Why Today’s Disney Renaissance is Better than the 90s Disney Renaissance

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6, Disney’s most recent release, has kept the House of Mouse’s current hot streak alive. This hot streak, which began in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog, is often thought of as the “modern Disney Renaissance” in reference to the original Disney Renaissance that began after The Little Mermaid and continued throughout the 90s with such beloved films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, ending with Tarzan.

A lot of Disney fans like to think of the 90s Renaissance to be something of Disney’s golden era, untouchable by any other generation of Disney films. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the current wave of Disney films not only stands up to the 90s Disney Renaissance, but betters it. Granted, the modern Disney flicks in question currently stand at six, compared to the original Renaissance’s ten films. But it terms of diversity, creativity and storytelling, these six films give the 90s Disney canon a run for their money.

 

Little MermaidOne of the main reasons the 90s Disney films were so successful, and yet so restrained, can be summed up with both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Both of which are charming movies (the former has aged in terms of its message, but the latter is still one of Disney’s finest), but Disney, looking to reclaim their former glory after their rather lackluster run in the 80s, was willing to play things safe. The Little Mermaid created the template for the generation of Disney films to follow, and Beauty and the Beast refined it. The rest, you could argue, simply replicated it. From character archetypes to story progression to the style of songs, the 90s Disney Renaissance, even with its best films, was largely unwilling to be different, or think outside of the box.

Hunchback of Notre DameArguably the sole exception to this was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I consider to be both one of Disney’s best and most underrated animated films). Hunchback of Notre Dame took the Disney template of the time, and wrapped it around a darker narrative and adult themes. The rest of the lot, even some of my favorites (Mulan, Hercules) wouldn’t have taken the creative risks that Hunchback did.

 

But that was one movie out of ten, whereas I think all six of the current Disney wave have far more distinct identities. Sure, Princess and the Frog and Tangled may fall under some of the same tropes as the 90s generation, but they at least cared to give their princesses personalities, and they as a whole have a stronger sense of characterization than the brunt of Disney’s films. Not to mention that both Tangled and The Princess and the Frog tried to add some twists to the formula, whereas the 90s films would have felt content sticking to the rulebook laid down by The Little Mermaid.

 

To top that off, the other modern Disney films include the charming Winnie the Pooh, a super hero movie in Big Hero 6, a video game love letter in Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, which may look like ‘another’ princess movie from the outside, but narratively and thematically, is in a league of its own in the Disney canon.

Anna and Elsa

Winnie the Pooh is as simple and cute as you would expect from the bear of very little brain, but it has a sense of innocents and peacefulness that most American animated features lack. Big Hero 6, while a by-the-books super hero film in some ways, is genuine and honest enough to give it more heart than its live-action super hero brethren. Wreck-It Ralph is a fun story with a memorable cast of characters, complimented by a constant sense of visual inventiveness. Finally, Frozen took what could have been another tried-and-true Disney musical, and turned it into something meaningful, with believable, even relatable characters, a story that took creative risks, and a level of depth that makes it one of the few Disney films I’ve seen analyzed and interpreted on an artistic level. When was the last time a Disney film had themes that could be interpreted in different ways?

 

I know what you’re probably asking by this point: “What about The Lion King? What about Aladdin?”

The Lion KingTruth be told, I find both The Lion King and Aladdin to be nothing special. That’s not to say I think they’re bad movies, but I certainly don’t think they’re worth the immense praise fans have given them. Nor do they really belong in arguments of great animated films. Aladdin is remembered for the iconic Genie, but take him out of the equation and everything else in the film is pretty forgettable. The Lion King, while good, is a pretty basic plot with an inconsistent tone (one minute Simba is crying over his father’s lifeless body, the next a warthog is singing about farting). And both still stuck true to the established formula. Again, they aren’t bad movies, but I don’t see them as a great argument in favor of the 90s Disney Renaissance.

 

I know, I am now the villain of every 90s kid. But I’m certainly not writing off the nostalgic favorites of the Disney Renaissance. I simply think that Disney’s recent output feels more free. Perhaps Disney doesn’t feel so desperate as to recycle the same formula now that they have the likes of Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars to fall back on, and so their own films are now allowed to be more creatively daring. But whatever the reason, I feel that these past six Disney animated features, while they may not be equal among each other (Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh are no Frozen or Wreck-It Ralph), do feel equally free to be themselves. The Princess and the Frog didn’t write a rulebook like The Little Mermaid did. But it did open the door for Disney movies to be more creative. I would say that’s all the more impressive.

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Bayonetta 2 Review

Bayonetta 2

Very few games have the energy of Bayonetta 2. It’s a non-stop barrage of style, color and flair. Most games would be utterly exhausted by its enthusiasm.

Bayonetta 2’s greatest strength is its intuitive gameplay. Bayonetta is crafted from the same mold as the likes of Kratos and Dante, but the end result is a far more polished and smooth work than its contemporaries. Every combo, every move, is tight and precise. It controls like a dream.

The story is less focused, and to be honest I barely understand a lick of what’s going on. Bayonetta fights angels and demons (both of which are after her soul) and must save her friend Jeane once she is dragged to hell, and (in true video game fashion) Bayonetta must eventually save the world.

The plot can feel a bit cluttered, and with all the ridiculous goings-on around Bayonetta, it gets even more lost. But the personalities involved are memorable. Bayonetta is a more fleshed-out character than her design (and strategically-placed camera angles) might suggest. Sarcastic but genuinely caring, Bayonetta’s personality makes her sexiness seem only complimentary. The supporting characters – from streetwise amnesiac Loki to the foulmouthed, bumbling Enzo – are a little more tropish, but no less colorful.

But enough of the narrative. Bayonetta is first and foremost an action game, and as stated, that’s where it shines quite brightly. The aforementioned combat is a constantly-expanding affair. By collecting Halos (more than a little nod to Sonic the Hedgehog’s rings) Bayonetta can buy new moves and more weapons (which can be assigned to her hands, legs, or both), all of which give a great sense of “easy to learn, difficult to master.” Bayonetta 2

It’s all glued together through “Witch Mode,” a kind of slow-mo state that’s activated by dodging enemy attacks, and gives the player a primed opportunity to unleash Bayonetta’s best combos. And the ‘climax attacks’ are button-mashing at its most fun, and create a Mortal Kombat like combination of violence and utter ridiculousness. Bayonetta 2

This gameplay is made all the more its own for its sense of style. Appropriately enough for a game that stars a character as extravagant as Bayonetta, just about every moment of the game is an explosion of style and humor, and filled with some of the most bizarre enemy designs in gaming.

One minute Bayonetta is flying through a hurricane in the sky, then she’s sent 500 years in the past piloting her own mecha. It’s outlandish, over-the-top and campy, but its swimming in imagination, and makes its predecessor look mundane.

There’s a new co-operative mode, called ‘tag climax,’ which now means the chaotic fun of Bayonetta can be enjoyed in multiplayer. This is a score attack action game that already demands replayability, but with multiplayer added to the mix that’s doubly true. Bayonetta 2

Some may cry foul at the oversexualization of the game, and I certainly found myself rolling my eyes more than a few times. But again, I find the camera easier to blame than Bayonetta herself. It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek, so its probably not worth getting too worked up over.

As an added treat provided by the game’s Wii U exclusivity, you can now unlock costumes, moves and weapons based on Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Starfox. The cute Nintendo aesthetics make for an entertaining juxtaposition, but the fact that they give the gameplay even more variety is the real treat.

In short, Bayonetta 2 is a game that plays like a dream. Its sense of control is up there with Nintendo’s own properties, and its so full of personality and style that there’s never a dull moment. It might be a little too chaotic or challenging for some, and the clunky narrative and forced sex appeal may be off-putting to others. But in terms of sheer gameplay, it’s as beautiful as Bayonetta herself.

8

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS Review

Smash Bros. 3DS

Super Smash Bros. on 3DS is a prime example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s not to say that no tweaks have been made – this is probably the most balanced Smash Bros. yet – but it serves more as a means to bring the winning formula of the series to handhelds than it does to push it forward.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There was a six year gap between Brawl and this 3DS addition to the series, after all. The series has hardly been exhausted. And when the game is as fun and addictive as this, why should Nintendo tamper with it?

It’s a great transition, I might add. The brunt of the Smash Bros. control scheme and mechanics translate faithfully to the 3DS, with only minor gripes directed towards the blocking and grabbing mechanics, performed with the system’s shoulder buttons, which feel a little less fluid than on the home console Smash Bros. titles.

The core appeals of the series, however, are the deep yet accessible fighting gameplay, and the ludicrous amount of fan service provided by the colorful roster of Nintendo characters, as well as the stages and items.

It’s the biggest Smash Bros. roster to date, with the majority of characters from Brawl returning along with a good number of new characters. Some of these new characters, like retro favorites Little Mac and Duck Hunt, or newer faces like Shulk and Rosalina, are welcome additions. Though some others, such as Dark Pit or Lucina, feel like Nintendo is scrapping the bottom of the barrel (in the case of the former, director Sakurai may just be giving himself a pat on the back for directing Kid Icarus Uprising). When one considers some of the fan favorites that were left out (Ridley, Dixie Kong), one has to wonder what exactly the criteria is to make it on the Smash Bros. roster these days.

Two new third-party characters brighten things up, with Pac-Man and Mega Man bringing an added dose of nostalgia and gameplay variety to the table (regrettably at the expense of Snake).

Smash Bros. 3DS

The great thing about this particular Smash Bros. is that it caters to both of the diehard Smash Bros. fan bases: Those who prefer the fun, chaotic party game aspects of the series, and those who take it as a serious fighter. Online modes, appropriately dubbed “For Fun” and “For Glory” cover both fields, with the former allowing all stage gimmicks and items and the latter featuring more straightforward, item-free stages. Both styles have their benefits (one gives you serious, “no excuses” victories and defeats, while the other lets you take full advantage of the toy box of items at the game’s disposal), and its good to see the series acknowledge its diversity.

There are the usual single-player and bonus modes. Classic and All-Star modes return, as do home run contests and break the target. One unfortunately lax new mode, Smash Run, features players running around a map, fighting classic game enemies and collecting stat boosting power-ups before facing off against traditional Smash opponents. It’s worth a look, but lacks replay value.

As usual for the series, Super Smash Bros. on 3DS includes countless unlockables. So just in case the insanely addictive multiplayer wasn’t incentive enough for you to keep coming back, unlocking every last stage and trophy might just have you hooked.

Of course, it’s that tried-and-true gameplay that makes Smash Bros. on 3DS shine. Play as your favorite Nintendo character, do some damage to your friends’ favorites, and send them flying off stage in an extreme sumo-style bout.

It may not be the same leap forward for the series that Melee was to the original or that Brawl was to Melee, but it does prove that the immense fun of the series is perfectly complimented on a handheld. Smash Bros. has always been a tough series to put down, and now that you can take it anywhere, that may be truer than ever.

8

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Review

Dream Team

Mario and Luigi’s fourth handheld RPG outing together sees things go back to basics. After being joined by their baby selves in Partners in Time and allied with the King Koopa in Bowser’s Inside Story, Mario & Luigi are back on their own. Though it’s Luigi who gets special attention this time around.

Dream Team sees the mustachioed brothers traveling to the land of Pi’illo Island for a vacation, only to find out the bat king Antasma has been trapping the island’s denizens in stone pillows. In order to save the day, Mario must enter the dream world through Luigi’s dreams via magic pillow, ally with Luigi’s dream version of himself, and rescue the Pi’illow folk. It’s one of the silliest plots yet in the series, which makes for some humorous writing and plenty of Luigi-centric sight gags.

The brothers’ actions are still controlled individually, with different button presses allowing Mario and Luigi to jump, defend and attack enemies, as well as interact with their environment. The game takes the usual top-down perspective in the outside world, but once Mario enters Luigi’s dreamscape, it turns into something closer to a sidescroller.

The dream world features Luiginary Works, strange happenings in Luigi’s subconscience that Dreamy Luigi can interact with. These Luiginary Works serve as a means to add various touchMario & Luigiscreen controls and new play styles to the game. They certainly help the dream sequences separate themselves from the rest of the game, as does the battle system.

In the outside world, battles remain largely as they’ve been in the past three games. Mario and Luigi have jumps and hammers at their disposal, with special moves (referred to as “Bros. Attacks”) using input from both Mario brothers. The dream battles, by contrast, involve Mario fighting alone, until he uses special moves (here referred to as Luiginary Attacks) which involve an army of Luigis forming various shapes, like skyscrapers and boulders, that require more unique uses of the 3DS (such as motion controls or the touch screen) to do maximum damage.

The Dream sequences are the highlight of the game, as they house more creative twists in gameplay, whereas anything that takes place outside of Luigi’s dreams – which, unfortunately, is the brunt of the game – feels like it’s running on the same ideas as the previous three Mario & Luigi titles. That’s not to say that the non-dream segments don’t provide any fun, but after the wildly inventive Bowser’s Inside Story – which seemed to throw new ideas and gameplay around every corner – Dream Team feels relatively restrained.

Dream Team is an enjoyable game when taken on its own merits, with fun gameplay and a wonderful Mario & Luigimusical score, and the character animations are more lively than ever. But in some notable ways it feels like a step down from its predecessor: The writing can be hilarious, but you’ll miss Fawful and the like. The Luiginary bits are fun and funny, but never match up to the sheer entertainment of controlling Bowser. The dream concept is a good setup, but fails to match the creative promise of that premise.

Dream Team is another solid RPG in the Mario canon, and certainly more worth the time than Paper Mario: Sticker Star, its 3DS sibling, but knowing what came before, you know Mario & Luigi could have dreamed bigger.

6

Star Fox 64 3D Review

Star Fox 64 3D

Star Fox 64 3D not only brought the beloved Star Fox 64 to a new generation (complete with graphics recreated from the ground up), it also elegantly transitioned a Nintendo 64 classic onto a handheld system.

The adventure is as it’s always been, Fox McCloud and his team of bounty hunters are out to save the Lylat System from the evil Andross and his empire. Being a Nintendo game, this means venturing to such locales as a lava world and a level themed around a train chase. It’s the same beloved game as it was on the N64, but with a new coat of paint.The visuals are a hefty upgrade from the blocky original, and 3D effects are used effectively.

Barrel Roll Most stages are an on-rails affair, with others being a singular battlefield where you and your allies fight hordes of enemies before a big bad appears.  You will only play seven of the game’s fifteen stages on any given playthrough, but taking alternate paths, finding secret routes, and besting your top scores on each stage give the game a great deal of replayability even today.

Star Fox 64 3D now includes two primary modes of play, appropriately named after the N64 and 3DS, with the former sticking close to the original blueprint and the latter making accommodations for the 3DS’ features, utilizing more 3D effects and featuring “gyro controls” using the 3DS’ motion-sensing gyroscope. The 3DS mode is worth a look, but piloting an Arwing is best left to the traditional control method.

The gameplay is of course the real star. Star Fox 64 has aged more gracefully than most of its N64 brethren, and that simple yet polished gameplay is left intact: Fire lasers, throw bombs. Defeat enemies, don’t hurt allies. Find upgrades, uncover secrets and beat your high score. The mechanics are simple, but used to their fullest.

Multiplayer also returns, though questionably with the absence of any online features. It’s a true shame, as Star Fox 64 has always been a fun multiplayer experience, and could have been made all the better with online functionality. The multiplayer battles are fun – which now include team battles where you and your buddies face off against CPU opponents – but the lack of online modes makes it all feel incredibly limited.

 Star Fox 64 3D It’s also sad knowing that, aside from a few visual and technical bells and whistles, the game remains largely identical to the 1997 original. That’s not a bad thing in terms of what is presented, given the game’s overall quality. But for being remade from the ground up for the 3DS, one can’t help but feel there were some missed opportunities for new modes or added content to the original adventure.

Star Fox 64 3D plays things a bit safe then, but it has enough fun and polish to fall back on to make that not such a terrible thing. Star Fox 64 was always one of the most cherished games on the N64, and now you can experience it all again, on the go. Barrel rolls and all.

8

The Wonderful 101 Review

The Wonderful 101

With colorful character designs, bombastic action set pieces, and an explosion of style, The Wonderful 101 looks to have all the makings of another Platinum beat ’em up classic. Unfortunately, Wonderful 101 ends up being a case of good intentions being muddled by clunky controls and poor camerawork.

It’s far from a completely broken experience, the idea of controlling 100 different gimmicky heroes at once, and using the touch screen to draw different shapes, transforming these heroes into an assortment of weapons – from a simple fist to more extravagant shapes like whips, guns, swords and bombs- is both fun and creative. But if it sounds like a bit much, it probably is.

The Wonderful 101Too often does drawing a shape on the Wii U Gamepad produce something other than the desired weapon. When Okami provided a similar setup with a drawing mechanic back on the PS2 and Wii, it felt a lot more responsive. The GamePad’s touchscreen seems more ideal for the concept, but somehow it rarely works as effectively here. And too often do your heroes seem to be lost in some nook or cranny of a stage, and losing troops is more troubling here than in Nintendo’s own Pikmin 3, since losing more heroes means your transformations are that much less powerful. While players may actually feel compelled to go out and search for a missing Pikmin, in Wonderful 101 losing troops feels more irritating than anything.

Then there’s Wonderful 101’s biggest flaw: the camera. Keeping track of 100 different characters is a difficult enough task as it is. But combine that with a camera that feels sporadic and rarely seems to capture the perfect angle of the action, and it becomes a problem.

Wonderful 101 has its qualities: It’s got a sharp sense of humor (complete with a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards video game stereotyping), the battles can be fun when you actually get a grip on the situation, and the set pieces you find yourself in are thrilling and bursting with personality.

The problem though, is that The Wonderful 101 may just be more fun to watch than it is to actually play. It shares many of the traits of previous gems created by Platinum’s development teams. You may find traces of Viewtiful Joe, Okami and Bayonetta here and there, but Wonderful 101 doesn’t share the fluidity of those games. It’s ambitious and thrilling, and boasts a lot of promise. But it’s a hampered experience in its execution. Some Platinum diehards may find a more enjoyable game here than the uninitiated, but the Wonderful 101 lacks the precision in design that Platinum usually makes look so easy. It’s hardly Viewtiful.

4

Lego City Undercover Review

Lego City Undercover

Lego City Undercover is a cute, family-friendly rift on Grand Theft Auto, and a fun game in its own right. Set in the titular Lego City, players take control of Chase McCain. In a bit of role-reversal from the GTA games that inspired it, McCain fights for the right side of the law, though being undercover cop gives the developers an easy means to allow McCain to partake in some shady activities while maintaining its target audience.

Chase McCain is on a mission to stop a recent crime wave and catch an escaped convict name Rex Fury. It’s a very basic setup, but it works for the game, especially since it’s filled with good humor, fun personalities (McCain’s bumbling sidekick, Frank Honey, is a highlight), and sprinkled with various movie and video game references (the game is the first in the Lego series to be published by Nintendo, so expect a good few winks to the Big N).

Lego City UndercoverIt’s a fun story to boot. One that takes advantage of Lego-ness to do things the more realistic and gritty GTA cannot, including riding a mechanized T-rex fossil and taking a trip to the moon, among other wacky situations.

But while the script is entertaining and funny, the great thing is that its also a well thought-out game. Lego City is a massive open-world filled with things to do. You can continue with the main story or partake in the many optional side quests throughout the city and its surrounding areas. Or you can always spend your time in Lego City “borrowing” motor vehicles, if that’s your thing. You can even find some opportunities to build new structures and vehicles within Lego City, provided you’ve collected enough blocks.

Unfortunately, the general gameplay is Lego City’s weak point. As fun as it is to roam around the streets in a recently “acquired” vehicle, controlling Chase on foot feels bland. The combat is overly simplistic, and the overall sense of movement feels slow. Chase can disguise in an array of getups -from spaceman to farmer- which add a little variety and some fun gimmicks. But as a whole the gameplay falls short of Lego City’s humor and ambition. There are some moments that use the Wii U Gamepad to aid chase in his crime-solving antics, which provide a welcome change of pace from the clunky combat.

The game looks great, with the Lego visual motif getting a new sheen on the Wii U hardware, and it uses licensed music sparingly but effectively.

Lego City Undercover may not be a killer app for the Wii U, but it does serve a fun addition to its library, and in a genre that is primarily grounded in grit and cynicism, this lighthearted and good-humored deviation is a refreshing spin on tried and true designs.

6