Mystery Blogger Award

Seeing as I’ve been twice nominated for this now (by Red Metal of Extra Life Reviews and Matt from NintendoBound), it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these blog award things, and the fact that I was slow to update my site in April, I figured I’d write my response to this Mystery Blogger Award now. So thanks to those who nominated me! Now let’s just get on with it and answer those questions.


 

1 -What is the most unusual work you have experienced?

 

Well, that’s an incredibly broad question, when one considers the use of the word “work” could mean a work in any medium. I don’t think I can compare certain things with others, so I don’t know if I can name one definitive work that ‘out-unusuals’ them all. There are a few I could choose.

BUT, for the sake of answering these questions, I will give my answer in the form of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and – subsequently – Twin Peaks: The Return.

Now, I’m probably about 90% sure that Twin Peaks is my favorite television series of all time (though there are a few other contenders). It is a delightfully weird show.

However, as weird as the show’s initial (and tragically short) two season, thirty episode run was, the subsequent materials that came after are much weirder.

The prequel film (yeah, a lot of people forget Twin Peaks had a movie), Fire Walk with Me, is a wild, trippy venture, one that triples down on the show’s darker elements, which (sadly) comes at the expense of the series’ more lighthearted and humorous bits (the series is widely known for changing tone and even genre on the fly). The film, which I won’t delve into detail because it would spoil both it and the series, not only magnifies the show’s strangeness, but it’s also the kind of follow-up where you really would have to have seen every episode of the original series to even begin to understand things.

As such, the film – unlike the beloved series – was alienating when it was released in the mid-90s (it only found any real success in Japan). It has garnered more praise over the years, and I myself like the movie well enough. But it is downright bizarre, and if someone saw it without having an intimate knowledge of the series, I can imagine Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me might come across like some kind of fever dream. Hell, it might come across as such even if you’re a fan of the series.

That leads me to 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return (or simply the third season of Twin Peaks). Appropriately picking up twenty-five years after the original series ended (something which the final episode of the show’s original run eerily predicted), The Return is an eighteen episode madhouse where both everything and nothing at all happens. While the original series slowly chipped away to reveal supernatural elements, The Return dives headfirst into fantasy, science fiction and horror right out of the gate.

“In Fire Walk with Me, David Bowie portrayed the character of Phillip Jeffries. He was set to reprise the role for The Return, but sadly passed away before filming. David Lynch worked around this by… turning the Phillip Jeffries character into a talking, inter-dimensional tea kettle that spouts bubbles of smoke…”

That’s not a bad thing, of course. But because this is a David Lynch creation, The Return utilizes these genres to their strangest, and leaves many details largely unexplained. Twin Peaks: The Return received universal praise from critics, but had a more polarizing reception from fans.

While I ultimately enjoyed The Return, I think my feelings toward it lie somewhere in between the two sides of the argument. I do appreciate the many risks it takes, and it does avoid the nostalgia problem of today by denying its narrative of repeating beloved moments for the sake of fan service, but there are aspects to it that are downright frustrating. Effectively turning the main character, Dale Cooper, into a magic savant may lead to many entertaining moments, the idea does feel a bit dragged out after a while. But perhaps the most frustratingly bizarre aspect of The Return is how it utilizes the characters of the Horne family: Ben, his brother Jerry, and Ben’s daughter Audrey.

Despite being arguably the most memorable characters from the original series, The Return seems largely disinterested in doing anything with the Hornes: Ben is stuck behind a desk the entire season, Jerry spends several episodes panicked about something terrible he may or may not have seen while high, and Audrey – who doesn’t even show up until over halfway through The Return – spends what little screen time she has arguing with her bizarre husband, before dancing in one of the seasons’ many musical moments, and ultimately “waking up(???)” in a mysterious white room, which goes unexplained.

Again, this is an eighteen episode season of hour-long episodes, and that’s what David Lynch came up with for the series’ best characters. What’s worse, is the story they come up with for what Audrey’s life was like between the original run and The Return basically puts her through hell, and then to not give her story any semblance of closure feels unnecessarily cruel.

But I guess I’m starting to sound like I’m reviewing the season. There’ll be a day for that. But I’m pretty sure, even from my vague descriptions, you can tell that both Fire Walk with Me and The Return take what was already a weird and unusual series, and took it into absolutely insane levels of absurdity.

So yeah. That’s my answer for now.

 

2- What is the best work you have experienced that no one seems to know about?

 

Well, again, I find this to be a hard question to answer. Maybe back in the early 2000s, I could have listed several video games I played that I only later found out were these obscure gems. But in this day and age of the all-encompassing internet, I’m sure plenty of people know about many of these obscure works I once experienced, even if I’m sure only a handful of people who have heard of them have ever experienced them firsthand. I hate to say it, but I may have to properly answer this at a later time, as I’m having trouble of thinking of something I have enjoyed that “no one seems to know about.” Or maybe it’s so obscure that I forgot I know of it?

Sorry. I’ll answer this as soon as I can.

 

3- If you could go back in time and go to the premiere of one classic film, which one would you choose?

Well, the only movie premiere I’ve ever been to was Rango, so there’s no shortage of options to choose from. I’m tempted to go with the easy answers and just pick one of my favorite films released in my lifetime, such as Spirited Away or Disney’s Frozen.

But for the sake of not creating a time paradox in my own movie life, let’s go with something from before I was born. The obvious choice then would be Star Wars (or “A New Hope”)  in 1977, followed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But I’m going to go into the not-too-distant past from before my time, to 1988, the year before I was born, and pick Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That movie is a visual miracle even by today’s standards, and given the unanimous praise it received in its day, the way it revolutionized visual effects and revitalized the animation industry, that would be a wild ride to witness firsthand.

“Also, Jessica Rabbit.”

 

4- If you decided to write fiction, which genre would you choose?

Finally! An easy question to answer!

As I’ve stated in the past, I do have a particularly active imagination, and would love to create my own video games some day. As such, it should come as no surprise that my genre of choice would be fantasy. Or I guess I could say it is fantasy, seeing as I’ve always enjoyed creating worlds, characters and stories since I was a wee tyke up to the current day. So it’s more or less a question of how to “officially” make and release such things, since I’ve technically been doing it my whole life.

Why fantasy? Easy, because – much like animation – it’s a gateway into any and every genre. It knows no limits. It can be as real or as fantastic as you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be swords and sorcery, and can really be any kind of story.

With all due respect to science-fiction, fantasy is its superior, as even sci-fi has its limitations. Science fiction might have to resort to explaining its elements, and sometimes those explanations can make things goofier. Fantasy, existing purely in the imagination, doesn’t need to explain itself to anyone. And that’s badass.

 

5-What is the most disappointingly predictable plot twist you have experienced?

 

Apologies to Matt From NintendoBound, but honest to goodness, my answer is identical to his. It’s Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. The movie is directed and acted well enough, but I remember from the moment the plot officially kicked in, I figured out exactly where it was ending up. I kind of hate to say that, for fear it might make me sound like one of those snarky CinemaSins/Honest Trailers clowns who basically worship themselves for finding flaws in movies. But I’m not trying to find fault in a movie with big names like Scorsese and DiCaprio attached, it was just such an easy twist to figure out.

Runner-up goes to recent history with Knives Out, which spent so much time trying to throw viewers off the scent of one particular character, that I couldn’t help but think “when’s the movie going to reveal that character as the culprit?”

 

6- What do you consider to be the strangest title for a work?

I’m going to avoid the easy answer by exempting every B-horror movie from the list of possible answers.

With that out of the way, I guess I’d select the animated short film The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. It was a pretty good short, from what I remember of it. But that title…

 

7- Where in a theater do you prefer to sit

Normally, as close to the center as possible. Middle seat of the middle-ist row. However, I may surprise some people by saying this, but when it comes to animated films, I honestly don’t mind sitting in the front row one bit. It really absorbs you in the visuals of animation. To paraphrase what the late Roger Ebert said for both Finding Nemo and Ponyo, “this is one of those rare films where I want to sit in the very front row, and drown in it.”

 

8- Do you have any graphic novel/manga series you’re currently following?

Sadly no. My time outside of life’s impositions is usually dedicated to working on my passions of drawing, writing and (as mentioned above) creating my own (for lack of a better word) “things.” And trying to learn game development, of course. Naturally, my creative passions include video games and movies, so those are what I tend to gravitate towards with my free time. While I like graphic novels and manga, I just simply don’t have the same passion for them that I do movies and video games. I loved the comic book series “Bone” by Jeff Smith growing up, and the entire series has been available as a single graphic novel for quite some time now, so I’ll probably pick that up eventually. And I wouldn’t mind a new graphic novel or manga in theory. But whenever I’m not dealing with life, trying to create “things,” or writing on this site, I’m watching movies or playing video games. So it’s difficult for me to make the time for comics, sadly.

 

9- When it comes to reviewing films, which do you feel are more effective – traditional, written reviews or video essays?

Well, for me personally, I think it obviously has to be written reviews. I have been wanting for years now to do some form of videos centering on video games or movies, but my Social Phobia and general awkwardness continues to push that back. Written reviews are more welcoming to people like me.

On the whole though, I don’t think either method is necessarily more effective than the other, and just depends on the individual.

One thing is for sure though, the “YouTube method” of video reviews – lambasting pretty much everything whilst promoting oneself – has to go. It’s obnoxious, and is only damaging the creative industries. I remember reading – if I remember correctly – that the Russo Brothers wanted to make Captain America and the Winter Soldier “Honest Trailers proof.” If creators are seriously trying to cater to the judgement of self-promoting internet types, then creativity is truly dead.

Film criticism should try to instill and reflect creativity, similar to movies themselves, but obviously in a different way. YouTubers and their ilk just seem to try to find faults in the littlest details to put down real creators and stroke their own egos. It’s toxic.

So while I don’t think either the written word or video essays are more ideal than the other, I guess the former has provided a bit more respectable examples in this day and age of “everything sucks so like, share and subscribe to me!”

10- What aspect of old school game design do you wish would make a comeback?

As obvious as this may sound, modern games could learn the valuable lesson of putting gameplay above all else from their ancestors.

It’s actually kind of sad how many games emphasize their stories and cinematics over the actual game. It’s not just the games themselves, but gamers have bought into it hook, line and sinker. It’s irritating hearing people say things like “the things I look for in a game are good story and characters.” Tetris has no story, and is still a masterpiece decades later. Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls emphasized story, and were always crap.

Now, that’s not to say that I have an issue with video games with stories, but the gaming community seems to blindly follow the idea that “having a story = a good story.” Sorry, but The Last of Us is cliche-riddled and self-important, and Kingdom Hearts is incoherent gobbledygook.

Nintendo’s naysayers insist there’s some kind of “Nintendo bias” as to why the Big N tends to produce many critically acclaimed titles. But there’s no such conspiracy at play, and in fact Nintendo getting top marks are probably the only consistently trustworthy examples of video game critics dishing out rave reviews because Nintendo’s philosophy has always been to put gameplay at the heart and center of things. Not every game Nintendo makes is great, but it really shouldn’t be such a surprise that Nintendo produces so many critical darlings in the video game world considering they  put the actual game first. The only conspiracy here is provided by those suggesting  Nintendo is at the center of some conspiracy (all while review-bombing Nintendo games on Metacritic, of course).

Again, you hear Nintendo’s critics accuse Nintendo of being in the past, but they’re only in the past in their philosophy of games being about gameplay. And in actuality, that’s a notion from the past that’s forward-thinking. Other areas of the gaming world, in a desperate attempt to be “legitimized” decided to make video games more like movies. And in doing so, video games devolved in a number of ways.

It’s not just storylines, though (and again, those can work, if designers remember they’re making games with stories instead of stories with a game attached). But it seems developers are always obsessed with trying to show off their production budget, whether through unnecessary detail or blatant padding to add to a game’s total runtime (two things Red Dead Redemption 2 – a game I mostly loved – is very guilty of. I can’t imagine how many hours I could have saved if I didn’t have to watch Arthur Morgan meticulously pick up every last object on the ground and Rockstar made it more “video game-y” and let the player just walk over items). Hell, it’s because of the fact that developers no longer see games as being games why we now have vile concepts like “games as a service.” Hope you like micro transactions!

So yeah, if video games could remember what old school games knew (and what Nintendo and select others still know) – that video games are games first – they’d be much better off.

 

11- What aspect of old school game design are you glad went away?

Despite my above statements, old video games weren’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. While Mario, Mega Man and Tetris are timeless, I might argue that the NES is one of Nintendo’s weakest consoles in retrospect, since it housed many games that showcase the archaic elements of gaming’s early days.

Those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s need only watch a few episodes of The Angry Video Game Nerd to remember “oh yeah, the NES had a lot of crap.” Notably, the publisher LJN was an infamous example of early gaming not caring about the quality of their products.

“While video games are MOSTLY subjective, games like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure were so unpolished and untested, that they can only be described as “objectively bad.””

Gaming’s old school years saw countless titles that were rushed out the gate, featuring things like mechanics that don’t work as they should and insanely cryptic elements that no one would logically figure out, and were often flat-out unfinished.

Even some of yesteryear’s classics, like the original Legend of Zelda and Metroid titles, haven’t aged well due to their overly cryptic nature (though they were infinitely better than many other games of their time). It’s really no surprise why Super Mario was the series at the time. Its ideas were so forward thinking for the medium, that most Mario games are still fun even by today’s standards.

Other games weren’t so wise, however. And while the 16-bit generation marked a vast improvement – to the point that a number of its titles still rank among history’s best games – even it wasn’t immune to “old video game jank.” Even the SNES housed the dreadful Lester the Unlikely and the unplayable Batman Forever.

Now, modern gaming isn’t without its untested messes (one of the most infamously unfinished games of all time, Ride to Hell: Retribution, was somehow released on the PS3 and Xbox 360). But there is a bit of a precedent now. And if developers and publishers hacked up the same kind of hairballs that LJN and their ilk did back in the day, they’d vanish without a trace after their first attempt. No one would be allowed to get away with that kind of track record in this day and age.

Bad games will always exist, but they’re a rarer beast now. With video game critiquing becoming more prominent, as well as the medium becoming mainstream and leaving its infancy some time ago, publishers and developers can no longer hide from the discerning eye. Quality control is a thing now, and wasn’t back in day.

 

……..Also, turbo controllers. Let those things rot in Hell.


 

Thank you for reading my responses. Hopefully you at least kind of enjoyed at least something I said. Thanks again to Red Metal from Extra Life Reviews and Matt from NintendoBound for the nominations.

I have to apologize, but I’m going to have to break tradition this time around, because I have no one to nominate, and thus, have no questions to ask at this time. Much like comic books and manga, I don’t really spend a whole lot of time reading other blogs (the only two I still read with regularity are the two that nominated me). I used to read a lot more when I first launched this site, but both due to an increasingly busy schedule, and the sad fact that my blog has outlived a number of those I used to read, I’m not quite as well-versed in blogs as I once was. Hopefully I can find/rediscover some good ones in the near future (especially seeing as we’re all trapped in our houses at the moment). But I really don’t have anyone to nominate at this time.

Thanks for reading! See you soon with my review of The Empire Strikes Back… hopefully…

Thoughts on Super Mario Maker 2’s World Builder

To follow up on my last post, Super Mario Maker 2’s final major update has been out for a few days now, and I’ve given the new “World Maker” feature a little bit of a whirl. I haven’t uploaded anything, but I’ve been tinkering with the tools a bit, and playing other people’s worlds.

First and foremost, the ability to make your own worlds is, simply put, amazing in and of itself. With that said, however, the World Maker’s status as a last addition to the game, as opposed to a key ingredient from the start, is evidenced by a few unfortunate limitations.

Again, I stress that the World Maker feature is a welcome addition just by being what it is. I’ve seen some people complain that the world maps are limited to the Super Mario World visual style, but I don’t see anything wrong with that, seeing as Super Mario World is one of those games that just looks timeless.

Super Mario World is a good point of reference, however, because the big issue I have with the World Maker feature – fun as it is – is that its status as a late addition to the game means it lacks a key feature that made Super Mario World so great.

The problem is that, for a year now, the player created stages of Super Mario Maker 2 have been made in a vacuum. Each one its own entity, not part of a greater whole. But the World Maker feature requires players to fill their world maps with courses they have already uploaded to the game’s servers, and doesn’t include any new features to accommodate the transition.

Sure, some clever players will find ways to fill a world with levels all featuring similar gameplay themes, but there’s some things that are completely outside of the player’s ability.

One of Super Mario World’s best contributions to the Mario series (and gaming as a whole) was how the world map was, itself, a level of sorts. Some stages had multiple exits that lead to different branching paths, and you could replay stages to find different exits and pathways.

Because the levels of Super Mario Maker have – since the 2015 original – been made as their own entities, they will always ultimately have one exit. Yes, some players get really creative and create different pathways through their stage, but they’ll always ultimately end up at the same goal. And while players can create branching pathways on their world maps in Super Mario Maker 2’s new update, it’s very limited in how you can go about doing that. What’s more, you can’t replay levels you’ve beaten in someone’s created world, so despite the Super Mario World aesthetic, it plays in the more linear fashion of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Now, I’m not going to complain too much, because I figured this would be the case, given the World Maker being a late addition to Super Mario Maker 2. But I’m writing this because, should there ever be a Super Mario Maker 3, I think Nintendo could add so many features to World Maker so that player’s creations feel like their own full-blown Mario games (no matter how short), as opposed to a series of seemingly unrelated levels strung together.

The Super Mario Maker titles are among Nintendo’s best ideas, but there’s no doubt they have their limitations. What better way to justify a third entry than for Nintendo to take their gloves off, and expand what they’ve managed to achieve in this sub-series over the past five years in such a way that players can make grand Mario adventures?

With World Maker now established, Nintendo could emphasize it in a potential third game, allowing players to more fluidly create and link similar stages. Perhaps they can include the option to have multiple exits, make the stages replayable, create branching paths out of said different exits to allow for bigger, more versatile world maps. And it could give Nintendo the ability to add more options for secrets and collectible items to the game (as opposed to leaving players to pretend like those multi-value coins are worth the effort), as a means of giving players an added depth to their worlds. Perhaps a certain number of a particular collectible is required to open a new path, or a secret level?

The new World Maker feature in Super Mario Maker 2 is great in its own right. But if the future gives us a third Mario Maker, one that can prioritize World Maker as opposed to making it a late addition, it could really take this series to a whole new level. Or world, as it were.

Super Mario Maker 2’s Final Major Update Looks Amazing!

First of all, sorry I’ve been a bit slow as of late. I’ll try to pick up the pace with updates.

But wow, Nintendo dropped a bombshell today. Super Mario Maker 2 will be getting its final “major” update, and boy howdy, does it look amazing. It’s adding so much, I may have to re-review the game when all is said and done. The best part? It will be released in just two days!

In the words of Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow: “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here is Nintendo’s trailer for the oodles of new content for Super Mario Maker 2.

Mmm-mmm! Now that’s what I call an update. More new features and power-ups, added bosses in the form of Koopalings, Mario Bros. 2 elements, new enemies, and best of all, the ability to create your own world and – essentially – your own Mario game!

Suffice to say, my reaction to watching the trailer was something like this…

 

I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo probably wanted to spread these updates out, but due to the global situation, decided to go all in with one spectacular update. And boy howdy, they delivered.

There’s been a lot of rumors going around that Nintendo has big plans for Super Mario Bros’s 35th anniversary this year. And this massive update seems to be an indicator that there might be something to those rumors. Now let’s hope that the rumor of a new, traditional Paper Mario game is true. Not to mention that compilation of 3D Mario remasters. Wasn’t there also word of an enhanced port of Super Mario 3D World as well?

Boy, I’m getting ahead of myself… One thing at a time. Fingers crossed for that future Mario goodness. But for now, let’s bask in the glory of the fact that we can make our own Mario worlds!

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review

Dark Souls II is something of the black sheep of the Souls series. Given the standard laid forth by the original Dark Souls, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to not achieving the same impact as its predecessor, Dark Souls II is also noted for being the only entry in the series not directed by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who merely took on a producing role this time around. Dark Souls II would be directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura  (as such, it’s also the only entry in the series to not feature Miyazaki’s signature character, Patches, who even found his way into Bloodborne).

It probably didn’t help Dark Souls II that it didn’t get a whole lot of time to build its own legacy. Dark Souls II was the first in a line of three “Souls” entries released in as many years. While there was a three year gap between Dark Souls and this sequel, Bloodborne was released the year after Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III capped off the series the year after that. Bloodborne is widely considered the best follow-up to Dark Souls, and has a setting distinct from the Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds of the rest of the series, while Dark Souls III felt like the proper culmination of all previous entries. Dark Souls II, by comparison, got a little lost in the shuffle, with less identity of its own to make it stand out.

When Dark Souls II was first released in 2014, it was the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade. But because of the aforementioned reasons – as well as a couple of questionable design choices – Dark Souls II has gained that reputation as the black sheep of the franchise.

But being the black sheep is really a relative term in instances like this. Despite its drawbacks (and yes, it does fall short of its predecessor, successor, and Bloodborne), Dark Souls II is still an excellent game that retains the series’ quality. And for my money, it’s still a much better game than Demon’s Souls.

The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition of Dark Souls II was released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2015, and featured improved visuals and some minor tweaks, and also included all of the downloadable content from its original release.

If Dark Souls II has any immediate drawback, it’s that it’s a little tepid when it comes to branching out of its predecessor’s shadow and constructing its own identity. Now, given that the first Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made, that’s not a horrible thing. But suffice to say that Dark Souls II is the safest entry in the series, creatively speaking.

The gameplay retains the depth and intricacy the series is known for. You create a character whose play style becomes more and more customizable as the game goes on. You can equip weapons, armor and shields, as well as gain magic abilities (which come in the form of sorceries, miracles, pyromancies and hexes). You fight your way through incredibly difficult lands and dungeons – where many foes can fell you in a single hit – and search for those heavenly bonfires for those blessed moments of reprieve.

That’s not to say that Dark Souls II doesn’t feature any tricks of its own. One feature – unique to the series – is that each area has a finite number of enemy respawns. True to its predecessor, igniting a bonfire may serve as a checkpoint and a means to recover health, spells, and your ever-trusty Estus Flask, but doing so will also respawn every enemy in the area surrounding said bonfire. Unlike its predecessor, or either of its successors, however, is that if you slay particular enemies enough times and keep using the local bonfire, these enemies will eventually cease to spawn for the remainder of the playthrough.

It’s an interesting concept, admittedly. And if you’re having too much trouble with a particular area or enemy, it gives you something of a cheat in that you can keep chipping away at such troublesome moments until the source of said troubles just disappears entirely and is cleared out of your path.

However, this concept of finite enemy respawns comes with a few caveats. Notably, if a certain type of enemy holds particular items or materials you’re looking for, you only have so many chances to try to farm said items during any given playthrough. And should you choose to use the aforementioned method of exhausting certain enemy spawns  to make progression a bit smoother, be prepared for a large amount of tedium.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that the developers assumed many players would go the route of slowly extinguishing enemies, because there seems to be way more foes in any given area than in any other entry in the series. That’s not innately a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when some places within the game feel like they’re just tossing in hordes of enemies willy nilly.

“This place may look heavenly, but with the sheer excess of sorcerer enemies and monsters that pop out of the water, it’s probably closer to Hell.”

By that I mean one of the strengths of the first Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) is the sense of staging. The games not only feature excellent level and enemy designs that add to the gameplay, but the placement of those enemies in those areas really add to the gameplay. There’s a brilliant sense of staging that few games can match. But in Dark Souls II, there are more than a few areas where it feels like there’s no cohesive structure in the enemy placements, and that it simply bombards the player with as many enemies as humanly possible as it assumes said player will gradually exhaust the spawning of these enemies.

For those who would like to farm items and souls (the series’ combination of experience points and currency), you can start the enemy spawn cycle of a given area over again by using a rare item called a Bonfire Ascetic, but even that comes with the drawback of upping the difficulty of the area (for example, using an Ascetic during your first playthrough will up that area’s difficulty to that of New Game Plus, with each additional use upping it further to the difficulty of the next playthrough). And doing so can’t be reversed for that character. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The finite enemy respawns are a mixed bag, then. But at least I understand why FromSoftware experimented with the idea. Less understandable is that Dark Souls II saw fit to resurrect Demon’s Souls’s punishment for defeat by lowering your maximum health with each death!

Like the other games in the series, the player’s acquired souls are dropped upon death, but they have a chance to reclaim them, if they learned from past mistakes and make it back to the spot they died. But die again before reclaiming them and those souls are gone for good. This element is fine, as it has always been a key part of the series, and one that proved influential to video games as a whole. But lowering the player’s maximum health upon every defeat is a component of Demon’s Souls that never needed to be brought back. It just feels like the game is punishing the player for its own difficulty.

You can undo this effect with a particular item (the “Human Effigy” this time around), but this item is much rarer that the “Humanity” item of Dark Souls, and chances are you’ll run out of them faster than you can get more, until maybe your third playthrough. So you’ll be spending a good portion of the game with only a fragment of your full health. The game would already be more than difficult enough without this feature.

I’m probably sounding a bit negative by this point, but these are the major issues with Dark Souls II that prevent it from being on the same level as its immediate predecessor and its successors. With these negatives out of the way, however, it should be emphasized that, when Dark Souls II hits the right notes, it’s exceptional.

The core gameplay is as fun and deep as ever, and the world design remains exquisite. The boss fights are still epic encounters, though perhaps a bit less memorable than other entries in the series due to a relative lack of variety (a good portion of the bosses are giant suits of armor with swords). There are secrets and hidden areas around every corner, instilling a strong sense of exploration into the player. And while I may have noted the cumbersome nature of the areas packed with excessive enemies, there are still places in the game that are the opposite, and evoke the series’ usual design strengths.

There are a few other tweaks made to the Dark Souls formula. Like in Demon’s Souls, the player doesn’t level up at any given bonfire, but instead has to speak with a particular NPC (the “Emerald Herald” in this case, who resides in the game’s hub of Majula). Some might say having to go to a specific spot to level up isn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s method, but given that you have the ability to warp to any previously visited bonfire from the get-go this time around, it’s not a problem.

Some may also not be too keen on the way the Estus Flask upgrades in Dark Souls II. Rather than Dark Souls 1’s process of boosting the individual bonfires to give you more uses of the Estus Flask, you now have to find two different rare items that, when burned at a bonfire, increase the number of uses of the Estus Flask itself (to a maximum of 12) and increase how much health each usage heals. But I don’t find it to be any worse than its predecessor’s method, just different.

As usual, Dark Souls II looks and sounds great. Although the Scholar of the First Sin edition doesn’t look as pretty as its sequels that were made from the ground up for PS4 and Xbox One, its art direction and visual aesthetics have held up nicely. And, when coupled with its sweeping musical score and the series’ untouchable sound design, it all really gives the game a strong sense of atmosphere.

On the subject of atmosphere, Dark Souls II follows series’ tradition of having the majority of its story and world building told through the level design, item descriptions, and passing NPC dialogue. The story and world here are still interesting (and tell of how the kingdom of Drangleic fell to ruin), but it is a little odd that its story and setting seem far removed from that of the first game. This would be emphasized all the more later on when Dark Souls III felt like a closer follow-up to the first Dark Souls, while only giving the world, characters and elements of Dark Souls II a few passing references. So if Dark Souls II weren’t already seen as the black sheep of the series by fans, it seems its sequel would canonically magnify this labelling.

That’s a bit of a shame. While Dark Souls II undoubtedly falls short of the two Dark Souls entries it’s sandwiched between (and Bloodborne. Can’t forget Bloodborne), it’s still a great game that expands on the world of the series.

Dark Souls II’s faults may be few, but they are certainly more noticeable than those of its sister titles. Only in a series of this pedigree could a game as good as Dark Souls II be considered its “black sheep.” If taken by its own merits, Dark Souls II is close to triumphant. It’s only when one remembers what came before and what came after that its blemishes really start to show.

 

8

Movie Awards 2020: The Inaugural “Dora” Award

Now that I’ve (finally) finished my annual video game awards, I figured it’s time to get to celebrating the movies of 2019. Now, I’m not sure if I’ll do a full list of categories like I did for video games this time around, but I definitely will do a top 10 list of my favorite films of 2019. There was, however, at least one other award I wanted to dish out this year (I may still do others, but it’s already April so we’re really grasping here).

This “Dora” award will go to a movie released in a given year that, by all rights, should have sucked, but didn’t. All marketing and expectations point towards a particular movie being, well, terrible. But against all odds, it didn’t.

Given that I’m calling this award “The Dora Award” it should be obvious what the inaugural recipient is…

 

Winner: Dora and the Lost City of Gold

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold should have sucked. It’s a live-action movie based on an educational cartoon aimed at small children! It’s Dora the Explorer!

But, lo’ and behold, it was a good movie. I mean, it’s not great or anything, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is better than a live-action Dora the Explorer movie has any right to be.

It’s a fun movie for young audiences, and features just the right amount of self-awareness and smarminess that it should prove to be an entertaining time for some older crowds as well.

Normally, I hate to hear the words “I liked X-thing because it didn’t take itself seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s telling). But Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the exception where the very nature of the movie couldn’t be taken seriously. So when the initial trailer showed up and seemed as though this movie wanted to be seen as a legitimate Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider Lite, it didn’t exactly win anyone over to the concept of live-action Dora the Explorer (myself included).

I only ended up seeing the movie because I got to see it for free, but I was pleasantly surprised. Again, it may not be anything special, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a good movie. It’s silly, lighthearted fun. And while it acknowledges the innate ridiculousness of itself, Dora and the Lost City of Gold never feels so tongue-in-cheek as though it’s talking down to its source material or its young fanbase.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold – against all expectations and reason – was a fun movie. Who knew?

Onward Review

Pixar’s Onward has one of the more unique premises in the animation studio’s history. While Pixar has proven to be one of the world’s most consistent sources of making excellent movies – animated or otherwise – most of their concepts can be summed up in one brief word: toys, cars, fish, etc. But in the case of Onward, we have a high fantasy world in the vein of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons, but placed in a contemporary suburban setting. With this concept, Onward takes the premise of a fantasy adventure, and turns it into a kind of road trip buddy movie. The end result is one of Pixar’s finer accomplishments of recent years. One that fits nicely into the studio’s acclaimed repertoire of entertaining and touching films.

The world of Onward is littered with the usual races of high fantasy: elves, goblins, trolls, dragons, and so on. But in this world’s history, as the art of magic proved hard to master, it eventually went by the wayside in favor of the accessibility of technology. So the present day of this world isn’t too dissimilar from our own, save for the fact that we have the aforementioned fantasy creatures in place of humans.

What once might have been brave warriors going into battle on their mighty steed are now your everyday, blue collar workers riding public transport. Magical creatures such as unicorns are now more akin to “pests” like raccoons or opossums, knocking over trash cans for food. And fearsome dragons are now common household pets.

It’s a fun premise that could have come off as a bit gimmicky under less capable hands. Thankfully, while certain other animation studios may have used the premise predominantly for gags and parody, Pixar has proven very reliable with keeping such things in check, and instead use their premises for the benefit of a story, as opposed to cheap laughs. And that’s as true here as ever.

The story revolves around two elf brothers: the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is the shy, awkward type, while Barley is something of a fearless goofball, and is obsessed with the magical past of his world (and the tabletop games it inspired). Their father Wilden passed away when Barley was very young, shortly before Ian was born.

On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a surprise from his late father. This particular gift was to be given to both boys once they were both over sixteen, and not even Laurel is sure of what it is.

It turns out this gift is a wizard’s staff. Laurel mentions that when her husband grew ill, he “got into some strange things,” and it seems the old magic of the world happened to be among those things. Along with the staff is a spell, created by Wilden, which will allow him to be resurrected for a twenty-four hour time period, so that he may see who his sons grew up to be. As Barley notes, a spell that powerful would need a catalyst, which Wilden has included with the spell and staff in the form of a rare Phoenix Gem.

Barley tries for hours to get the spell to work, to no avail. Eventually, Ian – longing to meet the father he never knew – gives it a shot, and it begins to work. Slowly but surely, the spell is bringing Wilden back to the world of the living. Barley busts in and tries to help his brother, but the distraction, along with Ian’s lack of confidence, ends up making the spell go awry. The Phoenix Gem is destroyed before the spell can finish, leaving Wilden only half-resurrected. And by that I mean only his lower torso has returned to the realm of the living, which ends in a kind of blue vortex where his upper half should be connected.

Ian loses face, seemingly botching his one chance to meet his father. But Barley recalls a quest from one of his tabletop RPGs (which, in this fantasy world, are based on historical fact) that tells of a way to claim another Phoenix Gem. And so, following Barley’s knowledge of the adventure, the brothers – with Dad-legs in tow – set out in Barley’s van “Guinevere” on a quest to claim the Phoenix Gem so they can complete the spell before the twenty-four hours are up, so that they can see their father. Meanwhile, Laurel is on her sons’ trail, trying to keep them out of danger, where she is eventually allied by “Corey” the Manticore (Octavia Spencer).

It’s actually one of the more touching premises of the Pixar library (which is saying something), and again, under less capable hands this plot may have floundered. If one were to judge Onward from its marketing, after all, one wouldn’t be at fault to think – with the brothers disguising the living legs of their deceased father as a person – that it was some kind of kid-friendly version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Had this premise been under the umbrella of certain other CG animation studios, an emphasis on gags may have turned it into just that.

What makes Pixar stand out is that – despite their whimsical premises – they always try to put story and characters at the forefront. They don’t always succeed, mind you (The Good Dinosaur happened), but their track record is second only to Studio Ghibli in the world of animated features. And Onward is one of Pixar’s better films in recent years, if maybe not quite on the top echelon of the studio’s works.

The subplot with Laurel and the Manticore could have been given an extra scene or two, as it often seems forgotten for long stretches of time. But on the plus side, the main story is consistently delightful. The film does a great job at making both Ian and Barley into relatable, sympathetic characters. Perhaps this is giving me a bias in favor of the picture, but I couldn’t help but see parallels with me and my oldest brother with Ian and Barley (Though my  brother is much smarter than Barley, and I’m not nearly as competent as Ian). The story revolving around these brothers just wishing to spend a day with a deceased parent is quite touching. Pixar has a strong track record when it comes to making their stories feel personal, and Onward feels among the most personal of all of them.

As stated, the main plot successfully takes advantage of the film’s setting and premise by merging a fantasy adventure with a road trip buddy movie to surprising effect. It’s delightful to see how the filmmakers weave these two genres together. You get the feeling that the folks at Pixar must’ve had some fun figuring out how a fantastic journey translates with contemporary life. It’s a lot of fun.

The animation, as you would come to expect from Pixar, is top notch. The contemporary scenery like gas stations and freeways may seem to subdue the fantastic elements of the movie somewhat, but that’s kind of the point. This is a world where magic only just exists anymore, it makes sense for the fantasy element to be underplayed, visually speaking. Though with that said, I still hope Pixar delves deeper into a fantasy world for a feature down the road, since it allows for endless possibilities that aren’t attached to a specific motif (think of how limited the world of the Cars movies feels, because it’s a limiting premise. Going full fantasy would remove such shackles entirely and could set the animators’ imaginations loose).

Point being that Onward is a captivating film to look at, even if it may not reach the peak of the studio’s visual splendor (that honor still probably has to go to Inside Out which, no surprise, featured Pixar’s most abstract concept). I do wish the character designs for some of the background characters and creatures would have received a little more love however, as it seems the elves are the only prominent fantasy race Pixar managed to make their own. Though extra credit in character design has to go to the final obstacle of Ian and Barley’s quest which, without spoiling too much, is one of the more humorous giant monster battles in movies since the Ghostbusters faced off with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.

Onward is a splendid film that further extends Pixar’s legacy of quality animated features. It tells a compelling story about brotherhood with its two memorable lead characters, and uses its unique premise to deliver both fun and emotion to great effect. Onward is another shining (Phoenix) gem in Pixar’s crown.

 

8

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the Perfect Game for these Times

Like virtually everyone else, it seems, I am fully onboard the Animal Crossing bandwagon right now. Admittedly, this isn’t the first time. I obsessed over the original Animal Crossing on GameCube back in the day, as well as Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS (the Nintendo DS and Wii entries were also nice, but didn’t connect with me in the same way).

But there’s something unique about the timing of New Horizons that makes it all the more special. Something that I don’t believe I’ve ever really seen with a video game release.

It’s timely. But timely in a way that couldn’t be planned.

We often talk about movies with timely messages and themes (elements that can also be translated to games). That’s great and everything, but it’s usually intentional, with surrounding world events often inspiring or influencing the direction the creators take with their work.

But Animal Crossing – a video game series all about every day life and normalcy – comes at a time when such mundane affairs now seem like rare gifts.

As we’re all stuck in our homes during this COVID-19 pandemic, longing for the return of normal life; when we can go shopping, hang out with friends, go to movie theaters, and just do anything outside of our homes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is giving us that sense of normalcy through escapism.

Even under normal circumstances, Animal Crossing: New Horizons would be a great addition to the series, as it adds enough new content and depth to the proceedings to make such a simple series feel engrossing all over again. But the fact that it has been released now, during this topsy-turvy time, makes it feel like something really special.

While Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always planned to be Nintendo’s big release for the first quarter of 2020, no one could have predicted that it would end up meaning a whole lot more than simply being a big seller. But with the world feeling more and more upside-down by the day, Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels like a rare treasure. I can’t remember the last time any work – let alone a video game – felt so timely, so unintentionally.

As we’re all stuck in our houses, wishing to go back to jobs and school (admit it, you miss them), longing to hang out with friends, and just continue our usual routines, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has given us the opportunity to bring a little normalcy back into our lives during an incredibly abnormal time. It’s not just a fun game, but Animal Crossing’s simple premise of a Nintendo-ized version of real life has never felt more welcome, or more blissful.