Thursday 31 March 2016

Movie Review - Zootopia

Zootopia is the latest animated effort from Disney, whose resurgence and dominance in the world of animation continues without any risk of change anytime soon. The film takes place in the eponymous city which is home to an array of animals who have evolved beyond instincts and naturalism into a civilised society; into the city arrives young bunny Judy Hopps (Jennifer Goodwinn), who achieves her dream job of a city cop but is often undermined by her peers for her less than intimidating appearance. She soon meets con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and, in order to save her career, must work alongside an unlikely friend to solve a case that threatens the safety of all of Zootopia itself.

The visual style of Zootopia is strongly influenced by it's main anthropomorphic characters, with each landscape across the titular city crafted on various animal themes and aesthetics. It's not as groundbreaking as it's been out to be by some, but the visuals are certainly as appealing as anyone would expect from a Disney flick, and the technical side of things is just as impressive; everything is fluidly and beautifully rendered and animated from start to finish as the main duo of Hopps and Wilde go on a standard buddy adventure across tons of detailed environments and meeting dozens of other characters. Although the narrative isn't so innovative upfront, the themes of prejudice and stereotyping are surprisingly complex and thoughtful for a modern animated flick, and it's evident the creators took their integration very seriously.

From a sound design perspective, Michael Giacchino provides another entertaining score that compliments every scene, be it emotional, action packed, or comedic - it may not be the very, very best of his many works, but it's certainly a fine score nonetheless. The voice cast suit each character wonderfully, and it's once again nice to see Disney seeking out talented, varied actors instead of a bland lineup of A-listers to assist with marketing. Bateman and Goodwinn shine in the lead roles, and are backed by a strong supporting cast, with my notable favourites being Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons, even if the latter's role is disappointingly small.

Zootopia shows that Disney has adapted into the modern conventions of animated filmmaking whilst also maintaining their classic charm; it parodies so much of the modern world in a comedic and political sense, but this never becomes overly pompous or patronising, and it's simplified enough for kids to extract the same morals without being too overwhelmed. Certainly, an original premise has been brought to the big screen with plenty of care and attention to detail, and while it is flawed in some areas of pacing, character development, and plot contrivances, Zootopia still shows Disney at the height of blockbuster animation once again.

Saturday 26 March 2016

Purple Day for Epilepsy 2016

So today is Purple Day for Epilepsy - a charitable event started in 2008 by Cassidy Megan to raise awareness for epilepsy, a mental disorder characterised by overwhelming electrical activity in the brain that can lead to seizures of many intensities, from minor losses of focus and memory to violent fits that affect the entire body. It's surprisingly common, with over 50 million suffering from it worldwide, many of whom continue to struggle finding a solution for seizure prevention. Doctors continue to research epilepsy even as we speak, and hundreds of medications exist, though success rates fluctuate so much that treating the disorder is still a brutal challenge to this day.

For me, seizures began towards the end of 2012 as minor bursts of elation, which made me feel hyperactive and upbeat. Throughout the next year, they maintained the elated trademarks, but were joined by new worrying effects of memory loss, slurred speech, loss of concentration, and vacant behaviour. Following this, I suffered my first tonic clonic fit on March 19, 2014, whilst, believe it or not, playing Pokémon cards with a close friend of mine. The seizure began when I went to the bathroom; I felt a strange aura overwhelm me, and from there I remembered nothing until being woken up by paramedics with my head feeling like it was being smashed repeatedly with a mallet. According to those who witnessed it, I had reentered my room and asked my friend if there was a way to lock the door, before abruptly collapsing and fitting in front of him.

Fits, formally known as tonic clonic seizures, are the thing most people associate epilepsy with - whenever many people think of seizures, they automatically assume it means flailing on the floor, drooling and suffering some sort of spaz attack, before passing out for quite some time. While there is a certain degree of truth, and it is understandable that some people don't fully understand, this assumption also leads to a lot of blissful, and sometimes offensive, ignorance over the subject. Epilepsy is both a combination of minor seizures and severe fits, with the transition from minor to major being unclear, but in my experience, a fit is usually triggered by a blow to the head whilst suffering a lengthy minor seizure.

The cause for epilepsy in people is never clear - my scans showed the left hemisphere of my brain was slightly malformed, but this isn't always a direct cause. The development of the disorder has nothing to do with poor health or a bad lifestyle, though of course keeping healthy does help to reduce and eventually avoid seizures on a regular basis. As previously said, a minor seizure is usually just characterised by the person looking vacant, perhaps saying something quite strange, and then slowly recovering and returning to normal - while they may remember the moments before the seizure, anything that happened during it is generally forgotten. A fit, as is well known, has the person shuddering violently, their entire body losing control of itself, followed by a brief moment of unconsciousness and then a slow recovery. Victims should never be touched while fitting except to help them avoid injury, and placing them in the recovery position when knocked out is the next crucial step until they wake up.

I hate the notion of trying to seek sympathy with such a disorder, because it is both insulting and inappropriate, and while epilepsy has had a severe impact on my life, it doesn't mean I have a bad one. One of the worst parts was before it was even diagnosed - I passed my driving test in December 2013, three months before my first fit and eventual diagnosis, and so I had absolutely no idea what these strange losses of focus were. This was the case dating back to the end of 2012 when they began in smaller doses and at lower intensities; I assumed I was dehydrated, didn't sleep well enough, or perhaps my glasses were outdated and so new prescription was needed to avoid strain on my declining eyesight. Soon after diagnosis, I of course had to surrender my license, and the general rule of thumb is that it cannot be reacquired until at least one year of being seizure free. A compromise is thankfully met as I was issued a bus pass which allows me to get any bus in the UK for free outside of rush hour, and can also apply for discount rail fares.

Wearing security bracelets such as this is always a good idea in public in case urgent help is needed.
While this free/discount public transport is all good, it's still not the same freedom as driving, and after putting so much effort into learning and passing the test (after failing my first attempt), it was crushing to have to give it all up in an instant. Starting my current job in June 2015 lead to a lot of stress and caused my fits to dramatically increase, many of them taking place at work in front of everyone, which eventually lead to severe depression and anxiety. The longest I ever went seizure free for was between May 31 and July 7, 2014 - the latter day saw me suffer a tonic clonic fit, and since then seizures have happened regularly, with the longest free period lasting barely three weeks.

A month ago, a new medication named Zonisamide was added to my list, and while it initially had no real impact, I recently went almost a fortnight without a single seizure. However, the other day, it came to an unfortunate end when, in my sleep, I suffered four fits in the space of barely seven hours, leaving me a complete mess the next day, despite me being in no pain and having no memory of it. I had lost a lot of my memory even outside of the seizures, had a broken perception of time, and felt several personality changes inside me, losing interest in things I had previously been obsessed with and quickly developing new fondnesses in their place (this is not a porn joke). Despite being at work the previous day, I felt like I had not been there for weeks and weeks - such a major loss of awareness and focus causes severe problems, which can't really be understood until experienced. Although the fact that I had been very ill at the time with a chest infection could've influenced these seizures, their sudden, violent occurrence was never quite fully understood, even by doctors and nurses.

Having epilepsy does not mean you're unhealthy or weak, and discrimination against it, as is the case with any form of prejudice, shows naught but fault towards those responsible. While I hate to sound negative, it isn't something I feel makes me unique or proud, and I have moments where I honestly wish I was dead when it gets continuously worse and can't be understood, strong as that may sound. But I know that, eventually, it can get better, because at the end of every storm there is of course a rainbow - which I know don't have purple in them, but oh well.

Happy Purple Day!

Thursday 24 March 2016

Movie Review - Deadpool

Marvel's antihero Deadpool being one of it's more obscure and adult oriented sure hasn't affected his movie debut's overall performance - Deadpool currently ranks as the years highest grossing film, both in the US and worldwide, with stunning results and numerous accolades just weeks after release. While the trailers certainly expose it as a subvert of the genre in the best possible way, you'll never quite grasp how insane it really is until a proper viewing.

Deadpool revolves around ex Special Forces operative Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), who currently resides in New York City working as a mercenary, resolving the issues of others as an intimidating vigilante. He soon meets and befriends barmaid Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and the two begin a relationship, which leads to all but bliss until Wilson finds himself diagnosed with terminal cancer. Refusing to let Vanessa watch him die, Wilson abandons her and accepts an offer from a mysterious weapons expert (Ed Skrein) that will allow him to cure his illness without fail. In the strange events that follow, Wilson finds himself cured yet also subject to various superhuman abilities and left horrifically disfigured. After adapting to his new state, he finds himself on the pursuit of vengeance against those who turned him this way for their own sinister gain.

Deadpool is not light on, well, anything remotely dark - it's violent, gory, full of profanity, and certainly not for the faint of heart. It's also prone to breaking the fourth wall, with the titular character often addressing the audience in a series of pop culture references and self awareness of his own fourth wall breaking - which just gets crazier the more it goes on. Whilst it's upfront violence may initially shock and disturb some people, especially when a lot of is unexpected and abrupt, it actually makes for some hilarious visual gags (messed up as that sounds) and some gripping action sequences. Reynolds delivers a masterfully comedic yet stylish portrayal of the wounded hero, whilst the supporting cast (particularly Baccarin and T.J. Miller) also perform admirably.

Character development is far from absent; at his core, the main character of Wade Wilson is shown to a damaged man with a profound love for Vanessa, and this is surprisingly touching and well balanced with the films overall tone. Flashbacks are often used to bring further explanation to current events, with fourth wall breaking narration extremely common - something that's both hilarious and insightful to get a better grasp of each characters backstory. It would've been nice if it had slightly more action, and it's certainly quite predictable once the main hero dons his outfit, but all in all Deadpool is proof that superhero movies are not just for family audiences, but can be equally as compelling when made just for adults.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Worst to Best - Paper Mario

The Paper Mario series, despite it's commercial and critical success, has never been the biggest branch of the Mario franchise as a whole. Simply put, it has easily offered some of the best adventures that the loveable plumber (supposedly) has ever been on, constructed with tons of thoughtful game design and, of course, a gorgeous, unique visual style.

There are currently four games in the series spanning four different systems, with a new game, Paper Mario: Colour Splash, set to hit the Wii U later this year. So, you know the drill - let's rank them...

#4 - Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS, 2012)

Paper Mario: Sticker Star returned to the turn based battle system that the series began with in it's inception, albeit with a new twist: stickers. The entire battle system is built off in game stickers which are found across the numerous worlds, which allow Mario to perform a number of unique attacks and special moves. There are many perks and flaws to this mechanic - the designers did a great job in terms of variety, as all the different sticker types inject plenty of different outcomes into the game when it comes to battling against all sorts of unique enemies. As you collect more and more stickers, you explore new tactics, and it's always good fun to test all the different moves you can acquire. You can also use a number of stickers based on real world objects, apprporiately dubbed "things", to cause more damage in battle or alter the in game environment to overcome various obstacles. It's good fun, but finding out the right way to go about this is often just too vague.

Stickers are far from uncommon, so running out of them isn't always a major problem, but it can be a nuisance to backtrack every so often to collect more and more just to use basic attacks. This hinders your ability to keep everything balanced in many ways; you want to use all kinds of stickers to have fun, varied battles and conquer tough foes, but you also feel required to hoard them in fear of having to revisit old levels to stock up again. Sticker Star also felt a bit underwhelming in a narrative sense, lacking the usual compelling storytelling that has been a trademark of the series. I'll be brutally honest - I really liked this game, but it had several key flaws that hindered a potentially superb experience, and so the fact that it disappointed so many people doesn't surprise me a great deal.

#3 - Super Paper Mario (Wii, 2007)

Super Paper Mario stowed away with the turn based battle system and 3D visuals that it's predecessors adopted, leaning further towards the gameplay style of a 2D platformer with some unique RPG elements blended into it. The other key element to the gameplay is the fact that the player can flip from a 2D to a 3D perspective, which can unveil a number of hidden pathways throughout each level. The four playable characters, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Bowser, can all be swapped between as the game goes on, and as each character as their own unique abilities that help in a variety of situations, adjusting to their strengths and weaknesses is a crucial strategic element.

Super Paper Mario also has one of the best narratives of the entire franchise, not just the Paper Mario brand. It's heartfelt, complex, and told with sharp wit and dramatic depth; something very, very rare for a Mario game. Sure, emotional storytelling isn't new to the series, but Super Paper Mario, for me anyway, took it to a new extreme - thanks to it's superb cast, exceptional dialogue, and overall solid writing. Aesthetics and gameplay are spot on, but from a story perspective, this is also one of the better entries to the franchise.

#2 - Paper Mario (N64, 2000)

Paper Mario enjoyed a little bit of success after being released at the end of the Nintendo 64's life cycle, only two years before the Gamecube debuted globally. While not the first Mario game to adopt RPG elements and turn based battles, Paper Mario was still renowned for having a vastly different approach to the Mario universe and offering a new experience for even the most loyal fans. Two dimensional sprites combined with beautifully rendered backdrops make for a wonderful visual style, which is complimented by a cute, vibrant art design that perfectly captures the tone of the series.

Compared to it's successors, the narrative is quite simple, but still incredibly entertaining, with a gripping sense of adventure and fun, as well as some emotionally resonant surprises here and there. Witty dialogue is a key perk and one that carried over into the sequels as we've seen, as is the trademark of a wonderful, memorable cast of characters. The complexities of RPG games have been captured yet also suitably simplified for a general audience, and the final result is easily one of the best games for the Nintendo 64, despite it being one of the last.

#1 - Paper Mario: The Thousand Year-Door (NGC, 2004)

Do I ever shut up about this game? Clearly not. You can find me rambling on about it here, in my personal ranking of it's individual chapters, and here, in an overview of some of Mario's Gamecube outings - but I can still offer you another little summary of it's overwhelming amazingness.

As with the sequel Super Paper Mario, The Thousand Year-Door boasts one of the most engaging and thoughtful narratives to grace a Mario game, and I was always truly surprised how dramatic things got as you edged closer and closer to the epic climax. Memorable characters and a well drafted script help to keep us hooked from beginning to end, and such narrative focus is a crucial element to an RPG - as a result, The Thousand Year-Door becomes an unqualified success.

BUT the story isn't the only thing. Of course not. The gameplay itself is just as well structured, complex, and ambitious for it's time - an enormous world that gamers are free to explore is created in a beautifully rendered visual style, somehow all able to fit onto that itty-bitty 8cm Gamecube disc. The boss battles, puzzles, and overall sense of variety make for a fantastic experience throughout, with not a single dull moment. Always my favourite game, and nothing will ever change that.

UPDATE: This blog post has now been adapted into a video for the gaming channel ProjectFalconPunch! Check it out via the link below!

Thanks for reading!

Monday 14 March 2016

Movie Goofs - Hercules (1997)

My first movie goofs post back in January covered Disney's Aladdin, penned and directed by Disney titans John Musker and Ron Clements. They've made some of the most treasured Disney hits to date: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, and, as you've worked out now, Hercules, released in 1997.

They sure do take liberties with the fantastical concepts of their stories, however. As a result, logic is kind of an unimportant thing. Hercules is no exception - seriously, seriously, no exception...
  • When Pain and Panic kidnap Hercules as a baby, they turn into large snakes after failing to give him the entire potion that removes his godlike status. Their attempt to kill Hercules fails and he effortlessly throws them sky high without taking a single scratch. So how did their comical dragon forms manage to kidnap Hercules in the first place? Considering this is when he was a friggin God! Had he flailed, any hand or foot to the face would've sent Pain and Panic to the other side of the universe.
  • Zeus and Hera know Hercules is on Earth, turned mortal and unable to return to Olympus. They watch over him as he grows up and are fully aware of his existence. Zeus had no idea Hades was behind this plan, and it seems after eighteen years, Zeus either never mentioned his sons absence or Hades never received an invitation to a possible public mourning Zeus could've initiated. How out of touch with reality could Hades have been to find out about Hercules being alive after nearly two decades when everyone else on Olympus knew the entire time?
  • The Fates seem to have some sort of magical death string that kills anyone as soon as it is cut. If Hercules is mortal, surely they can use it to kill him? Does his strength have any relevance? It won't protect him from instantaneous death, surely? Hades could've briefly consulted them to grab some scissors, cut a thread, and boom, job done.
  • To add to this, if Hades watches as the souls of the dead fly into his lair and into the River Styx, could he not have checked to see if Hercules came in when Pain and Panic claimed to have killed him? A quick check surely would've taken a few minutes, and he had a good eighteen years to do it.
  • Zeus tells Hercules to seek out Phil, the trainer of heroes, in order to begin his quest to become a God again. Hercules then mounts Pegasus and flies into the night sky, finishing his epic musical crescendo. However, Zeus never told Hercules what Phil looks like, where he resides, or anything else other than his name and occupation. Despite this, Hercules still managed to find him with ease. How did that happen?

  • Where did Hades' deal to make Hercules sacrifice his strength come from? Like, his magical powers are simply devised there and then because the script says so. Why couldn't he just make Hercules sacrifice his strength permanently? Or remove his strength without some sort of deal? It's never clearly explained just how complex his powers are, and they seem to just change on the spot whenever the script needs them to. This whole scene seems to happen because plot.
  • When he drains Hercules of his strength, Hades throws a huge dumbbell weight at him, knocking Hercules to the floor in agony, but bypasses the chance of turning Hercules into a splattered red mess with that same dumbbell. It's villains like this that have no right to complain when they face their eventual downfall.
  • Despite being drained of his superhuman strength, Hercules is brutally kicked, thrown, and smashed into walls by the monstrous Cyclops beast and suffers no injuries whatsoever. Seems like Hades' magic did nothing after all.
  • After a tiny bit of encouragement, Hercules can kill the Cyclops by merely wrapping some thin ropes around its legs and sending it falling off a cliff which, if you catch a glimpse of the buildings below, isn't even that high. For such a powerful, legendary beast, the Cyclops seemed to die quite easily.
  • When Meg dies, Hercules makes his way into the Underworld and confronts Hades. Hercules is mortal. He is strong, yes, but not a god or a supernatural being. So how is it he can't go to Olympus but he can go to the Underworld? How did he even get there? He didn't ever go there before and was never given any sort of direction as to where it was in any previous scene. Did he just keep digging in a random spot until he got down far enough?
  • A commonly known visual error - Hercules sees Meg's soul in the River Styx and reaches in to grab it, though his hands quickly seem to rot when submerged. When he later jumps into the river to save Meg, he has to dive about a hundred feet to even reach the surface. Oops.
  • Referring back to that scene, why did Hercules' hands turn all wrinkly and grey seconds after he put his hands into the river to grab Meg, yet when he swims through the river completely, his body takes much longer to get to the same state. Yet another reason why Hades and his entire magic/lair is quite possibly the worst in Disney history.
  • I get that Hercules' celebrity status can't make him a "true hero". But had the Gods of Olympus slightly revised their awkward logic, the climax of the film could've been a lot less problematic. Hercules gives up his strength to save Meg, defeats the Cyclops without it, does everything he can to prevent Meg's eventual death, and, of course, frees the other inhabitants of Olympus to lead the fight against Hades. After all that, his godlike status still does not return to him. It's only after he saves Meg in the River Styx that it does. This is when all the trouble is over and there is nothing left for him to fight. Had they just looked past their own ego, and in fact acknowledged that Hercules saving the townspeople countless times without biased emotional reasons was actually fairly heroic, a lot of Hades' plans could've been avoided before they even began.
John Musker and Ron Clements make some great Disney movies, but man, do they love their plot holes. I wonder how illogical some parts of Moana will be?

Friday 4 March 2016

March 2016 Nintendo Direct - My Thoughts

The latest Nintendo Direct stream came yesterday and showed off a number of new and previously announced upcoming games for the Wii U and 3DS systems, spanning a number of Nintendo's biggest franchises. I'm not huge on them all, so we won't go into each one in extensive detail, but I just wanted to give some brief thoughts on some of the most notable announcements...

Metroid Prime: Federation Force

When Federation Force was first announced at E3 last year, it was met with naught but contempt - even from myself. Players slandered the ridiculous character models, generic FPS gameplay, and the strange focus on the Blast Ball football-esque minigame; it almost looked as if it was a parody of the original series and a complete insult to it's legacy. However, this latest Direct trailer has shown it to be a little more worthwhile.

While the FPS gameplay doesn't look like the most innovative thing to come from Nintendo, the RPG elements injected into it seem quite interesting - for example, how throwing healing capsule items at an AI companion will make that companion more of a healer/first aid assistant as the story moves forward, as just one example given in the Direct footage itself. This blend of choice and consequence is something becoming more common in some games and it's nice to see it being approached within the FPS genre.

I'm still not big on the art style, however, which includes some weird, cartoony alien villains, and the same absurd, big headed character models that will just never grow on me. I'm more fond of it now that more has been shown and elaborated upon, but it still isn't something I'm stupidly excited for.

Paper Mario: Colour Splash

Outside of the 2015 mashup game Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, the Paper Mario series has been dormant since 2012, when Sticker Star hit the 3DS to generally positive critical reviews, though many fans weren't impressed. Criticism arose over the simplified formula, lack of story, and constant need to backtrack, which felt dramatically out of character for an RPG series that had previously been known for it's extensive layers of depth and creativity.

Colour Splash has got many people enraged as it seems to replicate some aspects of the Sticker Star gameplay, including a world map feature that segments areas into small stages instead of large landscapes, a seeming lack of varied characters, and a turn based battle system that again stows away with action commands, badges, and other previous trademarks. The story will have Mario journeying to Prism Island, a world drained of it's saturation which he must rescue with his new paint hammer, a weapon that allows him to splash paint of many colours wherever he goes; this can be used to restore damaged landmarks and rescue other characters. Battles will utilise the GamePad to let players paint a variety of cards that can then be used to perform all sorts of attacks, each with their own unique effects, animations, and levels of attack power.

It may not quite be the HD sequel I wanted to see for The Thousand Year-Door, but for now I am intrigued by it's gameplay structure, and we can't just judge it completely from the small dose of footage shown. One thing's for sure, the visuals are absolutely beautiful in every way, from art design to overall rendering. Definitely the perfect example of how a HD Paper Mario game should look, and something that Nintendo nailed 100% without a doubt.

Star Fox Zero

I already covered my initial thoughts on the latest Star Fox game when it debuted at E3 last June, but now we've finally got the full extent of it's gameplay and narrative characteristics ready for it's launch this April. Zero will return to the classic shooting gameplay that Star Fox boasted in the first place; it harkens back to the original days with cheesy voice acting (in a good way), chaotic space battles, and, of course, barrel rolls. Zero also brings new depth into the formula with an inclusion of multiple paths to explore, allowing the gamer to decide which way they want to go on their quest.

I've never been a huge Star Fox fan, though Star Fox 64/Lylat Wars was admittedly one of my favourites on the system. Zero's visuals, surprisingly, didn't impress me a great deal - I don't know, maybe I just sound a bit pompous, but they looked a little outdated and fuzzy. Perhaps it was the video quality. Who knows. Art wise, however, it looks fab, with some great character models and stage backdrops. Certainly should be good fun and a worthy sequel that fans have been craving for many years.

Pokkén Tournament

A bizarre but pretty awesome fusion of Namco's Tekken franchise and, of course, Pokémon, Pokkén Tournament originally launched as a Japanese arcade game in July 2015, and didn't do as well as expected on a commercial basis, leading to a short lifespan in many arcade parks. The game is now set to be ported to Wii U and launched worldwide in just two weeks time; it'll feature the same gameplay, albeit with some new features that utilize the GamePad, Nintendo Network connectivity, and, of course, good ol' Amiibo.

Players begin in the lower leagues and work their way up with each victory, gaining in game currency in the process that allows them to access new Pokémon companions and customizations for their avatar. Each Pokémon, much as with the games, has different stats, strengths, and weaknesses; some are fast but not as strong, whilst some are incredibly powerful but not as capable of dodging or manuevring with such ease. Each Pokémon has their own unique attacks, be it the use of projectiles, beams, or just brute physical force, and so it looks like there's plenty of variety for players to find what appeals to them the most. There's also an array of special attacks that feature the Mega Evolutions of certain characters; and, to be blunt, Gengar's is pretty damn terrifying. I've never been the biggest addict of fighting games outside of Smash Bros., but I'll more than likely be giving this a try.

There was plenty of other things to love at this latest Direct offering, be it Kirby: Planet Robobot, some interesting Splatoon updates, Hyrule Warriors Adventures, and, of course, the HD remastering of Twilight Princess. Give it a watch if you haven't already; 2016 looks like it may be one of the better years for Nintendo after some recent slumps.

Thanks for reading!