Top 10 Comics 2016

I wasn’t planning to go this list, but reading some other Top 10 lists I decided I read enough good comics in 2016 to make a Top 10 list. It is very DC heavy, though filtered through Vertigo, Digital Firsts and their Hanna Barbera lines. I am sure there are Image books and the like that deserve to be on here, but I tend to read those in collections and don’t stay completely up to date on them. For instance, I read the first collection of Descender this year and absolutely loved it. The end result is that the books on my list are all books I read monthly.

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10 Patsy Walker Hellcat This decidedly low key book has Patsy Walker set up a temp agency for people with superpowers and brings back a lot of her old romance comics’ characters. It is just about a perfect fun book. There are fights, but they are small parts of a book that is more about interpersonal conflict and cat puns. It is just a good time.

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9 DC Comics Bombshells DC’s digital first titles have been very good for a long time, with some excellent Batman and Superman titles in the past. DC Comics Bombshells, their second digital first title based on a line of figures, is somehow one of DC’s best Elseworlds titles in forever. It stars all of DC’s famous heroines redone in the style of WWII pin-ups, placed in a world where all (or at the very least most) of the superheroes are women. The designs are mostly good and Marguerite Bennet’s writing of the title makes it truly great. Many characters get a chance to shine, from big names like Batwoman and Wonder Woman, to a ton of tertiary Batman characters turned into Batwoman’s replacement Batgirls. Bennett and a host complementary rotating artists have made this book one of the best pure superhero books available for almost two years now.

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8 The Vision – This one is small compared to the grander scale that Tom King’s other tragedies, like Sheriff of Babylon and Omega Men, operate on. It is much more personal but no less tragic. The Avenger Vision tries to establish the perfect family, only to find out that life is hard. The result is inevitable and painful.

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7 Batman – Tom King makes the list again with his Batman. His take on Batman, with art by Mikel Janin and David Finch, is something of a gritty take on the old TV show. Batman does all kinds of superheroics and solves his problems with improbable leaps of logic. It is over the top but with plenty of depth behind it. I hope he has a good long run on the title.

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6 Superman I am a sucker for a good Superman comic and that is exactly what Peter Tomasi, Pat Gleason and Doug Mahnke are delivering here. Recasting Superman as a father attempting to impart the same lessons that he learned from Pa Kent is an inspired move. The rambunctious but well-meaning Jonathan Kent is a great new Superboy and having a proper Lois and Clark relationship back is just icing on the cake.

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5 Sheriff of Babylon – Tom King yet again. While his other works are set in superhero universes, this one’s setting is very real. Not having the robot or space opera sugar makes this one more of a bitter pill than his other work. It is no less engaging, though. A former police officer working to train an Iraqi police force in the aftermath of the Iraq War is drawn into investigating the death of one of his trainees. Everyone has conflicted loyalties and the entire world is grey areas. It is amazing.

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4 Sugar & Spike This was released as part of the anthology title Legends of Tomorrow, which got that title to tie-in with the TV show even though the comics inside didn’t in any way. While three of the full length books inside were fine superhero tales (Firestorm, Metal Men and Metamorpho) the gem of the bunch was the “gritty reboot” of Sugar & Spike by Keith Giffen and Bilquis Evely. It starred the duo of Sugar & Spike, formerly trouble causing toddlers, as PI’s that solve embarrassing problems for superheroes. It was six issues of this mismatched pair going to Superman shaped islands or making sure that Wonder Woman’s marriage to an alien monster was properly annulled. It had a lot of fun with some of the goofier parts of DC’s history and introduced a pair of characters that were just a lot of fun. Evely’s art was also great.

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3 Legend of Wonder Woman – There are many versions of Wonder Woman’s origin story, but never has it felt more alive and vital than in The Legend of Wonder Woman by Renae De Liz. It is bright and colorful, telling Diana’s origin as epic and mythic while downplaying some of the more awkward sexual aspects of it. I would honestly book this book in the same category as Batman Year One or Man of Steel (or Secret Origin, really insert your favorite Superman origin story here).

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2 Omega Men – Tom King’s last title to make the list, Omega Men is a dark look at our adventurism in the Middle East by way of space opera. Green Lantern Kyle Rayner gets sucked further in to the abyss of the revolution in the Vega System, finding it harder and harder to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. It explores the narrow line between terrorists and freedom fighters. It is amazing.

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1 The Flintstones – That this book even exists is kind of crazy. An update on The Flintstones that turns into a pitch black social satire is not what people expected, I think. The Flintstones continues the strong work that Mark Russell was doing on the sadly shortened Prez series. The book is a bleak, but not entirely hopeless, with characters facing dilemmas that they can’t possibly solve and usually coming away with something to hold on to. It leaves the reading thinking that we as a species are fucked but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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Shantae: ½ Genie Hero

Wayforward does good work. They are the go to company for solid, if only rarely spectacular, licensed games as well as updates on classic games. They are the ones behind games like A Boy and his Blob, Contra 4, DuckTales Remastered and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. As good as those games, as well as a couple of handfuls of others across primarily the Wii, DS and 3DS, are Wayforward has always done their best work on their original titles. Those include the Mighty games – Mighty Switch Force, Mighty Milky Way, etc. – and the Shantae games. When Wayforward went to Kickstarter to fund the latest Shantae game, Shantae Half-Genie Hero, it seemed like the surest possible bet. While the game missed its projected release date by more than a year, the finished product turned out to be everything fans hoped it would be.

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Shantae: ½ Genie Hero breaks no new ground. While its story doesn’t pick up from its predecessor Shantae and The Pirate’s Curse, the gameplay doesn’t stray far. The biggest difference is in our heroes abilities, with Shantae reverting to her dance triggered transformations rather than relying on skills like those of Risky Boots. The same transformations that she used in her first two games. Well, not exactly the same, but similar. Still, while Shantae is a riff on the same kind of game people have been playing for more than 25 years, everything about it is so well done that it just warms the heart.

First of all, the graphics and sound are excellent. It shares a general look with DuckTales Remastered, but it simply looks better. It is not the pixel art of previous games, but it is fluidly animated and is frankly one of the best looking 2D games I’ve ever seen. It still has that usual Shantae look, which includes a lot of cartoonish voluptuousness for better or worse, and Sequin Land has never looked so good. The game also has some great tunes, I don’t know how else to say it, they are just some awesome listening.

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Gone is any sense of this game as a sort of Metroidvania, the game is strictly level based. Each level has two or so distinct areas and while each area has places to explore, the play out completely linearly. The stages are largely really well designed, each with distinct challenges. One takes place in the air during a flying carpet race. Another has Shantae lost in a spooky mansion. While they don’t really break any new ground, they are interesting and fun to play though. The linear nature makes for some awkward bit, when you must go back to stages to look for doodads and power-ups. It is tempting to run back to each stage after completing the next one and getting a new power-up, and the game encourages this by gating the unlocking of the next stage behind completing some tasks for the townsfolks. They are not onerous tasks and the time spent searching for whatever the citizen or Uncle Mimic needs can also be used to scrounge up extra hearts and collectibles. They are fun to explore, up to a point and by the end of the game it reaches the point where it stops being fun and starts being a little tedious.

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Shantae controls as well as usual. Unlike the original GBC game, her hair actually feels like it has sufficient length to make a good weapon. I did have a little bit of a problem with the difficulty curve. The first stage, after the quick opening one, is likely to be the most difficult task in the game save for the final level. You haven’t really had a chance to get any extra hearts or power-ups at that point, so it is all about the player’s skill. After that, when the player gets more and more hearts and finds numerous healing items, the folds like tissue paper. Until the last stage, which is suitably challenging.

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Most of my complaints here are nitpicks, reasons why Shantae: ½ Genie Hero is not the best game ever, merely an extremely good one. My expectations for this series grows with each game I play, and each time the new game exceeds them. I don’t really know is this game is better than the previous one, but at the very least it is as good. Shantae: ½ Genie Hero joins Shovel Knight as one of the best Kickstarter triumphs.

Top 10 Games 2016

Before I get to the actual Top 10 list, I have some other business to attend to, some honorable mentions and games left off the list for various reasons. First is that it should be noted that I really only played new games on 3DS and WiiU this year. I don’t have a PS4 or Xbox1 and I don’t have any concrete plans to get either. (The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy XV, the Final Fantasy XII remake, Yakuza 0, 6 and Kiwami and Persona 5 are actually getting pretty close to forcing my hand about picking up a PS4, but I’m not there until at least after Christmas) While the WiiU sputtered into an early grave, the 3DS had a hell of a year. There were more good 3DS games than I could reasonably play. I didn’t end up with time to play Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse or River City Tokyo Rumble enough to accurately rate them. The same goes for Return to Popolocrois and Final Fantasy Explorers, but judging on my limited time with each neither seemed likely to make my Top 10 list.

Now on to the honorable mentions, of which I have four. The first three are all remakes and compilations. I didn’t play much of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD since I just played it not that long ago, but what I’ve seen it seems to a fine update of what was already a very good game. It doesn’t appear to be as ambitious a remake as Wind Waker or the 3DS versions of the N64 games, but it is still a good game. Then there is the Sega 3D Classics Collection and Mega Man Legacy Collection. They are great games, or collections of great games, but they are not new games. The Mega Man Legacy Collection, especially, is an impressive collection of old games. That is a game that does it all right, bringing together some perfectly recreated old games with tons of the packaging and boxing of those games. It does an amazing job of preserving not just the games, but the ephemera around the games.

The last of my honorable mentions is Yakuza 5. It is hands down the best game I played this year. It is also a game that was released in December of last year and 2012 in Japan. If I had managed to play it last year, it would have been my number one. I was tempted to fudge things to make it this year’s number one. No other game I played this year had anywhere close to as many fist fights with bears.

Now, on with the list, with links to any posts I’ve written about these games. (Last minute edit: I’ve spent the last two weeks or so suddenly being enthralled by Monster Hunter Generations which forced me to find a place for it on the list, but I didn’t want to take anything off. So now the last two tie for tenth place)

sf02(tie) 10: Star Fox 0 – I called Star Fox 0 a damn fine game, but not a great one and I stand by that. It is a game that flashes the greatness of this series one truly excellent entry, but the rest of it is full of Nintendo experimentation. The game on the whole is a messy; not all of the new things work and it does more to show what doesn’t work than what does, but it doesn’t stop the whole package from being a lot of fun.

mlpj4(tie) 10: Mario & Luigi Paper Jam – I might be giving this a little boost over some game competition (notably Bravely Second End Layer) thanks to it being the only dose of Mario and company I had this year, but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid game. The further I get away from it, the less the somewhat tedious endgame dominates my memory of the game, like it did when I wrote it up earlier this year.

dq739: Dragon Quest VII – This is among my least favorite of the numbered Dragon Quest games, but like the rest of the series it overflows with charm and humor. Clearly, I do like the game, but for every fun bit with Maribel or Ruff there is a baffling decision like hiding the job system for the first half of the game. DQVII is a great 40 hour game that takes about 70 hours to beat. Still, the good 40 hours more than outweighs the bloat that has creeped in.

mhg8: Monster Hunter Generations – More has changed with this game from MH4U than it first initially appears, especially since graphics aren’t really one of the things that are different.  Still, the new hunter styles give every weapon even more flexibility than it already had there is so much good content that you could place this game for a year and not run out of things to do.

tms47: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE – This isn’t even close to what I expected from a SMT/FE crossover, but the finished product was a pretty enjoyable JRPG. It is the Persona game people have been waiting for since Persona 4 came out, with just a dash of Fire Emblem thrown in. It is all pastels and nonsense, but shockingly enjoyable.

bbb6: BoxBoxBoy – BoxBoy was simple perfection and the sequel is more of the same. It is the puzzle platformer distilled to its essence and is all the more enjoyable for it. It keeps the same simple concepts of the original, but with a few new wrinkles.

shgh5: Shantae: ½ Genie Hero – Not the best game I’ve Kickstarted, which would be Shovel Knight, but it is in the same league. It has beautiful graphics and it fulfills the promise that was the original GBC Shantae. It uses the same set tools as that game, but fixes all of little problems that crept in thanks to the limited nature of the system it was on. This is a great platform game with solid physics and a great sense of empowerment. It is just so good.

psm24: Pokémon Moon – A strong year for the 3DS kept what is one of the strongest Pokémon games from landing even higher on my list. It keeps the foundations of the series in place, but shakes up many of the series’ traditions. It makes for a fresh feel to a familiar experience. And since the basics of Pokémon are so well constructed it works very well.

aasoj43: Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice – I can’t say that the series has really been wandering in the wilderness for most of the last decade; the last few games have all been solid, but Spirit of Justice is easily the strongest this series has been since Trials and Tribulations. It does everything this series does so well.

kpr12: Kirby Planet Robobot – I don’t think Nintendo has a series quite as consistent as Kirby. Yeah, it alternates between normal platform games and oddball titles like Rainbow Curse, but those platform games are all excellent. Planet Robobot is a Kirby game; that is really all you need to know about it. There are lots of powers to absorb. Tons of levels that are easy to beat, but somewhat difficult to master. It is simply a very well made game.

ffex1: Fire Emblem Fates – I am rolling all three versions of this game – Birthright, Conquest and Revelations – together as one title. It is essentially three paths through one game, though those paths share very little other than the same game world. I don’t think this is my favorite Fire Emblem, none of the three paths feels exactly right to me, but I can’t deny the sheer amount of enjoyment I got from this supersized package.

Top 10 Movies of 2016

This year’s top 10 is nowhere near as top heavy as last year’s was. There was nothing this year as phenomenal as Mad Max: Fury Road. And I don’t see a movie I liked as much as Inside Out falling anywhere near 7 on this list, though if I were to do last year’s list again I don’t see Inside Out falling to 7. Still, the movies I’ve seen this year have had a fairly high floor even if most of them didn’t rise above middling. I definitely saw a lot more movies, though a lot of that was me making a point of seeing new stuff that came to Netflix and the like. So my list of new movies seen stands closer to 50 than last year’s 20, but I would say I liked to some extent or another about 30 of those movies. Here are my Top 10:

bvsp10: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Cut – This is only the so-called Ultimate Cut, the extended version. After seeing it I have a hard time understanding how they ended up with the cut they originally released. The long cut – 3 hours – fixes nearly all of the story problems that the original had and provides a lot of context for many of the movie’s more incongruous scenes. Most of what it added back were scenes showing what Clark and Lois were up to throughout the movie, which makes Superman’s journey through the movie actually work. With this cut I really enjoyed the film.

zootopiampmoana9: Moana/Zootopia – I can’t choose between the two of these movies. Disney is on a hot streak, and both of these films continue it. I’m not sure Zootopia’s metaphor holds up to scrutiny, but it is a charming world with fun characters. Moana’s limited number of characters is more than made up for in the just sheer delight that is on the screen. They are both excellent.

cacw8: Captain America Civil War – This one kept sliding down the list as I made it. I remember liking it quite a bit coming out of the theater, but the few times I’ve thought of it since haven’t raised my opinion of it. I guess I really need to see it again, but right now all that are really sticking in my mind are a few outstanding scenes.

kuboposter7: Kubo and The Two Strings – There are some parts of this movie that didn’t quite work for me, but animation is so beautiful and the parts that do work are so strong that I can’t bring myself to get hung up on the quibbles.

 

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6: Arrival – Smart, methodical science fiction with an excellent star performance from Amy Adams. It is good to see a movie like this that doesn’t rely on explosions to tell its story.

 

stb5: Star Trek Beyond – I gave a solid review to Into Darkness, but upon rewatching I think I side more with the general opinion of that movie than I did a few years ago. This Star Trek feels like an amped up episode of the show. Sure, things are bigger than they need to be and there seems to be one scene missing with the villain to make his whole deal really work, but the rest of it is so good it doesn’t matter. This was the most fun I had at the movies all summer.

rogueone4: Rogue One – Recency bias maybe, but this was one of the most purely pleasurable movie going experiences of the year. The only thing holding it back from being among my favorite Star Wars movie is the downplaying of the music. Still, a Star Wars movie that emphasizes the war part of the title is just different enough. It has lots of great performances – I loved Donnie Yen – and one of the best climactic battles scenes I’ve ever seen. It is just great.

hcmp3: Hail, Caesar! – Even a lesser Coen Brother’s movie is a treat. I’m not even sure how lesser this one is. It won’t be counted among their masterpieces, but I can see myself going back to watch it much more readily than True Grit or Burn After Reading. It is mostly an excuse for a bunch of big name actors to play out bad versions of classic Hollywood movies and it is just a lot of fun to watch.

1b: The Nice Guys – I am really sad I missed this in the theater. It is does just about everything right as these two detectives do everything wrong. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are great and the rest of the movie just works.

landfmp1a: Love & Friendship – Unlike anything else on my list or anything else I saw this year, this movie is amazing. It is hands down the funniest movie I saw this year, with a lot of funny actors giving performances that are at the same time restrained and hilarious.

25 Games 25 Years 20: DoReMi Fantasy

I included this game, DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (Milon’s Heart-Pounding Adventure) because I mysteriously appeared on Virtual Console in the middle of the Wii’s life. It wasn’t the earliest import title on the service, but it came fairly early in that initiative and seemed like an odd choice. There were definitely more high profile releases that never made the trip to America, like Secret of Mana’s sequel Seiken Densetsu 3, or games that already had an English translation, like Terranigma. Instead we go this little known sequel to a not particularly good or well-remembered NES game. It was a little intriguing and a little baffling, especially given that the limited coverage of it was fairly positive. Playing it for the first time a few weeks ago I was shocked. DoReMi Fantasy is not just a solid little platformer, it is one of the best platform games on the SNES.

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DoReMi Fantasy is the story of a little boy, Milon, whose fairy friend Alis has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Amon. So he sets off on an adventure to rescue her and restore music to his forest home. Milon has to find the five magical instruments and find the magic stars to restore their powers. While Milon himself looks like a cutesy Link from Legend of Zelda, the game is much more in the Mario mold. The game is primarily a run and jump adventure, with Milon eventually getting a small number of other abilities as he goes along, most notably he can make a magical set of stairs out of musical notes. Otherwise, it is largely the same as Mario or Donkey Kong. Milon doesn’t kill enemies by jumping on them, which merely stuns them. Instead he must catch them in a bubble that he blows with what appears to be a straw.

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It starts out fairly easy but by the end the difficulty has ramped up to something approaching hard, though it never gets particularly difficult. It begins at a Kirby level, but ends near late Mario game difficulty. Milon can take 3 hits before dying and life restoring items are plentiful. The level design ranges from devious to delightful, never unfair but sometimes a little frustrating with well-placed enemies.  None of them are particularly hard, but few are cakewalks.

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Really, the game just does everything right. The graphics are bright and clear, with expressive, colorful sprites and some well-designed worlds to go along with standards like forest, ice and lava worlds. The controls are pitch perfect and the music is more environmental than most SNES games but it works really well. It is also just damn charming. The cutscenes are goofy fun. One has Milon choosing between Bombermen to help him get past an obstacle, one of which blows Milon up. One boss isn’t an ally of the enemy, merely a rapscallion blocking the way. It all makes for a game that is just a joy to play.

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While the game breaks no new ground, it does everything it wants with precision. It doesn’t quite stand up to Super Mario World, but I wouldn’t put any other SNES platform game much higher than it. I’ve said it before going through this project, but this is just the sort of game I hoped to find doing this.

Mighty-ish No 9

I deliberately waited a few months after Mighty No 9 was released before I played it.  I wasn’t so much put off by poor reviews, I’m able to form my own opinions even after hearing others.  It was more that I didn’t want to participate in the dogpile that was going on.  I contributed to Mighty No 9’s Kickstarter, at a low tier, and I consider it money well spent.  It was an invaluable look at how the sausage was made, though the process can be messy.  It was also a valuable look into the seething black heart that makes up a vocal portion of the gaming internet, the overriding ugliness that was fully revealed in a certain well known blow up of hatred and misogyny that started a few years ago.  Mighty No 9 was such a great learning experience that the quality of the game was an afterthought.  In the end, Comcept and Keiji Inafune delivered exactly what they promised – an action game made in the model of Mega Man – though it wasn’t quite as good was it could have been.

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There were clearly a lot of problems right from the get go, problems that were built into the Kickstarter.  Comcept was in trouble the moment they promised to release the game across so many platforms: PS3, PS4, VIta, Xbox 1, Xbox 360, WiiU, 3DS, PC, Mac, and Linux.  Compare that to the highly successful Kickstarter project Shovel Knight, which launched on WiiU, 3DS and PC.  Only three platforms, not ten.  The testing and porting seems to have been an insurmountable task.  Then there was the fact that they started development on Unreal Engine 3 shortly before support for that engine was dropped for UE4.  These are things I never really thought about before this Kickstarter.  
Nearly everything about Mighty No 9 has been the target of intense criticism.  Like the graphics.  They do look bad in stills screenshots.  The models as blocky and the backgrounds are often sparse.  The thing is, it is clearly an aesthetic choice. The game looks exactly like it is intended. It is much like Earthbound, a game lambasted for its simple graphics in its day, going for a simple charm instead of flash or detail. Honestly, it looks pretty good in motion.  The characters designs are strong, even if they didn’t make the translation to 3D models perfectly. And the sparse backgrounds help make the action more clear.

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The game does a lot of things well. The controls are impeccable. Beck is a lot of fun to move around. The music is good, with enough excellent tracks to offset a few lackluster ones. Most of the stages are solid challenges, though there are a few duds and nearly every stage has a spot that seems unfair rather than hard.

What sinks Mighty No 9 is an astonishing lack of polish. A lack of polish that permeates the entire game. Largely pleasant graphics are undone by some barren backgrounds and garbage effects textures. Cutscenes with dull dialogue and numerous gaffes and typos. Fun levels derailed by rough screens with too many instant death traps or poorly placed enemies. Then there are the loading times, a problem that may be exclusive to the WiiU version, which border on criminal. And I am given to understand that the patch that installed with the game supposedly helped with load times. It is a death by a thousand cuts scenario, where none of these problems are enough to ruin the experience on their own (actually, the level designs ones might be) but together it makes the game feel inordinately ramshackle. While I am far from an expert, I would guess that many of these problems stem from their attempt to launch on so many platforms at once. They were testing for consoles, computers and handhelds (though those last versions have yet to materialize), and too many things fell through the cracks.

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Technical problems aside, there is one big thing that hampers Mighty No 9. For all that the characters look like original flavor Mega Man knock-offs, the game that Inafune and company are trying to recreate here is not Mega Man 2 or even Mega Man 3. This game was made in the mold of Mega Man X4. With its emphasis on dashing, MN9 plays a lot more like a Mega Man X game than a game from the original series. Also, X4 is the game where the story stuff something of a front seat, like it does here to the game’s detriment. I am not opposed, in theory, to MN9’s use of Star Fox like banter mid-level, but the banter needs to be more interesting that what is on display here. If I went in expecting Mega Man X, this wouldn’t really be a problem; but I wanted, and thought this was intended to be, more like the original flavor. That it is what it is is not necessarily a flaw, but it does take a realignment of my expectations.

I am running out of steam here, and don’t really have it in me to go after the asinine elements of gaming culture that coalesced around outright hate over the last few years, with the moronic controversy over a community manager for this project was one of the preludes to all of that contemptible bullshit. I can’t help feel that the fallout from that helped fuel the backlash this game has faced. This post isn’t really about that, but it is hard to ignore that chapter of this game’s development. Someday, I might write out my thoughts on that subject at length, or I would if I thought anybody wanted to read it or thought it might help the people whose lives had been hurt by it.

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In retrospect, the sad fate of Mighty No 9 seems almost inevitable. It was never going to be all the things people wanted it to be. That is how Comcept could deliver exactly what the Kickstarter promised, though admittedly it was not as good a game as people had hoped, and still have people feel ripped off. The Kickstarter promised a game inspired by Mega Man and other old school action games and that is exactly what we got. It turned out to be the Gobots to Mega Man’s Transformers, but it could never be anything else. And aside from just the seeing the sausage get made aspect to it, it also illuminated the startling entitlement that is endemic to the gaming public.

For all of its high profile and long delays, Mighty No 9 feels like the rough draft of a good game, a feeling not dissimilar to the feeling from playing Mega Man 1. A sequel that takes some of the legitimate complaints to heart could have a jump in quality not unlike that between MM1 and MM2.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Like last years The Force Awakens, Rogue One is a Star Wars movie that exists to comment on Star Wars. Specifically on Star Wars: A New Hope. The Force Awakens was a restatement of purpose. It was A New Hope again, consciously and purposefully. It gave viewers new, immediately iconic characters to root for, but it didn’t break a lot of new ground. It was Star Wars as you always remembered it. I wonder how that is going to age, but it was the right move for last year, for getting people back into the series ten years after the middling prequels. Rogue One, on the other hand, seeks to remind viewers of A New Hope by filling in the cracks around that movie. It is a movie about how that movie came to be, with as many reminders as possible. It nears the ghoulish at times, like with its digital recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, but for the most part it works at putting the viewer on the margins of the grand saga and giving a different perspective on the series.

Rogue One does have a completely different perspective than other Star Wars movies. This is not a tale in the grand saga of the Skywalker family and the force, while it is mentioned and plays a role in the movie, is not a big part of it. This is a grittier look on how the Rebellion got well and truly started, with Jyn Erso, the daughter of an Imperial scientist, conscripted by the nascent Rebel Alliance to find a message from her father that might give them information about the secret project he is working, which is in fact the Death Star. She is joined by Cassian and K-2SO, a rougher take on Han & Chewie to seek out her old mentor Saw Gerrera, who is said to have the Imperial Pilot that carried the message. Eventually this leads to them and a small handful of others taking on a dangerous mission as a last ditch attempt to give the Rebels a chance to stop the Death Star.

Perhaps the movie’s greatest flaw is that it doesn’t truly flesh out Jyn. It gives her a starting point and an endpoint, but it never really shows her change. Rogue One doesn’t do a great job of letting the viewer in on her thoughts, so it is hard to understand her changes. For the rest of the impromptu crew it works. The Viewer is meant to question Cassian’s loyalties at times, so his remoteness makes sense. The others from K-2SO, an amusing combination of C-3PO and Chewbacca, who is all quips to the badass duo of the force attuned blind warrior Chirrut Imwe and heavily armed Baze Malbus, are side characters with simple or no arcs, we are given all the information we need to sympathize with them. But Jyn, the protagonist, is kept just as far from the viewer as the rest. She gives a rousing speech before the start of the third act. It is a great speech, but it doesn’t really follow what we’ve seen from her character. It seems like there is a scene missing where she lets go of her reluctance to commit to the rebel cause.

Around the dangerous covert missions is the second point of Rogue One, which is that it works as connection tissue between the prequels and the original trilogy. That is where the numerous references to A New Hope come from; the movie is determined to set its place in the timeline to just before the original trilogy started. But there are also references to the prequels, like Jimmy Smits resuming his role as Bail Organa, adopted father of Leia. It is certainly a Star Wars movie, but while it does do anything to further the saga, it is a great story in its own right while also providing some much needed connective tissue.

Rogue One is deliberately not the crowd pleaser that The Force Awakens was, but for all that is was a movie about the series past, I think it delivered more new Star Wars moments. The characters, while in some cases reminiscent of other Star Wars characters, actually felt new. I don’t mean to denigrate The Force Awakens, which laid the seeds for the future of Star Wars and its character are sure to stick with viewers for a long time, but they also feel like there were created with more in mind than the story of just the movie. Rogue One just feels more impactful. As a one off, its character’s stories are told all in this one film. Between that and some of the best action scenes in the series, Rogue One is one of the most satisfying movies of the year.

****1/2

Pokémon Sun & Moon

Checking my posts about previous Pokémon games, I am confident say that this game is my favorite in the series since Black & White. Maybe since all the way back to Red and Blue. Pokémon Moon is a phenomenal game. While I found Alpha Sapphire tedious, just like I found Sapphire tedious, I did like X & Y and Black & White 2, they didn’t quite grasp me like the game’s I’ve truly loved have. White grabbed my attention with its collection of all new Pokémon. There was no finding the same old monsters you’ve been seeing since 1998; throughout the main game all that could be found were new monsters. Y, which didn’t grab me the same way, tried to differentiate itself by finally moving the series into 3D polygonal graphics. It was a good and necessary change, but it wasn’t enough on its own to get me to love the game. Moon keeps the graphical improvements from Y, but also shakes of the series usual progression in some fun and interesting ways.

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Pokémon Moon may be the most plot heavy games in the series. There is more than just the usual 8 gym badges interspersed with showdowns with the local Team Rocket equivalent. In fact, there are no gyms at all. The evil team stuff does take a bit of a step forward, but their plans are less world dominating maniacal and more street punks on a rampage. This is mixed with a plot about Pokémon from another dimension crossing over into this one. Replacing the gym leaders are Trial Captains and Kahunas, which are essentially the same thing, except instead of a gym they have trials for the player to complete. This works into the expanded story parts by letting the Captains and Kahunas show up more often on the adventure. Some are just the guys you see in the one scene where you fight them, others are encountered all over the island helping the player out. Each of the game’s four islands has a Kahuna, chosen by the island’s guardian Pokémon, who appoints the Captains to test people before they battle the Kahuna. A big part of the game is the local Pokémon Professor going around trying to set up an elite 4 like in the other regions. All of these different elements come together to make a game that is much more about the story of this area than previous games and a little less about the player’s quest to be the Champion. It isn’t a huge change, but it is a big enough one to make Pokémon Moon seem fresh compared to the previous generation.

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There have also been rather significant to the gameplay. The big one is dumping HMs. Hidden Moves, or HMs, were a gameplay element that let the player use moves on the world map. The series relied on these for environmental puzzles in previous generations. They were also on the whole not terribly useful moves that were impossible to get rid of. It lead to most players carting around one Pokémon whose only skill was the ability to learn 3 or 4 of those moves. Sun & Moon have eliminated them in favor of several Pokémon that can be called to solve those puzzles and are gradually unlocked as the game progresses. I was never a big detractor of HMs. There were occasionally a chore, but the series has scaled them back since Diamond & Pearl and they weren’t much of a hassle. Still, I can’t claim losing them isn’t an improvement. The solution keeps the basic functionality without clogging up the player’s team.

Instead of filling up the Pokedex with tons of new monsters, the highlight of each new generation and something that is quickly becoming untenable as the number of Pokémon approached 1000, Sun & Moon adds a ton of new forms for old Pokémon. It works with an idea that has already exists, region variants that look different from others of the same kind of Pokémon, except now they can have new types. Stuff like adding dark type to Rattata. It essentially takes old Pokémon and makes them new Pokémon, but in a more interesting way than X&Y’s Mega Evolutions.

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I really didn’t care for Mega Evolution. I found them goofy and not especially fun. Most of the Mega Evolutions went to Pokémon who were already strong, making them largely unnecessary. Sun & Moon add Z moves, a similar concept that just works better. They are powered by an item the Pokémon holds, and any Pokémon with the appropriate attack type can use them. Plus, they are accompanied by a goofy dance the trainer does. Instead of making one Pokémon super powerful, it gives a Pokémon on superpowered move. It is better balanced and more easy to customize to the player’s team.

I really liked Pokémon Moon. I enjoyed it enough that I am thinking of spending some significant time with the post-game. Usually I make a token effort before putting the game in my get back to pile and never getting back to it. (The big exception to this was Pokémon Pearl, which I put nearly 400 hours on.) Much like the second generation on the DS, the second 3DS generation really feels like it got things right. I again feel excited to play whatever the series has coming next. Maybe I’ll finally get around to downloading one of the original games on my 3DS.

Allied Review

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Allied feels very old fashioned. It clearly is attempted to comment on and in some ways emulate Casablanca, generally regarded as the best movie or at least one of the best movies of all time. That goes from its opening in Casablanca to its ending on a desolate airfield. It should be no shock to learn that it doesn’t quite soar to those heights. It is a movie that relies on its stars to carry it, and those stars, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, do that admirably, especially Cotillard. Still, thanks to some structural problems it doesn’t quite work as well as it could.

Pitt stars a Max Vatan, a Canadian British pilot who parachutes into Casablanca for a covert mission. There he meets up with Marianne Beausejour, Cotillard, the lone survivor from a French Resistance group. Together they infiltrate the Nazi favoring government to assassinate the German ambassador. During the mission Max and Marianne fall for each other, and Max brings her back to England with him afterwards. The movie then speeds through nearly two years, with the two of them now married with a daughter living in England. It is then that Max gets a report that Marianne might not be who she says she is and may in fact be a Nazi spy. Though he is forbidden from investigating himself, he proceeds to do exactly that in order to find out if his marriage is a lie.

The first hour or so is a downright excellent spy movie. The two of them make a good team as they navigate the treacherous path to get into that party. It is tense and moving, with Pitt doing enough and Cotillard being amazing. It helps that everything is compressed, with little except for the barebones needed to tell its story, keeping the tension high and the pace moving. After that is a similarly rushed trip through their courtship and her pregnancy. During this first half of the film there are some excellent scenes, from a sex scene during a sandstorm to the birth of their child during a bombing in the blitz.

It is too bad that the second half of the movie doesn’t quite stack up. Much of that has to do with how little Marianne there is during that portion. She quickly has suspicion cast on her and Max, unable to just wait while the government’s test is run, runs about trying to prove her innocence by finding anyone who knew her in France, which is hard since most of them are dead. Again the tension builds, as Max struggles to find proof of her innocence and normally innocent run ins take on a sinister cast with his suspicions. Then there is the thought that maybe this is all a test of him in preparation for a promotion, with the British Intelligence needing to be absolutely sure that he will follow orders. It works, but not quite as well as that first half.

I almost feel like I should have liked this movie more than I did, because it does most things right. The real problem is that while I like Pitt and Cotillard, the part that is the least believable is their romance. That part is sped through, hoping that the performers can find the chemistry to sell and they fall just a little short. Allied is perfectly good, but not nearly great.

****

What I Read November 2016

Four books again in November, though I did read a lot of a couple books I didn’t manage to finish (Republic of Thieves and Mornings on Horseback) so next month I might be able to get 5 read. Or not, what with the holidays taking up a lot of time.

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The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore

This is an amazing book for anyone who is a fan of Wonder Woman or Golden Age comics or simply a fan of fantastic weirdos. The Secret History of Wonder Woman tells the story of the character’s creators. Not only William Moulton Marston, the credited creator and writer of the comic from its inception until his death, but also Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, his wife and their lover.

As is made clear over the course of this excellent book, William Moulton Marston was a fantastic weirdo. I don’t mean that in any malicious way; it is just that he lived a live that was odd by any measure. What is most amazing his how many aspects of his life found their way into his work on Wonder Woman, which came comparatively late in his life. He was a psychologist and lawyer, but his wife was the breadwinner. Mostly because Marston himself was not especially successful at his endeavors. He invented an early version of the lie detector test, but was unable to market it well. They were all tied to the feminist movement of the early 20th century, with some of the leaders of the that organization being closely related to this extended family and some their ideas being referenced in Wonder Woman stories, as well as some of Marston’s own idiosyncrasies – like the emphasis on bondage. Lepore does an excellent job of illuminating these people, keeping their weirdness but making them seem very human.

It shows how Wonder Woman started as a strong feminist character, created by a strong, if unusual, feminist and how that legacy was erased once Marston died and control of the character was wrested from his family. This is an amazing book about some amazing people.

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The Monogram Murders

Sophie Hannah, Agatha Christie

This is a continuation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories and it reads like one. For better or worse, Hannah has done an excellent job of aping Christie’s Poirot. The plot doesn’t quite hold up to that standard, but this does feel remarkably like a lesser Christie. The mystery centers around three people found dead at the same hotel, with all of their rooms set up the same way. While the three had not come to the hotel at the same time, they were all connected to events in a small town years before. Its twists get a little ludicrous, but that is not unheard of for Christie. The biggest problem Poirot’s sidekick Catchpool, who is preposterously bad at his job. I know having a somewhat dull counterpart to the detective is a staple of detective novels, but Catchpool, who ends up carrying large parts of this somewhat overlong book, is among the least competent police men I’ve ever encountered in a novel. That is probably the biggest thing that keeps this from being more than a lesser Poirot story. Still, I enjoyed it enough to seek out more.

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A Duty to the Dead

Charles Todd

I’ve read the first three books of this series of WW1 mysteries completely out of order, which largely doesn’t matter does confuse things a little. Bess Crawford is a WW1 nurse who tries to honor the last request of a soldier in her care who died. She goes to his home and ends up embroiled in a mystery that goes back to that soldier’s childhood, when his step-brother was accused of killing one of their servants. Since then he has been locked in an insane asylum. Events in this small town, as well as the soldier’s dying request, lead to doubt that brother’s culpability, but the four brothers are the only real suspects. It isn’t the best mystery I’ve ever encountered, feeling a little bloated and overstuffed for what turns out to be a not all the complex case. I would read further books in the series, but so far all three that I’ve read have been passable but not particularly exciting.

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Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones

I was not familiar with this book before the amazing Studio Ghibli movie, but I liked that enough to jump on a cheap copy of this a few years ago that I only now got around to reading. I know at the time of the movie’s release there were some grumblings about how the movie differed from the book. After reading the book, those complaints were well founded. While I love the movie for what it is, it is definitely Miyazaki’s story that just happens to use her world and characters.

The book is great. Sophie is the eldest of the Hatter girls, who believes she is doomed to failure. When her father dies, her step-mother arranges promising apprenticeships for the two younger daughters while she and Sophie run the family hat shop. That largely amounts to Sophie running the hat shop while her step-mother does whatever. The Witch of the Waste, confusing Sophie for one of her sisters, curses her to be an old lady. Sophie then leaves the hat shop and wanders the countryside, eventually finding the Moving Castle, the home of the Wizard Howl, who has as bad a reputation as the Witch of the Waste. There, Sophie agrees to help Calcifer, the fire demon, to break his contract with Howl. This leads to her living in the castle and getting to the bottom of several mysteries around the Kingdom of Ingary.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that there is only one villain, the Witch of the Waste, and even her story ends up being more pathetic than anything else. There are a lot of characters with conflicts with each other, but none of them are evil. Sophie’s step-mother can be kind of selfish, but she is a young widow who loves her children even if she might do what is best for her if not necessarily best for them. Howl is kind of a scoundrel, but he is a good guy deep down. Calcifer the fire demon only wants to be free, even if that might cause trouble for other people. Howl’s Moving Castle is kind of meandering at times, a little picaresque, but many of its episodes are a lot of fun and the world and characters are mostly a lot of fun. I think I’ll have to track down its sequels.