SNES Review – NHL ’94

NHL 94 1

Let me take you back the magical age I like to call October 1993. In Canada, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal party swept into power, crushing the incumbent Progressive Conservative Party. The death of President Melchior Ndadaye sparked the Burundi Civil War, which would wage on for twelve years. And… uh… the fat kid from Two and a Half Men was born?

…Okay, I’ve got nothing. Apparently, October 1993 was a pretty boring month. But, fatefully, it was also the month that saw the release of one of the greatest sports games of all time, NHL ’94. The third game in the NHL’s official videogame franchise (following NHL Hockey and NHLPA Hockey ’93), NHL ’94 provided gamers a hockey experience that was every bit as revolutionary as it was just plain old fun.

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  The key to NHL ‘94’s success was how its wealth of options and play-styles allowed it to appeal to nearly any type of gamer. Those who were looking for a casual or arcade-style experience could turn on the console and get to the first drop of the puck within seconds. For others seeking a more in-depth experience, the game also provided the option of setting up entire seasons, complete with customizable rosters, and tracked team and player stats.

Building on the tried-and-true game engine established in the series’ previous two games, NHL ’94 introduced a ton of new features, including penalty shots, shoot outs, automatic line changes, and the ability to use either a player- or computer-controlled goalie. Better yet, all of these new features were completely optional to use, and easy to toggle on or off before each game, allowing gamers to set up exactly the type of game they wanted to play. NHL ’94 also greatly improved what you could do on the ice, thanks to the addition of flip-passes, one-timer quick shots, and all-around more polished controls. Fitting the new focus on technical skills, one element that was taken out from previous games was the ability to get into fights – thankfully though, you retain the ability to crush your opponents with brutal body checks, so your inner Tie Domi will still be satisfied.

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Apart from game-play, one of the most satisfying things about NHL ’94 has to be the sound. The swish of your skates as your team flies down the ice, the sharp crack of a slap-shot, the bone-crunching impact of a blatant cross check – I play with penalties turned off, my rink is like the Thunder Dome – it’s all just so wonderfully satisfying. Each team even has its own organ music accurate to their actual, real-life themes, in just another example of the exceptional attention to detail that made this game so great.

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Long before the NHL-Year-Goes-Here video game franchise had overstayed its welcome, before publisher/co-developer Electronic Arts was considered the corporate equivalent of the Antichrist, and at a time when the Toronto Maple Leafs somehow didn’t completely suck, NHL ’94 blew gamers away – and it only takes a few minutes of play to see that it completely holds up in 2015, as one of the best sports games of all time, an absolute must-have for SNES-loving hockey fans.

FINAL SCORE – 9.5/10

SNES Review – The 7th Saga

Blah blah blah, Super Nintendo review… let’s get straight to it. This time around, we’re looking at the 1993 RPG, The 7th Saga.

7th Saga 1

  Released in Japan under the title “Elnard” (which sounds like the worst luchador ever), The 7th Saga was developed by Produce (best known for the Super Bomberman series), and published by RPG stalwarts Enix. The game is set in the fantasy world of Ticondera, where king Lemele has hit the ripe old age of one hundred, and is finally considering retirement. To choose a worthy heir, Lemele summons the seven greatest champions of the realm and sends them out on a quest to recover seven lost runes. Whichever hero manages to gather all seven Dragon Balls mystical runes will summon a wish dragon become the new king (or queen) of Ticondera.

7th Saga 4

  See? Told you.

As the game starts, you get to choose one of the champions to take control of. There are the usual fantasy tropes of the human knight and cleric, dwarf warrior and elven spellcaster (the latter being the only playable female character), but there are a few cool wildcards thrown in for good measure, including a flame-throwing alien, and an unapologetically evil demon. I went with the five thousand-year old steam-punk robot, because who doesn’t love robots.

John Connor, that’s who.

You and the other six heroes – using that term loosely when it comes to the would-be-world conquering demon – are then summarily chucked out into the wilderness to start your search for the runes. As the game progresses, you’ll cross your rivals’ paths many times, forging alliances with some, battling others, and all the while trying to suss out the traitor who’s responsible for a bounty hunter nipping at your heels.

To aid you in your quest, Lemele equips you with a special crystal ball, which makes up one of the game’s more unique features. Whenever you’re outside the safe haven of a town, stomping around the overworld map like a meandering Renaissance Faire Godzilla, the crystal ball acts as a radar, tracking nearby locations, enemies and treasures. In theory, this should allow you to avoid wearisome random encounters, in a mechanic similar to the one used in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In practice, however, the enemy blips come so fast and furious, moving erratically but also somehow zoning right in on you, that they’re all but impossible to escape. You do get to see them coming, but when you’re miles away from town with no health potions, that might just be adding insult to injury.

The combat system is about as traditional and straight-forward as RPGs get. Each round of turn-based combat allows you to either attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, or make a vain attempt to run for your life. There are a few odd quirks to get the hang of – for instance, you’re strongly encouraged to use Defend on your first turn, as it both reduces the damage you receive, and buffs your attacks for the next few rounds. Against multiple enemies, you automatically target whoever hit you last, which can be a bit annoying if you’re trying to burn down the biggest threat first. And strangely, whenever a fight finishes, instead of saying “You Won”, or some derivation of that, the game goes with “X Enemy Lost”, which seems oddly negative.

Although the overworld is far from spectacular, there’s a very cool effect whenever you enter a battle, where the screen spins and shifts from full-overhead to three-quarter perspectives, showing off the Super Nintendo’s much-vaunted ~Mode 7 Graphics!~ to their fullest. Where the game really shines graphically is the enemy sprites – the designs are fantastically creepy, even oddly gruesome at times, with detail way beyond what you’d expect to see from a game made in 1993.

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The sound is really excellent too, especially the battle music, which has a great high-energy synthesized drum-line to keep things feeling fast-paced. The sound effects are good, although my robot’s clanging footsteps grew irritating pretty quickly, something none of the other character classes have to deal with. Such are the sacrifices one pays for siding with Skynet, I suppose.

One big issue with this game is its difficulty curve, which can be downright brutal. The differences between Elnard and The 7th Saga go further than some awkwardly translated dialogue and inexplicable PC names (I don’t know what those ghosts in the early dungeons were supposed to be, but they sure as hell weren’t chimeras). For the American version of the game, the playable character’s stats were significantly reduced, while enemy monsters have apparently been hitting the gym. The game also has its fair share of “screw you” enemies, starting with the first boss, a demonic ghost dog that’s about five levels too tough for you when you first encounter it – although once you die to fido once, you can find an item that can kill him instantly in the rematch, so cheapness goes both ways on that one. Not long after, you’ll come across a treasure chest in a tunnel, but unlike all the other harmless chests you’ve seen so far, this one turns out to be a ridiculously overpowered monster, who managed to annihilate my poor robot in a single hit.

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The trade off to all of this is that The 7th Saga fully expects you to die, and likely die a lot. Unlike many RPGs, where death equals a game over screen, in this game you’re merely knocked out, and some unseen hand drags you off to the medieval equivalent of a Pokémon Center to stitch your dumb ass back together. Dying to a monster will cost you half your gold, but the game makes it clear early on that you can bypass that penalty by using your spare cash to buy gems, which can be sold back for the same cost you paid for them. The most feasible way to get through the hordes of enemies is to hang back and grind out levels, which naturally is a pain in the ass. I refuse to be defeated by tedium though – bitch, I play World of Warcraft, your drudgery means nothing to me. There’s a big problem with that strategy though – it’s a moot point as soon as you have to fight one of your rivals, because not only are they always the same level as you, they have stats equivalent to the Japanese (pre-nerf) version of your character, meaning you’ll always be at a huge disadvantage.

Despite its sometimes maddening difficulty, The 7th Saga is still a very fun game, with surprising depth to the story – if you can get past the basic fantasy fetch-quest set up, there’s a big plot twist half-way through the game, and the narrative starts going the way of Shadow of the Colossus. This is a game that exceeded my expectations in almost every way – even if it did make me want to throw my controller across the room a few times.

Final Score – 8.5/10

SNES Review – Battle Blaze

Quick, think of an iconic early Nineties fighting game for the Super Nintendo!

No doubt, Battle Blaze was the first game to leap to mind. Assuming, that is, that you’ve never heard of Street Fighter II… or Mortal Kombat… or Killer Instinct… or Clay Fighter… or Ballz 3D…

Battle Blaze 1

Battle Blaze is an arcade port developed in Aicom and Electronics Applications, which had its American release in early 1994. The story is basically Mortal Kombat by way of Ator the Invincible – in the land of Virg, a tournament is set to determine who will become the new king of the realms (the underappreciated government form known as the Gladiatocracy). The tournament’s integrity is quickly threatened by Autarch, a demon with designs for world domination (and a kicking red and purple color scheme), who decides to rig the affair by possessing each of the six combatants. Only the mightiest among them, Durill, succeeds in fighting off his demonic assailant… then promptly drops dead, leaving his son Kerrel to take seek vengeance and take up his father’s sword fighting-based political career.

There are two play styles available in Battle Blaze – “The Hero,” which is essentially story-mode, and “The Battle,” which doubles as an exhibition mode and a multiplayer option. In “The Hero,” you’re stuck playing as Kerrel, a Kevin Sorbo-looking bohunk with a huge honking broadsword. Despite his chiselled physique and impressive armaments, Kerrel is actually rather underwhelming as playable character, arguably the worst character on the game’s roster. If you ever want to see the game’s final boss (or more than one background) though, you better get used to him. Part one of “The Hero” sees you battling through the tournament’s other champions: Adrick, a doppleganger of Fire Emblem’s Marth, but with oversized shoulder pads and scrawny chicken legs; Teysa, the knife-wielding token female character; Lord Gustoff, a half-orc with the mannerisms of Hulk Hogan; and the unfortunately named Shnouzer the Wolfman. Once you’ve laid waste to your rivals, it’s on to Autarch himself, who can turn his arms into spikes like the T-1000, and hits like a damned truck.

“The Battle” lets you fight through a five-opponent gauntlet, and offers both solo and two-player modes. This time around, Autarch is replaced by the missing sixth entrant in the tournament, Kerrel’s twin brother Lang… but since no one could be arsed to design another character, Lang is just Kerrel with a pallet swap, and the exact same move set.

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As you would expect for a port of a 1992 arcade game, Battle Blaze’s combat is incredibly simple by SNES standards, employing the use of just two buttons (plus the D-Pad). Y lets you attack, B lets you jump, or, when ducking, to sweep the leg, Daniel-San. Combined with a basic block you throw up when retreating, the system allows for streamlined, tactical combat – or that’s the theory, anyway. In practice, attempting to fight strategically just got me my ass handed to me by the surprisingly brutal enemy AI. After suffering several humiliating defeats, I fell back on the lessons I learned from fighting Shao Kahn in Mortal Kombat 9 – pick a move, and spam the bejesus out of it. I’ve always said, If you can’t fight fair, you might as well cheat like a motherfucker.

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Oh, bite me.

In this case, I figured out pretty quickly that by using Teysa’s low-damaging sweep attack to repeatedly kick at my opponent’s ankles, I could stun-lock most of them and chip away at their health, bit by bit. My devious strategy let me breeze through four straight opponents… and then I ran up against Gustoff, whose superior strength (and well-executed belly-to-belly suplexes) broke through my otherwise impenetrable wall of shin-kicking.

Despite its many shortcomings, Battle Blaze was briefly entertaining. The graphics are decent for an early Nineties game, and the music is actually quite good (though in “The Battle”, instead of cycling through the playlist, you’re stuck listening to the same track over and over). There’s just not that much to do – each character has about four moves to learn, and since each mode features just five fights from beginning to end, you’d have to imagine that most players would grow bored quickly. If it weren’t for the demonic overtones and inordinately challenging difficulty, this could have almost been marketed as a very basic introductory fighting game for players new to the genre. As it stands, Battle Blaze was doomed from the outset – length production delays meant that by the time it saw the light of day on American consoles, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat had already come and gone, transforming the entire 2D fighting genre, and leaving Battle Blaze dead in the water.

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Final Score – 6/10

New Comic Reviews! (11-3-14)

Catwoman 35

Catwoman #35

“Comfort to the Hurt of the King”

Genevieve Valentine (writer), Garry Brown (artist). Covers by Jae Lee and Josh Middleton.

Loyal readers will remember that we just took a look at Catwoman last month, and generally I would never review two issues of the same series in a row. That said, this title is so unrecognizable from how it was last month, I had to triple-check to make sure I was still reading the same series. Spinning out of the Batman Eternal weekly series, “Comfort to the Hurt of the King” establishes a completely new status quo for Catwoman. Right up front, there’s a new creative team, with a style completely unlike what Ann Nocenti and Patrick Olliffe were doing last month. Beyond that though, the setting, cast of characters and overall tone have completely changed.

Over the past four weeks, Selena Kyle has hung up her cat-suit to become the head of a powerful crime family, formerly led by her estranged father. Using her newfound power, Kyle decides to rebuild Gotham City from the ground up, even if doing so means having to sink deeper into the criminal underworld than she’s ever been before. There’s no transition into any of this, mind you – if you haven’t been reading Batman Eternal, good luck, you’re going to have to play catch up as you go along.

The key to this new creative direction is the irony that as a simple thief, Kyle was a wanted criminal; yet, by running an entire criminal cartel, her power has legitimized her enough for her to be brought back into high society, to rub noses with Gotham’s cultural elite. It’s an absolutely brilliant idea for the character, and one that I hope Genevieve Valentine explores to its fullest. Despite the tonal shift without a clutch, Catwoman is suddenly one of the most interesting books in DC’s catalogue.

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A Town Called Dragon 2

A Town Called Dragon #2

“You Can’t Fight a Monster”

Judd Winick (writer), Geoff Shaw (artist and cover).

Stop me if you’ve heard this one – The residents of a Small Town America find their folksy way of life threatened when an ancient creature wakes up from hibernation. The beast begins wreaking havoc, and it’s up to the more capable citizens to band together and take the monster down. Basically, A Town Called Dragon is the movie Tremors, though without the acting tour-de-force of Kevin Bacon and Reba McEntire.

Now I will grant you, the emergence of a fire-breathing, man-eating dragon would no doubt prove troublesome for a sleepy rural community, what with its killing everything and growing at an exponential rate and all. But the solicits for this series literally say that on its own, the dragon threatens to Endanger Modern Life As We Know It, and that seems like a bit of an overstatement. Granted, we’re only two issues in to a five part miniseries, but it feels like we’re still much closer to the “just shoot the fucker” phase than we are to “carpet-bomb the whole county” or anything like that. I’m not convinced that this whole dragon problem couldn’t be solved by a quick run to the assault rifles section at the nearest Bass Pro Shop.

All the tropes you’d expect to see are here – the troublemaking teenagers, the stern but heroic sheriff, the naturalist whose warnings about what he was go unheeded, the black guy who might as well have “kill me” tattooed on his forehead (though I suspect that last one will be subverted). Honestly, A Town Called Dragon has thus far been completely paint-by-numbers. It’s inoffensive though, and the artwork is quite good, so if you’re a fan of the monster-thriller genre, you ought to give this one a look. Just don’t expect anything all that ground breaking – not yet, anyway. Stick around through the next three issues, and who knows how things will turn out. Maybe it’ll end up leading directly into the sequel, A Town Called Dragon 2: Aftershocks.

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Delinquents 3

The Delinquents #3

James Asmus and Fred Van Lente (writers), Kano (artist). Covers by Paolo Rivera, Khari Evans and Juan Doe.

In the latest adventure of Archer & Armstrong & Quantum & Woody (and the Goat!), our mismatched pairs finally join forces in their quest to find the a fabled horde of hobo treasure, led by a map tattooed on the remains of a dead man’s ass cheeks. As the unlikely heroes go native and hit the boxcars, they’re being stalked by the Veggie-Meat-Men Assassins from Uncanny Valley. That might be the most insane paragraph I’ve ever written.

 Delinquents is fantastic. It’s funny, irreverent, and stunningly creative. More than anything else, it reminds of Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonent’s much-missed Nextwave, and I can’t offer much higher praise than that. Not only is the story fantastic, the artwork is also stellar. Kano is at his very best here, demonstrating a brilliant eye for design in his layouts, expressions, gestures, nonverbal communication… and he draws a damned good fight scene to boot. There are a few times his non-traditional panel placement can become confusing in the story’s double-page spreads, but that’s very much a minor quibble.

As an aside, I was amused by James Asmus and Fred Van Lente’s use of Harry McClintock’s song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as a leitmotif – mainly because of that last verse no one seems to know about, where the song turns out to a shifty vagabond seducing a young prospect with tall tales and fantasies, so he can get the chance to (and I quote) bugger him sore like a hobo’s whore. Kind of makes you look at the grizzled old Armstrong and his young pretty-boy companion Archer in a slightly different way.

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Avengers and X-Men Axis 3

Avengers and X-Men: AXIS #3

“The Red Supremacy pt. 3 – Good News for Bad People”

Rick Remender (writer), Leinil Francis Yu (artist). Covers by Jim Cheung, Nick Bradshaw and Humberto Ramos.

I try to stay up on my big Marvel mega-events, but I just couldn’t muster up any excitement for Axis. Continuing from the downright lamentable Uncanny X-Men series, we have a Red Skull with Charles Xavier’s dead brain in his head – I’m not even going to get into the many ways in which that doesn’t work – who has now becomes Red Onslaught, and has been wiping the floor with both the Avengers and the X-Men. Just when things looked their bleakest, Magneto showed up with a strike force of super-villains in tow, and it’s time for round two. Of course, this being a Rick Remender book, it all just leads to a long scene of everyone whining a whole lot, and the X-Men acting like insufferable pricks. I’ll say this for Remender, if nothing else, he’s consistent.

Any enthusiasm I might have had for AXIS was doomed to be quickly quashed by some of the most agonizing dialogue I’ve ever had to slog through. I’m not sure if it was clichéd lines like “Ridley Scott, eat your heart out!”, or the ever-so-timely references to George Clinton and the Monkees, but halfway through this comic I was ready to bin it and start fresh with something else. I persevered though, and so I can at least say with full certainty that the second half didn’t get any better.

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Vertigo Quarterly CMYK 3

Vertigo Quarterly CMYK #3

Steve Orlando, Gerard Way, Toril Orlesky, Marguerite Bennett, Diego Agrimbau, João M.P. Lemos, Matt Miner, Benjamin Read and Fábio Moon (writers), Emilio Utrera, Philip Bond, Orlesky, Bill Sienkiewicz, Lucas Varela, Lemos, Tanya Kurtulus, Christian Wildgoose and Moon (artists). Cover by Jared K. Fletcher.

CMYK is a quarterly anthology series that pays tribute to the comic industries past, with a quartet of issues dedicated to each of the four colors of the original color printing process. High concept, to be sure, but dear god, is this thing ever pretentious.

There are a lot of interesting visual styles on display here, but from a narrative standpoint, CMYK has little to offer. This is avant garde stuff, comics by way of Terrence Malick, and it’ll no doubt be roundly praised by snobby highbrow critics. Personally, I found nothing of substance to this issue’s vignettes (I hesitate to classify all of them as stories).

Maybe I’m just dense, too much of a philistine to appreciate such brilliant, experimental work. Then again, seeing as the best thing some creators came up with to explore the Yellow theme were two stories about lemons and one about urine, it might be possible that past the impressive visuals, CMYK just isn’t very good. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions – provided you’re willing to pay the hefty $7.99 cover price. I’d rather spend that money to buy two comics that don’t bore me to tears.

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Death of Wolverine Deadpool and Captain America OS

Death of Wolverine: Deadpool and Captain America #1

Gerry Duggan (writer), Scott Kolins (artist). Covers by Ed McGuinness and Declan Shalvey.

No one over the age of ten is liable to believe the premise of the storyline The Death of Wolverine. Sure, Logan may technically be pining for the fjords right now, but c’mon… there’s no way he won’t be back a year from now. There’s merchandise to move and movies to promote, and as long as Wolverine is one of Marvel’s most lucrative cash cows, he’s not going away for any length of time. With that in mind, I figured if I’d review any tie-in book, it might as well be the one that won’t take itself too seriously.

Here’s the thing though – DoW:DaCA has a surprising amount of heart. While the combination of the two lead characters may seem a bit arbitrary at first glance, Gerry Duggan does a typically excellent job of exploring the unique relationship between two veterans of military mad-science. Despite being nearly polar opposites of one another, America is one of the few people Deadpool respects, and in turn he’s one of the few people to treat Deadpool like an actual human being. Both men also had an unlikely friendship with Wolverine, with this issue seeing them come together to clean up the loose ends surrounding Wolverine’s death – and any number of the myriad ways he might end up being resurrected.

This one-shot could have easily been a simple cash-in, but it completely overachieves. While introspective and thoughtful at times, it’s also incredibly funny – I love the fact that even years after it was a recurring joke in Cable and Deadpool, we still have henchmen complaining about A.I.M.’s lack of an employee dental plan. The art is also stellar – Scott Kolins is at the top of his game here, especially with the flash-back splash page that lets him put his spin on the classic Mike Zeck-drawn cover of Captain America Annual #8. The man can also draw the hell out of a Black Widow cameo, and I will never tire of seeing Old Man Steve Rogers hit guys with his cane.

I didn’t expect much going in to this one, but it was a pleasant surprise… if you’re a fan of either Captain America or Deadpool, this one is worth a look.

SNES Review – Ka-Blooey

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 Ka-Blooey began its life as Bombuzal, a puzzle game originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, Atari ST and Commodore 64. Developed by the British studio Image Works, Bombuzal was the brainchild of Tony Crowther, one of the C64’s most beloved game designers. The Super Famicon version of Bombuzal was actually one of the system’s earliest games, released less than two weeks after the SFC’s late 1990 shipping date. Though the game took a further two years to reach the North American market (under the new title Ka-Blooey), it was still one of a very small number of puzzle games available for the system, and stood a good chance of carving out its own little niche in gaming history. So why have you never heard of it?

I blame this guy.

Ka-Blooey 2

Words cannot express the irrational hatred I have towards that weird little goober. I hate his walk cycle, I hate the sounds he makes, I hate his stupid, stupid face. He looks like the bastard offspring of the Grimace and My Pet Monster. I have no idea what inspired such an awful design – he looks the same way in the C64-era Bombuzal games too, despite cover art for those games that depicts a big-headed but decidedly human dude with a Mohawk and a jetpack. Having done a little research (that involved googling “terrible blue mascots”), my working theory is now that someone close to Crowther went to Xavier University in Cincinnati, because the Ka-Blooey beastie looks suspiciously like their mascot The Blue Blob.

For all we know, it might well be a heavily weaponized Blue Blob running around in Ka-Blooey – the game offers no story, no plot, no direction other than clear this board of bombs, avoid dying, move on to the next one. All the while, an endless loop of 16-bit funk drones on, complete with a ricka-ricka-remix of the game’s solitary voice clip, which endlessly encourages you to “Get Ready!” The music never stops – it plays through the pause screen, it loops back to the start if you beat a level or just take too long to finish the one you’re on. The only brief respite comes in the form of the game’s sound effects – all four of them. Blow up a bomb, bounce a bomb like a ball – ill advised, but go with it – activate a teleporter, fall to your death. Then back to the top, with another hearty “Get Ready!” It’s an endless cartoon purgatory, one that will leave you wishing for the sweet merciful release of death.

Stripping aside the grating aesthetics, there is the hint of a good puzzle game at Ka-Blooey’s core, but the execution is completely flawed. The movement is slow, which makes even simple levels seem tedious. The default field of view is overly limited and set at an awkward isometric angle, requiring you to constantly toggle between an overhead map in the pause menu (and a redundant smaller map you can pull up with the Select button). In later levels, even on the larger maps, you still can’t see everything, and it’s easy to spend ages methodically solving a particularly complex board, only to find out that you screwed yourself ages ago because of something you had no way of seeing or knowing about.

As the game drags on, with little variation in level design and no variation in sound or graphics, playing Ka-Blooey becomes a Sisyphean ordeal. God help you if you’re one of those obsessive gamers that just must see each game through to the final screen, because if so you’ve got a staggering one hundred and thirty stages to slog through. And really, that’s the good reason anyone might have to seek out a copy of Ka-Blooey, as a birthday present for someone with O.C.D. that you don’t particularly like.

Final Score – 3/10

New Comic Reviews! (10-17-14)

Batman 35

Batman #35

“Endgame pt. 1”

Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV (writera), Greg Capullo and Kelley Jones (artists). Covers by Capullo, Andy Kubert and Brian Stelfreeze.

Batman versus the Justice League… need I say more? It’s certainly been done before, but there are few things in comics more fun than seeing a creative writer devise ways for Batman to even the playing field against his erstwhile allies – words cannot express how much I love his contingency plan for dealing with Wonder Woman. But why have DC’s paragons of virtue turned on the Caped Crusader? Fair warning, huge spoilers below…

Spoiler Alert

The lead story’s shocking final page reveals the shocking truth – the Joker is back, just in time for his own 75th anniversary, and he’s somehow taken control of the Justice League. And apparently that’s just step one of his master plan… presumably, step two involves finding a new face, since the old one he cut off is still in the possession of the psychotic ingénue Joker’s Daughter (no relation).

So is this issue worth picking up? Are you kidding me? If Batman fighting the Justice League isn’t enough of a draw on its own, we also get the first part of  back-up serial that promises to reveal the Joker’s origin – or origins, as the case may be – with art by classic Batman pencillers of the past. This month’s chapter comes courtesy of Kelley Jones, whose horror-influenced style accompanies a madman’s tale, which casts the Joker as the devil himself.

Seriously. Batman versus the Justice League, as written by Scott Snyder. If that’s not a selling point in and of itself, I don’t know what is.

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Amazing Spider-Man 7

Amazing Spider-Man #7

“Ms. Marvel Team-Up”

Dan Slott and Christos Gage (writers), Giuseppe Camuncoli (artist). Covers by Camuncoli and Cam Smith.

Let’s talk about the new Ms. Marvel for a bit. Kamala Khan is a American Muslim teenager of Pakistani descent. Born and raised in Jersey City, Kamala has grown up just on the outskirts of a world of superheroes that revolves around Manhattan (and the symbolism of being an outsider from that community shouldn’t be lost on anyone). Having had her dormant Inhuman genes activated during the Inhumanity storyline, Kamala begins a career as a superhero, borrowing the former identity of her greatest inspiration, the Avengers’ Captain Marvel. As an awkward teenager trying to deal with both newfound superpowers and the struggles of Real Life, Kamala’s story deliberately echoes the earliest Spider-Man stories, so it only makes sense that they would eventually end up teaming up.

I think the addition of Kamala Khan to the Marvel Universe is a great thing – it brings diversity to the Marvel line, in the form of a well-written and well-drawn series, one that appeals to an underserved audience of younger female readers. The thing is, though, I’m not part of that target demographic. And as much as I appreciate all that Kamala Khan can offer to some readers, as soon as she starts talking about shipping celebrities, I immediately zone out. The character just doesn’t appeal much to me, personally, and while it’s probably a good move to give her the exposure of a two-issue crossover in one of Marvel’s biggest titles, it doesn’t quite inspire me to check back in next month.

This issue is split between the lead and a back-up that ties into the Spider-Verse storyline, where Morlun and his family are traveling through the multiverse, killing and feeding on every Spider-Man analogue in the multiverse. Their murder spree attracts the attention of the Captain Britain Corps’ Spider-UK, who sets out to stop them. Though for the most part, this story just serves as a prelude to an upcoming issue of the Edge of Spider-Verse tie-in, it is nice to see a scene that acknowledges that some of Marvel’s cosmic higher-ups have finally started to notice the major events that have been going on in Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers.

This comic didn’t exactly wow me, but I’m okay with that. Although the lead story felt a bit short, it’s solid enough that I can easily recommend it as a umping on point for readers curious about the new Ms. Marvel, but who haven’t yet gotten around to picking up her own ongoing series.

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Constantine 18

Constantine #18

“Half a Chance”

Ray Fawkes (writer), Jeremy Haun (artist). Cover by Juan Ferreyra.

After being shunted to Earth-2 last issue, John Constantine battles the powerful sorcerer Wotan, leading up to his inevitable meeting with his extra-dimensional counterpart. Of course, Earth-2 isn’t doing so well at the moment – the Wonders of the World have fallen, and Darkseid’s forces are running wild like Hulkamania in the late Eighties.

Despite his ties to the occult, Constantine has traditionally been a character grounded in a relatively realistic world – in a way, that’s kind of the appeal of the character. Yet here we are, seeing him hopping dimensions and running across Parademons. It feels unnatural, like aliens in an Indiana Jones movie, or that time Jonah Hex was transplanted to a post-apocalyptic future setting. Other than the science fiction trappings, this is your typical New 52 John Constantine story – he’s threatened by a magical MacGuffin, survives by being a rat bastard, and grumbles about the cape-and-tights set. It feels rather perfunctory, without any of the intangible factors that might have given it a little extra oomph. If might be because I don’t care about the current version of Earth-2 – like, at all – but this issue just doesn’t do it for me.

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Rocket Raccoon 4

Rocket Raccoon #4

“A Chasing Tale pt. 4”

Skottie Young (writer and artist). Covers by Young, Pascal Campion and Alex Kropinak.

The latest issue of Marvel’s sleeper hit of the season sees Rocket learning the truth about his evil doppelganger, and battling an army of his angry ex-girlfriends. Has the lovably unrepentant bastard really found another anthropomorphic raccoon like him? Or is this just another plan by his most devious enemy?

Like the movie that rekindled interest in the character, the Rocket Raccoon series absolutely over-delivers. It’s wickedly funny, with a surprising amount of heart. It’s also another great example of Marvel Comics’ willingness to champion a title that’s just a bit outside the norm, because there aren’t many mainstream comics out there that look or read anything like this.

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Trinity of Sin 1

Trinity of Sin #1

“The Wages of Sin pt. 1- Nightfall”

J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Yvel Guichet (artist). Covers by Guillem March and Cully Hamner.

Well. That certainly was terrible.

The latest venture for the Trinity of Characters I’m Not Sure Anyone Actually Cares About sees them individually confronted by a trio of generic demon monsters, led by a similarly generic big bad, in a comic that I can at least credit for helping me with my chronic insomnia. Between the endless dreary monologues and the “shock” deaths that are completely ineffective and unnecessary, Trinity of Sin did more to knock me out than the tryptophan in my Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Maybe it’s just my personal rule to avoid any comic that contains child rape as an afterthought, but I absolutely loathed this book, and despite some above-average artwork, I can’t imagine how it could appeal to anyone outside of the creative team’s immediate families. Seriously, this might be a late contender for DC Comics’ worst series of 2014, and that’s some stiff competition it faces. Avoid this one at all costs.

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Earth 2 World's End 2

Earth 2: World’s End #2

“Drums of War”

Daniel H. Wilson, Marguerite Bennett and Mike Johnson (writers), Eddy Barrows, Tyler Kirkham, Paulo Siqueira, Jorge Jimenez and Scott McDaniels. Cover by Ardian Syaf.

I wanted to wrap up this week’s reviews by looking at the new issue of WWE Superstars. Based on solicits, that comic would have involved a retelling of the classic Marvel story “Secret Wars,” only with wrestlers, and the preview pages I saw featured the Iron Sheik fighting Daniel Bryan in a Roman gladiatorial arena. It sounds like a very silly concept, but also one that’s a lot of fun. Sadly, WWE Superstars was sold out. As such, we’re stuck with this hot mess – a comic that’s not only stupid, it’s also completely nihilistic and joyless, and badly produced to boot.

The story here features the latest twaddle about the Wonders of the World fighting their losing war against the forces of Darkseid, and because this is a New 52 DC Comic, that involves murder, torture, and the always lovely image of a guy jabbing his thumbs into another bloke’s bleeding eye sockets. But even putting aside the abhorrent subject matter, on a purely technical level, this comic is absolutely terrible. The dialogue is sloppy and repetitive. The story is badly paced, with scenes that end abruptly, often without resolution. More than once, the book cuts to and from an ongoing scene, but with major “off-panel” changes that throw the entire narrative cohesion for a loop. The artwork is uneven in terms of both style and quality, which provides yet another way for the book to alienate its readers.

The reason for all of this is painfully obvious, if you take a moment to look at the credits – despite being just the usual twenty pages in length, “Drums of War” somehow required the input of three writers, and no less than eight pencillers and inkers. The whole affair absolutely reeks of a book done by committee to follow editorial mandates, with no regard for cohesion or quality control. But then, that pretty much sums up all of DC’s problems these days, doesn’t it?

New Comic Reviews! (10-8-14)

New 52 Futures End 21

New 52: Futures End #21

Brian Azzarello, Jeff Lemire, Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen (writers), Cully Hamner (artist). Cover by Ryan Sook.

After twenty issues of skipping frenetically between scenes, Futures End finally slows down enough to tell a somewhat coherent story, which lays out the story of the Parademon invasion, the arrival of the Earth-2 refugees, and the rise of the Global Peace Agency and the Cadmus Project. Of course, this is still Futures End, so there’s a subplot about superheroes being vivisected, but this is probably the least nihilistic issue to date.

With all of the larger-than-life space action and planet-side warfare, this issue might have been better served with a different member of the rotating art team. Cully Hamner is a very talented penciller, but for some reason his work here feels uncharacteristically static. When your big fight scenes largely consist of a group of heroes charging across the panel at a group of villains, you’d expect to have some kind of sense of motion, but the figures feel still and detached from their surroundings. It just feels off in places – though admittedly, I might be unduly nitpicking.

If you’ve been following Futures End with any kind of regularity, this issue is a must read, providing the first solid bit of narrative structure to date. It still gives me a headache though, and I’m glad the month of Futures End one-shots is over, so I can get back to mostly ignoring this event. But once more into the breach…

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Booster Gold Futures End 1

Booster Gold: Futures End #1

“Pressure Point”

Dan Jurgens (writer), Jurgens, Moritat, Will Conrad, Steve Lightle, Stephen Thompson, Ron Frenz and Brett Booth (artists). Cover by Jurgens.

Booster Gold was one of the characters hit the hardest by the New 52. The relaunch’s time-crunch managed to both regress the character by erasing a decade worth of evolution and growth, and completely mangled his backstory and past continuity. The last time we saw Booster, he faded out of reality, because apparently his existence depended solely on whether or not Superman and Wonder Woman hooked up. Incredibly, this one-shot manages to make things even MORE confusing, as it apparently stars not just the New 52 Booster Gold first seen in Justice League International, but also the original pre-Flashpoint version of the character.

The majority of “Pressure Point” sees old-school Booster bouncing between time periods and alternate worlds, which seems to serve no real narrative purpose beyond offering random fan-service cameos from characters like Kamandi and the Gotham by Gaslight Batman. Each jump is accompanied by a new art team, most of which remain within DC’s established house style, but which differ just enough to be distracting; thumbs up to Ron Frenz and Scott Hanna’s awesome Jack Kirby-inspired pages though, I’d love to have gotten more than three pages of that.

All of this happens while Booster is being tortured for information by ill-defined robot-alien-things, so I guess this is all in his mind? Or his memories? Except he’s interacting with people and places he’s never been around before, so that doesn’t make a lick of sense. And this all apparently ties in to both Futures End and the upcoming Worlds End, but I couldn’t begin to guess how. I like Booster Gold a lot, and I’m all for any glimmering hint of DC’s suppressed past, but Christ… this comic is just a complete mess.

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Cyclops 5

Cyclops #5

Greg Rucka (writer), Carmen Carnero (artists). Covers by Alexander Lozano and John Tyler Christopher.

Cyclops is pretty much the worst superhero ever. He started off as a humourless nerd, but unlike your Peter Parkers of the world, he was the type whose repressed moping just ruined everyone else’s good time. Eventually he evolved into the kiss-ass high school jock with the hot girlfriend from pretty much every Eighties teen movie. Over the past thirty-odd years, he’s abandoned his wife and infant son to hook up with an ex-girlfriend, carried on a long affair behind his second wife’s back, conquered the world as a totalitarian dictator – that’s kind of a big one – and murdered his mentor and father-figure, all while maintaining the same smug sense of self-satisfaction. But what happens when you throw all that right out the window?

The Cyclops ongoing series stars the time-displaced Young Cyclops of the All-New X-Men, an awkward sixteen-year-old, without all of his elder counterpart’s baggage and all-around shittiness. The result is something that’s pretty damned cool. This opening arc sees young Scotty reuniting with his not-dead space pirate father Corsair to battle intergalactic bounty hunters, and if that pitch doesn’t appeal to you at least a little, you and I will never understand one another. This Cyclops is filled with youthful idealism, but also has a streak of badass to him, as in this issue he manages to both channel Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now, and swordfight a hot alien babe while in his skivvies. More than the action moments though, the strength of this comic comes from father and son reconnecting and learning from one another. It’s a fantastic take on the character, and even with an already healthy respect for Greg Rucka’s writing, this book was an incredibly pleasant surprise.

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Action Comics 35

Action Comics #35

“After Doomed”

Greg Pak (writer), Vicente Cifuentes and Scott Kolins (artists). Covers by Aaron Kuder and Neal Adams.

Way back in January 1972, in Superman #247, Elliot S! Maggin and Curt Swan wrote one of the most important stories of the Silver Age, titled “Must There Be a Superman?”. The comic brought a new introspective side of the Man of Steel, as for the first time he questioned whether or not his presence was a negative influence on human growth, by acting as an outsider they could expect to solve all their problems, instead of looking to themselves for solutions. “Must There Be a Superman” ends on an ambiguous note, without coming to any solid conclusions, other than the rather morose reminder that even Superman can’t save everyone, and he certainly can’t fix everything.

Since then, we’ve had forty years’ worth of stories that have had Superman questioning himself. The premise has been developed into some incredibly memorable stories – Superman’s heart-to-heart with Hitman and the Kingdom Come limited series are two great examples, which are both phenomenal, but tonally couldn’t be further apart. We’ve even had the situation inverted with 1995’s “The Death of Clark Kent,” which was redone after a fashion in Grant Morrison’s recent run on Action Comics.

Most of the time, these stories reach somewhat of the same conclusion: Superman isn’t here to solve all the world’s problems, and he’s not infallible, but when it comes down to it, he can be seen as the ultimate embodiment of hope itself, an avatar for a human race that constantly aspires to better and more noble things. Moreover, and this is key to understanding the character, Superman never gives up, never stops trying, he will fight to his very last breath to make the world a better place. And that’s why The Last Days of Superman and All-Star Superman are two of the best comics ever written, why the Death of Superman was so impactful, and why Grounded completely sucked.

Superman’s latest crisis of conscience comes in the aftermath of a story in which he basically became the Incredible Hulk, fighting both the U.S. military and his own uncontrollable rage, before disappearing out in deep space for six months. Returning to a world that’ still more than a little bit pissed off at him, Superman (as Clark Kent) pens a blog post suggesting that the world might be better off without the Man of Steel – which is in turn passionately rebutted by a scathing article by Lois Lane. Lois makes the argument that while Superman provides a source of strength for the people of Earth to rally around, he also draws his own strength from their example – that is to say, he needs us as much as we need him.

There’s nothing in “After Doomed” that breaks any new ground – in fact, the story more or less admits that this is a re-tread through Lois’ polemic – but at least this is a story where Greg Pak shows that he understands what Superman is all about. There are also lots of great details, like Lana Lang’s anger and frustration about Superman’s failure to prevent her parents’ deaths, and Superman’s uncomfortable reunion with Batman, and there’s an interesting last page twist to set up the next storyline. This isn’t required reading, but as an epilogue to a storyline as uneven as Doomed, it over-achieves.

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Wonder Woman 34

Wonder Woman #34

“Madness Rains”

Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist). Covers by Chiang and Terry Dodson.

It’s been awhile since I’ve extolled the virtues of Wonder Woman, and as Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s landmark run approaches its final issue next month, I feel it bears saying once again – this book has been superb. The story told over the past three years has been nuanced and exciting, transforming an already rich pantheon of characters into one of the best ensembles in recent memory. The artwork and scripting have both been absolutely impeccable from day one, and there’s a sense of grandness and majesty that makes this series feel like something really special. I’m more than willing to say that Wonder Woman has consistently been DC’s best title since the New 52 relaunch, and it ranks right up there as one of my favourite runs on a mainstream superhero book, ever.

While I implore people to go out and read this series, by this point, the story has gotten much too complicated to just jump in head first. The final battle looms between the forces of the First Born and Wonder Woman’s team of allies, and accordingly the story is moving along at a breakneck speed. The entire series has been collected in hardcover up to issue #29 though, with the first three arcs also out in trade paperback, so there’s nothing stopping you going back and reading Azzarello and Chiang’s run from the start – take it from me, it’s well worth your time and effort.

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Swamp Thing 35

Swamp Thing #35

“Configuration”

Charles Soule (writer), Jesus Saiz (artist and cover).

You know what science fiction trope never made any sense to me? Computers and robots that apparently can’t parse basic English syntax. If you’ve ever read an issue of New Mutants with Warlock in it, you know what I mean – you get a character that’s supposed to sound high-tech, because its dialogue is made up of grammatical errors and pseudo-futuristic slang. If I were to imagine speaking with a super-intelligent artificial being, I’d expect it to understand my language backwards and forwards, and to sound like either Stephen Frye or a Dalek. What I don’t tend to picture is an ADHD-afflicted coke addict made to recite dialogue from old Marvel 2099 comics. And yet, here we are – Charles Soule introduces the living avatar of machine life, and it communicates through bad jokes and movie references.

Swamp Thing 35 (2)

Colour me unimpressed.