A Quick Guide To Doctor Who: Season 25

The Seventh Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy, in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Doctor Who Season 25: fan-freaking-tastic. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred have now gelled into the best leading duo in the series history, the Cartmel Masterplan is in full effect, and the writers are combining their outsider status with a growing confidence and assuredness, without descending into fanboy obsession or tired cliches. As always, I only wish there were more: more episodes per season, more viewers tuning in, more money for budgets, more support from BBC bosses. Instead, the clock will continue to click towards the very end.

Remembrance of the Daleks is a true classic does everything absolutely right. It captures the retro nostalgia for the show’s origins, delivers a very modern style, offers up some terrific action scenes and makes the Daleks, those iconic 1960s monsters who long since descended into self-parody, dangerous and exciting again. Obviously, what this show needed were explosions, lots of big explosions. JNT probably burned half the annual budget just on those explosions, and Thank God for that. This serial also weaves in subplots involving white nationalists, a military brigade that serves as precursor to series mainstay UNIT, a mysterious young schoolgirl, two separate Dalek factions locked in civil war, and a great meta-joke of Doctor Who’s pilot episode playing on local television.

The Happiness Patrol suffers from the crummy set designs and lighting, in that cheap Dr. Who sense (it’s actually supposed to look like outdoor city streets and not some giant basement), as well as some pacing issues, but it has style in spades, obvious political parallels to Thatcher (well, duh) and one of the most comically demented villains in Kandyman. I can’t explain why I enjoy him so much. By all rights, he should be a terrible embarrassment, but his screaming antics steal the show. He’s almost like a parody of Dr. Who monsters who were almost always corny, cheesy, rubbery and ham-acted. I do enjoy the design of his kitchen set, it has a nice Tim Burton quality to it.

Silver Nemesis was hailed as the official 25th Anniversary Doctor Who story, and I greatly enjoyed playing the extended-version VHS tape for family and friends. Its story is often criticized as being too similar to Remembrance of the Daleks but half as good, involving a MacGuffin chase for ancient Time Lord relics between a 17th sorceress, a faction of Neo Nazis and popular series villains the Cybermen. The maneuverings, alliances and betrayals reflect the McCoy era’s ongoing theme of Doctor-as-chessmaster, moving pieces on the board towards his own ends. It’s a bit on the nose and too clever by half, but the action scenes are surprisingly effective and the comedy bits work.

Greatest Show in the Galaxy is an all-time favorite of mine, definitely a Top Five, maybe Top Three. The designs are just superb and the decision to shoot outdoors was absolutely essential. I do enjoy how the McCoy era stayed outdoors as much as possible. The whole serial is a caustic, bitter satire of the show’s mythology (and the impossibility of escaping that shadow), the evil BBC bosses who want to kill it off, the idiot viewers who are too bored and stupid to know quality when they get it, even the diehard fanboys who claim to love Dr. Who but offer nothing but backhand compliments — and the kicker is that they’ve never seen the “golden age” that they constantly harp on about. Cartmel and company knew they had something special going, that Dr. Who was firing on all cylinders and producing the best scripts in a generation. And, yet, nobody bothered to tune in or care anymore. The ratings were in the tank and nothing would turn that around.

Great story, great collection of oddball characters (a McCoy-era trademark), and a perfectly sinister clown that makes me wish he was chosen to play The Joker in Batman ’89 instead of Nicholson. Also, I don’t care what anyone says, I like the Ringmaster, if only because he’s an American and I loved seeing more American actors in this show. His rapping is a lot more dated in 2020 than 1988, but, c’mon, when was the last time you listened to ’80s rap music?

Overall, I loved the hell out of this season. It might be my favorite of the McCoy era, striking a perfect balance between comedy and drama, clownishness and seriousness, the past and the future. I find myself thrilled by these episodes in a way that felt sorely absent since the days when Tom Baker’s gleaming smile and wisecracking jokes made for the best half-hour on television. Yet, once again with feeling, nobody seemed to care anymore. It’s enough to make you want to send evil clowns and crazed Daleks to their homes and smash the places to bits.

A Quick Guide to Doctor Who: Season 24

The Seventh Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy (1987-89)

The best thing about the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who (Seasons 24-26, 1987-89) is that longtime producer John Nathan-Turner finally stepped back and quit micro-managing the show after seven long and turbulent years. He instead handed the keys to Andrew Cartmel, offered useful advice from behind his desk, then duly moved out of the way. He was still cursed with bad fashion sense (the question mark sweater) but at least McCoy’s Doctor gets to dress like a semi-normal person. His outfit has a certain 1930s charm, and I remember having one of those hats when I was a teenager.

McCoy is the best Dr. Who since Tom Baker just because of his personality and quirkiness. There’s a lot of Buster Keaton physical comedy and a lot of energy which gives these episodes a jolt that the rest of the decade was lacking. There’s a bit of a vaudeville touch to these episodes and it fits his style, which begins firmly in the Patrick Troughton tradition of deceptive clowns whose foolish behavior masks a darker, strategic thinking. Over the course of his tenure, McCoy would shift firmly from one side to the other, from the bumbling fool to the manipulative chess master.

What defines Season 24 is its freshness, its swing-at-the-fences willingness to really try some new ideas and finally, at long last, begin to modernize this horribly, comically outdated program. There’s a strong focus on quirky characters and oddball settings that I enjoy, which fits into McCoy’s roots in alternative theater and Cartmel’s love of Alan Moore comics. Doctor Who suddenly went from 1980s glam to 1980s alternative, from Hair Metal to Husker Du. I hadn’t realized this at the time, but I definitely resonated with the stories in a way that I hadn’t with anything since the Tom Baker era of the late 1970s.

Time and the Rani is the weakest serial of the McCoy era, but even then, I still taped it and watched it 50 times when I was a teenager in 1989 (we Americans got new Who episodes two years late, and PBS was wildly inconsistent in what they played). This continues most of the bad traits from the Colin Baker era, only this time without Eric Saward’s noir obsession with sadism and weak heroes. It feels more like an episode of Power Rangers, like a condescending adult’s idea of a “children’s show.” That said, there’s a certain campy quality to the color and costume design, as well as the scenery-chewing Rani, who looks absolutely fab. The plot is nonsensical and stupid and all that’s needed is to tilt the cameras at 30 degrees and bring in Adam West.

Paradise Towers works better in paperback than on TV, which is what can be said of a lot of Dr. Who episodes. I’d definitely like to see a remake of this one on New Who. This is the real start of the McCoy-Cartmel era. Lots of quirky characters and an almost Douglas Adams or Terry Gilliam sense of absurdity, qualities which are only brought down by the TV show’s usual problems (poor lighting, hammy acting, $10 special effects budget). Look deeper and you’ll find many charms and depths worth enjoying.

Delta and the Bannermen was a favorite of mine, if only for its completely unique take on things. It feels like a mashup of at least three or four incompatible story ideas, including rock ‘n roll, 1950s monster movies, Cold War antics and vaudeville comedy. The outdoor location shooting helps tremendously and I find these episodes work best during this era and helps add to the fresh vibe. There are a wide variety of memorable, oddball characters, including a space bus filled with intergalactic tourists, a pair of American CIA agents in search of the crashed Sputnik satellite, a green baby hatched from an egg, and a space princess being pursued by a gun-toting gang of soldiers carrying Japanese samurai battle flags. Guest stars include British performers Ken Dodd, Don Henderson, Hugh Lloyd, Richard Davies, and American stage and screen legend Stubby Kaye.

Dragonfire was always my favorite of this season. I played this one of my videotape endlessly, but unlike Time and the Rani, it wasn’t because it was the only “new” Who episode I could watch. I honestly loved the hell out of this one. It has a great spooky atmosphere, a terrific villain, some interesting set designs (cheap-o as hell, but it works), some funny McCoy slapstick and verbal comedy bits, and some impressively moody synth music. The two best things about this serial, as everyone knows: Sophie’s Ace and the Melting Face. In fact, that should have been the name of this one. I don’t know if anyone today would enjoy Dragonfire. It just might be one of those things you had to watch as a kid or a brooding, moody teenager in the late ’80s. Maybe, maybe not. Oh, well, whatever, nevermind.

The important thing is that this season ends with all the major players established: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Andrew Cartmel. The final two seasons will see a continued improvement across the board, resulting in a number of all-time classic episodes that set the stage for the Doctor Who revival of the 21st Century.

I Answered a Movie Questionnaire

This week, I applied for a freelance writing gig with an online movie site called Gateway Blend. In addition to sending a resume, they asked that all respondents answer a series of questions. After writing down my thoughts on these movie topics and sending them over, I decided that I should share them here as well. I was in a slightly sardonic Daria mood when I wrote this, either trying to tap into Pauline Kael or Hunter S. Thompson. Whatever. Have a good laugh and enjoy this:

+What are the last 3 movies you saw in the theater? 

What’s a “movie theater?” Is that one of those places you go to pay a king’s ransom for the privilege of sitting in a dark room with floors and seats covered in spilled soda and broken popcorn, where you strain to pay attention to a movie while half the audience is chatting away while clicking on their stupid phones?

No, I haven’t been able to attend any screening at the theaters in a while, but my family does have access to home video, streaming platforms and, well, Pirate Bay. Ahem.

Anyway, last three movies I watched. Last one I saw was Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (Criterion DVD), a glorious, miraculous work that shames almost everything that exists today. But that’s what a master of any artform will do. Just before that, I saw 2019’s The Kitchen, a dull and uninspired crime movie that felt like a high school production of Martin Scorsese. It did help my wife fall asleep, which is something she sorely needs as she is pregnant, so there’s a couple points in the movie’s favor. Third, I’ll skip the weekend ritual of playing Indiana Jones movies and mention Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall. I’m a great fan of Yuasa from Mind Game, which is absolutely stupendous, and he has such a wild, inventive style of drawing. He’s the closest thing to an anime Tex Avery. Lu has some terrific visual moments and zany surrealism, but it’s checked by a story that lacks focus and direction, especially in the third act. This has always been the director’s weak point, and it’s doubly so when directly stealing from the Miyazaki catalog.

+Name one 2019 movie that surprised you at the box office (and why)? 

Honestly? I can’t remember the last time I was “surprised” by a movie. At this point in life, I’ve already discovered most of the greats, and the surprises that now arrive are usually based on expectations. The problem, of course, is that the movie industry is so formulaic, so focus-group tested, so drained of anything that might alienate key demographics. The studios are all owned by a handful of conglomerates who might as well be selling bars of soap.

Maybe it’s just me. Age might play a part in all of this. I remember how the year 1999 produced so many great movies that just seemed to pop out of nowhere and really put the zap on you. Blair Witch, Fight Club, Matrix, Sixth Sense, Phantom Menace, that sort of thing. I’m not sure if that can happen today, when movies have become television and everything is part of an endless franchise. I certainly hope so.

+Are you a fan of any novel series, graphic novels and/or comic books? Please list your favorites.

For novels, anything by Hemmingway. For graphic novels, Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, plus whatever little gems are found at the Quimby’s in Chicago. For comics, does Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes count? You know what I wish would come back? Scrooge McDuck comics, the ones that inspired Indiana Jones and Ducktales. Those were great.

+What’s one movie from the 1980s that SHOULD be rebooted, and one that needs to be left alone? 

No movies should be “rebooted.” All movies should be left alone. Remember that scene in Animal House where John Belushi takes a big bite out of a burger in the cafeteria and then puts it back? That’s a “reboot.”

+On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “Never Heard Of It” and 10 being “Expert,” how familiar are you with the following franchises? 

The Transformers Series: I grew up with the toys. The Transformers movies are like watching a six-year old smash those toys maniacally while running around screaming his head off for two hours. 8/10

The Fast & Furious Franchise: I’m aware that this exists and appreciate how car chases are still a thing. The experience is much like watching someone else play racing videogames, and I’m getting antsy waiting for my turn. 7/10 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Good Glayvin, we couldn’t escape these if we tried. Fortunately, there are enough good ones to enjoy. When they don’t take themselves seriously, Marvel can be great fun. When they take themselves seriously, Marvel can be insufferable. 8/10

The Conjuring Universe: I have seen these movies, which seem to have quietly morphed into its own “cinematic universe.” Patrick Wilson reminds me a lot of Bruce Campbell. 7/10

The James Bond Series: Is this the part where we all fight over Sean Connery versus Roger Moore again? Or do we just play Goldeneye on Nintendo 64 and leave it at that? 8/10

The DCEU: Like everyone else of sound mind, I am trying my best to forget the DC movies ever happened, especially the ones where everyone’s mom is named Martha. Exceptions are Wonder Woman, Shazaam and Teen Titans Go to the Movies, which probably prove that I really just miss Adam West. 7/10

The Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts Series: I was too old to grow up with these books, but I do enjoy the sight of children reading. The movies started out pretty well but grew dreary and dull as they went along. The Fantastic Beasts series just left me cold, and all I could say is that Eddie Redmayne would make a perfect Doctor Who. 6/10

Nintendo Wii Micro-Reviews, Part One

The spectacular NHL Slapshot on Nintendo Wii

For the past several years, I have been collecting videogame for the Nintendo Wii. I’ve long been a fan of the console since its 2006 release, and despite its controversy among the hardcore videogame crowd, I embraced its innovative motion controls and focus on classic arcade play. Early this year, I finally replaced the broken disc drive on my console, allowing me to finally back in and catch up on old times.

Here are a collection of micro-reviews for Wii games in my library. Some of these I have played before, but most are new discoveries to me. Enjoy:

Zack & Wiki: Everybody has been praising Capcom’s action-puzzler as the best thing since sliced bread and one of Wii’s greatest hits. Everybody is right. Nothing else needs to be said. Get it if you don’t have it, play it, love it.

Monster 4X4 World Circuit: This 2006 Ubisoft launch title is one of my favorite surprises. You race a wide variety of monster trucks across small closed circuits while collecting power-ups and smash flaming oil cans into rival cars. Imagine RC Pro-Am on Sega Dreamcast and you’ve got the idea. I found the motion controls to be excellent, the course designs suitably varied and curvy, the ramps and stuns enjoyable. My only beef is that the game is very easy, but multiplayer seems to be the real attraction.

GT Pro Series: Another 2006 Ubisoft launch title, this time created by Japanese studio MTO, who also created the GT Advance series on Gameboy Advance. The cel-shaded graphics are clean and stylish and looks just like Sega Dreamcast. For me, that’s a great thing. The motion controls are also excellent, but there’s a slight learning curve. Gameplay is a fusion of arcade and sim, closest to Sega GT and Tokyo Extreme Racer. Once again, the computer cars are a cakewalk and the game is far too easy, but 4P mulitplayer delivers the goods. This game was savaged by reviewers who clearly had rocks in their heads.

Dirt 2: I only played a little with the Wiimote controls, which proved to be far too loose. The cars also handle like they weigh five pounds and are made out of helium, bouncing and floating and flipping around at the slightest touch. It’s annoying as hell. Classic Controller is a dramatic improvement, but you’re still dealing with the obnoxious physics. Graphics are detailed but the frame rate is all over the place.

Need For Speed Carbon: Vehicle steering sucks. I kept bouncing around like a pinball just like Dirt 2. Graphics are all dark with glossy lighting that was in vogue during the Gen 6/7 eras. Again, I need more time to play around, but I’m not a big fan of this series and this title probably played better on the other consoles.

NHL Slapshot: Fantastic fun, really does play like the classic Genesis NHL games with a touch of Nintendo 64 Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. It’s all about liquid smooth controls, fast action, brutal violence and endless one-timer goals. The 3-on-3 pee wee and bantam youth leagues are worth the price of admission alone, and you can also play Canadian leagues as well as NHL. This feels like the second coming of the legendary NHL 94 on Sega Genesis and nothing more really needs to be said.

Da Blob: I loved this game since I bought it back in 2009. I still enjoy its freewheeling nature and originality that reminds me of Sega Dreamcast. There are also many things that frustrate the hell out of me, such as the wonky camera, the floaty jumps and sometimes just getting lost and not knowing where to go. It drives me angry but in that classic videogame sort of way. I’d definitely get the Switch release.

De Blob 2: A much more polished, refined and structured sequel, looks terrific, maps “jump” to the A button, which is a very welcome improvement, and offers many 2D platforming segments. The structure is a little more linear but at least you aren’t sent on a dozen fetch quests all at once. Saving still sucks and I can’t understand why Blue Tongue, the software developers, never figured that one out.

FIFA 11: It looks fine, in that Two-Gamecubes-Taped-Together sort of way. Controls are good if a bit sluggish, the computer players just run circles around me. I have no idea why your shots on goal can be powered up so they just fly into the stands. It’s FIFA in all its forced “simulation” banality, and makes me pine for Worldwide Soccer 97/98 on Sega Saturn instead.

PES 2013: This seems like a very solid soccer sim. Pity the controls feel more complicated than high school calculus. I might try again but I just came away deeply frustrated. I should probably try with the classic controller.

Madden NFL 2009 All-Play: Same as FIFA, my beefs are mostly with the franchise itself. It’s pretty good but the controls are a bit of a pain. Might get better with practice. But I’d rather play NFL 2K1/2K2 on Sega Dreamcast in a heartbeat. And so would you.

Tatsunoko Vs Capcom: Fantastic 2D fighter from Capcom and Eighting, the child of Toaplan that gave us Battle Garegga and Soukyugurentai. The glossy cel-shaded polygon look is glorious, the Tatsunoko players are superb (we’ll never see their likes again), gameplay is fantastic. The simplified Wiimote controls are a godsend for those of us who don’t have joysticks and can’t pull off endless joystick combos.

NHL 2K10: For some reason, 2K hockey just never found its groove like NFL and NBA. It’s tolerable but less polished, fluid and responsive than NHL Slapshot. Again, things may improve with practice, but this is the same debate we were having during the Genesis days. If I already have NHLPA 93 & NHL 94, why should I care about ESPN or Brett Hull 95?

Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage: Very polished and very different sequel from Road Trip, going from a Tony Hawk collect-a-thon to a professional circuit setting. The 60 fps visuals are sure nice, controls are still easy. I don’t think anybody knows this videogame exists. Whatever. Their loss. Go to the retro game store and pick this up for three bucks.

Furu Furu Park: Taito minigame collection based on their classic arcade catalog. It has a polished Dreamcast style and it’s fun to play around with a little. Not sure if the replay value holds, but these party games only work in certain settings (translation: drunk). It’s not terrible but feels like a cruel tease to show me glimpses of all these classic Taito arcade hits I’d rather be playing.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: The longer I play, the more I’m reminded of all the little frustrations that irritate me about Aonuma Zelda: the linear structure, the obsession with puzzles over adventure, the endless fetch quests, the annoying characters, the need to tell insipid “stories” or recreate tired movie cliches. Money is useless because there’s nothing to buy. The weapons have all been seen before. On the bright side, the wolf is pretty fun and I enjoy the twilight segments. I’m only 1/4 through so take with a grain of salt, but I’m already feeling bored and listless. Playing this game feels like homework.

The Munchables: Pac-Man meets Katamari Damacy. It’s terrific fun, looks wonderful with bright, vibrant colors that just pop, paired with cartoon sound effects ripped straight out of the Hanna-Barbara vaults. Cute and quirky and just original enough to stay in your head for days.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: Sharp graphics, detailed texture work, 60 fps action. I’m really digging this one. You can see a clear difference in Wii games when software studio actually bothered to put in the effort, and it’s clear that Disney was one of Wii’s strongest publishers.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: One of a hundred overhead 3D beat-em-ups on the system, this game looks extremely sloppy with simple, washed-out textures that looked second-rate on Playstation 2. Action becomes intense yet the motions are choppy and motion controls are needlessly tacked on.

Go Vacation: Namco brought this gem to the Switch, where I hope it became a hit. It’s a terrific minigame collection with an enormous hub world, tons of collectables, secrets, surprises. Definitely a genre highlight. Be warned that it takes up an enormous amount of save data, which might require you to move your digital Wii games to an SD card.

Scooby Doo: First Frights: This charming hit plays out just like the classic Scooby cartoons, complete with corny dialog, silly mystery plots and canned laughter in the soundtrack. It’s a beat-em-up with some platforming elements, which seems a bit odd at first, but since everything is so nicely polished you are quickly won over.

Geometry Wars Galaxies: Fantastic retro-styled arcade game in the Robotron mold that serves psychedelic wire-frame graphics, endless waves of enemy spaceships to destroy and enormous explosions that fill the screen. Gameplay reveals considerable depths in strategy and the variety of control options is very welcome. Jeff Minter should sue for royalties.

Brave: Based on the Pixar movie, this fantasy adventure looks like a 3D platformer but is actually an intense arcade shooter. Imagine Robotron or Smash TV but set at the Renaissance Fair and you’ll have a good idea what to expect. Visuals are detailed but a touch fuzzier than I would like, but the controls are solid and action is suitably fast.

Major Minor’s Majestic March: This highly unique children’s game by the creators of Parappa the Rapper puts you in the role of marching band leader. You wave the Wii Remote in time to keep your bandmates in tune, adding new members and collecting treats along the way. Savaged by most reviewers, but they simply never bothered to learn the proper controls (swing your arm at the elbow, up-down).

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1996, Quest and Riverhillsoft for Saturn)

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

When you look at the sheer number of quality 2D videogames on Sega Saturn that would remain in Japan, your heart breaks. The obsession with 3D polygons at a time when 2D pixel art was reaching its apex feels all too shortsighted, cruel, foolish. And while it’s true that the videogame-playing public was responsible for much of this shift, they were relentlessly conditioned and prodded by software publishers and marketing executives all the way.

In a more sane world, Tactics Ogre would be scooped up for an immediate release and hailed as a classic by fans of strategy and adventure games. It certainly looks gorgeous with its wonderful art and color design, its brilliant world layouts, its vast cast of intriguing characters, and its immensely deep and involving gameplay system? The Tactical-RPG was coming into its own and Saturn was leading the charge with such classics as Dragon Force, Sakura Wars, Terra Phantastica, Wachenroeder, Soldnerschild, and, of course, Shining Force III. Yet, sadly, the genre was almost entirely ignored, aside from the valiant efforts of Working Designs, for whom we shall always remain grateful.

Tactics Ogre was eventually released in the US on Sony Playstation, the console that sparked the whole 3D polygon obsession in the first place. There’s no small dose of irony in that, but also reflects how the decisions of a single executive, Bernie Stolar (first with Sony, then Sega) could greatly impact the videogame industry. Imagine if his self-imposed policy of “No 2D, No RPG, No Anime” games never existed.

In any case, Tactics Ogre is a hallmark for Tactical-RPG videogames. It’s the direct successor to Ogre Battle and directed by Yasumi Matsuno, who would later create Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts at Square. Both titles first appeared on the Super Famicom and would later appear on PSX and PSP.

Tactics Ogre always felt a little more involving and challenging than many other strategy games, with its focus on classes, nonlinear story branching and moral alignments of Lawful, Neutral or Chaos. The story can take many twists and turns depending on choices made by the players that result in multiple endings. The political intrigue and complex plotting were inspired by the brutal civil war in the former Yugoslavia and reflected Matsuno’s commentary on such events as the Bosnian Genocide.

If you’re looking for an English-language version of Tactics Ogre, the Playstation is your best choice, although a fan translation of the Super Famicom version is also available. A Sega Saturn fan translation would be near the top of my wish list, but no such plans are in the works. This is precisely why I wish Sega would implement their own version of Virtual Console and finally give these classic games a second lease on life.

In a 2006 Famitsu reader poll of the 100 greatest videogames ever made, Tactics Ogre was ranked seventh. Very high praise, indeed.

Baroque on Sega Saturn

Baroque (1998, Sting for Sega Saturn)

Here are some new screenshots from Sting’s 1998 cult classic Baroque, which has become one of my all-time favorite Sega Saturn videogames. As always, I recommend playing this game in the dark so that its unsettling atmosphere and jump scares rattle your bones.

At its heart, Baroque is a Roguelike adventure that plays like a combination of Quake, Resident Evil, Caravaggio paintings and 1990s Tool videos. Its world is deeply unsettling and filled with a sense of dread. It’s genuinely scarier than anything in the survival horror genre, and I think that’s because it manages to tap into those childhood primal fears of monsters and demons lurking under your bed or walking through your house at all hours of the night. Nothing in this world makes any sense, and the narrative avoids any direct explanation, only revealing in tiny fragments and pieces. Everybody speaks in tortured poetry, and there are allusions to nuclear holocaust, cannibalism, sex and religion. There are allusions to sin, redemption, punishment, angels and God. All of this adds to a sense of bewilderment, vertigo, confusion.

It really doesn’t matter if the story makes no sense. That is the whole point, after all. Even if you are fluent in Japanese or are familiar with the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii remake (both released in the USA), Baroque is an incomprehensible nightmare horror show.. The goal of the game is never to save a world or conquer a foe, but to scare you and leave you feeling unnerved. The goal is to make you sleep with the lights on, paranoid that some demonic entity will perch themselves on the corner of your bed and whisper horrible threats.*

It’s fun to explore the various towers and dungeons in this world, underground industrial buildings that feel abandoned, eerie, cautiously waiting for the next surreal monster to attack, the next surprise jump scare to zap me out of my seat. Your movements are responsive but slightly slow, just enough to induce panic when overwhelmed by monsters. The music, provided by veteran videogame composer Masaharu Iwata, combines ambient sounds, howling animals, traditional synth melodies and dissonant noise to great effect.

Visually, this game looks spectacular, and the more I play, the more I can appreciate its masterful use of mood, color and lighting. Textures are sharply detailed and varied, the architecture of the world littered with pipes, beams, ventilators, broken platforms, metal plates, crates and boxes. One creature farts toxic gas that makes you half-blind, covered in darkness, while another monster poisons you with a lashing tongue, tinting everything dark green. Underground boiler rooms are bathed in red light, while other rooms are bathed in cold, bright light and deep shadow. Corridors are drawn in grey and brown with shafts of light adding shadows to the walls. And through it all, you will never find polygon clipping, warping, shimmering or distortion, only the slight pop-in as the background fades into black. Surely, this is one of Saturn’s finest achievements in 3D — Dreisbach is getting a serious run for his money.

Everybody needs to be playing Baroque. This game is too obscure among Saturn fans and that needs to change. I’d also like to see the fan translators create an English language patch one of these years.

(*That actually happened to me once long ago. Long story short: don’t touch ouija boards or bring them into your home.)

Update: I wanted to share a few bits about the minds behind Baroque. The producer was Takeshi Santo, a programmer and musical composer for Compile who founded his own studio, Sting. His credits include Golvellius (MSX, Sega Master System) and The Guardian Legend (NES). The director was Kazunari Yonemitsu, Sting co-founder and the creator of Puyo Puyo. The music and sound effects were created by Masaharu Iwata and Yoshiaki Sakoda (Devil’s Crush and MUSHA). Visual designer Eisaku Kitou worked on figure modeling for Wachenroeder and Elemental Gimmick Gear (Dreamcast). The main programmers were Shinichi Abe and Mitsugi Tanaka. The full credits are available on the Baroque Sega Retro page.

Baroque was released to Saturn on May 21, 1998 and ported to Playstation with additional features on October 28, 1999. The game was later remade with a third-person perspective on Playstation 2 on June 28, 2007 (JP) and Nintendo Wii on March 13, 2008 (JP). Atlus published both versions in the US on April 8, 2008. The Nintendo Wii version includes an optional first-person view, I don’t know if the PS2 version supports this as well. The game was also ported to Apple iOS on August 22, 2008 under the title Baroque: The Dark Twisted Fantasy, but is no longer active on the App Store.

In Japan, Sting also released a promotional disc on Saturn called Baroque Report: CD Data FIle, features movies and art assets from the full game. In 2000, a visual novel prequel called Baroque Syndrome was released on Playstation and is currently available on iOS in Japan. In addition, a vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up called Baroque Shooting was released on Windows, and Baroque Typing followed in 2002. Both are exclusive to Japan but can be seen on YouTube. Finally, the game was retrofitted into a first-person shooter for the 2011 iOS release Baroque: FPS (no longer available – I really hate how iOS loses everything).

Grandfather James MacInnes (1927-2020)

My grandfather James MacInnes passed away late yesterday evening, January 4, 2020. He was 93 years old and in seriously declining health for the past year. I am heartbroken, miss his warmth, his humor & his legendary cooking. He joins my grandmother Marilyn, who passed away in March 2017 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s. I pray that God reunites them again in Heaven. They were my world.