Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis

Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis (2001)

I’m a great fan of the 2001 anime Metropolis. This movie arrived in American theaters in August, 2001, and was not only a thrilling, dazzling spectacle, it eerily prophesied the terrorist attacks of September 11. The films images of the towering Ziggurat in ruins, the very symbol of modern human civilization, cut a little too close to the bone.

We are reminded of the urban apocalypse of Akira, the landmark 1988 anime film written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and its depictions of urban corruption and decay. This is no small coincidence, as Otomo wrote the script for this new Metropolis, which was directed by the skilled veteran Rintaro, an old Toei Doga alum who gave us such hits as Galaxy Express 999, Harmagedon and X. A freelance director by trade, Rintaro specialized in dystopian science-fiction, and added with his animation experience working on Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), makes him a perfect choice to helm Metropolis.

What makes this Metropolis so compelling is how freely it mashes together its varied influences, creating something new in the alchemical furnace. It’s original inspiration, of course, lies in the 1927 Fritz Lang masterpiece, not only with the Ziggurat and the main characters, but the underlying political and social themes. When Tezuka created his manga comic adaptation, he famously claimed to take nothing from Lang’s work but the image on the movie poster. That is a slight exaggeration, but fairly close to the mark. Rintaro fuses these two sources together nicely, giving us the thick, rounded character designs with a gritty urban environment, combining story and character elements and adding new influences and ideas to the recipe.

The movie’s strong cyberpunk design owes much to Akira, and we can spot how seamlessly Otomo’s world integrates with the Lang-Tezuka-Rintaro mashup. We almost expect to find motorcycle gangs lurking around the underground stations, although a thrilling chase scene involving rickshaws fills the void.

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NES Play Action Football

Nintendo for NES – Sports – 1990 – Rating: 4/10

Across the spectrum of video gaming, there’s something you learn fairly quickly: Nintendo can’t do sports games. They really can’t. Only on rare occasions could they create a really great one; definitely Ice Hockey on the NES, maybe Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort definitely qualify. These are rare exceptions to the rule.

For the sake of this review, the important thing to know is that this videogame is not Tecmo Super Bowl. This is NES Play Action Football, NOT Tecmo Super Bowl.

Thank you and goodnight!

What, you want more? Why? What would be the point? Play Action Football sucks. No, really, it sucks like a bilge pump. It’s a shame, actually; you can tell that it’s a game Nintendo put great effort and time into. I will give them that much credit. The graphics, the whole visual presentation, are top notch. Not only do you have players that are large and drawn nicely, but numerous animated scoreboard sequences appear after crucial plays. You have something that, in the modern mindset, would be a strong foundation for future versions.

But here’s the problem. Well, the problem after the fact that it’s not Tecmo Super Bowl. It’s just this game doesn’t play very well. It’s incredibly slow and choppy. Do you remember those old Game and Watch handhelds that Nintendo made in the early ’80s? Play Action Football moves exactly like that. I can’t even call it animation, really. The players don’t move. They just shuffle from one still pose to the next down the field.

Perhaps the NES just couldn’t handle speed with a field full of players, I thought. But then I clicked on…you know, that other title, wink, wink. And that game plays fast and smooth with no problems.

Then consider that Play Action Football switches to a faraway aerial view for pass plays. See those screenshot on the back of the box? Forget it. The close-up view is replaced with tiny ants. And they still move in patches. So I really don’t know what Nintendo was thinking. Either the programmers were too inexperienced, or the game was designed way over in Japan, where no one in their right minds has any clue what the heck “American Football” is all about.

But then, once again, we have Tecmo. So those excuses are thrown out the window.

And have I mentioned that I couldn’t find the running plays for my offense? There’s only a handful of plays in the entire game, and I can’t find any running plays. Which only adds to the confusion when the computer runs the ball. And then it just hikes the ball to the running back, which confuses me more. Did the programmers even know what this sport was, or did they just watch a videotape of a British rugby match one Saturday afternoon? Maybe they watched a commercial on TV once. Harumph.

At least the scoreboard clips are nice. Whatever. Tecmo Bowl smokes this effort by a country mile, and Tecmo Super Bowl leapfrogs the lot of ’em. Hang onto your cash for that little gem, folks. And somebody tell Nintendo to stop making bad sports videogames, not until they can learn the rules.

The Simpson’s Movie: A Review…or, My Eyes, The Goggles Do Nothing!

The Simpsons Movie

Good Lord, this movie stinks.

I had high hopes for The Simpson’s Movie, and, indeed, it begins on a high note, with a great Itchy & Scratchy sequence that ends with Scratchy eating hundreds of nuclear warheads. Hah! Then the camera pans back to reveal we’re watching a movie, where Homer Simpson stands and berates the audience for paying money to see a show they’re already getting on television for free. Haha…more funny.

Homer wasn’t kidding. The jokes in this movie are good for about, oh, 20 minutes. Twenty minutes, the length of one decent TV. Then the writers lose any sense of creativity or wit, and plod along for two unbearably dull hours. The Simpson’s Movie is such a slave to Hollywood formula that I was looking behind my couch for a paperback copy of “Screenwriting 101.”

Do I really have to write more? I don’t feel like it. You’ve had more than enough time to see this movie if you’re so inclined. I’m really the last one to the party. I think the problem here is the same as the TV show: The Simpson’s has run out of gas. After 25 years on the air, every conceivable joke, story, and scenario has been played out a dozen different ways. The series is now reduced to the level of a simple gag show that sputters through tired routines and worn jokes, and has been so for years.

There’s no reason why a Simpson’s Movie couldn’t be clever, witty, biting, recapture some of that old magic. I could imagine a wacky comedy like one of Mel Brooks’ classic films — Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs — or any number of screwball farces. No such luck. What’s here is just a standard-issue formula picture that has been used on about a billion summer blockbusters.

About the only good thing to come out of this movie is the animation, which is much fuller than on TV. The production team definitely put a priority on animating The Simpsons as they never could on the small screen. For the most part, it works very well. They didn’t turn this movie into an overdrawn Disney cartoon, but augment the in-between animations whenever necessary.  Everything looks very nice, if still a bit bland, but that’s largely due to the art design of the series itself, and it’s far too late to do anything about that now.

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Ratatouille (2007): A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review

Ratatouille (2007)

I.

I’ve been following the box office numbers for Pixar’s Ratatouille on Box Office Mojo, hopeful that the movie’s fortunes turn out to surprise us. It’s a common assumption that this movie would not be a big hit with audiences, certainly not when compared to Pixar’s other hits. I’ve kept my hopes up that people would defy the suits and marketers who run Hollywood, and turn out in solid numbers. It hasn’t really happened, and at this point I don’t know if those numbers will ever arrive.

I’m really not sure why this is the case. Pixar is about as reliable a brand you can find for movies today. They’ve never made a bad picture, and many dedicated fans will insist that they never will. But you have to struggle to explain what could become Hollywood conventional wisdom: that Pixar is now a fading brand. Heaven forbid.

I’m not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there’s no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo reached a peak, every Pixar movie since has grossed steadily smaller numbers; first with The Incredibles, then Cars, and now (almost certainly) Ratatouille. Surely this would be a concern, but add in the immensely expensive Disney buyout from last year, and you can see the stakes involved. The knives will be out for John Lasseter and Pixar’s generals, and that battle is really only just beginning.

So what’s wrong here? Is it simply that the market is oversaturated with CGI cartoons? Are parents reaching the burnout point, tiring of having to drag their children to more and more animated animal movies? Has the public become burned from an endless dirge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats? Maybe it’s everything, maybe it’s nothing.

I don’t know, I really don’t. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be a running topic on Ghibli Blog. And here it is, in case you’ve missed it: Americans don’t think of animation as an artform or a facet of the movies; they primarily see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is embraced by artists and animation enthusiasts, but for the general population, the medium serves a more utilitarian purpose. Cartoons exist to keep our children quiet.

The explosion in mass media over the past generation, no doubt, has been a factor. When I was a small child, there were four television stations and maybe a few UHF channels. Then cable arrived and the number of stations rose to 30. Today, there are literally hundreds of stations across cable and satellite providers. Home video has made thousands of movie and TV titles available within reach. The rise of digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu only accelerates this momentum. And let us not forget the ten billion websites, all clamoring for our attention. American families have never felt so overwhelmed with entertainment options. Does this mean the loudest movies — the biggest explosions, the loudest fart jokes, the simplest plots — will rise to the top? Where does this leave thoughtful or nuanced movies?

Because of these reasons, I can understand the challenge in making a smart movie like Ratatouille a big hit. It’s so difficult to be heard over the noise. Even Pixar must sometimes struggle to be heard. This is going to be a major challenge for our beloved animation studio.

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Down on Skid Row

Down On Skid Row (1998)

Skid Row is a documentary movie that chronicles the lost era of downtown Minneapolis and its fabled “skid row” in the heart of the old city. It was filmed between 1955 and 1961 by John Bacich, a World War II veteran and successful real estate businessman who owned a bar and several “flophouse” hotels along Washington Avenue. He shot movies of his neighborhood patrons on 8mm film, and in the late 1980s, assembled his footage into a 30-minute short film, complete with running commentary of his memories.

This is a haunting documentary, deeply moving, and full of the human experience: tragedy, despair, misery, urban decay, but also humor, warmth, and the genuine compassion of Bacich, who was dubbed “Johnny Rex,” the “King of Skid Row.” It depicts an important part of American history that has now vanished. It is one of the most humane documentary films I have ever seen. Its power resonates and echoes in your heart and mind. I pray for the souls of these sad, lost men, as though they were here with me today, trapped in Purgatory and awaiting Salvation.

The Minneapolis Gateway district was the original heart of the old city, the merging of its three main avenues along the Mississippi River: Washington, Hennepin and Lyndale. Because its railroads lay nearby, this area became a source for cheap, easily exploitable labor — the “day laborers.” These men would work for the rail yards and trains for a short period of time, days, weeks or even months. Their temporary status prevented them from joining labor unions, thus keeping them poor and powerless. Ordinances were passed to force all the city’s liquor stores into the Gateway, and closed everywhere else. Police drove criminal elements — drugs and prostitution — into the growing slums, away from middle-class households. It was diabolical, brutally cynical, and highly effective. Soon, Minneapolis was home to the largest skid row in the American midwest.

In 1958, Minneapolis began a five-year crusade to reclaim the Gateway district, demolishing over 20 blocks and nearly 200 buildings. As the city’s business core moved several blocks west, Washington and Hennepin Avenues’ continued to decay. After World War II, a growing middle class embraced the new future of suburbs, with their clean and spacious streets, shopping malls, and luxurious cars. The age of the interstate highway had arrived. Edina’s Southdale Mall ushered in the age of indoor shopping. Skyway tunnels moved people off downtown streets and into safe, climate-controlled environments. City planners envisioned a futuristic city with gleaming highways, polished skyscrapers, a future that was bright, clean, rational. A future world totally devoid of crime, poverty, pollution.

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Street Fighter 2 Turbo (Super NES)

Street Fighter 2 Turbo
Capcom for Super NES – Fighting – 1993 – Rating: 10/10

A perfect ten out of ten, small surprise here.

I recently read that Street Fighter 2 on the Super NES was Capcom’s best-selling game of all time, over six million copies. That would include, at the time, just about every Super NES owner in 1992, plus a metric ton of new fans, eager just to play the arcade sensation at home. Street Fighter 2 Turbo was released a year later and brought home the latest coin-op versions, Champion Edition and Turbo Champion Edition. Likewise, this was a great success, continuing the momentum of the original craze.

The first three variations on SF2 are now all considered one videogame, since the later sequels and spin-offs made so many changes as to be unrecognizable. As for me, I hold Champion Edition as my personal favorite of the series. It’s as balanced and nuanced as the game gets, and after that, things just get out of control. Capcom falls victim to its chronic sequel-itis, and the need to always tinker with formulas to keep the kids coming back.

Whatever. Here is the best home version you’re likely to ever see on the Virtual Console service. Street Fighter Alpha 2, Alpha 3 and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike (the definitive versions on Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, respectively) won’t be arriving anytime in the near future. Totally unfair, but, again, whatever. This version is so perfectly playable that I can’t imagine anyone really minding. If you could never buy another home version of any Street Fighter game, you’ll be happy with this one.

If you bought the first SF2 when it was released, you’re likely wondering if you should pay again for the new cart. The answer is yes. There are quite a lot of graphics changes, especially in the character designs, which are older, sleeker, and slightly more brutish-looking. Background stages are the same, apart from some minor variations such as day-to-night. And Ryu put away those signs on his roof that were always getting smashed during fights.

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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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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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