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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.
Before we get into anything else: Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Festivus! Happy Life Day! Happy Rusev Day! Happy/Merry everybody!
Whatever holiday(s) you celebrate, I hope you have a great one filled with happiness, joy, and lots of good food!
Happy holidays to all!
With all the holiday greetings and well wishes out of the way, Christmas Day also marks the anniversary of when I launched Wizard Dojo (well, when I first posted content to it, which is what I would say actually constitutes the launch of something). It’s a double celebration here at the Dojo!
Being both Christmas Day and the anniversary of this site, it’s time once again for the annual Wizard Dojo Christmas Special! Because Wizard Dojo is actually just one long, elaborate Christmas movie in disguise… like Die Hard!
So without further ado, let’s get on with this Christmas Special!
Chapter 1: Ranking the Spider-Man Films
There have been no less than nine theatrically released Spider-Man films ever since Spidey’s first big screen outing back in 2002. I figured now is as good of a time as any to rank all of the Spider-Man features. After all, Spider-Man is kind of like Christmas when you think about it: Spidey wears a red suit, like Santa Claus. The way he swings around New York is kind of/sort of like how Santa flies around on his sleigh on Christmas Eve. And the way Peter Parker builds his web shooters is kind of like how Santa’s elves build the toys…
Okay, it’s not like Christmas at all (unlike Die Hard). But the newest Spider-Man movie, No Way Home, came out recently, and the festive atmosphere of Christmas has me feeling celebratory, so why not?
Oh, and keep in mind that I’m just counting the Spider-Man movies themselves here, and not the Avengers movies in which Spider-Man appears, or Spider-Man adjacent movies like Venom.
With that out of the way, here’s my ranking of the Spider-Man movies!
9: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
That “Amazing” in the title is more than a little ironic, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is regularly cited as the weakest Spider-Man movie (as it is here). It’s doubly ironic in that the original ‘Spider-Man 2’ was already amazing.
The second and ultimately final iteration of the Andrew Garfield-starring Spider-Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 perhaps has more merit than it gets credit for (it’s certainly better than some other Marvel movies, like Eternals or the later X-Men films). But it does ultimately succumb to its desire of wanting to be everything.
Not satisfied with simply being a Spider-Man sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wanted to kickstart its own Cinematic Universe to compete with what Marvel had accomplished with the MCU (remember that Spidey was still strictly under Sony’s control at this time). So what we get is a movie that’s trying to tell its own story while simultaneously setting up an entire series of sequels all at once.
You thought Spider-Man 3 was overstuffed with three villains? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not only packs on the villains, but also hints at others, tries setting up potential sequels and spinoffs for them (there were plans for a Sinister Six movie, among others), and features a lingering mystery involving the fate of Peter Parker’s parents (which remains unsolved). All this while still trying to give Peter Parker a meaningful character arc involving his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).
It’s just too much, and the film crumbles under all that weight. Sony got greedy and sacrificed their Spider-Man sequel just to play catch up with Marvel. But Marvel took its time setting up its shared universe of characters, they started with standalone movies (something I wish they’d go back to) before they brought their characters together. By fast-tracking their planned Cinematic Universe, Sony killed it before it even began. It’s a shame, because the Amazing Spider-Man series had potential.
At the very least, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gave us a Russian Paul Giamatti inside of a robotic rhinoceros. That’s something to be grateful for.
8: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a technically well-made movie. So why do I rank it so low on this list? Because its technical polish doesn’t translate to its creativity. The Amazing Spider-Man served as a good launching pad for a reboot to the series (though we know how it ultimately ended up. See above), but it does so by simply going through the motions.
Released ten years after the original Spider-Man (which was Spider-Man’s origin story), and five years after Spider-Man 3 (which heavily focused on part of Spider-Man’s origin story due to an annoying retcon). Audiences just didn’t want to sit through Spider-Man’s origin story again. Give Uncle Ben a break, will ya?
This is the film that introduced us to Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, and to be fair, he’s great in the role (he looks more the part than Tobey Maguire and is less annoying than Tom Holland’s Peter Parker). And it’s his performance, and his chemistry with Emma Stone, that most separates this film from what came before it (that, and I suppose the fact that its villain is a lizard-man). But the film’s darker and more gritty tone haven’t aged as well as the more colorful Sam Raimi-directed films. The fact that Spider-Man was rebooted yet again (and added into the biggest movie franchise in history in the process) five years later, leaving its lingering plot threads to drift in limbo, also hasn’t helped The Amazing Spider-Man stand the test of time.
It’s a shame, because I actually really liked The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. Perhaps if it hadn’t felt the need to show us Spider-Man’s origin story in detail after the 2002 film already did it so well, it may have been able to build more of an identity of its own.
7: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
It pains me to rank one of the Sam Raimi films this low on the list. But Spider-Man 3 was the first instance of the series feeling the need to include as many villains as humanly possible at the expense of storytelling coherence. Spider-Man 3 was such a downgrade in quality that it resulted in the end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, and “Spider-Man 4” never saw the light of day.
To be fair, it was Sony who forced Raimi’s hand to include Venom into the movie, resulting in one villain too many. Harry Osborne had already been set up to take over his father’s mantle of the Green Goblin in Spider-Man 2, and Raimi wanted the Sandman, as he liked the idea of a small-time crook being turned into the main villain, as well as believing he’d be impressive visually. But Sony wanted Venom, so we got him too.
On the subject of fairness, Raimi’s hands weren’t entirely clean, either. It was his decision that Sandman should be revealed as Uncle Ben’s real killer, even though that whole story seemed nicely wrapped up in the first movie. And you know you’re in trouble whenever a movie retcons something like that (“that guy wasn’t the real killer, thisguy is!”). Though once again, in the spirit of fairness, at least Raimi only did so because he wanted the film to be themed around forgiveness. I just wish he’d had found a better means to do so.
Suffice to say, the film is a bit cluttered. It has too many elements in too many places. If even just one of them had been cut (let’s just say, oh I don’t know, Venom, for instance), perhaps Spider-Man 3 could have found a better focus and been a better movie.
There was once a time when I’d tell you that Spider-Man 3 was one of my most hated movies. Though a few years ago, when I watched it again for the first time since it was in theaters, I realized it isn’t that bad. I mean, Spider-Man 3 can’t hold a candle to its two predecessors, and I think the massive downgrade in quality from Spider-Man 2 may have been why I was extra critical of it initially. But it still has its good points.
Though it doesn’t resonate nearly as strongly as the first two films, Spider-Man 3 still has something of a beating heart to it. Sam Raimi and company still tried to give the film meaning. As messy as the end result may have been, that’s still something more than I can say about most superhero movies that have been released since. Spider-Man 3 actually had something to it (albeit it often got lost in the shuffle) and wasn’t just about hyping the next string of movies in the Marvel pipeline.
A bit of a mess. But its own mess.
6: Spider-Man: Far From Home(2019)
Spider-Man: Far From Home was the second Spider-Man film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the third Spider-Man film released in as many years (following its predecessor in 2017 and the animated Into the Spider-Verse in 2018). You would think Far From Home would have suffered a bit from Spider-Fatigue, but for the most part, it’s still a solid entry in the series. It featured a decently fun villain in Mysterio, took the action out of New York and into various locations in Europe, and had some good action scenes. Far From Home was fun, if maybe not groundbreaking. In other words, it sure was an MCU feature.
Still, there are some things holding Far From Home back from reaching the same heights as other Spider-Man films. Notably, with the film being the first MCU feature released after Avengers: Endgame, you would think that Far from Home would respectfully acknowledge the events of Infinity War and Endgame, given the gravity of – oh, I don’t know – Thanos wiping out half of all life in the universe for five years before the Avengers travelled through time to bring everyone back! But you’d be wrong.
Instead, Far From Home plays up the whole thing as one big punchline. Aunt May laughs off the fact that while she disappeared from existence for five years, someone else was living in her apartment. A kid in Peter’s school also jokes that his younger brother became his older brother during the time he was snapped away by Thanos. Maybe a few jokes about it would be fine, but Far From Home seems to exclusively reference the drama of Endgame as a joke. Considering Endgame was the culmination of everything in the MCU up to that point, and Far From Home was the first MCU film released afterwards, its utter disregard towards Endgame basically devalues the entire MCU franchise. It’s like a big middle finger to anyone who invested in the series. And sadly, this element of writing off the past seems to have become a common trait in the MCU since.
At least the sacrifice of Tony Stark is made important! Because of course it is. Tony Stark was all over Spider-Man: Homecoming, just to hit home the fact that Spider-Man was in the MCU now. So Far From Home is sure to let everyone know how impactful the loss of Tony Stark was, to the point that Peter Parker never even brings up Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben wasn’t Tony Stark, why should he be remembered? But Spidey still manages to snag plenty of new gadgets from Stark Industries in Far From Home. Because Tony Stark!
Okay, I won’t keep going on. Simply put, the film’s overemphasis on pointing out that it takes place in the MCU at the expense of Spider-Man’s own mythology, while simultaneously treating the MCU’s history as a joke, is a bit of a problem. But if you can dig past that, Spider-Man: Far From Home does deliver an entertaining movie.
5: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Five years after the Andrew Garfield era started (and only three years after The Amazing Spider-Man 2), the Spider-Man franchise was rebooted yet again! This time, Sony and Marvel worked out their differences (they would have more later, and work them out again), meaning that Spider-Man could now join the MCU! Sony’s planned Spider-Man universe didn’t pan out, so I guess it’s a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The good news is that Marvel knew no one wanted to see Spider-Man’s origin story again, so they skipped it entirely, and introduced this newest version of Spider-Man in a previous film (Captain America: Civil War) for good measure. So for once, we could just get right into things.
The bad news is that Marvel and Sony were way too excited to let people know that Spider-Man was now in the MCU, with Tony Stark being all over Homecoming (I can’t remember a single advertisement that didn’t put Iron Man front and center). And sadly, Marvel and Sony seemed to think that “skipping” Spider-Man’s origin story meant ignoring it outright. Uncle Ben’s death is still (supposedly) a pinnacle moment in the life of the MCU’s Peter Parker, but you’d never know it from watching Homecoming. Who has time to remember a lost loved one when Tony Stark’s in town?! Yahoo! MCU!
Okay, I’m sorry. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good movie. But I do think sacrificing Spider-Man’s own mythology for the sake of the MCU is a big problem in the Tom Holland-era Spider-Man films, and not one that grew bigger over time. It was there right out the gate with Homecoming. Still, I guess being overly enthusiastic about being in the MCU is better than an MCU movie making fun of the MCU (like Far From Home).
Other than the film’s obsession with reminding audiences that Spider-Man is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Homecoming has a lot to love about it. While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker can be pretty annoying at times, the actor definitely looks the part, and makes for a fun Spider-Man. The action scenes are, once again, very exciting. And perhaps most notably, Spider-Man: Homecoming gives us one of the few MCU villains who could be described as ‘interesting.’
Adrian Toomes, AKA ‘The Vulture,’ wonderfully portrayed by Michael Keaton, seemed to have taken inspiration from the Raimi-era villains. A hardworking man who (rightfully) has a grudge after his salvage company are sent out of business by the government and (*sigh*) Tony Stark. Michael Keaton plays Toomes as a likable, blue-collar man just trying to set things right the only way he feels he can. That’s the kind of villain the MCU could certainly use more of. I’m getting pretty tired of evil rich guys who have the same powers as the hero…
Spider-Man: Homecoming may not be perfect, but it remains one of the MCU’s most fun and lighthearted installments. And everyone loves Michael Keaton.
4: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Okay, there may be a recency bias here seeing as this movie was just released. Or it could even be a nostalgic bias, seeing as this film brings back so many faces from Spidey’s cinematic past. Whatever the case may be, I’m ranking No Way Home above Homecoming for the time being. I guess we’ll see how I feel they compare later.
The good: It’s magic just to see Alfred Molina Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe Green Goblin again. Lots of great action scenes. A few good emotional bits. A truckload of fanservice for the MCU, the Amazing Spider-Man films and the Sam Raimi trilogy.
The bad: The film makes too many cynical jokes at the expense of past Spider-Man films. Dr. Strange fills the role of “overbearing Avengers presence” left over by Tony Stark. The classic villains are made out to be easy pickings for MCU Spidey and Dr. Strange unless they team up. J. Jonah Jameson has been turned into a one-note villain. Mr. Ditkovitch didn’t make a return appearance.
A very fun movie fueled by fanservice and nostalgia, if maybe not the most heartfelt Spider-Man film.
3: Spider-Man (2002)
Nearly every list that ranks a particular franchise has that point where the quality of work within that franchise ramps up considerably. For this list, this is that moment.
The original 2002 Spider-Man feature is still a treat. Although X-Men beat it to theaters by two years, it’s Spider-Man that created the blueprint for the entire superhero genre. It may be easy to forget in this day and age, when the all-encompassing MCU seems to grow bigger and bigger, swallowing other franchises in its wake. But back in 2002, Spider-Man – and Spider-Man alone – was a huge deal. No Cinematic Universe required.
Spider-Man made superheroes mainstream. It was the first film to make over one-hundred million dollars on its opening weekend, and it became a talking point not just for comic book nerds, but people who had never read a comic book in their life. Kids and adults alike ate it up.
Perhaps Spider-Man’s initial success and continuing legacy can be attributed to how Sam Raimi gave the film a heart. This wasn’t simply an origin story where the hero gets his powers (though it is that too), but also a story about love, loss, and responsibility.
Tobey Maguire made his version of Peter Parker a loveable dweeb: goofy, awkward, somewhat naive. Later Peter Parkers Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland seemed to be cast to turn the character into something of a heartthrob. But Tobey Maguire’s version is nerd incarnate, giving him a more underdog quality.
To compliment the film’s relatable hero, we were given a sympathetic villain in Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), whose descent into the Green Goblin is equal parts tragic and terrifying. He’s the father of Peter’s best friend, and even becomes something of a father figure to Peter, as well. But a desperate attempt to save his company by rushing an experiment – using himself as a test subject – results in his personality being split a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Norman Osborne remains, but the evil Goblin can take over at any moment. Willem Dafoe plays the double role with a brilliance similar to what Andy Serkis would give Gollum a few months later in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
In what is perhaps the best bonus possible, Spider-Man even gave us the greatest comic relief in superhero movie history in J. Jonah Jameson. The bombastic newspaperman was brought to life so flawlessly by J.K. Simmons that Marvel had to bring him back for the role in the MCU, because they knew no one else could match his performance.
We may all laugh at Spider-Man’s origin story by this point, but the 2002 film got it so right. Peter Parker gains his superhuman abilities after being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, and at first uses his newfound abilities to win some money and impress the girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But a petty money squabble leads Peter Parker to let a crook get away, a crook who later shoots Uncle Ben (before Spider-Man 3 retconned the shooter, anyway). Peter holds Uncle Ben’s hand as he passes. No overly long, dramatic speech is necessary. Uncle Ben (memorably played by the late Cliff Robertson) simply shows joy that he can look at a loved one before he passes. With his uncle’s teaching of “with great power comes great responsibility” resonating in his heart, Peter Parker decides to use his powers for the sake of others.
It’s beautifully told, and the emotion is earnest in a way that seems lost on the MCU.
Sure, 2002’s Spider-Man has its share of cheesy moments: the upside-down kiss, Green Goblin’s costume, the wrestling scene… But if anything, those cheesy moments only add to that aforementioned earnestness. Spider-Man is telling the story it needs to tell, and if that entails some awkwardness, then so be it. Personally, I find the cheesiness of the Sam Raimi films to be much less eye-rolling than the forced “applaud here” moments of the MCU.
In 2002, no multiverses needed saving. No one was wiping out half of all life in the universe. There was just Peter Parker growing into Spider-Man fighting Norman Osborne, who had fallen into becoming the Green Goblin. And it was great.
Spider-Man may not be the highest ranked movie on this list. But y’know, it’s something of a classic itself.
2: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
“Inventive” may not be the word you’d use to describe the superhero movies of today, but it’s an apt term when describing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Boasting animation that looks like a comic book come to life and a story that plays with the Spider-Man mythology, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the surprise hit of 2018, becoming one of the most acclaimed superhero films of all time.
Into the Spider-Verse shifts the focus to Miles Morales, who becomes the Spider-Man of his world. When Kingpin activates a portal that starts bringing in people from different universes, Miles has to team up with various other Spider-People from across the multiverse to save the day. Miles’ team includes an out-of-shape Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey from a world where her and Peter’s roles were reversed, a monochromatic Spider-Man out of film noir, an anime girl version of Peter Parker, and a cartoon pig.
The film is as fun and varied as its oddball lineup of characters, with its story unfolding – rather uniquely – from the perspective of its main characters, rather than letting the audience in on most of the details ahead of time. Though perhaps as a consequence of this, Kingpin himself – despite having a pretty good story to him – ends up getting a little shortchanged in the film.
In a time when every superhero movie under the sun seems hellbent on building up towards a string of other superhero movies down the road, Into the Spider-Verse was a breath of fresh air. Here was a new take on Spider-Man, no Cinematic Universe was needed. Into the Spider-Verse worked so well as a standalone movie, that I don’t know if its upcoming sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, can actually match it. The fact that the sequel includes a “Part 1” in the title is also a bit disappointing. I’m all for sequels, but it’s a shame that today’s sequels can’t just be their own movie anymore. They always have to hype up something else on the horizon. Being excited for Across the Spider-Verse isn’t enough these days. You have to be excited for the movies that come after it before it’s even released…
I guess we’ll see how that all ends up. But even if the sequels don’t live up to the original, Into the Spider-Verse will have still left us with one of the most original and definitive movies in the superhero genre.
1:Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Into the Spider-Verse may be the most original Spider-Man movie, but make no mistake about it, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still, quite simply, the best.
The Amazing Spider-Man took a nosedive with its second entry, and the MCU Spider-Man films can feel kind of interchangeable (the fact that No Way Homeneeded to bring back old faces to feel distinct is telling). But 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was a case of a sequel taking everything that was good about the first installment and improving on them in every way. It’s one of the best sequels of all time.
The emotion is better. The drama is better. The action is better. The humor is better. And with all due respect to the Green Goblin, even the villain is better.
With Peter Parker’s personal life suffering due to his duties as Spider-Man, he begins to wonder if the city still needs its web-slinging hero anymore. Meanwhile, Dr. Otto Octavius becomes Peter’s mentor, only to turn to a life of crime once a would-be revolutionary experiment ends in tragedy.
This is a key factor to Spider-Man 2’s enduring appeal: On one hand, it is about Spider-Man’s battles against Doctor Octopus. But even more so, it’s a movie about the inner struggles of Peter Parker and Otto Octavius. Even after all these years, it’s still the single most character-driven Marvel film. But if it’s superhero action you’re looking for, Spider-Man 2 has that covered as well, featuring a number of memorable action scenes, notably its iconic train sequence. Though that’s just one of many, many standout moments created by Spider-Man 2.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a likable dweeb in the first movie, but here he becomes a true hero. And Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock – whose mechanical arms make him a perfect foil for Spider-Man – is a tragic, sympathetic villain with a depth that no Marvel movie since has been able to grasp. The supporting players all get their chance to shine as well, and add even more emotion to the film (the scene where Peter Parker tells Aunt May the events leading up to Uncle Ben’s death being another high point). Not to mention J.K. Simmons is at his best as Jameson.
It all comes down to the characters, really. Everything we loved about them the first time around is brought back in full force, with some great new additions as well. Doc Ock is the obvious newcomer, sure. But even characters like Mr. Ditkovitch – Peter Parker’s stingy landlord – leave an impression. And of course, we have the inspiring scene where the people of New York stand up to Doctor Octopus to defend Spider-Man (this was something of a theme in the Raimi era, with something similar happening in the first film as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, Spider-Man 3 lacked such a scene). Even the random citizens were important here in Spider-Man 2.
Yes, it’s true, Spider-Man 2 has its cheesy elements (though perhaps not to the same level as the first film). But again, I almost feel like they add to its appeal in retrospect. Spider-Man 2 is sincere and upfront, warts and all. It’s as genuine and heartfelt as any superhero movie ever made.
There have been many, many, many movies based on Marvel comics in the nearly eighteen years since its release, but not one of them has made me care as much as Spider-Man 2.
Simply the best.
Chapter 2: The Best of Wizard Dojo in 2021
2021 was not exactly the most productive year for Wizard Dojo. Although January got off to a decent start (I reviewed the entire Oddworld series… although a new entry was released a little while later and I still need to review that), things quickly fell silent. From February through May, I only wrote four posts (all movie reviews), with May being the first month in this site’s seven year history where I didn’t post anything whatsoever. And here we are, nearing the end of the year, and I’ve only reviewed nine videogames in all of 2021…five of which were the aforementioned Oddworld titles in January. I haven’t done right by video games this year, so I guess I should focus more of the Dojo on gaming in 2022. Catch up on the games I played but failed to review this year. Fingers crossed I can catch up to my backlogged game reviews.
With all this said, I still like to think I provided some quality content (by my standards) to Wizard Dojo this year. I certainly wrote about plenty of movies. So now, here’s some quick access to the best of what I wrote in 2021!
Video Game Reviews (might as well post them all here)
The Best of the Rest (Things I wrote that aren’t directly reviews)
The 1000th Blog! – In which I celebrate my 1,000 blog milestone here on Wizard Dojo*. Also includes my ranking of the Paper Mario series.
*Technically, I removed some old filler blogs a while back, and the 1,000th post was the 1,000th not including those removed. And I deleted a further few filler posts of old afterwards. So I guess technically it isn’t the 1,oooth blog anymore. But come on, I’m over 1,000 again. Just let me celebrate.I’ll try not to delete any more past content.
Super Smash Bros. Has Lost its Heart – In which I write about how the Super Smash Bros. series has betrayed what made it so fun and memorable in the first place, with its overemphasis on third-party characters, hype and pandering to eSports at the expense of its own identity.
And now we meet somewhere in the middle, because I posted two movie reviews on the tenth anniversary of their respective movies: Rango and The Adventures of Tintin. But now we’re getting back into review territory.
And perhaps my favorite thing I wrote this past year…
Whether you read any of these back when they were posted or not, I hope you have some fun reading them.
Chapter 3 & 4: My Months in Movies (November and December 2021)
Following suit with my previous ‘My Month in Movies’ post, I figured I’d write about what I watched during the last two months of 2021. Sure, December isn’t quite done yet, and I could still watch another movie or two before year’s end. But come on, it’s Christmas!
Because my last ‘My Month in Movies’ post ended up being so long, I will sadly keep things shorter here (seeing as I had other things to post on this Christmas blog). So here I’ll list the movies, and then go straight into the awards. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to write about some of these movies in more detail sooner rather than later. As before, movies are listed in chronological order of when I watched them, and those with an asterisk are movies I watched for the very first time.
Now let’s get started!
My Month in Movies: November 2021
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Ron’s Gone Wrong*
Home Sweet Home Alone*
Castle in the Sky
Die Hard 2
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Best Movie(s) I Watched All Month: Castle in the Sky and Die Hard
Alright, I’m going to cheat right out the gate and select two movies as the best I watched in November. My reason is simple: they both put up strong arguments to being the best live-action (Die Hard) and animated (Castle in the Sky) action movies of all time. So why not just celebrate both? Also, I know if I just picked Castle in the Sky, my best movies of every month so far would definitely show some favoritism (and having favorite directors or movies or anything is considered taboo these days for some reason).
Castle in the Sky, the first film released by Studio Ghibli (though the third feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki), is one of the most influential animated films ever made. Not only did it kickstart the world’s greatest animation studio, but it continues to influence movies, animation, television and video games to this day. Hell, with the exception of Star Wars, I’m having trouble thinking of a movie that has had as big of an influence on video games as Castle in the Sky. Everything from The Legend of Zelda (most overtly in Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild), Skies of Arcadia, Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy have drawn from it. Even the storyline of Sonic & Knuckles was directly lifted from Castle in the Sky (as a bonus, Dr. Robotnik’s entire character design was largely based on a character from the film).
Even without its impact, Castle in the Sky is such an incredible film. It’s probably Miyazaki’s most straightforward tale, but it’s a perfectly structured adventure film brimming with the director’s unrivaled imagination. Two kids, Pazu and Sheeta, go on an adventure to find Laputa, the titular castle in the sky. A band of pirates, lead by the elderly yet energetic Dola (one of Miyazaki’s best characters), are also out to find the castle and its countless treasures. But a bigger threat looms in the form of the military, under the command of the mysterious Colonel Muska.
Again, it’s a simple adventure story, but flawlessly crafted, and the world it created has proven influential for a reason (the city of Laputa itself is perhaps second only to the bathhouse in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away as the most indelible place in animation). The action set pieces utilize animation to send them over the top of what you would expect. They’re so exciting, in fact, that it’s a mystery Miyazaki never really tackled another full-on action-adventure film after this. A classic.
I feel like I don’t even need to introduce Die Hard. It’s one of the most iconic action movies of all time. It deserves mention alongside the likes of Terminator 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the greatest works of art in the genre (I would also add Speed to that running). And yes, it’s also one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
Taking place on Christmas Eve, New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged wife. He visits her at her place of business, the Nakatomi Corporation. But things quickly go south when a band of terrorists, lead by Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) take over the building. John McClane then has to figure out a way to use what resources he has to take out the bad guys one by one if he wants to save the hostages.
Again, a simple premise, but perfectly executed. Besides how well made and exciting the action sequences are, there are a few key areas that make Die Hard stand out from other action movies: One of them is John McClane himself, a much more human and vulnerable action hero. Released in the late 1980s, Die Hard purposefully made John McClane contrast the seemingly invincible heroes of the genre played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone that dominated the decade. Sure, John McClane still survives things he probably wouldn’t in real life, but just barely. Notably, he just happened to take his shoes off right before the terrorists showed up, so his feet end up in a bad, bloody way before the end of things.
There’s also Hans Gruber, debatably the best villain in any action movie. He has a charisma and cunning about him that make him so much more memorable than other villains in the genre. We can’t forget Officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), John’s only ally outside of the building, who has an interesting story of his own. Then there’s the Nakatomi building itself. Setting all of the action inside one location proved to be a stroke of genius, and gives the film a strong sense of place.
Die Hard’s 90s sequels are also exceptional action flicks (I still haven’t seen the 2007 and 2013 entries), though they lack a number of the qualities that make the original still feel so unique. Al Powell is reduced to a cameo in the second film, never appearing again thereafter. Hans Gruber was never topped in the villain department. The scope grew, at the expense of a singular, iconic location. And John McClane slowly became the indestructible action hero he once defied. They’re solid sequels, sure. But the original Die Hard is the action classic.
And also a Christmas classic.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Eternals
I already wrote a review for Eternals, so mercifully I don’t have to delve too deeply into this mess again.
Suffice to say, it’s the worst entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No contest.
It’s a boring slog with a pessimistic attitude. It has an undeserved sense of self-importance. It conveniently retcons elements of the MCU’s world-building to try and make itself make sense. It’s… uhhh. Yeah.
Look, if you want to know more about why I don’t like it – and you don’t want to scroll all the way back up this wall of text for the last link – I’ll post the link again here.
On the plus side, Spider-Man: No Way Home seems to have brought audience attention right back to the MCU. So thankfully Eternals is already looking like a memory. A bad memory, but still.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Encanto (Ron’s Gone Wrong is a very close second)
One of my bad habits this year was seeing a number of great animated films and then not writing about them, such as Luca and The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. I have no idea why. On that subject, here are two other great animated films that were released this year that I still have yet to review: Disney’s Encanto and Ron’s Gone Wrong! Mayhaps I’ll catch up on these animated movie reviews before I start dedicating Wizard Dojo’s 2022 to video games.
Anyway, Encanto is yet another winner in Disney’s current hot streak of animation. Say what you want about Disney’s live-action output, but their animated films have never been better than they are now. I’d be ostracized from my generation for saying that. But with due respect to the ‘Disney Renaissance’ of the 90s, most of those movies were largely the same. The modern Disney era – whether you think it began with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, a year before that with Bolt, or the year after with Tangled – has provided an array of movies with a depth and variety that Disney has never seen before. It’s now also probably the longest hot streak in the studio’s history, so there’s that too.
Encanto tells a beautiful and heartfelt story about family, as Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), an ordinary girl in an extraordinary family, must figure out why her superpowered siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and mother are losing their magical powers.
It’s beautifully animated and has a great selection of songs (which I almost hate to admit, given they were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But as Moana proved, Disney seems to be able to bring out a more creative side to him and it doesn’t all sound the same). A joy to the senses.
Bafflingly, Encanto was a box office disappointment. That breaks my heart. But now that the film is readily available on Disney+, hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.
Encanto is very worthy to hold the distinction of being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 60th film.
While we’re here, let’s go ahead and give Ron’s Gone Wrong the “Pleasant Surprise of the Year” award. Seriously, “pleasant surprise” may be the best way to describe this movie. It was barely advertised, and those advertisements didn’t exactly look promising. I went to see it more out of curiosity than anything, but ended up seeing a sweet, emotional, wonderful movie.
Yes, it may look like a Big Hero 6 clone on the surface (but would that be so bad?), and its themes of an overreliance on technology and social media were already done relatively recently by The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. But Ron’s Gone Wrong has an identity of its own and ends up being a touching tale about friendship and loneliness.
Just writing about it now, I want to watch Ron’s Gone Wrong again. It’s currently available on both Disney+ and HBO Max. So if you have time for a movie, give this overlooked gem a watch. You’ll be glad you did.
Now seriously, why haven’t I reviewed these yet? I reviewed that piece of crap Eternals fast enough after I saw it, why not these actually great movies? There must be something wrong with me. Go ahead and call me ‘Scott’s Gone Wrong.’
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
I honestly had real trouble thinking about what would take my “Guilty Pleasure Award” for November, and not just because I didn’t watch any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. I really just don’t think I watched anything that fits that bill. I thought maybe the Bill & Ted movies – of which I hold the unpopular opinion that Bogus Journey is way better than Excellent Adventure – but no. I genuinely like them. I also thought about Home Sweet Home Alone, which I reviewed already and found to be mediocre and unmemorable, but harmless entertainment that was better than the other post-Macauley Culkin Home Alone movies.
In the end, I decided to go with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Even now, I don’t know if it really qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I find it to be thoroughly entertaining.
I decided to go with it for one specific reason: Home Alone 2 is basically Home Alone 1. It’s the very definition of a copy-and-paste sequel. However, if any sequel could get away with being so similar to the original, I suppose it would be Home Alone. It is, after all, just a story about a kid being left home alone on Christmas and outsmarting a duo of bumbling burglars. It isn’t exactly aiming for a deep, rich narrative. Sometimes, it’s okay to just have fun.
Home Alone 2 does have a couple of distinctions from its predecessor. The first difference is in its setting (It is called Lost in New York, after all), with Kevin McCallister now staying at the Plaza Hotel as opposed to his actual home. The second difference is that the film adds some secondary antagonists in the form of the hotel’s staff, with the concierge being played by Tim Curry (always a huge bonus).
Otherwise, Home Alone 2 is basically more of the same: the setup of Kevin being separated from his family. Kevin enjoying his time alone, before he inevitably begins to miss his family. Kevin is fearful of a local (this time it’s a Pidgeon Lady in the park), only to befriend them later. And he sets up a series of elaborate booby traps to defeat burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), who are also somehow in New York at the same exact time as Kevin ended up there by accident. But, as an added plus, the booby trap sequence here is longer and more brutal than the first movie, and is perhaps the best example of cartoon violence being done in live-action.
So yeah, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York may as well be called Home Alone Again: But in New York. But what it lacks in narrative creativity it makes up for in sheer entertainment. And I don’t really feel guilty about it.
My Month in Movies: December 2021
West Side Story (1961)*
My Neighbor Totoro
Being the Ricardos*
Spider-Man: No Way Home*
The Santa Clause
The Santa Clause 2
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Jingle All the Way
It’s a Wonderful Life
Best Movie I Watched All Month: My Neighbor Totoro
December may have been my slowest month of movie watching since I started doing these ‘My Month in Movies’ things, but it wouldn’t have mattered how many movies I watched, the crown was guaranteed to go to Totoro.
I say that with the utmost respect to It’s a Wonderful Life – truly one of the best movies ever made -but if there’s one movie I can think of that’s even more life affirming than It’s a Wonderful Life, surely it’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Hayao Miyazaki’s quiet tale about childhood, nature and life really is a one of a kind film. Truthfully, Miyazaki could have retired after Totoro and he’d still be the greatest filmmaker in animation. The fact that he continued to create so many classics afterward is nothing short of inspiring. One of those subsequent films, Spirited Away, is Totoro’s only equal as my all-time favorite film, animated or otherwise.
My Neighbor Totoro is the story about two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they move to a new house to be close to their ailing mother, who is being treated at a hospital. But their new house comes with a surprise, as just beyond it rests a giant camphor tree, which is the home of Totoro. The girls soon discover the animal-like spirit, and have many adventures together.
Totoro was Miyazaki’s follow-up to Castle in the Sky, which may be the most overt display of the director’s versatility. Going from the spectacle and set pieces of Laputa into the ethereal beauty of Totoro was something else. And none of Miyazaki’s artistry was lost in the transition.
My Neighbor Totoro remains Miyazaki’s most iconic film, with its titular character becoming the face of Studio Ghibli (adorning the opening of every film from the studio thereafter). It’s been said that young children in Japan believe in Totoro in a similar way to how children believe in Santa Claus (something which Miyazaki’s colleague and mentor; the late, great Isao Takahata, claimed was Miyazaki’s greatest achievement). Its reputation couldn’t be more deserved. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle and sweet movie I’ve ever seen. A masterpiece.
And let’s give a special shoutout to It’s a Wonderful Life. Because, well, we’re talking about It’s a Wonderful Life here! Famed director Steven Spielberg recently revealed It’s a Wonderful Life to be his favorite movie, and I’m not about to argue that. It deserves all the praise it’s received over the decades. If you tell me you can watch It’s a Wonderful Life without getting choked up and misty-eyed, well then, you’re probably either lying or a robot.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Wow. Going from talking about My Neighbor Totoro and It’s a Wonderful Life to talking about The Santa Clause 3. Wow. Just… Wow.
1994’s The Santa Clause is actually one of my favorite Christmas movies. The tale of Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) becoming Santa after the former Father Christmas falls off his roof is unique in that it works as both a kids’ movie and a more complicated one for adults. It’s genuinely a really good Christmas movie.
The 2002 sequel, The Santa Clause 2, is definitely aimed more at youngsters. It doesn’t deal with the same complexities of adulthood as the original, but it works in its own way. It’s another guilty pleasure of mine (and would take that award for December, if not for another Christmas movie). And it’s got Tim Allen in a second role as a human-sized toy Santa who takes over the North Pole and becomes a dictator. So that’s fun.
But The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. Ouch. You thought The Santa Clause 2 was juvenile? It looks like Breaking Bad compared to its successor!
The Santa Clause 3 is basically about Jack Frost (Martin Short) plotting to take over the North Pole, already recycling the second movie. Also, Santa and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby, so Santa brings his in-laws to the North Pole to visit, claiming he works at a toy factory in Canada to keep his status as Santa Claus a secret (he claims the elves are small Canadians, as one does). It’s silly.
None of the more grown up elements of the original are intact, nor does the film feel the need to give children a fun, coherent story like the second movie. Instead we just kind of get a series of hyperactive things happening, and Martin Short running around in a funny costume saying things (admittedly some of which are funny: “Did you just call me skillful and delicious?”). Did I even get into the time travel aspect of it yet? Yeah, Jack Frost and Santa go back in time to the events of the first movie and change history, so kind of like a Back to the Future Part II thing (but that’s giving Santa Clause 3 way too much credit).
Still, at least I can laugh at The Santa Clause 3. That’s more than can be said of Eternals.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Being the Ricardos
I saw the original West Side Story for the first time this month (I still need to see the new Spielberg one), and it was good. I also saw Spider-Man: No Way Home, and it was good. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to superheroes and musicals than I am biopics, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t aware of this movie until some friends invited me to tag along with them to see it and thus I was pleasantly surprised, but I’m going to give this honor to Being the Ricardos for the time being.
Being the Ricardos is the latest in a long line of biopics to be released in recent years. I admit I’ve only seen a few of them, but I really enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder. While Being the Ricardos isn’t quite as fun as those movies, I still found it to be a good time.
Ricardos focuses on the inner workings of the production of I Love Lucy, during a particularly turbulent week for the show’s filming (with some additional flashbacks stretching the scope of the film’s story). It has a stellar cast, with Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and my man J.K. Simmons as William Frawley. The cast may not necessarily look like the people they’re portraying (then again, Tom Hanks doesn’t look like Walt Disney, either), but the film has fun with transforming the actors to look more like the I Love Lucy cast in the moments in recreates scenes from the iconic show.
It’s got all the drama you would expect from a biopic, but of course a movie about I Love Lucy has to have some humor involved, and Being the Ricardos includes some genuinely funny bits. It may be a bit Oscar bait-y, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable all the same.
The film was simultaneously released in theaters and Amazon Prime, so I may have to watch this one again at home soon. I repeat, it’s got J.K. Simmons as William Frawley as Fred Mertz! Need I say more?
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Jingle All the Way
Is Jingle All the Way the best bad Christmas movie? I definitely think it makes a strong case.
The weirdly specific sub-genre of “take an action star and put them in a family comedy” was everywhere in the 90s, and even shows up today every now and again. I would say I don’t know why they keep trying, since there hasn’t been a good movie produced by the combination of action star and family comedy (that I can think of, anyway. Unless Last Action Hero counts). But then I remember how gloriously stupid Jingle All the Way is, and suddenly the genre makes sense.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger himself – the action star of the 80s and 90s – Jingle All the Way is a movie about a dad named Howard Langston trying to make up for his failings as a father by getting his son the toy of his dreams for Christmas. The problem is he forgot to get the hot-selling toy (a superhero named Turbo Man) ahead of time, and now that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s going to be impossible to find! It doesn’t help that he keeps running into a troublesome mailman named Myron (Sinbad) who’s after the same toy.
Using last minute Christmas shopping as the premise for a Christmas comedy actually isn’t a bad idea. It’s the kind of thing we’ve all been through, and that a movie could exaggerate for comedic effect. The problem (great thing?) is that Jingle All the Way exaggerates it so much, that the film ends up being completely bonkers.
Howard has to literally fight his way through a mall to get a raffle ball, gets tangled up with a group of Santa Claus conmen, and in one of the most ludicrous finales ever conceived by mankind, Howard becomes Turbo Man himself for a Christmas parade (complete with working jetpack), where he does battle against Myron, who dons the costume of Turbo Man’s nemesis. Oh yeah, all this while Harold’s pervy neighbor (the late Phil Hartman) keeps trying to put the moves of Harold’s wife. You know, kids’ movie stuff.
The movie is completely ridiculous. It’s dumb, goofy, and makes cosmic leaps in logic. Yet I find it impossible not to give Jingle All the Way at least one annual viewing towards Christmastime. It’s dumb fun. But the emphasis is on fun.
There are a number of good Christmas movies to watch around the holidays, but if you just want to have something you can have fun with and laugh at, Jingle All the Way has you covered.
I mean, how could you not be entertained by a movie that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger screaming the words “Put that cookie down! Now!”
Chapter 5: The Last One
I apologize that I once again have to cut my Christmas special short, chapter-wise (though the word count here is among my highest to date). Remember when I used to do eight chapters to these things? And that was not counting these ending parts which now are one of the numbered chapters. It’s kind of like how in Banjo-Kazooie, the final boss level was considered its own separate entity outside of the nine proper levels, but then Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie included the final boss stage as part of their level count to try to hide the fact that they had less levels.
My point is that hopefully next year I can get started on my Christmas post earlier and do something extra special with it. I love Christmas. I made sure my site would celebrate its anniversary on Christmas Day for a reason (and not just because it would be easy to remember). So here’s hoping that I can eventually make these Christmas posts everything they should be.
At any rate, I hope you had a good time reading this. But more importantly, I hope you had a Merry Christmas, or happy Hannukah, or happy Kwanza! Happy everybody! Happy holidays to all!
I’ll see you in 2022… And by ‘see you’ I mean I’ll write some stuff here and maybe some people will stumble on it by sheer accident and decide to read it if they have nothing better to do.
It’s time to feel old yet again! Because the Nintendo Wii turns 15 years old today!
That’s right, somehow, it’s been a full fifteen years since Nintendo’s innovative, wacky-named little ivory box first hit North American stores, on November 19th 2006 (it would be released in other regions in the following weeks into early December 2006).
Before I go on, let me just say that no video game console makes me feel older than the Wii does. Now, I was born in 1989 and had older brothers, so I was born into the days of the NES, and grew up on the SNES, Sega Genesis and (a little later) the Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. But I suppose because I was just a little kid when those consoles were released, I can readily accept that they are now considered things like “retro” and “old school.” Though I was a bit older when the Playstation 2, Xbox and GameCube hit, those consoles were more about powerful technology and refining what came before (to varying degrees of success), so again, I can accept the retro moniker.
But the Wii was, in my eyes, the first console in a long time that really felt like it was breaking new ground with its ideas. The N64 pioneered 3D gaming (and upped the number of players from two to four), but I reiterate that I was still just a kid when that was released, so it would have seemed like magic no matter what. The Wii though… by that point, I could really appreciate what the Wii was bringing to the table. A console built around motion controls, aimed at everyone (the NES and, to a lesser extent, the SNES, were also geared towards “everyone.” But the Wii took that concept to a new level). It really felt like something new, and really lived up to its (admittedly generic) codename of “Revolution.”
So now that this innovative console that exuded such newness is fifteen years old, I really feel like a dinosaur.
I’ll never forget that first time I picked up a Wii remote, simply navigating the Wii home menu gave a huge rush of “whoa” over me. And playing Wii Sports for the first time? I don’t even think I need to explain how joyous that was. It really did bring back that ‘magic’ I felt from my childhood days whenever a new console was released (specifically, it felt very much like Christmas 1996 felt, when Santa had left a Nintendo 64 for my family).
Simply put, the Wii brought “magic” back to gaming.
I know that’d be considered a controversial statement on my part, because the Wii certainly had its detractors. Yes, the Wii tended to favor the “casual” crowd. But I always failed to see why that was considered a bad thing (other than typical gamer ignorance). It was merely a different thing.
Others derided it as being gimmicky with its motion controls – and while in the cases of less competent games that was true – I don’t see why building gameplay around motion controls is any more gimmicky than, say, a game being built around its cinematics for a more movie-like experience. Again, these are just differences.
I have to admit the Wii did end up having a lot of shovelware, but that always comes with the territory of being the most popular console on the market. The PS2 had its share of filler as well. Even the SNES had bad games. But the Wii was the one where people conveniently seemed to ignore the good while spotlighting the negatives. Point being the Wii had its faults, but it also had strengths that it seems people only recently started remembering.
After all, along with being one of the rare post-90s consoles that actually felt like something different and new, it also played a huge role in video games becoming the mainstream pastime they are today. Remember it or not, but before the Wii, video games were still largely seen as an exclusively “nerdy” endeavor. The Wii helped normalize gaming into something that people – any people – just did.
On top of that, the Wii also created easy access to retro gaming via the Virtual Console! Before the Wii came along, retro gaming was an expensive collector’s hobby. But the Virtual Console allowed players to revisit (or discover for the first time) games from the NES, SNES, N64 and Sega Genesis, later also adding the TurboGrafx-16, Commodore 64, Neo Geo, Sega Master System and even arcade titles! Combine that with the fact the Wii could play GameCube games, and the Wii had – hands down – the best back catalogue ever. It was the first modern (at the time) console with a retro library, and I’ll go ahead and say it hasn’t been bettered. Even Nintendo themselves haven’t been able to replicate it (on the Wii, you just downloaded the games you wanted, and they went to the first available window on the home channel. Now we have Switch online, where you have to go to a separate screen for each available console, and trudge through all the filler Nintendo keeps adding to find the game you want to play. I just want my favorite retro games on the home screen again!).
Of course, we can’t forget the great games to come out of the Wii itself. I already mentioned Wii Sports, which is the one everyone and their grandmother played. And then around a year after the Wii and Wii Sports were released, the console saw another game that brought back that aforementioned ‘magic.’
Yes, the Wii would see a number of great games, but it was Super Mario Galaxy that stood out from the pack and became one of the most acclaimed games of all time. It also marked something of a resurgence for Nintendo’s beloved series, after Mario’s humbler critical and commercial success post-Super Mario 64. Notably, it was also the first Mario game to be scored by a full orchestra, which just kicks all of the ass. Despite a few hiccups here and there, the exceedingly high standards Galaxy set for the Super Mario series (and its music) have remained largely intact, with games such as 3D World and Odyssey carrying the torch. It should be noted that the only Wii game that managed to be better than Galaxy was (what else?) Super Mario Galaxy 2.
The Wii may not have always came out guns ablazing, but when it brought its A-game, it really was a console unlike any other that had been seen before. And with due respect, perhaps unlike any that’s been seen since.
It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since Nintendo changed the game with that little white box and that controller that looked like a TV remote (and let’s not forget that blue light that would creepily turn itself on in the middle of the night). Nintendo has fully embraced bringing back the NES, SNES and N64 in multiple forms. Maybe now that the Wii is fifteen, they’ll find a way to bring the Wii back to modern audiences. I wouldn’t mind a retro mini-console version of the Wii myself. And I know someone else who’d camp out to get one…
In the late 80s and well into the 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ruled the world. Although it started as a comic book by the recently defunct Mirage Studios, it became a pop culture phenomenon with the 1987 cartoon series. TMNT would go on to become one of those rare franchises that hasn’t really lost its popularity in the years since that early booming period, with several movies and subsequent comic books and cartoons that continue to this day. And of course, we can’t forget the many video games to star the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Although the Turtles are most associated with the beat-em-up genre in the world of gaming, they’ve appeared in a number of other genres as well. Strangely, even though the peak years of Turtlemania coincided with the fighting game boom of the early 90s, the Turtles only starred in one such fighting game during that timeframe: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters by Konami.
I suppose you could say the Turtles starred in three fighting games of the time, seeing as Tournament Fighters saw releases on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1993, and weirdly made its way to the NES afterwards in 1994, with each version having notable differences from one another (with most praising the SNES version as the best of the lot, because of course it was). Although the pairing of TMNT and fighting games seems like such an obvious success, Tournament Fighters doesn’t seem nearly as remembered as some of the other Turtles games of the time.
Perhaps that’s due in part to the game’s selection of playable characters, many of whom would still be considered deep cuts to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aficionados even today. The SNES version contains ten playable characters, but only half of them would be very familiar to Turtles fans. Four of those are obviously the Ninja Turtles themselves: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. The other familiar face is their archnemesis, the Shredder (though he is bizarrely labeled as “Cyber Shredder” in the game).
The remaining characters are varying degrees of niche. There’s Armaggon, a shark-like mutant; Wingnut is a humanoid bat; and the oddly-named War is a purple triceratops-like creature who is not in fact a member of the Triceratons (triceratops-like aliens from the franchise). These three characters all originated from the Archie Comics TMNT series, which I emphasize is separate from the original Mirage Studios comics. Of the lot, only Wingnut appeared in the 1987 cartoon, though Armaggon would eventually show up in the 2012 series. And then we have Chrome Dome, a robot character who appeared in a few episodes of the original series. But the last character is the real odd-duck of the lot.
The final playable character is Aska (which really should be spelled “Asuka”), a ninja woman who made her first and only appearance in the TMNT franchise in this game (meaning we have at least one more deep cut character the newer cartoons can resurrect). Apparently, Aska was intended to be the character Mitsu from the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, to which she bears a strong resemblance (though the video game character is a little ‘bouncier’ in certain areas). But due to that film’s poor reception from fans, the character was hastily tweaked to the Aska seen here.
So if you were hoping for fan favorites like Master Splinter, Casey Jones, Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, or frequent crossover character Miyamoto Usagi, you’re out of luck. Splinter is kidnapped in the game’s story mode, and Bebop and Rocksteady are background characters on one of the stages. So the character selections may have been off-putting to fans at the time. Seeing as this was around the height of Turtlemania, fans were probably hoping to see more of their favorites in the game. Though perhaps the more obscure selections make the game more interesting in retrospect.
Anyway, aside from the lack of fan favorites, Tournament Fighters has a lot to offer TMNT fans, and is a solid fighter in its own right.
The game features three different modes: Tournament, Versus and Story. Tournament is your expected arcade-style mode, where you pick any of the ten characters, and go through a series of fights. You have unlimited continues, and can switch characters if you lose. Versus allows players to fight matches at their own leisure, and can be played with two players (making it the game’s real main event, and what will keep you coming back if you have other players available). Story is similar to the Tournament mode, but fittingly features more cutscenes and dialogue boxes. You can only play as the Ninja Turtles themselves in this mode, with the order of opponents differing depending on which turtle you select, and you only get three continues here.
The story is that the Shredder has been defeated and is no longer in New York City (though he’s still an opponent, so maybe “Cyber Shredder” is like a robot or something?). But the Foot Clan returns under the leadership of Karai (marking the character’s first appearance outside of the Mirage comics, further playing into the game’s love of lesser-known TMNT characters). Seeking revenge for Shredder’s defeat, the Foot Clan kidnaps Splinter and April O’Neil to goad the turtles into combat. It’s a fighting game plot.
Additionally, players can go to the option menu to alter the difficulty of the game, and even choose a setting that speeds up the gameplay. The Tournament and Story modes end earlier on easier settings (Tournament ends against the non-playable Rat King, and Story against Cyber Shredder, with players only facing Karai herself on more difficult settings). But the easier settings will probably be more enjoyable for most players, since it seems like Tournament Fighters is one of those retro fighting games where the AI opponents can seemingly break the rules of the game on harder settings.
This is the game’s most annoying drawback. I admit I’m not the best player of fighting games, particularly against other people. But I usually enjoy trying out the more difficult settings in the single-player modes. Though some of the older fighting games can get ridiculous on higher difficulty settings. They don’t simply get harder, but the computer AI seems to be able to do things the human player can’t, and unfortunately Tournament Fighters is one of those games. The AI opponents spam moves faster than you can react to them, and on several occasion when I knocked my opponent down and approached them to follow up, they somehow managed to grapple me before they even stood back up! It’s cheap little things like that that make this one of the fighting games where I just don’t want to bother with the harder settings.
I suppose the higher difficulties are only there for those who want them, however. The easier settings will provide some good fun while they last. Though the game’s lasting appeal will of course be its two-player versus mode.
The gameplay itself is tight and intricate, and actually feels on par with Street Fighter II. Each character has two punch/weapon attacks and two kicks (a weak and strong variation) mapped out to the four buttons on the SNES controller. There are familiar button combos and a good variety of moves for each character. Additionally, continuously attacking an opponent will fill up a green meter under your health bar. If you can fill up the bar completely, you can unleash a powerful special move by pressing both of the stronger attack buttons. Sure, by today’s standards, Tournament Fighters may feel a little slow. But for its time, this is as good and fleshed-out as fighting mechanics got. It’s still a fun game to play.
To top it all off, the game looks great. Although maybe not as colorful as the more famous Turtles in Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters features the kind of detailed, fluidly animated character sprites you would expect from the SNES. The sound is maybe a bit less consistent (Rat King sounds kind of like Sylvester Stallone), but it does what it needs to.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighter may not be the most remembered Turtles game, but it has perhaps held up the best out of those released during the early days of Turtlemania. It clearly took more than a little inspiration from Street Fighter II, and I’m actually surprised how well it compares to the influential fighter.
If you still have a Super Nintendo at the ready, Tournament Fighter is a fun time. And if you have a friend over, it should be a great time.
Today, September 22nd 2021, marks the ten-year anniversary of the original release of Dark Souls in Japan. So not only is September 22nd the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but I guess you could call it Dark Souls Day as well.
Yes, somehow it’s been ten full years since Dark Souls first captured our imaginations (and made us smash our controllers) with its intricate gameplay, epic boss fights and unique dark fantasy world. It would end up being (unquestionably) the most influential video game of the last decade, with many imitators in the “Souls-like” genre (none of which are a patch on the real deal) being made in its wake, and games in just about every other genre adopting many of its elements and mechanics.
Okay, so technically Demon’s Souls started the series. Though while Demon’s Souls may be a classic in its own right, I think it’s safe to say it was with 2011’s Dark Souls that the series really took off and conquered the video game world.
Unlike so many games from the late 2000s/early 2010s, Dark Souls has aged beautifully, and its impact and influence has remained intact in a way that’s usually reserved for Nintendo’s best titles. I mean, who the hell talks about Bioshock anymore? Good riddance, I say.
Ah, but Dark Souls. It really is one of the medium’s modern classics. Although now that it’s ten-years old, do we take out the “modern” and simply categorize it as a “classic?”
At any rate, that’s what Dark Souls is, a classic! Its sequels and follow-ups are also stellar (though BloodBorne is probably the only one whose reputation matches the original). The series was a dominating force in gaming in the 2010s, and it seems its influence will continue well beyond that.
Series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s next game, Elden Ring, is one of the most anticipated games on the horizon. But it certainly has a lot to live up to if it hopes to have the same impact as its 2011 predecessor. A hell of an act to follow.
These days, we kind of take for granted the Mario games that don’t fit into the “main” Super Mario series. Unless it’s the next big 3D Mario adventure, we tend to refer to the games as “spin-offs” and don’t hold them in the same light as the “proper” Mario games.
The thing is, Mario was always Nintendo’s renaissance man. Shigeru Miyamoto designed the character with the intent that he could be thrown into any type of game, in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and (most specifically) Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not as though Mario was created with a definitive story and some big universe of characters already planned out ahead of time. Mario appeared in a number of games before Princess Peach, Bowser and the entire Mushroom Kingdom came into existence in Super Mario Bros. That was Mario’s breakout role, sure, but it wasn’t exactly where he got his start. Although it makes sense that Super Mario Bros. would become the basis of what we all consider to be “main” Mario games, as time has gone on it seems people have diminished the allure of the “other” Mario games as an unfortunate side effect of this.
That wasn’t the case back in 1990, when Mario could suddenly don a lab coat and head mirror, call himself a doctor, and star in a falling block puzzle game, and it would still create an iconic game in its own right.
Dr. Mario was the first such puzzle game in the Mario franchise, which would slowly become its own series, and open the door for puzzle games starring other Mario franchise characters like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. While some of these later puzzle games were improvements, and subsequent Dr. Mario sequels (such as the underrated Nintendo 64 entry) built on the formula, the original NES release is still a charming and addictive puzzle game.
The goal of Dr. Mario is to eliminate a screen of all of its viruses. These viruses come in three colors: red, blue and yellow. You eliminate these viruses by matching them up with vitamins of corresponding colors. But there are a few twists to keep things interesting.
The first thing to note is that the vitamins have two halves, which can be different colors, so you’ll want to pay extra attention when the viruses are close together. You have to match four objects of the same color in order to eliminate a virus. Each half of a vitamin counts as one object, and a virus counts as another. So you could potentially have three viruses of the same color stacked on top of each other, meaning you’d only have to put one similarly colored half of a vitamin on top of them to eliminate them. You can even eliminate the viruses by placing the vitamins against them horizontally, but it’s much less common.
Additionally, if the vitamins involved in an elimination feature halves of different colors, those halves will remain and fall straight down until they either land on a virus or the bottom of the screen. This gives you an added level of strategy for any nearby viruses, but it also risks filling up the screen with piles of vitamins. If the vitamins stack up to the top of the screen and Mario can’t throw any more, you lose the round.
It’s a nice twist on the Tetris formula, one that remains fun even today. Better still, the game features a two-player competitive mode, where each player aims to eliminate their screen of viruses before the other. And despite the technical limitations of the game (even by NES standards) it makes the best with what it has. The graphics are cute and fun (I especially like how part of the screen is a microscope held up to the viruses, just so you can see them dancing around in all their glory), and the game’s two selectable music tracks, Chill and Fever, are infectiously catchy, and are all too easy to listen to on repeat as you play round after round.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have a second player at the ready to tackle the aforementioned two-player mode, Dr. Mario’s gameplay can only go so far. The lack of any additional modes really stands out in retrospect, and the fact that – unlike Tetris – each round has a set goal to reach means beating your own high score is kind of an afterthought.
Dr. Mario is still fun, no doubt. But it isn’t particularly deep. It’s at its best when two players are onboard, and even in that area it’s been bettered (Dr. Mario 64 turned the formula into a four-player party game. And now I really wish Nintendo would re-release that game or make a proper sequel to further add to the proceedings).
Its limitations are certainly more apparent today, but Dr. Mario is still worth playing. Perhaps more importantly, it represents a time when gamers were a bit wiser, and could accept Mario in any role and not question the merit in its potential.
Free Guy is a comedy with a fun premise: a video game NPC (Non-Player Character) slowly realizing he is, in fact, a video game character, and wanting something better out of life than what his programming entails. All of which is influenced by his unrequited love for the avatar of a player.
The NPC in question is simply named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller in a video game called Free City, which is basically Grand Theft Auto crossed with Fortnite (the destructive open-world of the former, and the garish, unharmonious elements of the latter). Guy lives a simple life: he wakes up, says hello to his goldfish, puts on the same suit, gets the same cup of coffee, and walks to work with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) – a security guard at the same bank – before spending the rest of his day on the ground as the bank is continuously robbed day and night.
Naturally, in a game like Free City, the bank in which Guy works exists solely as a mission for players to rob in order to get in-game currency and experience points. The players are known to the NPCs simply as “Sunglasses Guys,” with their eyewear being the movie’s physical representation of the players’ Heads-Up Display. The NPCs understand that there’s something different about the Sunglasses Guys, as they can’t fully communicate with them or do the things they’re able to do, but since it’s always been a part of their lives, they just accept it. The robberies at the bank are so frequent, that poor Buddy has never once done any real security work, as he hits the ground by default as soon as a player kicks in the door. To Guy, Buddy, and everyone else at the bank, getting robbed is part of their daily routine.
Things begin to change when, during one of his daily walks to work, Guy becomes smitten with a Sunglasses Woman named Molotov Girl, who is the avatar of Millie Rusk (both portrayed by Jodie Comer). Guy still goes to work, but can’t get the girl of his dreams out of his head, and wishes to meet her. So when the bank is inevitably robbed again, Guy doesn’t have the patience for it. Guy stands up to the bank robber, accidentally killing him in the process (he can respawn later), then takes his sunglasses, to the absolute confusion of everyone else at the bank.
Once outside, Guy tries on the sunglasses and sees his world in a whole new light: He can see the locations of missions in his immediate area, the NPCs and Sunglasses Guys have their levels displayed overhead, and health and power-ups are scattered all over the place. These are all only visible when he has the sunglasses on, so it’s like a cute video game version of They Live.
With his (literal) new outlook on life, Guy hopes to reunite with Molotov Girl and make a connection with her. But it won’t be easy. Free City is already a dangerous place as it is, but the developers of the game – particularly their boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) – believe Guy is the result of a player hacking the game to control an NPC, and make it their mission to make life in the game as difficult as possible for him, seeing as they can’t trace him to any actual hacker to punish him otherwise.
That’s the base premise of the story, and in that regard, Free Guy is a whole lot of fun. There are, however, some added details to the plot that I have more mixed feelings about.
It turns out Millie is a former Indie developer who helped design a game called Life Itself alongside Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), who now works for Antwan’s company. Life Itself was to be a game about watching its characters grow and learn organically without player influence (sounds pretentious enough to be a real Indie game), but Keys’ and Millie’s studio was bought out by Antwan, killing Life Itself in the process. Keys just kind of gave up on his dreams and now works on Free City for a paycheck, but Millie believes Antwan stole the code for Life Itself and used it in Free City. So she plays the game as Molotov Girl to try and find proof of Antwan’s theft. It probably won’t take very long to connect the dots that Guy is actual proof of Life Itself’s code hidden being hidden within Free City, and that he not only grew and learned as Life Itself intended, but managed to gain sentience.
I don’t know, I’m a little disappointed that the film felt the need to give an explanation as to why Guy is able to defy what he’s supposed to do in the game. Movies these days seem to have a compulsive need to feed audiences every detail (God forbid we have to use our imaginations), and it kind of takes some of the fun away from a concept like this. Imagine if Wreck-It Ralph had to develop an entire side story just to explain why Ralph could go against his programming. It’d be totally unnecessary. Sometimes “because it’s a movie” should really be all the explanation you need.
The more serious elements of the “real world” side story is where Free Guy starts to fumble a bit (including a kind of cheesy budding romance between Millie and Keys). I could also live without the cameos from real life Twitch Streamers and YouTubers, which I think were meant to make things feel more authentic, but only end up reminding me of how annoying and obnoxious those areas of gaming are. There are a few references and cameos from real video games, such as Mega Man’s Mega Buster and the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, but they are surprisingly few. I would have rather seen more of the cameos from actual games, instead of the internet personalities who play them. Additionally, because Free Guy was produced by 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) around the same time of the Disney buyout, the film also gets in a big fanservice-heavy moment featuring a few other Disney-owned properties. While this certainly works better and is far more crowd-pleasing than the Twitch cameos, it does make me wish all the more that the references to actual video games got the same kind of love and attention.
Still, Free Guy is funny and charming enough that it ultimately wins out. I especially like Ryan Reynolds in the role of Guy, who makes the bumbling NPC an innocent and naive hero who’s all too easy to root for. At the expense of being hated by a lot of people, I feel Ryan Reynolds’ schtick as Deadpool can get a little grating after a while, but here the act never wears thin. Jodie Comer makes for a great foil, and seeing as her character is the one who bridges the film’s two worlds, she gets a nice double act to play.
I also like the film on a visual level. Free City certainly looks like it could be a modern video game (for better or worse), and the video game setting allows for some fun visual effects. The film additionally features a solid musical score courtesy of Christophe Beck (who manages to sneak in a piece from one of his previous film scores that I won’t spoil here). Free Guy even has a surprisingly life-affirming message through Guy’s story, which is probably the more serious element of the plot the film should have focused more on, instead of all the real world hullabaloo.
The plotlines with the human characters may detract a little from the silly innocence of the “video game NPC falls in love with a player character and ditches his programming” premise that the film sold itself on. But whenever the film gets back to that premise, and we see the lengths Guy will go to in order to win Molotov Girl’s affections, and the turmoil he goes through the more he learns about the world he inhabits, Free Guy is a winner. It’s fun, funny and heartfelt, and even has a bit of originality going for it. It’s not too often those things come together these days.
I hate to admit it, but I kind of hate what Super Smash Bros. has become.
I know, I’ve complained a lot about Super Smash Bros. in the past. But I finally think I best understand where my disillusionment with the series lies. In the past, I’ve not-entirely joked about my disdain for the overabundance of “anime sword guys” in the series, and I stand by those complaints in that their execution lacks variety. But that’s ultimately only a critique. My real issue with the series is actually much deeper than that.
Super Smash Bros. simply isn’t the same series it once was. By that, I mean that it no longer feels like the “Nintendo fighter” that it used to be. In its earlier entries, Super Smash Bros. was all about Nintendo’s history, pitting the company’s many characters against each other in bouts that were one part 2D fighter, one part Mario Kart, and one part sumo wrestling. The series was as much a love letter to Nintendo history as much as it was a combination of a party game and a fighter.
That “Nintendo-ness” has been lost to the series in more recent entries: There are no longer trophies that give brief glimpses to the deeper nooks and crannies of Nintendo’s back catalogue. The once simple arcade-style single player modes are replaced with overblown “story” modes with cinematics that look more like something out of Kingdom Hearts than Super Smash Bros. And while the series used to pluck Nintendo characters like Ness or the Ice Climbers out of obscurity, these days we instead just get more and more third-party characters who have less and less to do with Nintendo. The franchise now feels like it’s more about the hype than the history, with each subsequent third-party addition getting a more over-produced reveal trailer than the last.
I know, by now you’re probably ready to jump down my throat for being a Nintendo fanboy. But this isn’t a case of “X company is better than Y,” it’s a simple matter of a series forgetting what it once was. Super Smash Bros. is bigger than ever, but it’s kind of lost sight of its original purpose as it expanded.
I miss the humbler days of Super Smash Bros. Back when the inclusion of someone like King Dedede was considered a big deal, because he was a classic Nintendo character. Nowadays Super Smash Bros. just seems like it’s trying to get bigger and bigger, gluttonously trying to snag as many of the biggest names from other people’s games as it can get.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the idea of third-party characters being included in Super Smash Bros. But I do think the series has gone too far in this direction, and needs to take a few steps back in this department. Back in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (the first entry to introduce characters from outside of Nintendo) they made it a point to keep the third-party characters to a minimum (it had two). Now, they just can’t stop adding them. It’s kind of polluted the whole point of the series.
It isn’t just the number of third-party characters that’s diluted the Nintendo aspect of Super Smash Bros. on its own, but who they’re selecting. I liked the idea Sakurai and company had going into Brawl, that the third-party characters had to have some history with Nintendo (which makes the fact that Solid Snake was the first such character added a little odd, since his presence on Nintendo consoles wasn’t too expansive). I think maybe, going forward, the series should look back and double-down on that notion, and the third-party characters should at least have strong ties to Nintendo’s own history. Mega Man and Simon Belmont make all the sense in the world. When you think of third-party games in Nintendo’s early years, that’s immediately who you’d think of. Banjo-Kazooie also makes perfect sense, given that Rare was probably the most beloved and prolific second-party Nintendo ever had (they basically carried the N64).
Those characters’ series all played a key role in Nintendo’s history, so they still feel like they fit into the proceedings. They may not have been made by Nintendo themselves, but their association with the Big N is so strong they feel right at home in Super Smash Bros. The same can’t really be said about Final Fantasy VII, Fatal Fury, Persona, Tekken or Minecraft. That’s not to say anything against those games (well, maybe Final Fantasy VII), and some of them have appeared on Nintendo consoles at one point or another. But you can’t really make an argument that they are as much a part of Nintendo’s history as Mega Man or Castlevania.
Now I know people will really want to thrash me, and accuse me of being “salty” that my favorite character didn’t make it or whatever. Lord knows the Sakurai Defense Force grab their torches and pitchforks and spread their toxicity whenever someone shows the smallest modicum of disappointment in the series. I personally don’t find it unreasonable if someone is disappointed in a game about fanservice when said game fails to deliver on that fanservice. But that’s besides the point. The point is that Super Smash Bros. now just feels like a big hype machine, a shallow commercial more focused on the promotion of other people’s games and the production values of its own trailers than it is about, you know, Nintendo characters fighting.
I’ve heard some people claim that Super Smash Bros. “isn’t about Nintendo history anymore” as a means of defending the series. But that’s exactly the problem! There used to be a spirit of playfulness and inventiveness to the series, a trait shared by other Nintendo staples like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. And that just isn’t present anymore. The heart and soul of Super Smash Bros. has all but disappeared as it becomes more and more about shallow, meaningless hype.
Think back to the original Super Smash Bros. No one knew who this Ness kid was. You could almost hear the collective “What the hell is EarthBound?” of everyone who played it. Then there’s the reveal trailer for Super Smash Bros. Melee, which introduced Princess Peach, Bowser and Zelda to the series, then turned around and also reminded fans of the existence of the Ice Climbers! Even when Brawl introduced Solid Snake to the series (whose reveal seems as tame as a kitten compared to what we have now), it did so only after bringing in Wario, Meta Knight, Zero Suit Samus and a freshly-resurrected Pit from Kid Icarus.
These were all eclectic combinations of classic Nintendo faces, as well as some that inspired players to look deeper into Nintendo’s history (or elicited delightful surprise to the people who were aware of the more obscure characters ahead of time). Sure, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brought in longtime requests Ridley and King K. Rool, and that was amazing. But then it all gets kind of diluted when the focus quickly shifts to a revolving door of third-party characters. There’s been so many third-party characters added through the game’s DLC, that Ridley and K. Rool’s welcome inclusions feel like they’ve been drowned.
Some people would say that they’re running out of Nintendo characters to use. Like hell they are! Series like Advance Wars and Golden Sun still go unrepresented, despite demand from fans (but those fans are naturally just supposed to shut up “because SepHiRoth!!1!”). There are characters like Stanley the Bugman or Muddy Mole that they could pluck from history. Hell, Takamaru from The Mysterious Murasame Castle has been considered for inclusion into Super Smash Bros. in the past, but was rejected for “not being as recognized as other Nintendo characters.” Since when was recognizability a factor? Good thing Ness and Pit made it in when they did, I guess.
Point being, there’s no shortage of Nintendo history that can still be drawn upon to be included as playable characters in Super Smash Bros. It’s just that Nintendo and Sakurai and whoever else choose to focus on the big names they can get elsewhere. It was fun for a while, but by this point, it’s kind of robbed Super Smash Bros. of what made it special to begin with.
The fans who want to see these characters from Nintendo’s past often seem to get bullied online by Super Smash Bros’ strangely zealous defenders, since those characters “don’t have a chance” to make it. Funny, because in the Super Smash Bros. of old, those are exactly the kind of characters who would make it. Resurrecting characters from the obscure corners of Nintendo’s history is the most “Super Smash Bros.” thing imaginable. Or at least it was back when the series was actually about Nintendo characters (it may be worth pointing out that learning the reason for Takamaru’s exclusion was what brought me to the realization of what’s wrong with Super Smash Bros’ current mentality).
It isn’t just the characters though, but the gameplay of Super Smash Bros. itself seems to care less and less about the items, the stage gimmicks, and all the Mario Kart-esque party elements that separated Super Smash Bros. from other fighters in the first place. I think the competitive gaming scene has had a negative influence on the Super Smash Bros. series (I would argue competitive gaming has had a negative impact on a lot of other series as well, but let’s stick to Super Smash Bros. for now). I don’t have a problem with people who want to play Super Smash Bros. as a competitive game (I myself often played the series on flat stages with little to no items). But let’s be real here: Super Smash Bros. was never a hardcore fighter. While it’s admittedly a good thing that the series has had more of a focus on character balance in recent entries, that’s one of the few positives, as much of the series’ appeal has been abandoned as it caters more and more to the competitive crowd.
Take, for example, the WarioWare stage. In Brawl, if you were playing on the WarioWare stage with AI opponents, and one of the stage’s “micro-games” showed up – asking the combatants to play along with its goofy instructions – the AI would follow those instructions, because it was like WarioWare. That was the appeal unique to that level. That was the kind of playfulness the series used to have. In Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, however, if you do the same thing, the AI opponent will ignore the WarioWare rules and just keep fighting because hardcore fighter!
Where’s the charm? Where’s the personality?
They’ve been lost, unfortunately. Lost to Super Smash Bros’ insistence on being taken seriously as a competitive fighter, and its even more egregious ambitions of being a hype machine.
It’s almost like Super Smash Bros. has had a direct opposite trajectory as Paper Mario in regards to the changes the series has made over time, but both have been damaging to their respective series’ heart: Paper Mario continues to strip away its depth to the point of being an empty shell of its former self, while Super Smash Bros. just keeps adding bells and whistles to the point that it’s lost its identity as Nintendo’s take on the fighter.
Again, some people claim that Super Smash Bros. is now something more than it once was, as it now encompasses video games as a whole. I’d argue that it’s become too much, and that less would actually be more at this point. Give me the smaller, more creative Super Smash Bros. over its garish, Esports-pandering current self any day.
Some even argue that Super Smash Bros. is bigger than “just Nintendo” at this point, but does it really have to be?
Personally, once the DLC characters for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are good and done with, I hope Nintendo, Sakurai and everyone else involved take a good, hard look at the series. After Ultimate, I’d love to see the next installment go back to its roots. Yes, that means cutting a lot of the fat which yes, means cutting back on characters like Cloud, Sephiroth, Joker, Terry, Steve and Kazuya. Will that disappoint some people? Sure. But hey, at least those characters had their time in the sun. Besides, their fans seemed to relish in rubbing the disappointment of other people in their faces, so I can’t say I’d feel too bad for them.
Let’s have the next Super Smash Bros. include the original N64 cast, and those of Melee and Brawl as well, but maybe be a little more selective of the characters from subsequent entries. Characters like Mega Man, Simon Belmont and Banjo-Kazooie can stay. But let’s really try to keep it to a minimum with the third-party choices. A few new characters who actually have meaningful ties to Nintendo’s history can join in as well, whether they be recognizable or not. Let’s maybe have a few fun modes and mini-games instead of trying to concoct this big, epic storyline that couldn’t be more out of place in this series. And let’s stop pretending that Super Smash Bros. should be some big ESports franchise, and bring back the playfulness and emphasis on fun of the earlier entries.
Super Smash Bros. would do well for itself to go back to basics. To self-reflect and realize it doesn’t have to be the hulking monstrosity it’s become. Just let it be Nintendo’s fun take on the fighter genre again. Maybe then it can reclaim its heart and soul, instead of just being the empty embodiment of hype.