Category Archives: Video Games

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV

It took me five years to get from Trails of Cold Steel II to the end of Trails of Cold Steel III, but for IV a mere five months feels rather tidy. Yes, this review is going up later than I wanted since I finished the game back in November, but blame it on Christmas and a massive influx of toys at year-end. People seem to mostly come to my blog for toy reviews and Danzig, so the straight video game reviews get pushed aside sometimes. Don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m not passionate about my other pastimes, and in particular I am quite passionate about the JRPG genre of gaming and the Trails of Cold Steel franchise might be the best of the modern era.

Which might be unfortunate since this is it. I finally reached the end after 400+ hours of gaming! I’ve seen the end and what it means for Rean Schwarzer, the hero of the series, and his many, many, companions. And I do mean many as this game is quite literally the culmination of three games worth of content. Trails of Cold Steel III saw Rean at the head of a new Class VII which meant new characters in the form of Juna, Kurt, Altina, Ash, and Musse. Trails of Cold Steel IV basically unites the Class VII of that game with the Class VII of the first two games giving you a pretty sizable pool of characters to utilize. And unlike the last game, almost all of the characters are available to you at any point. There’s often a character or two necessary to be included during each mission or chapter of the game, but that still means 3 or 4 other slots are open to the player. And it’s not just two Class VII’s that are available, but numerous other characters as well! In short, if you like party variety, then this game will more than satisfy in that area.

Rean is in a bad place, figuratively and literally, when this one begins.

The last game ended with a pretty substantial cliffhanger. Rean witnessed the death of Millium which drove him into a rage unleashing his latent ogre power which he sometimes taps into, but never gives in to, if that makes sense. This affected the divine knight Valimar that he pilots, a sort of mecha type unit, and made him easy prey for Giliath Osborne, the Iron Blood Chancellor who orchestrated the assassination of the emperor and seized control of the nation of Erebonia. The game literally ended with Osborne grasping Valimar by the throat via his own divine knight and taunting him. When this game begins, there’s only a brief time-skip in place. There’s no time jump of a cold open this time, though you do play as the Crossbell group for the introduction in place of the cold open, and when you get control of Class VII it’s one without Rean. He’s been captured and the first chunk of the game is devoted to rescuing him. This is really the first time the player has not had control of Rean and it’s actually quite nice. You’ll mostly control the new members of Class VII: Juna, Altina, and Kurt. Instructor Randy accompanies them and he’s basically the Rean replacement as he’s a bit overpowered compared with the kids. Members of old Class VII are available at times, but the game doesn’t open up until Rean is returned to where he belongs.

Not only does this game unite the former members of Class VII with the new ones, but it’s also going to bring in the cast from the sister series Trails in the Sky so folks who have really sunk a massive amount of hours into this series are getting a major payoff.

And I don’t consider it a spoiler to say you will eventually rescue Rean. From there, it becomes a story about preventing the end of the world so the stakes are rather high. Basically, your opponents want to bring it all down and start from scratch and only Class VII can stop them. There is an opposition party ready to face fire with fire, but the resulting war will result in many, many, casualties no matter what so it’s something all would like to avoid. Rean is also marked as the “sacrifice” to this somewhat divine plan so there’s a shadow hanging over him the whole game through. He has to deal with that and the uncertainty that comes with it. It does get very “anime” at times, but I never felt confused along the way. Maybe frustrated, but that has more to do with how the characters are portrayed than anything.

The ruling class has orchestrated a war through treachery and it’s going to fall on you to put an end to it.

The gameplay is still largely the same. Trails of Cold Steel IV is a turn-based RPG in which turn order is determined by numerous factors. You can see the order of attack at all times, but it’s fluid and can be manipulated by both the player and the AI. An attacking party consists of four characters, but reserve characters can be swapped in on the fly during a player turn without penalty. Characters still have the use of basic attacks, magic attacks, and what the game calls crafts which consume CP instead of mana. A max of 200 CP can be accumulated and players earn it by dealing and receiving damage. At 100 CP, most characters have access to their super attack which can be triggered at any moment, but comes with a delay penalty. It will consume all CP the character has and its strength is impacted by just how much is utilized so it pays to wait until a character has accrued the full 200. These attacks can often turn the tide of battle or serve as a useful way to end one. Sometimes, they’re a desperation move that seems to work as much as it fails so it’s a viable thing to turn to when the going gets rough, but not something that can be relied upon like a crutch.

Returning this time is also the Link System. When in battle, characters link-up with another and their corresponding link level affects how they’ll respond. When a character lands a critical hit, a follow-up action can be made by the linked character. This accumulates Battle Points which can be spent on better follow-up attacks or used to issue Brave Orders. Brave Orders are unique to each character and most apply a buff of some kind to the party. Some can do things like revive fallen members or augment casting time. The amount of points each one consumes fluctuates from character to character and the party can now hold a maximum of 7 Brave Points instead of 5. Having a high link level also unlocks passive abilities like cover or an auto-restore function that will trigger at random. Link Points are earned by simply participating in a combat party together so there is some benefit to mixing things up at times, but also sticking with a more consistent approach will level up those specific links faster.

The all powerful S-Craft returns and is still a massive difference maker in battle.

What’s new this time around are the trial chests. These are actually returned from the second game, only now they unlock or upgrade Brave Orders. These chests are hidden throughout the game and each one requires a specific battle party to participate. If you come upon one and don’t have the proper characters in your party at the time, it’s no issue as the location is saved and you can teleport to most of them at any time from your base. These chests can sometimes force you into pairing off characters you may normally would not and they’re a fun little diversion. They’re not as rewarding as the trial chests from the second game, but I was still happy to have them back. Equipment, character progression, and the ARCUS system all return from the past games. Basically, this is a very familiar setup and if you didn’t like any of the previous games then you won’t like this one. On the other hand, if those systems entertained you there then you’ll be plenty entertained here.

Also returning are the mech battles. The divine knights play a big role in the plot of the game so naturally there are more divine knight battles this time around. This is welcomed as I always appreciated the change of pace brought on by these encounters and felt they were underutilized in the previous games. Unlike standard combat, only some characters have access to the game’s mechs, but the ones that don’t can function in a support role. These battles tend to be the most challenging encounters in the game as there’s a cat and mouse element at play. Each enemy has three spots it can be attacked, but only one is considered a weak point. Finding it is basically random, though there is some logic at play when just looking at the enemy. If they’re pretty wide open, you can probably go for the head, for example. They’ll change stances on you though so the weak spot is constantly changing. Plus, many enemies can dish out a lot of damage and it becomes a game of resource management. They may be open for an attack, but your character may need to defend or heal and it pays to be more cautious in these encounters than brash.

The amount of playable characters in this one is insane.

The systems are still the strength of the game and so is the story, but like the third game, it has almost no respect for your time. Because the cast is so bloated at this point, many scenes just drag on because everyone present has to offer their opinion on what’s going on. It’s often not profound or even interesting to hear from many of the characters and I found myself wanting this game to move faster more often than not. The characters are also unfailingly kind for those basically participating in a war of epic consequences. There are moments when an enemy could be dispatched, but they just let them get away. The game also loves to deus ex machina everything, often with some character arriving out of nowhere to save the day. It becomes so routine that it ceases to be surprising. Instead, it’s an exercise of “Who haven’t I run into from the past games yet that could show up now?” The game also is terrified of actually killing anyone off, so don’t expect to ever actually say goodbye, and for a story with such high stakes there really are few casualties. Many allies from the past games are now enemies due to their allegiance to the chancellor. They go along with it out of a sense of duty and the game seems to place far too much importance on that and has more respect for it than it should. Those characters are bringing about the end of the world and we’re supposed to feel bad for them because they’re conflicted in some way? Not to be too dramatic, but that’s like sympathising with a Nazi officer who feels bad about exterminating Jews. You have a choice, you have agency, but Rean and company just forgive and forget and that bothered me.

Like most modern RPGs, this game does feature a romance option. Rean, once again, can build social links with basically every other playable character and some non-playable character. As his bond with these characters intensifies, they (and Rean) gain permanent stat boosts so they’re all worthwhile. The women though come with the added benefit of being a romance option for Rean. And unlike the third game which only opened things up to 3 of the women, this game lets Rean pursue almost every female he comes across. Of the characters that can participate in the regular battle party (there are also many guest characters you’ll get to control. Again, this cast is huge!), only three of the women are locked off and one of them is a lesbian. This means you’re free to pursue whoever you had Rean pursue in the first two games, but it also means you can go after any of the women from the third game. This includes Rean’s students, which is pretty damn yucky. A teacher should not engage in a romantic relationship with a student, especially minors, but this game will let you do that if you want to. It tries to be respectful of the situation with Rean saying something like “When you’re of age, then we can be intimate,” type of thing, but that almost makes it worse. Rean can also go after his former teacher, Sara, which is also a little messy, but at least they’re both adults and removed from the teacher-student relationship by a couple of years, I think. And finally, Rean can also romance his sister. Now, before you really get worked up, his sister Elise is not a blood relative. Rean was adopted, but they were still raised as brother and sister and Rean literally can’t remember life before his adoption so emotionally they seem as linked as any biological brother and sister. Worse, the game also feels like it’s steering the player towards that outcome and I just couldn’t get onboard. Does that make me a prude? I don’t know, but I didn’t like it. There are also still characters that hit on underage girls all of the time and the only gay representation is from horny lesbians. Yoe mean with this massive roster of playable characters there isn’t one homosexual man? I just feel for the gay players out there looking for at least some representation, and some positive ones at that.

The romance options do add an extra layer of investment for the player and they can be rewarding, but some feel a bit icky.

If after spending well over 100 hours with this one you still want more, there is a New Game+ option. It’s mostly to allow for the player to experience all of the various bonding events available in the game. It’s impossible to achieve the max level of bonding with every character on a single playthrough (though if you like options for the romance stuff, you can max out all of the romanceable women in one playthrough) so you won’t see the “ending” for each character. The actual game’s ending is not locked behind New Game+ which is definitely appreciated. There are two endings, a good one and a bad one, but it’s not terribly hard to get the good one. There’s basically just one optional boss that has to be defeated, and if you don’t trigger that encounter in your normal playthrough, you’ll basically be allowed to teleport to it at the conclusion of the bad ending to rectify that. It’s a little extra time spent if you go that route, but it’s not terribly cumbersome. Personally, I am all set with watching the bonding events I missed on YouTube as it’s not worth it to me to go back through the game just for that. It would just take too much time.

Visually, the game is basically the same as the previous one. They use the same engine, but several characters have received new wardrobes at least. Environments are still a bit unimpressive, but I am happy to say that this game is far more stable than part 3 was. I don’t think it crashed on me once which is a far cry from what I experienced before. There’s still slowdown and framerate hiccups here and there, but I’ll take that over complete crashes. The music remains consistent and I liked this one a bit more than the previous game. There’s a bit more variety, though some tunes do get repetitive. The voice acting is pretty good as well, though some characters sound worse than others. And I don’t mean the performance, I just mean the audio quality. One character in particular sounded like her voice was recorded in a closet. The North American version of the game was released during the COVID pandemic so I am guessing that is to blame. Still, voice actors have been recording lines over the phone for years without it sounding funny so I’m not sure what happened here. It does stand out though and I’m purposely not naming the character I’m thinking of just to see if anyone chimes in with a guess because it was that noticeable.

Pom-Pom Party is the best mini game the series has introduced.

I’ve said a lot already about this game and I haven’t even touched on the side games. You still get to go fishing and play cards, but there’s also some gambling and a puzzle game to spend time with. In short, there’s a lot and you will easily sink more than 100 hours into this one. I think I even surpassed 120 this time. I was hoping for a shorter game compared with the third one, but I got a longer one. I guess that should have been expected as this is the big finale and it does deliver an actual ending. I mean, there’s still a tease for something more because The Legend of Heroes will seemingly never die, but I could stop here and be content. This cast of characters is set to return in one more game, Trails into Reverie (which has been out for a little while in Japan already), before it looks like we’ll be heading in a completely new direction. I suppose I’ll have to check that game out, but for now I am happy to be done with Trails of Cold Steel. And not because I didn’t enjoy it or anything, but because everything should have an ending and after over 400 hours it was time for one. Obviously, this game is for those who played the prior games. Enough was done with Trails of Cold Steel III that making that a jumping-on point is possible, but those who played all four will get the most of out of this (and some would argue you should play Trails in the Sky too, but I did not). Trying to just jump into this one is not really advisable so this game does possess a significant barrier for entry. I don’t regret one hour I spent with this series though. It’s quite entertaining and the mechanics are great. I do think the pacing could have been better and the characters could have been differentiated from one another a bit better as well, but for the most part I was really happy with the systems in place. And I would be more than happy to see them return. Maybe with a new wrinkle, or better yet, a game that really relied on the mech battles, but it’s not a mechanic that has completely run out of juice. It’s become increasingly hard to find good, quality, console JRPG games that don’t play like an MMO so I am happy to play whatever comes from Falcom next in this long-running series.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

There was a time when the term RPG meant really only one thing, at least for kids and teens in the 90’s:  Final Fantasy. Now the term is probably more synonymous with Bethesda and Bioware games, the “western” style of RPGs, with the eastern take being some-what of an endangered species. The “JRPG” as we…

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The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

Here at The Nostalgia Spot, we don’t just celebrate that which is old, but also that which celebrates the old. Few modern devices apply as well as a JRPG video game. The JRPG once dominated the video game landscape in the later stages of the 16-bit era and through the 32-bit era. Following that, the…

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The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III

I knew it had been a long time since I reviewed The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, but I was surprised when I went back and looked and saw that I posted that entry almost 5 years ago. The Trails of Cold Steel series was planned to be 4 games and I…

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TMNT Loot Crate Series 2 Vol. 2 – Pixelated Shark Boy

Wow, it’s actually full this time.

2022 is nearly in the books. As we countdown the final hours and minutes until 2023, it feels good to say that the new year will begin with no further Loot Crate obligations. That’s because after a delay of more than a year, the second crate in Loot Crate’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series of crates is finally here. It may be the second crate, but it’s arriving fourth due to…who knows? Loot Crate basically went silent to start 2022 and stopped providing updates on where things were. This crate was supposedly ready to rock 10 months ago, but obviously that wasn’t the case. I ranted and raved a bit in the other crate reviews so if you want more background info I’d say go give those a peek, but let’s relax and be happy that it’s all over now.

If you’re new to the scam, each crate in a series of four is based on a different pillar of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles media empire: comics, movies, television, and video games. This final crate is the video game one, which in the first series was themed around Turtles in Time. The same could be said for NECA’s line of action figures released to comic shops, but this one is a mix of two different video games: Turtles in Time and Tournament Fighters. Like past crates, you get a bunch of junk and a t-shirt with the real selling point being an exclusive action figure from NECA. And in this one it’s Armaggon from Tournament Fighters, a character that I’m not particularly attached to, but I know a lot of other collectors out there who are really excited to get this one. And not because they’re huge fans of Tournament Fighters, but because Armaggon was a character in the Archie comics. He’s basically a mutant shark from the future and he’s quite the badass. The Armaggon from the video game was a mostly faithful adaptation of the comic character making this figure a pretty faithful adaptation of the same. Well, except for that pixel deco NECA uses for its video game line.

Before we get to the main event though, we should probably talk about the junk. As I mentioned in the prior paragraph, some of this is from Turtles in Time and some from Tournament Fighters. From Turtles in Time, we get a pair of socks. They have some graphics on them from the game (turtles on one sock, villains on the other) and…they’re socks. They’re fine. We also get a pin, as every crate has included a pin so far. This one features Leatherhead’s head and…it’s fine. We also get a boxed set of two glasses featuring Tokka and Rahzar from the game. When I picked the box up and saw the image of the glassware inside, I assumed they were shot glasses, but they’re actually bigger. I guess these are whiskey glasses? Bourbon glass? Loot Crate calls them juice glasses. Either way, the graphics are more like decals so if you decide to use these you will want to hand wash them because a dishwasher will likely obliterate the images. Some of the decals on mine are crooked, which is a shame. At least the images look, in a running theme for this crate so far, fine.

Tournament Fighters, in case you forgot, was a TMNT fighting game released exclusively for consoles. It’s odd that it wasn’t released to arcades, but maybe that’s how late it was to arrive. It’s also a Konami fighter, and now that I think about it, Konami really didn’t tackle the genre much and I can’t think of a single Konami fighting game released in arcades (Martial Champion, anyone?). They mostly specialized in brawlers, but I guess they felt they could not ignore the hype generated by the likes of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The game was released for the Super Nintendo, Genesis, and Nintendo Entertainment System. In what is an example of a bygone era for game development, each version of the game was completely different from the other. The Super Nintendo one is the version that featured Armaggon, so it’s from that game that the theme for the t-shirt is pulled. In what can only be described as a Christmas miracle (I got my crate before Christmas), Loot Crate actually sent me the proper sized shirt. The shirt itself is just black with the turtles fighting Shredder with some very 90s colors in the background. It’s…fine. Lastly, and it’s not really from any game, is a Krang stress ball. He has more of a toon look to him, but a licensing art toon look. It’s pretty fun though, I’ll give it that. We also get a summary card of the stuff in the crate, something the last one omitted.

They put a lot of effort into this packaging.

So yeah, the junk in this crate is all fine. Nothing is terrible, nothing is really a surprise, and nothing is really all that welcomed. I guess it’s nice to have another shirt, and I definitely prefer it to the apron from the last crate, and I’ll wear it and probably the socks because why not? I’ll find a home for the silly stress ball, and the rest will probably end up in a drawer or behind my bar. In comparison with the other crates, it’s way better simply by virtue of getting the shirt size correct, but it’s still a bunch of stuff I never would have purchased individually. The real attraction is and always has been the action figure. And in order to get the bonus figure of Scrag in the last crate, I had to get all of them. If I could have picked and choosed what crates I wanted and still got Scrag I may have passed on Armaggon. Nothing against him, I just have no affection for Tournament Fighters. It was a middling fighting game that was also brutally difficult and I wasted a rental on it as a kid. It wasn’t one of my worst rental decisions, but it was a game I never contemplated renting again or actually buying. And if I’m going to get an Armaggon, I’d prefer a true comic one. That said, I was still curious about this figure. I could tell from early solicitations that it was going to reuse some components from Bebop and Rocksteady, but it was also hard to tell just how much. And to a lesser extent, I was curious how the figure would be packaged and if NECA was intending to do more from the game.

And here’s good old shark boy, free from his box!

Armaggon comes bundled in a box that is essentially the same shape as the other Loot Crate figures. The graphics on it though are tailored to the Tournament Fighters SNES game and they did a really good job. Almost too good considering this isn’t a figure that will show up on shelves at a store near you. The box graphics are designed to mimic the packaging of a Super Nintendo game and NECA even put it’s own logo on there in the same style as the Nintendo logo of old. There’s shots of the arcade Donatello on it designed to emulate the same posings from the artwork of the Tournament Fighters game and they whited out the eyes on him and updated the figure to look a bit more like the Donatello from the game. He doesn’t look quite like the source though since those sprites were designed to resemble the 1990 movie suits. It would have been interesting to see NECA try to do the same just to see how that figure would have looked, but eh, it’s fine.

Once removed from his cardboard prison, Armaggon cuts a pretty intimidating pose on a shelf. He’s fairly tall coming in at a tick under 7″ (not counting his fin which puts him closer to 7.5″) or so which makes him one of the largest figures in the video game line. The first thing that jumps out though is the head. He looks pretty crazed with those red eyes and red gums to go with a lot of sharp teeth. It’s a nice sculpt and one that’s obviously all new. It sits on the torso of Bebop and I’m guessing the biceps and shoulders are recycled as well. The forearms needed to be re-tooled because Armaggon has some red fins there and they give his arms the added length they need. The hands are straight from the other release though as are the thighs which have the clothing wrinkles still sculpted in which is a bit annoying, but NECA did the same for the Triceratons so it’s hardly a surprise. The lower legs and the feet are all new since Armaggon has flippers. The other new part appears to be the crotch as his belt is part of the same piece. On the rear of the figure is a shark tail and that’s all new as well. To summarize, the only old parts are the torso, upper arm, hands, and thighs which is less than I expected.

He has the same gripping hands as Rocksteady, with one being a trigger finger. I’m not sure he needs them.

What stands out with the figure is the paint and his cybernetic bits. The pixel deco is one of NECA’s best applications of it. There are parts of the figure, like the right thigh and shoulders, that really blend like a sprite should when viewing it from the shelf. It’s a neat effect, and while some don’t like it, at least it’s done well. The cybernetic stuff is basically all of the yellow around the head area. It’s sort of like a harness, I don’t really know the function of it, but it’s very intricately done. He has lots of tubes and straps and while they look good, it does give the figure a fragile appearance. And considering it’s a limited edition figure that’s not supposed to ever be sold at retail, it makes it even scarier to handle. He also has his missiles sculpted into his traps and they’re colored gray like the game. They don’t do anything, but it’s obviously something the character needed. Overall, I’d call the sculpt and paint pretty damn good all things considered. The reuse present is appropriate and there’s plenty of new stuff to justify the cost. Well, if we’re applying a cost of 25 bucks or so to the figure since the crate costs $50.

In terms of articulation, well, there isn’t a lot to talk about. As hinted at earlier, this guy is scary to pose. The head is locked down, but he does have a hinged jaw which is cool. The arms though are connected to those tubes and harness contraption and I hesitate to do much with them. They bend, but I can see them getting stressed and I personally will pose this guy in as unstressful a position as I can get. Which is probably straight up and down, but we’ll see. He does have hinged shoulders though and a biceps swivel. The elbows are double-jointed and the wrists swivel and hinge. There’s a torso joint that basically just provides a tiny bit of rotation and little else. If the waist does anything, I can’t tell. At the hips, we have ball and socket joints like the Triceratons which I am very happy about as I feared we’d get the old style Bebop and Rocksteady hips. There’s a slight thigh twist at the ball and the knees are double-jointed. The ankles hinge and have a rocker and move fine. The tail is on a ball peg, but it does very little. This guy is pretty stiff out of the box so be gentle. Maybe just be extra cautious and heat anything up that feels stuck. The lower half of the figure is the stronger part when it comes to articulation and it’s okay. I feel fine posing him down there. It’s the arms and upper torso that scare me the most, and really it’s the upper arm. The elbows and hands are fine. He’s not going to pose very well though, unfortunately.

These three all share some parts between them.

As has been the case with basically all of the Loot Crate figures, the accessories are rather weak. In fairness, I don’t know that Armaggon needs anything from the game. Maybe an effect? He just has extra hands though and they’re all recycled from Bebop and Rocksteady. He has a set of fists and open hands plus a trigger finger right hand and a gripping left. He has nothing to grasp, but if you want to give him a gun or something at least you can. I’ll probably just go with the open, style posed, hands and leave it that way.

Will NECA ever do proper Tournament Fighter turtles? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Well, that’s it! The second, and hopefully final, series of Loot Crates based on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are history and it feels good to be done. I’ve had plenty of preorders over the past two years that went long so it’s not the delays that bothered me. It’s the lack of communication and the outright lying that came out of The Loot Company that ticked me off. Plus, we’re not talking about a preorder that took two years to be delivered. This was paid for back in early 2021 and it was supposed to ship in September of the same year! That’s nuts! At the end of 2021 they were saying it was going to ship imminently – there’s no way that was ever true! And they screwed up a ton of the orders, went really light on the stuff in crate 3, and just all around delivered a bad consumer experience. Hopefully, Loot Crate is allowed to die for good this time and never return, because if another round of these things is announced I’m staying away. Unless they change their business model to not require payment upfront, because this stuff felt super shady. If I’m allowed to ignore the consumer experience and just judge the whole thing on what we got, it still was a subpar experience. The Danny figure stunk, and there was nothing of value in 2 of the remaining three crates outside of the figures. At least those figures were done well enough, but why do they need to be sold this way? Collectors will happily just buy these figures from NECA direct and there’s really no character too obscure for release at this point. Now, it’s just my opinion, but I don’t think NECA liked the experience of partnering with Loot Crate either so it’s my hope that they have enough pull with their owner, who owns Loot Crate, to put an end to the partnership because it really hurt their brand more than it helped. For now, let’s just be happy it’s over and try to enjoy the figures we got. Here’s to a new year free of Loot Crate!

TMNT Loot Crate Series 2 Vol. 1 – The “It’s Dan now” Crate

Loot Crate’s first series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crates in 2020 were a massive success. The crates sold out and anyone who missed out found out acquiring them on the secondhand market would be most expensive, and that’s because each crate came bundled with a NECA exclusive action figure. NECA’s parent company rescued Loot…

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Dec. 2 – Donkey Kong Country – “The Kongo Bongo Festival of Lights”

Original air date December 20, 1999.

In 1994, Nintendo and developer Rare Ltd. released unto the world Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo. It was a pretty big deal because with Sony prepping its 32-bit PlayStation console for release, and Nintendo no where near ready to unveil the Nintendo 64, the company needed to eke out a few more years from the SNES to bridge that gap. Sega had tried to do the same with its Genesis console by releasing expensive add-ons that ultimately failed forcing it to rush the Saturn console to market around the same time. Nintendo felt the SNES still had something to say, and Rare had just the thing up its sleeve: 3D.

Three-dimensional graphics had already been done on the Super Nintendo in 1993 with Star Fox. That game used 3D polygons to create a style of flight sim pretty foreign to console gamers. It was unquestionably impressive and the game was a lot of fun to play, though unsaid at the time was that the game was pretty ugly. Actual pleasant visuals were sacrificed in order to achieve three-dimensional gaming and it was a trade-off that felt necessary at the time in order for advancements to be made. That’s why it was so shocking when Rare unveiled Donkey Kong Country which featured 3D models of the game’s characters: Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, making his debut. The two looked like a pair of cartoon apes and their many allies and foes featured the same level of detail. It was stunning and left jaws on the floor when it was first shown. Even today, the game is hardly an eyesore and many would argue it’s aged better than a lot of the games that followed on more powerful hardware.

Not just a popular series of video games.

Just how did Rare pull off the impossible on the Super Nintendo? With trickery, of course. Rare rendered the characters in 3D on (for the time) powerful computers and then converted those models into 2D sprites. In doing so, Rare was able to preserve the 3D aesthetic even if the game itself wasn’t technically 3D. Does that matter? No! If gamers were convinced they were experiencing a game rendered in 3D then that’s all that matters. Of course it helped that the gameplay was restricted to just two planes as Donkey Kong Country, at its heart, is a fairly straight-forward 2D platformer. I’d even argue it’s a merely average one as I personally never found a lot of enjoyment in playing the game, even if I was impressed by how it looked.

To no one’s surprise, Donkey Kong Country was a big hit for Nintendo and two sequels followed on the Super Nintendo, pretty good for a console everyone thought was at the end of its life when the original came out. The game was popular enough that an animated series was commissioned by Nelvana for 1997. Working on season one was Medialab Studio L.A. which switched to Hong Guang Animation for season two. WIC Entertainment had a hand in the production as well and the show was broadcast around the world totaling 40 episodes. In the US, it was one of the original Fox Family Channel cartoons and was also seen a bit on the broadcast network. And since the video games were “3D,” so was the animated series. Being a 1997 show, it’s obviously pretty limited and as a result it was something I didn’t particularly care for. The only 3D show I even gave a passing glance at was Beast Machines and only because that one seemed to be far and away the best looking of the bunch. And not being a big fan of the game, I also had little reason to check it out, so I didn’t!

For some reason, the opening shot is the only one in which the hut is decorated with Christmas, excuse me, Kongo Bongo Festival of Lights lights.

The first episode of the second season is where our pull for today comes from. “The Kongo Bongo Festival of Lights” is one of those Christmas, but not Christmas, episodes some shows do which makes this similar to last year’s Super Mario World episode. The Festival of Lights is essentially Donkey Kong Christmas. The only thing missing is a stand-in for Santa Claus. There’s obviously lights, but there’s also gift-giving and the capper is a fireworks display at night, which is a part of some Christmas celebrations around the world, though certainly not a requirement. It qualifies for The Christmas Spot, and since this is a show I’m barely familiar with I’m actually a little eager to give it a go so let’s see what Donkey Kong has to offer.

Cranky is terrific. Easily the best part of the show.

The episode begins with Cranky Kong (Aron Tager) reading ‘Twas the Night Before the Festival of Lights to Donkey Kong (Richard Yearwood) and Diddy Kong (Andrew Sabiston). I have no idea if this show follows the lore of Donkey Kong Country with Cranky being the original Donkey Kong from the arcade games and the current Donkey Kong his son, Donkey Kong Jr. If it does, it doesn’t feel like it. Cranky sounds appropriately old and, well, cranky, while Donkey Kong sounds far more refined than I was anticipating. I thought he’d have a gravely voice, but instead it’s young and hip, for lack of a better word. Diddy sounds like Yoshi from the Super Mario World cartoon, which makes sense since Andy Sabiston also voiced that character. It too was unexpected, but doesn’t feel inappropriate for the character.

Somehow they look worse here than they do in a Super Nintendo game.

When Cranky finishes the story he inquires with his two pupils what their favorite part of the festival is. Donkey Kong claims it’s the bananas, which is apparently the only thing he ever cares about. Diddy Kong, who is clearly the kid character here, says it’s the presents and mouths off about wanting some monkey bar toy. Cranky remarks that’s what he wants too just to mess with him, though surprisingly doesn’t admonish the young monkey for focusing on the material aspect of the holiday. He then shares that his favorite part of the holiday is the part most important to our plot: the truce between apes and lizards. The main bad guy is the crocodile King K. Rool (Benedict Campbell) from the video games and apparently this holiday is the only time he’s agreed to leave the apes alone. Why does he typically bother them? Because he wants the crystal coconut, which is literally a crystal coconut. If it has any sort of magic powers that’s not covered here.

General Klump salutes his king.

After that revelation, the setting shifts from Donkey’s treehouse to a pirate ship out on the seas. The water looks terrible and the camera zooms in on an obvious pirate sail, but then dissolves into a cave or mine. In there we find the lizards, or crocs, or whatever, barreling down the tracks in a mine car. They stop beside General Klump (Adrian Truss), a chubby croc in an army helmet that looks like a model from the game. He gives the cart full of subordinates info on how to get out as he’s clearly preparing for all operations to be suspended for the holiday. King K. Rool then shows up in the next cart and he’s pleased to find out that everything is going smooth in preparation for the holiday. The king inquires where Krusha (Len Carlson) is and Klump informs him he’s in the back looking for something. Krusha, a big, dumb, blue, gator, then emerges excited that he found some “candles.” The candles are clearly dynamite and as the two intelligent gators recoil in horror the sticks explode and Krusha is left standing charred and confused.

Pictured: not candles.

Klump corrects my assumption and refers to the dynamite as fireworks. He then hops up and down excitedly as he shares that the fireworks are his favorite part of the holiday. King K. Rool then shares with Klump his typical holiday plans as he’s looking forward to spending the holiday with family playing “Gator Games” and enjoying bog nogg. As he does, the camera zooms in on Klump’s eyes and it’s clearly trying to convey something, but the animation is too limited to make it clear. It almost looks like longing? Is Klump like Smithers to King K. Rool’s Mr. Burns?

Elton Klump.

No. Turns out we were supposed to notice that Klump was sad. That becomes apparent after the king departs and we can see Klump’s full face. Apparently he’s all alone for the holidays because he has no family and this is typical for him each year. He hangs his head and slumps off only to wind-up at a grand piano that appears out of no where. He then sings us a song, and seeing how there’s songs attached to every episode in the episode guide, I’m guessing this is fairly typical of the show. “No Family Tree” is a sad little piano number that then adds drums and guitar magically. The lyrics are actually kind of clever and we learn some more about gator food: pizza mud pies, beetle sandwiches, rotten turtle egg soup. The song ends on a literal high note out of Klump, followed by a bout of pathetic sobbing. Poor guy.

Poor Klump can’t remember his poem, even though the words literally call on him to remember someone.

Klump is then shown standing in the mine talking aloud to himself. He recalls a poem someone taught to him that he should recite when he is sad. Only, he can’t remember how it goes. It starts off as, “Whenever you’re sad, lonely as can be, just remember me…” and that’s where he’s left literally scratching his head. As he recites what little he knows, he does so with a melody and piano music filters in to go with it. It’s pretty corny, but also pretty clear that we’ll know the rest of the poem come the episode’s end.

We leave the lonely Klump to wallow in his sadness and rejoin Donkey Kong and Diddy. They’re both walking along a dock and Donkey Kong is excited to show off his fireworks display. He’s carrying a giant barrel which he has effortlessly placed upon his shoulder. Diddy is still focused on the presents and he wants to know what Donkey Kong got him. Donkey Kong is happy to share, and as he hypes it up, Diddy starts doing backflips until Donkey Kong reveals it’s a banana – the same thing he got everyone else. Diddy falls over laughing as he thinks this is a joke causing Donkey Kong to look at the camera and sadly go along with Diddy’s assumption. Donkey Kong’s face is so weird looking in this show because his brow is the same color as his mouth, but he has brown fur under it and around his eyes. The brow flops all over the place to convey emotion and it’s pretty ugly, but that’s how the character looks in the game so I guess the animators felt they had to retain it.

Yikes! Candy Kong isn’t looking too hot.

The conversation is interrupted by the aroma of banana cream pie. Donkey Kong follows his nose to a steaming pie left out on a barrel which doesn’t look like any banana cream pie I ever saw. Candy Kong (Joy Tanner) then pops out of the nearby hut to greet her boyfriend, I think? Donkey Kong, lost in the fragrance of pie, mistakenly calls her Creamy at first then corrects himself which doesn’t seem to bother her. If you don’t like the Donkey Kong model in this show, you’ll probably hate Candy as she looks pretty terrible. Her clothing doesn’t appear to be modeled separately and has that painted on quality that makes me think of old wrestling games on the PlayStation. I think the show is trying to make her conventionally attractive to the viewer too, even though she’s an ape, sort of like some of the female characters from a show like Goof Troop which just look like women, but with brown noses. Candy though looks horrid and I think it’s because she basically has no nose.

Candy then boasts about the gift she got for Donkey Kong, but teases he has to wait until later to get it. If you think this is suggestive, she is actually holding a wrapped present, but I suppose it could contain something naughty. As she walks back inside, Funky Kong (Damon D’Oliveira) strolls by. He speaks with a Jamaican accent and he too boasts to Donkey Kong about the awesome gift he got him. As he walks away, the implication is he got him a surfboard since he’s carrying a yellow one with an image of Donkey Kong’s tie painted on it. As he takes his leave to deliver the present to Cranky, Donkey Kong laments that everyone got him something great with his sadness implying he doesn’t have anything in return. Diddy then reassures him that Cranky surely got him a terrible gift since he gets him the same thing every year: glow-in-the-dark pajamas. The two share a laugh, and then Diddy makes Donkey Kong feel worse when he assures him that his gift for DK will make up for Cranky’s. This reminds him that he still needs to wrap it. He reminds Donkey Kong to finish setting up the fireworks or else the only thing glowing tonight will be the pajamas as he walks off leaving DK standing there looking depressed.

Apparently DK seeks advice from a creepy statue often.

Donkey Kong is shown setting up the barrels far out on the dock for the fireworks. He bemoans that he doesn’t know what to do about the gifts, then we see a slot machine graphic that spins and displays three bananas indicating that DK has figured out a solution. We then head to some big, stone, idol that Donkey Kong refers to as Inka Dinka Doo. He reminds me of Olmec from Legends of the Hidden Temple. It’s apparently some kind of idol that can impart wisdom as Donkey Kong seems to think it knows what to do. As he pleads with the statue to provide a solution, the top spins as it’s kind of like an 8-ball. It switches to a smiling portrait and then a disembodied voice (Lawrence Bayne) echoes “Look into the heart of your enemy to discover the greatest gift of all.” Donkey Kong is clearly perplexed, but that’s all he’s getting out of the statue.

An alliance is forged!

We then see Donkey Kong running through the jungle complaining that Inka Dinka Doo wasted his time. He soon smashes into Klump knocking the two of them off their feet. At first Klump is startled, but then the two remember the truce and they rather easily put their differences aside. Klump seems rather happy to find another person alone for the festival, but then Donkey Kong informs him he’s not alone and will be celebrating with a bunch of friends at a party. This just makes Klump sad again. When Donkey Kong inquires what he’s doing behind enemy lines, he tells him he just came to see the fireworks. Donkey Kong then breaks the bad news to him that there won’t be any this year because he still needs to find presents for all of his friends. This crushes Klump as the fireworks are all he has. He’s not so crushed that he isn’t resourceful though as he offers to help DK find gifts for his friends in exchange for a front row seat at the fireworks. Donkey Kong agrees to the terms and the two shake on it.

Why would a crocodile have nipples?

We’re then back at the dock and that pirate ship – remember that seemingly innocuous pirate ship we saw for all of two seconds – is shown docked. Here we meet Kaptain Skurvy (Rob Rubin) who is basically a palette swap of Klump only he’s orange and wears a pirate hat instead of an army one. He has two pirates with him, Kutlass (John Stocker, another veteran of the Super Mario cartoons) and a nameless green croc voiced by Richard Newman. Skurvy has decided that today is the perfect day to steal the crystal coconut, so apparently crocs other than King K. Rool want that thing, on account of there being a truce so it won’t be expected. Kutlass thinks this is a great idea, but Skurvy then gets a little sad and reveals there’s only one thing he wants more than that coconut and it’s something he lost long ago. I’m sure we’ll know soon enough what that is. Since he can’t steal what he lost though, he’s taking that coconut and he leads his men in a cheer that’s just “Steal booty!”

I’m sure the animators appreciated not having to show us the contents of King K. Rool’s vault.

Klump has taken Donkey Kong back to the mine lair where the ape is rummaging through what’s left there for gifts. He’s in some kind of vault and Klump instructs him to take whatever, though he tells him he should leave the clown costume behind. DK is enthused by the stuff in there, though none of it is depicted on screen so we’re left to wonder just what’s so great. Klump then starts into his sadness routine again as he openly wishes he had someone to give gifts to. The music for his poem then re-enters as he tries to recite it again, but still can’t remember the last part. Donkey Kong inquires about that last part and Klump says he can’t remember, it was just something someone sang to him when he was little. Donkey Kong then tells him he found the perfect gift – candles! It’s the dynamite, or fireworks, from earlier. As Klump shouts “No!” we’re shown an exterior shot of the mine as the stuff explodes and what looks like real fire is shown onscreen. We then jump back into the mine to see a blackened Donkey Kong and Klump seemingly no worse for ware.

If Donkey Kong has trouble properly identifying fireworks then he really shouldn’t be in charge of the festivities later.

Back at Cranky’s place, the old ape is wondering what’s taking Donkey Kong so long to setup the fireworks. Diddy assures him that DK wouldn’t goof off on today of all days and sets off to find him. In the mine, Donkey Kong is shown racing around in a mine car. He declares that he wants to gift everyone a mine car, but is soon distracted by a lever (that looks more like a button), but just as Klump shouts out to not pull the lever Donkey Kong does and the cart is sent soaring through the air. As Donkey Kong recovers from his impromptu flight he suggests that maybe a mine car isn’t such a good gift.

I have no idea what makes this thing so special.

At Cranky’s, Diddy returns to report the bad news that he can’t find DK anywhere. Cranky gets pissed as he finds out that the fireworks haven’t been setup, but Diddy reports it gets worse. Skurvy and his boys then show up and announce they’re here for the crystal coconut. Diddy and Cranky don’t even bother putting up a fight nor do they seem particularly aggrieved by the pirates not respecting their truce with King K. Rool, but maybe there was no expectation that pirates would place value on such a thing. Skurvy mentions once again there’s something he wants more than the crystal coconut, but since it’s not here he’ll have to settle for the artifact. Diddy remarks that at least they’re not taking the presents, which just causes the pirates to take the presents.

I know he’s a bit thrown off by the theft of the crystal coconut, but shouldn’t DK be a bit more concerned about the fact that Cranky’s hut is apparently full of enemy cameras?

Back in the mine, Donkey Kong is going through King K. Rool’s books and seems intent on gifting all of his friends a book from the king’s assortment. An image then pops up on Klump’s security system and it’s of the pirates making off with the crystal coconut. Apparently the crocs have cameras around Cranky’s hut? Anyways, when Donkey Kong sees the pirates he knows he has to abandon his pursuit of gifts to stop them while Klump is ticked off that they’re not respecting the truce, but DK informs him that pirates never honor truces. Klump reveals this is bad news for him as King K. Rool will have his hide if someone other than him steals the coconut, so he agrees to help Donkey Kong get it back.

Yeah, Cranky! Give that stupid ape a good tongue-lashing!

Donkey Kong shows up at Cranky’s place only to get chewed out for not being around all day. Cranky is not at all sympathetic to DK’s gift dilemma, but DK tells him he brought help in the form of Klump. That just causes Cranky to momentarily panic as he barks out to protect the crystal coconut, which Diddy has to remind him has already been stolen. Then, shaking with anger, he orders everyone to go retrieve it from Skurvy. I do like Cranky, he definitely has the most energy of all the characters here.

I like how Skurvy just wields a cannon like it’s a gun.

At the docks, the heroes hide behind the barrels of explosives Donkey Kong had placed there earlier and survey the scene. Kutlass and Green Croc (that’s apparently his actual name) are positioned on the dock while Skurvy is somewhere else. Klump then very loudly asks what they’re looking at and DK shushes him before telling him he’s to be on lookout for Skurvy. Klump agrees and heads over to the beach rather loudly. The two apes start talking loudly like pirates to put the notion into the heads of the underlings that there’s more booty on the beach. It’s a bit confusing, I’m not sure if they’re supposed to think Donkey and Diddy are Skurvy. The two apes then retreat to the bushes and things just get more confusing as the two crocs pick up the barrels of explosives and start loading them onto the ship. Those barrels were clearly not on the beach. Diddy giggles and exclaims to DK that his plan is working perfectly, but the sound of a gun cocking interrupts their giggles. Skurvy is shown pointing his miniature cannon, which has no working action on it that would make a gun cocking sound, in Donkey Kong’s face.

If those are the only presents they had then it doesn’t seem like a tremendous loss, honestly. Certainly not worth this kind of aggravation.

We banana-wipe to a scene on the ship and Skurvy informs the pair that their plan was as stinky as bilge water – a good boat insult. Skurvy then guesses that their plan was to trick the pirates into stealing the fireworks only for the apes to bargain for the coconut with the threat of blowing the ship up. How they were to light the fireworks is a bit of a mystery. And it must be to Skurvy because he announces he was planning on stealing the fireworks anyway! He then whips out the crystal coconut to declare it’s the only booty he ever wanted. Diddy then reminds him that he mentioned something else, and Skurvy’s eyes grow soft as he concedes, “Aye, there be.” Klump’s poem music then starts playing and Skurvy mentions he has a long lost brother. He then starts singing the poem revealing that the missing part is, “…your big brother – Skurvy!”

It’s a sing-along time.

Donkey Kong is predictably stupid and doesn’t immediately remember that he heard Klump singing the same thing. Skurvy orders his men to set sail for shark-infested waters so they can be rid of the apes, but gets interrupted by Klump who has come aboard armed with a weird looking gun. He declares he’s here to fight to the death, which catches everyone off-guard including Skurvy who declares that even pirates don’t fight to the death. Klump is forced to concede that he’s never actually had to fight to the death, he’s just bound by lizard law to say it. He does inform the crew that he has experience blowing things to bits and orders the skum-sucking sea dawgs to hand over the crystal coconut. Skurvy retorts by calling Klump a skum-sucking swamp-sucker. There sure are a lot of sucking accusations being tossed around. Skurvy picks up his cannon weapon. As the two hurl verbal barbs at each other, Diddy remarks to DK how stupid the pair look and Donkey Kong admits it’s pretty sad. Just saying the word “sad” causes him to remember the poem. When Diddy Kong asks “What poem?” Donkey Kong sings it for him. In doing so his voice drastically changes as the singing voice is provided by Sterling Jarvis. He sounds lovely, but the change is super distracting.

These guys are a lot faster than they look.

As DK sings it, Klump and Skurvy finish the last line. Klump confirms that’s it, that’s the rest of the poem, then, like a dope, asks Skurvy how he knew that part. Skurvy, apparently none brighter, questions how Klump knew it at all. Finally, Skurvy shouts “Little brother!” and Klump returns in kind, but in his excitement he tossed his gun over his shoulder and it goes off. We get a clip of a bullet shooting through the air for the barrels of fireworks which cuts to the gang running (with the crystal coconut) on the dock. Somehow they managed to get off of the boat and down the dock while the bullet was in-flight – and I thought Sonic was fast!

The brother reveal might have come as a surprise if Klump and Skurvy didn’t look exactly alike.

The ship explodes taking all of the gifts with it, which is sad for Diddy Kong, but good for Donkey Kong as now he doesn’t have to match the gifts everyone was planning on giving him. As the gang admires the fireworks, Skurvy mentions he loves them. When Klump says the same, Skurvy remarks “Of course!” Apparently, it was Klump’s love of fireworks that caused him to set their whole swamp on fire. Skurvy took the blame for his little brother, and in return was banished to the high seas. Harsh, but fair.

Time for Donkey Kong to explain the lesson he learned.

That night, the Kong clan still has fireworks, but no gifts. Cranky gives him a backhanded compliment on the fireworks job, but then declares this the best festival ever. When Donkey Kong laments the lost presents, Cranky finally chimes in with the long-expected reminder that today isn’t about presents, but family. Donkey Kong then declares that’s what Inka Dinka Doo must have been trying to tell him (see, it’s all coming together now!). Candy, Funky, and Diddy then arrive with Candy reenforcing the message that the holiday is about spending time with family and DK adds that even villains need family. Cranky then wonders what those lizards are up to.

Aww, don’t they look cute together?

On cue, we check-in with those lizards as Skurvy is spinning some tall tale about his time at sea to his little brother. Krusha then comes rolling in, but says nothing, followed by the king himself. He does not seem happy to find a pirate in his lair, but Klump is eager to share the news about his discovery. King K. Rool then surveys the area and sees a bunch of luggage nearby and declares that there’s no way Skurvy is moving in, but Klump corrects him by informing him that he’s actually leaving to set sail with his brother. This makes the king even madder and he and Skurvy end up nose-to-nose trading insults with each other. As for Klump, the sight of the two gators fighting over him brings a tear to his eye causing him to declare this the best Kongo Bongo Festival of Lights ever! The camera pulls out on the the bickering reptiles as fireworks fill the night sky over the island.

This is all Klump has ever wanted for Not-Christmas: two reptiles fighting over him.

And that is apparently how apes (and lizards) celebrate not-Christmas. Donkey Kong Country is a rather ugly show by today’s standards, and I’m not convinced it wasn’t ugly even by the standards of 1999 when this episode aired. The animations for each character are very limited and it’s obvious they try to stage and work around those limitations as much as possible. The characters really don’t move their lower half much and instead rely on their arms and faces to convey action and emotion. For the apes, this works okay even if I don’t love the look of some of those characters. For the alligator types it’s much harder as their mouths just don’t have the range of motion one needs forcing the animators to rely almost solely on their eyes. At least the scaled textures on those characters looks okay, better than the fur on the apes, anyway.

This one is pretty goofy, but it does sneak in a generic holiday lesson at the end.

The story for this one is also not terrible. I found Klump sympathetic and he was easily the character I liked the most after Cranky. The set piece for his song early on surprised me and was something I found rather amusing. The poem was okay as a plot device, though how terrible is Klump’s memory that he completely forgot he had a brother? That plot twist was pretty easy to see coming since Skurvy and Klump are literally the same character model. If they’re any different I didn’t notice. I don’t know if Skurvy was a regular on the show prior to this episode or not so I can see the reveal at least being fun for longtime viewers. The other plot concerning Donkey Kong’s gift dilemma was far less interesting, but it at least scores some points for being a bit original. I liked that Donkey Kong also wasn’t some jerk intentionally giving bad gifts, he’s just an ape who really likes bananas and doesn’t realize his friends expect something a little more thoughtful than that. A truly selfish character wouldn’t even be concerned about it. It was an unusual resolution to just have the other gifts get destroyed before they could be given. That’s definitely one way to write DK out of his problem.

Ending a special with fireworks is certainly a sound decision that I can get behind.

Donkey Kong Country is almost by default one of the better video game adaptions I’ve watched simply by virtue of it not sucking completely. I don’t know that I’d necessarily recommend this one, but if you like the games then I suppose you’ll enjoy this. It’s also entirely possible that this is one of the lesser episodes in the series so maybe the rest of the show is even better. I won’t be finding out, but again, I was never a big fan of the games to begin with. If you want to watch this one it can be found online with minimal to no effort for free. I think the free stream on YouTube is even “legal” and not piracy unchallenged, so have at it guilt-free! It’s also streaming on Tubi and episodes are available on Prime. Some of the show has been released on DVD, but I do not know if this one of them. In short, it’s not hard to find.

Can’t wait until tomorrow for more Christmas? Check out what we had to say on this day last year and beyond:

Dec. 2 – Toy Story That Time Forgot

When the credits started to roll in 2010 signaling the end of Toy Story 3 I think most who were watching it assumed this was “good bye.” The toys which had captured the hearts of movie-goers going on two decades were saying good bye to their former owner and playmate, Andy, and so too were…

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Dec. 2 – Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special

This is going to be a bit of an experiment. These recaps the last few years have basically focused on cartoons or live-action shows in which a story is told over some duration. I have so far avoided sketch shows, not purposely, but it’s definitely been in the back of my mind that doing a…

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge (2022)

In the late 1980s the arcade scene in the US was still going strong. Classic style arcade games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were being overtaken by a new genre of quarter-munching pain: the brawler. Or the beat-em-up. If you’ve played one, then you can picture what I’m talking about. It was usually a one to four player experience where each player would take control of an avatar and battle hordes of enemies all while gradually moving to the right with the goal to reach a boss encounter by the end. These games were often very simple, usually requiring just two buttons and a joystick, and most all played the same: you punch, you jump, you unleash a special move that consumes a portion of your health, and you die. A lot. Most games required the player to pump in another quarter upon a final death, usually giving them 10 seconds to do so, which would allow the player to re-spawn immediately. This made completing the game quite manageable, provided one had enough quarters because these games were designed to beat the player down. There was often just too many enemies onscreen for even the most accomplished player to dispatch in a flawless fashion. The character the player controlled just wasn’t equipped with enough maneuvers to avoid hits while simultaneously dishing out punishment. Plus, the games weren’t above getting cheap by having players get attacked by unseen enemies or by having boss characters just shrug off all damage. Actually having a story and an ending made them unique at the time since the goal wasn’t to just play as long as possible and get the highest score, which also made them addicting. Yeah, I want to see the X-Men defeat Mangeto, I need to know if the Simpson family rescues Maggie, and I have enough money to do it!

One of the developers who best exemplefied excellence in the field of the beat-em-up was Konami, and two of their biggest hits belonged to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The other part of this genre that appealed to players was they looked lovely. As video game technology advanced rapidly in the 80s, the home consoles could not keep up with the arcade. That’s why it was the arcade where you could find a brawler with beautiful, large, sprites that truly resembled what they were supposed to. It made this genre a magnet for licensed properties and developers could even sneak in some soundbites if the property was from television or a movie. And for a franchise like TMNT, it made creating a game that actually looked like the mega popular cartoon show a feasible thing. The home Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the Nintendo Entertainment System sort of looked like the property. I knew I was looking at the turtles when I played it, even if they didn’t exactly look like the characters from the show. And the enemies were pretty damn confusing as well, and not always for technological reasons. With the arcade game that released the same year, there was none of that. It felt like playing an episode of the show and was a delight to my kid-brain. My strongest memory of that title was playing it at my cousin’s birthday party which was held at a roller skating rink. We were there, confronting Shredder, after spending who knows how many quarters to get there, when a kid who had been watching for most of the time accidentally stepped on the power cord. My cousin, the birthday boy, went ballistic on the poor kid while my aunt tried to calm him down. At the time, I was initially disappointed to not see the end of the game, but I think I felt worse for the kid. My aunt had been trying to corral us anyway for cake and ice cream so she wasn’t disappointed. Maybe she actually did it and blamed the kid!

The heroes in a half-shell are back in a fun, sleek, retro package!

That initial offering from Konami looked great, and the pacing was a lot of fun, but it was very much a basic game design. When the developer came back for the sequel, Turtles in Time, it did more than just put a shine on the experience. Special moves were added, the kind that take away health to execute, and some additional maneuvers were added to freshen up the experience. By far, the biggest new addition, and the flashiest, was the ability for the player to toss enemies at the screen which was highlighted during the attract mode setting and certainly worked to get attention. And when that game was brought to the Super Nintendo, it was a near perfect port. Some animations and sound clips had to be removed, but the game made up for it by adding new boss encounters and levels making it the superior experience. And it was beatable at home, with the ability to adjust the amount of lives players had and toggle the game’s difficulty. It was a terrific experience for kids in the early 90s into the franchise and it’s a shared experience for men my age (and probably a fair amount of women too) and one most remember quite fondly.

Because of the popularity of those two games, developer Tribute Games returned to it for 2022 with Shredder’s Revenge. The turtles never actually left the brawler genre, more were made into the 2000s including a re-make of Turtles in Time, but none managed to capture the attention of fans like Turtles in Time did. Tribute seemed hell-bent on changing that as Shredder’s Revenge was revealed well ahead of the launch and it was immediately clear that the game was after adults who grew up with those old school games. It’s a 2D, sprite-based, brawler that incorporates a lot of what Turtles in Time did, plus it adds a dash of something new. Yes, it’s still limited by its genre and it’s not out to reinvent the wheel or reexamine what this genre is capable of, but it does provide for some depth. Mostly, it’s designed to take players on a trip through an enhanced episode of the classic cartoon series and returns the original voice cast for the turtles. And because we’re now in the year 2022, the experience has been enhanced to include up to 6 players either via the couch or online and it’s no longer limited to those who own a Super Nintendo.

This time, you and five of your friends can take it to Shredder all at the same time.

Shredder’s Revenge presents two main game modes out of the gate: Story and Arcade. Story mode is self-explanatory, while Arcade is basically just the story mode without the interludes and map and is intended to be more challenging. From the get-go, players have access to six playable characters: the four turtles (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael) plus their master, Splitner, and main ally April O’Neil. All of the characters differentiate themselves via three attributes: Range, Speed, and Power. Leonardo is intended to be the most balanced, while the other characters all lean towards something such as Donatello having the best range and Raph hitting the hardest. The characters also handle slightly differently with Mikey being able to bounce off of foes while Leonardo has a wide-ranging jump attack. As you progress through story mode, characters earn experience and progressively get better via enhancements to their special move so it pays to replay with different characters.

Yes, you can still throw Foot Soldiers at the screen.

The actual gameplay should feel rather familiar to those who played Turtles in Time. The face buttons on the controller all do something different with one being attack, jump, parry, and special. Special moves no longer consume health and instead have their own meter that gradually fills as you dish out damage. Most special moves are designed to clear the screen, or at least a portion of it, and are best used when undier siege by a lot of enemies. As characters accumulate experience, the special move meter expands and a special dive attack can be unlocked as well as a ninja master mode that’s like a temporary buff in place of just one, singular, attack. Jumping and attacking the standard way should feel pretty familiar as well, while the parry button is where the backflip is basically mapped to now. Players can also still grab enemies by simply walking into them which opens up the bash attack where the player slams the enemy to either side in a comical fashion and the screen-toss is still present, and just like the SNES game, plays a role in one boss encounter. There’s also a taunt button which allows the player to earn special move power without fighting and in co-op mode there’s a button dedicated to assisting allies via a high-five which transfers health from one player to the other. Each player has a set amount of lives at the beginning, but beating back enemies can earn extra lives. Pizzas still restore health and are scattered about the levels and new to this game is a massive pie that will restore the health of all active player characters, so no fighting over that one. There’s also still power-up pizzas which make the player momentarily invincible and places them in a spinning attack to smack away all foes. There’s also a new one that just enables the player to spam their special move too. In short, it’s all rather familiar, but there’s enough new wrinkles to please old school fans and nothing added breaks or ruins the experience. It’s all for the better.

As was the case in past games, boss characters tend to be presented oversized relative to their toon counterpart.

Where the game really shines is in the presentation. There’s a great intro done in a hand-drawn style with a new arrangement of the theme song (sung by Faith No More’s Mike Patton) to accompany it and really set the mood. The sprite work is bright and vibrant, and while the characters seem a little small relative to their environment in this one, it all fits well on the screen. The art style is obviously based on the cartoon, but it also has it’s own thing going for it. Foot Soldiers have more of a squat appearance with oversized heads while the sizing on the boss characters fluctuates quite wildly. Bebop and Rocksteady are huge, while Rat King is fairly petite. All of the enemy deisgns are also based on the show, so you’ll see Triceratons that look removed from their lone experience and Slash has his very toon specific look. All of the bosses from Turtles in Time return for this one, but there’s also some new ones that I won’t spoil. I would consider at least one a true deep cut from the show, but if you’re as into collecting NECA’s action figures as I am then none will appear that deep. You also get the returning cast from the show so you have Cam Clarke (Leonardo, Rocksteady), Rob Paulsen (Raphael), Barry Gordon (Donatello, Bebop) and Townsend Coleman (Michelangelo, Rat King, Rahzar). Unfortunately, they’re the only ones brought back so someone like Pat Fraley is missed, but if you’re only going to bring back four cast members from the show at least it’s the turtles. Most of the characters are one and done battles, but like the original game, you’ll chase Bebop and Rocksteady around a bit. Levels in story mode are laid out on a map of New York that are accessed by driving the Turtle Van around which feels like a nod to the original NES game, though you never get to drive the van in a level which feels like a missed opportunity. There are still surfing and hoverboard levels, and in story mode there are collectibles scattered across levels that can be uncovered for an experience bonus, but they’re not very compelling. The story itself is also mostly non-existant and of little importance. Shredder is still interested in the Statue of Liberty for some reason and most of the game involves the turtles trying to prevent the bad guys from re-assembling Krang’s body.

Story mode will probably only take you a few hours to complete, but there are additional challenges that can keep you coming back for a little while.

Completing all of the levels in story mode will unlock one additional character: Casey Jones. Depending on who you beat the game with will also influence the ending you receive in a small way so there is some encouragement to replay the mode with different characters. Not only will they get stronger, but you’ll get a little bonus postscript for the ending. You can also replay any level at any time throughout story mode and the game will keep track of what you accomplished, or did not, for each one. There are cameos hidden throughout the game in addition to other collectibles. None of them are particularly difficult to find, it just requires the player to bash away at all destructable objects in a given level. There are also additional challenges for each one that range in difficulty. Some will require the player to just avoid a certain obstacle or maneuver an enemy in the level posseses, while others just task you with not taking damage. The difficulty can be toggled as well and playing on the normal setting presents a modest challenge. I haven’t tackled the game on hard yet, and I don’t know when I will since I tend to play with my kids, but I will probably try it at some point.

Shredder’s Revenge is available on all of the major consoles out there. It was first made available digitally, but physical copies have been made availble via Limited Run Games. There’s a standard version available now which is how I purchased the game for the Nintendo Switch, but more robust collector versions were also available. While it was tempting to go for the version that came in a VHS styled box, I ultimately didn’t want to pay the extra money or endure the longer wait to get it. All physical versions come with a Pizza Hut coupon like the NES version of the arcade game back in the day, which is certainly a fun inclusion that I assume most owners would prefer to keep over actually exchanging it for a personal pan pizza. And that inlcudes me. All physical versions also come with a fairly robust manual and some stickers which is pretty cool. As for the Switch version, the performance is great. I didn’t notice any slowdown or frame rate hiccups and it was easy to add players to the mix. I haven’t tried it online, but I hope to whenever my buddy who did go for one of the fancier packages finally gets his.

It’s pretty cool to have these guys back in my game console.

I don’t want to oversell Shredder’s Revenge. It is, at its heart, a humble beat-em-up that doesn’t require numerous amounts of quarters to get through. It is a fun experience though and is especially so for those who grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the games from Konami. And even if you didn’t, my son is proof that it can appeal to the kids of today as well as he’s had his nose buried deep in this one since I got it despite us beating it in a mere two play sessions. It doesn’t do anything to elevate the genre, but it does do enough that I feel it’s easily the best beat-em-up I’ve ever played. There’s enough variety in the characters to make it worthwhile to experiment with them all and the player has enough control over the characters to make it possible to actually get really good at the game. Turtles in Time had some of that going for it, but mostly getting good at that game just involved managing the amount of enemies on screen in the most economical fashion possible and knowing when it wasn’t worth it to try and damage a boss. Some of the bosses in Shredder’s Revenge can feel a tad cheap at times, but for the most part, it’s also easy to see how to tackle each one and for the most part it’s pretty fun too. I think I only dislike one boss fight, Rat King, as it’s just too long and mostly involves the player dodging swarms of rats. Other than that, the other fights are fine and there’s a fair amount of variety in the encounters as well. I don’t think I’ll sink 60 hours into this game or anything, but it’s a good time and I feel motivated to at least power up all of the playable characters. If you grew up on this stuff, then this game is a no-brainer.


Arcade1Up – The Simpsons

An image you can hear.

When it comes to arcade cabinets, there are few that would interest me as far as a purchasing decision is concerned. One such cabinet though has always been The Simpsons arcade game, and it’s not really because of the game’s quality. The game is fine, one of the better brawlers out there, it’s just limited by its genre. The beat-em-up was a style of game designed to extract quarters from patrons. The player had very limited control over their avatar, usually just a jump and attack button plus the joystick, while the game would just send wave after wave of enemies at them to gradually beat the player down and force them to make a purchasing decision on the spot. “Do I continue by inserting another quarter? Oh no, the timer is down to 5 seconds, I need to act quick!” The real advantage for this genre though is it could be adapted to almost any intellectual property, like an animated sitcom about a family of five.

The Simpsons is a game created by Konami released in 1991. In it, the player controls either Marge, Homer, Bart, or Lisa as they battle their way through a selection of levels in order to rescue Maggie from Mr. Burns. It’s a paper thin plot and it’s limited to what it can be by being created in between seasons 1 and 2 of the show. Who is the enemy in a sitcom? Why, the mean old boss of the father figure, of course! It just so happens that in later seasons Burns would actually become more cartoonishly evil and villain-like so think of the game as a precursor of things to come. It’s good at what it does, it’s just limited by its genre.

This thing will look really nice once I remodel this basement and get rid of all of the clutter.

What has always made it appealing to me as a cabinet to own is that it’s The Simpsons! There are plenty of Simpsons video games out there, but most aren’t very good. The arcade game is quite possibly the best one, and if not that it’s probably Hit & Run. The arcade has added appeal because, aside from a brief stay on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store, it’s been locked to the arcade. The cabinet is appealing and all of the attract mode stuff is honestly what creates most of the nostalgia for me. It’s a fun thing to possess for a Simpsons fan, the only problem is the cost and space requirements to actually have one. It was just a handful of years ago that an arcade near me was going out of business, which sucked, and it was selling all of its games. I was really tempted to make them an offer on their The Simpsons arcade cabinet, but I declined. It’s something I can’t say I truly regret because it’s very impractical, but there’s still a part of me that would love to own such a thing.

Without a riser, this thing is basically a kid’s arcade. My own children for scale ages 7 and 6.

Since then, Arcade1Up has become a thing. The company specializes in making scaled-down versions of arcade cabinets with modern components. They sometimes contain just a game or two, but lately it seems most have a handful of games from the same studio or licensor. I reviewed earlier this year one of their counter models for Marvel Super Heroes and it was a pretty positive review. The problem with Arcade1Up is largely one of cost. When they first started rolling out, I think they were only two to three-hundred dollars. And since those early ones usually just contained a game from the 70s or 80s, I guess that made some sense. If you wanted an affordable Pac-Man cabinet for your rec room or whatever, then sure, why not? And those games are basically designed to just be high score targets, they’re not really progression-driven, so it’s the type of thing you might return to here and there and visitors to your home might try to beat your score. It’s still more novelty than practical, since if you just want to play a game like Pac-Man there are far cheaper options out there, but that’s the niche Arcade1Up is going for. They sell atmosphere that just happen to be games.

A much different experience once the riser is added to the bottom.

Ever since Arcade1Up became a “thing” I’ve hoped they would do The Simpsons, and sure enough, they did. The only problem was, when they unveiled this cabinet late last summer it came with the MSRP of 600 bucks, $700 if you wanted a stool. That was just too rich for my blood for what is a novelty item. I enjoy playing the actual game, but what I’m paying for is the decorative element more than anything and that price is just crazy for what I want. I’m a pretty big Simpsons fan, but I’d rather seek out an authentic cabinet if it was going to cost me $600 to get the Arcade1Up version. There was a silver lining though, and that’s most of these eventually hit the clearance rack. Surely, the price would remain high through the holidays, but there was hope after that. And sure enough, the unit did go on sale earlier this year, but for the still unfriendly price of $400. That’s certainly better than $600, but not quite in novelty territory for me. The magic number, in my mind, was $200. If the unit ever hit that, then I’d pounce. My wife was even onboard, and lo and behold, on a random Thursday in September it did indeed get dropped to such a price. I thought about it for maybe 10 minutes, longer than I thought I would, but eventually put in an order. A Walmart down the street had a few units and that’s where I got mine. My patience paid off.

The screen is quite nice and I love that the marquee lights up.

Now that I’ve had this unit for about a week, I’m ready to tell you all about it. First off, the package included the arcade cabinet and a riser to make it easier to play for those of us that stand more than 4 feet in height. The cabinet does come unassembled and putting it together took around 2 hours. I was able to do it myself and it’s a little clunky at times, but was plenty do-able. It does need to be positioned on its side for much of the build so you definitely want to make sure you’re putting it together on a carpeted, or soft, surface so the artwork doesn’t get scuffed. Once complete though, it’s a pretty faithful reproduction of the old cabinet. The color and artwork on the sides are the same and the marquee over the top lights up like the old one. Without the riser, it stands a mere 45.75″ to the tip top and it’s 18.75″ wide. The control deck where the controls are is where the old form gets broken a bit. That is 31.5″ wide and extends beyond the shape of the actual cabinet. The depth of the unit, without the control deck, is 22.5″ and with it 24.75″. It, and basically every Arcade1Up release, looks a bit off as a result because the controls are spaced further outside relative to the screen than the original, but visually it’s close enough. We’ll get to the gameplay in a second where it matters a bit more.

The other big difference is the screen. This unit uses a modern, LCD, screen instead of an old tube so it’s sharper and the colors are more saturated. There are certainly purists out there who will pine for the old display, but I think it looks really nice. The sprites hold up really well at this resolution and it just makes the game look the best it can. The size is listed at 17″, so presumably it’s a true square, which fits the size of the cabinet itself. The coin inserts on the front are fake and sadly do not light up. If I was going to make one cosmetic change to the unit it would be LED lights in that area. It is hollow so one could customize the unit fairly easily, but I probably won’t. There also isn’t an actual door there, but how cool would it be to put a mini fridge in there or something? Now my mind is racing.

Who could forget Lisa’s classic catchphrase, “Embrace nothingness”?

The riser is basically just a box you assemble that follows the colors of the unit. The cabinet sits on top of it and it boosts the overall height to just under 59″ which is far more comfortable for most adults. I am about six feet tall and I can comfortably play on this with the riser either standing or on a stool. The overall build is fine as it’s mostly held together by screws. The cabinet is made of a wood composite and the unit weighs over 100lbs. Over time, I’m guessing the screws will need to be tightened here and there, but right now it doesn’t wobble or anything. It’s not as rugged as the real thing, but good enough for home use. One thing I don’t like is the instructions on the riser want you to screw the riser to the main unit once inserted, but there are no pre-drilled holes. They just go right through the sides and I’d rather not drill through that, even though the artwork of the family is above that part. There’s also included wall anchors, but I didn’t install them as it’s pretty sturdy. Maybe if this were a more intense style of game I’d be more inclined to do so, but it seems fine. The only other build issue I have is one of the screws on the control deck doesn’t actually “bite” into the unit and just spins. It’s one of four, so it’s not going anywhere, but either the pre-drilled hole is the wrong size or something is mis-aligned.

I already mentioned that the screen is nice, but so is the audio and the actual controls. The speakers are pretty loud and they’re set high by default so you’ll likely get a good blast when first turning it on. The buttons are nice and “clicky” and the joysticks are firm. Interestingly, the two inner joysticks feel tighter than the outside ones, but it’s not something that impacts gameplay. There’s a headphone jack on the control deck and a “Live” button as this thing is Wi-Fi enabled for online play. It’s not something I have any interest in doing, but if you want to play with a full team when actual humans aren’t available in your house, at least it’s there.

Yup, that’s The Simpsons Arcade all right.

Actually playing The Simpsons is still pretty fun, but also a little different. The characters are mapped to the joysticks so going from left to right your options are Marge, Homer, Bart, and Lisa. Because of the placement of the characters, it’s far more preferable to play as either Bart or Homer because they’re in the center. Playing as either of the women is a bit awkward since the viewing angle isn’t optimal, but is do-able. The confines are also cramped, so playing with four players is not exactly the most comfortable experience. With my family of four, it’s basically best done with my wife and I on the outside and our kids in the middle. Mostly though, this game works best as a two-player experience with one character spacing the players out. For kids, that is less of an issue as my two seemed comfortable standing side-by-side playing as Homer and Bart. Beyond that, the actual quality of the game is as good as ever. It looks great, sounds great, and the nostalgia is strong. If you liked the game back in the 90s, you’ll probably still like it. It’s also not super long which is good for the style of game that it is. You can’t save your progress though, so if you want to see it through you have to do it in one session.

I’m guessing many will be playing this game for the first time.

The surprise of this set though is that it’s not just The Simpsons arcade game. You may have noticed that in the pictures there’s a track ball in the center of the control deck and that’s because this also includes Simpsons Bowling. Simpsons Bowling was an arcade game released in 2000. It wasn’t very popular or widely spread, plus the arcade scene was on life support come then in the US, so it’s a game most have likely never played. It was produced by Konami and my assumption is the license they had was about to expire and they wanted to get one last payday out of it. Or, they had a bowling game they wanted to put out and felt the Simpsons license would help move units. Whatever the reason, it was something I had never played and honestly one I don’t know if I ever even saw in the wild. It didn’t really factor into my purchasing decision, but it’s a nice bonus.

A solid selection of characters, but since the cast of the show is so massive, there’s always going to be some missing that people wish were not. I would have loved to have Moe and Otto since they were part of the Pin Pals and I’m rather surprised at the lack of Comic Book Guy.

As far as the game goes, it’s fine. It looks like a game released in 2000. It’s basically a little better than a PlayStation title, but not really on par with the latest and greatest of the era. It’s all rendered in 3D and the character models are certainly recognizable, but not perfectly on-model. Marge’s hair is a bit odd and they couldn’t quite do a perfect sphere so Homer’s head is literally a bit rough around the edges, but I wouldn’t call it ugly. What the game does very well is just the fan service. There’s tons of audio ripped right from the show for each character plus some newly recorded lines. That’s mostly found in the little quips characters will make if you’re taking too long. They’re very chatty though as they’ll have something to say following a strike or spare and there’s enough recorded lines to make sure there are no repeats during a play session. During multiplayer sessions, characters will also comment on how other bowlers are performing often by either dismissing their accomplishments or reveling in their failure. Each character also has their own ending when they win which is both voiced and animated and most of them are quite amusing. All of the talking makes this game have arguably the better attract mode which is something I never would have predicted.

When playing with more than one bowler, the non-active character will often look on and mock bad shots or dismiss good ones.

As for the actual gameplay, well, that’s where things falter a bit. First of all, the characters available are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Mr. Burns, Krusty, Willie, and Apu. Abe Simpson is a hidden character, but not something that needs to be unlocked, you just roll past Apu on the character select screen three times or so and then roll the track ball up one click past Homer and he should appear. The game is very simple once you get into it. There are two modes: Standard and Spares. Standard is just bowling. You first set the curve of the ball, then position the bowler, and then finally roll the ball. Each character is rated for Power, Curve, and Straight. Those with more power obviously send the ball down the lane with more velocity. Those with more curve can literally curve the ball more, and straight is apparently the character’s ability to keep the ball on a straight line, though I haven’t noticed much difference from character to character in practice. Everything is controlled with the track ball, which is a little awkward, but fine. Rolling the ball fast obviously makes the ball go faster in the game, but if you don’t do it straight you can send the ball down the gutter. If you get three strikes in a row (a turkey) you get one special roll. It’s either a fireball, toxic ball, bomb, or Maggie and it’s selected at random. The bomb and Maggie are basically guaranteed strikes, while the other two are a bit tricky because they obliterate the pins. If you’ve ever bowled before, then you know you rely on the pins falling and knocking each other over about as much as you rely on the ball doing the work. Most of the time, I can get strikes over and over and the only thing that stops me from a perfect game is that damn toxic ball which melts the pins and thus prevents them from knocking each other over. I have bowled strikes with it, but I don’t know what I’m doing differently when I do. As a bonus, following these special balls there’s usually a fun animation quirk by the ball return. The best is for Maggie who comes crawling up the thing looking all cute and stuff.

Because we need a wacky component to separate this from just plain old bowling, there’s a special ball opportunity for every turkey you bowl.

The Spares mode is a bit more of a unique gameplay experience. In that, you compete for money by getting spares. You don’t actually roll the first ball and instead for each frame you’re presented with an arrangement of pins that you need to knock over in one roll. It’s definitely the more challenging of the two modes and it’s this mode where bowlers that have better curve can work out better. The pins are also randomized so it’s not the same experience over and over. The scoring on it is odd as each frame is worth a hundred dollars. If you fail on that frame, the money for it gets added to the pot for the next frame. In this case, you can miss the first 9 frames and convert on the 10th and come away with $1000 which is not how I would have done it since there’s no reward for the number of frames cleared. In multiplayer mode, the bowlers split the pot at the end of each frame so it at least adds something there as frames can end up being worth different amounts. It puts pressure on the third or fourth bowler to match any spares or else one or two players could end up with a big score. What’s missing really is just a multiplier or something for each spare. As-is, the max score one can get is $1000 and you’re guaranteed that if you convert on the 10th frame, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

What Simpsons Bowling does well is just in its presentation. All of the characters in the game are presented in the same attire they were wearing in the episode “Team Homer.” That’s the one where Homer joins a bowling league forming the Pin Pals. There are lots of other characters in the background too adding to the atmosphere. Even characters like Willie and Krusty have their proper bowling shirt on even though they were basically cameos in the episode. For Bart, Lisa, and Marge, they didn’t appear as bowlers in that episode so they don’t get a show-accurate costume. Lisa is just herself in bowling shoes while Bart has an original look. Marge is in her green dress and the only criticism I have is she should be wearing the shoes and glove she had in the episode “Life on the Fast Lane.” That’s minor though, and ultimately the presentation here is pretty terrific and the true strength of the game. I just wish we had Moe as a playable character since the other members of the Pin Pals are. Otto was also on the team briefly, but I’d rather see him in the background working the claw machine. He is indeed in the background, but doesn’t appear to be doing anything which is a bummer. Had this been released on home consoles around the same time it probably would have received a lukewarm reception, but as part of a novelty release like this, it’s more than welcomed.

Maggie emerging from the ball return after used as a bowling ball is pretty freakin’ cute.

The Arcade1Up edition of The Simpsons is basically as expected. It’s a faithful reproduction of the arcade game and Simpsons Bowling in a smaller package. It’s best served as an attention grabber in a room, it’s a way for fans of The Simpsons to interact with the property in a different fashion. The game itself is also a fun time capsule since it came so early in the show’s life and anyone who either was watching the show then or played the game will surely enjoy the trip down memory lane. It is not the type of game that demands frequent play sessions. It’s very disposable and there’s certainly some diminishing returns each time you come back which is why I think of this as a novelty item more than a gaming one. Simpsons Bowling does add to the package, but even that game lacks a skill component that makes it fun to return to over and over. Get this if you are just tickled by the idea of owning The Simpsons arcade game and have the space for it.

When Walmart marked this unit at 200 bucks it sold out pretty quickly. That’s a shame because I think that’s the right price for this sort of thing. Other retailers still have it and most have it marked down to $400. Some of those listings include the themed stool, which mine did not come with, so maybe that’s worth something to you. Is it worth 200 bucks? I don’t think so, but maybe if it hits $300 that will seem more palatable. There’s also a chance this gets re-issued as a counter-cade, but even those start off around $200 or more so it’s hard to say. If I never got this and Arcade1Up did a counter-cade edition at $150 I probably would have pounced. I might have even done $200. I was never going to do $600 and I wouldn’t recommend anybody else do that either, but if you love The Simpsons and come upon a deal for this, then I think it’s definitely worth the investment.


The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Sega CD)

On September 5, 1992 the now legendary Batman: The Animated Series debuted on the Fox Network in prime time with a special airing of “The Cat and the Claw: Part One.” It’s been 30 years since the premiere and in that time the show has seemingly become only more beloved, more celebrated, and is still held up as one of the finest animated series of all time. For an entire generation, Adam West was synonymous with Batman thanks to the popularity of the live-action Batman television series from the 1960s. For the millennial generation, and even some older Gen Xers, Kevin Conroy is their Batman and with good reason. While West’s take on the character was fun and lighthearted, the Conroy Batman as realized by the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (amongst others) was a brooding type. He was truly the dark knight, a man haunted by his past compelled to dawn cape and cowl each night as a means of seeking redemption for being just a bystander when his parents were murdered.

Batman is a terrific show and countless amounts of words have been dedicated to it in many places, including right here on this blog. To celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary it seemed like an appropriate time to tackle the show’s lost episode. The term lost episode can mean many things. Sometimes it’s an episode that was pulled from circulation for one reason or another. Or perhaps it was an episode that made it far in the writing and storyboard department, but was never actually produced. And sometimes it is literally a lost piece of media, though that is rather rare. And then there’s yet another category, the episode produced for another medium. In this case a video game.

My setup to experience this one. No emulators here.

When the compact disc was adapted for gaming most developers realized one of the biggest strengths of the medium was being able to capture full-motion video and high quality audio. The older cartridge format was expensive to produce and outfit with the sort of memory and storage capacity needed for such things, but with a CD that wasn’t a problem. When PC developers and console ones started exploring the CD, many just spent an inordinate amount of time jamming the games with flashy audio and video. Sometimes this was used to enhance the experience like to give the player a little break and advance the plot of a story-intensive game. Other times it went the complete opposite direction and the game turned into just a bad movie with button prompts that often did nothing but add to the player’s score.

The absence of network censors means glass will break, and lots of it.

Coming in somewhere in the middle is The Adventures of Batman & Robin for the Sega CD. This game, released in 1994, follows in the footsteps of the previously released Batman Returns for the Sega CD only this time it’s enhanced with a new story and brand new animated segments from renowned animators Tokyo Movie Shinsha. TMS worked on some of the very best episodes of Batman. Chances are, if you thought an episode looked incredible (Feat of Clay Part 2), it’s because TMS worked on it. The story segments are written by Paul Dini and the main voice cast reprised their roles as well. How could this go wrong?

If you were hoping to actually play as Batman, well, prepare to be disappointed.

Well, like I said, this one follows in the footsteps of Batman Returns. Chances are, if you’re old enough to have experienced the 8 and 16 bit console days then you probably encountered one of the versions of Batman Returns. Most of them were brawlers with some platforming elements. Unlike Sunsoft’s game based on the first Batman film, none of the Batman Returns offerings were any good. And if you played the Sega CD version, you may have played the worst of them all. That’s because it was a simple driving sim. You, as Batman, drive the Batmobile through rather long and boring stages to chase down the bad guys. Only when you actually get to them, you don’t get to play as Batman outside of his famous wheels.

While the gameplay isn’t terrible, it’s definitely not the main attraction. That’s the cut scenes and they are beautifully animated. The level of violence present is similar to Mask of the Phantasm. Here Batman is hacking up one of Poison Ivy’s monsters with an axe and his “blood” is spraying everywhere.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin is very much the same game. At the start of the game, Batman is shown in the Batcave and is alerted to a robbery taking place thanks to his super computer. He hops into the Batmobile, and the game begins. Each level is basically the same with the only difference being a change of scenery and sometimes the soundtrack. As Batman, you drive around in the Batmobile while a timer ticks down. There will be obstacles in your way that will change from level to level. At the outset, the obstacles are pedestrian vehicles and the game will end if you strike too many of them. Later on it will be more physical obstacles and even zoo animals.

As Batman zooms around in his car various checkpoints will be hit. When such occurs, the game will alert you that the next “stage” has begun. If at any point you die or fail to reach a checkpoint in time, a life is lost and you restart at the last checkpoint. Running out of lives means going back to the start of the level. The length of the levels will vary, with some as high as six stages, and they basically all follow the same pattern: chase, battle, chase, battle, etc. At first, Batman will be tackling the goons of one of his famous foils. They’ll just be driving other vehicles and Batman needs to take them out with arms (this Batman is much closer in behavior to his big screen counterpart) until they’re no more. At the end is when the actual bad guy appears, but again, just in some vehicle. At no point does it feel like Batman is actually battling the likes of Joker or Riddler. About the best the game does is given them a themed weapon like the various plant bombs that get thrown by Poison Ivy.

The visuals do get switched up here and there, such as this level where Batman enters Riddler’s virtual world once again.

Being a 28 year old game, the presentation isn’t the best. Where the show is known for its dark deco aesthetic, the video game feels like it’s halfway between that and Batman Forever. There’s a lot of bright, green, font in use and it’s hard to ignore the more futuristic looking Batmobile. The vehicles are still largely old fashioned in design, so this is unmistakably a BTAS game, but the electronic soundtrack is more Batman Beyond than what we’re used to. Shirley Walker did not work on this game so that is perhaps why it doesn’t sound like an episode of the show. The main theme isn’t terrible, but it’s used for too many levels so it gets really old. The visuals can also be dingey at times and obstacles have a tendency to pop-in. The greatest challenge this game has to offer is managing that pop-in and just being able to discern what is and what isn’t an obstacle. I played this game on an old CRT to try and get the optimal experience, but I think it’s the rare, vintage, game that might be better served by a modern TV with a brighter display. It should also be noted, while vintage games are generally believed to be better on vintage televisions, not all CRT sets are created equal. Mine is a puny 13″ Sharp TV and there is undoubtedly better out there.

While driving, there isn’t much for the player to do. Holding “Up” on the directional pad causes the Batmobile to move forward and steering is obviously handled with the left and right buttons. The B button is a turbo which does need to replenish itself, though I tended to just hold it down the whole time. I found when I tried managing it was the only time I failed to hit the checkpoints in time, so just holding it down worked better. The HUD is a mess of green lines and text, but it details the damage done to the Batmobile as well as a boss character, when needed. Batman can acquire a trio of weapons that are just hanging out in the road at various points: guided missiles, smart bombs, and mini rockets. The missiles and bombs are both mapped to the A button and it’s a bit confusing. I tended to just mash the button until they were gone as the mini rockets are infinite and mapped to C. Selling out to grab the missiles or smart bombs is basically a fool’s errand as the mini rockets are fine for every enemy. When I got the chance to attack, I just laid into each enemy until they died. That’s essentially how the game is played.

The only other change of pace really is when Batman trades in his Batmobile for the Batwing.

The game is certainly repetetive given that every level is the same except the final one. That level lets you pilot the Batwing so you have an extra axis to deal with. In that level, Batman flies along an unending bridge and has to maneuver through the scaffolding and deal with enemy vehicles at the same time in pursuit of the game’s final villain (which I won’t spoil). It’s a sorely needed change of pace, but it’s not really much more interesting than driving the Batmobile. If anything it’s more frustrating as maneuvering the Batwing through the various obstacles can be a pain, but the game is very forgiving when it comes to taking damage as it takes a lot to knock the Batwing out of the sky. Make it through this one and victory is yours. The entire game can be completed in less than an hour, and while there is no game save function, there is a level skip code that basically functions in the same manner.

The game is divided into 6 acts and in between each is an animated segment. These bits are the real star of the show, while the plot isn’t of particular interest, the animation is of a high quality and each segment can be enjoyed on its own merits. Because this isn’t intended for television, the violence is also more graphic. Batman gets to break glass and villains bleed. There’s some stuff that comes across as a bit shocking the first time through, though ultimately it is probably on par with what was seen in Mask of the Phantasm. Because it’s Sega CD, the actual visual fidelity isn’t of a high quality which is a real shame because it’s obvious TMS did some terrific work. If this were an actual episode it would be considered among the best from an animation perspective. The voice acting is also great, as expected, and I think most who play this will be happy with the selection of villains.

If you like seeing Batman actually dish out some punishment then you’ll definitely enjoy some of these cut scenes.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin on the Sega CD really is a game only worth playing to experience this “lost episode” of sorts. The plot won’t dazzle, but if we were scoring episodes purely on the quality of the visuals what’s presented here is easily top 5 material for the show, if not top 3. It’s just a shame the game that takes place in between these moments is so bland. It’s not long or difficult enough to feel too arduous a task, but when it’s over it’s one of those games most will be glad to see the credits hit. In hindsight, I’m surprised they didn’t try to insert a Bat Boat level or something to break things up, though I doubt maneuvering the boat would have been terribly entertaining. It may have been a mistake to reserve the Batwing for the final level and not replace an earlier Batmobile level with it, but again, the game would still feel repetitive even with such a change.

Like most Sega CD games, The Adventures of Batman & Robin is not easy, or cheap, to come by these days. Once upon a time many Sega CD titles were a dime a dozen, but not anymore and it hasn’t been that way for more than a decade at this point. The good news is, considering the actual game is so uninteresting most will be content to just experience this one on YouTube. There are numerous playthroughs available to watch. It’s just a shame the visual quality is so poor as this thing really should have been included on the Blu Ray set or something, but maybe the rights are tricky. If you’ve never seen it, definitely give it a look, but mostly I hope you’re able to celebrate this show turning 30 in some way today because it’s definitely a show worth celebrating.


Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne

Arthas is back to claim his crown.

The expansion pack was long a domain of PC gaming. Not quite a sequel, expansion packs usually did what they advertised: they expanded a game beyond what was originally released. Blizzard often turned to the expansion pack for its games and it’s a strategy that made a lot of sense. Their games tended to take a long time to develop and reusing those assets was a way to recoup even more of the development costs. Blizzard was also very committed to online gaming and an expansion pack was a way to address balancing issues that might not have been apparent at launch. And sometimes an expansion could be a testing ground for things to come without the necessary investment a true sequel requires.

The Frozen Throne was released in 2003 roughly a year after the release of Warcraft III. Warcraft III was a success for Blizzard and an expansion to the game was essentially a foregone conclusion. There were a lot of loose ends to tie-up following the completion of the game’s campaign mode, and after a year of steady online play, fans were more than willing to embrace some new units to mess around with. Blizzard also had the soon-to-be mega success World of Warcraft primed and ready, and The Frozen Throne could be a way to prep that game for release thematically.

Also back is Illidan and he brought some friends.

The Frozen Throne expands upon the lore of the Warcraft franchise and introduces a bunch of new creatures in the process, just the sort of thing needed to support a living, playable, world. Warcraft III was the biggest Warcraft yet as it introduced two, new, playable factions to bring the game’s total to 4. I suppose in a move that isn’t a huge surprise, the expansion can’t quite live up that as it includes just 3 campaign modes. Returning from Warcraft III are the Night Elves, Humans, and Undead Scourge while remaining on the sidelines are the Orcs. It’s a bit surprising to see what has long been a fan-favorite faction in the Orcs kicked to the curb, but these are the limitations of an expansion vs a sequel. And while it makes The Frozen Throne seem comparatively smaller, there’s actually a whole lot of new content added including what is basically a fifth faction in the Naga.

The monstrous Naga are basically the game’s unofficial fifth faction. They have aligned themselves with Illidan and have their own buildings, units, and even a hero.

The campaign begins with the Night Elves. Illidan has joined forces with the Naga, a race of amphibious creatures recently awakened by the night elf turned demon. Illidan even gets a new character model as he now permanently sports bat-like wings and features some other, minor, cosmetic changes. In pursuit of Illidan is the new Night Elf hero – the Warden Maiev. Each faction gets one new hero and some new units to play with. Most of the additions seek to strengthen an area that may have previously been a weakness. The Warden is more of a melee unit and its ultimate attack basically allows for a small army to be formed. It works well alongside the more support type heroes in the Priestess and Keeper of the Grove and it’s not as specialized as the Demon Hunter. It does feature one ability, a short-range teleport, which has little, practical, use outside of the campaign but it’s other abilities are fine.

Maiev is the new Night Elf hero, the Warden. Also pictured is the new Blood Mage. Malfurion, like his brother Illidan, gets a new character model as well as he now rides a stag.

The plot for the campaign is that the Wardens were all slaughtered, save one, by Tyrande during the events of Warcraft III to free Illidan. The surviving warden seeks to return Illidan to his cell and exact revenge on the priestess. The Night Elf campaign feels largely separate from the other two, though Illidan remains a presence throughout all 3. The second campaign is the Human Alliance campaign, but more appropriately, it’s the Blood Elf campaign. The new human hero is a Blood Elf Mage and several scenarios will actually put the player in charge of an elven settlement, but it results mostly in a cosmetic change as they operate like the humans just without human and dwarf units. The Blood Elf, and the new Spellbreaker unit, basically specialize in countering magic and they’re quite good at it. The final campaign puts the player back in control of Arthas as well as the fallen Sylvanas, who is now one of the non-faction aligned heroes – The Dark Ranger. The new Scourge hero is actually the Crypt Lord, which is part of the same spider-like race of beings the Crypt Fiend belongs to. It’s basically a tank unit and is tough to bring down.

The Founding of Durotar is the replacement for the Orc campaign. It’s basically a simple RPG that lets the player experience some of the neutral heroes, as well as the new Orc hero. I found it too simplistic, but others really liked it as it gave rise to a brand new franchise in DOTA.

Not addressed by the campaign are the Orcs. Their new hero units can be experienced in a fourth scenario, The Founding of Durotar. That puts the player in control of another neutral hero, The Beast Master, and it’s basically a scenario similar to how Warcraft III was originally conceived. It’s basically a dungeon crawler and largely serves to confirm that Blizzard was right to not go in this direction. Successful scenarios have been launched from this campaign, like the popular DOTA, but as present in this game it’s a bit bland. It’s also decidedly not Warcraft. The new Orc hero in this is the Shadow Hunter, a troll that basically specializes in support including healing, something the Orcs didn’t have available from any of its heroes. Other neutral heroes include the Naga Sea Witch, a ranged attacker that can do magic damage as well, the Pandaran Brewmaster, a joke turned real and ultimately a unit that can deal out quite a bit of damage. Lastly, there’s the Pit Lord which is basically a demon unit from Warcraft III not previously playable. As one would expect, it’s quite powerful and hard to bring down. Neutral heroes can be hired like mercenaries on the map, only they’re quite a bit more expensive.

Anub’arak belongs to the new hero class for the Scourge, the Crypt Lord, and he’s basically just a powerhouse.

The campaign is obviously shorter than Warcraft III’s since it omits one entire faction, but even accounting for that, each part of the campaign feels shorter than before. That said, there are a few scenarios that are quite a bit harder than anything in Warcraft III, including the final one called A Symphony of Frost and Flame (someone on the staff was apparently a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire), which took me just a tick over 2 in-game hours to beat. There were a few other longer ones, and most of those I very much enjoyed. What I didn’t enjoy as much were the scenarios that didn’t involve any base management. I don’t mind those here and there, but there were quite a bit more this time around. Some were designed to take advantage of new abilities, like one where a powerful item is hidden in spots only accessible via the Warden’s new teleport ability, but most felt too linear and boring. Aside from that, the plot and pacing of the story felt fine, if a bit inconsequential. The middle scenario in particular felt like the game was spinning its tires, but there was some fun to be had in-between so it’s not like I minded. The story the game really wants to tell, if you couldn’t tell by the title, concerns Arthas and his relationship with the titular Frozen Throne. It’s a bit interesting because Arthas and the Scourge are basically the villains of our story, but you the player are tasked with protecting the throne, and the Lich King within it, from those who seek to destroy it.

Not every faction benefits as much as some of the others when it comes to the new additions in The Frozen Throne. The Shadow Hunter is a welcomed addition for the Orcs, but the new units in the Batrider and Spirit Walker are less interesting. The Batrider is essentially a flying siege unit, but it’s not really any more useful than a catapult while the Spirit Walker is strictly for support. It can resurrect dead units, but it’s fairly costly. I do like the Blood Elf Spellbreaker as it’s a great counter for a horde of Necromancers. The new air units for the Humans, the Blood Elf Dragonhawk Rider, is like a lighter version of the undead Bone Dragon as it can incapacitate buildings briefly, very useful for attacking settlements. The Undead just get the Obsidian Statue, a strictly support unit, but it can turn into a melee unit powered by mana that’s just okay. It’s much better in a support role where it replenishes either health or mana so pair it with a group of Necromancers and you get an instant army of skeletons. Speaking of which, the Necromancers can also reanimate corpses as skeletal mages now, which are useful in adding a weak ranged attacker. Lastly, the Night Elves’ flashiest new unit is the Mountain Giant. It’s basically a catapult turned into a traditional melee unit. They’re really tough to bring down when upgraded, and they do actual siege damage by ripping a tree out of the ground to wield as a club. They’re very costly, but worth it. Not really worth it is the new Fairie Dragon which strictly exists to counter enemy spellcasters, but it’s not as good in that role as the Spellbreaker and it’s a bit too costly to invest in.

A look at a Naga base. Their version of a tower is quite annoying to have to deal with.

Being an expansion, the game utilizes the same engine as Warcraft III and basically looks the same. A few heroes received a makeover, and there are some new settings to explore like a tropical one. The game also brings back naval units as mercenary units. They feel quite weak compared with the naval units in Warcraft II, and mostly feel like a gimmick, but it’s kind of neat to see. By far, the most interesting addition are the Naga who have an entire tech tree. They’re not a playable faction in multiplayer, but they can be experienced in the campaign. They have their own worker units, melee, spellcasters, siege, and so on. Their only limitation is that they have just the one hero as opposed to four. And since they’re amphibious, all of their units can swim which introduces a fun, new, wrinkle to things. All of the voice actors appear to have returned and the presentation on the whole feels largely the same. There’s fewer CG cinematics, but that was to be expected. Also receiving a downgrade is the packaging. There’s no giant instruction manual this time, just a CD booklet. That booklet does provide biography information for all of the new units and buildings though so it’s not as-if it’s as empty as a modern booklet.

An undersold feature of The Frozen Throne is the return of naval units in the campaign. They’re never as involved as they were in Warcraft II, but it’s kind of neat to have them once again and it’s needed to deal with the amphibious Naga.

One of the major selling points of any expansion is the new functionality that comes to online play. And in the case of The Frozen Throne, that was through Blizzard’s Battle.net interface. From what I can remember, it added a lot and gave me a reason to dive back into it. I don’t think I bothered much with the neutral heroes, but I did use some of the new ones. Now, Battle.net no longer supports this game so I can’t check it out. Like Warcraft III, The Frozen Throne was remade somewhat recently and if you want to experience everything the game has to offer you pretty much have to do so via the new game. It’s a shame, because this version is still very playable. It doesn’t cry out for any real quality of life improvements, and even though the visuals are dated they’re hardly unpleasant to look at.

The Frozen Throne was re-released as part of Warcraft III: Reforged in 2020 with remade character models that are obviously more advanced than what was released in 2003. Even though they’re technically better, I don’t find them as charming or visually interesting as the originals.

The Frozen Throne does what a good expansion should do: it makes an already terrific game even better. I liked having new single player content, even if I wish there was a bit more, and the new units and heroes are largely worthwhile additions to the gameplay. It’s only sin is not having a proper Orc campaign. It definitely made picking a faction in multiplayer more challenging as all four are pretty good, though the addition of the Shadow Hunter actually made it perhaps too easy for me to stick with the Orcs. The Mountain Giant is probably my favorite addition, but it was often difficult to make use of it in the much faster-paced world of multiplayer given its placement on the tech tree. I don’t play it, but it also feels like this game really set the stage for World of Warcraft with the new lore and a new big, bad, evil, dude in the form of the Lich King. Playing this one made me wish we had a Warcraft IV, but I also got my RTS fix by playing through this one. I suppose the next time that itch arises I’ll just play them again!


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III

Rean is back and he’s got some new friends this time.

I knew it had been a long time since I reviewed The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, but I was surprised when I went back and looked and saw that I posted that entry almost 5 years ago. The Trails of Cold Steel series was planned to be 4 games and I basically went from the first game right to the second, so having to wait for the third part was a bit of an adjustment. And the main driver of that was the switch from the PlayStation 3 era to the PlayStation 4 one. I experienced the first two games on the Vita, but that wasn’t going to be an option going forward. Enter the Nintendo Switch which was essentially my replacement for the Vita. Trails of Cold Steel III was released on the PS4 in October 2019, but I had to wait until June of 2020 to pickup the Switch version and now, more than 100 in-game hours later, I can actually talk about it.

The Trails of Cold Steel series of games is a property of long-time Japanese game developer Nihon Falcom and its The Legend of Heroes franchise traces all the way back to the pre-8-bit era of gaming. It’s one of the longest running franchises in the medium, though it’s never been particularly popular in the west. It would seem this game helped to get it more recognition as it arrived on the PS4 during the console’s natural life-cycle as opposed to the first two games. The switch to the new platform meant this entry lost the ability to import data from the prior games so, in a way, it was like a fresh start. And the four games do feel like two stories in a lot of ways. The first game ends with an abrupt cliffhanger while the second has more of an ending. It does still setup another game though and, spoiler alert, the third entry ends in the most abrupt cliffhanger yet.

The story of these games centers on Rean Schwarzer. In the first two games, Rean is a student at Thors Military Academy, but by the end of the second game he’s more like a full-fledged soldier of the Erebonian Empire. He’s an orphan, and come the end of the second game his parentage is out in the open. A seemingly morose Rean is then used as a tool of the Empire to help annex the nation of Crossbell with the help of Altina, the Black Rabbit, and his divine knight Valimar, which is essentially a mobile suit or mech. When the third game begins, Rean has been appointed an instructor of Thors Military Academy’s branch campus overseeing a new Class VII, which is the class he belonged to as a student. The student is now the teacher, but tensions amongst the surrounding nations cast a shadow over Erebonia. The sense the game gives off is that Rean has been stashed at this lesser school just to bide time until war breaks out when his skills and divine knight will be needed to crush a rebellion. Rean has to figure out how he fits into everything and just how far he’ll go in his service to the Empire, despite openly voicing his opposition to many of the choices made by the ruling class.

The cast of playable characters is quite massive in this one, though the game is crafted in such a way that everyone is almost never available to utilize all at once.

The story is very much about Rean, but it integrates new characters as well. Rean’s new Class VII begins small as it features the returning Altina, who previously was a non-player character and even a villain of sorts, along with newcomers Juna and Kurt. Juna is a young woman from Crossbell who has a lot of mixed emotions about being taught by Rean whom she views as an enemy of her homeland. Kurt is the second son of a noble trying to find his own way who declined an invitation to the main campus and instead took a position at the less prestigious academy. The game begins as the previous two in a cold open fashion as the player will be in control of a party of Class VII from a point in the game that won’t be seen for many hours, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that two additions are made to Class VII during the course of the game because they’re a part of that opening. One of which is a noble girl named Musse who has an unquenchable thirst for her instructor. The other is Ash, a fellow orphan with a brash personality who has an open disgust for Rean. Of the new additions, Juna and Ash are the most interesting as there’s a lot of conflict stemming from them which is refreshing in a game where the characters, otherwise, get along too well. Kurt is rather bland and too similar to Jusis from the previous games, even looking similar, while Altina is intentionally wooden as she needs to develop emotions and a personality throughout the game.

If you’re missing the past members of Class VII, worry not, as they do return and in a playable capacity. They’re just not a main attraction and much of the focus is on the new characters. The old ones are used like guest characters, which isn’t a new thing for the series as it did the same with the Bracers in the second game, who bounce in and out of the playable party throughout the game and never stick around very long. It’s kind of needed though as those characters had two games to build up their strength while the new ones start from scratch. Rean does not, though he intentionally holds back during the early parts of the game which is how the game depowers him. Even with that, he’s still pretty powerful compared to the other characters and anchors the party throughout the game.

In order to give the game added challenge and bring the new characters up to speed, Rean’s powers are severely restricted in the early going.

The story for the game is fine, though this is a game that gets too wordy and doesn’t respect the player’s time. As I said in the first paragraph, I spent over 100 hours with this game on just a single playthrough, 115 to be exact. And a lot of that is due to the scenes just dragging and tons of dialogue where nothing of substance is relayed. Characters too eagerly explain every emotion they’re going through and there are a lot of clumsy moments. Few of these emotions are complex or even unique to the character and too often you’ll just watch characters act overly modest and compliment each other back and forth. Other times you’ll experience the game’s perversions which is usually sophomoric in nature. Most of the female characters are well-endowed and other characters (often fellow women) draw attention to that. And then there’s Musse who openly lusts for Rean which is uncomfortable, but I suppose better than the other way around. There’s also still a few instances of the thirsty lesbian character who hits on underage girls which is pretty gross and there are no gay male characters represented at all, which seems weird. This just means there are lots of moments where I rolled my eyes, but there’s also some genuinely humorous moments here and there which are welcomed.

Where this game, and this series, excels is just in the gameplay mechanics. Going through the motions is fairly linear and not particularly of interest, but when the game shifts to combat it’s a lot of fun. The battle system from the prior two games returns, only with the dropping of the Overdrive function which is something I do miss. Battles are like a tactical version of the Final Fantasy X combat as it’s all order based and the player is aware of which character’s turn is next at all times. And a lot of the battle system is manipulating that as certain actions require more time to recover while others inflict “Delay” on the enemy and can push their actions back. Character positioning on the battlefield matters, but only in a sense that players grouped together are more easily attacked at once. Most actions occur in a sphere or on a line and others will actually suck characters into a spot which is handy for follow-up actions. Like most JRPGs, characters can attack, use items, cast spells (Arts), and also make use of crafts which are unique abilities that draw from a third resource called CP. The game also makes use of the link system which means characters are “linked” in battle and the higher their link rating the more support they provide each other. This takes on the from of follow-up attacks, temporary buffs, and restorative actions. It also translates to Battle Points, or BP, which are used to cast “Orders” or additional follow-up attacks. Basically, when a character lands a critical hit, a prompt pops-up allowing for either a follow-up attack that will result in 1 BP earned, or BP can be spent for massive attacks. Up to 5 BP can be accumulated at once, and each character has Brave Orders that also consume BP that can be initiated by any active character on their turn. These orders usually apply a buff of some kind or augment things like casting time. They’re often very important for boss fights, but for the garden variety villains encountered they’re superfluous.

A large portion of the combat requires successful manipulation of the turn order (presented on the right) as all actions require a cooldown of some kind that pushes the character back. There are also buffs and debuffs that will pop-up on the turn order that you’ll either want to avoid or make sure your opponent doesn’t benefit from.

The other wrinkle Trails of Cold Steel II introduced that the third game continues are the mech battles. Rean has his divine knight, but the some of the other students also have their own suits to pilot referred to as Panzer Soldats. They’re utilized infrequently, probably too infrequently, but the mechanics of battle change when they’re brought in. It’s a lot like Xenogears as you basically have to manage your character’s vitals along with their CP and each character will be given a support character who can do things like restore health or EP, which is your mana or magic points. In addition to that, the support characters also can cast Arts so there’s often a risk/reward element at play – do I use this turn to heal or do I use this awesome spell? Enemies also take on a different form as they have multiple hit areas, one of which is weak and will often result in a critical hit if you can figure it out. To make it harder, the enemies will change stances throughout a battle resetting which spot is the weak point. Orders are removed, but Brave Points are still needed to unleash ultimate attacks. It’s a fun system which is why I wanted to see more of it, but at least by making these battles a rarity they feel a little more special when they do take place.

Beyond the battle system, the rest of the mechanics are fairly ordinary, but with a lot of depth. Characters accumulate experience and level-up and learn new abilities along the way. Spells, or Arts, are equipped via quartz in a manner similar to Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system. The frame they’re equipped to, called an Arcus, can be upgraded to allow for more slots as the game progresses. The player can also combine quartz to create stronger versions so often a simple spell will at first just give access to that spell, but when upgraded will also apply a stat boost. Each character also has what’s called a Master Quartz which accumulates experience as well. It’s this Master Quartz that influences most how that character should be utilized – are they a support character? Attacker? Tank? Characters can be equipped with two types of armor plus a weapon, the style of which is unique to each character. Two additional accessory slots are available to cycle through items that usually provide protection from some status effects or apply bonuses to stats. What’s a bit of a bummer, is most equipment is just bought at stores throughout the game. There’s little or no opportunities to get a cool item via an optional quest as that’s basically reserved only for each character’s best weapon.

Trails of Cold Steel III also returns the bonding system. Throughout the game, Rean will have opportunities to spend Bonding Points to strengthen his relationship with the rest of the cast. Most of these are fellow Class VII members, but a few are not. There’s a finite amount of points and opportunities and it’s designed in such a way that a player can’t see everything in one playthrough. If you get to a max bonding level with a character you’re treated to a scene that basically features a heart-to-heart between Rean and said character resulting in a permanent status boost to the characters. Unlike past games, only 3 romance options are available to Rean this time and they basically feel tacked on. It obviously doesn’t matter who Rean picked in the prior two games, and they can be undone in the sequel so don’t put too much stock in whatever choice you make here.

The character models in this game look pretty good, especially if you enjoy buxom women, but the environments are rather bland. This isn’t a game that will impress with its visuals.

Trails of Cold Steel III, being the first developed for the PS4, looks noticeably better than its predecessors. I played the game on the Switch and found the character models were a marked improvement, but scenery was still pretty basic and bland. This isn’t a game that will impress in that area, but the sound design is just fine. The soundtrack isn’t what I would call memorable, but it’s suitable while the voice acting is plenty capable. Unfortunately, the Switch version is not the most stable and I had more game crashes here than I have since Skyrim on the PS3. On one occasion, the game kept crashing during a scene and I was worried I’d never get through it. I probably had to attempt it half a dozen times before I finally made it through. The game did seem to run a little better docked, but still not perfect. And since the fourth game is already out it would seem Falcom is unlikely to release any additional patches. I got the Switch version because I wanted the portable experience that I had with the Vita, but in light of the challenges faced, I would recommend against it if you have a PS4 and plan to mostly play from your couch.

This is a game that is relies on its systems and story to get by and it’s a good thing that both are really quite good.

Trails of Cold Steel III is ultimately more of the same. Very little is changed from II to III, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The “new” largely resides in the cast and not the systems and I’m sure there will be some who prefer the more familiar Class VII to this one. I warmed up to the new characters, for the most part, and found the smaller cast a bit more tidy and refined. There’s little redundancy now and almost everyone has a semi-interesting arc. Except Kurt who remains pretty boring for the entire duration. And that’s the other thing that will determine how you feel about this game – just how much time are you willing to spend with these characters? I definitely was growing sick of them by the end as 115 hours is just too damn long. There’s not even much in the way of “extras” aside from a fishing minigame and a card game that will take up maybe 2 hours of time all together. There’s just a lot of reading, a lot of fetch quests, just a lot! It could be more streamlined, and hopefully the finale that is Trails of Cold Steel IV is an improvement. I just started it, so I can’t say for sure, but I have nearly 300 hours invested in this series so of course I’m going to see it through. If you’re thinking of jumping in, you could start here if you wanted to, but obviously it’s better to start at the beginning (and this series is a sister one to Trails in the Sky if you really want to go nuts). There are recaps for the past games available in this one for newcomers to peruse, but it’s obviously a different experience from actually playing through it (and if you didn’t 100% the second game, you may want to look at this too as there’s a scene in that game only available to those who finish everything that’s actually pretty important to the story). For JRPG fans, this is about as good as it gets these days for a modern title so I definitely recommend it from that standpoint. If you’ve never liked JRPGs though this won’t change your mind.


Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

It’s hard to think of a game developer that has seen its image in the industry falter as much as Blizzard has over the past 20 years. Blizzard was once the developer known for quality. The games would be announced with no release date, they’re done when they’re done, and once delivered they were met with almost universal praise. A buyout and a series of accusations about the company’s work environment dominate the news around the company now, but even before some of those allegations came to light, the company’s reputation regarding its actual software had already taken a hit. There was the muddled launch of the much-anticipated StarCraft II, poorly engineered remasters, and news of a mobile Diablo that caused gamers to question just what the company’s direction is these days.

That was certainly not the case twenty years ago. The year 2002 was a big one for Blizzard. The company had established itself as perhaps the premier developer of real-time strategy games thanks to Warcraft, Warcraft II, and StarCraft. The company had also successfully branched out to dungeon crawlers with Diablo and was even eyeing the role-playing genre and stealth gameplay on home consoles, despite Blizzard largely being known as a PC developer. And arriving during this height of popularity was Warcraft III.

Where it all began.

Warcraft was the game largely responsible for Blizzard’s success. It was the game that proved that Blizzard could make its own products in-house and make a living off of it. Heavily inspired by Westwood’s Dune II, Warcraft arrived in 1994 and was at the forefront of the RTS boom in the 90’s and the company found itself in a friendly rivalry with Westwood and its Command & Conquer series. A sequel arrived the following year and was even bigger, in more ways than one, than the original. Warcraft II was supported with an expansion by Blizzard as well as third party additions and was popular both for its story-driven campaign and for its player vs player appeal.

Following Warcraft II was StarCraft in 1998. StarCraft, which took the basic gameplay of Warcraft and turned into a space opera, was seen as bigger and better than its predecessor by many. It also had the advantage of arriving after the launch of Blizzard’s own Battle.Net service which made it easy for players to find opponents over the internet, a fairly new concept for RTS gameplay. Warcraft II had been re-released with Battle.Net support, but the shine had worn off by then. Following StarCraft’s success, it was no longer a foregone conclusion that a Warcraft III was on the way. Blizzard had announced a sequel in the form of a point-and-click game called Warcraft Adventures. It was to tell the story of Thrall, a young orc seeking to unify his people and restore the orcs to their former glory following their defeat in Warcraft II. It wasn’t to be as the game was cancelled before launch. Warcraft III was officially announced in 1999, but it wasn’t going to be a real-time strategy game. Instead, Blizzard envisioned it as closer to a true RPG where players would control a hero character and a small, supporting, cast. Either due to problems with the gameplay or fan backlash, that version of Warcraft III would be scrapped, but the engine and assets created for it could be applied to what would eventually be called Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, which arrived on PC in July 2002.

The only downside to Warcraft III having four playable factions is we lost the head-to-head packaging of the first two games.

In my younger days, I didn’t play a lot of PC games, but I did play Warcraft and Warcraft II was one of my personal favorites. While I thought StarCraft was fine, it was the medieval fantasy setting of Warcraft that appealed to me more and I followed the development of Warcraft III as best I could. I was certainly wary when it looked like it was going to be a radical departure for the series initially, but when it finally arrived that summer I was more than a little impressed. The game was released in four versions with each of the game’s factions getting its own box art. I went with the undead, and eventually the orc cover would become the standard one. I feel the need to take a moment and reminisce on PC game packaging in the 90s and early 2000s. The games seemed to always come in oversized boxes with lavish instruction manuals. It was something I loved about Warcraft II. While Warcraft III arrived in a much smaller box (7.5″ x 5.125″ x 1.25″ approximately) which was fast becoming the standard, it still had a robust manual. This thing is basically a manga-sized trade paperback. Not only does it detail practical descriptions of every unit in the game, as well as game modes, it also has a second set of profiles for each unit from a lore perspective. There’s a detailed write-up on the history and events that lead to the present game from the perspective of each of the game’s four main factions which introduces many of the game’s characters. While one didn’t have to read it in order to enjoy the game’s story, doing so meant having a greater understanding of a character like Illidan Stormrage when he’s introduced beyond what’s shown.

Warcraft III seemed to be influenced greatly by not just the game’s in the series that came before it, but StarCraft as well. When StarCraft arrived, Blizzard upped the playable factions from two to three, so naturally Warcraft III makes it an even four. Returning are the Orcs and Humans and joining them is the Undead Scourge and the Night Elves. The game refers to them as playable “races,” though the term faction seems more appropriate because they’re made up of multiple species. The Humans include elves, dwarves, and gnomes while the Orcs have trolls and the minotaur-like Tauren amongst their ranks. There are actually no depictions of race as we would call it amongst the humans as all are white.

I went with the Undead packaging for my copy 20 years ago. Check out the well-worn book, and the handy cardstock flow chart that was included. You have to pay a hefty premium to get packaging anywhere close to this these days, but back then it was the norm.

In what was a first for Blizzard, Warcraft III is presented entirely with three-dimensional character models and scenery. The camera is positioned overhead at a slight angle which can be modified in-game to zoom in or out as the player prefers. Almost all cutscenes are depicted utilizing the game’s own engine, which resulted in a mixed presentation even back in 2002. The models just weren’t created with the intention of showing them up close, though some (such as Furion who was created solely for the campaign mode) are better than others. All of the dialogue is fully voiced and the acting is more than capable. The world of Warcraft III is presented with lush, Earthy, colors when appropriate, and murky and dark ones when needed. Textures are quite good, and the game does have a touch of style to it which gives some characters (like the lowly Peasant) a cartoony quality to their appearance and animation. It’s in contrast to the more Dungeons & Dragons art style of the past games and it gives Warcraft a style all its own.

The game includes multiple modes of play including one-off custom games, a level editor, and competitive play, but the meat and potatoes is found in the game’s campaign mode. It’s here that the game’s story is presented and it does so by having the player engage with each of the game’s four factions starting with the Humans, followed by the Undead, Orcs, and concluding with the Night Elves. The story for each will tie-in with the rest, but each faction also has its own tale to tell and lessons to learn. The Humans begin the game in a state of hubris oblivious to the rising threat posed by a plague sweeping the land and they all but laugh at a mystical prophet foretelling of doom (granted, most don’t take doom-sayers too seriously, though most also can’t morph into a raven). The Undead are basically the bad guys as the demonic Burning Legion has turned its attention to the scourge following its repeated failures via the Orcs. And speaking of the Orcs, they found themselves defeated and enslaved following the events of Warcraft II and the young War Chief Thrall (remember him?) hopes to restore honor to the horde. The Night Elves are the most mysterious of the new characters. They were the ancient victors over the Burning Legion once before and have largely lived an immortal life of peace since, but when war between the other three arrives on their shores they’re forced to intervene and overcome their own prejudices towards outlanders.

Some of the mechanics have changed, but the game is largely still about creating a base, training an army, and kicking some butt.

The campaign is quite dense and gives the player a taste of each of the playable factions. Of the four, the Humans are the most “vanilla” in that they’re largely as before. Their alliance with the elves has mostly ended which means swapping out the old Elven Archer unit for a Dwarven Rifleman, but the change is basically cosmetic. They really only gained the ability to convert the Peasants to a militia when needed. They’re still fundamentally weak, but I’ll admit that the militia function has saved my ass on more than one occasion. Otherwise, the basic mechanics of Warcraft remain unchanged. The player has a town hall where their base begins and the worker units are tasked with harvesting resources and building additional buildings which are then utilized to train an army. Warcraft III dropped the naval battles of its predecessor so the only resources to manage are gold, lumber, and food, which is supplied via the buildable farms up to a maximum of 90. The Peasants still harvest gold via a mine and chop down lumber for wood. When building a new building, the Peasant charged with the task is tied down to it until done, but others can join-in and help which speeds up the process.

Blizzard included a handful of CGi rendered cut scenes to advance the story. In 2002 these looked incredible, but show their age in 2022.

For their part, the Orcs received only minimal changes. The ability to have multiple workers speed-up production on a building is now exclusive to the Humans, so they can no longer do that. Instead, their farms are now burrows which the Peons, the workers of the Orcs, can now inhabit turning them into defensive structures as they toss spears from within. Their buildings can also be upgraded to spiked buildings which damage other melee units when struck and their watchtowers can no longer be upgraded to canon towers. On the unit front, the Orcs are no longer allied with goblins and ogres, but still retain a few troll units in the ranged attacking Headhunter and the Witch Doctor, who provides a way for the Orcs to heal their units, another thing previously available only to the Humans. They also no longer hold dominion over dragons, instead trading down for Wyverns. They’re fundamentally still a powerful faction as, one on one, the Orc Grunt is the most powerful base melee unit and the Tauren pack the most punch out of all ground-based melee fighters.

The Undead borrow heavily from Blizzard’s other RTS game, StarCraft, as they feel like a combination of that game’s Protoss and Zerg. All Undead buildings must be constructed on diseased land known as blight, except for their main town hall. Gold is harvested by haunting a gold mine where Acolytes simply chant the gold into their coffers via some magical means. The Acolytes are unique in that the only resource they can harvest is gold as lumber is chopped down by the Ghouls, which double as the Undead’s base melee unit. The Ghouls are weak on their own, but fast, and a swarm of them can wreak havoc on opponents. They also can feast on corpses to regain health, and the Undead’s siege weapon, the Meat Wagon, can even store unused corpses for later consumption or reanimation. Buildings for the Undead are also summoned into existence and the Undead’s “farm,” the Ziggurat, can be upgraded into a defensive structure. As for the units, the Undead is where necromancy came to roost as the Necromancer can reanimate corpses as skeletons while the Banshee can possess other units so if you want a mighty Tauren on your side you need only send a Banshee at one.

For the most part though, the game relies on its gameplay engine for cut scenes to advance the story. It’s an okay approach and some character models translate better than others.

The other new faction, the Night Elves, are perhaps the game’s most unique. From a durability perspective, they’re probably the weakest of the four as their strength lies in ranged attacking and their females can even turn invisible at night. They also share a power over nature which takes the form of their buildings being living trees. When a gold mine runs out, the Night Elves need only uproot their Tree of Life and send it onto the next mine. There it will entangle it allowing the Wisps, the workers of the Night Elves, to inhabit and harvest gold sending it back through the roots of the tree. Each Wisp can also harvest lumber without damaging a tree simply by attaching itself to one. The trade-off here is the Wisp can’t attack, and in order to build one of the living trees a Wisp must use itself as a seed thus turning itself into the building the player desires. The base unit for the Night Elves is the Archer requiring a more tactical approach. It’s champion melee unit is the Druid of the Claw, which doubles as a spell-caster. In Night Elf form, the Druid of the Claw can cast regeneration and roar, which is similar to the Orc’s bloodlust, but it’s not a particularly powerful fighter. In order to realize that potential, the druid must transform into a bear. It gains a potent melee attack in doing so, but also loses its ability to cast spells. This element of trade-off is also seen in the Night Elves’ air unit, the Hippogryph. By itself, a Hippogryph can only attack other airborne units, but if it picks up an Archer it gains the ability to attack ground-based units as well. The trade-off is they can’t be separated once combined.

The campaign mode presents its story quite well, but from a gameplay perspective it almost feels like an introduction. By virtue of being up first, the higher points of the tech tree for the Humans is barely scratched. And even though the Night Elves come last, the campaign doesn’t even introduce their most powerful air unit, the Chimaera, reserving that for custom games only. The campaign also tends to grant a lot of access to one Hero unit per faction, while relegating others to a much smaller role, or in the case of the Undead Dreadlord, no player control at all.

Hero units are super-powered units with special abilities, many of which allow heroes to summon other units like the Archmage and its Water Elemental. NPCs, like the ogres here, are a valuable source of experience which is used to power-up a hero.

And speaking of Hero Units, that’s the biggest change of all! The Hero is basically a holdover from Warcraft III’s original vision. The Hero is a powerful and durable unit capable of earning experience as it battles through enemies which allow it to level up. Some past units have essentially been turned into heroes, such as the Paladin and Death Knight, and even their abilities are familiar to seasoned players. Heroes can also carry up to six items which can apply buffs to the hero or take the form of consumables. Most of these items are found by defeating powerful non-player characters which now dot most maps. Some of these NPCs are also familiar, like the Ogres and Troll Berserkers, and their presence is often needed to give players easy access to experience points in one-off games. During the campaigns, the story is told via these heroes and they’ll have level caps for each scenario and some of their abilities won’t be available until certain story conditions are met. In a non-campaign setting, players are free to choose from any of each faction’s three available heroes and even add a second and third, if they wish, though there is often a finite amount of experience available making a multi-hero approach sometimes counterproductive. Heroes are also effectively immortal as if they fall in battle the player can resurrect them, for a price, at a building specific to hero creation.

It’s the addition of the Hero that does give Warcraft III it’s unique flavor. Rather than depend on amassing a giant army composed of heavy-hitters, the game would prefer the player surround their hero with a small band of attackers and support units. Numerous quality of life improvements were made as well to the game over its predecessor. When selecting a group now, the player can tab between the units within that grouping providing easy access to spells and abilities. Some are also able to be set to auto-cast, so if you want your Necromancers continually raising skeletons it can be done. Mostly though, there’s a lot of variety in the play styles afforded by the player options. Previously, it felt like Blizzard tried to keep the two competing sides essentially even. Aside from an ability here and there, there wasn’t much distinguishing the Orcs and Humans before. Now, there’s quite a bit. The Orcs and Humans still feel like the most straight-forward. You can basically just grab a bunch of either group’s units and send them at the opponent with decent results. For Night Elves, that often leads to death as more micro-managing is involved. Especially early in the campaign when only Archers are available, it’s important to make sure all units are targeting the same enemy. Some micro-managing is beneficial for the Undead as well, but given that they’re designed to be able to cheaply overwhelm opponents with numbers, it’s not as crucial. Their mid-tier attacker, the spider-like Crypt Fiend, even can auto-cast web which brings down air units which makes it really easy to just send them at anyone. The Orcs have a similar unit in the Raider which can cast a net on flying units, but can’t be set to auto-cast. If you’re not paying attention, one Gryphon or Gargoyle can wipe out a group of Grunts and Raiders.

Warcraft III certainly shows its age in places, but on the whole, I still think it’s quite pleasant to look at.

Twenty years after its release, Warcraft III remains an engaging play even today, albeit a harder to access one. Blizzard supported the original release for years through Battle.Net, but shut down those servers when a remastered version of the game was released in 2020. It was not well-received as many features that were promised ended up getting cut and the performance was suspect. The original game was released in the era of Windows XP, which is how I recently replayed through the entire campaign. I happen to have an old laptop with XP that still works and I’m glad I hung onto it. It does mean I can’t play through Battle.Net any longer, which is something I did a lot in the summer of ’02. I never got good enough to consider myself great at it, but I won more than I lost. It could be a challenge to find a good game though as the Hero unit, with its might available right from the start, seemed to popularize the “Rush” technique even more in comparison to StarCraft. Rushing meant selling out to build as many low level units as possible to pair with a hero and win quickly, which was never the way I liked to play. It was far more fun to find a group that allowed players to mix and match strengths and weaknesses across factions or just in Hero usage, but the best way to do that was just to find a group of friends rather than toss the dice with randos online.

If you happen to disagree with my assessment of the game’s visuals, there is Warcraft III: Reforged which is essentially the same game with a new coat of paint. The reception has been mixed, but I haven’t played it so I can only recommend that anyone interested do their research first.

Sadly, Warcraft III marked the end for the franchise as an RTS experience. Announced before Warcraft III was released was World of Warcraft which took the franchise to the world of RPGs as Blizzard had intended, only now via the Massively Multiplier Online variety. WoW was, and still is, a huge success for Blizzard and the RTS version of Warcraft has seemingly become a victim of WoW‘s success. Blizzard now appears to view the brand as an MMO with StarCraft as the RTS brand and Diablo the dungeon-crawler. That said, it’s been ten years since the release of StarCraft II so maybe the RTS is just no longer a major part of what Blizzard wants to do. Now under the ownership of Microsoft, maybe there will be a push from Blizzard’s new boss to go back to its roots. Or maybe not, who can say? For me, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is the pinnacle for both the franchise and for Blizzard. None of the developer’s games have appealed to me like Warcraft III has since. It’s incredible to think that 20 years has nearly gone by since the game’s original release and just how much has changed since then. It’s also incredible to see how well this game holds up. Maybe we never got a Warcraft IV because this one simply can’t be topped? Even if that were true, it would still please me to see someone try. I have to believe even a subpar Warcraft IV would be worth playing, but for now, I’m glad I hung onto my copy of Warcraft III and a PC that can still run it.


NECA Turtles in Time…Turtles!

Longtime readers of this blog might have noticed something in my review of the Turtles in Time Bebop and Rocksteady – they were paired up with the Turtles in Time Leonardo and Raphael. I’ve never reviewed those figures and they’ve been out for a long time. Well, I held off. Initially, I just wasn’t convinced I needed them. They’re straight repaints of figures I already have, but those figures feature some dated engineering. And initially, I wasn’t sure how deep I wanted to go on NECA’s video game line. I never got the original comic con exclusive sets, and I thought I might be happy with just select figures from this line. Eventually, the display widened. Another figure I added, but never reviewed, is Leatherhead simply because he was the only missing piece (aside from the Foot Soldier). What changed my mind on the turtles though was an exchange I had with NECA’s Randy Falk on Twitter. It had been noted that re-releases of Slash featured the updated articulation the company introduced with the Turtles in Disguise set so I asked if the current pre-orders for re-releases of the Turtles in Time turtles would feature the same. The answer was “Yes,” and that was enough to get me to pounce.

Leatherhead is the only figure in this line I haven’t reviewed, and I don’t plan to. He’s the same as the toon one, only the quality feels lesser. His joints are super tight and this is basically the only pose he will stand in. He’s mediocre, and I only bought him to complete the set (excluding the Foot Soldier). The pixel deco on his knife is probably the best use of the deco in the entire line though.

NECA’s Turtles in Time line of action figures are specialty shop exclusives that present some familiar figures in pixel-deco to simulate the look of the classic video game, Turtles in Time. The actual turtles are designs by NECA’s Trevor Zammit for the cartoon line, even though they were first released as figures based on the original arcade game. They’re unmistakably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I’ve always wondered what the actual reference art was. Their head shapes and expressions strike me more as Playmates inspired, but they’re coloring and body proportions are definitely in-line with the toon. I’ve always liked them, never loved them. I think the Turtles in Disguise look better captures the spirit of the cartoon’s later years, though we could still use some true Season One, or opening credits, turtles.

Anyone who has played the game knows the best strategy vs Slash is to surround him.

Since these sculpts were intended to function as cartoon turtles, they’re basically being repurposed here for Turtles in Time. The look of that game is pretty close to the show as advances in sprite-based graphics since the original arcade game’s release had progressed quite well. The actual expressions worn by these figures though aren’t really representative of the game. Basically, all of the turtles look the same when walking in that game, a sort of neutral, concerned, look. The idle pose is likely what most fans, and certainly I, remember most from the game. Donatello, with his somewhat stoic expression, probably works the best and if you squint Mikey looks close too, though he should be sporting more of a smile. Leo has this weird look in the game where he’s got his head tilted at an angle, and admittedly, it probably wouldn’t translate well to a figure. Raph is practically off model in the game as he has this huge smile that he turns into a pointed “O” mouth expression. That’s the one I miss the most, maybe not so much the weird proportions, but the smirk. This Raph is instead rocking that toothy grimace.

It kind of looks like Donnie’s special move, right?

The headsculpts are not perfect for the source material, but the rest of the figure pretty much is. This is that same turtle body we’ve seen for years now and it still looks fine. On it, this time, is the pixel deco from the game. These figures are a bright green with dark green “pixels” painted on. The shell follows the same look with pixels down the middle of the chest and all over the rear shell. The presence of the deco means these figures present best when posed like they would be in the game: frontal view, posed like they’re moving from left to right. A lot of the dark green is on the back of the limbs and from some angles can look like too much. That perception is minimized when on a shelf. Like a Monet, these figures look better from a bit of a distance just like those sprites look better on a CRT television. In addition to the pixel deco, the colored masks and pads are slightly different from the toon release. Donnie, Leo, and Raph basically just have a brighter look, while Mikey is more muted. The original arcade game gave Mikey yellow accents, which was weird, while Turtles in Time corrected that to his traditional orange. The figure is barely orange though and he definitely would benefit from a more saturated look. The paint apps are mostly clean, with some slop here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. My Donatello does have this odd blob on his inner thigh that looks like glue or something that’s unsightly, though not bad enough for me to try and seek a replacement.

Pay no mind to the use of the Dragon Ball stand.

In terms of accessories, these guys are pretty familiar with one obvious new addition. Each figure comes with their weapon of choice. For three of the turtles, the weapons are the same as the toon release. Mikey’s nunchaku and Donnie’s bo have a lighter paint job, but are otherwise the same. Mikey even retains the spinning ‘chuk effect piece which is always fun to have. Leo’s swords are the same, only painted all gray. Raphael, on the other hand, gets new sais. They’re painted gray with some pixel deco on them shaded in dark gray, but the sculpt is all new. They have a much harder look as opposed to the loopy toon ones. They remind me of classic Playmates sais and I think they look terrific, though not at all accurate to the game. Raph’s sais in the game are these awkward, wide, things where the center blade is barely longer than the other ones. I think the toon sais are a better representation of the game, but I prefer how these ones look, if I’m being honest, so I’m fine with the change. The other inclusions are a set of extra hands for each turtle. The default are gripping hands (Leo and Raph have vertical hinges, Mikey and Don have horizontal) and between the four you get two sets of pointing hands, one set of open hands, and one set of thumb’s up hands. The choices aren’t really reflective of the game, but I’m not really missing anything. Maybe one more set of open hand for a group high five? The only thing I feel we are missing is an effect part for Raph. His attack animation featured a twirling sai at the end and that would have been a neat inclusion. It would basically be the same idea as Mikey’s twirling ‘chuk effect, only pinned into an open hand.

It’s not a pixelized pizza monster, but it will have to do.

The big accessory though is the hoverboard included with each turtle. The board is from the third level in the game, Sewer Surfin’, and each includes a stand. The sculpt looks spot-on to the game and they color coordinate with each turtle. The stand is a simple, and effective, structure that’s just transparent plastic with a ball peg at the top. The board snaps on, and the ball design allows it to tilt in basically any direction. The board is relatively thin so the ball can only sit so far into it which limits the tilt to some degree, but overall I think you get a solid range here. Each board has one foot peg and it’s definitely on the snug side, but once on, the turtle is unlikely to fall. It’s pretty cool, and it’s going to be hard to resist just posing all four on their included board.

These figures definitely do not represent NECA’s finest work.

Lastly, we have the articulation to speak on. These guys articulate exactly the same as the Turtles in Disguise set. If you got the original release for these, then they articulate like the older Target two-packs and comic con releases. The difference is minor as above the waist everything is the same on both, it’s just the hips and ankles that have been altered. NECA swaps the old hips for the new ball and socket joint and it works great here. Nothing is too lose and the range is plenty adequate. The ankles are the new hinge and rocker joint and they too work just fine. My only articulation complaints with these four is just the tightness in the arms. The elbows are a bit scary to get moving and for some reason the right biceps doesn’t sit as flush as the left. It’s especially problematic on my Donatello and I keep having to push it in. Some of the pins in the legs aren’t perfectly aligned either and it’s a little bit of an eyesore in places. Raphael’s belt wasn’t seated properly in the cut-out behind the belt buckle before it was glues so he looks like he’s been stabbed. Worst of all though, is my Leonardo is a pain to stand. I couldn’t figure out why initially, since the others were okay and they’re all essentially the same figure, and then I finally noticed: he has two right feet! I bought these through Big Bad Toy Store and I reached out to them following my discovery. They didn’t have any spare parts, and didn’t offer to replace the figure, but did issue me a refund. That has left me to try and get a new foot/leg from NECA directly and they weren’t any help. They just referred me back to BBTS. In the end, I got a free Leonardo, but I would have preferred to pay full price for a non-defective one. I could put the refund towards a Raph or Michelangelo at BBTS, but they cost slightly more than I paid originally and I’d essentially be spending 28 bucks or so for a little, green, foot. Overall, excluding the foot issue, the articulation is good enough, but there is a part of me that wants to see NECA do a complete redo of the turtle engineering. At the same time though, there’s a reason why these are 25 bucks and not 35.

Yeah, I probably have to display them this way.

The NECA Turtles in Time edition of the famous heroes basically do enough to get the job done, on the surface. They’re not a perfect match to the game, but it’s also obvious what the company is aiming for by virtue of the deco and included hoverboards. They pose as well as any other 1/12 version of the turtles from NECA, but the quality control seems a little lax and that’s something I’ve noticed with this line as a whole. Again, they’re not priced like the company’s Ultimates line of figures so they are a cheaper product, but it’s a shame that shows in the quality as opposed to just a reduced accessory count or something. Three out of the four turtles had what I would consider quality control problems, enough so that I don’t think I’d recommend anyone buy these sight unseen. One thing working in this line’s favor is that these are pretty easy to get ahold of, though they may not be much longer as NECA pivots away from the Turtles in Time figures. They’re all sold separately, single-packed in the Turtles in Time themed box, and should be around 25-28 bucks from most places, though I’ve seen some local shops try to upcharge them more severely. And a few are only offering them in bundles. For this line, it pays to shop around.


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