Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Version I Watched: Standard definition library rental DVD.

History: Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, a famous Australian author who died in the early 1940's. While not directly based on any piece in particular Wes Anderson has admitted to taking the most inspiration from the novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl. The inspiration goes so deep that the character only known as 'Author' is Stefan Zweig without saying it out loud.
It was released in early 2014 and was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. For the commoner it is currently holding a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. A very positive review for an otherwise pessimistic and harsh set of critics. Financially it did succeeded greatly as well. At a budget of only $31 million it managed to get back almost $170 million worldwide. Proving once again that a movie can be made on the cheap, have excellent A-list actors, and succeed financially and critically.

Personal History: First viewing but am very familiar with the work of Wes Anderson. I'd put him in my top ten favorite directors. Of the eight features he's directed the only ones I haven't seen yet are The Darjeeling Limited and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The former I'll get around to eventually. The latter, however, it is a crime that I haven't seen it yet considering how much I adore stop motion animation.

Review: Well this is a first. First I can remember in recent memory. I am doing this review because it was requested when I wasn't planning on doing anything outside a quick comment on Facebook. So, Ben, this one goes out to you. It's nice and reassuring to know people do read these and do care about my opinion. Makes the hours I put into this blog worth it even though I do it for nothing except catharsis.

As I stated in the 'Personal History' section I am a big, big fan of Wes Anderson. To recap, I've seen most of his movies. So far I've loved them all as he has a style that appeals to me an awful lot. He's a smart man with a quirky sense of humor. Not only do I get the intelligently written material done in an artsy way I also get a goofy and fun sense of humor to go with it. A breath of fresh air showing it's possible to take a film as seemingly silly as, let's say, Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums and see them as art. Even if they have jokes that start with the approach of 'act like a bumbling idiot.'
With that said I want to get a few things out of the way. Like any other director with common themes and traits there are a lot of things in Budapest that are in every other Wes Anderson story. With that said, Budapest has:
-Great cinematography.
-Colorful set design.
-Goofy, elegant, sophisticated, absurd, blunt, and/or overly intense characters.
-A plot with moments that rely on random chance or hilariously convoluted explanations or outcomes.
-A robust soundtrack filed mostly with classy, cultural, or ironic choices.
-And a very likely chance it'll be released on The Criterion Collection one day.

I hope I don't touch on the obvious while reviewing this. I'll do my best to touch on what makes Budapest unique among the others Wes Anderson stories (based on the ones I've seen at least.) Cause, really, Wes Anderson are some of the most consistently samey movies I've seen by any director.
While I'm on the subject, I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing. I referenced something like this in my 2014 Preview post. Saying "I'm sure it'll be great like all other Wes Anderson flicks." Even putting it in my honorable mentions section with a two sentence commentary. But again, not that that's a bad thing. I knew what to expect and what to expect was good. Hard to get excited for something and pumped for something when you already know how it'll turn out even if it is good.
If that makes any sense.

Yet instantly this movie made itself unique when I loaded in the DVD and this popped up.

At first I thought this was Wes Anderson being particular. Every so often there's a DVD released where the director gives his or her own special touch making sure you'll watch their art properly. There's a special feature on the DVD for Inland Empire where David Lynch makes sure your TV has the proper brightness setting. It was a nice touch to see something like this but I quickly found out Wes had different intentions other than general annoyances and being particular (as he should be.)
I quickly noticed the aspect ratio was jumping around. In the very, very beginning it was 1.85:1 but quickly jumped to 2.35:1 as it jumped time periods from late in the mysterious author's life to him as a young man visiting the hotel when it's in a run down state. In layman's terms it went from the standard widescreen your flatscreen TV does to a wider, more cinematic widescreen. I thought it was odd at first and didn't fully realize what he was going until it went back to the 1930's wherein most of the story takes place. It jumped from the very wide 2.35:1 to the old fashioned, square shaped 1.33:1.
This is a technique that is thankfully not used a lot because it would otherwise be spoiled. I like when stories change this way because it helps signify where you are in the story and/or in time. Since the story is told entirely in flashbacks it would make sense to reminisce in a movie as if it's an old movie from the period it took place. Like Wes was taking notes from The Artist only not as extreme in technique and style. Simply utilizing the film standard of shape and size at the time. Even then cramming the story into a square box it is still beautiful to look at.

Like I said in the Wes Anderson cliches his films are always beautifully shot. That's because he (or his cinematographer) knows how to make the best of the camera when most just point and shoot it seems. Not really thinking about what they're doing or making it look as good as possible. But the thing is it's actually pretty easy to make something look good in standard widescreen with a pinch of effort. That's because widescreen has natural beauty whereas 1.33:1, or 'full screen' does not. Widescreen is like looking at art on display in the Louvre whereas 'full screen' is like looking through a window.
So shooting in full screen provides a challenge. A challenge Budapest overcame quite well. The cinematography is still beautiful. I can't think of any point when the cinematography felt cramped or improper. It was all done masterfully well making me forget there were black bars on either side of the screen.
This coming from someone who tends to think wider is better because of the potential. Not here. Here it was reminiscent of later Kubrick films when he insisted on shooting like this specifically for the purposes of transferring his art to home video (a time before 16x9 TV screens.)

However I felt the aspect ratio did hurt the film if not only slightly.
I had a biased toward this film going in. I am a big, big fan of old hotels like this. The type stuffy rich people stayed in before the big wars and whatnot. To me they shine an elegant beauty comparable to some of the greatest mansions while retaining what makes them unique. With that said having this in 1.33:1 took away a lot of visuals of the hotel. I wanted to see more of the beauty of the hotel. Many of which was cut off by cramming the picture. I appreciate artistically what Wes did in aspect ratio style, but don't like how it took away the visuals I could have had in seeing this gorgeous structure.
Matter of fact, I didn't care for how little time was actually spent at the hotel. Call me crazy but when you're presented a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel you'd imagine you'd get a lot of time in said hotel getting to know more characters that work there. Instead it felt like more time was spent away then there. We did get a fun and exciting story outside the hotel that used it as a central point to the story. I just felt it was a tad misleading, which is a petty complaint I realize. Not like every movie has to be literal with it's title, does it?

Something that was especially great were the performances. I know, I know, probably saw that coming. But I'm not usually keen on all star casts like this. It takes something really special to get immersed into a story with as many recognizable faces as this. In comparison I recently watched American Hustle, which also has an all star cast. I found Budapest to be incredibly immersive with memorable characters. Whereas American Hustle was fun and exciting, but partially felt like a bunch of celebrities got together at a party and said "Let's play 1970's dress up for a couple hours." which I realize is making Hustle sound worse than it is. I just couldn't get as immersed due to the way the characters were played and portrayed in Hustle, unlike Budapest.
Was I staring at Ralph Fiennes most of the movie? Yes. Did it feel like I was? No. I felt like I was looking into the world of M. Gustave and his lobby boy Zero (played by an unknown making immersion easy.) This rang true for most of the cast including: Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan (the always lovely), and Tilda Swinton. The last only having a small part and in heavy duty makeup as an 80 year old woman, and knocking it out of the part because her performance made her unrecognizable. Still the makeup did a lot of the cover up.

Bet you wouldn't have guessed if I hadn't said anything.

However it wasn't all around great. While most of the cast was top notch I didn't care for a few of the performances. Basically because they did what they always do and didn't immerse themselves as much as the other actors who (some of which were doing their thing but proper to the character and story) were far more into it. I didn't care for Edward Norton here. Didn't feel like he fit. Felt like Adrien Brody was trying too hard. Then Jude Law played the role of Jude Law in the few scenes he's in.

I'm not really sure what else to say about Budapest. Really if you've seen other Wes Anderson movies and liked them you're likely gonna like this one. It's a fun and fantastic romp through the lives and situations of quirky characters with a fun sense of humor. Like the rest of his movies.
How does it rank? Well that's hard to say. Yet I can't really think of a better way to demonstrate it's positives and negatives than comparing it to it's older brothers and sisters. It's more fast paced and exhilarating than Life Aquatic's slow burn. Despite the ensemble it's not as robust in overall character as The Royal Tenenbaums. Could even be considered a more adult-oriented Moonrise Kingdom with it's goofier tone than his other movies, and that's saying something. Again I haven't seen Darjeeling or Mr Fox so I can't compare it to those. But I heard Darjeeling wasn't so hot (that could have been everyone coming down from the high of Life Aquatic) and Mr Fox is animated.
Which surprisingly brings me to a point I wasn't expecting. Budapest both is and isn't like everything else Wes has brought to the screen. It's got all the same ingredients, including the actors, but is hardly comparable to most of his previous work because of how different those ingredients were sprinkled together.
With that I'd like to say thank you to Wes. For giving me exactly what I wanted out of him and then taking another step forward by telling me what more I wanted without me asking. Well, despite the few missteps. You should know by now I don't like it when the end of the movie is at the start. Kills some of the tension of what could happen next.

I'd still say my favorite Wes is tied between Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic. Only time will tell.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Clover Reviews! Volume 1 -> Episode 7

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"A powerful and inspiring tale about standing up for what's right made totally irrelevant by the fact everyone reads their news online these days."

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes recommendations. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dancing Across the Rings of Saturn

I've decided to handle the Saturn differently than I did the Dreamcast when I picked it up. I have an older post that lists all the licensed Dreamcast games and other items but crossed out, with the ones I own un-crossed and bold. A crazy idea I had at the time that I'm sticking to for that console.
I don't know if I want to do a list like that for Saturn. Until I decide what to do with the Saturn I do want to talk about the history of the Saturn first since it's a lesser known console. It had a much different history than others and I think it's fascinating it was able to hold as much ground as it did back in the day (when you really think about it). So that's what this will be, a condensed, objectively fair (I'll try) viewpoint of the Sega Saturn, it's history, and the promise of game reviews to quickly follow.

Mistakes of a Previous Generation
Sega made a lot of odd decisions in the early 90s. Their console the Genesis/Mega Drive was proving to be a smash hit! It was in competition with Nintendo that Sony vs Microsoft has nowadays (only more fun and less stupid). Say all you want about the tech behind the console, what really mattered were the games. I could go into that for ages, but that would be off topic and we don't need to do that. All in all Sega had a great spot in the market while remaining in good competition.
Then something else started happening. CDs. So many games were jumping to the CD format because it can hold more and do more while remaining less expense than the very limited cartridges. So all these new consoles were coming out based in CDs or older consoles made CD add-ons.

While not all of these were released before Sega's idea, there were a good chunk of consoles that came out in the span of a few short years based in CD gaming, or are a CD add-on. including:
-Jaguar CD
-Neo Geo CD
-Phillips CD-I
-Turbo Grafx CD name a few.

Just think about that. Think about how many consoles are released at the same time per generation? Maybe 2 or 3 a generation not counting portable? Does Ouya count or is that too similar to PC? Crazy to think but in the mid 90s there was an explosion of gaming consoles and add-ons! Some of these were released years apart, sure, but these were just the CD add on or CD based consoles. There were even more  Just like in the pre-NES days as the legendary crash happened. In a way the market almost crashed again because there was so much but no one knew enough about most of them. Thankfully the not so great consoles bombed like Jaguar and 3DO. However it is a shame the Neo Geo and Turbo Grafx weren't a bigger hit. I've heard those are fantastic consoles!

Sega jumped onto the gravy train in 1991 in Japan with the Mega CD, or the Sega CD in 1992 for Americans. While somewhat impressive for the time the add on was not terribly popular. It managed to crank out a couple of notable titles but those were either due to controversy (Night Trap) or cult following (Snatcher.) They would repeat themselves in 1994 with another add on. The 32X. A cartridge based add on that played 32 bit games, a step up from the 16 bit the Genesis could do on it's own. It was an even bigger failure than the CD. Again it had a couple notable titles (including Knuckles Chaotix.) Definitely not system sellers, though, at least from what I've heard. Despite this Sega had plans on releasing ANOTHER console that was built to play Genesis and 32X games without the add on. They had already done this with the Sega CD. Thankfully this new console didn't come out cause the star of our show was on the way.

So with all those problems behind them one would think the Sega Saturn would be handled with better care. Well... almost.

From promo material. Similar to final look of the Japanese model.

The Sega Saturn was released in Japan on November 22nd 1994 and it was a hit! The console sold it's entire initial shipment of 200,000 units the first day. Fueled mostly by the popularity of the console's port of Virtua Fighter. A game that sold at almost a 1:1 ratio with the console. In November of 1994 nearly a quarter million people owned a Saturn in Japan, and close to every single one of them had Virtua Fighter. The next shipment came through on December 3rd. The launch date of Sony's first console the Playstation. This may be hard to believe for American readers but the Saturn was initially the better selling console in Japan even when sold side by side.
Ironically this was when the 32X was released in America. Giving Americans a lesser product AND blue balls waiting for the new console to come out.

And of course America fucks it up.

In March 1995 Sega of America announced the Saturn would be released on 'Saturnday' (Saturday) September 2nd 1995. However, in an effort to compete against Sony, Sega did something to get a head start. During E3, May of that same year they revealed the console's price ($399) and it's capabilities. They also announced that 30,000 units have already shipped to select stores in select cities ready for purchase. This was a bold move that upset more people than it excited, specifically the retailers who were not all aware of the early launch.
Since the only people who knew about this early launch was Sega the lineup of games was limited with few on the way before the proper launch. Only two more games were scheduled for release between May and September. Meaning over the course of nearly half a year there were less than ten games available for this new console. To add insult to injury the Playstation was selling at $100 less than the Saturn and sold more units only days after it's launch than the Saturn did in it's entire five month head start.

Egg... on... face...

It should come at no surprise that the system dropped it's price to $299 by the end of the year. Still it wound up struggling in the states from here on out always trailing behind the Playstation. This is usually the story with consoles. If you don't have a good start then it's very likely failure is imminent (with the exception of the Wii-U maybe?)
At least in the states that was true. Japan had a very different story with the Saturn. More on that in a bit.


The Saturn was caught between a rock and a hard place. I'm not an engineer or a tech junkie so I can't go into deep detail but I can tell you where and why things went wrong.

First the Saturn worked much better as a 2D console. During initial development 2D was still a big part of gaming. While 3D was starting to enter the scene, especially with Sega's own Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing in the arcades, it wasn't entirely clear what level of 3D future consoles could handle. So 2D was the focus with 3D elements incorporated but not to the level we now know. Keep in mind up to this point we saw little to no 3D in games. Some of the 3D seen was faux-3D using sprites. Polygons were barely a thing, and when those were used it was at the most basic, primitive level. We had Star Fox, Hard Drivin', but not much else.
Then, suddenly, 3D was proving to be the way of the future. Since Sega was so far along in development their method of catching up was Frankenstein-ing their console. Again I am not a tech guy and I don't even want to re-post what others may post for the tech specs cause I won't be able to follow up on those comments. Instead I'll tell you what you know in the way I know it.
There was something with the hardware where they used two of the same processors in order to achieve the results they wanted in theory. Again, to my understanding this wasn't smart cause it was like trying to cut a steak with two butter knives when one sharp steak knife would have been preferred. Only they didn't have the time or the money to start over and build a stronger fire pit. Or maybe they didn't even have the interest? Maybe they wanted to focus on 2D despite kicking ass with polygons in the arcades.

Because of this odd setup the Saturn proved to be very difficult to program for. This is something else that confuses the hell out of me. Starting with the fact they used different shapes as their basis for polygons. Something about how one system uses triangles whereas others use quadrilaterals or whatever. In a way this as a preview to the Playstation 3. It was built much different than the competitors and in a confusing way. It made it difficult to program which meant less games were being made for it (at first). Less games meant less selection. But even if the same games were made for both Saturn and Playstation it had the whole 'which is better' thing going on like the Genesis/SNES competition before only not as extreme in difference.
With the constant failing in popularity the Saturn saw developer's lack of interest in making games for the console. Some of which were sequels to games already on the console. Tomb Raider for example was on the Saturn. Tomb Raider 2 was only on Playstation. Same with Resident Evil. First was on Saturn, not the sequel. Although that would change when Resident Evil 2 was ported to the Dreamcast. Plenty of examples like this (and with porting to Dreamcast actually.)

Another problem is Sega got a little too ambitious and indecisive with their console despite it's power. There were multiple games that started on the Saturn only to be released for later consoles or not released at all! Did you know Shenmue started development on the Saturn and it was going to be an RPG staring Akira from Virtua Fighter? The game's creator Yu Suzuki was impressed by what the console could do but development was going painstakingly slow. After two years of development the game was put on hold until it picked up speed again on the Dreamcast.
Then of course there's the notorious Sonic X-Treme. A game that deserves it's own posting (which I'm working on.) To be brief, Sonic X-Treme was going to be the Saturn's official entry in the mainline Sonic games not counting spin offs or ports. The game was delayed multiple times and saw many engine changes. In the end the game was cancelled and barely finished. Like Duke Nukem Forever minus being eventually finished and released twelve years later. Because of that the Saturn only had the previously mentioned ports and spin-off Sonic games. Really sad considering there were four mainline Sonic games on the Genesis plus spin-offs.

The difficulty of programming also meant it's difficult to emulate. This goes beyond playing games on your computer using emulators. This pulls in ports to newer console. The console is so weird to work with many, if not every game ported from the Saturn onto later consoles were not ported from the Saturn versions. Usually their source was the original arcade (Virtua Fighter 2) or the PC ports (Panzer Dragoon). To this day it is still uncommon to see Saturn games available on modern consoles and not for lack of interest. There are lots of adored games on the console. There's just not enough easy to port games or enough interest in investing the time and money to port the harder to port games.

Speaking of games...

It's always hard to find a perfect full list of games for any console. Outside the failure consoles that had literally a handful of games like the Virtual Boy. I'd say it's especially difficult for the Saturn considering it was a much bigger success in Japan than America. I know I've been talking some smack about it til now but really that was the case. It's simply my American perspective and experience.

While researching I found a really cool and exciting fact about the games. I already knew games were being released for the console in Japan as late as 1999-2000 (America stopped in 1998.) What I didn't know was the success between us and them was so dramatic. According to some sources there were over a thousand games released for the Saturn, more than half of which never made it to the states. Let that sink in considering the failure the console was in America.
This completely changed my perspective and outlook on the system. It makes me feel like my American collection I'm building is a niche portion even though that was my entire experience in the mid/late 90s. In a way it's funny I find this out. At one point before picking up a Saturn again I considered buying a Japanese model and sticking strictly to imports. I guess I sub-consciously knew about the drastic difference.

That's for the future of my collecting. I'm sure in time you'll see plenty of import reviews. For now I'm focusing on what I once experienced while branching out from there.

When I do review the games it's shocking to see how much variety there was for the console. It's not like the N64 where RPGs were almost non-existent or the XBox 360 where FPS games dominated. There were a lot of unique titles that made up the Saturn experience. Ten of which that come to mind for me and my experiences include:


Clockwork Knight

Daytona USA

Nights into Dreams...

Panzer Dragoon

Sonic R

Virtua Cop

Virtua Fighter

Virtual On

World Series Baseball

While all those titles are key to my personal tastes and experiences it's still easy to see the variety. There are platformers, shooters, racers, fighters, whatever the hell Nights can be classified, even sports! Yes, the Saturn is one of the veeeeeeeeeeeeery few consoles where it had sport games I didn't just like, but loved! That's because Sega did a great job with not just one or two genres. Most genres they developed were great with few exceptions. Making them very well rounded which, again, surprises me in thinking how they were once considered a 'failure.' But if there's one genre I had to classify as the Saturn's strongest it would easily be arcade.
A cheat? I think not. Arcade is a genre in and of itself having it's own rules, restrictions, and high points. While Nintendo slowly moved their way out of the arcade Sega made sure to stay in it alongside their consoles. Sadly this would be part of their downfall in the console market in the long run. At least they made some great experiences before that happened. They kicked major ass in the arcades and their ports were top notch as well. Sega even went so far as to release the dual stick joystick for Virtual-On so the home player could have a similar experience to the arcade.

More on that in a bit. But first here's the arcade unit controller. Think of that at home.

Instead I think the best way to handle the rest of this (since I plan on doing full reviews as I pick up games) is to do a rundown of notable games. These showcase either the console's power, the public opinion, or my personal experience. Some of these games I have not have played yet so it's based on what I've read. Should be obvious.

And now for my seemingly random choices in no particular order...

The Virtua Franchise - A series of games that started in arcades but quickly became hits at home, if not more popular at home. The games I'm referencing are Virtua Racing, Virtua Cop, and Virtua Fighter. All are great games and were revolutionary at the time for their use of polygons. With the exception of Virtua Racing there were sequels to these games made (Racing just had an updated version in arcades) with Fighter being the longest running at five games and a handful of spin-offs. The only downside to these games is their generic nature. They have great engines and are fun but visually and stylistically are lacking. Racing is straight up F-1, Virtua Cop sometimes feels like every other 90s cop movie but stripped down, and Virtua Fighter's characters couldn't be more predictable. All of which is forgiven when you play because of how damn fun they are!

Panzer Dragoon - Even on some of Sega's first party exclusives for the system they stuck with an arcade style. Panzer Dragoon is an on rails shooter that is surprisingly varied for the time. You ride on the back of this dragon-like creature shooting down all kinds of crazy and scary creatures. In a way it's more like Space Harrier and less like Virtua Cop because you have more control than just where you're shooting. Also you don't just shoot in front of you. You also shoot side to side and behind needing to watch all around you so you don't get killed.
There were two sequels, neither of which I've played. Panzer Dragoon II Zwei looked to be similar to the first. I imagine there were plenty of enhancements to make it stand out on it's own. The second sequel, Panzer Dragoon Saga, is much more notable. It took the genre into RPG territory expanding well beyond the flying and shooting arcade style mechanics of the first two games. The only problem is it was released late in the Saturn's American life, shipping in very limited quantities. The Japanese release is easy to get but the American release runs an average of $300 or more.

WARP - No game was named WARP, but there were some by the developer WARP. Specifically I'm talking about D and Enemy Zero. You already know about my love of D, as I've linked back to my review more often than anything else I've done because I talk about it so much. Also it was on a couple other consoles including the Playstation, 3DO and PC. Enemy Zero on the other hand was a Saturn exclusive (not counting PC 2 years later.)
Basically these games are like interactive movies that somehow work. Each game is a multi-disc game solely because of the nature of the gameplay. You navigate through a series of pre-rendered videos with limited interaction. Still the experiences are insanely engaging and is way better than it may sound. Certainly a higher experience than the FMV games for consoles like Sega CD. You can always see my thoughts in my D review (which I already linked back to) and my inevitable Enemy Zero review coming later.

Nights into Dreams... - Another title I've already talked about in a previous post, albeit it's the PS3 HD re-release.
This is easily one of the most popular and most loved games on the Saturn. It's an easy to pick up and play game structured on arcade-style gameplay. Simple to learn, tough to master as getting the highest rating in each level is quite a challenge. Yet flying through the sky with such grace and ease will make it okay if you never achieve that level of expertise. Just re-playing the same level over and over is fun enough. It's also got a lot of charm and character that anyone can relate to since it's about dreams and nightmares.
It's like a Pixar movie in a way. Simple and straightforward concept most can enjoy living in a vibrant and colorful world. It may seem shallow on the surface but the more time you spend with it the more you see the depth it offers. Without a doubt this is one of the top ten best games released for the console and remains one of my personal favorites to this day.

Duke Nukem 3D - A game that's been ported and re-released to death had a pretty legit port on the Saturn. While definitely not as good as Duke Nukem: Total Meltdown for the Playstation it was still a great experience for me on the Saturn. It didn't cut out or redo a lot of stuff like in the N64 version. It stayed pretty true blue for the most part, but couldn't really tell you where the minor differences are. Despite the differences there was one thing this port had the other home ports didn't. Online play. This was one of the few games that took advantage of Saturn's online capabilities whereas the other consoles simply couldn't. Outside of PC this was the only place to play Duke 3D online. I never experienced it myself but the sheer fact it could in the mid-90s is saying something, right?

2D Fighting - Since the Saturn does 2D way better than 3D it should come as no surprise there were a lot of 2D fighters for the console. While I was busy kicking ass in Fighter's Megamix, a bunch of Japanese kids were kicking ass in multiple versions of King of Fighters, Street Fighter, and Marvel Super Heroes. Add the 'vs' games like X-Men vs Street Fighter and you've got some of the most celebrated games for the console. It helped these games already had a following to begin with. Then there's the fact so many of them were so well done they were done too well. And by that I mean if you wanted to play some of these exciting, action packed fighters at full speed and capacity you needed the 1 or 4 meg ram expansion cartridge. A little like the N64 ram expansion only not as crippling if you don't have it.
I am VERY excited about importing these along with an arcade fighting stick.

Die Hard Arcade - One of my favorite arcade games of all time and it's only home release was on the Saturn. I freaking love this game! It's an arcade action beat-em-up through and through in the tradition of games like Final Fight. Only this one is in full polygonal 3D.
While the name speaks for itself it wasn't always a licensed game. In Japan it is known as Dynamite Deka and is only inspired by Die Hard. It wasn't until it hit other regions that the likeness got adapted to what it was based off of in the first place. It should be known this is not connected to any of the movies. Simply similar in theme and style. The sequel Dynamite Deka 2 would be released in America as well but in the form of Dynamite Cop for the Dreamcast. No more Die Hard name connected to it.

Early Kojima - Hideo Kojima, most well known for Metal Gear Solid these days, was making plenty of legendary games before his most popular franchise. Two of those games originally released for the Japanese computer NEC PC-9801 got ports for the Saturn among a couple other consoles. Those games were Snatcher and Policenauts.
Yes they were both released in enhanced versions for the Saturn. But there's a good reason you didn't see these games in the states. Back in the mid-90s Snatcher did get an American release on the Sega CD. While the game was critically acclaimed it did very poorly in sales, leaving it as a rare and valuable items since few copies were sold. Then Policenauts was in development for the Saturn's English market but eventually cancelled due to technical reasons with the translation. Something's telling me there was more to it than that.
So the adventure games remained quite a mystery to most before the age of the internet. Still the only way to play these games on the Saturn is to import them. Something I plan on doing one day even though I won't understand a word of them.

Burning Rangers - And for my last entry in this list is one of the later games in the console's life.
A little like Panzer Dragoon Saga but not as insanely rare. This action game developed by Sonic Team was released in mid-1998, about six months before the last US Saturn game was released. Much like a few other games that year it was critically acclaimed but sold very few copies due to the inevitable failure of the Saturn. So naturally the game is quite rare in it's American release commanding roughly $100 for a complete set (disc, case, and manual.)
A shame because the game looks really cool and really fun. In short the game is set in the future where you go on missions of search and rescue. You fly around in a mechanical suit that helps you put out fires and save civilians. The game was criticized for a low difficulty but praised for it's great replayability.
Since this game is action based it would be much easier and more financially efficient to get the import copy. Seeing as how I don't have a personal connection to the American version like Sonic Jam and Fighter's Megamix.

For the most part the Saturn's accessories weren't too different from other consoles.

To start they had their standard controllers. The first model I don't like as much as the second model. The first is much bigger with a slightly blockier design. It's not built quite right but is definitely functional. Come to think of it I'm not sure if this model ever came out in Japan as the only controller I've seen for them has been equivalent to the model 2 here. Even after doing some research I couldn't find a Japanese version of this controller. Doesn't surprise me. The large size and layout feels very American. A little like the first XBox controller.

Model 2 being a vastly superior controller and the one Japan had from the start. The best thing to compare it to is the Genesis controller. Essentially they took that design and made it much more comfortable. Even to this day I love playing games on this model controller. It fits so well in your hands and everything is place perfectly. The only downside to the controller is in retrospect. I've gotten so used to playing with a Playstation 3 controller it's weird going back. Not just because it feels different (I believe the Playstation Dual Shock controllers are among the best controllers available. WAAAAAY over XBox), but because of the weight. I'm used to having a rumble pack so picking up a Saturn controller is like putting down a full gallon of milk to pick up an almost empty jug. Still a great controller.

The third standard controller released was the 3D controller. What a steaming pile of crap this thing is. The design went from a comfortable Genesis-like controller to a circle with handlebars. The buttons no longer have that comfortable clicking feel. Instead they're squishy, like you're pushing down on marshmallows. The big addition to this, though, was the joystick... if you can call it that. It moves 360 degrees like a joystick should but it's shaped awkward. It looks like a scalped dome and it feels awkward to use. Nowhere near as natural as a joystick on controllers released only a year or two after this one. Thankfully this wasn't the standard. But if you wanted to play with a joystick this was pretty much it for first party stuff. And the worst part is the Dreamcast controller is damn near the same thing... minus marshmallow buttons.

We'll take the 3D controller, remove two buttons, and add a spot for a VMU. I'm going on lunch.

Just like most other consoles at the time and before it there were a ton of additional controllers and specialized peripherals. Such as...

The Gun Controller - Easily one of the most popular peripherals for any console throughout the late 80s and entire 90s. Here was a solid and freaking HUGE gun controller used for games like Virtua Cop and Area 51. I loved it's size but hated how light it was and it's color. Although gun controllers have been odd colors dating back to the NES with the orange gun for Duck Hunt.

The Multitap - A unique one at the time considering that most mutlitaps increased the player count to 4. Whereas this one had a whopping six ports. Mostly used for sports games as you can imagine. But if you had two multitaps, a copy of Saturn Bomberman, and nine friends you could play ten player multiplayer!

Racing Controller - I find this one to be unique in that it's not a circular controller. Usually the racing controllers look like steering wheels. One would imagine. But I like this breakaway from the norm giving it the handles on either end. Feeling more like you're not driving any ordinary car, but something unique, exciting, and fast paced!

Stick Controllers - There were three notable stick controllers. The Arcade Stick, the Flight Stick, and the Twin Stick.

The Arcade Stick is exactly what it sounds like. An arcade controller for the many fighting games for the console. Seriously, the Saturn was loaded with Street Fighters, Marvel, and other Capcom or Capcom-esque fighting games. I've never been big on these controllers despite loving the arcade experience. Likely because I'm much more used to fighting with a D-pad than a stick.

Then the Flight Stick was for flying games. Not that it was restricted to those. I remember playing Need for Speed with this bad boy because I didn't have the driving controller but for some reason had this. I did really like this controller, though. I thought it had a cool design and it was even ambidextrous. Lefties need not be worried.

Lastly the Twin Stick. A controller specifically designed for the game Virtual-On. It replicated the arcade feel instead of forcing a change to adapt to the home market. In that case it has a bit of a Rock Band/Guitar Hero problem with only being used for one game/franchise. None the less it's a specialized experience that most see as worth the extra cash.

Modem/Internet Accessories - As I very briefly mentioned earlier the Saturn had the capability to go online. Even though this was the 90s and it was through dial-up it was still pretty incredible for the time. What with being the only source for console online gaming at the time.
I don't know the specs for Japan, but in America there were only five games you could compete online with. Those games were: Daytona USA: CCE NetLink Edition, Duke Nukem 3D, Saturn Bomberman, Sega Rally Championship: NetLink Edition, and Virtual-On. Again not a big deal in today's standards. Thinking about it contextually it was awesome.
Of course with that came accessories for surfing the web...
Much like the Dreamcast that came after, the Saturn had a keyboard and mouse used for web surfing among other things. I really can't commentate on these because I've never used them. But look at 'em. They're a keyboard and mouse. What's there to say? As long as it typed and the mouse moved the cursor it's great. Although I'm sure some computer and tech junkies would have more to say about that.

Cartridges: Ram Expansion/Backup - Say what you will about the Saturn it did have ambition. Some of that ambition came from pushing it's capabilities as far as it would go.

With that said there were a few games that wouldn't run at 100% unless you had a ram expansion. Typically these were the Capcom fighting games that went very fast paced. But if I understand correctly a ram expansion would help any of the games because it gave it more memory. These were never released in America proper.

A cartridge that was released was the memory backup cartridge. The Saturn had internal memory  when other consoles either had memory cards (Playstation) or stored on the cartridge itself (N64 for the most part.) So Saturn had a leg up there minus the fact the storage wasn't that big. The memory backup cartridge but honestly wasn't that necessary unless you had A LOT of games. I never needed it as a kid and I'd say I had a pretty good stack.

Something released third party that did all that and more was the Action Replay 4M Plus. It provided the 1MB and 4MB expansions, backup capabilities, AND allows you to play imports. This is very high on my list of items to pick up because of those features all in one $40 cartridge. I love importing for Sega consoles. It's so easy!

Plenty more where that came from. Especially from third party companies. But I don't feel the need to talk about those peripherals since most of them are either specialized or not worth talking about.

End of Life & Legacy
The console really had the potential for success. Unfortunately it didn't turn out as well as it could have. It had lots of great features for the time, lots of great games, and yet some poor decision making along the way completely ruined it for the American market. I wish I could see what it would have been like if it succeeded here anywhere near what it did in Japan. It would have been a different world of gaming that could have been toe to toe instead of complete domination by Sony.
Of course there's always wishful thinking of what could have been. Much like the Saturn's successor, the Dreamcast. Looking back on the Saturn's life it's a bit odd to think how the Saturn was, in a way, more successful than the Dreamcast, a superior console. Think about it. Saturn was released in Japan in late 1994, produced games until 2000. Even in America it had a life from mid-1995 until ending game production in late 1998. The Dreamcast hit Japan in late 1998 and less than a year later in America, then being pulled from American markets in 2001. Although lasting until 2006 in Japan, making it somewhat a bigger success but I doubt the consistency of licensed games and popularity was as high as the Saturn's later years.

Simply put the legacy of the Saturn depends on where you're from and what you experience. If you were an American gamer it was seen as a joke and a disaster. After the mistakes of the Sega CD and 32X this seemed to add logs to the fire. The hasty early release pissing off a lot of retailers and developers, higher price tag, etc all made the American market uninterested and lacking faith in Sega. But in Japan it was seen as a much greater console that could do so much (as it did.) Providing a ton of not just good but great games to choose from. Perception is everything, which is why I'm excited to start importing for this on top of importing more for the Dreamcast.
Sega had more going for it than it appeared to from the eyes of the American market. Such a shame it never got to show it's truest colors here. Then when it did those games became rare, meaning I'll have to pay out the ass to get some of the console's best games in their American release.
Totally worth it, though...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Clover Reviews! Volume 1 -> Episode 6

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"It brings back the classic concept of giant robot suits in a great way. Don't you think it's time we get a big budget modern Gundam movie?"

"Sure do, Clover!"

That's all for today. Join us every Saturday for more movie recommendations from our fuzzy friend.
Don't forget that Clover gladly takes recommendations. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Review: Under the Skin

Version I Watched: Standard definition Redbox DVD rental.

History: Has been in works for quite a while considering it came and went fairly under the radar. The first draft and first attempt to be made was ten years ago. An older draft revolved around a Scottish couple who were revealed to be aliens at the end, one of the pair being played by Brad Pitt. Since that fell through numerous women had been considered for the lead role. Including: Eva Green, Megan Fox, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, and Jessica Biel to name a few before landing on Scarlett Johansson.
The movie was made with a £8 million budget ($13.3 American). Since this was destined to be a limited release movie it didn't make a lot back due to the low number of screens it was on. However the attendance was high in the theatres it was released in. When it initially opened on a mere four screens it earned $140,000. Very high when you consider the average mainstream movie opens anywhere from 2,000-4,000 screens. And if that mainstream movie earned $50 million it's opening week that's a $12,500-$25,000 per screen average, or $50,000-$100,000 every four screens.
It has since earned a lot of praise, currently holding an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Personal History: Found out about this fairly recently. Only a few months ago. So it's not something I've been anticipating for a long time. Was very excited at what I saw when I did hear about it. First viewing of course.

Review: Sometimes I'm glad most movies tend to play out the same as everything else. That way when something 'out of the ordinary' comes along it can be a pleasant and welcome surprise. Especially with something like Under the Skin. An artsy science fiction story released in a time when nerd pop culture has become popular to the point of unbearable. A sad fate to accept knowing my favorite kind of science fiction doesn't come along very often because it's not popular or marketable enough. And unless Interstellar can prove to be as kick ass as I hope it will be, Under the Skin will likely be my favorite science fiction movie of the year.

This movie definitely flew under the radar this year. Despite starring a VERY big name it got a very limited release until it was released on home video. Surprisingly making it to Redbox (not complaining.) I think it can go without saying that of the six movies Scarlett Johansson has starred or co-starred in, in the last two years this will be the least seen, and Lucy hasn't even been released yet.
Not to say a movie's worth is in how many ticket sales it gets. If we ranked the greatest movies ever made by how much money they earned then all four Transformer movies would be very high whereas classics like The Shawshank Redemption would be low. Due to the fact some of the most acclaimed movies ever made were bombs at initial release. And Under the Skin is a movie that definitely deserves your attention even if you're weirded out or confused by the plot of the movie. Wherein an alien is disguised as a human woman to seduce and kill lonely men, eventually leading to a process of self-discovery.

Now I knew ahead of time (as you do now) that she is an alien disguised as a human. Something not explained in at least the IMDB listing and definitely not explicitly explained at the beginning of the movie. Matter of fact, the movie opens very mysteriously.
First we see a man on a motorcycle drive down to what looks like the dock by a river/lake in the middle of the night. He walks into darkness and comes back with what looks like a dead body of a woman. He throws her in the back of a windowless van. Cut to an empty, white void of a room where a nude woman is removing the now very clearly dead woman's clothes and putting them on herself. Showing a sign she's taking her place. It's clear quickly that this is Scarlett's character and this is when things get rolling.
From here a large chunk of the movie is her driving around town in the middle of the night looking for single, lonely men to seduce and kill. If anything else this is where things get most interesting.

My biggest problem and annoyance with modern sci-fi is they're trying too hard to be cool or don't try hard enough to be other worldly. Usually when I see even some of the most popular sci-fi their idea of other worldly are doing similar things people on earth would do but with a quirky twist. Whereas I feel a better way of approaching alien technology and activity as incomprehensible to our train of thought.
For example, I remember when I read through most of Arthur C Clarke's Space Odyssey books. As those books progress it goes farther and farther in the future with the last book taking place in 3001. I haven't read that last book but I hear it's so far in the future and civilization progresses to such a different level than what we know it's barely comprehensible. I saw a preview of that toward the end of the third book. Honestly it made it more interesting because I didn't understand it. I know that's hard for many mainstream audiences to swallow.
Well that's the feeling I got during a few specific scenes. Specifically when she seduces the men and kills them.

Once she finds her victims she takes them back to her place. Suddenly they're in what feels like a black void of a room. Seriously. You can't tell where the walls are, where the door is, even the floor is hard to make out. They're in a totally black and empty room.
Scarlett (her character has no name so I'm just gonna keep calling her that) starts removing her clothes and plays hard to get. Forcing the man to walk toward her while he removes his clothes. Then suddenly in a very well put together effect he slips through the floor progressively like a swimmer at the beach. Once fully submerged Scarlett turns back around and stands above them as if there's no 'water floor' below her. We don't see it the first time around but in a later scene we get a glimpse of what happens next. Of which is harder to explain.
The man floats under the floor, again, as if submerged in water. Suddenly all the life is drained from him only leaving behind his skin. No explanation how it's done. No explanation where it goes outside of a single shot of a slope of red sludge going into an un-explainable hole in the wall. Nothing. Very alien, very hard to understand, makes the story better overall.
This makes this story a good example on how not understanding makes it better. It has the artistic value of being mysterious and full of intrigue. Plus if the story stopped so they could give me a crash course in alien strategies of killing humans it would hurt it for me. I know this was based on a book. Makes me wonder if it goes into it there, though.

So that goes on for a good chunk of the movie until Scarlett meets a physically disfigured man in the middle of the night (played by a man with a real physical disfigurement.) This man is a less intense version of The Elephant Man, I'd say. With a puffy face forcing him to shop at night, even then wearing a hood constantly. Since the alien hero has no apparent concept of what humans consider beautiful this doesn't phase her. Eventually she takes him back to her place yet... somewhat surprisingly his life isn't sucked out of him, at least at first. The next day he's found wandering empty fields naked while Scarlett goes off as if she just had a change of hear or perspective on life.

I'll stop detailing everything before I go too far and just tell you everything that happens in the movie. Basically from here is when her self-discovery journey starts up, though. The direction goes completely different and becomes far more interesting than before. Before this all it really was, was Scarlett running around town talking to men at night. It dragged on for a little longer than it needed to and was wearing thin.
What I liked about the rest of the movie was how her perspective goes in such a neat direction. Despite her appearance of being a woman in her late 20s, early 30s she has a dead and confused look to the world what with being an alien and all. But because she's held up such a human-like (again a dead to the world emotionally human but human enough) persona up to this point you start to remember what she is, yet how she's acting like a human in her discovery. Of course one of these themes is with sex.
In the seduction scenes there was never a point when she engaged in sex. She simply seduced the men and killed them. Quick and easy process after getting home. So later on in the movie when she's about to have sex she has a surprised reaction to it. Just as the man penetrates she jumps up, slides to the end of the bed, grabs the lamp to hold it to her crotch examining it as if to say "What was he doing? What is this?" without saying anything.
On top of this there's a moment when she's standing naked in front of a mirror doing nothing but looking at her body. She is reflecting, examining, and trying to understand her body the same way a teenage girl may as she grows older. It's a charming and fascinating perspective on aliens I've never seen before, or remember seeing before.

Which brings me to something I don't think I should have to say but feel obligated to say because it bugged me a bit. Something that technically has nothing to do with the movie itself... technically. A part of me thinks Scarlett Johansson shouldn't have played the part but for reasons that may not be obvious at first.
The story is quite sexual without having a lot of sex. With that said there's some nudity. Mostly male and during the black pool scenes. However there are a couple moments when Scarlett Johansson strips. Stay with me here. One of those moments is from far away and in a profile. However in the scene where she's examining her nude body not only is it full frontal but it focuses on all the... ahem... focal points.
Where am I going with this? I'm afraid this will be known by some solely as "the movie Scarlett Johansson gets naked in" and killing any sort of artistic integrity it may have to some groups of people. I'm not saying she CAN'T play the part and CAN'T strip. In a way I was a little surprised she wasn't as photoshop thin as other women you see naked in movies. But that's respectable. She's still one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood if you ask me. Also the nudity is integral to the story and her self-discovery. But since the role was played by such a big name I fear that's how it may turn out to some.
Please don't let it be that way. Still can't shake the feeling it's already that way to some. Which is a shame because now I almost with this movie starred someone else and was even more obscure so it could keep the (potentially) lost artistic value because of some pervy young dudes.

Then again I'm sure all the people who actually like this movie won't think that way so maybe I'm talking out my ass.

I will say this wasn't all I hoped it would be. I felt I over-thought what this movie would be like and what it'd be about. So in a way I felt underwhelmed. I was not disappointed though. That was simply my mind working too hard hoping it to be something it definitely wasn't from the start.
The best side-by-side example I can make to this is Another Earth. In a way it reminded me of that if not for (pardon the pun) down to Earth sci-fi drama. While Another Earth wasn't about an alien in disguise it was still a big story on a small scale, dealing with the discovery of an identical Earth and how it affects one woman and her life. The whole story plays out very small scale much like this one.
So I definitely think you should see Under the Skin, but I can't recommend it to just anyone. Whatever you took away from this review I can tell you it'll (likely) be different than you expect. Even with so many moments explained step by step. Even then this is a movie to experience, not just watch. It's not very dialogue heavy and when there is dialogue it doesn't last long. Mostly enough to move to the next scene. That way you can become a part of the characters in the experience. Not by listening to them but by watching and feeling them go through their experiences.

It is one of the most unique sci-fi movies of the year despite some of it's missteps. It sure as hell is a lot different than what Guardians of the Galaxy will be.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Music Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic: Mandatory Fun

Disclaimer: Don't expect a series of music reviews from me now. This will be a once in a great while thing. Only if I really have a lot to say about an album. I'm not a music buff like I am with games and movies.

Version I Heard: CD copy of album. Vinyl to be released next month. Don't plan on getting that, though.

History: The first mention of this album came up around the end of his Alpocalypse tour. In an interview he referenced he had one more album left on his contract with his current publisher. While some confused this thinking he was saying it would be his last album it couldn't be farther from the truth. He did state it may be the last of his conventional albums. Moving toward singles and EPs in the future since a lot of material can/will be outdated by the time an entire album is completed.
Due to this 'aging issue' Al decided to parody the styles, not the songs but styles, of some older acts. Including Cat Stevens and Foo Fighters, while still sticking to modern song parodies like he always does. Of course a lot of curiosity and speculation came up with what he would parody, including the massive hit "Let It Go" from Frozen. Al decided it already got enough attention with youtube parodies so he passed on it.
Recording started as early as fall 2012 and as songs/parodies developed eventually completed spring 2014. The album was released on July 15th, a mere couple days before writing this review. So far it has received mostly positive reviews and is currently the #1 selling album on iTunes. During the first week of release Al is also releasing eight music videos connected to this CD. All of which have been big hits so far with five left to release.

Personal History: My history with "Weird Al" is extensive. I became a hardcore fan with the release of Running With Scissors in the late 90s. Before then I wasn't listening out of a sheer lack of knowledge he existed. Since then I've collected all his studio albums and most of the compilations including the now rare Al in the Box four disc set. I've seen him in concert seven times with the hopes of getting that to double digits in the coming years. I've seen his movie UHF over one hundred times (not kidding) and can almost quote the movie word for word. And the last info I'll give here and now is I have The Authorized Al. A book published in the 80s that was given to me many years ago. Go on eBay and you'll see it's one of the rarest and most valuable Al items.

Seriously! Go to eBay, Amazon, whatever.

In terms of personal history with Mandatory Fun, I did everything I could to avoid 'spoilers' before picking up the CD. At least 1/3rd of the songs on Alpocalypse were released ahead of time via his digital EP 'Internet Leaks' and it spoiled the fun a bit when I bought the full album. I wanted this one to be 100% fresh from the moment I opened the packaging.

Review: That time has finally come again. Every three to four years in recent history "Weird Al" has been releasing new material. Since I first got into his music after Running With Scissors was released this is technically only the fourth time I've picked up his new album day one. None the less it's not how long you've been a fan it's all about how passionate a fan one is. And I have the embodiment of a fan whose been listening since he first released "My Bologna" on Dr Demento's radio show.

There was one downside before I put the CD in I haven't experienced since first becoming a fan. Since I've been out of social loops and haven't listened to local radio stations since his last album came out my familiarity with the originals he's parodying was slim. Very slim. In a way I felt like I was picking up one of his much older albums that had parodies of music from way before my time. Not that I was gonna let that get me down. You don't have to know the original to find the parody fun. That's a sign of a good comedic musician. Someone who can make you fall in love with their joke version of the song without knowing the original. Once again Al did it for me because there are some great tracks here without me knowing the originals that well.

Now to the people who think all Al does are parodies you clearly don't know what you're talking about. Look at any album he's done and you'll see it's 50/50. Part parody part original material. The songs he chose to parody here include:
-Fancy by Iggy Azalea
-Royals by Lorde
-Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke
-Radioactive by Imagine Dragons
-Happy by Pharrell
-And a medley of popular songs set to polka music like he usually does.

Typically I like the parodies more than the original material. In this case, maybe it was the lack of familiarity, maybe it was him stepping up in the originals, but it was a mixed bag this time around between the two. All while only being really familiar with Happy and a few songs in the polka.
First track, Handy (parody of Fancy) was fun and catchy. He made it about being good at fixing things up. A predictable approach but Al has a way of knowing how to make it fun. I makes me smile, again without knowing the original material. Then of course there's Tacky (parody of Happy) which will likely be the most popular title of the album. Easy to see why since, like Handy, it's a great and clever track done in a typical Al fashion where you don't need to know the original. Reminds me of when White and Nerdy became far more popular than Ridin' Dirty was ever going to be. And while I did enjoy Word Crimes (parody of Blurred Lines) I've got some irrelevant comments to make about it. Which I'll bring up later on.

Now for the originals Al does a different kind of parody. In recent years they haven't been just goofy songs. They've been style parodies. So while he did a song in the style of, for example, Rage Against the Machine on Straight Outta Lynwood, he didn't parody a specific song. On Mandatory Fun he did style parodies of:
-Southern Culture on the Skids
-Foo Fighters
-Crosby, Stills & Nash
-Cat Stevens
-And college football fight songs.

These can be both more and less approachable. On one hand you don't have to rely on a specific song. You can let the song take you as is. On the other hand some of these rely on the style for the joke. So if you don't understand why he chose that style or aren't familiar enough with it, it may not work as well.
Let's be positive first, we'll get to the negatives later. Some of my favorite tracks came from this section of the CD. I really liked all the originals except Mission Statement (Crosby, Stills & Nash style) but we'll get to that later. Overall I felt the quality and production of his originals stood out. While I don't feel Lame Claim to Fame (Southern Culture on the Skids) or My Own Eyes (Foo Fighters) were exceptionally written lyrics I felt the overall quality of the track's music amplified it to a very enjoyable level. Whereas in the past his originals didn't quite stand up to the parodies music-wise.
My absolute favorite of these was Sports Song, done in the style of a college football fight song. He went all out giving it that big band feel. The tune is catchy and the lyrics are fun. Essentially boiling down every college football song into one simple term saying, "We're great and you suck!" This one I enjoy listening to the most despite a couple hiccups here and there. Easily my number one pick. And next time I'm at a sporting event I'll try to sing it at some point. At least the "We're great and you suck!" section.

And of course I need to touch on the polka. Or as it's called on the album NOW That's What I Call Polka! Cracking an outdated joke in the process.
Al has been making polkas since his second album wherein he uses lyrics from popular music and literally makes them into a polka. He hasn't done it on every album but has for most of his recent ones. Always fun and exciting to see what he does with it and this is no exception.
The songs he chose this time around are:
-Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus
-Pumped Up Kids by Foster the People
-Best Song Ever by One Direction
-Gangnam Style by Psy
-Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen
-Scream & Shout by
-Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye
-Timber by Pitbull
-Sexy and I Know It by LMFAO
-Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
-Get Lucky by Daft Punk

It's really hard to judge the polkas since they're all so similar. And really how can you screw up a polka? He typically uses already established polka tunes along with new ones he writes himself. All he has to do is think of a fun and creative way to integrate the lyrics.
While I overall enjoyed this polka I found it to be a step back. Felt a little more like some of his earlier polkas when he was still trying to figure the best way to put them together. The jump from song to song doesn't flow as well as before. Hard to do considering Polka Face on Alpocalypse is without a doubt one of the best polkas he's ever put together.
Certainly not a bad polka. Just not quite up to par in my book when compared to the others. If anything it's one of my favorite tracks on this album.

And that bit of negativity brings me to my negative thoughts on the album.

In the past I've felt when Al parodies a song he should stick as close to the source style as possible. Singing funny lyrics over a popular tune sometimes isn't enough to make it the best it can be. Sometimes I felt he either didn't put enough toward getting the style of the song he was parodying down or he simple wasn't capable. One thing I will say is this album has to be some of his best work with sticking with the source material's style. Sadly I'm learning the monkey paw effect of that wish, though.

Take Inactive for example (Radioactive parody.) Imagine Dragons clearly has a unique style that Al had to mimic. However in mimicking that style it made the song not as enjoyable. The (high quality) music accompanying the new lyrics overpower said lyrics to the point of nearly inaudible. If it weren't for the title of the song I may not know it was a song about laziness. I felt I had to work hard to listen for the joke when in comedy songs that shouldn't have to happen.
Then there's Mission Statement. A song I just plain didn't care for. Unlike Inactive, Mission Statement could be understood. Only it's a little too slow for a comedy song as it feels like it drags the one joke on way too long. It reminds me of Craigslist from Alpocalypse. I get the style parody of the song, I get the jokes within the song, I just don't like the outcome. A shame because a song about the mission statement of a big corporation set to music is an awesome idea in my head.
Lastly there's the issue every hardcore Al fan faces. The mainstream obsessions...

While this can be true for any fan of any band or singer this is amplified for Al fans because they're jokes. Every time a new Al CD comes out there's usually one, maybe two songs that hit the radio/mainstreams and becomes something of a hit. Only problem is that then that's the only song anyone seems to know at that time, causing an otherwise obscured artist resurrected every few years to be overplayed. Making even the hardest of hardcore fans annoyed by otherwise great songs. This happened with Amish Paradise, White & Nerdy, and it's bound to happen again here.
Originally I thought the big parody would be Tacky (Happy parody) and it may very well be. I feel it's the most recognizable with one of the most mainstream concepts. Harking back to White & Nerdy. Not to mention Tacky is a fun, catchy song that I (currently) enjoy. However since I come from a world of nerds it should come at no surprise the hit (I shockingly didn't expect) is Word Crimes (Blurred Lines parody.) I've seen so many re-posts of that song already on Facebook and considering a lot of the people I know it won't be the last of them. I'm just glad I'm not in college anymore so I don't have to hear obsessions over the song again and again.
This isn't a "I don't like it because it's popular" mindset. I did enjoy it the first couple times around. I just clearly didn't see it as the finding of the holy grail many others saw it as. I do think it's a clever, well written song. Still annoyed because of the obsessive reactions some can have. So yes one of my complaints is what people are gonna do with the song like they did with White & Nerdy. Annoy the hell outta me where I won't want to revisit it until the annoyances have died down.

My brain works different than most.

Really there are more hits than misses. Definitely a worthy addition to Al's discography. Too bad I haven't been as in touch with the music industry the last few years. I feel that hurt my enjoyment to a point. None the less like when I first discovered Al's music from the 80s I didn't know the parodies but still loved and appreciated them.
I don't want to rank the songs yet. Music and I have a strange relationship. While I really enjoyed Straight Outta Lynwood at release it has since become one of my least favorite Al CDs, despite having one of my all time favorite all songs on it. More recently I wasn't crazy about Perform This Way (Born This Way parody) from Alpocalypse I now adore it more than most tracks on that CD. So take this review of Mandatory Fun as a first impression. Numerous runs will determine what I really think of it.