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#2 Best in TV Animation: Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Three…Two…One…Let’s jam!

Of all the mainstream arts, television is the one that has seen the biggest advancement in terms of relevance over the past fifteen years. It used to be that TV was nothing more than the idiot box, a thing to rot our brains with. It was the home of the sitcom, a mostly safe way to kill 25 minutes on a weeknight, or daytime soap operas with outlandish and never-ending plotlines. Even the more celebrated dramas often had a “play it safe” mentality designed to entertain for a single episode before putting everything back in place for next week. There wasn’t much going on that seemed worthy of the term “art,” and an actor jumping ship from Hollywood to the small screen was seen as an admission of failure on said actor’s part.

Things are different now and some of the best stories, acting, and directing are occurring on television. Most of this is attributed to premium cable network HBO and their series The Sopranos and The Wire often cited as the two most influential. Basic cable has jumped in on the fun over the past eight years or so with much celebrated hits like The Walking Dead, The Americans, and of course, Breaking Bad. The main networks are still mostly home to popcorn fair but they’re slowly catching on to the changing television landscape.

Before all of these shows were breaking the mold, there was Cowboy Bebop. Cowboy Bebop is an example of strong story-telling with great character development that refused to be a slave to the popular TV tropes. The fact that it was coming out of Japan likely had something to do with it because Cowboy Bebop would never have existed as-is if it were American made. Just imagine a hugely successful show voluntarily ending after just one season of twenty-six episodes (a film would later be released but there’s never been talk of a season two or spin-off that I’m aware of). Cowboy Bebop set out to tell a complete story, and that’s what it did. If there was a temptation to double-back on that and have a second season it was ignored and probably for the better.

From left to right: Ein, Ed, Spike, Jet, and Faye.

From left to right: Ein, Ed, Spike, Jet, and Faye.

Cowboy Bebop is largely credited to director Shinichiro Watanabe, who presided over the twenty-six “sessions” that make up the series. Cowboy Bebop follows the crew of the Bebop, comprised of bounty hunters in the year 2071. In this setting earth has largely been abandoned by humanity due to asteroid activity. A large collection of people now live on Mars, but a lot of the solar system as we know it has been colonized. The Bebop is captained by Jet Black, a former cop with a cybernetic arm. His main running mate is Spike Spiegel who was formerly messed-up with a criminal syndicate but now hunts bad guys for coin. They’re a fairly unsuccessful duo when the series begins but they’re soon joined by Faye Valentine, a woman with no memory of her past and a huge debt to settle, and the sexually ambiguous child Edward, who speaks in the third person and is a computer whiz and hacker extraordinaire. Rounding out the group is a welsh corgi by the name of Ein, a dog with near-human intelligence. They’re mostly a motley crew and often their bounties get away or find a way to devalue themselves preventing the group from really cashing in. Most of their relationships are a bit strained with Spike and Jet often wondering how their duo came to be this group. Faye basically comes and goes at her leisure while Ed just seems to enjoy hanging out with the crew. The various dynamics work out well as they clash often but all seem to reluctantly accept one another’s help when needed.

All of the characters are interesting and well-developed in their own right, but Spike is the show's main character.

All of the characters are interesting and well-developed in their own right, but Spike is the show’s main character.

The animation for Cowboy Bebop is a sophisticated take on the standard anime style. The characters do not possess the exaggerated features of many anime programs but retain enough of the art form’s style to be considered anime. Characters tend to be long of limb. They look like they should animate in a stiff manner but they tend to have a certain flow about their movements. There’s a mixture of handrawn animation and CG with most of the CG reserved for the spaceships. Some episodes are visually dark, others bright. Some settings have an industrialized look to them, others are leafy and green, and some neon and futuristic. There’s a lot going on in the twenty-six sessions and the nomadic nature of the crew adds considerable variety in both story-telling and visuals.

Music is a big point of emphasis by Cowboy Bebop. In fact, each session title is a reference to either a song or style of music. There’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Jupiter Jazz,” just to name a few. The music was done by Yoko Kanno and a better anime soundtrack you will not find. The opening title “Tank!” is a jazz-fusion track that has undoubtedly influenced several shows since like The Venture Brothers and Archer. The closing track for each episode, “The Real Folk Blues,” perfectly captures the show’s more melancholy moments. The show’s dub is also particularly impressive. Several of the names attached to it are well-known in the animation community such as Steve Blum (Spike), Wendee Lee (Faye), and Beau Billingslea (Jet).

By far though, the best thing going for Cowboy Bebop is its story-telling. The show slowly peels back the layers of each character throughout the series. At first, Spike comes across as a reckless cowboy who cares only about collecting his bounties. As the series moves along, we see he’s actually a good person at heart and when push comes to shove he usually opts to do the right thing. His story is what I would consider to be the main story. Some of his past, including his rivalry with current syndicate member Vicious, is revealed in the fifth episode “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” More is then revealed in the two-part “Jupiter Jazz” which is essentially the midpoint for the series before wrapping with the two part finale, “The Real Folk Blues.” His story is compelling often alternating between exciting and sad. Faye also has a window to her past opened as the series moves along and hers is just as captivating and arguably more tragic. The episode most centered around her, “Hard Luck Woman,” is one the show’s more satisfying. Jet and Edward are also examined and each has difficult choices to make. We learn a lot about these characters and it’s painful saying goodbye after just twenty-six episodes, but that’s part of the show’s lasting impact.

The Spike/Vicious rivalry is one of the show's main conflicts, but it's never overplayed.

The Spike/Vicious rivalry is one of the show’s main conflicts, but it’s never overplayed.

Interspersed amongst the episodes are one-off palate cleaners, if you would. These episodes take on the form of a “bounty of the week” and we get to see the Bebop crew in action. Some are laden with humor such as the psychedelic “Mushroom Samba” while others are dark and violent, like “Pierrot le Fou.” Even though these episodes are lighter in content, they still offer moments for the characters to deepen our understanding of them or make use of creative story-telling devices, like the Alien inspired “Toys in the Attic.” Truly, there are episodes more likely to be cited as favorites but there is no bad episode among the twenty-six.

Cowboy Bebop nails it at pretty much every level. It’s visually engaging, aurally amazing, and its story-telling was ahead of its time. If the show had a smell or taste attached to it I’m sure they too would have been excellent. It’s rather unique among the other shows on this list, most of which are either comedies or children’s shows. Cowboy Bebop will make you laugh, but it’s definitely not a comedy and its mature subject matter puts it squarely in the adult zone. It’s really one the greatest shows made for television and one of Japan’s finest exports. Thirteen hundred words can not do it justice.

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Bucky O’Hare – The Video Game

Bucky O'Hare - Nintendo Entertainment System (1992)

Bucky O’Hare – Nintendo Entertainment System (1992)

I’ve been away for awhile, a combination of life events and vacation, but I’m back and ready to talk about some old things.  Here is one such old thing and a topic I’ve discussed before:  Bucky O’Hare.  Bucky O’Hare was a part of that glut from the late 1980s into the 1990s of anthropomorphic cartoon characters riding on the coat tails of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Very few of these properties (Street Sharks, Biker Mice From Mars, Battle Toads) had any staying power and Bucky proved to be no exception.  His show lasted one season, and it was a half season at that, before getting cancelled.  There are a number of theories why from poor marketing decisions, bad distribution of the toys, too serious, though I personally think a lot of boys just didn’t buy into the idea of a green space bunny saving the galaxy.  Despite Bucky’s outward appearance, I liked him and the show quite a bit as did a number of my friends.  Bucky probably dominated a good six months of my young life and during that time period he was even able to overtake the TMNT for a brief spell.

Even though Bucky didn’t last long as a cartoon hero (he didn’t last long as a comic book hero either), he was still around long enough to have his likeness inserted onto just about every product imaginable.  From the obvious items like toys and clothing to the less obvious such as dishes and light-switch covers.  Not surprisingly, another item that took advantage of the Bucky O’Hare license was a video game, simply titled Bucky O’Hare.   The game was developed by Konami and released in 1992 a short while after the cartoon had finished its run.  Right away, it should be noted that Bucky dodged a major bullet in that his game was developed by Konami, and not LJN, whom Konami had a tendency to hand all of its licensed products to.  LJN is known as one of the worst game developers from that era; it possessed the opposite of the Midas Touch when it came to game development.  The fact that Bucky managed to avoid such a fate is really quite surprising, in hindsight.  Even more popular properties like the X-Men were unable to avoid LJN but somehow Bucky snuck through.

DownloadedFile-33Bucky O’Hare on the NES is an action platformer starring Bucky O’Hare himself.  Players control the funky fresh rabbit and navigate him through various levels, mostly going left to right but not always, as they run, jump, and gun down the evil toads to save Bucky’s crew.  The game starts off giving the player a choice of 4 different stages, represented by different planets, that Bucky can choose from.  On each planet, one of Bucky’s crew-mates is being held captive:  Blinky is on the green planet, Jenny is on the blue planet, Dead Eye the red, and Willy DuWitt is on the yellow planet.  Bucky can choose to rescue his mates in any order, though at least one planet requires the aid of one of Bucky’s comrades, for when Bucky rescues a character that character becomes playable.  The player can switch on the fly with a press of the select button.  All characters share the same health bar but have their own power bar.

The power bar is where the characters distinguish themselves.  Each character had a unique attack and unique ability.  Attacks are simply done by pressing the B button.  Bucky can shoot horizontally and vertically and his special ability is a super jump.  By pressing and holding the B button, Bucky crouches down and charges up a jump.  The power meter determines how high he can go and it can be increased in size by collecting certain power-ups.  Blinky has a jetpack that allows him to fly for a short duration.  His attack is a canon-ball like  weapon that fires in an arc.  It can also break certain blocks found in the environment.  It’s more powerful than Bucky’s attack, but has limited range.  Jenny fires a laser that may or may not inflict more damage than Bucky’s gun, though it’s rate of fire doesn’t seem to be as good.  Her special ability is some kind of telekinetic ball that the player can control with the d-pad once it’s been fired.  It’s useful in certain spots where the player can sit out of danger and attack from cover.  Dead Eye has a scatter-shot for his main weapon.  Think the spread gun from Konami’s much more popular Contra series. His special ability lets him crawl on walls for a short duration.  Not particularly useful.  Willy has a fairly normal attack with his special being a charged shot.  Unlike, say Mega Man, Willy is stationary when charging making his special ability the least useful.

Mega Man fans, does this look familiar?

Mega Man fans, does this look familiar?

Willy’s special ability isn’t the only comparison to Mega Man one will find when playing Bucky O’Hare.  In many ways, the game is like a Mega Man clone.  The non-linear setup at the start is certainly reminiscient of the blue bomber’s games and the general run, jump, shoot mechanics seem to be clearly inspired by Mega Man as well.  There’s also some levels, or parts of levels, that are inspired by some of Mega Man’s more famous levels such as the red planet’s nod to Quick Man and the vanishing blocks from the Toad Mother Ship.  A quick google search will reveal that, in some circles, this game is known as the Konami Mega Man.  I’ve never heard anyone actually refer to the game as such, but the internet never lies.  Bucky owes a lot to Mega Man, but it’s different enough to maintain integrity and similar enough that it’s safe to say most fans of the blue bomber will enjoy the green rabbit.

Bucky O’Hare may not be among the most popular NES games, but most people who are into NES games seem to know about it and associate it with one word:  hard.  Many games from this era are hard, but Bucky O’Hare is often placed in that upper tier of really difficult games.  I’ve never heard anyone outright call it the hardest NES game ever made, but I’ve seen it included in several lists or youtube videos amongst the elite.  This is mostly a good thing, as Bucky O’Hare is able to achieve it’s difficulty without being too cheap.  There are some areas, when playing for the first time, that will piss a gamer off.  The most obvious to me occurs on the yellow planet where the player has to hop on these futuristic mine carts that zip along a track.  Jumping from one to another is not difficult, as they slow down long enough to make the timing easy, but before long a wall of spikes will pop up that result in a one-hit death if the player doesn’t react fast enough.  These one-hit deaths comprise the majority of player fatalities in Bucky O’Hare.  Very rarely can I recall actually having my life depleted slowly during a non-boss encounter.  And even the boss fights, as one might imagine, include a number of instant death attacks that can put an end to the fight rather quickly.  What keeps Bucky O’Hare from being among the hardest of the hard is its generous continue system.  Each level is broken up into several acts which, by themselves, are pretty short.  If a player loses all of his or her lives the continue screen is displayed and electing to go on will bring the player to the start of the most recently completed act with a new set of lives.  Continues are unlimited, and completing a full level gives the player a password which isn’t overly complex or long.  This means anyone of moderate skill can probably complete Bucky O’Hare so long as they’re persistent.  And given that much of the game’s difficulty comes from being surprised, practice does indeed make perfect.

Right around the time it seems like the game has thrown everything it can at you, it introduces the flying stages.  Prepare to die.

Right around the time it seems like the game has thrown everything it can at you, it introduces the flying stages. Prepare to die.

Bucky O’Hare is deceptively long and offers a good amount of gameplay.  After completing the first four stages the player is abducted by the toads and (annoyingly) must also re-rescue the trio of Jenny, Dead Eye, and Willy.  The setup, beyond the run and gun nature of the game, is pretty straight-forward but there are areas later in the game that are non-linear as Bucky explores the Toad Mother Ship.  After the conclusion of each level, a boss encounter occurs.  They’re usually fairly challenging, but there are some easy ones, and part of the challenge is knowing which character works best.  For the most part, Bucky on his own is enough to take down a boss but I did find some uses for Jenny’s special attack (namely the yellow planet boss) and Blinky has his moments too.  Only Willy comes across as feeling useless as I was able to make regular use of the other four characters.  Bucky never had another console video game release, but he did have an arcade game released after this one though it wasn’t very popular.  This game, along with the cartoon’s catchy theme song, is probably the way most remember Bucky O’Hare.  Considering most of those other shows, TMNT included, received mediocre to terrible games, I’d say Bucky came out ahead in one respect.  If you like NES games and have never played this one, I whole-heartedly recommend it.