Thursday, May 31, 2012

Product Review: Liberty's Kids Complete series DVD

As a huge fan of all things animation, there is nothing that I love more than collecting great cartoons series on DVD. Many of my favorite shows unfortunately are spread out acroos multiple physical releases that. This is why it's I find it very refreshing when an entire show is sold in a single convenient collection. Liberty's Kids: The Complete Series DVD from Shout! Factory is one of these.

Liberty's Kids is an educational cartoon series that  first aired on PBS Kids from 2002 to 2004. Though I personally didn't catch it back in the day, all it took was previewing a single episode on YouTube to convince me that owning all 40 of them in one collection was a worthy deal.  

Set in Colonial America, the series tells the tale of America's quest for independence. The whole span of these events, from the Boston Tea Party to the adoption of the Constitution, is seen through the eyes of three kids. The youthful colonial journalist James, the young Englishwoman Sarah, and the rascally French orphan, Henri. All three are enduring characters who are easy to become fond of. Despite witnessing historical events from 1773 to 1787, none of the protagonists age visibly, keeping literally to the title "Liberty's KIDS."

It's easy to tell that a lot of effort was put into Liberty's Kids. Production values are high both visually and audibly. The art style portrays characters and scenery in colorful detail and really brings colonial America to life. Voice actors do the same thing for their respective characters. James's performance is filled with  patriotic idealism and the Ben Franklin's conveys humble wisdom. Henri's French accent is adorable and Sarah's British one is hilariously over the top. Music is another area of strength, with the clear standout being the opening theme; a patriotic pop song that manages to avoid being corny.

As a matter of fact, Liberty's Kid's greatest strength is its avoidance of the cheesiness that  pervades most cartoon adaptations of the Revolutionary War. One would expect pure propaganda showcasing the British as utter villains and the colonists as solely heroic patriots, but this is not the cause. A real effort is made to show the conflict's two points of view, even if more focus is given to the American side. Furthermore, the series doesn't shy away from portraying the consequences of war. Death and serious hardship are present in a number of episodes, though actual onscreen violence is, of course, limited.

Despite the dramatic events at hand, there is also plenty of humor in Liberty's Kids to balance it off. One of my favorite scenes is when James and Henri are spying on soldiers disembarking from a ship. James asks Henri to count the English soldiers and Henri starts to do so, but in French. James then reminds his friend "English Henri!" to which Henri replies "I AM counting the English!" It's little things like this that give the episodes an amazing charm.

Along with all 40 episodes (totaling approximately 15 hours) a healthy amount of bonus content comes with this collection. There are clips showing aspects of the creation of the series, along with mini-segments involving quizzes and fact-reviews. These are so poorly animated and corny that they're hilarious. I kid you not that in one of them, Ben Franklin plays the part of a TV newscaster.

As great a cartoon as Liberty's Kids is, it's made even better by being packaged excellently. The six DVDs are stored in three thin, but sturdy disc cases, which are held in an outer sleeve. The cover artwork is attractive and included in the package is a 40 page booklet detailing episode content and a map showing where each episode takes place. All in all, Liberty's Kids has everything that a complete series collection should have. I can recommend it to both old fans of the show and people interested in a quality educational cartoon for themselves or their children.

Monday, May 28, 2012

My Initial Thoughts on the New Toonami

Last Saturday night was the much anticipated return of Toonami, the action anime block that introduced a whole generation to some of the greatest cartoons ever. While I hadn't watched Adult Swim in years, I made sure to return for its revival of my favorite television block of all time. I'm a little lat reporting on my impression of the relaunch (I had to catch up on my sleep on Sunday) but I'm here now to post my thoughts on Toonami's rise from the ashes.

What made Toonami so great over the years wasn't just the shows it aired but the way it presented them. After all, anime could be aired in any format and it wouldn't be Toonami without its unique packaging. Toonami's robotic host T.O.M is just as memorable as the shows he announced and the Sci-fi setting of the Absolution created a sleek atmosphere for viewing great tv.

Both T.O.M and the Absolution have been given an HD makeover for the relaunch. The artstyle follows the look of the T.O.M 3 era of the programming block with the major difference being the use of darker shades of color. Steve Blum returns to lend T.O.M his iconic voice, which sounds just as I remembered it, though his new performance definitely has more edge to it. It's weird hearing T.O.M use the b-word, for instance. I understand that Adult Swim is aiming for a more mature (or immature, depending on your view) audience but it just doesn't fit my image of T.O.M.

Toonami's new opening, while featuring a cool rap accompaniment, was too short and lacked the buildup of the old T.O.M 3 opening used for the April 1st 2012 airing. Besides that, many of the programming bumps were recycled from Toonami's backlog, giving a jarring contrast between the new HD footage and the old blurry standard definition material. Toonami co host, SARA was also noticeably absent and T.O.M's appearances were infrequent. At least there was a classy Toonami review of Xbox Live game I Am Alive.

Of course, as great as seeing T.O.M again is, the most important part of any television block is its programming. Toonami has a legendary reputation for being unmatched in this regard; having been the home to countless classic action cartoon series. So the question is: Can the new Toonami lineup live up?

12:00 a.m. – Bleach

The new Toonami timetable starts off with Bleach, a long running Shonen Jump anime series known for oversized swords and its supernatural setting. Bleach has been a part of Adult Swim since 2006, and 2006 was probably the last time I saw any of it. Now on its 250-something episode, I naturally didn't have a clue what was going on plotwise. I can't really judge the show as a whole fairly, but from what I saw it had a good level of action and had the feel of a traditional Toonami program. However, the animation wasn't great (I bet the studio had to churn new episodes out like cheap burgers) and a lot of the dialogue and plot had a melodramatic tone to it.

Quality Rating: 7.5/10
Suitability for Toonami: 8.5/10

12:30 a.m. – Deadman Wonderland

Deadman Wonderland is one of two new series appearing on Toonami (the others being leftovers from Adult Swim's old Saturday lineup. The show is about a boy named Ginta, who witnesses his middle school class get massacred by a mysterious figure. Ginta is blamed for the murders and is sent away to a privately run prison that doubles as an amusement park (only in Japan folks!) There he meets a friend, a girl named Shiro whose attire is a skin-tight white leotard (those crazy Japanese!)

The show definitely look's interesting, if a bit overdone on how dark and disturbing its trying to be. The animation is of an exceptional quality and the first episode certainly set up an interesting plot with a messed-up (in a good way) caste of characters. I watched a few subbed episodes (Japanese audio, english subtitles for those unfamiliar with anime lingo) online before the Toonami airing and I can say that Deadman's Funimation english dub is of an exceptionally high quality. Overall, Deadman Wonderland is a lot more adult-oriented than anything Toonami aired in the past, featuring a lot of blood and brain bleach material.

Quality Rating: 8.75/10
Suitability for Toonami: 7/10

1:00 a.m. – Casshern Sins

If I could describe Casshern Sins (a reboot of the classic anime series, Casshern) in one word I'd use "vague." The first episode doesn't go a long way towards explaining what the heck's going on besides that the main character Casshern is supposedly responsible for the end of the world. He has amnesia (of course) and the first episode leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

The artstyle the series has going is amazing, mixing colorful characters with a dark depressed background. Most of the episode was devoted to Casshern kicking some serious robot ass, which showcased stylish action animation. I can't say for sure but my first impression is that Casshern Sins will be a good fit for the block. Toonami aired plenty of robot-centric anime in the past (Gundam, Cyborg 009) and seems to be continuing that trend.

Quality Rating: 8.75/10
Suitability for Toonami: 8.75/10

1:30 a.m. – Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

I don't feel like I need to say a lot about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the second anime of the popular Fullmetal Alchemist franchise. It's an awesome series filled with both action and strong messages of loss, sacrifice, and determination. It fits Toonami perfectly, more so than any other show in the new lineup.

Quality Rating: 9.5/10
Suitability for Toonami: 10/10

2:00 a.m. – Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG

I've seen a modest amount of Ghost in the Shell over the years (it's a long running Adult Swim staple) and I can't say I like the show much.  I'm sure it has plenty of fans, but it's too melodramatic for my tastes and uses mature content for shock value and little else. More importantly, it just doesn't have the Toonami feel. More than anything else it feels like a relic of Adult Swim's Action block. Also, who in the heck came up with such a ludicrous subtitle? It's pure gibberish!

Quality Rating: 7.5/10
Suitability for Toonami: 6/10

2:30 a.m. – Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop is a classic from one of Toonami's old lineup. Starring a badass bounty hunter in a badass sci-fi setting, it's a cool show and an ideal classic series for Toonami to air until it has the funds for more popular ones like Dragon Ball Z or Yu Yu Hakusho.

Quality Rating: 8/10
Suitability for Toonami: 9/10

Overall, I'd say the schedule is certainly differant from the Toonami of old. Adult Swim is clearly trying to save money by licensing old series and obscure shows that wouldn't normally find a place to air. Most of them are also a lot darker thant he shonen anime Toonami is traditionally known for. Back when Toonami and Adult swim aired back-to-back, Adult Swim would air the mature anime that Toonami couldn't get away with airing. It seems like the return of Toonami is more along the lines of the Adult Swim content with a Toonami coat of paint. While Toonami's fan base has aged since the block's heyday, that doesn't mean they wouldn't still appreciate lighter series. In the end, I really hope future shows on the block won't be as excessively serious as the current offerings.

However I also understand that the people behind Toonami's rebirth have limited funds to work with. As Steve Blum put it himself "We are building a better cartoon show from the ground up." It's going to take them time to get Toonami back on top  and I'm willing to stick with it until it's there.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Capcom’s Move to More Frequent Releases Could Overwhelm and Underwhelm

Capcom CEO Kenzo Tsujimoto recently released a statement calling for his company to reduce the development time for games in the Japanese publisher’s key franchises to two and a half years. According to Mr. Tsujimoto this will allow the company to turn out major releases more regularly.

While having games delivered faster sounds appealing at first, it could also lead to Capcom over-saturating the market with its games. Game releases in a particular series can lose their specialness when too many are released close together. Hype is important when it comes to marketing videogames. A game’s announcement should generate excitement and this is killed when new entries in the series become routine and regularly expected. Individual games in a series begin to blend together and gamers burn out and lose interest.
The consequences of this have been shown in other companies. Activision’s strategy of annual releases for a number of its properties practically killed its Guitar Hero franchise. Pumping out too many games also lead to the Tony Hawk series being shelved and while Activision’s Call of Duty games remain huge sellers, many would argue they’ve become stagnant through their yearly entries. This is in stark contrast to series that have achieved success through spacing out their releases. The announcement of a new Elder Scrolls game for instance is treated as a momentous event. It’s unsurprising that Skyrim sold millions of copies after the huge buzz generated by its announcement.
Another problem with frequent releases is the predicament it places on fans, who must remain diligent to avoid falling behind on their favorite series. With so many great games to play with limited time and budget, keeping up with frequent releases can be overwhelming. This happened to me with the Assassin’s Creed series. Before I could even get around to purchasing Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood was announced and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations followed soon after that.  

Whether Capcom can handle shortend development times responsibly is questionable. The company is well known for releasing enhanced editions of its games for quick and easy profits.These have already drawn the ire of many among the companies fan base and potentially rushing major releases won't help this.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Top 10 Least Favorite Pokémon

While many Pokémon are imprinted fondly in my memory, many are also just as memorable for how terrible they are. For that reason, and for the fun of making fun of some seriously dumb looking critters, I present my Top 10 Least Favorite Pokémon of all time list.

#10 Giratina  

By now, I honestly think Game Freak must be running out of ideas for Legendary Pokémon. When you start mashing together different body parts hoping for it to look cool in the end, you know that you’re short on inspiration. Giratina’s hodgepodge design is overblown and ugly. It’s trying so hard to look awesome that the end result is just plain silly.

#9 Amoongus  

This thing just looks really stupid. I guess using Poké Ball camouflage is kind of clever, but that face is just too much. The last thing I want battling by my side is a Pokémon who is constantly pouting.

#8 Garbodor

While Pokemon have never been limited to only animal-esque forms, a pile of garbage is taking things a tad too far in my book. Garbodor doesn’t even manage to look like a pile garbage! More like a mass of grey cotton candy with jellybeans mixed in. If Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch ever had a kid... somehow, I'd imagine the resulting monstrosity wouldn't be unlike Garbodor.


#7 Probopass 

How do you create a sillier evolved form for a Pokémon as ridiculous looking as Nosepass? Apparently by removing its legs, enlarging the thing's dumb nose to be twice as big, and plopping a compass on its head for the heck of it. That or just make it look like Mr. Potato Head.

#6 Jynx 

Many people dislike Jynx because its design is obviously based off an outdated racial stereotype. However, I don’t find this fact nearly as offensive as its (her?) overall design. The thing looks like a cross-dressing Mr. Popo for goodness sakes! Also, is that dress supposed to be a part of its body or something?

By the way, the above image of Jynx is the censored version that has appeared in the newer Pokémon games. This is the original design:

No further comment is necessary.

#5 Scrafty    

Seriously Game Freak? I mean seriously? A “Hoodlum Pokémon” with a Mohawk and skin on its lower torso meant to look like it’s wearing baggy pants? And to top it off, the thing looks completely stoned! A design this offensively bad isn’t higher on the list simply because it’s at least stupid enough for a good laugh.

#4 Volbeat and Illumise

These two are grouped together because they’re pretty much identical and I dislike them both for the same reason. Their designs are simply unappealing. I can’t really put my finger on why, but maybe it’s because their designs are overly flamboyant without any substantial character to balance this off.

#3 Meganium  

Meganium is by far the ugliest final evolution for a starter Pokémon ever! Its color is the ugliest shade of green imaginable mixed with the ugliest pink flower imaginable. The design also loses the cool head-mounted leaf blade that made its pre-evolved forms so distinct, replacing them with… whatever those things on its dumb head are.

#2 Golurk  

Even if your Pokémon’s design isn’t good, it should at the very least look like one of the darn things. This thing doesn’t look like a Pokémon. Not even remotely. It looks like an enemy design from a Tales game and not even a good one. Just because you’re running out ideas doesn’t mean you should steal concept art from other JRPGs, Game Freak.

#1 Lickilicky

Why does Game Freak keep giving dumb-looking evolutions to Pokémon that don't need them? Lickitung was one of the weirder original 150 Pokémon whose only real claim to fame was having Team Rocket accidently trade it for Wobbufet. Not exactly a thrilling track record, so why give it an evolution after all this time? More importantly, why make it look so cringeworthingly bad? Lickilicky's conception is awful, its implementation is awful, and heck, even its name is awful. Everything about it is awful.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Kid Icarus Uprising (3DS game)

Pit Soars into a long awaited Return 

When Kid Icarus’s angelic boy wonder Pit returned to relevancy in Super Smash Bros Brawl, a new entry in the Nintendo cult classic series was widely predicted. Now that long anticipated sequel has finally arrived on the Nintendo 3DS and proves that long waits, even one two decades long, are well worth it. Though its roots lie in a NES era sidescroller, Kid Icarus Uprising offers a fresh Nintendo experience that stands on its own while still dishing out healthy doses of nostalgia to fans of the original. 

Kid Icarus Uprising’s greatest strength is its creative presentation. It easily rivals Resident Evil: Revelations as the best looking game on the 3DS, offering colorful flamboyant visuals. Its energetic art style is matched by an outlandish narrative. Dialogue and voice acting are both deliciously corny and the bulk of the game’s story is told through clever humor and colorful personalities. Of these, Pit rightfully stands out due to his goofy optimism and lovable idealism. Frequent breaks of the fourth-wall and recurring call backs to the game’s 8-bit origins round out the amusing storytelling. In an age where games are taking themselves more and more seriously, it’s refreshing to see one take an opposite approach.

Uprising’s gameplay comes in two different flavors. Each level in the game begins with Pit flying through the sky, blasting away at a shooting gallery of incoming enemies. Movement through the levels is automatic, allowing the player to focus solely on dodging and aiming. Following these concise thrilling flight sections, the fight is continued on foot. Using the default control scheme, Pit is moved with the circle pad, while aiming his weapon is handled with the touchpad. Pressing the L button handles both melee and ranged attacks, with the latter offering both rapid fire and charged shot options. Dodge attacks further diversify attack options and come in forwards, backwards, and sideways varieties. Camera control is handled by quickly sliding the stylus on the touchpad. Overall, the controls take some getting used to and can lead to hand cramps during long terms of play. While discomfort is a definite issue, it only slightly distracts from the game’s more impressive qualities.

Coming from the developers of Smash Bros, the amount of collectables in Uprising is predictably extensive. Not only does it possess figurines akin to the titular fighting game series but also a plethora of unlockable powers and weapons. Ranging from swords to staffs, the 9 different weapon categories offer a diverse range of options to dispatch baddies. Different weapons can be obtained from treasure chests scattered across the game’s levels or by buying them from an in-game store. There is also a system in which weapons can be fused together to form stronger ones. Players can further enlarge their arsenal by playing the game’s action-intense multiplayer. Multiplayer offers both a standard all for one deathmatch and the “Light vs. Dark” mode which tasks two teams with taking down the opposing side’s angel. Overall multiplayer is a fun and frantic experience dominated by items which turn matches into a smorgasbord of explosions.

3DS owners looking for challenging gameplay will be pleased with what Uprising offers. Difficulty is set before each single player mission, with higher difficulties accessed by betting more of the game’s Heart currency. Additional Hearts and superior weapons can be reaped on higher difficulty levels, though the risk of losing the waged Hearts balances out these potential rewards. Levels require intense concentration and reflexes on the higher settings, which makes even the first initial levels punishing ordeals. These challenges are completely optional however, and the game is expertly balanced to be open to both casual players and gaming masochists.

Kid Icarus Uprising is a clever and unique addition to the Nintendo 3DS library. While many will likely have gripes about the occasional discomfort caused by Uprising’s control layout, those who can look past the occasional sore fingers will enjoy abundant entertainment with this title. Few handheld games can claim to have so much content packed into them and fewer still are as charming as Kid Icarus Uprising.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Toonami Returns

September 20 2008 was n tragic day for animation fans worldwide. After slowly killing it with mediocre programming and a god-awful redesign of its iconic host, T.O.M, Cartoon Network put an end to its iconic evening animation block, Toonami. The block that had helped popularize anime in the United States and had launched the Dragon Ball Z phenomenon along with other iconic shows such as Yu Yu Hakusho, Gundam Wing, and Rurouni Kenshin, was dead.

Or so it was thought!

Yes, at long last the king of Action-Animation is returning to cable television. Following an April 1st airing of Toonami on Adult Swim, the fan reaction was apparently positive enough for the network, known for its adult-oriented late night programming, to bring Toonami back, starting May 26, 2012.

While this is of course great news overall, I do have a few concerns about how this relaunch will be handled. Firstly, Toonami is scheduled to be shown only on Saturday nights; from midnight to 6 a.m. Adult Swim already uses this time for anime programming, so it could just be giving its usual anime lineup a Toonami coat of paint. Secondly, I've never really been a big fan of Adult Swim's style. As incompetent as Cartoon Network was by cancelling Toonami, they at least always kept it classy during its run. I’m not sure how I feel about Adult Swim using the phrase: “Toonami’s Back, B****es” to promote the return of something that was so important to my childhood.  

Another question I have is whether the block will re-use the stock footage of the original Toonami, as was done for the April 1st airing. An important part of Toonami has always been the packaging it used to present its shows. While the old footage is certainly nostalgic, I would much prefer the new Toonami to be well, new. Something like what the NeoToonami fan project has presented would be ideal:

Please hire these guys, Adult Swim.

Regardless of what form the new Toonami takes, starting May 26, I sure won't be sleeping on Saturday nights from now on!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite Pokémon

You can tell a lot about someone by the kind of Pokémon they like. With this in mind, I decided that discussing my personal favorites would make for a fitting topic for an early post. Because honestly, what better way is there to get to know someone?

Most kids during the late 1990s experienced the Pokémon phenomena one way or another. Whether they were a fan of the video games, the cartoon, or the incomprehensible card game, there were plenty of ways to experience the franchise. Everything boiled down to one straightforward concept, collecting a crap-load of monsters! While the original 150 Pokémon was an impressive enough list, the number of Pokémon has since grown to over 600 critters of various shapes and sizes.

While the Pokémon slogan might be “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” I’d much rather focus on the Pocket Monsters that are the most memorable to me. So without further blathering, here are my top ten favorite Pokémon of all time!

# 10 - Cyndaquil

Now this little fella’ proves that you should never underestimate anything for how small or cute it is. Ash’s Cynadquil always came through in the cartoon, including taking down a freaking Steelix 20 times its size! Cyndaquil also gets points for having a much more bearable character than its fellow Johto era starters. Its occasional timidity is far more forgivable than Totodile’s compulsive dancing and Chikorita’s clinginess.

# 9 - Scyther

Looking at Scyther, it’s easy to see why it was one of my favorites as a boy. The thing’s a giant praying-mantis that looks like a Dinosaur, sporting not two but four wings, and has razor blades for arms! Everything about its design is kick-ass, and it’s by far the most dangerous looking of the original 150 Pokémon. Unfortunately, Game Freak decided to give Scyther a pointlessly evolution but not even that can diminish Scyther’s lethal reputation.  

# 8 - Golduck

Besides MagiKarp’s transformation into Gyrados, Psyduck’s evolution into Golduck is the greatest example of a Pokémon taking a level in badass. Golduck’s former life as a brainless yellow penguin-duck thing is imperceptible in its slick new blue design. Misty’s Psyduck never getting the chance to evolve to this level is one of many missed opportunities in the Pokémon anime.  

# 7 - Ho-Oh

Like the mythical phoenix it’s based on, Ho-Oh is a powerful symbol; one that manages to represent the key themes of the entire Pokémon franchise. It appeared in the very first episode of the cartoon, flying majestically into the distance leaving a trail of golden light in its wake. It is this legendary sighting that inspired Ash Ketchum to journey far and wide in search of the rarest of Pokémon and it set us viewers up for the adventures that followed.

# 6 - Gengar

I really don’t think I need to say a lot about why Gengar is awesome. Seriously, just look at this guy! Though its ghost type attacks are more than persuasive, Gengar need’s only its terrorizing gaze to cause its opponents to crap themselves.

# 5 - Mew

I’m not ashamed to say that adorable things can really pull at my heartstrings and Mew is practically the living breathing definition of adorable. All it needs to do is give one cry of “Meeeewww” and you’ll have even the most jaded gushing over its supreme cuteness. As lovable as Mew is on the outside, it is completely capable of dishing out some serious physic punishment and can easily stand toe to toe with its stuck up doppelganger MewTwo.

# 4 - Umbreon

Umbreon is by far my favorite of Eevee’s evolutions. Its jet black coat covered in golden rings gives it an aura of coolness that complements its calm personality. Umbreon was the perfect starter to give the badass protagonist of Pokémon Coliseum, a game whose darker take on the Pokémon universe was the perfect setting for the Moonlight Pokémon.

# 3 - Mudkip

Pokémon Ruby was the first Pokémon video game I played and I choose Mudkip as my starter. As officially my first Pokémon ever, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that its one of my favorites. Besides the nostalgia factor, Mudkip also gets on my list for having an interesting and balanced design.

# 2 - Pikachu

Okay, I admit this is a pretty cliché pick, but it was simply impossible for me to exclude Pikachu from the list. As the mascot of the entire Pokémon series, Pikachu pushed fellow cartoon rodent Mickey Mouse to the side as a childhood icon and continues to be the most recognizable Pokémon to this day. With tremendous electric power hidden just beneath an adorable surface, Pikachu has everything it needs to win both hearts and battles. 

# 1 - Charmander

For me, Charmander has always been the standout of the three original Pokémon starters. As a boy the reason for this was clear-cut. Fire was simply a lot cooler than water and plant stuff. Today I have more meaningful grounds for liking Charmander. Just as intense as its flame tipped tail is his spirit and we see his loyalty come through time and again in the cartoon. How such a friendly, kind, and energetic Pokémon could evolve into a prick like Charmeleon is beyond me.

All pictures are the work of Ken Sugimori