Rating the Disney Animated Canon, Part 1 (of 5)

So a couple of weeks ago, flush with time if not with sense, I got the bright idea to watch all of the Disney animated films.  The real ones, not including any of the crappy sequels that no one wanted or liked; I’m not stupid.  My plan was to rank them, with some thoughts on each one.  I figured that I could get a week’s worth of blog posts out of it.  First I checked my usual movie places:Netflix, my Mom’s DVD collection, my brother’s family’s DVDs (he’s got young children), my copy of Wreck-it-Ralph, to see what I had access to. It turns out that nearly the whole of the Disney Canon was right at my fingertips.

There were some films I couldn’t watch. The war films, the package films, whatever you want to call them I didn’t have them and didn’t know anyone who did.  So I decided to skip them.  Maybe I missed out on some of the best that Disney has to offer, but their reputation suggests that I didn’t.  Of course, as I found while watching these, sometimes the general consensus on these movies is just flat wrong.  So I didn’t watch Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time or The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  I also haven’t yet seen Frozen. That should be rectified shortly.  I figure I’ll just slot it in where it goes, assuming its as good as everyone says.

Today, I will be starting with the bottom of this 46 (or 47 pending Frozen) film list, the bottom 10 Disney movies.  This will be the only entry that has movies that I consider outright bad on it.  For the most part these are all really good films.  Let’s begin.

46: Chicken Little.   I have difficulty expressing in words just how much I disliked this movie. It is bad in every conceivable way.  It looks terrible.  It’s not funny.  It isn’t entertaining at all.  I can’t think of one redeeming feature of this movie. It is wretched.  I don’t think I’ve seen a movie with less appealing characters.  They are all ugly as sin.  I’m done talking about this movie.  I hate it.

45: Home on the Range.  This is a movie I probably should have watched again, as I last saw it in the theater as a “reward” for doing well on my end of year tests in High School.  But there is nothing in my memory that suggests that this movie is worth revisiting.  It is just kind of a mess.  Like Chicken Little, it is another failed comedy that is just not funny.  I don’t remember it being anywhere near as ugly as Chicken Little, though.

44: The Rescuers.  This is the first entry that is I’ve got significantly different that most.  I don’t like the Rescuers.  It is just unbearably dull.   The mouse heroes are vaguely interesting, but not enough to prop up the rest of the film.  The little kidnapped girl is a void. The villain is a bad retread of Cruella de Vil. Also, there aren’t any worthwhile songs.  It is just a slog of a film.

43: Dinosaur.  This is a movie made to show off their new 3D technology, but thirteen years later it doesn’t hold up.  Too bad they didn’t put much of a story in there to back up the visuals.  Other than some unnecessary and unfunny lemurs, there is nothing really bad about the plot and characters, its just bog standard stuff.  It is the same basic story as The Land Before Time, only not quite as good.

42: Pocahontas.  Apparently I’m not the only one that thinks this move is terrible.  Unlike the previous entries on the list, this is at least well animated.  But the story is wretched.  It is preachy, but still manages to work in some magical natives.  It has mostly forgettable songs, though the good ones are standouts, and some terrible comic relief characters.  This movie seems to exist as an attempt to smother the Renaissance in its crib.

41: Meet the Robinsons.  While not a good movie, Robinsons is a drastic step up from their previous 3D attempt (see the top of the list).  It looks fine, occasionally good, and there is glimmer of something fun in the story.  It is still quite messy at times, though.  It is heavily flawed, but often entertaining.

40:  Oliver and Company.  Were it not for the Billy Joel sung “Why should I worry?”, this would probably drop three or four spots on this list.  It is a compromised take on Oliver Twist starring animals.  Like the real Oliver Twist, the main character is mostly a spectator in his own story, only here the other characters can’t pick up the slack.  This does seem like a dry run for the ideas that made the Renaissance successful, but its not quite up there.

39: The Aristocats.  There are some mildly amusing bits her with Tom O’Malley the alley cat, but otherwise this is just a lesser version of 101 Dalmatians.  The songs are also quite catchy, but that still doesn’t distract from the fact that the villain’s plan is stupid and Disney already did this story better.

38: Cinderella.  I know this is one of the widely considered classics from Disney, I don’t care.  It is a turd.  Cinderella gets little to do in the movie, it is mostly about some intolerable animals and their sub-Looney Tunes (note: I have no problems with Looney Tunes, but what happens here is no where near that good, though it has a similar tone) quality hijinks.  Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo is a fine musical number, but the rest I didn’t care for.  This is the weakest of the films that Walt Disney himself worked on. Even for a Disney brand fairy tale, the story is regrettable pap.  Cinderella does little for herself and pins her hopes on the idea that the Prince will save her.  At least most of the other Disney Princess have something else going for them.

37: Brother Bear:  This is a much better film than Pocahontas, at least. Actually, there are quite a few things I liked about this movie. The most notable is the aspect and tone switch after Kenai turns into a bear.  It is a cool little switch.  But there just wasn’t enough going on to move this one up higher in the line.  Were it not for Home on the Range, this would have made a suitable send off for Disney’s traditionally animated features.


That’s it for today.  Tomorrow I should have the next ten ready to go, though I don’t think there are any great surprises in that part of the list.

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Muppets Most Wanted

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2011’s The Muppets was a welcome return for that delightful crew.  It was a joy just to see Kermit and the gang after such a long absence.  While I found that movie to be “reverent” of the Muppets, they really weren’t the stars of the movie.  Instead, the stars were Jason Segel, Amy Adams and new Muppet Walter.  The Muppets was a movie about the Muppets, not starring them.

Muppets Most Wanted is a movie starring the Muppets.  Non-Muppet characters are secondary, other than the villains.  This gives the individual Muppets more of a chance to shine, including some that got short shrift in the previous movie.  Here the Muppets and their idiosyncrasies are in the spotlight.  It makes for a stronger film, a funnier film.  Muppets Most Wanted is one of the best family comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Fresh off their reunion on the last movie, the Muppets have to decide what to do with the show next.  The meet with an agent, Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee) who advises a European tour.  At the same time, Constantine, a highly dangerous frog escapes from a Russian Gulag.  While Kermit tries to book small venues and goad his compatriots into smaller, better know acts, at least while they are still getting their feet under themselves after a long hiatus, Dominic pushes for bigger venues and more elaborate shows.  In Germany, while taking a walk in the fog along a deserted canal at Dominic’s behest, Kermit is switched with Constantine.  He and Dominic are working together to steal the British Crown Jewels.  So the Muppets act quickly runs out of control without Kermit’s steadying influence.  Kermit ends up stuck in the gulag, matching wits with Tina Fey’s guard Nadya.  Eventually, Kermit is rescued and Constantine and Dominic are thwarted.

The humor comes from the Muppets usual mix of slapstick, puns and absurdity.  It is silly, but most of the material works.  Constantine’s difficulty with English and his lack of effort to try and act like Kermit are pretty constant source of amusement.  And there are songs, of course.  There is no song in this film to match “Man or Muppet” from the last movie, but overall the songs are better.

Muppets Most Wanted it a better example of what makes the Muppets great than 2011’s reverent but distant movie.  You get to see more of Gonzo’s weirdness and Miss Piggy’s vanity and Animal’s wildness.  The star, as usual, is Kermit.  He is the center that keeps the show going. Without Kermit the rest of the crew natural tendencies run wild, with the show becoming an overlong mess of absurdity and nearly killed guests.  Still, in the movie it gets great reviews from everyone but Statler and Waldorf.  Of course, those reviews turn out to be bought and paid for by Dominic. (Fozzie’s reaction to this revelation is gold. “Why didn’t we ever think of that?”)  Of course, by letting the characters run wild the viewer gets a better example of what makes each of them interesting.  I am still unsure if what I think of Walter.  He serves as a straight man, a position largely unneeded when Kermit is around.  He does have the outsiders perspective going for him, but the longer her is around the less that works.  So I guess I’m fine with his rather prominent role in this movie, but I hope he finds a niche or is scaled back in the future.

The Muppets was already a greatly enjoyable film and Muppets Most Wanted improves on it in many respects. In a time when even children’s entertainment tends toward the cynical, it is refreshing to encounter something as earnest as Muppets Most Wanted.  It is silly and straightforward and I love it for it.

Summer Movie Preview

So with Captain America 2 hitting the first week in April, it seems like a good time to look at the upcoming movie list and see what looks good.  And what looks really not good.  So here is a list of 20 upcoming movies that interest me for various reasons.

Captain America 2 The Winter Soldier:  Marvel has yet to really miss yet, and Cap 2 doesn’t seem likely to be the first misstep.  I thought the first one was very charming and this one is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who I best know for their work on Arrested Development and Community.

Draft Day: I’ll admit it, I like Kevin Costner.  A lot.  Here he’s in a movie about football, directed by the guy who directed Ghostbusters.  I am at least intrigued.

Amazing Spider-Man 2: I didn’t care all the much for the first Amazing Spider-Man.  It didn’t seem to add anything to the Spider-Man movie we already had.  The more I hear about this one the more it sounds like a mess.  Because nothing helps a movie like jamming in a ton of villains.  Still, the first one was good enough that now that its past the origin maybe it can be something new or interesting.

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I’ve Done it, Professor!

The end has finally come.  Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is the last Professor Layton game, according to developer Level 5. (Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright is coming to America later this year.)   They are continuing the Layton series with Layton 7, but it is going to be something significantly different. I am a little sad to see this change happen, but I recognize the need for change.  We have gotten six Layton games, plus a movie, in little more than seven years.   I love the characters and I love the puzzles, but I don’t feel like they have anywhere new to go with them that doesn’t change their fundamental relationship.  Honestly, that breakdown has already started with Azran Legacy.

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The puzzles have always been the first draw of this series.  Their appeal is still there.  As usual, there are 150 puzzles scattered throughout the game, very few of which must be completed to beat the game as long as the player beats enough to pass a couple of checkpoints.  I don’t see these sorts of brainteasers ever losing their appeal.  The interface problems I had with the previous game still exist.  These is an uncomfortable disconnect between nice looking diorama-like environments that Layton and company visit on their adventures and the tapping the player does to interact.  Most of that comes from having the touch screen on the bottom and the 3D area on the top, so the player is not actually tapping where they want to tap, they are using the bottom screen more like a mouse.  It just doesn’t work as well as it could.  I understand why they stuck with that, the 3D environments look too good to give up on, but at times it makes playing the game a bit of a chore. At least it looks good.  Outside of the environments, the characters look a whole lot better in this game than in the last one.  Last time, I found the newly 3D Layton and Luke to be somewhat off putting, but either I’ve just gotten used to how they look, or Level 5 cleaned things up considerably.

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The story, on the other hand, is a mixed bag.  It starts strong, and has all the elements to provide the same sort of entertainment that the rest of the series did.  The mysteries of Descole, Bronev and the Azran civilization that have been building for the last couple games are finally brought to a head.  This should be the grand culmination of all of that.  It starts well, with Layton meeting a colleague and finding a frozen magical girl.  After a brief detour in London, the game then jumps to a globe trotting search for hidden artifacts.  Unfortunately, during this part of the the adventure the mystery of Bronev and his organization Targent is largely sidelined.  They have a presence, but it is mostly in the form of a pair of bumbling lackeys. Still, the individual episodes at all of the stops are classic Layton, even if they don’t feel like they are contributing to the overall storyline very much.

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It is the final quarter of the game where the disappointment sets in. There are two causes for this disappointment.  The far lesser one is, spoilers, that the story hews very close to Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky.  It is not uncommon for video games to take cues from Castle in the Sky, but Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy’s homage is just a little too close to the real thing.  It brings little new to the familiar premise.  While this is somewhat disappointing, there are far worse things to do than steal from Miyazaki for your ending.  What I liked the least was a series of rapid fire revelations that were each ridiculous on their own way.  Any one of them would not have been so bad, but the entire mess of one on top of the other was unbearable.  The Layton series has been no stranger to stupid plots twists and asinine revelations, but usually they are at least interesting.  The ones here reek of fanfic.  The whole plot of Bronev and Descole ends in about the least satisfying way possible.

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So Professor Layton’s story ends with it least enjoyable adventure.  It is disappointing.  Of course, never say never with video game characters.  Level 5 seems eager to go a separate way with this series, but if Layton 7 bombs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more games starring the top hat sporting archaeologist.  Even though I found The Azran Legacy to be disappointing, I can’t say I disliked it.  It has everything that made the series so enjoyable.  I just wanted, even expected the series to go out with a bang and instead got a whimper.

The Wind Rises

windrisesIn many ways, The Wind Rises is unlike any other of Hayao Miyazaki’s film.  It looks the same.  The characters are easily identified as his work and as always it is sumptuously animated. The subject is what is different.   It is neither an adventure movie nor a children’s movie, two categories in which nearly all of his previous films fit.  In many ways it is similar to Porco Rosso, another film that doesn’t fit comfortably in either genre.  However, The Wind Rises is also about a real person.  As highly fictionalizes it might be (and I really don’t know how much that is, as I am not familiar with more than most basic of facts here), Jori Horikoshi was a real person.  The fact that it is based in truth makes it significantly different.

The Wind Rises mostly covers Jori’s work on the Zero fighter just before WWII.  He struggles with designing the aircraft, having to overcome the superiority of foreign aeronautical technology.  He also must weigh his desire to create beautiful art with the knowledge that that art will almost certainly be used for terrible things.  While working on the fighter, he falls in love with Naoko, a beautiful young woman with tuberculosis.  Even Jiro’s dreams, which play a large part in the film, reflect his conflicted nature.  Some are sweet fantasies of meeting up with his hero, Italian airplane designer Caproni, others are nightmares of death from above.  Jiro’s romance with Nahoko is truly touching.  She knows just how limited her time will be and is determined to be with Jiro anyway.  They want to make the most of the short time they have together.

Wind is central to this film.  All through the film wind is blowing, whether it blows Jiro’s hat from his head, leading to his first meeting with Nahoko or blowing embers on to books rescued after an earthquake or the winds of change blowing through Japan and the rest of the world.  Wind plays a role in nearly every development in this film.

While there are weighty matters are being contemplated, to film is very relaxed and low-key.  It meanders from section to section, giving viewers small glimpse that eventually congeal into a cohesive whole.  It is at turns joyous and wistful and sad, but always moving. This is aided by just how good looking the animation is, particularly the dream scenes.  While the rest of the film is mostly restrained, the dreams allow Miyazaki to use a little more of his familiar flying scenes.  Like many of his films, especially Porco Rosso, there is a kind of awe of airplanes and flying machines on display.  It is infectious and wondrous.

One can’t help but see a little of Miyazaki himself in Jiro, especially at the end, when he and his hero look back on his dreams with some pride and some sorrow. It is an artist never quite satisfied with his work, but nonetheless proud of his accomplishments.  Miyazaki claims to be retired after this film, a claim he has made before, and if so, this is a fine way to end a career.    The Wind Rises may not be his best work, but it is a masterpiece anyway.

What I Read in Feb ‘14

I read four books in February, which feels like a good number. Especially with how much time one in particular took me (see the last entry). Honestly, I didn’t love any of the books I read this month.  I did find a couple of them somewhat enjoyable, though. Hopefully March will be better.

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The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

C.S. Lewis

I was very familiar with this book, but I had never read it. I have seen two film versions of it and have read plenty of criticism of it, but I never managed to pick it up. SO one night last month I did. It was slightly more of a children’s book than I realized, but otherwise was exactly what I expected.

I’m sure nearly everyone knows what this book is, four children transported to a fantastic land inside a wardrobe. It has some heavy Christian symbolism, but it works very well and in no way detracts from the book. One thing that I was not ready for was the humor in the book. While this is a children’s book, Lewis managed some witty and wry humor along the way. Lines and observations that don’t necessarily fit into the narrative, but they got a chuckle out of me anyway. Comparing it to the recent, largely faithful, movie, the biggest thing I noticed is how downplayed the battle is. It happens, but the book stays with the girls and leaves all the action off the page, only covering the tail end of the battle. It shows just where Lewis’ focus was. A classic for a reason.

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Unnatural Death

Dorothy Sayers

All the Wimsey stories were on sale not too long ago, so I picked up most of the rest of them. This was the next one in the series. Here, Wimsey hears a story about a mysterious death from a Doctor and even though there is no evidence of a crime he starts to investigate. Actually, he sends Miss Climpson, a spinster that he has employed, to investigate things in the town. Unfortunately, his investigation causes the murderer to panic and commit more crimes to try to hide the first one.

The most interesting part of this book, especially since the mystery is not very mysterious, is that the victim was pretty obviously a lesbian. The book never comes out and says it, but it is still pretty obvious. The victim, who died as an old lady supposedly from cancer, lived her whole life with another woman. She is leaving all her money to her friend’s niece. The murderer’s situation is quite similar. While not all the characters necessarily approve of these character’s lives, they really aren’t judged or excluded. The stable hand who work his whole life for this women doesn’t see them as anything other than a couple of ladies. Of course, the book is set in 1927, after WW1 when there simply were many more women than men. The mystery here is not the best, but the lives of the characters are interesting enough to make this worth reading.

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To Marry an English Lord

Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

I picked this up on a whim from the Kindle store. It is a study of the phenomenon of rich American girls, excluded from the elite of New York society turned instead to the nobility of Europe, primarily England. This worked to both sides advantage, as the women got high places in Society and the nobility got all that American money. This happened quite frequently for about thirty or so years around the turn of the century before it just sort of stopped.

It is a fairly intriguing look at something that I wasn’t aware of. The biggest problem I had was that this book wasn’t really formatted for the Kindle. Large part s of it were simple hard to follow because of how the pages were laid out. It was also reliant on a lot of photographs, which again didn’t make the translation to the Kindle very well. Still, large parts of it came through well. It is fascinating to read about the seemingly slight differences between the two English speaking nations and how they were actually much bigger than most of the women who married realized. Also, it shows a thawing in the relations between America and Great Britain. Americans were both proud of our lack of class distinctions and envious of the lack. This is far from an essential read, but largely entertaining.

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Gardens of the Moon

Steven Erikson

I hated this book. I am generally a fan of fantasy and this came highly recommended, but I hated Gardens of the Moon. This read like the heavy metal version of a fantasy world. Everything is blood, guts and rust. It is a deeply unfriendly world. There seems to be no good in this world. It is all war, war that would seem completely unsupportable in term of feeding people. It is also written as though the writer didn’t care if anyone could read it. It starts with a series of flashbacks and chapters that are separated by time and space, so it takes a long time to get to anything resembling a plot.

The thing, once it does get going it isn’t too bad. Unfortunately, that isn’t until more than a third of the way through the book. When the book finally introduces the gang of miscreants from Darujhistan it actually becomes entertaining. That group is not unlike the core cast of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Of course, realizing that made me wish I was reading that instead of this. Still, this book is long, unfriendly and absurd in its “gritty” darkness. I am glad to be done with it.

Now Playing in February ‘14

February may be a short month, but I had more free time than usual, so I still got a lot of game playing in. I didn’t beat near as many games as last month, but that was mostly because I was bogged down in a handful of RPGs. Good RPGs, but those things take some time. I am going to do something new this month with this post. I am going to name one game my , whichever game I like best that I do not plan on writing about on its own.

Beaten:

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time:
GOTM Even though I am calling A Crack in Time my game of the month, I was actually slightly disappointed in it. It isn’t a bad game by any means, it just isn’t quite up to the mark set by most of its predecessors. It is only slightly better than Deadlocked, which I did not care overmuch for. It has the same big problem as Deadlocked: Ratchet and Clank are separated for most of the game. They work best as a duo. Sure, solo sections as Clank are fine and all, they featured prominently in Up Your Arsenal, my personal favorite game in the series, but Ratchet without Clank on his back just feels wrong. This is partly because it changes his moveset somewhat. Ratchet loses his long jump and high jump. Suddenly, places that are normally within reach are instead just beyond it. This is a minor complaint, a small attempt to change things up in a long running series without upsetting the applecart that doesn’t quite work. The other problem is the weapon selection. I really liked the new modable weapons. It gives the normal weapons a little more kick and is definitely more interesting than hunting for raritanium like in Tools of Destruction. But the other weapons didn’t do much for me. I may have had the same complaint about ToD, I don’t remember, but I guess there is only so far that unusual weaponry can get a game.

I did like the story in A Crack in Time, though. While I wasn’t exactly demanding answers to Ratchet or Clank’s origins, I like what they came up with. The Great Clock is about as cool a place as I’ve seen in a game in a long time. The way the two stories intertwined worked out well, as did Ratchet’s decision when confronted by Clank. That is just how that should have played out. Of course, Insomniac also provide just the right amount of Dr. Nefarious and Captain Quark. I do wish other characters that play a big role on some games would return, but I’m fine with the small cast of regulars this series has. It isn’t exactly a game one plays for the stories, but they have often hit that perfect spot of being genuinely all-ages games instead of for kids.

This series has long been a favorite of mine, and it feels like it is nearing the end. Maybe last years Into the Nexus is not going to be the last Ratchet and Clank game, but I wouldn’t mind if they took some time between now and the next installment. I think the secret to Nintendo’s success with series like Mario and Zelda is that rarely do more than one or two entries in each series appear on any one console. The time between games keeps things feeling fresh and new. I think R&C could do with a similar rest. That is not going to stop me, however, from playing each game. At least as long as they maintain the level of quality they have so far.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze: thoughts posted here.

Bit.Trip Runner 2 The Future Legend of Rhythm Alien: I played a little bit of the first Runner and for some reason developed an unnatural hatred for it. My dislike was so great that I almost didn’t even download this despite it being free with Playstation Plus. Fortunately, I heard enough good things about it to convince me to give it a chance. I’m glad I did, I nearly missed a great little game. Runner 2 is not overly complex, but it is charming and challenging.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars: This finished strong. Even some of the humor started to work for me near the end. I did keep a guide handy as I played it, but I used it less than I expected. I really liked the characters, but the romance didn’t seem to have a strong enough foundation. There really wasn’t a transition from partners to partners. It was a logical route for the story to take, but while central plot was well written, that little part seemed tacked on. It seemed like it ended that was because that was how it was supposed to end, not because it was actually set up. I don’t know why I’m writing about a small nitpick I had with the game when I enjoyed it so much though. Broken Sword is just a well written adventure game, only a small step down from Monkey Island.

Cross Me: This is a Picross style puzzle game I have on my Kindle. I have actually only beaten up through the advanced puzzles, but I’m done with it. It is maddening, brain busting and addictive. I am glad to be done with it and glad to have played it.

Ongoing:

Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams: I’ve played through the first world. It is reasonably fun so far, but the levels are already way too long. I hope it gets better about that, not worse.

Xenoblade Chronicles: More trickles of progress. I am still playing this, but it takes a lot of time to get things done. I will beat it by the end of the year.

Bravely Default: This is Final Fantasy in all but name. Specifically, Final Fantasy III. Many people think if it as like FFV, but the job system in this game is definitely more like FFIII. I am liking it quite a bit, though the difficulty is uneven. It is so good in so many ways, but the spikes in difficulty really needed to be smoothed out. I’ve just finished Chapter 4 and things are really picking up.

Final Fantasy VI: Another RPG I’ve spent a lot of time with. I expect to be writing about this again soon. I used to play it almost yearly, but I haven’t actually played it since the GBA version came out a handful of years ago. This is even better than I remembered. It is just so fast. Too many games take too long to get going, FFVI isn’t one of those.

Final Fantasy Dimensions: This phone fantasy isn’t bad, but I would much rather play it with a controller. It also drains my phone’s battery something fierce. So I can only play it in really short bursts. It goes through the motions of being a classic RPG, but it comes off as an inferior facsimile. It fares badly when compared to Bravely Default, but that has as much to do with platform as anything else.

Valkyria Chronicles: I’ve only just started this, but I think I’m in love. It feels like coming home. I had played about half of the PSP sequel, but it felt limited. So far, its big brother fixes all of the problems I had with that game.

SMT Devil Survivor 2: I played one day of this before Bravely Default arrived. This series has a tendency to be difficult. It takes some dedication to really make progress in. I just didn’t have that this month. Maybe once I finish with Bravely Default.

Upcoming:

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy: This will be coming from Amazon tomorrow. I have loved this series since the first game. I am sad to see it go but eager to play one more Layton.

Batman Arkham City: I started this around Christmas, but got distracted by other things. Now I am ready to put some real time into it.

Legend of Zelda Oracle of Seasons: I am determined to finish this up soon.

Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask: As soon as I finish Oracle of Seasons I am hopping right on this.

This is Donkey Kong Country

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It’s no secret that the 2D platformer has had quite the resurgence over the last half decade or so. Between indie games and download titles, 2 and 2.5D platformers are fairly common. As it has been since they basically created the genre with Super Mario Bros, Nintendo is still the master of the form. Their various Mario, Yoshi and Kirby games are generally excellent. 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns continued that trend. It had a few problems, like some terrible boss battles and way too many Rocket Barrel and Mine cart stages, but it was otherwise very good. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, the latest from Retro Studios, stands among the best ever released by Nintendo.

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Tropical Freeze doesn’t reinvent the genre. It stays firmly within the usual mold. It plays almost identically to Returns. The fact that is doesn’t do anything new is not much of a fault. What it lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in polish and general high quality. There is something to be said for the complete mastery of the form that is on display here.

The game is just smooth. DK runs with a kind of loping gait that takes a little bit to get used to, but it then becomes natural. He also has a decent little move pool. DK can bounce off enemies’ heads for a high jump, pound the ground to stun enemies and roll through enemies. He can also pick up and throw certain stunned enemies and barrels. It is a simple set up, but varied enough to be interesting. It doesn’t take long to learn to use these skills, but the game requires the player master them. It starts with some relatively easy warm up levels, but the game soon shows its teeth. Unlike many games, it doesn’t care if the player can beat it. Its challenges are what they are and uncompromising. Few games feel so good to play. DK moves smoothly, but there is a weight to him. He moves like the big gorilla he is. He is surprisingly nimble, but his momentum can be hard to shift. It will likely mean some deaths due to mistimed jumps, but when the timing is right it is sheer acrobatic platforming perfection. The way DK moves is distinctive. It is different from any other platforming protagonist, but it works perfectly.

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While the challenges are uncompromising, the game does provide some help. Aside from a small collection of helpful items to buy from Funky’s shop, DK now has three possible piggyback buddies rather than just Diddy Kong. Diddy is still there, with a jetpack that provides a significant vertical boost to DK’s jumps. Then there is Dixie, who uses her propeller ponytail to give DK what is essentially a double jump. Last is Cranky, who uses his can like a pogo-stick, a la Scrooge McDuck. None of what they add is terribly original, but they all work so well it doesn’t matter. It makes for some hard choices. Do you go for Cranky and his superior ability to deal with enemies and avoid spikes or Dixie or Diddy and their increased mobility? None of the characters are strictly better than the others. Much like Mario’s power ups, the once needed changes based on the situation. Also, taking two hits causes you to lose your buddy; many of the games secrets are dependent on keeping one of them around.

Some of the flaws of the first game return. Specifically, the rocket barrel. Now, though, DK can take two hits rather than one, making what was infuriating tolerable. And maybe it’s just due to them being easier, but the spectacle seems cranked up. There aren’t any simple mine cart or barrel stages. Instead DK is escaping runaway buzz saws in a sawmill or dodging giant eels. While they may not touch the regular stages as far as gameplay is concerned, they are certainly memorable events.

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Really, spectacle is what this game does best. While the gameplay side is just excellent executed, traditional stuff, the art, sound and level themes really set this game apart. One level takes place in what appears to come from the Lion King stage production. The silhouette stages return, including one that has DK jumping across moving platforms above an avalanche. Another level is an underwater escape from a giant octopus. Many of the hazards only appear in one stage. The graphics are pretty much perfect. Colorful, well designed and wonderfully expressive. They are just great. Best of all is the return of Dave Wise on the soundtrack. It is wonderful. Just go listen to some of it.

While it doesn’t do much new, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze does everything well. Innovation and experimentation are often things to be lauded in games. But it is hard to say anything bad about a familiar game executed as well as this one. Retro Studios now has three definite classics on their resume: this, DKCR and Metroid Prime. I hope their next game is something original, though I wouldn’t be disappointed in a third Donkey Kong. They have changed Donkey Kong, in my mind, from the character with the good fortune to star in Nintendo’s first hit to a genuine star. After these last two games he is definitely on the same level as any Nintendo character, save Mario and Link.

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