Wednesday, August 21, 2013

App Review: My Muppets Show

Disney's latest app for iOS and Android is My Muppets Show.  As is often the case with Disney's mobile games, My Muppets Show is actually a Muppet themed re-skin of the existing game My Singing Monsters. Given its musical theme, it's not hard to see why Disney decided that My Singing Monsters' format would be a good fit for the Muppets, even if it feels a little forced at times.  The app tasks you with creating digital versions of all your favorite Muppets, as well as a few newcomers designed just for the game, as well as cleaning and decorating a stage for them to perform on.

For the most part, My Muppets Show is a relatively standard FarmVille style simulation game, probably the most frequently seen genre for mobile devices next to endless runners.  All the obligatory trappings are present and accounted for:  currency for buying new characters and performing tasks, a second much more valuable currency that is hard to acquire but is also required for certain things, lots of busy work to attend to, menus to navigate, and lots of timers to wait through.  If you've played any games of this type before, you'll feel right at home here.

So, ultimately, what's the goal of My Muppets Show?  Simply put, it's to get lots of Muppets on stage.  Each Muppet has an instrument to play, or a little vocalization to sing.  The more Muppets you get on stage, the more the music builds, eventually turning into a full-featured song.  It's a pretty clever mechanic, and it helps that the songs you are creating are quite catchy.  It also helps that the Muppets who speak and sing are voiced by their actual performers, which provides a nice sense of authenticity to the experience.

By mixing two Muppets together you can "digitize" new Muppets to add the show.  It's a little bizarre but it works well enough as a method for obtaining new characters though the outcome is pseudo-randomized and it can be frustrating when combining Muppets doesn't produce the character you're going for.  Feeding Muppets various types of food helps them level up and produce more money, used to unlock more content and purchase more resources.  Rinse and repeat.  You start off in the classic Muppet Theater, but after filling it out, you can unlock other stages that provide a blank slate for building a new show with different characters.  It's a bit strange that you have to start from scratch again on each stage, but it's also fun to build up multiple shows simultaneously.

Normally, these types of games hold little appeal to me since, frankly, they barely qualify as games.  There's no over-arching goal, no plot, and really no gameplay to speak of.  You tap on some stuff, wait for the timer to tick down, and then tap on some more stuff.  Games of this type are also a breeding ground for heavy handed in-app purchases.  These kinds of games are usually free to play, but many actions are often preceded by a lengthy wait-time that can only be skipped by using some of that elusive extra special currency that is so hard to acquire.  The most desirable unlockables are also usually locked away behind prohibitively high fees.

Typically the only way to reasonably get enough elite currency to get the job done is to spend some real deal money, and games will often introduce further artificial limitations the longer you play without paying anything.  It's an incredibly popular tactic in mobile gaming these days, and one I find rather tasteless, especially in games that don't have much actual gameplay to speak of in the first place...

To a certain degree, My Muppets Show is guilty of most of the above mentioned problems.  That said, My Muppets Show does a surprisingly good job of avoiding the annoyances typical of the genre.  Diamonds are the elite currency here, and you are able to spend real money to stock up if you so choose.  Thankfully, diamonds aren't critical to enjoying the experience that My Muppets Show has to offer.  The main annoyance you'll have to put up with is waiting for timers.  Most actions in My Muppets Show are followed by a wait.  Waits for some tasks, like removing garbage from the stage, are fairly quick.  Tasks like acquiring new characters, on the other hand, can take up to twelve hours to complete.  You can skip these waits, but that requires far more diamonds than you normally have on hand, so if you don't want to wait you're going to have to fork over some cash.

However, if you don't mind waiting, My Muppets Show can actually be pretty enjoyable.  Beyond the wait times, what you see is what you get, so you don't have to worry about the game impeding your progress further the longer you play.  It's a good game to play for a few minutes at a time.  I often load up the game in the morning, do the tasks available at the time, get all my timers going, and then set it aside for the rest of the day.  Then I come back to it at night and repeat the process so I'll have progress to check up on in the morning.  The wait times are the main restriction to contend with here, so as long as you don't mind setting the game aside for a while to let the timers tick down, you won't need to spend a cent to experience My Muppets Show.

Ultimately, My Muppets Show is an enjoyable little diversion.  Despite adhering closely to the conventions of the genre, it's still a notch above the typical FarmVille-esque game. There's not a whole lot of actual gameplay as a result, but unlocking new Muppets, building up the number of performers in each song, and sprucing up each stage is compelling enough to keep you coming back for a few minutes each day.  It would be nice to see the Muppets in a game that aspires to be a little more than a typical freemium title, but they manage to pull it off with a fair amount of class.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Video Game Review: DuckTales Remastered

I could start off this review with a brief history of DuckTales for the NES.  But I don't have to.  You already know this game.  You already know its soundtrack.  You already know the cartoon it's based on.  You know the theme song to the cartoon.  Heck, you might even know about the comics that the cartoon was based on.  Scrooge McDuck's NES adventure is the stuff of legends these days.  You'd have to have been living under a rock for over twenty years now to not be at least slightly familiar with DuckTales for the NES.

So let's just get on with it, then.  Thanks to a triple collaboration between Disney, Capcom, and the 2D platforming experts at WayForward, DuckTales Remastered gives the NES classic a shiny new coat of paint, a handful of new features, and gobs of voice acting.  Many a nostalgic tear was shed when this remake was revealed.  So, does it live up to the high expectations of reviving what many hail as one of the finest platformers ever made?

Well...sort of.

At it's core, DuckTales Remastered is almost a direct port of the original NES game.  The same five levels that you know and love are back and, just as before, they can still be played in any order you choose.  The original game was created using the Mega Man engine after all, and the Blue Bomber's DNA is still felt in Remastered.  Certain sections of levels have been adjusted or expanded now and two new levels bookend the original five, but for the most part, everything is exactly as it was, from platform placement to enemy behavior to the locations of secret goodies to grab.  If you loved the NES original, you'll no doubt feel right at home in DuckTales Remastered.

The main mechanic of the game is the ability to bounce around the screen using Scrooge McDuck's cane like a pogo stick.  And, honestly, Scrooge's bouncing attack is probably the reason this game was and still is considered to be so fun.  It's just stupidly amusing to bounce around all over the place.  It was fun on the NES and it's still fun now.  Scrooge also has a golf-swing attack he can use whenever he's pressed up against an object, but otherwise it's all about the pogo bouncing.  You'll want to bounce off everything in this game.  It's how you defeat enemies.  It's how you break open treasure chests.  It's how you discover secrets.  And, I can assure you, you'll soon stop walking around the levels in favor of just bouncing around like an idiot all the time simply because it's so much fun.

That is...when it works.  Ninety percent of the time DuckTales Remastered has rock solid controls that work perfectly.  But then, sometimes, they just don't for some reason.  You'll be gleefully bouncing along and then, suddenly, you won't be anymore and you'll fall onto something hazardous.  Sometimes you'll hit the button to start bouncing and Scrooge will just decide he doesn't feel like it this time, which can be especially aggravating when you're trying to bounce on something that harms you otherwise, like an enemy or a bed of spikes, and you end up taking a hit instead.  I don't know what the deal is with the controls.  When they work, they're super solid and precise, but they just fail sometimes, seemingly at random, which can be incredibly frustrating.

Adding to the troubles is the high level of difficulty that DuckTales Remastered throws at you.  Of course, fans of the original game will already be well aware of this.  Like most NES platformers of the day, DuckTales was a punishing game, and it still is in Remastered.  It's quite easy to take damage and when you run out of lives, that's it.  You're done.  It's back to the menu to start over.  It's not as hard as, say, a Mega Man game, but again, the Blue Bomber's influence is quite evident in DuckTales challenging nature.

And, on the NES, that was no big deal, since the levels were easy to zip through.  Sure, there were tons of nooks and crannies to explore, but if you died a few too many times and decided you just wanted to make a bee-line for the boss that was very possible on the NES.  Not so anymore.  Each level of DuckTales Remastered now has a handful of collectables sprinkled throughout that are mandatory to track down before you can complete the level.

It seems like the developers wanted to make sure that you saw every part of each level, as you now have to explore every single passage you come across looking for whatever item you happen to need to collect at the moment.  That's all fine and dandy the first time through a level, when you actually want to explore.  But if you happen to get a game over, and are forced to begin the fetch quest again, suddenly checking out every nook and cranny seems a lot less fun since you've seen them already.

The "Easy" difficulty option removes this frustration, as it dispenses with lives entirely, so you'll never have to restart a level no matter how many times you die.  But, if you decided to have a go on a higher difficulty setting, you can bet your number one dime on the fact that you're going to end up having to go back and collect those same items over and over just to get back to the part of the level you died in again.  It's baffling to me that WayForward didn't include a "classic" mode of sorts that lets you skip the fetch quests and breeze through the levels just like the old days.  It seems like a no-brainer to me.

Adding to the padded out length and, therefore, the frustration factor of replaying levels, is the inclusion of fully voiced cut-scenes.  A LOT of fully voiced cut scenes.  At least a half dozen or so in each level, as every level has essentially been transformed into a self-contained episode of the cartoon show.  These cut-scenes prove to be a double-edged sword for DuckTales Remastered.  On the one hand, they're incredibly clever and well written.  The dialogue feels like it was lifted directly out of the original cartoon, and can be quite funny at times.  All the original voice actors return to lend their voices to the characters, and it's a real treat to listen to this cast again.  The storyline of DuckTales Remastered is fantastic to experience the first time you see it.

But, on the other fun as it is to hear Scrooge belittle Launchpad McQuack some more or trade barbs with Flinthart Glomgold there comes a point where you just want the characters to stop talking and let you play the game.  Having to stop for dialogue so frequently absolutely kills the pacing of the levels.  Add in the fact that these cut-scenes play every single time you play a level, even if you've already seen them before, and you'll soon find yourself longing for the olden days of the largely plot-free NES original.  You can skip the story sequences, but to do so you actually have to enter the pause menu and select a skip option, which isn't a particularly elegant process.  The developers had the right idea with these story cut-scenes, as they are quite entertaining at first, but they quickly overstay their welcome and really should have been used more sparingly.

Though the story sequences may have missed the mark somewhat, not a negative word can be said about the other ways in which DuckTales Remastered has been spruced up for the modern era.  Visually, it looks just like you're playing an episode of the cartoon show.  Courtesy of some actual Disney animators and folks who worked on the original artwork for the show, the graphics of this game are absolutely top notch.  All the character animations are fun to watch and extremely expressive and the backgrounds, while relatively basic, perfectly capture the look of DuckTales.  This game is a feast for the eyes.

It's also a feast for the ears.  DuckTale's famous NES soundtrack is brilliantly remastered courtesy of favorite WayForward audio guy, Jake Kaufman.  Each track has been carefully updated so that they all sound completely familiar, but also refreshingly new at the same time.  Lots of brand new music is included too, and it's all delightfully reminiscent of the score used on the original television show, further connecting the game to its source material.  I honestly can't imagine how the music of DuckTales Remastered could have been handled any better.  It's pretty much perfect.

There are also lots of little easter eggs and goodies sprinkled in for longtime fans.  Subtle references to other Disney cartoons are appropriately incorporated at clever moments.  A vast selection of unlockable artwork, music and other items originating from both the game and the television show await those who collect lots of treasure in-game.  You can even go for a swim in Scrooge's famous money bin this time around, an absolutely pointless but incredibly satisfying new inclusion.  DuckTales Remastered was clearly a labor of love, as the passion for the source material oozes from every inch of the game.

That makes it all the more disappointing then, to discover that the underlying game has so many flaws that keep it from being the ultimate tribute it tries to be.  The sporadic control hiccups frustrate at the most inopportune moments.  The fully-voiced cut-scenes, while a great inclusion for fans of the cartoon, get in the way for fans of the original NES title who just want to play the game.  On the opposite side of the coin, the punishing difficulty and relentless devotion to old school game design get in the way of those who may not be familiar with the game but are fans of the cartoon.  In trying to be the ultimate tribute to all aspects of the DuckTales fandom,  DuckTales Remastered isn't quite able to fully deliver to any of them.

Is it still worth your time and money?  Absolutely.  There's still plenty to like here for fans of both the original game and the cartoon show, and the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.  But DuckTales Remastered just has a few too many lingering flaws lurking around to truly be the end-all-be-all nostalgic experience it wants to be.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Toy Review: D23 Exclusive Small Fry Buzz Lightyear

Hey, remember that wonderful little Toy Story short film called Small Fry that played in front of The Muppets back in 2011?  The one where a kids meal toy version of Buzz Lightyear pulls a switch-a-roo with the real Buzz and hilarity ensues?  If not, or if it's just been a while, you can check it out here:

Toy Story Toons - Small Fry on Disney Video

That was fun, wasn't it?  Well this year at the D23 Expo, which just concluded this past weekend, Mattel offered up an exclusive figure of the Buzz Lightyear Fun Meal toy just like the one seen in Small Fry!  Though I was unable to attend the expo myself, I managed to get my hands on one of the Small Fry Buzz toys and he's pretty darn cool!  Let's check him out in detail:


This is one toy where the packaging is just as much a part of the toy as the actual figure itself.  Buzz comes tucked away inside a whopping three different packages, and they're all quite detailed.  First, the whole thing comes in what looks like a Poultry Palace take-out box, complete with delightfully disgusting looking grease stains.  Inside you'll find another box, which looks just like the Fun Meal packaging seen in the short film.  It even has a word find puzzle and a maze you can solve on each side of it!  Very clever.

Finally, Buzz himself is inside a little plastic display box that recalls how kids meal toys are often displayed in fast food restaurants.  It even has little cardboard cutouts of some Poultry Palace food that serve as a nice backdrop for Buzz.  The attention to detail here really is outstanding.  The only downside?  There's no way to get Buzz out of the display box without destroying it, so you either have to leave him in there forever, or bust him out and lose his nice little display box.  There's no middle ground between playing with him and displaying him here.  It's one or the other.

Sculpt & Paint Application:
Once you finally manged to get Buzz out of his many boxes and have a look at him, he's quite impressive!  Since he's meant to be a kids meal toy, he's not overly detailed, which means that Mattel was easily able to make sure that everything about him looks exactly right.

Of course, since he's sealed up inside his little display box, I can't check if he has any articulation.  I am also unable to check if his feet have wheels on them, as they do in the short film.  However, I can say that he couldn't possibly look any more accurate than he does.  Heck, he actually looks better than the source material, since the toy in the short film is meant to look cheap.  Being a relatively simple character, Mattel was really able to pull out all the stops with this little guy!

Mini Buzz is five inches tall.  On his own, he actually seems kind of large, since five inches is pretty big for a kids meal toy.  That said, when compared to other accurately sized Toy Story characters, he's perfectly in scale with them, just like how he appears in Small Fry.  And, since he's in a nice little display box, you don't have to worry about him getting dusty!  Big Buzz there could use a cleaning soon...


If you're a Toy Story fan and you really enjoyed Small Fry, you'll love this little Buzz guy!  The figure is impressive on his own, but it's the amazingly detailed packaging that surrounds him that really propels him to the next level.  It's a shame there's no way to get him out of his display box without dismantling it, but if you aren't planning to play with him, that's not really an issue anyhow.  If you want a unique and fun piece for your Toy Story collection, head to eBay and snatch one of these little guys up while you can!  For what he is, he's pretty much perfect.

Okay, Disney.  Now bring on the rest of the abandoned Fun Meal toys!  I want to get myself a Lizard Wizard.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Movie Review: Planes

Do you like Ratatouille, Cars, and Herbie: Fully Loaded?  Have you ever thought to yourself, "Gee, I wish I could watch all of these movies at the same time?"  Well, have I got the film for you!

Wait...didn't I write this review already?

Let's not beat around the bush here, folks.  Disney's Planes, courtesy of former "cheapquel" machine DisneyToon Studios, is pretty much exactly the movie you think it is.  It's quite pretty but definitely below the visual standards of Pixar's parent franchise from which it stems.  It's story doesn't really do too much to surprise you.  And the cliches.  Hoo boy, the cliches!  Make a list of all of the standard "underdog-from-humble-origins-enters-the-big-race" cliches and I can pretty much guarantee you'll see them all in this film.  That Planes shares a premise so incredibly similar to Dreamworks Animation's recently released Turbo doesn't help either, since it means audiences already saw this familiar formula just a few weeks earlier.

But here's the kicker:  Planes isn't really a bad movie.  In fact, it's actually pretty okay.  It beats the pants off Cars 2, that's for sure.  Oh sure, it's not a masterpiece by any means and its origins as a direct-to-DVD film are apparent throughout, particularly in the first act of the story.  But while Cars 2 strayed so far from the original Cars that it ended up a rather cold and sour experience, Planes adheres much more closely to the tone of its source material and is all the better for it.  Planes may be overly familiar, but it's also charming, at times exciting, and surprisingly easy to watch.

There are two main things that help Planes get off the ground, so to speak.  First, it features a charismatic voice cast that manages to breath enough life into the film's characters that you're willing to forget how formulaic they are.  Dane Cook delivers a perfectly everyman-esque performance as Dusty Crophopper, our main protagonist and stand-in for Lightning McQueen.  Effectively splitting the role of Mater in half, Brad Garrett and Carlos Alazraqui both do a fine job providing comic relief as fuel truck Chug and over-the-top Mexican plane El Chupacabra, respectively.  John Cleese turns in an enjoyably hammy performance as Bulldog, a snobby British racer.  Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog will no doubt enjoy hearing Roger Craig Smith's voice as villain Ripslinger, as well as a number of various other background characters.  Even John Ratzenburger lends his voice to a minor role, carrying on a Pixar tradition despite said studio not being the one responsible for this film.  It's a fun cast of characters that's easy to enjoy throughout.

The second thing that helps Planes rise above low expectations is that the "big race" so typical of these types of films actually ends up taking up most of the screen time instead of just the last twenty minutes as per the norm.  The first act of the movie is riddled with yawn-inducing training montages and the like, but Planes wraps up these obligatory scenes rather hastily and quickly ventures into much more interesting territory once the round-the-world race begins.  Here the scope of the movie is expanded greatly and the various portions of the race allow the film some freedom to offer more inventive sequences.  An extended set-piece at sea during a fierce storm is especially exhilarating.  In a way, it almost feels like the filmmakers played their trump card a little too early, as the story settles firmly back into familiar territory for its almost nauseatingly cliched finale.  It's a shame the momentum built up during the middle of the film couldn't carry through to the conclusion.

Even so, Planes still manages to stand out above the usual forgettable fare produced by DisneyToon Studios, even managing to provide a better overall experience than Pixar's own follow-up to Cars.  If you are really sick and tired of racing film cliches, you might have a little trouble looking past how many of them are on display here.  And if, even three films into the franchise, you're still hung up on the implausibility of a universe full of living means of transportation, Planes won't do much to strengthen the credibility of the World of Cars.  But, if you're willing to give it a chance and are simply looking for an hour and a half of solid animated entertainment, you just might find out that Planes is far more tolerable than you expected.

In fact, you might even manage to enjoy yourself.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Movie Review: Turbo

Do you like Ratatouille, Cars, and Herbie: Fully Loaded?  Have you ever thought to yourself, "Gee, I wish I could watch all of these movies at the same time?"  Well, have I got the film for you!

In Dreamworks' latest film Turbo, our titular snail wants nothing more than to be a famous racer in the Indy 500.  Inspired by watching his favorite racer Guy Gagne on television,  Turbo (actually named Theo) spends all of his time fantasizing about leaving his mundane life in the garden behind and blazing around the racetrack at lightning speed.  Unfortunately, being a snail and all, he's a little disadvantaged in the speed department.  But that all changes when his body accidentally becomes infused with nitrous oxide.  Suddenly Turbo is, as one of the film's characters so cleverly quips, "Slo no mo!"

You've seen this movie before.  You'll probably know exactly where the story is going from the moment the film begins.  But, similar to movies like Kung-Fu Panda which also feature well-worn plots, Turbo doesn't let the familiarity of its story drag it down.  Instead, it populates its world with sincere and appealing characters and embraces the strengths of the cliches its story employs.  It also largely manages to avoid the kinds of potty humor, cheap jokes, and pop culture references so ubiquitous with animated kids films these days.

 Turbo himself is quite capable of carrying the film.  Much like Remy in Ratatouille, Turbo's pure unbridled passion for what he loves is infectious.  His human companion Tito, the Linguini to Turbo's Remy, is also immediately likable thanks to his enthusiasm for helping Turbo make it to the big race.  Also along for the ride is Turbo's skeptical brother Chet.  Given that Turbo's plot requires the audience to buy into a pretty absurd premise for a film, Chet often serves as the voice of reason, frequently mirroring the thoughts of the audience when pointing out the ridiculousness of what he is witnessing.  Turbo also finds himself surrounded by a ragtag but supportive group of humans and snails alike who manage to be pretty likable despite not getting a whole lot of screen-time.

And, honestly, there really isn't much more to say.  Turbo doesn't break any new ground, but it makes the most of the familiar territory it occupies.  It has good characters, decent humor, polished visuals, and a fitting musical score courtesy of Wreck-It Ralph alum Henry Jackman.  It's unlikely that Turbo will make it to your list of favorite animated films, but it doesn't provide many reasons to dislike it either.  If you're looking for fun way to spend an hour and a half, you could definitely do much worse than Turbo.