The Batman TAS Episode Ranking – Part 2

Z_34_-_Batman_and_ZeeWelcome back for the second installment in the Batman: The Animated Series episode ranking. This week, we’ll be taking a look at entries 79 through 60. As a reminder, this feature encompasses all of the episodes produced under the banner of Batman, The Adventures of Batman & Robin, and The New Batman Adventures which are collectively referred to as Batman: The Animated Series. If you wish to view my thoughts on the episodes as a whole each episode here is linked to the write-up. If you prefer to explore more, simply head on over to the index page for all things BTAS. Now, lets take a look at the episodes coming in at number 79:

runaway bomb79 – Time Out of Joint

The return of the Clock King! Yeah, I’m not sure many were looking forward to that one, but we got it anyway. I was really down on the Clock King when I was a kid, as an adult I still really don’t care for him. There’s some fun time-lapse business here, but it’s still not an episode I care to return to.

78 – Birds of a Feather

Penguin’s attempt at redemption didn’t go too well for him, but at least he got to fly through the air with a Viking helmet! This was actually a fun story that just didn’t have a satisfying resolution.

77 – Terror in the Sky

Another return, this time it’s the Man-Bat from the first episode. We didn’t need another dose of this character, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea. This show sometimes stumbles with the supernatural, but the Man-Bat is the rare exception to that. This is a solid episode with a little bit of deja vu holding it back.

76 – The Clock King

The debut of the Clock King was low on my list of favorites as a kid. I did warm to it a bit as an adult because it’s just so silly. The Clock King is full of dubious puns and the image of him with his clock face glasses and cane does make me smile. The thing I disliked about this one though is how Batman plays down to his competition and that’s something I could never reconcile in my brain.

seenoevil175 – See No Evil

This is one of those early episodes of the show with a very grounded premise. An ex-con father wants to see his kid, but the law has wisely stripped him of that right, so he’s resorting to other means. This time it’s via an invisible suit which allows him to get close to his estranged daughter, whom he eventually kidnaps. It’s a good story, but I felt like it may have wanted me to feel a touch of sympathy at times for the bad dad when it really should have been more forceful to show him as in the wrong. This one earns bonus points for featuring the fun visual of Batman riding on the roof of an invisible car.

74 – Be a Clown

This one is actually rather similar to “See No Evil” as it once again involves an adult assuming a friendly persona to dupe a minor. In this case, it’s Joker who befriends the mayor’s son in a bid to get back at the mayor for saying some mean things. This one could have been a classic Joker episode if it went a bit further. It also included the somewhat annoying character of Jordan. Joker just wasn’t intimidating enough to make me, as both a kid and adult, fearful for Jordan while he was in Joker’s presence. I think this is the rare first season episode that may have been better served had it aired during the WB days.

thomas-wayne-273 – Nothing to Fear

The third episode of the show is mostly remembered for some wild visuals, including a giant skeleton harassing Batman, and for that early look at Scarecrow with the teardrop shaped mask. It ends up feeling a bit too by the numbers when examined with the rest of the material. As the third episode, it’s pretty good though.

72 – Beware the Creeper

This one is very much a mixed bag. The character of The Creeper is pretty entertaining as sort of a Loony Tunes character existing in this world. There’s also some gross stuff with Harley though which was growing tiresome at this point nearing the end of the show.  I guess ultimately I was okay with never hearing more from The Creeper.

71 – Holiday Knights

It was a bit of a surprise that The New Batman Adventures began with a Christmas/New Year’s episode. It was even more surprising it was better than the previous Christmas one, “Christmas With The Joker.” This little anthology episode is fine. It features a vicious (yet ugly) Joker, a fun romp with Harley and Ivy, and ends with a nice moment between Batman and Gordon. That’s not bad.

On_Leather_Wings_50_-_Batman_bleeds70 – On Leather Wings

The first episode of the series is more a feast for the eyes and ears than a great episode of Batman. It has a simple mystery with an obvious red herring, but the thriller aspects of the episode give it almost a horror vibe. The Man-Bat is a cool spectacle though and the sound effects may be the best in the entire run of the show. Solid action, great visuals, maybe I should actually put this higher?

69 – Avatar

The return of Ra’s al Ghul was a bit underwhelming. I was looking for a scheme on par with “The Demon’s Quest,” but we ended up with something lesser. Worse, it also had a feeling of retread with the Talia/Batman relationship. Batman is a world class detective and has to be one of the smartest men alive, but I guess he’s still a sucker for a pretty face. He’s only human.

68 – Read My Lips

The premise of this episode shouldn’t work, but it pulls it off. A ventriloquist gives life to a dummy that ends up taking charge. Scarface is the bad guy, not the “dummy” with his hand up his ass. The animators have some fun, as do the writers, with the premise. There’s still a ludicrous aspect at play to the plot, but it makes it work.

67 – Zatanna

One of the few team-up episodes of the show. In this case, it’s Batman and the sexy magician Zatanna. There’s some interesting character building in this one with it being revealed that Bruce studied under a magician to learn techniques that could benefit him as a crime fighter, namely the art of the escape. We already saw Batman get out of a dunk tank trap so this helps make that more believable in hindsight. Aside from that, the episode is a bit ho-hum.

Kyodai_Ken_subdues_Batman66 – Night of the Ninja

Kyodai Ken’s debut episode is a solid one. It posits that Batman is more Samurai than Ninja in his training, even though ninjas were considered pretty damn cool in the 90s. It fleshes out a bit how Bruce came to be such an accomplished fighter and gives him a win over an old rival. The Ninja might have been more interesting a villain had he bested Batman in one-on-one combat, but since he only came back once I guess it doesn’t matter.

65 – Vendetta

Killer Croc’s debut in the series portrayed him as a vengeful murderer, which is probably the persona I prefer as opposed to the dim-witted goof he sometimes embodies. The episode itself is a fun little mystery at first and it puts Batman in the position of helping Bullock, someone who is arguably more foe than friend to Batman. That part is arguably more interesting than Batman vs Croc, who while at first appears to be a villain Batman can’t just take on head-to-head, he still gets the job done with minimal suspense. This one does lose some points for featuring perhaps the dumbest scene in the entire show’s run. Bruce, looking to figure out who is after Bullock, is shown visiting a crocodile exhibit at a zoo and when the exhibit gives him a piece of on-the-nose info he turns (almost to the camera) and says “Of course!” If the episode were poking fun at shows that do this sort of thing that would be one thing, but it plays it totally sincere.

roxy vs batman64 – The Ultimate Thrill

This episode is certainly something. Roxy Rocket is a fun addition to the show, even if it can be hard to take her seriously. One could argue her motivations aren’t much different from The Terrible Trio, the villains of the most disliked episode of the bunch. At least she’s entertaining though, and the surprising innuendo of her encounter with Batman is shockingly funny for what is ostensibly a children’s cartoon.

63 – Love is a Croc

An odd couple paring and one I would have never dreamed up returns Baby-Doll and introduced a new version of Killer Croc. Croc is reframed as a manipulator with an appetite for cash and women. He’s basically your garden-variety sleaze ball now who just so happens to resemble a crocodile. Baby-Doll has a severe case of arrested development now as she appears to be in worse shape emotionally than before. As a result, she ends up being even more sympathetic. I think if the episode leaned into that harder it would have been better, but it also wants to be funny and feels it needs an exciting climax in the form of a confrontation between the heroes and villains. It’s solid, but I prefer her debut episode to this one.

62 – Cold Comfort

The third Mr. Freeze episode is the most uninteresting. Unsure of what to do with the villain, but feeling like he needed to return for The New Batman Adventures, the writers basically just returned him to how he was when we first saw him:  a cold, uncaring, villain. Only now his motivation was lost. His wife is alive and well, but no longer with him. Given how SubZero ended, we were to assume this was okay for him, but now Freeze is just generally ticked off at the world because he had it so bad. He wants to make others feel the same. It’s a motivator that keeps him in the role of a villain, but removes the sympathy that made him so special.

61 – Batgirl Returns

Batgirl made her debut near the end of season one, so it made sense she would be brought back in season two. She even got the prestigious role of closing out the show in a solo adventure where she was paired up with the most famous female character in the show:  Catwoman. By now, Catwoman was back to a more villainous role and much of the episode has fun with the notion of how trustworthy can she be. Robin is also tossed in as one part voice of reason, and one part smug jerk who tries to hold Batgirl back. To her credit, Batgirl is still decisive in her decision-making and self-confident, but not to a fault. The pairing is fairly fun, in a disposable way. After her father’s framing being the motivating factor to get her to take on this new persona, it’s a little disappointing something on that level didn’t get Barbara to bring back Batgirl in this one, but at least she’s back.

catwoman alone60 – Catwalk

This is basically the re-debut of Catwoman. After toeing the line of thief and vigilante in much of the first season, this one returns her to the role of a thief. Nothing of significance causes that change, Selina is mostly just bored living the straight life. Predictably, she gets into some trouble that requires some help from Batman who naturally tries to implore her to change her ways. It’s a bit lacking in drama this time around, but I mostly rank this one as highly as I do because it ends on the right note.


The Batman TAS Episode Ranking – Part 1

batman and selinaWe have arrived at the ultimate end game of our feature on Batman: The Animated Series. After doing a blog entry on all 109 episodes, plus each film, it is time to determine just what is the best of the best. This is always an exercise in futility as people are going to disagree on what is ostensibly a subjective exercise. Still, it feels like a worthwhile way to put a bow on the coverage here as it was the biggest undertaking this blog has done.

To arrive at these rankings I basically added a subjective score to each episode. At first, I started with a 5 point scale, but found that lacked nuance. Inevitably I ended up with a lot of 3 and 3.5 grades without a tidy way to arrange those episodes. I then switched to a 10 point scale and found that much easier to work with. I’m not going to include these ratings with the episode as I don’t think they’re really worth much. It was just a way to make arranging 109 data points in a more manageable fashion. And ultimately, what separates an episode with a rating of 8 with one awarded a rating of 8.5? I don’t really know, it just felt right. Mostly it was me going over the episodes and comparing them. Maybe I did score two episodes the same, but in isolating them I felt one deserved to be ranked higher than the other and thus the 8.5 rating was born. In that, I felt like an old professor I had in college who explains how he approached grading on a curve. If he awarded one student an A and another an A-, but felt they both demonstrated the same knowledge of the material in an equal fashion, he bumped the A- recipient to an A. And there are quite a few episodes of this show that I felt were pretty much equal to one another in terms of quality and enjoyment.

Mostly, this ranking was about separating the episodes I liked from the ones I loved. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some bad ones, but none managed to receive a rating of 0 from me. It also ended up being a bit of a Bell curve in the end as I had three episodes with a perfect score and three with a score of 1 or less. I didn’t do that on purpose, but it amused me to see it play out that way.

Anyway, if you disagree with my list then that is totally fine. I would not expect anyone’s list to match mine. I did not consult any other publications to see what they felt was the best and worst episodes of the show and it has honestly been a long time since I did view such a list. And since there are so many episodes, it didn’t make sense to cram this all into one post as I want to provide a sentence or two to justify my ranking for each one as opposed to just presenting a list. I’m also just doing the episodes and not the films as it hardly seems fair to weigh a feature-length subject against a 23 minute television episode. And if you’re curious, I’d rank the moves in order of release anyways with Mask of the Phantasm being the clear cut best of the three. Let’s get this show on the road though with my pick for worst episode of Batman: The Animated Series.

trio clever names

There’s a trio to fear.

109. –The Terrible Trio

So this episode basically sucks. I hate to be so negative right out of the gate, but I’m not going to say that often so I feel fine with it for now. Basically, three rich kids decide life is boring and turn to crime to get their kicks. It’s not very compelling, nor is the animation particularly enjoyable. Not every episode needs a marque villain, but it needs something better than these clowns. Let’s move on.

108. – Prophecy of Doom

A con artist dupes Gotham’s wealthy into handing over their money as part of a doomsday cult. It’s pretty incredible, and why should Batman care if a bunch of rich people get taken for a ride? A fool and his money are soon parted.

107 – The Underdwellers

This one felt like the show pandering to children. It almost feels like it started with the notion of Batman admonishing a child for handling a firearm and then the episode was created around it, and rather haphazardly. This is the one where Batman has to go into the sewer to beat up a jerk who dresses like a pirate and has pet crocodiles. It is one of the most “anime” looking episodes which at least makes it visually interesting at times.

106 – The Forgotten

If you had asked me to name my least favorite episode of Batman when I was a kid, I probably would have named this one. As an adult, it’s merely the fourth worst episode. Batman spends much of the episode with amnesia trapped in a slave labor camp being run by a morbidly obese man who seems to always have food in his mouth. It’s just not a compelling story and the payoff of Batman getting this guy doesn’t make up for it. Plus, I really dislike the music in this one which is a criticism I can really only say about this particular episode.

Cape_and_Cowl_Twist105 – The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy

Batman is lead through a series of traps by some joker named Josiah Wormwood who wants his cape and cowl to give to some other jerk. It ends up being a long con by Batman himself to basically entrap the guy which makes it feel rather pointless in the end.

104 – The Worry Men

Another one of Gotham’s wealthy is victimized once again, this time it’s Veronica Vreeland who brings back little dolls from a vacation she recently returned from. They end up being mind control devices created by the Mad Hatter, so this is the first appearance of what I would consider a noteworthy villain on this list. Once again, it’s just not a very compelling plot, but at least it does an okay job of holding back on the reveal of the plan’s mastermind, something even the good mystery-based episodes fail to do.

103 – Moon of the Wolf

Steroids are bad, kids, which seems to be the message in this one. Anthony Romulus seeks an edge and winds up a werewolf courtesy of Dr. Milo, one of the worst of the reappearing villains. There’s also some animation gaffes and some odd visual choices which further hurt this one.

102 – Fire From Olympus

Another one I detested far more as a kid than I do now. At least I can find humor in this one which depicts Maxie Zeus as a guy basically out of his mind. He thinks he’s the actual Zeus from Greek mythology with Batman serving as Hades. It’s almost too ludicrous though for an episode of Batman. Some laughs can be had, but little else.

TT_41_-_Cat-Woman

A new look for Catwoman.

101 – Tyger, Tyger

Batman does The Island of Dr. Moreau, only here it’s Catwoman who serves as a victim. This one may be a favorite of those who identify as Furries considering Catwoman is essentially nude throughout it and covered in fur, but for the rest of us it’s just merely a dud.

100 – Lock-Up

This episode has a solid premise, but the execution is just so-so. Lock-Up is a more extreme vigilante who views himself as judge, jury, and executioner which obviously doesn’t mesh with Batman’s world view. It does a good job of laying the groundwork before falling apart in the second act. It also contains one of Batman’s sillier “transformation” techniques when he uses a briefcase full of smoke to hide so he can change into his Batman costume.

99 – The Lion and the Unicorn

This is basically an Alfred solo episode, and no disrespect to the world’s most famous butler, but he’s a bit out of his element. It also marks the return of lesser villain Red Claw, someone no one needed to hear from again. The story takes our characters over to London though which at least makes for some new backgrounds.

 

klarion in control

98 – The Demon Within

Our first appearance of The New Batman Adventures. In short, if you’re a fan of Etrigan the Demon then you’re mad at me right now. If you’re like me and you care not for the character, then you’re probably in agreement that this is one of the lesser episodes in the series. Batman doesn’t do supernatural real well, and there’s a lot of that going on here. It’s just not an episode I was ever able to get into.

97 – Eternal Youth

The episode where we are introduced to Alfred’s friend, or girlfriend, Maggie. She will not be heard from again and I suppose that was for the best. They get lured to a resort being operated by Poison Ivy and wind up turned into trees. Yet another episode where a villain preys on the stupidity of Gotham’s wealthy. At least Batman has a personal stake this time and the rich aren’t just being extorted out of their money, but also their lives, unless you consider existing as a tree living.

96 – The Cat and the Claw – Part II

The follow-up to the show’s premiere was…okay? Batman and Catwoman team-up to stop Red Claw from basically nuking Gotham. A Batman/Catwoman team-up could have been appointment television, but it happened way too fast killing the novelty. Plus Red Claw just wasn’t up to the task of being the big baddie who gets the pair to cooperate anyway.

95 – Joker’s Wild

Our first appearance of the Joker! His episodes are usually pretty good, but this was a rare dud. Joker gets lured into attacking a casino baring his likeness in what amounts to an insurance scheme. It’s a bit amusing to see Joker get played, but this sort of thing would be executed far better in a later episode. It’s also a real low point in terms of animation as this episode basically lead to Akom Production Co. getting fired from the show after producing several other season one episodes.

94 – Chemistry

Poison Ivy’s lone solo outing in The New Batman Adventures comes in at 94. She basically just repeats her cloning trick from “House & Garden” only this time she creates a spouse not for herself, but for (you guessed it) Gotham’s wealthy singles. Bruce is part of the scheme and he ends up getting married to a plant lady. There are some interesting choices in this one, but mostly the plot just isn’t believable which ruins the whole mystery of it all.

bruce mantis

93 – Critters

A much derided episode that Paul Dini is at least willing to stand up for. He can like whatever he wants to like, but I’m just going to have to disagree here. I never wanted to see Batman battle giant bugs or anything similar. The humor the episode aims for also just doesn’t really land.

92 – Sideshow

Killer Croc’s redemption story might have turned into a worthwhile episode if it was ever believable. Instead, we know he’s just a bad guy and it’s only a matter of time until Batman finds him among the circus folk he falls in with. There’s a solid fight scene though, and I like the logic of Croc being declared completely sane and thus deserving of jail as opposed to being placed in Arkham. It’s too bad that didn’t stick though.

91 – I’ve Got Batman in my Basement

A surprisingly divisive episode. Bruce Timm seems to despise it, and with some good reason. This one really talks down to its audience, and it also makes The Penguin look completely incompetent. There’s some fun bits in it though that make it hard to hate. I actually know some folks who think this is one of the best of the series! I disagree, but I can at least see what they might find appealing about it. Basically, if you like it when the show doesn’t take itself seriously, or ever wanted to save Batman as a kid, then you probably rank this one higher than I do.

90 – Girl’s Night Out

I want to like this one, but the character of Livewire just doesn’t do anything for me. She’s annoying and a bit overpowered for the likes of Batman, not that he’s in this one really. This is the one that features the Batgirl/Supergirl team-up and unfortunately that just isn’t nearly as interesting as the villainous ladies. Poison Ivy and Harley are along for the ride and their chemistry keeps this thing from floundering. They’re so much more interesting than the heroines that I wish the episode focused entirely on their perspective and eventual clash with Livewire rather than presenting something a bit too conventional in the end.

CSF_46_-_Batmobile-2

Let it snow!

89 – Cat Scratch Fever

Dr. Milo’s other outing. I think I have this one too high because it’s not among my favorites, by any means. It once again puts Catwoman in the role of the victim as Dr. Milo and his annoying goons target Gotham’s strays. I do give this one bonus points for all of the snow though as it is a great deal of fun to look at. I still think I could have ranked this one closer to 100 though.

88 – The Cat and the Claw – Part I

The premiere episode of the show put Batman and Catwoman at odds. It’s a solid episode, reminding me that once we got past #95 or so the episodes actually became fine, just nothing to write home about. As a stand-alone episode, there’s just not a ton to work with though, and it’s too bad the setup created by this episode had such woeful payoff. The episode is at its best when we get to see Catwoman and Batman play off each other and Adrienne Barbeau really nails the role of Catwoman.

87 – P.O.V.

This was an experimental episode in which three cops are forced to recount the events of the evening to Investigative Affairs and we’re left to figure out whose account is the most accurate. It’s written pretty well, but the nature of the beast means it’s also repetitive and I don’t think it quite manages to remain compelling for the entire duration. I like that the show tried something like this though and other episodes would attempt similar things and really knock it out of the park.

joker0286 – Christmas with the Joker

Maybe my most disappointing episode. I love Christmas so I want to love this, but it’s just okay. Joker at least gets to sing the popular alternate version of “Jingle Bells” and be genuinely amusing, it’s just the action spots that are a bit weak. Plus there are some awful puns and Robin really adds nothing in his series debut. Even though it’s not great, I still think it’s worth watching around the holidays.

85 – Day of the Samurai

The rematch few wanted, but most were fine with. Batman takes on the Ninja only this time it’s in Japan and we get a silly Touch of Death plot device added to raise the stakes. There’s a fun Bat-death fake-out and a fight around an erupting volcano which is pretty cool.

84 – Animal Act

The Mad Hatter returns only this time he’s decided to control the minds of animals rather humans to some degree of success. Nightwing gets to return to the circus which is cool, and Tim literally shovels poop. It’s also one of the better mystery plots the show did, which is worth something.

batman catwoman smokestack

83 – Cult of the Cat

Catwoman gets herself caught up in some cat worshiping cult that you just know is bad news. This puts her at odds with her masculine counterpart which just feels incredibly corny. I was definitely sick of victim Catwoman by the time this one came around which probably prevented me from enjoying it more. It’s basically just another average episode.

82 – Torch Song

A celebrity has herself a violent stalker in the form of Firefly. It’s a different setup from what we’re accustomed to, but a more worthwhile one than rich person gets extorted. I wish Firefly was just a better adversary though. It feels like Batman got scaled-down to be on more equal footing with him, but that’s a criticism I could level at a great many villains on this show.

81 – Deep Freeze

The much anticipated return of Mr. Freeze saw him team-up with the Walt Disney wannabe, Grant Walker. This one marked an extremely contrived way to bring back one of the show’s breakout stars. It nailed the motivation for Freeze, but the rest was a bit lacking. The film SubZero ended up being really similar and a much more suitable way to bring back Mr. Freeze making this episode feel nonessential as a result.

the condiment king strikes80 – Make ‘Em Laugh

Joker’s finale from the original run of the show had him seeking revenge on some comedians who dared to suggest he wasn’t funny once upon a time. It’s silly, but Joker is insane so I can’t say the plot doesn’t make sense. This has some of the funniest moments from the show in it such as the debut of The Condiment King. I think if the final act was more satisfying this could have been a classic, instead it’s just merely good.

This is where I’m going to cut-off Part I of this feature. This will be the longest entry in this series in terms of episodes covered with the rest spanning 20 episodes each until we spotlight them all. It seems only right to make this the Friday feature going forward as that’s what Batman was for the better part of two years on this blog. Check back next week for episodes 79 through 60. Same Bat-time, same Bat-blog.

 


Hot Wheels Mario Kart Circuit and Other Sets

mk_circuit_boxToy reviews are not uncommon on this blog, but when they take place they’re almost always about an action figure that I bought for myself. This post is the rare toy post that’s not about one of my toys, but about a toy that belongs to my son. That’s because this Christmas Santa brought my boy a whole bunch of Mario Kart branded Hot Wheels. Given that Mario appeals to me and the Mario Kart series of video games is one of the most popular in the world, it felt like a review was a worthy endeavor for this blog.

My son has mostly been in and out of Hot Wheels since he turned 2. My dad, who tried his best to make me a gearhead, has probably been responsible for the majority of the Hot Wheels my kid has received over the years. He drifted away though with his interests going in different directions, but the Mario Kart set seemed to catch his eye when it came time to make out a list for Santa this past year. This surprised me as I had seen this set over the summer and somewhat tried to get my son interested in it, but he paid it no mind. The main track looked interesting, and the Mario Kart racers looked great. He has some interest in Mario as it is, but the games still frustrate him given that he’s only four. I thought maybe it just wasn’t the right time, but things obviously changed. And since the only other item he was insistent upon receiving as a gift this year was a cheap little game called Dragon Snacks, Santa delivered when it came to Mario Kart.

mk_circuitUnder the tree on Christmas morning was the main racetrack, the Mario Kart Circuit. It’s an oval design of two tracks for simultaneous racing. There’s a launcher to start and then motorized boosters before the second of two long curves. Two additional sets were also present, one based on avoiding a large piranha plant and a second where the obstacle is a massive thwomp enemy. Also joining the crew was nearly every single-carded racer including the likes of Peach, Bowser, and everyone’s favorite, Waluigi.

img_0859

Blue should always win.

Leading up to Christmas I had read mixed things about this set. Some YouTube videos were watched, and I saw enough to convince me that my kid would probably enjoy it. We were able to convince him to give up his seldom used Paw Patrol toys freeing up considerable space in the house for these new toys. I assembled the sets and while the main track looks intimidating, I found it rather easy to setup. Four D batteries are required to power the boosters and I don’t know when I last had something that required D batteries before this thing. Stickers are needed to dress the set up and they suck as usual, but at least there aren’t a ton of them. The secondary sets are even simpler as they don’t require batteries. The piranha plant was a little tricky to assemble, but it went together fine. That set just uses gravity to work alongside a wind-up function while the thwomp set has an elastic-powered launcher.

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The set includes a goomba. He doesn’t do anything, but hey, it’s a goomba!

The main track, Mario Circuit, shares a name with a track from the actual games, but it doesn’t really resemble anything aside from the fact that it’s a basic oval design. There’s a goomba in one place and Toad’s house is inside the track and that’s mostly it as far as the big attractions go. The track itself consists of four long curve track pieces connected by straight pieces. There’s a starting gate which features a lap counter function via the two flags protruding from it. You can even “lock” the counter so that when one racer completes all of its laps the opposing side locks forcing a crash. Two launchers kick things off and getting the cars to fire off properly requires more finesse than power. My kids find it hard to produce enough force, but if I try to hit it with what I’d consider is hard force the cars go flying off the track. I found it easy to get a feel for it, but the different sized cars present a challenge (more on that later). My kids choose to ignore the launcher and just feed them into the motorized portion and they seem content with that. While the cars are in motion and racing, the spectators can utilize the turtle shell buttons to try and bump their opponent off of the track. It’s surprisingly challenging, but plenty doable, and helps extend a race.

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Extra parking for all of your racers!

When my son found this under the tree, he started playing with it almost immediately. We had a lot of fun, until one of the long curves started to fail. I soon noticed that the groove under the track had begun to split. Soon enough, the piece wouldn’t even stay connected so after only a few minutes of play the two-track circuit was now a one-track circuit. To his credit, my son didn’t seem to let it bother him and I quickly fired off an email to Mattel. I received a response on the 27th, and had a replacement free of charge on the 30th. It was disappointing the track broke so quickly, but at least Mattel rectified the problem in short order.

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Racers can even hide in the turret.

The track contains room to store other racers, which is great because we have a lot. Coming with the set was Mario and Yoshi in standard karts. The thwomp track came with Luigi in a standard kart, and the plant with a second green Yoshi, but this time in the Mach 8 kart. I appreciate the new kart for Yoshi, but why did he have to be green again when there are so many other colors of Yoshi? The single carded vehicles include Peach in a standard kart, Toad in the Sneeker, Bowser in the Bad Wagon, Waluigi in the same Bad Wagon, Wario in standard kart, Koopa Troopa in the Circuit Special, and Blue Yoshi in a standard kart. Also available is a Tanooki Mario and Rosalina. There’s also a four-pack that features a Black Yoshi and there’s supposed to be another track with Donkey Kong. I’m sure there will be more to come as well.

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Toad even gets his own parking spot behind his house.

All of the cars seem to work to some degree on the Mario Circuit track. The characters in standard karts seem to fare the best, with Toad and the Mach 8 vehicle working just a little worse. With standard carts, I had no trouble getting vehicles to hum around the track with little interruption. The heavier racers, like Bowser especially, are a tad trickier to get a successful launch out of. For whatever reason, the inside track in particular was a challenge and sometimes I’d just give up and start them off in the booster area. Koopa Troopa works all right in his elongated vehicle, but he’s practically unusable in the smaller sets as his vehicle gets hung-up on the turnarounds. Even though they don’t all work as well as each other, the vehicles are still worth having because they look great. The only one I’m not as into is Toad and that’s because Mattel didn’t paint his steering column and wheel leaving it flesh-colored, which just looks weird. And since the dimensions on these karts are essentially the same as other Hot Wheels, they should be usable in other sets.

The smaller sets are far less impressive than the main track. Of the two, the piranha plant one works the best. You simply wind-up the plant and watch him slowly spin and dive at the track in an effort to consume a racer. The cars are gravity fed, so you just wait for an opening and let them go. It’s very easy to get a racer past the obstacle, but my son seems to like it. The thwomp track is less enjoyable. You pull back on the golden mushroom and select from three different release points, with really only the first one being usable. When the racer is fired it hits a little flapper which causes the thwomp to fall at random. Sometimes they get by, and sometimes they don’t – it’s all predicated by chance.

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Mattel would have you believe incorporating more pieces is the ultimate goal, but that is not the case.

The appeal of the smaller sets on their own is minimal, but the real draw is that the plant and thwomp can be incorporated into the Mario Circuit track set. Mattel’s instructional images put the thwomp just after the starting launcher and the plant just before the booster piece, while some promotional images (above) feature a different, but still long, layout. When added it certainly gives the track more personality, as my main complaint with it in its base form is that it needs a touch more Mario in terms of its visuals. Unfortunately, that’s really all they add to the track. Incorporating the two of them means adding considerable length to the circuit, and the boosters just don’t provide enough power for a longer track. The standard cart characters can basically only compete a lap or two before they just fall off, while the heavier racers can’t even pull that off. It’s really not even usable in this form, which is a shame since it’s a big piece of the appeal of the set.

img_0851

The preferred layout in my house.

The good news is, you can still find other ways to make this track work. Finding the wind-up feature of the plant a bit too annoying to use with the main track, my son and I opted to simply remove it. He likes that small set on its own, so he can play with it in that fashion. We kept the thwomp, but moved it to where the plant was. This meant we had to remove a corresponding piece of track to make it fit, but the end result is we added a fun obstacle with visual flair while keeping the track still usable. It worked well when tested on a hardwood floor, though once I moved the set to my son’s room and placed it on a thin foam mat (which is on a hardwood floor) the performance dipped. That could be a result of the playing surface, or the batteries may be weakening as the cars aren’t firing from the booster with the same velocity and after a few laps some are falling on the long curve immediately after it. I hope this thing isn’t going to suck batteries that fast as it’s barely been a week.

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New to retail in January 2020 is the Light version of the track.

Overall I do mostly like the main Mario Circuit track. The other two I could take or leave. I like that the track attempts to make it a competitive race with a little chaos tossed in, and it has lots of space for other cars to be parked. There are supposed to be more sets released as well. I’ve seen images for a Mario Circuit Light which is the same track, but smaller. It has launchers with warp pipe adornments which I like, but not motorized boosters which I do not like. The listings at Target’s website reference a Chain Chomp Challenge set as well, but I have not seen any images for it. These things seem to sell well, so I assume it’s still coming. I do have concerns with the performance long-term. I had one track piece break and I’ll give Mattel the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s an isolated instance, but I’m concerned it could happen again. And if my batteries are already weakening that could be a problem. If I feel the need to, I’ll return to this review and update it accordingly. For now, I’ll continue playing with my son as I keep an eye out for new racers showing up at retail.

As a final note, these sets appear to be exclusive to Target for the time being, though it looks like Amazon may now be selling them as well. The Light version of the track might not be exclusive to anyone though and a four-pack of vehicles is coming to retail soon. My assumption is this brand will expand to other retailers in time, but it’s just that – an assumption. The small sets will run you around $19.99 while the larger track retails for $79.99. I have seen it on sale numerous times though for $69.99 so you probably don’t need to spend more than that if you wish to take the jump. Individual cars are $4.99.


Catching up with ESPN NFL 2k5…Again!

nfl 2k5The NFL season has come to a close and now it’s onto the playoffs. Twelve teams will battle for the opportunity to be called champion, guaranteeing that the fanbases for 31 NFL franchises will be disappointed, but one will not! After going my entire childhood without being a part of that one, I’ve enjoyed an embarrassment of riches as a football fan for my hometown New England Patriots have had a pretty incredible run of luck. Yes, that means a bunch of people now hate me because the football team that is geographically closes to where I reside happens to be both good and therefore detestable, but so be it. It will all end one day and this unprecedented run of success will become a story I tell my grandkids as my own grandparents did of the Boston Bruins of the 1970s or the Celtics of the 60s. For now I will continue to savor the ups and the downs as the season goes on.

Every football season I inevitably return to an old, beloved, game:  ESPN NFL 2k5. This was the last Sega-produced NFL title before the league entered into an agreement with EA which would make it the sole holder of the NFL and NFLPA license to this day. It was a disappointing day for me, and it took me years to move on and actually buy a Madden title. And I still don’t purchase one annually as I haven’t bought a copy in 3 or 4 years. And it took me awhile to admit that Madden had finally surpassed my beloved 2k5, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy playing it to this day.

I enjoy it enough that I’ve done this post before. When I first posted about the game I was basically just dabbling with it momentarily. Since then though I have actually played it more and more to the point where I’m actually in year 2013 with the Patriots and an aging Tom Brady is still leading the charge against an NFL that has become nearly unrecognizable due to retirements across the league. I’m actually curious when this virtual Brady will tell me he’s hanging up his spikes as the real life version is still going at age 42. Surely, the video game version will not last that long because no one has. I assume I’m nearing the end, but who knows? The only non-game created players on the roster right now are receivers Deion Branch, Antwaan Randle El, running back Tatum Bell, and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Everyone else is some game-generated character, many of which share the same fake portrait image so it looks like I have a pair of identical twins starting in the secondary (which is kind of funny because the current version of the Patriots can say the same thing).

2k5 pats

Yeah, I like the Pats. Boo me all you want.

In playing a game that is now more than a decade old it’s interesting to see how much the real version of the NFL has changed. Take the shotgun formation as an example (I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you’re familiar enough with football to know what I’m referring to with “shotgun”). In 2006, after this game came out, the average NFL offense utilized shotgun for 19% of its offensive snaps. I don’t know if this data strips out kneel downs and spikes, but it will work here. In 2016, the average team utilized the formation 68% of its snaps! One team, the San Francisco 49ers, even used it for 99% of its plays. And why is that? Well, the game has opened up. Rule changes that went into effect during the offseason before 2k5 was released emphasized illegal contact by defenders which helped boost offense. Over the years, those types of calls have been helped along by additional safeguards for receivers as well as quarterbacks. Teams found that it was now efficient to simply spread defenses out and throw the ball, leading to an emphasis on receivers of all kinds, especially slot receivers, and a deemphasis on runningbacks and fullbacks. Most teams in 2019 don’t even have a true fullback on the roster anymore, but every team in 2k5 does with the game recommending that two be carried at all times.

This is amusing to me because the real life game has come to more resemble video games in some respects. Players often played these game in what purists would call an unreal manner. Lots of throwing, especially deep balls, with quarterbacks taking huge drop-backs and punting practically unheard of. I’ve personally never gone that crazy in my playing, but I also rarely play human opponents. Even playing in a more pass-friendly and aggressive scheme though, it’s actually hard to replicate the modern game in 2k5 largely because defenders can jam and impede receivers down the field without fear of a penalty. Maybe if I tweaked the penalty sliders I could pull that off, but I also think part of the “jamming” is just limitations with the animations and collision detection of a PlayStation 2 game released in 2004. Receivers in general are also notoriously bad at catching in this game so it would be hard based on that reason alone to replicate the high percentage throwing offenses of today.

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You don’t see too many plays out of the I-Form these days. Especially on 1st and 10.

In playing the game, I find route combinations with receivers are especially more vertical than the modern game probably features (unless you’re in a Bruce Arians offense). In the entire Patriots playbook, I can’t find a proper mesh concept, for instance, which is hugely popular in today’s game. Teams love crossing routes because they create natural pick plays, though the few plays of this type in 2k5 usually just lead to a jumbled mess. I find it’s much easier to to go with posts, go, and the occasional out and slant when playing this game. Fast receivers matched-up one-on-one on the outside are often pretty good at beating their man on a go route, and if you have time, the double-move can be effective. It’s just funny because it’s nothing like what the Patriots currently run, or really ever ran aside from when Randy Moss was in town, but it works here.

More and more though, it’s just interesting to notice the quirks that come up when you’ve played nearly ten seasons of virtual football. I play every regular and post season game on the schedule, only skipping the preseason. In game, few frequent bugs show up. There is one that I’ve noticed where a tight end just won’t be covered by the opposing defense. It always happens when I run a trips-bunch to the right with a single tight end on the left. Sometimes that guy is just all by himself for an easy completion (unless the tight end is stone-handed, a frequent problem with computer-generated tight ends where every pass is an adventure). The funny thing is this only crops up in certain seasons. It was basically one season where it happened a lot, to the point where I stopped using the formation because it felt like a cheat. It stopped once I finished that season, though recently popped-up again, but with the formation flipped and the tight end to the right. The receivers also had normal spacing and weren’t bunched. My current tight end has a horrible catch rating though so I actually didn’t even complete the pass, but I’ll be on the look-out to see if it comes up again.

By far though, the weirdest bug I’ve encountered concerns Philip Rivers. You know Rivers as the quarterback of the LA Chargers. In 2k5, he’s a rookie playing behind Drew Brees. I think he ascended to a starter at one point in my game, but he’s now a backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Weirdly though, if I look at league leaders he’s usually near the top – in rushing. Now, as afar as I know, there is no way to play a quarterback at runningback. Maybe if all of your backs got injured in a game the backup Qb would end up there, but I doubt it. I’d guess another skill position player would inherit the role before a Qb. Anyways, that’s not the only thing that’s weird here. What is odd is that his statistics are a mirror image for whoever my starting running back is. I even played Tampa and can confirm that Rivers did not have a single carry in the game, but when it was over he was tied with my back for whatever ranking he was at for various categories. It’s truly bizarre, and just doing a google search on the same returned nothing, but I’d be surprised if this was unique to my game.

2k5 brady steelers

Tom Brady, just like in real-life, is still going in my game as a 13 year man. I doubtt he catches up to the real version.

Another glitch, this one more annoying, is that I basically lost my fullback position. I don’t know why, but starting at around year 7 of my franchise my backup runningback assumed the fullback position. If I try to edit my playbook things look fine, but when I play a game the problem persists. It essentially has rendered fullback useless as I can’t get the guy into a game. And it means that I need to prioritize run blocking with my third string RB. The only fix I have found is if my starter gets hurt. Tatum Bell recently broke his hand and will be out for 4-6 weeks. For those games I actually get to trot out a legit fullback, who after going years without even a snap to his name, now has two receiving touchdowns. I’ve found he’s a pretty terrible blocker though, despite his rating, so my ground game has actually been pretty awful lately, but at least I have a fullback! A similar, but less annoying, bug is that my third string TE takes all of the I-Formation snaps. If I try to edit the personnel for that package I simply can’t swap him out for anyone else. It’s weird.

Another bizarre in-game bug concerns the kicking game. For whatever reason, it seems like one kick-off per game my controller will be near unresponsive. There’s a huge input delay often resulting in a brutal kick. Since I play on an old model PS3, I thought maybe my controllers were getting less responsive and started playing with my controller plugged in, but that didn’t solve anything. It’s just a bug. On the AI side, many teams for some reason have a lineman as their kick and punt returner. It looks pretty ridiculous to see a big man field a punt, and it also makes coverage pretty simple. Some teams also have a terrible kick-off person where the ball will usually land around the 30 or 35 yard line. It actually doesn’t lead to many long returns as the up-man often ends up catching the ball while on the run, but it is stupid to see. And in all of these seasons, I’ve never returned a kick for a touchdown. One of the criticisms of the prior game was that it was too easy and the designers basically over-compensated by making coverage teams spectacular. I have come close on a couple of occasions, but never sealed the deal.

2k5 kicking

There’s a bug that can sometimes make kicking a real adventure. Thankfully, it usually only happens on kickoffs, but it has cropped up during a field goal attempt as well.

One other bug I assume is quite common concerns the schedule. The NFL has a pretty simple formula where each team plays its divisional opponents two times each. It then plays one other division in its conference and one division outside its conference which is on a rotational schedule. The remaining games are commonly ranked opponents. For instance, the first place teams from the prior year play all of the other first place teams in the same conference, the second place teams play all of the other second place teams, and so on. This formula should be easy to program, but apparently it’s not or Sega/Visual Concepts got lazy and only programmed so many seasons. My Patriots have played the AFC North every year for the last I don’t know how many. The actual 2004 Patriots had to play the same, so maybe the game only programmed for one rotation through the divisions before it went back to the start and stayed that way. The NFC portion of the schedule generates fine, so I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to play this long, but I have to believe there are people out there who have gone well beyond where I’m currently at.

Even though this version of the NFL is almost unrecognizable at this point, and the bugs I’ve encountered sometimes drive me nuts, I still have fun playing this one. I’m just going to keep on playing it until I don’t enjoy it anymore. Will that come with Brady’s retirement? Maybe, or maybe it won’t. I think at some point I’ll be sick of playing with all fake players, but I’m practically there now and still enjoying it. There are things I do miss from modern games that aren’t here. In 2004, this game was the best at granting absolute control to a pass via the Maximum Passing setting, but it’s not nearly as robust as current versions of Madden. There are times when I wish I could throw a proper back-shoulder pass, or I try to stick a ball out in front of a receiver, and the coverage, only to find the quarterback basically tries to make the pass too catchable and it gets intercepted when really I wanted to make a legal throw-away. It’s also hard to intentionally throw a pass high for a tall receiver to go up and get. And the running game, which felt dynamic and ahead of its time, is no longer that way and it can be frustrating to take a patient approach or to steer the back through a certain hole. Plus, lead blockers are often dumb and will just run past guys or into the back. It’s not as bad as Madden’s “suction-blocking” from the same era, but it’s noticeable.

At any rate, this is my second post on the topic and maybe there will be a third. Who knows? This game is still cheap and easy to acquire and if you were watching football back in 2004 then maybe consider dusting this sucker off and taking a trip down memory lane. You may even decide you never need to play another snap of Madden again.


Lego 71044 – Disney Train and Station

71044_Box4_v39Earlier this year I did a post wondering what happened to the Lego/Disney relationship that seemed so fruitful just three years prior. It was a post born out of some frustration, but mostly just disappointment. Following the release of an entire line of minifigures devoted to the Disney brand as well as the massive Cinderella’s Castle from Disney World, it seemed like we were primed for more minifigures and more sets based on theme park attractions and icons. A set featuring Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle felt inevitable and my mind was racing to conjure up mental images of what other popular attractions might work and make sense in Lego form.

Nothing happened though. Disney still had a presence with Lego, but it was all themed sets based on the latest movie hitting theaters. This surprised me because that initial wave of figures seemed to sell out quickly around me. I had to hunt them down and eventually wound up paying almost twice the MSRP at a specialty shop with hideous mark-ups on everything. The castle set seemed to do well since Lego has kept up with production on it and I’ve never seen it discounted (it’s possible Disney has an agreement with Lego that prevents it from going on clearance) leading me to believe it’s a solid seller. If the cast members who work the crystal shop in Epcot can be trusted, they usually sell one of those $37K crystal depictions of the castle per day so Lego selling a bunch of $300 castles seems plausible.

Of course, my post either had good timing or poor as not long after a bunch of news broke. A new wave of figures, a Mickey-themed set based on Steamboat Willie, and finally the big one, a set based on Disneyland’s railroad and station. I was able to secure a set of minifigures after hunting around my area while the Steamboat Willie set was a simple purchase at a local Lego Store. The Disneyland railroad had to wait a bit as it came with a rather steep cost. The MSRP on the set came in at a tick under $330 not including tax. With less than 3,000 pieces and only five minifigures, this felt like a pretty significant mark-up. For comparison, Cinderella’s Castle had the same amount of figures, but over 4,000 pieces for a more reasonable $350. Disney always equates to significant mark-up when it comes to licensed merchandise, but this was more than I expected. The actual building is fairly small and not nearly as eye-catching as the castle. This felt more like a $250 set as a result, and I had a hard time convincing myself to foot the bill for it.

Maybe I wasn’t alone, as Black Friday arrived and with it came discounted Lego sets. To my surprise, this set was one of the ones to get marked down. It was roughly $100 off for a weekend and that was enough to get me to jump on it, along with many other shoppers. The set even sold out while I was trying to check-out online, but Lego accepted backorders with a guarantee to deliver before Christmas. This made this a suitable joint gift for myself and my wife, essentially our gift to each other, this year.

For starters, it should be pointed out that the set likely retailed for more than expected partly due to the tech baked in. This set is part of Lego’s app-enabled products. The Powered-Up Motor is Lego’s latest inclusion for making sets go. It requires you download an app and use a tablet or phone to control the train. It has sound effects as well and if you’re against pushing the train then you have this as well to make it go. It’s pretty neat, and if I didn’t already have a Disney World Monorail set to ring my Christmas tree I’d probably consider using this. It does add more of a toy quality to the set as well, which may be a bad thing if you’re like me and have small kids at home that want to play with your expensive Lego sets.

img_0777Like the castle, this one comes with five minifigures. And like the castle, most are essentially re-releases of prior figures. Minnie Mouse is the least interesting as she appears here in her red polka-dotted dress once again with the only difference being she’s traded the hard plastic skirt piece for a fabric one (to make it easier to position her in a seated position for riding the train). Three of the other figures just re-use existing head sculpts. You have Mickey as an engineer in blue overalls with a red bandana around his neck. He looks good, but where’s his hat? Engineer Mickey at the park is always sporting a hat and it would have been simple to just reuse the Steamboat Willie hat with a new paint scheme, but Lego opted not to do so apparently. Chip and Dale are here as conductors and they have new bodies as well. It’s a classy addition, but like Mickey they have no hats. At least with these two it’s more understandable as a hat is probably trickier to sculpt and add to them whereas Mickey had already been released to fit a hat. The fifth figure is the only all new one, but it’s a much welcomed one. Goofy finally gets to make his proper Lego debut and he’s in his contemporary orange shirt with blue pants. He looks great and since we had yet to receive a Goofy I am glad he’s not in train-attire. He probably should have been released as part of the minifigure wave as it kind of stinks he’s trapped in this set (for now), but I’m glad he’s here. Now we just need a Pluto to finish off the Fab 5.

img_0770All right, let’s talk about the main event now. The train station presented here is just referred to as the Disney Train and Station by Lego, but it’s a replica of the station at Disneyland. As basically the first thing one sees when entering that park, it’s one of the most iconic Disney-related visuals that exists in the real world. And since we already received a Disney World set, this makes quite a bit of sense to be the next release. I initially expected Sleeping Beauty Castle, but since that is so much smaller than Cinderella’s Castle it might not have felt as iconic when compared with that set. This one invites fewer comparisons to Disney World. Yes, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has a train station as well, but it’s just a slightly different design that’s neither better or worse than what Disneyland has. It’s a bit bigger, but the main difference is the clock tower portion is centered whereas this one is off-center and placed on the right if you’re facing it from the front. I suppose fans hopeful that Cinderella’s Castle meant that one day a Disney World in Lego would be achievable are disappointed, but I don’t mind inter-mingling Disney World and Disneyland sets in my display.

img_0771Like the castle, the station is essentially a façade with an open back. Lego could have set it up on a hinge, but it opted not to. It’s fine and actually makes it easier to place on a shelf or something. I suppose if you have this on a large surface with the track going around the station it might bug you that it doesn’t have a back, but if it did you wouldn’t be able to see the lovely interior. Since the building itself isn’t particularly large, there isn’t nearly as much “fun” inside as there was with the castle, but what’s there looks nice. There’s a ticket counter with a bench in the main section and a luggage scale tucked away as well. There’s a pair of scaled-down replicas of the locomotive and a little lounge on the second floor. The clock tower is the only area on what is basically the third floor. An architect might complain there’s no way for the characters to physically move from floor to floor, but I like that they didn’t cram stairs into this thing. The windows in the hall look nice and I like the red curtains. Having never been inside the actual station, I can’t really attest to the authenticity, but this looks fine. The only thing missing is a bunch of fun easter eggs referencing past Disney films and cartoons like the castle possessed. There’s a cute replica of the Lego Cinderella’s Castle and box for the third floor and a pink umbrella that might be a reference to Mary Poppins, but otherwise I didn’t notice anything obvious.

ck_holiday_legoThe locomotive itself is a replica of the CK Holiday from Disneyland, which itself was based on a replica train Walt Disney owned and drove around his backyard. As the first train constructed for Disneyland, it was an obvious choice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain the CK Holiday branding and instead opts for a generic Disney Train. I don’t know why Lego seemed resistant to affirm that this is based off of Disneyland’s train and station, but it’s not a huge deal. The second car is basically just a housing for the motor, while the third car is for park guests and the fourth is the caboose, once again, modeled after the actual train. The passenger car has a nice design where the top flips open for easy access while the caboose has a more luxurious interior. You can fit a lot of minifigures on this thing and I can see some people stocking it with custom minifigures that look like park patrons. Or you could simply just cram it full of some of the previously released Disney figures, especially the ones that are solid stand-ins for Disney cast members in costume.

The build for the train was pretty painless, though the locomotive presents some minor challenge. It’s more that the locomotive is fairly fragile once completed. To make sure it bends on the tracks it has a lot of floating parts such as the rear of the engine. There’s a little piece too underneath the cabin that has a tendency to pop off when handling it which did become annoying. The interior also doesn’t feature any details at all, which surprised me. My guess is the quarters are already tight and there just wasn’t enough room to work with. I think they could have slipped in a few handles or something, but oh well. The top flips up to make it easy to place Mickey or another figure inside and the windows make it easy to see who’s driving.

Past the engine is the coal cart, which also houses the power motor. It’s by far the simplest and quickest build and it does its job. The passenger car is an interesting build as well since it has a very open design. It’s a quick build as well and it’s fairly sturdy which is necessary since you’ll be inserting many figures into this car. The caboose is the longest build, but it’s also pretty simple. It has a closed design with one side being removable to insert characters. The only thing holding that side on is essentially two bricks, one on each end of the marquee, making it both easily accessible and hidden. I do enjoy the interior of this car, which creates a dilemma as I’m torn on how to display this one. Any figure you place in here with the panel in place probably won’t be readily visible to anyone looking at the train. At this point, I have so many Mickey and Minnie figures though so maybe I’ll just stash some in there for display.

Easily, the largest shortcoming for the train in both the build and display is related to stickers. I hate stickers, and this set is loaded with them. The train in particular has a lot of small stickers that are challenging to place. The caboose, for instance, has the Disney Railroad label broken up across three stickers which is practically torture. It should be a rule for Lego that any set over $250, especially one like this aiming to be more of a display piece than toy, opt for as many printed pieces as possible, but evidently Lego disagrees.

img_0769The set comes with enough track to make an oval of modest length. It’s essentially large enough to comfortably go around the station, but if you want to ring a Christmas tree or something you’ll need to buy more. Getting the train lined up is a little tricky, but not frustrating for an adult. Connecting the device to the app (I did via an iPhone) is also really simple and I had zero issues there. The train moves at a nice clip and I did not have any derailments. It can go forward and in reverse and there’s some sound effects as well. I don’t know if this is necessarily an improvement over the old setup, but it does work as intended. My only fear would be in a decade will this app still function? Lego does sell remotes, though that will obviously set you back further.

The build for the station is the longest part of the set and composes it’s own much thicker book. It’s a methodical build, and while some may resent the redundancy of constructing a brick building, I tend to find my Zen in these things. The instructions break up the construction of the outer walls reasonably well by mixing in other tasks before returning to it. By far, the most interesting part of the finished product is the metalwork on the roof. To simulate wrought iron, Lego went with black handcuffs. Admittedly, it looks a bit odd during the build since it’s hard to ignore the fact that the pieces are handcuffs, but once complete it looks pretty nice. I’ve seen other reviewers praise this creativity and probably an equal amount criticize it. Lego could have created a unique piece to do the job, but this does work so I can’t really fault the company for going in this direction.

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I hate these stickers.

Like the train, the station contains numerous stickers. In general, they aren’t as bad as the train since many are just for signs on the wall, but they’re still frustrating in places. In particular, the carpet on the second floor is comprised of three pieces and three stickers. The only way to not have gaps in the carpet is to lay the pieces and then place the stickers over them ignoring where the actual pieces begin and end. The instructions would have you do the opposite, but this gives you brown gaps in the image which looks stupid. From an aesthetic standpoint, that one part is my biggest peeve with the set.

The rest of the interior is plenty fun to both build and look at. In particular are the little model trains which consist of a clever build on their own. They don’t really resemble a train until completed which leads to a “Eureka!” moment. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot to do with the figures once done. You can cram one behind the counter and there’s a bench and chair, but that’s about it. Both seats also lack pegs so the characters just rest on them and will flail around if you move the set. The finished station also surprised me with its size. While it is certainly small compared to the castle, it stands just over a foot in height when done. Add those flagpoles and the set ends up reaching roughly 16″. This has created some challenge for me as the places in my home I had earmarked for this thing have proven too small. Right now it’s on a hutch, but I think I may end up making some shelves and displaying it that way.

Ultimately, I think this is a set that will please Disney fans who purchase it. My initial criticism of the price of the set still stands and had I purchased this at that MSRP I probably would be less enthused by it. As a $230 set, it’s far more palatable. It’s more of a display piece than toy as the station doesn’t do much or present many opportunities for play. It looks the part though and will bring as much class to your display as any Lego can. The train though is about as fun as any other toy train. My kids ask to play with it and I oblige despite the anxiety that creates. If I didn’t already have a toy monorail to ring my Christmas tree I’d probably be in the market for more track to do the same with this.

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Mickey pondering if we may see a Disney World version someday.

This set also naturally lends me to wonder what’s next for Lego and Disney. Considering all of the time that elapsed between the castle and this set, I am certainly not holding my breath or even crafting any expectations on what’s to come. The existence of this probably makes some hope for a Disney World version, but I don’t see Lego double-dipping on trains, but it probably would be cost-effective for the company so never say never. I do wonder if Lego has any appetite for a monorail set, but that doesn’t have an obvious companion like the train station to go with it as the monorail platforms are fairly boring, aside from the ones attached to hotels. Does Lego want to create a replica of Disney’s Contemporary Resort? Probably not. I’ll continue to hold out hope for fun, attraction-based, sets. My ultimate dream would be Spaceship Earth, but numerous others would be fun as well. If this is it though, that won’t leave me too defeated. Just at least give me a Pluto, Lego! He’s such a good boy and sorely missed.

 


Batman: The Animated Series Wrap-Up

btas redOne-hundred and nine episodes plus three features leading to one-hundred and twelve blog entries have been devoted to the subject of Batman: The Animated Series. It started as a celebration of the show turning 25 and then as a curiosity piece. Since its premiere in 1992, the show had become much celebrated and praised all over. It’s exceptionally rare in this age of social media to see anything basically universally loved, but that was the case for BTAS. I had a lot of good memories of the show myself. I watched it as a kid and when the show received a DVD release I bought it up. And I watched them all. Batman became a show I had experienced and enjoyed both as a kid and as an adult, but some ten years or so removed from when I last watched it in total I still wasn’t sure just how good the show was.

And so I watched it again. And after each episode I made a little blog entry afterwards. Well, at first they were fairly little as I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. Did I want to do an episode review or did I want to do a recap? I started leaning more towards the review side while also inserting a brief summary. Perhaps being influenced by all of the recap style podcasts I listen to, the entries drifted more towards that style. And they grew. Oh, did they grow. This little weekly entry soon routinely ran for thousands of words. I’m not saying that makes them any better or worse, but it certainly transformed my little project from something I could regurgitate via my keyboard rather quickly to something much more demanding.

Even though my vision for this feature grew beyond my initial plans, that doesn’t mean I regret anything about it. Far from it, actually, as I really enjoyed my time with this show once again. I may have even enjoyed it more than ever as I found it much easier to find things I liked about episodes I previously wasn’t very high on. Some of those episodes are still rather poor, but I can at least see what the writers were thinking and for the most part the animation is always quite good. It’s a very entertaining program, and while it’s still primarily a children’s cartoon, there’s enough depth there to captivate an older audience.

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The character of Batman drew people in, and villains like Two-Face and Mr. Freeze kept them coming back.

In re-watching the show I found there were certainly things that consistently worked and things that did not. When the show centered on a sympathetic villain it was usually at its best. Batman can be pretty ruthless in his application of justice, but the guy does have a heart. He often makes the right decision, though he’s also not perfect. Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and Clayface ended up being my favorite villains. And when Harley Quinn was thrust into a sympathetic role she soared. Even Arnold Stromwell was interesting when we saw his softer side. That doesn’t mean everyone needs that to work though. Rupert Thorne was consistently nasty and thus interesting, same for Roland Daggett. The Joker was also often very entertaining and the show never made an attempt at deviating from what he is, which is something filmmakers today could learn from.

There were still a few duds when it came to the villains. Surprisingly, Catwoman was rarely compelling as the show didn’t seem to know what to do with her. For whatever reason, there was a desire to portray her as something other than a villain. Rather than make her an antihero, she more or less just became a victim. There was a bit of a course correction in season two, but only when the show returned as The New Batman Adventures did it feel like the show actually knew what it wanted to do with one of Batman’s most popular foils. Two-Face also tended to flounder after his strong debut. He was able to rebound a bit, but it was a shame to see so much of what his debut built up was seemingly cast aside. The Penguin, another famous Batman villain, was also rarely up to the task when called upon with many of his leading roles serving as the show’s worst. He was usually most entertaining when paired up with other villains to play off of them. The show seemed to acknowledge this by putting him in more of a supporting role later on when he became a club owner.

Mostly, when I consider the legacy of this show I mostly recall what it did for the lesser villains. Going into 1992, the only Batman villains I was really aware of were the ones featured in the Adam West show. The Riddler, Penguin, Joker, and Catwoman were the most famous, but I also recalled Mr. Freeze and, for some reason, King Tutt. This show is how I was introduced to other, lesser, villains such as Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Clay-Face, and others. And for the most part I loved these “new” villains most of all. Sure, there were some duds for me like The Clock King or the one-off werewolf character and Lock-Up, but mostly the new guys were pretty interesting. And you can’t talk about this show without talking about what it did for Mr. Freeze. Previously more gimmick than character, Freeze became one of the most popular Batman villains seemingly overnight thanks to his portrayal in “Heart of Ice.” No, he never had another story as good as that one, but because that episode was so good it made any future appearance appointment television just to see if another Freeze story could match that one.

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Oddly enough, the show seemed to struggle with Catwoman not knowing if it wanted to portray her as something of an antihero or as her more traditional cat burglar persona.

Since this show is primarily a half-hour cartoon intended for kids, it runs into some issues. The format it strived for is a limitation. That inaugural 65 episode first season included several two-part stories, but following that every other story was confined to a single episode. This limitation is only a limitation if the writers allow it to be one, but sometimes it felt like certain episodes were short-changed. It also leads to numerous instances of Batman just turning to his wonder computer to solve a problem. That was definitely my biggest pet peeve with the show this time around as it quickly became a trope of the show. Batman turning to his computer felt like The Simpsons using the living room television to either start or advance a plot. An episode can still be good when that element is present, but it certainly feels cheap.

I also can’t offer a proper conclusion on the show without talking about the move from Fox to the WB and the creation of The New Batman Adventures. The switch did lead to some good things. For one, it advanced characters like Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon and let us see some actual development. Some conflict between Batman and Robin was teased during the Fox years and it was rewarding to see that go somewhere. I think the show could have mined that conflict for more material, but it was mostly handled well. Barbara, on the other hand, was a bit glossed over. Sure, she was now an accepted ally as Batgirl, but we learned very little about her character. Did she have a new outlook on crime fighting? What was her end game? We also never even got to see what came between she and Dick, which was unfortunate.

Aside from that, the move to WB also allowed for less censorship. This didn’t have a huge impact on much unless you’re really turned on by seeing a thin line of blood streaking from a character’s mouth, but it did really open up The Joker. He went from being mostly just a lunatic to being a violent lunatic. He has a few moments to be truly mean during his time on WB giving the character a similar feel to how he was portrayed in Mask of the Phantasm. This did lead to some criticisms I had with the direction of Harley Quinn, but I think I did a good job of highlighting those issues in my posts on the episodes she appears in.

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No matter how many times I see the new-look Joker I just can’t fall in love with it.

What obviously stands out the most though in the change in networks was the new design. While some characters looked unchanged and a few looked better than before, I mostly disliked the new style choice. Less detail and odd choices are mostly to blame, but even the animation came across a bit too cartoony for this show. The whole tone of the show was also thrown off and I think that had to do with the ensemble cast and the simplified portrayal of each of the leads. The writers basically assigned one archetype to each character and mostly stuck with it. This left no room for nuance and it had the most drastic impact on our main lead, Batman himself. In the first two seasons we got to see different sides to the character, but in The New Batman Adventures he’s basically just grim and curt. He’s so boring, and sadly none of the other leads outside of Nightwing really offer much. Robin is mostly just a vehicle for bad puns and Batgirl offers even less.

As a result, I can comfortably say that The New Batman Adventures era is inferior to what came before it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still quality to be found there. Much to my surprise, a few episodes actually rank quite highly and the worst of the show is still found in those first two seasons. A lot of that third season is just okay or average with few true stinkers. Though that is a post for another day.

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The show is exciting and fun and gave us some truly memorable characters. It’s one of the best things to ever happen to Batman, if not the best.

Ultimately, I set out to decide for myself if I felt Batman: The Animated Series was overrated or properly rated. It never occurred to me that it could be underrated, and it certainly is not. While the show didn’t deliver a slam dunk each episode, it also totaled 109 episodes and what show has ever hit a home run every episode for such a long time? Even much celebrated shows like Breaking Bad have a lesser episode here and there, and that particular show produced far fewer than 109 episodes (though to be fair, in terms of total minutes it’s probably much closer). And no, I’m not trying to compare this show to Breaking Bad, but making the point that it doesn’t have to “wow” the audience every time out to be a great show. Calling it the greatest television show based on a comic book feels right. It’s certainly the greatest cartoon, and I also came away feeling that it’s totally defensible for this to be someone’s favorite depiction of Batman in any medium. It’s a great show with a lot to offer. It’s primarily an action vehicle, and the wonderful animation allows it to be a pretty great show based on its action alone. What puts it over the top are the stories, the captivating villains, and it’s wonderful sense of style. The music of Shirley Walker, the performances of actors like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, it’s a production that oozes quality. So yes, Batman: The Animated Series is properly rated and if I am certain of anything it’s that I will watch this series in its entirety again. And again…


Dec. 25 – Samurai Pizza Cats – “The Cheese Who Stole Christmas”

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Original air date December 25, 1990 (Japan)

Welcome, Christmas Day! Hopefully you’re not hungover from too much Christmas partying last night, and if you are, hopefully it was worth it. By now, Santa should have deposited presents under the tree, if you were good this year, and hopefully he remembered the batteries. It’s been fun, but this post means we are done for the year. Christmas often lingers though into the new year, but once the holiday comes and goes it loses some its luster. Lets not dwell on the holiday coming to an end though, as we still have one more holiday special to enjoy! Maybe. Hopefully…

Samurai Pizza Cats sure sounds similar to another show, doesn’t it? That’s obviously by design as starting in the late 80s the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took the world by storm and made lots of people lots of money. The ridiculously named property originated in comics, but once it made the move to television it had to be altered to make it more kid-friendly and toy-friendly. As part of that adaptation, the Turtles were given a favorite food, and since they live in New York, pizza was the chosen entrée. And boy did they like pizza, it was basically all they ate on the show. Given how silly the show was, it’s not at all surprising to find it was ripe for parody, and that’s partly how we got the Samurai Pizza Cats.

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The heroes of the show (left to right): Guido, Polly, and Speedy.

I say partly, because that’s not the show’s original name. Samurai Pizza Cats is a Japanese production originally titled as Kyatto Ninden Teyandee (which directly translates to Cat Ninja Legend Teyandee). When Saban got ahold of it is when it became known by its new English name. Allegedly, when Saban licensed it for global distribution they received either poor or no translations for the scripts so they basically just made up their own lore for the show. The show takes place in a version of Tokyo in which anthropomorphized animals dwell and some (all?) are partly cybernetic, including our heroes. They work in a pizza restaurant by day, but when duty calls they become heroes. The villain of the show is the local prime minister who is corrupt. The palace guard for the emperor is aware of the corruption, but he can’t prove it, so he relies on the heroic cats to stop the evil deeds.

The English script and dub, being wholly original, might cause anime fans to turn up their noses, but for my money it’s actually pretty well done. The show is just full of parody, pop culture gags, and lots of fourth-wall breaking. I didn’t watch this show as a kid (I don’t think it came to the US until 1996), so I’m not super familiar with it, but I was entertained by the script of this episode. Even if I didn’t tell you it was redone when brought over from Japan you would likely figure that out rather easily just by watching it. It’s very American, but it doesn’t try to hide the more anime moments and pretty much runs with it.

Our main characters are a trio of Samurai warriors who look like cute versions of the Ronin Warriors with a dash of Mega Man. They have a real cybernetic look to them and I assumed this was how they went into battle, but they actually add more armor and such when they prepare to fight (accompanied by traditional transformation animation that looks way better than the other animation in the episode). The three cats are Polly Esther, Guido Anchovy, and Speedy Cerviche. They’re joined by Francine who assists them from their headquarters and probably provides some tech support as well. Big Al Dente is the Chief of the Palace Guard and the one conspiring against the villain. He summons the cats when they’re needed. Big Cheese is our villain and is the Prime Minister of Little Tokyo looking to overthrow the emperor of Japan, who is named Frank. He’s supposed to be a fox, but Saban decided he looked enough like a rat to go with that instead. He’s assisted by the Ninja Crows and their leader Jerry Atric (hardy har-har) who he makes use of for his various schemes. And in this particular episode, ruining Christmas is the theme of the day.

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No messing around with this one, it’s Christmas morning right at the start!

The episode begins with a wild intro featuring narration that gives a general overview of the show. The narration is done by Michael Airington who is obviously doing a Paul Lynde impression during the opening song.. It’s a very jovial and announcer-like voice that works for the show. Legend has it that Airington was drunk on the job when he recorded the intro which may have even enhanced his performance. When the episode begins, the actual narrator is far more understated (and voiced by Terrence Scammell). The Pizza Cats are all receiving their Christmas presents as it’s Christmas morning. Guido (Terrence Scammell) seems unimpressed with a comb he receives and Polly (Sonja Ball) quickly jumps in to remind him it’s the thought that counts when it comes to Christmas presents. Speedy (Rick Jones) finds this hilarious and begins mocking her for her pure-hearted point of view. Polly tries appealing to the other female of the group, Francine (Pauline Little), who surprises her by going along with the other two as they shout at her Christmas is about the presents!

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They deserved this.

Lucille (Susan Glover) then enters to remark on what a lovely day it is. Lucille appears to be a sheep, though she has ram horns despite being female. She apparently owns a nearby tea house and Guido and Speedy are quite interested in her. They’re borderline lewd towards her, actually. Polly thinks she has an ally when Lucille enters, but she soon asks for her presents and adds she assumes she has lots and lots of them. This causes the narrator to chime in that yes, Christmas is all about presents, as the other cats look shocked by her response. Speedy and Guido go into their routine as they make each other laugh with each passing comment ending with Speedy pondering if Lucille wants them to take her out to lunch. She is not amused, and actually starts to cry. This causes the other cats to run in terror. I have no idea why, until Lucille basically explodes. Apparently, she has a lot of hardware under that kimono.

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Well, this guy hardly seems threatening.

The setting then pivots to the pagoda of The Big Cheese. It’s all decked out for the holidays as we see the villain awaking rather late on Christmas morning. Big Cheese (Dean Hagopian) arises from his bed excited to see what Santa has brought him. He’s wearing a nightgown and cap and the voice performance, combined with the clothing, gives him an obvious effeminate slant. I feel like a lot of villains were given such a characteristic during this era. He races to his giant stocking and hopes it contains a dance partner as pretty as he is handsome to take to the New Year’s Ball. We see an image of what he’s wishing for and it makes me wonder if in the original translation he was wishing to be the dancer. Instead, he finds a seemingly hungover Jerry Atric (Mark Camacho) who is quite receptive to the idea of being Big Cheese’s date to the ball. He then remarks that’s the last time he indulges in Timothy Leery bird seed, a noted proponent of psychedelic drugs so apparently Jerry here was up doing acid. Big Cheese then starts shaking the old bird demanding to know where his Christmas presents are. He tosses Jerry and he smashes into the screen prompting him to ask that someone please move the camera.

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Is there still time to change what I want for Christmas because I want this clock!

We then get a look at two other characters opening presents, Emperor Fred (Scammell) and Lady Vi (Liza MacRae). Fred appears to be a panda while Vi, his daughter, is a rabbit. She opens her gift and is ecstatic to find it’s exactly what she wanted:  a “Me” clock. It’s basically a cuckoo clock with her face on it. At the top of the hour, a little caricature of her pops out to shout, “Don’t tick me off!” Fred, who is apparently of limited intelligence, seems happy with his gift; a teddy bear that resembles him. Big Cheese is irritated to see the two enjoying their gifts when he received nothing. He heads to the balcony and looks down and sees all of the “extras” enjoying their presents too. He also notes that the producer’s family has a huge stack of presents as well. I love this fourth wall stuff!

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Poor Jerry has to give up his present to try and keep this brat in check.

He then directs his ire back at Jerry Atric. He’s happy to see he’s not enjoying a present, which leads to Jerry trying to downplay the whole present thing as he conceals a gift behind his back. Big Cheese sees it and immediately starts to get angry, but Jerry says it’s for Big Cheese from him and hands it over. This sates his boss, but only momentarily, as he opens the box to find ninja blades or something indicating it was obviously a gift for Jerry and immediately gets upset. He swipes at Jerry, but then goes into a tale about how his Christmases as a kid were just as bad as this one. We see a brief flashback where an excited young Seymour (that’s his real name) is opening a gift from Santa. His dad excitedly says it’s a real boy’s toy, which is a bizarre thing to say. He opens the box and sees a toy wagon hooked up to a toy bull. He proclaims “What’s this bull?!” and tosses it aside. Back in the present, Seymour starts shouting to the heavens about getting even with Santa. Jerry just watches and we hear some of his thoughts as he takes this all in. It seems he knows this is just going to lead to some crazy scheme he’ll have to partake in.

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For someone who has to work on Christmas, Speedy sure looks happy.

We then head back to see what the Pizza Cats are up to. Francine is taking orders and this show is quite adept at coming up with some gross toppings just like the Turtles did (sausage with mint jelly, in this case). Polly is ticked off that Speedy is apparently missing in action (I’m guessing he’s the delivery boy) and is taking it out on Guido. Meanwhile, some attendees at a Christmas market are enjoying some shopping. When a kid asks his mom why dad isn’t with them she says he’s at home waiting for the trickle down theory to take effect. As an econ major, this amuses me. Speedy is also passing through rather casually on his delivery route. He’s making up a song as he does so and seems to run out of words. Soon they spot a figure flying over the market – it’s Santa! He’s oddly in a one-reindeer open sleigh and looks a bit off. That’s because it’s obviously Seymour in disguise with Jerry acting as his lone elf helper. He passes out gifts to everyone which they happily receive.

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That dude is clearly not a rat, and also clearly not Santa.

Speedy sees the patrons greedily grabbing gifts and even gets knocked to the ground in the commotion. Maybe this is the start of him coming around on the whole giving is better than receiving thing? The people find the gifts are all masks, and soon they appear to be in a panic. Speedy takes note and wonders why Santa would do this. At the busy restaurant, a kid comes running in telling people Santa gave them creepy masks that won’t come off. Apparently they’re all stuck on, which is why the others seemed to be in such a panic. Guido and Polly take note as they run outside to try and help the crying mass of children. They can’t get the things off, while “Santa” flies overhead laughing all the way. He reveals that he put superglue in the masks and it’s at this point I realize his helper is not Jerry, but another character named Bad Bird (Michael O’Reilly). While Seymour enjoys his mayhem, Big Al (A.J. Henderson) is watching from the palace through a telescope and is sizing-up the imposter Claus. He recognizes Bad Bird and decides to put in a call to the Pizza Cats!

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So the headquarters for the good guys is just a giant gun. Something tells me that would have been a challenge to bring to toy stores in America.

We then get to see the transformation animation of the Pizza Cats. The three heroes jump into what the narrator refers to as laundry chutes, but they look kind of like pizza ovens to me. This takes them down a tunnel where their armor is put on. Meanwhile, the restaurant itself transforms as well with what is basically a giant revolver rising from the roof. The cats are loaded into it like bullets and then fired out into the sky as a trio of fireballs. The Paul Lynde voice and theme song return for this segment too and it’s quite a hoot. He cackles after delivering his lines as if he’s really amused by them which certainly makes the rumor about him being drunk at recording seem plausible. Francine chimes in with a little rhyme of her own essentially assuring her customers that everything is okay. She’s the one that engages the firing mechanism via a normal-sized revolver of her own.

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Bonus points for the festive heroic attire.

The fireballs fade away to reveal the heroic felines beneath them. They’re dressed in Santa suits and Speedy isn’t too pleased by this. Polly explains they’re dressed this way to restore Santa’s reputation. If the people see Santa-like beings saving Christmas, they’ll feel good about Santa once again. Meanwhile, Big Cheese is spreading more of his sinister gifts around Little Tokyo. This time though, the Pizza Cats drop in to prevent anyone from actually opening them. They first knock Big Cheese from the sky, who takes a terrible tumble along with Bad Bird. They then point out to the crowd of onlookers that this Santa is a fake, and they buy it. They start shouting fake as the Pizza Cats tell them of the nefarious gifts that await them.

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Even the villains in this show are kind of cute, in their own way.

Bad Bird ditches his disguise and goes after the Pizza Cats. He hits them with a bomb that knocks away their Santa costumes. The onlookers are then disappointed to see the Pizza Cats as this confirms they’re not denizens of the North Pole. Speedy shouts out what’s going on, while Big Cheese attempts to escape. When Polly points this out Speedy declares he won’t get away, “Not when I can pull out great props from no where!” And he does, as he produces a sort-of grappling hook that he tosses at Big Cheese to hook on his sleigh. As he pulls the villain towards him, the crowd runs at the sleigh and basically pummels the Hell out of Big Cheese.

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Robot #1. You can see why Speedy didn’t take it very seriously.

Bad Bird winces at the sight of Seymour getting mangled by jilted Christmas shoppers. He then summons another helper, this time it’s Hardy Boy, a robotic humanoid with a party hat. Speedy laughs when he sees the thing and mocks Bad Bird’s order to “Say your prayers.” He then pulls out his blade and jumps at the enemy only for it to blast him with a Christmas cracker that wraps him all up. Polly and Guido rush in to help as the robot fires some rockets their way. He then bends over as his party hat turns into a drill and is apparently ready to skewer the pair. Speedy then gets up and uses his sword to slash open the back of the robot. A big beam of light emerges and the robot falls away to reveal…

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Robot #2 is sort of creepy. I’m not sure why she has a bird beak, but whatever.

Another robot! This one looks like a female super model of sorts, only instead of a nose and mouth she has a small beak. The announcer seems to like her. Speedy is a bit intimidated and remarks that he hopes she’s not teed off. Apparently she is though, as she’s armed with a golf bag. She tees up a ball, and with a mighty swing she sends an explosive flying at the heroes. It rips through Guido’s umbrella and explodes on a nearby pagoda. Polly and Guido are a bit shaken, and then the robot starts launching more golf balls their way eventually sending them into the bushes. She then turns her attention to Speedy, and after some puns about making a point, she tosses a bunch of needles at him. Apparently golf isn’t her only gimmick as she’ll soon take note of Polly and Guido planning an attack. She then produces a giant pea pod, yes you read that right, which also contains giant explosive peas. I have no idea what her gimmick is at this point, but whatever.

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All right, we’ve had our fun and now it’s time to put an end to all of this.

Speedy has apparently had enough. He’s pretty ticked off that Santa’s reputation has been besmirched by these clowns and declares it’s time for the ultimate weapon. Yes, we’ve reached that point in the anime where the hero finally just uses the thing that always works. Speedy takes his sword and gets enveloped in an aura. The announcer even points fun at the whole ultimate weapon thing remarking the special FX guy was wondering when he’d be called upon. The sword basically splits into two better looking swords. With a cry of “Pizza power!” Speedy slices the air which sends energy slashes at the robot woman. She quotes Tweety Bird with a cry about seeing a “puddy tat” before she explodes. Bad Bird gets tossed as a result and he bemoans why they always lose to that sword. Seymour goes soaring by to answer it’s so stunt men have jobs. Speedy then reminds the kids who are watching to always eat their pizza as the trio pose triumphantly.

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Could that be the real Santa Claus? I’m still alarmed by the whole one reindeer thing.

We’re then taken back to town where all of the people are still suffering with their masks. A sight appears in the sky, could this be the real Santa Claus? He has what looks like a rocket sleigh and still just one reindeer, but the people are ready to believe anything. He drops some sparkly stuff on the crowd and soon the masks come off. Everyone is happy and also excited to find out that Santa is real! We then see that he is not, though, as it’s actually Big Al in disguise with Francine along to help. They’re just dropping some kind of glue solvent to get those masks off and Francine even makes a remark about Santa not being real, which is really odd to hear in a children’s show. Disturbing, even! The announcer even runs with it as he wraps things up by saying even if there isn’t really a Santa Claus, at least there are those willing to play the part. Thankfully, this isn’t the note we end on as we then pan to the sky and find the REAL Santa! He’s smiling and laughing and basically mocks the announcer before flying off passing by the moon in the process as he’s contractually obligated to do. And he too has just one reindeer. Clearly, this Santa is fraudulent as well.

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Ho ho! Now there’s the real Santa! And I thought this episode was going to blow the whole thing.

And that’s how this festive episode concludes. The machinations of this show are pretty straight-forward. The bad guy devises a scheme, the heroes arrive to face-off with he and his minions, they get beaten back, but then emerge victorious when the leader unleashes his ultimate power. It’s very similar to Power Rangers or Ronin Warriors in that regard. However, what elevates this program really is the script and performance of the voice actors. Now I’m guessing there is an offbeat quality to the original show, but I also get the sense that when the non-Japanese writers got ahold of this thing they felt it was pretty ridiculous, and it shows in their approach. Maybe that is offensive to fans of the original incarnation of the program, but it’s hard to deny a team of samurai cyborg felines that work at a pizza restaurant isn’t ridiculous on its own. The script was genuinely funny, and while there are certainly numerous bad puns, the show has this self-aware approach that actually makes those puns land in an ironic fashion. It’s silly and it’s fun. The only change I might have made was to not go with the title Samurai Pizza Cats. Because the 90s was full of sincere TMNT knock-offs, the parodic nature of this program doesn’t come through in that title. It probably should, given the silly-sounding title, but as I said the 90s was full of crap cartoons that make this one plausibly sincere. I know I and some of my friends dismissed it for that reason as a result.

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Gah! One reindeer! Are we sure he’s the real deal?!

For a 90s anime, this show is pretty consistent in terms of visual quality. I love the character designs as they strike a nice balance between cute and sleek. There is a nice melding of traditional Japanese settings with this cybernetic twist. The choice to dub Big Cheese as a rat is rather odd though as he clearly looks like a fox to me, but I guess that doesn’t really matter much in the grand scheme. The animation itself is somewhat limited as the characters are so complex it would be hard to have them in motion all of the time. As a result, there is a lot of standing around with just mouth flaps moving and extremely fast and exaggerated motions when the characters actually need to do something. This is par for the course with anime so it’s nothing to be surprised by. I enjoyed looking at this one, and I might even watch some more.

As for a Christmas episode, I was expecting there to be some lesson imparted on our heroes. They held a very cynical view of the holiday, all except Polly, and their selfishness was never really punished. I guess they didn’t get any superior presents and they did get blown up, but Polly suffered too. Speedy did witness the greed of the townsfolk and obviously didn’t enjoy it. They also had to defend the good name of Santa and weren’t looking for a reward beyond that so I guess that’s good. Not everything needs a moral, and I suppose the offbeat nature of the program means this one in particular doesn’t need to say a whole lot.

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There may not be a ton of traditional Christmas cheer in this one, but they did sneak in this nice, festive, image just before the end.

If you wish to take in a viewing of Samurai Pizza Cats the easiest way to do so is via Amazon Prime Video. It’s free for anyone who has a Prime membership so no additional purchase is necessary. It’s also not exactly a well-protected IP so if you don’t have Prime you can probably find it without issue for free elsewhere. The show was also released on DVD, if physical media is still your thing.

And that’s a wrap for this year’s edition of The Christmas Spot! I hope you enjoyed soaking in the holiday via Christmas specials, good and bad. I enjoy doing it and I plan to return to it again in 2020! For now though, enjoy the day and get all of the Christmas cheer you can tolerate for tomorrow it ends. Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!


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