Turning Red Review

Turning Red is a Pixar movie quite unlike any other that has come before it. The feature film debut for director Domee Shi (who previously directed the 2018 short “Bao”), Turning Red takes the emotional core of Pixar films, and combines it with a coming-of-age story about puberty, culture clash, and a love letter to the early 2000s. The end result at once feels like a personal story on Shi’s part, as well as Pixar’s funniest and weirdest film to date.

Uniquely set during 2002, Turning Red tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl living in Toronto, Canada. Mei is obsessed with the boy band 4Town, an obsession she shares with her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). But Mei is rarely able to see her friends anymore, as she helps her strict mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), in running the family temple. That is when she isn’t working hard to get straight As to keep her mother happy. The fact that Ming disapproves of Mei’s friends and musical interests makes things all the more difficult, to say nothing of Mei’s growing interest in boys.

Ming discovers that Mei has developed a crush on an older boy, leading to a particularly embarrassing situation for Mei. This proves too much for her to handle, and the next morning, Mei awakes to find she has transformed into a giant red panda! Calming her emotions transforms her back into her human self (now sporting red hair), but whenever Mei gets too excited, she transforms back into the red panda.

It turns out that Mei’s family has a spiritual connection to red pandas, and every female member of her family goes through the transformation when they reach a certain age. There is a ritual that can be performed to seal away the red panda spirit, but it can only be done during a Red Moon, the next of which is still a month away. In the meantime, Mei will have to try to keep her emotions in check if she doesn’t want to unleash the panda and cause a ruckus. But that’s much easier said than done when going through puberty and always trying to be perfect for an overbearing mother. To further complicate things, 4Town will be having a concert in Toronto a week before the ritual!

The plot may sound silly, but it’s in the best way possible. Turning Red has a lot of fun not just in the scenario of Mei’s transformation, but also in its setting. I think this is the first Pixar film to directly mention its time period (The Incredibles was vaguely set in the 1960s, while some others were in the non-specific present day of their release). And boy, does Turning Red love to flaunt its love of the early 2000s! Not only is its depiction of boy band culture equal parts homage and spoof, but Mei also carries a Tamagotchi, we get glimpses of VHS tapes and DVDs, and we even get to hear a snippet of The Cha Cha Slide by DJ Casper. Suffice to say Turning Red has a lot of fun reveling in its nostalgia for the time. It’s so 2002 that the only things missing are references to Playstation 2 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Something else you’ve probably deduced from the plot synopsis is that Mei’s transformation occurring the same time she’s hitting puberty is certainly no coincidence. In fact, the first time Mei transforms into the panda she hides from her parents, who mistakenly believe Mei has just had her first period. The film is wonderfully honest and unapologetic with such subjects. It’s as much about Mei’s body changing in a natural way as it is about her changing in a supernatural way. And it works so effortlessly you wonder why past children’s films have been so skittish to tackle such subjects (it should be noted that Turning Red never actually uses words such as “period” while still making the subject overt which, as Seinfeld taught us, makes things all the funnier).

It’s also fun to see a Pixar movie focus on a clash of cultures. Mei is fully respectful to her Chinese heritage and traditions, but her love of boy bands and the youth culture of Toronto baffles her mother, creating a bigger rift between the two.

I’ve heard some people say these elements “don’t feel like a Pixar movie.” But that’s exactly what I love about Turning Red. It feels so different from anything else Pixar has made while (crucially) still retaining the heart and emotion the studio’s storytelling is known for. If anything, the differences Turning Red makes to Pixar’s norms is the greatest testament to the quality of Pixar movies that we’ve seen in quite some time. Turning Red is proud to be a Pixar film, but it’s also rebellious and unafraid to do its own thing within the Pixar canon.

This is seen in the animation itself. Turning Red retains the top-notch computer animation of Pixar but fuses it with anime influences and additional hand-drawn effects to make it look unique among its Pixar peers. Pixar’s characters have never been more exaggerated or expressive than they are in Turning Red, which leads to some great visual comedy. The character designs themselves are simple, but fun and memorable. The whole movie just pops with color. It’s a constant visual delight.

Turning Red is the most fun and original Pixar movie in quite some time. Domee Shi seems to have infused the film with her own personal experiences and humor, which gives the film a unique tone and overall feel among Pixar features. This is, after all, the only Pixar film in which The Simpsons is referenced, and in which the characters say words like “crap.” Where it falls in the echelon of Pixar greats is beside the point, because Turning Red is so busy doing its own thing that it’s basically in its own, separate category.

I was gutted when Disney announced Turning Red would be the third Pixar film in a row to be skipping theaters and heading straight to Disney+. I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen. On the plus side, being on Disney’s streaming service will make repeat viewings that much easier. And this is the kind of movie you’ll want to watch over and over again.

Turning Red is sweet, emotional, hilarious (I’ve never laughed harder at a Pixar movie), sometimes surreal and always charming. It’s Pixar’s best film of the last few years. It’s so much fun.

Nintendo Switch Turns 5!

Believe it or not, the Nintendo Switch was released five years ago today.

On March 3rd 2017, the Nintendo Switch was released worldwide, alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. If you can believe it, at the time, many wondered if the Switch would prove to be a success, given the commercial failure of its predecessor, the Wii U. As we know now, the concerns were misplaced, as the Switch has proven to be a massive success in the gaming world. To be more specific, it recently surpassed the Wii to become Nintendo’s best-selling home console ever (and is behind only the Nintendo DS and Game Boy as Nintendo’s best-selling hardware). Not too shabby.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see why the Switch has been such a success. The idea of being able to play console games on the go is simple, but really makes a world of difference. Nintendo has released some of their all-time best games on the system (even re-releasing the Wii U’s best titles to give them a proper audience). And for the first time since the SNES, Nintendo has had some prominent, strong third-party support. I’d argue that the Switch had the best first year of any console in 2017( into 2018), and has only occasionally let up since.

Something to note on this fifth Switch anniversary is that there’s been no word yet on what the Switch’s successor could possibly be. That’s interesting because most Nintendo consoles (any console, really) usually has about a five-year timespan before its follow-up is released. The SNES, N64 and GameCube were all on store shelves for five years when their successors joined them. While the NES and Wii lasted six years apiece, we all knew what the next console in line would be around the five-year mark. Unfortunately for Wii U, that console lasted just over four years before the Switch came knocking. So normally a Nintendo console would be heading off into the sunset right about now (though I suppose the NES and SNES technically lasted a number of years after their successors were on the market). But the Switch doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Nintendo and Game Freak announced a new Pokemon game just the other day for crying out loud!

That may bum some people out, if all they want is better graphics. But I’m kind of relieved the Switch seems to be sticking around for a while. I don’t want them to make a new console just to make it. I’m kind of tired of having to start over with a new console when the current ones still feel like they have plenty left to give.

Who knows how long the Nintendo Switch will ultimately last, but if its first five years are anything to go by, the Switch’s future should be a whole lot of fun.

Happy five year anniversary, Nintendo Switch!

The Best ‘2s’ in Video Games

Today is 2/22/22 Tuesday! To celebrate this profuse amount of twos, I figured I’d reach into my backlog and resurrect an idea I had a while back and highlight the best “2s” in video games. Not the best sequels per se – no strictly subtitled sequels (like Majora’s Mask), no 3s, 4s or any of that – just the best “2s.” Games with ‘2’ in the title.

When I first thought of making this list, I intended it to be a ranked top 10 list, before it fell on the back burner. I decided to resurrect this idea for 2/22/22, but did so pretty last minute. As such, I didn’t bother to take the time to narrow down or rank this list, so I’ll just list all the games I thought of alphabetically (16 games total). Perhaps some day I’ll get around to making the originally intended “Top 10 2s in Video Games.” But for now, I hope you enjoy this list as it is.

Before we get started, it’s important to note that I’m not counting games like EarthBound or Secret of Mana here. In Japan those games are respectively known as Mother 2 and Seiken Densetsu 2, but since I’m writing from an American perspective, those games will always be EarthBound and Secret of Mana to me. Also, “Tooie” doesn’t quite cut it. But we can consider all those games to be honorable mentions.

Now then, on to the twos!

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back

The original Crash Bandicoot gave the Sony Playstation a mascot, but it lacked polish. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back gave that mascot a game worthy of his reputation. It’s an improvement over the original in pretty much every way, and set the tone for the rest of the series more so than its predecessor did. One could argue Crash Bandicoot Warped ended up the best game in the original Crash trilogy, but it did so while introducing racing and shooting sections. If it’s pure Playstation platforming you want, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is still a hell of a lot of fun.

Diablo II

Diablo II is one of those games that you just replay over and over again, learning from your previous playthroughs and seeing how you can do things better. It’s also great fun with friends. Diablo II’s simple hack-N-slash gameplay hides deep RPG mechanics that make for a memorable experience. Even before the recent remake, people were still playing Diablo II over two decades later as if no time had passed. It’s that engrossing.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

The first Donkey Kong Country revolutionized visuals in video games, and became an instant hit that extended the SNES’s lifespan. But its sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, improved on it considerably in every conceivable way. DKC2 sees Diddy take center stage, teaming up with his girlfriend Dixie, who can glide with her ponytail. The level design is constantly inventive, the gameplay is refined and always fun, and the soundtrack is gaming’s greatest. DKC2 is one of the best platformers and sequels ever. It’s Rare’s masterpiece.

Oh, and “Diddy’s Kong Quest” is the greatest pun in the history of video game titles.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 is the first Valve game on this list, but it won’t be the last. Too bad they wouldn’t show up at all if I ever make a list of the best ‘3s’ in video games because…well, you know.

Half-Life 2 revolutionized single-player FPSs and narrative video games in one fell swoop. Its dark and dreary sci-fi world is unforgettable. And Half-Life 2 presented plenty of fun ideas along the way, not least of which being the Gravity Gun, which allowed players to manipulate the game world like nothing seen before.

Halo 2

Halo: Combat Evolved is the reason the Xbox was such a success. With all due respect to the other great games on the console, Halo was its crown jewel. The only game that was capable of knocking Halo off its pedestal? Halo 2, of course!

You could argue that Halo made the Xbox brand what it is. Similarly, you could say Halo 2 made online gaming on consoles what it is. Online games had existed on PC for a while, and consoles had dabbled in the idea (Saturn Bomberman!). But Halo 2 is what made it the standard for multiplayer games, and is the online experience everyone has tried (and only occasionally succeeded) in replicating.

Kirby’s Dreamland 2

The original Gameboy gave us all some cherished memories, but I’d be lying if I said most of the games held up against the test of time (remember that in those early days, the convenience of handheld gaming meant sacrificing some quality). That’s not the case with Kirby’s Dreamland 2, a title that’s still fun and charming to this day. Introducing Kirby’s animal friends and combining them with Kirby’s copy abilities is still one of the best additions to the series, making it a mystery why the concept has only ever happened again one other time. A perfect little game when you’re on the go.

Mega Man 2

Is Mega Man 2 the grandaddy of video game 2s? Only one game on this list predates it, but I think Mega Man 2 is the game that established the idea that, in video games, the sequel is expected to be better than the original (whereas in movies it tended to be the opposite). Mega Man 2 upped the ante from the original, and set the standard for the series which remains to this day. With some of the best level design and the most beloved soundtrack on the NES, Mega Man 2 remains a timeless classic. The template for what a ‘2’ should be.

Mega Man X2 ain’t too shabby, either.

Portal 2

Here comes Valve again. 2007’s Portal was a little slice of heaven. A game built around a creative idea (using portals to get from point A to point B), and told a simple story. It was short, but pretty perfect. A sequel could have tarnished the purity of Portal’s concept. Instead, Valve outdid themselves with a sequel that’s even more creative, fun and memorable than its predecessor. Adding just enough gameplay additions to feel meaningful to a sequel while not going overboard, and including a co-op multiplayer mode that further toys with the Portal concept. As innovative as it is unforgettable, Portal 2 is an all-time great.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of those games that you just get absolutely engrossed in. Using the end of the old west as a backdrop for its open-world – brought to life with some of the most realistic visuals in gaming – is just absorbing. There are countless things to do at any given moment. You can focus on the (great) story if you want, or you can hunt some outlaws for the bounty on their heads, play some poker at a saloon, hunt down legendary beasts, the list goes on and on. You may even be heading off to do one thing, only for another to demand your attention along the way. No matter how you choose to spend Arthur Morgan’s (and your) time, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Just like Mega Man 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 deserves a place in the hallowed halls of great video games 2s. It outdid the original Sonic the Hedgehog in pretty much every way, with better levels, boss fights and music (such glorious music!). Plus, it introduced us to Sonic’s sidekick Tails. The Luigi to Sonic’s Mario.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 became the best-selling title on the Sega Genesis, and solidified Sonic’s place in the gaming world. Many still consider it the Hedgehog’s peak (though Sonic 3 & Knuckles, CD and Mania may have something to say about that). When you think of Sonic games, Sonic 2 is usually what your mind immediately goes to. A classic.

Street Fighter II

Street Fighter II is perhaps the most accomplished of all the video game 2s. Mega Man 2 and Sonic 2 may have set the standard for their series, but their predecessors are still fondly remembered in their own right. But in the case of Street Fighter, no one cares about the original, while the sequel created a phenomenon. Street Fighter II pioneered the multiplayer tournament fighter, created (by accident) the concept of elaborate combos, revitalized arcades in the early 90s, and set the standard for the series and genre. It was so good, in fact, that Capcom couldn’t stop re-releasing it.

Super Mario Bros. 2

Yes. This counts.

Super Mario Bros. 2 is unfairly seen as the “black sheep” of the Super Mario series (even with Super Mario Sunshine on the table. smh). Part of that is due to the original Super Mario Bros. being so revolutionary, and Super Mario Bros. 3 being such a phenomenon, with Super Mario Bros. 2 sandwiched in between. But people didn’t seem to mind that so much back in the day. Not until it became common knowledge in the west that what we know as Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually a different game in Japan (Yume Kōjō Doki Doki Panic) did our Super Mario Bros. 2 suddenly lose much of its reputation.

That’s dumb. Because Super Mario Bros. 2, as we here in America know it, is still one of the best games on the NES. And it introduced us to elements that have become Mario mainstays, notably Shy Guys, Bob-ombs and Birdo.

Super Mario Bros. 2 is the oldest game on this list, and even after all these years, deserves mention on any list like this. Reskin or not.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Super Mario Galaxy 2, like Portal 2, is unique in this list in that it improves on its predecessor in virtually every way, despite its predecessor seemingly leaving nothing that needed improving. 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy was a gem in the world of gaming that breathed new life into Nintendo’s flagship franchise (and the Wii console). Then Galaxy 2 came along, took the foundation of the original, and just let its imagination run absolutely wild. Super Mario Galaxy 2 may look like its predecessor on face value, but whereas the first Galaxy was all about giving the Mario series something new (space and gravity), Galaxy 2 is a treasure trove of ideas and concepts themselves. A non-stop toy box of innovation and fun, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of gaming’s greatest achievements.

Oh, and Yoshi’s back too! Kick. Ass.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

While Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Portal 2 perfected already perfect formulas, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island took a flawless game (Super Mario World, duh!) and basically said “yeah, that was great. But now we’re going to do something so different it could be an entirely separate series.” But hey, it’s got that “2” in the title, so it counts!

Yoshi’s Island is another triumph for Mario, platformers, and sequels. Throwing Yoshi (rather, a tribe of Yoshis) into the spotlight was a stroke of genius, wildly changing up the gameplay from the rest of the Mario series (creating a spinoff series for Yoshi thereafter). Enemies become eggs, which are your ammo to reach far away objects and collectibles. The time limit is gone, as is the traditional health system (protect Baby Mario!). It was fresh and innovative in 1995, and Yoshi’s Island has lost none of its luster in the years since. Combine the creative gameplay with the crayon-inspired visuals and epic boss fights, and you have one of Nintendo’s best games ever.

Team Fortress 2

Yet another Valve sequel! Can you imagine what Valve could do if they realized the number 3 exists?!

Team Fortress 2 is an interesting case because the original Team Fortress was a mod for Quake before becoming a game of its own as Team Fortress Classic. So Team Fortress 2 is technically the third game in the series. One thing’s for sure, Team Fortress 2 became the team shooter by which all others would be judged. With nine different classes, a variety of maps and modes, and an art style that looks like The Incredibles, it’s all too easy to see why Team Fortress 2 became a hit right out of the (Orange) box.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was Naughty Dog’s attempt at bringing the action and adventure of Indiana Jones to the world of video games. While it did that, it did so with a number of hiccups (unpolished controls, enemies that apparently eat bullets, etc.). That wasn’t the case with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which realized the potential of the series to create one of the most beloved Playstation games of all time.

The set pieces were bigger and more elaborate than before, the puzzles were more clever, and the action was non-stop. Uncharted 2 really brought the Indiana Jones-like spectacle to life. Nathan Drake’s second outing was never short on thrills. It’s a blast.

It could’ve had more Sully though. Because more Sully is only ever a good thing.


That’s it. That’s my list. I know, you’re probably going to bite my head off for “missing” one game or another. But I can’t play everything!

At any rate, I hope you enjoyed this list. Perhaps it gave you a trip down memory lane or maybe even inspired you to check one of these games out that you missed out on before. Maybe one day I’ll make the traditional top 10 list version of this, but for now, let’s just sit back and celebrate all of the 2s!

Happy 2/22/22 everybody!

Uncharted Review

Movies based on video games have rarely worked out. In the past, you could argue that video games were so different from movies that it was difficult to translate the material onto the silver screen, giving something of an excuse to the lackluster quality of video game movies. But as video games became more and more movie like, you would think they’d be easier to adapt to the cinema. But apparently you’d be wrong, because video game movies didn’t get any better (you could say they even got worse, considering they no longer had the excuse of trying to adapt something that was so fundamentally different from movies).

However, the past few years have seen a rise in quality for the video game movie, with three entertaining films in the sub-genre being released in as many years: 2019 gave audiences the cute and charming Detective Pikachu, 2020 surprised us all when Sonic the Hedgehog actually ended up being good, and 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot was also solidly fun. They may not have been great movies, but they each proved to be entertaining features in their own right, and also notably paid respects to their source material, whereas the video game movies of yesterday seemed embarrassed by the video games that inspired them. Simply put, things are finally starting to look up for the video game movie.

That brings us to Uncharted, based on the video game series by Naughty Dog. The Uncharted games took inspiration from the Indiana Jones films with their non-stop “BANG ZOOM” style of action set pieces. The characters are fun, and the games have witty dialogue. If any video game should have a smooth transition into the world of movies, surely it’s Uncharted.

Which makes it so strange that this Uncharted movie has had such a turbulent time getting made at all, and that the finished product only kind of works.

Plans for an Uncharted movie go all the way back to 2008, the year after the original Uncharted game was released on the Playstation 3 (feel old yet?). Actor Nathan Fillion famously wanted to portray series lead Nathan Drake in whatever movie ended up being made (he even looks like Nathan Drake and shares his first name), but the closest he got was starring in a fan made short film as the character. For a few years in the early 2010s, Mark Wahlberg (who looks kinda like Nathan Drake) had been cast in the role. Though the ongoing turbulent production meant that never happened, either.

Fourteen years and a revolving door of directors and writers later, the Uncharted movie is finally a reality, with Tom Holland (who looks nothing like Nathan Drake) in the lead role. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg, still contractually attached to the movie, has to settle on the role of Victor “Sully” Sullivan, Nathan’s friend and mentor who is much older than Wahlberg in the games (to be fair to Wahlberg, Sully is the best character in the games, so I wouldn’t call it a demotion).

Right away, I can tell you the two leads are miscast. Both Holland and Wahlberg are good in the movie in regards to acting (though they severely lack the chemistry of the characters in the game). But neither actor looks like – nor captures the essence of – their respective character. Nathan Drake always had kind of rugged, everyman good looks, not the babyfaced boyishness of Tom Holland (something that’s reinforced by the Playstation Productions logo at the start of the movie which shows us what Nathan should look like). Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is not only too young to be Sully, but the fact that he’s constantly standing right next to Nathan Drake while looking more like Nathan Drake than Nathan Drake is just awkward. Plus, some of the humor of the character is lost with the reduction in age (surely I’m not the only one who thinks J.K. Simmons should have been Sully?).

That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong. Uncharted continues the recent trend of video game movies paying respects to their source material. The film begins similarly to the beloved Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, with Nathan Drake awakening in the middle of a death defying set piece before the story takes us back to the beginning and leads us back to this point midway through (a set piece which, by the way, is ripped directly from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception). We’re also given flashbacks of a young Nathan Drake (Tiernan Jones) during the time he spent with his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) and how that inspired him to become a treasure hunter, something taken directly from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. And the film even uses the overall template from the series by taking a real historic figure or event (in this case, Ferdinand Magellan and the Magellan Expedition) and giving it a fictional, treasure-centric spin (though now that I think about it, it’s kind of weird how the first three games had a supernatural twist, but the fourth game and this movie do not). So the movie is respectful to the games, which should sit well with fans.

The film is an origin story for Nathan Drake, showing how he met Sully and became a treasure hunter. Sully was once partnered with Sam, before Sam went missing. But the connection to his brother leads Nathan to join Sully on his adventure to find the treasure of the Magellan Expedition, the same treasure Nathan and Sam used to dream about finding. Along the way, Nathan and Sully are also joined by Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), a mysterious treasure hunter who’s as much a rival as she is an ally (another observation: Chloe wasn’t introduced until the second game in the series but made it into the film, while the original female lead, Elena Fisher, is absent from the movie). Naturally, there are also villains after the same treasure, in the form of Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), a millionaire willing to do anything to claim the treasure, and his hired mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle).

Uncharted is a fun movie that follows the structure of the games pretty well. The big set pieces are entertaining, even if they don’t quite match up to those from the games (the finale comes close though). Maybe that’s partly because in the games you actually got to play those set pieces, which I kind of appreciate all the more now that I write that out. And it’s a well acted movie despite the miscasting. But there’s just something missing in the translation to the big screen. The Uncharted video games featured some strong character moments, and some sharp dialogue and banter between characters. The movie makes attempts at these, but such moments always end up feeling kind of rushed and flat. The aforementioned lack of chemistry between Holland and Wahlberg doesn’t help this at all, either.

It’s difficult to describe. Uncharted has most of the elements that made its namesake video game series so memorable, but it just never really seems to come together. It’s enjoyable enough, but Uncharted somehow just doesn’t click.

There are many worse video game movie adaptations than Uncharted, but there are a few better ones. Uncharted should have had a seamless transition from video game to movie, and could have been a great action-adventure flick in its own right. It’s a fun movie that has some exciting set pieces, but Uncharted ultimately feels like its treading familiar ground for the genre, and doesn’t reach the potential of what an Uncharted movie could be.

I think we’ll see more Uncharted movies in the future (whether they’re sequels or a reboot depends on the success of this film), and hopefully one day we’ll get an Uncharted film that lives up to the video game series. But Uncharted’s first big screen outing is simply an ‘okay’ movie.

Who would have thought that Sonic the Hedgehog’s big screen debut would have ended up so much stronger than Nathan Drake’s?

5

Pac-Man 99 Review

With the battle royale genre taking the video game world by storm over the past few years, a recent trend has been remaking classic video games in the style of this genre. At the heart of this trend is developer Arika, who teamed up with Nintendo to create Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, the latter of which was pointlessly discontinued after only a few months. Shortly after Super Mario Bros. 35’s cancellation, Arika announced that they were teaming up with Bandai Namco to give Pac-Man the battle royale treatment with Pac-Man 99 for the Nintendo Switch. And much like Arika’s previous efforts, Pac-Man 99 is a fun and addicting spin on one of the classics of the medium.

As its name implies, Pac-Man 99 takes a page from Tetris 99’s book, and sees ninety-nine players compete against each other in a game of Pac-Man all trying to outlast each other, with the last player standing being the winner.

Pac-Man still moves around the board eating ‘Pac-Dots’ and avoiding the ghosts (Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde). There are still the big ‘Power Pellets’ in the corners of the board, which temporarily supercharge Pac-Man and allow him to turn the tables and eat the ghosts! So the basic gameplay is as it always was, but there are some fun changes that come with the battle royale makeover.

Now, whenever Pac-Man eats a ghost, that creates a “Jammer Pac-Man” for other players. Jammer Pac-Men are basically white Pac-Man outlines that slow players down. The more Jammer Pac-Men you send to other players, the slower they’ll get, making them easy pickings for the ghosts, thus eliminating them from the competition. Of course, this also means other players are constantly sending Jammer Pac-Men your way as well. But you can eliminate all of the current Jammers at once by eating a Power Pellet.

Another addition are the groups of tiny “Sleeping Ghosts” on both sides of the board. When collected, these Sleeping Ghosts then trail behind the nearest proper ghost to create a ‘Ghost Train.’ The benefit to this is that, once the ghosts become edible with a Power Pellet, each ghost in the Ghost Train creates its own Jammer, thus bombarding your opponents.

Once a certain amount of the Pac-Dots on the board are eaten (I believe it’s half of them), a fruit appears at the center of the board which resets all of the Pac-Dots, Power Pellets and Sleeping Ghosts once Pac-Man eats it.

Also of note is how the game changes as it goes. Not only do Pac-Man and the ghosts move faster as a match goes on, but the Jammer Pac-Men will behave differently in different stages of a match. In the earlier portion of a game, the Jammers will stay in place, and will slow Pac-Man if he moves through them. Later, the Jammers start chasing Pac-Man. And the late-game introduces red Jammer Pac-Men, who may move slower than the others, but will eliminate Pac-Man just as the ghosts do. And Power Pellets merely freeze the red Jammers in place temporarily. Only getting the fruit will eliminate the red Jammers from the board.

These are all fun twists to the Pac-Man formula that make for a thrilling multiplayer competition. But there are some additional elements that add another level of strategy, though they could be better explained and presented. These are the power-ups and the targeting options.

The power-ups are added bonuses the player can equip at any time, that are activated once Pac-Man eats a Power Pellet. The power-up options are Speed, Stronger, Train and Standard. Speed – true to its name – will double Pac-Man’s movement speed for the duration of a Power Pellet, with the caveat that you’ll send less Jammers to other players. Stronger creates more Jammers per ghost that you eat, but reduces the length of the Power Pellets’ effects. Train adds more ghosts to the Ghost Trains, but also brings a Jammer to your own board for every extra ghost. Standard won’t give Pac-Man any bonuses outside of what Power Pellets usually do, but also doesn’t have a downside.

Targeting options refer to who you want to be sending your Jammer Pac-Men to, and can also be changed at any point. The targeting options are categorized as Random, Knockout, Hunter, and Counter. Random, of course, will simply target a random set of players. Knockout will target players who are on the verge of being eliminated. Hunter will go after the players who have eliminated the most competition already. Finally, Counter will target anyone who is currently targeting you.

It is possible to target individual players, but this is only plausibly done when played in the Switch’s handheld mode, where you just tap that player’s screen on the touchscreen. When played in docked mode, you have to press the ‘L’ or ‘R’ buttons to manually go through each player to find the one you want. But with 98 other players, that’s simply unreasonable, especially in a game that gets as chaotic as this.

As much fun as Pac-Man 99 is, I have to admit the implementation of the power-ups and targeting options could have been done better. Pac-Man himself is controlled by the D-pad, while the buttons change the power-ups, and the right joystick switches the target options. I suppose that’s fine, but if I’m going to be honest, as the game goes on and gets faster and faster, I tend to forget those options are even there. It doesn’t help that the HUD for these options are greatly obscured by all the other players’ screens. Tetris 99 also did something like this, but Pac-Man 99 has so many added visual effects (which look nice on their own) that the displays for the power-ups and targeting options are just drown out. It just makes things all the more chaotic and I lose track of the action.

Another problem is that the game fails to properly explain what the power-ups and targeting options do. There are no in-game options detailing them, and the effects aren’t immediately apparent during gameplay. Although the names gave me a general idea, I actually had to look them up online to know what they did.

A simple instructions section on the main menu and a clearer display would really benefit these aspects. Otherwise Pac-Man 99 is a very fun twist on a timeless classic. It’s highly competitive, and you’ll find yourself even competing with yourself to see if you can rank higher than you did the time before. You’ll find you catch on to the new mechanics pretty quickly, but will play game after game trying to master them. It’s one of those “just one more game” kind of video games.

Pac-Man 99 doesn’t reinvent the Pac-Man formula or the battle royale genre, but like Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35 before it, Pac-Man 99 proves that battle royales and classic games are a match made in heaven.

7

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon Review

A while back, my older brother referred to Shovel Knight as the “Mario of Indie games.” That’s a pretty accurate description of Yacht Club Games’ shovel-wielding hero. His impact on Indie games, timeless appeal, and penchant for cameos in other games does bring to mind what Nintendo’s famed plumber has done for the mainstream. Though perhaps the comparison between Shovel Knight and Super Mario has never been more prominent than it is with Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, which removes Shovel Knight from his action-platforming norms into the world of falling block puzzle games. Just as Mario seems capable of transitioning into any genre and making it his own (whether it be RPG, sports or party games), Shovel Knight has now done something similar with Pocket Dungeon, one of the most original and engaging puzzle games in years.

Co-developed by Yacht Club Games and Vine and released at the tail end of 2021, Pocket Dungeon doesn’t just place Shovel Knight in a puzzle game, but the action elements of his titular series as well.

The game works as such: enemies and blocks fall from the top of the screen to the bottom, moving slowly over time as well as whenever Shovel Knight (or whatever playable character) moves. The game ends if the screen fills up completely, but you can also play a rouge-like mode that additionally can end if the player loses all their hit points. By bumping into an enemy, the player damages them. But the enemy also damages the player with every hit, with the exception the final blow. If multiple copies of the same enemy (or block) are adjacent to each other, then defeating them will give the player a chain, awarding them with more gems, which are used to purchase items as well as giving the player a high score. And don’t worry, potions also fall from the top of the screen to heal your hit points.

A certain number of enemies need to be defeated before the exit door of a stage appears, at which point the player can exit right away and move on to the next stage, or try to defeat every remaining enemy and block to claim an additional bonus. A boss fight shows up at the end of every third stage, with a secret boss waiting at the end of the game if you’ve managed to perform a specific set of tasks.

Also included in the stages are keys, treasure chests, shops and bonus areas. The keys naturally open the chests to reveal power-ups (which may give the player a boost in damage, a shield to block a few hits, or other such limited use items). The blue chests lead to the shop (going inside pauses the stage until you leave). Here you can purchase upgrades that give the player bonuses that, unlike the aforementioned items, last throughout the current playthrough (such as additional hit points or immunity to electric attacks, things of that nature). The bonus areas may ask the player to remove all enemies and objects within a small room, with bonus gems and items awarded if you succeed, or just provide the player with free keys and items. Of course, should you get a game over, you lose all your items and upgrades, and return to camp to start over from the beginning (though you can unlock the ability to go directly to later stages, but at the disadvantage of not having the bonuses you might otherwise have when you reach that point).

As it is, the game would already be a blast. It’s so full of variety in enemies and stage-specific obstacles, not to mention the switching around of items and upgrades at the shop every playthrough, that Pocket Dungeon successfully merges an action game with a falling block puzzler. But then the game goes above and beyond by including different playable characters, each with their own abilities that change up the game all the more.

Some characters you unlock by progressing through the story, while others are the boss characters that you unlock after defeating them (each boss stage has a number of potential bosses, so you never know who you’re going to get). Most of the characters are returning from the original Shovel Knight and its expansions, though a few new characters show up as well.

Plague Knight poisons the enemies he attacks, meaning they take an additional hit of damage after a second (other characters can purchase an upgrade that does the same for them which, yes, stacks when used by Plague Knight). Tinker Knight is unique in that he collects metal from the blocks. He is lower on hit points, but with enough metal he can gain a mechanical suit that gives him extra strength (but also explodes when the metal is used up, so be careful). Shield Knight can generate shields by defeating chains of enemies. The bigger the chain, the more hits her shield can block. New character Scrap Knight can pick up an enemy or object and move them somewhere else. My personal favorite is Mole Knight, who can dig underground to switch positions with something else on the board, giving the player all kinds of ways to move around and create chains.

With Shovel Knight alone, the game would be great and full of variety. With these additional characters (plus a number of others I didn’t mention), you can easily get engrossed in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon just by trying out every character and seeing how they change up the formula.

Even the enemies have their own quirks. Skeletons hit the player for extra damage, while knights put up a shield after your first strike, leaving you to attack them from a different position. Magician-like enemies will teleport once they’re down to their last hit point, while meddlesome yetis will freeze any other enemy or object (or the player) and scatter them across the board. It’s very impressive how much variety Vine and Yacht Club Games managed to squeeze into Pocket Dungeon.

I will admit, the game’s unique merging of genres may take some getting used to. And even when you’re accustomed to it, it can get so chaotic you still might not be able to keep track of your hit points or other things. But once you get the hang of it, Pocket Dungeon is incredibly fun (and only occasionally frustrating). It’s also a little bit of a bummer that the game currently lacks online multiplayer options, which will be added at a later date. Though I suppose this is a rare instance in which the game is so good as it is, I can forgive it if it wasn’t quite complete right out the gate.

In the spirit of Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon has great, colorful sprites (who look a little more SNES than the NES-inspired original game), and an awesome soundtrack that features remixes of the original Shovel Knight themes as well as some new stuff that’s just as catchy.

Perhaps the best thing about Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is that it’s one of those games that reminds me why we love video games to begin with. It’s a few simple concepts filled with creative ideas, that all come together through great gameplay to create a fun game. One of the best of 2021.

Like the original Shovel Knight, Pocket Dungeon trims the fat of modern gaming to remind us how great a pure video game experience can be.

It’s-a him, Shovel Knight!

8

My Month in Movies (January 2022)

Looks like I’m doing “My Month in Movies” again. I feel I watched enough movies in the first month of 2022 to warrant another one. And the movies mostly followed the specific theme of ‘fantasy’ – which I like to think is something of a speciality of mine – so it made sense. Even more specifically, I rewatched the entire Harry Potter series again (Fantastic Beasts and all), partly because Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (what a title) comes out in a couple of months, and partly because I started the year watching that retrospective special on the Harry Potter movies’ twentieth anniversary on HBO Max, so I was feeling nostalgic for them. I’m glad I did, because I feel it rekindled my interest in the series, and even gave me new appreciation for it. I would like to review all of the Harry Potter movies someday, and perhaps sooner still make a ranking of them. But I have so many backlogged things I want to write as it is, so for now, they can be a part of this My Month in Movies.

Because ‘My Month in Movies’ has gotten ridiculously long in the past, I’m going to try and keep things as short and simple as possible. And due to the aforementioned backlog of reviews and other things, I don’t plan on doing another My Month in Movies for February or March. But then again, I only decided to write this one for January after I watched the entire Harry Potter series, so who knows. I’ll write them when I write them, I guess.

Enough intros and wasting time. Here are the eighteen movies I watched in January of 2022, in chronological order of when I watched them. Movies with asterisks next to them are ones I watched for the very first time.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts*

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald

The BFG*

Bram Stoker’s Dracula*

Hook

It Follows

Labyrinth

Wild Wild West*

The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild*


So yeah, ‘fantasy’ was definitely the name of the game this month. There are a couple of horror movies in there, but both would still ultimately fall under fantasy in one way or another (many people consider fantasy, horror and science fiction to be like different branches of the same tree. But I’d argue that fantasy is the tree itself, considering it supersedes the other two in terms of concept whenever it’s joined together with them. For example, when science-fiction dabbles into fantasy, it becomes science-fantasy. But when fantasy dabbles in science fiction, it’s still fantasy). You could even argue that Wild Wild West and The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild could be considered variations of fantasy.

My month/year in movies began with Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts. You could argue it isn’t actually a movie, but it’s feature length and certainly entertaining, so I’m counting it here. A lovely look back on twenty years of Harry Potter movies. I was actually surprised how emotional I got during it. I’ve taken some jabs at Harry Potter here and there in the past, namely because people often (and strangely) compared it to The Lord of the Rings back in the day. And well, that was always a losing battle. But deep down I’ve always loved Harry Potter, despite some narrative shortcomings. And this 20 year retrospective reminded me of why I love it. It was great that the Harry Potter books got kids reading again (there have been other popular book series for children and young adults since, none of which are as indelible). And then you have the movies giving a generation of audiences a gateway to imagination and magic (figurative and literal, in this case).

I definitely have to appreciate the magic and world-building of the Harry Potter series, which feels all the more unique in retrospect now that movies aren’t allowed to have magic anymore (if Harry Potter took place in the MCU, every time someone casted a spell they’d have to stop and explain how it “wasn’t really magic, but a really advanced science”). The series is sometimes too loose with its rules, with magic seemingly changing for plot convenience. But for the most part, it’s well done and imaginative. And again, I’ll take it over the alternative of over-explaining fantasy elements or being embarrassed by them (again, I’m looking at you, MCU).

Something the 20th anniversary special really brought to my attention is how the Harry Potter series appropriately matures as it goes on. It’s maybe the only movie series in which you see its main stars grow up throughout it. Obviously I was aware of that, but I never really gave it much thought until watching the special. The fact that they were able to adapt all seven books (into eight movies) with the same cast over the course of a decade is quite the unique achievement.

The first two Harry Potter features, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, feel more like kids’ movies than the others. Both were directed by Chris Columbus (he did Home Alone, among others), whose work with the series I feel is under appreciated. Some applaud the first two movies in the series as being the most faithful to the books, while others feel the series hadn’t yet found its voice, and that they’re too long given they’re targeted at a younger audience. I think both movies are pretty great, even if it’s obvious the three leads hadn’t quite meshed into the roles yet (which is forgivable, given their ages at the time). They’re great fantasy-adventure movies for kids that are equally entertaining for adults. I think Chris Columbus set a great tone for the start of the series. And we can’t forget the score by John Williams! Because having done Star Wars and Spielberg’s filmography wasn’t enough, John Williams also gave us the music to Harry Potter as well. What a legend.

The third film in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, is often regarded as the best of the lot, and rightfully so. Azkaban isn’t simply a great Harry Potter movie or a great fantasy movie. It’s a great movie, period. It’s more grown up than its two predecessors, but still retains their more playful spirit (something some of the sequels lack). It also has perhaps the most self-contained story, and certainly the most character-driven one. It ended up being the only Harry Potter film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and the last one to feature music by John Williams.

Goblet of Fire is the first notable dip in the series, but it certainly isn’t bad. Admittedly, some of that dip is simply because Azkaban was so good. But it also feels like most of Goblet’s story is just padding to get to the ending, when the evil Lord Voldemort is resurrected. It’s hard to explain, but the ending of the film feels like the start of a new series (which I guess makes sense, since Voldemort’s resurrection marks the biggest tonal and narrative shift in the series). It doesn’t really feel like an ending to the story of the rest of the movie. And I always found it a bit weird how, after the elaborate plots Voldemort attempted to be resurrected in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, he just has one of his minions perform a dark ritual to successfully be brought back. Seems like he could have saved himself some trouble by jumping straight into that. Goblet was the only Harry Potter film directed by Mike Newell before David Yates took over the rest of the series (which continues to this day with the Fantastic Beasts movies).

Order of the Phoenix is probably the Harry Potter movie I’ve seen the most times (except maybe Sorcerer’s Stone), although I don’t really know why. It’s a good movie, but I think it only occasionally reaches the same heights as the first three. I guess, with Voldemort back, the story had to change. I just don’t think the change is always for the better (perhaps it’s no coincidence that I and many others hold Azkaban in such high regard and it also happens to be the most Voldemort-free entry?). It’s still a fun movie, and gives us the franchise’s most gloriously hatable character in the form of Dolores Umbridge. With David Yates’ grip on the series starting here, Phoenix set the tone for the rest of the films to follow.

Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate story in the series. I never read the book for this one, which is sometimes considered the best book in the series. The movie seems to have a rockier reputation, and again, I tend to agree. Before my current run-through of the Harry Potter movies, I had only seen Half-Blood Prince once, back when it was in theaters. At the time, I would have said it was my least favorite Harry Potter movie, but now it’s a toss-up between it and Goblet of Fire (unless we count the Fantastic Beasts movies, in which case we all know The Crimes of Grindlewald takes the dubious crown with ease). Like Goblet of Fire, it’s not a bad movie, it just feels like something is missing. There are some great, key moments for the franchise here. But on the whole, it just isn’t as memorable as some of the other movies in the series. I also never really bought into the Hermione/Ron romance (something which J.K. Rowling herself regrets), and that enters the forefront here. Said romance also seems oddly placed given the severity of everything else going on (or maybe it’s just because I’m a predominantly asexual individual so teen romance is lost on me). Again, not a bad movie, but the series can do better.

Somewhat annoyingly, Harry Potter started that trend we saw in the early 2010s of a franchise finale being split into two movies with Deathly Hallows (technically, The Hobbit started the trend when it was set to be split in two a while beforehand, despite being released after both Deathly Hallows. Though The Hobbit was ultimately spread too thin with three movies). In all fairness, at least Harry Potter was a big enough franchise that splitting its finale felt warranted.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 set the stage for a big, epic finale. And for the most part, it succeeds. I think my two big issues with Deathly Hallows are that some of the notable character deaths happen off-screen (apparently these same deaths happened off-page in the book, so this is on Rowling), and that I think the whole storyline with Voldemort’s Horcruxes (cursed objects that contain pieces of his soul thus leaving him immortal) needed to be a little more spread out. The first Horcrux is taken care of all the way back in Chamber of Secrets, which makes sense and gives that story even more importance. But then when Harry and Dumbledore find another Horcrux in Half-Blood Prince, it needlessly turns out to be a fake, so a good deal of Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is dealing with that same Horcrux. It seems like the one Harry and Dumbledore found in Half-Blood Prince should have just been the real thing and destroyed then and there so the story could move on to the rest of the Horcruxes.

Anyway, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a highly entertaining movie that fittingly feels like a big deal, even when watching it today. But I think that Part 2 is even better.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is one of the best franchise closers in movie history. The sense of drama and urgency feels well earned, the emotion is strong, and it all boils down to an appropriately epic finale. And it has the best music in the series since John Williams left it behind. This is another great movie. Not nearly as standalone as Azkaban, nor does it have that film’s hard to describe ‘dreamlike’ quality. But because it’s such a satisfying end to the series, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 might be my second favorite Harry Potter movie (guess we’ll see when I finally decide to rank the series). I have a lingering complaint from Part 1 with the continuing trend of off-screen character deaths (for some of them I understand it. Harry can’t be present for every character death. But some of the more important characters’ deaths make it feel like Rowling started killing them off just to do it, since they happen off-screen). Though my complaint that’s unique to Part 2 is that – and I admit this may seem weird – there’s not a whole lot that happens after the final battle and before the epilogue. Basically, I think there needed to be more ending. Not necessarily a better ending, since I feel the ending is fine. Just more of it.

People love to joke that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has multiple endings. But I never took issue with any of them. They all gave an appropriate sense of finality to one of cinema’s great franchises. And I think Harry Potter could have done something similar. I would have liked to have seen more of the characters in detail after the final battle and before the epilogue. This is a series that earned the “never-ending endings” treatment. So it’s a shame it doesn’t get it. Otherwise, a great movie, and a prime example of how to close out a movie series.

Now we move on to the Fantastic Beasts series, a prequel/spinoff of Harry Potter exclusive to the world of movies (okay, there was a book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but from what I gather it was more like a guide of fictional animals within the Harry Potter universe, as opposed to the story we see in the movie series). Prequels released after a beloved franchise has wrapped up don’t exactly have the best track record. And well, Fantastic Beasts hasn’t exactly done a great job at bucking that trend.

Okay, so the first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is okay. It doesn’t do anything really great, but it’s fun and introduces us to some entertaining new characters like Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the Muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the first non-magic main character in the series (something that proves to be a lot of fun) as well as the first American actor/main character in the franchise.

Fantastic Beasts is a solidly enjoyable movie that is at once nostalgic for the Harry Potter of yesteryear, while also showing audiences different aspects of that world. And in a move I like, it introduces us to some creatures in the Wizarding World that are actually cute! One of my ongoing issues with Harry Potter was how ugly all the creatures of its world were, so it was nice that Fantastic Beasts showed us some cute ones. Fantastic Beasts is nothing special, but it’s a fun movie.

The same can’t be said about the sequel, the awkwardly-titled Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. This movie is such a mess that it (as well as the whole Johnny Depp controversy) derailed the series for a good few years. Although it’s annoying that this sequel resurrects a character who seemingly died in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, it otherwise starts out alright. But things quickly go off the rails as the movie devolves into an undying barrage of exposition, which leaves the second half of the film feeling more like the appendices of a book than an actual movie. We also can’t forget the introduction of a character who seems destined to be important to the series going forward, only for the movie to kill them off before everything is said and done. One of the main characters ends up siding with the villain in the most random heel turn ever. And the movie ends on a cliffhanger that is also one of the most annoying retcons to an established story I can recall (I suppose it is possible this can be undone in the upcoming installments, but we’ll see). Some even argue that the series entered into the “more serious” territory too soon with the second entry, considering there are still three more to go.

The Crimes of Grindlewald has some entertainment value, and it’s fun that we finally get to see Nicolas Flamel (the titular sorcerer/philosopher behind the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone). But boy, does it lose its way by the end. Here’s hoping that The Secrets of Dumbledore gets the series back on track.

As an added bonus, I also watched all four episodes of that game show Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses that aired in December of 2021, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren (I guess because she was just about the only notable English actor not to appear in the Harry Potter movies). I was surprised to hear the game show didn’t have too fond of a reception, as I found it to be pretty fun (though I did have some issues with the structure of the contest). I don’t know if a second season is planned, but I hope it happens.

And now we finally move on from Harry Potter.

Next up was the BFG, the 2016 Steven Spielberg movie based on the Road Dahl book, about a little girl who befriends a Big Friendly Giant (BFG). I intended to see this in theaters back in the day, but never got around to it. Apparently I’m not the only one, because the film was a box office bomb. That’s a shame, because the movie was actually pretty good. It’s certainly not among Spielberg’s best films or anything, and it takes a while to get going, but it ultimately charmed me. Considering this was Spielberg’s first movie to be released by Disney, you would think that combination would have put more butts in the seats. Alas, fairy tales such as this just don’t sell unless they’re made directly by Disney Animation. The BFG may not be a Spielberg or Disney great, but it’s a good family movie that deserves a little more attention.

Now we take a total 180 with Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the 1996 film Jack… and also The Godfather (I’ve been waiting to use that for a while). This is the Dracula movie where Gary Oldman plays the iconic vampire. And the one where Dracula has the butt/boob shaped hair. What? He does!

Anyway, the film is considered one of the more faithful adaptations of Dracula, hence Bram Stoker’s name in the title. Some people love this movie, others less so. I think it’s worth a watch for fans of Dracula and horror, and the film looks good. But if I’m going to be honest, some scenes are kind of unintentionally hilarious. And well, even the film’s defenders can’t deny that Keanu Reeve’s English accent makes Dick Van Dyke seem like a full-blooded Englishman.

One thing’s for sure, the theme music to Bram Stoker’s Dracula is amazing! So menacing and foreboding. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the theme music. It’s so effective as villainous music that many other works have used it, ranging from an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars to the original teaser for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. And though I can’t confirm it, I think Super Mario Galaxy’s rendition of Super Mario Bros. 3’s Airship theme was inspired by the theme of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Damn, this music is good!

Speaking of good music, my next movie was Hook. Oh boy, does the soundtrack to Hook kick ass!

For those unfamiliar, Hook is a 1991 Steven Spielberg movie that has a rather amazing premise: What if Peter Pan grew up?

The film stars the late, great Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan (perfect casting there), who has forgotten his past and now goes by Peter Banning. But when Captain Hook (memorably portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter’s children, Peter has to rediscover who he really is to take down his old foe and rescue his kids.

There seem to be two different opinions when it comes to Hook: There’s the more critical crowd who consider it one of Spielberg’s weakest movies (a sentiment shared by Spielberg himself), and those who grew up watching it on VHS who adore it. As is often the case with two such extreme opposing viewpoints, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think Hook is a better movie than it gets credit for, but no doubt it takes more than one serious dip once Peter makes his way back to Neverland. And even the film’s aforementioned amazing premise of a grown up Peter Pan gets a little squandered in the latter half as it devolves into a simple retelling of Peter Pan.

But the one thing that can’t be denied is that the soundtrack is phenomenal! It’s a Spielberg movie, which of course means John Williams was the composer. With John Williams, you expect good music, but the soundtrack to Hook goes above and beyond the call of duty. It’s up there with Star Wars and Jurassic Park as one of John Williams’ best scores. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s so good!

Importantly, the music to Hook played a roll in inspiring the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, AKA the best video game soundtrack. For that alone we should be eternally grateful.

Going back to horror with It Follows from 2014. Whereas Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a horror film with a great premise and so-so execution, It Follows has a concept that sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud or write it out, but the end result is actually very effective.

It Follows is a horror film about an unnamed entity that – true to the title – follows its prey until It catches up to them and kills them. But the premise is a bit more interesting because of the rules of how the entity, or “It” works.

“It” only stalks one person at any given time, and whoever is the current victim of “It” can pass “It” on to someone else by (and here’s where it may sound silly) having sex with them. But should “It” catch up to its current victim and kill them, it will go back to its previous target and keep going down the line. “It” has no definitive form, instead taking on the appearance of different people, and is only visible to its current and previous targets. But its victims have some advantages against “It.” Notably, “It” is incredibly slow, only capable of moving at waking speed. So even though “It” is aware of the location of its current target at all times, it can be outran in individual moments. “It” also is only an unstoppable killing machine if it catches its victim, otherwise it still has trouble opening locked doors or breaking through windows. Finally, even though it disguises itself as other people, because it has the singular goal of killing its current target and can only move at one speed, it’s pretty easy to pick out from a crowd.

Again, it all sounds a bit wonky when you explain it, but that makes it all the more impressive that the film manages to pull off the concept into a genuinely chilling horror film.

Next up was Labryinth, directed by Jim Henson and executive produced by George Lucas. This is a fun movie that’s often lumped together with Henson’s previous film The Dark Crystal, due to both films being fantasy worlds filled with crazy creatures brought to life by Henson’s signature puppets. In the past, I would have said Labyrinth was the better of the two movies since its smaller scope was more attainable with what Henson had to work with, though the excellent 2019 Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has somewhat retroactively made the mythology of the original Dark Crystal film feel stronger (then Netflix, in their “infinite wisdom” decided to cancel Age of Resistance after one season). So it’s hard to say which of the two movies I prefer, but like the original Dark Crystal, Labyrinth is a good and fun movie that I still think could have been done better, given the talent involved.

The movie of course features two prominent human actors, which differentiates it from the exclusively-puppet Dark Crystal. Jennifer Connelly portrays Sarah Williams, a teenager who traverses the titular labyrinth to save her little brother from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie).

As always with Jim Henson films, the movie is a technical marvel with how they brought everything to life, and for that alone is worth watching. But I do think Labyrinth is one of those fantasy films that feels like its concept could have been greater in execution. Imagine a Jim Henson movie with a story that could match the technical craftsmanship and artistry of it? That would be amazing! Though I guess we did get that with Age of Resistance, just in the form of a series instead of a movie (shame Netflix didn’t give it a proper chance).

Next in line was Wild Wild West, that western/steampunk movie starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline from 1999 that you probably only know about because the theme song outlived the movie. This is a bad, dumb movie. But the kind of bad, dumb movie I can at least get a kick out of. The film at least has some inventiveness with its steampunk creations. Again, it’s dumb. But whatever.

Finally, I watched the newest Ice Age film, The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild, which was released on Disney+ at the end of the month. I admit I still haven’t seen the fourth or fifth Ice Age movies in their entirety yet, but the first three were adequately entertaining. Nothing special, like Pixar. But nothing snarky and cynical, like Dreamworks. Also, I just realized I typed “the fourth and fifth Ice Age movies.” Why are there so many of them?!

The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is the first Ice Age film since Disney bought 20th Century Fox and dissolved Blue Sky Studios (the animation studio behind the Ice Age films). So the animation was outsourced here, and boy does it show! This movie looks more like the kind of straight-to-DVD CG you would see in the early 2000s, not the latest installment of a multi-billion dollar (really) movie franchise. And aside from Simon Pegg returning as Buck Wild himself, all of the original cast has been replaced, and you can hear the difference right away. It also doesn’t have much in the way of story (but then again, none of the Ice Age sequels did). Perhaps worst of all, despite being named after Buck Wild – who was introduced in the third Ice Age movie and was probably my favorite character in the series – the film seems to focus more of its time on returning Ice Age characters Crash and Eddie. So why even make a spinoff movie about Buck Wild if it isn’t even really about him?

Also mysteriously missing is Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel, whose side antics to get/store an acorn were often more entertaining than the main stories of the Ice Age features. Apparently there was some legal trouble involving that character, and Disney couldn’t get ahold of him during the Fox acquisition or something. How weird is that?

One good thing I can say about The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is that Simon Pegg’s voice acting is great. He’s one of the few mainstream actors who is willing to make his voice unrecognizable when doing voice over work (Benedict Cumberbatch is the other one that immediately comes to mind). Lest we forget Simon Pegg was Unkar Plutt (the “One Quarter Portion Guy”) from The Force Awakens and the SkekSis Chamberlain in the aforementioned Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

I do have to ask, why is the movie called The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild? After twenty years and six movies they suddenly decide to add a “the” to the franchise title?

Let’s wrap this up with the usual awards. Though because I’ve already rambled way more than I intended to when I started writing this, let’s keep things short.

Best Movie I Watched All Month: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I suppose the fact that I watched every Harry Potter film this past month and am naming Prisoner of Azkaban as the best movie I watched this past month, I just gave away the ending of my eventual Harry Potter movie ranking. Oh well.

While a few of the Harry Potter movies are great, Prisoner of Azkaban is the one I’ve always thought was a great film full-stop. Harry Potter fan or not.

Azkaban is more mature than the first two installments, but still retains their sense of magic and wonder (something the later Harry Potter stories somewhat lost, as they focused more on how evil Voldemort is than they did the magic of the world of these stories). It’s the entry that best focuses on Harry, Hermione and (to a lesser extent) Ron develop as characters. It also gives us a kind of standalone story that can be appreciated on its own merits outside of the overall series more so than the other entries. And it introduces us to at least two of the best characters in the series in the forms of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). It’s also uniquely the only Harry Potter story in which the main villain isn’t Voldemort, but one of his minions, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), a baddie who sadly seems largely forgotten about in later installments.

Prisoner of Azkaban is also the most visually captivating Potter movie, with lots of saturated lighting in the daytime sequences, and an eerie fogginess at night. It reminds me of a Team Ico game in a way. Azkaban feels more subdued than past and future Harry Potter movies visually, but somehow that brings out the magic of the series all the more. The whole movie has a kind of dreamlike quality about it. I can’t really explain it.

Sure, the time travel aspect is a little wonky, but it’s one of those “small price to pay” kind of things with how great of a movie Prisoner of Azkaban is on the whole. This is to Harry Potter what Spider-Man 2 is to Marvel in that it’s a great movie even without taking the franchise into consideration. It’s the movie lover’s Harry Potter.

But let’s save some of the gushing for when I actually review and/or rank the Harry Potter movies.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild

This was actually a toss-up between Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (which I initially thought was guaranteed this “honor”), Wild Wild West and The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild (or TIAAOBW, for short). Grindlewald almost singlehandedly halted the Harry Potter spinoff franchise, but I suppose it has some merit, and with three sequels still to come, the series may be able to salvage itself. Wild Wild West is a bad movie, but again, it’s dumb fun. It’s hard to pick on something too much when it knows exactly how dumb it is.

But in the case of The Ice Age Adv… you know, let’s just call it Buck Wild.

In the case of Buck Wild, it felt like it took a series that has already overstayed its welcome, and stripped it of the few things fans of the series had left to enjoy (animation quality, the voice acting, Scrat, etc.). Outside of Simon Pegg’s vocal work, this is bottom of the barrel, cash-grab animation. If you have a Disney+ subscription, watch any of the countless infinitely better animated offerings on the service instead.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time this Month: Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts

“Mrs. Puff…I think I cheated.”

Does this count as a movie? A documentary? I never know with these kinds of specials. So my claiming that Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is the best movie I watched for the first time this month may be a bit dubious. But whatever, I greatly enjoyed it.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, I think this is a must watch. Even if you’re not totally engrossed in the franchise but have an interest in pop culture phenomenons, I also think this is a must watch. It’s a detailed look back at one of cinema’s (and literature’s) most successful franchises, gives insight into the series and the making of it. And thankfully, the special’s feature length runtime means it gives plenty of attention to each individual installment in the series.

It’s a very insightful, fun special. I’m not even sorry that I’m cheating by selecting it.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Hook

Hook could have, and should have, been a better movie than it is. But it’s still better than its critics say. It’s a good time that may lose its magic as it goes, but it’s still a fun movie.

Most importantly, the music is sublime!


That’s all folks!

What did I say at the beginning of this? “I’m going to try to keep this as short and simple as possible?” Well, mission failed there!

I don’t know why these keep ending up being so long. I have so many other things to write, I need to start focusing on those instead. I still haven’t reviewed Luca, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Ron’s Gone Wrong or Encanto. And let’s not even get into all the video games I’ve been meaning to review…

So, let’s see this as the last My Month in Movies for a while. I enjoy writing these, but they’re taking away too much of my writing time that I should be spending elsewhere. So until I catch up a little bit on all of those other things, let’s put My Month in Movies on hold for a while.

At any rate, I hope you had some fun reading all this. I also hope you found any of it even the slightest bit interesting. And most importantly, I hope you’re having a good and happy 2022 so far.

Take care.

Mario Party Superstars Review

2021 may not have been the biggest year for Nintendo in recent memory, but the Nintendo Switch did come out swinging with a few titles fans had waited many years for: Pokemon Snap finally received a sequel after twenty-two years in the form of New Pokemon Snap. The patience of Metroid fans was rewarded with the brand new 2D entry they’d been waiting nineteen years for in Metroid Dread. And last but not least, Mario Party finally listened to its fans and returned back to glorious basics with Mario Party Superstars, which is essentially a greatest hits collection of Mario Party’s golden years.

To be fair, 2018’s Super Mario Party was already a huge step in the right direction, ditching most of the more cumbersome gimmicks of the past several entries in favor of the more straightforward “board game and mini-games” setup of the earlier entries. But Super still had some issues that held it back, with unmemorable board designs, motion controls that weren’t always reliable, an inability to play in the Switch’s handheld mode and – bizarrely – the game didn’t get online features until nearly three years after release. And as cool as it was to have a wide variety of characters who each had their own dice, said dice weren’t always balanced.

Mario Party Superstars has left most of Super’s quirks behind, instead opting for a love letter to Mario Party’s earliest (and greatest) installments, making it the best entry in the series since the beloved Nintendo 64 years.

Mario Party Superstars utilizes five game boards, each returning from the first three entries from the Nintendo 64 era, as well as 100 mini-games from throughout each of the numbered entries in the series’ history (meaning Mario Parties 1 through 10, omitting the handheld entries and Super Mario Party).

The rules are back to basics: each player takes a turn moving across the board. Blue spaces give coins, red spaces take coins, with various Event Spaces interspersed in between, and item shops that let you use your coins to buy items to help yourself or hinder others. If you pass Toadette, you can spend 20 coins for a Star, with the winner being the player with the most Stars by the time the game ends. And as a final curveball, there are a few endgame bonuses that award last minute stars, which can turn the tide of the game at the very last second.

It’s the same Mario Party formula you remember, at the height of its powers. Some may lament that Mario Party Superstars doesn’t do anything really new for the series, but after so many years of needless gimmicks and superfluous additions, getting back to the core of what made the series fun to begin with is what fans have been begging for for years.

Superstars features ten playable characters: the original six Mario Party characters of Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong and Wario, as well as the two additional characters from Mario Party 3, Princess Daisy and Waluigi. To round things off are the welcome inclusion of Rosalina, and the more questionable inclusion of Birdo. Every character plays identically this time around (no character-specific dice), so it’s really just about picking your favorite.

The five aforementioned boards include Yoshi’s Tropical Island and Peach’s Birthday Cake from the first Mario Party, Space Land and Horror Land from Mario Party 2, and Woody Woods from Mario Party 3. Each board contains most of their original gimmicks (Woody Woods has paths that change between turns, while Horror Land switches from day to night, and Yoshi’s Tropical Island sees Toadette and Bowser swap between two islands when players land on a green Event Space). Some of the boards have seen alterations to be more up to date (the boards from Mario Party 1 now include item shops, whereas the items didn’t initially appear until the second game). It’s actually a great selection of boards, but it’s a shame that it’s limited to only five. The original Mario Party had eight boards total, and Mario Parties 2 and 3 made six boards the series’ standard. So even one extra board really would have made a difference here (particularly an extra board from Mario Party 3 to even out the playing field).

As for the 100 mini-games, it’s a mostly solid selection of the best mini-games from Mario Parties 1 through 10. You’ve got fan favorites like Bumper Balls, Hot Rope Jump and Eatsa Pizza, as well as less popular but equally great selections like Honeycomb Havoc, Cheep Cheep Chase and Dungeon Duos. Even the lesser known mini-games selected are still mostly good.

There are, however, a few questionable mini-game choices. And even a few selections from the N64 games prove that even Mario Party’s best entries had a few stinkers.

First thing’s first, very few of the 1 vs. 3 mini-games are any fun. While stacking three players against one already seems unfair in concept, there are a couple of decent mini-games in the category that prove it can work (such as Tube It or Lose It, which feels pretty balanced for either the single player or the team). But for the most part, the 1 vs. 3 mini-games feel like they heavily favor one side or the other. There was never any reason why Tug o’ War shouldn’t have been a 2 vs. 2 mini-game, as the solo player almost never wins against the three-person team. Meanwhile, games like Archer-rival feel like they overcompensate the single player by giving the team players almost no chance to win. Then there’s Piranha Pursuit – arguably the worst mini-game out of all 100 – in which the three-person team doesn’t seem to actually do anything. With very few exceptions, the 1 vs. 3 mini-games just aren’t fun, and you hate to see them pop-up at the end of a turn.

Then there are mini-games in which it feels like the players have little input on the outcome. I can forgive Bowser’s Big Blast (in which players push switches and hope it doesn’t blow them up), since that one at least has a nice sense of tension. But then you have games like Trap Ease Artist – which sees players simply drop cages and hope their’s fell over more Goombas than the other players’ cages – where you just kind of hope the Goombas can be bothered to head in your direction (which they often don’t). Granted, Mario Party games have always favored luck over skill, and are more about having a good time with friends than they are deep gameplay. But because the mini-games are (usually) more interactive than the board game portion, it is kind of annoying when the luck-based nature of it all falls onto the mini-games themselves.

Finally, despite there being 100 mini-games in Mario Party Superstars, it seems like I encounter the same small subset of mini-games all the time, with only a few switching things up in every game. I don’t know why they would make some mini-games so much less common than others, but I all too frequently find myself wishing I could see a wider variety of the mini-games.

Going back to the game’s luck-based nature, if you’re someone who has taken issue with the series for this aspect in the past, then Mario Party Superstars isn’t going to win you over. Because that sense of luck is as prevalent as ever. Players can randomly find hidden blocks that can award them with extra coins or even a free Star out of nowhere. You could be thinking up a strategy for multiple turns, only for someone to land on an Event Space and immediately halt whatever you were planning. Then there’s the dreaded Chance Time Space, which sees players spin a few roulette wheels. Chance Time can be harmless (like one player giving three coins to another), but it can also completely upend the game in an instant. Things like these can be frustrating, but again, it’s all part of the fun of Mario Party. We all take video games a bit too seriously these days. Not every game needs to be some deep, intricate experience that requires constant practice just so you can master a single combo or whatever. Mario Party has always just been about having a good time with friends, and part of that includes watching everything descend into chaos. With that said, Chance Time can go to Hell.

“Oh come on!”

Speaking of playing with friends, that’s where Mario Party is at its best. Having a full group of players in the same room would be ideal, but thankfully, if you can’t get a group of your friends together, you can play any mode of Mario Party Superstars online. So if you and your friends have the time you can do a full board game or just compete in a series of mini-games on Mini-Game Mountain. And if you’re concerned about Nintendo’s continued lack of online communication, Mario Party Superstars has a fun way to work around that. Players are given different “Stickers” they can use to convey very basic message (things like “Congrats” or “Bad Luck…”), each one coming with its own image of a different character. Nintendo has utilized something similar in other games, but it’s much more effective here, given the nature of how Mario Party works.

Since Mario Party loses much of its appeal when playing solo against computers, it’s also great that you can still play the online modes even without people on your friends list, which makes Superstars perhaps the most readily repayable Mario Party entry. And with few exceptions, I’ve had mostly very smooth online games. Maybe not as smooth as Mario Kart, but certainly more consistent than most other online Nintendo games. The online mode is where I’ve spent the majority of my playtime in Mario Party Superstars, but it isn’t without its drawbacks.

When playing online, the board games are automatically set at fifteen turns. I can actually understand this, seeing as the games in Mario Party are already pretty long, and who knows how long some random person from the other side of the world will take just to roll their dice. So even though part of me wishes you could vote for the number of turns in an online game, I understand this. What I don’t understand is that, when playing an online match without friends, the endgame rewards are completely random.

As mentioned, just before a game ends, players are awarded additional Stars at the last minute. When playing locally or with friends, you can choose to have the traditional endgame rewards from the N64 era (one for whoever won the most mini-games, one for whoever had the most coins during the game, and one for whoever landed on the most Event Spaces), or you can choose to have random rewards, or no rewards at all. Personally, I prefer going with the N64 rewards, since the mini-game and coin stars are something you can potentially aim for. But when you play an online match without friends, the endgame rewards are automatically on the random setting, so you don’t even know what they are until they’re awarded at the end (it’s like how Dumbledore randomly awards points to Gryffindor at the last minute, despite the hard work of the other Hogwarts houses). Not only does this mean you can’t actively try to earn these awards, but some of the bonuses don’t even make sense, like an award that goes to whoever landed on the most Bowser Spaces or whoever moved the least on the game board. Why are those things to be rewarded?

“Geez, we got Bowser Sanders over here…”

At first I thought maybe the actions of the players during the game dictated the random rewards (maybe if someone landed on a notable amount of Bowser Spaces, that would activate the Bowser award). But that’s not even the case, since I’ve done at least two online matches where they announced the Bowser Award when no one landed on a Bowser Space, so no one even got the Star. So why even have it?

The random endgame bonuses were one of my big gripes with Super Mario Party, so it’s unfortunate to see them return, especially in the online matches when you can’t change them.

Another issue I have is how the boards maybe have too many item shops, item spaces, Koopa Banks and (in terms of the Mario Party 2 and 3 boards) stage gimmicks that slow the player down. All these things on their own are fun additions that add to the game, but each board has perhaps too many of them, which not only makes rounds go much longer than they otherwise would, but also makes these elements feel less special with how frequently you come across them. It seems like only the first round of any given game can ever go uninterrupted.

These may sound like a lot of complaints, but they ultimately aren’t party poopers. Because for all the frustration and tedium they may cause, Mario Party Superstars is the best entry in the series since Mario Party 3. By removing all the fluff the series added over the years and going back to basics, choosing boards from the N64 titles and plucking mini-games from throughout the series’ history, Mario Party Superstars feels like both a return to form and a love letter to the series at the same time. Superstars even plays up the nostalgia in fun ways, with the main menu being an exact recreation of that of the first Mario Party.

“The title screen will be based on the last board you played, an element from the original Mario Party that I had forgotten about until my second time booting up Superstars. Nice touch!”

To top it all off, Mario Party Superstars is very easy on the eyes and ears. Though the character models don’t look any newer than they did in Super Mario Party, the old school boards recreated on the Nintendo Switch look stunning (Peach’s Birthday Cake looks especially lovely, and really makes me hungry). You can even switch between the original musical scores or modernized remakes. Mario Party may never have had as strong of soundtracks as other Mario games, but it was always appropriately fun and bouncy. And it’s never sounded better than it does here.

Mario Party Superstars is like a dream come true for Mario Party fans. It could have used an extra board, not all of the mini-games represent the series’ best, and it’s as frustrating as ever. But it’s also the same Mario Party we all fondly look back on and have been begging to return to, despite its faults. How much fun you have during a game may be a bit circumstantial, but few things in gaming are as joyous as getting your friends together for a round of Mario Party, and watching how everything unfolds.

Now if only Nintendo could do the same for Paper Mario…

7

Clockwork Aquario Review

Clockwork Aquario is something of a unearthed treasure in the video game world. Originally created in 1992 as an arcade title by the now-defunct Westone (creators of the Wonder Boy series) and to be published by Sega, Clockwork Aquario ultimately went unreleased. In 2017, Strictly Limited Games acquired the rights to the game from Sega. But some of the game’s code had been lost over time, so Strictly Limited Games teamed up with ININ Games to help fill in the gaps. After a few more delays, Clockwork Aquario FINALLY saw release on Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 at the tail end of 2021, nearly thirty years after the game was originally created (claiming the record for longest development time in video game history in the process).

On the plus side, it’s nice to know that such a game has actually been released after seemingly being lost to time. On the down side, the story behind Clockwork Aquario is more interesting than the game itself. Clockwork Aquario provides some fun, arcade-style platforming, but it’s short lived and lacks substance. It’s an entertaining novelty, if maybe not the arcade classic you may have hoped for, given its unique development history.

Clockwork Aquario is an action-platformer in which players can choose from three different playable characters: a boy named Huck Rondo, a girl named Elle Moon, and a robot named Gush. While all three characters have their own animations and sound bites, they all play identically. The goal of the game is simply to make it to the end of each level, defeat the boss, and ultimately defeat the evil Dr. Hangyo (an anthropomorphic fish, of all things) from taking over the world.

“Clockwork Aquario follows the Secret of Mana rule of a boy character, a girl character, and a non-human character.”

The stages are short and straightforward. There’s a time limit on each stage, but I’ve not had it run out on me yet. Each character can either jump on an enemy or slap them, with one hit stunning the enemy, and the second hit defeating them. What’s fun and different about Clockwork Aquario is that once an enemy is stunned, you can lift them up over your head and throw them at other enemies. It’s reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Treasure titles like Mischief Makers or Dynamite Headdy in that respect. Also similar to Treasure titles are the big, ridiculous boss fights, all of which involve Dr. Hangyo piloting a crazy, animal-shaped robot.

Although the core gameplay is fun, there are some annoying aspects to it. Namely, there are numerous segments where enemies pop out of nowhere as soon as you’re on top of them, to the extent that it feels like you have to take a hit to move on. That would be an issue even if you had a health bar, but it’s all the worse since your character can only take two hits before you lose a life. Another issue is that it takes way too long to gain a single extra life. By defeating enemies and getting points, as well as picking up gems the enemies occasionally drop, you slowly build up a meter towards collecting a 1-up. But you’ll often lose all your lives and an extra continue before you fill the bar up, so it feels like the reward isn’t worth it. It’s also annoying that you can’t pause the game once you start. I get that this was originally made as an arcade title, but come on. It ended up released on home consoles. Surely they could have added the ability to pause.

You’ll also find that the game is incredibly short, even by arcade standards. Clockwork Aquario contains only five levels, each of which can be breezed through long before the clock runs out. The game features different difficulty settings, but the only real difference is that the harder difficulties give you less continues (seeing as this is an arcade game released on home consoles, you can’t keep giving the game quarters for more chances). There’s also a ‘training mode’ but that’s little more than playing the first two levels with unlimited tries (which is really weird now that I type it out). You’ll also probably feel that, unless you have a second player with you, there’s not a whole lot of replay value here.

If there are two areas where Clockwork Aquario shines, it’s in the visuals and music. The graphics, character animations and backgrounds have a fun, retro anime vibe. It all looks so smooth and colorful! Clockwork Aquario looks like a suped-up Sega Genesis title. The music is similarly enjoyable. So much so that the game even includes its soundtrack in the main menu (both as the tracks appear in game as well as remixes). Clockwork Aquario is very fun to look at and listen to. Unfortunately these aesthetic pleasures don’t translate to the menus, which are pretty basic and mostly just text.

Clockwork Aquario is decently fun while it lasts, but I do think you need two players to get the best out of it (there’s even an extra mini-game in between the third and fourth stages only when playing with two people). Given the game’s unique history, you do kind of wish there were more to it. But it’s still a fun, novel experience. And worth checking out as an odd little piece of gaming history.

6

Cruella Review

Disney’s recent fixation with remaking their beloved animated films into live-action features has been met with a mixed reception. To be fair, not all of these live-action remakes have missed the mark (I rather enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin). But Disney turning the idea of remaking their animated legacy as live-action films into a kind of sub-genre seems superfluous. Disney’s animated films are (mostly) considered timeless, very few of them are actually asking for a remake. And with the possible exception of the aforementioned Jungle Book, I don’t think any of these live-action remakes have been as good as the animated movies they’re adapting.

Interestingly, in 2021 Disney released Cruella, a live-action film about the villainous Cruella de Vil character from 101 Dalmatians. I say that’s interesting for two reasons: the first reason is that Disney already made a live-action remake of that movie in 1996 which starred Glenn Close as Cruella. The second reason (and perhaps as a consequence of the first reason) is that 2021’s Cruella isn’t really a remake of 101 Dalmatians, but an origin story for the Cruella de Vil character, with Emma Stone in the title role.

Personally, I don’t think Cruella de Vil needed an origin story. But to be fair, Cruella is actually a pretty entertaining movie. Though I’m not too sure who its intended audience was meant to be.

Cruella is set in 1970s London (the change in decade is a notable alteration from the animated original, seeing as that film was released in 1961). A young girl born with half-black, half-white hair named Estella has a gift for fashion, but has a notorious mean streak, with her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) giving her the moniker ‘Cruella’ to address the less ideal half of her personality. When Estella’s behavior lands her in trouble, her mother hopes to transfer her to a better school, but lacks the money to do so. So Catherine stops by the notorious Hellman Hall to ask for a loan from her old friend and former employer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). While there, Estella is chased by the Baroness’ three dalmatians, who end up knocking Catherine off a cliffside balcony to her death…

Before I go on, I have to stop and address this. Disney movies often feature the death of a parent or guardian, going all the way back to Bambi. Usually, these moments are appropriately sad and meaningful. But I gotta say, death by dalmatian pushing someone off a cliff… now THAT’S a new one. And is this supposed to justify Cruella’s disdain for dalmatians down the road or something? As if someone hating dogs could ever be justified.

As ridiculous as this moment is, the story does pick up. So let’s move on.

Estella, now an orphan, flees Hellman Hall, accidentally leaving behind the necklace her mother passed down to her. She ends up meeting two orphaned boys, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and she becomes something of their surrogate sister. The three grow up living as conmen and petty thieves. One day, on her birthday, Estella is gifted an entry-level job at a department store by Jasper and Horace, as they believe Estella is too talented and deserves better than what life with them can provide.

Though the job isn’t much, it opens the door for Estella’s dreams. Eventually, she winds up getting a job as a designer for none other than the Baroness herself. Though her dreams seem to be coming true on paper, the reality of it is much less of a dream, as the Baroness rules her empire with an iron fist. While Estella seems to manage the hardships (and verbal abuse) for a while, her attitude shifts when she realizes the Baroness has her mother’s long-lost necklace. Estella enlists the help of Jasper and Horace – as well as their dogs Buddy and Wink – to try to steal the necklace back (Estella’s argument being that the necklace is technically hers), which eventually escalates into a rivalry with the Baroness. Estella will stop at nothing to bring the Baroness’ empire down, both from the inside and outside of it, adopting her old moniker of ‘Cruella’ when she starts a rival fashion company of her own. But the deeper the rivalry goes, the more the Cruella persona begins to take over Estella’s life.

The film basically plays out like The Devil Wears Prada taken to the extreme. And to be perfectly honest, Cruella ultimately is a fun movie, due in no small part to its cast, Emmas Stone and Thompson in particular elevating their characters and their rivalry. And it’s an appropriately fun movie to look at, due to its emphasis on fashion as well as its setting. I was actually surprised in how much I ended up enjoying Cruella and how engrossed I got in the rivalry between its titular anti-heroine and the Baroness. With that said, there are still a few questionable elements in the film.

First and foremost, try as it might, Cruella can’t quite justify why Cruella de Vil needed an origin story (other than to separate this film from the 1996 live-action remake, I guess). During many of the earlier scenes of the movie, whenever Estella was getting a tongue-lashing from the Baroness, I couldn’t help but think the movie could have worked just fine if Cruella had been in the Baroness’ role, and Estella could have instead been the character Anita from the animated film. Seeing as Cruella and Anita were described as ‘schoolmates’ in the 1961 original, changing that history to that of boss and employee would at least explain the mysterious age gap between the two characters from the animated film. That’s certainly not a knock on Emma Stone’s Cruella, of course. It just seems like the movie could have cut out the middle man.

Anita does show up in the film (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as a gossip columnist who ends up helping Cruella in her schemes against the Baroness. And if you’re wondering, her future husband Roger shows up as well (Kayvan Novak), as the Baroness’ lawler.

Maybe the reason Disney opted for an origin story for Cruella was that it was the only way to make a movie about Cruella and still have the audience root for her? Cruella de Vil was always one of Disney’s most popular villains, but she’s one of the least likable of the lot when you think about it (her goal in the animated film was to skin a bunch of puppies to make a fur coat, after all). They couldn’t exactly make a movie about Cruella as depicted in the animated film and still expect the audience to cheer for her. I guess the origin story was Disney’s way of having their cake and eating it too. But, like Maleficent, it does make me wonder how fans of the character would take to the film, if they had to change Cruella so much in order to make her the central character (though the results here are much better than they were in Maleficent, and at least in this movie Cruella’s personality ends up closer to her animated counterpart by the end, whereas Maleficent never did in either of her live-action films).

Maybe some fans of Cruella de Vil will like the movie, and maybe some won’t. But I don’t think younger fans of 101 Dalmatians will much care for it. I guess, to be fair, the film is rated PG-13, so it is probably made with older kids and teenagers in mind. But that again makes me wonder why Disney would adapt 101 Dalmatians in order to make such a movie. Cruella is a movie for teenagers based on a movie for kids about that movie’s villain in which that villain is now a good guy. I guess it’s not impossible to make that odd concoction work, and I have to admit that Cruella does mostly work. But I think it still suffers a bit of awkwardness from that identity crises (do I need to point out “death by getting knocked off a cliff by a dalmatian” again?).

I don’t think Cruella reaches the same heights as the Jungle Book or Aladdin remakes, but it’s maybe a better movie than you’d expect. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson really make the film engaging, and the supporting cast help carry things as well (I especially like Hauser as Horus, who is the most faithful to the animated character).

Cruella is a curious little oddity for Disney fans, and a fun movie in its own right. It may be a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

6