromise of its quality. Consider how well so many of the Gameboy Advance’s titles have held up over the years, and Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge’s flaws are only magnified with hindsight (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was released the very same year on the GBA, but you’d never know it from the difference in quality between the games).

When you first start the game, it looks promising. Even though the GBA didn’t have the power to recreate a full-on 3D platformer in the vein of the N64 Banjo-Kazooie titles, Grunty’s Revenge still does a solid job at finding a way to translate the series’ gameplay to the handheld. Grunty’s Revenge takes on an overhead camera view, and uses pre-rendered character models (a la Donkey Kong Country), which faithfully recreate the characters and enemies from the N64 games. And despite the GBA’s relatively few buttons (A and B on the face of the system, plus two shoulder buttons), Grunty’s Revenge even does a pretty good job at making Banjo and Kazooie’s moves feel reminiscent of their classic N64 outings. Even the iconic gibberish voices return!

But those similarities are short-lived, unfortunately.

The game begins with a rather rushed story. Sure, the Banjo-Kazooie games were never a story-focused series, but they had humorous writing, charming characters, and strong production values for the time. But here, the story just kind of happens on itself, and the game never really capitalizes on its concept.

Taking place between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, Grunty’s Revenge sees the titular witch Gruntilda – still trapped under a boulder after the events of Banjo-Kazooie – transfer her ghost into a robot body made by her henchman, Klungo. She then kidnaps Kazooie, and travels back in time (whether by her magic or the new robot body is anybody’s guess), in an attempt to stop Banjo and Kazooie from ever meeting, thus ensuring they would have never defeated her in the first place. Thankfully for Banjo, the witch doctor Mumbo Jumbo had witnessed the whole thing, and uses his magic to send Banjo to the same, vaguely-implied time period as Gruntilda.

Like the Banjo-Kazooie games proper, the goal is still to collect Jiggies (10 on each stage) and Musical Notes, the latter of which are used to purchase moves from Bozzeye, a mole who is an ancestor of both Bottles and Jamjars, who played a similar role in Banjos Kazooie and Tooie (respectively).

Aside from the presence of Bottles’ nondescript ancestor, there’s really nothing in the game that takes advantage of the time travel plot. The stages (of which there are five, along with the hub of Spiral Mountain) all follow standard themes and environments for the genre and series (farmland, beach, swamp, harbor and a fire/ice hybrid). In Banjo-Tooie, we got a dinosaur world, and that game didn’t even feature time travel. And that same game featured an infinitely better fire/ice hybrid world. What about the worlds of Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge so much as implies the game takes place in the characters’ past?

Wouldn’t it have been neat if the stages were direct adaptations of those from the N64 games, but with twists that showcase how they take place before the events of those games? For example, maybe you could visit Mumbo’s Mountain from Banjo-Kazooie, and the giant termite mound from that game is still under construction. Or maybe you could revisit Rusty Bucket Bay at a time before it became overwhelmed with pollution? Grunty’s Revenge is already re-using level themes from the previous games, anyway. Why not make it literal and find a way to capitalize on the time travel setup of the story?

As stated, the game actually does a decent job at bringing the series’ gameplay to the GBA, but the more you play Grunty’s Revenge, the more you realize how stripped down it is. Sure, the translation to a handheld system back in 2003 was going to come with a few expenses. But this sadly isn’t a simple case of a simplified Banjo-Kazooie on the go (that might have actually been pretty sweet). As stated, Grunty’s Revenge harkens back to the days of the original Gameboy, when a popular franchise making its way to a handheld device meant it’s quality was going to suffer.

“Also the boss fights suck, largely due to their lack of creativity and challenge, and their sheer repetition.”

The levels are just too empty, and the objectives too mind-numbingly simplistic. The N64 Banjo-Kazooie games did a great job at making the experience feel like an adventure, but Grunty’s Revenge just feels like it’s going through the motions with no rhyme or reason.

Even the moves Banjo and Kazooie learn from Bozzeye are just ones they already learned in the previous games. The only real difference is how you start the game with Banjo on his lonesome. But even that feels underplayed. Wouldn’t it have made for a more unique game if the player had to continuously switch between playing as Banjo and Kazooie? If you’re going to separate the two characters (and not manually, as in Banjo-Tooie), might as well roll with it and take advantage of the concept.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but there is actually one thing that Grunty’s Revenge does better than its otherwise far superior N64 predecessors. And that’s how, this time around, the different transformations provided by Mumbo Jumbo carry over to subsequent levels once unlocked. This means that the transformations actually have more uses here, since you’ll have to revisit Mumbo’s hut in a particular stage to utilize a different transformation in order to nab a Jiggy or two. Though it must be said that even this element suffers from a lack of communication to the player, as one stage features a Jiggy that needs a later transformation to obtain, with the game never even hinting that to be the case (going back to my personal history with the game, I gave up on it for a time back when I was younger because of this segment, in which I had no earthly idea what I was supposed to do). The  real Banjo-Kazooie games could get a little cheeky and have a character (or google-eyed object) tell you when something was meant to be revisited at a later time. While that may be a bit overt, it’s certainly a better option than leaving the player entirely clueless. And while in concept, the idea of Mumbo changing you into any available form on a given level is an improvement for the transformation concept, it still never reaches its full potential for the aforementioned reason that the objectives themselves feel so uninspired.

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge isn’t a total waste. As previously stated, the visuals find a way to bring the look of the N64 games onto the GBA with surprising accuracy. Similarly, the music captures the familiar charm of the real Banjo games. And the initial feeling of the controls is how you would imagine Banjo-Kazooie should play on the handheld system. But Grunty’s Revenge ultimately stumbles because of how far it misses the target on any of its concepts.

That initial feeling of “this is how Banjo-Kazooie should play on a handheld” quickly fades away as you realize that accuracy only exists on face value. It soon becomes apparent that Grunty’s Revenge fails to realize what made the Banjo-Kazooie games so memorable to begin with, and just coughs up a cheap imitation of what a Banjo-Kazooie game should be. The setups of time travel and separating the heroes don’t come into play in either the story or the game itself in any meaningful way.

Grunty’s Revenge is only kind of Banjo-Kazooie. Just enough to pique the curiosity of my younger self back on my 14th birthday, but not nearly enough for it to live up to the bear and bird duo who adorn its title. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

 

4

The Fourth of July 2019 Post!

Happy America, everybody!

I’m in the process of writing a few different reviews and other such things, but wanted to post something in the interim. And since I didn’t want to do another blatantly filler post, and its been a while since I wrote something festive (not counting Banjo-Kazooie’s introduction in Super Smash Bros., which should now be recognized as an international holiday). So a July 4th post just made sense. After all, I am a proud American citizen, so why not celebrate this awesome country’s birthday on this site?

“Hell yeah!”

I hope everyone has a happy Independence Day, eat lots of good food, set off awesome fireworks, and have some nice get-togethers and party! Just don’t party too hard…drive safely.

As for what’s in store for Wizard Dojo in July, well, as I said in the last post, my next movie reviews will probably be for Toy Story 4 and Spider-Man: Far From Home, and maybe a few older movies as well if I can get around to them. I have a number of video games to review, including some you may not expect. I’m slowly but surely making my way through Sekiro, Crash Team Racing and Super Mario Maker 2. Not sure if I’ll review all three within July, but I’ll try to get to at least one of them. And finally, I hope to follow through with a Top 10 List of some sort this month. At any rate, I’m hoping to make July more productive for the Dojo than June was.

But enough about that. We’re here for America! Hamburgers and cowboys and apple pie and blockbuster franchises and eagles and fireworks and Jazz and super heroes. Y’know, American stuff.

Have a happy fourth of July, my fellow Americans. And for those of you from  around the world, have a great day as well.

Happy America, everybody!

Wizard Dojo’s 2019 Through the Halfway Point (Q2)

Wow, 2019 is already halfway over. That’s kind of scary. Where did the time go?

At any rate, Wizard Dojo has had a productive year so far, as we’ve reached 2019’s halfway point. Maybe not as productive as I would like, but here’s hoping I can catch up in the coming months.

Just as I did after the first quarter of the year came and went, I’m once again writing a chronicle of Wizard Dojo’s 2019 so far, and discuss some stuff I hope to implement on this site in the coming months of the year, and maybe even beyond! Continue reading “Wizard Dojo’s 2019 Through the Halfway Point (Q2)”

The Dark Crystal Review

Jim’s Henson’s 1982 feature film, The Dark Crystal, was quite different from the beloved entertainer’s other creations. Though The Dark Crystal features a cast entirely comprised of puppets, costumes and animatronics, the film is notably darker in tone than what you would usually expect from the creator of the Muppets. Boasting a heavy dose of fantasy world-building and a genuinely imaginative mythology, The Dark Crystal can be wondrous to behold, and the film has gained a strong cult following in the decades since its release.

It’s a shame then, that the movie isn’t particularly good.

It’s an unpopular opinion to dare besmirch pretty much anything that has the name Jim Henson attached, but for all its imagination and visual splendor, The Dark Crystal has little to nothing to speak of in regards to character depth, with its main character in particular being arguably the most boring hero in any fantasy film.

Set in the world of Thra, the plot of The Dark Crystal takes place one-thousand years after a planet-altering event. The “Crystal of Truth” – a magic crystal of unspeakable power – was cracked, an event that brought forth two new races to the world of Thra. One of these races were the urRu (referred to in the film simply as “Mystics”), kind-hearted, sagely, four-armed beings which bear a passing resemblance to a combination of camels and turtles. The other race spawned from the Crystal cracking were the Skeksis, malevolent creatures which look like a humanoid cross of birds and lizards.

“The Dark Crystal is evidently one of the crystals from Crash Bandicoot.”

The pacifistic, somewhat-apathetic Mystics proved no match for the cunning and devious Skeksis, who banished the Mystics from the Crystal’s palace, learned how to harness the Crystal’s magic to gain power over the other races of Thra, and grant themselves immortality (though because the Skeksis share a life-bond with the Mystics as a result of their simultaneous “birth” from the Crystal, the Skeksis’ rituals have given the Mystics immortality as well). Under the command of the Skeksis, the Crystal of Truth became known as the Dark Crystal, which has allowed the Skeksis to rule over Thra in the thousand years since they came into being.

There is a sliver of hope for Thra, however, as one of the planet’s natural races – the elf-like Gelflings – have prophesied that one of their own will reunite the lost shard of the Dark Crystal to its rightful place, and bring an end to the Skeksis’ rule. Fearing this prophesy, the Skeksis sought to eradicate the Gelflings, wiping out all but (unbeknownst to the Skeksis) two of them.

One of these Gelflings is Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick), who was taken in by the “wisest Mystic” after he was orphaned. The wisest Mystic believes Jen to be the Gelfling of prophesy, and is preparing the boy for the day he must set out on his journey to save Thra. But that day is fast-approaching, as the Crystal must be restored before the “Great Conjunction,” an event that occurs once every thousand years in which three suns are aligned and bring out the Crystal’s full power in a kind of planet-wide reset. If Jen fails to restore the Crystal in time, the Skeksis can use its power during the Great Conjunction to ensure they rule Thra forever.

That may be a lot of explanation, but on the bright side of things, the mythology of it all is incredibly imaginative, so the exposition remains interesting. Though The Dark Crystal ultimately stumbles as a film because it fails to make any of its characters as memorable as its mythology and the visuals used to bring it to life. The film even fails to properly communicate certain elements of its plot.

A prominent example of the latter issue is that the wisest Mystic sends Jen on the quest for the Crystal shard on his death bed, at the same time as the Skeksis emperor is dying. During the film, this comes off as a glaring plot hole. After all, the Skeksis use the Crystal’s power for immortality, which extends the life of their counterpart Mystics as well, so how could a member of either race be dying of old age?

It turns out there’s an explanation, though it was only brought up in the film’s novelization and other such “expanded reading” materials of the franchise. With the Great Conjunction drawing near, the wisest Mystic – knowing he shared his life-link with the Skeksis emperor – found a way to magically “will himself to death” in order to bring about the Emperor’s demise as well. The Mystic did this because the Skeksis Emperor had grown so great in power that his death was necessary to give Jen a fighting chance (way to believe in your hero).

It’s not the best explanation, but maybe it would seem a bit less flimsy if it were actually brought up in the movie!

Still, this scene in question does bring out one of The Dark Crystal’s few resonating moments. We get a clever contrast in the deaths of the two leaders: The wisest Mystic has a humble passing, vanishing into sparkling dust with only Jen present. Meanwhile, the Skeksis Emperor – defiantly clutching onto his power until he breaths his last breath – crumbles into dirt on his garishly-decorated deathbed as his subordinates anxiously wait for him to die, so they can decide which of them claims the throne.

Sadly, such moments truly are a rarity in The Dark Crystal, especially since Jen is as empty of a main character as the filmmakers could have concocted. I am dead serious when I say that Jen has no discernible character traits. He has no personality whatsoever. He’s just a blank figure wandering around the plot. Jen is so poorly thought out that when we actually get some moments alone with the character that could potentially give him some time to develop, all he does is blatantly ask stupid questions like “What is this shard for?” and “What do I do with it? Am I supposed to take it somewhere?” Thanks for reiterating the plot basics, Captain Obvious!

“Kill it with fire! And ice! And lightning!”

Another problem with Jen – and perhaps this is a petty complaint – is that he is the single ugliest creature in the film. The other living Gelfling, a female named Kira (voiced by Lisa Maxwell), serves as the film’s deuteragonist, and is only marginally less creepy. In a film filled with so many wondrous creatures, it’s baffling how the main characters ended up being the most unappealing, unintentionally frightening creatures in the film.

Nightmares induced by the Gelflings aside, The Dark Crystal is a visual treat, possibly one of the best special effects films from a purely visual standpoint. The puppets and costumes are on-par with those of Star Wars, and they still impress all these years later. The Skeksis, in particular, should rank highly on any list of the best practical effects in movie history.

It’s actually pretty tragic, that The Dark Crystal stumbles so drastically on the narrative front. If its characters were half as memorable as its visuals and mythology, it would be a real classic of fantasy cinema. Unfortunately, none of the characters seem to exist outside of where the plot needs them, with the only semblance of personalities being found – once again – in the character designs for the Skeksis. Unfortunately, the only Skeksis who gets a decent amount of screen time happens to be the Chamberlain, whose constant, high-pitched “Hmmmms” might get on some viewers’ nerves (though I personally find them hilarious). Other than what you can make out of the Skeksis’ personalities through their designs, however, The Dark Crystal has nothing to speak of in terms of characters.

“Hmmmm! Hmm! HMMMM!”

Perhaps The Dark Crystal would have been a better film if its narrative were told from the perspective of the Skeksis, despite their role as antagonists. As loathsome of creatures as they are, the Skeksis are fascinating to watch, infinitely more so than the boring and charmless Gelflings. That’s for damn sure.

The Dark Crystal exists in a weird place for me, one that’s inhabited by a very small handful of films. That is to say, it’s one of the few films that I simultaneously like and don’t like. It’s rich in imagination and visual splendor, making it recommended for fans of practical effects and fantasy lore. But if you’re viewing it as a movie (which, you know, it is), it leaves a lot to be desired.

As of this writing, Netflix will soon release a prequel series to The Dark Crystal. Here’s hoping that said series finally brings out a story and characters worthy of the imagination Jim Henson littered Thra with.

 

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WarioWare, Inc. Mega Microgames Review

The Game Boy Advance should rightfully rank as one of Nintendo’s greatest systems. While the original Game Boy’s influence can’t be understated, and the Nintendo DS helped push Nintendo’s innovation forward, it’s the Game Boy Advance which boasts a timeless appeal that makes it akin to the handheld equivalent of the SNES. The GBA’s library of games brought a newfound quality to handheld gaming, and many of its titles have stood the test of time swimmingly. Among the Game Boy Advance’s many accomplishments was that it introduced the world to the WarioWare series.

Released in 2003, Mega Microgames kicked off the WarioWare series. By throwing players into one series of seconds-long “microgames” after another, each of which only required a press of the A button or two, or a few touches of the D-pad to complete. As a series of microgames continues, they pick up in speed, testing the player’s reflexes.

In essence, WarioWare has always been a deconstruction of video games themselves, stripping away all of their complexities until only the bare minimum of what a video game is remains. It’s simplistic to the point of hilarity (an element that’s magnified by the often silly concepts and goofy graphics of the microgames themselves). WarioWare is a genius subversion of video games, presented in the most manic package possible.

The only real downside to Mega Microgames is – as the first game in the series – it shows its limitations when compared to its sequels (most specifically it’s GBA follow-up, WarioWare Twisted and WarioWare Gold on the 3DS). Mega Microgames – somewhat ironically – falls short of its successors by being the bare basics of the series, even if that “bare basics” element is the appeal of the series as a whole.

Simply put, Mega Microgames is WarioWare in its purest form, for better and (relatively) worse. You play through “chapters” of the game, each distinguished by a different character (with Wario serving as the opening and closing chapters, with the rest represented by the WarioWare cast first introduced here, like Mona, 9-Volt and Jimmy T.). Later entries in the series would better define each character’s chapters with specific themes (whether through twists to the gameplay or unique aesthetics), but here, the gimmicks of each character are a bit less defined.

9-Volt, for example, may have always been a Nintendo fanboy, but here, not all of his microgames use retro Nintendo games as their template. Meanwhile, the games that do use Nintendo’s past as a backdrop quickly begin appearing as other characters’ games as well. In fact, you’ll notice the same microgames getting recycled a lot sooner here than you would in later WarioWare entries, leaving you to wonder why there needed to be as many different character chapters as there are.

Playing through the story mode (if it can even be called that), probably won’t last over an hour. Thankfully, after you conquer a chapter, you can play through its games at your own leisure to go for a high score. Additionally, besting certain chapters will even unlock brand new games outside of those in the main game. So even if you can run through Mega Microgames, it still provides a decent amount of addicting gameplay nonetheless.

WarioWare Inc. Mega Microgames remains a lot of fun even today. The only thing preventing it from being more strongly recommended is that it (understandably) feels like an unpolished diamond in hindsight. Later entries would bring so much out of WarioWare’s brilliant concept of rapid-fire gauntlets of mindlessly simple games – both in terms of the number of microgames and variety in their gameplay – that Mega Microgames feels prototypical by comparison.

Mega Microgames kickstarted one of Nintendo’s most quietly beloved franchises, and gave the Wario character newfound life and purpose. Its successors may have added to the formula, but the original WarioWare still provides a good amount of fun.

 

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