Not-So-Top Cartoons: Wreck-It Ralph

Something’s gone wrong in Videoland, and it’s not that Sarah Silverman found a way into it.

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I don’t know what to make of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s 2012 niche-teaser about a video game villain who just wants to be liked, dammit. Is it a morality tale? Is it an action film? Or is it just empty-headed entertainment that’s about as satisfying as a Sugar Rush?

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I’ll summarize it as best I can: there’s this arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., in which the player guides the friendly Felix up a building to stop the ape-like Wreck-It Ralph from busting up the place. It’s an obvious send-up of Donkey Kong, but this particular Kong is tired of getting tossed off a roof everyday. So, against the advice of his fellow bad guys, Ralph abandons his post and tries heroic deeds in other arcade games, so he can prove that he’s more than just a terrorizing thug.

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Along the way, Ralph is tormented by the violence of modern games, the gooey pitfalls of a saccharine candy-land, and the specter of a former villain who “game-jumped:” the glory hog Turbo, who caused two games to go out of order.

Like Pixar’s Toy Story or the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph presents us with a strangely complex society, with many rules and expectations for its citizens. Like the toons and toys of cartoons past, Wreck-It Ralph’s video game characters exist to please and entertain humans. As such, any individual’s attempt to rise above his or her station is considered disruptive to the community, and is thus met with disapproval. The mantra of Ralph’s support group, Bad-Anon, is, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

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So the message of the film seems to be the stale old platitude of “be happy with whom you are,” but with the tacked-on amendment of, “so long as you remember your place.”

I take issue with this because, in the real world, criminals (or “bad guys”) who reform are to be commended. It takes real effort and work to improve oneself, to recognize the consequences of one’s actions, to learn empathy, to foster positivity. Even if the motivation is self-serving, i.e., to avoid prison or to save money or to raise a family, breaking away from a life of crime is indisputably a good thing, for both the group and the individual.

So is the constant urging for Ralph to stop his pipe dreams of heroism and just get back to breaking things really healthy?

Keep in mind that I only “take issue” with this. I’m not offended by it, and I understand that Ralph’s world has certain requirements in order to function, but the can of worms that this story opens isn’t, and cannot be, fully explored, and that’s frustrating. There are many perspectives and feelings to consider in a topic as complex as this, and a Disney cartoon just isn’t equipped to handle them all. You might say that Ralph’s writers were aiming to raise questions, to encourage its audiences to have lively discussions on the ride home from the theater. When a movie’s height of humor is a sassy little girl spewing doody jokes, however, I highly doubt that it has such lofty artistic goals.

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Anyway, that’s my main beef with this film: the story feels slapped together to line up with its “Roger Rabbit in Videoland” premise. And really, that’s what Wreck-It Ralph is: an updated version of Robert Zemeckis’s masterpiece, only more niche. It references the Golden Age of Video Games, when kids actually played 8-bit games in arcades, it’s got cameos from faces such as Q-Bert, M. Bison, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Clyde, and its original characters are amalgamations of existing Disney fixtures, like Mickey Mouse and The Mad Hatter.

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I actually like that last part. Fix-It Felix Jr., as played by Jack McBrayer, is basically a human Mickey Mouse. He may have been modeled after Mario, but his movements, attitude, and mannerisms are all Mickey’s. Imagine any one of his lines in Wayne Allwine’s voice and you’ll see it, I promise you. I find this idea of a postmodern update to the Mickey persona fascinating.

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(spoiler warning)

Then there’s my favorite character, King Candy, who’s voiced by Ed Wynn…as impersonated by Alan Tudyk. Put a top hat on him and you’re back in Alice’s Wonderland. I actually think the King is more like Judge Doom, in that he’s an ancient, whispered evil in disguise, revealed by accident and assuming a monstrous form.

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Turbo is, of course, a device meant to lead Ralph’s quest to a battle to save all of Videoland, but I guess that’s okay. The real antagonist of this film seems to be the insufferable weight of one’s peers, though I suppose that’s open to interpretation. There are things I like about this movie — the performances of John C. Reilly as Ralph and McBrayer as Felix, the occasionally irreverent tone, the fact that it has no songs — but the rest of Wreck-It Ralph is pretty forgettable. As with most Disney productions, it never goes too far in any direction, for fear of upsetting somebody. So instead we get fizzy, fuzzy harmlessness painted in sweets and sugars, to be ingested for a quick high before seeking out something more filling.

A post-script: yes, the animation is excellent, but that’s to be expected from Disney. Besides, computer-generated animation is so prevalent now, even in freaking live-action films, that its spectacle has become numbing. Had Disney been bold enough to depict Wreck-It Ralph in the pixel-art style of the games it was evoking, it might have earned a real high score from me.

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Review: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

fe346ffcc73201e778e69c8e2ed24225.gifAt last, the winds of modern gaming have turned Nintendo’s sails, and tipped its fantasy-action flagship on its side. With The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild, the trendsetter has become the trend follower, and though this could be viewed as a sad capitulation, I prefer to think of it as an overdue adaptation.

Most gamers revere the Zelda series as a standard-bearer for action-adventure video games. The original NES game mixed fast-paced action with a relatively large world full of secrets of surprises, and then made it all easy to learn and play. A Link to the Past took this formula and structured it to align with a simple but dramatic plot. Then The Ocarina of Time transplanted the whole thing into a beautiful production that didn’t just look like a dream, but felt like one. The controls in Ocarina of Time were genius in their elegance, employing lock-on targeting and adjustable viewpoints. Its presentation rivaled anything seen on the PlayStation. The game wasn’t as challenging as previous entries in the series, and the game featured extensive tutorials to ease players into its features, but the graduation to 3D was so impressive that this didn’t matter. All the familiar elements of Zelda were present, but they were grander and more impressive than ever before. Ocarina was everything that Zelda fans had hoped it would be: a glorious jump into a new generation, and a literal game-changer.

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I guess this is all you really need to see.

Ocarina was such a success, in fact, that Nintendo itself became fearful of it. Its lengthy development had demanded a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of risk, and Nintendo didn’t want to mess with it. Aside from the polarizing Majora’s Mask, future titles were pretty safe in their design. There were gimmicks here and there, from Wind Waker’s sailing and toon graphics, to Skyward Sword’s motion controls, but the overall flow is the same: you explore a fantasy world, delve into a series of caves, castles, and dungeons, find special tools that aid your navigation, and then use those tools to advance to other caves, castles, and dungeons. Even the minute-to-minute action went untouched. Each game had its own unique monsters and puzzles, but they were conquered with the same backflipping and block-pushing we saw in 1998. Worst of all, the constant hand-holding only grew with each release. The language of 3D Zelda became static, and then stagnant.

Then the gameplay videos of a new, “open-world” Zelda trickled out of E3 2016, and everything changed.

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The first surprise was that these videos were hours long. We weren’t looking at bite-sized, self-contained samples with trite “Thank you for playing!” messages at their ends; this was the full game, and Nintendo was just setting people loose on it. They knew that even with the unprecedented access they were allowing, players would make meager progress, if any.

The reason for this was that the players didn’t want to make progress. They were too busy bounding across grassy hills, leaping streams and scaling cliffs. They were marveling at endless, gorgeous landscapes and devising clever methods for taking out monsters. They were chasing every distraction, and not once did a fairy or a lion or some glowing, talking sword interrupt or redirect them. The world was theirs to enjoy, and on their own terms. This was Zelda as I remembered it from the good old NES days: unbound, untethered, free, wild.

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With their well-advised Let’s Play approach, Nintendo conveyed a significant message: they’d recognized the rut they’d been in, they’d acknowledged the concerns of the fans, and most importantly, they’d paid attention to the market. They hadn’t overlooked the rise of Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Minecraft. They were going to take those upstarts on, and show that they still had the magic.

Breath of the Wild was Game of the Show. It will likely be Game of the Year. It sold a million Nintendo Switches. It sold me a Wii U. I don’t regret the purchase.

I won’t go over the premise or details of the game, as many other reviews have already done so, and any attempt of mine would be mere parroting. Instead, I’d like to describe what I find so confounding about the game: its unoriginality.

That’s right: Breath of the Wild doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen in video games before, and yet it somehow comes off as groundbreaking and magical. In taking familiar concepts and spinning them into Zelda’s universe, Nintendo makes the old appealing.

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Not something I expected to read in a Zelda game.

Why does this work? I think it’s because Zelda fans — and by extension, Nintendo fans — have been frustrated at Nintendo’s sideline strategies as of late: aiming for a theoretical market outside of the established hardcore where Sony and Microsoft hold court. Those who grew up with the genre-defining Nintendo have been holding their breaths, waiting for the emergence of their beloved franchise into the crafting-heavy, DLC-laden, micro-transaction world that gaming has become. They have accepted that Nintendo is no longer dominant; they hope for it at least to remain relevant.

By all measures, Nintendo has done this.

Gone is the formula of “find dungeon, clear dungeon.” Breath of the Wild still has its dungeons, but they needn’t be cleared or found in order to complete the game. The overarching goal is presented right at the beginning, and all else is optional. The real focus is on the world and how the player chooses to take it in.

There are familiar concepts at work to facilitate this. You’ve got towers, a la Far Cry, that Link can climb in order to reveal portions of the world map. There are Shrines where Link must solve a Portal-sized puzzle or two so he can claim a health enhancement. There are wild horses to tame as in Red Dead Redemption, and stables where he can board or take them out, like the garages in Grand Theft Auto V.

There’s also a crafting element, in the form of cooking. It’s very much derived from alchemy in Skyrim, right down to the principles. You gather ingredients by hunting animals, picking flowers, or catching insects. You throw these ingredients in an established crafting pot and you get a healing/buffing food item. Mix two or more ingredients with similar properties, and you get an improved version of that property. Nothing new, right?

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There are tweaks, though. You’re not restricted like you are in Skyrim. You don’t need to taste items and ensure that their properties match before combining them. You can experiment with multiple ingredients from the start and end up with satisfying results. Different categories of ingredients affect healing value, buff type, and buff duration. There are elaborate recipes like tarts, pies, and sushi that actually look kinda tasty. Plus, there’s a cute little animation that plays when you cook, in which all the little apples, herbs, and hunks of meat hop around to a tune.

Then there are the environmental hazards. Link has to deal with rain, snow, extreme heat, and even thunderstorms. Some of this stuff is just annoying: rain will make climbing any surface nigh impossible, while snow and sand slow Link’s movement. Others are dangerous, and even deadly, but a smart player can use them to his or her advantage. Setting a metal weapon in an enemy camp during a thunderstorm can bring about a wrathful Zeus-blast that spares Link a risky fight. Dropping fruit and meat in a volcanic area will result in instantly roasted meals with added healing potential. Toss food in icy water, and they’ll freeze over, gaining a heat-resistance buff. There’s a natural logic happening here that’s reminiscent of Minecraft, and if you ever catch yourself wondering if something will work, odds are that it will. It’s a wondrous feeling. The last time my experimentation was rewarded in a Zelda game was way back on the original NES, when I first tried burning a bush with a candle and found a hidden passage beneath it. The guy inside stole my money, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had a funny idea, tried it out, and found something I didn’t expect.

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Another significant change from previous Zelda games is that Link has learned how to climb like Altair in Assassin’s Creed, or Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Link can climb almost anything now, and that means that there are no real barriers in Hyrule, other than its furthest borders, of course. Link still has to manage his stamina as he climbs, or he’ll lose his grip and fall, possibly to his death (sorry, you can’t roll when you fall from a high place anymore). Even with this smart limitation, climbing allows a tremendous amount of freedom, and different players will approach their exploration in different ways. An anal player will likely seek out every possible path around a mountain, while an impatient one will simply climb over it.

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The greatest change — and to me, the most important — is the dramatic increase in difficulty. It’s very easy to die in Breath of the Wild, especially since the game doesn’t warn you of its many lethal threats. Monsters can hack off as many as ten hearts with a single blow, so it’s easy to charge into a fight completely unprepared. When Link collapses from an unexpectedly powerful attack, and that red “GAME OVER” wafts onto the screen, I’m sure that Dark Souls fans will have some unpleasant flashbacks. Beating the challenges of Breath of the Wild requires harsh learning, and perhaps the occasional face-plant.

This is critical to me because I feel the Zelda series has become far too easy for its own good. Monsters in past 3D Zeldas have been typified by their slow, lumbering movements, but here, they hop about madly, make lengthy combination attacks, and are happy to gang up on Link for unfair fights. Link still has his backflip and side dodges, but he can also parry attacks with his shield and respond with mighty counterattacks. There are satisfying callouts for these special defenses, and it’s all very Dark Souls. The toughness of the monsters demands skillful play, and I find this invigorating and refreshing. Again, I think the thrill is amplified simply because it’s unexpected from this series. I’m just so happy that Zelda is difficult again! It’s a fanboy thrill, but I’ll take it anyway.

There’s something more, though. Something greater. It’s the mixture of these many systems with this beautiful, expansive world that makes Breath of the Wild irresistible. The possibilities presented by the game’s physics, logic, and move-sets are almost limitless, and enterprising players can create action sequences far more memorable than any scripted Call of Duty set-piece:

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THIS is the success of Breath of the Wild: its steadfast faith in the talents of the player. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will play this game in a predictable and conservative manner, but the option for experimentation is there, and that alone makes me very happy. For once, Zelda isn’t about searching for Hookshot targets, it’s about making your own way through, and if we’re going to get anywhere with Nintendo, we must praise them for respecting our intelligence.

Now that I’ve gushed, it’s time for the negatives. I realize that to complain about anything in such a generous feast of a game would come off as exceedingly ungrateful, but I’m compelled by honesty to mention the few minor issues I had with it. Bear with me.

First, the game chugs, and unnervingly so at times. In grassy areas with lots of monsters, the frame rate drops into the teens. It didn’t affect my fighting, but it was frustrating to see. There were also a few occasions — usually upon slaying a Moblin — when the game froze completely. Several anxious seconds passed before it snapped back into action, just an instant before I made to reset my console. Nintendo has released a patch that’s mollified the problem, but hasn’t rectified it.

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Second, I wish there was greater variety in the monster types. There’s an impressive panoply of baddies in the game, and they increase in strength as Link does, but there are really only three major types you’ll deal with during your travels. As I wandered the game’s diverse environments, I hoped to encounter all kinds of monsters to match them, like nests of Skulltulas, rock-hopping Tektites, or burrowing Leevers. I soon learned, however, that Bokoblins, Moblins, and Lizalfos were the meat of the enemy army, and that was disappointing.

Finally, some of the game’s quests are bummers. Most of the side quests are quite interesting and involving, particularly the ones regarding Shrines. There are others, though, that slip into typical RPG tedium, and make me wish that Hyrule was even less populous than it already is. Bring me fifty bundles of wood. Show me a Moblin Club. Can I have ten luminous stones or restless crickets? There’s some cute and charming dressing to it, but it’s still just filler.

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Still, Breath of the Wild is so engrossing that I performed every task it assigned to me. Then, as my quest list shrank and I struggled to refill it, I realized that it was time to stop screwing around and make for the final goal. That was when I stopped playing for a few days, and became hesitant, uncomfortable about returning to it.

The reason was simple, and yet oh-so-rare: I didn’t want it to be over. That may be the kindest, most recommending thing to be said about a piece of entertainment, and Breath of the Wild is one of those precious few pieces that earns it. I can’t say that this is my favorite Zelda game; that title remains with the very first Zelda on the NES, which is short, so I can play through it every week if I want to. Breath of the Wild is like an epic novel that one reads once every few years. You’ll never forget it, though. Once you’ve played it, it will always be a part of you.

Controller1.com rating: 3/3

Top Non-Cartoons: Innerspace

This may be a bit on-the-nose, what with Innerspace being a Joe Dante film, starring Martin Short, and featuring a cameo by Chuck Jones. Still, I think it deserves recognition as a Non-Cartoon, if only because we just don’t see a lot of movies that are this damn crazy anymore, and certainly not done this well.

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Innerspace came out in 1987, right around the time I was heavy into game-books like Choose Your Own Adventure. I had recently picked up Explorer Destination: Brain at my school’s Book Fair and read it to tatters. I think I learned more about human biology from that silly little book than I did from any science class.

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Anyway, so jazzed was I about adventures in human anatomy that Innerspace grabbed me from its first trailer. It had informed me of the basic plot: a miniaturized pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets injected into the body of an everyman (Short), who seeks the aid of the pilot’s girlfriend (Meg Ryan) to get him out. It sounds like a decent sci-fi setup, even if it’s one that’s been done before. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that when you go into a Joe Dante picture, you never get quite what you expect.

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The film has all the elements of a sci-fi thriller, but they’re all bent into weird angles. Short’s everyman, Jack, is a neurotic mess who has nightmares about grumpy ladies attacking him at his cashier job. Quaid’s heroic pilot, Tuck, is a cocky drunk who smacks himself for a quick psych. When Tuck’s miniaturization experiment is raided by thieves, the lead scientist, Ozzy, escapes by zipping down a highway on a ten-speed. He tries to vanish into the crowd at a mall, but one of the bad guys shoots him with a gun hidden in his prosthetic hand. Ozzy saves Tuck by injecting him into Short’s ass-cheek, and then proceeds to bleed out while surrounded by performers wearing animal costumes.

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As you can see, this movie’s on the edge of Goofytown, and it doesn’t stop at the outskirts. Tuck eventually makes contact with Jack in a series of hilarious and awkward scenes that leave Jack wondering if he’s been possessed. Jack meets Ryan’s character, Lydia, who’s not only Tuck’s girlfriend, but an investigative reporter looking into the aforementioned tech thieves, and promptly falls in love with her. The two work together to trap a fence called The Cowboy (Robert Picardo), an Eastern European who’s about as far from a real cowboy as anyone can be. All the while, Jack has to avoid telling Lydia the truth about Tuck, simply because Tuck’s embarrassed about being so tiny.

Things just keep building like this, taking turn after kooky turn, until Tuck is dueling a cyborg over an ocean of bubbling stomach acid, while Jack and Lydia fly down busy roads in an out-of-control car, battling arms dealers who are the size of children.

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Don’t ask me how it all works. I’m just not that smart. I’m sure the amazing special effects help. The visuals from inside Jack’s body are quite impressive, even by today’s standards. Tuck starts his journey in Jack’s buttocks (the fat cells are really just balloons), and using the bloodstream like a highway, he visits some very real-looking eyes, inner ears, lungs, and heart valves. Using slow motion and clever sound effects, Dante makes the human body into a majestic and scary place.

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More important than the visuals, though, are the performances. Martin Short finds real  sympathy as Jack, even when he goes full screwball. Short can be grating in other films, but I think he’s palatable here because his overacting seems appropriate for the extreme situations he’s put in. He’s also grounded by Tuck, a charming rogue who’s been forced into near-powerlessness. Quaid spends most of the movie scrunched in a blinky, buttony computer console, yet he manages to project great energy. The two actors share nearly no screen time, but they somehow play off each other, with powerful and funny results. Innerspace pulls off many great feats, but making us care about its leads, in the midst of its insane plot, is by far its greatest one.

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There are so many crazy little details and characters that make Innerspace memorable that it’d do no good to try and list them all. The movie is a mural of silliness, painted corner-to-corner with colorful characters and wacky moments. A lot of it is corny, but a lot of it is inspired, and there’s an innocence to its tone and aesthetic that’s missing from comedies today. The more I watch it, the more I lament that we may never see a movie quite like it again.

If Innerspace were to be animated, it’d have to be done by Madhouse, the Japanese studio that brought us the glorious Stink Bomb. That cartoon was another tale of science gone wrong, and it also featured a bit of a dope at its center, so the parallels are there. While I doubt that even their greatest wizards could channel Dante’s sly directing style, I’m sure they could add a voltage to the film that would turn it into something special.

It’d sure be tough to replace that face-changing scene, though. I think animating that part would only make it look worse!

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The Five Weaknesses of Zelda

I wrote the following essay in 2003, after playing through both the Japanese and US versions of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Now that Breath of the Wild is on its way, I find that the essay makes for some interesting reading. I hope you enjoy.


The Five Weaknesses of Zelda

I love The Legend of Zelda series, but there are some unfortunate trends happening in it that have ruined the wondrous feelings I had while exploring the very first land of Hyrule on my NES. Listed below are five suggestions aimed primarily at Wind Waker, but that should have been applied to each Zelda game since A Link to the Past. I am aware of the need for game franchises to evolve as the market grows, but these aspects I condemn are altogether weak, and in their retooling I see the series’ return to its former glory.

Here are five things Nintendo needs to do to Zelda.

1.) Remove needless “RPG” elements.

Start by eliminating the worthless “Magic Meter.” That big green bar not only clutters the screen, but it seems to have been added only to give the Zelda games a closer resemblance to popular RPGs. Rarely have I emptied this thing, let alone wasted a bottle on some green potion to refill it. Thinking over the items that have required “magic power” to function through the series, I notice that none of them are useful enough to warrant limiting. The rods and canes from A Link to the Past, the spinning sword technique, the magic spells from Ocarina of Time…none of them aided me outside of certain unique circumstances. Certain tools that can be abused, such as Din’s Fire from Ocarina and the Deku Leaf from Wind Waker, should come with built-in limitations rather than share a meaningless resource with other items.

Towns need to go, as well. Bastions of civilization are integral to gameplay in series such as Dragon Warrior and Chrono Trigger, but they have little use in Zelda games (with the exception of Majora’s Mask, whose time-based gameplay created unique possibilities with regards to NPCs). Their needlessness can be identified by noting their usage in other titles. What are towns good for in other games? Shopping? Well, there’s no need to shop in a Zelda game since hearts and weaponry can be replenished from pickups in the wilderness, and all of the special treasures are found in dungeons. Recovering health? Zelda has Fairy Fountains and potions for that. Getting clues for upcoming quests? Well, allow me to say that I was able to complete a Japanese copy of Wind Waker after going in cold and not knowing a word of the language. I missed a couple of sidequests as a result, but my enjoyment of a game has never hinged on the presence of a character trophy collection. My progression from one goal to the next involved little more than deciphering the game’s many visual cues, which comprise another complaint that I will share further below.

Early in my first playthrough of Wind Waker, I watched Link regain consciousness in the little red boat in that tiny cave at the edge of Taura Island and felt a bolt of excitement. The pirates’ assault at the Island of the Magical Beast had failed, and now I was alone in a new land, rescued by a kind god of the sea and spirited to a quiet place away from enemy eyes, a lone adventurer on an unknown beach. I gleaned from the cinematics that the boat wasn’t seaworthy, and that I needed to find something to shove it off. Thus I expected to find a barren ruin about me, connecting to a dangerous network of passages infested with monsters. Somewhere inside this labyrinth would be the item I’d need to fix my damaged vessel. After skipping through the boat’s monologue, I ran out of the cave and heard chirpy, cheerful music playing. Disappointment swept over me as I realized that I was on a settled island. I wasn’t alone after all. The boat hadn’t brought me to the tiny cave to protect me. This beach wasn’t wild or unknown. The aura of mystery was gone. This place had already been discovered. And now, instead of having to explore a creature-crawling dungeon, I had to talk to a bunch of people.

In the original Zelda, the only people who talked to players were the survivors of Ganon’s invasion, scattered remnants of a devastated kingdom who were reduced to living in caves. Sometimes they sold treasures or information, sometimes they gave money, sometimes they offered clues, but they never asked pointless favors, they never held the player back, and they never seemed safe. It was a subtle way of explaining why Link was alone on his journey: these folks were depending on him to complete HIS goals, not theirs.

It can be argued that a Zelda world without settlements would be a boring place. I disagree. I have played through Ocarina several times over, and with each playthrough I find myself doing less and less talking. This isn’t because I know what I am going to be told by each character, but because the things each character says are inane. So what if that guy’s proud of his beard? Is this Mido guy supposed to be funny? Am I the only one who never bothers to sell anything “with C?” Should I be offended that Malon keeps calling me a “fairy boy?” As such, I have decided that Hyrule’s townsfolk are altogether unnecessary and that the places where they live are little more than poor attempts at duplicating an element of successful RPGs. Now I run straight through Zelda towns and only stop to talk with those folks who give me treasures.

Which makes for a fine segue into the last “RPGish” concept that Zelda has adopted and which now must be abolished: treasure chests. They were cute in A Link to the Past, in which the newly implemented “action” button needed as many uses as possible, and opening chests seemed as good an option as any. The “opening” cinematic that was added in Ocarina of Time was meant to generate suspense and excitement in players as they waited an extra five seconds to discover which item they were to receive. Now, however, the chests have worn out their welcome. In Wind Waker, the opening animation plays every single time Link finds a large treasure chest, whether the contents are critical to game progress or not. With dozens of undersea and hidden chests in the game to open, that’s a whole lot of repetitious animation to sit through.

A fundamental question of design arises from this: Why disconnect the player from a reward with a container, anyway? Aren’t the activities of seeing a pickup icon on the game screen and moving the player-character to touch it both parts of basic player/game interaction? Metroid Prime has proven that there is still satisfaction to be drawn from the simple action of moving the player-character into an object to obtain it. Despite their efforts at creating an immersive, realistic environment, Metroid Prime’s designers chose to display Energy tanks, missile expansions, and major power-ups as icons that float, glow, and even hum for no reason other than to make them recognizable to the player, even from a distance. None of the major pickups in Metroid Prime is stuck inside some futuristic container that Samus must open for the sake of context. The point is to instill the excitement of discovery in the player, and encourage them to rush up and grab their prize. The game still features scripted animations that depict the collection of most power-ups, but they aren’t shown until the player actually comes into contact with the pickup icon.

These concepts of pickup design may detract from the game’s realism, but they promote a sense of active player control. In contrast, the scripted animations of Zelda which describe the receipt of an item foster distance and passivity. Ugly and surprising examples of such passive receipt are everywhere in Wind Waker: consider the episodes when Link attains his first bottle, the Grappling Hook, and even the game’s titular treasure, the Wind Waker itself. All of these items are just given to the player in lengthy cutscenes displayed as the plot requires them. Ocarina of Time started this trend with its odd Spiritual Stones and Sages’ Seals: untouchable, completely scripted objects given little meaning by the game’s design and plot except as abstract marks of player progress.

This growing player/inventory disconnection is a serious threat to the Zelda experience, one that began with the incorporation of treasure chests for the sake of making the series more “RPG-like.”  Eliminating the Dragon Warrior/Final Fantasy chest concept from Zelda will help the series return to its action gaming roots.

2.) Say no to pot, grass and rock.

A disturbing trend has developed in the Zelda series in which Link has turned his sword away from monsters in favor of harmless stationary objects, namely the stones, bushes and jars that are sprinkled across Hyrule like so much grass seed. Upon their introduction in A Link to the Past, these environmental accents were innovative: to the designer they were a new method of hiding passages and treasure, to the player a new level of interactivity with the game world. Now, however, they’ve simply become replacements for more deserving targets.

Here is a quote from the original Legend of Zelda’s instruction manual: “The basic principle of the game is, of course, to defend yourself and destroy the enemy one after the other in quick succession.” This line is accurate because Hyrule used to be packed with monsters. Everywhere Link went, he had to fight for his life. Though his adversaries were not intelligent or aggressive, players still needed to think fast and move faster to adapt to each situation. When things got too hot, players could either retreat from their current course and run for a fairy spring, or continue fighting, praying that the next enemy they dispatched would drop a precious heart so that they might continue their adventures a little while longer.

Boy, those were the days, weren’t they? Ganon’s army has since seen a great reduction in volunteers. The overworlds of recent Zelda titles are sparsely populated, and the creatures that do appear there fail to present a significant threat. Even the dungeons aren’t as dangerous as they used to be, as their denizens either lumber about like tortoises (moblins, ironknuckles, redeads), or are rooted in place (skulltulas, deku babas, octoroks). There are a few monster types that provide a thrilling challenge (the ‘fos monsters in particular), but their encounters are few and far between, and often over too soon.

It is presumed that this change in focus from furious charge to leisurely tour took place to ease gamers through the series’ transition to 3D, but that guiding hand has been too gentle. I haven’t lost once while playing a 3D Zelda game. In contrast, I’ve perished several times in each of the Game Boy Zeldas, and dozens of times on the NES Zeldas. The greatest challenge to the original Zelda wasn’t in figuring out where to go next, it was in surviving the trip. Clearing dungeons didn’t involve endless hunts for keys (there was an overabundance of keys in that game), it was about fighting through hordes of Wizzrobes, Like Likes and Darknuts, using reflexes and skill to pick them off one by one until it was safe to move forward. The monsters were tough, too; there were no quarter-heart-taking wimps in this game. The beefiest monsters like the Blue Darknuts would relieve an unarmored Link of two entire hearts if they touched him, and players couldn’t go and chop a bush or smash a jar to get them back. They had to go right back into the fray and slay until the desired pickups appeared.

What’s scary is that other games have adopted this useless element of incidental breakable objects as though it’s a legitimate step forward for gameplay. Even the Diablo series and its clones have pots and barrels to kick. Designers have forgotten that these characters are not landscapers, they’re warriors. They wield weapons, not tools. They fight evil, not aphids. I spend more time in Wind Waker cutting grass than I do fighting monsters, and it’s a boring shame to witness. Zelda is about action, not yardwork.

3.) Consolidate the subscreens.

A Link to the Past has the right idea: in it, there is a main screen for action, a subscreen for information, and a map screen for guidance. That’s it. That’s all any player should need.

Unfortunately, in Ocarina, the developers saw fit to add an “equipment screen” and “Quest Status screen” to this formula. As a result, Ocarina has one of the least elegant subscreens ever designed. The concept of an equipment screen in a Zelda game is questionable at best: weapons such as the Megaton Hammer were used with the C-buttons, so the Giant’s Knife could have been too. Boots should also have been relegated to the item buttons, as they are in Wind Waker, since the Water Temple demonstrated to players how annoying it is to have to pause the action dozens of times just to move from room to room.

As for the shields, it should stand to reason that players will always want the best, all-purpose defenses equipped, and as such any upgradeable aspects of Link’s character should have a single, layered path for improvement. After all, the Mirror Shield was just as useful as the Hylian Shield and it had the added ability to reflect beams of light; why didn’t it just replace the Hylian Shield altogether? Why is the choice even available when one shield is only better than the previous shield?

Then there are the tunics. As Link discovers the tunics that allow him to breathe underwater or withstand great heat, these abilities should simply accrue upon his character. The player shouldn’t be forced to go into the equipment screen to switch tunics so as to enter a different environment. The Metroid games already have this down pat with their handling of suit upgrades, why did Zelda make this mistake? Thankfully, the equipment screen was axed in Majora’s Mask, replaced with the much more appropriate “Mask Screen.” Here’s hoping it never appears again.

Now we come to the “Quest Status Screen,” another that can be removed with little hindrance to gameplay. In Wind Waker, the subscreen is divided into an “Item Screen” and “Quest Status” screen, and I still don’t understand why, when several of the elements found on the Quest Status Screen could easily fit on the Item Screen if certain game elements were designed and organized better.

First of all, all of the item and equipment graphics can be shrunk down, as can the Triforce display. After all, most video game players aren’t blind, and those who are probably don’t play Zelda.

Next, the main widgets of collection (Triforces, Seals, Instruments of the Siren, etc.), can easily fit on the Item Screen. This consolidates information and acts as a more effective method of reminding the player of how far along they are in the main thread of the quest. Every time players go to change items, they will see just how much farther they need to go.

Item #4 of this essay will deal with the issue of Heart Pieces as gameplay elements, but for the purposes of this subject of subscreens I will say to simply eliminate the Heart Piece display altogether.

Finally, get rid of the song list. Playing musical instruments with the controller buttons or analog sticks is fun the first few times, but tiresome each thereafter. Since all other objects and characters in the world freeze while instruments are in use, there is no point in making the player go through the lengthy doldrums of recalling and then inputting extended button sequences. If Link is going to use a musical instrument, let him use it the way he did his ocarina in Link’s Awakening: by choosing a specific song beforehand in the Item screen and then playing it with a single button press. By using this method for playing instruments, designers eliminate the need for memorization, and thus the song list can be altogether cleared from the Quest Status screen.

With all these pointless graphical elements removed, the required elements can be retained and placed in the extra space made on the Item screen by shrinking the graphics there, and lo and behold, all information has been condensed into one screen. The game is streamlined, players have less to remember, and designers have less work to do.

4.) Stop with the collections.

You know what I’m talking about: Heart Pieces, Golden Skulltulas, Joy Pendants, Chuchu Jellies, Golden Feathers, Knight’s Crests, Skull Necklaces, and all the other objects that are useless unless you have a certain amount of them. There is only one item type that should function this way, and it’s called money.

Too often has the thrill of discovering a secret cave been defused by the anticlimactic Heart Piece at its end. The reward for the player’s exploration is an object that is worthless until three more of them are found. In the original Zelda, players would often find whole Heart Containers in the caves they blasted open. Awarding entire Heart Containers in one swoop may seem to lessen the challenge of a Zelda game, but if designers would make the monsters less wussy, this wouldn’t be an issue.

In Metroid games, players don’t have to retrieve four Energy Tank “pieces” before powering up: they get the whole thing at once. The enhancement, and thus the reward, is felt right away. The reason it works is that the game is tapered and balanced well enough to continually challenge players even as they grow stronger and more skilled.

In fact, there isn’t a single instance of pointless collection in Metroid Prime. The only objects that function as a collection in that game are the twelve Chozo artifacts, and gathering those is the main goal of the game. There aren’t any items that need to be hoarded and brought to an NPC for a reward. There are no items that need depositing or reforging or rebuilding before they become useful to the player. Everything works at once, so when players attain something, they know it’s important, and they keep their eyes open for more.

If Zelda’s designers want to make their game feel longer by making players collect things, why don’t they dip into the bag of tricks from the original Zelda, and bring back the treasure-hawking merchants? By tempting players with expensive shields and rings that cannot be found anywhere but in shops, designers can encourage players to hunt monsters and seek out caves to gather Rupees, an asset that has been ill-used in recent Zelda games. The disappointment that used to settle on players who found Rupees inside of chests instead of more powerful items would turn to cheer, especially if the archaic wallet-size limitation is removed, and players are allowed to hold as many as they can find. What’s more, by driving players to gather Rupees and nothing else, designers won’t have to waste valuable development time coming up with flimsy NPC fetch quests, so everyone will be happy.

5.) Let the players do the thinking.

In the first Legend of Zelda, players had only their brains and the instruction manual to guide them in their adventure. Almost all of the dungeon entrances were hidden. The occasional old crone or hermit found tucked away in a cavern may offer some clues about where to find them, but said clues were cryptic (not to mention poorly translated), and so the players were encouraged to think, to explore, and most of all, to experiment. In their hunts for the next piece of the Triforce, players would bomb every wall, burn every tree, push every rock to succeed.

Sometimes these searches would get tedious, or even frustrating, and players who had gotten stuck and exhausted of time or energy would often quit the game for a while before returning, drawn by its action and spot-on play control. They would proceed to enjoy themselves as they fought their way through Hyrule, until through some chance bombing, burning, or flute-playing, they would come across that dungeon which had so far eluded them, and interest would rise anew.

Such personal quests have all but disappeared from present Zelda games, in which every goal is spelled out and underlined before the player in extensive cutscenes and dialogue.

What’s worse is that every item’s usage is described by the game as well, and as such there are no surprises as to what an item may be used for. Part of the joy of exploration in Zelda was discovering new ways of interacting with the environment so as to find new areas to explore. The instruction manual for the original Zelda didn’t explain how the boomerang could be used to catch items, nor did it explain how candles could be used to burn down trees, nor did it describe how bombs could be used to find hidden caves or blast open walls in dungeons. Players had to realize these through experimentation and effort, and when something unexpected happened, accompanied by the now overused “Zelda secret” jingle, jaws would drop in astonishment.

Now the bombs, boomerangs, hookshots and other items have been around so long that their usage is clear even to newcomers to the series, and those who don’t have an idea will be promptly filled in by the game’s “helpful” text. It doesn’t help that every target for these items is now marked or made clear in some way which discourages experimentation. Wind Waker is replete with cracked walls, wooden pegs, and bull’s-eye circles all in plain sight. Whatever happened to instilling subtle suspicion in players by placing blank walls, tree branches or empty torch hangers in unusual places?

What caused Zelda’s designers to underestimate the intelligence and moreover, the creativity of players? Long player-driven quests to unearth hidden treasures and passages can be aggravating, but in taking the aggravation away, designers have also robbed players of the reward that accompanies the rare success.

In vast, detailed 3D worlds, even the best player will need some guidance, so being aided by in-game text isn’t always a bad thing, but sometimes players should be allowed the freedom to figure out what to do on their own. Once again, the Zelda design team need only look at Metroid Prime to see a decent, though not perfect, method of mixing player freedom with a guided quest. In Prime, Retro implemented an optional “Hint System” that gave players a helpful push towards the next step of game completion. Attentive players, however, could go through the entire game without using it, as each power-up in the game is placed to help players reach areas they’d already seen, but were unable to access.

Zelda used to be designed in the same way, but in Wind Waker, the gameplay has mutated to the point where players are pushed through nonsensical plotlines and disconnected locales, so they need to be inundated with information in order to get to places they hadn’t even thought of approaching.

This can be blamed on the ocean-based overworld, which cuts landed locations off from each other by empty distance, but even with a large ocean, the game world could have been designed with greater cohesiveness. Today’s gamers are smart. They can handle it. If I could finish the original Zelda at seven years old, I think that today’s children could handle a greater challenge than Wind Waker any day.

So the Zelda game series needs some serious retooling to reclaim the throne of action-adventure games. With all these steps to take, the game may as well undergo a whole design overhaul, and why not? Good graphics, even cel-shaded ones, don’t create a beloved franchise, innovation does. Perhaps a Zelda game unlike any other is in order to revive interest in the series. One with new villains, new worlds, and entirely new mechanics. Swordplay that doesn’t involve merely pushing the B button repeatedly. A life meter that doesn’t use hearts. All this might sound strange, but who knows what new concepts Nintendo could come up with if they unfettered themselves from the five weaknesses they’ve pressed upon the once infallible Zelda franchise? Players would get something wonderful that doesn’t emulate RPGs, doesn’t have a bunch of ancillary decorations to destroy, doesn’t require navigation through unnecessary screens, doesn’t force players to gather worthless trinkets, and doesn’t do all the thinking for them.

After all, they’ve already lost the console wars; what else do they have to lose?

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #1: Memories Episode 2 – Stink Bomb

If Rod Serling had made a Warner Bros. cartoon, it probably would have ended up like this.

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While each of the Ultimate Top Cartoons contains at least one quality that I fiercely admire, Stink Bomb has them all

I love the intense animation and timing in Ninja Scroll, but I could do without its adolescent moodiness and badassery, not to mention the excessive, voyeuristic violence that poor Jubei and Kagero have to endure.

I love the characterization, concepts, and set pieces in The Wrong Trousers, but I prefer my cartoons a bit more grown up.

I love the mature, volatile atmosphere in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that lends a dangerous, unstable edge to harmless-looking toons, but the story is ultimately disposable and the antagonist embarrassing.

I love the art design and the clever script of The Triplets of Belleville, but I found the final act to be lame and unsatisfying.

Stink Bomb has all of the best qualities from these cartoons, and none of the bad parts. It starts out hip and smart, gets rolling really quickly, and then it fucking catches fire, amusing, startling, and maybe even scaring any witnesses. It is a masterpiece, and if you were to ask me what kind of cartoons I want to make, I’d say “I wanna make Stink Bombs.”

This forty-minute marvel, the top of the Ultimate Top Cartoons, is the middle segment in an anime anthology called Memories, produced by the great Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame.

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I became interested in Memories because of the unique look of its final segment, Cannon Fodder. Its characters are designed to look like cute little toy soldiers, and its a far cry from your typical anime art style, so I was curious about it. After watching it, I realized that the style was only chosen for the sake of dark ironic contrast, and the story beneath it was grim and depressing. A lot of folks love Cannon Fodder for what they call a “powerful anti-war message,” but I found it tiresome, empty, and delivered with too heavy a hand. The animation is really good, though.

As for the first segment, Magnetic Rose…ah, forget it, that one was stupid with a capital “STU.” The animation in it is pretty good, though.

No, the real gem in the film is the unassuming Stink Bomb, the middle child that isn’t out to be dark or disturbing or tear-jerking or award-winning, but simply to be a heap of jeering, sneering, devilish fun.

It’s still okay for cartoons to be fun, isn’t it?

Now, before I start my synopsis, I feel I should mention that I’m a big fan of George Carlin. Have been since age nine. In one of his last HBO specials, Life is Worth Losing, Carlin closes his act with a bit he calls “Coast-to-Coast Emergency.” Here’s the premise in his own words:

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“I’m an interesting guy. I always hope that no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow bigger and bigger, until it’s completely out of control.”

He then proceeds to explain how a busted water main can lead to the transcendental annihilation of the universe.

As morbid as it sounds, I have a similar fascination with disasters, and this may be why I enjoy Stink Bomb so much. It starts with a dumb move made by a hapless nincompoop, and ends in an extinction-level mega-disaster that threatens all life on Earth.

And it’s all this guy’s fault:

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Meet Nobuo Tanaka, a lab technician at Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals. He’s come down with a bad winter cold, and he can’t stop sneezing at his desk.

His co-workers recommend that Nobuo sneak a sample of the new fever medicine Nishibashi is producing. It hasn’t been diluted for sale yet, so it should work great! Just grab one of the blue capsules from the red bottle on Chief Ohmaeda’s desk, they say.

Now, Nobuo is not a very swift man, and when he stops in at the chief’s office (which is unfortunately empty at the time), he makes the obvious mix-up: he takes the red capsule from out of the blue bottle.

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Yeah, it’s a pretty big mistake.

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Nobuo decides to take a nap in the guest room while the drug does its work. Meanwhile, the chief himself bursts into the lab, demanding to know who touched his red pills. His raving, wild-eyed demeanor suggests that something might be wrong. When Nobuo’s buddies say that it was likely Nobuo who poked around in Ohmaeda’s office, the chief freaks out further, and dashes away, presumably to find the culprit.

The techs have little time to ponder this weirdness before a strange smell wafts into the room. The lab rats notice it too. Then there’s a long, lingering shot on a ventilating fan that slowly fades to black.

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CUT TO: Nobuo, as he rises from a revitalizing sleep in the guest room — the following morning. He wanders the building, wondering why nobody woke him. He discovers the answer very shortly: everyone else in the building is dead. Even the lab rats.

Panicked and horrified, Nobuo calls for an ambulance, and then goes to the chief’s office to get some clue of what happened.

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He finds Ohmaeda sprawled before a control panel on the wall, his finger stretched towards a button that he didn’t live long enough to hit. Curious, Nobuo presses the button himself, and the whole building suddenly goes into emergency mode: sirens blare, shutters slam, and a dozen men appear on a giant monitor, ordering “to give this line priority!”

Then, a stern, middle-aged man spots Nobuo on his screen and asks where the hell Ohmaeda is.

This man is Nirasaki, the head of Nishibashi’s medicine development. Once Nobuo informs him of what’s happened, Nirasaki explains that the accident is likely related to a drug being secretly developed for the government. Nirasaki orders Nobuo to bring all samples of the drug, along with its corresponding data, straight to him at Nishibashi headquarters in Tokyo, immediately.

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Nobuo collects the samples and info based on the details Nirasaki provides, and just notices it’s the same red pill that he took the previous evening. Huh! Of course, he only realizes this after his conversation with Nirasaki is over, and he doesn’t think anything of it. He stuffs everything into a briefcase, and begins his trek to Tokyo on a little red bike.

Then a murder of crows falls dead out of the sky and hits him on the head.

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Nobuo loses control and crashes, and that’s when he notices that all the flowers in the valley are suddenly in bloom. Also, there are dead things everywhere. The ambulance and police car he called are both smashed on the sides of the street, as though their drivers simply bit it while at the wheel.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nirasaki and Mr. Kamata, Nishibashi’s president, are summoned to the JSDF war room to explain “just what the hell is going on” in Kofu Valley. The NHK news is airing warnings about a deadly “stench” in the area, against which respirators and even NBC suits afford no protection.

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A news team in a helicopter spots Nobuo and touches down to rescue him, but even with gas masks on, they all suffocate and perish before they can get within ten yards of him. Nobuo can’t figure out why.

Then a military convoy attempts to pick up and evacuate Nobuo, only to end up dying as well. Nobuo still can’t figure out why.

Nirasaki and Kamata, however, do know why. They explain to the JSDF that the pill Nobuo took was originally designed to protect people against methods of biological warfare, but an unknown reaction in Nobuo’s body has created an unexpected effect. It is now causing him to secrete a sweet-smelling, but lethal gas that asphyxiates any human or animal that breathes it. He has become, in essence, a walking chemical weapon.

Nirasaki adds the unsettling detail that this gas will thicken, and its deadly effects strengthen, as Nobuo eats, changes emotional states, or otherwise undergoes any activity that spurs his metabolism.

An executive decision is swiftly made: GET HIM.

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However, the military, even with its most advanced weaponry, can’t get Nobuo. Their snipers can’t draw a bead on him because the poison in the air makes their eyes water, and the gas has become so thick that it shorts out the computerized targeting systems in their tanks and helicopters. The army literally can no longer shoot straight, so while they accidentally decimate every structure in sight, Nobuo is left scratching his head as to what the hell they’re firing at.

My favorite moment in this sequence occurs when the army knocks out a bridge that Nobuo is riding on. As you can see below, the poor dope survives as though God Himself is guiding him:

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This is one of my favorite shots in all of cartoon-dom, if not my absolute favorite. I fucking love tracking shots like this. Just look at how the pavement judders and crumbles behind Nobuo! Look at how he bounces on his bike as the explosions propel him forward! Look at the flames and sparks and smoke plumes! Look at Nobuo’s face!!! It’s like watching Ichabod Crane riding around Syria! I love it!

Now that Nobuo has pretty much proven himself unstoppable, an emergency evacuation order is issued in Tokyo. Yeah, good luck with that. The highways are instantly hammered, the trains are all clogged, and the airports become a mass of writhing crowds and weeping children.

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Stink Bomb’s director, Tensai Okamura, cleverly intercuts the Tokyo crush with the degrading military situation, in which the all the vehicles have stopped responding and are now completely haywire. They’re firing at anything and everything, causing chain reactions of carnage, and inadvertently destroying themselves.

To quote Mr. Carlin:

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“At this point, it looks like pretty soon, things are gonna start to get out of control.”

It looks as though the only hope for humanity is for the United Nations to raze Japan to the ground, but all is not lost yet. Saunders, an American general who has an investment in Nishibashi’s wonder drug, decides to intervene, and he sends three American soldiers in cutting-edge, air-tight spacesuits to apprehend Nobuo.

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These super-suited soldiers corner Nobuo in a tunnel, and…well, I don’t want to give everything away. I will tell you that Nirasaki gets his briefcase back, but that’s it! You’re just going to have to watch the rest for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, and that’s a fact, Jack.

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So.

Whew.

Wow.

Jeez, man. There just isn’t all that much left to say anymore. This is Stink Bomb. You should go see it. It’s got everything that a Top Cartoon should: great art and animation, funny and scary moments, a delightful soundtrack, stellar voice acting, and a wicked sense of humor. I hope you weren’t waiting for me to pick at its flaws, because the truth is, I just can’t find any.


And thus the list of Ultimate Top Cartoons comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed reading these lengthy reviews because, I tell ya, writing these suckers really took a chunk out of me! Plus, my sinuses are starting to act up, so I think I’ll take one of these red pills over here and have a nap.

Hope to see you in the morning.

‘Night, all!

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V

**

Developed by Rockstar Games. Published by Take-Two Interactive. Available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One.

Guess what? Grand Theft Auto is back…again. Like other hits released at the tail end of the last console generation, the gaming event that was Grand Theft Auto V has received the “Definitive Edition” treatment: a next-gen coat of paint, some added features, and a re-release at full price. Should you shell out for it a second time? Well, a year ago I would have said “Hell yeah” simply because of the hype, but now I’d give a careful “Yes, so long as you tweak your expectations.” GTA has changed a lot over the past thirteen years, and its current focus might not be where you want it to be.

By now, you already know what GTA V is about: three criminals with very different backgrounds unite and perform a series of heists around the fictional city of Los Santos. You have Michael, a former bank robber who’s having a mid-life crisis. You’ve got Franklin, a repo man who’s trying to break free from his gang ties. Then there’s Trevor, a manic meth-head who dreams of a life of chaos. When these three get together, you get shooting, you get driving, you get carjacking, you get a whole hell of a lot of missions. You know the drill by now: steal cars, drive here, shoot that, lose the cops, torture this guy, blow up that guy, watch that woman get sucked into a jet engine. Typical GTA stuff. In fact, it feels a little tiresome by now. What puts the missions a cut above other games is the story. There’s a constant stream of social commentary flowing through this game, and you’ll love it if you can get on its cynical wavelength. I don’t usually care about story in games, but I care about this one. Of course, the plot isn’t sensical or plausible, and Michael and Trevor are such strong characters that they overshadow the rest of the cast, but there’s some heady, heavy stuff in here. The cutscenes are well-acted, dramatic, shocking, and they’re even laugh-out-loud funny. If you play GTA V just to screw around in the open world, you’re missing the best parts.

It helps that they look breathtaking. GTA V looked incredible even on consoles past, but now it’s even better. The characters have convincing faces and movements. Car interiors, the only aspect of the previous version that looked bad, now have full ridges and contours. The California sun bathes the world in beautiful, natural-looking color, and the northern deserts look like photographs. Never before has a game inspired me to stop what I was doing just so I could watch a freaking sunrise. Those bleeding pinks and grays…they really just nailed it. Los Santos isn’t just a place to make trouble, it’s a place to sightsee (an activity that works especially well with the new first-person viewpoint). If you look around long enough, you’ll find some cool surprises to look at, though that’s pretty much all you can do with them.

I have to say, GTA V is a strange product overall. Within the framework of its missions, it’s an excellent, story-based video game, but between those missions, it’s like visiting an amusement park, complete with the walks and the waiting and the expensive food. It is the latest step on a path that Rockstar started on in 2002 with Vice City. That was the point when they steered away from the development of groundbreaking gameplay, and focused on the construction of incredibly detailed worlds. I don’t just mean that their games have great graphics, either. While other game makers concentrate on stretching their environments to enormous sizes and packing them with slightly varied side quests, Rockstar pours its efforts into that less-tangible quality of atmosphere. Their mantra seems to be “deeper characters, smarter dialogue, more texture in the corners.” You can trace the rise of this design dogma as it threads through games like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3, with GTA V sitting at the pinnacle. No one else does world-building of this caliber. Even role-playing games, with their volumes of backstory and lore, don’t capture the sensation of BEING THERE as well as GTA V does, but that doesn’t mean it’s always exciting.

I’m just going to say it: there are a lot of parts of GTA V that are pointless, or just plain dull. Driving from one place to another can take a good long while, and it actually made me sleepy at times. The game has ATM machines that display your cash balance, when your HUD already does a perfectly good job of that. You can take a star tour, get a lap dance, hunt animals, run marathons, do yoga, play tennis and golf, and even go skydiving, and all these activities are surprisingly rich little mini-games, but, really, just…why? Isn’t this supposed to be a game about crime? Oh, and get a rubber band out of the junk drawer if you want to complete the cult storyline, because one of its missions requires Michael to WALK FIVE MILES IN A CIRCLE. I’m not joking. I know it’s supposed to be satirical of cult practices, but five miles? Wouldn’t one mile get the point across? No video game should ask such a thing. It’s like something Andy Warhol would come up with if he made games. If it’s a joke, then the joke’s on us.

What’s even more frustrating is that GTA V introduces some neat gameplay ideas to balance out the boredom, but then it leaves them half-baked. Michael can saunter around his mansion and say hi to his wife and kids, but he can only have conversations with them over the phone. You can take pictures with your phone, but you can’t record video. Franklin has a Rottweiler named Chop who can sniff out collectibles or run down bad guys, but he only features in one or two missions. Hand-to-hand combat is much more responsive than it was in GTA IV, but strangely enough, most of the people you fight will hit the floor after a single punch. You can swap characters at will during some missions, but it’s only useful at certain scripted moments. The famous heists appear full of emergent possibilities from the surface, as they allow players to pick their plans and allies, but all these choices affect are the branches in pre-determined events. You don’t get to post shooters, choose vehicles, draw escape routes, or anything like that.

Then there are the controls. Like the game’s design, they’re not exactly bad — they’re greatly improved over GTA IV’s — they’re just unconventional. Most games assign context-sensitive actions to a single button, but GTA V uses three. The buttons used for reloading weapons and taking cover also stubbornly differ from gaming standards. The game’s generous auto-aim makes most firefights too easy, but if you turn it off, they get too hard. There’s no cruise control option, in a game whose long freeways demand it. And you still have to hold a button to make your character jog at a reasonable speed…but not in multiplayer or first-person mode. It makes no sense. Just ditch the run button already!

These oversights aren’t deadly to GTA V, as they’re from the same vein of niggling problems common to most Rockstar games. It’s just that I think a lot of this stuff should be ironed out by now, especially in a second release. I also think this game would be better if it was structured like Max Payne 3, and if the game world felt, well, more like a game. The truth is, though, that this is a story-based game whose story is so good it makes everything surrounding it look lame and unnecessary, and sadly, most of it is.

The good news is that you have a lot of good options for open-world games now. GTA isn’t your sole choice. Get Far Cry 4 if you want a variety of activities with emergence and freedom of play. Get Sunset Overdrive if you want constant engaging action. Get GTA V, though, if you want to take part in a beautiful, well-produced, action-adventure story that’s on par with AMC’s best dramas. Just expect a little ennui dashed in there as well. Sorry, but you can’t have it all.

Kifflom!