A remake that is (not) terrible

A little while ago I complained about the abominable remake of The Prisoner. As further evidence of how that review was not just a case of “they changed it, now it sucks“, I present you with this:

It’s time to play inappropriate music and chew bubblegum. And Unit-03 is all out of bubblegum.

Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance improves on the original.

You may recall that my assessment of the first Evangelion remake movie is that it stuck far too close to the first several episodes of the original series, to the point of often being nearly shot-by-shot identical save for the increased budget. A nice visual upgrade, sure, but compressing six episodes’ worth of material into a movie left the plot feeling rushed and the overall effort seeming rather unnecessary.

Evangelion 2.0 instead retells the other twenty episodes of the original series. It manages this by streamlining plot and character development and excising filler wherever possible. The core of the original’s storyline is still there, but it’s been extensively reworked, and mostly for the better.

Unit-00 wielding a missile against the Tenth Angel
For Unit-00, anything can be a melee weapon.

The clearest example of that is the fight scene with the Tenth Angel. Instead of just being an upgraded version of the corresponding scene in episode 19, it also incorporates quite a bit of the fight scene against the Sixteenth Angel in episode 23 of the series, particularly the so-called director’s cut version of that episode. (And the movie does it much better than the episode did; I always thought the shorter, non-director’s-cut version of that fight more effectively conveyed the emotional impact of <spoiler>Unit-00′s destruction and Rei’s death</spoiler>. But I digress.)

And while I’m whipping out the spoiler tags, I might as well add that the fight also has a big surprise for those familiar with the original series, who surely aren’t expecting the fight to include <spoiler>the beginning of Third Impact</spoiler>

The characters, particularly the three main pilots, have been toned down from the series. Shinji isn’t as mopey and angsty and manages to actually take decisive action a bit more. Rei is still mysterious but less aloof; we even see her try to get Shinji and his father together, which isn’t completely out of left field given that she’s <spoiler>a clone of Shinji’s dead mother</spoiler>. Given how Shinji and Rei have a closer relationship in the movie, it’ll be interesting to see what happens this time around when he eventually learns Rei’s backstory.

Asuka's doll... thing...
This is several kinds of wrong.

Judging from the Internet, toning down Asuka’s whole set of issues is a much more contentious topic, but if you ask me, the “resolution” we see of them in the movie is superficial and won’t last. (Or perhaps she doesn’t know certain details of her own past yet?) I mean, she carries around a doll or puppet of herself. Now if you haven’t seen the series before, that might merely seem a little odd, but believe me, once you learn where it came from, that’s seriously messed up.

No, my biggest complaint about how Asuka is treated in the movie is not her character development or (<sarcasm>horrors!</sarcasm>) her changed last name, but the repeated gratuitous fanservice shots of her. I’m willing to accept giving her her own version of Shinji’s toothpicks scene, but pretty much everything besides that is way too blatant and unnecessary. Sure, some of it was in the original series too, but not to the same degree, and even there it also served to torment Shinji. Here, it’s clearly just to titillate the viewer. (And no, hanging a lampshade on her test plug suit doesn’t make up for it.)

I just destroyed Unit-05; better make myself scarce for the next 45 minutes of screen time.

I can only assume that if new character Mari had gotten more screen time, she would’ve been subjected to similar treatment. (She certainly seemed to enjoy her redesigned plug suit….) It’s hinted that there’s more going on with her than we see, but then most of what we do see of her is her effectively filling in for Asuka after Asuka gets written out a little after the halfway mark.

And while I’m complaining about things, I might as well point out that the soundtrack dissonance used during Unit 03′s fight scene just doesn’t work for me. Using Komm, Süßer Tod during End of Evangelion worked, as does the scene with the Tenth Angel around the end of Evangelion 2.0, but this definitely does not. Maybe it’s just me, though.

But really, that’s about the extent of my complaints about this movie. This is what a remake should be: true to the spirit of the original, but not afraid to take liberties with the source material. Approachable to newcomers (assuming they’ve seen Evangelion 1.0, naturally), yet enough that’s new to keep those familiar with the original engaged. In all honestly, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the first few minutes of Evangelion 3.0, let alone the remainder of the remake. And most importantly, I’m looking forward to see what they come up with.

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The Prisoner remake: a load of number 2

Title for The Prisoner remake
When the title screen tells you to give up, you know you’re in trouble.

The short version: don’t waste your time watching last year’s remake of The Prisoner. Stick with the original.

Considered on its own merits, the remake isn’t terrible, but it never rises above mediocre either. There’s an over-reliance on camera trickery to create confusion on the part of the viewer, with lots of disjointed cuts between scenes that, at it worst, makes some episodes (particular the fifth one) simply difficult to follow. It can be hard to tell whether something is happening concurrently with another scene, or is a flashback, or a dream, or or an hallucination, or something else. Given that each of those happen with quite a bit of regularity, trying to disentangle the editing while making sense of the plot is a nontrivial task.

6 carries 93, wearing a dark shirt 6 seconds later, 6 is wearing a light shirt
Hey, no one noticed when John McClane’s shirt changed color, right?

It would have been nice if the editors had remembered to check for continuity between successive shots, though. Let’s get the basics before we start getting all fancy with the cuts, OK?

The remake does do a couple interesting things with the premise, and it certainly takes things in a very different direction than the original, but it does neither well enough to really stand on its own. And as a fan of the original, it’s impossible for me to evaluate the remake without constantly comparing it against the 1960s version. And there, it comes up far, far short of the mark.

Obviously, a remake is going to change some things. I understand that. Heck, the last time I wrote about a remake of something here, my major complaint was that it changed so little for most of the running time, except for the effects budget. But the The Prisoner remake makes the mistake of changing absolutely fundamental aspects of the original without providing a satisfying payoff for those changes.

The most grating is the issue of 6′s identity. In the original, Number 6 refuses to ever refer to himself as Number 6, the identity imposed upon him in The Village. He never calls himself by any number. He never wears the numbered identity badge that everyone else wears. There’s even an episode where Number 2 struggles to get him to even say the number six in any context.

Contrast the remake, where at the end of the second episode we see 6 screaming at 2 “I am 6, you bastard!” In the following episodes 6 shows no resistance to being identified as 6. The real Number 6 would die sooner than accepting that.

The Village
The remake’s Village is no Portmeirion.

The remake’s version of The Village and the people living there defies suspension of disbelief. The Village is surrounded by desert, and allegedly there is nowhere else. That’s right, the majority of people there accept The Village as being the entirety of human civilization, despite it obviously not having the industrial base needed to manufacture the cars and buses and everything else within it. This is taken to the extreme in the last episode, where we see people arriving by bus to The Village; not only can the new arrivals not explain where they arrived from, but no one besides 6 considers people arriving from allegedly nowhere as something worth questioning.

OK, maybe this isn’t entirely inexplicable, since it’s pretty obvious that the people in The Village live in abject fear of 2, and it would make sense that they would be terrified of voicing any opposition to what he tells them. Even though 2′s weapon of choice is sadistic psychological manipulation, he isn’t above orchestrating acts of terrorism to keep people in line, such as having a diner full of people blown up in the first episode in order to silence 554, where “silence” in this context means “put into a coma.” Although, given 2′s fondness of hand grenades, he may have simply done it himself.

2 holding a grenade
2′s the kind of guy who will throw a grenade at you and ask if you’ve had sex with your mother. I am not making this up.

In the original, most of the Number 2s didn’t sink to that level of obvious evil, and there was some ambiguity as to whether at least some of them were prisoners themselves who capitulated to The Village’s unseen masters. No, the remake’s 2 is pretty clearly evil. Nor is there any question in the remake as to 2 being in charge. This time around, when 6 asks “Who is number one?” — a recurring question in the original — the answer simply comes back that 2 is called 2 instead of 1 as a show of humility. Period.

I’m reluctant to call the remake The Prisoner In Name Only, but then there’s the issue of the episode titles. Each title is a one-word version of an episode of the original, but in only two of the six episodes is the plot even remotely related to the plot in the original. What’s the point, other than trying to slip in a shout-out?

It’s fitting how in the opening of the first episode we see 6 bury 93 in a shallow grave in the desert. 93 is wearing the same distinctive outfit that the original’s Number 6 wore. According to the commentary, the creators of the remake had even tried to get Patrick McGoohan to play the role of 93. I think that pretty much sums up symbolically what the remake does to the original.

Spoiler warning: If you don’t want me to spoil the endings of both the original and the remake, you better stop reading here.

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Mega Man 10

Mega Man 9 was a great game. It took everything that made the early NES Mega Man games terrific and built on them, and avoided the traps that made the latter games me-too rehashes of the same basic gameplay. It played off of the player’s expectations of how a Mega Man game plays out, slipping in traps to trick and surprise anyone who grew up playing the original games. (And its increased difficulty modes in turn played off the player’s expectations from having played the game in normal mode, instead of just making enemies harder to destroy.) The weapons are nicely varied and often have dual uses, such as Tornado Blow hurting all enemies on the screen and boosting your jumps a bit thanks to the updraft. Mega Man 9 easily ranks in the same tier as Mega Man 2, one of the greatest games of all time, period.

Mega Man 10, on the other hand, is a good game. Not great, but good. It’s a pretty solid game, but definitely not as innovative as its predecessor.

The weapons are somewhat harder to use effectively. Several of them have a two-stage attack, and only the second stage deals significant damage. For example, the Commando Bomb‘s blast waves are more effective than hitting something with the bomb itself, and the Thunder Wool‘s lightning bolt is much stronger than the cloud that rises up from Mega Man’s arm cannon to fire it. It’s good to not have each weapon just be a differently-shaped projectile, but it can be tricky to aim for something near your target.

(Speaking of Sheep Man, I get the distinct impression from playing the game that he was originally supposed to be something like Thunder Man. They tried to make him look like a robotic cloud, but it wound up looking more like a robot sheep, so they ran with it. It would certainly explain why Sheep Man’s stage is electricity-centric rather than pastoral.)

The individual stages aren’t bad, though the gimmicks in them aren’t quite as fun to play through as they were in Mega Man 9. The disappearing blocks (heh heh) in Sheep Man’s stage are neat, but the see-saw thing in Blade Man‘s stage is more tedious than anything. Some stages have branching paths, which is then taken to a bit of an extreme in Wily Castle 1, where the branches themselves have branching paths.

I don’t think pointing out that Dr. Wily turns out to be the villain warrants a spoiler warning.

Wily Castle is the high point in the game. The bosses in particular are pretty great, riffing on past games and, in one case, a minor Internet meme? I really like the music for the Wily Castle bosses, and I think it goes particularly well with the first one. I also suspect that anyone familiar with Mega Man 2 will do the exact wrong thing out of instinct when they first encounter Wily Castle 3′s boss, like I did. That’s the subverting-player-expectations thing that Mega Man 9 did so well. And the final battle has a decent variant of the requisite fight against Wily Capsule.

By the way, Dr. Wily has tried to take over the world nine, or maybe ten, times already. Who keeps issuing him building permits for new Wily Castles? It’s not like he could build his latest Wily Castle in secret.

Why do I say nine or ten? Mega Man & Bass is a classic-series but unnumbered Mega Man game, so technically Mega Man 9 is the tenth in the series, and Mega Man 10 is the eleventh. Mega Man 9 supports this by referencing each of its nine predecessors in its ending. However, Mega Man 10 only calls out to the nine numbered classic-series games before it, completely ignoring Mega Man & Bass. And it’s not as though Inti Creates isn’t aware of Mega Man & Bass, since they developed both Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10. It’s odd.

The plot makes no sense, even by the low standards of Mega Man games. Ostensibly, Dr. Wily needs Mega Man and Proto Man’s help to recover the components of the Roboenza cure machine from the infected robot masters who stole it from his lab. And it is reasonable to think a mad scientist who spends all his time making killer robots would be interested in not having them infected by a virus. But it turns out that Dr. Wily was behind Roboenza all along! So… why wouldn’t he already have the cure stockpiled somewhere, or design Roboenza so infected robots didn’t steal his stuff? They were his robots, too, since they have DWN-series numbers. Any why would he give Roll a functioning cure capsule, if he wants to trade the cure for robots’ loyalty? Or why not just use his close access to Mega Man and Proto Man to infect them directly? Was Dr. Wily just hoping that Mega Man and Proto Man coming into close contact with the infected robot masters would cause them to catch Roboenza? It seems needlessly indirect, especially when he’s right there in Dr. Light‘s lab working on the cure machine.

Dr. Wily’s plan here makes the whole Mr. X thing in Mega Man 6 look downright genius by comparison.

Mega Man 10 does have an easy mode, which apparently has some people up in arms. Normally I’d say “if you don’t like it, don’t play it”, but you do need to play through it to unlock some of the challenges, without which you can’t get 100% completion on those. Easy mode also counts for the in-game challenges, which I’m not entirely sure I like. My second play-through was on easy mode to unlock some of the challenge stages, and without trying too hard I passed the challenges for beating the game under an hour, beating the game without dying, and beating the game without using any E-, W-, or M-tanks. (Granted, though, I did go through a few Shock Guards — even easy mode can surprise you with spike traps.) I’d like it better if the in-game challenges distinguished which difficulty level you beat them at, just like how some of the challenge stages distinguish between getting through the stage and getting through without taking damage. But beating the game without taking damage would be difficult even on easy mode. Doing it on hard mode… wow.

The challenge stages are a good way to practice fighting the game’s bosses without playing through the appropriate stage first, and they also give you a chance to practice with each special weapon and explore the full extent of its capabilities. I wasn’t aware, for instance, you could use the Wheel Cutter to climb walls, until I went through the challenge stage where it was needed.

If Mega Man 9 is on the same tier as Mega Man 2, I’d say Mega Man 10 is somewhere between the original Mega Man and Mega Man 4: still good, but a bit disappointing, especially when compared to its predecessor. I’d be apprehensive about the prospect of a Mega Man 11, since it doesn’t look like they’re going to top Mega Man 9 anytime soon.

The Smeg It Was

Over the course of April 10 through 12, untold millions of people worldwide observed the resurrection of something that once had died but now is risen, in perpetual hope and expectation of its eventual return in glory.

I am talking, of course, about Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, a three-part miniseries that marked the first new Red Dwarf to be made since 1999.

I don’t need to tell you I’m a Red Dwarf fan — my three computers are named holly, kryten, and queeg, after all. I first discovered and fell in love with the series back in high school, when the local PBS station would air Red Dwarf, Red Green, and two episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in an epic two-hour block on Sunday nights. I believe they eventually stopped doing that because federal law prohibits PBS from airing anything that awesome.

Back in 1999, Red Dwarf season 8 ended (after Rimmer kicks Death in the groin and tells him that “only the good die young”) with the words “The End”, followed a few seconds later with “THE SMEG IT IS”. Alas, until this month it was the end. There was no season 9, and the movie never got made.

All hope for new Red Dwarf was lost, until I stumbled across by chance the Red Dwarf page on TV Tropes a couple days after Easter, and noticed the tiny little paragraph closing the write-up:

A three-part story Back To Earth was recently aired across the Easter Weekend of 2009 on digital channel Dave, putting an end to the complete lack of any new TV or book output since 1999.

The next step was obvious.

So, was Back to Earth worth a 10-year wait? Sort of. (minor spoilers ahead)

Part 1 starts off is textbook Red Dwarf, with things having reverted back to the premise of the pre-seasion 6 episodes (though taking place 9 years after season 8): just Lister, Rimmer (a hologram again), The Cat, and Kryten aboard the titular Red Dwarf (with Holly’s absence given a brief hand wave). Nothing great by any means, but not bad either.

The transition from the fight with the giant squid in the water tank to Katerina‘s appearance is very clumsy, and though the abruptness of it can be explained in light of the reveal in Part 3, surely there could’ve been a cleaner transition between the two. Even ignoring the impossibility of the Red Dwarf supporting two holograms at one time (especially seeing how it happened in the last two episodes of season 1), the rest of Part 1 does little other than to set up the premise of Parts 2 and 3.

The storyline that fills most of Parts 2 and 3 is sort of weird. Remember that scene in Spaceballs where the bad guys watch a VHS copy of Spaceballs to figure out where the heroes are? It’s sort of like that, but stretched out over half an hour.

More specifically, the crew get sucked through a swirly thing into the “real world”, which is eagerly awaiting the premiere of Back to Earth. They find a promotional DVD case of the three-parter, and while there’s no actual disc inside, they learn from the back of the case that Back to Earth is the end of Red Dwarf. Since in the “real world” universe they’re just fictional characters, they’ll cease to exist once Red Dwarf has ended, and so they seek out their creator to plead for more life. Hilarity ensues.

This level of self-referentiality is tough to do well, especially as the backbone of the entire plot. While Back to Earth manages well enough, being set in the “real world” loses some of the feel of being Red Dwarf. Which isn’t to say there isn’t excellence to be found within; take, for example, this scene that mercilessly spoofs the magical image enhancement capabilities found in TV shows:

Also, you just know someone in Britain is making a real-life Carbug.

Oh, and lest you think my constant scare-quoting of the “real world” is some sort of spoiler, I’m doing it because of the one infuriating difference between the real real world and the “real world” as shown in Back to Earth: the “real world” apparently got ten seasons of Red Dwarf instead of eight. Lucky smeggers.

In any event, it’s obvious that just as Back to Earth is about the Red Dwarf crew asking the show’s creator to keep making episodes, Back to Earth has the ulterior purpose of testing the market for interest in, well, new Red Dwarf episodes, and not-so-subtly asking The Powers That BBC to fund it.

Maybe the whole “ten seasons” thing wasn’t an error but a promise — the half of Grant Naylor still working on Red Dwarf has apparently said he’s not interested in making season 9 but is interested in making season 10, whatever that might mean.

And we all saw how well season 8′s promise of more Red Dwarf turned out. But one can hope for new life, and isn’t that what the Easter season is all about?

Well, that and Peeps.

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Aahh, doorknob! I mean, Mother 3!

Mother 3 title screen

Mother 3 is better than EarthBound (a.k.a. Mother 2).

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Mother 3 is the game where Lucas and the New Pork City stage in Brawl come from. (Tip: if you want to avoid Mother 3 spoilers, don’t play Brawl.)

Mother 3 delivers the same style of humor as its predecessor, despite having a more serious, even depressing, storyline. And manages to pull it off, no less. To avoid spoilers, I’ll save further discussion and speculation on that for a separate post, but suffice it to say I’m still trying to figure out whether or not I liked the ending. (And EarthBound’s cast list at the end blows Mother 3′s out of the water, but never mind that.)

Graphically, it has the same cartoony 16-bit sprite style of EarthBound, but larger and with much more detail. Whereas EarthBound gave you a two-frame walk animation, Mother 3 has sprite animation like this:

The battle system is much the same as in EarthBound, including the rolling HP meter. Fighting in Mother 3 relies on more exploitation on that mechanic, however; there are plenty of enemies that do lots of damage, but beating them quickly lets you exit battle before most of the HP drop occurs. Likewise, which characters you rely on to heal makes a difference, since the longer you wait, the closer everyone else could come to death. There’s also a new combo mechanic, where tapping the button in time with the rhythm of the background music deals more damage. Together, they keep battles fast-paced, despite being rooted in an archaic choose-everyone’s-action-at-the-start-of-the-turn system.

Even better, the final battle doesn’t depend on spamming a command that is either only available in the final battle (Sing in the original Mother) or is largely useless until the final battle (Pray in EarthBound). Instead, the final battle in Mother 3 is… something else entirely. But enough about that, without getting into spoilers.

Hippo Launcher

Like EarthBound, the enemies you fight skew strongly towards the goofy. In particular, the villains in Mother 3 spend a lot of time making chimeras, so when you aren’t fighting the Pigmask army you’ll be facing off against kangasharks (kangaroo + shark, complete with a joey + shark in its pouch), cattlesnakes (not a cat + rattlesnake, but cattle + snake), and hippo launchers (which do not launch hippos, but rather are a hippopotamus + rocket launcher, and are just as dangerous as you’d expect).

I’d say that the Pigmask army’s geneticists have too much free time, but their orders come from the top. Normal animals are boring, after all.

The music in Mother 3 is very good, and there’s plenty of it. The sound player accessible from the title screen has no fewer than 250 songs in it. In particular, there’s a lot of variety in the music that plays during battle, which prevents the tap-in-time-to-the-rhythm mechanic from being too easy, especially since some songs don’t have a steady beat to them. My only complaint musically is that the villain’s leitmotif is very heavily represented throughout the soundtrack, so if you don’t like it, that’s going to pose a bit of a problem.


While the “dungeon”-type areas you fight through are generally good, a few in particular stand out. Tanetane Island is wonderfully creepy and disturbing, and the boss at the end was indeed magnificent. The tower in Chapter 8, whose name I won’t mention due to it being a spoiler, is quite possibly the greatest final dungeon I have ever seen in an RPG. At the very least, it has the best use of toilets in a video game, period.

Although having experienced EarthBound isn’t strictly necessary to understand Mother 3, I’d recommend it. Not just because I’d recommend playing EarthBound in general, mind you, even though I would. There are connections to be found between the two games, which I’ll probably ramble on about at great length in the spoilery companion to this post. Maybe someday EarthBound will finally be released on Virtual Console.

Finally, I must say that the Mother 3 translation is very well done. The project’s blog goes into great detail about all the challenges involved in making it, and the end result shows a lot of polish and attention to detail. It wasn’t just a matter of replacing Japanese text with English text; there were lots of technical problems that had to be hacked through along the way, all without anything to go off of except the binary code of the game.

So stop reading this and go play Mother 3.

[Image credit: starmen.net]

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Everyone in the galaxy is an idiot. At least, that’s what I learned from playing Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.

Let’s say you’re the Galactic Federation. You hire a handful of bounty hunters to hand-deliver an antivirus to your computer systems after the Space Pirates have (choose one: compromised, owned, 0wn3d, pwn3d) your networks. Suddenly, said Space Pirates launch a surprise attack, and while aforementioned bounty hunters try to stop a very unpleasant-looking glowing space rock from smashing into your military base, they get blasted by the nigh-unkillable antagonist from the previous game with something that makes their bodies start producing phazon.

Phazon, by the way, is basically concentrated evil in mineral form. It’s extremely toxic and mutagenic, with the tendency to mutate anything or anyone who comes into contact with it into something very deadly and something eager to be deadly. Naturally, the Space Pirates love using the stuff in their genetic experiments.

In other words, suppose someone shot you in the face, and suddenly you started pooping weapons-grade uranium. Now suppose that weapons-grade uranium is also sentient. Well, being the GF, you’re now stuck with four bounty hunters with this condition. What do you do?

Naturally, instead of trying to cure them, you figure out a way to weaponize this internal phazon production in three of the bounty hunters and send them out to fight the Space Pirates. And when you mysteriously lose contact with them after a couple weeks, instead of suspecting that the evil sentient self-regenerating substance has done something, you know, bad to them, you go ahead and make the same “upgrade” to your last bounty hunter, and send her out to find out what happened. And kill Space Pirates.

For whatever reason, Samus apparently sees nothing wrong with any of this. If it were me, I’d be a little upset about them making changes to my armor while I was busy being unconscious with a life-threatening medical condition. Especially when it turns out that the fail-safes in the upgrade to prevent runaway phazon production, um, don’t exactly “work”.

In the GF’s defense, they do apologize when they find out what they did.

That’s the premise to Corruption in a nutshell. The same sort of 3D Metroid action you’d expect from the rest of the sub-series ensues as you travel between planets collecting power-ups and upgrades hidden in implausible areas in (mostly) abandoned environs in between shooting Space Pirates and the eponymous metroids. In that respect, it does things a bit better than its predecessors, in that the plot coupons needed to access the final area of the game are less blatantly arbitrary. In Corruption, they’re energy cells needed to systematically power sections of what’s left of the GFS Valhalla as you explore it, whereas in the previous two games they were “artifacts” or “keys” needed to pass an arbitrary barrier leading to the final boss. (Echoes was particularly bad in this respect, requiring a series of keys to be collected to reach every major boss.)

The Wiimote+Nunchuk control scheme works pretty well, with the decoupling of movement and aiming eliminating much of the need to lock on to enemies in order to hit anything. There’s a lot of waving the Wiimote around to activate knobs and levers and such to activate them, but by matching the motions Samus makes in-game, it avoids feeling like the “arbitrary waggle” controls that apparently plague many Wii games. Plus, swinging the Nunchuk back and forth to use the Grapple Beam works well, especially when using it to rip apart annoying flying enemies.

One problem with the controls, albeit a minor one, is that although all the dials-and-levers type stuff is done with the Wiimote in your right hand, Samus does the motions with her left hand, which breaks the verisimilitude a bit. Of course, her right hand is sort of occupied operating her arm cannon.

I’m less forgiving, however, of the attempt to force more traditional FPS elements into the game play. It comes up a bit in the Spire Pod sequence in SkyTown where you fight hordes of Space Pirates, but it becomes much more blatant in the last areas of the Pirate Homeworld. The combination of the X-Ray Visor and the Nova Beam acts like a sniper rifle, letting you headshot Space Pirates for one-hit kills. Soon after that’s introduced, you’re stuck with the task of escorting a squad of GF tactical demolitionists who have a surprising lack of combat ability. None of this feels very Metroidy, and it weakens the final areas of the game.

Speaking of which, I didn’t much care for how the entire way your health meter works is changed in the final area, especially not the ham-handed way it’s explained to you via a series of four or five dialog popups. I suppose it would’ve been worse if the permanent-hypermode you’re stuck with on Phaaze worked the same way hypermode does in the rest of the game, where letting the phazon meter fill up results in game over, but still, I can’t approve of changing such a core game play mechanic like that, especially once that guts even the limited options for weapons selection you had up until then.

And weapons selection is almost as limited as in the original NES version of Metroid: the new types of beams and missiles replace, rather than complement, the old ones. Worse, missiles as a whole aren’t all that useful once you have enough energy tanks in reserve to abuse hypermode, which is effective against pretty much everything you fight. I don’t think I ever ran close to running out of missiles even before my stockpile hit triple digits.

However, I must give credit for how the game has you deal with the shield protecting the Leviathan Seed on Elysia. On Bryyo, getting past it involved fighting your way to a pair of shield generators and calling in airstrikes from your spaceship. It initially seems like the same will happen on Elysia, until the Aurora unit in SkyTown suggests you just drop a giant bomb on the shield and blow it up. Of course, you then have to run around SkyTown assembling said giant bomb, but still.

Also appreciated is the ability to have all the locations of hidden items marked on your map near the end of the game, if you figure out how to do that. It beats traversing the game world again looking for those last couple items if you’re going for 100% completion. Though to my credit, I did manage to get 98% of them through careful observation and obsessive note-taking, using the endgame map only to find the last two missile expansions.

In practice, however, that’s really only for bragging rights (and unlocking slightly longer endings), since as I mentioned earlier, there’s little reason to use missiles except to get past certain obstacles. Ship missile expansions are even more useless, since aside from getting past a couple obstacles on Bryyo you never need to call in bombing runs again. Actually, it turns out that all the different buttons in the spaceship are just for decoration except for the one that lets you fly from one point to another. Not that I was looking for a dogfight sequence in a Metroid game, though, but if the ship only serves as transportation and a mobile save point, why bother with a cockpit screen at all?

Finally, getting back to my opening rant: the only reason Samus and the GF emerge victorious at the end of the game is that the Space Pirates are even dumber than the GF seems to be. The Space Pirates have hand scanners to activate their equipment. Space Pirate hands don’t look even remotely human, what with the three pointy fingers and all. So why do they have no problem accepting Samus’s hand, given that she is (a) human and (b) walking Space Pirate death. Samus is the last person Space Pirates would want using their stuff. It’s like if TSA made you use a hand scanner before boarding the plane, but the scanner was perfectly OK with bin Laden’s hand on it. Or a kitten.

And how exactly do hand scanners work when someone is wearing full body armor, anyway?

For Everlasting Peace

Mega Man 9 'box art'
Even “better” than the Mega Man box art: here he has an arm cannon and a gun!

Having now completed a play-through of Mega Man 9, I can safely say that it ranks right up there with Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3.

The level design in the Dr. Wily stages is very impressive, balancing the fine line between challenging and unfair. You’ll die plenty of times — I certainly did — but each time you’ll know it’s because you screwed up, not because something came out of left field and killed you. There’s plenty of ways to meet a quick death, but never without first giving you a chance to figure out a new type of obstacle in a relatively benign environment. The level design loves to play with your expectations, with lots of twists on mechanics you’ve seen (or think you’ve seen) before. By the time you reach the screen deep in Wily Stage 3 with three 1-ups in it, you’ll know to be on your guard, even if you don’t yet know why.

A fantastic instance of challenging the player’s expectations comes in one of the screens in Wily Stage 1. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve played the game, you know exactly the one I’m talking about. It took me a long time to figure out the trick needed to avoid certain death, and it’s sure to fool Mega Man veterans — heck, especially Mega Man veterans — the first time they encounter it. Whoever at Inti Creates who came up with it is a diabolical genius.

Plus, in retrospect, it’s amazing it’s taken this long for Mega Man to enter a boss’s chamber from the right side of the screen instead of the left.

The bosses in the Wily Stages are also excellent. They nicely avoid the cliche that Mega Man 4 and later fell into of a series of well-drawn but unremarkable screen-sized bosses with a single weak point. Each one here is unique, ranging from a sort of reverse tug-of-war using giant spiked balls, to a multi-screen behemoth, to a twist on a classic Mega Man boss that requires pattern memorization and/or getting into the zone to beat.

Also, Dr. Wily finally realized how effective the mandatory skull-themed robot he pilots during the final battle could be if he made the whole thing out of whatever alloy it is that deflects all of Mega Man’s weapons. And not to spoil the ending, but he even seems to have anticipated his inevitable defeat, beyond just having an escape plan.

Alas, though, the game isn’t perfect. Dr. Wily’s final form sadly follows the stale “disappearing and reappearing saucer” thing that started in Mega Man 4. I never cared much for that type of final battle, though at least the weapons available this time give you a few options for hitting the saucer when it’s well outside of jumping range. Also, even though Rush Jet works just fine underwater, I would’ve kind of liked to see the return of Rush Marine for that purpose, just because.

If I may boast for a second, I managed to get about 25% of the challenges completed on this first play-through quite by accident, including half the beat-a-robot-master-under-10-seconds ones and the one that involves never stopping in one stage (Galaxy Man’s stage for me, if you’re wondering). (I’ve also managed to beat Dr. Wily’s first two forms without taking damage, but there’s no prize for that.) I don’t know if I’ll ever pull off the harder ones like the never-miss-a-shot or never-take-damage ones, or even the tedious ones like beat-the-game-five-times-in-a-day, but I’ll definitely be playing through the game many more times.

Peeking at the downloadable content coming next month, there’ll be options for increasing the difficulty even more, and adding an option to play as Proto Man. Arguably these could’ve easily been part of the main game, but given that I would’ve gladly paid $20 for Mega Man 9 as-is instead of $10, I really can’t complain about shelling out another $8 for all the extras.

Inti Creates could’ve easily relied on exploiting old-school Mega Man nostalgia and produced a lump of 8-bit shovelware, but they took the effort to recreate the quality of those games, not just their appearance. If there is a Mega Man 10 in the offing, let’s hope they don’t start slacking off.

Mega Man 9!

Mega Man 9 is shaping up to be precisely as awesome as I had hoped. If you wish to remain unspoiled in regards to this awesomeness, you best stop reading right now.

First off, they’ve nailed the old-school Mega Man look and feel and sound. One could imagine an alternate universe where this game came out after Mega Man 2. Except for being able to save your game instead of scribbling down grid passwords. And the challenges ranging from easy (kill a robot master using only the Mega Buster… yeah, that’s how you have to kill the first one) to nigh-impossible (beat the game without taking damage!). And the online leaderboard for speed-running the game. And the hooks for downloadable content. But hey, the menus for all those things are downright 8-bit.

The plot is, well, nobody plays a Mega Man game for the plot, and Mega Man 9 delivers what you’d expect, with the right amount of ridiculousness in the no-seriously-Dr.-Wily-isn’t-the-villain-this-time-honest!-ness. Eight of Dr. Light’s robots are running amok, and Dr. Wily insists that he’s finally reformed right before Dr. Light turned evil (and if you donate money to Dr. Wily’s Swiss bank account, you can fund development of something to stop Dr. Light’s robots!). Apparently everyone swallows this, and it’s up to Mega Man to blast some sense into the robot masters after Dr. Light’s arrest. (Why the police apparently have no qualms about Mega Man, clearly Dr. Light’s deadliest creation ever given his undefeated record against dozens of Dr. Wily’s robots, running free while all this is going on, has not yet been addressed.)

The level design has been pretty good, putting new and interesting spins on the classic elements. Anyone who’s ever played a Mega Man game knows that eventually they’ll come across two things: disappearing blocks over spikes and/or pits, and multi-screen drops through spike-lined corridors. I’ve played two levels so far, each fairly arbitrarily chosen, and I’ve already seen both.

Plug Man’s stage has several disappearing block sections, and manages to find new tricks with them that previous games never tried. I wonder how many players will fall to their doom when a block suddenly appears in front of the platform they were trying to jump to. Nice. (In fairness, you could very much see that coming if you bothered to watch the pattern before you started jumping around.)

Splash Woman’s stage has the spike drops. Early on, you land on a platform in the middle of the screen. The left drop has no spikes, the right one does. You get to choose which one to jump down. Choose wisely, and you can get a 1-up. Later on, you have to go up a series of spike-lined rooms, relying on platforms that slide across the screen to reach the next ladder. In a way, it’s like a block puzzle mixed with a spike drop, in reverse. I haven’t gotten past the third screen without wimping out and using Rush Coil to avoid the pair of spikes deviously placed in the dead center of the room, but I’m sure it can be done.

So far, even when there’s clearly inspiration from a previous game, there’s something new in the implementation here that keeps it from being the series of retreads that Mega Man 7 wound up as. Again in Splash Woman’s stage, the part where you have to ride bubbles to the top of the screen is straight out of Wave Man’s stage in Mega Man 5, but this time (a) it’s underwater, so you can jump really well, and (b) enemies shoot out at you from the sides of the screen.

The attention to detail is pretty nifty, too. Get hit by an octopus’s ink blob in Splash Woman’s stage, and Mega Man stays covered in ink until you switch to a different weapon. You can also buy a “book of hairstyles” from the item shop on the stage select screen to take off your helmet… until you die. There’s also a “book of costumes”, which I haven’t tried yet, but from its icon I’m assuming it dresses Mega Man up as Roll. (For the record, there are also items available which are actually useful, if you’re in to that sort of thing.)

The robot masters themselves haven’t disappointed so far. Plug Man’s shots travel along the floor, up the wall behind you, onto the ceiling, and then drop down right above you head, so you have to keep your eye both on what Plug Man is doing and the shots you’ve already dodged once. Splash Woman swims to the top of the screen while fish move across the screen, and then she drops tridents on you. The Mega Buster is much more effective against hear than Plug Man’s weapon.

Another great nostalgic thing: Splash Woman and I managed to kill each other simultaneously, just like the first time I won-for-all-intents-and-purposes-even-though-the-game-didn’t-count-it against Cut Man way back in the original Mega Man. And just like then, Mega Man 9 counted it as a death rather than a victory. On my final life. Game over.

Count yourself sort-of-lucky, Splash Woman, for your days are numbered. Specifically, numbered 1, since tomorrow night it’s go time.

On On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

Last weekend I bought Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 1, and spent entirely too much time this past week playing through it.

I was curious about the game for two reasons. First, I like Penny Arcade, which happens to be the very first webcomic I was introduced to, way back when I was a freshman. Second, they actually produced a Linux version of the game, which you see pretty rarely in the world of commercial games. It seems like the sort of thing I should encourage.

Since they had a free demo of the game, I was first able to see if the game would actually run on my four-year-old laptop, which meets the minimum specs, barely. It does, albeit with swapping everything else out of RAM on startup and taking a long time to switch between areas. But doing the game itself, performance is acceptable, at least one you get used to the slight amount of lag in areas where timing is important. (Most noticeable in the Vandalism minigame, where I’d need to hit the space bar when the meter was centered over the left or right stack if I wanted it to stop over the center one.) Of course, this is more the fault of my old, ill-suited-for-gaming hardware; the game is indeed entirely playable.

The demo got me hooked, and the rest of the game didn’t disappoint. The battle system is nicely done, encouraging you to do more elaborate things than just “attack enemies until they die” to get the bonuses. There’s no random encounters — in fact, enemies never respawn, period, so there’s no grindiness to be found. Plus, you get to beat up barbershop quartets, which is always fun.

Really, the game is largely devoid of the typical set of annoyances you find in games. No random battles. A “Case Log” that reminds you what needs to be done to advance the plot. Auto-saving after any significant event (including battles). Automatic healing after battles. A tutorial level (the demo) where the tutorial content is both entertaining and skippable. You can tell the game was designed by people who play a lot of games, and decided not to put in the things that make games stop being fun.

But where the game really shines, naturally, is the humor. All the cutscenes are filled with precisely the sort of dialog you’d expect from Penny Arcade. My favorite, for some reason, is when the player tries to get a reaction out of The Silent Pope by singing The Name Game for “mime”, pausing after each line to wait for a response.

The game is fairly small in scope, but the level of detail is impressive. Loads of things on each screen have a humorous description or two to be found when you click on them. It turns out there’s a lot of things you can say about trash cans, or ice cream cones dropped on the boardwalk. It’s also a nice touch to have the little robots — you know the ones — say “01100110 01110101 01100011 01101011″, which means exactly what you think it does.

And for the record, the cat is not worthless. It is possible for its attack to do non-negligible damage, and it happens with greater than the roughly 1-in-2,000,000 probability claimed in-game.

Now they just need to come out with the next episode. My character needs revenge. And a house.

You Are (Not) George Lucas

[Editor’s note: You knew this was coming eventually. Deal with it.]

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, the first movie in a four-part “Rebuild” remake of Neon Genesis Evangelion, was recently released on DVD in Japan. And while no distributors have apparently bought the rights to print money release it in the U.S. yet, a little thing like that’s not going to stop me from reviewing it.

As with any remake of something, there’s the question of how closely it will follow the original. Something has to be different about the remake, or else what’s the point of making it? (The answer: shamelessly cashing in.) There’s the opportunity to improve on the original and trim the filler. But there’s also the trap of losing what made the original good, and deviating from what fans liked about the original will lead them to declare that the remake sucks.

In other words, a good remake needs to stick to the original, but do something different, but not too different. And in this case, keep in mind that anime fandom is more, well, fanatical, than a survivor of the Kirk-Picard flamewars wearing a “Han Shot First” T-shirt. Squared. We’re talking about fans that sent the director death threats over how the series ended. Screw up the remake, and you can imagine how they’ll react.

So, does 1.0 pull it off?


Blood Rainbow
When it’s raining angel blood, you do (not) want to know what’s in the pot at the end of the rainbow.

The first half of the movie roughly corresponds with the first four episodes of the series. Well, “roughly” might not be the right word, since most of the scenes are virtually lifted directly from it. They’re redrawn and reanimated everything in much higher quality, granted, but the scenes in the movie reproduce the originals almost shot-by-shot.

Of course, squeezing four 25-minute episodes into about 50 minutes of movie means that the scenes that aren’t copied from the series pretty much get left out entirely. Given that the episodes in question didn’t have much filler to begin with, the pacing of the movie ends up being way too fast, rushing from one major plot point to another. Shinji‘s relationship with his classmates, for example, is cut to the bare minimum: he gets punched; he rescues them during battle; they apologize. That’s it. If you haven’t seen the series, you’ll wind up wondering why you should even care. Likewise, Shinji running away — the bulk of episode 4 — gets reduced to a few minutes on screen.

As a result, the first half gives you prettier graphics but poorer storytelling.

Once the movie gets to episode 5′s material, however, the pacing slows to something more manageable and the movie starts realizing its potential. The basic plot of episodes 5 and 6 is mostly unchanged, but the scenes start unfolding differently, so it no longer comes across as something you’ve already seen, but rather as a different take on the same story.

The first engagement with the fifth sixth angel, Ramiel, illustrates this dramatically. In the series, Unit 01 deploys, immediately gets the bejeezus lasered out of it, and is promptly (after an end-of-episode cliffhanger) lowered back underground. In the movie, the fight is much more elaborate. Ramiel is no longer merely an animation-budget-saving regular octohedron, but now shapeshifts before each attack like a cross between an evil Rubik’s cube and the Windows flower box screensaver. Now instead of having Unit 01 retreat immediately, NERV raises a blast shield to block the laser, and Ramiel responds by firing a quad laser to melt through the shield. With the launcher melted by the blast, NERV rescues Unit 01 by blowing the supports and lowering the entire city block until Unit 01 is out of sight.

Just about all the scenes building up to the sniping mission at the climax of the movie are similarly “epic’d up” and made more elaborate, which ends up working quite well. The core of the plot stays unchanged, which is good; there weren’t any problems with episode 6 story-wise, but seeing its events rendered on more than a shoestring budget is appreciated.

But given how closely the storyline follows the series, it’s particular interesting to note the ways in which it explicitly diverges from the series, and speculate how they’ll play out over the next three movies. [Spoilers ahead.]

First, as I noted in passing, the angel that attacks the city in the opening scene, Sachiel, is now designated the fourth angel, rather than the third; the other angels that appear in the movie have their enumeration similarly adjusted. (Now I get to look up their names so as to refer to them unambiguously. Yay.) So what’s the third angel going to turn out to be? Hmmmmm.

Then there’s an added scene where Shinji is stuck between mope and angst (i.e., being Shinji) before the final battle against Ramiel. As part of a pep talk, Misato takes him down to Terminal Central Dogma, shows him Lilith, and tells him that NERV is defending it because if an angel reaches it, that will cause Third Impact and wipe out mankind. In the series, everything involving Lilith is a very closely guarded secret; Misato only discovers it when Kaji shows it to her in the second half of the series (and he only found out about it by snooping around being a triple agent), and even then they mistakenly think it’s Adam. The fact that in the movie Misato apparently knows all about it already is interesting to say the least.

Blood on the Moon
SEELE’s space program was funded by cutting the janitorial budget.

Finally (literally), there’s an added scene at the end, immediately following what was the final scene in episode 6, that opens up all kinds of questions. Apparently there’s some kind of secret SEELE base on the moon, where Kaworu (!) and a SEELE monolith make cryptic comments to each other, and we see a Lilith-looking thing in a pit (!) in the middle of a bloody swath across the lunar landscape (!) with Earth and its blood-red oceans (!) hanging in the background.

I mean, in a post-Second-Impact economy, how exactly does an organization, secret or otherwise, manage to construct a lunar base? Especially when that organization had already committed to constructing what are effectively giant fighting robots, and a city that retracts into the ground for them to fight in and only partially destroy with the collateral damage.

Plus, Kaworu’s totally not wearing a helmet. Or, um, anything else. Moving on….

Evangelion Unit 06
Now that the Cylons have an Evangelion, humanity is frakked.

Then there’s the next episode movie preview after the credits, revealing even more surprises. Intermixed with events from the series (Asuka and Unit 02 deploying; Unit 04′s destruction; the fight with the thirteenth whateverth angel, Bardiel) are things without any analogue in the series: Unit 05 deploying, weird ghost-and-halo-looking things bracketed by the text “ADAMS” (!) and “LILIN+?”, Unit 06 descending from the moon (!), and a new pilot. Needless to say, Evangelion 2.0: Division is going to diverge quite a bit from episodes 7 through 18.

(If you’re wondering how quick the pacing the movie would have to be to cover all that, keep in mind that episodes 7 through 13 have a lot of filler and you could safely cut entire episodes without too much damage to the story.)

Here’s my theory: the secret backstory from the series is the cover story used by NERV in the Rebuild continuity. Misato doesn’t actually know the truth about Lilith, because it’s a different truth this time around, thus suckering fans of the original series into thinking they know what’s going on as well. I don’t know what the truth is going to be, but a hint might lie in a comment one of the SEELE monoliths makes to Gendo about needing to fulfill a “contract with Lilith”. Whether that’s literal or metaphorical, I don’t know.

Or, as Gendo said in End of Evangelion, “The truth is, _____________.”

Moon Pit
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or lookin’ at a thing in a pit.

Another theory: the creature in the pit on the moon is the as-yet-unnamed third angel. Kaworu makes a cryptic comment about “the third again, huh?” while looking at it. Though “the third” could refer to Shinji (the third child), since Kaworu’s next line mentions him while looking up at Earth. If that’s the case, than the thing in the pit would be a naked Unit 06, before its armor/restraints have been put on. But why would SEELE be building Unit 06 on the moon in the first place, unless there were a very good reason for it, such as cloning it from the as-yet-unrevealed third angel, if it’s also there somewhere? We’ve seen Lilith (the second angel) under NERV headquarters, and presumably Adam (the first angel) was in Antarctica and caused the Second Impact, just as in the series.

“Presumably.” But by my first theory, the secret backstory in the movies are different, so Second Impact could’ve had some other cause, since none of the details surrounding it have been mentioned in the movie yet. Hmmmm.

Or, a less out-in-left-field theory would be that Kaworu has been designated the third angel this time around (instead of the seventeenth), but that doesn’t explain what’s on the moon, or why Unit 06 would come from there, or why NERV would know anything about Kaworu to begin with — in the series, SEELE sent him to NERV as a replacement for Asuka, and they didn’t realize he was an angel until he took over Unit 02 and took it down to Terminal Dogma in episode 24, thinking he’d find Adam there.

So, even though the movie closely follows the storyline of the first six episodes, streamlining and possibly simplifying it, there’s just enough changes and added material to launch rampant wild speculation among fans of the series to try to figure out what’s really going on. The director, Hideaki Anno, managed to figure out a way to cater both to newcomers and the existing fanbase, and did so without ruining any of the classic scenes in the first set of episodes in the series.

Well played.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na

The old 1960s Batman movie would, by any objective measure, be awful, if not for how awesome it is in its sheer, unmitigated ridiculousness.

Properly documenting all the examples of why this is so would end up reproducing the plot in full, so I’ll focus on a few highlights. In the first action sequence, Batman fights off a shark biting his leg while holding on to the Bat-Ladder hanging from the Bat-Copter. (Spoiler alert: Batman ultimately fends it off with Bat-Shark-Repellant, which is stored on the Bat-Copter alongside repellant sprays for other marine life.) What makes the scene great is how not only is the shark obviously made of rubber, but as Batman punches it, it makes exactly the sound you’d expect from someone punching a rubber shark.

Also, when the shark is ultimately dislodged, it falls into the sea and explodes. In case you’re wondering why the United Underworld (i.e., The Joker + The Penguin + The Riddler + Catwoman; see also: greatest team-up ever) didn’t rig the shark to explode when it bit Batman’s leg, well, obviously then the movie would only be a few minues long.

If that doesn’t convince you of my thesis, then consider the fight scene in the Bat-Cave that, in my opinion, reveals the truth behind Batman’s superpowers. To set this up, the villans have obtained an instant dehydration gun that reduces anybody to a pile of powder. The Penguin does this to five henchmen and scoops the powder into separate vials. He then disguises himself as the person the villans stole said dehydration gun from, and introduces himself to Batman and Robin.

The Dynamic Duo immediately see through his ploy — the nose and talking like Jon Stewart impersonating Dick Cheney are dead giveaways — yet for some reason see the need to scientifically prove The Penguin’s identity to The Penguin, so they take him to the Bat-Cave, which apparently has the only retinal scanner on the planet. Once there, The Penguin goes over to the Drinking Water Dispenser — like everything in the Bat-Cave, it is prominently labeled with its function — and hooks the vials up to it, thus rehydrating his henchmen.

However, while doing so, The Penguin accidentally moves the Drinking Water Dispenser’s control lever — let me remind you, this is a machine expressly for dispensing drinking water — from the “light water” setting to the “heavy water” setting. Yes, heavy water, which Batman later points out is also used in the Bat-Cave’s nuclear reactor. Obviously, this error results in the henchmen vanishing into nothingness as soon as anything hits them (something to do with antimatter, I think).

There is only one possible explanation for why anyone would ever connect a source of heavy water to what is, let’s face it, an overgrown drinking fountain. (Wow, all technology really was bigger back then.)

Batman drinks heavy water.

No wonder Batman can breathe in space.

And there’s loads more where that came from. The Joker and The Penguin wear masks across their eyes while pulling off various heists, apparently oblivious to the fact that they’re still dressed as The Joker and The Penguin. The Pentagon sells a fully armed surplus submarine to someone named P. N. Guin, and the admiral Batman talks to is oblivious to how selling something like that to someone who won’t even leave his address is not a good idea. The Riddler accidentally shoots down the Bat-Copter with a Polaris missile, but no one is hurt as the copter crash-lands on a pile of foam rubber. And, as Batman so eloquently observes, “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”

If I somehow still haven’t convinced you as to how awesome this movie is, how about this: Jet Pack Umbrellas.

But if strangely creepy is more your thing, try this on for size. The villans scheme to lure Batman into a fiendish trap (spoiler alert: it involves a jack-in-the-box and an exploding octopus) by kidnapping Bruce Wayne and holding him hostage. They lure him into a trap by dropping a riddle suggesting that “Kitka” (i.e., Catwoman not dressed like Catwoman) is going to be kidnapped, which leads Bruce into asking her out. Suspecting the villans will move against “Kitka” during the date, Bruce has Robin and Alfred-wearing-a-mask shadow them inconspicuously in the Batmobile and watch what’s going on on a monitor, presumably hooked up to an otherwise unmentioned Gotham-wide Bat-survillance-camera-network. (Holy 1984, Batman!)

The date ultimately leads back to Catwoman’s apartment, and it’s not hard to decode 1960s euphemisms for what Bruce is expecting to go on there. He shows no compunction, despite knowing Robin and Alfred are supposed to be watching all of this. That is, outside, in the car, in the dark, his young ward and his old manservant, one of whom is wearing tights and the other is also disguised, are supposed to be watching him “further international relations” with “Kitka”.

Fortunately, the disturbing potential of that setup is stopped by the intervention of, yes, Jet Pack Umbrellas.

In conclusion, I want a Jet Pack Umbrella, in case I ever need to escape from exploding marine life.

Don’t Panic

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: TV Series opening

I recently discovered by a lucky accident that Netflix has the old (i.e., from 1981) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series available. It was obvious what had to be done.

Unfortunately, the disc Netflix shipped to me at first was, in topological terms, a sphere rather than a torus. I almost panicked, due to the lack of any instructions in large friendly letters on the packaging to the contrary, but instead of throwing in the towel, I reported the problem and got a structurally intact disc.

The six-episode series follows the plot of the books a lot more faithfully than the movie. (Yes, I know the TV series is based on the original radio play, which the books were also based on. Sheesh, it says so right there in the title graphic. Quit being so pedantic.) The storyline runs from the demolition of the Earth by the Vogons through to Magrathea and Milliways and up to Arthur and Ford being stranded with the Golgafrinchans on prehistoric Earth.

Without a doubt, the best part of the series are the sequences narrated by The Guide, with accompanying fake “computer” animations. Of course, this is hardly surprising, since Douglas Adams’s narrative style is a large part of what makes the books so great, and The Guide’s scenes allow that to come through with full force. The animations also supply some nice supplementary material, such as examples of the first and second worst forms of poetry in the universe that put Vogon poetry to shame.

Zaphod Beeblebrox

It goes without saying that if you’re a fan of the books (and who isn’t?), you’ll like the series too. There’s only a few things to quibble with. One of them is Zaphod‘s second head. Can you tell which one is the fake one? It’s supposed to be animatronic, but you hardly ever see it move at all, except for bouncing around on the actor’s shoulder as he moves around due to inertia. I know, I know, there’s really no good way to do the whole two-heads-side-by-side thing in live action, especially with 1980s special effects. And to be fair, at least they tried; the movie punted by making the heads one on top of the other, with the second head conveniently hidden from view most of the time, and even then they contrived a way to get rid of it entirely in very not-at-all-in-the-book subplot. So they did do about as well as anyone could expect with Zaphod. But still, it looks goofy.

There’s also one other thing. When the Heart of Gold enters orbit around Magrathea and the planet’s nuclear missiles launch, the Guide is careful to point out in advance that everyone is going to survive the attack and that no one will get hurt aside from one of them getting bruised on the upper arm (but won’t say who it is in order to preserve some level of suspense). Given that warning, why oh why does the Guide not warn the viewer about the scene where you see Douglas Adams’s man-ass on display? I mean, seriously.

(No, I’m not going to tell you when that happens in the series. Be glad you’re at least getting a heads-up.)

But needless to say, the series is worth watching, especially if you’re one of those people who thought the movie was OK but wished it didn’t diverge from the books so much. You know who you are.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Until recently, the only Metroid game I had played to any non-negligible degree was the original Metroid, which while a decent enough game, wasn’t particularly one of my favorites. After a while all the corridors start to look the same, and when you couple that with no built-in mapping function, it’s pretty easy to get completely lost. The need to randomly bomb everywhere in the dead ends to look for crucial secret passages that have no visual cues whatsoever didn’t help a lot either. While I could certainly appreciate the significance of the game, I never became much of a fan of it.

My history with first-person shooters is even less illustrious. The last one of those I ever played to any significant degree was, I believe, the shareware version of Rise of the Triad, back in the days when not only was Pluto a planet, but it was the eighth planet as far as distance from the sun goes. Of course, I’ve played Halo deathmatches, but considering my paucity of FPS skills, would usually get schooled in short order.

Furthermore, heretofore, I hate coming in to the middle of something, be it watching the sequel to a movie I haven’t seen, or starting to watch a TV show midseason, or even missing the first few minutes of a movie.

So, considering that Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is a first-person shooter Metroid game which is the sequel to another first-person shooter Metroid game, I didn’t have particularly high expectations going in. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before I got addicted.

Being a Metroid game, Echoes emphasizes exploration rather than running around shooting things. The game will mercilessly tease you with doors and items lying just out of reach, starting with the very first room, that are inaccessible until you get the right power-up. (And if you’re like me, you’ll be cursing all those yellow doors and Denzium-saturated rocks long before you finally get the Power Bombs necessary to blast them apart.) Of course, this makes each upgrade exciting, because now all sorts of areas suddenly open up to explore to find still more upgrades and missile expansions and energy tanks and whatnot.

In that respect, it’s a lot like the original Metroid, but this time around you have a map, all the rooms are visually distinctive, and your Scan Visor will highlight anything of interest in your field of view. In other words, it’s Metroid without the annoyances of the original.

As far as the plot goes, you start off by crash-landing on the planet Aether, on a mission to find out what happened to a ship full of space marines who were chasing a ship full of space pirates. It doesn’t take long to find out they’re all dead, but you’re soon recruited by the last surviving not-cryo-frozen Luminoth to save his species and the planet itself (literally) from being destroyed by the Ing, who live in a Dark World-ish parallel universe.

You’re probably supposed to assume Samus takes on the job because that’s what the good guy girl’s supposed to do, but since she never actually says anything in the game, I’ve decided the real reason is that she needs to get her good equipment back from the Ing who mugged her (how exactly do you mug a walking tank?) early in the game, and besides, her ship’s busted and its auto-repair just so happens to require exactly the same amount of time as it will take to save the world.

Now I know what you’re saying: “This game is called Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, yet you haven’t mentioned any Metroid Prime or any Echoes! What’s the deal?” Have no fear. One of the recurring enemies you face is Dark Samus, the eponymous villain from the original Metroid Prime mutated into a doppelgänger of Samus. Also, one of the upgrades you get in the game is the Echo Visor, which uses echolocation to display the room and lets you visualize any sonic emitters that might be around. Happy now?

Anyway, from what I’ve gathered of Luminoth war strategy, it’s no wonder they got so resoundingly beaten by the Ing:

  • They spent too little time developing effective weapons and way too much time developing locks for their doors. Missile doors, Super Missile doors, Power Bomb doors, Seeker Missile doors, Seeker Missile doors with the targets hidden in interdimensional space, Light Beam doors, Dark Beam doors, Annihilator Beam doors, doors with sonic locking systems…. How exactly are you going to move troops from one area to another when the enemy can slip between dimensions at will but you need an entire arsenal for a keychain?
  • They then hid all their good equipment. By all means, establish armories and lock the door, but stashing each individual item separately and hiding them behind elaborate obstacle courses is a bit much. I mean, you need to spend hours scouring half of the planet’s surface just to properly equip a small platoon.
  • Yes, yes, I know, your three Energy Controllers on the surface of the planet fell to the Ing and were drained of all their energy. But don’t you think that after someone goes out of their way to go to a parallel universe, fight off hordes of nasty monsters, and use their very suit as a giant battery to bring that energy back, maybe you should put a guard in front of the Energy Controller so they don’t come back and swipe it again? I mean, they got to it when you were throwing everything you had into the defense; I don’t think a few wasps that nested in the room next door are going to cut it as a security system. The Luminoth were lucky the Ing never bothered to reverse engineer the Energy Transfer Module before Samus stole it back from them.
  • OK, so you’ve been beaten back to your Great Temple floating in the sky with your Master Energy Controller and its last bit of energy being the only thing keeping your planet from being destroyed. How exactly is it a good idea to cryo-freeze all but one of the survivors, and have him just stand next to the Controller twiddling his thumbs? Did you not notice the Ing with the Energy Transfer Module in the room below you? What kind of strategy is this? I mean, say what you want about U.S. operations in Iraq, but at least we’re not planning to relocate all our troops to the middle of the Green Zone and have them nap until someone crash-lands her spaceship in the middle of Al Anbar province and decides to wipe out the insurgency and al-Qaeda while waiting for the galactic equivalent of AAA to tow her ship to a repair shop. … OK, I guess it did end up working for the Luminoth, but still.

So, in conclusion, 95% scans and 88% items in 28 hours 41 minutes, without a strategy guide. Longer if you count the times I died repeatedly trying to fight some of the bosses.

Napoleon Dynamite

I don’t get it.

Breaking the Weirdness Barrier

In our last installment, it was found that Japanese cartoons are weird, man. But being ever the scientist at heart, I was left with a question: just how weird can they get? Do they approach some weirdness asymptote as you get farther out, or is the weirdness unbounded? Does the knob only go to 11? Inquiring minds want to know!

I think I found the answer by watching Puni Puni Poemy, a spin-off of Excel Saga made by the same group of people. So right there, you know going into it that it’s going to be weird. But unlike its predecessor, Puni Puni Poemy blows right through mere Weird all the way to Seriously Messed Up, with a generous helping of Just Plain Wrong on the side.

You see, there’s nothing deep or meaningful about Puni Puni Poemy, no real story or significance behind it; it’s just two half-hour episodes’ worth of sheer, unabashed, frantic, no-holds-barred weirdness for the sake of being weird. And it does an outstanding job at doing so.

Allow me to give you a taste of what lurks within Puni Puni Poemy. I suppose what follows could be considered spoilers, but nobody in their right mind would watch it for the plot anyway. (You could also argue that nobody in their right mind would watch it, period.) Those who wish to keep their sanity may want to skip the next few paragraphs.

At its heart, Puni Puni Poemy is a send-up of magical girl anime, though it most certainly not geared for, let alone appropriate for, kids. Its main character is Poemy Watanabe, daughter of Nabeshin and Kumi-Kumi (aka Soup Girl), both reprising their roles from Excel Saga. Poemy can transform into magical girl Puni Puni Poemy by gutting a fish (yes, with a knife), even though she prefers just punching her enemies rather than actually using magic-type stuff, but what she really wants to be is a voice actress. However, she can’t even stay in character — she always refers to Nabeshin as “Director” (which he is) and often refers to herself in the third person as Kobayashi, the name of her character’s voice actress.

Following along so far? Good, because that’s the easy part.

One day, Poemy’s family is killed by Alien 1, a jive-talking alien with, um, interesting genetalia. Poemy returns home to find Nabeshin, Kumi-Kumi, and their pet AIBO all dead, in the most comical use of crucifixion since Life of Brian (with Xenogears getting an honorable mention). Orphaned, Poemy is taken in by the seven Aasu sisters, at the urging of Poemy’s friend Futaba Aasu, who really really really likes Poemy and isn’t at all subtle about it. The Aasu sisters turn out to be their own magical girl team to defend Earth, but their superpowers make Heart look useful (unless you consider “powers” like falling over without getting hurt or having the precognitive ability to sense an enemy while you’re fighting it “useful”). They also don’t much care for Puni Puni Poemy horning in on their turf, even though they don’t realize that that’s actually Poemy, and even then only because they both call themselves Kobayashi and babble about being a voice actress.

Still with me? Well, hang on.

Besides dreaming of being a voice actress, Poemy longs for K, a boy in her class who doesn’t like Poemy in the least. K, meanwhile, is actually the mastermind of an evil alien plot to ravish the planet. You see, as it turns out, the aliens’ reconnaisance of Earth consisted entirely of watching Japanese cartoon porn, and K’s species just happen to be tentacle monsters. He sends Alien 1 to kidnap the Aasu sisters (did I mention one of them works in an S&M dungeon?) and captures Poemy when she unwittingly comes to their rescue. K, of course, had previously sent Alien 1 to kill Nabeshin, so that with the Director dead, he’d be free to have his way with the show, which means having his way with the Aasu sisters, but not Poemy, because he hates voice actresses. However, Alien 1 and Alien 2 (who has twice the unusual dangly bits as Alien 1) reveal themselves to be Nabeshin and Kumi-Kumi in disguise — you see, Kumi-Kumi used her acupuncture skills to bring the two of them back to life. Out of desperation, K tries killing the Writer, but Nabeshin is such a Great Director that he can draw storyboards even without a script, and so Futuba and Puni Puni Poemy combine their powers to bring about world peace.

Like I said, Seriously Messed Up (and that’s just the abridged vesion of the “plot”) with a side of Just Plain Wrong. I now understand what this commenter meant. Heck, if you added a few frames here and there, animated the “hidden” scene where K, um, gets to work on the Aasu sisters, and edit out a certain duck that keeps getting in the way of the bath scenes, you’d pretty much turn the second episode into porn. Heck, according to Wikipedia the show is banned in New Zealand for some of what’s in the second episode (and if it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true).

Even though Puni Puni Poemy’s a spin-off of Excel Saga, there’s no real continuity between the two of them (aside from Nabeshin and Kumi-Kumi having gotten married in final scene of Excel Saga), though there’s quite a few references between them, from the overt (whenever Poemy auditions for a part, the other voice actresses are all dressed like Hyatt), to the subtle (Poemy’s middle school and Excel‘s high school are both in the Inunabe (literally, “Dog Stew”) school district), to the meta (Poemy’s voice actress also sang the opening song for Excel Saga and played wannabe pop-idol Excel Kobayashi on it), to the lazy (pretty much all of Puni Puni Poemy’s background music is lifted directly from Excel Saga).

Nevertheless, even though the premise is all messed up and the plot makes no sense, and you’ll probably be rendered incapable of rational thought after watching it, Puni Puni Poemy is surprisingly well-executed, especially for something that essentially started off as an in-joke in Excel Saga. If you can keep up with it, there’s more than enough weirdness to revel in. And even if you can’t, there’s still plenty of visual gags.

In short, as a wise man might’ve said, it’s the sort of think you’d like, if you like that sort of thing.

Just don’t let your kids watch it.