Friday, December 7, 2012

Hey! Where's my Dragons reviews?

Hello, loyal readers.

Okay, fine, loyal reader.

You've probably noticed that I haven't posted reviews for that last two Dragons episodes.  I've decided that I'm no longer going to be writing weekly reviews for Dragons.  The show is still highly entertaining and enjoyable, but it's also extremely consistent from week to week.  The plots are good but not great.  Every episode is extremely predictable.  The animation is decent and Toothless remains lovable.  I enjoy the new characters but Mildew is getting tedious.  That pretty much sums up every episode and I don't really feel like I have much to add on a weekly basis going forward.

So the point is no more weekly reviews.  But be sure to still watch the show!  You don't need me to tell you if it's good or not! :P

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review: "Paper Mario Sticker Star"

The Paper Mario RPG series has long served as one of Nintendo's quirkiest Mario offshoots.  The original Paper Mario for the N64 pioneered the bizarre world of paper cutout characters living in a pop-up Mushroom Kingdom.  Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the GameCube refined the formula in every way and produced one of the finest games in the entire Mario franchise.  Super Paper Mario for the Wii downplayed the RPG elements but kicked up the story a notch, providing an experience that dragged on a bit but was still highly enjoyable.

Now the Paper Mario series has come to a handheld console for the first time in the form of Paper Mario Sticker Star for the 3DS.  In many ways it is a return to form for the series, as many of the conventions discarded in Super Paper Mario make their return in Sticker Star.  The gameplay has returned to the 3D diorama design instead of the side-scrolling levels presented in the previous game.  Turn based battles are back.  And many of the level gimmicks and concepts from the first two games make a return in this installment.  If you enjoyed the first two Paper Mario games, you'll feel right at home exploring Sticker Star's world.

However, in many ways Sticker Star is also just as much a departure from the first two games as Super Paper Mario was.  The ways in which it shakes up the formula just aren't quite as obvious at first.  The most significant change is the introduction of stickers.  Stickers do everything now.  Every attack in battle now requires having a certain sticker in order to perform it, even basic actions like jumping and using the hammer.  Stickers are also used extensively outside of battle for puzzle solving and various other tasks too.  Fortunately, stickers are all over the place.  They're littered about the world, stuck on walls, inside boxes, and you'll even sporadically run into shops that sell various kinds of stickers too.  Even though your album holds a finite amount of stickers, you aren't likely to ever run out.  The trick is ensuring you have the right types of stickers on you for whatever situation you're facing, and that's were the depth and strategy of Sticker Star really lies.

In addition to regular stickers, you will often have to make use of "thing" stickers.  These stickers are acquired by finding various mundane items hidden around the world such as scissors, a cell phone, or a refrigerator.  These boring things can then be transformed into special thing stickers that often have devastating effects in battle.  There's a lot of fun to be found in discovering how such uninteresting stuff can significantly impact a world made out of paper and cardboard.

Things are also used for solving a handful of puzzles throughout the game.  The solutions to these puzzles aren't always made very clear and may often require some serious backtracking if you missed the thing you need.  However, when solved the solutions to these puzzles are almost always inventive and clever, making it worth the head scratching that is sometimes required to deduce the answer to a puzzle.  Sticker Star is usually pretty good about providing multiple paths to explore at any given time, so if you do hit a brick wall in one direction there's usually something else to do while trying to solve the puzzle at hand.

Mario no longer levels up or gets stronger by battling.  Your strength only increases by finding more powerful and rarer stickers as well as the occasional health power up scattered about the world.  As such, battling can sometimes feel a little pointless and tedious since it isn't strictly required for getting stronger and progressing through the game.  Fortunately the game doesn't really punish you for avoiding enemies if you choose to do so.  Your reward for winning battles is typically coins, which are primarily used to buy more stickers.  If you skip battles, you won't get many coins, but you really only need coins to help better equip yourself for more battles.  So you only have to battle as much as you want to with no real negative consequences for avoiding enemies.  It's an odd set-up for an RPG, but it's reasonably well balanced.

Unfortunately it would seem that even the world of Paper Mario could not escape the plague of "New-Super-Mario-itis" that has been infecting all recent Mario games.  The wildly inventive locations and characters of past games are out.  In their place are those same generic worlds we've seen over and over again in the New Super series.  That same grassland, those same mountains, that same desert, that same poisonous forest.  You've seen it all before.  Many many times.

The entire cast, bosses included, is also made up of characters from previous games.  Specifically, the New Super Mario Bros series.  Many enemies frequently seen in the previous Paper Mario games are gone and any recurring characters from the series are out too.  The only new character to be seen is Kersti, Mario's traveling companion.  And other than a very subtle and easily missed nod to one character from Thousand Year Door, this game shares no continuity with the previous games.

Worst of all, for some inexplicable reason, Bowser does not utter a single line of dialogue in the entire game.  He's completely mute.  In the previous games, Bowser has always dependably been the source of the best dialogue and the biggest laughs in the series, but in this game he's just the final boss and nothing else.  His personality has been almost completely stripped away in Sticker Star.  It's a baffling and incredibly disappointing creative decision.

Fortunately, it's not all bad news.  The writers apparently didn't get the memo that this game was supposed to be bland because, even though the story is extremely basic and almost non-existent at times, the game is still packed full of the same brand of humor that the series is known for.  Even though most of the characters you'll run into are generic Toads, they are positively exploding with personality.  Throughout the entire adventure you'll be constantly encountering bizarre and hilarious situations, just like the previous games.

A great deal of comedy is derived from the increased emphasis that this is a world made of paper.  You'll find characters folded up, crumpled, and even stacked together, all to hilarious effect.  The writers even figured out how to make Bowser Jr. and Birdo, both making their Paper Mario series debut, funny and entertaining.  Given how irritating both of those characters tend to be, that's quite the accomplishment.  Sticker Star still delivers its fair share of laughs.  It's just a shame none of them come from Bowser this time.

Similarly, the level designers do their best to provide the most interesting renditions of these stale old level themes possible.  Almost the entire world is made out of cardboard this time around, and Sticker Star makes the most of this premise wherever possible.  Entire set-pieces can be knocked over like dominoes.  Dangerous puddles of poison can be flipped over to reveal that they too are harmless cardboard on the backside.  Using Kersti's powers, it's even possible to peel off entire sections of levels and move them around.

A large potion of the levels rely mostly on basic Mario platforming, but just when it seems like things are getting stale, Sticker Star will throw something completely unexpected at you, like a game show level or a crazy river raft ride.  Sticker Star's world is split up into levels accessed from a Super Mario World-style map screen.  But this mostly just aids in speeding up travel from world to world and does not decrease the scope of the game in the slightest.  Even if you're really booking it, this is a 15+ hour adventure.  The worlds are now split up into smaller levels, but there's just as much to see as what was offered in the previous games.

The Paper Mario games have also always been known for their music and Sticker Star doesn't disappoint in that department.  The signature off-beat sound of the previous games is still present, but this time around the soundtrack tends to favor jazz music, incorporating lots of horns.  It's a great evolution of the sound of the series, and most of the tracks are a joy to listen to.  Sticker Star also cleverly works in a few themes from other Mario games, sometimes subtly and sometimes less so.  Overall, Sticker Star definitely boasts one of the strongest Mario series soundtracks in recent years.

So, in the end, Sticker Star does have a lot of faults.  But it manages to retain enough of the charm and inventiveness of the previous Paper Mario games to overcome its shortcomings.  The game is much more conventional in terms of characters and locations and the story is paper-thin, but the surreal humor and creativity of the previous Paper Mario games still manages to shine through.  It may not live up to the perfection of Thousand Year Door, but it comes far closer than I expected.  Even with its flaws, Paper Mario Sticker Star is still a must-play for 3DS owners.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dragons Review: "Heather Report Part 2"

When we last left off in "Heather Report Part 1," the deceptive Heather had delivered the Book of Dragons to Alvin the Treacherous.  Now Heather is claiming that she was only working for Alvin to keep him from killing her parents.  However Hiccup and his friends are much too concerned with planning their attack to retrieve the book to consider whether or not Heather is trustworthy.  Astrid suspects she might be able to get the book back more easily if she disguises herself as Heather.  But if Heather really was working for Alvin against her will, that plan may not end very well...

Despite the story having so much to do with Heather, she does not actually appear a whole lot in this episode.  Once again, Astrid is firmly in the spotlight, even more so than in Part 1.  But the episode does mange to culminate in an extremely exciting finale that gets all the dragons and their riders into the act.  There's not much story to analyze with this one!  Since Part 1 did all the set up, this whole episode could be non-stop action.  And boy did it deliver!  Alvin got to prove himself a worthy antagonist for the series one again and Heather even got to redeem herself, even if she did kind of turn out to be a minor player in the overall plot.

Another element of this particular episode that I enjoyed was that we finally got to see some other dragons!  A lot of previous episodes have seemingly operated under the notion that the only dragons around are the ones ridden by Hiccup and his friends.  It was nice to see some other wild dragons get some screen time, to the point that a particular Monstrous Nightmare that Astrid bonds with ends up crucial to the plot.

Part 1 may have had its problems, but it was worth it for the pay off.  "Heather Report Part 2" managed to be one of the most excited episodes thus far!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dragons Review - "Heather Report Part 1"

Hiccup and the gang discover a mysterious girl washed up on the shores of Berk.  Holy mackerel!  It's a girl!  Given how rare those are on this show, Astrid is immediately suspicious.  According to the girl, whose name is Heather, she was shipwrecked while trying to escape pirates who have captured her parents and are threatening her island.  Heather and Hiccup hit it off right away, but it seems Astrid's suspicions may not be unfounded.  Heather immediately takes a big interest in the dragons and how they are trained.  Is she up to no good?  Wouldn't this be a really uninteresting episode if she wasn't?

This episode wastes no time in revealing that Heather isn't just the helpless shipwreck victim she appears to be at first.  Like many of the episodes, the pacing suffers from the short length of having to fit into about twenty minutes.  Even with this story split into two parts, the plot still zips along a little too fast.  Fortunately, thanks to the plot breaking some new ground (it's not Mildew!) it manages to feel relatively fresh.  It's also nice to see Astrid get a bit more of a starring role at last, given that she really hasn't had much to do on the show thus far besides antagonize Hiccup from time to time.

Ultimately, this episode isn't much more than a set up for Part 2.  Heather is a reasonably interesting character, but she "turns to the dark side" so fast that you never really get a chance to care about her before she simply becomes another bad guy.  But "Heather Report Part 1" does set up a few interesting plot threads to be resolved in Part 2 that should be fairly interesting to see play out.  It's not among one of the better episodes on its own, but I do look forward to seeing the rest of the story play out next week.

Also, chicken makes dragons fly faster.  Who knew?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Donkey Kong vs. Fix-It Felix Jr.

In Disney's latest film Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph serves as the villain in a classic arcade game known as Fix-It Felix Jr.  The title is an obvious nod to Donkey Kong Jr. but the rest of the game notably draws influence from the first game in the series, the original Donkey Kong.  But have you ever noticed just how thorough Disney was in their homage?  Let's take a look...
Can you spot the differences between the picture on the left and the picture on the right?
Right off the bat, the similarities are obvious.  Both cabinets are of near identical design and a very similar shade of blue. And, upon closer inspection of the artwork, it's crazy how closely the details of Fix-It Felix are modeled off of Donkey Kong.  Let's examine some of the individual elements on their own...
Evidently DK beat Felix to the arcades by a year.
The marquee up top is nearly identical to DK's but with one noteworthy change that carries through most of the artwork:  Felix and Ralph's positions are swapped compared to DK and Mario.  This motif is seen throughout the artwork on the cabinet.  Despite the hero/villain placement swap, the overall composition is still highly reminiscent.  Ralph punching the bricks closely matches the look of Mario and the barrels on the DK original.  The "TobiKomi" logo is placed in a shape very similar to that of Nintendo's own logo and the copyright notice is also placed identically.  The text is styled very similarly as well, and the use of Hobo for the Felix logo definitely recalls the traditional DK logotype.  They even go as far as to place a pie-holding NPC in a circle next to Felix, just like Pauline's placement on the original.
Poor Ralph.  Why does Felix get two pictures?
For the screen boarder, the shape is a little different and the stripes aren't the same, but beyond that, the similarities are obvious.  It's worth noting that while DK has two images of Pauline on the top of the boarder, Felix gets two pictures of himself on the bottom.  Ralph doesn't even get a spotlight here.  Poor guy.  The little characters that surround the boarder are very closely modeled on the original with Ralph and Felix actually striking identical poses to their Nintendo counterparts.  The bricks that Ralph punches at the bottom are even arranged in the same pattern.  Crazy, no?
So I guess Gene is Pauline?  I suppose their names do rhyme at least...
The artwork for the controls is pretty self-explanatory.  Ralph and Felix have switched places compared to DK and Mario, as is the norm.  The background is blue.  Beyond that?  Almost identical.
Wait a sec.  What's exploding behind Mario?  I don't remember that from the game.
The artwork on the side of the cabinet is a bit less blatant, but the overall design is still very similar.  The standard hero/villain placement swap is seen here again and the framing for the logos is once again very similar.

So there we are.  All the extreme similarities between the designs of the original DK arcade cabinet and the Fix-It Felix artwork.  They are a great deal more alike than you probably realized!  So, what does all of this mean?  It means that Disney was exceptionally thorough in their design and research in order to create an authentic feel for something that's actually on screen for very little time in the film itself.

And that I'm a huge nerd for noticing it and pointing it out...

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: Wreck-It Ralph

 Wreck-It Ralph has a rather thankless job.  As the villain of the classic arcade game "Fix-It Felix Jr."  it's Ralph's job to destroy an apartment building day in and day out, just so Fix-It Felix Jr. can show up with his magic hammer and save the day.  Over and over and over again.  For 30 years.  After all this time, Ralph is starting to question his profession a bit.  Just once, he'd like to be the one who nabs the shiny gold medal, the praise, the adoration, and the pie that Felix enjoys on a daily basis.  Just because he's the bad guy doesn't mean he's a bad guy, right?

But when Wreck-It Ralph abandons his game in search of his hero's welcome, he accidentally sets off a chain reaction of chaotic events that may ultimately threaten all the games in the arcade...

Well, obviously the first things I must discuss about this movie are the video game references.  Prior to its release, Wreck-It Ralph was frequently described as the "Who Framed Roger Rabbit? of video games."  Does it live up to that lofty goal?  Not quite, but that's not really a bad thing because that really isn't the type of film Wreck-It Ralph sets out to be.  Wreck-It Ralph primarily spends its time within the realms of three arcade video games purpose-made for this film which evoke lots of other games but are completely unique to the film's world.

That said, the first third of the film is absolutely crawling with cameos.  The oft-promoted bad guy support group scene is just the tip of the iceberg.  I suspect viewers will need to go frame-by-frame on the DVD for nearly the entire first act of the film to catch all the easter eggs.  There are all sorts of great little references to a remarkably large assortment of video games in this film.  Even a certain portly plumber, whose paycheck was apparently too high for even Disney to pay, gets his due early in the film in a couple of clever ways.  Once the main plot picks up the cameos take a backseat for the rest of the film, but there are still a handful of clever nods here and there if you're paying attention!

The character of Ralph really carries this film quite well.  Voiced by John C. Reilly, Ralph is lovable and endearing from the first moment he appears on-screen.  He's a very easy character to root for during his quest for acceptance.  The second primary character is Vanellope von Schweetz, a game glitch voiced by Sarah Silverman.  Vanellope takes a little while to warm up to at first, but the character is surprisingly complex and as the film progresses, Vanellope's character arc almost eclipses Ralph's as the primary focus of the film.  As unlikely as it seems at first, Ralph and Vanellope's friendship is actually the source of most of the film's heart and is quite well done.

Secondary characters Fix-It Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun, voiced by Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch respectively, also consistently entertain whenever they appear on screen.  Felix serves as an obvious stand-in for Mario and Calhoun is essentially a mash-up of every first person shooter protagonist ever.  The bizarre romance that occurs between the two characters is a lot of fun to watch unfold.

The biggest thing that surprised me about Wreck-It Ralph, however, is the film's scope.  Despite having a relatively simple story, the scale of this film is huge.  A rule established early in the film is that characters who die outside of their own games can never regenerate, which add some higher stakes to the events of the film.  The various subplots and story arcs are cleverly woven together so that when all the puzzle pieces do finally come together in the end, the climax that unfolds in the third act is a massive, frantic, and epic sight to behold!  This a big movie!

Wreck-It Ralph comes after a wave of previous animated films that featured villains put in the protagonist role, but it manages to use clever story telling to set it apart from those earlier movies.  Thankfully, Wreck-It Ralph also resists the temptation of casting Fix-It Felix as the villain of the film.  Instead, it features a much more creative antagonist that is neither too obvious and predictable but also isn't completely out of left field when he is finally revealed.

If there are any complaints to be made about Wreck-It Ralph, they are fairly minor.  The kart-racing candy world of Sugar Rush is perhaps featured a bit too heavily in the film.  Several other game worlds are seen early on, but once the story enters Sugar Rush, that's primarily where the story stays from then on out.  The video game references and cameos pretty much stop here.  The resulting onslaught of candy puns and subtle product placements (Nesquik-sand!) are witty and clever, but seem a bit out of place within the video game focused context of the film.  Why would a kart racing feature all these brand names and candy characters that have little to do with the actual racing going on?

Beyond that, though, there is little bad to be found in Wreck-It Ralph.  The humor does stray a bit farther into potty humor territory than one might expect from a Disney film, but the lovable characters and compelling plot more than make up for it.  In the end, Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney's best films to come out in years, and it doesn't rely too heavily on video game in-jokes to tell it's story.  The characters are very appealing and the frantic energy and huge scope of the story make it great fun all the way through.

The fact that Bowser appears in this film is just icing on the cake!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Top 10 VeggieTales Episodes

Howdy Howdy, folks!  You know, watching The League of Incredible Vegetables got me thinking about how much I used to watch VeggieTales.  Though I'm not as much of a fan as I used to be, it still holds a special place in my heart.  So I'm going to count down my top 10 favorite VeggieTales episodes!  You'll probably note a bias toward episodes that were released pre-2003 or so.  I've seen lots of more recent episodes and few do show up here, but I tend to favor the ones I grew up with.  Also, so this one doesn't become as crazy long as my past articles, I'm just going to describe each episode with a favorite quote of mine.

It's for the kids.

(And hopefully you didn't read my League review already because I already spoiled my #1 pick in it.  Oh well.  On with the list!)

10. Abe and the Amazing Promise

"What better way to attract a Boo-Boo than with a Boo-Bette!"

9. The Wonderful Wizard of Ha's

"Plus there's no decent food around here!"
"But these woods are full of rabbits and squirrels."
"Yeah, but they won't let me eat them.  Children's film..."

8. An Easter Carol

"A lesson learned is soon returned.  A lesson lived is wisdom gived."
"What? I'm dead!  Cut me some slack!"

7. The Wonderful World of Autotainment

"Where are we?"
"The future!"
"Wow.  The future sure is white!"
"Yep.  The future's been white since the 70s."

6. The Toy That Saved Christmas

"Billy has more toys than you."

5. Josh and the Big Wall

"Well...have fun!"

4. Dave and the Giant Pickle

"The Philistines are attacking!"
"Bob, what are the Philippines?"
"The Philippines are a group of islands off the coast of southeast Asia.  But that's not important right now..."

3. King George and the Ducky

"Did you just say 'wronger?'"
"What?  I don't know.  Perhaps."
"It should be 'more wrong' not 'more wronger.'"
"It had to rhyme!  Don't question the king's grammar!  Now go and get that duck!

2. Madame Blueberry


1. LarryBoy and the Rumor Weed

"Alfred, I'm alive!  I'm...flying under the ground!"
"Well, actually you're boring."
"Gee, Alfred, I know I'm not the wittiest of cucumbers but..."
"No no, not that kind of boring.  It's like drilling.  It's a boring machine."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

VeggieTales Review: "The League of Incredible Vegetables"

On this week's episode of Riders of Berk, Hiccup uses his super suction ears to save the city while Toothless...

Oh, wait this actually isn't a Dragons review for once?  Holy mackerel!

Yes indeed, folks!  Tonight I'm taking a look at the latest VeggieTales release, The League of Incredible Vegetables, the fourth episode featuring Larry the Cucumber's superhero alter-ego, LarryBoy.

The city of Bumblyburg is in danger once again!  The diabolical Dr. Flurry and his trio of cute little penguin minions are using a device known as the "Fear-Dar" to quite literally freeze Bumblyburg with fear.  Alfred, LarryBoy's brilliant butler, determines that this problem is too much for LarryBoy to handle alone so he calls in the League of Incredible Vegetables, an Avengers-esque team of heroes to assist him.  In addition, the League begins training Jr. Asparagus to be the newest superhero in their team.  But when the League finds themselves in trouble, can Jr. learn how to overcome his fears and look to God for courage?

(Just skip to the picture of Bob if you want to hear about the actual show itself...)

Now, in the interest of full-disclosure, I feel I should mention that LarryBoy and the Rumor Weed, the second LarryBoy adventure, is my personal favorite VeggieTales episode of all time.  It was funny, exciting, and genuinely cinematic.  However, it was made at a different time in the history of Big Idea, back when Phil Vischer was attempting to push the studio toward creating full length features and really cranking up the production values to new heights.  Like The Fib From Outer Space before it, Rumor Weed also featured a much darker and intense tone than most other VeggieTales episodes.  I was already a bit beyond the target audience for VeggieTales when Rumor Weed was released, so the slightly more "grown-up" style of it was great for me.  The music was intense, the pacing was fast, and the villain was actually slightly intimidating.  That said, it scared the bejeebers out of a lot of little kids.  That Rumor Weed was a pretty creepy looking thing!

Times are a little different now.  Big Idea is a much smaller company than they used to be, and the shows tend be a little smaller in scale, and more overtly kid-oriented than back in ye olden times.  So it comes at no surprise that when Big Idea decided to revisit LarryBoy in 2006 with LarryBoy and the Bad Apple, the tone would be lightened up a great deal.  It's hard to teach nice lessons to kids when they are too scared to watch the show.  Bad Apple was certainly enjoyable, but it didn't come close to the level of excitement that Rumor Weed brought to the table.  And, as expected, The League of Incredible Vegetables continues that trend.  That said, even though The League of Incredible Vegetables is no doubt the most lighthearted of the four LarryBoy adventures, I actually found it to be a better follow-up to the original two episodes than Bad Apple was for several reasons.

First off, a great deal of the "classic" LarryBoy conventions discarded in Bad Apple were revived in this latest installment.  Most significantly?  LarryBoy is once again a rather incompetent hero and not the true focus of the story, with Alfred being the the real brains behind the operation and Jr. Asparagus actually proving to be the main protagonist in the end, just like the original two shows.  Plus, after a detour into Spider-Man territory with Bad Apple, the Batman spoofs that LarryBoy is known for are back in full force, even if the show as a whole obviously takes influence from The Avengers.  The city of Bumblyburg also looks distinctly more reminiscent of the first two episodes as well, though the water tower is still noticeably absent for some reason.  The Larrymobile still doesn't look as cool as the Rumor Weed version, but League more than makes up for it with the super-cool Larry-Copter.

So yeah, for all you LarryBoy fanboys out there, you'll be pleased to know that League actually does a surprisingly good job of recapturing the feel of the first two shows that was strangely absent in Bad Apple.  As a huge fan of Rumor Weed, it is impossible for me to watch League and not still be a bit disappointed that the film doesn't go all out and deliver the same kind of cinematic fun.  But I knew it wouldn't before watching the episode, and I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable League was in its own right.  It seemed a lot more like a classic LarryBoy adventure than I expected it to.


Okay then.  First, let's talk about the League itself.  Though it does mean that LarryBoy himself is not very prominent in this show, I did enjoy seeing other VeggieTales characters as superheroes.  Bob in particular is highly enjoyable as Thingamabob.  If you really want to get picky and look at the plot as a whole the argument could be made that the League is actually kind of pointless.  Indeed, the story could easily play out almost unchanged with just LarryBoy alone.  The League ultimately does not do much more than get captured.  But the ensemble cast leads to some great moments and it does make the stakes feel higher than they really are.  One could argue that this particular crisis is no bigger than space alien monsters, giant rapidly-growing weeds, or a sneaky temptress apple.  (Okay, maybe that last one.)  But it's still fun to see other Veggie characters getting into the act.

The villain is sort of a mixed bag.  Dr. Flurry is quite entertaining to watch.  He's very goofy and it's hard not to enjoy how slightly scatterbrained his plotting and personality are.  Plus it is SO great to see the penguins from The Toy That Saved Christmas make a return after so long.  They are just as cute and enduring now as they were back in 1996.  Using them as Flurry's minions was an inspired choice and goes a long way toward giving League more of a "classic" VeggieTales feel.

So how about the story and the lesson?  It's pretty solid for the most part.  This is the second time VeggieTales has tackled handling fear, the first being the very first episode Where's God When I'm S-Scared, released way back in 1993.  It definitely makes sense to revisit the theme of looking to God for courage after so many years, and references to the story of David and Goliath are aptly integrated into the story.  It's a good theme to see revisited and the world of LarryBoy is a perfect place to do so.

I must admit, however, that it seems a bit ironic that this is the silliest and most lighthearted LarryBoy episode to date.  For reasons I mentioned above, I understand why League wouldn't be as dark or intense as Rumor Weed or even Bad Apple.  However, it seems a bit odd to do a show about fear when the villain isn't really even the least bit intimidating, especially compared to past LarryBoy villains.  The "greatest fears" of the League members also fall a bit flat, being more comical than actually scary.  (LarryBoy's greatest fear is balloons popping?  Really?)

Fortunately, Jr.'s character arc ensures that the lesson is still clear and well integrated into the story.  Alfred, playing the role of Jr.'s mentor of sorts, is especially entertaining in this episode, even getting to display a fair bit of bravery of his own.  (And make a so-awful-it's-funny "Angry Birds" joke.)

One last thing worth mentioning is that, for the first time, this LarryBoy episode features a silly song.  The song, called "Supper Hero," features Jimmy Gourd as a bumbling "hero" who eats everyone's dinner for them whether they want him to or not.  It's short, not particularly memorable, and not especially funny.  It doesn't really detract from the show as a whole, but I don't think its inclusion was necessary.

Ultimately, The League of Incredible Vegetables proves to be a highly enjoyable LarryBoy adventure.  The adventure is much goofier than past LarryBoy episodes and the plot has a few holes, but the overall lesson is still well presented and the story works for the most part.  It's great to see some other characters get superhero alter-egos and it's also fantastic to see the classic penguins make a return at last.  It doesn't top Rumor Weed as my favorite, but The League of Incredible Vegetables is still a fine addition to the LarryBoy series.  And the theme song (courtesy of the Newsboys) is quite catchy, to boot!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dragons Review: "Dragon Flower"

Trader Johan has come to Berk and brought with him all sorts of exotic goodies for the vikings to purchase.  Soon after his visit, Toothless begins acting very strangely.  It seems as though he's come down with a strange dragon disease and before long all the dragons seem to be feeling under the weather.  They appear to be having a strange allergic reaction to something on the island...

Oh, and Trader Johan traded something suspicious to Mildew at the beginning of the episode when no one was watching.  Hmm...

I'm going to be upfront here:  This episode really annoyed me for the most part.  I like Mildew.  I think he's a highly entertaining antagonist.  But his shtick is getting tedious.  Especially because, once again, his plot was revealed to the audience right off the bat, but then treated as a "mystery" for most of the rest of the episode.  The plot of the dragons getting sick was pretty well done, but I just simply could not enjoy it because I knew it was going to lead to yet another moment where Hiccup confronts Mildew and he denies it despite his obvious guiltiness.  And that's just what happened.  That was a fine story before.  But it's already old and irritating to see repeated again.

The episode's only real saving grace was the ending, which featuring a genuinely thrilling sea battle with a new type of dragon, thought to be able to help cure the other dragons of their disease.  Mildew finally got some long overdue comeuppance and it led to a surprisingly humorous conclusion for the story arc.

Dragon Flower's conclusion shows to me that the team behind Riders of Berk has it in them to make this show great.  But they need to lay off using the same Mildew plot over and over or the show is going to get stale.  Riders of Berk is still going strong at this point, but I'll be curious to see how long it keeps its momentum from here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dragons Review: "Portrait of Hiccup As a Buff Man"

This review contains more overt SPOILERS than my reviews normally do.

Portrait of Hiccup As a Buff Man?  That's an odd title!  Believe it or not the name is actually literal.  As it turns out, there is a proud tradition of displaying portraits of the island chief and their son in the Great Hall.  When the portrait of Stoic and Hiccup is unveiled, Hiccup is disappointed to see that he has been portrayed as a muscular young viking, more like how Stoic would prefer him to be remembered.  Oh sure, Hiccup figured out how to tame dragons, but he's just so...small.  Determined to prove to his father that muscles aren't everything, Hiccup sets off on a riddle-laden quest to find a legendary treasure that even Stoic had been unable to find.

Weird title aside, this was another enjoyable episode...for the most part.  I was especially pleased to see that it did not rely on the formula of having two seemingly unrelated plot points that come together in a predictable way at the end, as several past episodes have done.  Instead we got to follow Hiccup and the gang on a treasure hunt.  And it was a pretty clever hunt!

There were just a couple of things about this episode that bugged me though.  The main thing was that all the way through the quest, the treasure hunt appeared to require dragons.  Fire in the ice cave.  Flying up to the serpent rock.  Using both heads of a Zippleback to remove rocks from a wall.  And, of course, wings to survive the long fall at the end.  It's well established that no one trained dragons before Hiccup.  So how would one ever go about hunting for this treasure in the past?

The resolution of the episode tries to clear this up by saying you have to be a "hiccup" to solve the clues and find the treasure.  Evidently a "hiccup" on Berk refers to the runt of the litter.  Seems kind of cruel for Hiccup's parents to name him that then!  So...only spindly little wimpy vikings have the brains to solve the riddles?  Okay, but Hiccup still wouldn't have gotten very far without a dragon or two, plus all his friends, to help out.  It was annoyingly contrived.

Plot holes and story issues aside, this was still a fun episode.  Probably the weakest one so far, but still entertaining.  There were some great set pieces, with the Fireworm dragon scene being particularly well done.  Those story didn't make a lot of sense but, hey, we still got to see Toothless on the screen for a half hour!  I look forward to seeing what Dragons has to offer next.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


For all my loyal readers out there (now that's wishful thinking!) this week's Dragons review will be a few days late since I'm not going to be able to watch the episode when it premieres.  I'll still write one!  It'll just be a bit late.

Who knows?  Maybe I'll actually write something else in the meantime?  (Ha!  More wishful thinking!)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dragons Review: "How to Pick Your Dragon"

Dragons returns in its new Wednesday night time-slot.  Stoic has decided it's time to embrace the new way of life and wants to learn how to fly on a dragon.  Unsurprisingly, his attempts to fly on Toothless are a bit less than successful at first.  But Hiccup is able to convince his father that having a dragon would make his job as the island chief much easier.  It has unintended consequences, however, as Stoic beings to take Toothless out flying everyday, leaving Hiccup dragon-less.  (And Toothless is none too thrilled to be lugging around a four hundred pound viking all the time either.)  Can Hiccup find Stoic his own dragon that is as good as Toothless?

Oh yeah, and there's a rogue never-before-seen dragon terrorizing Berk.  Where could this story be going, I wonder?

Yeah, this yet another episode of the series to have it's plot be painfully predictable.  But, at the very least, it doesn't really try to hard to hide that fact.  Heck, even the commercial for the episode flat out reveals that Stoic ends up riding on the new dragon.  It's not meant to be much of a reveal.  Instead "How to Pick Your Dragon" focuses on making the story as entertaining as possible, if not especially surprising.  And, despite being predictable, "How to Pick Your Dragon" does tell a unique story that could only be told in the world of Dragons, rather than relying on television cliches like several past episodes.

Admittedly, Hiccup taking his father on a reprise of the "romantic flight" scene from the film (complete with the musical score) comes off a lot goofier than it was likely intended.  But beyond that this is another fairly solid episode, and it was nice to see Stoic's character continue to be fleshed out.  The climax of the episode was also a bit on the silly side, but it was still quite entertaining to watch and had an extremely satisfying conclusion.

These reviews are starting to sound redundant, but honestly there still hasn't been a poor episode of Riders of Berk.  The show's biggest flaw is being predictable, and "How to Pick Your Dragon" is no exception, but the episodes still manage to provide solid enough storytelling and great enough visuals that the predictability of the plot does not get in the way.  Bring on the next episode!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dragons Review: "Alvin and the Outcasts"

This week's episode picks up where "In Dragons We Trust" left off.   Thanks to Mildew's meddling, all the dragons have been banned and sent away to the island they originally came from.  But while Hiccup and the gang are busy looking for evidence of Mildew's plot, a new threat has come to Berk.  Enter Alvin the Treacherous.  He and his ruthless gang of outcast vikings invade and quickly conquer the island demanding to see the legendary "Dragon Conqueror" who resides there.

Though Mildew stepped up to the plate as the main antagonist of the first part of this story, Alvin the Treacherous represents the first full-fledged villain to be introduced to the series, and what a villain he is!  While Mildew has mostly served as a comedic antagonist, there is nothing funny about Alvin.  Though the pacing is quick due to the nature of being a TV show, Alvin is still firmly established as a force to be reckoned with.  The climax of this episodes brings with it some of the fiercest action seen in the franchise as a whole, original movie included.

This episode was not completely devoid of the humor we've seen in the previous episodes, but there was a much larger emphasis on suspense and action this time around.  Plus, my long standing complaint that Stoic the Vast has so little personality in this show is addressed at last, and in a big way.  Stoic is a very prominent character and, at last, he's the powerful viking we saw in the film once again.

"Alvin and the Outcasts" manages to end on a very satisfying note for this two part story but it also sets up some interesting new directions for the series and it actually does not tie up all the loose ends, leaving threads for future episodes to deal with.  Looks like Riders of Berk is as strong as ever.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dragons Review: "In Dragons We Trust"

Mildew is back, as determined to get rid of the dragons as always.  First a dragon crashes through his roof.  Then the dragons steal all of the viking's boots.  Who knows what other havoc the dragons may cause at night?  To keep the mishaps under control, Hiccup goes on night patrol to see what the dragons are up to.  His findings?  Dragons sleep, just like everyone else.  Yet somehow damage continues to appear in the morning that appears to be the work of those pesky dragons, and the incidents continue to become more and more severe.  Could there be some foul play afoot?

At first it seemed this episode would again build it's plot out of common television cliches.  For a portion of the episode, it seemed like a reasonably traditional Scooby-Doo mystery.  But Riders of Berk surprised me again by ending the episode on a rather captivating cliff-hanger and avoids the obvious ending I expected to see play out.  Mildew remains a great new addition to the cast, and he's portrayed in a much more villainous light this time around. Plus Stoic got to display a bit more personality at last.

What at first appeared to be a rehash of the first episode turned out to be the start of what appears to be a multi-episode story arc.  With the fate of the dragons left unknown, I look forward to the next chapter in the story.  Bring on the next episode!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dragons Review: "The Terrible Twos"

The latest episode of Dragons: Riders of Berk finds Hiccup discovering a new type of baby dragon.  The little dragon, named Torch, isn't the friendliest of dragons, and when Hiccup takes the little guy home with him Torch and Toothless do not hit it off.  Hiccup and the gang also quickly discover that Torch has many unique abilities unlike any other dragon, a discovery that really seems to rub Toothless the wrong way.  However, Toothless soon realizes that jealousy may be the least of his troubles when he discovers that Torch's angry mother is rampaging across the island looking for her lost baby.

I was surprised and thrilled to see that "The Terrible Twos" turned out to be such a showcase for Toothless.  He's front and center the whole time!  And not only does Toothless continue to be one of the most appealing characters in the recent history of animation, his ample screen-time also shows off how well produced Riders of Berk is.  Despite being a large and complex character to animate, Toothless moves and emotes beautifully in this episode.  I was also very pleased to see that the creators of the show were willing to have one of the dragons be the main character, instead of merely serving as a sidekick for the human cast.  Here's hoping more episodes put Toothless in charge!

The story relies a bit less on television cartoon cliches than past episodes, even if the jealousy subplot has been seen before, and it easily features the most action-packed moments of the show thus far.  "The Terrible Twos" is yet another in a line of great episodes to start the season.  I can't wait to see what Riders of Berk has to offer next week!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dragons Review: "Animal House"

Cartoon Network's new series Dragons: Riders of Berk officially premiered tonight with what is actually the third episode to air, "Animal House."  Once again the plot was centered around another challenge of living peacefully with Dragons.  This time, it turns out that the farm animals are terrified of the big scaly beasts that suddenly coexist with them.  And, out of sheer terror, the chickens have been rendered unable to lay eggs and the yaks have stopped giving milk.  With a terrible blizzard on the way, it's up to Hiccup (who else?) to figure out how to get the farm animals to relax so the Vikings won't starve during the storm.  But when the blizzard hits early, can Hiccup and the dragons round up the terrified animals before they all freeze to death?

The story isn't going to win any awards.  It's simple and predictable.  The episode beginss with an otherwise unrelated scene about snowboarding on dragons where we learn that dragons have a natural instinct to protect non-dragons in times of peril.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together and figure out where the story is going well before the halfway mark.  It's also a bit strange to see Hiccup so shocked and surprised that Toothless would be willing to save his life given that Toothless kind of did that a whole bunch of times already in the movie.  Plus the whole concept of dragons having a natural instinct to protect all other living creatures is a bit strange.

However, story nitpicks aside, "Animal House" has once again proven to be an enjoyable and well executed extension of the film's world.  The writing continues to be top-notch with lots of great one liners and visual gags that are perfectly in line with the film.  Plus, the tone does a good job of shifting to a more serious side once the blizzard hits.  Stoic continues to lack personality in the show, but all the other characters are spot on.  Toothless gets lots of screen time in this particular episode and he steals the show, as expected.  His animation looks great for a television budget and he even gets to reprise his trademark awkward smile from the film.  The score also does a brilliant job of creating the right tone and atmosphere, with a liberal sprinkling of the movie's themes throughout.

So in the end, even though it's easy to point out how predictable and flawed the story of "Animal House" is, it didn't actually detract from my enjoyment of the episode.  It matches the style and tone of the film perfectly, even if it doesn't offer a lot of surprises.  Plus, it was pretty cool to finally see one of the terrible snow storms mentioned in the film.  And snowboarding on a Night Fury should totally be in the next Winter Olympics.  Dragons: Riders of Berk is off to a good start!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Welcome to New Super Mario Bros. 2!  The game where everything is recycled and the coins don't matter!

New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the 3DS marks the third release for the "New" series of Mario titles.  First, we had New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, a very fun if not overly simplified revival of classic Mario sidescrolling gameplay.  Then came New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which did little to change the formula but did increase the scope of the game dramatically and added the hilariously chaotic 4-person multiplayer mode.  It felt a little stale if you had already played the DS original since it reused the same level themes and most of the same gimmicks, but it felt like a more full-featured fleshed out version of the concept.

New Super Mario Bros. 2, so named because evidently the Wii game doesn't count, continues to do very little to update the formula from the previous two games, but with a new gimmick thrown in here and there.  The primary new gimmick this time?  COINS!  COINS EVERYWHERE!  This game throws more coins at you than you know what to do with.  They spew out of pipes.  They drift around on parachutes.  They trail behind enemies.  Sometimes they just rain from the sky!  The goal is to grab as much money as possible to eventually reach the game's overarching goal:  collecting 1,000,000 coins.  The game keeps a running total of all the coins you've ever earned in the game so you can track your progress.

The result of this coin-grabbin' gimmick is pretty simple:  coins and lives are worthless now.  The game throws them at you so fast and furiously that you'll rack up hundreds of lives without even trying.  Plus, the game really doesn't reward you in any way for going out of your way to collect coins other than occasionally popping up a message to let you know that you've collected lots of coins.  The coins don't even unlock secret levels or anything, since series staple Star Coins remain hidden about the levels and are still used as the currency for unlocking secrets, like always.  The only goal to strive for is that 1,000,000 coin mark.  After playing through the main story and a few of the secret levels, I observed that I was at about 15,000 coins.

Only 985,000 to go...

So yeah, the coin grabbing mechanic is ultimately shallow and pointless.  But what about the rest of the game?  Underneath the gold-tinted facade is still a game of classic Mario platforming, correct?  And that is true.  But the result is sort of a mixed bag.  On one hand, I would be willing to say that NSMB2 probably has the best levels in the "New" series thus far.  While previous games in the series mostly presented Super Mario Bros. 3 inspired levels that provided short sprints to the flagpole, the levels in NSMB2 are much larger and open.  There are lots of secret little nooks and crannies to stumble upon in the levels, and while many of these do simply hold more useless coins, some contain the ever elusive Star Coins and some also house secret exits that lead to alternate paths.

The Raccoon Tail from Mario 3 makes it's return here.  But while the Tanooki suit in Super Mario 3D Land mostly felt like Nintendo forcing some heavy handed nostalgia into the game by sticking tails everywhere,  New Super Mario Bros. 2 is much more subtle.  Grabbing a tail simply serves to better allow Mario to explore the levels, as there are often hidden areas way up high.  Beyond the use of the tail, it definitely feels like the development team was actually looking at Super Mario World for most of their inspiration this time around.  Some levels even feature World's trademark slanted geometric hills in the background, and long-missing mid-boss character Reznor makes his triumphant return here.  That the game does not lean too heavily on Mario 3 for inspiration is quite refreshing!  It's nice to see that Nintendo remembered that there are other good games in the Mario series to draw influence from.

On the other hand...

As much as I enjoy the Super Mario World influences, that's part of the problem with New Super Mario Bros. 2.  Everything about it is pulled from previous Mario games.  Most notably, almost everything about this game's presentation is pulled directly from New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  The graphics, the voice clips, the level gimmicks, the enemies, and most notably, the music.  There's barely a new composition to be heard this time around.  Which is not to say that the soundtrack is poor.  It's quite good.  And I don't have a problem with reusing a few specific tracks in situations where it makes sense for old themes to return.  But lifting the entire soundtrack from a previous game and using it again with only a tiny number of new compositions and alterations comes across as extraordinarily cheap, even if the songs themselves are still decent.

Likewise, it's hard to appreciate the handful of new elements NSMB2 does bring to the table when visually it looks exactly like the previous two games in the series.  We've seen this exact same set of grassland, desert, beach, forest, volcano and other worlds in two games already, plus the fact that Nintendo seems to insist on using these same themes in all other Mario games now too, such as Mario Party 9.  The result is that this game looks tired and stale.  You've seen everything in this game already, so even when it does try to do something legitimately different, it's still impossible the shake the feeling that you've played this game before.  At least twice.  The only slightly clever thing I observed was combining the beach and forest themes into one world this time.  But that mostly just seems to be because there are fewer normal worlds in NSMB2.  (Six instead of the standard eight, though there are several secret worlds to make up for it.)

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is not completely devoid of new ideas.  The problem is that most of them are simply slight extensions or variations of what previous Mario games have done repeatedly.  So even when playing a level with a "new" feature it still feels incredibly familiar because you've probably seen something like it in a previous game before.  The result is a Mario game that is definitely fun to play, has everything that makes Mario games fun, but ultimately feels shallow and redundant.  In a series known for reinventing itself with each sequel, NSMB2 feels uncharacteristically safe.  Never before has a game with the word "New" in the title felt so stale.

I'm almost willing to give Nintendo a free pass here, because they have gone on record to say that they plan to make only one Mario sidescroller per console.  So once the equally stale looking New Super Mario Bros. U comes out later this year, it could be at least five or six years until we see another sequel in the series.  Hopefully that will provide Nintendo enough time to come up with some legitimately fresh new ideas for the series because as it stands, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is an overly-cautious retread on what has already been done repeatedly in its two predecessors.  It's still fun, but there's nothing really "new" about it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My thoughts on "Dragons: Riders of Berk"

How to Train Your Dragon is one of my all time favorite films.  And it's no secret that it is one of my favorites for two primary reasons.  First:  Toothless is awesome.  If you put Toothless on the screen it will make anything cooler.  At least 20% cooler.  Second:  the movie had exceptionally good music, courtesy of John Powell.

And, it would seem, that I'm not the only one who enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon, as it's getting the full franchise treatment that Dreamworks has thrust upon all of their hits in recent years.  Short films, sequels, online games, vaguely Christmas-themed half hour specials, live arena spectaculars, and the obligatory television series.  Normally I'm skeptical about milking a franchise for all it's worth.  That could probably be a subject for a whole article in and of itself.  But How to Train Your Dragon created a world rich with potential for expansion.  So when Dreamworks announced its plans to throw the Dragons franchise into the milking machine, I was actually pretty excited.  The fact that Gift of the Night Fury managed to be a legitimately well made follow-up to the film instead of just a cheap cash-in holiday special made the future seem even brighter for the franchise.

And now we have Cartoon Network's new series called Dragons: Riders of Berk.  Recently the network aired two preview episodes of the new show set to premier this fall.   In the first episode, How to Start a Dragon Academy, Hiccup and co are faced with the task of figuring out how dragons and vikings can coexist before the curmudgeonly viking Mildew convinces Hiccup's father to cage the dragons and send them away.  The second episode, Viking for Hire, shows the struggles of Gobber, who is suddenly faced with a bit of an identity crisis now that his career as a dragon slayer and weapons blacksmith is over.

By and large, I was quite impressed by both episodes.  Both episodes dealt with an issue that the end of the film and Gift of the Night Fury both sort of glossed over:  the challenge of having a clan of vikings and a clan of dragons coexisting peacefully on a tiny little island.  It's a subject rich with potential for future stories so I'm glad to see the series exploring that direction instead of just having the dragons and the vikings being all best-buddies now right away.  Though it does kind of make one wonder why they didn't call the series How to Train Your Dragon: The Series or something similar because it looks like it is, in fact, going to deal with training dragons.  Oh well.

Either way, the first two episodes demonstrate that the creators of the show have some solid ideas for where to go with the series from here.  The writing, tone, and humor are all very much in line with the film.  Gobber seems a little dumber than he was in the movie and Stoic seems to be a bit more stoic than usual, but for the most part everyone is in character.  The cast is a fairly even mix between original cast members and sound alikes, but everybody sounds pretty good overall, even though most of the Scottish accents sound pretty fake.  The handful of new characters all fit right in with the established ones.  Mildew, the antagonistic curmudgeon of the island, is particularly enjoyable to watch.

Visually, the show looks quite good.  Being on a TV budget, there was no way it would look as good as the film, but it comes about as close as I think one could reasonably expect.  The visual detail has all been toned down a bit.  Hiccup's furry vest has been changed to look to be made out of leather now, for example.  And Stoic's beard took a pretty big hit, which is unfortunate.  But the overall look of the show is still surprisingly rich and very close to the level of detail seen in the film, which is quite impressive for television animation.  The animation is fairly decent, too.  The dragons' movement does tend to look a little robotic at times but it's clear that a lot of effort was put into making the dragons look good, especially Toothless.  Everyone's favorite Night Fury isn't on screen too much in the two episodes shown, but he's just as lovable as he was in the film when he does appear.

One last detail I was very pleased to see, or hear rather, is that the series utilizes the same character themes and musical motifs as the original film score.  A bit of research reveals that the show's music is being handled by composer John Paesano.  Paesano seems to have a solid grasp on the style of music that John Powell first established.  He weaves familiar themes in and out of the score without just copying the original source material.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled that the television series will have music that lives up to the great score crafted for the movie.

Based on the two episodes shown, it looks like Dragons: Riders of Berk is off to a great start.  Both episodes consisted of good Saturday morning cartoon fun, even if they were a bit on the predicable side.  The world of Dragons lends itself well to this sort of format, so I'm glad the potential is not being wasted!  Everything I enjoyed about the original film is present and accounted for and the new ideas and characters work very well with the established world.  I look forward to seeing future episodes when the season begins later this year!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Mario Party 9

The Mario Party series has been Nintendo's staple multiplayer party franchise for well over a decade.  Over the course of fourteen years, twelve different games in the series have been churned out.  Save for a brief diversion from the formula in Mario Party Advance, all the games in the series played largely the same, simply receiving a few tweaks and a new coat of paint each year.  After Mario Party 8 and Mario Party DS were both released in 2007, the series disappeared.  Now, five years later, Mario Party returns in a refreshed and updated new form.  The result is Mario Party 9, a faster and sleeker installment that addresses many of the recurring issues that have plagued previous games but still hangs on to a few issues that have been present for the entire run of the series.

First off, the long time collectables of the series, stars and coins, are out.  Mini Stars and Mini Ztars are in, effectively combining both collectables into one.  Rather than saving up coins to purchase power stars, you continuously rack up a total of Mini Stars throughout the game.  Collecting Mini Ztars will, logically enough, remove Mini Stars from your total.  The person with the most Mini Stars at the end of the game wins.

The board game component of the series has also been giving a significant update.  Players now all move together on a linear path, rather than exploring a board one at a time.  Each turn sees a different player become the "captain" allowing them to roll the dice and continue along the path as well as sometimes receiving special bonuses for being the player in charge.  The spaces on the board have all kinds of effects, from shuffling the turn order, activating a mini game, and even triggering boss battles, all while working toward the end goal.  As minigames no longer follow every four turns and are instead encountered more sporadically, the pacing of Mario Party 9 is much faster than other games in the series.  Gone are the days of circling the board for hours playing out turns and playing minigames over and over.  Here you are making a beeline for the finish with only the occasional minigame sprinkled in to keep things interesting.  It's a great new formula that really keeps things moving.

Also gone are the days of having to put up with annoying computer controlled opponents.  Mario Party 9 no longer forces you to use four characters when playing with two or three players.  The game plays out the same way with any number.  You still have the option to include CPU opponents if you want, though.

The minigames are one part of the game that remain essentially untouched from previous installments.  If you've played any previous Mario Party game you know just what to expect from these bite sized games.  Some have you doing basic platforming, some require pressing buttons with special timing, and some just require shaking the Wii remote like an idiot.  The minigame offering is, as a whole, a lot stronger than what was seen in Mario Party 8.  The games that rely on motion control are still kind of dodgy, but for the most part the minigames remain a fun and enjoyable component of the game, as always.

Unfortunately, Mario Party 9, perhaps more so than any other entry in the series, places a large emphasis on luck.  The Mario Party series has always been known for game changing events where players can go from first to last solely based on the roll of the dice.  Mario Party 9, however, seems to go out of its way to emphasize this more than ever.  Every board contains events that can cause players to lose half of their Mini Stars, and these events pop up far more often than one may expect.  It's pretty harsh.  There are also still the requisite minigames that are purely luck based as well.  Luck has always been a major component in the series, but it can feel particularly cheap in this installment, especially on the occasions that the game seems to turn against you and throw everything it can at you to keep you behind.

As always, Mario Party 9 becomes extremely tedious to play when playing in single player.  The faster pace of the boards does at least mean that you spend less time watching CPU players take their turns.  They still have a nasty habit of ganging up on the single player, though.  Mario Party 9 really demands more than one player to fully be enjoyed.  It still retains the frustrating luck-based elements of the previous games in the series, but the new style of play provides a welcome breath of fresh air.  After a half-decade absence, Mario Party 9 brings the series back in fine form.  If you've got some friends to party with, I recommend picking it up.  If nothing else, you can at least get a laugh out of all the terrible puns used throughout the adventure!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Ice Age Continental Drift

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Ice Age films.  On one hand, I greatly enjoy the first film in the series.  It had a real nice relaxed pace to it with a some great quirky characters.  The film was also willing to shift from cartoon-y action packed slapstick to some genuinely quiet and heartfelt moments.  Overall, a very solid family film that almost anyone could enjoy.

And then they decided to make sequels, starting with Ice Age: The Meltdown.  The series managed to survive one sequel reasonably unscathed.  It was a lot goofier than the first movie but it managed to maintain some of the same tone that made the first movie so enjoyable and it still told a decent story that followed up Manny's character arc pretty nicely.  Then things really went off track with the third one, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  Sid sums it up pretty well in Continental Drift when he says, "We fought dinosaurs in the ice age!  It didn't make sense but it sure was exciting!"  Any semblance to the first film was gone by that point.  Subtlety and character development were abandoned entirely for over the top pratfalls and cheap jokes.  Not even Scrat, the acorn-obsessed rodent who consistently provides the best humor in the series, could save Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

But it made a ton of money and now we have Ice Age Continental Drift.  Scrat, in his never ending attempt to bury his acorn, manages to break through the Earth's core, causing Pangaea to separate into the individual continents we know and love today.  And, seriously, these continents are booking it.  Earthquakes abound as huge land masses break apart and drift off into the ocean.  It recalls the visuals of the ice bowl breaking apart in The Meltdown but on a much MUCH larger scale.  In the ensuing chaos Manny, Diego, and Sid are thrust out to sea on a tiny chunk of ice with no means of getting back.

Manny, of course, is desperate to return to his wife Ellie and their daughter Peaches.  Remember Peaches?  She was born at the end of the last movie?  Yeah, she's inexplicably a teenager already to try and draw in that ever lucrative tween demographic.  But we'll get to that later.  Sid is stuck keeping an eye on his crazy grandmother who was left in his care prior to the earth-shattering side effects of Scrat's antics. just kind of there, as he has been for the previous two films.  But not to worry!  He actually gets something to do in this film...

Bring on the pirates!  I'm not kidding.  Pirates.  More specifically animal pirates, led by Captain Gutt, a gorilla with a hairdo that conveniently resembles a pirate hat.  Gutt and his dastardly band of scallywags sale the seas and steal fruit from the...other animals who must be out there for some reason.  Seriously, how can they be pirates?  These are animals we're talking about!  How did they even get out there in the first place?  Are there animal sailors?  Animal ports to rob?  And what ever happened to those humans from the first movie?  Did humans go extinct?

Anyway, yeah, animal pirates.  Even though Manny, Granny, Sid, and Diego don't really have anything to steal, Gutt captures them anyway with the intent of either forcing them to be part of his crew or making them walk the plank.  Meanwhile, Manny tries to hatch a plan to capture Gutt's "ship" so they can catch a ride back home on a current.  And there's also some stuff about enslaving little Ewok-lookin' things and also a love interest is introduced for Diego.  (See?  I told you he has a  purpose in this film.)  Oh, and then some deadly sirens show up to menace the group for no particular reason, too.  Did you know that sirens existed during the ice age?  Me neither.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the continent continues to split apart causing a giant cliff to start rapidly encroaching on the herd's home.  So it's Ice Age 2 all over again as the pack of assorted animals heads out in a race against time to reach safety in the form of a land bridge that's safe because...Manny said it was.  Except, with Manny now off battling pirates it's up to Ellie, the only other adult mammoth around, to take charge and lead the way.  Meanwhile, Peaches struggles with the fact that she doesn't quite fit in with the other mammoths because she's half-possum (because that's hereditary?) and ends up insulting her molehog friend, Louis, while trying to impress a group of teenaged mammoths.  Awkward hijinks ensue.

Whew.  Let me catch my breath.  Apparently the filmmakers decided to take a page out of the Pirates of the Caribbean book, and made their movie as convoluted as possible.  Continental Drift suffers from an issue that has plagued the Ice Age franchise from the second installment on: there are way too many characters.  Plus, how are there other teenage mammoths?  Where are those mammoths' parents?  Manny and Ellie are the only adult mammoths shown.  What happened to all the other mammoths?  Oy.

Okay, I've ranted enough. Time to be more positive.  First, I can say this:  Ice Age Continental Drift is a massive improvement over Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  The franchise has definitely wandered to a place so far from what the original film was about that it's barely recognizable as the same franchise.  That said, if the filmmakers wish to take the series in a much more over-the-top cartoony direction and abandon the pseudo-reality of the first film, this feels like a much better way to go about doing so.  The pirates, though out of place, actually do make for some reasonably compelling villains.  And the love interest plot for Diego, though obvious and predictable, is handled in a way that really does seem to give Diego's character some badly needed purpose again.  And it's certainly a better subplot than being terrified of water.  Peaches' story is pretty painful to watch, but Ellie filling Manny's shoes as the leader of the herd is probably the best role she's had yet.

Series veteran John Powell returns to provide the score for the third time.  Powell both follows and breaks my number one rule about sequel soundtracks: retaining character themes and continuity with previous films.  While David Newman's character themes introduced and used to great effect in the first film are once again absent, Powell continues to weave the themes he introduced in The Meltdown into the score of Continental Drift.  So, at the very least, the three Ice Age sequels have a nice consistent sound to their soundtracks.

 It's also worth noting that Scrat is back in fine form this time around.  Whereas the increased emphasis on over-the-top slapstick feels odd with the other characters, it greatly benefits Scrat.  And, thankfully, Scratte, the awful love interest of the previous film, is nowhere to be found save for a very brief (and fitting) cameo.  Scrat is back to his usual acorn chasing antics and while his role is much less prominent this time around, it may be some of the funniest material with him yet.

So, in the end, Ice Age Continental Drift is a vast improvement on its predecessor, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  Some characters do get lost in the shuffle, but I really did find myself enjoying a lot of scenes and the film does manage to deliver some legitimately good jokes.  Including a few that aren't even in the trailer!   It still falls short of the original Ice Age, but of the three sequels that followed it, Continental Drift may be the best of the bunch.

Peaches:  "So, tell me.  When exactly will I be allowed to hang out with boys?"
Manny:  "When I'm dead.  Plus three days.  Just to make sure I'm dead."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Shameless Plug: The Phil Vischer Podcast

Howdy howdy, folks.  Welcome to the first edition of a recurring series that probably won't end up ever recurring again: "Shameless Plug."  In this one-shot recurring series, I link to other cool stuff online that's probably more entertaining than the blog you're currently reading.  Because after reading the nonsense I write here, I feel it's my duty to society to provide some legitimate entertainment to make up for it.  And today I'm shamelessly plugging:

I'm a longtime fan of Phil Vischer.  As the creator of VeggieTales, one of my favorite shows growing up, Phil has had a presence in my life for a great many years.  But after reading Phil's autobiography "Me, Myself, & Bob" I became much more interested in what Mr. Vischer was up to in the world today.  I strongly relate to Phil in his sharing of personal experiences, his opinions about the entertainment industry, and also his Christian beliefs and the way he applies them to his life.  His current DVD series, What's in the Bible?, is pretty much the best thing ever.

And now he has a podcast.  In every episode Phil Vischer and company discuss an unbelievable variety of subjects.  In just the couple of hours I've listened to so far, topics discussed include Disneyland, gender roles, robot uprisings, the negative connotations of being called a "baptist,"  Pixar movies, living in space, illegal tomatoes, the roles of fear in religions both Christian and otherwise, relationships, radioactive hawk poop, futurism, interpreting the concept of the "new Earth" from scripture, voice acting, and numerous other topics both funny and actually really deep and thought-provoking at times.

I'm impressed at how smoothly controversial issues are mixed with more jovial topics on this show.  The subjects vary from critiquing Disney films to discussing very challenging theological issues, but the tone generally remains relatively light and inviting.  Phil's typical wit and sense of humor are very much present and prominent, so even when discussing heavy topics the show remains fun and entertaining.  Even if you don't agree with all the views presented, you'll probably find it at least interesting to listen to.  And it's darn funny most of the time.  I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've heard so far, and I intend to continue listening for the foreseeable future!  And you should too.  (Because I'm always right, remember?)

You can check out the Phil Vischer Podcast on iTunes.
Or, if you are so inclined, you can also find it on Phil's blog.