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...