Thursday 31 December 2009

Game REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS)

Following on from 2007's Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks takes us forward 100 years later, to the land of New Hyrule (the land in which Link and Tetra left in search of at the end of the 2002's Wind Waker for the Gamecube), here our hero Link seeks to become a rail engineer along the land's 'Spirit Tracks'. Following his graduation ceremony performed by Princess Zelda Link is asked by the Princess herself to escort her to the Spirit Tower in order to discover why the tracks are slowly disappearing. On the way they are attacked by the Chancellor of Hyrule Cole, who reveals himself as a horned demon. His intention is to free the Demon King Malladus, and requires Zelda's body in order for him to return. Zelda is kidnapped and Link is knocked unconscious, however when he wakes up he finds Zelda's spirit is dislodged from her body, and the two discover that they must travel New Hyrule to restore the Spirit Tracks and stop Malladus' return. Cue the staple Zelda epix quest and dungeons.

Obviously since this is a sequel Spirit Tracks follows the "Toon Link" style of both Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. As a Zelda fan who believes this style is far superior to the more realistic games such as Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess I welcomed another installment to this type of Zelda game with open arms. Despite its 100 year jump into the future (meaning most of the original characters are dead - new Link, new Zelda etc.) there are plenty of throwbacks to the beginnings of the Toon Link saga, from sharing a house with pirate crew member Niko to Tetra appearing on a stained glass window in Hyrule castle. And just like there's a new Link and Zelda, Linebeck III is also present in the game (and is much like his grandfather).

The controls are almost exactly the same as the ones in Phantom Hourglass, except they've been tweaked so that movements such as rolling and sword spinning are far more fluid and easier to perform. Despite me not having this problem when playing Phantom Hourglass, I'm aware it was a concern for many players and its great to see that Nintendo have addressed it. Most of the puzzles are pretty similar, but a new addition comes in the form of a pan flute (adding to the heritage of musical instruments appearing in Zelda games). This is a great instrument choice as it fully utilises the DS' microphone capabilies, providing a whole new level of gameplay. New weapons come in the form of a fan (similar to the Deku leaf, minus the flight capabilities, in Wind Waker and again utilising the DS mic) and a snazzy new whip which replaces the standard grappling hook.

The biggest thing about this game though is that it is the first time (besides Smash Bros.) where Zelda is a playable character...well, sort of. Attacking Phantom Knights in the Spirit Temple results in Zelda being able to possess them, where she can assist in puzzles, distract enemies and walk through fire/spikes. With Zelda at your side at all times throughout the game, the Princess gets far better characterisation than she does in any other Zelda game, even making references such as how being a damsel in distress is a "family tradition".

The other new feature in Spirit Tracks is swapping the boring old boat (sailing in both Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass wasn't particuarly interesting) for a glossy new steam train. While the general idea is much the same as it was in Phantom Hourglass, there's just something more satisfying about being able to blow a train whistle as you travel.

With a host of dungeons, a great storyline, TRAINS and a ton of sidequests to keep you occupied once the main story is finished. Spirit Tracks is a game that won't disappoint newcomers and old school Zelda fans alike. I thought Phantom Hourglass was a great game, but this is really a cut above, and most certainly my favourite game of 2009.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Anime REVIEW: Macross Zero

Macross Zero is five episode OVA series released in 2002 to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the franchise in Japan. This mini series is instantly set apart from its predecessors as it is in fact a prequel to The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, giving some insight into happened before the war between humanity and the Zentradi began. Set in the year 2008, one year before the events of the original series, Zero depicts the final battles of the U.N. Wars between the U.N. Spacy and the Anti-UN forces, and is also set in the South Pacific, where the titular alien spaceship crash landed 9 years earlier. Amidst the violence, a U.N. Spacy pilot named Shin Kudo is attacked by a strange enemy aircraft that can transform itself into a robot. Crash landing on Mayan Island he learns that this remote island and its peaceful native inhabitants hold a great secret linking them to the alien space ship and would become the focus of the war, whether they like it or not. Shin eventually returns to his carrier fleet and joins the Skull Squadron, who also operate brand new transforming fighters, the VF-0 Phoenix. He trains and engages Anti-UN forces operating from a converted ballistic missile submarine as both sides fight to locate and control alien artifacts, with the peaceful and agrarian Mayan caught in the middle of the war.

Despite its stance as a prequel series, I would in no way recommend this as a jumping in point for anyone looking to get into the series. Key moments aren't exactly given any great detail, such as the crash landing of the SDF-1 taking up all of a minute at the beginning of the episode and then not really being mentioned again. The story and characters in Zero aren't really much to write home about, with Shin just filling the typical "pilot" role than every Macross series has (but less memorable), Sara Nome (Priestess of the Mayan Island) hostile and her younger sister Mao more outgoing and cheerful. As the story progresses you begin to understand why Sara is so hostile toward strangers and the violence of the outside world, but even this feels like it could have done with far more fleshing out. Even the infamous alcholic womaniser Roy Focker (from SDF) coming across as rather mundane. The staple Macross love triangle (this time between Shin, Sara and Mao) is horrendously underdeveloped, again leaving me wanting more and wondering if Zero would have been better off with more than just 5 episodes to make the characters that much more interesting.

While the story is ambitious and clever, tying in Mayan mythology to mysterious alien artifacts, it requires far more attention than the standard programme. Blink and miss just one subtitle and you may find yourself confused by the legends of the Mayan people and just how exactly this 'birdman' fits into the story (this happened to me several times, having to watch sequences several times just to get a basic understanding of them). Even as I write this now I'm not entirely sure on all of the mythology behind it. Zero also plays around a bit with details from the original series, with Focker's love interest Aries Turner researching the idea of humanity being created by a Protoculture. Now I always preferred the idea that humans had no concept of the Protoculture until it was explained to them by the Zentradi in the original series, so the mentioning of this so early in the Macross timeline fell a bit flat. Not only this, but the transition between episodes leaves alot to be desired, especially between the fourth and final episodes, where it felt like I'd missed out on an entire sequence!

Since I've covered one staple of a Macross series formula (the love triangle), its only fitting that I should address the second, the music. However it's largely superficial, with only a few tribal-esque pieces and orchestral tracks to speak of. While I don't want to knock this because it is far more fitting to the tone of the series and the orchestral soundtrack is stunning (especially in the series' climax) for a Macross series this does feel a little disappointing.

But despite this there are some positives to Zero, these mainly being both the art and animation of the series. This is probably the best Macross has ever looked, and it is apparent from the get-go that the budget for this series must have been pretty high. The character design and scenery are marvellous, from the luscious bright colours of the Mayan island to the grimey greys of the military ships and the pale blues of the high altitudes. The Valkyries are given full CGI treatment for the first time, which really amps up the visuals. The jagged metal design of the anti-UN's SV-51s contrast really well with the UN Spacy's VF-0s. If you're looking for some eye popping air dogfights with fighter planes that turn into robots, then Macross Zero is certainly something you need to check out. The final battle with the alien 'birdman' is definitely one to take note of. Speaking of the series ending, it's very ambiguous, but if you're interested in the fate of the some of the characters it would go on to be very briefly discussed in Frontier, but apart from that it's anyone's guess really.

Macross Zero is ambitious, but due to its plot inconsistencies and overall dullness and confusing nature of the story it still manages to fall flat of other Macross stories. This is a series that will perhaps make more sense on multiple viewings, but from just the one viewing I found myself lost and disappointed. The aerial battles truly were a thing of beauty though, and these help save the series from being one to avoid. If you have a few hours spare and/or are interesting in watching mecha battles linked with Mayan mythology, then Zero is certainly something you should look into.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Anime REVIEW: Macross Plus

After painfully enduring the 6 part OVA sequel to SDF Macross – Macross II: Lovers, Again, which was so bad that it doesn’t even deserve a review on this blog, I was sceptical about whether I was going to enjoy Macross Plus. I had seen this 4 part OVA series once before, and my vague memory it suggested that it wasn’t that great (although in its defence I did watch it on a 3+ hour bus journey to London) but given that I now had a good background knowledge of the Macross franchise and a determination to give all its iterations a fair viewing, it was time to give Macross Plus another chance.

Thankfully unlike the aforementioned Macross II this OVA was created by Studio Nue, the original creators of SDF Macross. Set 30 years after (2040 AD) the events we saw in SDF, it tells the story of loose cannon pilot Isamu Dyson, who is assigned to a test flight centre on the colony planet Eden as the test pilot for the prototype variable fighter, the YF-19. Competing with the YF-19 is the YF-21, piloted by the Zentradi mixed race Guld Goa Bowmann. Once friends and now rivals, the two compete in prototype trials. Meanwhile, virtual singer Sharon Apple has come to Eden to hold a concert. Her producer, Myung Fan Long, was a former friend of the two pilots. As the three try to resolve their strained relationships the truth about AI singer Sharon Apple is revealed, as she gains sentience, along with Myung’s emotions, and resolves to give Isamu the ultimate thrill.

This mini series is a whole lot darker than the original Macross, displaying a whole different form of love triangle with characters that share complicated relationships and a dark past. There’s no straight forward ‘goody goody’ protagonist present in Macross Plus, and I kind of like that. It gives the series a lot more depth and realism. The call backs to SDF Macross are very minimal, with no reference made to any of the characters, a Minmay song making a fleeting appearance in a filler karaoke moment and the titular fortress itself making an appearance in Plus’ climatic finale. This results in a series that feels like its part of the Macross universe, but distances itself from the older series enough to be enjoyed as a standalone piece.

Much like every other Macross series, it features a singer/idol in the form of the virtual Sharon Apple. However it differs in that Apple serves as the antagonist in the story rather than part of the love triangle, adding a nice little twist to the Macross formula which can seem so predictable at times. The singing isn’t quite as prominent either, serving only as background music or filler concert scenes for the most part. The lyrics aren’t even restricted to Japanese either, in fact most of the songs in Plus are in either English or French, with the only Japanese song being sung by Myung rather than Apple. Apple’s musical style edges more towards the techno side of pop rather than the happy pop songs present in SDF, a change that, while making the songs far less memorable (in my humble opinion of course), fits Plus’ darker overtones far better.
As usual the Valkyrie designs are wonderful, looking far more bulky and intimidating than the Skull Squadron ones seen in SDF and Do You Remember Love?. The art itself is a point of contention, as while the blend of hand drawn animation and CGI (which was groundbreaking at the time of its release) succeeds in looking fantastic, the more pointy and angular facial aspects of the human characters seem a bit too much at times. But that's a minor personal preference rather than a deterent I suppose.

Part one of Macross Plus feels a bit slow, which is natural given that it’s dedicated to establishing the characters and overall scenario, but it really picks up from then on. However if you'd rather watch this is one go, then it might be worth checking out the movie edition of Macross Plus. This version edits the 4 episodes into one movie, changing the order of certain events, removing some sequences and also adding some new ones. While some of the new sequences are very good (particuarly the conclusion of Guld's dogfight with the Apple controlled X9 in the final battle), the reorder of events does make things seem a little more jerky and at some points rushed. The OVA certainly has a much better flow to it. In reality there's not alot in it to give them different ratings though, you get pretty much the same experience whichever route you choose.

This certainly doesn’t have the magic that made SDF Macross special, but in its place Plus creates its own darker form of intrigue that makes it enjoyable and a worthy sequel to and part of the Macross franchise.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Anime REVIEW: The Super Dimension Fortress Macross

So like I said I would I've taken the time to go back and revisit the entire Macross chronlogy, and what better place is there to start than the very beginning? Released between 1982 and 1983, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (or SDF Macross for short) was a 36 episode series that told the story of the mysterious spaceship SDF-1 Macross, which had crash landed on Earth and had been rebuilt by a military organisation known as the U.N. Spacy. On its launching day the ships cannon mysteriously fires, shooting down an advancing alien invasion searching for the space craft, which once belonged to their enemy. A war breaks out and the Macross is forced to launch into space as the military battle these aliens, known as the Zentradi, in giant transforming mechas known as Variable Fighters (or Valkyries). Caught up in this is civilian pilot Hikaru Ichijyo, who later joins the military after recommendation from his "senpai" Roy Focker, and 16 year old Lynn Minmay, a girl with dreams of stardom. Minmay laters goes on to win the first 'Miss Macross' competition, becoming a pop sensation and distancing her from Hikaru, who becomes entagled in a complicated love triangle with Minmay and his superior officer, Misa Hayase. Meanwhile, the military learn that the Zentradi are a race born only for fighting, where males and females are separated and have no concept of culture, and believe the people of Earth to be the Protoculture, the original race of beings from which the Zentradi descended. It is up to the power of Earth's culture and the power of Minmay's songs to bring peace between the Macross and the Zentradi.

The plot of the series itself is wonderful, being the first to connect war and giant mecha with the power of culture, unforgettable songs and a complicated love triangle. After watching this it seems somewhat clear why this has become a staple in future Macross series....if it isn't broken, don't fix it. That isn't to say however that the story is perfect, because it isn't. Some moments seem extremely rushed, such as the first marriage between a human and Zentradi female, which literally takes place in about 5 minutes, while others, such as the epic love triangle between Hikaru, Misa and Minmay are horrifically drawn out. In fact, the plan was for the series to originally be only 27 episodes long, but due to its popularity an extra 9 episodes were created as an epilogue, following the story 1 year after the war between humanity and the Zentradi. In reality these 9 episodes just serve to futher draw out the love triangle even more, as the other events, such as rebelling Zentradi, are sidelined for it. And even then I didn't find the resolution to be particuarly well told.

As you'd expect for a series made over 25 years ago, the art has become particuarly dated and Minmay's concert performances aren't quite as memorable as perhaps Sheryl and Ranka's are in Macross Frontier, but they still have their own unique charm and for someone who enjoys 80s cartoons such as Transformers and to an extent, Voltron this wasn't particuarly a huge deal for me. Watching this series made me realise how many homages there really are in Macross Frontier, and you'd be doing yourself an injustice if you enjoyed Frontier and didn't atleast check this out, because you'd be missing half the fun of Frontier. So in conclusion SDF Macross is in fact very good, but I wouldn't go as far as to say that it was amazing. Its timeless quality merely lies in what came after it, and it probably wouldn't have the regard it has today without it. If you have a great interest in the Macross franchise I'd say its worth looking into, but if you don't feel like sitting through a 36 episode series, please scroll down to the next part of this review....

....where I will be covering the movie version of the series Macross: Do You Remember Love? An alternate retelling of the series' events (particuarly episodes 2 to 27) where things happen slightly differently (an extensive list of these differences can be found on wikipedia). Since this is a movie, the budget was obviously alot higher and it really shows. The whole thing bears new animation and new character designs for the Zentradi and valkyries. In fact, these designs would go on to become canonical for future Macross series. They even went and created a whole new language for the Zentradi (and Meltradi, the female Zentradi who were given a new name for the movie), which reminds me alot of the Klingons from Star Trek. The animation truly is beautiful, for something 25 years old it still rivals today's animation standards and Valkyries' look a hell of alot better than the CGI ones in Frontier, and they were pretty damn impressive. Now I don't want to sound like I'm gushing, but this movie succeeds to right everything that was wrong with the original series, and by doing that doesn't only skyrocket it being AMAZING, but it fact makes it one of the best anime films, perhaps even films in general, that I have ever seen. Within 5 minutes of the movie's opening it was plain for me to see why this is considered the greatest part of Macross and why fans hold it in such high regard. I urge everyone to check this film out, because it really is an epic tale of robots, romance and pop music set in space. The film's title track Ai Oboete Imasuka (Do You Remember Love?) is a fantastic piece of music, and is written into the story very well and makes the final battle (where Minmay performs it to a legion of spaceships and mecha battling in space) even more memorable. A true masterpiece, 5 out of 5 doesn't even sum it up.

And for those who are interested, theres also a short OVA Macross Flash Back 2012, which is mainly made up of clips from both the movie and the series put to some of Minmay's songs, but also includes some new footage of events briefly mentioned but not shown at the end of the series. Not great, but quite interesting to see if you've been following the series as closely as me.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Anime REVIEW: Macross Frontier

"After being threatened by extinction at the hands of alien invaders called the Zentradi, humanity undertook the task of guaranteeing itself a future by launching fleets of colony ships into space. On Macross Frontier, one such fleet, high school student Saotome Alto's life is changed forever: the fleet is suddenly attacked by unidentified creatures while he is performing aerial stunts for a concert by the wildly popular idol Sheryl. 

Alto quickly finds himself in the cockpit of a new-model fighter struggling to protect Ranka Lee, a young girl he met only hours earlier, from the invaders' swath of destruction. Noting his performance during this incident, the S.M.S. Skull Squadron private military company invites Alto to join their organization, where he continues protecting his friends and Macross Frontier." 

Ah the Macross franchise, arguably one of the biggest mecha (or even anime in general) franchises in Japan and yet, much like its main rival Gundam, I know very little about. I've heard alot about it, and I've seen the Macross Plus OVA (which to be honest I didn't enjoy, but now I'm thinking it might deserve a second viewing) but other than that I have little to no attachment to the franchise. So in order to educate myself a little I watched the latest installment of the franchise, Macross Frontier - a 25 episode series in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Macross. And well, if this is the standard of visuals and storytelling Macross has been pumping out since it began it's no wonder than its so loved worldwide.

Its story, the battle between humanity and an insectoid alien race through the vast regions of space, interwoven with the rise of one pop idol and the fall of another is the kind that keeps you gripped from beginning to end, especially once its revealed how all these separate factors are linked, resulting in the series' climax, along with plot twists to keep everyone guessing until the very end. It has the perfect blend of genres that make perfect storytelling. Action? Check. Romance? Check? Tragedy? Check. Giant mecha blowing things up? Check. The characters are extremely well done, each receiving their fair share of development - especially the big three mains Alto Saotome, Ranka Lee and Sheryl Nome. All these and a quite a few others have quite extensive backstories that shape the people that they are, and I quite like that. It's all well and good to say that Sheryl is a stuck bitch but then when you find out why she's that way her character is alot easier to accept. I wish she wouldn't say "Who the hell do you think I am?" so much though, that phrase has too many other (manly) connotations.

In fact I'd say there are quite alot of themes present similar to those in Eureka Seven, which, as you can probably tell by the review I gave a few weeks ago is one of my favourite animes, so I recommend checking this out if you've seen Eureka Seven and especially enjoyed it.

The animation is beautiful, crisp and clean and goes well with the cel shaded CGI Valkyrie battroid mechas that Macross is most famous for. CGI mecha has become quite common in anime as its a far cheaper process than directly animating them, and sometimes this does show (for example the same process was used in Transformers: Cybertron, and while I love that show to death it doesn't quite have the same fluidity that's present in Frontier) but luckily its not the case in terms of this series.

For long-time fans of the Macross franchise the series is full to the brim of references and homages to its roots - from everything to songs, parallel scenes and mentions of older characters and scenearios. The main one that springs to mind is episode 10 - where the cast take part in making a movie based on the OVA Macross Zero. These little things really enhance the viewing experience for those familiar with the franchise and really help solidify the feeling that this is indeed a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Macross. But more importantly, these homages don't ruin the viewing pleasure for those who are being introduced to Macross through Frontier either, they are subtle enough for the story to be appreciated by both parties.

To top it off I'm going to look at another staple of Macross - the singing. The music in this series is the kind that gets stuck in your head for days, I was in a lecture this morning and all I had was Ranka Lee's "Seikan Hiko" playing in my mind on a continous loop. After watching a mere 5 episodes of the series I had downloaded both O.S.T's and have a few more single releases downloading as I write this. Move over Gurren Lagann Best Sound, I think you've been replaced in terms of best anime soundtrack.

And the best thing is the Macross Frontier saga isn't even finished yet! That's right, the series may be over but a recap movie titled Macross Frontier The Movie: The False Diva was released over earlier this year and a proper sequel movie The Wings of Goodbye is due out some point next year! It's just a shame the series may never see a western DVD release due to godforsaken Robotech legal issues. In the meantime, I think I have 25 years of Macross I need to catch up on...

Thursday 26 November 2009

Anime REVIEW: Valkyria Chronicles

"Based on the video game of the same name, the show centers on a Gallian Army militia squad led by Lieutenant Welkin Gunther, the son of the well-known Europan War I hero and Gallian army officer Belgen Gunther. After seeing his hometown, Bruhl, under attack, ransacked and eventually placed under military occupation by the Imperial army, Welkin manages to escape the siege using his late father's tank known as the Edelweiss. With the help of Welkin's foster sister, Isara, and a Bruhl town watch soldier named Alicia Melchiott, Welkin leads Squad 7 of the Gallian militia forces to rout out the Imperial forces from further invading Gallian soil." 

I've never really watched a war anime before (before this I can't honestly say I'd even heard of any war animes before) but after being recommended this by a friend and watching the first 5 episodes at one of my local anime society screenings I decided to give the whole 26 episode series a go. After watched the wonder that is Eureka Seven I wasn't expecting this series to top it or even come close to it really, just be enjoyable on its own merits.

And it a degree. However it was also littered with faults. My first issue being that given that its set in the middle (well, almost the entirety really) of war, Squad 7, who seem to have this almost legendary status AFTER JUST ONE BATTLE, seem to do anything BUT fight. Episodes on end cover topics like love, rejection, tolerating others ethnicity, getting lost in a snow storm etc. but very few actually include any fighting, and when they do the fight usually only lasts the last 5/10 minutes of the episodes and can quite easily be summed up as - "supposedly big threat, Squad 7 takes them down with ease, everyone goes home happy". Maybe I'm expecting a little too much from it, maybe I'm missing the point a bit, but I think if that's the setting you're going to put the characters in atleast make more use of it. There's actually more fighting going on in the title sequences than the actual episodes, but that's a separate rant that I'll come onto later.

It isn't until the death of a major character (who I thought was the one lead who actually didn't deserve to die) 17 episodes in that things start to become particuarly interesting, and the downside to that is by then they only have 9 episodes do anything with it. Futhermore it isn't for another 4 episodes that the big plot point is revealed (and by then we only have 5 episodes left). Yes, Alicia Melchiott (interestingly voiced by Marina Inoue, also the voice of Yoko in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) is descended from the Valkyrians, and basically has superpowers. Yes you read that right, here we have a seemingly realistic war anime set in an alternate time and then the main character has superpowers. Of course the series doesn't take any time to have Alicia adjust to the fact she has these powers. No, instead she almost dies (the reasons for which are actually pretty good, but I won't spoil them here), gets these superpowers and uses them in an almost sleepwalking type state, and then can just use them naturally from then on. I'd have much preferred it if they'd cut back on some of the side stories from earlier episodes and have even only one episode with her learning how to use these powers. Of course Alicia isn't the only one with these powers, naturally there's a villain also blessed with them. They have very few fights, the last of which can basically be described as Dragonball Z with females - alot of powering up and shouting, then a few punches (although in this case its with lances that can fire lasers). On the subject of villains, the ones the series presents us with are very 2 dimension. We have the ruthless power hungry Maximillian, who won't let anyone stand in his epic conquest for power, and then the blindly loyal Selvaria (the female mentioned earlier). Cliche, bland, and uninteresting.

And on to my BIGGEST complaint of the series, which to some may seem like an odd one, but it's completely justified. The second opening credits (which is from about ep13 onwards). My god, this thing should have a spoiler warning attached to it. Straight away it shows that Alicia is a valkyria, despite it not happening about 1/4 of the series later, and even shows a replica of the very last scene in the entire series. What the hell? About the only thing it doesn't spoil is who is and isn't going to die. The only credit I have to give to them is that the first opening song is really good and that both of them have more action in them then the entire series...

Oh yes, and also theres a pig with wings named Hans in the series for no apparent reason. Completely unnecessary.

I'm beginning to wonder if my standards have become too high, because this series pretty much missed every mark for me. I now have even less intention to try out the game then I did before. However I can't bring myself to give it 1 out of 5. Why do you ask? The answer is simple, despite its failings, I continued to watch. Its the first anime that I havent particuarly liked that I chose to watch all the way through. Despite not liking the characters, I continued to watch it because I wanted to know what happened to them. Maybe I was hoping it was going to get better, but nevertheless I still finished it. I can't say I'd ever watch the series again, but I don't outright regret watching it, which I suppose must count for something.

Monday 23 November 2009

Reviews in Time & Space: Robot

Back to the glorious days of classic Who, and what better story to review than the very first outing of 4th Doctor Tom Baker, who in many people's eyes (including my own...despite him not being my favourite Doctor) view as being the DEFINITIVE Doctor. I present to you the 1974 4-part story Robot.

The basic overview of Robot's plot is that the K1 Robot, an experimental and groundbreaking invention by Professor Kettlewell, is being used to commit crimes by the sinister chairman of Think Tank (the organisation that funded the robot's creation) Miss Winters and the Scientific Reform Society (or SRS for short), who plan to hold the world at ransom with the threat of Nuclear war. Enter the newly regenerated Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, along with the Brigadier and UNIT to save the day.

Almost immediately we're treated to the kind of Doctor we'll be getting from Tom Baker. Gone is the dandy scientist that was Jon Pertwee and in his place we have the wacky nomad that is the 4th Doctor. During his post-regeneration bout of craziness we see him jogging, skipping, karating choping bricks and even locking poor UNIT doctor and future companion Harry Sullivan in a locker. On top of this after a hilarious costume changing montage including a viking outfit and circus performer we are introduced to the 4th Doctor's classic coat, hat and scarf combo. Its immediately apparent that this is the Doctor that David Tennant is mainly channeling today, a sign of how his legacy lives on today. I don't have a bad word to say about Sarah, again she's considered one of the definitive companions even today and I felt she really shines in this story. Continuing from this stories with UNIT are always a treat, and this proves no exception. We're treated to some great lines from the Brigadier (played by Nicholas Courtney) about how he witnessed the Doctor's regeneration this time, how he'd like to once meet a threat that wasn't impervious to bullets and, in the story's finale, how he has arranged the Doctor to have lunch with the Queen.

On to the bad guys...the Robot itself still looks menacing even today, but it does have a few flaws. Here we have a huge silver giant with....floppy claw arms. That isn't an exaggeration, the K1 Robot's arms are horrifically floppy, its hard to believe its as strong as they all make it out to be. Aside from some aesthetic issues the Robot is well characterised, with its inner turmoil of disobeying its prime directive (to serve humanity and never harm it) and its turning to Sarah as it is the only person to ever show it compassion. On the flipside to this there are moments that are HORRIBLY acted, my main issue being with the moment the Robot realises it has killed its own creator - which can be basically summed up to "What have I done? Noooooooooooooooo!"

Our other antagonists - Kettlewell, Miss Winters and the SRS are pretty good on the whole. Kettlewell is represented as the typical absent minded eccentric scientist who's really a good man at heart and just got caught up in a bad crowd, while Winters on the other hand comes across as extremely sinister. The idea of the SRS does come across as a bit silly at times (visually they basically look like clever Nazis) but it works in the context of the story so its not ALL that bad.

I do have a few gripes with the story itself, the first of which being the idea of Great Britain being a neutral country in a nuclear stalemate between the 3 majors powers - America, Russia and China. Really? Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to comprehend back in 1974 but with hindsight this is a very odd thing indeed. My other being the whole idea behind part 4's epic climax - the Brigadier uses the Robot's distintigrator gun on the Robot, resulting in it growing to a gigantic size and going on a rampage with Sarah in hand (King Kong eat your heart out!). While the idea itself is solid, its established earlier on that the robot is made of a living metal and is capable of growing, I'm not sure keen on the idea of a DISINTIGRATOR gun doing the deed. The Doctor chalks this down to the gun giving the robot enough energy for the metal to grow but I'm not particuarly convinced by the argument. I'm sure there was a better way to handle it....but the Brig's reaction is still pretty funny.

The episode concludes with Baker's first use of the immortal "Would you like a jelly baby?" line, which would go on to become a legendary piece of Doctor Who for years to come, and a new companion in the form of Harry Sullivan (played by Ian Marter). Throughout the episode there are some really good interactions between Harry and the Doctor and its nice for him to become a companion, even if it is only for a short while.

In conclusion this is a solid first outing for the 4th Doctor, by far not the best of his staggering 7 year run but not the worst either. If, like me, you are curious to see where this legendary Doctor began his tenure, then Robot is waiting for you...

Sunday 22 November 2009

The Games Station: Pokemon Rumble

This is an interesting little game, available exclusive via download on the Nintendo Wii as a wiiware game for 1500 points (thats around £10.50 I believe). In the game you play as small super deformed Pokemon toys which come alive via the use of a "Wonderkey" (like clockwork toys really, just with a fancier name) with the aim of becoming champion of the Pokemon Royal Rumble tournament - a huge melee tournament with about 60 contestants per rumble. Starting out as a Rattata and initially losing your first rumble, you travel around 6 different worlds recruiting more stronger Pokemon to join your cause, rising up the ranks to eventually become champion!

Since its both a) a Wii game and b) a downloadable game, the graphics are hardly anything to shout home about, but this actually works to the games favour since it makes the adorable super deformed Pokemon even more cute - especially my personal favourite Raichu :D

The gameplay is extremely simple to get to grips with. You hold the wii remote on its side and use the arrow buttons to move and 1 and 2 to do attacks, you can also switch your Pokemon using the A button. Make sure to switch the Pokemon when your current one is running low because you only get 3 lives per level, and once they're gone you get kicked back to the terminal (however you do get to keep any Pokemon you've recruited and money you might have made...a nice little plus). The only downside is gameplay can sometime seem a little too easy, since factors such as type don't seem to have such a huge impact in the game. For example, I've been beating flying types with dig, who'd usually be immune to such a move. The most important thing in this game is power - give a powerful Pokemon a powerful move and you'll be fine. You might want to slow down your game progression though (I've had the game since Friday and I've already cleared the first mode). On the upside though, it is RIDICULOUSLY fun. I'd definitely say its the most fun I've had from a Pokemon game outside of the mainline handheld games and DEFINITELY the best value for money. Just running around, beating pokemon, collecting money and taking part in huge royal rumbles - I could do it all day.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the game is the choice of Pokemon they've included - basically they decided to include the first 151 Pokemon from the Kanto region and then all the NEW Pokemon from the Sinnoh region. This means that some of the sinnoh Pokes have their pre-evolutions missing (eg Mismagius, Honchkrow) which seems a little odd. Plus my 2nd favourite Pokemon Mudkip is nowhere to be seen! Personally I'd have just gone for a random mix from all of the generations, but that's just me.

In conclusion I want to give this full marks, but the amount of fun does not make up for lack of difficultly I feel I perhaps should knock it down to 4. Apparently the last of the game's 3 modes is pretty hard, but since I haven't rushed the game (I want to get my money's worth out of it) I haven't got that far to say. Either way this game is indeed incredibly fun and refreshing to play and is probably even better in multiplayer mode. If you're a wii owner and a Pokemon fan or a wii owner looking for a new game to download this is definitely one to try - there's even a free demo of it up to try before you buy at the moment. You'd be missing out not giving it a go, especially at the price it is.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Reviews in Time & Space: The Waters of Mars

Okay I admit, this isn't really "revisting" anything since the episode is only a week old (sorry for the delay too, I've had this ready since last Sunday...but other things came up), but as it is still a part of Doctor Who is has a well deserved place here. We're heading towards the end of the tenth Doctor (played by David Tennant)'s adventures, his companions have left and him and he now wanders the cosmos alone. But what happens when he arrives on Mars at Bowie Base One, in the year 2058? And why does the Doctor have a horrible feeling about all of this...

Before we begin I'm going to sum up my feelings on this episode of "Nu Who", which honestly I've always found a bit hit or miss. Luckily this was a hit. No, not just a hit, a freaking bulls eye. This episode is undoubtedly one of the best of the new series and could possibly go down as one of the greats in the general Who Universe. The idea of there being fixed points in time where even the Doctor, a man who almost always wins, is powerless is both perfectly logical and a stroke of genius on RTD's part. Adelaide Brooke makes for a good one-off episode companion and the supporting cast are fairly good (well they don't get much characterisation other than "Oh my god we're going to die!"). Aliens "The Flood" are superbly done, especially since we never find out what exactly they are and (hopefully) they never return and we never do. This was one set of questions the Doctor was never meant to find the answers to. There is some silliness in the form of the Base's remote controlled robot GADGET (especially when the Doctor powers it up to move at super speeds...oh how I cringed), but we do get some great Tennant one liners out of it so it all balances out. Throw in a cameo by my favourite monster ever the Daleks and a reference to the Ice Warriors (for those who aren't in the know they also hail from Mars) and you've got yourself a great episode.

But I still haven't mentioned the most important part, the part that made this episode special and will make it a memorable piece of Who for years to come - the Doctor's dark side. Realising that because he is the last of Time Lords the rules of time are now his to control the Doctor snaps, spouting that the laws of time will obey him and that he is "Timelord Victorious". Tennant's delivery is superb and makes you instantly realise that this Doctor is dangerous to cross. But as the ending proves, not even the Doctor can escape the laws of time, and it seems time is now running out for him....

Bring on Christmas 2009 and "The End of Time".

Friday 20 November 2009

Anime REVIEW: Eureka Seven

After having my mind blown away by the movie at the Sci Fi London Anime All Nighter a few weeks back, I thought it was time to take a look at the 50 episode long series that is Eureka Seven. And boy, was it worth it.

The story revolves around 14 year old Renton Thurston, son of miltary researcher and world hero Adroc Thurston, who died saving the world. He loves lifting, a sport similar to surfing but with trapar, a substance abundant throughout the air, as the medium. He dreams of joining the renegade group Gekkostate, led by his idol Holland, a legendary lifter. An opportunity to do so literally falls into his lap when a large mecha, called the Nirvash typeZERO, and Eureka, its pilot and a member of Gekkostate, crash into Renton's room. Renton's grandfather orders him to deliver a special part to the Nirvash called the "Amita Drive", which releases the immense power dormant within the typeZERO called the "Seven Swell Phenomenon". Afterwards, Renton is invited to join Gekkostate, where he quickly discovers that the behind-the-scenes life of Gekkostate is hardly as glamorous or as interesting as printed in the glossy pages of their magazine, ray=out. Only one thing makes it all worthwhile for him: the presence of Eureka, the mysterious pilot of the Nirvash. Renton, Eureka, and the Gekkostate embark on an adventure that will shape their future as well as the worlds'.

Okay I admit, I ripped most of the from wikipedia, but it pretty much sums up the premise of the series without giving too much away. And I want to avoid spoilers if I can, because this was without a doubt one of the best anime series I've ever watched (top 5 easily, possibly in the top 3). Once you get to grips with all the terminology within the series (trust me, there's quite alot of it) you get sucked into this wonderful world of action, adventure, romance and mecha. The amount of character development in the series is staggering, with most (but not all) characters getting their fair share. Eureka is one of my favourite anime characters ever now, beaten only by Nia of Gurren Lagann and Lucy of Elfen Lied. The last few episodes brought me close to tears and its finale is one of those ones that closes everything nicely yet still leaves you wanting more. Add in a fantastic soundtrack and you've got yourself a modern classic.

I HIGHLY recommend this series to both newcomers and anime fans alike, it really does have something for everyone.


And now that I have an understanding of the series I've got back and rewatched the movie again to give it a fair review. After seeing many "hardcore" E7 fans blasting it online I needed to know what the fuss was about. And now I somewhat understand. This review WILL HAVE SPOILERS so you have been warned...
As a parallel universe title - lots of things have shifted around. Renton and Eureka now know each other from their childhoods, Dominic was their teacher, the Nirvash is a weird fairy type thing, the Coralian antibodies are now an alien life form called the Image and perhaps the most drastic change - Gekkostate are the enemy. Sure, at first this does seem very very weird (and in the case of Hap and Stoner remains weird until their deaths) but you have to remember this is a clean slate and anything can be done with it. In fact I like it that way - I like to see "what if" titles, to be honest I really wish Gainax would do another Gurren Lagann series like that. Gekkostate are the victims of a scientific experiment that has left them with rapidly aging bodies (all of them are around 17 in reality) and need Eureka and Renton to unlock the gate to Neverland, a place where time is frozen.

The Peter Pan ideology works really well in this context and the romance between Renton and Eureka is played out very different - despite still not being human (she is in fact an "spy robot" sent by the Image - which sounds very bizzare) her personality is far more human. Since there's less time for character development in a 2 hour movie there's no time for her to discover emotion and THEN fall for Renton, just the latter. It works out a little differently, but the end result is still pretty much the same. The mecha battles are alot more high budget and pretty than in the series too. I also like the fact that they made Eureka and Anemone of the same race in this continuity...while I understand the logic behind it in the series I think I prefer it this way. Fairy theEND was awesome too.

My opinion has not budged on this, it’s still a movie worthy of a full five. However you will understand alot by watching the series first, that way you can make out some of the more obscure cameos present in the movie. But I suppose it’s possible to watch this first since I did. Highly recommended either way.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Movie REVIEW: Pokemon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life

After the last few years have given us Pokemon films that were either abysmal or average at best, here is the latest in a long line of Pokemon films (the 12th in fact). Arceus and the Jewel of Life is the last in the trilogy of Diamond & Pearl generation films. This movie sees Ash, Brock and Dawn in the of Michina. Little do they expect to once again be found in a conflict between Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina. They are saved by a young woman called Sheena, who can communicate with a Pokémon's heart, and explains the whole conflict was because of Arceus being close to awakening. She also tells them that her ancestor Damos betrayed Arceus and stole the Jewel of Life, sending it into a rage and a slumber. Sheena plans to return the Jewel to Arceus.

It is nice to finally see some solid continuity between the movies, as this ties together all the previous meetings the trio have had with the legendary trio of Sinnoh. As per usual, the film opens with a stunning battle sequence (these are always among my favourite parts of the Pokemon movies) to the anime theme song at the time (I can't wait to see it in Japanese with High Touch! played over it). It also boasts some stunning battle sequences between Arceus, Dialga, Palkia and Giratina and also the introduction of the notch eared Pichu, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine. I just hope its available on the Western versions of HeartGold and SoulSilver...

But here's the negatives. Although only a dub comment (I'm yet to view this movie in the original Japanese), Arceus voice is TERRIBLE. Seriously, it sounds like a stereotypical anime dub villain. I expected something a little more grand for the supposed god of Pokemon. The villain also seems to be a bit lacking and generic, and I felt like Arceus came off as alot more sinister than he did (although again that could just be because of that god-awful voice).

The film also suffers from an issue that has plagued alot of the more recent Pokemon movies, the fact they all just borrow elements from older movies. Here is a little list I've compiled just to show this...
* Pissed off Pokemon mad at humanity for abusing it >>>> Mewtwo Strikes Back
* Major character dying and being resurrected >>>> Mewtwo Strikes Back
* Time travelling >>>> Pokemon 4ever
* Major legendary Pokemon battle >>>> Pretty much EVERY Pokemon film

This continues my worry that, much like the anime series, the writers have run out of ideas and the films are just going to go around in a repeated circle. Although the next Pokemon movie will supposedly include ANOTHER epic legendary battle, here's hoping they do it in a somewhat original way.

But despite its faults, Arceus and the Jewel of Life is a cut above the rest of the D/P gen films and even some of the Johto/Hoenn ones. I would recommend this to anyone out there who's still a fan of the Pokemon anime and hasn't been put off by its repetitive cycle yet.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Reviews in Time & Space: Earthshock

For my second Doctor Who review (Whoview? I quite like the sound of that...) I've chosen my favourite 5th Doctor (as portrayed by Peter Davison) story, one that proves that the Doctor's plans dont always go perfectly and the lifestyle he and his companions lead does often come at a loss, the grand return of the Cybermen....1982's Earthshock.

Set in 2565, the story sees the Doctor and his companions arriving in the middle of an investigation into the murder of a team of scientists in a complex of caves. They are being murdered by androids (who look strikingly similar to the Rassilon robots who would later appear in The Five Doctors), working for the Cybermen. Their plan is to destroy Earth to prevent the signing of a treaty of galactic powers against the Cyberrace. While their original plan of blowing up the Earth with a bomb fails, they then attempt to use a freighter to crash into the Earth, destroying all life upon it. However with the Doctor and moreso Adric's meddling the freighter travels back in time, turning out to be what killed the dinosaurs (a mystery discussed earlier on in the story). The Cybermen are defeated, however the Doctor has not won. Adric was still onboard the ship when it crashed into prehistoric Earth...

The story has some great moments, from the Cybermen discussing their past defeats at the Doctor's hands (along with specific clips) to the Doctor arguing with the CyberLeader about how emotions and the little things are what make up life. The story also makes great use of the 4 part story format, with the Cybermen not being revealed until the end of the first episode (which makes for a great cliffhanger, and in the days before the internet when it was easier to avoid spoilers that probably came as a great suprise), and the Doctor not actually realising who's behind it all until the 3rd part. The idea of the freighter travelling back in time to the age of the dinosaurs I think is an excellent idea and is executed very well. However my one issue with the story is the reasoning behind the Cybermen wanting to destroy Earth. A war against the Cyberrace? Really? And if they're such a threat how come the Earth people onboard the freighter don't realise who they are straight away? I thought that seemed very odd and anticlimatic.

The newly designed 1980s Cybermen look fantastic, much better than the Invasion-rehash ones that appeared in Tom Baker's 1975 story Revenge of the Cybermen. This design would be used until the very end of classic Who. Another trend that continued was the use of David Bank's superb CyberLeader, along with his very Mr Burn's-esque "Excellent!" catchphrase. My one point of criticism would be that sometimes these Cybermen's voices come across as being emotional, which is not a good sign for apparently emotionless beings. You can definitely hear anger and desperation in their voices at times. The voices even sound somewhat melodic at times, which is a bit odd but when I think about it harks back to The Tenth Planet era Cybermen too.

The story, as was the case with alot of the 1980s Who episodes, contains quite alot of references to older stories, whether it be just a few stories back with the E-space trilogy and Logopolis, or even some of the earliest Cybermen outings The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen. If you know alot about the Doctor Who mythos and continuity, this is quite nice to hear. However, relying too heavily on previous continuity is one of the factors which led to Who's downfall in 1989 and this is certainly an early example of it. Having not seen every Doctor Who episode there are some instances where even I don't know what exactly they are referencing.

But perhaps the most important issue to cover in this review is the death of Adric (played by Matthew Waterhouse). Having willingly chosen to stay on board and attempt to solve the logic codes that the Cybermen locked the controls of the freighter with, tragic as it may be I found it somewhat hard to feel sad at his death. While it is true that had the damaged Cyberman not destroyed said controls he might of been able to solve it, but hey...clearly curiousity killed the Adric. Besides, Adric didn't die here anyway, but I'll cover that a little later on. I can't say I was ever a huge Adric fan to begin with anyway, he ranks pretty high up in my worst companion list along with the extremely plain Nyssa (played by Sarah Sutton), who also appears in this episode and does absolutely nothing.

In conclusion despite its flaws, this is a fine Doctor Who story, easily makes my top 10 and as a Cyberman story is second only to the magnificent Tomb of the Cybermen. Unlike Remembrance of the Daleks (which I reviewed earlier) this is a little easier to grasp as a standalone story due to the brief history lessons certain characters give at certain points in the story. And with the tragic nature of the ending, it certainly dispels the notion that Doctor Who is just a happy, carefree sci-fi show with some scary monsters. Sometimes there are indeed consequences. I recommend Earthshock to both people getting into the classic series and old-school Who fans alike (although if you're the latter you've most likely seen it already!).

Also, if you're watching this on DVD, part 5 is the best ending the story could possibly have. Trust me. EXCELLENT!

Monday 9 November 2009

Toybox REVIEW: Transformers Revenge of the Fallen Ravage

"Bulleting down through the atmosphere at better than 15 times the speed of sound, RAVAGE considers the data he has already amassed on the small, soft creatures that inhabit this planet. They seem weak and fragile, yet they are the ones that destroyed MEGATRON. That is a fact he will keep in mind as he penetrates their most sensitive installation. Against such an unpredictable enemy, stealth will be his watchword. "

After what in reality was a fairly disappointing Soundwave toy (I know I said he was really good in an earlier blog, but I admit to being in ROTF hype mode and was just exciting that the toys were out), is his former cassette minion Ravage any better? We'll find out...

Like most Revenge of the Fallen toys its got some nice mechanical detailing, and a cool little "snapping jaws" gimmick. The spikes are made of that rubbery plastic so they aren't sharp and won't snap off that easily either. Articulation is fairly good (well, for a cat) - ball joints in the front legs and the end of the tail, then hinge joins everywhere else - knees, feet, guns etc. There's even a swivel joint in the torso. I'd have liked a bit of head articulation but the gimmick kinda prevents that, can't win them all I guess. The figure has a purple decepticon logo on the back just behind the snapping jaw lever - barely noticeable but pretty cool nonetheless. And despite being a tad inaccuare, the purple eye and light piping looks EXTREMELY good, blends much better with the figure than a red would, although I'd quite like to see how red would look. I guess some more pics of that mail away exclusive Ravage will answer that. All in all a very good beast mode worthy of Ravage.

But that's about all you're getting really, because the alt mode is a mess to say the least. Along with Scorponok (who, like Ravage, I thought had an exceptionally good beast/robot mode) from the first movie line, it's clearly an afterthought. Although there's a bit more going on than Scorponok, who was just move legs, move arms = useless excuse for a robot mode), Ravage's "entry" mode looks like nothing more than a cat laying on its stomach playing peek-a-boo. And considering Ravage is supposed to be menacing, this looks a little strange to say the least.

I don't really know how to go about rating this toy. If it had just one mode I'd be able to rate it higher, but then I'd have to bring it back down again because it technically wouldn't be a Transformer. So it's going to have to settle for an average 3/5. I'll leave you with this closing thought, the cat mode is extremely good, worthy of atleast 4/5, but the alt mode just kills it. So my this toy, and don't transform it EVER.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Toybox REVIEW: Transformers Animated Waspinator

"Driven crazy by years locked in an AUTOBOT prison, WASPINATOR is determined to take revenge on the robot who put him there - BUMBLEBEE. Now, after bizarre experiments conducted by BLACKARACHNIA, he finally has the power to make his vengeance a reality. He has come to Earth hunting the AUTOBOT speedster; and he will not stop until BUMBLEBEE is a pile of smoking scrap."

Beast Wars Waspinator was one of the first Transformers I ever had, so imagine my excitement when I found out he was not only going to be in the Transformers Animated series, but also get a toy. Then imagine my disappointment when I found out his wave wasn't going to be released in the UK. Then imagine my excitement when I found him and his wave mate Samurai Prowl (who will probably get a review some point next week) in Home Bargains of all places for HALF PRICE! Good times readers, good times.

So anyway onto the review, Waspinator is a deluxe class figure and as you have probably already realised transforms into a wasp. The beast mode looks very good in the TF:A style, and the translucent purple plastic on the giant bug eyes and wings are a very nice touch. The transformation itself isn't particuarly difficult, in fact its only 6 step transformation - connect arms, pull up arms and legs, pull down wasp head etc.
The robot mode certainly does the animation model justice, as is the case with most TF:A figures. The eyes have the same purple plastic as the wings which makes for some nice light piping effects and his little arms even have their own articulation. Speaking of articulation its very good, being mostly ball joints and then hinges on the knees, feet and elbows. The toy even has a little lever on the back to make the wings flap!

As with most Animated toys, I highly recommend this figure. Even moreso if you live in the UK and have a Home Bargains nearby and can get it for the price I did (which by the way was £5.99). While he certainly isn't the best TF:A figure ever, he's still certainly leaps and bounds better than the majority of the Revenge of the Fallen line.