Friday, June 28, 2013

Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move (Video Game) - Review

Back in 2006, Nintendo put out Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis for the Nintendo DS, which was quite the departure from Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance. The original game on the GBA was a spiritual successor to Donkey Kong on the original Gameboy, which is often dubbed Donkey Kong 94, in order to distinguish this 1994 release from the classic arcade game. These two games on the GB and GBA are brilliant puzzle-platformers, but when that DS game came out, the series changed to straight-up puzzle games, similar to Lemmings

Many fans were disappointed with this change. I, for one, enjoyed the newer ones, but I have to admit that the series was getting a bit stale. Since MvD2, there have been three more games in the series. The latest, Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, for the Nintendo 3DS's eShop, is actually quite different from the others since MvD2, despite being another straight-up puzzle game. The problem of staleness is not evident in this release. Minis on the Move mixes things up enough to feel fresh, and it's a smart, addictive puzzle game, despite some missed opportunity. 

The major difference between this game and the few games before it is the angled, 3D view, replacing the on-the-side, 2D view. That may not seem like too big of a deal, but I'd say it gives the game an updated feel. The goal of this game is to place tiles on a board to form pathways for the series-signature minis (adorable little toys of Mario and co.) to use, in order to get them to the goal. Along the way, there are doodads to be collected which are unneeded for progression, but the game is definitely most enjoyable when attempting to collect everything on each board. These boards are very fun and challenging to solve. Completing a board with all of the doodads collected is very satisfying. Aesthetically, it's certainly colorful, certainly cute, and it looks nice in 3D. The music is fine, yet forgettable: If you'd like something to do while watching TV or listening to your iPod, this is an alright game to mute and play during. You'll just have to go without the satisfying victory music and crushing failure music. 

There are four different variants on this basic design, each intertwined and each equally fun and well thought-out. One, entitled "Mario's Main Event," gives tiles for you to use mostly randomly. If you don't use the tiles given to you quick enough, your pipe of tiles will overflow and you'll fail. Things like bombs, which get rid of tiles on the board, and trash cans, which will take three unwanted tiles in your pipe, make things easier on you, but this mode remains very tense. It's tons of fun. It forces you to think quickly, and frantically tap your mini in order to get them to go faster. The "Giant Jungle" mode is basically the same, except that boards are massive and with much more to collect, making it ludicrously challenging, which makes this mode fun in its own right. 

"Many Mini Mayhem" throws multiple Minis into the equation, and doesn't let you add any tiles onto the board. Instead, some tiles on the board can just be moved or manipulated. This mode is the most frantic of them all, and a real rush. Another is called "Puzzle Palace," which gives you all of the tiles you're allowed to use at the start. This mode forces you to carefully think things out, without pressure to do anything quickly. This difference in design means that this variant has to have more complex boards in order to be as challenging as the others, and it pulls that off. 

Each mode ramps up the difficultly progressively by adding new tiles and obstacles into the equation, which means the game doesn't wear thin. "Mario's Main Game" has seventy levels, "Puzzle Palace" has eighty levels, and "Many Mini Mayhem" has fifty. If you collect all of the doodads on each of the levels of these three modes, you'll receive a star. The doodads on "Giant Jungle" are stars, and there are ten of these on each of the three levels for that mode. These stars, 230 possible, overall, go in a shared pool, which cleverly connects each mode. Once you reach certain amounts of stars, mini games and virtual toys are unlocked. 

There are four mini games, and each has at least a few variants, which are individually unlocked. One is "Mini Target Smash," which is a pretty standard but enjoyable shooting range. Another is "Fly Guy Grab," which is definitely the worst of the bunch; not bad, but pretty mediocre. "Cube Crash" is the best, which is similar to the shooting range game, but instead of regular ol' targets, you smash large, three dimensional structures. The last is "Elevation Station," which is an alright on-the-side 2D affair in which you move around a mini to avoid bullet bills and collect coins. All of these, besides the last, look very striking in stereoscopic 3D. Overall these mini games are a great diversion, and progressively unlocking more variants on these four mini games really incentivizes collecting those doodads! 

There is also a creation suite which allows you to create levels which can be uploaded online for anyone with the game to download [or stream] and play. Creation is simple, uploading is simple, and players others' levels is simple. Levels are organized into "Top Weekly," "Random," "Popular" and "Friends" categories. The only problem is that you can only make levels like the ones you'd find in "Mario's Main Game." 

That problem is really one facet of a larger problem, which is the only one plaguing this game, and that's missed opportunity. Why don't the four modes have an identical amount of stars in them, making the experience even more cohesive? Unlocking the little "Toy Collection" toys and polishing them and looking at them is neat, but why can't I play as them? The best example of missed opportunity is how frivolous the top screen feels during the main game. All of the control for placing and moving tiles is on the bottom screen, and the entire board is depicted on the bottom screen, albeit with a minimalistic, uninteresting look. The top screen merely has a visually interesting look at the action, with no real useful information besides the timer, so you'll mostly never look at it. Why not make it less frivolous? None of these things really affect the quality of the game in any mechanical way, but these all just feel jarring. These are just nitpicks, but they all pile up into one big nitpick - there is clearly missed opportunity here. 

But don't get me wrong: The game as it is, is great. The core mechanics are very clever, and it's a totally addictive experience. There's a lot to do, and none of it feels like padding, making this feel like a very substantial package. A very cute, substantial package, that is sometimes frantic, sometimes methodical, and always mentally stimulating. Even though there are things I wish this game would have done, I love it for what it is.   


According to my 3DS's activity log, I played this game for 11 hours and 42 minutes. It currently costs $9.99, which is a fantastic price.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paranorman (Film) - Review

The commercials leading up to the release of Paranorman did not properly represent what it is. These previews made the movie out to be a mindless kids-slanted comedy, albeit with some pretty animation. And that's really not a fair depiction of this film. It's much better than that. Paranorman is funny, and has some stunning visuals, but it also tells a thoughtful, moving little tale.

Paranorman is a mash-up of drama, comedy and horror. The movie's endearing protagonist is Norman, a kid ostracized because of his supernatural powers. He can see the dead, and while it's very real to him, others don't believe him and don't wish to attempt to understand him. However, things get interesting when an outbreak of zombies attack the town, and Norman is the only one that can save the day. It's a clever set-up that lends itself to a compelling theme.

Paranorman confronts the nature of fear, and how it makes well-intentioned people treat others poorly. And all throughout the movie, there are bits of smart, more random satire that fit in snugly. I was taken aback at how well Paranorman manages to make commentary without attacking any kind of people. Bullies, for example, are challenged in this movie, but through comedy and simple logic, the movie lets the audience know why we should be against bullying, without demonizing the children who happen to be bullies. And then some of the humor is just gags, and it's mostly very funny and clever. Like most comedies, it slips into awkward, groan-worthy territory at times, but here it's very rare.

This movie has superb aesthetics, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has seen a commercial for it. The stop-motion animation is quick, snappy and gives the movie a distinct and delightful charm. The movie is vibrant within its specific color palette, which is a bit dark, but it fits. All of the characters have exaggerated personalities that are perfectly represented visually, and the performances for their voices are also great, for that matter. The dull, teenaged beef-cake, for example, has a ridiculously toned chest, rarely seems to look people in the eyes when he speaks to them, and has a compressed, simple voice. The movie effectively plays up a light-horror vibe. The movie's intro sequence and end credits do an especially good job of this, but the creepy yet goofy monsters and nods throughout also do the trick.

Paranorman surprised me. It's a brilliant film. It looks excellent and is filled with creativity. It's very funny. And it's also a very intelligent movie that says a lot and does a remarkable job of saying it all. I love this movie: It's truly fantastic.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Monsters University (Film) - Review

Pixar was once known as a group of film-makers with a perfect track-record. Now, with movies like Brave that didn't give people the oomph they expected, and an influx of sequels that are making people doubt the studio's creativity as of late, that reputation has dwindled. Monsters University is Pixar's latest film, and it pains me to say, as a big fan of Pixar, that this movie is very bad. There are some good laughs and the movie looks nice, but it's aimless and sometimes even mean. 

Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters Inc., following Mike and Sully as college students. In Monsters Inc., it's established early on that these two are amongst the best in their profession, and this movie aims to tell the story of how they got to that point. And it really doesn't tell that story at all! The story of how they actually get good at their profession is told through a contentless time-lapse at the end of the film, after the climax. What actually makes up the bulk of this movie is a meandering lot of comedy, visual effects and underdeveloped, lazy, senseless plot that actually manages to offend. 

About half of the jokes are tired and groan-worthy affairs that have been done to death in other movies. Get ready to see a stock-nerdy kid moan at his mom for making him look lame because she's a mom and that's lame. The other half are very funny and very clever, playing off of the stereotypes of the characters. That same lame mom character has a particularly hilarious bit when we learn about her music tastes. And continuing on a positive note, the movie is very colorful and animates very well. The characters really come to life and some cool things are done visually every now and again. 

But I can't be too positive. Two big things really ground my gears, which brings me to my conclusion that this is a very bad movie. The first is that the movie establishes an interesting, tough dilemma, but really doesn't solve it at all. Mike and Sully both want to be great scarers, but Mike lacks natural talent and struggles actually performing, and Sully is too caught up on resting on his laurels and doesn't want to hit the books. Do they better themselves? Sometimes they do things that are impressive within the context of this movie, but it always feels fake. Mike doesn't find any solution at all for his problem, and Sully consistently refuses to hit the books and try harder. And for whatever reason, even though they both seem to have equal problems to me, the movie looks down upon Mike more and Sully less, which is jarring. 

The second problem is what actually managed to strike me as unethical, which is the elitism that the movie defends. Other professions besides scaring are always treated as a complete joke by this movie. At one point Mike is discouraged from scaring, and goes to a class about the production of scare canisters, which is an important role in this society, but even the professor hates it. There are a few stock-nerd characters that Mike is trapped into playing with in a scaring competition, and two of them show passion for unique career choices of their own, but by the end of the film they still decide to go for scaring. Their "skill" that is "gained" in scaring is even faker than Mike and Sully's because their apparent skill gain is usually just meant to be goofy anyway, because the notion of these characters doing well with scaring is laughable. 

This isn't a good movie. Unlike Cars, I can't even say that it isn't bad, because it is. It's very bad. The movie struggles to make a point, and when it does, it's not very nice. There are some laughs that are truly great, and Pixar is still able to make a very pretty movie, but that's not enough to pull this lazy movie out of the mud. If this wasn't a sequel, I wouldn't believe you if you told me it's a Pixar movie.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Last of Us (Video Game) - Review

The Last of Us is special in many ways. It marks the first time Naughty Dog has started a second new IP on the same platform. It's essentially the last big release that is exclusive to the 7th generation of consoles. And it's also not only one of the finest video games of said generation, it's one of the finest ever crafted. With its unparalleled, visceral combat, jaw-dropping aesthetics, and unprecedented storytelling, The Last of Us is truly masterful.

The Last of Us is another story about a zombie apocalypse, but it does enough of its own to ensure that doesn't make it feel stale in any way. For example, these zombies are not even quite zombies, but a growth after affliction from a fungus. As time goes on, the growth gets worse, first making one lose control of his or her body, then taking away vision, etc. What's smart is that not only does the growth get worse with each stage for the victim, but the further along a particular victim is in their sick state, the more difficult of an enemy they are to deal with in the game. This game builds its own world, with a crippling government run via Martial Law, and a rebellion group against the government known as The Fireflies. 

Soon enough the player finds himself in control of a man named Joel, escorting a fourteen-year old girl named Ellie somewhere because of a prior agreement. They're great characters, Joel a shell of a once normal man with remnants of his humanity left, and Ellie a chipper girl that has adapted very well to the only world that she's ever known. The game very easily got me invested in these characters as well as the various other characters along the way. Comedy, drama, and horror are all elegantly represented here. It's very funny, and it's very sad, and it's very intense, and each of those types of story-telling are balanced remarkably well. 

The game is absolutely stunning. The beginning of the game actually isn't, I should say, with lots of unimpressive textures, but once the game really gets started, the beginning's lack of graphical flair is easily forgotten. The facial animation is top of the line, not looking awkward at all and getting across the emotion of the characters well. The world is packed with detail and may just be the most impressive display of visuals on this generation of consoles. The great contextual animation that Naughty Dog gave to the industry with Uncharted 2 is here, which means that when a character approaches a wall, for example, their hand will casually touch and push off of it for no reason other than aesthetics. The score is also fantastic, drumming up the proper emotion for each particular moment.

I have always wanted combat in video games to be as good as it is in The Last of Us. Many action games of this kind, with varying levels of detriment to their respective qualities, come off as artificially challenging, through lazy design like enemies that take a ludicrous amount of bullets, but not this one. It's perfectly challenging, with every death feeling like my fault, partly due to the multitude of equally viable options available. The fusion of gunplay and stealth feels more natural than other games that attempt to do the same because one does not feel cheap because of the other. It doesn't feel like a shooter with stealth tacked on, and it doesn't feel like a stealth game with shooting tacked on. 

The AI is very well-done and impressed me more than I've ever been impressed by such a thing. Enemies react dynamically to how you play, in familiar ways such as flanking you when in a bad position, but also in new ways. For example, if you are dominating your opponents, they will run away from you, frightened. Your allies also have impressive AI, helping you in a way that doesn't make the game too easy, but in a way that makes sense. The AI overall comes off as organic.  

The violence is very brutal, which made me feel genuinely bad about my actions, but the tense, survival-horror atmosphere makes me empathize with the character I'm in control of. He's just trying to survive. This game had me of two minds, one of my own, civilized perspective, and the other of Joel, this man whose sense of morality is mostly broken due to a country whose order has crumbled. This makes the combat even more engaging. I feel like the successes of my character are truly my successes, and when I finished off a large group of dudes, I needed a breather.  The only other types of gameplay to be had other than combat are good puzzles that don't ask much of the player and serve as a nice break, and RPG elements that eschew things that bog down gameplay like inventory management and stick with completely fun things like upgrading weapons and your character. 

That level of empathy for actions that are unacceptable when scrutinized under civilized morality is a concept that runs from the beginning of the game all the way to its controversial ending. Many have reacted differently to this hard-to-swallow ending. I think the ending solidifies a pretty clear theme: In this world where everything has gone awry, many have dropped their sense of morality because their own survival seems more important to them. This is a theme that can be picked up from things like The Walking Dead, but The Last of Us hammers it home more strongly than any fiction I've ever experienced. And part of its effectiveness lies in the emotions that being forced to take the role of someone in a world like this intrinsically bring about, which is revolutionary for gaming. 

The Last of Us also features a multiplayer component, which presents a unique type of gameplay. You choose a faction to align yourself with and you play alongside other real people. As you do well, your camp of people grows and remains healthy, and vice versa. The combat of the single player is recreated pretty well in multiplayer, and it comes off as a well-thought-out diversion. It's fun, but it's not the star of the show here.  

The star of the show here is this masterful single-player experience. Naughty Dog has crafted a piece of high art. The Last of Us is a pretty much perfect experience. It is one of the finest achievements in the history of video games. I laughed, I cried, I nervously clenched my controller, and I wrote this glowing review with optimism for the gaming industry. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (Film) - Review

For the last five, maybe ten years, Batman has been the king of superheroes in the mainstream, as well as in the not-so-mainstream realm of actual comic books. Because of this, the hype for Man of Steel, a Superman movie directed by Zach Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan, has been big. The movie is out today, and it's great. Snyder and co. have crafted a fantastic story that nails what makes Superman so special, and sets a pretty much perfect foundation for future movies, but some shoddy film-making takes away from the high quality of the story. 

This movie starts from the beginning of the Superman mythos, with Kal-El being born into a dying Krypton and put into a spaceship to Earth, where a pleasant country family finds and adopts him as their own. Krypton is filled with future-technology and dragon-like creatures and it's all quite cool. The premise is established clearly in this scene - Kal-El is being sent to Earth, and once he's there, he would be like a god to humans. His loving parents reluctantly say goodbye to their son, finding comfort in the possibility that he'll serve as a source of hope for humanity. 

Man of Steel nails the most important thing for it to nail - Superman's supreme moral goodness. Superman is much more powerful than anyone on Earth, but chooses to do good. Having these powers gives him a heightened sense of moral responsibility. Life is sacred to him, regardless of whether it be humans, or Kryptons, and he feels as though he has to help because he can. We see Kal-El, or as his Earth parents come to name him,  Clark Kent, struggling with his place in the world from a young age, to a teenaged age, to an adult age. Henry Cavill does the role flawlessly as well: There isn't much more one could ask from him. The various child and teen actors Snyder casts as Clark at earlier stages in his life do an equally impressive job for their respective roles. 

Not only does Clark have to figure himself out, but he needs to be accepted amongst the people of Earth, as he's potentially very dangerous from an outsider's perspective. Because of this, General Zod is the perfect villain to use first, because his philosophy towards Earth is the exact opposite. The movie smartly compares his mentality to cold, evolutionary biology - the dominant species will get rid of the inferior ones, and claim their land and recourses as their own. Michael Shannon's performance is nothing special but he does his job, and Zod's an intimidating villain, threatening the entire planet. It's through this character that humanity understands that Superman is not a threat. He's the perfect character foil, exemplifying Superman's supreme moral goodness.

The problem with the movie is that it doesn't have the punch that it needs. The movie has an excellent story and sets up an excellent world with an excellent hero-villain dichotomy, but it doesn't deliver the powerful cinema that it needed to. There are essentially two action scenes, both of which are quite long, and they're not that great at all. The first action scene is cleverly brutal, showing truly the first challenge that Clark faces, having been amongst mere humans his whole life, but it's really just a bunch of punching. A bunch of punching for a long period of time with buildings blowing up all over the place gets boring. The second fight scene, at the end, is mostly more of the same from the first, albeit with some cool things thrown in here and there - like Zod attempting to hit Superman with a girder only to have Kal's laser beams cut it in half - but it's not enough. Aside from just better action, more could have been done, like cheers or teary-eyed thank-you's from the people of Metropolis, but none of that is here. The only fist-pumpingly exciting scene in the movie is a small moment that a member of the supporting cast has. 

And then there are smaller things that I didn't like. This is a nitpick, but Snyder has Cavill doing a good bit of screaming in the movie, and it's a little annoying. Less of a nitpick, Amy Adams plays a very well-written Lois Lane, but she doesn't have the fierceness that I want a badass reporter like Lois to have. She has a soft voice and a welcoming gaze, and that's not what I want. And the comedy here is good but I could have used maybe a bit more to help cleanse my palette from all of the sternness. It is a movie about a dude that wears a big, red cape, after all.

But overall it really is great. Not only are Superman and General Zod brilliantly built up, but the supporting cast is excellent. Russell Crowe is a perfect Jor-El (Superman's actual father); assertive yet calm and collected. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Clark's adoptive parents are sweethearts. Laurence Fishburne as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet and Christopher Meloni (Stabler!) also stick out, especially the latter, whom steals the show with that fist-pumpingly good scene I mentioned earlier. Despite the action being nothing special, the special effects and the hammering score in the background are impressive. And the ending is cute. 

Like The Amazing Spider-Man from last year, Man of Steel is a great, but not excellent or fantastic movie, that lays a pretty much perfect foundation for sequels. This movie gives us an amazing Superman made even better by a brilliant character foil in General Zod. It just simply isn't as enjoyable of a movie as this story could have easily been, due mostly in part to action that is just okay. But it's the first movie in a series, and with that in mind, what Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan delivered is admirable.