Category Archives: Video Games

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.


NECA Turtles in Time Bebop and Rocksteady

Rocksteady and Bebop are back – in pirate form!

When I reviewed the Super7 Donatello last month, I noted how it was one of the longest waits I’ve ever had between the time I ordered something and the time I received it. Well, it’s already been topped. NECA’s Turtles in Time series of action figures based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game is the less celebrated wing of the company’s TMNT figure lines. It’s a specialty shop exclusive that largely consists of repaints of figures that have already appeared in the company’s cartoon line. There are some exceptions, like the Baxter Stockman figure, but largely it’s the most niche line based on the popular IP. The Bebop and Rocksteady set, based on their appearance in the Super Nintendo version of the game, is sort of the capper to the line. It’s the line’s only two-pack and it features two popular characters in amusing pirate attire. It went up for preorder in October of 2020, the same month as Super7’s wave 4 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and if I didn’t cancel my preorder and grab this set elsewhere I’d still be waiting. For whatever reason, the online retailer Big Bad Toy Store has been slow to get some NECA product. I’m still waiting for the quarter scale Donatello to come in stock despite that, like this set, being available months ago in other places. When someone pointed out to me that Amazon, of all places, had this set in stock I jumped on it. Sorry BBTS, I’ve waited long enough.

“Say your prayers, toitles!

Bebop and Rocksteady are a bit unique for this line. They’re not just repaints, but they’re also not too far removed from the figures we’ve seen in the cartoon line (which came out back in 2019). The actual figures are largely the same and what’s been changed are the soft, plastic, overlays, that NECA uses to differentiate characters. It’s how they can basically use the same molds for Bebop, Rocksteady, and Leatherhead without it being really obvious. Of the two, Rocksteady is the most different. NECA had to add his pirate hat so he actually has new ears. His overlay on his torso is vastly different from the tank top the other figure features as it’s a dashing, captain’s, shirt and coat with ruffled shoulder pads. The arms had to be changed to accommodate this look since he’s now wearing sleeves. Everything else is the same which is a good and bad thing. Good, because the older Rocksteady is one of the best looking figures in this line still. Bad, because that figure used the old hips which are prone to breaking and difficult to pose. This guy is hard to stand and I’m currently using two NECA disc stands to keep him upright.

It’s still pure horror underneath those glasses.

Bebop is also sporting a pirate look, but his look isn’t as drastic a departure as his buddy’s. It’s almost entirely limited to the overlays as he has a new bandana on his head in place of his hair and he’s wearing a striped shirt with a pink vest. The arms are the same, but NECA ditched the real chain-link bracelet in favor of sculpted ones on both wrists. The only real difference comes below the knee as Bebop’s pants end in tatters and his stylish high-tops have been replaced with what look like loafers with a big, yellow, buckle on each. He also doesn’t have a belt any longer, but still has his turtle shell shoulder pads and weird, skeletal, necklace. Unlike Rocksteady, Bebop is easier to stand as the new shoes actually work better than the old ones, though he too can still be a challenge as he’s very top heavy. I think with Rocksteady he’s just even more top heavy and his feet aren’t very large in relation to his body size. My only critique of this look is that Bebop’s shirt and glasses are more of a hot pink than the purple they appear to be in the game. You can also see his purple ponytail in the game, but NECA removed his hair to make room for the bandana on his head. And his eyes are still solid black under the glasses which is a bit of a bummer because his eyes become visible in the arcade game when hit and it would have been cool if we could simulate that as well.

The pixel deco isn’t too intrusive here and actually works pretty well from a distance.

Both figures feature NECA’s pixel deco and I think it looks okay here. With Rocksteady, the effect is played up rather well on his torso. I like how the gray and white on his vest turned out and there’s just enough on his arms and legs. His flesh is purple, which is in keeping with the game. His black hat is basically ignored when it comes to the pixel look which is accurate to the game as well. The paint is clean and sharp and if I have one criticism it’s that there should be some white near his eyes. As it stands, NECA basically painted them all black with a triangle of purple and it’s a bit freaky. Bebop is also well-painted, though his pixelization feels more understated. NECA could have done more with it on his chest, especially, but opted not to. If not for the gray patches on his legs he wouldn’t really appear pixelated at all when on a shelf. I suspect this bothers few though as, if anything, I see more people complaining about the pixel deco than praising it.

This isn’t the most dynamic pair of action figures around. Most will just set them and forget them.

As far as articulation is concerned, these guys are exactly the same as the previous releases. They’re nearly the same base too so they articulate the same, which is to say, not very well. They’re not statues, but the articulation has always been something I’ve had to overlook with these guys. The head is on a ball or ball-hinge and doesn’t offer much range. The jaw on both is articulated and it offers a fair deal of personality, though Bebop can’t really close his mouth all the way. There’s a ball hinge at the shoulder that’s super tight on both figures. The shoulder pads both sport make it difficult to rotate the arms, and with Bebop, it’s basically impossible. There’s a biceps swivel on both and double-jointed elbows. The wrists swivel and hinge though the hinge isn’t very functional with Rocksteady due to the cuffs on his sleeves. There’s probably a diaphragm joint on both, but the overlays render it useless. You get a waist twist with some tilt, but nothing really in the way of an ab crunch. The hips are the old peg system where the peg on the right leg goes through the crotch piece into a cylinder in the left leg to join them. You get a thigh twist at that joint, which is a ball hinge in the top of the leg, with double-jointed knees below that. The feet have a hinge with limited range on both figures and it does rock side to side a bit, but not a whole lot.

That upper peg isn’t doing it’s job and, as a result, a lot of the joiner in between the thigh and calf is visible on Rocksteady.

These guys are a bit of a stressful pair when first opened. A lot of the joints on mine were pretty tight or stuck. I plunged both into a hot water bath before doing much of anything with those hips. It’s basically the same old story where the joints are painted, which causes them to lock-up in shipping, but this old leg system would be tight even without the paint. And there’s a lot of paint on these guys and it looks rather thick in places. You definitely want to exercise caution when breaking them in. And even being careful, I still popped Rocksteady’s arm off at the biceps joint due to the shoulder hinge being so tight, which isn’t typically an area of great concern. It thankfully popped right back on, but it’s become a chronic issue where anytime I try to move a shoulder it will pop off if I’m not mindful of how easy it is to do. I also have an issue with Rocksteady’s left knee. The peg that holds the leg together above the knee looks like it went in at an angle and doesn’t go straight through. There’s more separation there as a result and might be contributing to some of my issues with standing the figure since I need to put the leg perfectly straight in order to hide some of the gap created above his kneecap. It’s not super obvious, but it is obvious enough that it bothers me and I do worry about the joint eventually falling apart.

Obviously, the rabbit one is the best one.

Since these guys are based on one boss battle in the SNES game, it’s probably not a huge surprise that they don’t come with much in the way of accessories. Both only used a single weapon each in the game: a sword for Rocksteady and a whip for Bebop. The sword looks fine. It’s a long, skinny, thing with some pixel deco applied. Rocksteady though doesn’t have the right hinge in his hand to properly wield it, though it’s likely his sleeve would have interfered anyway. Bebop’s whip is very similar to the one that came with the Punk Frog Napolean. It’s soft plastic with a wire inside so you can bend and position it as you see fit. Because of that it doesn’t have much in the way of a deco on it, it’s just brown with a black handle, but it’s fine. In addition to the weapons, both figures come with three sets of hands: fists, gripping, and open “style pose” hands. These are the same as the other releases with the only difference being the lack of a trigger finger hand, which is understandable given the weapons loadout here.

Doing these comparisons has given me new appreciation for those oversized rabbit feet.

The Turtles in Time version of Bebop and Rocksteady is an okay release. NECA largely handled the look and presentation fine, which is what I assume most collectors are interested in. Anyone hoping for an improvement over the past figures will be let down and I do think NECA missed an opportunity to do just that. This is a fun, silly, version of the characters and the encounter in the game was one of the more memorable ones. It’s a big reason why the SNES version is superior to the arcade one which did not feature the two. Where the figures do come up short is in the articulation and some of the dated engineering. They’re just not fun toys to pose as a result. I suppose it’s a good thing they’re from a video game as most will probably set them in a pose similar to their default sprite and let it be. I do think it’s silly that NECA didn’t at least update the hips. They already have the upper leg pieces from the Triceratons, but they might have needed to do a new crotch piece since that figure was equipped for a tail. Still, Bebop and Rocksteady figure to be among the most popular characters in the line and are a candidate for a re-release so why not re-configure the hips for such?

That’s a lot for the turtles to deal with, but there could always be more.

This two-pack figures to be the last release in the Turtles in Time line for at least a little while. NECA is still planning on releasing a color variation on the Foot Soldier, but no solicitation has been made available and I’m not sure if that release is from Turtles in Time or the original arcade game (chances are, it works for both). There’s also a two-pack (I think) planned based on the first arcade game featuring Traag and Granitor. It was shown long ago at Toy Fair, but it was during NECA’s negotiations with Viacom to bring a cartoon line to retail and once that was secured they basically abandoned the idea of doing the rock soldiers. Since they’ve done them for the toon line, it’s not a huge surprise they’re going back to them in 2022. Like the Foot though, no solicitation has gone out yet so who knows if they’ll actually be released in 2022 (NECA is planning on doing more Mirage Studios inspired figures which is effectively taking the place of the Turtles in Time subline) or if there’s any room on the release calendar. If this is it for Turtles in Time, NECA has definitely given collectors enough for a worthwhile display. They could always come back with Krang or the duo Bebop and Rocksteady took the place of in the SNES version of the game, Tokka and Rahzar, or even Metalhead. It’s easy money to just repaint existing figures with a video game look, so it definitely wouldn’t surprise me to see the line make a comeback some day.


Arcade 1Up Marvel Super Heroes Counter-Cade

Arcade 1Up has been around for a few years now selling arcade cabinets at a reduced size and also a reduced price. The cabinets are significantly smaller than an actual arcade cabinet, but still plenty large enough to take up a lot of floor space in your home. And while they’re cheaper than the “real thing,” they’re hardly what I would call cheap. Many of the full-size units will set you back over 500 big ones, and newer models have eclipsed the $700 price tag as components become harder to come by and virtually everything has become more expensive. Even when the units were cheaper, I was never able to bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on what is essentially a novelty item. The cabinets, being smaller than the real thing, are less functional. You can’t physically accommodate four adults for a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for instance. And these are all games that can be experienced in a far more convenient and cheaper manner. Only some of the side-scrolling beat-em-ups are unavailable for purchase these days, but they’re also games not really designed for home consumption. They were made to entertain in bursts and consume quarters, with free play they last less than an hour and have little to no replay value once completed.

There’s nothing particularly practical about what Arcade 1Up sells, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. I already used the term novelty when talking about them, and that’s really what they are. They liven up a room at your house, give people something to talk about when they come over for the first time, and do offer some entertainment value. Especially when it comes to skill-based games. And I certainly am willing to spend money on novelty items as I own several mini consoles and recently reviewed the Zelda Game & Watch. I just have a limit on what I want to spend on such a device and on how much room I want to dedicate to one. I’ve often considered buying an arcade cabinet for my bar room at home. I was really close to doing so with an SNK cabinet more than 10 years ago since those can actually swap games. And when a local arcade closed-up shop near me five years ago I strongly considered making an offer on their Simpsons cabinet, but thought better of it in the end. Arcade 1Up has always had some appeal to me, but nothing got me to bite. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one came the closest because of my love for that IP, but realistically I’d play it a couple of times and then never touch it again. I thought I might take the plunge if Arcade 1Up ever did The Simpsons and they did in 2021, but the $700 price tag was a non-starter for me.

Now isn’t that cute.

Arcade 1Up seems to know there are lots of folks like me out there that want their product, but are hesitant either due to cost or space concerns. Enter the Counter-Cade! This is a smaller version of an arcade cabinet intended to be placed on a counter, or better yet, a bar. And I have a bar! Aside from a bar-top juke box, I can’t think of a better accessory than a small arcade cabinet. And that’s what the Counter-Cade is, it’s just a small arcade cabinet with a short base. Since they’re even smaller than the normal Arcade 1Up, they’re only suitable for 2 players so no four-player models exist (that I’m aware of) and it looks like many have fewer games loaded on them than the bigger model, which makes sense as Arcade 1Up needs something more than size to entice folks to pony up the big bucks. There’s no wi-fi either, but you can plug in a controller if you find it too small to comfortably accommodate two players (though I tried it and didn’t have much luck). I was interested when I first saw the Counter-Cade, but I wanted it to contain games I’d actually play. My wife seemed to pick-up on this for underneath my Christmas tree was the Arcade 1Up Marvel Super Heroes edition of the Counter-Cade.

The games that come pre-loaded.

The Marvel Super Heroes Counter-Cade from Arcade 1Up comes with four games pre-loaded onto it: Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men vs Street Fighter, Marvel vs Capcom, and The Punisher. All four are developed by Capcom and obviously contain characters from the world of Marvel Comics. Three of the four are 2D fighters, while The Punisher is a two-player beat-em-up. It’s a solid assortment of games as you get a traditional 2D fighter in Marvel Super Heroes and a pair of tag-fighters. I would have preferred it if Arcade 1Up had made this an X-Men themed unit based on Children of the Atom, but oh well. I’m sure almost everyone would have preferred another “VS” title in place of The Punisher, but I’m okay with it as it gets another style of game into the set.

There’s a USB port on the right side for a controller, though when I plugged in my 8bitdo controller it didn’t map the buttons properly.

What’s going to sell this unit is the size, price, and game selection. As far as size goes, the cabinet basically takes up a space of 16.5″ wide, 16 1/8″ high, and 13″ depth. That’s me measuring the unit at it’s widest part, which is the platform where the controls are mounted, but that’s roughly the area this thing occupies. It runs off of an AC adapter so you do need to be relatively close to an outlet as the chord is only about 4′ long. The screen is approximately 6.5″ wide x 5″ high and it’s suitable for the software. The colors are vibrant and there’s no taring of the sprites. It’s also pretty loud so if you were worried about the audio I think most will be fine. There is a headphones jack for those who want to game without disturbing others, though the clicky joystick and buttons will prevent truly silent play.

Soda can for scale.

The components outside of the screen seem fine. I don’t know that the joystick is quite on the level with a true Capcom unit, but it’s better than a lot of third party joysticks I used long ago (granted, I have not bought an arcade style controller for about 25 years). There are seven buttons for each player with one of those being a Start or Credit button to enter the game. There are six buttons for actual gameplay, which is all you need for the software present here. The buttons feel okay, I feel like they’re a little soft and could rebound a touch firmer, but are otherwise fine. The theme is Marvel Super Heroes so you get Thanos on each side with blue filtered comic art on the front and platform. The marquee does light up when the unit is on and features the cast from that game so if you were hoping to see Rogue or Ken on the cabinet you’ll be disappointed.

This bad boy is going to live beside my Lego NES.

When the unit is powered on it takes you to a simple screen with the highlighted game displayed. You can cycle through and upon selecting a game a quick controls dashboard is displayed. It’s not entirely useful as it basically just tells you what each button does in the game. It won’t tell you, for instance, how to tag out in the VS titles or how to use grenades in The Punisher which stinks. Once you select a game, the unit basically becomes an arcade cabinet. If you leave it alone you’re effectively in “Attract Mode” for the selected game, which is definitely a fun thing to have in a rec room, even if it isn’t practical from a power consumption point of view. Everything is set to free play and there are no coin slots anyway so you can’t make money off of your friends directly. It’s easy to get out of and into another game and the interface is simple and intuitive enough.

As for the games, well, reviewing each one individually would take some time. Basically, if you’ve played a Capcom fighter then you probably know what to expect. Marvel Super Heroes is the most straight-forward as it’s a one on one fighter starring some of the heroes and villains from the Marvel Universe. It’s always been a little odd in that respect (Shuma-Gorath?), but it’s actually probably better received now than it was in the 90s given how popular the Avengers are now versus then. Still, it was pretty cool to get a dedicated Marvel fighter in 1995 and the fact that it was dedicated to Jack Kirby gives it a little extra sweetness. I don’t consider it a great 2D fighter, but it’s a perfectly fine alternative to Street Fighter 2 for the Marvel fan.

SNES and Genesis model 2 for scale.

The VS games are probably want most fans will play the most. X-Men vs Street Fighter is what got the whole thing rolling. It features a terrific roster from both franchises and it actually feels more focused than the games that followed. If X-Men is your jam, then this might be your favorite from the set. Marvel vs Capcom is very similar, but bigger. This was the last 2 vs 2 fighter as its sequel would up things to 3 on 3 and get almost too big for my liking. You may notice one game was skipped, Marvel vs Street Fighter, but you’re not missing much by going straight to Marvel vs Capcom. This lets other Capcom stars get a chance to shine and help even the sides as it was pretty rough for the World Warriors to have to take on the entire Marvel Universe.

Lastly, we have The Punisher. It’s a perfectly cromulent brawler. Player One controls the Punisher while a second player can join in as Nick Fury. The two will banter a bit (via text) to liven things up while battling through the criminal underworld leading to a final confrontation with the Kingpin. It’s less impressive than the fighters from a presentation aspect and the mechanics of the game are pretty standard: attack, jump, and a special attack that drains life when it connects. Sometimes The Punisher and Fury will be allowed to use guns, usually in response to when the villains do the same, but mostly it’s a melee affair. There’s an abundance of temporary weapons to bash foes with that helps add a little variety, though most are just something to bash a foe with. A playthrough will take most around 45 minutes and when it’s over there likely will be little appetite in venturing forth again. There’s no reason to from a gameplay perspective aside from achieving a better score, it’s just the video game equivalent of chewing gum. At least it’s a longer experience than what Fruit Stripe offers.

One last shot for scale. It’s certainly not small, but definitely not as big as a true stand-up cabinet.

I had a desire to add an arcade machine to my bar room, and this Counter-Cade from Arcade 1Up gets the job done. It’s an attractive piece with a solid selection of games which 3 of the 4 offer incentive to play and replay while the 4th is certainly good for entertaining younger gamers (ignoring the violence). And the other important selling point, maybe the most important, is it’s not ludicrously expensive. The MSRP on this is $229 at most stores and many offered discounts during the holidays. Since this was a gift, I don’t know exactly how much my wife paid, but I know it was less than $200 due to sales and the use of good old Kohl’s Cash. At the high end of $229, I do think it’s a tougher sell, but not terrible. If you really love the games included and want something to bring your room together then I think it’s doable. On sale though, it becomes a much easier call. You’re still better off going in a different direction if your goal is simply to play these games, but as we established earlier, if you’re interested in this set then you’re in it for the novelty more so than the software.


Nintendo Game & Watch – The Legend of Zelda

Why do I have a sudden urge to listen to The Misfits…?

Before Nintendo was a famous game developer and console manufacturer, it made toys. Some were electronic, and some were not. On the electronics side, the first video games the company released were the Game & Watch handhelds. The first of these devices looked similar to what would become the Nintendo Entertainment System’s controller. It was a horizontal layout with a directional pad on the left and a command button on the right. In the center of the device was an LCD screen capable of displaying simple games. It also had a clock on it which is where the “Watch” part of Game & Watch comes into play. Over the years, the games would grow in complexity and some even necessitated a second screen and a clamshell design which is pretty similar to what the Nintendo DS would adopt many years later. Come the early 90s, the Game Boy was already available and a hit and the Game & Watch had seemingly outlived its usefulness, but it’s a part of Nintendo’s past that the company seems to enjoy celebrating.

Last year, to celebrate the anniversary of Super Mario Bros. Nintendo released a special edition Game & Watch. Nintendo has seemingly found a market for simple, nostalgia, devices like the Classic series of console releases and the Game & Watch feels like an extension of that. The unit was priced at $50 and came bundled with the original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese version) while also including a classic LCD game, clock, and timer. It was a novelty device and one I wasn’t particularly interested in. I loved the original Super Mario Bros. as a kid, but once Super Mario Bros. 3 came out I effectively had no use for the original and it’s a feeling I still have today. The unit did eventually hit the clearance rack, so I wasn’t sure if anymore should be expected, but lo and behold Nintendo did have a release for 2021: The Legend of Zelda.

Pay no mind to the gargoyle lurking in the rear.

The Legend of Zelda edition of Game & Watch is meant to celebrate the original game’s 35th anniversary. It’s essentially the same, but different, when compared with the Mario edition from 2020. The device itself is rather small and very light, measuring about 4 3/8″ x 2 5/8″ with a color scheme more appropriate for Zelda. The front faceplate is gold while the outer case is green and all of the buttons on the face are ringed with green plastic. The area around the screen is raised and it’s a pretty attractive looking piece, though once handled the toy nature of it all becomes obvious due to the weight and overall feel. The D-pad feels largely like one would expect, but the B and A buttons are rather gummy, like a key on a calculator as opposed to a game controller.

Watch Link conquer Ganon every day!

What hasn’t been compromised is the screen. It’s not particularly large, but it is vibrant and certainly a lot better than the old LCD screens on the original Game & Watch devices. It only measures about 2″ x 1.5″ making it comparable to the Game Boy Micro, but still larger. It needs to only display 8 bit games, so it’s not as if the screen is being asked to do much, but it can render all of the games just fine in their native aspect ratio with no compromise to the color palette or resolution. The sound chip is also just fine for these classic games and is even capable of outputting the superior audio found in the Japanese version of these games, as they were Famicom Disk releases outside of the US, so if you’re sick of playing through the original Legend of Zelda you can switch it to Japanese and get a different experience.

One neat, little, touch is this light-up Triforce on the rear of the system.

Which brings me to the games – just what is included on this thing? Well, you get three games this time around: The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Link’s Awakening. The first two play as you would expect them to as they’re simply emulated versions of the NES and Famicom versions of the games. The third one, and a bit unexpected, is the original Game Boy release of Link’s Awakening. It is a shame that Nintendo didn’t include the DX version released for the Game Boy Color which looked better and also featured an extra dungeon. There’s certainly enough room on the hardware for it which leads me to believe it was a value issue and not a hardware limitation. Nintendo doesn’t want to give too much away at the $50 price tag, but considering that Link’s Awakening has already received a full-fledged remake I don’t think Nintendo would be harming its bottom-line by including the DX version. Oh well.

A size comparison with the first gen 3DS and a Game Boy Micro.

The games play fine though as Nintendo did add the Select button which was missing on the Mario edition. I read some complaints of the device being too small and cramped for a platformer like Super Mario Bros. to be played comfortably, but for Zelda it’s more than adequate. Especially the original game and Link’s Awakening. Zelda II is a bit more of a stretch as that required more twitch movements. It’s still not on the same level as a platformer or run and gun game, but it is noticeably less pleasant to experience. That also could be due to that being the weakest game on this set and what folks are likely to miss is the ability to utilize a save state feature. Exiting a game at any point does essentially pause the game and save your progress, but there’s no way to reload when you die. This is really only an issue with Zelda II as I don’t find the other two games terribly difficult so long as you know where to go, but Zelda II is an all-together different beast. It’s a hard game that I don’t find particularly enjoyable since the player is heavily penalized for dying in a most annoying manner. As such, I don’t intend to play much of Zelda II, it’s more chore than game, but I will play and finish the other two games, one of which I’m nearly finished with as of this writing. One other presentation note is that Link’s Awakening features the ability to toggle between the original aspect ratio and one that fills the screen. It doesn’t look too terrible stretched to fit the screen, but I definitely prefer the original look when playing it.

Since this is a Game & Watch, I should mention the other aspect of the hardware which is the watch. When not playing a game, the unit functions like a clock. Nintendo included a display base with this one that looks pretty slick, but is just made out of cardboard. I question how well it will hold up over time. The clock though displays it over The Legend of Zelda and when left alone Link will roam the screen battling enemies gradually progressing through a modified version of the game over 24 hours. Come noon, he’ll best Ganon and save Zelda which is pretty neat. If at any point you want to control the action you can, and leaving it idle for a few seconds will revert back to AI control. It’s a fun thing to have on a desk or workspace, though it can get mildly distracting.

Zelda will now be saved on a daily basis.

There’s also a timer, or stop watch, function. It’s pretty self explanatory, but like the clock it displays Link in action. This time, the sprites are from Zelda II and it does function like a game all on its own as you try to defeat as many enemies during a given duration. Or, if you just need it to be a timer, you can let the AI duke it out. It’s definitely not a feature I plan to take advantage of, but it’s fun to have it. Also included is the Game & Watch game Vermin. It’s a game where you just slide a character across the screen as it tries to stop some vermin from advancing past. In the original, the player character was Mr. Game & Watch, but it’s been changed to resemble Link for this release. It’s a simple game that has its moments, but largely feels like it’s included as both an homage to the classic handheld and as a reminder of how far we’ve come.

The unit runs on an internal battery and I’m honestly not sure how long it can last. Most these days seem to last anywhere from 2 and a half to 4 hours. I haven’t come close to draining it in my play sessions, but my sessions have been more of the half hour to an hour variety. Nintendo included a USB cable to charge it, though it’s pathetically short. I’ve had it plugged into my laptop since getting it which means the clock will only run while my laptop isn’t in sleep mode. When not connected to a power source, the screen turns off after 3 minutes, but when it does it displays a piece of vintage art from the old game manuals which is pretty cool. There are some other Easter Eggs as well that I won’t spoil, but if you’re curious, they’re not hard to find online. I should note, the unit is capable of keeping track of the clock when powered down, though I assume if you ran the battery down to nothing and left it like that for a bit it might need to be reset like a console would.

This one also has a few surprises up its sleeve.

The Legend of Zelda edition of the Game & Watch is a perfectly fine, novelty, handheld. Nobody needs this and these games are all readily available in probably more convenient options at this point, but if you find yourself charmed by this little device then I think it’s worth the 50 bucks Nintendo is asking for it. Yes, I wish it had proper A and B buttons and the DX version of Link’s Awakening, but those are nitpicks. The absence of save states is more of a bummer because these games don’t have a robust, built-in, save feature so it is more challenging than it needs to be to do something as simple as switch profiles within the games. It’ll save one action session per game, but if I want to let my son play The Legend of Zelda I need to end my game first and I don’t want to go all the way back to the beginning on the map if I was in the middle of a dungeon or had paused my session right outside of one. I also would have gladly paid an extra 10 – 15 bucks for a better display stand. I love how this one looks, being all black with a gold Triforce logo, but it only looks good from a distance as once up close it becomes apparent the thing is a glorified box.

I suspect if you’re interested in this then you have already made up your mind. It’s for the Zelda fan or nostalgic Nintendo fan. It’s also priced on the fringe of impulse buy territory, and if 2020’s model is any indication, it will eventually find itself on sale. I had no issue tracking a unit down for purchase and I’ve seen them on my weekly trips to Target so, for now, this one’s easy to come by. I suspect once it’s gone then it’s gone and it will gradually rise in price on the aftermarket. You’re probably safe to play the waiting game if you want to take advantage of a sale price, though if units start to disappear before that day comes then you may want to just jump on it at $50. I’m happy to have it, and while I don’t know if it will live forever beside my laptop, but I would like to find a permanent home for it because it’s a fun clock to have around. And hey, there’s some good games on it too!


Dec. 3 – Super Mario World – “The Night Before Cave Christmas”

Original air date October 12, 1991.

Last year, we took a trip to the Mushroom Kingdom (kind of) and watched the Super Mario Bros. save Christmas from the evil King Koopa. Since Koopa failed, it would make sense for him to attempt the same trick at a later date, especially since he would go on to become “King Dad” and Christmas presumably got a lot more expensive around Koopa Castle (or should it be Kastle?). Well, he apparently did not agree as he’s left Christmas alone ever since, but Cave Christmas? Now that, is apparently appealing!

In the early 90s, if anything was popular either in toy aisles or on gaming consoles it had a cartoon, and Mario was at the forefront of that. He first had The Super Mario Bros. Super Show followed by The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, and concluding with the Super Mario World cartoon. Other popular Nintendo, or Nintendo-adjacent, properties had to settle for a cameo on Captain N The Game Master, but Mario was able to front his own toon. None of these cartoons were any good, and as the franchise marched forward it feels like the budget set by DiC just got smaller and smaller. The live action segments hosted by Danny Wells and Lou Albano were dropped, and the voices of the Mario brothers were replaced with Tony Rosato and Walker Boone, respectively. John Stocker, who saw his character Toad written out for Super Mario World, got to keep working by voicing new addition Oogtar while Tracy Moore (who came onboard for the Super Mario 3 show) and Harvey Atkin (the only one to voice the same character from start to finish) continued to voice Princess Toadstool and King Koopa, respectively.

How do we feel about Yoshi’s portrayal in this show? Love it? Hate it? I can’t decide!

Super Mario World, like the video game it’s based on, is set in the fictitious Dinosaur World. Mario and his friends are vacationing there, only to find King Koopa and his many Koopa kids have followed them. They make friends with the cave people, and Princess Toadstool more or less throws her weight around as royalty to take over, and take-in a young dinosaur named Yoshi (Andrew Sabiston). Each cartoon is little more than 10 minutes in length and DiC wisely dropped the use of song parodies so the syndicated cut and retail releases were able to retain the original music this time around. The show was bundled with Captain N to air as a block and both shows mainly exist to sell video games. There’s not much to the plot of each episode, characters experience little or no growth, and most episodes can be drilled down to a simple formula. Only 13 episodes were produced airing from September 1991 into December of that year. The show didn’t seem to find much success following its initial run as the episode count was likely too small to interest most cable networks. It did receive a DVD release from Shout Factory, and the show today is mostly remembered as being pretty bad with certain aspects of it being enjoyed mostly from an ironic perspective as the character of Yoshi is both annoying and ridiculous, which I guess makes him a tad charming?

The fifth episode for the show is titled “The Night Before Cave Christmas.” It aired before Halloween, but since Cave Christmas is a made-up holiday by Mario I guess it didn’t need to air during the Christmas season? As mentioned before, this is the second, and final, Christmas episode from the Mario universe of cartoons as DiC declined to do one in The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3. I’d say it’s a shame we didn’t end up with 3 Christmas cartoons, but considering the first one was pretty terrible, and this one might actually be worse, I guess it’s no real loss.

It looks the show is simply titled Super Mario World, but it’s actually “Super Mario-Super-Mario Super Mario….World.”

The cartoon begins with a brand new theme song. The previous cartoon cheeped out by forgoing a traditional theme for just narration over some video game inspired music, a severe downgrade following the greatness that is “The Plumber’s Rap.” This new theme is a bit of an ear worm, despite not being great. It’s full of tribal drums and has a Caribbean feel to it, though I’m skeptical DiC paid for an authentic singer and probably just had some white dude fake an accent. Mark Mothersbaugh is credited as composing the theme, but I don’t know who actually sang on it. The lyrics are a bit lacking as the song closes by rhyming the word blast with…blast! I’m getting flashbacks to the “Wrap Rap” from last year!

Poor little mammoth…

When the cartoon begins, we find Yoshi and Oogtar fighting over some barbecued mammoth ribs, which are pretty small for mammoth ribs (maybe they picked off an infant). Mario starts complaining to Luigi and the Princess about how Oogtar is a pain in the ass who spends all day getting into fights with Yoshi. Luigi points out it’s not just Oogtar, as we pan to see other cave people fighting with each other. One poorly animated boy and girl pair are just hitting each other like Itchy and Scratchy, minus the mallets. Mario then hatches up an idea based on the notion that people start acting really nice to each other around the holidays. Luigi asks if he means Christmas, because it’s currently the middle of August so that doesn’t make much sense. Mario basically responds by reminding him that cave people are stupid and will believe anything they tell them. This cartoon really shines a light on what’s awful about colonialism.

It’s a sparsely populated village.

Mario then goes over to the squabbling Yoshi and Oogtar and starts telling them about Christmas. Mostly, he wants to convey the message that good boys and girls are rewarded with treats and presents, and Oogtar immediately becomes nervous because he knows he’s a little piece of shit. Mario christens it Cave Christmas and hangs a big wreath on one of the stone huts and announces, “Merry Cave Christmas!” to all of the onlookers. Nearby, Koopa pops his head out of what I guess is a trash can fashioned out of a stump. Referring to Mario as a “pipe-squeezer” (which got a chuckle out of me), he questions the plumber’s sanity by noting it’s the hottest day of the year before closing the lid and returning to his hiding spot.

The smell of freshly cut evergreen should help cover the smell of body odor and dinosaur shit.

The gang then sets to making the place look like Christmas. Mario and an unnamed cave person cut down a tree, while Oogtar and Yoshi help the Princess collect nuts from nearby trees. Koopa and his son Bully (Dan Hennessey) watch and Bully informs his dad he wants a Christmas tree too. We then go back to town where Princess Toadstool is trying to hang candy canes on a tree (that has a creepy face), but Yoshi keeps eating them as she hangs them. She reminds him about how he needs to be good if he wants presents from Santa, and the dinosaur promptly regurgitates the candy canes back onto the tree. It’s not made to look as gross as it could have. Bully and King Koopa pop out of the garbage stump and Bully takes note of the Princess’s description of Santa and calls the guy a wimp. His dad agrees, but then the garbage dinosaur shows up and tosses the whole stump (which seems very inefficient) into a stone dumpster strapped on his back.

Looks like someone is getting a savage beating for Cave Christmas!

Since there is a severe lack of toy stores in a prehistoric setting, the Marios have to make the toys for Cave Christmas. In a dome, they’re hard at work building shadow boxes and jack-in-the-boxes. Luigi’s emblem on his hat is miss-colored, a frequent occurrence in this show. Oogtar has snuck in though and is trying to get a peek at the presents. Luigi catches him hiding in a jack-in-the-box. He bolts and attempts to hide in a box of dolls, but Luigi picks him up by his shirt and tosses him out the door.

Even the Flintstones had sense enough not to make their sleigh out of stone

The Princess is then shown piling gifts into Santa’s sack while Mario appears to be constructing the sleigh out of stone and wood. Good luck getting that thing to fly! The Princess remarks how she can’t wait to see all of the kids react to the presents on Cave Christmas morning (she makes sure to include the Cave distinction), but lurking just outside the window is King Koopa once again. He laughs to himself and remarks that the Princess won’t get to see any of that because he plans on stealing the toys so his kids can have a jolly Koopa Christmas (Kristmas?). Considering he is mean and green, I suppose it makes sense for Koops to play the Grinch in our story.

The one true king.

The next day, Mario and Luigi are seen shoving their stone sleigh out the door. Mario expresses joy that its Cave Christmas Eve and prods Luigi by remarking it’s just like being back home, Luigi isn’t buying it though. As they head back inside their makeshift toy factory, Oogtar slips in and heads over to the sack of toys. With an evil look on his face, he lets the audience know he intends to cherry-pick the best toy out of the sack early leaving the crummy stuff for the goody-two-shoes. When he hears someone coming back in, he panics and dives into the sack of toys to hide. He seemed to think it was one of the Mario brothers that were coming, but it’s actually Koopa! Because DiC thinks its audience is stupid, Koopa has to explain out loud that he’s stealing the toys for Koopa Christmas and casually strolls out with the sack of toys and Oogtar inside.

Laughing at Luigi’s hateful gay joke. Apparently, Luigi plays the role of drunk, racist, uncle back in Brooklyn for the holidays.

Mario, who this whole time was just standing mere feet away from the cave-napping, is trying on his Santa costume (What? Did you think he’d actually let Luigi play Santa?!) which consists of a hat, white beard (his black moustache is still visible) and a red toga-like garment worn by the cave people which is worn over his red overalls and looks stupid. When he asks how he looks, Luigi tells him he wouldn’t get away with wearing that in Brooklyn. Mario gives a knowing chuckle and I have no idea how I’m supposed to interpret this joke. This is from the early 90s, so it reads like a homophobic joke. Would they attempt such in a kid’s show? Koopa did refer to Mario as a pipe-squeezer earlier…

How dare Koopa steal fake Santa’s present on fake Christmas!

Mario then notices the toys are gone! They run over to the empty place where the massive sack once sat aghast that someone would steal toys on their fake holiday. The Princess announces she knows who is responsible, which is cute of her since we all know who did it. She picks up a scale from the ground and says it belongs to Koopa, and I say, it doesn’t matter. Koopa and his kids are the only bad guys in this entire world! Santa Mario remarks this is somehow worse than what Koopa usually does (I don’t remember enough of this show to know if that tracks or not, but it sure feels like hyperbole) and vows to get them back!

Well, at least this Christmas special got one thing right.

Mario takes off in his one-dinosaur sleigh as poor Yoshi has to pull that stone monstrosity through the air with his wings power-up. They do find time to pass in front of the moon. Meanwhile, Koopa empties the sack of toys back at his “neon” castle and finds Oogtar inside. Oogtar, apparently lacking any sense of danger, is still preoccupied with getting all of the toys and gets into an argument over it with Koopa who intends to give them to his kids. Oogtar grabs one gift and Koops swats him across the room, rather gently unfortunately. Oogtar rips it open, only to find a ba-bomb inside it which he promptly tosses back to Koopa. He shouts he’s glad Koopa isn’t his dad with a gift like that, but aren’t these all gifts Mario and the gang wrapped? Were they trying to murder Oogtar?!

Merry Cave Christmas, Ratgoo!

The bomb predictably explodes in Koopa’s face, even though he tried telling it that it’s not supposed to blow until Christmas. Oogtar tries to book it, but Koopa grabs him. He’s got something special planned for Oogtar as he strings him up with a pulley system. The rope is a vine and Oogtar finds himself dangling over a pit in which a hungry dinosaur waits at the bottom. Koopa places a lit candle under the vine and leaves Oogtar to his certain death rather than stay and watch. I’d think he’d want to see the little twerp get it, but I guess he has other plans. As he departs, he chides Oogtar by reminding him that his name spelled backwards is “Rat Goo,” an actual worthwhile zinger for this show! I like this Koopa fellow.

Probably not the most discrete way to travel.

Santa Mario and Yoshi arrive and hear the screams of that little baby, Oogtar, coming from the castle. Mario runs over with his toolbox and spies Oogtar through a barred window. Seeing Oogtar in danger, he then runs to a different window for some reason and pulls out some little dinosaur from his toolbox that he uses to bend the bars. Yoshi, who seemingly lost his wings despite not taking any damage, is then advised to help Santa squeeze through the opening he just created, but he’s still too wide. We get a predictable diet joke out of Yoshi, and Mario informs him that a diet is not in the cards and that he needs to push harder! As Yoshi backs up to get a running star, he sees a terribly off-model Boo ghost and panics, crashing into Mario sending both tumbling into the castle where a horde of mecha-koopas descend upon them.

I’ve always felt the Santa suit could use a cape!

We then go into the chase segment. I think every cartoon in this show features one where the characters go running through the castle, avoiding enemies, all while a song plays in the background. The song is almost unintelligible. It sounds like the Koopa Kids making up a Christmas song. There’s something about a sleigh in there and I can’t make much out. It’s not good. Mario rides Yoshi through part of the castle avoiding catastrophe until they have a trio of the football guys from the video game chasing them down. Mario is able to conveniently find a super feather in a block and becomes caped Santa! He grabs Yoshi and the two fly through a pipe that leads them to Oogtar.

Look at this stupid, smiling, asshole. Hopefully Yoshi is happy because he’s thinking about how he gets to fill Ratgoo’s stocking with dinosaur droppings.

Oogtar, unfortunately, is still dangling over the hungry dinosaur infested pit. The vine breaks and Oogtar heads for doom, but Mario grabs the end of the vine. As Oogtar rises out of the pit, Mario goes in! Narrowly avoiding the chomping jaws of the dinosaur lurking within, Mario is able to fly out of the pit, catch Oogtar, and safely land outside the pit while the poor, endangered, creature in the pit is left hungry. Mario does a “ta-da” pose and a puff of smoke seemingly indicates his cape power wearing off, but when the smoke dissipates the cape is still there. Only when Mario starts laying into Oogtar is his cape finally removed from his model. Oogtar tries to weasel out of the discussion, but Mario points out that he’s already gone through all of Santa’s presents. Oogtar finally cops to being a little shit and Yoshi calls him bad (his eyes are all over the place in this segment too and it’s really distracting). Oogtar then promises to be a good little cave kid for the rest of his life, but Mario notes he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back. Oogtar, astonished, asks Santa how he knew and Mario gives a chuckle that he was once a little “bambino” too. Cave Christmas magic!

There wasn’t much screen time for the Koopalings in this one, which is tragic because they’re easily the best characters in the show.

Mario then comes running out of the castle with the sack of toys, which looks much smaller than before. They’re apparently just going to “yadda yadda” over how he managed to sneak into the throne room and grab them. With Oogtar in the sleigh and Yoshi hitched up, Mario tells him to take off, but there’s one problem – Yoshi doesn’t have any wings! Mario retreats to a nearby castle wall and just starts punching blocks until some wings pop out – the solution was so easy why bother even creating the problem in the first place? With the wings in place on Yoshi, they can finally leave, and just in time too as the threats of Bully Koopa start echoing from inside the castle. The whole Koopa clan races out as Santa’s sleigh lifts off.

Don’t fall for his bullshit, Santa Mario!

Back at Dome City, Santa Mario tucks Oogtar into bed. Before he can leave, Oogtar grabs Santa’s shirt so he can tell him that he’s been a bad kid and doesn’t deserve any presents. Being saved from the dinosaur is present enough (I bet the town wishes they could trade the presents they’re about to get in exchange for feeding Oogtar to that dino), but if Santa wants to leave Oogtar something it would make him happy. Mario remarks this isn’t like Oogtar, implying this one bit of manipulation on Oogtar’s part erases how terrible he is. Mario, predictably, leaves Oogtar a present before he and Yoshi fly off into the night.

Way to ruin Christmas, Mario.

The next morning, Mario is snoring away in his very uncomfortable looking vine bed still in all of his clothes. As he sleeps, Oogtar slips in with a wrapped gift as he notes Santa didn’t leave Mario anything. He places the gift by Mario’s bed as the plumber wakes up. Oogtar wishes “Mario dude” a merry Cave Christmas. The episode ends with Mario breaking the fourth wall to ask the audience, “Wouldn’t it be nice if every day were Christmas?”

And that is the rare holiday of Cave Christmas. It’s just like regular Christmas, only Santa is a plumber and his stone sleigh is pulled by a winged dinosaur. Also, the toys look pretty lousy. And it’s set in August. I don’t think I thought much of this episode (or this show) as a kid and have almost no memory of this, specific, episode. As an adult, it’s hard for me to ignore the inherent colonialism in the Mario brothers setting up shop in a remote location among the natives and basically brainwashing them in a bid to control them. It’s actually pretty shitty. It’s made worse by the fact that they’re also spreading a religious holiday to these people, though the religious aspect of Christmas is not touched upon at all, for the better.

Get this piece of rat goo the hell away from my holiday!

Even if I accept that I’m reading way too much into this extended video game commercial, there’s no polishing this turd of a Christmas special. Oogtar is unlikable and pretty damn annoying. I really don’t want to see him learn a lesson or have a merry Christmas in the end, I just want him to go away. He also didn’t really learn anything as I get the impression he just goes back to being a shit the next day once Cave Christmas is concluded. He tried to lie to Santa! Beyond that, the episode is poorly scripted, plotted, and paced and almost demeaning to its audience. The good guys have to be stupid in order to not see a giant turtle monster skulking about town stealing their stuff, and they make sure to tell the audience everything that’s happening because no one apparently trusted the kids to understand this stuff. The only positive I can give this thing is Harvey Atkin is still dynamite as Koopa and he even made me chuckle on two occasions.

You got two tries at a Christmas special, Mario, and you blew it! You are hereby cut off! No more Christmas for you!

If you absolutely must journey to Dinosaur World this Christmas then you’ll be pleased to know that all 13 episodes of Super Mario World are available on DVD. And since the show is bad, you can probably find it for very cheap as nostalgia seekers probably impulse bought it when it was new and then were eager to get rid of it. Nintendo also hates these old cartoons and basically just wants nothing to do with them so no one is actively enforcing the copywrite presently and you can find this one streaming online for free. With seemingly every IP under the sun getting locked into exclusive deals with some official streaming service, this one might actually remain free for awhile since Nintendo doesn’t appear interested in even shopping this stuff around. I’m actually a little surprised they aren’t throwing their weight around to wipe this thing from existence, but I guess their inattention to the show is everyone’s gain. Or loss.


NECA Turtles in Time Baxter Stockman

“Big Apple, 3 AM”

When NECA finally received access to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles license to release product at retail, the company decided to focus on three pillars: cartoon, movie, video game. The cartoon product, being the most sought after, was exclusively sold at Target stores in the United States. The movie line, probably nearly as desirable as the cartoon, but not as deep, was to be sold exclusively at GameStop and has since been moved to Walmart. The third pillar, and probably the least desirable, was the video game brand. Those figures were to be sold across various comic and specialty shops. Basically, anyone who sells collector-grade action figures can place an order for these. Which, incidentally, made it possible for a retailer like GameStop to at one point sell both movie and game figures based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The design of the original cabinet was so bizarre. This odd Baxter fits right in that.

The video game line was always going to be the lease desirable because it’s the most gimmicky. All of the figures feature a pixelized deco to create the illusion that they came out of a video game. Only, this sort of thing is basically impossible to properly replicate since pixels, by their nature, are arranged in a very strict fashion and any three-dimensional object that can bend and move in the third dimension is going to break those rules. It also was a line designed primarily for repaints and re-releases. The turtles themselves had been originally released as a comic con exclusive already along with Shredder and the Foot. They were based on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, but NECA’s line for retail was to be based on Turtles in Time. Still, the turtles didn’t change enough from one game to the next to warrant new sculpting, so instead the pixel deco was modified slightly and each figure came bundled with a surf/hover board based on the bonus level Sewer Surfin’. As for the rest, well most could just be repaints of the cartoon line or re-releases with slight modification. Shredder, for example, had his shoulder pauldrons adjusted while Slash received a new head to differentiate him from his toon counterpart. And since these were priced under the usual NECA Ultimates price point, they tended to just come with a few extra hands and a weapon or two.

It seemed like that was all the line would be. NECA also expressed interest in winding it down in favor of a new line based on the original Mirage Studios source material, even though there were still a few boss characters missing. NECA didn’t want the line to just fizzle out though, so it decided to do a couple of special releases. One is a two-pack of Bebop and Rocksteady which is due any day now, while the other was the line’s first Ultimates release: Baxter Stockman.

The video game version of the character always struck me as a great deal more creepy than the cartoon one.

Baxter, like many characters from the game and this line, have a cartoon counterpart. NECA released Baxter alongside Splinter in early 2021 so NECA double-dipping with a game repaint was not a surprise. The only thing was, it didn’t make a ton of sense. Baxter in the cartoon is a diminutive, mutant, fly. He’s a pip-squeak. In the video game though he’s pretty beefy. Maybe because he’s a boss Konami felt he needed some presence because he’s as big as the turtles, if not a little bigger. He also looks just a little different. His head is a bit more grotesque and he has this one, ugly, tooth that makes him look like an old man. NECA could have just faked it and did Baxter up in a different color scheme and called it a day, but most probably would have called them out on it.

Two different interpretations of the same character. I do love how that toon one turned out.

Rather than make Baxter a lesser release, NECA did the opposite. They upped the price to an Ultimates tier which gave the company the freedom to do a new sculpt. Now, some of his parts are probably sourced from other, non-Baxter, figures, but some is also unique. He also got his own, unique, packaging in the Ultimates styled box with the fifth panel for product shots and artwork (and the front of the box is basically NECA’s interpretation of Baxter in the same style as the turtles were presented on the original arcade cabinet). It also meant more accessories! Baxter comes with the usual assortment of extra hands, but he also has two guns, a flight stand, and an effects piece with a stand of its own! It’s quite the package, and it’s nice seeing NECA sink a little extra love into the video game line.

Thank goodness his union kept their dental plan.

Baxter stands at around six and a quarter inches, making him nearly two inches taller than his cartoon version. He has shaggy, red-orange hair, and bulbous pink eyes and a hideous grin. He has a purple sweater vest and red bowtie to go along with some tattered, white, dress sleeves and blue pants. It’s tough to get a good look at a sprite in a 16-bit video game, but this looks pretty consistent with the arcade game. His flesh is a fuchsia or hot pink which also includes those extra arms on his back. The wings are just lightly sculpted and feature a powdery, pink finish, that are ever so slightly transparent, but functionally not. The pixel paint job seems less intense than some of the other figures released. It’s mostly on the front of his vest and sides of his pants while the gray shading on his sleeves is given a boxy edge. They really didn’t attempt anything on the head, save for the diamond pupils in his eyes, nor is there any on his wings or extra appendages. I think it looks fine and I prefer the pixel effect to be underplayed as opposed to overplayed, and the paint application in general is quite clean. In terms of parts sharing with the cartoon Baxter, I can’t see any. I thought they might have the same pincer arms, but those are different as well. The hands, feet, arms, torso, even the bowtie are all different. He probably shares legs and arms with Vernon from the toon line, and whatever is under the sweater vest as well, but this guy is largely unique.

He’s trying to look tough, but he really could use some more meat on his bones.

All of the ingredients are there for Baxter to be a visual splendor, but I do think he has one obvious flaw. He’s just not chunky enough. The character model in the game was about as tall as the turtles, but noticeably thicker. This Baxter has the height, but he’s pretty thin. I’m sure some of this perception is magnified by the fact that he’s kind of hunched over in the game and squat. Even if I try to scrunch him up though the effect still isn’t achieved. Is it a deal-breaker? Well, almost. I really waffled on this release for a bit as I liked it, but just didn’t think it was a terrific likeness of the video game art. I really only gave in because of availability and my own desire to just get a new toy. Plus, even with the likeness issue, it looked like a fun toy because of all of the stuff. Anybody interested in this figure will just have to decide for themselves if the likeness is good enough or not. I think NECA brings it on themselves here since a lot of their toon figures look like they stepped right out of the television so that’s a standard we’ve come to expect for their TMNT figures, whether they’re based on a cartoon, movie, or video game.

Baxter, I told you not to try to swallow a fistful of sugar cubes.

In the game, Baxter attacks from the air and land so such a character needs to be able to achieve a variety of poses and this Baxter is more than up to the task. He’s pretty loaded when it comes to articulation. His head sits on a ball-peg and has some solid functionality there made even better by the fact that his head sits on a rather large neck with a hinge at the base. This does help him achieve that stooped look he has in the game when on his feet, and if in the air, he’s able to look down at his target just fine. At the shoulders, he has the usual ball-hinges and they have a terrific tolerance for moving around and out to the side. For this guy, NECA used their slightly unusual double-elbows that the cartoon Baxter had. When these elbows are used on a sleeveless character like the movie Casey Jones they look really bizarre, but on a character in a dress shirt like Baxter they look fine. He can bend well past 90 and the arms swivel above the elbow as well. And since you can point that hinge wherever you need it, Baxter can basically bend almost as well as a character with a butterfly joint at the shoulder. He can reach across his chest, achieve two-handed, gun holding positions, or even choke himself! At the wrists, he can rotate and hinge, but all of his hands have in-out, horizontal, hinges which is unfortunate as vertical ones are better for handguns. He has some articulation under his shirt, but it’s not particularly functional as the shirt doesn’t feature a cut anywhere. He can crunch forward slightly, but mostly his waist is available to swivel. At the hips he has ball-joints underneath one of those soft, “diaper,” pieces. I’m happy to report that the diaper appears structurally sound with no cracking or flaking present on mine, though the hips are too loose for my liking. He does have a slight thigh twist there and the standard double-knees. On the rear of the figure, his wings and pincher limbs are the same as cartoon Baxter. They swivel and hinge where they meet the body, but there’s no “elbow” or pinching articulation which is kind of a bummer. Lastly, he has a hinged jaw which I always love on NECA’s figures. They just add so much personality without hindering the sculpt and with Baxter the same is true.

He didn’t like my mocking his toughness earlier, so now he’s got a gun.
Make that two guns.

Baxter’s articulation is pretty impressive. The pincher limbs lacking a little more is basically a nitpick. My only real criticism rests with the loose hips. I’m able to get Baxter to stand, but sometimes the legs kick out to the side and he tumbles over. It’s less an issue with this figure than it was with the frogs because he’s made for a flight stand, but he should still be able to stand on his own without fear of falling. He can definitely achieve basically any pose from the game, be it standing, hovering, or even his damage pose. Beyond that, he can achieve any sort of flying pose you could want. He has no problems lifting his head and looking straight-ahead when flying parallel with the ground. And since virtually none of his joints came stuck and his joints are all cast in the proper colored plastic, he’s really a joy to mess around with. I said the likeness gave me pause, but I’m happy to say my assumption that this guy would be fun was definitely the correct one to make.

Sorry Leo, you’re the sacrificial lamb today.
This is fun, but damn, does it require a lot of space. The surface of my deep freezer is definitely not a permanent solution.

And Baxter is made fun because he has a nice assortment of accessories. In terms of optional hands, he has three sets: fists, open, and trigger/gripping hands. For weapons, he has two guns: a submachine gun, and a revolver. These are taken from the game as the boss fight begins with Baxter wielding the machine gun and then he loses it and switches to the revolver-styled weapon. Of course, that one doesn’t fire bullets, but a gigantic hand thing. When flying, it comes out like a yellow, goopy, slap while on the ground it would form into a fist. NECA provided this hand effect weapon, though it doesn’t match the game. Rather than use a slap or fist, they went with a grabby hand as they likely felt that would work better with the turtle figures. I do wish they had included a fist part to swap as the hand can swivel and probably separate there, but I’m mostly fine with this artistic license the company took. It pegs in rather snugly to either gun, so if you want the machinegun to fire the hand it can. The guns and hand have the same pixel deco as the figure and look fine. NECA also did what they should have done with the toon Baxter and tossed in a flight stand. It’s similar to the one they sell at retail and it’s functional. It’s not my favorite flight stand, but it works. This one has an added hinge which make it better than the retail version so maybe they plan on replacing it with this new model. There’s also a second stand for the hand effect since it’s pretty hefty. It just clips onto the “body” of the effect and helps to keep it suspended in the air. It works for straight-on poses and for angled, flying, poses. The only thing that sucks is the hand is so heavy it doesn’t work great when it’s actually clipped onto a turtle. That makes it even heavier so you have to account for that somehow in how the turtle is positioned, but it’s also so high off the surface that it makes it hard to do that. You almost need a third stand for the victim. It can be finagled, and the accessory is still fun and welcomed, but it can get frustrating trying to achieve the “perfect” pose.

The added functionality to the stand plus Baxter’s excellent head/neck articulation means he can achieve a variety of flying poses.

The Turtles in Time Baxter Stockman is a figure that looks great, even though it doesn’t perfectly match the source material, that’s also a lot of fun to pose. NECA put the effort into this release to make sure it came with everything it needed and the results speak for themselves. I was very close to passing on this one, but I’m glad I changed my mind. Now, my only regret is not having the actual video game turtles to pose with him. I should have them eventually, but for now I basically have a collection of gaming villains ganging up on one electrified turtle. I don’t know which turtle that is, but it sure sucks to be him. As for Baxter, the only other downside is trying to decide how to pose him. I like the two-handed weapon pose, but the hand effect is too fun not to use. On the other hand, pun intended, utilizing that attachment means dedicating some serious shelf space to this one figure as the hand is about seven inches long, not including the gun it has to peg into. These are good problems to have though and I’m very happy with my purchase. Baxter Stockman ended up being a worthy first video game Ultimates release for TMNT and now he’s got me hoping that he won’t be the last!

That poor, poor, turtle.

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