World Class Baseball (Turbografx-16)

World Class Baseball for Turbografx-16

World Class Baseball
Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 – Sports – 1989 – Rating: 5/10

World Class Baseball was released as part of the Turbografx-16 launch lineup in August of 1989. NEC and Hudson Soft chose wisely to attract buyers at the dawn of the 16-bit era. Sports titles have always been consistent sellers for home videogames, and baseball is immensely popular in Japan. As it so happens, Sega offered their own baseball entry for their Genesis launch, also in August, dubbed Tommy Lasorda Baseball; both titles are strikingly similar, and fans of either system will enjoy defending team over its heated rival.

Unfortunately….yeah, you saw this coming, didn’t you? There always has to be a downside when we’re talking about sports games “B.E,” which, of course, means “Before Electronic Arts.” It’s no real surprise to gamers that EA muscled in and dominated every sport practically from day one. The dirty little secret for this is quite simple: most sports videogames before 1990 were not very good.

You would expect baseball to be the one sport done right, since its popularity in Japan and America would mean no shortage of titles. The growing pains, as well as the technological limitations, that hampered other sports like football, soccer, basketball, and hockey, could be overcome here. Also, baseball has always just been easier to render on the classic games systems, going back to the early days of Atari and Intellivision. Software developers should have more experience with this sport by the end of the 1980s.

Which brings us to World Class Baseball on the Turbografx. To its credit, this was a decent, presentable little game for 1989, and the bright colors and catchy synth music proved an attractive draw for the new system. But it ultimately suffers from the same problems that hurt all video baseball games of the period. Maybe that’s why I’m just as fine with the ancient Home Run on Atari 2600 as anything else. Home Run captured only the abstract, bare essence of the sport, but it was fast, competitive and extremely playable. World Class Baseball does not possess those qualities. It runs sluggishly, painfully slow. S-L-O-W.

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Altered Beast (Sega Genesis)

Altered Beast for Sega Genesis

Altered Beast
Sega for Genesis – Action – 1989 – Rating: 3/10

Altered Beast was actually a good arcade game, one of a whole pack of great Sega arcade hits during the mid- to late-1980s. Its angle was slightly unique: you play as a pair of dead soldiers resurrected by Zeus, who commands you to rescue his kidnapped daughter (because every videogame in the ’80s involved rescuing kidnapped girls). In your quest, you are empowered with glowing spheres that mutate you from Scrawny Zombie Loser to Steroid Freak to Mutant Animal Superhero. This is very screwy theology, but it resulted in a very enjoyable experience on afternoons after school.

This was one of Sega’s very first Mega Drive titles, released in 1988 in Japan, and released in 1989 as the pack-in titles for Sega Genesis. It was practically the textbook definition of a lazy pack-in videogame: barely serviceable, lazily executed, short and basic and all too simple. It’s a decent showcase for the new system’s powers, with large character sprites and digitized speech samples. But not really. Its only real function was to force you out to the mall in search of more videogames.

What’s wrong with Genesis Altered Beast? It’s a lousy, half-hearted conversion of the arcade. The graphics kinda look right, except the colors are flat and overly dithered, the animation is lacking, the difficulty severely clipped. Beyond that, the gameplay is extremely basic, with auto-scrolling, two-tiered landscapes that somehow manage to move too slowly, yet end far too soon. I swear these levels are less than two minutes long. When your character changes into his animal form, you sit up and notice because, hey, now this game is gonna be really cool. But then the stage ends five or ten seconds later and the boss appears, a complete pushover who is dispatched in mere seconds. The main villain appears, steals your steroid spheres, and you’re back to playing as the scrawny stringbean again. What a rip.

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The Legend of Zelda (NES)

The Legend of Zelda for NES

The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo for NES – Adventure – 1986 – Rating: 10/10

I.

Back in 2009, when I was finally successful in scoring a Nintendo Wii, one of the first videogames I purchased was The Legend of Zelda on Virtual Console. I hadn’t played it extensively since my early college days, thanks to my then-girlfriend who was a massively devoted fan. Since then, I skipped out on Nintendo’s reissue cartridge on Gameboy Advance, and only dabbled on rare occasions on FCE Ultra, the homebrew computer emulator.

I began playing, expecting only an hour or so of light, nostalgic fun. A couple days later, I had to pry myself away from my Wii Remote. I don’t remember if I ate or slept that weekend, one of those sort of weekends. I came away with two surprising insights: the original Legend of Zelda still rocked, and Nintendo really let their series fall into mediocrity over the years. This I did not expect.

For the longest time, I was convinced there was something wrong with me because I stopped enjoying the Zelda series. The Wind Waker struck me as needlessly cartoonish and dumb. Twilight Princess struck me as too bloated and drawn out (although it was clearly reaching back to Ocarina of Time after the Gamecube fan backlash had kicked in the doors). Phantom Hourglass felt infantile and endlessly boring. Heck, even Majora’s Mask, a quirky title I ought to champion, bored me to tears. Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were, frankly, enormously stupid.

Surely, something had to be wrong. I loved the early Zelda’s up to 1998’s Ocarina, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. The games weren’t bad, and Nintendo at least continued to try new ideas within its increasingly stale formula. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But once I reconnected with the original 1986 Zelda, everything snapped into focus. I understood exactly where Nintendo went wrong.

The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most iconic videogames. It is nearly as influential as Super Mario Brothers, and can be thought of as its cousin. Both games inhabit a similar obsession with parallel worlds, one on the surface, the other hidden away in the corners of the screen and packed with surprises. Both built upon the genre innovations of recent years to create something new. And their feet were equally grounded in classic arcade games.

So what happened to the Zelda franchise? Nintendo took the “Action” out of “Action-RPG.” Like most videogame developers, they became obsessed with being perceived as “artists,” “rock stars” or “movie directors.” They became obsessed with mainstream cultural acceptance, apart from the negative stereotype of computer programming nerds. They became obsessed with predictable, simple “puzzles” at the expense of action. They became obsessed with “stories” and “characters,” even though hardly anyone possessed any talent or skill for it (mostly aping bad Hollywood blockbuster movie cliches). “Arcade videogames” became associated with everything these creators sought to avoid.

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Super Metroid (Super NES)

Super Metroid for Super NES

Super Metroid
Nintendo for Super NES – Adventure – 1994 – Rating: 10/10

Name the best videogame ever made for the Super NES. For some, it’s Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Others, Super Mario Kart or Sim City. A number will point to Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Final Fantasy 3 or Chrono Trigger. And a lot of you will insist that it’s really Super Metroid.

The Metroid fans are probably correct. This might very well be the Super Nintendo’s finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn’t until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake or Powerslave then their beloved Metroid.

In the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. Nintendo’s forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let’s be honest here: those games weren’t as good. The first one, Metroid Fusion, made a mess of everything with a virus infestation that turns Samus Aran into a mutant. The second, Metroid: Zero Mission was better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that’s exactly what Zero Mission was all about, a Metroid that coddles you and holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Hayao Miyazaki’s Ohmus.

Words that come to mind when I think of Super Metroid: dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made — “heavy” in that late 1960s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a thick, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

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Baseball Stars 2 (Neo-Geo)

Baseball Stars 2 for Neo-Geo

Baseball Stars 2
SNK for Neo-Geo – Sports – 1992 – Rating: 8/10

Baseball Stars 2 is one of the signature Neo-Geo titles. It perfectly captures the rebel vibe SNK was going after when they launched their arcade/home system: flashy, brash, over-confident, and irreverent. It also happens to play a very good game of baseball.

There have been a million baseball videogames during the 1980s and 1990s, and to be perfectly honest, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of ’em. Most are serviceable, some are quite good, and they’re nearly all identical. The batter-pitcher view is always the same, as is the control scheme and play mechanics. Aside from a small handful of exceptions — the masterpiece that is World Series Baseball 98 on Sega Saturn always comes to mind — video baseball is a predictable, safe, and slightly stale genre of electronic games.

What Baseball Stars 2 has in spades is attitude. All of the baseball players are mutated steroid freaks, carrying powered-up bats that may as well be tree trunks. Pumping fists, breaking the bat over the knee, aggressive machismo, dramatic diving for the ball — this is almost like a cartoon spoof of sports games. What’s interesting is that SNK’s previous games in the series (two previous Baseball Stars titles appeared on the NES and Neo-Geo) were playing it straight. Isn’t that weird? Perhaps they just needed an over-the-top sports game on Neo-Geo. The system mascot was a rabid pit bull, after all.

My favorite moment in the game is when you bean the batter with a fast pitch. He gets knocked down, then rushes the mound, and punches the pitcher clean on the jaw. I don’t know why I always laugh when that happens. The closeup shot makes me laugh. I only wish the pitcher could fight back, instead of taking it on the jaw. The best part is that your pitcher becomes crippled after getting punched out; his pitches become slow and wobbly. Hah!

Other than all that, what is there to say? It’s arcade baseball. The gameplay is the same as nearly every other baseball videogame, the controls are fast and fluid, the graphics are vivid, brash, supremely detailed in that early ’90s arcade style. There are no leagues or seasons or playoffs, just a single match between two teams of rage-fueled steroid freaks. This game is best for short bursts of dumb fun, and especially good for showing off the 16-bit graphics of the Neo-Geo. I don’t know if that sort of thing can impress teenagers in the 21st Century, but if they have any sense, it should. It was really awesome back in 1991. Everything was awesome in 1991.

Bonk’s Adventure (Turbografx-16)

Bonk’s Adventure for Turbografx-16

Bonk’s Adventure
Red Entertainment, A.I and Atlus for Turbografx-16 – Action – 1990 – Rating: 7/10

Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bonk’s Adventure isn’t in the same league as Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. Those are the giants, the premier “A” list. Bonk is a very solid and entertaining side-scrolling videogame. It inhabits a lot of charm and humor. It’s certainly a must-have for Turbografx fans. But it belongs squarely on the “B” list.

I think you’ll get into trouble if you expect Bonk to perform as a “killer app” mascot title. You can become overwhelmed by the hype, just as so many cartoon mascots were overwhelmed. You expect perfection from Bonk, Acro, Zero, Ristar, Socket, Sparkster, Mr. Nutz, Jazz Jackrabbit, Boogerman, or any number of characters who crowded the 16-bit scene. And when they reveal themselves to be less than perfect, flawed, or the dreaded “good, not great,” all hell breaks loose. The gamers throw fits, the prozines stick up their noses, and, well, this is how we end up in a world where the only viable videogame hero is an armored, steroid-fueled space marine.

So there’s a strong case to be made for the virtue of “good but not great.”

Bonk’s Adventure has a number of qualities I enjoy. First and foremost are the character designs, which are inventive, crazy, zany, irreverent, and just plain goofy. When you beat the final boss, King Drool (a lumbering green dinosaur with a big shiny crown on his head), you are rewarded with a complete character roll call, and it’s a trip. A dinosaur with glasses? A swaying green cactus with google eyes? A hatchet-wielding dino with a round bone head..or is that a mask? I’m never sure. He looks like one of the Pac-Man ghosts. Whatever. He’s fun, whoever he is.

Bonk himself is quite the character, a cave boy with an enormous Charlie Brown head that he uses as a weapon. He climbs walls and trees by chomping with his enormous teeth. And he has a junkie’s addiction to meat, which drives him into a rage, smashing through everything in sight. His many facial expressions are a hoot. He’s definitely having a lot of fun.

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Sonic 3 & Knuckles (Sega Genesis)

Sonic 3 & Knuckles for Sega Genesis

Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Sonic Team for Sega – Action – Sega Genesis – 1994

First comes invention, then refinement, and then finally perfection.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles represents Sega at its absolute peak, at a time when they defined cool. The blue hedgehog was largely responsible for that, wrestling half the videogame market away from Nintendo and spawning an unending stream of mascot games. And like any rock star, the time came for the big, epic statement; that definitive work that captures all the themes and summarizes its era, its Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, its Dark Side of the Moon.

Perhaps it is unusual that I define Sonic in rock ‘n roll terms, but there’s no denying the pop appeal the character generated. Also, the first four Sonic titles — 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 1993’s Sonic CD, and 1994’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles — remind me of The Ramones’ first four albums, which for all intents and purposes defined punk rock. These four titles redefined videogames with speed, invention, and a sense of attitude.

The first Sonic the Hedgehog started at full bore but spend most of its time stuck in mid-tempo. Sonic 2 focused on the speed, but the worlds were still not large enough; it was all over too fast. Yuji Naka and his team were still working to find that ideal balance between barreling speed and intricate level design. In S3K, they finally found that perfect balance, without sacrificing either element. If anything, this Sonic seems even faster, if that were possible.

The enormous size of the game worlds allow for some truly amazing speed runs, torpedoing through loops, twists, turns. There are eruptions of water, deep, pummeling vertical drops, snowboarding down mountains, elevator cars run amok, runaway spinning tops. One of my favorite moments are the “racetrack timers” in the Death Egg Zone, which grab Sonic and hurl him in chaotic loops through open space. It’s completely gratuitous, of course, but a terrific rush (and clearly predicts NiGHTS: Into Dreams).

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Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

Super Mario 64 for Nintendo 64

Super Mario 64
Nintendo for Nintendo 64 -Action – 1996 – Rating: 10/10

Super Mario 64 is a videogame of moments. It’s a journey of endless surprises and discoveries, thrills big and small, where something interesting always lies behind the next turn. It is a pioneering title that revels in its novelty, gleefully reinventing the medium in its own image. Next Generation magazine famously proclaimed it “the greatest videogame ever made,” and everybody who played believed it in their bones. Twenty years later, the case can still be made.

Here are sixty-four great reasons to love Super Mario 64:

Super Mario 64 is the first true 3D polygon “open world” videogame. Nothing like this had ever been seen before, only imagined in such movies as Disney’s Tron. For a generation raised on Atari and NES, this feels like Dorothy walking into a Technicolor Oz. The fusion of free-roaming camera and analog control for fully three-dimensional movement, along any direction or plane, is truly revolutionary and opens the door for the modern era of polygon videogame worlds.

The goal is never about “winning” but exploring. You only need to acquire 70 out of 120 stars to defeat Bowser and reach the ending. This idea reaches back to the original Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario World, which enable you to warp ahead to Bowser’s final castle. For Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s always about the journey, never the destination.

Non-linear gameplay: the freedom to find stars, roam around the Princess’ mysterious castle, and visiting worlds in virtually any order. You can play this game six different ways before breakfast and never repeat yourself. Take that, Crash Bandicoot.

Mario’s vast acrobatic moves, designed perfectly for playing and goofing around. His whoops and cheers always put a smile on my face. He’s so happy when he performs a somersault or a triple jump. Many wonderful animations: Mario mumbling in his sleep, wobbling when in low health, shivering when in the cold.

The Title Screen: tugging on Mario’s face. You spent hours playing around with this. Admit it.

Wasting half an hour every day doing cannonballs into the castle pond. I’ll rescue the Princess when I damn well feel like it. I’m not buying her “kidnapped” stories any more. And if I go through with this, I expect a more of a reward than a “cake” and a peck on the nose. Until then…outta the way, pool time!

Finding that 1-UP mushroom inside one of the trees in the castle courtyard. Is there a reason for doing this? No, not really. You’re just playing around and having fun.

Sliding down the bannisters inside the castle. Why do I do this? Because I can.

The way Mario gets kicked out of the paintings when he loses a life always deserves a chuckle. Oof! Mama mia!

Riding down The Princess’ Secret Slide on your belly. Why Nintendo never created a full racing game from these mini-stages, I’ll never know. And that goes double for the manta ray course in Super Mario Galaxy.

Moments where you need to crawl slowly across narrow platforms or past sleeping piranha plants, instead of racing by at top speed.

Racing a giant (and friendly) Koopa the Quick to the top of Bob-omb Battlefield. You run across hills, over ledges, past a large Chain Chomp who tries to eat you, past waves of enormous bowling balls, and over ramps and ledges.

Mario falling and getting stuck in the snow. If you dive head-first, you be buried head-first. Nice.

If you butt-stomp the pole that’s attached to Gate-Chomp’s chain, you set him loose, knocking down iron bars that contain a star.

The giant underwater drop-off in Jolly Roger Bay that hides a sunken pirate ship and large red eel.

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Super Mario Brothers (NES)

Super Mario Brothers for NES

Nintendo for NES – Action – 1985 – Rating: 10/10

There once was a time, from 1985-1990, where you could easily argue that Super Mario Brothers was the greatest videogame ever made. Even today, one could make the case for this game, or certainly one of its later sequels like Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World or Super Mario 64. Whichever one you choose, the end result is the same: we’ve been living in Mario’s world for over 30 years.

There were 2D action games before Super Mario: the 1979 arcade title, Apple Panic, which spawned a whole host of imitators, from Minor 2049er to Lode Runner; David Crane’s Pitfall and its even more ambitious sequel, Pitfall 2, often called the father of the genre; Montezuma’s Revenge, which hit on the Atari 800 and spread everywhere; Namco’s Pac-Land, which ditched the classic Pac-Man mazes for a cartoon side-scrolling world; Coleco’s Smurf Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle, the standout title on Colecovision. Heck, I even remember a little game on the Atari 800 called Snokie, a side-scrolling title where you run-and-jump over rocks, ledges, moving iceberg platforms, and dodging falling ice.

The genre of videogames that came to called platformers was still in its infancy. Super Mario didn’t invent it. But they did raise it to the next level. They took the basic elements, added several crucial innovations, and transformed it into something revolutionary. It’s very much the videogame equivalent to Miles Davis’ 1970 masterpiece Bitches Brew, which ushered in the age of jazz fusion, or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which ushered in the modern rock era.

Super Mario Brothers closed the door on the “golden age” of arcade videogames, the age of single-screen high score contests and simple Atari cartridges, and opened the door to a new age of epic journeys. Arcade videogames were now literally, with a definitive goal, a definitive beginning and end. Yes, Mario, your Princess is in another castle, but unlike the girl in Donkey Kong, this time you’ll actually get her back. And, yeah, she’s kinda jerking you around with Bowser, but that’s an issue for another time.

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Space Shuttle Colombia (2003 Essay)

Space Shuttle Colombia breaks up upon Earth’s reentry on February 1, 2003

Waking up on Saturday morning, I was greeted with the headline of The New York Times website. I had to rub my eyes and read again; was that a snafu, or did I just read something about the Challenger explosion? Once reality quickly set in, I had the sudden urge to check my watch and make sure it wasn’t 1986.

Sadly, the realization of the here and now was staring me in the face: another lost space shuttle, another seven astronauts taken away in a horrific fireball. Even now, days later, it all seems so unreal. Inside, I felt as though I had taken a hard punch to my gut. I cannot honestly say what most Americans were feeling, and are feeling now; that’s just what it felt to me.

I remember back when Challenger was destroyed. I was in an eighth-grade classroom — whatever subject I can’t remember — when one of the teachers burst into the room, exclaiming something of how the space shuttle exploded after launch. Minutes later, the Principal relayed the message to all the students in the prison. Err, school. Whatever. The Challenger was gone, in any case, just like that.

This was something that was very hard for young kids to process, especially children who were born after the glory days of the Space Race: Sputnik, John Glenn, the Spacewalk, Gemini, Apollo, the Moon Landing, Skylab. We had read about the risks of space travel, and were taught about the three American astronauts who died atop a rocket. But this all seemed so, well, impossible. Maybe the Soviets had failures, but not us. We were the ones who conquered space. Watching those old “Star Trek” reruns, it was no surprise that the Starship Enterprise was essentially an American vessel. Such a science-fiction future seemed almost inevitable; we would be playing chess with the HAL computer in no time. It was only a matter of time.

The explosion of Challenger took all that away in an instant. In that violent flash, we were shown how arrogant and confident and vulnerable we were. On that day, and the months after, it almost seemed as though the space dream was fading away. Maybe all of was a dream, a cultural myth. Maybe this was just something America did back in the 1960s to show up the Communists.

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Realistic LAB-420 Turntable

Realistic LAB-420 Direct Drive Turntable (shown alongside a Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable)

It’s another weekend of analog music fun over here at the apartment! A couple nights ago, I picked up a vintage turntable from beloved Minneapolis record store Roadrunner Records. I’m getting it for my Dad as a Christmas present. The table is a 1979 Realistic LAB-420, a fully automatic direct drive turntable from the late 1970s. This table was manufactured by CEC in Japan (a behind-the-scenes player that built decks for many of the major brands) and sold by Radioshack in the USA, and is today regarded as a minor classic. I paid $125 for the unit, which is a steal for anything in high-end audio, and thankfully everything works perfectly.

I took the table home and cleaned it out as best I could, even giving the wood a solid waxing. Then last night, the fine crew at Needle Doctor gave me a terrific deal on a new phono cartridge and headshell. For $150, I received a Technics headshell (in black), and the celebrated Audio Technica 440mla Moving Magnet cartridge.

I took everything home and started to play some albums. The sound, unfortunately, seemed to be off. There was far too much bass, the sound was too muffled and heavy, and for the life of me I couldn’t discover the cause. Was this just because the turntable is old? Is it because it’s a direct drive? Is it because the cart needs time to break in? After some time, I finally discovered what the problem with the sound is, and it’s one of those stupid rookie mistakes: my Pro-Ject Tube Box II phono preamp was set to “MC” mode! D’oh! I had completely forgotten about that. The “MC” (Moving Coil) setting has a gain of 60db, while the “MM” (Moving Magnet) has a gain of 40db. I clicked the button to the correct setting, and instantly everything was transformed.

The Realistic Lab-420 is my first immersion into direct drive turntables, after using two belt drive decks. I’m completely blown away. Now I must rethink everything I’ve been taught about direct drives being inferior to belts. This really is a terrific table, and it’s going to be very hard for me to give it away on Christmas.

The AT-440mla is a stunning cartridge: clear tones, sharply detailed, excellent dynamics, tracks like a dream. Needle Doctor gave me a great deal. They had the cart already mounted onto a Technics headshell, and they sold the package to me for $150. Once again, the Needle Doctor crew delivers!

Right now, I have my Pro-Ject Debut III alongside the Lab-420. This way I can spend a few days testing one against the other. It’s here that I wish I had a preamp with more sockets (the Tube Box only has one pair). So far, it’s been illuminating and a bit humbling.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Your First Turntable

Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable

When you decide to explore the world of vinyl records, you’ll be asking lots of questions about turntables, and you’ll likely be swarmed with a million different answers. This may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s perfectly normal. Analog music (which is what records are all about) is far more nuanced and tricky than simply popping a CD into the tray and hitting the play button. There are many different turntable brands, many different designs, and many different price points. And everybody has their own opinion, which contradicts everybody else.

The great example of this is the “turf war” (I say that half-jokingly) between Technics and Rega fans. In a broader sense, this is a battle between the defenders of belt-drive turntables and direct-drive turntables. In truth, both designs have their advantages and weaknesses, and great tables can be had on both sides equally. But passions are fierce among the devoted, and it can be confusing to newcomers.

Here is my advice for every one of you. At the end of the day, you need to dive in and just get your hands dirty. A first turntable is like a first car. You don’t expect perfection, just a reliable clunker that you can tear apart and destroy as you learn and grow.

Over the past two years, I’ve gone through half a dozen turntables, starting with a $99 Numark PT-101 portable, then moving up to a Pro-Ject Debut III, later followed by a series of vintage 1970s direct drive models: Sony, Technics, MCS, JVC. My current setup — Sony PS-X600 Biotracer, Dynavector 10×5 phono cartridge, Pro-Ject Tube Box SE II phono preamplifier — is one of the best I’ve yet heard, and paired with my Marantz 2235b stereo receiver, it’s an excellent sound system. I learned everything the long and hard way, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

In the process of learning, I’ve become a more skilled listener. I’ve learned to listen critically, something I never really did before. I’ve learned much about the science of turntables, of their designs and the various theories of replicating that perfect sound. And I’ve wrecked my share of parts and ruined my share of records.

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Atari 7800 Controllers, or You Bastards Have Broken My Hands

Atari 7800 ProSystem with joystick controller

One of these days, I’ll have to find someone respectable who can explain to me why Atari’s videogame controllers were so terrible. I can’t even think about one without my hands suddenly cramping up, almost like some phantom pain from a distant trauma.

Case in point: the joystick for the Atari 7800. This was just a mess. I really don’t know what to think about it. It was clearly a part of the original system design from 1984, during which the crumbling Atari still looked to its own heritage for inspiration. It had to be obvious by then that the nigh-indestructible Atari 2600 joysticks were stiff as a board and hard on the hands. Not that I mean to complain, because they mostly served me well way back then. They were just really, really stiff, like they needed a can or two of oil or hard liquor.

In any case, Atari was looking for a new style, something more ergonomic in mind. Their first real gamble was the controller for the Atari 5200, their successor to the throne. It was certainly easier to hold in the palm of your hand, yes, but the flimsy controls were a disaster. Hmm, now that I think about it, this was the design mojo of the early 1980s. For some reason, everyone wanted videogame controllers that vaguely resembled bulky telephones. Intellivision is a perfect example; it could only play videogames like a bumbling buffoon. It was the George W. Bush of game controllers. The Colecovision controller design was slightly more sober, but stiff as a board. Your hands still cramped up, and there’s still an odd obsession with numeric keypads.

The Atari 5200 controller frustrated the life out of everyone, by making its joystick out of a pair of analog controllers. It was strange, bizarre. It was also designed to break within the first ten minutes. Perhaps this was the design goal all along. The suits knew they had a stinker on their hands; the jig was up, and the videogame fad had peaked. Sooner or later, the kids would be old enough to start smoking and chasing skirts. So maybe all the guilty parties just grabbed the bong for one more monster hit, coughed out a long sigh, and said skip it, let the dumb kids break their hands. Their loss.

Which brings us back to the Atari 7800. It’s a better design than its peers, if only because the stick actually works and nothing falls apart. It’s still painful on the fingers, like some sort of CIA torture device, and will almost certainly result in full-blown arthritis one day.

So I don’t like the 7800 controller very much. It’s no shocker, and no loss, since the system was buried alive, dug out, reburied again, and then dug out again by the same group of owners who bought the remains of the old Atari in the mid-eighties. They were an interesting bunch, the Jack Tramiel family. They were the villains the videogame-loving geek squad loved to hate, no question of that. But they had class. They had drama. Say what you will about their management. They had the survival instinct of feral rats, which means in the post-psychedelic hippie era of videogames, they were the most fun. They knew how to fight and survive.

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I’d Still Rather Play NFL2K1 on Sega Dreamcast

NFL 2K1 on Sega Dreamcast

My brother came home this week with a Microsoft XBox, the original one, as he had promised for many months. Included with the system were several hit videogames: Knights of the Old Republic, Madden NFL ’97, and the star of the show, NFL 2K5.

You know something? I’d still rather play NFL 2K1 on the Sega Dreamcast. Is there something wrong with me?

I’ve skipped out the entire 2K series since Dreamcast died, which is a shame because it’s always been my favorite football franchise. I even loved the original NFL 2K enough to consider it the best football game ever made, despite the fact that the running game was completely, hopelessly nonexistent. It was nearly impossible to ever gain more than a couple yards before crashing into a wall of linebackers. But so many of the intangibles — hecklers in the stands, referee conferences, snow on the field, the astonishing animation (one television reporter in 1999 famously quipped that these videogames were starting to resemble acid trips), and the acerbic play-by-play commentary — all of these built into the best football experience I’d ever enjoyed.

The following year, NFL 2K1 fell upon us like a hurricane. Unlike the tepid approach EA takes with its Madden franchise, Visual Concepts radically retooled and improved the game. The running game was working, and it worked spectacularly. The TV commentators still rambled on endlessly, dragging us into their arguments. Online play was available for the first time. Passing was a great improvement, introducing the ability to lead passes in any direction. The animation was even more detailed and intricate, putting Madden to shame. And the most beloved feature of NFL 2K1? Late hits.

This was something that was done ages ago on Genesis Madden, and is probably the most shameless fun you can have with the game. You have to remember to turn off the penalties that apply, and just start knocking heads. You hit another player after a play ends, you laugh, you shout out, “It never gets old!” It’s really the perfect stress reliever.

You can even make a drinking game out of it. The goal is to strike down the football player that the camera has focused on, after the play. It’s so unbelievably funny to see a closeup of some star player, strutting after making that long catch, getting nailed from behind. Does the camera even follow him when he goes down? Hah! Another shot!

At the venerated Dinkytown Pizza Hut, we played Sega Dreamcast every weekend night until daybreak. NFL 2K1 was the champion bar none. There were always six or seven games lined up before the thing was even hooked up to the televisions. Beer, soda, bread sticks, pizza, all flowed freely. I have countless memories of team breakdowns and legendary comebacks, of haunting ghost sounds from the back of the kitchen, and grudges that never end. And, of course, a hundred late hits per game. Hah!

My favorite comeback was this one spectacular 4th Quarter finish with Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. I was completely drunk, couldn’t even see the television screen unless I squinted with one eye. Even then I never really saw what was happening. It was all blurs and blobs. I still managed to win that one in the closing seconds. Hah! What a game.

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Astronomy Domine: The Greatest Trip in the Galaxy

Super Mario Galaxy for Nintendo Wii

I.

Every day I take the bus from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis and back. I have some time to roam around the lousy place (I really hate shopping malls) before my bus home arrives. Imagine my surprise, then, when I wandered into the game stores this week and discovered Super Mario Galaxy running on the Nintendo Wii kiosk.

Yay! Time flies fast. Suddenly, we’re only two weeks away from the game’s release, currently set at November 11. And by coincidence, I have a payday around that time, with lots of disposable income to throw around. This is going to be very hard to resist.

I expect many others will share my sentiments. The Wii has retained a high demand since its release a year ago, but many of us are still holding out, still waiting for Nintendo to really show us what this little cream-colored box can do. Well, folks, Super Mario Galaxy is it. I mean, this is it, the real deal, the killer app. This game is going to sell like hotcakes.

Up till now, Nintendo seemed to earn its success on the cheap. They sold enough Wii consoles to become the market leader over Microsoft and Sony, but it never really felt earned. You purchased a Wii as an investment, on the potential for what may come down the wire, instead of what was here now. Not there were a lack of great games, as Wii Sports can attest. It’s a hit with whole populations who either wrote off videogames, or were never interested in them in the first place. And I don’t think anyone really appreciates that just yet.

But Nintendo still needed that killer app, that landmark classic that sets the new standard, raises the bar for games, and hurls the gauntlet down against the competitors. Halo was one such game. So was The Sims, or Tetris, or Sonic the Hedgehog. The most famous of them all was Mario, the cartoon plumber that singlehandedly made Nintendo a household name. Super Mario Brothers did it for the NES, Super Mario World did it for the Super NES, and Super Mario 64 did it for Nintendo 64.

Super Mario Sunshine failed to become Gamecube’s great megahit, and for this disappointment the game was dismissed as a failure, a setback. Either gamers expected Mario to revolutionize everything yet again, something grand and new and previously unimagined; or they wanted something safe, another Mario 64 to relive the glory days of 1996. But Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of Mario, would have none of it. He was busily burning through his experimental phase. His Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop phase, if you will. He and his creative cabal of wizards feverishly rescinded and reinvented every classic videogame in their library. The new Mario was completely different. The new Zelda was completely different. The new Metroid was completely different. The psychedelic influence took a warped, unpredictable turn. Luigi’s Mansion. Pikmin. Animal Crossing. These were strange oddballs, weird little games. If they didn’t connect with the gaming public, too bad. Their loss.

The Gamecube is widely regarded as a failure, and it cemented (for a time) Nintendo’s reputation as has-beens (a reputation with its roots in the 16-bit and 32-bit wars). Then videogame retro nostalgia kicked in. Then Nintendo DS happened. Then Nintendo Wii happened. Everyone finally realized that Nintendo was back at the top, but the truth is that they never really left. They just needed to wander around a little, in search of some much-needed creativity to share with the rest of us. Bob Dylan did just that. U2 did just that. It’s just the way of things.

And somewhere along the way, Sony lost their minds. How else to explain the Playstation 3, the biggest and greatest testament to hubris and absurdity the videogame industry had ever seen? Sony was as close to achieving permanent dominance as anyone could hope. The Playstation brand WAS videogames. They were untouchable. And then some executive decided that it wasn’t enough for us to throw out our old games consoles and buy new ones. We had to throw our DVD libraries away and repurchase the deluxe, Blu-Ray versions.

The result was a $600 games console that also pushed a new home video format nobody wanted. Sony’s response was just like Tom Friedman’s attitude toward Iraq: “Suck on this.” No, thanks. I don’t quite feel like taking out a second mortgage on my home to play the same videogames and watch the same movies. I’m already doing fine by that, thank you very much.

Sony expected the kind of blind loyalty you only find in totalitarian nation states and organized religions. Hell, they’ve already got the massive monolith. Now hurry up and evolve, you stupid apes. What a load. Now instead of playing God, Sony is scrambling to fend off open rebellion from their stockholders, and the continuing desertion by videogames’ software developers. The knives are out and there’s blood in the water. You know how this story ends.

And in the midst of all this rides Nintendo, freshly minted the hero and savior of videogames. Just like one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Here comes Mario to defeat Richard III and bring peace to the Mushroom Kingdom.

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Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997)

There’s a great opening scene in Princess Mononoke where a quiet, pastoral village is attacked by a crazed, gigantic boar. The creature is covered with a thick skin of blackened tentacles that snarl and snake with wild abandon, and it becomes more than a second skin. It’s monstrous and foreboding, like something Ray Harryhausen would cook up if he had a bad trip while watching The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Ashitaka, the young chieftain of the village, launches into pursuit, and we’re hurled into a chase sequence. It’s thrilling to watch, and the camera swoops and dives right in the action. There’s an almost desperate momentum at play, as this enormous, mutated thing stampedes on, while the boy vainly tries to calm it down. He is reluctantly forced to bring the creature down with two well-placed arrows, but not before one of the black tentacles latches onto his arm; Ashitaka saved his people but is left burned, scarred.

For many of us in the United States, this was our first introduction to Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and we were instantly hooked. Back home, Japanese audiences who loved his work would flock to theaters, break all box-office records and make Princess Mononoke a blockbuster smash. They also had an added advantage of knowing the score, knowing that the opening chase is a clever reenactment of an early chase scene in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

In that film (and the graphic novel on which it’s based), the heroine successfully calms down a stampeding Ohmu, a giant, green bug with claws and a dozen eyes. Now, in the new version, the tone is different, and the mood is shockingly bleaker. The setup is the same, but the payoff is tragic; the hero is fatally cursed, and doomed to walk alone in search of answers. The adventure serial has collided into the anti-war picture.

Miyazaki’s earlier works, Animal Treasure Island and Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Future Boy Conan, for example, carry a romantic idealism at their core. But now, in middle age, we see the emergence of the serious, somber Miyazaki. Miyazaki, the heartbroken idealist. Miyazaki, the cynic. Nausicaa marked the beginning of that shift; Mononoke is a much darker picture, wrestling with complex themes and issues, one that clearly has no patience for simple solutions or easy answers.

Mononoke is often referred to as a movie with an “environmental” theme, humans and nature should get along, but that’s not really accurate. It’s a movie about how man and nature don’t get along. Nobody gets along with anyone, negotiations have collapsed, the knives are drawn and everyone wants blood. When the title character is finally introduced, Ashitaka has traveled to the edge of a mythic forest and walked into the middle of a full-scale war: San, the “Princess Mononoke,” her adoptive wolf pack at her side, fighting to preserve the forest; Lady Eboshi, her women equipped with firearms, on the other, their ironworks village clearing the land to mine their ores; the Shogun and his armies, eager to steal the land Eboshi has made valuable.

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Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away (2001)

We’re living in a Golden Age of Animation right now. The form has evolved and matured over the course of the past twenty years, and now we are reaping the benefits. Earlier this year, we saw the excellent French movie Triplets of Belleville, a great mixture of Gallic culture and Spike Jones records. In America, Pixar has had great popular and critical success with Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Story movies being their best to date. There’s Richard Linklater’s Waking Life; there’s Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress; and there’s Mamoru Oshii, whose Innocence is about to be released here.

At the core of it all lies Studio Ghibli, which blazed the trail and set the standard for everything to follow. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 Princess Mononoke topped $175 million at the Japanese box office (the top-grossing Japanese film typically draws around $30 million), following up a whole string of masterpieces. Now comes his 2001 movie, The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro, the very best of the current crop of animated features.

This is one of the sheer joys of the movies. I go to the theatre and pay eight bucks so I can see a grand sense of imagination, those creative flights of fancy that are all too rare. It’s a thrill to see the work of filmmakers who are truly creative, and Spirited Away has it in spades.

Essentially, this is Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s bold contribution to children’s literature, an Alice in Wonderland or a Wizard of Oz for the Japanese set. The plot involves a ten-year-old girl named Chihiro who, in a sense, falls through the looking glass, becoming ensnared in the realm of spirits. Stubborn, a little whiny, she nevertheless starts to discover those talents, hidden inside, waiting to be unleashed.

The bulk of the movie is set in a Japanese bath house and draws heavily from their vast cultural heritage, their history, their religion, their mythology. In a sense, this is all a plea to the audience: remember who we are, and who we were. This is a deeply nostalgic film that seeks to reawaken its audience to its true identity, before Japan becomes nothing more than ugly skyscrapers, bloated consumerism, soulless materialism and broken-down theme parks.

This is a common Ghibli theme, actually, and it’s closest to Isao Takahata’s 1994 movie, Pom Poko, but Spirited Away is far more luminous, more colorful, more detailed. This is a joyous, optimistic film at its core, packed with details and surprises at every turn. The bath house welcomes visitors of every shape and size, radish gods and giant birds, small talking frogs and dragons. The soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro are here, working in the boiler room and feeding coal into the furnace, under the supervision of a crotchety old man with spider arms.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Back in February, I was fortunate enough to catch My Neighbor Totoro at the Oak Street Cinema. The theatre was packed with eager grownups, their children and their grandchildren. It was a wonderful, joyous experience, full of wonder and awe and that special kind of laughter that only comes from remembering your own childhood. Oh, and I’m sure the kids loved the movie, too.

My Neighbor Totoro is the finest children’s movie ever made. It is the one animated film that captures the spirit of the best children’s literature, like Joel Silverstein’s poems or Where the Wild Things Are or Anne of Green Gables or Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. It has that quiet pulse, that willingness to pause and reflect on the moment; two young girls can sit, enraptured, as they spy tadpoles in a brook, or a giant camphor tree. Their imaginations can run free in a way that we, the adults, cannot.

The only American program that I could really compare this to is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The beloved 1965 cartoon looks simple and crude at times, but it’s the best animated program ever made in our country because of its spirit. Charles Shultz rejected tired clichés and told a personal story that reflected on his own beliefs and childhood; he never talked down to the audience, but respected their intelligence. The result is a classic beloved by generations of all ages.

Is Totoro a children’s story? No more than Charlie Brown. Both are ageless, timeless, speaking (as Miyazaki later described his Spirited Away) to ten-year-olds and anyone who ever was a ten-year-old.

This movie is often described as being about the Totoros, mysterious animals who live in a camphor tree and befriend the two girls who moved there, but that’s not really accurate. It’s really about the girls themselves. It’s about their summer spent in the countryside, where their family resides while their mother is in the hospital. My Neighbor Totoro, at its core, is about exploration and discovery, about running through a new house, chasing after soot sprites, picking flowers and corn. It’s about childhood.

For Hayao Miyazaki, the writer-director, this represents a major shift in his work. He built his career on cliffhanger serials like the 1971 Toei feature, Animal Treasure Island, and the 1978 TV series, Future Boy Conan, and the style migrated into his movies. As great as his previous three feature films are — Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky — they are essentially maturations of those earlier cliffhanger serials from his youth. My Neighbor Totoro is radically different in its pace and tone. It is slow, patient, reflective; his first work that feels like cinema. Miyazaki has always shown a quiet side before, influenced greatly by his mentor and colleague Isao Takahata, but now his quiet voice takes center stage. For those of us reared on Disney movies, this is something of a revelation.

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Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a heartwarming bliss-out of a movie, full of spirit and fun, and reminds you of the kind of movies Hollywood used to make long ago. Watching, I am reminded of the golden age of Hollywood romantic swashbucklers, of Errol Flynn and Saturday afternoon serials. Is it odd that today’s live-action movies are increasingly becoming more and more cartoonish, but in a bad way? That genuine spark of imagination is increasingly hard to come by, lost in a sea of plasticized computer animation. Yet here is a swashbuckling picture that’s worth its weight in popcorn.

Castle in the Sky is something of an adventure chase movie, about two children who search for a legendary city behind the clouds. Sheeta, the girl, is pursued by the army, government agents (who will remind you of the Agents from The Matrix), and a gang of pirates; she carries a jeweled family pendant that may hold the key to discovering the city, named “Laputa” after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Sheeta, like every Hayao Miyazaki heroine, is confident and assertive, and would sooner grab a glass bottle and knock out her captors than merely wait to be rescued.

After an assault on a zeppelin, Sheeta escapes both the agents and the pirates, and is discovered by Pazu, a wide-eyed boy who lives in a mountainside mining town. He loves to build airplanes, and dreams of adventure; he practically bursts at the seams when he’s speaking of his late father’s accidental discovery of Laputa. Like Sheeta, he is also an orphan, and becomes a kindred spirit; the blossoming romance is both eloquent and old-fashioned in that classic Hollywood way. “When you fell out of the sky, my heart was pounding,” Pazu tells her. “I knew something wonderful was about to happen.” It’s a great line.

The success of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind enabled Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to create an independent animation studio, where they could create their own unique works. Many of the key players from the Nausicaa film were brought on board, including key animators and composer Joe Hisaishi (whose score is excellent), and Studio Ghibli was born. Castle in the Sky was the first Ghibli release, and fills the requirement of a well-rounded crowd-pleaser. The tone of the film is lighter than Nausicaa, less heavy and serious; a goofy anarchy is scattered throughout. The pirate gang is composed of an older woman named Dora (a dead ringer for Pipi Longstockings’ mother) and her bumbling sons, mama’s boys, all. Outlaws, yes, but disarming characters who grow on you by the end.

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Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984)

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984)

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is one of the true landmarks of animated cinema. Twenty years after its release, in a time when animation evolves by leaps and bounds, it continues to offer challenging ideas and genuinely move audiences. In Japan, Nausicaa routinely places at the top, or near the top, of every poll of the best anime films (it spent ten years at the top of Animage magazine’s readers’ polls, for instance). Here is a science-fiction adventure with ideas, with vision and heart.

Hiyao Miyazaki made a name for himself animating and directing various movies and TV shows during the late 1960s and ‘70s, including popular shows such as Future Boy Conan and Lupin the Third. After directing his first feature film, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro, and without any studio projects, he directed his energies on an original manga (graphic novel) saga. In 1982, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind appeared as a monthly serial in Animage, and quickly proved so popular that demand arose for a movie. After early resistance, Miyazaki relented, on the condition that he direct the picture, and his longtime colleague Isao Takahata produce. They enlisted Topcraft Studios (best known for the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit), hired a skilled musician named Joe Hisaishi to compose the score, and released the film to theaters in 1984.

Based on a 12th Century Japanese folk tale (“The Princess Who Loved Insects”), Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to live amongst poisonous fungus forests, mutant insects, and herds of giant blue-eyed slugs called Ohmu. The heroine, Nausicaa, is a chieftain’s daughter, lives in a small nation in a protected valley, and shares an empathic bond with the insects of her world; she firmly believes that humans and insects can peacefully coexist, despite the ever-present threat of the growing forests. She’s the archetype of the Miyazaki heroine: strong-willed, confident, and full of spirit.

The Valley of Wind suddenly finds itself in the middle of a war between two warring nations, Torumekia and Pejitei. The combatants disrupt the relative peace of the Valley and start shoving their weight around. A God-Warrior, the ancient weapons responsible for the destruction of civilization, is unearthed. Both sides vow not only to defeat their enemy, but to burn back the forests and reclaim nature. This sets the stage for a number of action set-pieces (including some terrific aerial combat scenes), moments of quiet introspection, a fair amount of light humor, and a search (by Nausicaa) to solve the mystery of the mutated environment.

All the great hallmarks of Miyazaki are present in full: self-confident female characters, concern for the environment, solid compositions, an optimistic humanism, and lots of flying. When you look at the history of animated movies, you realize how groundbreaking Nausicaa really is. There are no song-and-dance numbers, no wise-cracking animal sidekicks, no simple-minded moral lesson for the kiddies, nothing in the traditional Disney mold. Yet, this also is not some juvenile adolescent sex fantasy ala Ralph Bakshi or Heavy Metal. Nor is this a clone of Star Wars or JRR Tolkein. This is a new style of animated film, opening the doors for movies like Waking Life and Millennium Actress and Whisper of the Heart and Princess Mononoke.

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