Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ignorant American Gaming: Sonic CD

History: Began development shortly after the release of the first Sonic the Hedgehog. It was originally not going to be it's own game, though. This and Sonic 2 were being worked on at the same time and would be the same game. One of course with technical differences by being on a CD. During development it turned into something completely different (especially when comparing to what Sonic 2 became.)

Sonic CD was released exclusively for the Sega CD on September 23, 1993. It received critical praise and sold very well. For years I would even hear people claim it was the best Sonic game ever made. However, despite this praise and large sales it still sold poorly when compared to the Genesis games. Largely due to the Sega CD itself not selling well.
Strangely this game is somewhat controversial but it's because of the soundtrack. The American release had a completely different soundtrack than the Japanese and European release. Many fans don't like the American one, stating the Japanese soundtrack is superior. So when a new port is released the first question is wondering which tracks they'll go with. Thankfully the most recent port included both, giving the player a choice.
The game was considered one of the best, if not the best, game on the Sega CD. Characters and elements would even play out or be revisited in later Sonic games. This was the first appearance of Amy Rose and Metal Sonic, for example. The story was adapted to the Sonic comic books as well. Lastly, the Metal Sonic boss fight was re-created in Sonic Generations, a 20th anniversary love letter to the franchise released on PS3, XBox 360, and 3DS.

Personal History: Since this game came out when I was six it should come at no surprise I didn't play it a bunch when it first came out. Not to say I didn't have the other Sonic games. I did. I just wasn't living in a rich household that could afford an expensive add on to a console I was already lucky to have in the first place.
I did play it a little here and there throughout the years. In stores, via collections friend's had, but I never had my own copy until the PSN digital release. So my experience, while spread out throughout the years, is still relatively recent.

Availability: Originally released only on Sega CD in 1993. The first port was released in 1996 on PC. It wouldn't be re-released again until 2005 when it was included on the Sonic Gems Collection for Gamecube and Playstation 2.
The most recent port was in late 2011, which was also the first time it was release not in it's native state. The core game stayed the same but it was treated to a widescreen presentation and some bonus features like playing as Tails when he wasn't in the original game. This port was released digitally on the Playstation Network, XBox Live Arcade, iOS, and Android. A newer PC port (than the previously mentioned 1996 port) was released the following January, and eventually a Windows phone port late 2012. Lastly, this port was released on Ouya in August 2013.

Version I Played: While I've played the original Sega CD version in sprinkles, I played the PSN digital download version for this review.

Review: There was a point in time where I wanted a Sega CD. Not just in the mid-90's but in recent time as well. It was always a curiosity to me. Within the last year I remember seeing it on sale with the first generation Genesis attached for a really good deal. I brewed about it for a while but when I went to buy it, it was already gone. Initially bummed out but I'm glad I didn't get it. Going through the library there aren't a lot of games I feel make the system worth buying. Mostly because some of the best also came out on other consoles in forms of ports and re-releases. This one included.
So I found it unnecessary to get a Sega CD. Besides, the Sonic CD port on modern consoles is great! But the funny thing is I still have a Sega CD copy of this because a good friend sent it to me a while ago.

A nice little item to hold onto.

Being a big fan of Sonic from his glory days I was very excited to see this port. I bought it right away when it was released. Now like I said in the personal history section... I didn't have a lot of experience with this game when it came out but was always interested because of what people said about it. That and it was an essential, official entry into the 2D series of games. Me not playing this for so long felt like a crime against my fandom... as dweeby as that sounds.

But does it hold up all these years later? Do the years of anticipation and curiosity pay off? In many ways they definitely do.

This being made during the best year's of Sonic's game life gave it all the right elements. The core gameplay flows incredibly well in every way you'd expect it to. It feels and plays just like Sonic 1 or 2 (maybe not 3 or S&K) because the controls are essentially the same. Also it has the same left to right 'reach the end of the stage' approach. Nothing fancy. Just what you'd expect from a Sonic game. Which makes it all sound par for the course. Not quite if you ask me.
A big thing that sets this one apart from the rest is the colorful design and unique/innovative ideas it utilizes for the franchise.
This is easily one of the best, if not the best looking Sonic game of the side scrolling days. It has a unique charm to its approach that none of the other mainline games have. It's vibrant, exciting, and a lot of variety in the visuals.

I also really like purple.

To add to this there's a time travel element. Throughout the levels you can either go into the past or the future. I didn't quite understand the purpose at first outside of a visual change (past has more vegetation, future looks like Skynet took over) but according to online resources the past has more difficult enemies, whereas the future has less (because of machines breaking down I guess.) Unfortunately I didn't notice this naturally which says something about the game's design (but more on that later.) I also believe the route you take decides the ending.

I also really like the design in the boss battles.

These are among the most creative and in some cases the most challenging (in a good way) in the franchise. What I liked is they utilized elements that make the stage unique and throw that into the boss battle. They didn't feel interchangeable like with other Sonic bosses. It was a nice change of pace that went beyond 'jump on his head three times and win' that is far too common even in later, 'more advanced' Sonic games.

My two favorites are the conveyor belt boss and the Metal Sonic race.
The conveyor belt is the one pictured above. Robotnik's station is constantly being torn apart from below. The idea is to dodge his attacks and pretty much just survive while the conveyor belt pulls you back toward the spikes. The faster you run the quicker it rips Robotnik's station from below, meaning the quicker you win. It's definitely not the usual fight.
The other is the Metal Sonic race. This is set up similar to a standard level but you're racing Metal Sonic while being chased by Robotnik who is constantly shooting a deadly laser at you. This is fast paced and very exciting in all the ways a Sonic game should be. Also it's even more a 'survival boss fight' than the other favorite of mine. Not to mention Metal Sonic is one of my favorite characters. Such a cool boss fight, such a cool climax to a great game.
The final boss fight isn't as exciting but having the animated ending (on top of an animated opening) make it feel worthwhile finishing.

Sonic CD is, as many say, one of the best Sonic games available from the glory days. But it's not without its faults.
While it has a great visual design and controls well, the level design can be quite poor a lot of the time. The previous and later games would have winding paths that allow fast paced action that is easy to fly through despite the chaos. Sonic CD has a problem where you're constantly being thrown in odd directions that don't always make sense, or they slow you down. There were times where I couldn't tell where to go or it felt like there was no clear path. One section is almost entirely underwater, and another had floors that rocket you uncontrollably into the sky. It makes the game dizzying and confusing.
The other big problem I had was that the special stages didn't feel so special. They definitely look cool, especially in context of the time...

Super Mario Kart: Sonic Edition

...but they felt more like a tech demo of what the console could do instead of actually being something well thought out. You run around on an oddly designed track taking out UFOs. If you destroy them all you get the emerald like any other Sonic specials stage. This is fine and somewhat a step up from other special stages. I do like it more than the Sonic 3 special stage, that's for sure. But the way it controls is a pain. You turn in a wide motion and far too slow. You're likely to bump against the edges which can bounce you back, throwing you around uncontrollably like some of the previously mentioned poorly designed levels. I can only imagine how difficult it would be getting all seven emeralds.
Tough enough as is in the other games.

My list of complaints, while short, can hurt the experience as a whole. The early and later stages are a blast but those poorly designed levels in the middle make it something I don't want to revisit a lot. It's so close to Sonic perfection. It is strictly a Sonic title without extra characters (minus the addition of Tails in the re-release port), looks great, plays great, has a lot of excellent ideas, but enough to keep it from being as great as it could be.
At least it has a killer soundtrack! And between the Japanese and American soundtrack... I lean toward American. I just wound up enjoying it more. While the Japanese soundtrack isn't bad I felt it had too much going on. The American soundtrack has a great Sonic-like vibe I've seen in other games and I just enjoyed it more.

Despite the faults this is still a great experience. I wouldn't suggest introducing yourself to the franchise using this game. Start with Sonic 1 or 2. But definitely check this one out at some point. Do not let it go by the wayside. It is worth checking out. Who knows? Maybe you'll be more forgiving than I was. My retrospective look after years of tinkering with the franchise has given me a specific mindset so I know what I know and think a certain way.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 25

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"A sobering documentary about a simple man living a simple life. Felt appropriate to watch it on Black Friday of all 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 requests. Her aim is to please you, the reader.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 24

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"An exciting installment that brings a new twist to the story. The next year will be a long one waiting to see how it ends!"

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Interstellar

Version I Watched: Only available in theatres right now. My screening was on an IMAX screen.

History: The concept for Interstellar was conceived by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who also worked together on the 1997 film Contact. Interstellar first began production back in 2006 with Stephen Spielberg set to direct. Eventually Spielberg dropped from the project. So when Paramount was searching for a new director, Jonathan Nolan, who was hired as the film's screenwriter years earlier, suggested his brother Christopher.
There is a ton of history and information on Interstellar so I won't go into it all out. Basically Christopher Nolan kept this project under intense secrecy as he has done in the past. He continued to experimented with IMAX cameras, using it more here than his previous films. Also he used natural effects and real sets as much as possible, maintaining the realistic look and feel most of his movies have. One cool piece of trivia I'll drop in is... at a budget of $165 million, and running at 169 minutes, this production cost almost an average of $1 million a minute.
Interstellar has received generally positive reviews, currently holding a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. It opened last weekend in four formats technically. 4K digital, 35mm, digital IMAX and 70mm IMAX. Not common for modern films to open with so many technical options. As of this post it has earned $322 million after two weekends out.

Personal History: Since Nolan tends to be secretive I went along with it and avoided looking into it. I did not read previews, watch videos or trailers outside of what I saw before other movies, and I did not read reviews when it was released. I knew I wanted to see it and I wanted to be surprised as much as possible.

Review: Honestly, I'm a little surprised Interstellar got made, let alone at the scale it did. Hollywood is less risky than ever it seems. Churning out more sequels within the same franchise/universe than ever. So pumping over $150 million dollars into an original, potentially niche idea is quite a risk. A risk I'm glad they took.

I'll cut right to the chase on an important detail. See this on the IMAX. Christopher Nolan is to IMAX as Michael Bay is to explosions. It's definitely his thing and he does it bigger and better than most anyone out there. There's more IMAX footage and cameras used in this than any of his previous films and it makes for a visually exhilarating experience. Really made up for the fact that I never saw Gravity on the IMAX.
And with that said I apologize in advance for referencing Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey a lot.

Point of reference.

Keeping details of a movie secret is an important thing more studios should do. Yes they should create buzz and give enough to get people excited. But leaving a lot of details out can make for a more exciting experience. Going into Interstellar I didn't know what to expect. The trailers were pretty cryptic. Showing plenty but not really telling you a lot. I knew the central plot going in but I sure as hell didn't know where it was going. In contrast to that I saw a trailer for Chappie before the movie started and I already felt like I was told enough to not see the movie and still know everything that happened.
With that in place Interstellar takes you on an epic space journey that is somewhat hard to predict. However, while avoiding hype and spoilers I know for a fact I hyped myself up maybe a tad too much. Because as much as I loved this, I naturally was picky and had plenty of criticisms I didn't anticipate.
I may or may not have mentioned in previous posts my particular tastes with sci-fi. While I enjoy the campy and wild space epics like Star Wars and (some of) the other usual suspects, my absolute favorites are more down to Earth, so to say. Pun intended. What I mean is they are typically near future, dramatic in nature, based on real science or theories or are at least somewhat realistic. Space travel is still a long, tedious, and lonely challenge. And if aliens show up they're mysterious and hardly seen, if at all. So like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unfortunately this kind of sci-fi doesn't come along too often. So I was hoping Interstellar would fill that void in my modern cinema life. It definitely did, but it's not without it's problems.

First, what's good.
Coming from Christopher Nolan it should come as no surprise this movie is well directed. One of the best was the exposition. Most apocalyptic stories have a voice over, or a bunch of news reels to show how big a problem the world ending issue is. Not here. Matter of fact, the world seems very aware it's getting worse every year but it's a slow problem that feels inevitable and not a "Oh no we're dead tomorrow if we don't do something now!" If anything people are in denial about it, thinking things will get better. And it's expressed through subtle execution entirely in a small town. It doesn't go big until they go into space.
So getting past that I'll point out those performances. Some are what you expect of course. Anne Hathaway is always wonderful, as is Jessica Chastain. And while it's not excellent all around there were a few very notable performances.
Matthew McConaughey is the most obvious. This is further proof of reinventing his career after being type cast in so many corny, paint by number romcoms. He was stunning here especially in a heartbreaking scene while watching videos his kids send him while he's on his mission through the stars. Michael Caine was also great, but not as his normal self. Yes he plays what he always plays for the most part. Then there are a couple brief scenes of him much older and knocking on heaven's door. He really nails it with his transformation and you can feel the exhaustion in the old age he shows.
Yet the performance that REALLY caught me by surprise was Mackenzie Foy, who plays Murph, Cooper's (McConaughey) daughter as a child. The only place I knew her from before this was Twilight 4 Part 2 where she plays Mr and Mrs Sparkle Vampire's daughter. In that she was fine but that was more an issue with direction that performance. Here she KILLS it! Her range is incredible. And when Cooper leaves on his mission of potentially no return she breaks my heart with her heartbreak. Always wonderful to see young actors and actresses show potential by doing a better job than some of their older, more experienced counterparts. I did not expect her to give a performance as good as she did.

This scene was tough to get through.

Going back to something I already mentioned, there are the visuals. The visual appeal of this movie is superb with the most notable being the space scenes. The Earth scenes are very well shot, but I must say the space scenes are some of the best visuals I've ever seen in a sci-fi flick. While the shots aren't as extensive and artistically played out as 2001, for example, what we see is a work of art. So well done, so well thought out that it required developing new technology to create, especially with the black hole that comes up in the latter half.
Another feature that is almost just as good is that the cinematography and editing didn't make me want to vomit like most big movies. Nolan made some very smart moves using a tripod in a tripodless world. At no point did the camera movement make me feel sick. It's all very smooth, flowing fluidly from shot to shot with great comfort. It also helps the camera actually held a shot long enough for the audience to register what's happening instead of fast paced, MTV editing.
I really cannot say enough to give credit to how good this movie looks. It's hard to convince someone to sit through an almost 3 hour movie for the visuals alone, especially when there's not as much time spent in space as you'd like, but seeing this for the visuals is satisfying as is.

Now Chris Nolan, as great as he is at creating art that is pleasing to critics and mainstream audiences, he tends to have a few glaring issues in his films that really stand out. As beautiful Interstellar is, as well acted as it is, as engaging as the story is, it is also quite unbalanced at times which hurts the immersion and serious tone. There's one part in particular in the last half of the movie where I felt it took a super serious turn (more serious than it already was), but handled it in a corny and goofy way. Please don't take that too literally, but it's not far from the truth. It's a minor twist (that was a little predictable) but plays out very out of character from the rest of the movie, ending in an overly action packed sequence.
The tone of the movie tends to change without warning. Sad because most of it is a beautiful story filled with a lot of character and emotions that I imagine will cut right to the heart of parents. Especially parents who had to leave their children behind for a long time. But then it has moments of being overly emotional, jumping to twists with a thriller or horror-like tone, and the previously mentioned action sequence that made me think of the more unrealistic parts of Gravity.

Reference II

And with that last reference to Gravity it brings me to my biggest issues with Interstellar. It is very, VERY fast paced for an almost three hour long story. To me these hard science space adventures need to take their time. Really show the long and lonely journey. Interstellar packs what feels like as much as it can but the pacing and tone take a hit because of it. They say "we gotta go to Saturn to go through the wormhole and it'll take two years." Suddenly they're at Saturn. Then they jump through the wormhole without issue. And so on and so on. There was a real lack of weight in what should have been the most difficult and terrifying trip any astronaut has ever taken, seeing as they didn't know what happened to the last crew who went. Slowing it down would definitely make it less appealing to the masses, but it would make it a better space story... like 2001 for example... again.

While a lot of it did feel like a big love letter to films like 2001 (when, you know, originality is still possible) it was still an incredible experience. Some of the complaints I have for it feel like points that could ruin an entire film but they don't. There are lots of things that keep it from being better but what we get is easily one of the best big screen experiences of the year and one of the best IMAX experiences I've seen. It's very engaging. While I was annoyed at times... I was never bored. I never got numb butt from sitting there so long. I didn't want it to be over when it was over. I wanted it to be longer so it could takes it's time and add more to the already big story. I would easily watch this over and over again, ESPECIALLY on the IMAX.
For the most part it's been critically acclaimed. And while it's more streamlined than I wanted it to be, it ironically could turn people off by it's very 2001-esque sequences toward the end. The rest of it can easily engage anyone interest in a story of adventure and relationships, real relationships. At no point was there a forced love story to keep things 'interesting.' All that was there was a natural family bond filled with real issues and real emotions based on misunderstandings and failures to connect both literally and emotionally. A beautiful experience with lots of depth that will definitely satisfy.
While not the best I've seen this year it is one of the best. Definitely a worthy addition to the list of hard science space films. Right up there with 2001, Solaris, Moon... and maybe Gravity, too. But after seeing this it makes that look silly.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 23

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"I hope they adapt more animal based super heroes. Like the one based on a bunny! There's a bunny one, right?"

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 22

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...


Today's review:

"A goofy and fun way to spend 90 minutes on a Saturday night. Funny, raunchy, and a great performance by Efron!"

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

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Clover Reviews Volume 1 -> Episode 21

Welcome back my friends to another episode of...

(Spooktacular Halloween Special!)

Today's review:

"THIS MOVIE ROCKS! Killer songs, killer performances, killer... KILLS! Horror and musical fans can come together in harmony.

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