A History of Manga Entertainment UK (Part 1)

“As the UK’s first anime outlet, Manga has distributed and produced some of the best (and worst) the genre has to offer in years gone by”

Manga Entertainment, as it is known today, was originally founded in 1987. It is famous, or infamous in some cases (yes, I’m looking at you, Legend of the Overfiend) for introducing Anime to the United Kingdom. As the UK’s first anime outlet, Manga has distributed and produced some of the best (and worst) the genre has to offer in years gone by. This ‘Manga Video’ brand was a name synonymous with the Anime genre throughout the 1990s, dominating the world cinema sections of HMV’s and Virgin Megastores (remember those?) across the country. The genre quickly grew to have a home of its own, as other Western-based publishers and distributers burst onto the Anime scene. The word ‘manga’ is of course the Japanese word used for comic, often of which are the source materials used to create anime series, movies and direct to video productions. Here is a brief insight into a company that has hit great highs and lows, and is now on the rise once again.

In the late 1980s, a new subsidiary of Island Records was created, withmarketing director Andy Frain placed in charge. By 1991, the company purchased the distribution rights to Akira. It was subsequently released into cinemas and was a massive success. Suddenly, a huge window of opportunity and potential opened; the western world was ready for Anime.

The Manga Video introduction present on most of its VHS catalogue, and contains footage from its very first releases.

From Akira’s success came the creation of the Manga Video label later that year. Managed by Laurence Guinness day to day, Laurence went on to become executive producer on almost every Manga Video release throughout the 90’s. Timing was everything; Manga Video acquired many of the big licenses, and the partnership with American publisher Central Park Media allowed the English dub costs to be shared. This gave Manga the tools to hit the UK market with many releases in the nineties VHS generation. By the time Manga’s first collector’s catalogue was published for its club members in 1995, there were 74 titles logged within it, with many more on the horizon. Retail success came from monthly OVA episode releases (e.g. The Guyver, Giant Robo), collections that were made very affordable due to the even cost spread of around £5.99 – £9.99 per volume.

Single-VHS episodes proved very popular for Manga’s sales

As the catalogue grew and grew, Akira had continued success in the home market, as it remained at the forefront of the Manga Video label. It came at a time when dark science fiction (Robocop, Aliens, and Escape from New York) was at its peak in Hollywood. Early releases such as Venus Wars, Lensman and Doomed Megalopolis gave Manga a clear target audience, that being young men, and quickly became the label’s marketing strategy. Manga’s regular release schedule of edgy, dark and often very violent productions soon became the bulk of its catalogue.

An early Manga Video advertisement, published in Super Play magazine

The English dub tracks were often scripted to include extra, and often unnecessary, profanity to increase the age rating classification (a process known as ‘fifteening’) to keep in line with this target demographic. Some releases had their soundtrack compositions completely replaced, with mixed results (Cyber City Oedo is a prime example of both methods). Over time however, the lack of subtitled releases, which would not arrive until the DVD line materialised, would be a constant source of complaint from the growing UK Anime fan-base.

A prime source of ‘fifteening’, with profanity deliberately included to give certain productions a more adult approach

Despite Manga Video’s VHS success, the success of Akira could never be replicated. Seeing potential in a new feature, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Andy Frain was instilled as co-executive producer. This allowed Manga to release the movie on a worldwide scale. This ultimately led to a US-relationship, expanding the Manga Video catalogue even further. When Ghost in the Shell arrived in 1995, it performed well, but not to the levels Akira reached, with many of its new direct-to-video releases faring better for sales. The direct investment into GitS did not lead to a return in profits, and led to Andy Frain stepping down. And thus began troubling times for the label that began so well….

Join me next time as I explore what becomes a difficult, transitional period for Manga Video, as it aims to carry its legacy into the DVD market under a new, US-led leadership. Ta ta for now!

The 11 Best Episodes Of ‘X-Men The Animated Series’

As the 2010’s leave us like a bullet train passing through a station, franchise reboots and re-releases are as ingrained into our brains and bookshelves as the wealth of more recent material. Retro is back, and seemingly here to stay.

Recent examples of note include the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series getting the Blu-Ray treatment in 2018, more than 20 years on. 2019 marked the 20-year anniversary of Batman Beyond (1999-2001) with a similar effort. But enough about DC’s glorious gems, what about Marvel?

X-Men: The Animated Series is one such deserving gem. It originally ran from 1992-1997 for five, fun-packed seasons. With it came concepts more associated with TV dramas, such as progressive storylines, season-long narratives and multi-part adaptions derived from some of the most famous stories from the comic books.

Unfortunately, there is no high-definition re-release on the cards anytime soon. However, with the arrival of Disney Plus, as well as the handy aqcuisition of Fox, all episodes are indeed part of the gargantuan streaming service. With Disney Plus finally arriving in the UK on March 21, I for one am keen to revisit a near 30-year old animated classic.

So, without any further ado, and in no particular order, sit back and enjoy my favourite episodes from the series.

Night of the Sentinels Parts 1 + 2

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Where best to start than right at the beginning? Right off the bat, this 2-part opener sets the scene and tone of the show perfectly. We are introduced to the X-Men through the perspective of one Jubilation Lee (AKA Jubilee: “I blow stuff up”) as she seeks salvation from mutant prejudice. The pubertal manifestation of her mutant powers has all but ended her normal life. Even the authorities are out to get to her through the government-funded Mutant Control Agency, supposedly set up to help mutants, but is in fact a front to eliminate them.

Real issues such as racism and xenophobia are a constant throughout the series. X-Men: TAS does an excellent job in exerting such issues, through that of teenagers, even young adults, in a terrifying, relatable manner. I’m well aware that none of us are going to be hunted by giant, malevolent robots because we can blow stuff up with our bare hands. But these emotional notions can directly be transferred into the real world of teen angst; here it is simply in a alternative, fictional guise.

The threat posed to these would-be heroes, who are forced to operate outside the law, pulls no punches, with an initial tragedy thrown in to cement that. This is no origin story. You are thrown straight into the X-Men’s world and all that comes with it. All suitable for Saturday mornings, of course.

Deadly Reunions

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By the fourth episode we’ve already been introduced emphatically to Magneto, Charles Xavier’s long-time friend, and one of the X-Men’s main rivals. The X-Men prevented a Magneto-powered missile attack in just the previous episode, but Mr Maniacal Magnetic Mutant is far from done. Magneto attempts to draw out Charles for a reunion years in the making, and is prepared to put human lives on the line to do so.

What follows is the first psychological pitting of two very differently motivated mutant minds. Charles’ idealism that all mutants follow his vision is also put to the test. It is so important that this rivalry is introduced so early in the series, as it will continue to become a backbone throughout. As will the animosity between Wolverine and Sabretooth, whose very physical battle also test’s Charles and his methods.

Cold Vengeance

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This Wolverine-centric episode widened my eyes (“Deadly Reunions” had certainly pried them open) to the brutal relationship between Logan and Victor Creed, otherwise known as Sabretooth. After their brief yet destructive battle in Deadly Reunions, “Cold Vengeance” takes it up to eleven. They’re both literally trying to kill each other and, given the array of claws on offer, the intensity is maintained without the need for graphic violence. A true testament of the show for sure.

Elsewhere, the adaption of the “mutant friendly” nation of Genosha comes into play. Cyclops steals the show as his tetchy tendencies are unleashed on the charismatic but often-cocky Cajun, Gambit. Whether it’s combat or conjecture, Cold Vengeance really turns up the heat in a series just six episodes strong at this stage.

Days of Future Past Parts 1 + 2

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A story so synonymous with the X-Men universe it was even adapted in the movie universe, Days of Future Past is up there with the best on offer. Kitty Pryde, the comic book’s original time-travelling saviour, is completely absent from the show, despite being the front of the original pilot from the show’s producers. Instead, Days of Future Past becomes the platform to introduce another time-traveller, Bishop, into the show. The switch is admirable, and even with a completely new dynamic as a result of the change, it works handsomely.

Days of Future Past taps into everything the X-Men’s world is all about; why they fight against persecution. The bleak tone of their potential future resonates from the page to screen perfectly. It is a 2-part adventure that casts doubt on the characters you’re just getting to know, interspersed with a nice dose of science fiction to boot.

The Final Decision

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Artificial intelligence goes self-aware and runs amok in this first season finale. After the fallout of “Days of Future Past”, Senator Kelly is kidnapped by Magneto. This in turn leads to anti-mutant protest rallies, with the X-Men in the middle trying to keep the peace. The Final Decision really hammers home the nobility of the X-Men and Charles’s hope for human/mutant peace.

The sentinel program comes to a head, even rebelling against its creator, Bolivar Trask. What follows is the X-Men putting their lives on the line against an army of mutant-killing robots in a spectacular battle sequence that is among the best the series has to offer over its five seasons.

Time Fugitives Part 1 + 2

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It wouldn’t be a true X-Men show without everyone’s, me included, favourite time travelling mutant, Cable. The show casts Cable as a hardened warrior, A non-killing Rambo, if you’ll pardon the reference. Cable fights the good fight, albeit in his own way. That is to say, helping the X-Men’s cause, just rarely directly or by the same methods.

In Time Fugitives, it is Cable’s future that’s on the line. Bishop is also back, and another time jump to the present day is subsequently erasing Cable’s timeline. The only probable solution? Take out Bishop. Time Fugitives is a 2-part adventure told in a before-then-after format, with direct comparisons drawn as an open-and-shut version of the Legacy Virus comic book storyline.

Above all else, this interlude in the show’s most progressive season showcases some of its best action sequences. With regards to Cable, TAS always did an excellent job of painting Cable as a top supporting character. The show manages to tease its audience with Cable’s true meaning to the team, particularly Cyclops, without feeling the need to delve any deeper. It’s a perfect nod for comic fans of the show, and enough for newcomers to be left asking themselves provocative questions that may or may not be answered down the line.

Reunion Parts 1 + 2

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The second season of X-Men: The Animated Series, emboldened by the groundwork already laid in the first season, explored a TV concept usually reserved for adult shows: The season-long story arc. The season opener “Till Death Us Do Part” saw an X-Man, previously thought long gone, luring both Xavier and Magneto to The Savage Land. What begins as a secondary storyline becomes the foundation for this, the 2-part season finale.

Stripped of their powers, Xavier and Magneto must set aside their differences and work together to survive in a prehistoric land. These segments, usually on the back end of episodes throughout the season, explore the more distinctive element of their relationship: friendship. The mastermind of season 2 is an undoubtedly Sinister character (wink wink), whose obsession with Cyclops and Jean Grey’s mutagenic possibilities results in a battle for all the X-Men’s lives. His ability to even manipulate Xavier ranks Sinister above most if not all the foes the X-Men face throughout the entire series.

What were your favorite episodes of “X-Men: The Animated Series?” Leave a comment with yours! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time at 20 – An Experience for the Ages

20 years ago, Nintendo released what would become one of the most influential video games for the next 20 years.  From slashing monsters to solving dungeon mazes, from open-world exploration to creating a destiny. Its a game that had everything. Who knew a 32MB cartridge could hold so much magic?

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There are many words to describe the Ocarina of Time experience. The one that springs to mind today, looking back on the unforgettable experiences Ocarina of Time delivers, is preparation. The vivid introduction begins with the subtle sound of a horse galloping. What follows is an almost-soothing soft-piano number that seamlessly transforms into one of Ocarina of Time’s many mournful melodies. It serves as a taste of things to come; danger, discovery, destiny. It is one of many sequences that was technologically innovative of the time, whilst still remaining incredibly evocative today. And so, 20 years ago this week, one of the world’s greatest and most important video games, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was released.

Any entry into the Legend of Zelda series is a noteworthy release of anyone’s gaming calendar. But even this, coming 6 years after the grand adventure A Link to the Past, was an epic 3D open-world adventure that didn’t seem possible until it became reality. Coming at a time when the journalistic written word and screenshots were the only viable means of hype, it was there in abundance.

This was the N64’s biggest release to date, and it showed; upon its UK release on 11th December 1998, it was quickly a sought-after item due to a stock shortage. Its impact was clearly underestimated, and 17-year-old me was a hugely despondent figure upon missing out on that initial supply. That is until, on one college lunch break, I stumbled across a game store that had just opened in time for the Christmas rush. And there it was: the final copy in the shop. Its simplistic yet gold-on-black box art glistening at me. It was my very own ‘what’s in the chest’ Zelda moment, in retrospect. Indeed, Ocarina of Time was the birth of those treasure-finding moments, which has become a series-constant ever since. Even with all the hype, perfect reviews and scores, only upon that first glimpse of the iconic introduction prepared me for what was to come.

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For what is now remembered as a childhood classic, Ocarina of Time is a bleak and scary tale at times. Link’s initial and indicative nightmare of Princess Zelda fleeing from Hyrule Castle and being pursued by the demonic Ganandorf is a lot for a young lad to deal with. All things considered, I managed OK. But all jokes aside, there is a lot of burden placed upon our young Link. His transition into a young man is akin to that of Simba in The Lion King; his forced absence has led his homeland into ruin, and only he can stop the evil that has corrupted it. If you think about it, it’s pretty deep.

There are plenty of other scary moments, too. The first time you are frozen on the spot by the shriek of a Gibdo mummy instils immediate panic. The collectable Skulltullas have a house in Kakariko Village, where a family has been morphed into spiders with skull faces, is another hugely unsettling moment. The sense of duty bound as you make your way up Death Mountain as boulders come down at you. Or vanquishing each dense dungeon throughout the game.

But all these burdens are merely the sum of its parts; From the moment you first take control of Link to the last, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a magical experience. Exploring the quirky Kakariko Village and its interactive inhabitants. The underwater domain of the Zora’s. The maze-like Lost Woods. That first venture out onto Hyrule Field. All these areas and more are simply a joy to behold.

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Then there is the score which is a thing of beauty. The Hyrule Field theme is among the most stirring of Koji Kondo’s score. The theme of Kakariko village offers safety and sanctuary; often the case when running from the dangers of Hyrule Field. It is a soundtrack that traces Link’s journey from childhood prophecy to man of destiny with such aplomb it is no surprise to see it still rank among videogame’s greatest ever soundtracks. Then there is the music Link plays on command, courtesy of the simple chords denoted against the N64 C-button formation. Link can change day to night and vice versa, teleport to key locations, even summon your horse, Epona.

Where the treasured visuals, ambience and tonal shifts prepare you for different experiences on offer, the execution and vividness of the Ocarina of Time experience is something else to behold. Once the quest is over, that feeling of accomplishment is mirrored with reflection on Ocarina of Time’s vivid dungeons, be they beautiful (Forest Temple) or exasperating (Water Temple). And the bosses too remain vivid in the memory. The need to quickly shift from fire to ice against Twinrova, the grandstand final battle against Ganondorf/Ganon, even fighting a shadow version of yourself. I have found myself talking about them at some point for years and years now.

The genius and significance of Ocarina of Time lives on today. Not just through its various re-packages or Virtual Console releases, either. To say this was the first game of its kind and get so much of it right first time is simply incredible. The z-targeting system is used in some form even in games of today. The Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series allows you to centre on your given target. As does other series such as Bayonetta. Many of today’s games have hint systems for fear you could get lost, and Navi is Ocarina of Time’s answer to that.

Like many of Nintendo’s beloved back catalogue, Ocarina of Time remains remarkably on-point today. It is no surprise that following its release Ocarina of Time would go on to dominate Top 10 lists for years and years. There may be many experiences like it today, particularly from Nintendo themselves given this became the blueprint, but Ocarina of Time is still up there with the best. It is a magical adventure that will no doubt live on forever.

 

The 9 Best Episodes Of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’

Remember, remember the 5th of November. A significant date for the ages. No, I’m not talking about Guy Fawkes or bonfire night. Instead I’m talking about the release of something special: Batman: The Animated Series has come to Blu-Ray.

This is not a review of that box-set, as I am not yet fortunate enough to own a copy. But it is definitely worth noting this is not some hasty dump of all 109 episodes that offers nothing more than the existing DVD collection already did. Warner Bros. have gone ALL out on this one. Every episode has been remastered, much like how Disney handle their remastered releases, giving them a new lease of life. And boy do they look fantastic.

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What always amazed me about Batman: The Animated Series, above all other animated shows, was the sound and the ambience of the show. The explosions were like nothing else on television at the time, certainly not cartoons. And the explosive launch of Batman’s grapple gun still gets me every time. You can feel them, let alone hear them. As an 11 year old upon its release, watching via the Warner Bros-sponsored UK children’s entertainment show What’s Up Doc?, it was a feast for the eyes. Now by all accounts, this box-set is just that all over again, and somehow more.

Then there are the extras, including the excellent spin-off movies Mask of the Phantasm and Sub-Zero. There are commentaries for several key episodes, several feature shows, even a 98-minute documentary that traces the origins of the show through to today’s still-existent influence. I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

In the meantime, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the series via Prime Video. Their affiliation with Warner Bros is worth the subscription alone, with the entire Batman and Justice League runs on offer, as well as several of the DC Animated Movie series. And so I offer you my pick of the 9 best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. This does not include the movies, but does include episodes of the latter series The New Batman Adventures. Nor are they in any particular order. I’m sure my picks will differ from yours, but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?

Appointment in Crime Alley

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Adapted from the 1976 Denny O’Neill-penned comic story “There Is No Hope in Crime Alley”, writing legend Gerry Conway brings this tale of remembrance and reality to the small screen. Batman has an appointment to keep in Crime Alley, the location of Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder. Corrupt businessman Roland Daggett however has plans to blow up Crime Alley in order to expand his own empire. It is in this wonderfully-scored episode that the relationship between Batman and Leslie Thompkins comes to fruition. Although a simpler episode with regards to scripting, this is an episode that instead lets its actions and soundtrack do the talking. This episode was also successfully adapted into a novel entitled Shadows of the Past, A first for the series.

Girls’ Night Out

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On a recent episode of the Kevin Smith podcast-style show, Fatman Beyond, the magnificently talented Tara Strong (the voice of Batgirl in The New Batman Adventures) declared this among her favourite episodes to work on. It’s easy to see why. Forget DC Superhero Girls, this is the ultimate Superhero girl team-up. With both Bats and Supes away, Batgirl and Supergirl come to the forefront to take on the recently-escaped Livewire. Things escalate further when Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy also join the fray. The chemistry is electric (literally, in the case of Livewire, voiced perfectly by Tank Girl’s Lori Petty), as Batgirl demonstrates her true capability as a member of the Bat family. Even more so for Supergirl, desperate to prove herself and realise her dream of becoming a hero in her own right. What better place than Gotham? Speaking of Tara Strong (who is undoubtedly the best Batgirl, in one of the few roles using her natural speaking voice), she recently also spoke of the recording sessions taking place with the cast together, as opposed to separate recordings. This is key to the entire series, and imagining such a great cast bouncing off of each other only reinforces the fantastic character chemistry throughout.

Heart of Ice

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I heavily considered this one as being my favourite episode, and is definitely up there with the best. In its first season, this is one of the few episodes that sat apart from the rest, establishing Batman: The Animated Series as a truly special series. This traumatic tale of tragedy depicts Victor Freeze as an exploited scientist, who becomes Mr Freeze after his former employer accidentally kills Freeze’s wife Nora, and also forces Victor to live on in an ice cold suit. As a result vengeance consumes him, as the now literally cold-hearted Mr Freeze will stop at nothing to harm those that harmed him and his beloved Nora. With Heart of Ice, the stakes in BAS were risen to new levels. Real drama is thrust at you, and as a fairly early episode of the show, Heart of Ice proves that the writers, Paul Dini in this case, were not kidding around. Even in a kids show. The screenplay for Heart of Ice also won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing. Cold as ice.

Joker’s Favor 

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Another contender for best-ever episode, Joker’s Favor is the perfect combination of everything Batman: The Animated Series is all about. Comedy, suspense, action, and in the case of Charlie Collins, a very relatable, very human protagonist. Charlie is just like you and me; living the responsibilities of an everyday working family man. After a bad day on all fronts, Charlie takes his anger out on a random driver – only to find that random driver is none other than The Joker. Now Charlie has to pay for his mistake by being on hand when the Joker comes calling. Joker’s Favor is a perfect BAS specimen; Joker wants to blow up the city, Batman needs to stop him, an innocent is inadvertently in the firing line, an all too familiar Batman tale. But its simple synopsis paves the way for a disturbing villain to be his chilling best as he terrorises Charlie into doing his bidding. But even the every-man has his limits, with Charlie’s standoff with The Joker proving that Batman isn’t the only hero in Gotham City. This episode also marked the debut of Harley Quinn into the DC Universe in an unremarkable yet subtle taste of what was to come. And although Batman does feature prominently, Joker’s Favor is a perfect tale of Gotham City. It proves that Batman: The Animated Series is not just about Batman or his Batmobile and Batcave.

Perchance to Dream

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Every series has a “dream-scape” episode. Perchance to Dream takes that plot device and adds a typically Batman mystery feel to the proceedings. Bruce Wayne wakes up one morning to find his life as Batman is no more. Why? Because his parents are still alive, that’s why. Despite his memories of being Batman, there is no Batcave to speak of, with Bruce now living the idyllic life he never had. Or so it seems, as even this new life soon unravels to reveal the truth. Perchance to Dream delivers an emotional roller-coaster for Bruce, giving him a taste of the world where he no longer needs to be The Batman. The battle between Bruce and the Batman in this new life is one of the most humanising moments in the entire series, once again proving this series is playing for keeps.

P.O.V

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Few episodes of Batman: The Animated Series delivered a different point of view from Batman or his numerous iconic villains. But P.O.V dials that concept up a notch by delivering four. After Detective Bullock rushes in alone on a planned heist without waiting for backup, who are still en route, the heist goes south. Bullock cements his place here as an unfavourable protagonist, willing to throw his fellow officers (and Batman) to the wolves (not literally) in order to protect himself and his self-proclaimed image. In the face of disciplinary action, all parties tell their side of the story to divulge what really happened. The concept of P.O.V is hardly ground-breaking. And yet its quirkiness and purpose of humanising the GCPD, particularly Montoya as potential detective material, shines throughout.

Robin’s Reckoning Part 1

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Boasting some of the best animation in the entire series, this first half of Robin’s origin recap centres on some of the most tragic material also. Robin’s Reckoning displays intensity and sorrow like never before as flashbacks depict Dick Grayson’s defining tragedy. In a show that has very few clear-cut deaths to speak of, here we see the fate of Dick’s parents with their deaths taking place just off-screen. Couple that with Robin’s heart-rending dialogue as he recounts feeling the guilt of his parents’ death every single day, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a roller-coaster ride. And this is just part 1. All of the feels.

The Man Who Killed Batman

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What begins as a cautionary tale to the super-villains of Gotham descends into some of the show’s funniest moments. When small-time gang help Sidney Debris supposedly (and accidentally) causes Batman’s demise, Sidney, now dubbed the “Squid” given his developed reputation, seeks out Rupert Thorne and The Joker to tell all. Naturally, neither believe him, with The Joker becoming somewhat despondent at the news. The Man Who Killed Batman plays out in a similar manner to P.O.V, with Sidney’s flashback taking up the first half. But it’s Mark Hamill’s Joker, as is often the case, who steals the show with some of his best scenes. Joker’s eulogy for Batman is terrific viewing, and further cements Hamill’s Joker is the best Joker. Having seemingly disposed of Sidney, with Harley performing Amazing Grace on a Kazoo, Joker then declares “Well that was fun. Who’s for Chinese?” Genius. Pure Genius.

Two Face Part 1

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Like the first part of Robin’s Reckoning, the Two-Face origin story is one that began in the very first episode, On Leather Wings. There, a scene takes place with District Attorney Harvey Dent, repeatedly flipping his trademark coin during a discussion at City Hall. But here is where one face becomes two, as Harvey struggles to contain his anger in the eyes of the press as he seeks re-election. Following Rupert Thorne’s threat to reveal to the press that Harvey has been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, Harvey cannot repress his anger any longer, and “Big Bad Harv” takes hold for good. Despite Batman’s intervention (and Harvey being one of Bruce’s closest friends), an electrical fire scars Harvey’s entire left side, thus creating Two-Face. There are several 2-part stories in Batman: The Animated Series, and Two-Face is up there with the best. Being only the 10th episode, this half was another episode that cemented the show’s quality. Immaculately acted, brilliantly animated, with tension you simply rarely see in cartoons anymore. I must add that there is nothing wrong with Two-Face part 2, but given only a few BAS villains have their origins told in its present time, this is a special one. And as Two-Face origins go, it beats both Nolan’s and Schumacher’s efforts.

And there you have it. Picking just 9 standout episodes from 109 (almost 10%) wasn’t easy. But I certainly had fun watching them again to come up with this list. As an 11 year this show was all about Batman and how cool and dark he was. The cool villains and the gadgets. If Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns were my starter, this was the main course. Now, as a 37 year old adult, I see Batman: The Animated Series for what it was truly intended to be: It’s not all about Batman. It’s Batman’s city, Gotham City, which is on show. The film-noir style and vintage timelessness is simply a joy to watch with each and every episode. Now I just need to get my hands on that Blu-Ray set. Anyone got £60 they could lend me?

Batman: The Animated Series on Blu-Ray is available now from Amazon and many other retailers.

The Trinkets and Kinship of Shenmue

Originally posted on Hey Poor Player:-

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Ryo acquires his latest fix

I have always had a thing for little trinkets. Back when I had to work in an office, my desk accommodated a Lego character here, a Marvel miniature there, an overall undeniable youthful spirit everywhere. My desk at home is a similar fixture, except now it consists of upgrades such as a Super Mario Maker mascot or Amiibo.

My history of such trinkets is a long-standing one. Fond memories of my first trip alone to the local newsagent remain strong, for it was all about the mystery toy/candy machines outside. I never knew at the time that 10/20p would bring so much joy.

25 years later, taking my 6-year-old daughter to a toy store is living proof that that youthful spirit and inclination has clearly passed down from father to child. She will happily glance past the Barbie’s and Pokemon’s that she equally adores without so much as a tentative purchase request. Well, sometimes. But once we hit the collectibles section, often located near the exit, she starts pointing excitedly like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. I can empathise. These days I’m more physically reserved, but nevertheless other family members still sometimes bear the brunt of our over-enthusiasm for inanimate plastic, often bringing us both away from retailer ecstasy. But not without a trinket or two of course.

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The capsule machines at the harbour deploy a different tactic

Once I ran across the pair of trinket-dispensing machines outside the Sakuragoaka village store, one of the primary locations in Sega’s recently remastered adventure Shenmue, it was a calling like no other. A sentimental moment within a sentimental moment, if you will. Once that passed, the excitement I’d passed down in my genes surfaced. “Do they work?” I was asked both enthusiastically and hopefully. Usually, in such circumstances, that question would not apply. Very few video games allow for such miniature interaction. It was to my delight, and that of my daughter, that the answer was most definitely, “Yes”.

And so a query of mere functionality quickly ascended/descended into capsule toy addiction. The 100 Yen – 70p – price tag seems insignificant, especially as Ryo begins the game with 10,000. Forlorn housekeeper Ine-San leaving 500 yen allowance each day only facilitates the habit further. But as Ryo says as he collects it: “I should be grateful”. This father/daughter collection connection certainly is.

The toy collection comes in the form of Sega characters – the casts of Sonic, Virtua Fighter and Nights into Dreams among others – that didn’t even exist 32 years ago. Given the alternative mix of dice, rubber balls and paperweights just wouldn’t cut it, this was always an unforgivable oversight.

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You barely get toys this good in real life

Toy capsule collecting has become a major part of this revisit to Yokosuka, but now is presented in a new light. As I direct Ryo to each machine, I let my daughter decide how many turns I take on each. It might be 5 turns on the Sonic toys, the next day just the 3, and so on for the other machines. It became a game within itself. As Ryo’s remaining cash flow is displayed with each purchase, no white lies are going to get me out of it.

After each capsule toy machine routine comes to an end, it’s time to inspect the goods. After all, “How are we going to know how many are left to get, daddy?” As if any more incentive was required to complete the capsule toy collection Shenmue has to offer, the recent PS4/Xbox One remaster also rewards collectors with trophies/achievements for their efforts. It brings a near 20 year old game’s unique experience to a new generation of players.

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“No, you kiss off, twit”

Shenmue is the ultimate example of a small world examined. The 4 years of development and alleged $50-80 million spent shows in its unquestionable detail. Real life locations such as the interconnecting street of Dobuita are prominent throughout – and much of it still parallels many ways in 2018 to the 1986 Yu Suzuki representation. The use of meteorological records to generate the weather cycles of December 1986 Yokosuka produces a plentiful mixture of clement, heavy rain, even snow. All are triggers of excitement from my daughter, from decorations on display at Christmas, to impromptu shouts of “you need to get in the arcade, it’s raining so time to play some games”. Who am I to disappoint?

Yu Suzuki’s classics Hang-On and Space Harrier were still relatively new back in 1986. As a child of the 80’s, fond memories remain of the Hang-On theme ringing in the air at many a seaside arcades well into the 90’s. But the life-size, distinctive motorcycle cabinet is now an arcade antique, rarely seen on today’s arcade scene. The concept of such a cabinet within a video game, let alone in real life, blew my daughter’s mind. She is of that age where she is in complete admiration for her parents’ childhood past’s, more specifically pastimes. We both love to read. I collect toys, she collects toys. I play video games and so does she, but more specifically the ones attributed to my past.

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We understand, Ryo. We really do

As the story has developed over time my daughter’s attention lies away from searching for sailors, gangs and Chinese translators. Thankfully I have enough cash to catch the bus to work at the harbour each day. But not a day in the game passes without prompts of “Have you fed the kitten today?” or “Have you spoken to Nozomi?”, or even “Is Tom still dancing in the street?” It’s a testament to Shenmue’s cast of characters and their day to day actions. They may be mostly insignificant but hardly inconspicuous at the same time.

The world of Shenmue is currently pressing on towards its next chapter in our household. My PSN trophy cabinet is filling up after many revisited gaming memories. But the real trophies will always be the trinkets themselves, and the youthfulness they have invoked. I am eagerly awaiting to start Shenmue II, when the parent/daughter trinket collecting team can begin again.

The Worst Movie Ever #1: The Specialist

Does shower sex, the man who would be hades, and Eric Roberts make a good movie? No, of course it doesn’t.

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Spoilers alert! I recommend watching the movie before reading, or at least have a good memory of it. Be warned though, its a bit rubbish.

Everyone loves a bad movie from time to time. They can be entertaining for that very reason. This blog will cover some seriously bad movies. Or at least those with unfathomable qualities. Welcome to a new feature: The Worst Movie Ever Made.

This first entry, The Specialist, is a perfect specimen for this feature. This is a bad movie. One of Sylvester Stallone’s worst for sure. Seriously, it’s up there with Tango & Cash, minus the homo-erotic overload. Amazingly however it was one of Stallone’s most successful movies in the 90’s, earning $170 million at the box office against a budget of $45 million.

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It begins with a cliched betrayal from co-star James Woods, the terribly-named Ned Trent. The films’ title refers to Stallone’s character Ray Quick (seriously, they went with that name?!) and his skills when it comes to explosives. Apart from the title, that fact isn’t made obvious from the opening scene. Nor is it initially implied that either Stallone or Woods are bomb specialists; they’re just on a mission to plant bombs in camouflage gear! I could do that!

Back to the ridiculously-named main characters. Trent & Quick sounds more like a cowboy law firm than a pair of bomb technicians. Apparently they worked for the CIA, but it’s all explained in a loose, unconvincing manner. This is The Specialist’s biggest fundamental issue, given it’s the backstory to get you invested in the lead characters. So yeah, slightly important.

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After said intro-mission-scene concludes, Quick seemingly quits the CIA as their mission takes a child’s life. Woods thinks that’s merely collateral damage. Quick then turns into part hit-man, part stalker. His work influx comes from seemingly random internet forums. What look likes the display on a Mini-Disc player. Remember those? I loved my Mini-Disc player, but they were a bugger to record onto. Just another version of tapes essentially. But they sounded fantastic.

Anyway, said forums and wanted advertisement system is where Sharon Stone’s character May Munro slinks into the movie. She is the movie’s only semblance of empathy. She appeals to Stallone’s sense of honour and loneliness, but proceeds to rebuff her requests nonetheless.

“Have you decided to take the job?

I saw your ad today.

– I know it’s late…

– It’s never too late.

After all, you’re giving me a new life.

Really? When?

When you kill those three bastards.

I’m flattered.

You better get somebody else.

I like your voice.

You don’t need an explosive contractor.

Yes, I do.

– You’re my only hope.

– Go to court, use the law.

The law’s been bought.

Use a bullet.

Bullets…

…are imprecise.

I heard you control your explosions…

that you shape your charges.

What I shape is my business.

All I’m saying…

…word is you are the best.

Whose word?

If we could just meet…

I don’t meet or work in Miami

and I don’t do jobs like this.

Why do you keep calling me back?

Why?

I like your voice.”

It’s a conversation between 2 people that feels like completely different conversations. It also really isn’t clear what Quick’s job actually is at this point. If you’re not a bomber for hire to blow things up then….? There’s no mention of payment either, everything is just assumed. For a 2-hour movie the plot could at least be made more viable.

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Another thing, if he doesn’t meet/work in Miami then why is a bomb specialist doing IN MIAMI, unsuccessfully dissuading someone he’ll clearly end up taking on as a client anyway? Sorry, spoiler alert. And a final point here, she’s heard he’s the best? Where? Controlled Bombers-R-Us? Is Miami i saturated market for contract bombers? I’m guessing at this point Quick already knows Trent has put her up to this, hence why he sticks around. Otherwise he’s pretty dumb.

Quick quickly becomes obsessed with May following her plea for help. Presumably because she is using the alias ‘Adrian’ to get close to her parents’ killers, a Miami cartel. Or it could be the several instances of borderline phone sex between the two. Either seem to do the trick for Quick.

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Quick performs his recon/stalking whilst listening to the phone recordings, somewhat seductively narrated by Stone’s character. Or, which is far more uncomfortable viewing, whilst performing a sweaty Tai-Chi-style workout. Presumably with a raging boner as he imagines Munro alone and vulnerable, yet semi clad. Of course.

The plot reveals that May/Adrian witnessed the hit on her parents several years ago, by the aforementioned cartel. Patriarch Jon Leon (Rod Steiger) and his well-versed son, Tomas (Eric Roberts), are running the show. May becomes Adrian to infiltrate the cartel as Eric Roberts’ girlfriend (someone has to), but all is not as it seems. Because as a twist of fate that anyone will have seen coming, James Woods works for said cartel. Not only that, he’s blackmailing the vengefully-driven Stone into the cartel, all as an elaborate ploy to draw out Stallone. If only they’d put that much effort into entertaining the audience.

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Speaking of which, the only entertainment in The Specialist stems from James Woods. He steals every scene he is in, some of them comically bad but still outclasses everyone around him. The problem with that? Stallone wasn’t happy about being shown up on screen during the production. It is no coincidence they spend very little time on screen together because Stallone had the scenes removed. Furthermore, re-shoots were done to emphasise Stallone even further. Particularly the grit-less scene with Eric Roberts’ character. Why? For fear of being upstaged by Woods of course. Which he was in the final cut anyway. But Stallone being Stallone, this was a platform for him. His influence behind the scenes are well known. Pretty ballsy from Stallone given the role was almost taken away in favour of Warren Beatty in the first place.

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As for Sharon Stone, she manages to pull off the role of vengefully-disturbed vulnerable victim pretty convincingly. Just 2 problems; Stone was 36 at the time of filming yet her character is in her early twenties. Eric Roberts was 38, just 2 years older, yet his character killed Stone’s parents when she was a child, 16 years earlier. As for filming the steamy scenes with Stallone, they went far from swimmingly.

“OK. Let it be known, I didn’t want to do this scene because Sharon was not cooperating.

We get to the set and she decides not to take her robe off.

The director asks only a few of the crew to remain, and she still won’t take it off.

I promised her I wouldn’t take any liberties, so what’s the problem?

She said, ‘I’m just sick of nudity.’

I asked her if she could get sick of it on someone else’s film.

She was having none of it, so I went down to my trailer, brought back a bottle of Black Death vodka that was given to me by Michael Douglas and after half-a-dozen shots we were wet and wild.”

Its not clear whether nudity was contractual on Stone’s part, but Stallone seemed prepared to say and do whatever it would take to get her to do the scenes. The Michael Douglas reference was weird too, as if to say vodka from the man who previously performed sex scenes with her would persuade her?!

In truth, the scenes are not necessary in the grand scheme of the movie. But I would argue they gave the movie the media attention/controversy it needed to sell tickets. And was surely one of the main reasons that one of Stallone’s worst movies of the 90’s grossed as well as it did. I still recall to this day mainstream news reports showing clips of the shower scenes. Sometimes, sex really does sell.

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The Specialist is not a good film. It’s near 2 hours of total boredom. Given how slow developments occur, it felt a lot longer. An excellent, neurotic but underused James Woods, plus a score from long time James Bond composer John Barry, are the only high points. Like Sharon Stone’s character states in the final line of the movie (“How do you feel?” “Better”), you will also feel better knowing its all over.

Let me know your thoughts on The Specialist below, or on twitter. What other films would you like to see dissected? With a few suggestions a poll on twitter will be used to decide. Look out for more of The Worst Movie Ever Made!

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Super NES Classic Edition Mini – Lowdown on the Games (Part 5)

Join me as i rundown the games for the Super Nes Mini console.

In September 2017 the dreams of retro videogames fans around the world were realised once again. The successor to the sold-out NES Mini, the Super NES Mini, hit stores worldwide. The Super NES Mini will follow the mould of the NES Mini by including 21 of the most classic games the platform has ever produced.

Parts 1-4 covered the 16 games available in all regions worldwide. This edition will cover the 5 Western exclusives. Children vs aliens, boxing, street fighting (wink wink), horror, even golf (of a sort). Talk about variety, eh?

Western Releases (17-21):-

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Earthbound

Developer: HAL Laboratory

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 0.44 Million (Unconfirmed)

My experience with Earthbound is limited. It was never released in the UK until 2013, so that’s my excuse. Oh wait, 4 years already? Jeez. Time does fly when you have too many games to play.

Earthbound (or Mother 2 in its native Japan) is the story of Ness, a young boy whose merry band need to save the world from impending doom. Sounds simple? Well, for the most part it is, but there is something wonderfully left-field about Shigesato Itoi’s RPG.

The world needs saving, and Ness, armed with baseball bats, slingshots and yo-yo’s, is an unlikely hero, but one that can be related to. He eats burgers to regain health, catches colds easily and also gets homesick rather easily. Just like any 13 year old, right?

Such RPG nuances must have felt too much for Nintendo to release into Europe back in 1995. It wasn’t the only RPG to miss the European cut of course. But given it sold less than a million copies Nintendo clearly heeded on the sign of caution with Earthbound.

But for me, and with the progress i have made so far, its those aforementioned nuances that make it stand out. RPG’s don’t get more niche than this. And the SNES Mini gives Earthbound a new home it deserves.

 

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Kirby’s Dream Course

Developer: HAL Laboratory

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 0.59 Million (Unconfirmed)

Kirby’s Dream Course is a Kirby game in the loosest way. In Japan it is entitled Kirby Bowl, which for what is ostensibly a golf sim adds to the identity crisis Dream Course suffers from.

Visually it is akin to the isometric Sonic 3D on the Genesis; bumps, hills and obstacles make up the multiple Dream Land golfing landscapes. And like its visuals, that Kirby style is also successfully transitioned into a golf game.

With just 21 games to place on a SNES tribute console – one already lacking in decent sports titles – why this?! The inclusion of this isometric miniature golf sim is a strange one. Kirby is of course one of Nintendo’s top characters. No doubt redeveloping the once-named Special Tee Shot to represent the world of Kirby will have boosted sales. It’s by no means a bad game by any stretch, it looks and feels a little out of place on the SNES Mini.

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Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting

Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Capcom

Original Sales: 4.10 Million

Capcom’s definitive 16-bit fighter is a true gem of the genre. The twelve most recognisable fighters in the world take each other on in The World Warrior tournament. Your chosen fighter has his/her own reasons, but all want to be the best. Which is what Street Fighter II Turbo is: The best. Some may say it is one of the best fighting games ever made. Even some say the best. But one thing is for certain: it is definitely among the best the SNES has to offer.

Sure, if you were to judge SFII Turbo against the test of time it has been surpassed repeatedly. Mostly at the hands of its own maker, Capcom. But if nothing else it serves as a perfect nostalgia trip. With the SNES Mini ROM running as the US 60Hz version, something that was often but a dream in the PAL regions of yesteryear, plus the added ‘turbo’ adjustable speed, it still serves as one of the purest one-on-one fighters in existence.

As a package however, i would have preferred to see Super Street Fighter II, which is on the Japanese release. It is also a fighter that has been previously made available via eShop. But nonetheless, Street Fighter II Turbo is still up there with the best the SNES has to offer for a fighting fix.

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Super Castlevania IV

Developer: Konami

Publisher: Konami

Original Sales: 0.50 Million (Unconfirmed)

First off, i need to proclaim that I’ve never been on the Super Castlevania IV bandwagon. It is critically acclaimed, but i find it dull, slow and simply annoying to play. Its a series that was yet to find it’s identity until Symphony of the Night 5 years later. But while it’s a title that simply isn’t for me, it does have endearing qualities that have stood the test of time.

Firstly, it is one of the few adult-themed games for the SNES. It’s distinct horror setting captures the doom and gloom in particularly detailed fashion; vines on railings in the background and the haunting shipwreck of stage 2 are still impressive. The use of Mode 7 also adds a level of disorientation to the already-increasing difficulty. The soundtrack is also excellent.

Super Castlevania IV is no pick-up-and-play retro paradise. It ranks among both Super Ghouls & Ghosts and Contra III in terms of difficulty, possibly even a level above that. It will take many a play-through to master the pixel-perfect requirement for both jumping and attacking – 2 of the games most basic and common actions. It’s a deliberately rigid and unforgiving experience that only applies to the hardcore.

 

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Super Punch Out!

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: Unknown

Finally, a sports sim! And yet, not a true one. Like many a NES to SNES sequel, the goal was refinement, not reinvention or revolution. And Super Punch Out! is a perfect example of that.

Your fighter is the average Joe going up against a series of increasingly ridiculous opponents. Each of which requires their pattern or style to be discovered in order to lay some serious smackdown yourself. It’s a simple formula that gets increasingly difficult and ridiculous as it progresses. Beating all four circuits is a bit of a challenge, and once that’s done it’s a case of breaking your own records and honing your timing skills even further.

It may be title that’s a little lost in time by today’s standards but Super Punch Out! is heaps of fun. It’s a shame it isn’t supported by any other sports titles on the SNES Mini, but is a welcome addition nonetheless.

Now we’ve seen what the east is missing, the next (and final) part will look at the Japan-exclusive titles to see what we’re missing out on.

Previous entries: One Two Three Four

 

Super NES Classic Edition Mini – Lowdown on the Games (Part 4)

Join me as i rundown the games for the Super Nes Mini console.

In September 2017 the dreams of retro videogames fans around the world were realised once again. The successor to the sold-out NES Mini, the Super NES Mini, hit stores worldwide. The Super NES Mini will follow the mould of the NES Mini by including 21 of the most classic games the platform has ever produced.

The Locked 16 (13-16):-

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Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Developer: Square

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 2.14 Million

Super Mario RPG is a dream collaboration between 2 giants of the SNES era. Square, kings of the JRPG throughout the SNES’ lifetime, developing Nintendo’s hottest property, Super Mario himself. But this is no typical Mario title; it is a fully-fledged JRPG starring the Mushroom Kingdom’s favourite plumber. It is also another title that got away from Europe during the 90’s.

supermariorpgAt first glance it’s more a case of Super Mario Out-of-His-Comfort-Zone; JRPG turn-based battles, an isometric 3D viewpoint, even full dialogue. It looks and feels more like a subversive dream to begin with. But after just the introduction alone any fears are quickly extinguished. The isometric view allows the Mushroom Kingdom to be given life never seen previously. A world inhabited by Yoshi’s, fish, moles and many other creatures and surroundings. There is tons to discover in such a massive world, but none of it is a chore. Even with Square’s much-maligned random battles interrupting proceedings.

The real charm and appeal comes from the volume of various amusing scenarios, accompanied by cameos and multiple in-jokes throughout. There are many platform-based secrets to find, cleverly incorporating the Mario element into a Square-developed world.

It’s incredible to think Super Mario RPG didn’t get a SNES release in Europe. Then again, it wasn’t the first JRPG to be withheld a release. As a result Super Mario RPG is one of the most anticipated games for the SNES mini. With this amount of creativity and humour added to the plumber-saves-princess formula, it is also one of the best.

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Super Mario World

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 20.61 Million

There isn’t really much left to say about Super Mario World. Given it was a console-bundled title, most if not all SNES players will have at least sampled its greatness.

Super Mario World is often considered the greatest of the 2-dimensional Mario games. But lets be honest, you could pick pretty much any of them as a favourite and all have their justifications. But what is probably most impressive about Super Mario World is that while it was the console’s first ever release, it is as good as game as any released in the SNES’ 13-year lifespan.

super-mario-worldDinosaur Land is a vibrant, colourful continent throughout all of it’s seven worlds. And while Super Mario was 6 years away from venturing into 3D, an extra dimension to the Mario series comes in the form of now-iconic Nintendo character, Yoshi the dinosaur. He can crush enemies Mario cannot, swallow enemies to use against others, even become a platform for Mario to vault to otherwise inaccessible areas.

Regardless of your favourite Super Mario choice, everything about Super Mario World is simply iconic. It may not be the first choice when you power up your SNES Mini, given it has been available on almost every Nintendo platform in years gone by. But it is an essential addition to the collection.

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 4.12 Million

With Super Mario World, the introduction of Yoshi added an extra dimension to the Mario series. With this direct sequel, Nintendo added an entirely new dynamic to the series. A dynamic so significant it has gone on to become a spin-off series in its own right. Set as a prequel to the entire Mario series, Yoshi must escort a Baby Mario across 6 worlds in order to save his baby brother Luigi. It may be a Mario game, but Yoshi is now the star of the show.

Yoshi’s Island differs from the traditional Mario series in many ways, despite being just another platformer at its core. The egg ready-aim-fire mechanic is Yoshi’s main source of attacking and collecting. It gives Yoshi his own identity in the Mario ser- sorry, what is now the Yoshi’s Island series.

Super Mario World 2 Yoshis IslandBut it is the visuals that are Yoshi’s Island defining feature. Shigeru Miyamoto, showing his aversion to Donkey Kong Country’s pre-rendered graphics, opted instead for a hand-drawn style that is simply a feast for the eyes. The animation is crisp, fluid, and at times wonderfully fluorescent. Powered by the Super FX2 chip (the sequel), there are effects in both the foreground and background that were not previously possible.

Yoshi’s Island is up there with the most anticipated of the SNES Mini titles. This is the first re-release of the original SNES version. As faithful as the Game Boy Advance remake was, it fell behind somewhat in the sound department. But here the original soundtrack is back in it’s full glory, and serves as the cherry atop a very delicious, satisfying and colourful cake.

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Super Metroid

Developer: Nintendo + Intelligent Systems

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 1.42 Million

Yoshio Sakamoto’s sci-fi exploration platform shooter is one of the finest video games of all time. It is such an atmospheric, adept and amazing experience that unusually appealed more to the western market. Not that I’m complaining.

Super Metroid is the third title in the Metroid series, and follows on directly from the Game Boy’s Metroid II. Samus Aran ventures to Planet Zebes in order to save a kidnapped infant Metroid. Zebes is of course no theme park; it is the base of the Metroid’s kidnappers, the Space Pirates.

7521263c3098e556fa7634b4b4eaecaeThe Metroid formula quickly comes into play. Samus is drained of her robotic suits’ abilities and power. At this point, the open-ended tunnels of Zebes are ripe for exploration. And what a journey it is. The learning curve is attributed to the new abilities and health banks you unlock over time. Like the Legend of Zelda series, certain areas require a certain weapon/ability to progress. But as there are so many extra items to be found throughout, those abilities become essential for entirely different reasons.

For me, this is what makes Super Metroid so special as an adventure; you want to speed through it? It can be done in less than 3 hours. Want to collect everything? It will take a lot longer. Either way, Super Metroid is an essential experience.

You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.

That’s the locked 16 done and dusted. But don’t despair! The next part will cover the Western exclusive SNES Mini titles.

What are your favourite SNES Mini titles so far?

 

Super NES Classic Edition Mini – Lowdown on the Games (Part 3)

Join me as i rundown the games for the Super Nes Mini console.

In September 2017 the dreams of retro videogames fans around the world were realised once again. The successor to the sold-out NES Mini, the Super NES Mini, hit stores worldwide. The Super NES Mini will follow the mould of the NES Mini by including 21 of the most classic games the platform has ever produced.

The Locked 16 (9-12):-

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Star Fox

Developer: Nintendo + Argonaut Software

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 2.99 Million

Shigeru Miyamoto’s science-fiction third/first person rail shooter Star Fox heralded the birth of yet another successful Nintendo franchise.

The Star Fox series is famous for its animal crew of Fox McCloud, Slippy Toad, Perry Hare and Falco Lombardi. They fly together in the distinctively-shaped Arwing spacecraft across various missions to seek out the evil scientist Andross.

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Shooting down/avoiding enemy ships, robots and asteroids of various sizes has lost little of its charm in 24 years. Ok, maybe just a little. The use of the Super FX chip powers up Star Fox to the point of being overworked at times. Polygons wobble frequently and at times the frame rate crawls, which hinders aiming and avoiding oncoming obstacles.

The three map paths-to-completion do their best to very the difficulty whilst avoiding repetitiveness. The bosses get bigger, bolder and more bizarre; from simple spaceships to a two-headed big-bastard dragon. That fires eggs. Yep.

Most will probably devour the first stage at speed to unlock the previously-unreleased Star Fox 2, which is arguably the biggest draw for the console. More on that later, but Star Fox is still very much an enjoyable, if a little jerky, space adventure.

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Star Fox 2

Developer: Nintendo + Argonaut Software

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: N/A

It’s incredible to believe that a new SNES title has been released in 2017. Star Fox 2, originally intended for a SNES release but ultimately cancelled, is a sequel 25 years in the making.

Fox McCloud and the crew are back, along with some new friends, of which 2 make your pilot/wing-man team. Star Fox 2’s looks instantly familiar once the action starts, but the mission blueprint is of a different nature to the original. Andross is back, but instead of seeking him out on his home planet, he’s coming after Corneria. Your 2-man crew navigate a map screen with enemies moving as you move. Should your paths cross, for example an enemy ship, a battle is initiated. If you allow Corneria to amass 100% damage, it’s game over. If both your team members succumb to becoming space fodder, it’s game over. There are no extra lives here. It’s an inventive structure that expands on the linearity of the original.

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The cross-heir view from the originals’ asteroid levels require urgency but a little patience, given the sections get a little jerky at times. The more infiltration-driven missions transform your ship into what can only be described as a robotic chicken of sorts. These walker sections require the use of floor switches to obtain items and unlock the next area. Unfortunately they are also very thin in the challenge department.

Which leads to Star Fox 2’s biggest problem; it’s over almost as soon as it’s begun. It takes little over an hour to complete, with the only incentive to return being to try and improve on your completion grade. What Star Fox 2 lacks in challenge and intuitiveness is however made up a little by the fact you’re playing a modern piece of nostalgia. Yes that is very much a cliche, but i don’t care.

Star Fox 2 unleashed my inner child from start to finish. It may be a case of what might have been, but Star Fox 2 deserves the lease of life the SNES Mini has given it. Just don’t expect to be racking up more hours compared to other SNES Mini titles.

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Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 1.1 Million

So. Damn. Hard. If you asked me for 3 words to describe Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, they are all i could muster. Dark Souls is admired for its challenging and unforgiving nature, and the same can be said for this Capcom classic.

If you’ve never played Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts before, i wouldn’t make it your first port of call once your SNES Mini is powered on. It is an incredibly challenging platformer that features re-spawning enemies, requires pixel-perfect reactions and a lot of patience and practice. Particularly with the double-jump mechanism; once you’re in the air all manner of control has gone until you land. And even then it’s probably into more trouble.

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It may seem crazy to list all the negatives from the get-go, but these simply serve as a warning. It may require utmost precision, but it also rewards it; the scenery and levels look and feel fantastic. From blizzards to lava-filled caves, castles to pirate ships, all levels of spooky are covered. It certainly trumps fellow SNES Mini horror-platformer Castlevania IV in my book. It’s also incredible to think that as a 12/13 year old i was able to finish Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts without the aid of save states or battery back up.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is the most chilling and atmospheric 16-bit platform adventure ever. It is insanely challenging, but in being so it also gives it even more charm. It has been a pleasure to be re-acquainted.

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Super Mario Kart

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 8.76 Million

Despite Mario Kart 8 technically being the most balanced and best Mario Kart, the original SNES classic will always be my favourite. It was the first video game i ever bought with my own money at the tender age of 11.

That may well be an unrealistically biased and nostalgic view, but there is no doubting the very first Mario Kart gives all its successors a run for their money.

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The fast yet compact tracks, powered by the Mode 7 scrolling graphics engine, are full of twists, turns and diverse Mario-themed terrain. Different skills on different tracks herald the best records and rewards; hop-and-drift mastery gets you through the Donut Plains, stepping off the gas to navigate the many right-angles of the Bowser Castles and Ghost Houses, and so on.

It’s no surprise that tracks from Super Mario Kart have been recreated in it’s successors. Donut Plains in MK8 fits the drift narrative perfectly, and an MK8 version of the original Rainbow Road is also a fitting tribute.

And seeing as the SNES Mini is a fitting tribute to the platform itself, for it to not include Super Mario Kart would be a crime. And there’s not a blue shell to be seen.

You can read part one here and part two here.

12 down, 9 to go! Are you excited yet? You should be! Catch you next time!

 

Super NES Classic Edition Mini – Lowdown on the Games (Part 2)

Join me as i rundown the games for the highly anticipated Super Nes Mini.

In September 2017 the dreams of retro videogames fans around the world were realised once again. The successor to the sold-out NES Mini, the Super NES Mini, hit stores worldwide. The Super NES Mini will follow the mould of the NES Mini by including 21 of the most classic games the platform has ever produced.

You can read part one here. If those titles weren’t enough to whet the retro appetite, wait until you see what’s in store with the next 4 games. I’ve invested hour upon hour into this particular set in the last 20+ years. Like most of the titles included in the SNES Mini, they cemented my interest in video games as a medium for life.

The Locked 16 (5-8):-

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Kirby Super Star

Developer: HAL Laboratory

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 1.4 Million

The SNES Mini may include 21 games for a fixed price, but Kirby Super Star offers a surprise right off the bat. 1 title, 8 games! Okay so they’re all a little on the slender side, but Kirby Super Star is a title bursting with variety.

Kirby’s core ‘copy’ ability, allowing him to mimic abilities of those he ingests, is also the core theme each game is constructed around. This could mean Kirby wielding a sword, a laser cannon, or maybe even singing enemies to death. The most recognisable is Spring Breeze; essentially a SNES version of the original Game Boy Kirby’s Dream Land, albeit somewhat simplified.

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Other delights include Gourmet Race, where Kirby and King Dedede race across 3 levels whilst devouring as much food as possible, and The Arena, a gauntlet-style boss fight mode. The meatiest portion of this Kirby all-you-can-eat buffet is Milky-Way Wishes. Kirby must traverse over 9 planets in the same vein as any regular Kirby title, but with 1 subtle difference; Kirby can no longer obtain abilities from ingested enemies, Instead, you collect ability-laden items, much like the Super Mario series.

Each slice of this Kirby pizza pie has it’s own unique and fun topping. Some may be more filling than others, but there is something for everyone in this great package.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 4.6 Million

What is there left to be said for what is simply one of the best games of all time? It is simply a remarkably profound experience from start to finish. What’s even more remarkable is that it is still a brilliant game, more than 20 years on.

A Link to the Past has been re-released, remastered, and most important of all, replayed so many times. Ocarina of Time is the Zelda entry that has dominated so many best-games-ever lists. The sublime Breath of the Wild is sure to carry on that mantle for the next few years. But this 16-bit predecessor is still significant to this day. It’s nowhere near the biggest interpretation of Hyrule but it is still very big. Factor in teleportation to-and-from a Ganon-corrupted mirror image of Hyrule and it doubles in size and difficulty.

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The layered labyrinth-style dungeons, the vast array of tools and weapons, finding heart pieces. Yes all these are series stables to this day, but A Link to the Past is still capable of ingenious surprises; thieves in the woods after your stuff, bunny transformations (yes, really) and of course, the amazing Hookshot.

A Link to the Past is always a journey worth revisiting. It was one of my very first SNES experiences as a teenager, and often revisit on a semi-regular basis. Come September 29th, I intend to visit the world of Hyrule all over again. I recommend you do to.

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Mega Man X

Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Nintendo

Original Sales: 1.1 Million

There’s an impression left by the Mega Man series that screams “they’re all just the same”. In the case of Mega Man 1-6 that is evident, with Mega Man 2 being the standout exception. Screenshots of the series’ upgrade to the SNES does little to suggest more of the same. Thankfully Mega Man X is anything but.

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The ‘X’ is not just a fancy spin off name (i’m looking at you Apple), but the birth of both a new character AND series. Dr Light’s supreme invention no longer has to rely on the abilities of defeated bosses; upgrades such as dashing and superior armour are also acquired throughout. At it’s core it is of course a Mega Man game. But these new dynamics, accompanied by excellent level design and freedom to tackle them how you want makes for the ultimate Mega Man experience. Plus it’s still pretty mutha-truckin’ hard to boot.

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Secret of Mana

Developer: Square

Publisher: Square

Original Sales: 1.8 Million

Ooh boy. Secret of Mana is a beast of an RPG. The premise is fairly simple; boy finds legendary sword, and is immediately tasked with saving the world. In between is an action RPG that hits all the right notes. It also provides a rare multiplayer experience for the genre, with up to 3 players on screen at once.

Secret of Mana’s initial moments play out in a similar vein to A Link to the Past. Once the first series of battles commence, Mana cements itself as an RPG with it’s intuitive menu system. This ‘ring menu’ system results in quick command prompts to use spells/items, with little intrusion on battles. All characters move freely during battle, a la Zelda, but weapon attacks require a brief pause to recharge to ensure a hit and more damage. This brilliant blend of real-time and turn-based combat makes for often-exhilarating boss battles.

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Memorable melodies of Mana soon become ingrained in the mind thanks to one of the greatest soundtracks of it’s kind. And like Zelda, Mana makes use of the SNES’ patented Mode 7 effects for the overworld map, with Mana’s world made up of several islands as opposed to Zelda’s solitary land with multiple landmarks. In the later stages the back and forth travelling can get a little confusing. Particularly when you step away for while and jump back in……yes, i am currently lost in my most recent play-through and haven’t the patience to get back on track.

But despite my lack of bearings and memory, Secret of Mana is a hugely enjoyable and engrossing RPG. Its many hours of combat, collecting, travelling and storytelling are one of the SNES’ most cherished experiences.

8 down, 12 to go! Are you excited yet? You should be! Catch you next time!