Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee Review

Though the mainline Pokemon games have always been found on Nintendo’s handhelds, the fact that the Nintendo Switch combines the concepts of a home console and a handheld means that Pokemon will finally see a primary entry on a home console (while not betraying its handheld roots). This will happen when Pokemon Sword and Shield versions are released in late 2019, which will be over two and a half years after the Switch launched. To fill the gap, however, Nintendo and Game Freak released a title that would whet the appetite of hardcore fans, while also luring in the more casual crowd who got into the series through the mobile game, Pokemon Go. The result was 2018’s Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee, which weaves elements from Pokemon Go into the familiar adventure from the original generation of Pokemon.

“I hope they deliver their original motto. Don’t know why they ever changed it.”

To be more specific, the Pokemon: Let’s Go titles take after the original generation’s later “Yellow Version,” which adapted elements of the Pokemon anime into the game (like having Pikachu as your starting Pokemon, who would follow the player outside of a Pokeball, and Team Rocket being based off the characters Jessie and James from the show). As the names of the games imply, depending on which title you own, either Pikachu or Eevee will fill the role of your partner Pokemon. And just like Pokemon Yellow, Let’s Go takes place in the original Kanto region, with the same locations, gym leaders and Pokemon found in the first generation of games (with the exception of the new mythical Meltan and his evolved form, Melmetal, which are obtained via connecting with Pokemon Go).

So Pokemon: Let’s Go is something of a remake. But before you get too excited at the idea of replaying the original Pokemon generation made anew on Nintendo Switch, the addition of Pokemon Go elements makes Let’s Go feel more like “Pokemon lite” than a full-on remake.

“It’s a big, beautiful, old rock! Oh, the pioneers used to ride these babies for miles!”

On one hand, I totally understand the appeal here. As someone who still plays Pokemon Go somewhat regularly, I understand that the lighter, simpler approach of Go definitely has its strengths. And combining that with something closer to the ‘proper’ Pokemon games just makes sense. What better way to bridge fans of all kinds together and bring a new audience into the mainline Pokemon titles?

On the other hand, Pokemon: Let’s Go can often feel crudely stitched together between its two halves in execution. It’s neither as deep as the main Pokemon titles, nor is it as breezy as Pokemon Go. It’s a nice concept that works at times, though too often leaves you wanting to either play the proper entries or Pokemon Go instead.

Basically, capturing Pokemon is similar to Pokemon Go, skipping the battle aspect and just jumping straight into trying to catch the creatures. Just as is the case with Pokemon Go, you have to time your throws to get the Pokeball in the target surrounding the Pokemon for a better chance at catching it. Unlike Pokemon Go, this is done via motion controls, as the game is played with a single Joy-con. Admittedly, this can get a little finicky, but it’s certainly not nearly as bad as the motion control detractors would surely claim (motion controls are simply different, that doesn’t make them inherently bad, internet).

“Nice can challenge me any day!”

Meanwhile, battling Pokemon trainers takes a more traditional approach, with the turn-based RPG battle system intact. Despite catching Pokemon no longer requiring the assistance of battling with your team of Pokemon, both catching new monsters and defeating trainers will net your current team with experience points. Additionally, if you catch multiple specimens of the same Pokemon in succession, you’ll nab additional rewards.

This combination Pokemon Go’s catching system and traditional trainer battles makes for a few issues, however. The most prominent of which being the awkward pace it gives the game. You’ll likely spend a decent amount of time willingly catching Pokemon, since it’s so quick and easy, but then head into a town and be faced with one battle after another that ends up feeling like a slog.

Another problem is that, like in Pokemon Go, you can lose several Pokeballs trying to catch even a single Pokemon. But unlike in Pokemon Go, where you can always get more Pokeballs (and other items) by spinning the Pokestops located just about everywhere in real life, you have to purchase your items in Pokemon: Let’s Go just as you do in the main games. So be prepared to burn through all the in-game currency you get for defeating every trainer in town as soon as you catch a handful of Pokemon and exhaust your inventory.

There’s nothing innately wrong with either of the game’s two halves, but they just never seem to mesh together in the way they should. That’s not to say that Pokemon: Let’s Go is bad – it definitely has its appeal – but it does feel like something of a missed opportunity.

“I’m king of the world!”

Pokemon: Let’s Go definitely provides some good fun from time to time, and even throws in some elements from newer Pokemon generations (like dressing up your character and Pikachu/Eevee, or hitching a ride on the back of your larger Pokemon). The graphics are smooth and the character designs charming, and it’s fun to hear the classic Pokemon tunes brought up to date. And for completionists, a host of post-game content gives the game some extra life.

There’s certainly an audience out there for Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee/Pikachu, and for some, it may actually serve as the bridge between Pokemon Go and ‘Pokemon proper’ that it intends to be. But the sum of Pokemon: Let’s Go is never as good as its individual parts. Let’s Go flip-flops between being too simple and too bloated, making for an awkward experience that, sadly, doesn’t quite click as well as it sounds like it would.

 

5

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

With a name like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Switch’s edition to Nintendo’s massively-successful crossover fighter certainly gave itself a lot to live up to. Somewhat miraculously, Ultimate manages to pull that very feat off, delivering what is undoubtedly the best entry in the long-running series to date. Bursting at the seams with content and fine-tuning the series’ gameplay, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its lofty expectations, even if a lackluster adventure mode and a thin (and inconsistent) lineup of new fighters means it doesn’t quite surpass them.

Super Smash Bros. really doesn’t need an introduction at this point. The franchise has become one of Nintendo’s biggest sellers thanks to its engrossing gameplay, which combines elements of traditional fighting games with Mario Kart-esque party elements, all while incorporating sumo style rules that make it unique unto itself.

By ‘sumo style’ rules, I of course refer to Super Smash Bros’ key mechanic of sending opponents off the screen – similar to sumos throwing each other out of the ring – in order to defeat them, as opposed to depleting a health bar as in most fighters. Though with that said, the ‘Stamina mode’ first introduced to the series in Melee, in which players do deplete each other’s health, returns as one of Ultimate’s primary game modes, no longer relegated to a kind of bonus mode as in the past.

That seemingly small change is indicative of the very nature of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This is the Super Smash Bros. that attempts to legitimize every play style for the series, and to appease every type of Smash fan. And for the most part, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wildly succeeds in doing just that.

If you’re a serious Smash player, you can remove items and play on flat stages a la Final Destination or small stages with minimal platforms in the vein of the classic Battlefield stage, with no match-altering Final Smashes included. Players who want chaotic fun can have all items active, Final Smashes turned on, and enable every last, crazy stage hazard and gimmick. Or, if you’re somewhere in between, you can play on the standard stages with the gimmicks turned off, only allow Final Smashes by means of building up a power meter during battle, and only enable the occasional Pokeball and Assist Trophy in regards to items.

The ways in which you can customize matches are boundless. This really is the Super Smash Bros. that can appeal to any Nintendo fan. At least in terms of the core gameplay, that is.

If there is one glaring downside with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it’s with the game’s adventure mode. Dubbed ‘World of Light,’ Ultimate’s adventure mode is mind-numbingly tedious, and simply not worth the time and effort it takes to see it to the end.

In World of Light, players initially take control of Kirby, the only survivor of a Thanos-style mass extinction, as they progress through one battle after another, unlocking the other characters and collecting ‘Spirits,’ which are won after defeating opponents in possession of said Spirits.

These Spirits are a new feature in Ultimate, replacing the series’ long-standing trophy collectibles. It’s ultimately an unfair trade. While the trophies of Smash’s past featured unique character models and gave some insights into Nintendo (and gaming) history, the Spirits are merely presented as stock promotional art from past games, and provide statistical bonuses to your characters when equipped. Spirits can grant boosts to attributes like strength or speed, or provide you with a special ability (such as starting fights with a particular item, or being resistant to certain types of attacks).

This may sound interesting in concept, but it kind of goes against the very nature of Super Smash Bros. This is a fighting series all about learning the different play styles of the various characters. So if you have Spirits activated in the standard game, it makes things more about who has the best Spirits equipped, as opposed to who played the best in any given round.

Suffice to say the Spirits find all of their appeal in the single player World of Light mode. Though even then, the game often mishandles their usage. Pulling a page out of Paper Marios Sticker Star and Color Splash, there are a number of battles in World of Light in which it is necessary to have specific Spirits equipped in order to win. If the Spirits gave you advantages in these situations, that’d be fine. But on more than one occasion you will come across a battle in which victory is impossible unless you have a specific Spirit equipped.

Another issue with World of Light is that it’s just too long for its own good. It features an unnecessary amount of branching paths, alternate routes, and  overall battles. And when it finally looks like you’re done with it, World of Light pulls a Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins on the player and extends the adventure by rather lazy means. To detract from the experience even further, World of Light is exclusively played by a single player. Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, Subspace Emissary, was far from a winner, but at least I could play that with a friend.

Not to mention Subspace Emissary served as a fast means of unlocking every character. But World of Light just drags on and on, with the lonesome tedium making you seek one of the many other means of unlocking the characters (thankfully, there are no shortage of options when it comes to expanding the roster). The fact that World of Light actually makes me long for Subspace Emissary could be a sign that maybe Super Smash Bros. is better off without an adventure mode at all.

Of course, the adventure mode is just a small part of the overall package, and every other mode included in the game delivers in spades: Classic Mode is more fun than ever, and includes unique challenges for every last fighter. Tournaments are easier to set up than ever before. New Squad Strikes have players selecting teams of characters and eliminating them one by one. Smashdown sees players cycle through the entire roster one at a time, with previously selected characters getting locked out after use. The variety never ceases to impress.

On the concept of variety, the biggest selling point of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that every playable character from the franchise’s history is present. If they were playable in a past Super Smash Bros. title, they’re playable here. So those of you who missed Solid Snake for being omitted from Super Smash Bros. on Wii U/3DS, he’s back. Young Link and Toon Link can now face off against one another. Pichu makes his return after seventeen years (they can’t all be winners). The DLC characters from Wii U/3DS return. Even the good ol’ Ice Climbers have found their way back to the series, after technical limitations on the 3DS prevented their appearance in the last installments. And yes, we even get a handful of new characters joining the fray, meaning that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has all of the character variety of each and every one of its predecessors put together and then some.

“You’re the man now, Croc!”

Speaking of the new characters, that’s where things can be a bit inconsistent when it comes to selections. Ridley and King K. Rool feel like the most meaningful newcomers, given that they’ve been in high demand from fans since Melee. Splatoon’s Inklings also make sense as they represent one of Nintendo’s contemporary success stories. And Simon Belmont feels long overdue in the third-party character department (seriously, besides Mega Man, what other third-party character even compares to Castlevania’s early history with Nintendo?).

The remaining newcomers, however, are a bit of a mixed bag. Isabelle from Animal Crossing – though a welcome addition in her own right – doesn’t exactly come across as a character fans were dying to see join the series. Incineroar feels like he could have been any randomly selected Pokemon. And the downloadable Piranha Plant just feels like a big middle finger to the fans who have been requesting their favorite characters for years. That’s not to say that these characters detract from the gameplay by any means. But for a series so grounded in fanservice, some of these character selections feel misguided.

“Evil kings from classic series are the coolest!”

Perhaps with more newcomers the more disappointing entries wouldn’t stick out so much. But with most of the emphasis going towards bringing back every past character, you kind of wish that the smaller quantity of newcomers would have translated to a consistent quality. And that’s unfortunately not always the case.

Some fans may also lament that clone characters – now officially referred to as “echo fighters” – are still present, but at least now they’re categorized appropriately, and not treated as though they’re full-on additions to the franchise.

“The colors, Duke! The colors!”

Still, it’s hard to complain too much when Ultimate boasts seventy unique characters (with more on the way via DLC. Here’s hoping some favorites make the cut). There’s simply never a shortage of characters to choose from, and all of them bring their own sense of fun to the gameplay (with the possible exceptions of the excessive amount of sword fighters from Fire Emblem, who often feel interchangeable even when they aren’t clones).

Each character’s Final Smash has also been altered this time around, as they take on a more cinematic approach. Unfortunately, while the Final Smashes look more impressive than ever, their infrequent interactivity makes them less fun than in previous installments. This was probably done for the sake of balance, which is admirable. Though chances are, if you have Final Smashes active, you aren’t exactly aiming for a balanced, competitive bout.

The stages also adhere to Ultimate’s “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. Although there are a few omissions, the majority of stage’s from past Super Smash Bros. titles make a return (unfortunately, Brawl’s Electroplankton-inspired stage is bafflingly among them). There are only four brand-new stages in the base game: Odyssey and Breath of the Wild themed levels for Mario and Zelda, and courses based on newly-represented series Splatoon and Castlevania. That may not sound like a whole lot of newness, but more stages are planned to be added along with the DLC characters. Besides, with the returning courses, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate includes over one-hundred different locations to do battle. And as stated, every last stage comes in three different versions (standard, Battlefield, and Final Destination), so you’re not very likely to get bored from repetition.

For those who don’t always have someone at the ready for some couch multiplayer, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also expands the series’ online capabilities. Creating online matches has been streamlined by means of creating arenas, where players can set the rules as they see fit. You can even search for specific rulesets if you want to join an arena that’s more to your play style (though admittedly, the search engine needs some work). It’s now much, much easier to set up or join an online match and play with or against Smash players from around the world.

Sadly, the online functionality still isn’t perfect. Though lag is considerably less frequent than in Brawl or Wii U/3DS, it’s still present more often than you’d like. It isn’t limited to worldwide matches, either. I’ve encountered some slowdowns in games against my friends. Again, the lag isn’t so common as to detract from the overall experience, but considering that in five years’ time I’ve never encountered any lag issues in Mario Kart 8 (whether on Wii U or Switch), you have to wonder how and why Nintendo can’t replicate that level of online functionality with their other multiplayer franchises.

Other quibbles with the online mode include some minor (but no less irritating) design quirks, such as leaving your place in cue for the next fight in an arena just to change your character’s color (let alone change your character). Or why entering the spectator stands also removes you from cue (why the cue and spectator stands aren’t one and the same is anyone’s guess). Again, these are all just minor annoyances, but you have to wonder why they’re there at all.

Of course, it must be emphasized that, with the exception of the World of Light adventure mode, all of the complaints to be had with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are minor grievances in the big picture. The series’ signature gameplay has never felt so polished, the content has never felt this endless, and with every last character in franchise history present, Super Smash Bros. has never felt this complete.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is also a technical showcase of the Switch’s capabilities. Though it retains a similar overall look to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS and Brawl, the graphics are much sharper and more refined. The level of background detail in the stages themselves – often so small you’d never see them in the heat of battle – is a testament to the abilities of the artists behind the game. The character animations are similarly impressive, especially those with unique characteristics (such as DK’s eyes bulging out of his head when hit, Donkey Kong Country-style; or Wario’s manic, sporadic movements).

Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that represents an unrivaled array of video game music, featured in both their original and new remixed forms in addition to many remixes from past Super Smash Bros. installments. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s quite as many new pieces of music added into the fray as Brawl and Wii U/3DS brought to the table, but it’s hard to complain too much when the music is this terrific. Not to mention the soundtrack to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is inarguably the biggest library of classic video game themes ever compacted into a single game.

On the whole, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an absolute winner. Its overall sense of newness may not be as prominent as the past few entries, but its inclusion of the best elements of every past installment, along with each and every last one of their characters, makes this the definitive entry in the long-running Super Smash Bros. series to date. With the exception of its egregious adventure mode, everything about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exploding with fun. With so many characters, stages, modes, and options, the content included in the package is seemingly bottomless, leading to an unparalleled replay value.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is not only the best game in the series, it’s one of the greatest multiplayer games ever made.

 

9

Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us Review

The Power of Us marks the twenty-first Pokemon movie, and the second in this rebooted continuity of Pokemon movies, following Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You. While I Choose You served as a retelling of the beloved first season of the Pokemon anime, The Power of Us can feel like a spiritual remake of Pokemon the Movie 2000 (known in Japan as The Power of One, which makes the connection between films all the more apparent). Like I Choose You before it, The Power of Us has more than its share of narrative bumps, but if you’re a fan of Pokemon, it will leave you with a good feeling by the time it’s done.

As stated, the movie seems to be something of an homage to Pokemon the Movie 2000, as it features Ash Ketchum traveling to a new town celebrating a festival in honor of the legendary Pokemon Lugia. But whereas its predecessor was a direct remake of the series’ earliest episodes, The Power of Us does create a distinct identity from Pokemon 2000.

As was the case with I Choose You, this continuity only sees Ash Ketchum and Team Rocket Members Jessie and James as the only returning human characters from the series (of course Pikachu is back, as well as Meowth).  The story takes place in Fula City, which is about to have its annual festival celebrating Lugia. But a sacred flame – which serves as a beacon to summon Lugia – ends up missing, which marks the beginning of things going awry for the festival. As more and more things start to go wrong, Ash finds himself helping various citizens of Fula city with different hardships.

“Risa is best girl.”

If there’s one aspect of the story that proves really entertaining, it’s how The Power of Us creates a fun community of characters within Fula City: Margo is the daughter of the city’s mayor, and is secretly friends with the mysterious Pokemon Zeraora. Risa is a Pokemon novice and former athletic runner who has lost her confidence. Toren is a scientist with severe social phobia. Harriet is a cranky old woman who dislikes Pokemon. And the film’s best original character, Callahan, is a compulsive liar who just wants to impress his young niece. The Power of Us serves more of a story about Fula City and its citizens than it is a traditional Pokemon story. Ash doesn’t even seem like the main character for much of the film, playing more of an Obi-Wan Kenobi role and helping people like Margo and Risa with their problems.

For the most part, the movie plays like small episodes focusing on different character stories, and how they eventually come together, than it is a story about legendary Pokemon, which is a nice change of pace for a Pokemon movie (though on the downside, this means that Lugia – my favorite legendary Pokemon – is barely featured in the movie, more or less being built up through the whole thing for a small appearance at the end like Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens). It’s refreshing to have a Pokemon story that doesn’t really have any villain or epic battle, and is instead about the daily lives of people in the Pokemon world.

Unfortunately, the film does hit some notable bumps in the road. Although the movie doesn’t revolve around a villain as previously stated, a duo of Pokemon poachers are introduced in a brief second, only to have a lackluster payoff of being featured in a single scene. Why even add them into the picture when those extra minutes could have been spent with characters who actually feel like part of the story?

Even bigger issues ensue with elements to the characters’ different stories that often feel underdeveloped and rushed. A brief moment sees Callahan’s niece taken to a hospital, to which Callahan explains that she’s “always lacked energy.” And then it’s never really mentioned again and the girl is fine. Meanwhile, Harriet’s disliking of Pokemon is resolved immediately after she explains her reasons for it.

Granted, no one is expecting Pixar levels of storytelling with a Pokemon movie or anything, but it’s still a shame to see a number of elements in otherwise charming stories get shortchanged (just like in I Choose You, Team Rocket seems to only show up out of obligation, as they’re always in the background of the story). With that said though, the aforementioned nature of the movie being a movie about different people in the Pokemon world is pretty refreshing, the characters ultimately win us over, and it has a nice message about helping others in need. Plus, you get to see all kinds of Pokemon both new and old, and who doesn’t love Pokemon?

On top of all that, the film is also one of the best looking Pokemon movies, with unique character designs that are a notable improvement over the forgettable ones in I Choose You, and fluid animation that is among the best the franchise has ever seen. The only downside are some notably aged CG background characters, but that’s a small price to pay for what ultimately is a lively and colorful animated feature.

Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us may not be a technically great movie with all the shorthanded subplots, but it still has the franchise’s unique charm intact. And as commercial as Pokemon is, the series has always had a genuine heart about it, and that’s as true here as ever. If you’re a fan of Pokemon, it should put a smile on your face.

 

6

Reflecting on my Time at E3 2018

“Is that the real Master Sword that Link actually used in the game?!”

Another E3 has come and gone. Although this was far from my first time at the event, it was only my second time attending since I launched Wizard Dojo, which in a weird way feels like a whole different era for me (even though it’s just a wee blog). Though the fact that E3 has had a bigger attendance than ever the past two years means that the lines to actually play the games can be, well, downright evil in their tests of patience, it was overall a very fun show.

There’s plenty to be said about the mostly disappointing presentations. Whether it was Sony’s unusual format of changing revenues and taking noticeably long breaks, or Nintendo’s maybe-too-focused-on-Smash Bros.-Direct, there weren’t a whole lot of surprises, or even as much of a lineup as last year’s show.

With all that said, however, there was still plenty to enjoy. Especially for someone like me who’s just lucky to be able to attend E3’s show floor. I’ve already written some blogs dedicated to some of the games shown at E3, but now let me write just a little bit about my own experience.

“The world’s greatest necktie.”

Naturally, the first day for me was all about Super Smash Bros. (though I also played it the latter two days as well). Though the gameplay is familiar to the Wii U version, it feels like it’s getting the right level of polish, aiming for something of a combination of Melee and the Wii U game to make the definitive version of Super Smash Bros. Though I still have some reservations (please, don’t waste whatever new characters we get with clones!), Super Smash Bros. is one of the few games where I always get sucked into the hype before release. Since the demo didn’t have my main man King Dedede playable, I spent most rounds as Bowser (who is actually my favorite Nintendo character, so wouldn’t that make him my main man?), or Donkey Kong and Mega Man. I won more than I lost *brag brag* but I admit I made more than a little bit of an oopsie when I went into sudden death as Ridley (I’ll really have to practice that up-special of his). Anyway, I’m just really keeping my fingers crossed that Geno actually makes it in this time. Hey, Sakurai’s behind the idea, if only Nintendo can twist Square’s arm…

Other notable titles I played over the three day event were Marvel’s Spider-Man (which I wish had a more unique title) and Mega Man 11. Other titles that caught my eye but weren’t playable (at least not from what I could tell) were Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Dreams, the former of which comes from Hidetaka “Prepare to Die” Miyazaki, and the latter by Media Molecule, the creators of LittleBigPlanet who really look like they’ve upped their game.

Spider-Man’s greatest joy was simply how much it makes you feel like Spider-Man when playing it. I spent more of my time in the demo trying to find and ascend the tallest building than I did with any of the objectives. Mega Man 11, meanwhile, felt like the proper continuation of the beloved series that it should be. Mega Man 11 boasted the usual Mega Man gameplay, but with the added bonus of some fun twists on the level design.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice already looks like it could be one of my favorite games of next year. It’s interesting to see a game that follows suit with Miyazaki’s Dark Souls/Bloodborne series, but that omits the RPG elements, instead opting for action/adventure. The only downside is no multiplayer, which admittedly feels like a step back from the genius twists to co-operative and competitive multiplayer the Souls series brought to gaming. As for Dreams, well, it looks like the ultimate game-making game, with players seemingly able to make every single asset of a game (including genre, characters, environments, sounds, music, etc.). Let’s just hope the in-game gameplay doesn’t suffer as LittleBigPlanet did.

Other games I managed to play on the show floor include Team Sonic Racing, a new Senran Kagura title for PS4, Mario Tennis Aces, and Fortnite (which, believe it or not, was actually my first time playing Fortnite). Team Sonic Racing felt like a fun successor to the Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing series, though the removal of non-Sonic Sega characters actually seems like a step back (after all, Mario Kart eventually added Zelda and Animal Crossing characters into the mix. It didn’t start with them then take them away). Senran Kagura is…well, it is what it is: a mindless but fun guilty pleasure. Mario Tennis Aces actually surprised me with how much fun I had in my short time with it. I mean, playing as a Chain Chomp with a tennis racket in its mouth? How can it not be great? And although I sucked in the round of Fortnite I played, I can definitely see the appeal, seeing as it feels like PUBG, but with an actual personality and additional elements like crafting. Plus, Fortnite is now free on Switch, so I have no excuse not to get it.

Sadly, I never got the chance to play Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee, because the lines were always too damn long. Same goes for Kingdom Hearts 3. But hey, I’ll probably play them eventually. Besides, I got to meet the REAL Pikachu and Eevee in person! That counts for like, 10 demos of the games.

“Squad Goals.”

Being able to play all these games was great of course (even if the lines could be insufferable), but just the experience of being at E3 is fun in itself for someone like me. Basically, it’s like Disneyland: wait in monotonous lines most the day, get rewarded with a few moments of quality entertainment, and overall you just enjoy being there. The experience was made all the better, however, by little things like conversing with other people with similar interests while I waited in those aforementioned lines (one particularly interesting individual in line for Smash Bros. also wanted Geno to make the roster), seeing a Solaire cosplayer fat-roll his way through the exhibit hall, walking right passed The New Day and getting a photo with Charles Martinez!

“It’s-a him!”

Yes, another E3 has come and gone, and while most will be discussing the big, news-y aspects of the event, for me, it was just  blast being there, and am itching to return next year.

Video Game Awards 2018: Best Handheld Game

Once upon a time, the convenience of being able to take a game on the go also meant sacrificing much of its quality. Sure, there were some exceptions – with Link’s Awakening and the early Pokemon titles being early examples of well-regarded handheld titles – but it would be hard to argue that the Gameboy boasted the same quality or timeless appeal as the SNES games that were being released at the same time.

The early 2000s saw handheld gaming take major steps towards sharing the same level of quality as their console counterparts. More recent years have really brought handheld gaming to another level. Now, with the Nintendo Switch combining a handheld with a home console, the line between the two is more blurred than ever.

On the downside, that also means that traditional handhelds as we know them are becoming a thing of the past. It’s even hard to imagine Nintendo giving the 3DS a successor when they can do more on the Switch anyway.

As such, I think naming the best handheld title of the upcoming years may be a different beast than it’s been in the past (considering handheld games are now quite literally the same as home console titles). If I choose to continue this category in the future, it may seem like a superfluous additional token to a Switch game or the like. Because of that, I’ve decided to omit Switch games from this category for 2017 (because how could Super Mario Odyssey or Breath of the Wild not win?). Think of it to give a “last hoorah” of sorts to handheld gaming as we once knew it.

 

Winner: Pokemon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

I have a complicated history with Pokemon. As much as I love the overall idea of the games (and their many wonderful creatures), I’ve often felt it’s the most unchanging of Nintendo’s major franchises (which is particularly ironic, given its emphasis on evolving creatures). For every Pokemon I’ve got to level 100, I have a game unfinished.

Thankfully, the 3DS entries have been heading the series in the proper direction. Finally shedding their 2D skins for 3D graphics, the X and Y versions felt like they brought the series more up-to-date, while Sun and Moon felt like a rightful step forward. They may not have reinvented the formula, but they added some much needed alterations to it.

Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon (the “Yellow versions” to Sun and Moon’s “Red and Blue) continue this trend, bulking up what its preceding versions built while also adding in some tweaks of its own (including a weird story involving alternate dimensions and the long-overdue return of Giovanni and Team Rocket, who will hopefully be back in Pokemon Switch seeing as all subsequent Pokemon baddies felt like their bargain bin equivalent).

The new “Ultra” versions of Sun and Moon allow you to obtain almost every legendary Pokemon from the series’ history, which feels like a great way to pay homage to the series’ heritage. While aspects such as those may play up the nostalgia card, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon also bring about enough of their own changes to the established formula to ensure that the future continues to look bright for Pokemon.

 

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown Review

This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but Pokemon 3: The Movie felt like the end of an era. Now, Pokemon’s popularity hasn’t exactly waned at all in the years since the film’s 2001 release (it’s still the biggest merchandise seller of any franchise in any medium, and the games remain best-sellers to this day), but this seemed to mark the end of the world’s initial Pokemania, when Pokemon was an inescapable phenomenon. This was the last Pokemon movie to have a wide theatrical release in the United States (subsequent Pokemon features were relegated to select theaters, before receiving the straight-to-video treatment), and it also seemed to be the point when “pet monster” anime was dying down a bit (even Digimon – the closest thing Pokemon had to a rival – fell off the radar with its third season). Pokemon’s fading omnipresence could be seen in Pokemon 3: The Movie itself, as it wasn’t anywhere near the box-office success of its predecessors. Maybe parents were tired of taking their kids to see Pokemon movies, or perhaps the dwindling box-office returns had something to do with the lack of new Pokemon in the movie, and kids didn’t have as much interest (it would be another two years before the third generation of Pokemon hit stateside). But Pokemon 3: The Movie’s relative unpopularity is a shame, as it might actually be the best of the three original Pokemon features, with strong themes and surprising emotional depth.

Although the hero of the film remains Ash Ketchum, it’s hard to refer to him as the main character this time around. The young Pokemon trainer, along with his friends Pikachu, Misty and a returning Brock may be the stars returning from the show, but Pokemon 3: The Movie primarily focuses on a new character, a young girl named Molly, for its emotional core.

Molly is the five-year old daughter of a research scientist named Spencer Hale, who conducts research on legendary Pokemon. During an expedition to study the mysterious, inter-dimensional Pokemon Unown, Professor Hale is spirited away to another world by the Unown. Molly’s mother has long-since disappeared (the movie never really mentions what happened to her), and now with her father gone, Molly is overwrought with grief. Her father’s assistant brings Molly an ancient, puzzle-like artifact as a memento from her father’s expedition. After tinkering around with the puzzle, Molly unleashes the Unown, who begin using their psychic abilities to bring Molly’s dreams to life.

The Unown’s powers begin to meld with Molly’s grief, and soon she begins to alter reality to make her happy. The Unown turn her hometown into a crystalline palace, she can become a young woman at will, and most importantly, her father returns to her in the form of Entei, Molly’s favorite Pokemon. Within this illusionary dream world, Molly becomes delusional and reclusive, preferring the happiness of the Unown’s illusions to the sadness of her real life.

One thing is still missing from Molly’s life, however; a mother. So Molly sends Entei to find a surrogate mother for her, which happens to be Ash Ketchum’s mother (Molly’s family are long-distance friends of the Ketchums). So Ash and friends journey to Molly’s manor-turned-fairy tale castle to rescue Mrs. Kethum and, hopefully, to help Molly out as well.

It’s a pretty simple plot, but it differentiates itself from its two predecessors by making the stakes more personal (saving Ash’s mom, as opposed to saving the planet from Mewtwo or nature falling out of balance), and with its emphasis on Molly, who is uniquely both the film’s protagonist and antagonist (okay, Ash is technically the protagonist, but this is Molly’s story more than it is Ash’s), it stands out a little more. Not to mention with its themes of loss, loneliness and grief, it’s perhaps the most emotional and deep of the original Pokemon trilogy. I mean, when the central dilemma of a film is a small child’s grieving, it’s hard not to get emotional.

The focus on a new character is a little bit of a double-edged sword, however, seeing as Ash and the other returning characters don’t get nearly as much character development as they did in the second film. I suppose by the third entry you need a bit of a change of pace, but it should say something that Meowth makes a fourth-wall-breaking joke about Team Rocket’s minimized role in this film compared to the second feature.

More on the bright side of things, the popular-for-their-time pop tunes that littered the first movie and had a presence in the second are nowhere to be found. On the downside, that may have been another indicator of the franchise leaving the public eye a bit at the time (having a popular band attached to Pokemon was great promotion back then). But I’d much rather here the cheesy-yet-indelible original songs of Pokemon than hear a distinctly yesteryear pop tune shoehorn its way in.

Following in the footsteps of Pokemon: The Movie 2000, Pokemon 3 has a surprisingly strong original score. I’m not sure if any one track reaches the heights of “Lugia’s Song” from the second film, but its still an effective and memorable score nonetheless.

Once again, the animation takes a step up from the TV show to better fit its presence as a movie. The characters move more fluidly than the TV show to be sure, though it does seem a little inconsistent within itself (sometimes the animation looks like a remarkable improvement, other times, merely an improvement). And like the second feature, we get some fun and varied locations to see, with the sometimes surreal world of Molly’s fantasies being a highlight, and making the first film’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs look even more bland in retrospect.

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown may not be a cinematic classic by any means – its structure is sometimes lacking, and certain plot elements feel rushed together – but it is a great reminder that Pokemon can be (and often is) more than the simple money-printing franchise it also very much is. I mean, how many more “legitimate” movie franchises have an entire feature about grieving, and trust that its young audience is wise enough to understand such a heavy concept?

It’s a shame Pokemon 3: The Movie came at the end of Pokemania’s initial run. Despite its (sometimes quite obvious) flaws, its heart is in the right place. And if any of the subsequent Pokemon features shared its heart, then it’s all the more disappointing to see them relegated to the straight-to-video section.

 

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Pokemon: The Movie 2000 Review

In the year 2000, Pokemon was at the height of its popularity. With the second installments – the now-beloved Gold and Silver versions – on the way later in the year, and after the box office success of Pokemon: The First Movie in 1999, Pokemon: The Movie 2000 was sure to be a hit, especially with its emphasis on some of the new Gold and Silver Pokemon. Pokemon: The Movie 2000 didn’t quite reach the ticket sales of its predecessor –  though it is the only anime film that comes close to it in the US box office – it is actually a better movie, with improved character development and a bit of a stronger story.

Pokemon the Movie 2000 sees Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum, his friends Misty and Tracey, and, of course, the adorable Pokemon Pikachu on an adventure that takes them to Shamouti Island, after a massive storm sends them on a little detour from Ash’s usual Pokemon journeys. The group soon learns that the people of the island are in the middle of a festival, celebrating an ancient prophecy based around the mythical Pokemon Lugia and the three legendary birds; Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.

The prophecy states that the elemental birds of ice (Articuno), lightning (Zapdos) and fire (Moltres) will lose their balance over the world’s climate, and their ensuing war amongst each other will awaken Lugia, the guardian of the sea, to try to ease the warring birds and bring balance back to nature. But Lugia will need help from a chosen hero and a special song.

A young girl named Melody is the festival’s maiden, and selects Ash to be the “chosen one” of the festival. As the chosen one, Ash is to retrieve three crystal orbs from the islands of the legendary birds, take them to Shamouti’s Shrine (located in the middle of the three islands), where Melody is to play Lugia’s Song.

This turns out to be more than a ceremonial ritual, however, as an obsessed Pokemon collector named Lawrence III seeks to bring the prophecy to fruition – by means of capturing the legendary birds with his immense, flying fortress – in order to awaken Lugia, which Lawrence believes to be his ultimate prize.

Suffice to say Ash’s role as the chosen one ends up being more vital than simply being part of a festival, and due to Lawrence III’s actions Ash’s duties hold the fate of the planet in the balance.

The plot may be a bit simple, and storylines being built around prophecies are always a bit of a tightrope to walk (more often than not, they tell you exactly where the story is going). But Pokemon has that innocent charm about it that makes it hard to resist, and with Lugia’s presence as a mythological creature, it’s a fitting story.

What gives Pokemon the Movie 2000 extra points in the story department, however, is its improved character development. While the first film focused more on Mewtwo’s backstory, 2000 gives Ash the chance to show a more heroic and selfless side, as if his actions towards the end of the first movie carried over and continued for the entirety of the sequel. Misty – though perhaps needing of some more screen time – is also given time to grow as a character.

Perhaps most notably is how this sequel actually gives Team Rocket something important to do, and gives them new dimensions. While they primarily served as bumbling, villainous comic relief in the series (and still do a bit here), Team Rocket’s Jessie, James and Meowth end up playing an integral role in the plot. It’s a shame that the series would more or less retcon all these character changes away, but hey, they’re still enjoyable to watch during the movie.

As is often the case with Pokemon, 2000 has a go at some emotional moments, and is surprisingly effective with them. Look, it’s obviously not Pixar levels of making audiences cry, but its heart is in the right place, and the emotion resonates more than you’d expect from a movie based on a TV show based on a video game.

Much like the first movie, Pokemon the Movie 2000 has improved animation over the TV series. Though it isn’t without some notable limitations, the jump to the big screen gave Pokemon a new visual life. Plus, the island setting and environmental changes (not to mention Lawrence III’s fortress) gives audiences a wider variety of scenery than the first movie’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs.

An even bigger improvement over the show and the previous film is the musical score. While the English version still contains some pop music of the time, they’re mostly saved for the end credits (and hey, we get a Weird Al Yankovic song out of it, so I can’t complain too much). But the original score of Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is surprisingly good, with “Lugia’s Song” in particular being a standout, and seems to have more than a little bit of inspiration from Princess Mononoke.

Pokemon: the Movie 2000 still suffers from some obvious shortcomings; the plot is nothing special, the animation – though improved – still can’t stack up to other anime features of the time, and its villain needed a bit more time on screen for his motivation to resonate.

But y’know, when you get to see Ash Ketchum, Pikachu and Team Rocket traversing a frozen ocean while Lugia has an elemental battle in the sky against three magic birds, it’s all too easy to look past Pokemon the Movie 2000’s flaws as a film and just enjoy it for what it is. It may not be great cinema, but Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is a good Pokemon movie. It got its fanbase hyped for Pokemon Gold and Silver back in the day, especially with its emphasis on Silver’s mascot Pokemon Lugia (who remains my personal favorite legendary Pokemon to this day). Better still, if you’re a Pokemon fan, Pokemon the Movie 2000 is still worth the occasional revisit for its improved characters and overall sense of charm and fun. Plus, Lugia is just so cool.

 

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