Author Archives: Joe

The Iron Giant (1999)

220px-The_Iron_Giant_posterDirector Brad Bird has become quite a name in the world of film. He is most commonly associated with Pixar where he directed much celebrated films like Ratatouille and both entries in The Incredibles. Prior to that, he was mostly known for his work as an animator and director on The Simpsons. His directorial debut with the long-running franchise was the Season One highlight “Krusty Gets Busted” and he also contributed to the much loved “22 Short Films About Springfield.” It was his work as an animator with Klasky Csupo that got him his gig with both The Simpsons and The Tracey Ullman Show, where The Simpsons originated. And he probably ended up there largely because of  his work with Disney where he was a promising young animator in the 80s seemingly destined for great things with the company.

That did not happen, and perhaps it’s for the better considering all of the quality television and films we received as a result. And while those works are much celebrated, there are still many who feel Brad Bird’s finest contribution to the world of cinema is the 1999 box-office flop The Iron Giant.

brad_bird

The Iron Giant is the film directorial debut for Brad Bird.

The Iron Giant originated in a short story by poet Ted Hughes, who unfortunately passed away before the film was completed. It was a tale that captivated many who encountered it and even attracted the attention of famed musician Pete Townshend who crafted an entire concept album about the character. As a result, the story was ticketed for a musical release much in the style of many animated 90s projects, but when Brad Bird was hired to oversee it things changed. It was Bird who reimagined the story as one about a gun with a soul that decides it doesn’t actually want to be an instrument of death. This was partly the result of Bird’s sister Susan tragically being murdered during the film’s production. Warner Bros. also brought in Tim McCanlies to co-author the screenplay and the musical components were eventually dropped, though Townshend still received an executive producer credit.

The Iron Giant is a traditionally animated film which also features some CG elements, most notably the giant itself. The film is about a young boy named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) who lives alone with his mother in a small coastal town in the state of Maine during the 1950s. Cold War paranoia is sweeping the country and is the framing device for the film. When a mysterious, 100-foot tall, robot crash lands nearby, it’s Hogarth who first finds him and befriends him. Through Hogarth, this massive robot (Vin Diesel) learns empathy and also receives a primer on life and death. The somewhat lonely Hogarth views the giant like an ultimate toy, but also comes to view the behemoth as a friend as well.

hogarth_and_the_giant

It’s the tale of a boy and his big ass robot.

Now, 100-foot tall robots naturally attract attention. When the giant first arrives on Earth, it inadvertently causes a ship to crash and the captain of that ship alerts the FBI. The government dispatches agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) to investigate and he is able to follow a series of clues, as well as some coincidence, to the home of the Hughes. It’s there Kent realizes Hogarth knows something, and he rents a room from Hogarth’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) to keep an eye on the lad while also hoping to earn his trust and in turn uncover the truth about this giant being that’s eating the community’s metal. In turn, Hogarth has to try and keep the secret of the giant hidden and he turns to a local beatnik artist named Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) for help since he happens to run the local scrap metal yard.

mansley_hogarth

Mansley is so obsessed with his job that it allows him to be more of a comedic element early on in the film, but he eventually turns quite sinister.

The film contains plenty of elements of comedy and drama as the tale unfolds. Hogarth and the giant have to learn how to communicate with each other since the giant doesn’t understand English initially. There’s also a lot of physical comedy bits between Hogarth and Kent as Hogarth tries to keep his friend hidden and finds creative ways to get Kent off his back. Probably the best piece of comedy occurs when the giant’s hand, having been separated from the robot via a collision with a train, stumbles into Hogarth’s home during dinner in search of the rest of his body. Hogarth is then forced to go to great lengths to keep the mechanical monstrosity from his mother, and eventually Kent, before rejoining it with the rest of the giant.

The latter part of the film loses the comedy in favor of more dramatic story-telling. The central theme of the film is you are what you choose to be, and it’s an important thing for the giant to learn as the robot is equipped with some serious firepower. This is discovered when Hogarth accidentally trips an automated defense mechanism in the robot, and it’s further exacerbated when the army eventually learns about the robot’s existence (because it has to). It’s a rather simple message, but one that easily resonates with an audience which is partly why the film is so beloved. The pairing of a kid with a being not of this world will naturally draw comparisons to E.T. and it’s an apt comparison. The only thing really separating the character of E.T. from the giant is that E.T. largely remains a passivist during his story while the giant most certainly does not.

giant_squat

It’s a real joy to watch the film play with scale. Here, the giant has to literally squat down to fit in the same frame as Hogarth.

What the film chooses to leave out is the giant’s backstory. We don’t know why he’s here, or where he came from. Both are questions viewers are likely to ponder, but in the grand scheme they mean little just as it didn’t matter why E.T. was on Earth. We also don’t know much about Hogarth and how his life was before the events of the film, save for the fact that he appears to be a good student and a latchkey kid with few friends. And like the giant, it doesn’t matter and Bird was wise to ignore these details because it keeps the film at a quite tidy 87 minutes. Perhaps my biggest criticism of The Incredibles and its sequel is that they’re both just too damn long, so it’s nice to watch a Brad Bird feature that’s under 90 minutes.

The film is set in 1950s Maine partly to invoke images of Norman Rockwell. The choice is an excellent one as the town of Rockwell presented here is quite idyllic and cozy. The woodland scenery is especially gorgeous and lush and the human characters have a style to them that is not derivative of past Warner films or Disney. The giant is animated in CG largely because it was an easy way to keep his steel frame natural and consistent. He has a simple design to him and the texture work is kept fairly simple as well which helps to blend the giant with the hand-drawn visuals that surround it. He doesn’t stand out in an unnatural way, at least he doesn’t as much as a 100-foot tall robot can, and the choice to render the being this way appears to be a sound one as a result.

super_giant

The film’s central message is you are what you choose to be. For the giant, that’s Superman.

Michael Kamen is responsible for the film’s score and it’s scope is quite grand and appropriate. When the giant takes to the sky for the first time it’s exuberant and triumphant, and when it needs to be a bit melancholy it strikes the right tone. The film completely discarded its musical origins, save for an in-universe PSA about the duck and cover advice you’ve probably heard about that existed back in the 50s. The voice cast is tremendous and Eli Marienthal as Hogarth is especially deserving of praise given his young age at the time of recording. Aniston and Connick Jr. are perfectly capable in their roles, while McDonald toes the line of obsessive detective and parody rather adeptly in his portrayal of Kent Mansley. Diesel isn’t asked to do much as the giant, similar to his eventual role as Groot for Guardians of the Galaxy, but he does a good job when the scenes later in the film ask more of him. If your eyes don’t well up a bit when you hear him say “Superman” during the film’s climax then you have no soul.

iron_giant_signature

The film finally received a Blu Ray release in 2016 which also included two minutes of new footage. It was dubbed The Signature Edition.

The Iron Giant is a heartwarming tale about an outcast finding its purpose in life all on its own, even if that purpose strays from what others had earmarked it for. It’s also a tale of friendship and empathy, of right and wrong, and one about being mindful and trusting where appropriate. It’s easy to react to a creature such as the giant with fear, but maybe it’s best to give others a chance first and allow them to give one a reason to fear them beyond simply appearance. It’s also a gorgeously animated film and one of the last of its kind as it wasn’t long after the release of The Iron Giant that the majority of animated features switched over entirely to 3D, CG, animated stories. Most acknowledge now that the reason this film failed at the box office was due to Warner Bros. not marketing it well. Even though it seems many agree with that assessment, it didn’t stop studios like Warner from using commercial failures like The Iron Giant as justification for moving away from traditionally animated films. It’s unfortunate as I fear we as a society will soon lose the ability to create such wonders simply because Hollywood isn’t providing a reason for those to learn these skills. If that’s the case, at least we’ll always have wonders like The Iron Giant to look back on.


Rocko’s Modern Life – Season Two

rocko_season2

The second season of Rocko’s Modern Life premiered on September 25, 1994.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my reintroduction to Rocko’s Modern Life via the show’s first season. Rocko’s Modern Life was a favorite of mine as a kid, and if you had asked me to rank the Nicktoons back then it would have gone something like this:  The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life, followed by who cares? Those two cartoons were so far above the others that they didn’t feel worth mentioning. Sure, Rugrats and Doug were fine for what they were, but they weren’t appointment viewing for me. And after a few years, none of them were as I felt I had aged out of them. I was a young, dumb, kid though and upon revisiting such works I’ve come to find that, if anything, I’ve aged into a show like Rocko’s Modern Life.

What separated Rocko’s Modern Life from the other shows was that emphasis on the mundanity of life itself. Rocko was challenged by simple tasks such as laundry, household cleaning, commuting, work, and all of those others things we as adults have to deal with that we really take for granted as children. Rocko’s difficulties encountered with these tasks are obviously exaggerated for comedic effect, but like all good comedy there is still an element of truth to all of it making the show arguably more relatable for an adult than it is a child.

rocko_filbert_wedding

Like Season One, Season Two of Rocko’s Modern Life is surprisingly topical in 2020.

When it came to Season One of the show, I was delighted by the humor aimed at adults. I remembered the Milk-O-Matic gag as a kid in which Heffer, a steer, is masturbated by a mechanical milking machine and knew there was humor in this show that really only older kids and adults would understand. That type of humor is more of a shocking variety of humor, what I had forgotten is the more nuanced approach such as the episode where neighbor Bev Bighead tries to seduce Rocko because her husband doesn’t make her feel attractive. It’s a pretty adult concept to try to base a cartoon intended for children around, and it’s even affecting in turning Mrs. Bighead into a sympathetic figure. And yes, there’s still plenty of physical comedy in that episode and all of them.

As I approached Season Two of the show, I was hoping for more of that style of story-telling:  mature in concept, but accessible for all via the physical comedy. And for the most part, Season Two really delivers. It starts off with a heavy hitter in the two-part “I Have No Son” in which we learn the Bigheads have an estranged son named Ralph (Joe Murray) who long ago disappointed his father by not accepting a job at Conglom-O where Ed worked. A father being so ashamed and disappointed of his son that it causes him to disown him is a pretty heavy subject for the show to tackle because it’s also a very real thing that happens. Ed looks down on Ralph for his wanting to be a cartoonist, but you can substitute that with pretty much anything and the episode would still work. And even though Ralph has found tremendous success with his cartoon The Fatheads (which is clearly inspired by his parents), he still hasn’t earned his father’s approval.

the_bigheads_reunited

The story of Ralph Bighead kicks off the second season.

The premiere is a pretty weighty episode to kick things off, but it manages to handle the delicate material with the show’s usual brand of humor. It does struggle a bit to fit it all into one episode and the resolution feels a bit rushed, but it’s still quite the achievement. The rest of the season will balance the absurd wackiness of Rocko’s world with actual real world issues and problems. Bev Bighead has to break the glass ceiling, so to speak, and go to work in one episode and another deals with Rocko having to thwart immigration officials who want him deported for an expired green card. That episode might actually hit too close to home for some given the current climate surrounding immigration in the US. A particularly heartfelt episode is “Tickled Pinky” in which Rocko deals with the fear of surgery when he finds out he needs to have his appendix removed. It turns into a story where Rocko meets a personified version of his appendix, named Pinky, via a dream. Rocko, in a bid to cheer up Pinky since he’s essentially about to die, takes Pinky out to essentially check off a bucket list of experiences for Pinky to enjoy before his time is up. It’s surprisingly sweet and it left me wishing I had thought of this episode when my own little boy had to have his tonsils removed.

Season Two is also not without its dose of more crass humor. The episode “Born to Spawn” basically deals with Filbert’s (Mr. Lawrence) desire to mate, though that part of it isn’t spelled out. It’s pretty funny though with that context in the back of your mind. In “Hut, Sut, Raw” Rocko, Heffer (Tom Kenny), and Filbert go camping and leave the confines of a modern camp ground to rough it in the woods. The DVD is censored to remove a scene where Rocko picks berries off of a bush, only to have a bear scream and run out from behind it implying that Rocko just picked one the bear’s “berries.” The final cartoon, “Eyes Capades,” revisits the old white lie of Rocko’s eyesight going bad due to too much “jacking.” In the context of the episode, the jacking is Rocko practicing for a jackhammer competition that’s basically figure skating on a jackhammer, but it’s obvious the episode is playing off the notion that masturbation in a young boy can cause blindness.

hqdefault-18

This is the season that features the Christmas episode basically making this a “must buy” for Christmas nerds like me.

A welcomed trend established by Season Two is that this show, unlike many other cartoons, actually has some semblance of continuity. Past episodes are referenced and new characters like Ralph will show up in later episodes at peace with his parents. The cartoon “Short Story” contains the most references when Really Really Big Man details Rocko’s good deeds and accomplishments for him in a bid to build him up. The episode “Rocko’s Modern Christmas” (which has been featured during The Christmas Spot) is the first episode to really bring the whole cast together when Rocko attempts to throw a party that everyone in town wishes to attend. It’s really satisfying to see the writers opening up the world of O-Town and incorporating a lot of these side characters.

In terms of missteps, there are few. The animation is as good, if not better, than the first season and the performances by the voice actors are all tremendous. Especially considering how much screaming is sometimes required of them. There are three oversized episodes in this season, which are episodes that dedicate both halves to one story and they are:  “I Have No Son, “Rocko’s Modern Christmas,” and “Cruisin’.” Of the three, only “Cruisin'” felt like it didn’t really need the extra time. It’s a bit of a weird episode in which Rocko and Heffer take Heffer’s grandfather on a cruise for old people (or rather, they got stuck on the boat by accident) and the ship enters the Bermuda Triangle making all of the old people young and the two young people old. It gives Grandpa a do-over with an old flame, a relatable and pretty adult plot, but one that struggles to remain interesting.

b-52s

Kate Pierson (left) and Fred Schneider (second from left) of the B-52’s were brought in to re-do the theme song. Their version would remain for the rest of the show’s run.

In terms of personnel, much of the folks involved with the first season returned for the second. Stephen Hillenburg was around to oversee everything as showrunner and creator Joe Murray still received several writing credits and remained involved. Doug Lawrence, also known as Mr. Lawrence, stepped back from directing, but still has a few writing credits. Some of the newcomers include directors Alan Smart, Pete Michels, and Howy Parkins. All would make future contributuons at Nickelodeon while Michels would go on to direct several episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. Voice of Rocko, Carlos Alazraqui, even received a writing credit for “Gutter Balls,” one of two writing credits he’d receive on the show. Considering that episode has four credited writers, I’m assuming he must had ad-libbed something that was considered large enough to warrant a credit. The only major change between seasons is the theme song which was reworked by Pat Irwin and re-recorded by Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. It’s still fine, though I miss the swank of the first season’s theme.

rocko_pilot

The pilot of the show is contained on this set and is notable for featuring a yellow Rocko.

The DVD release of the first season of Rocko’s Modern Life had the dubious honor of not containing any bonus features. Joe Murray was quite willing to contribute to these releases and for Season Two Nickelodeon at least made some effort to add a little extra, though not much. The original pilot of the show “Trash-O-Madness” is contained here. It’s not much different from the episode that made it to air, but it’s cool to see the original version of the show. There’s also a collection of segments hosted by Murray where he shares the ideas behind the show’s core characters while also demonstrating how they’re drawn. He doesn’t reveal any bombshells or anything, but it’s worth a look. That’s, unfortunately, all that there is for bonus material which means there’s no commentaries and no options to view the episodes uncensored.

Rocko’s Modern Life is a great cartoon series and I’m happy to say the second season is just as good as the first. The show definitely embodies that 90’s spirit of being a bit manic, loud, and certainly gross, but it also includes a surprising amount of heart and relatability as well. In some ways, it’s the perfect children’s cartoon because there’s plenty here to entertain a 7 year old while also keeping mom and dad engaged. And pretty much all are guaranteed to find something to laugh at as well, or be charmed by, or both! I’ve enjoyed it enough that I definitely intend to binge Season Three and report back here on how well I think it compares with the first two seasons, so stay tuned!


Boss Fight Studio Holiday Bucky O’Hare

img_1622

Behold! Bucky O’Hare has returned in chocolate form.

It was over two years ago I made a post about the newly released Dead-Eye Duck and Holiday Bucky O’Hare action figures by Boss Fight Studio. That entry was largely just a review for Dead-Eye as I had elected to keep Bucky in box because the packaging was so well done. Now, after staring at the figure for two years confined in plastic I have finally decided to crack it open and give the figure a proper review.

img_1623

It should be pointed out that this is not space rabbit blackface.

Boss Fight Studio launched its Bucky O’Hare line of action figures in 2017. These 4″ scale figures are loaded with articulation, come packaged in a resealable blister, and all in all just look terrific. They’re the first Bucky O’Hare action figures since the short-lived Hasbro line from 1991 and it’s a line I fell in love with instantly. The line debuted with Bucky himself as well as First Mate Jenny. Not long after, variants followed and one of those variants is the Holiday Bucky O’Hare. He’s referred to as a holiday version, but the holiday that inspired this release is clearly Easter for that’s the holiday most associated with a rabbit. Bucky has been recast in brown plastic to resemble a chocolate Easter Bunny with some pink and white accents. He comes with all of the same accessories as the other Bucky figures and aside from the new deco the only difference is that blister card. The card was updated to capture this chocolate appearance and Bucky’s pistol was also substituted with a blue basket full of Easter eggs. In short:  it’s cute.

If you are not familiar with this figure, let me give you a quick rundown of what it can do and what’s included. Bucky is articulated at about every place he can be. His head sits on a nice ball-joint and includes rotational ears. His shoulders are ball-jointed and he has swivels at the elbows and hinges. His wrists rotate and since his gloves are so large relative to the rest of the figure there’s no additional articulation there. He also features articulation at the waist, tail, hips, knees, ankles and toes. He’s so small that it’s a bit shocking Boss Fight got this much articulation into him, but what’s even more amazing is that the company was able to do so without really harming the sculpt. Not only does Bucky move well, he can also hide that articulation just as well.

To liven up your posing, Bucky also comes sporting a variety of hands and faceplates as well as a pair of pistols. Admittedly, it’s hard to come up with a lot of expressions for a cartoon rabbit, and if there was one weakness with the figure it’s that his expressions aren’t particularly varied. He comes with a default, serious, expression. His other two feature an open mouth with one having a more pronounced frown. You may not even notice what’s different about the two at first because they’re so similar. Bucky also comes with dueling pistol hands, but he can swap either one out for a fist if he prefers to get up close and personal with some toads. He also has an extra left hand that features an open palm, and an extra right hand with the index finger pointing. His cape is also removable and sits in a little peg on his back.

When I reviewed that first Bucky figure I was more or less blown away, and I still am. There were some things that weren’t perfect, some of which have been corrected with this figure. That first wave of figures was very tight out of the box, but Holiday Bucky was quite easy to pose and loosen up. The hands swap on and off just fine and the cape snaps in place with ease, which is a welcomed improvement. The only drawback that still remains concerns the faceplates. The default one sits on the figure quite nicely and it comes off with a necessary amount of effort to prevent accidental removal. Putting it back in place is also relatively painless as it sits on a large peg and snaps in place in a very satisfying manner. The other two faces are a chore to get on. I could not get either one to sit in place snugly out of the package. Only after heating one with water was I able to get it to sit in place. Even after doing so, it doesn’t appear to sit quite as flush on the top seem as the default head, but it’s not really something that would be noticed by many with the figure sitting on a shelf.

What really motivated me to remove Bucky from his plastic prison was a trip to CVS. I was there for a different need, but did come across the seasonal aisle full of discounted Easter merch. I grabbed a small, yellow, Easter basket and some Easter grass and decided this would be the optimal way to display my Easter Bucky. I filled the basket with some grass, tossed Bucky in, and even added a few Easter eggs I had laying around. The end result is a fun and tad quirky display that actually kind of works in my house as my Bucky toys share shelf space with some Christmas toys 11 months out of the year. I love gimmicky figure variants and it’s why I grabbed this one from the beginning and I’m enjoying having him in all of his festive glory with my other Bucky figures from Boss Fight Studio.

If you wish to secure your own, Boss Fight Studio is still selling this figure, but it’s nearly sold out. It originally retailed for a tick higher than the standard Bucky figures because it was produced in limited quantities, but has been reduced to the standard $34.99 MSRP. He’s totally worth it if you like silly figure variants. Hopefully, I’ll have a review of Bruiser in the not too distant future so keep this page bookmarked if you like Bucky O’Hare!


Danzig Sings Elvis

danigelvisWhen it came time to make my 666th post on The Nostalgia Spot, I could not think of a more fitting subject than something Danzig related. I even delayed this post by a few days to make it work, but this is an occasion you only get to mark once so pardon my lateness.

Every time a new Danzig record comes around for the past ten years I’ve wondered if more will follow. The music industry has changed and it’s not as lucrative as it once was for many artists. Combine that with Glenn Danzig’s advancing age and there’s a natural curiosity about when he’ll call it quits. I don’t think career musicians necessarily ever stop, but I could definitely see a day come when Danzig no longer felt the need to deal with the usual hassle it is to record, master, and distribute a new collection of songs. And I think some of that wariness has already settled in since Danzig has just released its second covers record in five years.

Danzig Sings Elvis follows in the footsteps of 2015’s Skeletons only this time the focus is placed entirely on the works of Elvis Presley. Elvis is probably one of the most covered artists in history, so it’s fair to wonder if the world needs more Elvis covers, let alone an entire album of them by one artist. True to himself though, Glenn Danzig is making another album for Glenn Danzig. He has done what he wants when he wants. I’m sure there have been moments over the years where he has had to compromise here and there, but for the most part Danzig has always created the art he wants to create. That’s true of the music and also true of the comics and now films he’s done.

When Danzig released Skeletons in 2015, it included a cover of “Let Yourself Go,” a song made famous by Elvis. During the press for the record, Danzig mentioned he had recorded a number of Elvis tracks and decided they would be best served as a stand-alone release. It was originally floated as an EP, but over the years has grown to comprise 14 tracks. Now it’s common knowledge that Elvis wrote very little of the songs he’s famous for, so it should be noted this is a collection of covers done in the style of Elvis Presley and it’s his version that is influencing Danzig here. And like Skeletons, a lot of the songs here are lesser celebrated works. If you were expecting Danzig to cover “Jailhouse Rock” or “Burning Love” then you might be disappointed, though if you’re a Danzig fan you shouldn’t be surprised.

Danzig-TV-group

Danzig has made his affection for Elvis known for awhile especially in how he setup the Legacy TV Taping to resemble the Elvis comeback special.

Covers records are in general a tough thing to review and critique. So much of one’s enjoyment of a cover is dependent upon familiarity and expectation. If you love and are familiar with a popular version of a song and are presented with another take, you probably won’t like it as much as the version you already adore and may not even have a use for it. There are always exceptions, but they are few. And if you aren’t familiar with the source material, you still may not like the cover if it’s from an artist you like as chances are it’s different from what you’re used to. And then there are also the fanatics that are going to like a performance just because it’s from a familiar source. That’s not something unique to any fanbase as I encounter a great deal of Danzig fans that adore anything Danzig puts out. Just like there are a bunch of Metallica fans that insist their covers of Misfits songs are better than the originals.

Artists seem to turn to covers when they’re getting on in years. It even dawned on me as I was writing this that Glenn Danzig is around the same age Johnny Cash was when he started doing his covers albums with Rick Rubin which included the Glenn Danzig song “Thirteen.” The dedicated covers record where an artist covers just one other artist feels like a rarity. They can come with mixed emotions too as it can feel like one artist making money largely off of the work of another, even though that’s all factored into how royalties are paid out. One of the more distasteful examples was the Jorne Lande record that was entirely covers of Dio songs, which felt like it had been held back and primed for release to coincide with the singer’s death. It was something even Ronnie James Dio’s widow Wendy refused to comment on, though it was obvious she wasn’t pleased. With a record devoted strictly to Elvis songs, there’s no such baggage. It’s one artist basically covering a covers specialist, but it is still a bit of a hard sell. It’s obvious that Glenn Danzig likes Elvis and wanted to record his own versions of the songs he either likes best or just feels he has something to add to. It’s a bit of a financial gamble as Danzig is betting on his fanbase also liking Elvis to some degree. And while my own grandfather once said “Everyone likes Elvis,” when my grandmother asked if I didn’t mind them putting on one of his records, I think it’s likely the vast majority of Danzig fans are casual Elvis fans at best and likely are unfamiliar with the deep cuts presented here.

None of those concerns likely matter to Glenn Danzig though as we’ve firmly established this isn’t necessarily a record for Danzig fans. And what should be concerning to fans or anyone that listens to this record is simply the question of “Is it any good?” Skeletons is definitely one of the lesser Danzig albums, and since it is a covers record it was always going to be. The album suffers from a lack of spark as many of the covers were pretty straight forward, which was a bit unexpected. When Danzig released The Lost Tracks of Danzig in 2007, the artist had this to say in the liner notes when talking about the T Rex cover included on that set:

[…]my feeling on covers is unless you are bringing a new dimension to it, why bother? The original will always be better.

Worse than the feeling of redundancy was the uneven production on Skeletons in which some songs just sounded terrible. There were a handful of gems, for sure, but my enthusiasm towards that record (or lack thereof) certainly resulted in low expectations for Danzig Sings Elvis. In some respect, I suppose I should have had more reason to be optimistic since Elvis possessed a vocal style appropriate for Danzig to imitate. Danzig has already covered “Trouble” multiple times and the band’s take on “Let Yourself Go” was one of the better tracks from Skeletons.

I should state upfront that I am not a fan of Elvis. I do mostly agree with my grandfather’s sentiment and confess there are a number of Elvis tracks I’m fine with, though I can’t say any of them feel ripe for a Danzig cover. Of the many Elvis songs I have heard over the years, I think the only one Danzig picked that I would have selected too is “One Night.” The only other song I can think of that I would have liked to hear Danzig attempt is perhaps “Suspicious Minds” as it’s stylistically similar to “You and Me (Less Than Zero),” which already is basically a cover of “To Sir With Love.” As such, if I weren’t such a dedicated Danzig fan there’s no way I would have ever bought this record, let alone the multiple versions I indeed ended up purchasing.

danzig_band_2020

Drummer Joey Castillo returned to record drums on “Fever.”

The song selection here definitely trends towards Elvis’ softer side and not his rock n’ roll energy. In a vacuum, this is a style that suits Danzig as evidenced by songs like “Sistinas” and “Blood and Tears.” My concern when I saw this list though was that it might be too much. Danzig isn’t the most convincing vocalist when he tries to portray vulnerability. It works in small doses when the rest of the songs surrounded those moments contain his usual dose of dominance. For the band to essentially reverse that mix feels like a hard sell. I suppose it’s true to an Elvis release in which it sounds more like a collection of singles as opposed to a cohesive album, but that’s also not a format Danzig is known for. The one silver lining was the thought that maybe these quieter and simple tunes would help hide any production missteps. Skeletons didn’t sound great, but at least the questionable production on that one seemed to matter least on the closing ballad “Crying in the Rain.” That was as optimistic as I would allow myself to get though, since banking on just an overall improvement in the production values was a fool’s errand since that’s something that’s plagued Danzig releases for over a decade at this point.

elvis_witchcraft

The inspiration for the album cover art.

Before we dig into the music presented on this album, we should probably talk about the technical bits. The album cover with Glenn Danzig and the repeating “Elvis” (in case you were confused what artist he was covering) are a clear homage to the Elvis single for “Witchcraft.” Change the text and swap out The King for Danzig and there you have it. The personnel for the record is obviously Glenn Danzig on vocals, but he also plays drums on most of the tracks and guitar and bass where needed. Guitarist Tommy Victor is on-hand for some of the leads and returning Danzig drummer Joey Castillo played on “Fever.”

Ever since Glenn Danzig hooked up with label Cleopatra Records his material has been pretty easy to get ahold of. Considering the state of the world at release, you can’t walk into a store and buy this thing, but you have multiple options online. One can order directly from Cleopatra or via the Danzig storefront on eBay which also sells signed copies from time to time. Cleopatra also has a presence on bandcamp.com and you can order there as well. All bandcamp orders also feature a digital download so you get instant access. The album is also available on Amazon and probably several other online record stores. Two formats of the album are available:  CD and vinyl. If you’re ordering vinyl, you also get your pick of color between black, green, or pink with a special leopard print recently going up for pre-order. The artwork is the same on both. The vinyl is a gatefold release with some liner notes form Danzig on the inside. He talks about his love of Elvis and gives some thoughts on why he chose the specific songs here which is a nice touch. The CD is a cardboard sleeve with an inner sleeve to protect the actual disc. It too is a gatefold shape though so it basically looks like a mini version of the LP. If speed is important, and if you want the artist to get as much of the profits as possible, ordering directly from Cleopatra is probably best, though the album generally costs the same no matter where it’s ordered from. Cleopatra also ships media mail so nothing is particularly quick. I ordered both a vinyl (pink) and CD copy, one from bandcamp and one from Amazon. The CD from Amazon took the longest to arrive, while the vinyl came from Cleopatra directly. It was packaged fairly well, but one corner still got dinged. It’s the risk you take when ordering vinyl through the mail though.

danzig_elvis_cd

Interior of CD release with big brother behind it.

Leading up to the release, Danzig released a pair of singles digitally. First was “Always On My Mind” which was over four years ago and wasn’t technically a single release. Glenn Danzig just played it on the radio and posted it to YouTube (since deleted, likely because Cleopatra uploaded it as well). The second, “One Night,” was in the last month or so. “Always on My Mind” is a perfectly suitable cover of a much covered song. The production isn’t great, but it also doesn’t need to be and surprisingly it’s one of the tracks I like most on the finished record. “One Night” is a song I would have liked to hear Danzig perform 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it might be the worst song on the album. I guess if you like the single then that’s good news to you. The song makes liberal use of slapback echo on the vocals, which is totally fine for covering Elvis, but here it’s way overdone. The tempo of the vocals further distorts it, and the end result is more annoying than pleasant. Danzig’s vocals are also wooden and bored. I’m not sure what he was going for. The instrumentation backing it, a weakness of the record in general, is even more bland than the vocals. “One Night,” and a lot of Elvis ballads, are heavily dependent on the vocal track so when it doesn’t land there usually isn’t much left to pick up the slack.

elvis_white_suit

Before this COVID stuff cancelled basically all gatherings, Danzig was scheduled to perform a few dedicated Elvis shows. He best do them right and show up in proper Elvis attire.

That single left my expectations all but cratered for the final release, but upon receiving it I was at least relieved to find it isn’t as bad as expected. I wouldn’t call Danzig Sings Elvis a great record, but it’s not a train-wreck. Most of these songs are slow, quiet, ballads so the album is an easy listening experience that totals roughly 39 minutes. The only real up-tempo numbers are “Baby Let’s Play House” and “When It Rains It Really Pours.” “Baby Let’s Play House” might be the only song that sounds obviously “Elvis” to those fans who are not familiar with The King. Danzig really goes for that rock-a-billy sound as he did many years ago on “American Nightmare.” It straddles the line between authentic and parody, and while it breaks up some of the monotony of the record, I’m left feeling glad Danzig didn’t go for more songs that sound like this. “When It Rains It Really Pours” has Glenn singing through a scowl. It’s interesting, but over in a blip as the song doesn’t even hit the 2 minute mark.

The slower tracks probably suit Danzig’s vocals more in this day and age. Most are fine, and while I feared it might be too much hearing Danzig go for so much melancholy I’ll say my fears there went unrealized. It’s interesting to hear Danzig croon and even go for the occasional falsetto like he does on “Pocket Full of Rainbows.” The only one that approached “One Night” in terms of dubiousness is probably “Love Me” where the vocals don’t complement the song much at all. The production is inconsistent from song to song, but with the quiet stuff it doesn’t matter as much. The guitar is often “just there,” and I don’t even notice much bass at all, save for “Fever” and “Baby Lets Play House.” Pretty much all of the guitar work is electric too, in case you were expecting more acoustic stuff on an Elvis covers record. Danzig did not bring in backing vocalists, which is probably for the better. There’s some parts where he recorded his own backing vocals, such as “Loving Arms,” and they’re kept fairly low in the mix. Basically, nothing stands up to challenge Danzig’s voice on any track.

dangsingselvisformats

If you want this record, at least you have options. And if it’s anything like other recent Danzig releases, you can expect a picture disc and maybe a swirled vinyl to follow.

The prevailing thought I keep coming back to when I listen to this record is, “does this need to exist?” And the answer should be an obvious “No.” That’s not a slam against it, it’s just the reality of any Elvis cover. Though it is disappointing that Danzig really didn’t find any place to add his own spin to any of these tracks, unless you count mediocre instrumentals as spin. The press release I saw from the label hyped up “Fever” as featuring some Danzig touch to it, but it’s just a straight cover. It’s not nearly as interesting as the many covers of that song that exist, and it’s a song I’ve never liked anyways so I don’t fault Danzig for not being able to make me like it any more. Perhaps more than any Danzig record before it, this is a record for Glenn Danzig. He’s covering one of his idols and I suspect he’s pretty happy with how it turned out so good for him. And I mean that sincerely. As a testament to that notion, 12 of the album’s 14 tracks are streaming for free right now on YouTube so anyone can go check it out. For myself as a Danzig fan, I’m not sure if there’s anything on this record I’ll feel compelled to return to. With Skeletons, there’s at least a track or two I might toss onto a hypothetical Danzig playlist (I say hypothetical because I’m an album man – fuck playlists), and I don’t know if I can say the same for any song on this record. The slow tempo and almost mournful performance on some tracks makes it an okay rainy day listen. Diehard Elvis fans will probably be more dismissive than I, while diehard Danzig fans will probably think it’s okay, which I guess makes it like every other covers record to come before it.

 

Top Tracks

  • Lonely Blue Boy
  • Pocket Full of Rainbows
  • Always On My Mind

NECA Mirage Shredder and Foot Clan NYCC Exclusive Set

img_1522The Shredder had a rough go at things for awhile when it came to plastic. He was featured rather prominently in the old Playmates line, though perhaps not as prominently as one would expect. Playmates never did do a movie version of him, aside from Super Shredder, and his figure was arguably the worst from the inaugural line. All crouched over and such, he was a nightmare to stand and there was little that was intimidating about him. When the Turtles started making a comeback with the collector community, he received further humiliation. NECA released its Mirage Comics TMNT in 2008 and showed off the sculpt for a potential Shredder. That line either didn’t sell well or Playmates interfered because that Shredder was cancelled before release ending the Mirage inspired line of TMNT product. Playmates would go on to do its own retro line dubbed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Classics. They released the Turtles followed by Bebop and Rocksteady. Results were mixed, but at least it was new product. Playmates shocked the toy world when it unveiled a prototype for Shredder and Krang that looked pretty damn amazing. Had it been released it probably would be the best action figure Playmates ever put out. Sadly, it was not to be and that line was also cancelled. When Playmates did a Mirage inspired line of its own, it too overlooked Shredder. Bandai and SH Figuarts were the most recent to disappoint TMNT collectors. After releasing a wonderful set of turtles inspired by the old cartoon, a Shredder was unveiled. The figure didn’t look as good as the Turtles, but it would have still likely been the best Shredder released up until that point had it been released. As you could have guessed based on where this paragraph had started, it too was cancelled before release.

At least with that most recent disappointment, NECA was there to lift us up! Shortly after that Shredder was unveiled, NECA revealed its own Shredder sculpt based on the classic cartoon that was superior to the Bandai one and bundled him in a massive set containing all four turtles, Krang, and a pair of Foot Soldiers for good measure. It was a set made exclusively for San Diego Comic Con, but all of those figures have since been released to retail. Before that set came along though, there was the 2016 set from New York Comic Con. This one rectified that first disappointing cancellation as it contained NECA’s Mirage inspired Shredder, and to top it off, he was now joined by three of his minions. Better late than never, fans were happy to finally pair those figures from 2008 with some enemies almost a decade later. It was actually the second Shredder released by NECA, as earlier that year the arcade box sets were released with figures designed to resemble how they looked in the classic arcade game from 1989. It’s a set that has proven to be quite profitable for NECA ever since.

img_1526

Assemble the Foot!

Shredder and his gang of Foot Ninja come packaged in an extremely attractive window box. It’s adorned all around with images from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 where Shredder and the Foot debuted alongside their nemesis. On the back is a photo of the figures with a few extra and Shredder has word bubbles commanding them to attack which are directly lifted from the source material. Flip up the front flap and you’re treated to more images from the comics as well as a look at the figures themselves. Behind them is a nicely done street scene which also makes for a solid photo backdrop!

img_1540

I guess Donnie is the only one unhappy these guys got let out of their box.

I’ve had this set since it was released, but never opened it until now. When I saw it was being released, I bought it out of a sense of obligation. It was much easier to secure a NECA exclusive back then as I just saw it was available and went ahead and placed my order. My attention though was on the cartoon property and the figures coming out in support of that and when this set arrived I just wasn’t feeling it for some reason. Rather than make room on my Mirage shelf (which is admittedly small), I decided to just position the box behind my set of turtles and leave it at that. It’s an unusual move for me as I am not a mint-in-box collector, and even if I was, the design of this box makes it easy to remove the figures without damaging anything. These guys are designed to be played around with, and finally I was smart enough to do just that.

By now, these Shredder and Foot figures should look and feel rather familiar. Much of the parts utilized here have been recycled from (or will be recycled for) the other Foot and Shredder releases from NECA, excepting the movie line which is its own animal. Shredder is virtually identical to the video game figure, and he also shares arms, hips, and legs with the cartoon one as well. The Foot also share the same parts as their video game counterpart, and the legs, arms, and waist are shared with Shredder as well. The only thing sculpt-wise separating Shredder from his minions is his head and torso. I don’t point this out as criticism or anything, because the main base for these four figures is quite good. They feature ball-jointed heads, shoulders, and leg sockets with double-jointed knees and elbows. There are swivels at the bicep, thighs, and shins and the waist rotates as well. The hands have rotational articulation as well as a hinge joint in each. The feet can pivot at the ankle and rock side-to-side as well. And there’s also articulation at the toe. These guys are rather loaded and capable of quite a few dynamic poses. About the only thing missing is an ab crunch, but that would have taken away from the sculpt. The joints are all nice and tight and should be worked a bit out of the package. The only joints that felt dangerously tight were the shoulders, but I was able to work them loose without the need for hot water or direct heat.

The two Foot Soldiers in this set are basically the same figure. The only thing separating the two is the headband on one, which is actually a bit of an artistic touch as none of the Foot sported this movie-styled headband in the first issue. I’m not super familiar with the colorized version of the old books, so it’s quite a bit of fun for me to see these guys in color. Like the Turtles, there’s a lot of black linework to really bring out that comic feel. NECA could have taken it further with some of that dot work that was on the Turtles and present in the book, but perhaps that would have looked a touch too messy. I really like the soft gray color of the mask and pants as it really gives this version of the iconic Foot Soldier his own flavor. The burnt red tunic is complemented by soft plastic on the skirt portion so the figures have a great range of motion. All of the figures in this set come packaged with fists for hands, but also have a second set of gripping hands. And since they have so many fun accessories, you’re likely to pull those fists off pretty quickly to get those gripping hands in. A nice, firm, tug will lift them out easily enough and the other hands insert without much fuss.

The Foot Elite is a surprising addition to the set as he wasn’t featured in the first issue. These guys came later as they basically took over for Shredder after the Turtles kill him in the first issue (sorry….spoilers!). He’s the same figure as the standard Foot save for his head and cape. The head features a large straw hat that’s non-removable. Beneath that is a flowing piece of red fabric and a metal faceguard concealing an all black face beneath. The faceguard is different from Shredder’s as it has a more pronounced edge down the center and it looks really cool. The red fabric surrounding the head is a hard plastic, but he still has a pretty good range of motion at the head. The cape is made of a soft, rubbery, plastic and has a tattered appearance. The right edge is folded back a little to make the figure look a touch more dramatic than if it just hung there. I love the line detail on the hat and the distress effects on the cape are a nice tough. This guy also has some forearm guards with a square design on them that continues onto his hands. It just makes him a bit more special to look at than the generic Foot. He’s definitely one bad ass looking dude.

And that brings us to Shredder, the figure most probably desired more than any other in this set. Shredder does not disappoint as he looks like he was yanked from the pages of Mirage Comics. The Mirage Shredder is a bit unique when compared with other forms of the character as he featured a more bucket-like helmet. The faceguard has a rounded appearance to it and it covers far more of his face than it did in the cartoon, for example. The rest of the helmet is more or less the same though and it looks great. There’s some nice linework on it and the other metallic portions of Shredder’s costume to give it that comic appearance. I also like that the raised portion of the top of the helmet is a separate piece and those tines that wrap around it like a claw even come off the back of it which looks really cool. Shredder also has a little extra material on his tunic that hangs in the front and back and it too is done with a soft plastic so as not to hinder movement. The shoulder pads and spikes are actually quite firm with the forearm, shin, and hand ones noticeably softer. NECA decided to color Shredder’s face entirely black and go with white eyes. The actual comic switches between this look and a more natural one with pupils in the eyes so this was NECA basically choosing what it felt looked best and I won’t argue with the results.

img_1539

It’s time for a rumble!

There’s very little to nitpick when it comes to this set of figures. Most of the nitpicks I do have unfortunately rest with Shredder. The fisted hands he comes packaged with pretty much all got warped in the package from what I’ve seen making his blades look sad and pathetic. Thankfully, the alternate gripping hands came out fine and look great on the figure, I just wish NECA had packaged him handless so it could have protected both sets of hands as well as it did the gripping hands. It’s possible some heat could get them back into shape, but I haven’t tried. My Shredder’s left shin guard is also a bit funky. It doesn’t appear to be seated all the way in the peg hole, though since it’s glued in there it doesn’t wobble or anything. It’s mostly only noticeable from the side or rear. The hands on all of the figures are also a touch too stiff and inserting any weapon that can’t be slid in (like the knife with the spiked hilt) is tough. I think I nearly broke the thumb off of one figure trying to get that thing in there. Otherwise though, I really have no further complaints with the sculpt and general look of these guys. NECA did a great job bringing these comic characters to life, so much so that it’s a shame they haven’t really touched the Mirage stuff since.

img_1538

Check out all of that loot!

If you weren’t sold on the figures themselves, then maybe you will be once you get a load of these accessories. This quartet comes with a bunch of weapons and they’re all pretty damn awesome. Initially, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t one of those three-handled-nunchaku included (as depicted in the comic art on the box), but when I saw what we had I quickly forgot about it. In this box you get two katana, a dagger, a curved dagger with spiked-ball hilt, a ninja star, a large ninja glaive weapon, a large bladed weapon similar to the old Playmates one that fit on the back of Raphael’s shell, and the coolest of all, a mace and some other nasty looking bladed thing joined by a chain. That chained weapon is a thing to behold and I absolutely love it. All of these weapons were utilized by the Foot in the comic so it’s all authentic. The only challenge is choosing what to display and what not to. I do wish NECA was better at giving its TMNT figures a means of storing weapons on their person so I could get them all in, but this is a pretty good problem to have. And to top things off, there’s an Utrom included as well. For those unfamiliar with the comic, the Utrom is an alien race that was the inspiration for Krang in the animated series. They were also faithfully depicted in the 2003 series and the Kraang from the 2012 cartoon are essentially Utrom. He’s an ugly little dude and NECA even slipped in some articulation on two of his tentacles.

If you have a set of the Mirage turtles, then this set is basically a must have as well. The only true negative is scarcity. Though in fairness, this set is not nearly as pricey on the secondary market as some of NECA’s other TMNT product. I guess the company was right when it said the Mirage stuff just isn’t nearly as popular as the rest. That doesn’t mean it’s cheap, but expect to pay around $150 if this is something you desire which really isn’t all that bad for something that’s been out of print for four years. NECA is returning to the world of Mirage for the Loot Crate due out in a couple of months that features a new take on Shredder. Perhaps if people keep letting the company know it wants more Mirage stuff it will eventually happen, but for now this is all we have. What we have though is pretty sweet and these figures look dynamite alongside the Turtles. It may have taken longer than expected, but we have our Mirage Shredder and he was improbably worth the wait.

img_1548

Now they take their rightful place on my Mirage shelf, right below the Glenn Danzig album.


NECA Mirage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

img_1515

These guys don’t need no stinkin’ “turtle power.”

A dozen years ago, toy company NECA dipped its toe into the world of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first time, and shockingly it failed to stick around. That’s incredible to hear for collectors currently chasing down Bebop and Rocksteady at Target, but it’s the truth. There are a lot of folks at NECA who grew up with the TMNT and my guess is they wanted to do something with the brand right from the start, but always getting in the way was Playmates Toys. Playmates, as we’ve covered in various other places, held the master toy license for the brand and was reluctant to allow others into their space. NECA was able to by way of making adult collectibles based on the original Mirage Comics release, which was something Playmates had little interest in. NECA released its product in early 2008 to great reviews in the toy world, but apparently sales just weren’t there. It could be that the licensing cost just made it unworkable, or the license was only available for a short window that just couldn’t be properly taken advantage of. Whatever the reason, the line only included the four turtles plus April O’Neil as it was cancelled before it could get to Shredder, who was shown off at conventions and left to haunt the dreams of TMNT collectors every where.

Since 2008, these action figures have become highly sought after. Those who passed on them initially even had multiple chances to rectify that before NECA said “good bye” for good. The original release was each character in its own blister package with a bunch of accessories. Following that, there was a boxed set with all four turtles and a second single-figure release, this one coming in a tube style package (sewer pipe?) with just the figures and their weapons as the other extras were scrapped. Lastly, there was another four-pack release, this one a boxed set variant depicting the brothers in black and white.

I grew up on the cartoon, mostly, and it was my favorite show for many years. I also knew about the comic origins of the characters, but never really sought it out. I would see some images of the comic art, like the cover for the popular Nintendo game, and I’d think it looked awesome. I also saw some others though that I thought were terrible and ugly. The funny thing is, most of those images I didn’t like were just covers or one-off pieces of art and weren’t representative of what the characters actually looked like in print, but I wouldn’t realize that for many, many years. When I first saw these figures though I thought they looked incredible. I pre-ordered a full set and eagerly waited for their arrival. I may not have had much interaction with the comic, but I was at a point where things that reminded me of something I enjoyed as a kid, but were more adult, was really appealing. And hyper-violent, gritty, and grim TMNT certainly fit that bill.

As you’re likely well aware, the four turtles consist of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. The four brother are depicted here as they would have appeared on the cover of Mirage Comics, and they are based on the first appearance of the characters in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They’re green-skinned with brownish wraps and pads and all four sport a red mask. Each turtle comes with the weapons you would expect:  twin katana for Leo, a bo staff for Donnie, two sai for Raph, and a pair of nunchaku for Mikey. For the first time I’m aware of, Mikey’s ‘chuks were also linked by actual chain. It was perhaps the one detail most influential in me picking up this line. I thought it was so cool that basically every friend I had who had a birthday party in 2008 and had even a passing interest in TMNT received one of these Michelangelo figures as a gift from me. The weapons are well-detailed, and I love the gold accents on Leo’s katana. Donatello’s bo is articulated at the tape and I think it can come apart like the one that comes with other versions of the figure, though mine doesn’t seem to want to do that and I’m not interested in forcing the issue.

Since the turtles are all essentially the same, it should come as no surprise that each figure is essentially the same as well. That would be unfortunate if the sculpt was poor, but that’s not the case. These figures were sculpted by The Four Horsemen, whom action figure enthusiasts are more than familiar with in this day and age. Each turtle is articulated with a ball joint at the head, a hinge at the base of a very long neck (compared with the cartoon versions), ball-jointed shoulders and hips, bicep swivel, single-hinged elbow, wrist rotation and a hinge, thigh swivels, double-jointed knees, and an ankle hinge. At the time, this was probably the most articulation in any TMNT figure of one of the turtles, though over the years companies have found ways to sneak even more articulation into them, in particular with stuff under the shell. This level of articulation is fine though and I’ve never really desired more. NECA was smart to use a soft plastic for the chest which gives the legs greater range of motion than most would expect so you should be able to get some good posing going here.

img_1507

Each turtle comes with an alternate set of hands featuring their climbing spikes as seen in the first issue.

These figures move well, but also look pretty damn fantastic too. NECA used a nice, deep, green for the skin-tone with a darker green for the shell. There appears to be a wash over the figures as well so there’s a slight gradient to the skin tone with some brighter spots that works really well to make these guys come alive. Since the comics were in black and white, it makes these figures pop even more (unless you’re used to seeing the colorized versions of the comics that came later). There’s some nice, black, linework all over the figures and I especially love the little marks on the shell and chest. It really gives these figures a comic-book feel. The elbow pads and wrist straps are part of the sculpt, while the belt and kneepads are glued in place. The belt and the tassels on the masks are a soft plastic with a lot of give, though my Don’s belt was glued a bit askew. The green paint of the skin has a nice texture to it that is slightly rough and feels appropriate for the characters. The only difference separating each figure is the head sculpt, with each character sporting a different expression. Leonardo also has scabbards for his swords on his back while the other turtles do not have holsters of any kind for their weapons. Raph has unique hands which feature a wider gap between his fingers likely to support holding his sai with the center blade between them (I’ve never been comfortable doing this though as there’s little give in the sai and I fear breaking it). The oversized feet of these designs makes them quite easy to stand and I love the chunky legs they possess. And they have tails! If there’s room for criticism, it’s that NECA could have randomized some of the little details on the chests and shell for each turtle, but it’s not a big deal. There’s also some paint chipping on my figures, but I honestly can’t remember what was present out of the box and what may have been acquired through multiple moves since I bought these. As these were my favorite figures through those various moves, I took great care when storing and moving them though.

In terms of short-comings, there are few. I mentioned the paint chips and there’s some slight slop in spots, but nothing noticeable when these guys are on a shelf. The black lines on the mask of my Mikey figure are a bit light and not as pronounced as I would like them to be. He also has a blob of paint on the center of his shell. His hips are a bit loose, but he still stands well enough. The left hand of my Leo is super loose and has always been that way. It’s at least strong enough to hold his weapon, but move it at all and it will pop out. The only criticism I could levy at the sculpt concerns the shell, which sits a bit higher on their shoulders than it did in the comic. I only really notice it because it’s hollow and it looks a bit weird up close as you can see inside of it to the peg holding it on. It’s also a place dust loves to collect. Raph’s special hands also are a nice thought, but as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago the sai do not fit cleanly in them and I worry about them snapping. The added drawback is his wider fingers mean holding the said traditionally ends up quite loose. They won’t fall out, but you’ll want to position them after you place him somewhere and may have to fiddle a bit with his grip. Donnie’s bo staff also sits rather loose in his hands. If you want to do a one-handed pose he either needs the base resting on a surface or he has to hold it near an end where it’s a bit thicker, though if you play around you can get it to balance right (as seen in some of my pics).

img_1508

How it all started…

Each single-packed figure came with extra accessories in addition to their weapons. All four turtles came with a second set of climbing hands from that first issue of the comic as well as a baby turtle. The hands come off and on easily, though in reality I can’t imagine anyone displaying these guys with those climbing hands. Each turtle also came with a base: two sidewalks and two streets between the four. These bases connect to form one mini diorama that was a really nice touch. The same line work that’s on the figures is in play here as well and it looks awesome. Raph also came with a lamp post for his base while Leo came with a fire hydrant. Donatello comes with a can of ooze or mutagen while Mikey comes with three mini buzz saws. Raph also came with three little blades and those, as well as the buzz saws, aren’t in any of my pictures because they’re floating around in some crates. These weapons do appear in TMNT #1, but they still feel like kind of pointless accessories, and like the climbing hands, aren’t something you’re like going to want to display your figures holding. It probably would have been more fun to have additional hands instead, but the standard gripping hands each turtle has is plenty good. These guys were tools of vengeance in the comic, they didn’t hang out in the sewer playing video games and scarfing pizza, so you’re going to display them with weapons in hand.

img_1520

Mikey just hanging out.

Twelve years later, these four figures are still among the best TMNT action figures ever produced. I love the look, and going for that Mirage likeness was a great choice because it’s something that hadn’t been done before and has seldom been done since. Playmates did follow with their own version, but they’re nothing special and intended for more of a mass market appeal. There isn’t really anything I’d change about these guys even today. Could they have more articulation? Sure, but it’s also not like they’re starving for it. Plus I’d hate to disrupt the sculpt. Could they have more accessories? I guess, but there really wasn’t much else to take from in that first issue. And even so, they did deep cuts as-is with the additional weapons and climbing claws. Maybe fists for actual punches would have been neat, or open hands and finger-pointing hands for the sake of variety. If NECA were to re-release these though I don’t think they would need to do anything additional with them. If anything, a full Mirage-inspired street diorama would be pretty awesome.

img_1519

My attempt at the group shot from page one of TMNT #1.

Unfortunately, a re-release is not in the cards at this time. When asked about the possibility, NECA has indicated that the Mirage stuff just doesn’t sell nearly as well as the cartoon and movie inspired toys, so while there is some demand, it’s apparently not enough to warrant looking at re-releasing them. It’s possible NECA is playing coy, but I’ll take them at their word for now. It seems TMNT is just plain hot at the moment, so I imagine there’s room for more Mirage product perhaps when NECA is done with the Turtles in Time figures. And thankfully, roughly 8 years after the release of these figures a Mirage Shredder was finally released as a New York Comic Con exclusive(the box for which is prominently displayed in my images) along with some Foot Soldiers. Perhaps I’ll take a look at that next. And if you’re hoping for more Mirage stuff, a Mirage variant of Shredder is coming via Loot Crate in a couple of months so maybe that’s a potential avenue for more from this line. Otherwise, if you want these figures you’ll have to turn to eBay and you’re not going to like the prices. Happy hunting!

 


The Game Boy Micro

img_1501I guess this is a great time for me to dust off some of my less common pieces of video game paraphernalia. Yesterday I talked about Popful Mail which I played on a Sega CDX, and today it’s the Game Boy Micro. My timing is also pretty good as the original Game Boy just turned 31 on April 21, 2020 which is still hard to believe. I consider myself a collector of various things, but one thing I’m not really a collector of is video games. I’m certainly a compiler as after years of regrettable trade-ins at GameStop when I was a poor college student I’ve basically vowed to never part with a game again unless I know I’ll never come to regret it. As a result, I have a lot of games hanging around my house with the vast majority coming from the 2000s. I have some older, classics, but not a ton. And some games I have could be considered rare or hard to find, but I have them because I wanted them at the time. I’ve never really bought a video game for the purpose of collecting. The closest I suppose I came to that was buying the collector’s edition of Arkham Asylum which came in a gigantic bat-shaped box. That thing is so big that I don’t even know what to do with it. It just sits in a closet.

I purchased a Game Boy Micro over ten years ago and at the time I bought it simply because I wanted to play some Game Boy Advance software on-the-go. I had traded in my original Game Boy Advance for a Game Boy Advance SP, which I in turn traded in for a Nintendo DS, that was then traded in for a Nintend DSi. That last trade-in was important because I lost the ability to play GBA software. Years later, I wanted to come back and rediscover the GBA. That handheld mostly existed for me during my college years and I really didn’t devote much of my time to it. I mostly played home consoles instead or busied myself with other distractions. As a working man though I had ample time to play portables during my commute to and from work so the time was right.

The Game Boy Micro is Nintendo’s third take on the Game Boy Advance. The original version had a horizontal layout similar to Sega’s Game Gear, but it ran on double A batteries and lacked any sort of backlight. It was still a great little system, just a flawed one. The SP addressed both issues while also reverting back to the traditional, more vertical, layout of the Game Boy but with the addition of a hinge in the center so the screen could fold down onto the unit. It was great to have a front-light and a rechargeable battery, though the choice to return to the old format was odd as the system was quite cramped. The shoulder buttons were tiny, little, nubs and I could never play my SP for much longer than 45 minutes.

gbmicro_hand

Nintendo mandates that all reviews of the Micro include a shot of it sitting in the reviewer’s hand.

When Nintendo announced the Nintendo DS in 2005, it was insistent that it was not the end of the Game Boy and as proof it offered up the Game Boy Micro. The Micro, as the name implies, was the smallest Game Boy yet. It’s roughly 2″ x 4″ with a thickness of less than an inch. It featured a backlit screen and rechargeable battery. The horizontal layout also had the added perk of making the system resemble a classic Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom controller only with a screen in the center. The LCD screen is even tinier at roughly 1.69″ x 1.89″ making this perhaps the first Game Boy that truly could fit comfortably in your pocket. It’s so small that one has to wonder just how much smaller it could have been had it not needed to accommodate the comparably bulky GBA cartridges and instead had something similar to a DS or Switch card.

img_1496

Unfortunately, I do not have a Famicom controller for comparison so the classic NES controller will have to do.

When the Micro was first announced I though it looked kind of neat, but I wasn’t feeling compelled to ditch my SP for it. Plus if I was going to upgrade I would have just gone with a DS which was backwards compatible with the GBA. And since the Micro no longer supported legacy Game Boy software, it was placed in an odd spot where it basically only targeted those who had yet to get a GBA or Nintendo enthusiasts that would buy everything. The only other defining feature it had was the ability to swap out the faceplate for other ones. Perhaps Nintendo conceived of a vast third party network of custom faceplates in addition to its own, but from the start the Micro was never positioned very well.

I basically decided to get a Micro over another model of the GBA for the novelty of it. I did like the idea of a truly portable gaming device, but I also thought the system was just plain cute. And when I settled on one to buy, I even spent a little extra to get the special Famicom edition (released in December 2005) which was colored to mimic a Famicom controller. It came in a box emblazoned with classic Super Mario pixel art and the only drawback to going this route (aside from the added cost, which at the time was actually somewhat minimal) was it didn’t come with a tool to remove the faceplate as Nintendo didn’t think anyone would want to remove the Famicom faceplate. In fact, the faceplate on this model is supposedly non-removable, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not that hard to get off for someone who is determined to do so.

img_1499

The Micro in front of a 3DS which is in front of a Sony PSP.

When I received my Micro I did play it quite a bit. I picked up Metroid Fusion, a game I had overlooked when first released, and also grabbed the Super Mario Bros. 3 port to go along with the other GBA software I still had. Playing these games on the Micro, I was taken by how quickly I got used to the small screen. It’s a bit shocking when first powered up to see just how small it is, but once absorbed in gameplay it basically goes away. The screen is said to be much better than the previous GBA screens, though it’s still not as vibrant as modern handhelds. Helping it is the mostly sprite-based art of GBA games with the small screen size reducing noticeable pixilation. The light is strong and can be adjusted manually as well, and I found the battery would last around five hours which was basically enough to get me through a week of commuting.

img_1498

Here’s the Micro beside big brother, the 3DS.

Obviously, a system this small does have some drawbacks. The Micro is so small that it’s arguably too small. I mentioned earlier I found the SP to be a bit tight and this unit isn’t much better. I find the layout minimizes the cramping issue slightly, but it gets rough when playing games that rely on the shoulder buttons. Metroid Fusion became particularly challenging after a half hour as the shoulder buttons are used in that game to angle Samus’ blaster. It’s not as easy to play as it probably would be if it were on the Super Nintendo or being played via the Gamecube’s GBA Player, but it was still an enjoyable experience. I beat the game, and would go on to play Metroid:  Zero Mission as well so it’s not like the Micro prevented me from enjoying Metroid. The only other game I ever had issue with was Final Fantasy VI, specifically performing some of Sabin’s moves as the small d-pad and hand fatigue might dissuade you from unleashing the dreaded Bum Rush attack! Games like A Link to the Past or Super Mario Bros. are comparatively simple, though some hand fatigue will still set in after lengthy sessions. Super Mario Bros. even alleviates some hand-cramping by allowing the R button to function as a second B button which is nice for running, though it takes getting used to if you’ve been playing Mario since the 80s and are accustomed holding B all of the time.

img_1502

It’s tiny, but it plays just fine.

The system itself has a rather nice feel to it. The stereo speakers aren’t going to wow you, as they didn’t on any other version of the GBA, but the overall weight feels good. The system is quite glossy making it actually far more attractive looking than a plastic Famicom controller. The format does mean there’s no way to protect the screen, but the system did come with a simple cloth carrying case which has always done the job for me. I wouldn’t recommend tossing it into a kid’s backpack or something, but slip that thing on and drop it in a pocket and you should manage just fine. It has a standard headphone jack, and since it’s quite old at this point it obviously lacks any sort of wireless hookup, but considering the Switch shunned Blue Tooth it probably wouldn’t feature that even if it were re-released today.

img_1500

I bought this “new,” but as you can see the box had a rough time getting to me.

If I were to sum up the Game Boy Micro in one word it would be “cute.” It’s meant to be a physically appealing gaming device even more so than a functional one. It doesn’t punt on functionality though and it’s a totally viable way to experience the Game Boy Advance library.  When I bought mine roughly a decade ago it was comparable in price to the Game Boy Advance SP with maybe 20 dollars or so separating the two. Since then it’s become more expensive and standard versions of the unit in clearly used condition now command more money than I paid for my limited edition version. As a result, I wouldn’t really recommend anyone buy a Micro if they’re simply looking to experience the GBA library of games. The SP is much more reasonable, or even an older DS. If you don’t mind spending the money though and you think the Micro is charming in pictures then you’ll probably be happy with your purchase. It’s a fun little device that will probably start a conversation if you pull it out in public and as the last official Game Boy it certainly holds a special place in the hearts of many Nintendo fans.


Popful Mail (Sega CD)

popfulmailThe Sega CD was quite possibly Sega’s first real misstep when it came to hardware and add-on peripherals for its products. It’s hard to say if it truly was though, as I don’t know if the Sega CD returned a profit for Sega. The mere fact that the company released three versions of the add-on suggests it at least viewed it as important to the company, but even if it did financially benefit Sega it’s hard to imagine it really helped the company’s image. And that’s because the Sega CD was pretty expensive and also pretty terrible. Sure, there are fans out there for the Sega CD and its library of games, just as there are for the Virtual Boy, but for the most part the software for the Sega CD was mediocre or downright terrible. Fans likely remembered that when Sega tried to introduce another add-on to extend the life of the Genesis/Mega Drive in the form of the 32X, which basically all acknowledge as a true flop. Sega’s hardware sales following this era of game consoles was poor enough to see the company exit the hardware space in 2000 and pivot to a software only company.

When I made a post about the Sega CD in 2011, my intention at the time was to do more. That inaugural post concerned a recent purchase of mine:  the Sega CDX. The CDX was the third iteration of the device following the first two versions released by Sega for the Model 1 and Model 2 Genesis. The CDX was the company’s first, and only, attempt at releasing what is essentially a stand-alone Sega CD as it also functioned as a Genesis. It was expensive, like all things seemingly related to the Sega CD, and retailed for an eye-opening $399 at release. Which is actually a bargain compared with some of the other non-Sega versions of the product. Pioneer actually released the LaserActive which could support Sega CD games, among other things, but the total would run a consumer $1,600! Premium game consoles were obnoxiously priced in the 90s and it’s no wonder they basically all failed.

img_1467

If you’re going to play a Sega CD game might as well do it on a CRT television.

I only purchased the CDX because I had forgotten it even existed until stumbling upon some eBay listings at the time and because I was a bachelor with disposable income. I never had a Sega CD growing up, but loved my Genesis, and I had always wanted one. The CDX was quirky and cute and it was much smaller than most consoles and was actually marketed as a portable CD player as well (a task it can do, but not very well) because of its diminutive size. It was pretty cool, and I ended up finding one in great shape that was only missing the original box. I cared little about that though and set myself to playing Sonic CD pretty much right away. The problems came when Sonic CD was finished.

img_1470

Popful Mail stars a bounty hunter by the same name who is quite terrible at being a bounty hunter.

I wanted to play more Sega CD games, and had a few others as the CDX came bundled with additional software, but there really wasn’t a lot out there worth playing. Basically all of the truly great Sega CD titles saw release on other consoles. And I’m mostly referring to the Lunar series when I say great. After Lunar, there was a smattering of worthwhile software, the problem though was that most of that software consisted of Genesis ports with enhanced audio and slightly upgraded visuals. After that though is the unique, Sega CD exclusive, software of which most is poor. You have likely heard about Nightrap which became infamous because some felt it was a weird fetish game about peeping on young girls and watching them get murdered. The actual title is far less interesting and it’s terrible. So many Sega CD titles went this route though where it was essentially video with occasional button prompts. And if you have watched video lifted from a CD before then you know it’s rather ugly.

img_1471

The game is reasonably nice to look at and it runs smooth with few interruptions for loading.

There was one game though that I wanted to play and I actually secured a copy relatively close to the time I purchased my CDX and that game is Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to get to it, but Popful Mail is a game that caught my eye because it’s a hybrid game. The game is a Platformer/RPG and I arrange the classifications in that order for a reason. It’s definitely more in-line with a traditional platformer, but it does indeed toss in some RPG mechanics. In the game, you play as Mail, a spritely young anime babe with a small outfit and a big personality. You run through the various levels which are all interconnected smiting bad guys and collecting gold. Along the way you’ll be able to spend some of that gold upgrading Mail’s equipment while also meeting non-player characters, some of which will ask for Mail’s help in tracking down an item or defeating an enemy. It’s a bit similar to Link on the NES, though without a robust leveling system. It’s a Falcom game published by Working Designs, so the production values are there and the gameplay is solid making it a relatively safe bet for purchase.

img_1473

The golem will likely be the first boss many encounter some difficulty with. Trial and error is the name of the game here.

The game opens with our protagonist, Popful Mail, out attempting to secure a bounty. Mail is an elven bounty hunter who, according to the game’s manual, sucks at her job. When the bounty goes bust, she turns her attention to a new target:  Muttonhead. This absurdly named character is a wizard with a 2 million gold bounty on his head so naturally Mail is pretty interested. The intro is done in anime and for a Sega CD title it looks pretty nice and the voice acting is lively. When the game drops you into play you’ll find yourself in control of Mail. She moves rather fast and has a heavy feel to her when she jumps. It takes some time to get adjusted, but it lends itself well to a speedy style of play. Or it would, if enemies didn’t sometimes take repeated jabs from Mail’s sword to fall. Each enemy encountered will have a health bar displayed in the game’s HUD at the bottom of the screen. Mail’s info is there as well and while she has 100 health she’s not particularly durable. If you just try to barrel ahead you may find yourself dead in short order.

img_1480

As you make your way through the game more characters join in Mail’s quest to take down Muttonhead.

In order to navigate this dangerous world, Mail will need to make use of all of her skills, of which there aren’t many. Her sword is her main method of attack and she can attack while standing, crouching, or jumping. When crouching, Mail can pull up her shield which will completely protect her from projectile attacks. It’s important to get used to this as Mail will often be tasked with dispatching one enemy while an enemy behind it shoots at her. One of the barriers for newcomers is learning the quirks of the game. Popful Mail basically requires you to abuse the fact that when enemies are blinking after a hit the player won’t take damage from them. It’s a key to beating the first really tricky boss, the golem, as he slides across the screen and can’t be cleared with a leap. Mail instead needs to just whack him and let him pass by her unscathed. If your timing is off though, the duration of this blinking state won’t be long enough and Mail will take a beating. The biggest hindrance to Mail’s existence is her natural desire to go fast. The game positions Mail approximately two-thirds of the way across the screen so if the player is zooming along there isn’t much chance to react to a new enemy. When enemies are defeated most will drop a small sum of gold while healing items (like various fruits and herbs) are hard to come by. The player is at least free to save their game whenever they wish so the penalty for death isn’t too terrible if the player saves often. When loading a game, the player will typically spawn wherever they entered the screen they were on at death.

img_1472

While out and about, the player will also encounter other characters in need of some help.

The game takes place mostly in levels that are long and connected. There is also a brief overheard map to traverse at times that more resembles Super Mario World than Link. Mail will be tasked with exploring the many stages both horizontally and vertically. There are different paths to take some of which lead to treasure and some of which advance the plot. Mail will often encounter NPC’s that need help before the plot can advance, like freeing someone from captivity who will then open a way to continue onward. Sometimes Mail will find little towns where she can spend her gold on upgrades. Mail can upgrade her weapons and armor which in turn improve her underlying stats, though she can’t level-up. These upgrades seem to do little though. If you’re struggling with an area and think the solution is to backtrack and buy better equipment then you’ll probably be disappointed. The solution is often to simply “get good” and take advantage of those saves.

img_1482

Gaw is the last to join the fun, but he’s certainly the most unique.

During Mail’s journey, she will eventually find some allies in her quest to stop Muttonhead. Tatto is the first ally Mail will add. He’s a wizard with a score to settle with our antagonist and he becomes available roughly an hour or so into the game. Eventually, Gaw will join the group as well. He’s a monstrous little bat creature that can’t fly, but he can jump higher than anyone else. The characters are largely distinguished in how they move. Mail is the fastest, but her jump is the worst. Gaw is the slowest, but he can jump the highest with Tatto settling somewhere in between. The other characters can also attack from a distance. Mail can as well if you supply her with daggers, but they’re costly. You’ll be able to augment Tatto’s abilities by buying new staves while Gaw can also improve his attacks by buying…a new tail? It’s odd, but it works well enough. Changing characters is done by accessing the menu and switching there. It would have been nice if selecting a character could have just been mapped to a button to cycle through, but it’s possible the game needs a little time to load the new sprite since this is a CD system. Each character also has his or her own health bar so unlocking a new character effectively doubles the available hit points. If one character falls though it’s game over, so you have to remember to switch them or heal if near death.

img_1483

If you’ve played a Working Designs game before then you should be familiar with the company’s brand of humor.

The game is not super long. The goal to unlock the best post credits content (basically just voice outtakes) is five hours. Most players will probably need six or seven on their first playthrough not accounting for deaths and reloads. The game is challenging, and it’s also arguably one of those games that starts harder before getting progressively easier as new characters and abilities are unlocked. It’s a mostly fun play, though it’s not going to “wow” most who play it. There’s not a ton of nuance in how to attack and Working Designs’ decision to make the enemies more resilient when localizing this wasn’t a great choice as things can get a bit tedious. Some enemy placements feel a bit cheap too as this is a game less about finesse and more fixated on trial and error. There’s a reason Falcom has continued with the Ys franchise and not the Popful Mail franchise all these years.

img_1469

Almost all of the dialogue in this game is voiced and there’s plenty of anime to help push the plot forward.

Being a CD game and one localized by Working Designs, it shouldn’t surprise many to know that what stands out most are the production values. The game is nice to look at, though visually it’s not really any more impressive than most Genesis titles. Character designs are kept simple and some of the boss characters are considerably larger than the player and are fun to take in. The voice acting is about as good as one could hope for in the early 90s as anime and video games didn’t exactly attract the best talent. Melissa Gulden, who voiced Mail, stands out as a bright spot for the game while some other performances can be a bit wooden. According to the manual, roughly 3 hours of voice work had to be compressed to fit onto the CD and it’s certainly noticeable when you hear it. That’s the reality of game development though back before DVD and high capacity media. The anime cut scenes are also compressed significantly, but it still looks all right.

img_1466

My own personal copy. I was fortunate to find one in terrific shape that even has this supplemental card and the foam insert.

I would say if you happen to be the owner of a Sega CD then Popful Mail is a worthwhile addition to your collection for the simple fact that it’s actually worth playing. The game was also released on the Super Famicom where it stands out less as that console is practically bursting with quality content. By far though, the biggest hindrance to playing Popful Mail in 2020 is cost. When I purchased this game in 2011 it wasn’t exactly cheap, but it wasn’t where it’s at today either. The Sega CD version for just the game is now routinely listed for hundreds of dollar. There are some sellers trying to get more than $500 for complete versions. Perhaps that makes me foolish for still clinging to my complete version. My copy is missing the mail-in survey card on the back of the manual, but I do have the “Attention!” card the game came with which tells owners how to properly format their console’s system memory for saving. Easily, the most economical way to play the game is to go after the alternate versions. They’re still not exactly cheap, but the Super Famicom version is far less expensive as is the PC Engine version. Even the Mega CD version is a lot cheaper, though it lacks that Working Designs polish (it’s also supposedly easier).

pervy_mail

Considering the game stars a buxom, anime, woman with no pants it probably comes as no surprise to learn there’s plenty of pervy art out there.

If Popful Mail were available to anyone who had a Sega CD and wanted the game then I’d say go for it. Since that isn’t the case though I can’t exactly recommend it. The price point has put this game into the territory of “For serious collectors only.” The Sega CD library is actually trending towards that. When I first purchased my CDX, the Sega CD wasn’t as sought after as it is today. It seems as people get older and get more interested in collecting retro games, everything has gradually gone up. It started with Nintendo games before spanning to the 16-bit games. As the actual good software disappears, collectors turn to other untapped libraries. And the Sega CD is desirable to collectors partly because the library isn’t massive compared with the Genesis or NES. It’s also more harrowing though as Sega CD hardware isn’t as reliable as cartridge-based hardware as those lasers are just ticking time bombs. If the Sega CD version of Popful Mail were to become available overnight on an E-shop it would be worth a look just to see what all the fuss is about. It’s a genre that’s been done much better, but the game is not without its charm.

 


Rocko’s Modern Life – Season One

rocko_season_oneThe late 80s and early 90s were such a fun time for cartoons. Television was rapidly expanding and there was huge demand for content for both children and adults. People who had grown up on Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry were also making the cartoons and wanted to do better than what had become the standard for television animation. Disney got the ball rolling by injecting more money into the animation and overall production for its shows. In the process, the company proved that it wasn’t as big a risk as some thought to go straight for a syndicated order of episodes because there was always room for more cartoons on television. Other artists also started getting opportunities to create better and more diverse cartoons. These were actually funny and largely felt like a response to the very dry and formulaic works put out by Hanna Barbera and Dic.

Nickelodeon was one of the first cable networks to really go after children. It was somewhat of a contrast to its sister channel, MTV, which was going for a teen and young adult audience with the obvious focus being music. MTV grew more experimental as the years went on though and it even started airing animation. Up until that point, Nickelodeon was largely a network consisting of low budget live-action programs like You Can’t Do That on Television as well as re-runs of old general audience programming (Dennis the Menace, Flipper, etc.) with classic sitcoms at night. The only cartoons really being shown were Looney Tunes and some children’s animation the network licensed such as The Little Koala and David the Gnome. Parent company Viacom was seeing the success the big networks were having with exclusive children’s content and also with the stuff being made for MTV and decided it was time for Nickelodeon to get into the cartoon business.

games_animation

Games Animation was created so that Nickelodeon could keep production of its Nicktoons in-house.

The Nicktoons were born of this creative desire. The network sought upstart creators and basically gave them free reign to create a show that Nickelodeon would air as part of a block on Sunday morning. Saturday morning was the domain of the broadcast networks, but Sunday was essentially ripe for the taking especially as fewer and fewer families were spending the morning at church. The block launched in August of 1991 with three brand new cartoons:  Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren and Stimpy Show. The construction of the block is interesting in that it began with a very grounded show about a middle-school aged kid in Doug, then went to a more imaginative show where babies go on adventures largely created in their own head, to the surreal and more classically constructed comedy show with Ren and Stimpy. The block was a huge success virtually guaranteeing future Nicktoons. It’s debatable which was more impactful, Rugrats or The Ren and Stimpy Show, but the latter definitely seemed to be the most influential on subsequent Nicktoons. Problems with that show also caused Nickelodeon to go ahead and found its own animation studio:  Games Animation.

rock_cast

The main cast of the show (left to right): Rocko, Spunky, Heffer, Bev Bighead, Filburt, Ed Bighead.

The first show launched by Games Animation was the Joe Murray created Rocko’s Modern Life. Premiering in the late summer of 1993, Rocko’s Modern Life was the fourth Nicktoon and first cartoon to be added to the lineup since its premiere two years earlier. It was a pretty big deal to have a new Nicktoon, and it also completed the Sunday block making it an even two hours. Joe Murray had wanted to make an independent film called My Dog Zero and only when Nick passed on that did he turn to Rocko. Rocko was originally conceived as a comic, but Murray wasn’t able to find anyone willing to publish it when peddling it around in the late 80s. He pitched the concept to Nick when it passed on My Dog Zero expecting them to pass, but hoping they’d at least give him some money for a pilot that he could put towards his passion project, My Dog Zero. Nickelodeon ended up not only commissioning a pilot, but also a 13 season order. After largely animating the pilot himself (“Trash-O-Madness”), Murray found himself in the unfamiliar role of a TV creator and director with a staff of over 200 people split between the US and Asia.

rocko_brain

Plenty of classic animation gags are relied upon such as Rocko’s brain constantly jumping out of his head when he screams.

Rocko’s Modern Life would run for 4 seasons totaling 52 episodes (100 segments). During its run it helped further the careers of some pretty important people. It basically launched the career of voice actor Carlos Alazraqui (Rocko, Spunky) who went on to star in other Nicktoons as well as many Cartoon Network originals. Charlie Adler was already a name familiar to cartoon fans at the time, but his portrayal of the husband and wife duo Ed and Bev Bighead really showcased his talents as he often would record the duo’s interactions with each other in one take. It’s hard to imagine him being entrusted to perform the roles of Cow and Chicken for the show Cow and Chicken without the Bigheads. Tom Kenny was also cast as Heffer Wolfe and he is likely best known now as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. And it isn’t just Kenny who went on to star there, the first director hired by Murray for the show was the late Stephen Hillenburg who went on to create the aforementioned SpongeBob SquarePants.

rocko_sucker

Many episodes contain Rocko tackling a common task only with disastrous results.

The first season of Rocko’s Modern Life consists of 26 segments spread across 13 episodes. In this current climate of increased television time, I decided to take a trip down memory lane with Rocko and his buddies. A local retailer, Bull Moose, specializes in media such as music, games, and movies and I sometimes take a stroll through its retail location in nearby Salem, New Hampshire. It’s a great store that fills a niche that has been all but abandoned by most retailers. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered all such spaces, but Bull Moose continues to operate as an online space. More importantly, the company continues to pay all of its employees which is an incredibly noble gesture and one that should be emulated by other companies. I wanted to show my appreciation for that by spending some money at the website, which is how I ended up with the complete Rocko’s Modern Life collection. In truth, this was a long time coming as I wanted to reconnect with the show. I see it sometimes on one of Nickelodeon’s channels, but the network seems to re-air a lot of the same episodes over and over. I also was originally holding off on buying this series as I hoped an uncensored version would arrive some day, but I have since given up on that.

Which is a good thing, because my re-watch of the first season could not have gone much better. Rocko’s Modern Life is a show about a wallaby named Rocko who has recently set out on his own in a 90s world. He’s an immigrant from Australia living in the US in the fictional town of O-Town, basically an every town USA concept. The show does not expressly state how long he’s been in the US, but long enough to have formed close bonds with friends Heffer and Filburt (Mr. Lawrence). Rocko lives alone in a small house with his happy, but dim-witted, dog Spunky. He works as a clerk at a comic book shop and he’s basically just struggling to get by. Many episodes focus on the mundane, like taking out the garbage or doing the laundry, but things go wrong with Rocko often remarking “[Blank] Day is a very dangerous day.” Episodes of the show are mostly stand-alone, but there is some semblance of continuity from one episode to another. We see Rocko get fired from one job and hired at a new one, characters reference past experiences, and eventually we’ll even see Filburt enter into a relationship with another character.

love_spanked

Each episode is introduced with a hand-painted title card.

As a children’s show, Rocko’s Modern Life packs enough laughs to satisfy most kids, especially early 90s kids who had spent the past two years with Ren and Stimpy. It’s a disservice to call Rocko’s Modern Life a Ren and Stimpy clone, but both do love to indulge in gross humor. There’s lots of boogers, drool, farts, and vomit gags in this cartoon. Rocko and his friends are also prone to screaming with exaggerated results such as eyes popping out and brains bursting out of a skull. It’s a visual treat for those who enjoy physical comedy in their cartoons, especially cartoons that really take advantage of what the medium can do. It also allows the show to go to wild locations with Heffer spending an episode in “Heck” while Rocko gets to visit many different locations such as the beach, the movies, a plane, and so on. The show also possesses some surreal qualities such as the episode “Flu-In-U-Enza” where Rocko as a fever dream in which his vomit comes to life to coach him through his illness. Most of the world is also slanted with lines going to great lengths to not meet up. It’s a very stylized show, with good animation and colors.

bev_seduction

Bev Bighead is one of the break-out stars in Season One. Her attempts to seduce Rocko in “Leap Frogs” is a real highlight of the first season.

Where Rocko really separated itself from its peers though is in its depiction of everyday life. Rocko being short on money and newly set free from adolescence makes the show extremely relatable for anyone in a similar situation or who has gone through it. Stretching a paycheck, managing responsibilities, taking care of yourself – these are things many of us only really become attuned to when we’re out on our own. Most can probably recall a gag or two from this show that went over their head at the time, only to have it make sense later on. Some of the plots are also very adult in nature with perhaps the best example being “Leap Frogs” in which Bev Bighead feels unwanted by her husband. It’s almost like a Simpsons plot or maybe even a sitcom as Bev tries to then make herself attractive to Rocko in hopes of making her husband jealous. It’s a really fun and interesting episode that was eventually deemed too adult and was pulled from Nickelodeon’s regular rotation.

Rocko’s Modern Life is profoundly funny in its writing, acting, and direction, but it also has some value to impart on its audience beyond that. It’s never preachy, and it also never feels like an arbitrary quota for educational content was in play, but nevertheless some episodes are beneficial for its younger audience in ways beyond mere entertainment. “Who’s For Dinner?” deals with adoption and the emotions one goes through when they first discover they’re an adopted child. Rocko is also a role model character for just how loyal and unfailingly kind he can be. He is at times meek to a fault, but learns to stand up for himself when the world really tries to screw him over. He is patient towards buddy Heffer, who in turn is a harmful glutton mostly oblivious to how harmful his actions are for Rocko. He does have his own reckoning in “To Heck and Back,” though his behavior doesn’t really change much following the episode.

heffer_milk_machine

Sadly, we’ve been deprived of Heffer’s romantic tryst with a milking machine. The full clip can be easily found on the Internet, but it would have been great to have the original toon restored.

As mention previously, there is some censorship when it comes to Rocko’s Modern Life. Often, the show got away with a lot and the episodes made it to air without controversy, only to be edited later. That’s true with the episode “The Good, The Bad, and The Wallaby” where a segment involving Heffer, a male, getting hooked up to a milking machine has been removed. My understanding is the segment wasn’t restored largely because it can’t be cheaply. When these shows were edited for air, no one had the foresight to think money could be made down the road so they just edited the masters and basically lost the footage forever. The episode was released on VHS unedited so they could have transferred it off of that if they were willing, but that didn’t happen. Future edits would be made to the show, such as rebranding the restaurant The Chokey Chicken as The Chewy Chicken, but Nickelodeon didn’t have anyone go back and remove the offending name from prior seasons.

The DVD release of Rocko’s Modern Life – Season One is bare bones. It was originally released by Shout! Factory on two discs with no bonus features. It’s also arranged in airdate order, which is not the preferred order to watch the episodes. The compilation release put out in 2018 containing the whole series is the same. It would have been fun to hear some commentary tracks by Joe Murray and some of the other creative people involved, but oh well. The episodes really stand on their own though, and Season One is the only season to feature the original theme song which I prefer to the one performed by the B-52’s in the subsequent seasons. Season One is also incredibly strong and it might be my favorite season of the show, but that remains to be seen as I work my way through the show. As a kid, The Ren and Stimpy Show was always my favorite of the Nicktoons, but as I get older I find Rocko’s Modern Life has taken over that throne. It’s funny, manic, and very 90s in its style and presentation, but also surprisingly relatable. I’ve had a hard time shutting it off and it’s been a real crowd pleaser in my home of four. Hopefully my enthusiasm continues and I come back and tell you how much I loved Season Two and beyond.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (1991)

turtles_in_time_arcade

The “hired birthday party turtle” look was certainly a bold presentation decision.

Last week we took a look back at the 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. As a result, it only makes sense to this week look back at that game’s official sequel, Turtles in Time. Turtles in Time is almost fundamentally the same game. It’s a 4-player beat ’em up from Konami starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Players take control of their preferred turtle and battle their way through stages populated by a seemingly endless supply of Foot Soldiers, only this time they’re trying to rescue the Statue of Liberty instead of April and Splinter (yeah, it’s a bit odd).

Being that Turtles in Time came out a couple years after the first arcade game it’s noticeably better looking. Konami didn’t just take the old assets and clean them up, but rather seemed to redesign the game from the ground up. The Turtles have new animations and even new moves, while the boss characters (aside from Shredder and Krang) are all new as well. It’s still a mostly left-to-right side-scroller though, and surprisingly Konami removed the multi-level features some stages in the previous game had and instead keep things on the same plane. There are two auto-scrolling levels to break things up and most of the settings are different as well. And that should be expected, since as the title implies this game features a time travel gimmick. It’s just a plot device as the players have no agency over the time travel, Shredder just pops in at the end of the third stage to say he’s banishing the player to a past time. You then battle through a prehistoric world, a pirate ship, an old west train stage, a futuristic street world (complete with hoverboards), and a moon base before returning to modern day New York. It’s a fun gimmick though as you get to fight Foot Soldiers in cowboy attire and some come riding in on dinosaurs. Pretty much the only aspect of this game that’s inferior to its predecessor is the lack of voice actors from the cartoon. Instead you get generic voices for the characters. The Turtles and Shredder are fine, but Krang sounds really stupid without the work of Pat Fraley.

img_1217

“Pizza power!”

The biggest change from the prior game is in how the Turtles control. They’re still limited to two action buttons:  jump and attack, but now possess advanced moves as well. Pressing the two simultaneously will unleash a special attack unique to each character. This move is usually one that increases the range of the attack as Leonardo will spin in place with his swords, Donatello will vault forward, and so on.  Holding down a direction will also cause the player character to run and from there the Turtle can either lower its shoulder for a ram attack or go into some handstands and even perform a sliding attack. It’s most often from these maneuvers that players can initiate an attack that sends the enemy flying at the screen. It’s mostly a neat gimmick, but it also functions a bit like a one-hit kill attack. The improved animations also not only make the game look better, but enable the Turtles to better fight off attacks from both the front and the rear as they no longer need to completely turn around in order to attack an enemy behind them and instead can deliver a little kick. Jump kicks are still effective and each Turtle can also perform a hovering jump attack in which they contort themselves into a funny looking cannonball like formation while “flapping” their weapons in an attacking motion.

For Turtles in Time, Konami returned the pizza power-up which simply restores health, but also introduced a new one. A red pizza box with a bomb on top of it is featured in a few levels and once collected causes the turtle to rapidly spin for a short duration. The character is free to move all around the screen and is invulnerable in this form. Players who replay the game over and over can learn where these are and when to grab them as often times the screen isn’t densely populated with enemies when you first see it. In one instance, a bunch of Foot Soldiers serve almost like a red herring and once dispatched the much stronger rock soldiers enter. Smart players know to save the pizza bomb for when they show up and not waste it on the fodder.

img_1218

The catalyst for this adventure.

The Turtles may possess more maneuvers to utilize when fending off enemies, but the enemies are also improved as well. There are various new Foot Soldiers that wield a variety of weapons like bombs, spiked discs, and giant axes among other things. The rock soldiers are quite durable and some come packing machine guns or grenade launchers.  Boss characters are also pretty stout and some are tough to stagger. You end up learning who you can just wail away at and who you need to back off from. It’s still a pretty tough game in an arcade setting, since it wants to eat quarters, but it feels a bit more fair than its predecessor. The final battle with Shredder is actually one of the easiest fights in the game as he can be staggered relatively easily. The cheapest one might be from the penultimate level which is manned by Krang. He pilots a spacecraft that has this bubble gun that fires from each side, only you can be in front of Krang away from those guns, but it will still connect. And like the first game, there’s also a double boss fight at the end of one stage, only this time it’s Tokka and Rahzar instead of Bebop and Rocksteady. They’re surprisingly manageable though as their main method of attack is a ramming attack in which they can inflict damage upon each other with if you get them lined up right.

img_1219

This is the only way you’ll get to battle a Foot Soldier riding a dinosaur.

An unexpected highlight of this game is its soundtrack. Instead of opening with the cartoon theme, the game begins with “Pizza Power” from the Coming Out of Their Shells tour, a mostly terrible stage show that did at least give us one catchy track. The rest of the soundtrack was composed by Mutsuhiko Izumi and it’s awesome. The various level themes from this game still pop into my head from time to time at random. The same boss theme is utilized for each boss encounter, but it’s excellent so you’re not likely to get sick of it. I guess no one should be surprised as Konami routinely releases games with strong soundtracks.

img_1221

Krang and his damn bubble gun are super annoying.

Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Turtles in Time received a home port for the Super Nintendo. Since the final NES Turtles game was titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the SNES version of Turtles in Time was titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV:  Turtles in Time. Unlike the previous arcade game, the SNES experience is arguably better than the arcade. The game looks almost the same with only a slight downgrade for some of the boss characters and some animations removed. A lot of the voice samples were removed as well, but they still kept most of the speech from the Turtles themselves. The only clear negative is that lack of 4-player options even with a SNES multi-tap. The special moves each Turtle possesses also costs some health to utilize, as they did in TMNT III, and the game is adjustable in how many lives the players begin with: 3, 5, or 7. Players can also earn more lives by accruing points as every 200 points earns a one-up. To make it even easier to accumulate points, the auto-scrolling levels were re-branded as Bonus Stages. You can still die in these, but enemies basically take one hit to kill so you can really rack up the points. The futuristic scrolling level, Neon Night Riders, was also altered to position the camera at the back of the Turtles to give it a different flavor (and show off those sweet Mode7 graphics) before returning to the side view for the boss fight.

img_1227

The added battle with Shredder is a highlight of the SNES port.

In addition to the gameplay tweaks, the SNES version also adds new bosses and stages. A Technodrome level is added in-between the third and fourth stage which is a welcomed addition as it was pretty strange to go through the arcade version without a Technodrome level. It ends with the boss fight with Tokka and Rahzar, and they even have new attacks:  a freeze blast for Tokka and fire attack for Rahzar as well as a team-up maneuver. Following that, the players go into an elevator area that ends with a showdown against Shredder. The encounter is perhaps the most memorable in the entire game as Shredder is positioned in the foreground and to damage him you have to throw Foot Soldiers at him via the screen-toss maneuver. In addition to those boss fights, the end of the third stage had the pizza monsters (who are reduced to just regular enemies in the stage) replaced with the Rat King, Slash replaces the cement monster in “Prehistoric Turtlesaurus,” while Bebop and Rocksteady (in pirate attire) replace the original Tokka and Rahzar encounter. And lastly, the end fight with Shredder basically has Shredder re-skinned with a Super Shredder look. He still functions the same, though instead of generic energy wave attacks he can shoot a fire attack that covers the floor, an ice attack that he aims at an angle (basically a jump attack counter), and a mutagen blast that looks like a green hadoken fireball and temporarily turns the Turtles into ordinary turtles.

img_1228

Bebop and Rocksteady also get to join in on the fun on the SNES. You have to admire their commitment to the gimmick.

Because the SNES port is so good, Turtles in Time is a far easier game to return to than its predecessor in 2020. You could go out and find an old arcade cabinet, or buy the Arcade1Up one, but it’s a far better deal to just grab the SNES version. It doesn’t look quite as nice due to the removal of some animations, and since the game didn’t utilize the cartoon voice actors you won’t miss the speach it removed, but the added levels and boss encounters more than makes up for any missing animation. It’s also far more manageable as I think this is the first game I ever beat on Hard Mode. There’s even an option to change the skin of each character making the Turtles resemble the original Playmates action figures. There was a remake of this game released in 2008 titled Turtles in Time Re-Shelled for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It’s a remake of the arcade version and it was done on the cheap. It has 3D visuals, but they aren’t particularly impressive. About the only benefit the game featured was online play, but I don’t know if you can even take advantage of that anymore. There was also a port of the arcade version of this game stashed away on the 2005 PlayStation 2/Gamecube/Xbox title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Mutant Nightmare. The game is based on the 2003 franchise and isn’t very good, but the arcade port contained as a bonus feature is playable. It’s a bit choppy looking and lacks the original soundtrack though. And since it’s an arcade port, it doesn’t have the added features of the SNES game. The player characters are also mapped to the controller ports, like an arcade game, so you would need the PS2 multi-tap if you had that version and wanted to play as Michelangelo or Raphael.

img_1230

If you want to experience this game in 2020 just get the SNES version so you can experience those sweet, sweet, Mode7 visuals.

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles then Turtles in Time is still a good time in 2020. It’s much better than the other Konami brawlers and is better than most of the TMNT games that followed. No version for the Sega Genesis was made, but that console did receive The Hyperstone Heist, which re-used the assets from this game and is a comparable experience, though not quite as good. Because I find the SNES version superior to the arcade one, it’s really the only one I recommend today. If you happen to come across the arcade version though, you’ll probably still have a good time. As long as you don’t have to use actual quarters.


%d bloggers like this: