So! The New Mystery Science Theater 3000 is here. That longshot, once-in-a-lifetime revival of the best television show in history turned out to be the real deal, unlike some crowd-funded projects involving cans without labels that I could mention. What’s more, we didn’t just get some one-time, big-nostalgia reunion special, we got over fifteen hours of show, rich and fully featured.
And…I don’t like it that much.
Everything a fan could want is here: the puppets, the songs, the chintzy sets. The movies are as pitiful as ever, and the riffs are rapid-fire. This fan, however, is left wanting. I admit that the following are the expected complaints of a crotchety old man who wants everything to stay the same as it ever did, but I’m going to deliver them anyway.
First off, the show feels…I don’t know…rushed. It wants to get straight to business. There’s no acknowledgment of the show’s long hiatus, and the new host, Jonah, seems almost happy to be stranded in space. Whereas the old show took a little time to characterize Joel Robinson as a gentle, fatherly figure, and Mike Nelson as the bullied newbie, I feel like Jonah has no persona to call his own. He just kinda slides into his position and does what’s expected of him. I’d say he’s like a guest on The Muppet Show, but even guests on The Muppet Show occasionally paused to wonder at their surroundings.
I also find it baffling that Gypsy can now talk. Previously, Gypsy had to devote so much of her CPU time to controlling the ship, that she could only speak in a muddled, halting manner. She came off as slow, causing the other bots to tease her, and Joel to give her special treatment and comfort. I thought it was sweet, but I guess today’s attitudes towards autism/ADHD/any other over-diagnosed childhood illness won’t allow it, so the writers decided to play it safe. Now we gots a smart-and-sassy Gypsy…who melds right in with the others and is quickly forgotten.
Crow and Tom Servo are just okay, though their shrill, sibilant voices are difficult to distinguish from one another at times. Neither one of them has really had an opportunity for characterization, either. I haven’t seen a shred of Crow’s masochistic mania, or of Tom’s cultured pompousness. They don’t explain how they got shanghaied from Earth and stuck on the Satellite of Love again; they’re just there, going along for the ride, never questioning, never doubting.
Then there’s the villain. While nobody could replace Trace Beaulieu as the man-about-madness Dr. Clayton Forrester, I think the makers of this show could have done a hell of a lotbetter than Felicia Day. There’s absolutely nothing threatening, silly, or even funny about her, and I feel like her involvement is just another attempt of hers to stick her geek-baiting face into a set where lovelorn nerds will fawn over her.
The only cast member who looks like he belongs is Patton Oswalt, though I feel he’s criminally treated playing a dope like TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Oswalt is an intelligent and thoughtful guy; I almost feel like he should be the host. He’s so good at playing put-upon, sensitive, and optimistic characters that he’d be a natural for it. Some of the best skits on the old show involved Joel teaching the bots about the delicate aspects of human nature, and I just don’t see the happy-go-lucky Jonah pulling this off. Oswalt, on the other hand, could have been great.
I tried to tell myself that the show isn’t really about the characters, it’s about really bad movies, and the really good jokes made at their expense. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t convince myself of this. I think that the relationships between the characters, and the tone established in the host segments, are linked to the atmosphere in the theater. An emptiness in one seeps into the other. The hurried feel of the show makes the riffing weak and mechanical. My dad and I watched the first episode together, and he and I were making better jokes than Jonah and the bots within five minutes. Bear in mind that he and I were students of MST3K; we learned how to make fun of movies from Joel and Mike.
So I watched the new show for hours and hours, scratching my head about why it wasn’t lighting me up. Then, ubiquitous uber-dork Neil Patrick Harris made a cameo, and all became clear: the show’s been hijacked. It’s not the territory of struggling, self-hating comics anymore. Now it’s the land of the Happy Little Internet Elves. It’s all nerdgasms and super-squees. I wouldn’t be surprised if PewDiePie or Jonathan Coulton made appearances. I guess it’s just a product of its time: when you used to watch MST3K, you were smoking on the couch and staring at Comedy Central at two in the morning. Now you’re binging Netflix on your iPhone while working the elliptical at In-Shape. The world shifts as its denizens hold fast.
It’s more evidence that the problem is likely mine. Maybe I’m just griping about the show because it’s different from what it used to be, and I don’t want it to be different from what it used to be. If I can just stick with it, show it a little patience, then maybe I’ll get on board with it. After all, I had a really tough time accepting the changes that the Sci-Fi Channel made to the show back in the 90s. Eventually, however, I came to love Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy, as is evidenced by their cameo on the new season, which overjoyed me, and reminded me of just how much I missed them.
At 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Many are they who consider this their anime gateway drug.
And rightly so. When I saw my first glimpse of this masterpiece on MTV, all of my brain cells dropped what they were doing and shouted a single question at once:
“What the hell was that???”
God bless 90s MTV. 90s MTV understood that, as emotional media go, music and animation are very close cousins. To develop the “edgy” attitude that it needed to stand out, the network employed freaky, stunning animation for its IDs and commercials. It even produced shows specifically to showcase wild animation. Liquid Television was the first such program, and it turned Æon Flux and Beavis and Butt-head into national names.
A later show, Cartoon Sushi, used clips from Ninja Scroll as commercial bumpers. My brother called me over to check it out because he knew I’d go nuts for it, and holy shit, was he right. I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Even my father said “Whoa,” when he happened to see it. You know your cartoon’s special when mere seconds of it get a better reaction than the remainder of the show it’s sprinkled in. It also helped that Japanese animation as we know it was just beginning to sink its claws into American culture at this time. Most of us hadn’t seen shit like this before.
But once we had a taste, we all wanted more.
The Japanese title of this movie is “Jubei Ninpocho,” which means “The Jubei Ninja Scrolls.” This peculiar phrasing is taken from the titles of ninja novels written by Futaro Yamada. These “ninja stories,” or “ninpocho,” were each titled in a similar manner: Koga Ninpocho, Edo Ninpocho, Yagyu Ninpocho, and so on.
The cartoon is set in a twisted version of feudal Japan, where blood and betrayal flow freely. In the opening scene, a roaming warrior named Jubei Kibagami is accosted by thieves, and seconds later, we’re told not only what we need to know about the setting, but also about our hero:
1.) Jubei is an unflappable man with a well-honed spider-sense.
2.) Jubei is a decent man who despises injustice.
3.) Jubei…is a badass.
He even catches the rice ball without looking.
He is based on the Japanese folk hero Yagyu Jubei Mitsuroshi, a great samurai who was dismissed from service to the Shogun for unknown reasons, and who then spent years wandering Japan, perfecting his swordsmanship. Think of him as a Davy Crockett to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Our Jubei enters into a complex and nefarious plot when he happens upon a horrible scene: a monstrous man, Tessai, raping a young woman.
This woman is Kagero, a poison taster for the Koga ninja clan. She has just witnessed the slaughter of her comrades at the hands of her captor, who has since revealed himself to be a bloodthirsty monster with a skin of stone. Jubei bravely confronts Tessai anyway, and creates an opportunity for both he and Kagero to escape.
The two ninja part ways, and while Kagero reports the night’s terrible events to her indifferent lord, Jubei is caught by the highly-pissed Tessai. What ensues is a frightful battle in which Jubei is nearly overwhelmed. Tessai’s sheer strength and stone shell seem insurmountable, but then something happens to turn the tide: the monster’s skin starts to crumble and soften, seemingly for no reason. Thinking that Jubei used some unknown technique on him, Tessai pours his rage into one last attack — one that backfires on him in a most satisfying way. This whole scene is dazzling from top to bottom, and you might need to rub your eyes afterward because you forgot to blink while watching it.
Thus, Jubei draws first blood in a war against Tessai’s buddies, as well as the attention of a doddering, walleyed priest named Dakuan, who sees potential in the young ninja — and some use.
Dakuan, who is really a government spy, is the trickster of the story. His comical voice and appearance belie a cunning and ruthless personality whose motives are only ever kind on the surface. Still, he comes off as likable, and he’s also the only one who knows what the hell’s going on in this movie, so I can’t imagine anyone hissing when he shows up onscreen.
Dakuan explains to Jubei that Tessai was one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a team of demons hired by the Yamashiro ninja clan — the same clan that Jubei once ran with. The Devils are contracted to protect the Yamashiro as they smuggle gold to their lord, the Shogun of the Dark (a.k.a. Toyotomi), an unseen villain who wishes to overthrow the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. The Devils crossed paths with Jubei and Kagero while on their way to recover gold from a smuggler ship that sank accidentally, and now it seems they are entangled to the bitter end.
So how did the Yamashiro boys end up with all this cheddar? Well, some years back, its leaders discovered a gold mine, and instead of reporting it to their master, a Tokugawa daimyo, they tried to sneak the riches past him. A series of betrayals followed, and in an attempt to eliminate everyone who knew about the mine, one of the Yamashiro leaders, Gemma Himuro, ordered the extermination of his own men. This forced Jubei to slay his fellow ninja in self-defense, but in turn, he found and decapitated Gemma, and became a ronin.
But Gemma has revived, having somehow developed an ability to reconstruct his body after even the most traumatic of injuries. He now leads the Devils of Kimon, and seeks to undermine both Tokugawa and Toyotomi by purporting to guard the Yamashiro smuggling operation, and then stealing the gold for himself.
Whew! You get all that? Well, sorry; I tried. Let’s carry on.
These Kimon guys are an eclectic bunch. Each one has some unique and creative method for killing. One of them can literally hide inside shadows. Another can both animate, and detonate corpses as if they were bombs on legs. One carries a nest of hornets in the flesh of his back, and is able to communicate with them and give them orders. Still another can use the snake tattoos covering her body to hypnotize and attack her enemies, while the last can generate deadly amounts of electricity and conduct it through even the thinnest steel wire. Such powers might not sound immediately useful, but the movie sees the Devils apply their skills in some mighty creative ways.
I find it incredible that this movie makes time for encounters with eight separate supervillains, but it DOES, and if I tried to cover them all in-depth, we’d be here for months. So, I’ll just talk about my favorite of the group instead: Mujuro.
Mujuro Utsutsu is a pale, soft-spoken fellow who appears, at first, to have little of the supernatural about him. It turns out he’s an archetypal blind swordsman, but that’s really not that exciting, not after some of the crazy shit this movie’s already shown us.
But then, he goes and pulls out a really nasty trick.
Mujuro is so skilled at determining his unseen opponent’s position that he can calculate the angle at which to tilt his blade so that it will reflect the glare of the sun right into Jubei’s eyes.
“Your sight is your weakness,” he says.
This is one of my favorite moments in the film. Jubei is once again outmatched, but this time it’s in a way that’s so deceptively simple, it’s wholly unexpected. When combined with Mujuro’s aggressive fighting style, this bizarre talent nearly presses Jubei to the ground, and Jubei only survives the encounter because of pure luck.
Well, luck, and the loyalty of a friend.
While it initially seems that Jubei and Kagero have divergent paths, and that they would likely be rivals in other circumstances, it’s soon made clear that fate has linked them together. Both are their clans’ sole survivors, and both of them have suffered from the cruelty of the Eight Devils of Kimon. Both are immensely talented warriors, and both have a strong sense of justice. They are also both in need of someone to trust while they’re in this awful situation.
So only an idiot would be surprised that these two fall in love. What is surprising is that they really can’t do anything about it. Kagero has spent so many years immunizing herself to poison that her body is now saturated with it. Anyone who makes love to her, or even kisses her, is signing his own death warrant (just ask Tessai). Kagero tries to carry this deadliness as a point of pride, but it is plain that she resents it, for it has caused her to lose something beautiful and human about herself.
It’s a doomed romance to be sure, and it certainly ends tragically, but the connection between the two is indelible. In a gesture of honor and respect, Jubei dons Kagero’s ruby headband, so that they may continue to fight — figuratively — as one. This metaphor becomes literal in the desperate, final battle when, having lost his sword arm, Jubei resorts to head-butting Gemma until the Devil’s skull turns to paste. It’s amazing.
My most recent viewing of Ninja Scroll was also my first viewing of it on Blu-Ray, and holy shit…it looks better than it ever did. It sounds strange, but it really looks more impressive today than it did when it was first released, and that’s not something that can be said about many movies. I paused the playback many times just so I could take in the details in the artwork and to analyze the motion in the lightning quick ninja moves. I can’t imagine animation of this caliber ever, EVER losing its appeal.
Of course, it’s not just the animation that makes Ninja Scroll wonderful, it’s the direction. The pace fluctuates as it should in any good movie, but it never gets too terse or too slow. The action scenes fly by with one intense, perfectly-trimmed shot after another, while the softer sequences provide much needed breathers. I’d hazard to say that there are one or two scenes that go on too long, but overall, it feels like the whole thing was produced in time with a metronome. I still marvel at the fact that this was made in 1993.
If you’ve somehow not seen this movie before reading this entry, relax; you need not fear. Ninja Scroll is so masterfully produced that nothing I could write on this silly little blog could ruin it for you. Even after dozens of viewings, it continues to give me the chills. So if you’re going to see it for the first time (and for that you are envied), all I have left to say is that you should curl up in a warm blanket beforehand, because Ninja Scroll will hold you in shivering, wide-eyed suspense, all the way up to its final betrayal.