Monday, November 7, 2016

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel
  • Publisher: Marvel Comics
  • Writer: G. Willow Wilson
  • Artists: Adrian Alphona, et. al.
  • Editor: Sana Amanat
  • Release: 05 February 2014 - 14 October 2015
Call it crazy, but I'm not that familiar with American superhero comics.  Yes, I'm well-acquainted with the sequential art form, and have even dabbled in it myself, but much of that experience comes from webcomics or Japanese manga.  And I do have a working knowledge of the characters of that medium, but most of it comes from the other corners of their pop-culture exposure, especially their movies.  Still, every so often a bit of news comes out of the comic-book sphere which captures my attention to some degree.  For example, when I heard about the new Ms. Marvel series from 2014, I was intrigued, because this new interpretation of the character would represent a heroic role model for a people long marginalized in not just this medium, but society in macrocosm: people from Jersey City!  Oh, and Muslims.  Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim-American hero to come out of Marvel Comics' lineup.  I guess I should have mentioned that first.

So yeah.  This series stars a sixteen-year-old, Pakistani immigrant girl named Kamala Khan.  (If you read her name without thinking of Captain Kirk's immortal scream from Star Trek II, you are stronger-willed than I.  Even the series itself falls victim to it later on.)  Well, on her way home from a bad party, she finds herself enveloped in a strange mist, sees a vision of Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Captain America reciting Urdu poetry, and the next thing she knows, she has shapeshifting powers.  First of all, a disclaimer: I am not making any of that up.  Second, you may be wondering, as did I, how did this event come about?  Surely it was a completely random occurrence, you might think.  Well apparently, this mist was the product of something called a Terrigen bomb, which awoke various powers in a select few people.  I'm guessing this happened in a different story, so a little extra knowledge on current events in the Marvel universe would not go amiss.  

So enough about Kamala as a superhero, how is she as a Muslim character?  See, here's the thing: if I told you, without any other context whatsoever, that someone at Marvel was creating a Muslim hero, odds are your impression of her would be that her appearance, or even her powers, would be an obvious, overly basic representation of her religious heritage.
For example.1  And that would not be farther from the truth.  In fact, one of the things that struck me the most about Kamala, both in her civilian and hero personae, is that apart from when attending her local mosque, she never wears a headscarf.  Now, as an outsider, I have my own preconceptions about Muslims.  Not that they are all terrorists out to destroy the Western world, perish the thought.  Heck, I'd go so far as to say that over 99% of Muslims are law-abiding citizens.  But I still tend to instinctively identify them as, for lack of a better term, some kind of "Stop Having Fun" guys; I mean, they strictly adhere to certain rules which I may or may not view as reasonable.  Speaking as an outsider, I'm not a fan of the hijab in principle.  I wouldn't go yanking off the hijabs of women I pass walking by or anything, but I'd prefer them to stop and think about why they wear it.  For what it's worth, both the writer (G. Willow Wilson) and editor (Sana Amanat) are Muslim women (either by birth or conversion), and also grew up in Jersey City to boot, so I have faith that they know what they're doing.


The situations Kamala deals with in her civilian life are actually quite universal.
Even so, the restrictions Kamala's parents try (and fail) to put on her have less to do with their religion, and are more so the concerns of parents trying to keep their child safe and out of trouble.  The most important thing about building a character like this, is that they shouldn't be defined by only one trait (Islam, in this case).  It's a complex issue, and there's no golden ratio to follow every time, but if I could personally give you a piece of advice: nobody likes a one-trick pony.  Indeed, Kamala is no one-trick pony.  She's a self-professed geek who enjoys playing not-World Of Warcraft, singing along with old Bollywood movies, and writing Avengers fan-fiction (Mind you, the Avengers are real people in her universe).  She even has fangirl freak-outs when she meets other heroes like Wolverine, Spider-Man, Loki, and the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, in the flesh, as it were.  She bristles against her strict parents, and sometimes endures bullying from her peers, but they all manage to see the good in each other in the end.  She barely even wears a hijab; only when going to services at her local mosque, or on other special occasions.  And the one moment I connected with her the most with had nothing to do with her religion.

DISCLAIMER: I was not making up that
robot-bowler-hat thing.
Without spoiling too much (outside of spoiler tags, that is), the villain of the first arc has convinced a number of teens to submit themselves to his evil plan, namely to use their bodies as a clean energy source.  Kamala manages to talk them out of it by convincing them that, despite the older generations branding them as useless, their talents can still be used to build a better world with them in it.  What struck me about this passage is that the villain's logic parallels the way ISIL and other terror groups attempt to recruit young members, by making them think they're standing up for their brethren, when in fact they're just throwing their lives away, in some cases literally, all for killing their fellow man.  And do you want to know the funny thing about all this?  Not once is Islam even referred to in this case.  It just goes to show the power comic books have, to use these more fantastical stories as allegories to real-life affairs, without coming across as forced.  And then the villain, a reincarnation of Thomas Edison with a bird's head, barges in on a robot wearing a bowler hat, because comics are weird like that.

So, enough of the heavy stuff; let's get technical.  Ms. Marvel has had numerous artists throughout its run, but most issues were drawn by Adrian Alphona.  His style is... an acquired taste, shall I say, because it's kind of sketchy.  That may bug some people and not others, so if I may make a more objective observation, I do like the numerous background jokes he throws in here and there.  For example, Kamala can be seen in a few panels eating her preferred breakfast cereal called "GMO's" (a play on Cheerios and Genetically Modified Organisms, if you didn't get it).  My personal favourite artist to have worked on Ms. Marvel is Takeshi Miyazawa from issues #13-15, whose style is far cleaner and more closely resemble true manga, but again, that's just my opinion.

I came in to Ms. Marvel expecting a different, more positive, portrayal of Muslims in America, and I got that all right, but so much more on top of it.  I got somebody trying to find her own place in an unforgiving world, but rising up at the end of it all to stand up for my generation, as a Millenial.  And while the ending of this 19-issue series wasn't quite satisfying, there is thankfully a second Ms. Marvel series, continuing to this day, picking up where the first one left off (as part of the franchise-wide "All-New, All-Different Marvel" quasi-reboot).  This year I've started getting into western superhero comics, and I couldn't ask for a better jumping-on point than Ms. Marvel.  Thank you, Kamala Khan, for teaching me how to love again.


Artwork: 3 out of 5
Dialogue: 5 out of 5
Plot: 4 out of 5
Characters: 5 out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)


Furthermore, if I may be allowed to editorialise for a bit: Ms. Marvel, both the series and the character herself, are perfect reasons why Donald Trump should not be elected President of the United States.  Although Kamala herself was born in Jersey City, her parents emigrated from Pakistan before she was born.  If a president like Trump were calling the shots at the time, Kamala's parents would never have made it to America, and her story would not even have the chance to have happened.  So that's two strikes against his racist isolation doctrine.  Whereas the world according to Trump collectively sorts people into preordained and assumed roles, I, on the other hand, personally believe that everybody in this world has the potential to contribute to their society.  This also ties into what was the most emotionally engaging moment I read in the series thus far: the bit where Ms. Marvel encouraged all those teenagers not to throw their lives away, and contribute to a better society in their own ways.  As the great philosopher Bobby Nunn once said, "Don't knock it until you try it".

I'm IchigoRyu, and I approve this message.

You are the resistance.

1 Wilstein, Matt.  "Twitter Goes After Conan O'Brien for 'Racist' Muslim Female Superhero Joke".  Mediaite, 9 November 2013.  http://www.mediaite.com/online/twitter-goes-after-conan-obrien-for-racist-muslim-female-superhero-joke/
2 MrEnter.  "Avoiding Unfortunate Implications: The Characters".  deviantART, 10 April 2016.  http://mrenter.deviantart.com/art/Avoiding-Unfortunate-Implications-The-Characters-602166339

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Top Ten: Best Sonic the Hedgehog Games (Revisited)


Previously on the SDP, I updated my list of the worst Sonic the Hedgehog games. Despite declaring my love for the Sonic franchise, I did the list anyway because a good fan should not only celebrate the good parts of their fandom, but accept the bad that comes with it. But I wouldn't have been a fan in the first place if it didn't include something providing actual entertainment value, and I'm proud to say that there are enough good Sonic titles to fill yet another top-eleven list. Why top eleven? Because when you’re as big a fan as I am, you’ve got to go one step beyond. So, let’s not waste any time -- Sonic would’ve wanted it that way -- and count down the top eleven best Sonic the Hedgehog games!


11) Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II
Platforms: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Developer: Sonic Team / Dimps
Release: 2012

Look, how many times do I have to tell you people? I. Liked. Sonic. 4. I don't care what you think about the physics. After all the feature cruft that previous games were stuffed with, I appreciate the back-to-basics approach that Sonic Team and Dimps took with these downloadable-only titles. Sonic 4 goes back to square one, featuring only the abilities from the first and second games. (And the Homing Attack, but that doesn't count. I actually like using it.)  Even so, of the two episodes, I'm putting the second one on this list. In addition to the Chaos Emeralds, each act packs three Red Rings for you to find, and the inclusion of Tails means the addition of two-player support, both local and online. And regardless of whether you thought the physics changes brought on by Episode II made it better, it's comforting to know that Sega at least listens to the opinions of its fans. Capcom, when will you ever be this cool?


10) Sonic the Hedgehog
Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 1991

Of course I’ve got to represent the one that started it all. The first Sonic the Hedgehog game on the Sega Genesis was a unique and well-executed platformer that still holds up to this day. Creativity is omnipresent in the level designs, with trappings like loops and springs which, by my knowledge, would've been impossible to program on anything that came before the Genesis. Still, I'd be lying if I said this isn’t an acquired taste for modern gamers, what with familiar trappings like Spin Dash from Sonic 2 not having been included yet. And say what you want about the role speed should play in the newer games, but some of the levels here, such as the Marble and Labyrinth Zones, don’t feel like they belong in a Sonic game. But may that still not detract from the fact that it laid down the groundwork for even better things to come.


9) Sonic Triple Trouble
Platform: Sega Game Gear
Developer: Aspect
Release: 1994

I'll admit, I didn't have a Sega Genesis growing up, but I did have a Game Gear, and it was the handheld Sonic games for that platform which gave me the bulk of my experience with it. And while my personal favourite was 1993's Sonic Chaos, I'll give credit to its follow-up, Sonic Triple Trouble, for being better technically. The graphics are the most detailed I’ve seen on any 8-bit console, and the gameplay of both Sonic and Tails has been fleshed out, with many abilities and power-ups for both. This portable Sonic game can still stand up to its bigger brothers on the Genesis. Previously reviewed here.


8) Sonic CD
Platform: Sega CD
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 1993

If there's any reason to own a Sega CD, this might be it. Sonic CD finds ways to wow us in ways the Genesis could only dream of, like the set of visually-stunning levels. But with Sonic's new time-travel abilities, past and future versions of each act are also available for you to explore! Even without those alternate level versions, this is a well-built action game, the likes of which were hard to come by on the Sega CD. So why isn't it higher on this list? The execution of the time-travel system leaves a bit to be desired, as the shifting of platforms and such between time periods creates some awkward level layouts, and the method of time-travel itself is inconvenient. Plus, in order to get the good ending, you have to hunt down the Badnik generators in each of the Past levels. Or, you could just do the Special Stages and collect the Chaos Emeralds -- I mean, Time Stones. As such, perhaps its relative obscurity may have magnified its standing in fans' eyes, but don't get me wrong, it's an incredibly solid adventure. With its recent ports on PSN, XBox Live, and iOS, you have even fewer reasons to pass it by. And one less reason to waste your money on a Sega CD.


7) Sonic & Knuckles
Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Sonic Team / Sega Technical Institute
Release: 1994

The character Knuckles the Echidna was introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which I will get to eventually, but later that year he was also given his own game: Sonic & Knuckles, where you can play as, well, Sonic or Knuckles. Sonic plays just as you’d expect, whereas Knuckles has his own unique abilities, namely gliding, wall-climbing, and breaking walls to discover areas unreachable by Sonic. Knuckles is pretty cool to play as, and if you want more of him, the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge can open up and lock-on to Sonic 2 or 3, so you can play as him in those games. See, not that bad. Now, this game is a little bit short on its own, and some of the levels can drag on a bit too long -- especially Sandopolis Act 2 -- but it’s worth it to give Knuckles a try.


6) Sonic Rush
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Sonic Team / Dimps
Release: 2005

While Sonic had little luck on the console front during the 2000s, the handheld scene was much kinder to the blue blur. Hot on the heels of the Sonic Advance trilogy, Sonic Team and Dimps teamed up once again to bring us Sonic Rush for the DS. The playable characters this time around are Sonic and newcomer Blaze the Cat, the bad@$$ defender of an alternate universe. As both have their own sets of levels for each of the Zones, there are essentially two games in one here. Sonic and Blaze play the same as each other, and in fact both have bestowed upon them a new boost ability. Fast, damaging to enemies, and limited by a refillable meter, this is a natural addition to the series' formula on par with the Spin Dash from Sonic 2.


5) Sonic Advance 3
Game Boy Advance
Developer: Sonic Team / Dimps
Release: 2004

Marking Sonic's debut on a non-Sega platform, the Sonic Advance trilogy was consistently solid, but I'm picking the third game as the best of the bunch. Perhaps to tie-in with Sonic Heroes -- which I almost put on this list, if you can believe it -- Sonic Advance 3 not only lets you play as one of five characters, but you also get to select a partner character who tags along behind your first choice. And don't worry, they're not tethered to you like in Knuckles Chaotix. The team you choose determines the special abilities at your disposal; for example, Sonic will let you do a speed boost, and Tails will toss you up to higher platforms. This addition makes for an optional yet welcome bit of depth that doesn’t interfere with the already solid platforming, but improves upon it.


4) Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Sonic Team / Sega Technical Institute
Release: 1994

Sonic 3 was so big, it couldn’t even fit in one game! Literally, the production costs got to the point where Sega had to put the other half of their content in  Sonic & Knuckles. But even on its own, Sonic 3 is a meaty chunk of an adventure. First of all, it builds off the already stellar Sonic 2 with new abilities like Tails’s flight powers, and three flavours of elemental shields. The sprite artwork and effects are even more detailed, and the Special Stages, while tricky, are sure to wow. And it also has a save feature, but on its own, you might not see why.Sonic 3 only contains 12 levels, versus 18 for the first game, although they do take longer to complete. But when you plug Sonic 3 into the lock-in bay on Sonic & Knuckles, you get to play both games back-to-back for an epic quest.


3) Sonic Generations
Platforms: PlayStation 3 and XBox 360
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2011

After the unqualified disaster was Sonic the Hedgehog's 15th anniversary, I am pleased to report that his 20th birthday was far more fulfilling, thanks to Sonic Generations. This game serves more or less as a greatest-hits version of the franchise, as it features original levels set in zones taken from across the Genesis, Dreamcast, and modern eras. Whilst some fans would potentially balk at the mere inclusion of settings from the likes of Sonic '06, it's not like they copied everything about those games. And quite frankly, their choice of Crisis City makes for an awesome level. Each has one act each for Classic Sonic, a completely 2D affair with all the abilities from Sonic 2, and one for Modern Sonic, alternating between 2D and 3D segments, much as in Sonic Unleashed and Colors. It seems short at first, but each zone also boasts a set of shorter challenges really boosting the replay value for those who stick around for it. Sonic Generations proves you can have both fanservice and a well-made product.



2) Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Sonic Team / Sega Technical Institute
Release: 1992

This is it - the video game which defined the Sega Genesis for me in the few opportunities I could play one when I was a lad. And judging by its status as one of the best-selling Genesis titles of all time, selling around 6 million units worldwide (second only to the first Sonic, with 15 million copies), I'm not alone. The level layouts are more inventive than in the first game, and are better-suited to Sonic’s abilities, yet they’re not overly long like in Sonic 3 or Sonic & Knuckles. Too bad things start dulling out by the time you hit Metropolis Zone. But barring that sludgy dreck of a world, the settings are memorable and fun, Masato Nakamura's music is even better, and Sonic's new standing Spin Dash makes getting up those pesky slopes a breeze. Plus, didn't you ever think that the pseudo-3D Special Stages, where you collected rings in a twisting half-pipe, were the coolest thing ever? Well, at least until Tails keeps hitting those bombs and losing your rings. Still, six million people can’t be wrong.

Before I wrap up this list, here are some honourable mentions.

Sonic Chaos for Game Gear. Among the Game Gear titles, I gave Triple Trouble the nod for its attention to detail, but its predecessor, Sonic Chaos, exhibits much of the good stuff that its sequel would build upon. You can play as Sonic or Tails, who have their own abilities and differences in difficulties. Sonic Chaos marked the point where the Game Gear Sonics became more than just ports of the Genesis games and evolved into their own thing. Previously reviewed here.

Sonic Heroes for Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2, and XBox. Unlike the Adventure games, Heroes sticks to linear 3-D platforming, but with a twist. You control a team of three characters at once, and you can switch between them on the fly, to take advantage of their specific abilities. This approach allows Sonic Team to leverage the vast cast of characters their franchise has built up over the years, without having them interfere with the Sonic gameplay model.

Sonic Mega Collection Plus for PlayStation 2 and XBox. I kept compilations off of this list because, by virtue of including so many games already on the list, they’d win by default. But my favourite of the Sonic compilation games produced thus far has to be this one. Seven Genesis games, plus six from the Game Gear, plus unlockable non-Sonic games, plus a digital issue of the Sonic comic. If you can find a copy, Mega Collection Plus is a perfect entry point to the Sonic franchise.

Sonic Unleashed for PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and Wii. This was the series' first major change in gameplay mechanics since Sonic Adventure, and it made a world of a difference. The 3D sections have much better control and design, the 2D segments keep things fresh, and even the Werehog stages are fun in a "like God of War but" kind of way.

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I for PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and Wii. Because [verb] you, that’s why. Previously reviewed here. And here.

And now...


1) Sonic Colors
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2010

As if I haven't made it clear by now, Sonic has gone about most of the 2000s as if in some sort of drugged-up stupor, the likes of which would shame Lindsay Lohan. But late in the decade, I like to think he got some rehab from an unlikely source -- his old rival, Nintendo's Mario. It took a little while after they showed up together in games like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but the Jumpman's influence finally showed through in 2010's Sonic Colors. First and foremost is the game's new key mechanic. Rather a gimmick that creates an entirely separate gameplay experience, like what Adventure and Unleashed thrust upon us, this game's use of power-ups called Wisps is well-integrated into one gameplay format. These colour-coded aliens can be used to transform Sonic into a laser beam, a drill, a sticky buzz-saw, a rocket, and more. While there are occasions where the use of Wisps is mandatory to continue, most of the time they're just tools to reach bonus collectibles with, so at least they're not shoving this new concept in our faces.

In lieu of relying on HD visuals, something the Wii is incapable of, Colors's worlds amaze through all the colourful and original sights they packed in -- this is set in a space-bourne amusement park, after all. You thought you've seen enough underwater and Asian-themed levels to last you a lifetime? Well, imagine both themes smashed into one. By Sonic standards, Sonic Colors is a massive game, with seven zones and six acts in each. Apart from trying to achieve high grades, diligent players can collect the five Red Rings in each zone and unlock Special Stages. Yeah, you could say the physics engine is still a little too tight, if you happened to not like Sonic 4: Episode I so much. But when counting all its good parts, I would compare Sonic Colors to the likes of Super Mario World on the SNES, which -- for the record -- is one of the best video games I've ever played. That I can once again make that kind of comparison proves once and for all that Sonic the Hedgehog is back and better than ever. Mind you, I made that statement before Sonic Boom came out, but still: Sonic Team, thank you for teaching me how to love again.

That’s it for my countdowns, so I’d like to end by saying: Happy anniversary, Sonic the Hedgehog! If you can keep giving is good games for another 25 years, I’ll be a happy camper. And if we get more bad games instead, hey, at least I’ll have enough material for another countdown!


This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Top Ten: Worst Sonic the Hedgehog Games (Revisited)


With the recent anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose first game was delivered unto us in June of 1991, I've decided to finally relaunch my video series by adapting my list of the franchise's top ten worst games, previously written and posted in 2012. But in re-writing the script for that episode, I made so many changes and additions that I decided to post a new article for the new edition of my list, whilst keeping the older version intact for posterity. In fact, I even managed to add an extra slot to this list, making it a top-eleven. Why top eleven? Because when you're as big a fan as I am, you’ve got to go one step beyond. So, let's not waste any time! Sonic would've wanted it this way. Here are the new top eleven worst Sonic the Hedgehog games!

11) Sonic 3D Blast
Platforms: Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn
Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release: 1996

Looking back, it's amazing how little it takes to impress you as a kid. Playing this game in toy stores was a wow-inducing experience for me, since this was the first Sonic the Hedgehog game presented in 3D! ...Sort of. Really, it was just 3D models pre-rendered as 2D sprites a la Donkey Kong Country, which is a look that hasn’t aged all that well if I say so myself. But the gameplay’s still good, right? ...Not exactly. This isn’t one of those games where you can just rush to the level exit. No, you have to find and kill five enemy robots in each section, free the Flickies within, and bring them to the goal. But the controls are still good, right? Eh, no. Sonic in this game has a floaty feel to his movements which throws all attempts at precision out the window. But at least the soundtrack’s still good, right? ...Actually, yes. In fact, this happens to be among my favourite Sonic soundtracks, because I’m weird like that.

...Aww yeah. I wish I could stick around jamming to this, but I really should go on.

10) Sonic and the Black Knight
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2009

Before Sonic Team got their act together (pun?) with the one-two punch of Sonic 4: Episode I and Sonic Colors, they were still in the business of tacking lame ideas onto their products. As evidence to that statement, enter Sonic and the Black Knight, the second entry in the Sonic Storybook spin-off series.  (I love alliteration.)  The Storybook series was a duology of Wii titles, the other being Sonic and the Secret Rings, which transplanted the Sonic universe into different pieces of world mythology. In the case of Black Knight, that would be the mythos of King Arthur and Camelot. Secret Rings was kind of okay, but Black Knight... not so much. See, Sonic uses a sword -- a talking sword -- no less. I wouldn't mind so much, but the combat is stop-and-go, with every swing of your sword killing Sonic’s momentum, and detection of your Wii Remote waggles to swing the darn thing are iffy at best. And some of the missions are completely dumb, too. There are some moments where you have to give rings to townspeople... by way of quick-time events. Why can’t I just give them the danged rings? What were they thinking? Now, I honestly think the concept of this universe was an interesting one with lots of potential, but it's the sluggish controls and short campaign that do this game in -- not its other crazy ideas.

9) Sonic Adventure 2
Platform: Sega Dreamcast
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2001

Oh, I’m not gonna make any friends for this one. But that’s not why I’m here. This entry has some polarizing opinions, from people who either strongly love it, or strongly hate it. And I... don’t like Sonic Adventure 2. For a time, every new Sonic game seemed to take one step forward, and two steps back. Take Sonic Adventure for example.  It featured six gameplay types, some of which had nothing to do with our concept of a Sonic game and/or just weren't very fun.  Adventure 2, meanwhile, pares them down to three types, and you don’t have to waste time in a hub world to get from level to level. But that just means you have to get through those different modes in order to get to the next chapter. And somehow they’re implemented even worse! Also, the voice-acting is lame, cutscene animation is wonky, and the story is... kind of dumb, too. There are some good bits, namely the Sonic and Shadow levels, but seriously, don’t let them blind you to the rest of the game’s problems.


8) Shadow the Hedgehog
Platforms: Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2, and XBox
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2005

A Sonic spinoff that has the use of guns, mild profanities, and vehicles, all based on the broken Sonic Adventure engine. This isn't going to end well. If there were any good concepts to be taken from this clusterfail, it would be the different missions you can undertake to influence your path throughout the story. But they had to ruin that, too: you also build up separate Hero and Dark scores based on which enemies you take out, and if you clear a mission for one side, your score for the other side gets subtracted from your total. Kinda hard to focus on that when everyone's gunning for you. The game has ten possible endings, but if you want to go for a different one, you’ll have to start a whole new game. Sure, there are only six possible levels in each play-through, but that means you’ll have to do the first stage ten times to get them all. What were they thinking? Supposedly the GameCube version is less awful in how well it runs, but it’s not much help against such a poorly-designed, poorly-conceived mess.

7) Sonic Labyrinth
Platform: Sega Game Gear.
Developer: Minato Giken
Release: 1995

Does everybody have a mental picture of Sonic 3D Blast? Good, now imagine that on the Game Gear... only Sonic can't run or jump. I just broke you, eh? Because of a contrivance -- I mean, because of the game’s story, Sonic went and had his shoes replaced with a pair of shoes that slow him down. Sonic still gets to use his spin dash, but that just means if you want any decent mobility to scoot around the stages, you'll have to deal with an unintuitive mechanic and all the infuriating sound effects that go along with it. Even without those limitations, navigating the game’s labyrinths, shall I say, is still a chore. Not only do parts of each map look the same, but later levels rely so heavily on warp doors and one-way moving platforms that they’ll make your head spin! As bad as you thought 3D Blast was, Labyrinth proves things could always be worse. And case in point, this isn’t the only Game Gear port on this list. Previously reviewed here.

6) Knuckles Chaotix
Platform: Sega 32X
Developer: Sega
Release: 1995

Well, no wonder the 32X bombed! I mean, apart from its poor timing of going on sale when consumers were already holding out for the Saturn, PlayStation, or Nintendo 64. The problem with this expansion console was that it never got a Sonic title! Well, it did, kind of, but it was still a torrent of poor ideas. Knuckles Chaotix stars not Sonic, but Knuckles the Echidna from Sonic 3, joined by the Chaotix, a cast of generally uninteresting supporting characters. Except maybe Espio the ninja chameleon. Because... ninja. But you'll have to deal with them, as during gameplay, both characters you choose are linked by an elastic "ring tether" at all times. Having this thrust upon you, combined with the uncooperative AI of your partner, leads to some unpredictable physics, and at worst case renders precision platforming nigh impossible. And I’m talking about in commonplace tasks, as in... running up a short quarterpipe. As an intended showcase for the 32X's abilities, Knuckles Chaotix is visually all up-in-your-face with fluorescent bright colours and zooming effects, but without fun gameplay backing it up, it falls flat on its face.

5) Sonic R
Platform: Sega Saturn
Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release: 1997

Speaking of failed Sega consoles, the Saturn was another infamous Sega flop which was also under-represented by the Blue Blur. The only original* Sonic game on the Saturn was Sonic R, which was not a traditional platformer but a racing game. Actually, since most of the characters run on foot, Sonic R is more of a cross between a platformer and a racer, so once again, there are some good ideas to be had. But, once again, all hopes of entertainment are dashed by the touchy controls which, I have to say, may be the worst controls I’ve ever had to deal with in any video game ever. I ended up discovering shortcuts completely by accident! Not even the 3D Pad, with its analog stick, makes any big difference in improving those controls. And the soundtrack, with its high-energy house music and inane, bubble-gummy lyrics, is all kinds of cheese. But little did we know, Sonic R served as a warning for the problems that would plague this series for a decade to come.

*NB: The only other Sonic titles for the Saturn were Sonic Jam, a compilation of the original Genesis trilogy, and a port of Sonic 3D Blast. You see what I mean when I called the Saturn a flop?

4) Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric
Platform: Wii U
Developer: Big Red Button
Release: 2014

Okay, I honestly haven’t played this one, because I don’t own a Wii U. And depending on how Nintendo’s next console turns out, I might not ever. But seriously, do I need to? Sonic Boom's failings have been well-documented all over the Internet! The game is riddled with frame rate drops and collision glitches, the platforming and combat are dull and boast few innovations, and the hub worlds are so barren, they make the ones in Sonic '06 look teeming with life. I will say that I, for one, like the character redesigns. Although if that’s the case, why not just stick to the Sonic Boom cartoon? I might as well… I’m just happy to watch any show whose sense of humour isn't just butts.

Meh, good enough.


3) Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2006

As if it wasn't enough that Sega had to ruin Sonic's 15th anniversary with that other infamous reboot, and believe me, I’ll get to that one in short order, they also dumped upon us Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis, a remake of the original 1991 title for the Game Boy Advance. The low frame-rate does an incredible disservice to the GBA's potential, the chintzy sound quality does an incredible disservice to Masato Nakamura's incredible compositions, and the physics glitches do an incredible disservice to everyone else. I mean, yeah, you can play with the Spin Dash from Sonic 2, but that’s like tying a fancy ribbon on a bag of dog doo.  Of course, we don't have to worry about that anymore because there are much, much better ports of the game available, including the one for iPhone and Android which not only run perfectly, but you can also play with the Spin Dash, plus you can unlock Tails and Knuckles, plus you can save your game, plus it's got acheivements, PLUS IT'S ONLY 99 CENTS -- seriously, go out to your favourite app store, buy that game, and leave the GBA one in the dust!!

2) Sonic Spinball
Platform: Game Gear
Developer: Polygames / Sega interActive
Release: 1994

Have you ever played a pinball video game and stressed out about trying to hit specific targets, even though you're using a control mechanism based partly on luck? Either that or I need to practise harder... This was the case for Sonic Spinball, a Sonic spin-off made in 1993 for the Genesis. And while it fell victim to this inherent design pitfall, it was otherwise playable. The same cannot be said about its Game Gear port, which suffers from muddled, unresponsive controls, and a broken physics engine. Sometimes Sonic will stick along walls when it seems he should just bounce off them, and sometimes he phases right through objects. And that's just the pinball segments! On the rare occasions where you must traverse on foot, such as the mandatory bonus stages, these problems are exacerbated to the umpteenth degree. If you absolutely have to satisfy your pinball fix, just stick to the real thing. And I’m not talking about the Genesis port, I mean a real pinball machine. Previously reviewed here.

Before number one, I’d like to shout out a few honourable mentions. ..."Honourable" in the sense that they didn’t suck enough to make the list proper. So let’s have at it.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Game Gear. It’s not within striking distance of its big brother on the Genesis, but it’s alright… except for the bosses, which are all kinds of unfair. Especially the first one. Oh, and if you don’t find all the Chaos Emeralds, you can’t even play the last zone. Because [verb] you, that’s why. Previously reviewed here.

Sonic Blast for Game Gear. You get to play as Sonic or Knuckles in this one, which is cool, but ugly art style, poor sense of speed, and overly precise hit detection make this the worst Sonic platformer on the Game Gear. Previously reviewed here.

Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast. This game introduced so many problems that plagued the franchise for years to come -- new characters with play styles that have nothing to do with the idea of Sonic, annoying voice-acting, awkward animation, and a control engine ill-suited to 3D platforming -- but for this game, they were just minor enough that I gave it a pass.  (Plus, I ran out of room on this list.)

Sonic Free Riders for XBox 360. This is another one I haven’t played because I don’t own an XBox 360, let alone a Kinect. But because of the technology of the Kinect, I’m willing to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Although, if my experience with the PlayStation 2’s EyeToy is anything to go by, I’m not expecting much.

Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal for Nintendo 3DS. Like its companion game on the Wii U, the 3DS Sonic Boom doesn't have a great sense of speed, plus all the backtracking and collecting you have to do to unlock new levels makes this even worse. But unlike Rise of Lyric, it’s still kind of, what’s the word I’m looking for... oh yeah, competent.

And now... You might already know what’s coming up, and let me tell you, I didn't want to put this at number one. You see, going after easy targets isn't my style. I would have loved to surprise you with something like Spinball on the Game Gear, or that Sonic GBA remake. But no, this one offended my sensibilities like nothing else on this list could. Let’s address the elephant in the room and find out why.


1) SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Platforms: XBox 360, PlayStation 3
Developer: Sonic Team
Release: 2006

Enough has been said about this title already, is it not so? But no, I have decided that this attempted reboot deserves its place as the best of the worst Sonic has to offer. It’s not the innumerable glitches and uncooperative camera. It’s not the unendearing character models and animations, like Dr. Eggman with full human proportions. Scream and run. It’s not the unforgivably inefficient loading times. It’s the way all those problems come together that prove Sonic Team have learned nothing from the mistakes made since Sonic Adventure. And all those underlying problems, combined with Sonic Team’s insistence on slapping new unwanted mechanics on top, is very North Korean of Sonic Team. And knowing what I do about North Korea, that is a very, very strong insult. Previously reviewed here.

So after witnessing the worst Sonic has to offer, I feel I should restore the balance. To that effect, join me next time when I count down the top eleven best Sonic the Hedgehog games. But until then, this is Kevin, and you are the resistance.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Film Review: Mission Impossible

Previously on the SDP, I wrapped up the 007 Golden Jubilee once again with my Spectre review last month.  But it would seem there's one corner of the James Bond film series I've left unaddressed.  Maybe there's some Bond movie out there not recognised by EON Productions?  Well ladies and gentlemen, that ends now, because today I'm reviewing...

Mission: Impossible
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Studio: Cruise/Wagner Productions
  • Genre: Action
  • Release: 22 May 1996
  • Director: Brian de Palma
  • Producers: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner
  • Writers: David Koepp, Robert Towne
April Fools!  ...But seriously folks, 2016 does mark the 20th anniversary of the Mission: Impossible film series, plus the 50th anniversary of the TV show that inspired it to begin with, so I figured, why not kick off a new mini-series devoted to them?  Hence, the Mission: Impossible Golden Jubilee.  Links to reviews of the other movies will be provided below as they are made available.
  • Mission: Impossible (1996)
  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)
  • Mission: Impossible III (2006)
  • Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
  • Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Now just so we're clear, this event is focusing solely on the five Mission: Impossible movies released thus far.  As of this posting, I have not seen any episodes of the TV shows (yes, plural), so the extent to which I can use them as a frame of reference is limited.  On the flip side, that means I don't have to worry about coming in with expectations that may not be met.  So, how well does the introductory entry hold up two decades on?  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read on.

Our story starts in Prague, where the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) is seeking to recover a list of the CIA's non-official cover (NOC) agents from the American embassy.  The team is directed by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), its leader from the TV series.  The mission starts off well enough, but the agents are killed off one by one -- except its point man, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).  Hunt is later debriefed by his boss, Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), that the mission was a trap to identify a mole inside IMF -- and by surviving, Hunt is fingered as a suspect.  His mission is then three-fold: clear his name with the IMF, protect the NOC list from the hands of an arms dealer named Max, and identify the mole working with Max.
Mission: Impossible boasts a number of unique shots,
including many slanted camera angles.
Kicking off a long line of star directors handling this franchise, this first entry was directed by Brian de Palma, whose eouvre includes Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), and The Untouchables (1987).  Among the touches he brings to the table is his use of simultaneous events in the foreground and background to advance the story without cutting, which is good, and a slight over-depenence on tilted camera angles, which is... weird.  Huh, maybe the director of Battlefield Earth got inspired by this movie.  Other notable scenes in this movie, from a directorial standpoint, are a brief section shot in Ethan's first-person view as he gets picked up by Max's henchmen, and two different scenes where flashbacks are used to illustrate Ethan's thought process as he works out the twists laid out to him.

And then there's movie's most iconic scene: the computer room cable drop.  See, Ethan and some other disavowed agents need to steal the real NOC list from a computer room at the CIA headquarters, in order to flush out the real mole.  Said room has only two entrances: a door, guarded by biometric locks he won't be able to fool, and an air vent from the ceiling.  On top of that, the room is guarded by three types of sensors: sound, temperature (to detect the body heat of an intruder), and a floor-mounted pressure sensor.  Ethan thus has to be lowered by cables into the room.  This whole scene lasts about ten minutes, with little to no music or other sensory overloads to accompany it, but keeps managing to find new ways to inject tension, some of them admittedly more contrived than others.  (A wild rat appears?  Come on Franz, you should've brought a Max Repel!)  Still, if you gave this scene to a more flashy director like the Michael Bays of the world, it just wouldn't work in the same way.  For the record, this scene is an homage to the climax of Topkapi, a 1964 heist film about a group of con artists attempting to steal jewelry from the titular palace in Istanbul.
The computer-room cable-drop scene succeds in its quiet tension.
Mission: Impossible got a mixed reception at the time of its release.  Among the disapproving voices were actors from the original TV shows, including Peter Graves and Martin Landau, due to a late-movie plot twist which seemed out-of-character for that person.  (Namely, former hero Jim Phelps is revealed as the aforementioned mole.)  But to its credit, it does manage to respect some of the show's traditions here and there.  Both the initial embassy mission and the CIA break-in show Phelps or Hunt building and briefing their teams, and it is subsequently clear that the success of those missions depend on all of the members doing their part, not just one pointman.  It's just a shame that few team members, apart from Hunt and perhaps Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), manage to show off any sort of personality to distinguish themselves with.  If anyone else had a chance in that department, it would be the wisecracking hacker Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) and the weaselly pilot Franz Kriegler (Jean Reno), but of course they both get killed at different points.

Apart from that, criticisms were leveled mainly against the convoluted nature of the plot.  If you don't pay attention, it's easy to miss some leaps of logic that take Ethan from one scene to the next.  I for one never had a problem following it, but then again I'm one of those weirdos who could keep track of all the dream-diving in Inception.  Personally, I'd point to the aforementioned altered-flashback scenes as key to deciphering much of the plot twists, as they present exposition in a much-needed "show, don't tell" fashion.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in this regard, Mission: Impossible is no worse than some of the more complex Bond films, like Octopussy or The Living Daylights.  So, as long as you don't nod off for whatever reason, and you're not too attached with the Jim Phelps of the TV show, I'm sure you'll agree with me that this movie still holds up.

Positives:
+ Several creative shots.
+ The computer-room cable-drop scene is just BOSS.
+ Honours some of its source material's traditions, while doing its own thing with them.
Negatives:
- Bland side characters.
- The plot is challenging, but not insurmountable, to follow.
- Certain plot twists may irk fans of the TV show.

Acting: 4 out of 5
Writing: 3 out of 5
Technical: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Random Shots: The Locations of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64. To summarise it, while it had its flaws, it was still creative and engaging enough to be memorable for the lucky few who got to play it, myself included.  It's the sort of thing I would love to play again as some sort of updated HD remake, although its publisher, Konami, seems to have no idea what the [verb] they're doing these days.  But it was after I posted that review that I learned something about the game, after all those years of it living in my memories.  I was looking at a map of Japan's old provinces -- the regions that existed before the 1868 Meiji Restoration replaced them with the prefectures in use today -- when I recognised one of the province names as a location from the game.  Then another... and another... until I realised this wasn't a coincidence.  Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon doesn't take place in some fake, fictionalised, fantasy version of Japan.  It's set in the real fictionalised, fantasy version of Japan!  So allow me to be your tour guide in a journey through the game, as we attempt to link its whacked-out take on the Land of the Rising Sun to its real-world counterpart.

The game starts at Goemon and Ebisumaru's home in Oedo Town.  Okay, this is obviously Tokyo, or Edo as it used to be known.  (The 'O' at the beginning of the word is a prefix denoting honour.)  Whilst wandering about Oedo Town, you may notice a few landmarks.  For instance, you know that big red gate blocked by a big red lantern?  That would be the Kaminari-mon, or Thunder Gate.  The real Kaminari-mon is located in the Asakusa district, on the approach to the temple Senso-ji.  And if you happen to cross a curved wooden bridge, you would be walking on the Nihonbashi, the "mile zero" from which all roads across old Japan were measured.  Alas, the real Nihonbashi was replaced with a new concrete bridge in 1911, but you can try out a replica of the original at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  Anyway, after taking a trip out to Mount Fuji (yes, that Mount Fuji) and picking up a new weapon for Goemon, you'll head back and take on the first castle level, Oedo Castle.  There was indeed a real Edo Castle built in 1457, but over the centuries parts of it burned down; what's left currently serves as the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

With Oedo Town wrapped up for now, your journey will take you to Zazen Town.  Now, "zazen" refers not to any specific place, but to the meditation performed as part of Zen Buddhism.  But there are a few obvious clues which relate Zazen Town to the city of Kyoto.  The Golden Temple, where Ebisumaru will eventually learn his shrinking power, is a scaled-down version of Kinkaku-ji, a.k.a. the Golden Pavillion, one of Kyoto's most famous landmarks.  Then there's a section called Mt. Nyoigatake.  To get there, first you go up a staircase covered by a row of bright orange torii gates, just like the approach to the Fushimi Inari shrine, another iconic Kyoto destination.  Once through that, you'll end up facing a mountain with a kanji character written in flames on its side.  There are several of these mountains in Kyoto, commonly named the Daimonji-yama, and they are lit up in such a manner at the end of the O-bon festival in August.

Next door to Zazen Town is a place called Yamato.  The province it was named after is now Nara prefecture.  Yamato and Nara also share another connection besides their name -- it has to do with the centrepiece of Yamato, a giant pagoda-like building.  Nara is home to Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple boasting what was, at the time the game was made, the world's largest all-wooden structure.  The main hall at Todai-ji houses a giant bronze statue of the Buddha, itself the largest statue of its kind.  The similar building in Yamato is indeed equally big, and whilst this digital re-interpretation does not contain a similar statue, it is worth unlocking and checking out for an extra life and a Fortune Doll life upgrade.  Not far from Yamato is Kii-Awaji Island, from where you can warp to the Husband and Wife Rocks, a pair of islets tethered together by a giant rope.  The real Wedded Rocks, known as the Meoto-Iwa, are located off the eastern coast of the Kii peninsula, near Ise in Mie prefecture.

After a brief mini-boss atop a dragon, you'll land on Shikoku, another of Japan's four main islands1.  Your landing spot is Kompira Mountain, and directly from there lies Folkypoke Village.  "Kompira" likely refers to Kotohira Shrine in Kagawa prefecture, which sits atop Mount Zozu, and is also called Konpira Shrine.  As for Folypoke Village... offhand, I have no idea.  The biggest city in that prefecture, would be Takamatsu, so that's the best guess I've got.  Anyway, across Shikoku lies the second castle level, but immediately beforehand are the Dogo Hot Springs.  There is indeed a Dogo Onsen in the city of Matsuyama, and whilst the main building of the complex today was not constructed until 1894, the waters of this hot spring resort have been mentioned in the Man'yoshu, a work of literature which dates back to AD 759 at the latest, so it certainly could have existed in Goemon's world in some form.

With the second castle down, the road to Chugoku opens, and with it some of, I think, the game's most interesting locations.  Bizen and Kurashiki are quasi-urban areas lined by white-and-black warehouses, examples of which can be seen in cities like Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture.  Aki-Nagato is a coastal area with a giant red torii gate in the middle of thewater, modeled after the one off of Itsukushima (a.k.a. Miyajima), an island not far from Hiroshima.  Inaba is a vast, hilly desert, to which you may be thinking, "A desert?  In Japan?  Seriously?"  It's more likely than you think -- there actually is a plot of sand dunes in Tottori Prefecture named, obviously, the Tottori Sand Dunes.  Finally, there's a vast, hilly plains area with little rock plilars strewn about, named Akiyoshidai.  A mouthful, sure, but I didn't even have to break out the list of old provinces to locate that -- the real Akiyoshidai is a park in Yamaguchi Prefecture, near the western tip of Honshu. 

With the third castle down, you'll get cut off from your destination of Kyushu due to... I won't spoil it, but suffice to say, it couldn't have happened in a game less light-hearted in tone as this.  So instead, you'll be going north from Oedo Town into northern Honshu, current known as the Tohoku region.  Much of Tohoku, both in-game, and in historical Japan, is taken up by a snowy area called Mutsu; the real Mutsu province corresponds with four modern-day prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori.  The big city around the Mutsu region is... Festival Village.  Again, that gives me little to go by.  There are lots of notable festivals in Tohoku's cities, such as the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, and the Kanto Festival in Akita.  But there is a cluehidden in the town's restaurant.  One of the HP-giving dishes on offer is kiritanpo, a dish of rice patties pounded into a cylindrical shape, served in miso soup.  And it originates from... Akita prefecture.  Well, that's good enough for me!

Behind Festival Village, you will find Mt. Fear, named after Osore-zan (literally, "fear mountain") in Aomori prefecture.  The real Osore-zan is known, among other things, for a festival (kuchiyose) in which blind mediums (itako) channel and contact spirits of the dead.  And indeed, you do this in-game.  Alternately, you can head back and take a fork southwards to the Waterfall of Kegon, where Yae can learn her mermaid power.  The real Kegon Falls is located near Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

With the fourth castle down, it's time to wrap things up in Kyushu.  Again, I shan't spoil how you get there, but much of it takes place in yet another castle level.  But it is briefly bisected by one last town area, Sogen Town of Bizen.  Alas, I drew a blank at the name alone; there isn't even a historical province in Kyushu named Bizen (that could be a mistranslation of either the Buzen or Hizen provinces).  So once again, I was forced to turn to the local cuisine for clues on its real-life counterpart.  One such offerring was sponge cake, described as a culinary import from the Dutch.  That clearly tipped me off to the city of Nagasaki.  See, for much of Japan's history until the Meiji period, the country managed to protect itself from colonial influences simply by shutting themselves off from all foreign trade -- with a few exceptions.  One of them was in Nagasaki, where the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to set up shop.  Although, sponge cake in Japan, where it is known as "castella", actually came from the Portugese beforehand so, close but no cigar.

Lack of cigar aside, this has been a delightfully informative journey, both for me as I wrote this article, and I hope for you, the reader, as well.  It may even get you to look at Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon in a new way.  Who knows, maybe you'll even visit Japan yourself and see the real-life inspirations behind the game's locales!  Special thanks to Zeality of GameFAQs.com for recording and posting the game's script (http://www.gamefaqs.com/n64/198022-mystical-ninja-starring-goemon/faqs/45558).

1The four main islands of Japan refer to Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu.  However, Hokkaido, was never part of the Japanese state until the Meiji period, which explains why it is never visited in the game.