Category Archives: Video Games

Dragon Quest: Your Story

dq your storyIn the 1980s, game designer Yuji Horii set out to create a role-playing experience similar to a pen and paper RPG for a video game console. The goal was to blend elements of those experiences with statistical and complex Western PC games like Wizardry and Ultima as the back bone. In order to make it appeal to a Japanese audience, he wanted to infuse it with what he had learned working with manga and add character and story to the equation. The end result of that was Dragon Quest, known for a time as Dragon Warrior in the West. In creating Dragon Quest, Horii gave birth to the genre we know and love as the Japanese Role-Playing Game, or JRPG for short.

Dragon Quest was a cultural phenomenon in Japan when it arrived for the Famicom game system in 1986. Three sequels would follow and all would be brought to the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West. The series never caught on outside of Japan, and the series skipped the Super Nintendo all-together and didn’t return to a global release until Dragon Quest VII on the PlayStation. The series was the flagship title for game developer Enix, who would eventually be acquired by Squaresoft who had found great success with its Dragon Quest clone:  Final Fantasy. Those two franchises have come to define the JRPG genre and are still to this day looked to as being the trend-setter for the genre, which has admittedly sailed past its hey-day.

No matter, for Dragon Quest still has a dedicated and loyal following. And while the somewhat recently released Dragon Quest XI has taken it in a more modern direction, it still seems that the favorite game of the series amongst the fanbase is Dragon Quest V, also known as Dragon Quest V:  Hand of the Heavenly Bride.

dqv

Dragon Quest: Your Story is based on Dragon Quest V which is easily the most beloved entry in the long-running series.

Dragon Quest V, released in 1992 and eventually in North America in 2009, was the first game in the series released on the Super Famicom and also the first to skip North America initially. Like basically every game in the series, the player controls a silent protagonist that they’re allowed to bestow a name upon. They journey with that player on a lengthy quest partaking in turn-based battles that result from random encounters on both a world map or a dungeon sequence. Where Dragon Quest V seems to really distinguish itself though is in the scope of the journey and subversion of expectations. During the course of the game, the player will be faced with a choice of whom to take as a bride and that marriage will result in the birth of twins who eventually join your party as playable characters. There’s also a monster collecting element at play that undoubtedly influenced the Pokémon series in which after defeating a monster some will randomly request to join your party becoming playable as well. The game ends up following the hero from child to adult and players seemed to really enjoy that aspect of the experience as it breads attachment. It’s actually surprising more games haven’t attempted the same.

To celebrate the franchise, Dragon Quest:  Your Story was conceived and released in Japan in 2019. It has just now become available on Netflix outside of Japan. The film adapts Dragon Quest V for the big screen with a CG adventure that takes the viewer through the events of the game basically from start to finish. The film is written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki with additional directing credits going to Ryuichi Yagi and Makoto Hanafusa. Shirogumi Inc was chosen to handle the animation with additional effects done by Robot Communications.

luca sabrecat

The film opted to go with CG in place of two-dimensional, hand-drawn, animation.

Fans of Dragon Quest V seemed elated at the thought of the game becoming a feature-length film. Animation is definitely the way to go, though I wonder if many were disappointed to find out it would be a CG animated feature and not a more traditional two-dimensional anime. By including the tagline “Your Story,” it seems the film is also aiming to replicate the RPG experience each player goes through, even if it means this time around the hero needs a name.

Like the video game it is based on, Dragon Quest:  Your Story tells the tale of a hero named Luca (Yuri Lowenthal) who at a young age loses his mother to monsters. Together with his father Pankraz (Parker Simmons), Luca embarks on a mission to retrieve the fabled Zenithian Blade in the hopes that it will help them free their beloved. The blade can only be wielded by the Heavenly Hero, whom Pankraz believes to be his son. Along the way, Pankraz will meet his end forcing Luca to go it alone. Only, he’s not alone and will soon be joined by a sabre cat cub and a curious slime. He has allies in the young prince Harry (Zeno Robinson), scrappy Bianca (Stephanie Sheh) and magical Nera (Xanthe Huynh).

dq slime

Yes, we have a slime in this one.

Adapting a roughly 25 hour game to a 103 minute film is certainly a daunting task. Much of those hours in the game are spent grinding away through dungeons and such, but even stripping those away still leaves a lot of ground to cover. As a result, the film can’t really attempt at introducing everything the game throws at the player and basically boils it all down to a few key bullet points. There’s also a liberal dose of montage at work making this film really only accessible for those who played the game. To those who did not it will feel more like an animated summary with no room to breath or to form actual attachments to the characters presented here. This format might actually make it more accessible for younger kids with short attention spans, but older viewers with no familiarity with the brand will probably tune out.

The visuals for the film hold up quite well throughout. Series artist Akira Toriyama was not on-hand for the development of this film, but it’s clear his original art was referenced for the film’s visuals. The sabre cat in particular has a very Toriyama-like appearance as do others. Where the visuals suffer is in the dubbing. Either a direct translation was insisted upon for the English dub or there just wasn’t much attention paid to it because the mouth flaps of the characters rarely sync up naturally. It’s distracting, but this is a film that isn’t exactly dialogue heavy so it’s not as killer as it could have been. There are subtitled options available, and if you’re not averse to reading them it might be the better way to go. Much of the film’s music and sounds were lifted directly from the game, but updated with an actual orchestra where appropriate. It makes the film feel incredibly authentic in its presentation.

Where the film has garnered controversy though lies in its aim. Much of the film up until the climactic battle with the monstrous Bishop Ladja feels like a love letter to Dragon Quest V, but that’s ultimately not the film’s intention. Dragon Quest:  Your Story is aiming a bit higher. It wants to be a celebration of Dragon Quest itself and not just a particular game. Dragon Quest V is merely the chosen vehicle for that delivery. The end contains a twist that is rather high concept. I don’t wish to spoil it, but even if the idea sounded great on paper the execution is a bit awkward. It definitely torpedoes the excitement of the climax adding a layer of complexity onto a story that, up until that point, was anything but.

bianca

Bianca was probably my favorite aspect of the film, though given the rapid-pace of the film she ends up not being featured all that much.

As someone who does not have any particular attachment to Dragon Quest or Dragon Quest V, I can say that the ending did not anger me, though I certainly wasn’t satisfied either. I have played Dragon Quest V, so I was familiar with the story going into this and could follow the film. The ending to the game is possibly the least interesting aspect of it, so changing things up doesn’t bother me on the surface. The execution here is just clumsy, and some of the elements of the ending might have served the film better had they been introduced from the start. This isn’t the type of story that needs or wants a big twist. It doesn’t have enough depth to pull the viewer in and then reap the reward of dumping them on their head. For those unfamiliar with the game, it just feels like a noisy, dumb, fantasy picture that commands little attention. For those who love the source material, they just want to see it to its conclusion likely enjoying the ride well enough while knowing it’s incomplete and only scratches the surface. The film basically spends 90 minutes making fans of the game happy, then the last ten angry.

dragon-quest-your-story-smoke

Dragon Quest fan groups reacting to the ending.

As a result, Dragon Quest:  Your Story is a film that doesn’t really please anybody. Newcomers will likely find it dry, while longtime fans will be angry with the ending. I suppose Dragon Quest fans that aren’t that enamored with Dragon Quest V might be able to better appreciate what the film was striving for, but I have yet to meet a fan that fits that definition. For me, a casual player of Dragon Quest, I got very little out of this one. The visuals and music are mostly nice, even if I would have preferred a more traditional anime look. The action pieces are dull and the pace of the film is far too quick for any of the emotional beats to land with much impact. I found Luca charming and Bianca especially was charismatic, though she is in maybe 10 minutes of the film as a functioning character, when all is said and done. Dragon Quest:  Your Story is a flawed and ultimately disposable piece of entertainment. It’s ending will give fans something to talk about, which unfortunately is likely to become the film’s legacy rather than as a celebration of a beloved franchise.


Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

sonic 2020It was an interesting journey for the world’s most famous hedgehog to go from the small screen to the big screen, but the journey was finally completed Valentine’s Day 2020. Originally set to debut last Thanksgiving, Sonic the Hedgehog famously was delayed when fans reacted unfavorably to the title character’s design. Like Detective Pikachu before it, Sonic the Hedgehog was attempting to bring a CG version of the titular character into a real world setting. Fans were justified in their reaction to the debut of the character as he was only vaguely a representation of a character that’s been around for 30 years. The extra time, money, and effort to redesign Sonic has apparently paid off as the film raced out to an impressive debut weekend topping the weekend box office.

From the start, Sonic was always engineered to be pleasing to the eye. He was famously designed as a mash-up of two iconic characters:  Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat. The fact that someone tied to this film decided to deviate from such a simple and effective premise feels like an ego-driven maneuver, but it’s likely it was just a result of over-thinking. Sonic the character doesn’t fit into the “real world.” He basically has one giant eye with two pupils in it, he’s a  blue hedgehog, but he doesn’t really have visible fur. And his head is bigger than his body in his classic iteration, though he’s since been elongated and given a more sleek figure over the years. The original stab at the character included fur (or quills), which was to be expected. What was odd was the attempt at shaping the face to something more rodent-like, I suppose. The end result was more of a combination of late 90s Michael Jackson and the transformed monkey kid from the original Jumanji. He had an oddly pointed nose and more natural shaped eyes to go along with a toothy smile that seemed to make viewers quite uncomfortable. His body was lean and slightly muscular – a runner’s body. Instead of white gloves he had white fur and was just all-together unpleasant to look at. The redesign basically took things back to the character’s roots. Physically, he’s more Sonic Adventure than Sonic from the Genesis. He still has textured fur as director Jeff Fowler felt that was important for a mostly live-action film, and he has two distinct eyes. He got to put his gloves back on though and his overall facial design is much more true to what fans expected. All in all, he looks nice.

bad sonic

This is not the Sonic fans wanted…

Which is certainly a start. An unappealing lead is hardly a death-knell for a movie, but it doesn’t help when the character is supposed to be visually appealing. It’s not something that can rescue a bad movie though, and I would guess most assumed Sonic the Hedgehog would be a bad movie. It’s not like video game to film adaptations have a good track record. I liked Mortal Kombat as a kid, but I’d hesitate to call it a good film. I did take the family to Detective Pikachu last year and felt it was fine for what it was. I know there are some fans out there that enjoy some of the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider films, but I do not number myself among them. Expectations for a video game movie are low, and will remain low until a Marvel-like run of success so expecting anything out of Sonic felt foolish.

good sonic

Much better!

And perhaps it’s that mindset that contributed the most to my enjoyment of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s certainly easier to be pleasantly surprised by a film when expectations are low, but Sonic the Hedgehog managed to mostly achieve the same level of success as Detective Pikachu. And a lot of that can be attributed to the success of the main character. Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz who has quickly established himself as the best Sonic, sorry Jaleel) is charismatic. He has a manic personality as a result of living life faster than anyone while possessing a sense of honor and responsibility which are traits that lend well to heroism. He’s playful, chatty, inquisitive, and also a touch sympathetic. He’s essentially an orphan who was targeted by some bad dudes (who bare a strong resemblance to another Sonic frenemy) for his speediness and forced to flee his home world with the help of his magic rings. The rings in the film are magical devices capable of opening up portals to other worlds, which is how Sonic arrives on Earth as a kid and is forced to live in hiding. He badly just wants to make friends, and he’s taken a liking to a local cop he refers to as Donut Lord (James Marsden) mainly via peeping on his daily life. One night, in a fit of sadness, Sonic goes a bit too fast and produces something akin to an EMP pulse that knocks out power in the community which gets the attention of the US Government.

jim carrey robotnik

Carrey gets to bring his own personality to Robotnik, but he’s also kept in check and turns in a very fun performance.

The film wisely doesn’t focus much on the government stuff and instead uses a very loose scene to have those in charge select one Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to investigate the cause of the phenomena. Carrey’s Robotnik bares little resemblance to the video game character (more commonly referred to as Eggman these days), but he possesses a quirky personality. Unlike a lot of iterations of Robotnik, he’s also a capable bad guy at times undone by his hubris. Carrey injects some of his usual comedic antics into the role, but nothing that becomes too over-the-top. He’s entertaining, and the only character other than Sonic capable of stealing a scene.

Robotnik quickly ends up on Sonic’s trail and from there the film turns into a road trip buddy comedy with Sonic forced to come out of hiding and seek the help of Donut Lord, aka Tom. The film does a good enough job of balancing the comedy with action. Tom and Sonic mostly get along from the start so it doesn’t play up tension too much between the leads. Not all of the comedy lands as this is a PG film primarily looking to entertain children. There’s a confrontation at a bar that’s a bit groan-inducing, as well as some jokes that amount to product placement, but the film doesn’t linger on anything long enough for it to grow boring or stale. The main plot beats are simple and easy enough to follow even for younger viewers making this one more about the ride than the final destination.

sonic ring

Sonic’s rings play an integral role in the film acting as portals between worlds for Sonic to escape into.

Visually, the film’s special effects hold up just fine. No, I don’t suppose I ever really bought into the concept of Sonic actually existing in this world like I may have at times with Pikachu, but I didn’t feel that harmed my enjoyment of the movie. The film makes liberal use of the slow-motion sequences popularized by the X-Men franchise when illustrating just how fast Sonic can move. Like Quicksilver, Sonic will appear to move at normal speed while the world around him is nearly frozen in time allowing him to correct a situation or just make mischief. It’s not exactly original, but it’s also not something that needed improving on. The film’s score and sound effects also make use of sounds fans of the game have grown up with. Honestly, the film could have used more of the original music as what is adapted for this film is basically the only music that stands out.

sonic friends

Sonic’s human allies, played by James Marsden and Tika Sumpter, don’t offer much, but they also don’t need to.

Beyond those sounds, there’s actually not a ton of fan-service in this one. There are some easter eggs, mainly the attackers early in the film, but the film mostly keeps everything in check. What’s here is enjoyable and most of it is easy to spot. Perhaps even too easy as I was hoping to come home and find out I missed a bunch of stuff that I could look for on another viewing, but I basically caught it all. I was a little disappointed that the film wasn’t able to make use of past voice actors, most notably Jaleel White, but maybe the studio tried and it just didn’t happen. The same can be said of past songs like the theme for the Saturday morning cartoon or the Sega CD “Sonic Boom” track. There is a post credits cameo that’s worth waiting for that all but guarantees a sequel as well, so if you like this then I guess that’s good news.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a competent take on the character that successfully adapts him for the big screen. It’s not a great film, but it is a short one coming it around 99 minutes and that’s all the time it needed. It’s a film worth seeing if you’re a big fan of the character, or if you’re like me and you’re just looking for a movie to take the kids to that won’t bore or annoy you. If you liked Detective Pikachu then I think that’s a pretty good comparison and a solid indicator on if you’ll like this one. Sonic moves at a faster pace and has fewer lulls, but it also doesn’t have as much heart. Its human characters are bland and uninteresting, but they thankfully are not tasked with carrying many scenes by themselves. This is a film that knows what its audience wants, and that’s Sonic. He’s front and center and quite enjoyable to spend time with. If you ever wanted to see a Sonic movie, it’s hard to imagine one turning out better than this.


The NECA TMNT Wish List

shredder vs raphThe early months of the calendar year are generally among my least favorite. They’re cold, dark, and dull where I reside. About the only good thing on the calendar is the annual New York Toy Fair in which vendors roll out previews of the toys to come for the next fiscal year and sometimes beyond. These last few years have been particularly exciting for fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as easing of the master toy license by Nickelodeon and Playmates has allowed other companies to enter the mix. The company that has most taken advantage of this new frontier is NECA which currently has three toy lines based on the property hitting shelves. It’s a crazy fun time to be a Turtle toy collector as a result as NECA has taken a nostalgic approach to its figures which is something Playmates rarely does. And this year figures (pun intended) to be an exciting one as lots of figures are set for reveal.

If you haven’t been involved with the lines up to now, here’s a refresher. NECA is currently hard at work packing Target with two-packs based on the 1987 cartoon. Figures released so far include all four turtles in both toon accurate colors and licensing material (i.e. bright green) colors, Shredder, Krang in his bubble walker, Bebop, Rocksteady, and the always serviceable Foot Soldier. Already unveiled and set for release this spring are figures of April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Leatherhead, Slash (in his cartoon outfit), and battle damaged Foot Soldiers. In addition to them, we’ve already seen previews for a Foot Alpha, Metalhead, Triceraton, Traag, Granitor, and Krang’s android body. That’s a lot to take in with much more likely in the can.

turtlesII

It’s a safe assumption we’ll soon be getting updated turtles to match their appearance in the famed sequel, as well as a few other choice figures.

At Gamestop, NECA is currently sending figures based on the 1990 film. They have thus far released the four turtles, Shredder, Foot, and Splinter. A special Loot Crate edition of Splinter is in production depicting him as a spirit from the camping sequence and with 2020 being the 30th anniversary of that film you know NECA has more on the way. We also know they intend to move onto The Secret of the Ooze so the movie line still has some legs.

At online and specialty shops, NECA is set to roll-out figures based on the popular arcade/SNES game Turtles in Time. The first of the four should be hitting retail soon and features Leonardo and Donatello complete with their weapons and surfboards from the Sewer Surfing level. There’s also a purple Foot Soldier who too packs a surfboard and Slash in his game-specific attire (which happens to match his comic look which the old Playmates toy was based on). All of the figures in this line feature a pixel-deco paintjob. Just revealed is wave two which includes Raph and Mikey as well as Shredder (the non Super version from the arcade) and Leatherhead. Considering a lot of the same players from the show were featured in that game, it stands to reason the cartoon and video game assortments will likely feature similar characters.

That’s a lot, and there’s already probably a lot more ready to be unveiled in a few weeks, but now feels like a good time to compile a wish list. I have collected all or parts of all three lines so far, but my main focus now is on the toon line. The 1990 film is my favorite anything related to TMNT, but there’s just not a lot left from that film NECA needs to touch. I have less fondness for the sequel, but wouldn’t mind some figures from it. The video game line is certainly cool, but not a huge priority right now. It may become one though if the Target two-packs continue to be extremely difficult to track down. Since the game figures are sold online and can even be pre-ordered, it makes acquiring them a lot easier. Plus they’re sold separately so there’s no danger of having to pay for a second, unwanted, figure in a two-pack (which so far hasn’t been an issue).

To sort of collect my thoughts in one place, I’ve decided to put together a little list of my most wanted from NECA. I suspect several of these will be unveiled at Toy Fair, but it would be a stretch to expect all of them. The cartoon actually featured far fewer characters than the old toyline, but many did make it into the show. NECA is thus far only doing characters that were in the cartoon, and if you’re nostalgia is just for the old Playmates line then maybe check out what Super7 is doing with its TMNT figures. Here is my list though, and I think number one is probably the same for many such lists:

  1. splinter teaSplinter (Cartoon) – We have the turtles, we have the main villains, and soon we’ll even have April and Casey, but what we don’t have yet is the beloved sensei to the turtles:  Master Splinter. Playmates never did do a proper toon version of the character, but it can be assumed that NECA will and it will be spectacular. He’ll assuredly come with his walking stick, and hopefully some fun accessories like a mug of tea or maybe some sushi. Afterall, he never was all that fond of pizza.
  2. stinky rat king

    There’s no way this guy smells pleasant. 

    The Rat King (Cartoon) – Possibly my favorite villain from the old show, speaking purely from a design standpoint. The turtles may have dwelled in the sewers, but the Rat King was really the only denizen that actually looked the part. If a cartoon character could have an odor, surely Rat King would have qualified. He would need to come with a few rats, though I’m blanking on additional accessories needed. It’s a long shot, but it would be rad if NECA could include a removable hat and duster to cover the redesign that came later in the toon’s life, but my guess is they’d rather hang onto that as a variant down the road.

  3. baxterfly

    I have an unexplainable fondness for this little guy.

    Baxter Stockman/Baxter the Fly (Cartoon, Game) – I’m cheating a little by including both at number three, but my dream is for Baxter to come in a two-pack with his mutated fly persona. Toss in some mousers, and that’s quite a set! Baxter the Fly is also a figure I’m prepared to double-dip on should he get a video game release as well (and you know he will) because it will likely come with that outrageous gun he wields. And in case you’re not familiar with the game, I speak of the gun that could shoot fists and hand slaps.

  4. killer pizzas

    Raph is probably about to make a joke about them being right behind him.

    Pizza/Sewer Monster (Cartoon) – The Xenomorph inspired Pizza Monsters seem like a solid option for NECA’s Ultimate figures based on the cartoon. The Ultimates are for deluxe figures that will be sold individually as opposed to in two-packs. We don’t know where they’ll be sold, but we do know the Foot Alpha, Metalhead, and Krang’s android body are ticketed for such a release. The Pizza Monster makes for a nice fit because it could feature a fully grown version as well as smaller ones representing the larval forms and such. It’s a classic and well-remembered episode, so much so that NECA even did a Sewer Alien based on the film franchise Alien as a convention exclusive designed to mimic the TMNT version.

  5. groundchuck and dirtbag

    Groundchuck (right) was pretty cool. Dirt Bag (left) I could take or leave.

    Groundchuck (Cartoon) – Groundchuck was one of my favorites of the Playmates toys. The bright red fur with blue attire and steel leg just looked cool to me at the time and I think it would look great as a NECA figure today. In the cartoon, he was paired with Dirt Bag whom I’m less enamored with, but it would certainly make sense to package the two together. He did not appear in Turtles in Time though so he might be a low priority figure since he doesn’t easily fit into that line (he did, however, appear in other games).

  6. tokkamomma

    I know some people are still mad we got these two instead of Bebop and Rocksteady, but it’s hard to deny they’d make awesome figures.

    Tokka and Rahzar (Film, Cartoon) – I’m not super into The Secret of the Ooze, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think its featured dim-witted duo wouldn’t look great in plastic. Tokka especially would likely look awesome, while Rahzar would be a bit tricky given all of the fur. My guess is NECA would sculpt the fur in plastic as it did with Splinter, but who know? If they continued in their quarter-scale line maybe fur would be a feature there. Regardless, I think they would look awesome and I would also be interested in cartoon versions of the characters. It remains to be seen if NECA could create a sculpt that works for both mediums though as the cartoon versions basically looked like the Playmates figures. The two also appeared in the game so NECA could have possibly triple-dip here, though it might be safer for them to just make the film and cartoon/game versions separate.

  7. mondogecko

    Mondo Gecko was a character we were supposed to think is cool, and we all did.

    Mondo Gecko (Cartoon)- Seemingly everyone’s favorite non-turtle character was Mondo Gecko. He had a skateboard, bright colors, and was named Mondo – what’s there not to like? He’s likely a high priority figure as a result for NECA and it would surprise me a little if we don’t see him in a couple weeks. NECA will likely try to make him screen accurate which is a bit unfortunate because the figure was so much cooler. I still think he’ll turn out fine though.

  8. mightyhognrhinoman

    The heroes we truly need.

    Rhino Man and Mighty Hog (Cartoon) – Yeah, I’m cheating again with another two character entry, but what are ya gonna do? I’m mostly avoiding variants of already released figures for this list, but I do love Bebop and Rocksteady and those figures NECA did are so damn awesome that I want to see more of them from the company. While the robots Super Bebop and Mighty Rocksteady are quite tempting, I think I’d actually prefer the super hero versions of the characters:  Rhino Man and Mighty Hog. Even though this is the preferred variant for me, my guess is we actually get SNES versions of the two in pirate attire before anything else.

  9. super shredder

    It helps that NECA won’t need to make a licensing deal with Kevin Nash thanks to the giant helmet.

    Super Shredder (Film, Game) – Now you can’t have figures based on The Secret of the Ooze without including the big baddie from the end:  Super Shredder. Given how quickly he was dispatched, Super Shredder was certainly more bark than bite, but man was he intense looking. NECA would have some fun sculpting all of those spikes. This bad boy would have to be big too, unlike the puny version Playmates gave us many years ago. And unlike Tokka and Rahzar, it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn that film-based figure into a video game one as he basically looked the same. He’d just need to have cool fireball effects and maybe a little screaming turtle.

  10. darkturtle

    Cooler than Batman. There, I said it.

    Dark Turtle (Cartoon) – For my last entry, how about a deep cut? We’ll undoubtedly see figures of the Punk Frogs, Mukman, and maybe even Bug Man before we see a Dark Turtle, but he’s worth remembering. Dark Turtle, in case you forgot, was a one-episode appearance and is the alter-ego of Donatello. He basically looks like Batman, and what’s not to like about a turtle dressed as Batman? I’m not super interested in variants of the turtles, as I think I’m still fatigued by the many Playmates flooded the market with 30 years ago, but this one I’d go for.


Hot Wheels Mario Kart Circuit and Other Sets

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

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

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

img_0859

Blue should always win.

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

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

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

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Extra parking for all of your racers!

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

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Racers can even hide in the turret.

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

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Toad even gets his own parking spot behind his house.

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

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

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

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

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The preferred layout in my house.

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

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

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

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


Catching up with ESPN NFL 2k5…Again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dec. 6 – Pokémon – “Holiday Hi-Jynx”

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Original English air date December 11, 1999.

Yesterday, we took a look at the so-called Pokémon killer, The Weekenders, so today we’re going to look at Pokémon itself. The Weekenders earned that nickname because it was the first to knock Pokémon off the top of the ratings charts for Saturday morning television after it had reigned for a year. The victory was short-lived, and it would seem Pokémon has fared far better in the long run than that forgotten Disney cartoon.

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Yeah, we’re going to have a problem here.

“Holiday Hi-Jynx,” also known as “Rougela’s Christmas” in Japan, is one of the more controversial episodes of the long-running series (which has surpassed the 1,000 episode milestone) due to its focus on the character Jynx. Jynx, as you can see from the image above, seems to resemble a character in blackface. Now, in Japan this isn’t a thing, but in the US where an entire race of people were once enslaved, we have a few hang-ups about this sort of thing. And post slavery, people of color rather famously weren’t afforded the same opportunities as whites, some would say they still aren’t, which included depictions on stage or eventually on film. White actors would be cast to portray black individuals and utilize blackface. And then there were also minstrel shows which were also pretty damn racist, but also pretty common during the era.

In television, characters like Jynx were once waved off. Similar characters have been showing up in animation since it started and some made it to television, and some did not. A contemporary to Pokémon in the late 90s (as far as American audiences are concerned) is Dragon Ball which also featured its own blackface character in Mr. Popo. Mr. Popo largely went unchallenged and was featured in Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z with no alterations or cuts for years. Only when the series returned to television as Dragon Ball Z Kai in 2010 was a change made. And in that case, it was only done for the episodes airing on broadcast television and not cable. For them, Mr. Popo was re-colored with an electric blue skin tone that did little to hide the racism, but I guess it allowed the network to say, “We tried.”

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The CW’s solution for Mr. Popo.

For Jynx, the solution was far simpler. Unlike Mr. Popo, Jynx is not often featured in the series. When Pokémon first aired, the character went unnoticed and the episode was allowed to air. Eventually, the character garnered some negative press and the episode was pulled sometime in 2000. And ever since, it’s essentially been banned. When Netflix and Amazon Prime eventually acquired Pokémon for streaming, this episode was not included. The only way to see it is to purchase a physical copy of the show on DVD, and not just any DVD, as you need to get the specific version that includes it. Future releases would omit the episode.

Is all of this necessary? It’s hard for me to say. I’m a white guy, so I’m naturally not as sensitive to the subject as others would be. Someone apparently didn’t see the value in giving Jynx the Mr. Popo treatment to get it back on air or into a streaming catalog, which is unfortunate since this is a Christmas episode! Poor little Pokémon fans are being deprived a Christmas special because of the stupid, racist, Pokémon it features. I suppose now with the show totaling over a thousand episodes no one sees a need to make sure this one, specific, episode makes it onto Netflix or wherever. Plus, the show has other Christmas episodes. What’s worse, is the episode did get recolored, but for Japan only. A “fixed” episode exists, it just needs to be dubbed. Did they lose the dub track or something? It seems like something that would be easy, and cheap, to correct.  It’s also annoying because Jynx is terrible, she is one of the worst of the original 151 Pokémon. As a human shape, she lacks the cuteness or the charm of someone like Squirtle or Cubone. She’s rather curvy too, which is just weird for a Pokémon.

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Japanese audiences received a new version of this episode, but English audiences have not.

Anyways, that’s Jynx for you. She’s the reason this episode has been placed into purgatory which gives me a desire to take a look at it. Also, for me 2019 may very well be remembered as the year my son was properly introduced to Pokémon. Since getting him Let’s Go! Pikachu for his birthday, he’s been a walking, talking, Pokédex. Time will tell if this obsession will stick, but it’s been rather amusing for me to see him get into something so completely like he has Pokémon which has only further made me want to include the show in this year’s version of The Christmas Spot.

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A rather idyllic piece of Christmas imagery.

Let’s get to it then. This episode is from the first iteration of the show taking place in Kanto. It’s episode 65 of the English dub, though it was supposed to air sometime around episode 39 or so and there’s a continuity error as a result which I’ll note when we get there. And naturally, this is a Christmas episode and it’s going to go all in on that sentiment.

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That’s no Santa!

The episode opens and narrator Rodger Parsons brings us into a darkened bedroom with a girl asleep in bed. It’s Jessie (Rachael Lillis) of Team Rocket, so something must be up. A shadowy figure enters the room from the chimney, could it be Santa? As the figure approaches the bed, a trap is sprung and the old elf is caught in a large net. Jessie rejoices at the capture of Santa, as does their sometimes loyal sidekick Meowth (Madeleine Blaustein). After the title card is displayed, we discover that this is not Santa, but James (Eric Stuart) dressed-up as the Christmas icon in a dry run for a true Santa trap. Jessie has apparently been obsessed with capturing Santa dating back to her childhood when she made an important discovery. While asleep one Christmas Eve, she woke to find Santa in her room, only it wasn’t Santa it was a Jynx! The Santa Jynx picked up Jessie’s favorite doll and departed up the chimney with it infuriating the young girl. Ever since then, Santa has failed to pay her a visit and now it’s time for her revenge!

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We call this one the Pokémon army crawl

Elsewhere, Ash (Veronica Taylor), Brock (Stuart), and Misty (Lillis) have just made a discovery. They’ve spotted a lone Jynx on a beach and she’s holding what appears to be a boot. Jynx, being a rare Pokémon, immediately captures Ash’s attention and he decides he needs to catch this Pokémon. He deploys Pikachu who’s thundershock attack does little to bother the Jynx. She gets Pikachu in her arms and uses her signature maneuver, a kiss, to paralyze the electric rodent. Ash then deploys Charmander and commands him to flamethrower the Jynx. This is the continuity error I mentioned earlier as Ash’s Charmander had already evolved in a previously aired episode.

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Because Jynx wasn’t content to just be racist…

Charmander’s flames subdue the rather docile Jynx, and Ash attempts to capture it with a Pokéball but it fails. Ash is confused, which is about when the group decides to diagnose this situation further such as why is Jynx holding a black boot? Misty takes a look at the boot Jynx is holding and finds it belongs to Santa Claus. How can she tell? He has a picture of himself in his boot, which is a pretty weird way to declare ownership over something (that’s because in the Japanese version, Santa’s name can fit on a postage stamp-sized image where as his English name would not, so he gets a portrait). Jynx then tries to tell them what happened, but like most Pokémon, she’s only capable of saying “Jynx.” Brock guesses she belongs to Santa, and Jynx gets all horny and tries to kiss him which he does not respond well to.

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Jynx’s power on display.

Jynx then does something she should have done from the start. She glows and shimmers with rainbow colors as her hair stretches out and touches everyone around her, including Charmander and Pikachu whom Charmander is adorably carrying on his back. It seems Jynx has the ability to psychically communicate with others. They see the Jynx in an arctic setting polishing Santa’s boot when suddenly a piece of the ice she’s standing on breaks apart from the mainland and drifts away. This Jynx is lost and needs to get back to Santa, and Ash vows to help her out which nearly earns him one of those undesirable kisses.

From atop a peek nearby, Team Rocket is watching and scheming. Since Jessie knows the “secret” about Santa, she’s naturally inclined to follow this Jynx. They intend to follow Ash and the others to Santa’s workshop to steal all of the toys – the horror!

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They live to serve

Ash’s grand plan is to board a raft and sail to Santa’s workshop using Misty’s water Pokémon to pull the raft. As they do so, Team Rocket boards a Gyarados submarine to give chase. Eventually, the water Pokémon get tired and Ash decides he can take over pulling the raft. He strips down to his boxers and dives in. He doesn’t appear to get very far before fatigue sets in as well. He starts to think about turning back, but hears a feminine voice in his head urging him on. When he asks Misty and Brock if they heard it they say they did not. Ash keeps going and the voice informs him he has a ways to go. Suddenly, a wave rises up and crashes into Ash. It severs the rope around his waist and pulls him underwater. He opens his eyes and sees a black void approaching him.

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I bet Ash wishes he was wearing something other than just his underwear when meeting Lapras for the first time.

We’re interrupted with a “Whose that Pokémon?” (it’s Pidgeotto) bumper before returning to the show. The black void before Ash turns out to be a Lapras, a dinosaur-like Pokémon of the sea. It takes him to the surface with Ash upon its shell and Misty is able to get a Pokédex reading on the gentle beast. Turns out, Lapras is capable of telepathy and that’s the voice Ash had been hearing. Lapras (Jayne Grand) explains to everyone that Santa had asked it to find a missing Jynx. Lapras has been watching this trio for some time, and can take them to Santa’s work shop.

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So called they’re willing to get next to a racist, sexual harasser like Jynx.

Lapras pulls the raft ever faster, forcing Team Rocket to speed up. Their submarine is pedal-operated, so they have their work cut out for them. As Lapras pulls the raft along it starts to rain. Ash enjoys it, but Lapras cautions him that it will soon get really cold. Ash says he can handle it and we cut to later to find all three huddled for warmth amongst Jynx’s hair. Lapras informs them they’re almost there and we soon see what looks like a giant iceberg up ahead. Lapras informs the others this is the location of Santa’s workshop, but before they can get too excited the visage of Gyarados rises from the water’s surface.

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Team Rocket bringing new meaning to the term chilly reception.

Team Rocket exits the submarine and breathlessly goes into their usual introductory routine. Eventually, Jesse and James are forced to embrace each other for warmth as Meowth makes his entrance. He quickly decides it’s way too cold and returns to the warm confines of the submarine. Jesse then demands that Ash hand over Santa Claus. When they express confusion, she clarifies she means Jynx. The others have a good laugh at her expense, while Jessie insists that Jynx is actually Santa Claus. Fed up with their laughter, Jessie orders Meowth to fire a missile from the submarine. It arcs into the sky, and as Ash and the others panic, Jessie and James make off with the Jynx. The missile explodes and a huge cargo net is draped over the good guys while Team Rocket heads to the workshop.

jynx elves

I suppose it makes sense that in this world Santa would have a team of Pokémon instead of elves.

Once there, we see a frozen Christmas tree and Team Rocket peering through the windows of the fabled shop. Inside they see numerous Jynx (which Jessie insists on referring to as Santas) doing the work we would normally associate with elves. They soon spy the real Santa, causing Jessie to question everything she’s thought up until now. Santa is seen fretting about his missing left boot to one of the Jynx, and Jessie pops in with the boot and presents it to him. He’s delighted and asks if she also found a Jynx with it, but before she can answer Ash and the others storm in. Ash informs Santa that these people are on his naughty list, and before he can inquire further James and Meowth tie him up. Jessie then tells them if they want to have a happy new year they better do as they command.

jessie and santa

What makes less sense is for Santa to possess no eyes.

With Ash and the others all tied and bound there’s nothing preventing Team Rocket from loading all of the Christmas presents onto their submarine. Santa tries reasoning with Jessie and he seems to be onto something. Jynx comes over and uses her psychic powers to show Jessie what really happened that night. When she woke from her slumber she knocked her favorite toy on the floor causing it to break. Jynx, who was assisting Santa that night, saw the broken toy and took it to have Santa fix it back at his workshop. She now returns it to Jessie good as new. When Jessie asks what took so long, Santa explains that after that Christmas Jessie sealed off her heart to Santa, and once a child stops believing he can no longer enter their home. Jessie’s eyes well up with tears, and James appears affected by this display of emotion. Jessie is thankful, but then informs Santa she’s still taking all of the toys anyways because she’s still Jessie.

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That’s a lot of presents.

As Team Rocket flees in its sub, Lapras emerges. Lapras tells them Christmas is for everyone, and can’t be stolen, before unleashing its ice breath attack on the submarine. It becomes frozen solid, and Ash uses the opportunity to summon Charmander once again. He instructs the Pokémon to free them first before turning its fire breath on Team Rocket. Charmander ends up thawing the ice, inadvertently freeing Team Rocket allowing it to call upon Weezing to take out Charmander and resume its escape.

jessies xmas moment

Is Jessie about to have a magical Christmas moment?

Ash apologizes to Santa for letting Team Rocket get away, but he’s not too concerned. He instructs the Jynx, dressed in little Santa suits of their own, to use their psywave technique. They do as instructed and telekinetically lift the submarine from the water and dump out the presents on the shore. The submarine is then destroyed, and Team Rocket “blasts off” as it always does.

jynx santa army

That would make me run too.

Santa is then shown in a one-Rapidash open sleigh piled high with presents. He thanks them for their help and instructs Lapras to take them home. As he flies away, Ash realizes he never told Santa what he wanted for Christmas. Lapras informs him that Santa knows as Jynx brings out presents for all of them, even Pikachu. Lapras wishes them a merry Christmas to finish things off here.

santa rapidash

This show found a clever way to avoid my reindeer criticism.

We’re then taken back to the castle-like structure on a cliffside that opened the episode. Team Rocket is shown all sharing a bed. They look a bit worse for ware. They’ve hung stockings, but Meowth doesn’t think they’ll be getting filled with presents. Just then, Jynx shows up outside the window. She winks and blows them a kiss, which puts all three to sleep. Santa is then shown flying past the moon, because all Christmas specials featuring Santa are required to include such a shot, and he too wishes us all a merry Christmas.

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Gifts for all!

That was a rather interesting approach to a Christmas episode. It turned an unpopular Pokémon into Santa’s elves and gave Team Rocket a Grinch-like plot. I suppose I should have foreseen a Grinch turn for Team Rocket, but it wasn’t something I ever considered. It’s always interesting to see how Santa is incorporated into a fictional world’s lore, and in this case his existence is unquestioned. It’s perhaps a touch light on Christmas sentiment, but it’s also nice when a special doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the same. I like the fake-out with Jessie who appeared to be having a happy Christmas moment, only to continue on with her plans of thievery. It genuinely fooled me and I thought the episode was going to take the sappy way out, but I’m happy it did not.

The decision to make Jynx essentially Santa’s elves was perplexing to me, then I remembered Black Pete. Yes, one final bit on the inherent racism of Jynx seems to come from Sweden. There, Santa has a servant named Black Pete who functions similarly to Krampus. He’s often depicted by a white actor in blackface, not unlike Jynx. Black Pete punishes bad kids, which is something Jynx apparently does not do (unless you view her putting Team Rocket to sleep at the episode’s conclusion a form of punishment or trickery), but the Jynx certainly are servants of Santa. The main Jynx was scrubbing his boots when she got lost, for goodness sake!

pikachu xmas gift

Even Pikachu!

As for the future of Jynx, she’d return without the Santa plot. Nintendo and Gamefreak also apparently took the issue of her appearance with western audiences to heart and her skin tone has been altered from black to purple. This change has carried over to the games and it’s definitely an improvement. She’s still an awful Pokémon, but at least her racism is less blatant.

santa pokemon

The natural closing shot for 99% of all Christmas specials.

Because of its controversial nature, “Holiday Hi-Jynx” isn’t the easiest Christmas special to view legally. It’s not streaming, and it obviously won’t be shown on television this year. You can either go out and buy the old DVD, or turn to the internet. It’s not particularly hard to find if that’s the route you take. As for me, I’d like to show this one to my Pokémon obsessed son. I don’t think the imagery will have a negative impact on him, and he’d probably like to see Ash and company interact with Santa this Christmas. Hopefully he’s not expecting a Jynx to visit him on Christmas Eve because there’s no way I’m letting one of them into my house. I have my limits.


The Sega Genesis Mini

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The Sega Genesis Mini has arrived, though Amazon wasn’t particularly careful about packaging…

When it was a hardware manufacturer, Sega was often the company first to market with new technology. The Genesis (Mega Drive for non North American gamers) beat the Super Nintendo to market, the Sega CD beat the never released Super Nintendo CD, the 32X aggressively tried to make the 32 bit era begin early, the Saturn beget the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, and finally the Dreamcast arrived before the PlayStation 2 by over a year. When it came to the new mini consoles though, Sega was a laggard. I suppose you could credit the company with embracing this sort of plug and play retro gaming before the others as “flashback” systems have been at retail for years. Those releases were cheap though and the less said the better. Nintendo essentially saw what Sega was doing and decided to do it right when it released the NES Classic Edition in 2016 providing the blueprint for how these things should be done.

Sega saw the folly of its ways and for once decided to take things slow. The Genesis Mini was supposed to launch in 2018 and be yet another partnership with AtGames who had released the subpar Sega branded hardware already featured at retail. Sega understood the quality just wasn’t there, and the agreement between the two was either terminated or expired. Sega took development in-house, and also brought in M2 which had done the emulation for the well-received Sega Ages compilation. And thus Sega became a hardware manufacturer once again for the first time in nearly 20 years.

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That’s quite a lineup.

The Sega Genesis Mini is the latest in the mini console wave of devices that is now in its fourth year of relevancy. It follows the NES Classic, the SNES Classic, Neo Geo Mini, and PlayStation Classic and precedes the upcoming TurboGrafx-16 Mini which will bring this mini console era into 2020. The Genesis has been the missing link as it was one of the most popular video game consoles of its time and was arguably more deserving of such a release than the likes of the Neo Geo and PlayStation. There was considerably less demand for it though and I attribute that to the poor AtGames releases which really harmed the Sega brand in recent years.

Sega and its Genesis console have become a bit of a punching bag over the years. Most remember the marketing surrounding the machine than the actual games themselves. Sega was willing to go the distance to get noticed and basically every 90s cliché one can dream of can be found in Genesis marketing material. It aggressively promoted itself against the Super Nintendo by toting “Blast Processing” and that Genesis does what Nintendon’t. These marketing promotions are laughed at now because most admit that the Super Nintendo is among the greatest gaming devices ever invented. It’s almost absurd to suggest that the Genesis was superior, even if those marketing gimmicks kept Sega in the lead in terms of sales for much of the 90s.

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The size of these mini consoles will never not amuse me.

All of the retro silliness surrounding Sega these days tends to ignore the fact that the Genesis was pretty damn good in its own right. Sega was aggressive in acquiring licensed material for its machine and as a result the best selling Genesis titles tend to be not great. Those games overshadow the smaller releases that really were something special like Shining Force and Gunstar Heroes. Sega has either acknowledged that, or difficulties in getting those licensed games for its mini console has allowed the Sega Genesis Mini to function as a showcase for those forgotten gems. And the fact that the device comes packed with 42 games means there’s also plenty of room for Sonic.

If you have played one of the Nintendo mini consoles then you basically know what to expect with the Genesis Mini. It’s about half the size of the model one Genesis and comes with two controllers that connect via USB instead of the old Genesis pin connectors. The console looks great and it’s quite light because there’s really not a lot that needs to go into these things to make them functional. The device comes with an HDMI cable for hook-up to modern televisions as well as a USB to AC wall connector for power. The controller cables are about six feet long, which is neither good nor bad, and turning on the console brings you to a dashboard from which the games can be played. The Genesis Mini outputs an HD signal, but the quality of the emulation means there’s no input lag nor do the images look washed out. The games can be played in their native 4:3 aspect ratio, or zoomeded to 16:9 if you’re a monster. The games can also be played with a filter designed to mimic old scan lines if you choose, though I find the image to be darker and muddier as a result.

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It’s comparison time! Apologies for not having the US version of the SNES Mini

The Sega Genesis Mini doesn’t really distinguish itself from what Nintendo did in terms of function, and that’s because it doesn’t need to. This is an appropriate way to make these games available in 2019 and the emulation is top-notch. The controllers themselves feel a touch off when compared with the real thing, but they function perfectly fine. It is a shame that Sega included the 3-button controller instead of the six (which Japan received), but I suppose it was done to coordinate with the original release of the Genesis. It’s also disappointing that Nintendo utilized its own proprietary connector on its consoles instead of USB so the extension cables I bought for my Nintendo consoles won’t help me here. Sega did at least include a menu shortcut in its software that is achieved by simply holding down the start butto, something Nintendo didn’t even do with its SNES Classic. Where Sega differentiates itself from Nintendo further is in the celebration of the little things. The Mini is not region locked, and you can even experience this software in Japanese if you wish. This is pretty cool with a game like Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, which was a re-skin of Puyo Puyo for the North American market. Changing the region to Japan actually changes Dr. Robotnik to Puyo Puyo, even though that game wasn’t even emulated for the Japanese release of the Mini.

 

By now you have likely also seen where Sega separated itself from the other retro consoles by making everything on the Genesis Mini semi-functional. That means the flaps on the cartridge socket work and the expansion port for the Sega CD is also present. These things don’t actually do anything, but it’s such a simple and appreciated touch. Sega has even gone way beyond the extra mile in Japan by releasing a mini Sega Tower. By that I mean you can actually purchase mini versions of the Sega CD, 32X, Sonic & Knuckles lock-on cartridge, and a mini cartridge of Sonic the Hedgehog to connect to your Genesis Mini. Again, these serve no functional purpose what so ever, but it’s Sega celebrating what it’s known for. If that silly thing does indeed earn a North American release, you can bet your ass I’ll be all over it.

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I don’t have a model one Genesis, so this is the best I can do.

The Genesis Mini would be nothing without quality software, and here Sega has delivered as well. I previously ranked each game set for release and as I get reacquainted with these titles I see little reason to change those rankings. There are a few duds I won’t ever play, but mostly this is a collection of the best games available for the system as opposed to the most popular. I’m sure there are folks who will say something is missing. I know a lot of people were surprised to see no Sonic the Hedgehog 3 or Sonic & Knuckles, but it’s not like the hedgehog isn’t well represented as-is. I’m quite surprised that Mortal Kombat wasn’t included because of how important that game was for the Genesis, but I also can’t say I miss playing it as the game hasn’t aged particularly well. Licensing issues obviously prevented Sega from including one of the many well-received sports titles as well. And as Nintendo did with Star Fox 2 on its classic console release, Sega has included unreleased titles on this one as well including Monster World IV and Mega Man: The Wily Wars, games not sold at retail in North America. And as for games never released at all on the Genesis, there’s the Genesis version of Tetris and Darius.

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And in case you were wondering, here is how the Mini compares with a Sega CDX.

All of this basically just means that Sega has gone out and released perhaps the best Mini console so far. The emulation is great and it’s packed with games that are still worth playing in 2019. Sega has also made sure to make this a fun release that celebrates both the Genesis and Sega as a whole. If you thought you didn’t need to experience the Genesis again then I encourage you to rethink that position.


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