Tag Archives: action

TV Pilot Hell: Danger Bay

A lot of TV series that had a degree of success in their day do not really live on long into the annals of pop culture history; Danger Bay from 1985 is one such series.  Character actor Donnelly Rhodes stars as Dr. Grant Roberts, or ‘Doc’ as he’s called, who manages a wildlife reserve and also acts as a sort of de facto animal sheriff/veterinarian.  He supports his two annoying kids and their pet otter named Danger while wrestling with local politicos who care nothing for the wellbeing of the defenseless animals and saving the day from those who would do the environment minor-to-medium levels of damage.

The pilot episode centers on the family searching for Danger after he runs away.  It cuts back and forth between the struggling father trying to console his kids and find their pet while also telling the story of how the otter came under their care in flashback.  All of the blander, more uninspired moments of Danger Bay are then punctuated by something utterly insane.  Two fishermen who are apparently fishing out of season, are busted but instead of paying the presumed fine they would be faced with, they begin to not only open fire on Doc, try to kill Danger for eating fish out of their net and evade authorities for a relatively-minor offense, but they ultimately result in trying to kill Doc’s son, Jonah, for no rational reason other than he might be a witness to their very minor criminal activities.  This isn’t zero-to-60.  This is more like negative 60 to 100 all in a 30 minute pilot that is so overblown and apparently lacking in any real sense of humor that it makes me wonder how this show actually got to six seasons!  Firefly didn’t even get a full season and this goes on for six years?!  I mean sure, it’s Canadian, I don’t know what they watch up there, but dammit!  Why?!

I can only assume the writers of Danger Bay had a degree in psychology as every element in this show is designed to be emotionally manipulative.  A struggling, despondent single father raising two abnormally-smart Disney kids who only want to rescue animals while facing off against greedy penny-pinching suits and sleazy, unscrupulous interlopers with no regard for minor wildlife preservation laws…  It’s a Sophist’s dream..?  I think?

The environmentalist themes are not lost on me.  Hell, they probably wouldn’t be lost on anyone.  This is about as subtle as Captain Planet only without the Speedo (unless that comes later in the series).  The kids are reading off queue cards that could have had dialog pulled straight from of a Green Peace flier and their father, who is apparently supposed to be the grounded realist, is actually struggling with “The Man” over an otter!

Now, I definitely remember this show from the 80’s.  I didn’t remember the name, the plot, or the absurdity; but I definitely remember the otter and the theme song.  Oh!  That theme song.  Never before has a show with such a limited scope been graced with such an over-the-top, absurdly-80’s action theme.  It is almost comical in its bombast.  This would be like playing the theme to MacGyver over the opening reel for Golden Girls.

Danger Bay premiered on CBC (Like I said… Canada!) but saw syndication in The Disney Channel around the same time, which is undoubtedly where I watched it during its run before its cancellation in 1990 (presumably due to its failure to compete with Booker).  I don’t know what anyone was thinking with this pilot, but it is so ridiculous that I almost kind of liked it.  It isn’t offensively-bad by any means, the acting was lazy but that isn’t atypical for this sort of show and there were a few attempts at tension (albeit those attempts were mostly just hilarious to me).  What makes this show come off so strangely is it would be like sending Magnum, P.I. after a teen who stole his neighbor’s television.  It’s all so overwrought and really is a shining example of much ado about nothing!

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Comic Quick Review: Sideways #1 (2018)

There have been quite a few cool new series starting up over the last few months.  Some, like Silencer and Mister Miracle, have been cool fresh starts on older, largely-forgotten comics.  Sideways is a new hero from DC that has branched off from events in the ongoing Dark Knights Metal series and is now part of DC’s “New Age” lineup.

Sideways is the story of Derek James, a seemingly-unremarkable teenager who is the adopted son of a family who, due to previous events in DC’s “Metal” run, have grown to be extremely over-protective.  What they do not realize is Derek, after facing down the darkness, has been imbued with the power to create “rifts” and teleport freely to just about anywhere on a whim.  This comes at a cost, however, as someone (or something) has become aware and disturbed by Derek’s abuse of the space time continuum, so now he has become a target of forces that are not of this world.

Sideways does a good job of establishing its characters early on through quality sequential storytelling and very solid artwork.  Even though each of the core characters are in their own ways archetypal, they are written in a mostly-naturalistic fashion which makes them far more convincing.  The world in which this story is set feels somehow more real than many of the more over-the-top settings we see so much in comics, despite taking place in DC’s own Universe.  There is a human quality to things that can sometimes be lost when dealing with superhero stories.

In its first issue, Sideways establishes a cast of individuals that I look forward to following in the future.  If you have a chance to hit the comic shop, give Sideways #1 a shot!  It’s worth a read and shows the potential for a huge plot with real stakes.  I look forward to #2, which is slated for a March 14th release!

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Batman & Robin: Is It Really That Bad..?

For nearly two decades, a popular contender for “Worst Movie of All Time” from multiple mainstream media outlets has been Joel Schumacher’s 1997 bomb, Batman & Robin.  The question I’ve since asked myself is, how bad is this movie, exactly?  Well, I will say I have watched Batman & Robin several times and will assert, right off the bat: It isn’t bad enough to be considered “Worst Movie of All Time”, but believe me when I say, it’s pretty bad.

First it’s important to lay out some context; Batman & Robin may seem anomalous by today’s standards, with its neon colors, flashy costumes, bad one-liners and cheesy performances, but this was the late 90’s, people!  If you did not grow up in the period, from about 1997 to 2003, we witnessed a virtual legion of over-the-top, goofy, brightly-colored pooch-screws that dominated cinemas.  Some of these contemporary flicks were passable; Most of them were terrible.  However, for its time, B&R was not really all that out of place aesthetically or in its tone.

Now, let’s paint an objective picture of Batman & Robin before we delve into everything wrong with this money pit.  First off, Joel Schumacher was not a bad director before this film more or less ruined his career.  He did make the (I would say ‘classic’) film Falling Down starring Michael Douglas, the sleeper thriller Flatliners, the dramatic courtroom epic A Time to Kill and the arguably-underrated 8mm.  He isn’t a slouch or an underdog in spite of what one may think of these movies, and yes, I DID like Flatliners.  So, hot off the heels of the successful-but-underwhelming Batman Forever (which primarily rode the popularity of Jim Carey at the time), Schumacher did not do much differently with this final entry in the 80’s-90’s Batman Saga.  The tone was the same, the ideas were similar and the bleakness of Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City was replaced with one that was more cartoonish and reminiscent of the ’60’s TV series; whether or not this is a good thing is debatable.  Now, the casting was more than a little questionable.  It’s obvious there was some hesitation on the part of the casting director to bring in someone who is too “different”, and they wanted stars who were recognizable to help Warner Bros. attach butts to theater seats.  So, by that standard it made sense to cast Alicia Silverstone (who was still riding her Clueless fame), Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was top-billed) and George Clooney (who’s portrayal of a passionate pediatrician on the hit series ER made him a super-star).  I think it is safe to declare it a fact that Batman & Robin was handcrafted to be a hit; or, at least, that’s what WB hoped…

Now, for a more subjective perspective, let us consider what made Batman tick as a series leading up to the 1989 Burton film.  The comics took a much darker turn in the 80’s, focusing more on the societal conflict of the presence of Batman as a vigilante than it ever had before, and the vision of Batman went from blue and purple to grey and black.  Why?  It was a sign of the times, a shift in the idea of comics as the age of the average reader increased, but it was also a reflection of the period.  As crime continued to rise throughout the 70’s, the following Neon Decade wasn’t all Lauper and stretch pants.  Dramas and crime thrillers turned to brutality as an answer to the projection of inner cities from news, movies and TV, and films like Robocop satirized the extremes we could have been headed toward.  Yet, this did not translate well to the big screen if I was to be entirely honest.  Most of the movies from this time were too dark and often gross in their depictions of grit.  The few films that did work landed because of the underlying idea within their plots being more than just bleakness, offering us characters and stories that reach beyond the cynical depiction of a collapsing social contract.  Where does Batman fit in to all of this pretentious rambling?  Well, the 1989 Batman was great.  It had that darker mood we expected from the time but it shared it in a way that was still humorous.  The evil, murderous Joker (played masterfully by Jack Nicholson) injected memorable moments into the film, his bright purple getup and wild antics being a stark contrast to the drab, unpleasant aesthetic of Gotham City.  Even the city’s ray of hope in Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) was somewhat shadowed in suspicion, especially for fans who knew what Dent was to become in the future.  Sadly, we never got that Two-Face.

Things looked good going into Batman Returns, but Burton took things a little too far.  While I actually like many elements of this first sequel, I recognize it as a dark departure to a story that was far too disturbing for young kids and far too… ‘Burton’ for many adults.  It has gained some cult status for this reason and I think deserves a second look to those who haven’t seen it since the early 90’s.  The biggest mistake following the criticism of ‘Returns’ was the over-correction on the part of Warner Bros. and their board room full of aging, out-of-touch executive producers.  Their attitude was contrasting the reception of Batman Returns with that of the masterwork that was Batman: The Animated Series.  Their solution was to turn the Dark Knight’s film franchise into a live-action cartoon, apparently having not spent ten minutes watching the actual TV show they thought they were planning to mimic.  If they had, they’d have realized that Batman: TAS was a well-thought-out, sophisticated, smart and surprisingly-mature show.  That is NOT what we got with Batman Forever…  Now, don’t get me wrong, Schumacher gets some blame in this as well, and it’s obvious he didn’t put up much of a fight because “Batman Forever” has studio stink all over it.  Therefore, I can safely skip over most of “Forever” because it is effectively a cinematic dead zone.  It isn’t quite terrible enough to dwell on, but it was an odd attempt to wring Tim Burton’s style out of a director who really only worked on thrillers, dramas and INXS music videos while tossing in a bit of cartoon antics to make things seem a little softer.  The movie did okay, but that was more due to Jim Carey than anything else, as he was THE hot comedy commodity at the time.

So, this brings us to Batman & Robin.  The problems with this one are lengthy, so bear with me.  First the movie is ugly; very, very ugly.  Every scene is poorly-lit, over-exposed and oddly-designed.  Dutch angles and wide-angle lenses are used in excess (a trend at the time) and every single scene in the movie is way, way too long.  Dialogue was inundated with bickering, pointless banter, and face-palmingly-bad “zingers” grumbled, grunted and bawled with comical vocal inflections by obviously-bored actors.  The forced tone of this film reeked of action-figure-friendly filmmaking with a tone-deaf attempt at giving us a more adventurous, exciting universe.  It did have everything WB could have wanted out of a money-printing marketing fountain, but what the actual filmmakers seemed to have forgotten was how to tell a story.  The plans of the villains were paper-thin and their actions often made little sense, each character’s place in the events that transpire is awkward and poorly-planned, and events jump around as if somebody edited the movie using a roulette wheel… with a ping-pong ball…  while drunk.  Also, is it even possible for a story with this many ‘lead characters’ could even work in this sort of film?  Large casts can do okay when they are tied together with a tight script (i.e. Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption), but here, since every line is belted and nauseating, this many overpaid presumed-to-be-adults on screen just becomes distracting.

So, most importantly, is Batman & Robin even fun to watch?  I would have to say ‘no’.  The excess on the screen, complete with skyboarding, lame ‘girl power’ with Silverstone’s motorcycle racing and the contrived turn as Batgirl, and bizarre and mostly-confusing sexual undertones, drag it way down.  On top of that, it’s easy to forget how boring this movie is.  Sure, it has action, explosions, yelling of one-liners and attempts at dramatic tension, but man is it dull.  More than half of the movie involves tight shots of characters talking and often arguing (insert dutch angle).  The heroes deliver their bland lines over each other quickly, but with no rhythm, so there’s nothing keeping an engaging pace with the dialogue (not to mention there being nothing of substance to discuss).  To contrast that, our villains talk slowly with strange, ill-advised puns.  It doesn’t make sense because there is no consistency through the film, so each dialogue scene either spins your head or leaves you shouting “Just finish your damn lines already!”

However, where does that place Batman & Robin in the grand scheme of things?  I will be clear in stating it is certainly not the worst movie ever made.  It isn’t even the worst movie I’ve seen in theaters in my lifetime!  As far as blockbusters go, it’s bad, but it isn’t as obnoxious and aggravating as Bay’s Transformers movies, or as cynical and self-indulgent as anything Adam Sandler has starred in.  It is just bad in the most obvious ways possible; bad dialogue, bad visuals, bad acting, bad story.  But nothing really drags it down below that standard ‘bad’ that we all know.  If you disagree that’s cool, but do go sit through Pink Flamingos, The Fat Spy and anything from PureFlix and get back to me on that sentiment.

I usually try not to give movies precise scores but for this I will say Batman & Robin sits safely at around a 3 out of 10.  I think it fails to be interesting enough to be so scorned.  It’s like calling Might No. 9 the worst game of all time; it’s terrible, but not in any particularly special way.  It fails at everything, but only in a way where it doesn’t really do anything right, as opposed to something like “The Room” which managed to fail at just about every aspect of filmmaking outside of simply getting the thing released.  Many people (myself included) love Wiseau’s Magnum Opus, yet hate Batman & Robin.  I guess Batman & Robin is so despised because it just quite isn’t bad enough to be loved…

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Quick Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

After a brief scare in 2014, fans of Studio Ghibli let out a sigh of relief as fears that their favorite animation house would be closing their doors were squelched by official statements declaring the news to be a mere rumor. However, in recent years the famous brand has certainly slowed in their efforts and their latest outing, ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’, a CG animated TV series released to Amazon Prime video, has sparked much interest but has left filmmakers and long time fans to question the direction the company has taken. Thus, a few of the talents from the ranks of Ghibli moved on to start a new chapter in Studio Ponoc.

Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is a light adventure that definitely follows in the footsteps of the Master, Miyazaki-san. It has all of the things he’s known for, yet is missing a few of the things that made many of his movies instant classics. However, all things considered, this is a skillful, beautiful and fun fantasy that will certainly appeal to all ages.

The story follows the titular Mary, a young girl who has moved to her grandmother’s home in the English countryside and is awaiting her parents’ arrival. However, her attempts to connect with others in this new landscape are appearing futile. In desperation she begins to pour out her heart to a black cat, and upon following this cat into a thick wood, she finds a glowing flower. Deciding to pluck it and hold as a keepsake, she soon discovers there’s more to this flower than she ever could have imagined…

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows many of the tropes from other films released by Ponoc’s predecessor, Studio Ghibli. The strange yet amazing fantasy world of Spirited Away, a magical ‘Castle’ in the sky, a stranger who befriends our heroine in their darkest hour… It’s all there. In fact, in many ways this is a patchwork of stories retold from a slightly more modernized perspective. Much of the whimsy has been replaced with vigor and the lead character Mary does seem to have a real personality outside of being a “spunky kid”. She reacts comically and believably to the strange occurrences around her and her first interactions with some of the odd, otherworldly characters bring some of the film’s best moments.

The Alice In Wonderland premise blended with a MacGuffin and some brief but satisfying action scenes come together to make a nice movie that only lacks in a few areas. Firstly, the film comes to a edge so often then pulls back. We get an idea of Mary’s potential with magic, but we rarely see her do anything. In fact, the apparent goal is to show how she can overcome these challenges without magic, but that is all negated in the end. In the meantime, the villains’ plans, which are never made entirely clear outside of a vague description, never really lay out any consequences. We are just meant to accept that their goals would cause some harm by having them take some “drastic measures” to achieve their ends.

That said, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an enjoyable movie and should give fans of the classic Studio Ghibli style hope that Studio Ponoc may be the fresh new face in cinematic Japanese animation. They certainly have a knack for it. This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with some of the best animation and art I have seen from Japan in several years. The writing is quite good, with characters that are likable without being annoying and real human moments that are often lost in animated fantasies. I give this one a recommendation, especially for families with kids. This is a great start into this world of family-friendly animation from Japan and I think fans of Miyazaki’s work would likely enjoy this one as well, though it fails to live up to the high standards set by some of his notable classics.

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An Arbitrary List Of A Few of My Favorite Free-To-Play MMORPG’s

The MMORPG has come a long way since Ultima Online and Runescape.  Even though World of Warcraft continues to lead the genre, at the same time they have been steadily losing players since the release of Cataclysm in 2010 and I think a fair case for this is the rise of free-to-play alternatives.  I have made the argument before that any company who continues to charge a subscription fee to play MMO’s is doing so at their own risk.  Thus far it has worked for WoW as well as the excellent Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, but how long will this last?  Even games like Guild Wars 2, which has an up-front cost to buy the game but no subscription fee to play, are on the rise.  So, with that I decided to list some of my personal favorite free-to-play games.  This is somewhat of an impromptu article but this is something that has been on my mind as we are starting to see a massive resurgence of single-player experiences dominate the gaming landscape as well as an overwhelming portion of the online market shifted towards competitive-focused MOBA’s like League of Legends and arena shooters like Overwatch.

So, without further ado, let’s begin:

TERA

Launching as a subscription title, TERA attempted to break new ground by focusing on fast, real-time action combat that centered primarily around engaging giant beasts.  The world is populated by mobs of monsters and is designed to pit you against little, regular enemies that you can easily dispatch in a few seconds of hacking and slashing as set dressing for the fights that really count.  The gameplay for TERA still holds up even against arguably superior action MMO experiences like Guild Wars 2 as TERA’s high level of customization rivals even the most sophisticated MMO’s out there.  The only downside to TERA , really, is its player base.  It is a generally low-population game, so finding players who are willing to regularly engage in skirmishes with the tougher monsters in the game can be difficult, especially around the mid levels.  Still, Bluehole Studio and En Masse have done a good job of keeping the content coming, with new classes being released and additional expanded content added with some regularity.  Add to the mix a dynamic and fairly complex and rewarding crafting system and some occasionally-entertaining story missions and you have a fun, fast and often challenging MMO for more experienced action RPG players.

 

Wildstar

Speaking of hard….  Wildstar may be the toughest MMORPG on the market right now.  I say this as someone who has played several of the classes and gone through much of the first half of the game (but need to get deeper into things, to be honest).  It’s complexity comes in the form of the combat, which focuses on abilties that require thought, timing and precision.  Unlike a lot of titles where you can simply spam your strongest skills, many of Wildstar’s class skills are utilitarian in nature, forcing you to save them for the right moment and think your way through engagements.  Wildstar also puts a lot of focus on exploration of the environment, themed on exploring an unknown planet, you can choose from specific jobs that range from documenting life forms to navigating the rougher terrain to scout out new settlements.  It’s a deep game with a lot of things to do, the only downside being its limited class customization.

 

Dungeon Fighter Online

DFO is probably the simplest game on my list in terms of design, but it’s also one of the most addictive.  Put simply, it’s an online equivalent to an old-school beat-em-up a la Final Fight or Streets of Rage.  Instanced levels with boss fights at the end are a staple for many of the lower-budget MMO’s out there but DFO handles things well by being fast and fun.  Classes are varied and have a fair degree of customization considering how simple the combat is.  The only downsides are the fact that its age is starting to show compared to some other games, and the implementation of “charges” that limit your playtime unless you are either willing for dungeon charges to replenish over time or are also willing to use or buy items to replenish them from special drops or the cash shop.

Eden Eternal

I honestly have not picked up Eden Eternal in a while.  I had thought about getting back into it, too.  This is a really fun MMORPG with a surprising turn that sets it apart in the genre.  It allows you to create a character and freely change classes as you see fit.  Think of it as something akin to a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game that uses a job system.  You can change your classes, which change the equipment loadout, skills and function of your character and as you level individual classes and combinations thereof up, you unlike more complex and unique classes down the road.  The ability to switch jobs makes Eden Eternal pretty interesting as it motivates you to be a little more experimental in your approach.  The downside to Eden Eternal is the gameplay is very dated.  Eden Eternal launched in 2011 and it feels like it.  While I did enjoy it the last time I played it, I’m sure I’d find some fault with it at this point just on these grounds, but that will remain to be seen.  That said, I have fond memories of Eden Eternal and for its time, I would say it was a pretty smart take on the classic MMORPG formula.

 

Dragon Saga

Yet another action MMORPG, Dragon Saga puts you in control of a chibi anime hero as you traverse a vivid 3D world fighting through hordes of enemies and chaining together ridiculous combos for bonus loot.  Dragon Saga is as simple as it gets with its beat-em-up style that is similar to DFO’s only with a little more complexity in the classes.  However, unlike DFO, Dragon Saga is not entirely locked to a HUB town connected to instanced dungeons.  Instead, there are field areas populated by other players and within those are special dungeons you can choose to enter for quests and loot.  The quests are pretty standard “kill 10 wolves” type-missions but the fast, addictive combat helps to elevate much of the repetition.  Dragon Saga is also a good “starter MMORPG” for those gamers who are intimidated by the vastness and complexity of many of the prominent games in the genre as it focuses primarily on fast, accessible action gameplay opposed to dense character micromanagement.

 

Rift

When World of Warcraft launched it was a demarcation point of sorts.  It’s difficult to understate what WoW did for gaming as a whole.  That said, I believe it has been on a steady decline of quality over the past eight years.  I do not want to call it a “bad game” since I haven’t played it since a few patches into Cataclysm, but I think it’s safe to say it has been greatly simplified to the point of having little to know feeling of control over the development of your character.  Controversial as this opinion may be to some, I feel the changes made to WoW around February of 2011 were the beginning of the end.  The game still does well but it appears to be in many cases that the players aren’t so much sticking around as they are being replaced by a younger crowd.  Enter Rift….

Rift is my favorite MMORPG of all time.  It’s not everyone’s first choice for sure, but I feel it being effectively a clone of WoW, captures everything Blizzard had done so right for 5+ years of running the dominant MMORPG while expanding upon those ideas and not taking countless steps to undermined the flow of the game and progress of long-time late-game players.  Rift’s world is nowhere near as large as WoW’s, but the game is primarily focused on large-scale public events, bringing players together as zones are overtaken by hundreds or even thousands of enemies, forcing players to defend the towns and hub areas of the map while closing the Rifts from which they pour and clearing a series of quests to spawn a massive raid boss and saving the day… at least for a time.  On top of the scale of these events is the fact that Trion Worlds does not make you wait until you are at the level cap to be able to participate in these events.  Rather, from the starting areas you have an opportunity to take down big raid bosses for special rewards, joining public groups to clear Rifts and exploring challenging and unique dungeons.  Lastly, Rift only has 5 classes, but each of these classes has a list of sub-classes of which you can choose 3, and each sub-class may play very different from another.  As a result you may have ranged-caster-warriors, melee tank mages and rogues that operate as healers.  It allows you to experiment with ideas and explore new ways to play your classes.  It also allows you to break up the monotony of churning out the same DPS rotation over and over again to take down a boss.

If you are like me and have grown disenfranchised by World of Warcraft and want to share in a similar gameplay experience with depth and engaging character progression, I give Rift my strongest recommendation.

Please share and let me know what your favorite F2P MMORPG’s are.  Maybe they’re some I haven’t played!

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Cuphead (2017) Review

For a few years now we have been in a sort of Renaissance for classic-style video games.  New games are being released mixing new technology and trends with old-school gameplay and design.  In many cases, this has been great.  Hands-down the most well-known occurrence of this trend is Shovel Knight, an excellent, stylish platformer that feels timeless.  Cuphead is the next major entry in this time of rebirth and rediscovery, blending traditional platforming elements with sleek HD graphics.

Immediately upon picking Cuphead up the amazing visuals stand out.  Resembling a 1930’s cartoon with fluid animations and beautiful watercolor backgrounds, It creates an atmosphere that is unlike anything I have ever seen in a video game.  Visually, everything is just perfect.  It revives a style and theme that we just haven’t really seen in video games and it is a welcome change from rough-edge soldiers and anime chicks.  Every one of the unique bosses are interesting and well-thought-out, having their own design and individual twists.  Nowhere in the game are there reused enemies from level-to-level.  Everything is original and even the many references to famous enemies from classic games put a unique spin on their design.

The gameplay is tight, responsive and as close to perfect as you can get with a platformer of this type.  The closest game I can compare the feel to is Mega Man X.  Cuphead has all of the elements that worked for that masterpiece so well but tailored to fit its own hyperkinetic world that rivals that of the famous Maverick Hunter in design and variety.  It’s a refreshingly-skillful work of game design from a crew of relative newcomers to the titanic industry.

Now, one point of controversy surrounding Cuphead is its divisive difficulty.  This game is not easy; It’s not casual; It’s not for the faint of heart.  Cuphead will test your skills to an extreme degree.  There are three major components to this level of challenge from my observation: First is the progressively-chaotic boss fights that add more and more challenging components as the battles go on, leading up to an enrage phase that acts as a final gauntlet for each fight.  Then there is the rule that you have to beat each boss on the Regular difficulty to progress the game, with the optional Simple mode being nothing more than basic practice.  Then there’s the RNG, which deserves a little paragraph of its own…

The one and only complaint I have with Cuphead is the RNG.  For those who do not already know, RNG is a common speedrunning term meaning “Random Number Generator”, and references randomized events in games.  For instance, the variable damage your attacks can do in an RPG, or the chance of getting a solid gun drop in Destiny 2.  In Cuphead’s case, RNG comes in the form of enemy positioning and movement.  This manifests more commonly in the non-boss gauntlet levels, but it’s there across the board nonetheless.  It is a common problem in many games and can make parts of Cuphead frustrating.  However, it is in many areas manipulatable with a little skill and so far I have only found a few places where the RNG is particularly egregious (“Perilous Piers” being a gruesome example).  Randomized enemy placement and attack timing seems to be overwhelming at times and appears more manageable if you simply rush through the gauntlet stages, never really stopping to fight.

The bosses are where Cuphead shine and they are the focus for the game.  Most of the stages involve interacting with an animated feature on the explorable world map, the initiation of which takes you straight into a battle with one of the games many creative big-bads.  Most bosses follow a traditional video game 3-phase battle with a few exceptions.  The first few phases are a warmup to the enrage, where the boss changes form and the fight gets more frenetic.  In a few cases, the enrage phase changes the dynamics of the fight entirely from the previous phases.

There is a little bit of progression in the form of purchasable upgrades in the form of weapons, abilities and charms.  These determine which of the two weapons from your loadout that you can carry as well as the effects of your dash, your ultimate attack and one other optional boost that you can equip.  These upgrades are purchased with coins obtained in the non-boss levels.  It is possible to play through Cuphead never getting a single coin or a single upgrade.

In closing, Cuphead is a masterpiece of modern gaming.  Critical reviews claiming it’s “too hard to be fun” are missing a key factor: This game is not for everyone.  This is really an appeal to  nostalgia for the much-harder 16-bit era of gaming with its pace and design and older players are more likely to get the majority of enjoyment from this title.  Do not be fooled by its cartoonish aesthetic, Cuphead is brutal and will require every bit of gaming skill and acumen gamers such as myself have accumulated over the past few decades.  Cuphead is fun, challenging and worth the miniscule $20 price tag.  This is a game that I predict will be ageless and just may become the next big speedrunning game, so members and fans of the running community can look forward to thousands of cumulative hours across many Twitch channels of frustrated gaming veterans cheering upon finally beating their PB!

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A Little-Late Game Review: Ever Oasis (3DS)

Ever Oasis has been out for a few months but I’m just getting a chance to bite my teeth into it.  A cursory glance of the game implies it is a cutesy anime-themed ARPG/dungeon crawler, and while this isn’t untrue, after logging some time into it I can assure you that there is a surprising level of depth in Ever Oasis.  It is its unique elements that elevate it above your typical dungeon-crawler.  In many ways, I could say it’s similar to Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (which, if you haven’t played, you really should).

The world of EO is a vast desert.  Greenery is scarce and the only respite comes from a Seedling meeting with a Water Spirit to form an Oasis.  After escaping your brother’s oasis during a battle with a dark, corrupting force, you wander until you meet a lonely, tired water spirit named Esna who is waiting patiently for a Seedling to join her to create a great oasis.  You arrive, a Seedling and a water spirit are united and together create the Oasis!  

The goal is to grow your Oasis by increasing its population.  Each day there is a chance a visitor will arrive and if you do quests for them, they will become permanent residents, expanding your empire.  Some residents will allow you to open Bloom Booths, which is a shop from which that resident can sell specialty items and earn money for the settlement.  Other residents provide essential services like party management and assigning tasks to idle villagers.  As you add more Bloom Booths, NPC’s called Noots will arrive.  They exist to spend money which returns to you in the game’s currency called Dew, which you use to buy items, upgrade equipment and expand your Oasis.  As your population grows, your Oasis levels up, opening more building room for new booths, thereby further accelerating its expansion.

So, how do you keep your booths in business?  You fight things, of course!  The action gameplay of Ever Oasis is not particularly-innovative, but it is effective.  Monsters and farming spots in the maps outside your Oasis give you items used to craft gear and help booth vendors restock so they can keep the revenue coming and the more the inventory stays full, the happier your villagers are.  You can bring up to two residents with you and you can switch between them on the fly in and out of combat.  The partner AI is surprisingly good!  The characters you aren’t controlling are generally pretty smart and do a good job of staying out of danger…  Most of the time.  Some residents even have special skills like mining and digging (just to name a few) and bringing these guys along can help grow your inventory by finding more items and even sometimes accessing previously-unreachable spots.  These residents will also offer quests to delve into caves and dungeons and these can often lead to some pretty great Legend of Zelda-style boss fights.

There is a crafting system as well but it is fairly rudimentary.  You just need to get the required number of the specified items, spend the dew and boom, you can upgrade your gear!  But the item upgrades are not varied and new recipes roll in very slowly for much of the game as crafting is not the primary focus; the primary goal here is to grow your Oasis by doing quests, progressing the story and helping your villagers out to keep things sunny!  

I barely scratched the surface of Ever Oasis in this review.  I was honestly surprised by the depth and variety here and I would say that fans of action RPG’s should give this game a shot.  It isn’t going to revolutionize the genre, but it is a fun diversion for a genre that has gotten pretty dark in tone over the last few years.  If you have kids with a 3DS and would like to get them into RPG’s as well, this is a good choice for them.  It’s nice, PG-rated fun with none of the elements being too difficult for younger gamers to get into.  The bar for action RPG’s was set pretty high this year by Horizon: Zero Dawn, but for a lighter, simpler game with some old-school flavor, I say Ever Oasis is a solid alternative for players wanting a softer touch.

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Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS) Review

I would like to open this review with a couple points of honestly to reveal and possibly explain any biases I may have towards this game.  First, Super Metroid is my favorite video game of all time; hands-down.  Secondly, I did not play Metroid 2: The Return of Samus in the 90’s.  I had a GameBoy but I did not invest a lot into it.  I was a console gamer pretty exclusively into my early teens.  So, I do not have any nostalgia bias about the original Metroid 2, but I do have a tendency to hold Metroid games to a pretty high standard.  That said, I will try to be as objective as possible here.

I would start by saying that Samus Returns is a very good Metroid game.  The 2/2.5D Metroidvania subgenre has been making a triumphant and successful comeback in recent years with great titles like Axiom Verge, Valdis Story and Ori and the Blind Forest, so I am so glad to see a classic franchise get the treatment it justly deserves.  It plays well, looks fantastic and has that isolated, creepy feeling the franchise is famous for.  As Samus Aran, you navigate the claustrophobic catacombs of an infested planet in search of 40 remaining Metroids in the hopes of eradicating the species for the sake of the galaxy.  The goal is to find the statue that controls the acid flooding the world and locate the requisite number of target parasites in that area to return and lower the dangerous liquid so you can proceed deeper and deeper into the planet.

The problem with a remake like this one is you not only have to live up to the original to grab the nostalgic gamers, but you have to reel in younger gamers and players like myself who did not invest in this title as a kid.  So, now you have possibly two full generations of gamers who did not have the opportunity to enjoy Metroid II when it landed.  What Nintendo needed to do was stay true to the ideas of the original while modernizing the series.  The risk of this sort of remake is that there is always someone who is not going to like a change here or there, so I believe keeping the concept of the original game alive while heavily modifying the world was a wise choice.

In terms of gameplay, at least for me, Samus Returns hits a few low points.  First, the game is a lot quicker than I’m used to, a subjective complaint, I know, but I do believe it affects the flow of the game.  However, aside from the way the movement feels here, the thing that I think keeps this from being a modern classic is the directional aiming.  Having to lock in place with the triggers to aim and use missiles is dramatically slow.  Differences in the controller layouts from older platforms made this somewhat necessary, but having to stop in place, aim with the stick, then fire to land your hits really kills the pace.  Also, the constant need to counter with the uppercut to knock enemies into a weakened state is fun at first, but gets old really fast.  It is one of those things where it is very cool to do, but because you are constantly performing this same, easy-to-land counter on enemies throughout the game, it kind of becomes repetitive and boring.

The final major complaint are the battles with the metroids in the game.  As you work your way through the labyrinthine tunnels you will encounter dozens of these guys, so it is necessary to keep things fresh!  Well… They don’t.  With a few exceptions where you fight tougher, boss forms of the metroids, the battles are identical, the only changes being either the metroid having an elemental buff affecting its abilities and the layout of the battle arena.  Some fights will have you fighting the target only to have it flee and head to another room nearby designated for such a fight.  The downside being these fights are pretty much the same over and over with only a few exceptions.  It would not be feasible to have 40 individual boss battles that are entirely different from each other but the solution is to at least add more major targets instead of keeping things so bare-bones.

In terms of aesthetics, it’s a very good-looking 2.5 action platformer and the 3D effects are some of the best on the platform.  The models are well-animated and the world is varied in its themes and designs.  The soundtrack is an excellent composition of new music and remakes of classic themes from titles past.  They are faithful to the original while having a fresh, modern feel.  In this respect the soundtrack is comparable to that of DuckTales: Remastered.  

In all, I think Metroid: Samus Returns is a quality return to the classic Metroid model with a few flaws that may keep it from being a long-lasting classic.  I think if there was a little more emphasis on variety, this would have been great, but it rests at a solid “good” for me.  It is probably not a game that will go down for many gamers as a masterpiece.  I wouldn’t be discouraged by this, though.  There is always room for improvement and if additional content were added, and some things about the game were updated, it could be even better in the future.  However, only time will tell.

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Marvel’s The Defenders Finale Review (Contains Spoilers)

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its Juggernaut charge through the otherwise-stale box office, the Netflix series have maintained a surprising level of quality.  The four series leading up to Marvel’s The Defenders set the bar for what should have been a pretty-good series, finally building the seamless connection between the Marvel series while attempting to tell a fresh story.  Unfortunately, this new series did not live up to the standard set even by Iron Fist and Luke Cage.

The plot picks up where both Iron Fist and Daredevil’s second season left off, and carried the heavy burden of molding all the chaos of the series’ sub-plots into a form that would have some cohesion and reason.  To me, it felt more-than-a-little forced, but still worked for the most part up to this point.  The action scenes throughout the series were often satisfying and even though it ran a very short eight episodes, Defenders did land some solid excitement if you were able to get past the slog that was its Pilot but it all came to a close in a way that felt like everyone just wanted to get out of this series and on to bigger things.

The Defenders finale sets the stage for the now-united Defenders’ duel with a possessed Elektra (A plotline that carried over from Daredevil’s second season).  The heroes then fight their way into a hidden cave deep below a New York highrise where they split up into groups.  One to take on The Hand who is attempting to use the Iron Fist to achieve their ends of attaining immortality, and one small group to plant explosives to level the building.  That is pretty much it.

I did not have a problem with the simple set up as it carried some plot points from earlier in the season, but this finale was so very, very forgettable.  I suppose this was a problem with the entire series.  It was necessary to re-establish Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to integrate them into the more comic book worlds of Daredevil and Iron Fist (despite them always having taken place in the same New York City) but the way it was done was rushed due to this spinoff’s very short run.  These are the same writers who did Daredevil, yet the entire series of Defenders feels like it’s on a caffeine high, and it culminates in an ending that is far less impactful than it could have been if the creators would have taken their time building things up patiently, allowing for more depth to the story, but it’s difficult to do that in a television series that only runs about six hours in total.

The tone of the finale (simply titled “The Defenders”) is all over the place.  It has a lot of dark undertones, themes of sacrifice, love, friendship and facing the past head-on, but then it ramps up the cheese with overwritten and laughably-bad lines.  On top of that, all of the the characters (including the supporting ones) are forced to face all of the plot points foreshadowed through the first seven episodes in one 48-minute sprint.  It is then blended with hamfisted dialog, bloated action movie cliches, and some truly cringe-worthy scenes, resulting in what is more of a predictable and shallow whimper, as opposed to the promised bang, despite the very literal one at the end.

 

For all of the problems I had with The Defenders leading up to the finale, I was even more disappointed with the conclusion.  It wrapped up safely, not taking any risks, with a predictable closing for all involved characters and the dramatic shift in tone was jarring, at-best.  I can say a lot of this is the bad screenplay but some of the blame could be the result of the episode’s director Farren Blackburn.  This is the only episode directed by Blackburn and it shows with its shift in focus.  The action scenes are all obscured, which is just baffling to me.  One scene with Colleen Wing finally facing her former master is spent with almost the entire fight taking place out-of-focus, in the background, behind a bunch of pipes, while the camera focuses on Claire Temple hiding and talking on a cell phone.  The rest of the action mostly takes place in a dark cave where quick-cuts and identical-looking bad guys fly through the air.  Every scene was so disjointed and ugly and the creators’ decision to obscure the action from the viewer is outright maddening!  I cannot even begin to fathom the series of pitches and ideas that brought the writers and director to make that call.  It is probably the stupidest decision I’ve seen from any of Marvel Studio’s creations to date.

Add to that the fact that two of the main fights the series were building up to barely happened at all (aforementioned Wing v. Bakuto and then Daredevil v. Elektra) and you have a truly upsetting finale.  While Wing and Bakuto’s final duel took place almost entirely off-screen during a phone call, Daredevil and Elektra’s fight was obscured in darkness making the fight barely-visible and was peppered with sappy attempts by Matt Murdock to convince his former love to stop fighting and go back to the way she was before her death.  It was really badly-written, repetitive and very, very long.  It all ends with a CGI building blowing up, and that’s it.  The epilogue involves a long, boring conversation between Foggy Nelson and Karen Page in a church and a tease that there may be a second season of Jessica Jones.  Then it just sort of stops with a single, final reveal that essentially undoes all of the drama of the events that took place during the climax and takes suspension of disbelief and mutates it into an outright rejection of rationality.

For a series that had to rush through its 8-episode run, a big, exciting, engaging finale was absolutely crucial.  This wasn’t a five-chapter season of Sherlock where the individual episode was like a movie, running 90-120 minutes; this was eight episodes running a standard TV hour block (about 44-48 minutes).  There was no room for meandering, laziness and obfuscation of the action.  Zero room!  The choice to close this much-anticipated and hyped series out with such an ugly, dull, lackluster finale is beyond the pale.  It isn’t unusual for a series or even season finale to leave much to be desired, but this isn’t Seinfeld!  There was an underlying story, theme and goal here.  What needed to be done was known.  All they had to do was execute it in a satisfying way.  The Defenders was tolerable at best up to its finale so they could have gone big and at least left an impact, but instead we get what is probably the worst of all of the Marvel series on Netflix, a shell of a series hampered by what I can only assume is utter apathy on the part of the director.

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Game Deals – Picks for The Week of 09/06/2017

So, I hope to be able to do this pretty regularly.  I will be updating a (mostly) weekly list of game picks that are on sale for numerous platforms.  I will probably feature maybe five or six choices per week.  I will try to diversify my sources as well, so not all of these deals will be from Steam.  Let us begin…

NOTE: All prices are in USD and are subject to change.

Valkyria Revolution (PS4)

  $19.90 $39.99

Amazon
While Valkyria Revolution isn’t the best strategy RPG out there, it is a solid action RPG with strategy elements and a pretty solid evolution of the excellent Valkyria Chronicles.  The only downside I can find is the flux of difficulty between the weak cannon-fodder enemies and the excessively-tough bosses is quite jarring.  However, a quality upgrade system, deep character customization with unique skills and pretty fun gameplay makes this one worth a $20 price.

 


NieR:Automata (PC)

$38.99 $59.99
PC/Steam
A must-have for September is NieR:Automata, a smart and exciting anime action/adventure game from SquareEnix.  If you have not played this combination shooter/hack n’ slasher, you owe it to yourself to give it a play, especially with it being more than $20 off retail!

 

 


SNK Publisher Sale (PC)

Various prices
PC/Steam

For arcade gaming fans like myself, this sale is awesome. Featuring a bevy of excellent King of Fighters and Metal Slug games, it really is a who’s-who of NeoGeo arcade brilliance! I would also check out the fun SHOCK TROOPERS series as well as the competitive, split-screen shooter Twinkle Star Sprites (Yes! That name is for-real) that has rarely seen a US release so far.

 


Dark Souls Series (PS4)

Various prices
Playstation Store
If you like a little punishment, you can always bet on the quality Dark Souls games and Dark Souls II and III as well as DLC and special editions are all on sale this week on the Playstation Store. Get your download on and good luck on the Nameless King!

 

 


God Eater 2 (PS4)

$14.99 $59.99
Playstation Store
For fans of the popular Monster Hunter franchise, God Eater 2 is a welcome change of scenery maintaining many of the core elements of the classic kill-and-craft action.  Effectively, God Eater 2 is a Monster Hunter clone but post-apocalyptic and in a sci-fi setting.  It is quite good though, with interesting classes and skills and some pretty challenging fights right at the start of the game.

 

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