The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold SteelI

loh_sen_no_kiseki_cover

The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel

There was a time when the term RPG meant really only one thing, at least for kids and teens in the 90’s:  Final Fantasy. Now the term is probably more synonymous with Bethesda and Bioware games, the “western” style of RPGs, with the eastern take being some-what of an endangered species. The “JRPG” as we know it is mostly relegated to older consoles and portables. Even popular JRPG franchises like Final Fantasy have adopted a more western style of real-time combat. Others settle for takes on the MMORPG, like the Xenoblade series, which is also more of a western creation than an eastern one.

That old style is hard to come by, either because it doesn’t sell well or the perception exists that gamers today don’t want to play a game where combat is largely turn-based and the game unfolds in a mostly linear fashion. There are, of course, some exceptions as Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, a tactical RPG but a genre that still largely adheres to the same constraints as traditional JRPGs, and Atlus’ Persona series still garner a lot of attention. In the case of Persona, it’s been a long time since Persona 4 was released, but Persona 5 is finally set for release in the spring so we’ll get a good idea of how popular the JRPG can still be.

Some developers are keeping the genre alive, and Nihon Falcom is one of them. Falcom has been around almost as long as video games have been and Falcom was one of the first Japanese developers of RPG computer games. Falcom has never had much exposure in the US and if I had to guess, the developers most popular title is the Ys series. If you had a Sega CD then you may know them for Popful Mail, one of the few Sega CD titles worth playing. Falcom’s most popular franchise for a longtime in its native Japan was Dragon Slayer, which was basically on par in terms of popularity as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, for a time. The Legend of Heroes franchise splintered off from Dragon Slayer in the mid 90’s and has become a franchise all its own, and possibly Falcom’s biggest. It has slowly made its way out of Japan, first with the Trails in Sky series on Sony’s Playstation Portable. Trails of Cold Steel is the most current, and Xseed has handled the western distribution for the first two titles which have been released on both the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita.

Trails of Cold Steel was first released in Japan in September 2013. It wouldn’t see a US release until December 2015. Of course, by then the Playstation 4 was out and selling well, but apparently the game has been successful enough for Xseed to continue bringing the series to the US with Trails of Cold Steel II arriving in the summer of 2016. The third game in the series is still in development for the Playstation 4.

trailsofcoldsteelcharacters

Class VII from left to right:  Emma, Gaius, Fie, Laura, Rean, Alisa, Elliot, Jusis, and Machias.

My exposure to Trails of Cold Steel has been via the Playstation Vita, with some play taking place on the even less popular Playstation TV peripheral. As such, I can’t compare it to the PS3 version, but from what I’ve seen the two look similar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the console version performs a little better in terms of frame-rate. The game, and its sequel, supports the cross-save functionality so if you wish to buy both versions you can save between the two. Trails of Cold Steel is my first exposure to the Legend of Heroes franchise, but it’s my understanding it contains same narrative homages to the Trails in the Sky games without being a direct sequel.

The game takes place in a fictional setting called Erebonia where opposing factions are quietly trying to seize political control of the region. The main conflict is between the Noble Faction, those who have ruled via birthright, and the commoners who have risen to high-ranks via political means. There’s no active war taking place at the game’s onset, but it becomes clear throughout that tensions are high. Complicating things is that a terrorist organization has shown itself whose motives are unclear at first. They seem to want to stir the pot and challenge the empire, but naturally you have to play the game to learn more.

coldsteel_thumb

Class VII’s instructor, Sarah, who very much enjoys a good beer.

Caught up in all of this is Rean Schwarzer. Rean has just enlisted at Thors Military Academy, a prestigious academic institution that welcomes students from all social classes. Historically, Thors still recognizes a student’s class standing and organizes its dormitories appropriately, but Rean has learned he is to be a part of Class VII, a new experiment by the academy that is forcing nobles and commoners to work cooperatively. Rean’s class contains an eclectic mix of students, both male and female, and naturally conflicts emerge. Part of the game’s narrative is working to resolve these conflicts while advancing the storyline and building relationships. Class VII contains nine students, four boys and five girls, and the games structure unfolds in such a fashion that the player is rarely in control of more than five students at any one time, with Rean being the clear main protagonist.

The game utilizes a day structure reminiscent of the Persona series. Days unfold at a methodical pace with the player having certain tasks to complete during the day, some forced and some optional, with each day ending when the player decides to end it. Most of these are fetch quests and some are dungeon crawls. Once a month Class VII is dispatched on field studies to different parts of the continent which is when the party is split-up, shrinking the cast of main characters temporarily. Doing so allows the story to play-up inter-class conflicts while allowing the player to experiment with different party combinations in a less intimidating way. It also allows for the story to show the current state of affairs in different parts of the world which pays off later in the game. Also like Persona, Rean can establish bonds with his peers and learn more about them during what the game calls bonding events. It’s not as robust as what is found in Persona 4, or as rewarding, but it is still an effective way of developing characters.

maxresdefault-6

The battle menu. Linked characters are denoted by the beams of light on the ground and connecting their portraits. The portraits on the left indicate action order. The icons beside the portraits denote special bonuses on that action such as EP charge, healing, and so on.

The gameplay is mostly classic JRPG, but with some twists. Navigating the field is pretty traditional and comparable to Final Fantasy X. There’s no throwback overworld or anything, and most settings contain a hub town with branching areas of hostility. Enemies appear on the screen and will react to your avatar by either attacking or running. Avoiding enemies is pretty simple, but of course avoiding conflict won’t help you in the long run as you need to defeat enemies to earn experience and get stronger. Characters can attack enemies in the field, and landing a blow on an enemy’s flank will stun them allowing you to engage the enemy with an advantage. Rean is the main character, but any character in the party can be utilized to navigate the field and they all have different weapons. Certain characters, like the shotgun wielding Machias, can break parts of the environment or attack enemies from a distance. It gives the player a chance to figure out how they would prefer to navigate the world and approach enemies. I typically stuck with Rean as his wide-arcing sword slash makes it easy to flank enemies for an easy combat advantage. Certain large enemies can’t be stunned on the field, but flanking them can still impart a bonus.

Combat itself is like a hybrid of Final Fantasy X and a  tactical RPG. Characters can be moved and positioned on the battlefield which is mostly useful for taking advantage of area-based attacks and arts (the game’s version of magic). Four characters can partake in battle at any given time, with reserves able to swap in and out of the active party at any given turn. The order of attack is displayed on the screen so you know when the enemy will next attack, but the order can be influenced with delay tactics and other conventions. Characters typically can attack, use an art, use an item, run, or use a craft. Crafts are basically special attacks and abilities that utilize CP, which is accumulated primarily by attacking and taking damage. Throughout the game characters will unlock special crafts which can be triggered with 100 CP, but are more effective when triggered with 200 CP, which is a full CP gauge. These attacks are basically massive, highly damaging, maneuvers that often can help turn the tide of battle as they can be triggered at any point, allowing the player to bypass an enemy turn.

trails-of-cold-steel-the-school-year-comes-to-a-close-8

The females seem to enjoy pointing out Emma’s bust, even though every girl “of age” is pretty well endowed in this game.

Characters can also link with other characters, and the more often a character links with another the higher their link level will rise. The main benefit of linking characters is that when one lands a critical hit the other is able to utilize a follow-up attack. As the game progresses more benefits open up, and increasing the link level between characters also opens up other benefits like one character automatically curing another after damage is taken. These link levels are not confined to just Rean and everyone else, but even between the secondary characters. The bonding events open to Rean will increase the link level faster, so naturally Rean will have a higher level with his comrades than they will with each other.

Outside of combat, characters can be equipped with character specific weapons, armor, and accessories. They also have what is called an ARCUS unit which contains slots that quartz can be equipped to. Quartz are essentially materia from Final Fantasy VII. They’ll contain elemental based arts as well as passive abilities and restorative arts. They’re elemental based, and certain slots can only take certain types of quartz. Throughout the game you will earn Sepith from enemies and treasure chests, and Sepith is used to open up more slots on each character’s ARCUS unit to equip more quartz. Each character can also equip a Master Quartz which earns experience like a character and grows throughout the game. These Master Quartz also have a greater impact on a character’s underlying stats and help influence how a character should be played, if they’re a tank, healer, etc. Naturally, characters are predisposed to certain play styles and deviating from that is probably more trouble than its worth, but it can be done.

Being that I am a big fan of both Final Fantasy X and tactical RPGs in general, I naturally find the combat mechanics of Trails of Cold Steel to be mostly excellent. If I had one major complaint it’s that the Crafts are a bit overpowered and easy to take advantage of. At the same time, I also played through the game on the normal setting and harder ones are available so my criticism is some-what empty. For the most part, the combat is addicting and enjoyable. It’s easy to get used to, but also possesses depth, and that’s all gamers really want out an RPG combat system.

2015-12-29-153744

Lesbian characters are depicted as especially lustful with one of them being a downright creep who hits on young girls.

Technologically speaking, Trails of Cold Steel offers little to get excited by. It’s a PS3 game, that even by PS3 standards, is unimpressive to behold. The main characters all look good, but the settings are small and bland. The game uses an anime style that is mostly pleasing to look at, and there’s even a few instances of actual anime used to enhance the story-telling. Xseed’s localization is pretty good, with lots of veteran anime voice actors onhand to give the game a professional sound. The music is also excellent, though at times can get a little too repetitive. There were some frame-rate dips in combat, and some slowdown as well. It’s mostly cosmetic though and didn’t affect my ability to deal damage or anything.

The game’s approach to story-telling is pretty consistent. Trails of Cold Steel is often serious, but also inserts a lot of humor into the mix. Some of the humor can be fairly juvenile with there being an abundance of gay jokes, or instances of male characters being spooked by something gay. Interestingly, lesbian characters are approached in a completely different manner and are often depicted as sex-hungry perverts. These characters are also accepted by their peers, so in one sense the game is progressive, but in other respects it feels like a sixteen year old heterosexual male wrote portions of the scripts. I didn’t find any of this offensive, but at times I felt like I was older than the game’s target audience. There are also numerous jokes about breasts, especially directed at the Emma character who is depicted with a large bust even by video game standards.

trails-of-cold-steel-schools-in-for-summer-6

Meanwhile, the game’s lone fat girl isn’t exactly portrayed in a positive light.

The main plot unfolds very methodically and in a very linear fashion. That more than anything is probably what is most likely to turn off a modern gamer accustomed to Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. The game’s plot is a slow burn, and finding every available side quest in a given day often requires you to speak with every NPC you come in contact with, some of which won’t give up their quest on the first try. I took my time with the game, and it took over 80 in game hours for me to complete. Part of the reason why the game moves so slowly is because it is the first game in what is projected to be a trilogy so it’s possible future games in the series will unfold at a brisker pace. Of course, I won’t know for sure until I finish the sequel (which I am actively playing).

Completion of the game unlocks a new game plus, a pretty common convention in modern games. During the first play through, it’s impossible to see every bonding event in the game so completists will need at least two play-throughs. Players can also save a cleared game save to carry over into the sequel. For the most part, carrying over a save just gives some bonus items depending on Rean’s level and rank at the game’s conclusion. There’s also an opportunity to establish a more romantic relationship with the game’s female characters that also appears to carry-over. The game definitely steers the player towards one character in particular, and I took the bait figuring I would experience the story the developers most want to tell. I’m not sure if other characters take on a romantic relationship with Rean or if it’s more a friend type of thing, but it’s nice to have some variety in the gameplay experience. Since the characters are all teens, don’t expect any Bioware styled sex scenes or anything, it’s mostly puppy love.

character_link_status_tocs

The Link menu makes it easy to keep track of the combat links earned throughout the game.

Playing Trails of Cold Steel often made me think of Persona 4. As I spent more time with the game I thought of that game less as ToCS has a very different tone than Persona. It definitely borrows a lot from that game in its setup, and most of the stuff it borrows it does not improve upon and kind of half-asses. That, however, is really the only main fault I found with the game. Sometimes the characters did frustrate me, as they tend to be so unfailingly nice and pure, I’d like to see an edge to at least some of them even if the main protagonist is as dull as a butter knife. There’s also a twist at the end of the game that felt rather forced and unnecessary, but I can’t say it really affected my enjoyment of the game. It also closes with some hints at what’s to come in the sequels with a positive spin on the gameplay. I do appreciate the wide scope of the game’s narrative, and it has a very ambitious feel to it. Hopefully Falcom can deliver on that front.

If you like the JRPG genre and have a Vita or PS3 handy, I do recommend Trails of Cold Steel. I do recommend with some trepidation as the series is unfinished, and there’s no promise the third game in the series will be released outside of Japan at this time. Its predecessor series, Trails in the Sky, was never concluded in the US and I’ll be disappointed if the same happens here. Though for now, I’ll enjoy what I have. Trails of Cold Steel isn’t the next big thing by any means, but it’s a game that’s done pretty well and gives hope that the JRPG is not a dying genre.


Bandai SH Figuarts Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Michelangelo

img_0905At last, my quartet is complete! The famed heroes in a half shell have had their finest animated series likeness released to eager collectors around the globe and the results are pretty awesome. If you follow this blog, you may have caught my posts about the first three turtles. Leonardo and Donatello were released simultaneously in the late summer with Raphael arriving in the fall. The wait for the fourth, and perhaps most popular, turtle was a bit longer than expected, but Michelangelo is now being shipped world-wide by American distributors and the good news is; he’s probably the best of the bunch.

If you have seen either of my two posts on the other turtles, then you are likely familiar with the general look and construction of these figures. All four turtles are essentially the same figure, just with different swappable parts and their signature color scheme and belt buckle. They’re sturdy, mostly plastic figures with loads or articulation despite the fact that they’re hindered by their turtle anatomy. The lower portion of the figures, specifically from the knee down, is painted die-cast which gives them a solid base ensuring it will take more than the wind to knock these ninjas over. And even though those lower portions are die-cast, the paint job is seamless and you would never know by looking at them. Bandai’s SH Figuarts line is known for being a high quality line, and the turtles do not disappoint in this regard.

When it comes to the accessories, there’s been a clear pattern with these figures. Each turtle comes with two heads, with one featuring a serious, kind of generic expression that’s the same for all four turtles, and one that’s unique to each brother. They have four sets of hands:  fists, fists with a hole through the center for gripping weapons, slightly opened fists for a more gentle grasp, and open palms. Each turtle naturally comes with his signature weapon, a unique accessory or two, and a swappable belt piece that contains holsters for their weapons (in the show, these holsters would often “disappear” when the turtles didn’t have their weapons holstered and this piece allows collectors to do the same).

It’s the accessories that differentiate each turtle from the other, so not unexpectedly, it’s my enthusiasm for these that make Mikey my favorite of the pack. Someone over at Bandai must love Michelangelo, because he easily has the most accessories. Mikey comes with two sets of nunchaku:  one set is all plastic and features a frozen pose, the other has each end connected by an actual chain. The NECA Mirage Michelangelo was the first one I encountered that featured the real chain links on the nunchaku and I still love that effect even ten years later. There’s no denying though that the more realistic representation of the weapons does limit the poses one can achieve, which is why Bandai included the additional “frozen” weapons. Even though the chain on these is all plastic, the detail is still excellent making them look light-years ahead of anything Playmates has done with their figures. One ‘chuck is positioned in a triangle-like pose for an under-arm position, while the other has more of a swinging look. I’m torn on if I prefer these to the Revoltech nunchaku included in their version of Mikey from the current animated series, which features a disc at the end of the chain to really simulate the animated look of a twirling nunchaku. The nunchaku with the actual chain links are also great for posing as they have natural weight. They’re also the only ones that can really be holstered on Mikey’s back. Both offer great options for display.

The other included accessory is Michelangelo’s turtle hook. The turtle hook first appeared occasionally as a grappling hook carried by all of the turtles, but eventually the show would phase-out Michelangelo’s nunchaku and have him only wield the turtle hook due to the perception of nunchaku being too violent in some circles. It was pretty stupid to see Mikey standing there alongside his brothers with nothing but a grappling hook to defend himself, but it happened. Interestingly, virtually all of the toys associated with the cartoon would still feature nunchaku and I can’t recall a single one that had the turtle hook, so it’s inclusion as an accessory is certainly long overdue. Bandai used actual rope to connect the handle and the hook portion and it looks great. The hook unfortunately is permanently in its open position, but it probably would have been either really fragile or over-sized if it featured moving parts. The rope is also too short for it to look like an actual grappling hook, but it probably would have looked sillier if it was absurdly long (the cartoon version stored the additional rope in the shell portion which isn’t feasible in reality). While I’ll always consider Mikey’s weapons to be his ‘chucks, I do love the look of the turtle hook and it’s a fun display piece.

Mikey’s second head features a smirking grin. It’s not unexpected that his unique head sculpt would be something light-hearted, as opposed to the angry expressions worn by Leo and Raph. I still find it kind of weird though as the smile gives his head a shape I can’t ever recall seeing depicted in the cartoon. In short, I think Bandai could have done Mikey better in this regard. And it’s also kind of disappointing that Bandai included the same generic facial expression for each turtle. I get it that it helps cut down on costs, but how expensive is it to make a new mold for such a small piece? Obviously, Michelangelo wasn’t always smiling and goofing off in the show, but who really is going to display their Michelangelo with the serious expression? Very few, I’d wager.

That about covers it. Any of the flaws possessed by the other turtles are naturally attributable to Michelangelo too, but so are all of the good points. These four represent a pretty awesome collection, but the true test lies ahead. Will Bandai continue to support this line beyond the four turtles? So few companies have. Shredder was unveiled last year, but I have yet to see anyone start taking pre-orders so I’m not holding my breath. With the New York Toy Fair drawing close, perhaps we’ll see how far Bandai intends to take this. I’d love to round out the villains at least with Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady joining Shredder. Foot Soldiers, Master Splinter, and April would be the icing on the cake, should they come to be. Anything beyond that would be unexpected, but most likely welcomed.

img_0915


Nintendo Switch or Nintendo More of the Same?

636198636477072652-nintendo-switchSwitch. If you took a shot each time someone said that word during Nintendo’s press conference unveiling the latest device in console/mobile gaming you’re probably hung over right now. It’s obviously not just a name for the console/handheld hybrid, but also a marketing strategy. Nintendo is changing with the times, switching it up if you will, and making a commitment to something new and exciting. If that’s the main take-away from the Switch’s coming out party last night, then why did I feel like this was the Wii all over again?

Nintendo first gave the public a glimpse at its newest device back in October. Since then, the company has been virtually silent on the subject until last night’s big unveiling. Most of the pressing questions were answered either during the conference or shortly there-after. We know when the Switch is arriving at retail (March 3rd), we know how much it will cost ($299), and we know what games will be available (Zelda!) and have some idea of what we’ll be playing by the end of 2017 (Mario! Skyrim!). A lot of the other lingering questions from the Switch’s first public display were answered like that the system does indeed boast a touch screen, the joy con controllers do feature shoulder buttons, and Nintendo is going with a pay-t0-play online service in the fall.

yfgucwrak9wygmbqyoawfh-480-80

Hey, yo! Get a load of my colors.

The Switch’s initial unveiling had me cautiously excited. I expressed my interest in a true portable home gaming device and I was receptive to a lot of the software teased in that video. Last night’s conference, however, muted that excitement. I should get it out of the way, I still placed a pre-order on the device (actually two, with the first being an online one just in case I couldn’t land a pre-order at a brick and mortar) so obviously I wasn’t dissuaded from purchasing the Switch, but it was with significantly less enthusiasm.

Let’s get right to the price. Numbers had been thrown around leading up to the announcement last night with the consensus seeming to be for a $250 price point. On IGN’s pre-show, $199 was even floated as the “sweet spot” by one host which I thought was a pipe-dream. From the start, I had assumed $299 would be the price, but I still hoped for $250. I wasn’t really dismayed by the actual announcement on that front, but the price tags for the accessories is rather shocking. After the conference, Nintendo unveiled the price-point for many of these on its website. If you want a second set of joy con controllers, that will set you back $80! That’s the steepest investment of any standard controller I think I’ve ever seen. If for some reason you only desire a left or right joy con, that’s $50, but I can’t see much reason in doing that unless it’s to replace a broken unit. The two that come bundled with the system include wrist straps that have a plastic piece that thickens the controller itself and appears to make it more ergonomic. That’s not included with the stand-alone controllers so there’s another $20. If you prefer a traditional controller (what Nintendo refers to as its pro controllers) that will cost you $70. For comparison, a Dual Shock 4 costs $60, and Amazon routinely sells them for $50.

Extra docking stations, controller “shells,” and other such peripherals all carry pretty steep asking prices. Thankfully, the console supports standard memory cards since the included flash drive can only hold 32GB (purchasing the new Zelda title digitally will reportedly consume half of that), so I guess that’s one positive. All told though, you’re talking about having an entry price-point for the Switch at more than what it costs to get a PS4 or Xbox One, and those consoles both boast more robust software libraries and more raw processing power as well.

vlcsnap-2017-01-13-09h48m52s596-0-0

Arms. Apparently we’re going back to the days of the NES when Nintendo titles were as bland as white bread. Can’t wait for Legs!

Nintendo unveiled two new IPs early in the conference: 1-2-Switch and Arms. Nintendo apparently felt the term “video” in “video games” was too burdensome so 1-2-Switch is a game designed to function without video input being a necessity. You basically waggle the joy con controllers amongst two-players in a Wii Sports sort of environment, just without the TV. They demonstrated two cowboys having a quick duel and I also saw people playing table tennis. The joy con controllers feature advanced rumble feedback and motion controls, and Nintendo is banking on those features being so intuitive that it can drive the fun factor for a game. 1-2-Switch sounds like a decent tech demo kind of game, like the previously referenced Wii Sports, but unlike its predecessor it’s not a pack-in title and is a full $60 MSRP game. I have zero interest in the game at that price point. Arms is essentially the next evolution of Wii Boxing, with more emphasis placed on being able to move the characters around with a more visually pleasing game. Each character has extendable, Inspector Gadget-like arms for punching. The input mechanics actually remind me more of Wii Bowling, with the twisting of the wrist to curve the punch being a central component, only now you’re striking an opponent instead of pins. Again though, this game would have made for an interesting pack-in game, but at full retail price it looks ludicrous. It’s also not available at launch and expected to arrive in April.

Nintendo also spent a considerable portion of the show bringing representatives from third party developers onto the stage to voice their support for the Switch. Unfortunately,  virtually none of them had anything interesting to say or even games to show. Bethesda was one of the few to actually show some gameplay, in this case for Skyrim. I’m excited to have a portable version of Skyrim, but an almost six year old game arriving in the fall isn’t going to move consoles or convince the consumer that third parties are all-in on the Switch. Right now, it very much resembled recent Nintendo launches where third parties are only willing to offer ports of previously released games, or in the case of EA, port an annual title to the Switch. And the sad part is, if these ports don’t sell then third party developers will use that as an excuse to continue the narrative that Nintendo consumers are only interested in Nintendo products, when really it could be that they just don’t want to re-buy games they already own!

rxe8upqnn9p7fwqhxinpyg-480-80

Sir, it’s not polite to stare.

Nintendo, for its part, showed some of its own games to a mostly positive reaction. We now have a title for the new Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, and we know it’s coming at the end of the year. It’s a true 3D Mario adventure with some levels set in real-world settings. It also features a Minish Cap sort of gimmick where Mario’s hat is apparently sentient. Some of the visuals, like Mario interacting with reality-proportioned humans, were bizarre, but I have faith that Nintendo will deliver a special game with their mascot. Zelda: Breath of the Wild was also confirmed as a launch game and follows in the foot steps of Twilight Princess before it, being a game developed for the old hardware that is now debuting on the new hardware. It looks pretty great, and it’s the only title I reserved with my pre-order of the Switch.

The other games Nintendo unveiled either during the show or after were less impressive. I already mentioned 1-2-Switch and Arms, but Nintendo also unveiled Splatoon 2, which looked exactly like the first game. It’s coming in June. The Mario Kart game we saw in that first teaser back in October was confirmed to just be an enhanced version of Mario Kart 8. I suppose that’s great for those who skipped out on the Wii U, but not so great for those who already have it. Missing was the true knock-out punch from Nintendo, something to really wow gamers with either a new IP or an old classic. Outside of Mario, there isn’t much to look forward to after launch and I fear there will be a pretty long software drought just like there was for the Wii and Wii U.

promotional-photo-of-capcoms-new-game-ultra-street-fighter-2-the-finall-challengers-on-the-nintendo-switch

This pretty much sums up the third-party support issue quite nicely.

Truth be told, the Nintendo brand and the presence of Zelda are going to be enough for the Switch to have a successful launch, but let’s not forget that the Wii U did all right when it launched too. The holiday season will be a real barometer for what the public thinks of the Switch. The fact that the Wii U ended up fairing so poorly may help sell the Switch since a lot of people will want to play Zelda, and won’t already have a Wii U to play it on (it’s being released on both consoles). I think the mobile aspect of the console won’t be a big factor for most gamers, even if it’s something that I am really interested in. People already have their smart phones and most won’t want to haul the Switch around in a backpack, especially if the battery life comes in at the low end of Nintendo’s prediction of 2 1/2 to 6 hours (a pretty generous range, Nintendo). I think Nintendo will also find its online service to be a hard sell when gamers may already have an Xbox Live or PS Plus membership. As part of the Nintendo package, gamers will get access to free, classic games each month (I’m actually not sure on the plural aspect, it might be something like one NES game and one SNES game), which is smart of them because it leverages one of their strengths. I think they’re making a mistake though by making the free titles only playable for a month, after that it requires a purchase. They should follow their competitors leads and just make the games free for subscribers for as long as their membership is active. It also would have been nice to hear they’re making all of those Virtual Console purchases gamers made on the Wii U and other platforms will be carried over to the Switch. At least in the case of Wii U owners, it would have been a nice “thank you” to those fans who stuck with the company during its darkest period.

Last night’s conference ended up leaving me more concerned than before about the Switch’s prospects. That cautious optimism has mostly been replaced with cynicism and an expectation that the Switch will follow a similar path as the Wii U. The conference, more than anything, re-affirmed for me what Nintendo is which is becoming more of a niche product. I think it’s very possible that the Switch is Nintendo’s last console, or that it’s marking the start of an era where Nintendo only creates portable systems that can also plug into a television set. I hope I’m wrong, but at least I know I’m getting some Zelda and Mario action in the interim, because at the end of the day, that’s still Nintendo’s biggest asset for selling consoles. The Switch will answer whether or not that’s Nintendo’s only asset.


NECA Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Donatello

img_0822

“Ohhh pizza! I need it!”

2016 did something I never expected (well, it did many things I never expected); it brought me back to the action figure. And in particular, it brought me back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. First, it was Bandai with its line based on the animated series from the 1980s, then NECA finally released its own take on The Shredder from the original comic (I never reviewed it here because I decided to keep it in box). Now, NECA has done it again with its 1/4th scale Donatello based on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

And my reaction to this figure could be summed up in two words:  Holy shit!

I’ve been collection action figures off and on since I was a kid, going on probably 25 years. It started with toys I would play with that most kids my age had, and then became more for a hobby with toys that would just sit on a shelf, desk, or other surface. In that time, I’ve acquired some pretty awesome toys. I’ve got a Hot Toys Batman based on The Dark Knight film that is incredible to behold, and was also incredibly expensive. In its short existence, Irwin Toys made some premium scale Dragon Ball Z figures that look excellent, and Toy Biz did the same with the Marvel properties in its Legends and Icons line. Nothing I’ve acquired though has nailed a likeness as well as Neca has with its movie-inspired Donatello.

For starters, this is a quarter-scale figure so he’s big, and the size means he should be highly detailed. I don’t typically dig figures of this size, especially now with my house becoming cluttered with the toys of small children, but I made an exception for this figure. The source material, as mentioned previously, is the original 1990 film which is by far the best film based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It might actually be the best thing based on the franchise excluding the original comic. This is actually pretty unique as no action figures before have really strived to capture the look of that first film. That’s partly due to the sequel, The Secret of the Ooze, being fast-tracked to theaters to strike before the fad died out. The sequel was probably more popular due to its lighter tone and more playful nature, making it more reminiscent of the cartoon. It’s possible Playmates, the toy company basically created for TMNT, just didn’t have time to get a line out for both films so they just went with the sequel for its movie line of figures (which were pretty awesome for the time). Even the newer lines done by Playmates based on the films are clearly more influenced by the sequel than the original, so right off the bat, Neca has done something no other toy company has done before.

For a first figure (naturally, the other turtles are on the way) in the line, Donatello is a great choice because he, more than the others, had a distinct look in the first film not captured by the second. His face is a little scrunched, his beak kind of pointy, and the ends of his mouth curl in a way the other turtles don’t. He’d sport a more rounded look in the sequel, and was noticeably taller too. This version of Donatello was always my favorite though. And a really unsung aspect of that original film is how all four turtles had a unique look. If viewed in black and white, it was still easy to point out which turtle was which because they each had their own face and proportions, like people.

This Donatello though, is so spot-on it continues to amaze me every time I look at him. The head sculpt is dead-on and his eyes are expressive and life-like. The shape of his bandana is perfect, and the ends of which are fabric and have enough weight that they hang just as they do in the film. The skin texture is also perfect and captures the look of the film so wonderfully. For me as a kid, that was the biggest difference in going from cartoon to live action as the cartoon never caused me to wonder how the turtles would really look in the real world. The faux leather of the belt and various pads looks superb, and the wash on his shell and chest captures the griminess of the film. This is, after all, a character who resides in a sewer. I had some minor concerns about the look of the figure when looking at the promotional images, but in person it looks great. Part of the disconnect, I think, is due to the characters almost always being in darkness in the film and rarely in a warmly lit location. When I walk into the room I keep this figure in at dusk and I see him it’s like he’s just jumping right out of one of those scenes.

Even though Donatello is huge (roughly 16″), he still sports basically the same articulation as Neca’s smaller figures. There’s still the issue of a bulky shell to work around, so there’s going to be some limitations inherent in a TMNT figure, but you still get double-elbows, ball joints everywhere, and ankle swivels. There is an ab crunch hidden behind that shell which allows for some upper body movement, and the bulky elbow pads do hinder articulation some, but for the most part the figure is pretty solid in that regard. Neca used ratchet joints in places to help the figure support its own weight. This does mean he’s a little hard to pose right out of the box, requiring some play, but it also means he can stand on one foot if you so desire.

Neca also saw fit to include some accessories with our dear friend Donnie. Mostly, these take the form of extra hands, seven total. He’s got hands for holding his bo staff, an open hand for Cowabunga, and twin thumbs-up. He’s got another slightly open hand for holding his other accessories: a slice of pizza and a canister of ooze. The pizza looks good enough to eat, and even resembles the pizza Mikey orders early in the movie. The ooze canister has a small crack, as opposed to being broken in two, making it very specific to the first film (in the second, it’s in two pieces and reads TGRI instead of TCRI, as it does here). Of course, Donatello comes with his signature bo staff which he can hold pretty effortlessly and also has holsters for on his belt. Really, the only thing missing is an extra head with his open smile from the cover of the VHS box. With that, he’d be able to properly do his “Excellent!” pose from the beginning. It’s understandable that Neca only did one head for each turtle given it would probably add considerable cost, but it would have been awesome if they found a way.

In short, if it isn’t already apparent, I love this toy. It might be my new favorite (until the Leonardo one comes out anyways) as it’s just so perfect. I do wish Neca could have achieved the same in a smaller scale, but apparently that’s impossible due to how their license is constructed. Maybe that won’t be true always, but I’d be really hesitant about holding out for a smaller scale and risk missing out on these figures. The price is steep ($100 MSRP) compared to other Neca products, though far less than Hot Toys and other premium action figures despite being of basically the same quality. I am definitely all-in on this series and can’t wait to complete the quartet.


12 Films of Christmas #1: A Christmas Story

a_christmas_story_film_poster

A Christmas Story (1983)

A lot of people have attempted to define Christmas over the years, but if you ask a child it’s all about Santa Claus and presents. We can tell our kids it’s about more than that. It’s about the giving, not the receiving, but they’ll never buy it. They may pay us lip-service thinking that by saying the right thing Santa will bring them more presents, but we know how they truly feel. And really, it’s no big deal because as they get older they’ll find new ways to look at Christmas and come around to the family and giving aspects of the holiday. While they’re kids though, lets let them be kids.

Everyone probably can recall that one Christmas gift they really wanted above all others. Hopefully, many did eventually get that, though I have a feeling most of those girls asking Santa for a pony went wanting on Christmas Day (I’d ask for a dog and never get it, but by then I was kind of wise to the whole Santa thing; I did get a turtle though). I have one, and for me it was a Super Nintendo. The SNES was released in 1991 and some of my cousins and friends received one from Santa that year. I did not, so come Christmas ’92 I was really itching for one and felt Santa was my only hope. When Christmas came, I snuck up early in the morning to scope out the loot. I was actually pretty happy with the toys I received, but there was no SNES. I returned to bed partially defeated, but truly looking on the bright side. When it was finally an acceptable hour to get up, I returned to the tree and tore into my gifts with my sister. When my parents got up, my dad made a remark about how he was surprised I wasn’t playing with a certain gift. Then he started looking around, and gestured towards the kitchen table which was probably six feet away from where the tree was setup. Tucked between the table leg and wall was my Super Nintendo, and I was overjoyed.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s practically the same experience Ralphie enjoys at the end of A Christmas Story when he finds his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun tucked behind a desk after thinking Santa had forgot the one gift he wanted most. It’s a charming tale about want, which sounds shallow on the surface, but after spending some 80 minutes with Ralphie throughout the picture we come to feel he deserves it and we’re all rooting for him to get that air rifle, even if it means he might shoot his eye out.

paker-family-christmas-stor

The Parker Family

Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is like most kids. He has the same problems as anyone like school work, bullies, and looking after his kid-brother Randy (Ian Petrella). The film is narrated by Jean Shepherd as adult Ralphie, and was written by him as well, and the whole story is essentially one long flashback. Ralphie’s mother (Melinda Dillon) is his main obstacle towards getting what he wants as she deems a BB gun as too dangerous, uttering the film’s famous line “You’ll shoot your eye out,” upon hearing of her son’s desire. Ralphie’s dad, often referred to as the Old Man and played by Darren McGavin, seems indifferent to the plights of the family, unless the kids are acting up. He’s more consumed with his paper, fighting a never ending battle with the furnace, and his hick neighbors pack of hound dogs that seem only interested in harassing him, and no one else.

A lot of subplots carry the picture as we move towards Christmas. There’s the famous scene at the flagpole where Ralphie’s friends settle a debate over whether or not a tongue can stick to metal in the cold. There’s the Old Man’s “major award” that starts a cold war of sorts in the Parker household. A mall Santa steals a scene, and Ralphie’s potty mouth takes center stage for a memorable scene as well and we all learn about which soap tastes the best. Ralphie is often on the receiving end of some minor misfortune in many of these scenes, which only helps to make him feel more sympathetic. The film never strays too far towards this masochistic persona by making the viewer feel almost depressed for the poor kid, it mostly just reminds us of what it was like growing up.

mv5bmjixmzy2ntyzof5bml5banbnxkftztcwotq5ndaymg-_v1_sx640_sy720_

Not all gifts are winners.

The film is loaded with humor. Some of it is subtle and worked into the dialogue, some of it is ironic, and some of it is gag reliant. Ralphie’s daydreams are appropriately corny since they’re coming from the mind of a child and provide for the most obvious scenes of comedy in the film. The previously mentioned major award, a novelty lamp resembling a woman’s leg in a cocktail dress, is so well-known these days that you can walk into a store and buy one. McGavin is especially funny in his role as the Old Man, often having big reactions when he’s angered and perfectly capturing what it means to be a parent around the holidays. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Dillon is equally as effective as Mrs. Parker. She so captures that classic image of a mother without feeling too cliche. When she screams “Ralphie” it really sounds like she’s been shouting it his whole life at her own son.

a-christmas-story-1

It’s hard to pick a favorite scene in this one, and when Ralphie tries his luck with Santa is certainly in the running for best scene in the picture.

The film does a great job of giving Ralphie small victories along the way, making the payoff at the end feel especially effective and joyous. It’s a film that succeeds because it so understands how it felt to be a child around Christmas. It’s relatable for children watching it today, and gives adults a chance to look back on those years when we were a little like Ralphie. You only get a few years to really be a kid invested in the whole Santa Claus concept, since most have the fable spoiled before they leave elementary school. It’s nice to get a little taste of that each time I view A Christmas Story. It’s why I consider it my favorite Christmas film of all time.

If you’re looking to catch A Christmas Story this year then I have good news, as it will be airing on television when this post goes live on Christmas Day. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this feature, though I admit I hope most are reading this final entry after Christmas, though I suppose it could be bathroom material on Christmas Day just fine. I hope everyone is spending Christmas Day with friends and family and Merry Christmas from The Nostalgia Spot!

960

 


12 Films of Christmas #2: Elf

elf_movie

Elf (2003)

It’s pretty hard to come into an established industry with something new and find success.  And when it comes to holiday films and television specials, it seems like it’s especially hard. Sure, sometimes you get a Prep & Landing that really surprises, but mostly you get Shrek the Halls…

Jon Favreau is mostly known these days for directing the Iron Man films. In 2003, people may have mostly known him for his short-stint on the sitcom Friends when he played the boyfriend of Courtney Cox who wanted to be an ultimate fighting champion. He certainly wasn’t known for holiday films, but who knew he was about to preside over one of the best?

Elf, in some ways, follows one of my favorite Christmas formulas by adding to the legend of Santa Claus. It doesn’t add much, but gives us another look at how Santa goes about his business. It definitely gives us a peek at elf life. We learn their dietary habits, toy output, and that they actually make those toys that show up in department stores themselves (though I don’t know if we’re supposed to assume that all Etch-A-Sketch toys are made by elves). Mostly though, it tells the story of one elf:  Buddy. The twist is that Buddy is not actually an elf, but a human adopted by elves after he snuck into Santa’s sack one Christmas while Santa was visiting an orphanage.

Before getting to the meat of the story, I must say I definitely approve of the decision to model the elves and the North Pole after the look both have in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even the decor is that pale violet color that everything seemed to be cast in for that famous Christmas special. As a kid, it always annoyed me there was so little continuity between Christmas specials, even ones produced by Rankin/Bass. If I had seen this film as a six-year old I would have been even more delighted than I am as an adult.

8252330825_d1deaf0617_b

Ferrell is at his best when Favreau just lets him go nuts in a scene.

Now Buddy (Will Ferrell), is oblivious to the fact that he’s an elf even though he’s a lot bigger than his peers and can’t keep up with them in the toy-making field. It bums him out, and when he overhears the head elf (A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsly) speaking with another about how Buddy will probably never realizes he’s human, he goes running to Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) to find out if it’s true. Upon doing so, he decides to set out to find his real father, who impregnated his biological mother unknowingly and has since passed away. All of the elves, including Santa (Ed Asner) wish him well, but Santa also has a revelation to reveal: Buddy’s dad is on the naughty list!

n5ikch

I’m digging the Rudolph inspired look of the film.

If you have not guessed by now, Elf is a pretty silly movie. After Buddy leaves the North Pole, it becomes a fish-out-of-water tale as he journeys to New York City to find his dad. Turns out his dad is the head of a children’s book publishing firm, and right away we see how he values profits above doing the right thing when he approves a book with no ending for publishing. Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is naturally shocked to find out he has a son he never knew about, and wants nothing to do with an adult who thinks he’s a Christmas elf. He also has a wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and a young son, Michael (Daniel Tay), who are equally dubious. Emily is the most receptive of Buddy, though Michael is more in-line with his dad in thinking the guy is nuts. Buddy also winds up in a department store where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and mistakes her for someone into elf culture since she has to dress-up as one for work.

Buddy has a hard time adjusting to life in New York and makes things difficult for those around him. He gradually gets people to come around to him, starting with Michael, then Jovie, and eventually even his old man. There’s of course a big blow-up scene between him and his father that has to be resolved before Buddy can then help Santa save Christmas. It’s all rather conventional, but the film always straddles the line between cheese and just plain good fun, and one gets the impression it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

elf_140pyxurz

Given her get-up, it’s not hard to see why Buddy gets a little excited when he sees Jovie.

Will Ferrell is very charismatic as Buddy. He’s annoying, as most characters played by Ferrell are, but still charming due to his child-like and honest persona. I know many people who dislike Ferrell but are charmed by his Buddy character. Maybe it’s the Christmas factor, I’m not sure, but Buddy seems to be his most-liked role. Asner’s gruff take on Santa Claus works really well in the film’s climax. He feels authentic, even when spouting nonsense about needing more Christmas spirit to get his sleigh off the ground. He’s so matter-of-fact about it that it helps the audience to buy-into what the film is selling. Caan is prickly as Hobbs, but understandably so given what his character has to deal with. He possesses some Scrooge-like qualities in the sense that he’s a workaholic who clearly doesn’t spend enough time with his family (as illustrated by Michael’s lack of respect for him). He has to come around to Buddy, and see the importance of family. He does so in semi-believable way, but considering this film exists mostly for laughs, he doesn’t need to go through a Scrooge-like transformation that unfolds over entire acts.

Elf works so exceptionally well because it’s just a joyful film. There’s plenty of humor, and enough heart to give it purpose and provide that emotional pay-off most expect of a Christmas movie. It’s a movie that I return to every year, and every time I watch it I wonder to myself if this is my favorite Christmas movie. So few are able to handle comedy and sentimentality as deftly as Elf does. The Santa Clause has some laughs, but becomes cloyingly sweet at the end. Bad Santa is plenty hilarious, but doesn’t have really much of an emotional payoff. The Miracle on 34th Street has some chuckle-worthy moments, but is hardly a comedy. Elf is able to be both, which makes it the rare modern Christmas movie that is contention for being one of the best.


12 Films of Christmas #3: Miracle on 34th Street

miracle_on_34th_street

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

When it comes to the eternal struggle over Christmas, as depicted on South Park, between Jesus and Santa Claus, I always side with Claus. Christmas may have originated with the Pagans before being appropriated by the Christians, but it’s Santa Claus that has made it the most popular holiday in the USA, if not the world. I’m on record as being one who appreciates a good Santa movie, one that adds to the character’s lore and mystique. The Santa Clause, featured towards the back-end of this list, is a modern film that does a pretty good job of making Santa more fleshed out and believable. It owes a lot to Miracle on 34th Street.

Miracle on 34th Street is the original “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” movie and is perfect for those children who are just starting to question the existence of the jolly old elf. It’s also heart-warming and delightful for adults as the film never fails to make me want to believe in Santa Claus once again.

Miracle on 34th Street was released in 1947 during the very festive month of June. Despite the odd timing, the film was warmly received by critics and movie-goers and Miracle on 34th Street is one of the most celebrated Christmas films of all time. Set in New York City, the film follows Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood), two people with little time for sentimentality or flights of fancy. Doris is a divorcee, very straight-laced and career oriented and serves as an event director with Macy’s. Her daughter is her spitting image and the two are really a couple of humbugs around the holidays. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) comes into their lives when he notices the man set to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is intoxicated, and insists he be replaced. Since he fits the image of Santa, Doris appoints Kris. He does such a marvelous job that Macy’s hires him as their official Santa to meet children in their 34th Street department store which brings him into frequent contact with Susan. He finds her to be a kind child, but kind of sad and joyless and makes it his mission to convince her that he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus.

miracle-on-34th-street

Gwenn and Wood possess natural on screen chemistry.

Throughout the film we’re treated to scenes between Gwenn and Wood where Wood begins to question all she knows, and all her mother has told her. And as an audience, we’re kept in the dark for the most part as to whether or not Kris really is Santa Claus. Doris is not really interested in hearing about Kris’s exploits, but her suitor Fred (John Payne) becomes one of Kris’s biggest supporters and seems willing to believe that he’s Santa, because he has no reason not to and sees no harm in it.

Kris ends up being a revelation for Macy’s. Even as he tells customers to shop at rival Gimbel’s if Macy’s doesn’t have what they’re looking for or is charging too much. The store manager appears ready to terminate him over the flap, but customers respond with increased loyalty towards Macy’s as a result prompting the store to keep Kris on staff. Meanwhile, Kris is given a task by young Susan to prove he’s the real Santa. He needs to bring her for Christmas a family and a new life by giving her a house. Kris is reluctant to promise her this, as even if he truly is Santa Claus, such a task is impossible, but he reluctantly agrees. Kris and Fred end up forming a duo, in which each will work on the mother and daughter to make them more open to the Christmas spirit.

Concerned by Kris’s proclamations of being Santa, Doris has him psychologically examined and the examination upsets Kris. The psychiatrist finds him to be harmless, but begins spreading his opinion that Kris is mentally ill around the store, which enrages Kris further. Kris foolishly gives the shrink, Sawyer (Porter Hall), a bop on the head with his cane which Sawyer exaggerates into a full-blown assault, getting Kris arrested as a result and faced with being institutionalized over his claims that he’s Santa Claus.

miracle_34th_1947_031

The courtroom scenes contain some of the best writing and most humor in the picture.

The climactic scenes for the film occur in a courthouse, where Fred represents Kris and is forced to prove that he’s Santa Claus, or force the court to prove that he is not. There’s a lot of fun scenes that take place during the trial, and there’s a warmth added to the picture when the store director for Macy’s voices his belief in Kringle on the stand. Through a sort of trick, Fred is able to convince the judge that the federal government recognizes the existence of Santa Claus by virtue of the fact that the post office accepts letters to Santa, which is enough to get Kris off.

The film concludes in typical Christmas fashion, with everything working out for the best and we’re left to wonder if Kris really is Santa Claus. It’s a satisfying wonder though, which captures the essence of the Santa Claus character and whether or not he is believed in.

The film was famously remade in 1994, with Sir Richard Attenborough in the lead role and support from Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson as Susan. The film changes things up be inserting some villainous characters out to topple Kris, bringing back the character he got fired from playing Santa at the film’s beginning in a scheme to get Kris arrested. It’s a bit cartoonish when compared to the original, but I do like that Kris is given more motivation to strike a man (he accuses Kris of being a pedophile) than what was present in the original. The film ups the difficulty factor for Kris by having Susan request not only a house, but a dad and a baby brother as well. The final scene also opts to use the “In God We Trust” statement on US currency as a way to prove the federal government can acknowledge the existence of a being that no one can prove exists.

hqdefault-7

The 1994 remake has its good and bad points, but this scene maybe my favorite scene across both films.

The re-make is often derided by those who love the original, as remakes almost always are. I think it works as a modern adaptation. There’s some things I like about it and some I don’t. There’s a little more character development given to smaller roles, and we get a better sense of what the judge has to wrestle with when presented with this case. There’s also a nice communal spirit that’s driven home about the picture, which is present in the original, but to a lesser degree. One change I do like is to one of the best scenes in the original film when Susan witnesses Kris speak Dutch to a young girl. In the remake, the girl is deaf instead and Susan watches Kris sign with her. The scene is just set-up so well, and Attenborough and the young actress playing the deaf child are so expressive and warm that it’s a real heart-melter of a scene.

Whether you watch the original or the 1994 remake, you’re bound to find one of the most sentimental and warm-hearted Christmas films made. Both Gwenn and Attenborough bring amazing authenticity to the character of Kris Kringle, so much so that I don’t know who did it better. I wish Gwenn had the benefit of color for his version as this is a film that is so warm it begs to be scene in color. Miracle on 34th Street, no matter the version, stands as the best Santa Claus movie made, and its use of mystery and cleverness is likely not to be topped by another.