Archive for October, 2012

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family

Friday, October 26th, 2012

The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family

Everything has it’s time; the often short period where you can say a particular movie, video game, toy… – the list is endless – is either so great or relevant that it fits neatly within the much wider, global context. Usually, this period is brief, but this shortfall is typically more than made up for in the quality of the item in particular. The Simpsons was once such a T.V. show. For a period during the mid to late 90‘s, the writing staff succeeded in creating a show that brilliantly satirised popular culture; better still, enjoyable escapades for the folks in Springfield would always be assured, supported often by a broad array of celebrity voice talents. Nowadays, the arrival of yet another new episode of The Simpsons is proving more and more that this once brilliant animation’s time in the sun is long gone. To quote the Thick of It character Steve Fleming, ‘It’s just not buttering any parsnips anymore!’. The sooner the series bows out, the better, as with each new season is going to make it difficult for this end to appear at all graceful.

Tie-in’s were always going to be a foregone conclusion with a franchise as popular as The Simpsons – toys, comics, even atrocious sounding songs; The Simpsons seems to be particularly potent in attracting a large array of assorted consumer tat. The only thing I have consistently enjoyed amongst these is the comics, and these rather ace (but dubiously made) slippers. There were also some other literature-based Simpsons tie-ins, such as Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life, which would make for excellent toilet reading. Another one of was the The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family, which probably remains to this day the most comprehensive companion for any T.V. show in history.

The book is essentially an episode guide for the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, – including the Tracey Ullman shorts – providing fans with a handy reference point for every episode during the show’s initial 8 year run. There is enough detail in the book to make any Wikipedia editor out there smile. It’s all here – every storyline, every character, every D’oh! – all laid in chronological order, season by season. Readers will happily go away with a much more thorough knowledge of their favourite Simpsons episode, as well as some insight into some of the hidden jokes. As a show that is very much contemporaneous in its humour, a quick flick through this book helps provide those who are watching the older episodes for the first time with the necessary knowledge to see them chortling abundantly.

Between each Season, there are a few bonus sections setting out things such as a complete catalogue of Krusty the Klown’s merchandise, the synopsis of every Itchy and Scratchy Episode and a list of every coach gag from every episode. Although placed understandably as an effective ‘break’ between each season, I get the impression that some of the details in these short sections – such as the couch gags, for example, – could have been placed under each individual episode, as opposed to being cast to their own individual section.

For a book that also purports to be the “complete’ guide to the series, the level of detail on what may the most least known and obscure part of Simpson history is somewhat meagre; I am, of course, referring to the early shorts. A paltry two pages is all that is granted to them, with only a basic synopsis of each shorts story and a brief quote or moment of notability. This is somewhat frustrating, given that the vast majority of Simpson fans across the world were not able to – and probably never will – get an opportunity to view them originally. There is also a general impression that the books level of comprehensiveness does not extend to ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of the shows creation. Sure, we get to know who wrote each episode, and who voices the many myriad of different characters, but it would have been nice to at least gain a sneak-peak into the making of an individual episode, how the writing process works…you get the picture.

The book must have been popular enough when it was released as a  number of sequels (if they could be called that) were published, covering seasons 9 and onwards. Only a series that has been as popular and influential as The Simpsons could command such an impressive publication pedigree. I get the feeling though that the book is representative of what is now a by-gone era. In the time before lightning fast internet connections and the instantaneous supply and demand of facts, the only way that fans of a T.V. show, band or any other pop-culture item could learn more about their obsession is through books such as these. Now, by simply typing an individual episode of The Simpsons into Wikipedia, nearly all the facts (and then some) of that episode that can be found in the Complete Guide can be displayed in front of you – free of charge. The rather obvious money-swindling purpose of the book put aside for the moment, it is still nice to have a physical copy of such information; a copy that is well-presented, detailed and very much an essential parts of any die-hard Simpsons fan collection.

(Image courtesy of mycomicshop.com)

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Friday, October 19th, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

An encore is always hard. Especially when the original book, album, film or act was just so damn good to start with. Suede’s self-titled debut album, for example, was so brilliant it won the Mercury Prize in 1993. When approached the right way, however, an encore can not only match the original but exceed it in leaps and bounds. Case in point: Suede’s second album, Dog Man Star, is by and large the band’s master work, and will likely remain the bands highest point in terms of creative output. So, what chance does the follow-up to what is universally regarded as the best game of all time have in achieving such success?

I’ll admit from the outset that I’m kind of breaking my own rules with this next post, by going outside of the 80’s and 90’s in choosing things to write about. But I get the feeling that the topic of this week’s post is quite possibly the best, most underrated N64 game out there. As already alluded to, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (OOT) is one of the most highly regarded video games of history. It’s got everything: great story, stunning landscapes, a fantastic soundtrack and utterly memorable foes to slash your way through. The next entry to the Zelda franchise was released in 2000, 2 years after OOT, to similar, if not somewhat muted, critical praise. Yet in certain respects, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask by far exceeds OOT both in terms of story, content and gameplay.

The game is a direct sequel of OOT, seeing players take the helm of (surprise, surprise!) the Hero of Time, Link. Following the defeat of Ganondorf, Link leaves Hyrule on a personal quest with his horse, Epona, ‘in search of a beloved and invaluable friend’ (presumably Navi, Link’s fairy sidekick from OOT). On his journey, he encounters a mischievous Skull Kid, who is wearing a mysterious mask. Luring Link away by taking his horse, the Skull Kid leaves Link stranded in the body of Deku Scrub in the land of Termina, a place that is eerily familiar to Hyrule, but cursed with a terrible fate; after three days, the moon will collapse into Termina, obliterating the entire world. By utilising the power of masks, and the time-travelling capabilities of the Ocarina of Time (entrusted to him by Zelda), Link must set out to stop this fate from coming to pass…and to uncover the evil behind the Skull Kid’s mask.

What sets this Zelda game out from all of the others is that, despite the fact you only have three days (an in-game day equating to roughly 54 minutes real time) in which to save Termina, Link can always revert back to the very first day and ‘start again’, as it were. Key items, such as dungeon prizes and Link’ weaponry, are always preserved when this happens, negating the need to replay through large chunks of the game. Time also plays an important part in certain character’s schedules, with potential conversation opportunities only have a short window during each day. The game is also by far and large the darkest iteration of the series, with the story reflecting this. Themes such as lost friendship, love and depression helps to mark the game out as the most mature Zelda game to date.

One of the great new additions is a number of side-quests that Link can undertake. A handy booklet keeps track of all the available quests, and also indicates the time(s) in which important parts of their resolution can be attempted. What’s even better is that nothing is missable; simply play the ‘Song of Time’ to return to Day 1 an you can reattempt any and all side-quest at your pleasure. There is also a very long side-quest which sees Link attempting to bring back together two separated lovers. I won’t spoil the details, but can say with certainty that its one of the best side-quests to have ever graced a Zelda game, if not any game ever. It’s just the same that the reward is really shit. Still, for those aiming for 100% – and to get their hands on one of the game’s best masks – playing through the entire quest line is essential.

On the dungeon side of things, Majora only offers a grand total of four completable dungeons. A paltry amount by Zelda standards, it has to be admitted, but the game more than makes up in this in the quests building up to each dungeon. This is also probably the only Zelda game where replay-ability of each dungeon is possible, as in each one Link has to collect fragments of a Great Fairy which are scattered across the dungeons various rooms. All-in-all, there is a sufficient amount of adventuring and exploring that players can embark on.

Is Majora’s Mask the most polished and ‘fresh’ Zelda game there has ever been? Far from; the feeling of similarity (in terms of characters, certainty) from OOT is comforting, but does give off the feeling of a very much recycled experience. But is Majora’s Mask the boldest, mature and possibly most expansive Zelda game? Almost certainly, and it is in these key areas that the game sets itself out as a worthy and, ultimately, impressive encore to OOT. History is ultimately written by the winners, and OOT has certainly proved itself the victor in this instance; but to forget and discard Majora’s Mask from the history books would be to put aside one of the most unique Zelda games that has ever been conceived.

(Image courtesy of zs.ffshrine.org)

Tazo Collector’s Force Pack

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Tazo Collector’s Force Pack

It’s somewhat difficult attempting to define the topic of this week’s blog post. It is, effectively, just a a piece of plastic will holes in them. As a result, I feel somewhat confident in proclaiming that Tazo’s will surely be remembered as a one-trick pony fad. If memory serves, I believe Tazo’s predated Pokémon Trading Card’s, with both of them successfully sweeping primary school playgrounds with their virulent brand-power-money-sucking-parent-swindling qualities. And, although this particular fad did not involve any intervention from teachers at my school, it remained popular for an equal, if not longer, period of time. I don’t have as many qualms about Tazo’s as I do about Pokémon Cards. Both are inherently evil, true; but at the least the Tazo’s that graced our playground had a fixed purpose in completing a rather nifty Star Wars themed collectable booklet.

With the re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997 (which included some objectionable changes to certain scenes), there was inevitably going to be a number of promotional tie-ins to help promote the series to a new generation of fans. The crisp company Walkers (Lay’s in the U.S.) arranged such a promotion involving Star Wars-themed Tazo’s, which could be found in the whole range of Walkers brand crisps (Quavers, Monster Munch, French Fries etc); with a selection of special ‘Limited Edition’ Tazo’s found only in packs of Dorito’s crisps. These Dorito Tazo’s were virtually indistinguishable from the others, which is somewhat annoying given their so-called claim as being ‘Limited’. As with any other Tazo, you could clip them together, creating a myriad of different shapes. Or, for the more astute-minded youngster, you could pick up one of free ‘Tazo Collector’s Force Pack’ to keep your Tazo’s together safe and sound.

The pack itself was given out free at select supermarkets, and included 11 pages of inserts to hold all 50 of the promotional Tazo’s, a Plastic ID force card and an instant win card (which I have both, sadly, lost from my collection). The insert pages set out a loose synopsis of the three films (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi), with each Tazo providing a visual chronology of the trilogies plot. The ‘Limited Edition’ Tazo’s were collected at the end of the pack, and highlighted a selection of different scenes from across the whole trilogy. Finally, there was a ‘Special Trilogy Tazo’ that occupied the sacral 50 insert, though this name is perhaps somewhat erroneous – this Tazo was by far and large the most common one you would find in packs of crisps, and I remember having about 5 at one point. The quality of the pack is nothing to write home about, but they do succeed in providing an impressive amount of information about the three films and the principle characters that would have galvanised even the most docile child to convincing his parents to go and see the films.

The obsession with collecting Tazo’s went a little bit further for me than Pokémon trading cards ever did. It even got to the stage of getting extended family members to eat as much packets of Dorito’s as possible, and my Dad even wrote a letter to the company with some very immoral claims relating to my present health. Suffice to say, I did eventually finish my collection; and, would you believe it, my ‘illness’ vanished as well. A streak of good fortune, indeed. Still, unlike the majority of my childhood toys and collectibles, I’m glad that I have a completed collection to show today. An unconventional family heirloom, you may say, but I always thought I was a bit of a trendsetter.

The Tazo’s themselves do a pretty good job in setting out the bare bones of the Trilogy. Perfect for newcomers to the franchise, but the lack of any unfamiliar or new bonus content may lead to the more established Star Wars appreciator simply turning their nose up at it. They are also not exactly the most sturdy of collectibles. There is at least a scratch or two on every one I own, with one in particular being so badly damaged that only a drunk tramp could be convinced of it having any real value. Speaking of value, my high hopes of my fully completed collection one day netting my thousands of pounds were quashed recently after a quick look on eBay. At this rate, I’d be lucky to get a packet of Walker’s Cheese & Onion (the irony!) in exchange for them.

Out of all the playground fads I can remember, I don’t imagine we’ll ever see Tazo’s again. Pokémon will always evolve into new and ever more baffling incarnations; yo-yo’s will always have a retro appeal that you just can’t beat; but Tazo’s essentially boil down to this simple, and rather catchy (I like to think so, anyway) descriptor: a shitty bit of plastic. Sure, you can put as many Luke Skywalker’s and Ewok’s on them as you like, but the world has moved on since then. Now, kids are interested in huger, smarter, and more complex shitty mounds of plastic. Perhaps if they release a Tazo that can talk to you will we them return en masse. But until then, I’m just praying and hoping that my Star Wars Tazo’s accumulate at least some value in the years to come. Oh, that, and it’s revealed that Tazo’s are actually made of an as-yet undiscovered element that provides clean, sustainable energy. That’d be nice.

Bomberman 64

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Bomberman 64

Not many people today would answer ‘Bomberman’ to a Family Fortunes-esque question along the lines of ‘Name a well-known video game franchise character’. For me, the jury is still out as to whether or not this a gross miscarriage of justice. While the character’s main ‘pull’ boils down to something quite awesome (blow shit up with bombs), Bomberman’s trajectory as a saleable video game franchise seems to have nosedived considerably in the past decade or so. Clearly, it would seem, it is not merely sufficient that you are able to blow something up – you have to be able to shoot it, drive it and “interact” with it as well.

Bomberman 64 on the Nintendo 64 (N64)was released at a time when such design considerations had not yet been fully formulated. Released approximately a year after Super Mario 64, the game fits neatly within the category of games attempting to re-assert themselves onto the next generation of video-game consoles, of which the N64 was the prime mover. 3D graphics were here to stay, and the challenge for developers at this time was simple: uproot their video game franchises from their 2D, side-scrolling, origins and boldly and assertively champion them within the new status quo. In this respect, Super Mario 64 had risen to the challenge largely without incident. Bomberman 64, sadly, does not.

Instead, cheese and cliché is the order of the day for this one, with this being gleamed almost immediately from the opening cinematic. Some vaguely threatening looking villains are attacking some vaguely different planets and draining each one’s life force, for purposes that are doubtless of a persuasion pertaining to vagueness. Bomberman’s home planet is up next for the treatment and, with the help of a flying machine named Sirius, he sets out to defeat the villains in true video game fashion.

This is very much a traditional 3D plat-former of the N64 generation, Bomberman’s abilities acting as the only means in which the game distances itself from this stereotype. It may come as a surprise, but his abilities all involve the use of bombs in order to defeat enemies. As well as placing and kicking bombs, Bomberman can also throw bombs at enemies and even ‘blow’ (Fnar!) bombs up in order to create bigger explosions. Players can also expect to have to contend with a number of bosses across the different levels, but there is nothing distinctive about any of these encounters; indeed, writing now, I struggle to remember just exactly what they were. Whereas I will always recall such excellent bosses from other classic Nintendo or Sega games. Bosses can truly make a game, but this game’s gallery of rogues fails miserably at this.

There is some diversity in level design at least. Players can expect to traverse ancient ruins, medieval-esque towns, futuristic dystopians…it’s all there, in full abundance, but none of it is particularly impressive. It’s colourful, to be sure, but you get the impression that the development team were having problems making the transition to 3D games, as some of the maps have some bizarre visual oddities. Still, expect to spend a considerable amount of time completing the main story and then, in addition, all of the bonus items/objectives. Quality aside for a moment, this is very much a game where you can get your full money’s worth.

Where the game really shines is in the multiplayer mode, where the gameplay returns to its roots: top-down, bomb-based mayhem with your friends. There are two different gameplay modes on offer – the free-for-all Battle mode and the Team modes – and a variety of different power-ups to deploy against your friend/adversary. And, despite mazes being entirely absent, this is very much the Bomberman experience that you would expect, distilled in its finest form. With three friends on-hand, Bomberman 64 may just match Mario Kart 64 as being one of the best multiplayer experiences to be found on the N64. Just make sure you turn down the volume, as there is a very annoying female announcer that may just permanently damage your ear-drums.

I would not recommend picking up this game and playing through the single player today, especially if you have never played it before. Compared with the menagerie of different N64 games that have stood the test of time well, this certainly isn’t one of them. Bomberman feels like a cat at Crufts in a 3D environment, and no amount of effort on the part of the developer can help to remedy this. If you want to experience Bomberman in his finer form, go back further to either Super Bomberman or Mega Bomberman to experience this retro video game mascot as he is meant to be played. And if you should happen to see Bomberman 64 deep at the bottom of a bargain bin near you, please do me a favour and leave it there. For your sake, not mine.

(Image courtesy of mobygames.com)