Pokémon X and Y have to be the worst Pokémon main series games I have ever played.

(waits as internet erupts in outrage)

Okay have you guys calmed down now? How about now? Still going? It’s okay I’ll wait.

Feel better? Okay, I’ll continue.

I stand by that statement but I do have to offer two caveats.

The first is that even the worst Pokémon game is still really good and I did enjoy playing Pokémon X.

The second is that Pokémon X and Y are genuinely innovative and they’re trying to change what a Pokémon game can be.

Black, White and their sequels were basically the most polished and well executed version of a game that dates all the way back to the Red, Blue, Green, Yellow days of 1996.

This is a version of the game with sprites, an overhead view and Pokémon battles that have minimal sprite animation. A version of the game where you get given a choice of 3 starters from a Pokemon professor. A version of the game in which your either catch Pokémon and forfeit experience or grind them into the dust. A game in which you start off not being able to catch much but  a few Pidgeys and Rattatas and that when you walk into a cave mobs you with Zubats.

Black, White, B2 and W2 were basically the most perfect possible version of this game. The sprites were gorgeous, colourful, beautifully rendered and full of character but they were still sprites and short of hand animating every Pokémon’s every move they looked as good as they were going to. The story was clever and inventive and challenged the very core of what Pokémon is all about but it was a story that felt very grounded in the rules established by the Pokémon world in previous games. What’s more there were lots of small touches, refinements and improvements that just made the overall game experience better than anything before. Putting shops inside Pokécentres for example, or the BWT or taking away poison in the over world.

Having created basically the perfect Pokémon game the only thing you can do to go forward is to change what Pokémon is, to fundamentally alter what the base level of the games is about and throw loads of new innovations in there. And X and Y have dozens of new ideas and completely game changing shifts. The addition of Fairy type, the nerfing of weather, adding loads more variety of species to each area, Mega Evolution, experience on capture, Horde Battles, Sky Battles, the list goes on.

Some of these innovations are welcome and great improvements to the game. I love that we get more variety of species in each area, particularly early on. Whereas in most games you fight nothing but small birds and small rodents in the first few areas by the end of the second route I pretty much had a full team with a wide variety of types. That’s great, it makes the game interesting and varied from the off. Some of the changes are less well thought out. Horde Battles are basically something I avoided as much as possible. If I’m trying to get somewhere I quite like being able to one shot scrub enemy Pokémon and just get on with the story. Forcing me to attack 5 times doesn’t provide me with a greater challenge but it does drag out the time. Similarly Sky Battles are really ill conceived. They add no depth to the combat except to exclude a bunch of popular Pokémon and provide a much more limited meta game. If Sky Battles had some kind of movement mechanic they might be interesting but as it is I basically skipped them.

Some ideas are good but need more polish. The additional XP should be nice but X and Y were the worst scaling Pokémon games I have yet played. In every game I’ve ever played yet the badge limits to control monsters hasn’t been a factor. Designed properly you should have monsters that are roughly equal in level to your opponents at any time. The badge mechanic is to stop you just grinding out one powerful monster and dominating the game or trading in a level 100 beast from an old game. What it should not do is kick in when you’re playing normally . The gaps between gyms early on in X and Y are ridiculous. My Blaziken had made it past lvl 30 before I reached gym 2 and I was deliberately trying not to use him. Then once you’ve beaten the 8th gym there is a loooooong grind to lvl 100 and not many ways to gain the XP needed to get there. Black and White were probably the most perfectly balanced and scaled Pokémon games yet providing me with a real challenge when I reached the Elite 4 for the second time but lots of ways to gain more XP to beat them.

The biggest changes of course are the graphics, Mega Evolution and the Fairy Type.

In terms of the Graphics Pokémon has gone from a top down sprite game on a fixed grid to a 3D polygon game. This is a mixed blessing. In battles it works amazingly well. The new Pokémon especially take advantage of the opportunities for a greater range of animation and more integration between what the monster is doing and the attack. This is the best looking game for battles yet, surpassing the home console versions easily. In terms of the map it’s much more mixed. Generally it works roughly the same as any old game did with a largely top down viewpoint. Whenever it goes behind your character though it is a mess. Lumiose city is practically unplayable its so hard to navigate. The problem is there’s no camera button so it becomes really hard to orientate yourself in what is basically a big circle where everything looks the same. It’s a nightmare and I avoided going to that city like the plague. And that’s a shame because it is full of stuff to do and clearly the centrepiece of the game but I’m sorry X and Y I just couldn’t find anywhere in order to do stuff. In the end I had to resort to using an FAQ and riding cabs constantly.

Then there’s Mega Evolution

Evolution is where one Pokémon turns into a different Pokémon gaining a stat boost in the process, changing its appearance and sometimes gaining new typing or abilities.

Mega Evolution is the same in every respect but the following.

1. in normal evolution the Pokémon cannot change back to the Pokémon it was before, but Mega Evolution only lasts for the duration of a Pokémon battle.

2. Mega Evolution happens during a Pokémon battle.

3. In order to mega Evolve the Pokémon must hold a special stone and the trainer is required use a special device which looks an awful lot like a wrist watch.

I don’t like it.

It’s hard to explain why I don’t like Mega Evolution but it basically has something to do with the story function of evolution. Evolution in Pokémon is not like evolution in real life since it happens to individuals and not to the species as a whole. Evolution in Pokémon is more like metamorphosis or puberty, an irreversible change that happens to an animal as it gets older. That’s why we get things like Caterpie evolving into Metapod evolving into Butterfree. It mirrors the life cycle of a real caterpillar as it undergoes metamorphosis and turns into a butterfly.

It may not function exactly like something in real nature but it gestures towards it and helps reinforce the nature theme of Pokémon. This isn’t an RPG where levelling up is some kind of arbitrary mechanic but instead relates to an animal ageing and maturing.

It also allows for some cool story telling ideas built into what is ultimately just a game mechanic. Look at Magikarp to Gyarados or Feebas to Milotic which reference an ancient Chinese myth and the ugly duckling respectively. Cool evolutions can lead to some really cool Pokémon concepts. In fact Gen 6 actually has some of the most imaginative evolution mechanics I’ve seen in any games so far.

The key thing that cements the reality of this mechanic for me though is that it isn’t reversible. Once you’ve evolved that’s it, you can’t go back and whilst you always get a stat boost from evolution you can lose something in the change in appearance or even in a type or ability change.

Being reversible Mega Evolution is more like a form/forme change like when Rotom turns an electric ghost into an electric ghost possessing a washing machine, or a refigerator, etc. Or Cherrim opening up its leaves during the sunshine.

Form changes have been a part of the game since the 3rd Gen and I have never had a problem with them, in fact I actually really like them. The reason I like them over Mega Evolution is twofold.

Firstly Form changes usually only have an aesthetic change like Sawsbuck’s appearance changing with the season. When they do have an in-game effect it usually has an advantage and a drawback i.e. the various forms of Deoxys which sacrifice defense for speed as one example.

Secondly the form changes all said something about the Pokémon in question, they opened up a story telling ideas. Why can Deoxys change form? Because he’s virus themed and viruses mutate rapidly. Why does Sawsbuck change forms? Because his horns are tree branches and he’s showing the cycle of trees as season’s change.

Mega Evolution doesn’t do this. Every Pokémon that mega evolves does so in the same way, magic stone plus wristwatch and the designs don’t give any kind of storytelling idea other than slightly spikier version of existing monster.

What Mega Evolution most resembles is the concept of Henshin, or change, that you get in shows like Power Rangers or Kannen Rider. Think about it, with the wristwatch device, the magic stones, the special effects and the striking a pose doesn’t Mega Evolution remind you of the Power Rangers Morphin’ Sequences?

Once you realise that it becomes clear that Mega Evolution fits into a tradition of transforming and powering up that is huge in Japanese culture and all over anime and computer games. Super Saiyans in DBZ, Guyver, Digimon, Power Rangers, Gurren Lagann, Super Mario, and on and on and on.

And so whilst this is an accepted pat of anime story telling it isn’t something that has ever been part of Pokémon before and it has nothing to do with nature or mythology which is traditionally what inspires the designs and stories in Pokémon.

It’s taking a very un-Pokémon concept and inserting it into the game and it doesn’t make a good thematic fit.

It doesn’t help that it isn’t even really a very strong gameplay mechanic, a power-up with no real drawback doesn’t add much strategy to the game. In almost all cases why wouldn’t you just mega evolve any Pokémon you have that can? The only reason not to is if your Pokémon needs another item such as a leftovers to be viable.

It’s also weird that Nintendo generally gave these Mega Evolutions to Pokémon that were already very, very useable. Blaziken is only of only two non-legendaries to make it into the uber tier (well this was the case when I started writing this but now plenty of Megas and Aegislash have made this jump) and is so powerful he’s outright banned in some competitions, he did not need a Mega Evolution, neither did Garchomp or Mewtwo. Charizard appreciates the boost as does Mawile but for the most part these seem kind of superfluous.

Having said my piece let me now say that the presence of mega evolution doesn’t ruin the game for me. I don’t like it but I don’t have to use it and it is really a very minor part of the mythos.

So since we’ve talked about it so much lets review some of the Mega Evolution designs.

Mega Blastoise and Mega Venusaur

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One thing I should stress is that whilst I don’t like Mega Evolution as a concept that has no bearing on what I think about the designs. Most of the Mega designs are awesome and I kind of wish they just replaced the existing final stage of the monster in question. Mega Blastoise is a great example of this. Giant turtle with a cannon on its back is already a pretty neat idea but I always wondered why Blastoise had two cannons pointing at different angles. They couldn’t fire together at the same target and he’d have to angle his head out of line with his target to fire straight. Even as a kid I recognised that this was dumb. Mega Blastoise though has no such problem. His three cannons can all move so they can all aim at one target and his new one massive cannon fires straight ahead! Also his bigger cannon just looks more intimidating and overall his design looks more balanced. I’ve gotta give him points for his stlyin’ goatee too, the first in a theme of awesome beards that defines this generation.

As for Mega Venusaur…..sorry guy but you got screwed. An extra flower, extra leaves and some garlands does nothing to improve your ugly mug.

Mega Charizard Y and X

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Most people’s favourite starter gets not one but two Mega Evolutions and both are awesome for different reasons.

Y fixes all the issues I had with original Charizard and in my head canon this is just what regular Charizard looks like now. My main issue was that Charmeleon had all these design elements going on, horns coming out the back of his elbows, a single horn on his head, etc that Charizard just drops. Y puts them back in though turning the elbow horns into arms wings and giving him a crown of horns that again looks more symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing than Charizard’s original horns. I love the bigger scalloped wings too which make it look much more like it could fly. And taking the patch of colour all the way up to the mouth avoids giving the impression that Charizard has a fat tummy like he did before. It’s just all around better than Charizard, more refined and improved and shows off just how far Sugimori has improved over the years.

Charizard X is awesome though because he is METAL AS FUCK! HE’S A BLACK DRAGON WITH AXE BLADE SHOULDERS AND SPIKES AND BLUE FIRE AND HE’S BLACK AND OH MY GOD I NEED TO PAINT MY ROOM BLACK AND LISTEN TO SOME SLAYER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mega Mewtwo X and Y

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The other OG to get two Mega Evos is Mewtwo one of the most complex Pokémon and one of the few to have a personality, motivation and character. The Mega Evos are one of the rare examples of a Mega Evo that implies a strategy. X gains a secondary fighting type when he evolves so the Evo is far more muscular with more powerful looking legs and arms, a shorter tail and big manly shoulder pads. Y in contrast just goes all out on the psychic power so the body gets smaller, the feet and arms become even less developed and the head becomes much larger combining with the tail. The contrast in designs really sells the contrast in abilities and both designs work. I prefer Y overall though even if that seems to be a controversial opinion. Everything about Y’s design seems to sell unbelievably strong psyker for me whereas there’s stuff in X’s design that either doesn’t work or just isn’t aesthetically pleasing. I hate his feet for starters which look gangly and weird for a fighting type. I also think his big purple diaper looks goofy and so do his shoulder pads.

I can’t let any discussion of Mewtwo’s Mega Evos slip though without mention Freiza. You know Freiza? The popular villain from Dragonball Z. Changes forms and looks at various stages like this.

Frieza 3 FRIEZA4 Full_Power_Frieza

Yeah there’s some inspiration going on there and I’m just going to leave it at that.

Mega Aggron and Mega Tyranitar

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One of the things I do like the in the Mega Evolutions is the idea that these monsters are somehow unnatural. That their evolution isn’t something to do with nature but something forced upon them by an outside force. Consequently many of the Mega designs look like the animal is exploding with power, almost deformed by the strength they now possess. I don’t think any two designs better express this than Mega Aggron and Mega Tyranitar. In both cases they take the design and basically add loads o spikes but they do it in a very clever way, turning design elements from the previous monster, like Tyranitar’s head spikes, into exaggerated versions of themselves. It looks intimidating, it looks effective and it really ties in with the Mega Evolution concept.

Mega Aggron I like because his ability makes him the ultimate tank. He has the highest base defence in the game and is immune to super effective attacks making him a wall. And he now looks like a wall, wider, stockier and dumpier than before. I find his weird linked head spikes going through holes to be fussy and cluttered but overall I like Mega Aggron. Mega Tyranitar similarly kicks Tyranitar’s ass. His design is just so much more balanced. Whereas before he was weirdly lacking in the head and shoulders department compared to his body and legs the addition of head and shoulder spikes makes him look more balanced and overall just bigger and more intimidating. I particularly like his chest face. I don’t understand why his tail now looks like a peeled banana but I’m happy overall.

Oh yeah and he totally looks like space Godzilla now too.SpaceGodzilla

Mega Gardevoir

 

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I’m on record as not liking Gardevoir because a disturingly high number of perverts on the internet seem to be sincerely sexually attracted to her. Putting her in a wedding dress does nothing to fix this issue.

Mega Heracross and Mega Pinsir

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Japan absolutely adores beetles, in particular two varieties of stag beetles they nickname Atlas and Goliath. Elementary school kids adore catching these things, putting them in boxes and making them fight each other. And now you understand why Bug Catchers are a thing in Pokémon games. Every Japanese man at some point in his life put on tiny, comfortable shorts, got a net and captured innocent beetles to fight for his own amusement.

As such I am not surprised Pinsir and Heracross got some Mega Love. Thing is, these both could work as just regular evolutions for these Pokémon who are just single stage evos in the game. They don;t have the exaggerated almost deformed thing going for them that many Megas do nor are they vastly improved versions of the original designs, they just look like what Sugimori’s sketch for an evolved Pinsir probably always looked like.

Of the two I like Heracross  more since his proportions, small head, short body, short legs and massive arms, really sell the idea of strength and power. That and I have no idea what the hell those orange things are in Pinsir’s design.

Mega Manectric

 

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Are you okay Mega Manectric because that looks really heavy. That, that can’t be good for your neck. Do we need to get nurse Joy to help you little guy?

Mega Aerodactyl

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Continuing our theme of awesome beards, Aerodactyl is positively satanic with that Van Dyke and the new spiky evil eyebrows help sell it too.

Mega Alakazam

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So the evolution line for Abra, Kadabra and Alakazam goes like this.

Starts with no spoon.

Gets both spoon and moustache.

Gets an extra spoon and an even bigger moustache.

Following that logic the only place to go with a Mega is multiple spoons and an epic hermit beard. And he pulls it off well. I particularly like the yoga pose.

Mega Alakazam, you can’t fault the logic.

Mega Kangaskhan

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On the one hand Mega Kangaskhan feels very natural. What’s the ultimate form of a Kangashkan? Why using it’s baby in its attacks. Makes perfect sense and helps fill in some gaps in the Kangaskhan life cycle.

On the other hand, I really wish the baby Kangaskhan looked more like a Cubone so that this bit of fan canon could be true.

cubone_marowak_kangaskhan_by_periculant-d34ejtb

Mega Blaziken and Mega Lucario

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Two examples where I massively prefer the mega form to the original design and wish this design just replaced it.

In Blaziken’s case I love Torchic and Combusken and despise Blaziken. May main complaints are that his hair is stupid, he had some weird feather cock thing going on, he didn’t look like a chicken and his hair is stupid. Well he still doesn’t look like a chicken but his feather cock is gone and his hair is much less stupid. In fact the change in shape to his chest and head balance his design much better giving approximately equal space to his body, head and legs. Unrealistic, yes but aesthetically pleasing. The new chest is more reminiscent of samurai garb too typing in with his martial arts theme. And the colour scheme just seems more dangerous and imposing.

Lucario is similarly much improved. I never got the love for the standing up, kick boxing dog before as he looked like a mess of randomly combined elements. I like Mega Lucario though. Like Blaziken his new shapes mean that space is more evenly distributed, the flare to his collar and dreadlocks add much needed visual interest to his head area and his slightly thicker, chunkier thighs balance out his height. Plus the addition of extra smaller spikes make the big hand, foot and chest spikes seem more organic. I like the change in colour scheme too which again seems darker and more imposing.

Mega Garchomp

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You know how adding the colour red and more spikes actually seemed to improve Lucario? Well it doesn’t work for everyone.

Plus the original scythes looked more badass, your Mega can’t be less badass, that makes no sense.

Mega Scizor

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Scyther was such a good design and whilst Scizor wasn’t better he still had charm. This though. It’s all square and boxy where it should be sleek and knife like. And those legs, they looks barely attached and just weird and angular. This is a mess of a design and all the worse because both Scyther and Scizor are really great designs.

Mega Gyarados

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You know how we all think Gyarados is bad ass? How he has such a cool, sleek design that just screams rage and power. Yeah. It is amazing how much of that is owed to his neck. For some reason get rid of his neck and he goes from being bad ass and dangerous to unbelievably derpy. Magikarp is, in fact, marginally less awkward looking than this.

Mega Abomasnow

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What I don’t like about Mega Abomasnow is that design concept has disappeared. Abomasnow is supposed to be a tree covered in snow but nothing about these shapes suggests that in the slightest. Divorced from the concept though and this is a nice design. It conveys power really effectively. The stocky design with the head in the centre suggests size and the hunched over pose where it can’t even support itself really suggests weight. The exploding effect caused by all the lines radiating from the centre says power too, almost as if Mega Abomasnow is nearly exploding with restrained strength. It’s a cool design but it isn’t Abomasnow.

Mega Meditite

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So Meditite is one of the worst design ever, combining slutty lips, hammer pants and the kind of hat stoned people who went to India once routinely wear.

Mega Meditite retains the  hammer pants and draws more attention to them, retains the slutty lips and replaces the dumb hat with, and I didn’t think this was possible, an even dumber hat. It also adds some scarves.

I suppose the logic is that Meditite is ridiculous so for the Mega we’re going to double down on the ridiculous? It kind of makes sense.

Mega Ampharos

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So Ampharos is an electric/pharoah/giraffe. What is the natural next step in that deeply confused concept?

Got it.

Pirate

Male Model from the cover of Harlequin romance. It was the missing link all along.

Mega Absol

 

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I think everybody likes Absol. He has such a unique design. He doesn’t really look like any distinct animal you can name but he does look like an animal and his yin/yang thing was subtly but effectively incorporated into his design.

Mega Absol is more of the same really except they’ve really, really leaned heavy on the emo thing. Absol always had this emo aspect to his concept since he was the harbinger of disaster and as such people hated him. They’ve now refined that by making him a literal angel of death and giving him the hair cut of Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy. He pulls it off though.

Mega Mawile

 

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I’m on record as not really liking Mawile because on first glance it is nigh on impossible to tell what is going on. Namely that I know it has a second face but could never see it. Mega Mawile though, so much better. Getting rid of the forward facing top knot, adding a second mouth and having the mouths stand up just looks so much better. The mouths both more obviously read as hair and look more like they’re attached to Mawile.Plus the new mouth design looks more threatening. This is another Mega that should just replace the original.

Mega Gengar

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Mega Gengar is considered one of the game’s absolute power houses, banished to uber tier he is regarded as annoying, amazing and powerful.

It is a shame then that his design is horrendous.

What’s wrong with Mega Gengar, oh god what’s right with it? Let’s start with a list of design elements that seem to serve no purpose. What is that gold thing on his head? What are the arm things he suddenly has if they even are arms and similarly what is that weird tail thing? Why is he glowing from beneath? On good Pokémon designs I understand why something is there, it’s either a signifier of some meaningful element (i.e. Bulbasaur has a bulb because he is a grass type) or to improve the aesthetics (i.e.  Charizard has a band of a second colour on his chest to break up what would otherwise be a large flat space. On Mega Gengar though I have no idea what anything is doing.

Even worse he used to have a cleanly defined design concept, he looked like Celfable’s shadow, and now that has disappeared.

However the biggest sin Mega Gengar commits is that he is at worse poorly drawn or at most charitable drawn in a style that doesn’t match the other designs. By this I mean that the other Pokémon are drawn with a realistic approach with regards to perspective, whereas Mega Gengar is drawn more like a comic strip character. Judging from how his body and arms are presented Gengar is in 3/4 profile here so he’s looking at about a 45 degree angle to our left and down. The means we shouldn’t be able to see his whole mouth, it should curve round to the other side of his face where we can’t see. similarly his right eye should be lower and his left eye either higher or gone entirely. It just looks wrong and disconcerting.

Mega Gengar looks better in game but this is easily the worst artwork from Sugimori. Not only is it a bad design, it’s a bad drawing.

 

Mega Houndoom

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Remember back when Pokémon started and became the biggest thing on the planet? Remember the religious groups in America who saw it as a tool of Satan? Can you imagine how hard they would freak out if Mega Houndoom existed back then?

Mega Banette

 

 

 

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Speaking of child unfriendly, hey everyone it’s the gimp themed pokemon. Whose arms and legs are actually evil monstrous tongues. Because you’re never too young to learn about consensual S and M.

One of my running jokes is that the pokemon designs often reflect whatever the designer was looking at in his office that day. I wonder if that implies to the gimp mask pokemon.

 

The Fairy Type

The other massive change to the game in X and Y is the addition of a new typing, Fairy, the first new type since 2nd ed. This is a massive change but a very welcome one as it re-shuffles the meta game making long term threats like Hydreigon weaker whilst boosting some weaker monsters that have been languishing in lower tiers (Azumarill). It’s particularly welcome in that Fairies are Dragon killers and prior to 6th ed Dragons were easily the most over powered typing. With a massive suite of resistances, only two weaknesses and only one type that resists Dragon, Dragons were just the best typing on paper. And as one of their weaknesses is Dragon type the best way to kill them is often to have a Dragon yourself. Fairies having an immunity to Dragon attacks puts a solid counter on this but not so much that Dragon’s have been utterly nerfed, as can easily be seen by the fact that Garchomp is the most commonly used Pokémon in competitions.

In addition to nerfing Dragons, Fairies are pretty tough themselves. Most are specially defensive focused with a sideline in special attack and good neutral coverage. Xerneas using Moonblast can walk through teams until he reaches a special wall and the edge on Fighting and Dark types just makes them better. They lack a diverse movepool to make them as uber as Dragons but Fairies arrived as a top tier challenge. The effect of this is to create the need to try and get some Poison and Steel attacks onto your team to take out Fairies, and Steel and Poison are not normally considered attacking types so this shakes up the meta further.

My main complaint with Fairy types is that I don’t get the concept of the typing. With something like Water the concept is clear, this animal lives in or shoots water, make it a Water type. But what makes something a Fairy? It mostly seems to be the big pink blobs of previous generations like Clefable and Jigglypuff but then Chansey and Audino are big pink blobs and they didn’t get Fairy. Fairies in mythology are tied to elements and usually represent different flowers, rocks and other natural phenomena but that idea largely inspires Pokémon anyway and is way too broad for a typing. In practice the only common theme seems to be that Fairy types are cute, playful and free spirited so it reflects a personality more than an element. But then there are lots of cute playful Pokémonthat didn’t get fairy either (Pikachu, Plusle and Minun, Cherrim, Pachirisu) Fairy doesn’t seem to have a defined conceptual space and that bothers me.

Sylveon

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The first Fairy we ever saw sets the tone for most of the new Fairy designs in this generation. It’s pink, it’s cute, it’s covered in bows and frills and it references some stereotypically girly hobby or activity. In the case of Sylveon that would be the practice of dressing up your dog in cute outfits with little bows. It’s a nice spin on the eeveelutions = dog breeding thing without been too on the nose. Plus I just like Sylveon, it’s a balanced, striking design. One thing that does weird me out though is that the bows and ribbons are a part of her, like, made of flesh. Euuurggh,

Swirlix and Slurpuff

 

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Girly activity number 2, eating sweets. Yes, I know men enjoy cotton candy just as much as the womenfolk but in Japan going out for sweets is seen as a very stereotypically feminine thing to do, so we get the sweet pokemon. Unlike Vanillish, the ice cream monster, Swirlix and Slurpuff do have legs so they’re marginally less silly, only marginally though. And that gap gets wiped out by Slurpuff’s hilarious face. I can’t tell if he’s happy or suffering from a concussion.

Spritzee and Aromatisse

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Hey guys, did you realise that the Kalos region is supposed to be France? Oh, you did? What was your first clue? Was it that the region looks exactly like France? Maybe it was how the game seems to pack in every single stereotypical thing about France Gamefreak can think of. So we get fashion! art! fine dining restaurants! and perfume, personified by giving a cockatoo a big nose and making it pink. It kind of works but the lack of a mouth robs Spritzee of much of her personality.

Then we get to Aromatisse who personifies…can can dancers.

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I know I requested less sexy Pokémon but this, this is not what I wanted. Aromatisse is horrifying, her flirtatious leg haunts my nightmares. Can can dancers may be French but they are not suitable subject matter for a children’s computer game or as the basis for designing cute animals.

Flabebe, Floette and Florges

 

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The most Fairy looking fairy-type. For me the defining characteristic of a Fairy is that it’s a flower spirit. However, Pokémon already has the Grass type, about  a hundred designs of plants with faces so how do you convey Fairy? The solution hit upon here, of having an animal that sits on a flower, carries it and eventually wears it is ingenious. Beyond that though I don’t have nice things to say. I don’t understand Floette’s enormous eyebrows (the work on Florges as exaggerated eyelashes), I don’t understand Floette’s ear/hair, I think the faces for all three lack personality and generally these are pretty meh. Also minus one point for yet another Pokémon in a bra. No! Bad Nintendo. No!

Dedenne

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This generation’s electric rodent is Dedenne (his name is straight from Japan, it’s an onomatopoeia for the noise of electrical wires) and I think he’s great. I love designs that take an element and incorporate their element logically and interestingly and Dedenne is a textbook example of that. His whiskers turn into electrical transmission wires and his tail into a power cable and he looks like a cute, happy mouse. Sugimori can do this kind of thing in his sleep by now but I’ll always welcome this kind of design.

Klefki

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So I’ve started writing the entry for Klefki about 5 times now and each time it just devolves into rarge blargle OMG SO VERY VERY STUPID. Do I even have to write about it? We know it’s lazy, we know it’s dumb, we all hate it right? They didn’t even have the decency to put a spike on it. This is every lazy and horrible trend in pokemon design embodied in one beast, one horrible monstrosity that OMG SO VERY, VERY STUPID!!!!!!

Carbink, Diancie and Mega Diancie

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I’m not normally keen on the inanimate object style Pokémon but there are things you can do with it that I like. Geodude is one of my favourite Pokémon of all time despite being essentially a rock with arms but he has a couple of things going for him. 1. Limbs. 2. a face. 3. a personality. Carbink lacks all these things. It’s a rock with eyes, and eyes drawn in such a way that I can infer no personality. It’s just boring.

Diancie in contrast has limbs, has a face and has a personality and as such I like her. I don’t love her (I wonder where she got the dress from) but she’s okay. If you’re going to do Rock Fairy this is what a Rock Fairy looks like to me, cute, happy, perky with adorable jewels, pigtails and a big poofy dress (the rock). Like other Kalos Fairies she embodies the stereotypically girly notion of precious gems but they don’t go overboard with it in her design. That of course is because they saved the overboard for her Mega which…I like. If the design concept for the Megas is OTT version of the original then yeh, Mega Diancie certainly pulls that off.

Xerneas

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The legendary Pokémon for X is a fantastic design. He looks like a real animal but incorporates dozens of clever ideas and concepts. His X shape is subtly but effectively incorporated(if you can’t see it the X forms between the front legs and the crown of horns), the crown of horns are a striking visual in their own right but really connote the idea of some powerful forest spirit, his sword legs look cool and dangerous, his expression is imperious and proud and the colours in his horns suggest his Fairy typing without painting him pink.

In keeping with the theme for this generation of “plagiarism” I can’t help but feel like I’ve seen him before though.

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Chespin, Fennekin and Froakie

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So normally I review each evolutionary family as a whole but I thought I’d do something different this time. As news was coming out about Pokémon X and Y we got the starter monsters revealed as a trio, then their 2nd stage and finally they’re 3rd stages. I thought I’d replicate the impact somewhat here. So let’s look at these three on their own. Well, out of just this Fennekin is easily the winner. Fennekin is simply but she’s cute and the ear hair being turned into flames is one of those design elements I was discussing with regards to Dedenne. Chespin has more potential but I can’t work out what he is. Is he a squirrel? a chipmunk? a rat? He’s certainly some kind of rodent but I don’t know what. I can’t parse his hat as any kind of plant either. Normally it’s pretty clear what the plant aspect is meant to be but again, no clue.

Froakie meanwhile looks like Benjamin Franklin.

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You can never unsee it now.

Quilladin, Braixen and Frogadier

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BWA HA HA HA HA HA

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Just, oh my god, breathe. BWA HA HA HA HA HA! *gasp* inhale. BWA HA HA HA HA

Really? Really?? Do I even need to say anything? Look at him, just, stare at it. It is majestic in its awfulness.

You know what makes it better. The way its drawn here he looks like he’s fallen over and can’t get up. Like he’s lying on his back. And he’s just so gosh darned cheerful about it! Life has dealt Quilladin a bum hand but he is not going to let it get him down.

Frogadier is just kind of there. Oh and Nintendo, you don’t have to make the water starter always blue guys. We get that frogs = water without the help.

Braixen though is just awesome. She really reads as witch with only a few witchy icons but they work very well. I especially lover how her fur becomes a cute skirt. She looks like a teenager too which works for a 2nd stage. And I just love the flaming branch she uses. I like when Pokemon have natural weapons (Cubone, Leavanny) and a witches staff that shoots fire just feels like a natural fit.

Yes sir the Fennekin family definitely one the design lottery this time.

Chesnaught, Delphox and Greninja

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And then Delphox shits the bed.

She just looks ugly and awkward, there’s too much…stuff. Her design doesn’t feel flowy or balanced it feels baggy. I know she’s wearing a robe but it looks like she has just too much fur, and worse some of the fur doesn’t make sense as witch clothing like whatever is going on at her shoulders. Plus her ear hair is just ridiculous now, it doesn’t look like fire anymore it just looks ugly. What a tragic waste of a good design concept.

Chesnaught however, redeems himself. Revealing himself to be a hedgehog…groundhog…muskrat okay I still have no idea what animal he is, but he does at least look knightly now and suitably intimidating. His overall shape works now, still being rounded but now the round shapes are all in the shoulders and back which convey power rather than roly polly cuddly chubbiness. He still isn’t very planty though.

Greninja goes from meh to undisputed coolest design in this generation. He’s a ninja, always cool and like all the best designs they convey ninja without giving him anything that doesn’t also convey frog, it’s all in the pose, the colouring and the body shape. That and the tongue which is inspired. Turning his long frog tongue into a scarf is just a terrific idea, even if it does go back to this year’s theme of “plagiarism.”

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Playing one of the great enemy’s games were we Sugimori-san? Shame on you.

Greninja also retroactively makes Froakie make sense. To reflect the setting of Kalos we have our fairy tale character, the knight, the witch and the thief. The Ninja look subs for thief but Froakie looks like a stereotypical Japanese bandit.

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Bunnelby and Diggersby

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This years useless mammals you catch early in the game are a better effort that most generations. Rabbits are good animals to base designs on having several iconic features you can fiddle with, in this case the ears. And in my opinion turning the ears into hands is a neat little idea that works well. The Diggersby evolution of that concept I also dig, turning the ears into excavators and giving him a control panel to manouveour them.

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Other than the ears and Diggersby 5 o’clock shadow (another one for the beards list ) there isn’t a huge amount else going on here though.

Fletchling, Fletchinder and Talonflame

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Talonflame….?

Talonflame?

You didn’t even try did you localisation team? Talonflame is actually a really neat design, He’s a hawk, on fire!!! And he has warning stripes on his tail. He looks menacing and you just panicked didn’t you.

Talonflame.

Here are 10 more creative names for a bird on fire than Talonflame.

1. Falcook

2. Hawkindle

3. Falcomet

4. Napalcon

5. Scorchawk

6. Firaptor

7. Robinferno

8. Peregrill

9. Hinoraptor

10. KFC

Scatterbug, Spewpa and Vivillion

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God, do I have to?

Scatterbug and Spewpa are just a mess, somehow bland and cluttered at the same time and I have no idea what the high concept is behind them. Easily the worst caterpillar in all of Pokémon.

Vivillion though, I like, a lot. She’s themed around LCD televisions and consequently that’s why her wings look like patterns of pixels and why her antennae resemble digital TV antennae. She’s a nice twist on a butterfly design already but what really makes her is all the different wing patterns.

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Sure it’s a blatant ploy to make it feel like there are more designs in this Gen than there actually are but it’s kind of cool. I also like that the different designs are linked to different geographic regions. That’s something that’s true of real animals and so  it’s nice to see it incorporated into the games. It also forces you to trade internationally which is a nice way to big up the new GTS and Wonder Trade improvements.

 

Lileo and Pyroar

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So we have had a lion Pokémonbefore (the Shinx family) but Lileo and Pyroar are the first lion monsters that really resemble the animal. Again, considering how iconic lions are and how often they feature in children’s picture books I’m surprised it took us this long.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about these two, they’re basically just cartoony drawings of lions, I’d have liked a bit more fire integration personally.  The one cool bit of fire integration they have done is incorporate the Kanji for fire into the pattern of Pyroar’s mane.

Skiddo and Gogoat

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In contrast Skiddo and Gogoat are much more what I like. Animal they haven’t done before? Check. Element incorporated sensibly into the animal’s shape? Check. Lack of unecessary clutter? Check. Use of patterns to break up large areas of flat colour? Check. Everything I want and in addition to the element these two also have a secondary theme of being motorbikes. Can’t see it? Check the horns, Skiddo is meant to be a dirt bike and Gogoat has the swept back handlebars and backrest of an old school Harley chopper.

Pancham and Pangoro

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Another pair that tick all the boxes, animal we haven’t done, no flat blocks of colour, uncluttered design, element incorporated, etc. What really sells me on Pangoro though is his evolution mechanic. Pancham only evolves when he levels up and there is a dark type in your party. And when he does he goes from being slightly cocky troublemaking kid to a full on bancho.

What’s a bancho? Well it means delinquent or gang member, and they look like this.

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I love that, he only evolves when another dark type acts as bad influence on him. That’s such a fun idea and such a great example of how evolution can be used a story telling tool (and another reason why I hate Mega evolution.)

Furfrou

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Furfrou is a pokemon that exists for one reason and one reason only. As if there weren’t enough clues, may I remind you that the KALOS REGION IS MEANT TO BE FRANCE!

DO YOU GET IT YET?!!!

So of course we have to have a French poodle. But wait, Furfrou doesn’t look like a French poodle? Well he does when you take him to the hair dressers and pay to have him styled like thus.

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The concept of a customisable Pokémon design is one I quite like. I’m a big fan of Rotom for example and adding more options like that I think is a good thing. But beyond the gimmick there isn’t anything else to Furfrou.

Espurr and Meowstic

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Please enjoy some of the internet’s finest Espuur death stare Memes.

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86f

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Also female Meowstic has a beret becasue IT’S SET IN FRANCE!!! FRANCE!!!!! FRAAAAANNNNNNNNNNCE.

 

 

Honedge, Doublade and Aegislash

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So this is a much better way to do the “it’s set in France” thing. France of course has a long history of chivalry and knights and the chivalrous values to some extent are still relevant in France today. Doing something with knights is a good idea and Honedge is a truly fantastic idea. A ghost sword is just inherently cool. Weapons are cool and weapon themed monsters are cool but the idea of this ancient blade coming to life to fight again just resonates with so much personality.

You can ruin a good concept with bad design though but fortunately Honedge is great. I love how the scabbard works as face but also reads as believable scabbard design. I love how the ribbon becomes a hand grasping the blade and I love the eye that appears to be part of the scabbard but is in fact built into the hilt. It’s a great idea executed flawlessly.

Doublade and Aegislash I like less but I still like. I’ve never been a fan of the combine two together evolution style so Doublade gets points off for that and Aegislash’s handle doesn’t look like any sword handle I’ve ever seen but overall a fantastic set of designs.

 

Inkay and Malamar

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So these two are just weird. In case you don’t know, to evolve Inkay you actually have to turn your 3DS upside down. This is because Malamar is just Inkay upside down so the tentacles turn into Malamar’s hair and the head fins turn into Malamar’s legs.

It’s a very clever idea and takes great skill to pull off effectively as they have but I can’t say I’m in love with the actual design of either monster.

Binacle and Barbaracle

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So its fair to say that Binacle is dumb. It’s a hand stuck to a rock with a face. Worse, it’s two hands stuck to a rock and I never liked the designs that feature more than one monster since something about it just strains my credulity. For example, you hatch an egg, you should get one Binacle, not two and a rock.

That said your theme is barnacle pokemon. I’m impressed you did it this well.

Oh and in case you’re wondering why they look like hands, they look like a Goose Barnacle which is a variety native to Japan.

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In case you’re wondering why that’s in a bowl, it’s because it’s food. Japanese people will eat anything that comes out of the sea.

Barbaracle should be everything I hate. I hate monster designs where more than one animal comes together, I didn’t like Binacle and I don’t like anthro monsters but Barbaracle is just kind of brilliant.  Having each limb also be a head is just neat. This isn’t like having three Diglett’s hanging out somehow equals a new organism this is 5 different organisms working together as one monster. That makes Barbaracle a  siphonophore, a colony of specialised multi-cellular animals so closely integrated they cannot survive on their own, like a Portuguese man of war. It also makes perfect sense, you never see just one barnacle you always see a few sticking to one rock, but having them co-operate to turn that rock into a body is clever.

Plus he looks grumpy, and I love all the grumpy faced monsters.

Skrelp and Dragalge

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I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I completely understand why they have so many fish, that doesn’t mean any of them are interesting.

Clauncher and Clawitzer

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I fucking love this!!!!

Firstly Clawitzer is based on an animal which is inherently awesome. He’s a mantis shrimp and if you don’t know why they’re fantastic watch this video.

 

BTW Nintendo, the one time it would have made sense to colour your animal like a clown having an accident in a paint factory you chicken out and make it blue.

So a mantis shrimp has the fastest punch in the animal kingdom, it can punch so fast it literally makes explosions!!! So how do we exagerate and cartoonify that?

Let’s turn one of its claws into an enormous cannon which is also shaped like a shrimp!

Genius!

I love Clawitzer and everything about it except it’s boring blue colouring, I want my Mega Evolution with an even more enormous cannon and a tiny body still the same size and I want it now Game Freak!

Helioptile and Heliolisk

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I don’t know why but I’ve always had a thing for frilled lizards. I think I can trace it back to The Rescuers Down Under where a frilled lizard is one of the cast and I just always thought he looked cool. Heliolisk however is no frilled lizard. This is a frilled lizard.

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That pathetic wimpy thing Heliolisk has round his neck can’t compare. I get that it’s meant to be a sunburst but  don’t get why they’re sun themed in the first place. They’re an Electirc type, sun is more of a fire type thing.

Tyrunt and Tyrantrum

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and

Amaura and Aurorous

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It has taken us 6 generations to get the most obvious dinosaurs out of the way. A T-Rex and an Apatosaurus,  probably the most famous and iconic dinosaurs that every kid aged 6 knows about. Before we got to them we did ancient sea scorpions, archaeopteryx and even trilobites (all hail Lord Helix). And I can easily see why, Sugimori just doesn’t have any interesting ideas for what to do with a T-Rex and an Apatosaurus.

Tyrunt starts well, the proportions sell baby dinosaur well and he looks both cute and powerful. Tyrantrum though, it’s a T-Rex. Admittedly It’s a T-Rex with an awesome beard but aside from a head crest (which is okay) and a fur collar (which is baffling) it’s just so-so.

Aurorous is much better. The basic problem with an Apatosaur design is one of body proportions. To fit the shape into the size restrictions in Pokémon you end up with a massive gap between the head and body. Adding the fin helps this and balances out the design but turning the fin into the Aurora Borealis and the curve of the Apatosaurus’ neck into a snow covered mountain side is just inspired.

Hawlucha

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I think we’re all agreed that Hawlucha is everyone’s favourite design this generation right? I mean, it’s a luchador hawk. All luchadors are inherently awesome and have visually interesting designs and the choice of animal, a high flying beastie with an intense stare just suits it perfectly. This little guy just exudes personality.

Goomy, Sliggoo and Goodra

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Okay, let me spoil Goomy for you.

Those two adorable little dots. Those aren’t eyes, they’re nostrils. The cute green chubby cheeks? They’re its eyes. Instead of being a cute cuddly wuddly goofball Goomy is in fact creepy and alien.

So Goomy, Sliggo and Goodra are based on slugs, snails and a H R Geiger guest directed episode of My Little Pony respectively. You’re probably thinking, okay, snails, that means France again right. And you’d be right. But you might also be wondering why the hell they’re dragon type? Well, let me tell you all about the Lou Carlcolh.

From Wikipedia

Lou Carcolh, or the Carcolh, is a supposed mythical beast from French folklore. It was described as being both a serpent and mollusk at the same time, taking characteristics from both types of animals. Its massive and long body carried an enormous shell upon its back, much like a snail‘s shell, that was believed to live in underground caverns in southwest France. Its gaping mouth was surrounded by several long, hairy, and slime covered tentacles that could extend for miles. These appendages stretched out from the cave it inhabited for a long distance and laid upon the ground among its own viscous slime. They would ensnare and drag back to its abode anything within reach. It would then swallow the victim whole with its gigantic mouth.

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image taken from Atlas Games

And since Dragon type refers more to being based in myth than any physiological characteristics, Goodra is a dragon.

Also beard. Horrible slimy chinbeard but still, beard.

Phantump and Trevenant

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So is Gen 6 the generation of “I can’t believe it took them this long to do that idea?” Because evil tree seems pretty obvious. Evil tree is like on of the first 10 monster ideas I come up with when I’m DM-ing. Certainly way before evil mask, evil candle or evil keys.

That said the reason it may have taken this long is again that I don’t think Sugimori has anything new to add to the idea. Trevenant is a generic evil tree that could appear in anything from Final Fantasy to a Mario game. In fact, with the relatively realistic proportions and high level of detail it doesn’t even feel particularly like a Pokémon design.

Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist

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I showed my fiance Pumpkaboo’s design when X and Y first came out and I don’t think she’s stopped squeeing since. I personally don’t get it. I agree he has a cute, fat bottom and his name is inherently funny but I kind of find him creepy.

I also like that they avoided the obvious route when making a Jack O Lantern monster. The added bat touches really make Pumpkaboo his own monster and give him his own distinct feel.

Bergmite and Avalugg

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I do like these two. Avalugg in particular has such a unique design, the flattened top is so distinctive and so different from not only every other Pokémon but most monster designs in general. And in a weird way it makes him seem powerful and imposing. It’s also a nice spin on the idea that iceberg’s are small on top and huge underneath. Bergmite is all top and is small, Avalygg is all bottom and is huge. And in addition to that it references one of the more bat shit insane moments from history. Check his Pokédex entry.

“The way several Bergmite huddle on its back makes it look like an aircraft carrier made of ice.”

That is a reference to a plan the British had in WW2 to build aircraft carriers in the North Sea made out of Pykrete, a sort of frozen cement made of wood chipping. Pykrete is actually an amazingly durable material, about as strong as steel and very cheap to make….provided of course you keep it frozen, but that isn’t as hard as you might think. Ice is a great insulator and the original Pykrete aircraft carier took 3 years to melt. Yes, years. The Mythbusters once made a boat out of it. You can read more about it here and find out why it was ultimately scrapped.

Noibat and Noivern

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It is entirely possible to read Noivern’s ears as the eyes of an owl looking sideways, this marginally improves this dull ass design.

Also another fur collar. Going back over the designs I actually count 18 fur collars this generation. That compares with only 5 awesome beards and that is catastrophic.

Yveltal

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Fur collar number 19. I know why it is here though, it helps balance out the shape.

I really like Yveltal. I’m a sucker for a few things and birds with horns are one of them plus turning those wings into hands. Yveltal has not one, not two but three weird hand wings (beating previous champion Lugia) and his pose makes him look like one massive grasping talon reaching out to get you. It’s all very cool and intimidating helped further by the black and red colour scheme, the lack of a mouth (which is always scary) and the weird but sinister black veins. It also incorporates the Y shape subtly but effectively. Between Xerneas and Yveltal we got two great legendaries this generation. Also, Gen 6 gives us the fewest legendaries yet with just 3. Yveltal, Xerneas and Diancie. Yeah I know about Hoopa and Volcanion but until they officially release them I won’t be reviewing them because I won’t be able to get a decent image and…

I forgot one?

Which did I forg..ohh. Oh.

Zygarde

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Is a piece of shit.

You want more, okay. He’s a Ground/Dragon. Nothing on his design says ground or Dragon. His Z is barely there and the shape is ruined by his back crest which is just one of many design elements which signify nothing. Why the back crest? Why is he covered in hexagons? Why is he asymmetrical?  This design is a combination of elements that neither work individually nor as a whole, he’s crap and I didn’t want to end the generation on him so let’s look at Hawlucha again.

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So much win.

In general Gen 6 is a mix of trying too hard but failing and succeeding but being boring which applies to the gameplay as much as the designs. That said Gen 6 has staked out a course. The first 5 Pokemon were all in one evolutionary tree getting better and better. But now, now nothing will ever be the same again and franky, I’m excited to see what comes next.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon 1

Guardians of the Galaxy 2014

Directed by James Gunn

Since the general consensus amongst critics seems to be that Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely amazing (as I write this it has a 92% on rotten tomatoes) I thought I’d take the unusual approach of listing all the flaws I thought it had.

It has weak villains

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This is becoming a major problem for Marvel Studios films. Although I have yet to come across a Marvel Studios film I don’t like, the lack of interesting villains is starting to become a noticeable theme. You’ve got Loki (who is amazing), various greasy arms/corporate guys in the Iron Man films and lots of big bad evil with a capital E ranting guys who want to destroy things (Malekith, Red Skull). Ronan the Accuser falls into the latter group and spends the majority of his screen time delivering overwrought dialogue that feels very super villainy but which doesn’t advance his motivation, pose an interesting ethical dilemma or even convey much personality. You can replace everything actor Lee Pace says with “I am evil” and get much the same effect.

It’s even worse in the case of Ronan since the comic’s version is a very good villain. Ronan is driven by very strong ideals of justice and obedience to the law, I’s just that the law he follows is inherently corrupt so he ends up on the side opposed to our heroes more often than not. He’s basically Javier in space with a hammer. Yet like all good villains he is the hero of his own story and like every Marvel villain ever who was written well enough he’s fallen on the side of angels a few times too.

Movie Ronan though, big evil dude with a hammer. The most character he gets is when Thanos says he’s pouty and my fiancé and I both laughed out loud because yeah, dude is really pouty.

Thanos seems awesome at this stage btw but is barely in the film. Yondu was okay but more of a side character than an antagonist and Nebula was just kind of there. The film gave her enough back story for a potentially interesting relationship with Thanos and Gamora but not enough screen time to explore it. I suspect we’ll see more of Nebula when we finally get to the Infinity Gauntlet.

Its action is underwhelming

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Nova Shield 7

In an action film you expect the action set pieces to be inventive, exciting and memorable. In Guardians they are largely not. They’re functional. Action happens in all the places you expect it to in the story and no action scene feels bad but equally none of them stand out for me as much as the Nightcrawler scene in X-Men 2, the battle for New York in Avengers (and the amazing shot that joins all the characters) or the Winter Soldier’s attack on the bridge. Guardians absolutely works as a comedy and the moments that stand out in the film are the gags and character beats but as an action film the action should be special too.*

Gamora is kind of dull

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Gamora’s character arc happens off-screen. She goes from being a universally renowned assassin working for some of the most dangerous villains in the galaxy to a good guy trying to save it between her first appearance and her second. That’s a big swing for a character and the actual character progression she has on screen during the film, going from having a stick up her ass to having it slightly less far up her ass, is not quite as compelling.

Worse still, because of the way the character dynamics are set up in this film Gamora ends up being the member of the team that is most noble, most concerned with helping others and saving the day. She fulfils a very necessary narrative function because without her the other fuck ups that form the Guardians would not be properly motivated to engage in the plot. It’s just a shame that they gave that function to Gamora who, in the comics, is one of the colder, less emotional, less noble and more badass characters. It leaves Gamora kind of bland since everything about her comic’s version is gone and the movie doesn’t invent very much to replace it with.

Having said that, this might only be a problem for people familiar with comic Gamora. I know plenty of people who loved her character and thought she made a refreshing change from female characters in other super hero films so maybe she only comes across as white bread compared to her more robust comic counterpart.**

It was thematically weak

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Rocket and Groot 3

This sort of comes back to the villain thing. The way super hero stories deal with theme most of the time is quite ingenious, you literalise it. You turn the thing you’re talking about into a person or object that your hero can interact with. Want to say that racism is bad? Make a super-villain called racist-man, give him racist themed super powers and have the X-Men punch him. Unsubtle and not very nuanced but awesome, and that’s one of the reasons I love super-hero stories.

When you have villains who are just evil for the sake of evil though you can’t do that. That doesn’t mean you can’t have thematic weight but you’ve sort of missed the point of super hero stories as far as I’m concerned. If you’re using Ronan your story normally is about the role of authority, that was not a factor in GOTG.

What theme’s Guardians does have are shallow and clichéd. The idea of making a surrogate family out of your friends is fine but it has been done to death and better in other sci-fi fare (most notably Firefly and Farscape which GOTG is heavily influenced by). The character’s do have arcs but the arcs don’t form a cohesive theme, Quill’s arc about learning to take responsibility has nothing to do with Gamora’s arc about being less stiff or Drax;s arc about coming to terms wit the loss of his family.

The plot was bobbins

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This is a flaw in basically every super-hero film except Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The plot can be a big part of the appeal of a story. Who wants what, why and how? What will happen next and where? Will our heroes live or die and what will the consequences of their actions be? You watch something like The Bourne films and the appeal is all in the plot. Same with a lot of TV, cliff-hangers, plot twists and developments in the story are exciting for the audience.

In most comic book movies though, the plot is merely a framework to get from one action set piece to another. Nobody gives two shits what Loki is doing in Avengers of why, they come for the character interaction and the fight scenes, they come for the awesome. Ditto GOTG, the story is very basic and largely devoid of much tension or enigma. However it provides a framework for great comedic and action set pieces.

That scene with Gamora and Star-Lord in space is bullshit

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It is and you know it.

So wait, you ask. You didn’t like the plot, the themes or some of the characters. Does that mean you didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy?

Guys.

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I absolutely adored it. It is awesome!

I can’t recall which critic said it but their review of Avengers was basically that it defied conventional critical analysis because the plot, themes and other things critics normally talk about were irrelevant to the success of the film. Avengers was about being awesome, and it delivered the awesome. Ditto GOTG except GOTG is more focused on being funny.

Another thing Avengers and GOTG have in common? Great writing, great acting and great direction. Those three things will cover a multitude of sins. Your movie can be an empty hollow nothing with a mess of a plot that’s got holes you can fly a space ship through but if you deliver interesting characters with charisma that I like hanging out with, have them throwing out dialogue which had me crying with laughter and it put them in a setting which is inventive and imaginative then you win. Worked for GOTG, worked for Star Wars, worked for Indiana Jones, worked for Clerks, worked for James Bond for 40 years and it’ll work again.

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Just as final note, Rocket and Groot are he stand out character undoubtedly but they’re also my favourite characters from the comics. What impressed me more was Drax, a fairly dull guy in the comics but hilarious on screen. Drax has been both a smart character and a dumb one in the comics over the years but the idea to make him of normal intelligence but completely literal is both hilarious and adds many layers to his character. Bautista’s performance was a revelation too, he has great comic timing and I’m hoping for big things from him in the future.

*The only action set-pieces people bring up are Yondu’s arrow and Groot smashing a row of villains both of which are really visual gags.

**on the topic of Gamora I just want to mention briefly that this film barely squeaks by the Bechdel Test since most of her interactions with Nebula revolve around the topic of Thanos or Ronan. They do have some dialogue about each other directly though so it passes. Next time I’d like to see Phyla-Vell, Moondragon or Mantis on the team to beef out the female character count a bit. Or even Star-Hawk in the both a man and woman incarnation of the character.

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Plot Synopsis

The issue starts with the rather emphatically named Deathstroke the Terminator being called before some mysterious guys in purple hoods who go by H.I.V.E. (The Hierarchy of International Vengeance and Eliminations) And as an aside right from the start can I point out that Deathstroke’s real name is Slade Wilson. This guy is seriously called Slade Wilson aka Deathstroke, the Terminator! One of those names would be sufficient for most mercenary bad asses but Slade’s sheer testicular fortitude cannot be contained by a mere one name.

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Deathstroke cuts right to business asking H.I.V.E. “Who do you want me to kill?”

It turns out they want him to kill the Teen Titans. Why? *shrug* I guess when you’re called The Hierarchy of International Vengeance and Eliminations you need to kill somebody.

They turn out to be surprisingly cheap mysterious guys in purples robes though because when Slade asks for the money up front they refuse. Slade calls the deal off and tries to leave but H.I.V.E. aren’t happy with his attitude and deploy their HR department in the form of some machine guns.

Slade escapes, in the process showing off his acrobatic abilities, grenades and bad attitudes and writes the meeting off as a waste of time. However H.I.V.E. were secretly recording Slade’s actions and taking DNA samples and they think they can recreate his powers to make a Terminator of their own.

Cut to Grant Wilson (and yes he is Slade Wilson’s son but, shush, that’s the big reveal) incredible dead beat loser and jerk arguing with his girlfriend. Grant is about to go full on Lifetime special on Carol when his abuse is interrupted by Starfire blasting him onto his ass with starbolts.

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Why are the Titans at Carol’s apartment? Well it turns out that after destroying her old one they felt obliged to set her up with a new one. Not sure how they managed that or why they feel they then have the right to just walk into her flat whenever they like but , hey, creep got star bolted so it’s all good.

Starfire, Wonder Girl and Kid Flash get summoned from Carol’s place to the docks where its time for a fight with hot pink robots!

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This scene exists to do things. Firstly it shows off our characters powers and code names again and secondly it prompts Starfire to finally learn English. Robin chews her out over not obeying orders and then laments that she can’t actually understand him. So Starfire kisses him and demonstrates that she has the power to learn languages by kissing people.

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This then prompts Changeling to continue to be a massive creep.

Look, I loved Beast Boy on the cartoon but Beast Boy was funny. Changeling all your ‘jokes’ are basically just you being a creep to women. Cut it out, right now.

So while all this has been going on Grant Wilson has donned an orange hospital gown (???) and is undergoing a procedure that will grant him 100% use of his brain!!

Sigh, oh comic book science.

In case you don’t know the little nugget that human beings only use 10% of their brain power is completely false. We use the full 100%. Now admittedly we don’t use the full 100% at any one time but that is for very good reasons. Different parts of your brain do different things and parts of it activate in sequence in order to trigger certain effects in your body or consciousness. We have a name for when these parts trigger out of sequence or when too many trigger at once. It’s called a seizure. So really Deathstroke’s real power is that he can function normally despite having seizure’s nearly constantly.

And whilst that is going down Raven is standing on an evil rock pleading with some eyes in the sky for forgiveness. Forgiveness that the eyes will not grant!

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The next day two things happen at once. First of all we go to Changeling’s mansion where…

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Oh fuck you Gar!

*ahem*

Anyway Changeling is having a pool party where we get to ogle Wonder Girl in a bikini and we learn that Starfire can’t go back to see her parents ever again.

At the same time Cyborg is in his dad’s lab arguing and we learn that Cyborg’s dad is dying. Cyborg doesn’t learn this yet though as he gets attacked by Grant Wilson, newly super powered and going by Ravager.

Ravager gets his ass handed to him by Cyborg but Deathstroke interrupts the fight, rescuing Ravager and telling him that his powers are killing him and if he uses them he’s going to die. Ravager ignores this and makes his way to the pool party to kill the Titans. Deathstroke joins him too and a battle royale begins.

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It’s a pretty great fight with Ravager and Deathstroke dodging and weaving between the 7 titans and both sides seem to be pretty evenly matched. That is until Ravager keels over. Yeah, turns out Deathstroke was right and Ravager’s powers have been artificially ageing him. He now looks like a mummy and is about to die. Before he does pass on though Raven plants an illusion in his mind of his greatest desire, the area strewn with the bodies of the deceased Titans. Satisfied his revenge has been sated Ravager dies with a smile on his lips.

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Deathstroke though blames the Titans and as he carries his son’s body away swears revenge against them. The Titans let him go though, showing compassion for their foe.

The issues ends with the H.I.V.E. again revealing that they have been manipulating all the events, pulling strings so that they can set Deathstroke up against the Titans without paying his extortionate price.

Issue 2 sets up an awful lot of plot elements that will come back to be more relevant in the book later on. The H.I.V.E. will be recurring antagonists and despite being dead we haven’t heard the name Ravager for the last time. Most significantly though this issue introduces Deathstroke the Terminator. The X-Men have Magneto, the Fantastic Four have Doctor Doom, the Titan’s have Deathstroke.

And fittingly he’s a character whose motivation ties into their theme. Deathstroke is basically a grieving parent, one who wants to lash out at the kids that were a bad influence on his own son and lead to his ultimate demise. Unfortunately his motivations don’t make a huge amount of sense, he really should be going after the H.I.V.E. and the fact that he blames the Titans is more of a plot contrivance than anything else.

In time Deathstroke will grow to be one of the most complicated and sympathetic antagonists in D.C. comics but here his motivations and personality are sketched in at best. That said he does come across as confident and effective right from the beginning. Slade is able to take on basically the entire Titan’s team single handed, and without super powers. He’s athletic, agile and armed with swords, sticks and guns. He’s sort of an evil Batman and again, considering this team is led by Robin, that makes him a perfect foil for them.

As for our main cast? Well the issue gives each team member roughly a page to spotlight their character and remind us what their deal is. Kid  Flash doesn’t get any actual development to his angst and the only extra thing we learn about Raven is that the big threat she’s preparing the team for has eyes. In contrast we see Cyborg’s antipathy to his father first hand and it is ugly. We also learn that Cy’s father is dying and is trying to reconnect with his son and apologise before he finally passes away.

The Titan that gets the most development in this issue though is Starfire. Appropriate considering she was the least developed of the newbies in the first issue. Kory is your typical free spirit, she thinks nothing of kissing Robin, she doesn’t understand why human beings need to wear clothes and she’s also naive about humanity in general.  She’s also got a dark side though. She doesn’t understand the concept of compassion for your enemy and thinks nothing of blasting pink robots to pieces even before she knows they’re robots.

I find it hardest to get a bead on Kory as a character out of all the Titans at this stage. She’s something of a stereotypical male fantasy, the uninhibited exotic princess who is eager to learn our ways and naïve about how the world works. Basically if Starfire were Asian she would be a very problematic stereotype but as an actual alien she just about scrapes past my politically correct sensor.

On the art side of things can we start with this cover.

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God damn I love that cover.

I really miss covers that had a sense of narrative to them and told you what was happening in the book you were going to buy. This cover really sells this issue. No reader can possibly think  that the entire team would be killed off in the second issue but covers didn’t really lie to the audience back then so you assumed there would be something like that scene appearing in the book. You therefore had to buy this issue to find out just what was happening! It’s a classic use of the enigma in marketing and I love it.

What I love significantly less is Ravager’s costume. Assymetric, weird ear things, little skulls on giant thigh high boots on a guy, random arm discs. Ravager is a mess of a character. This is unsurprising because George Perez, as good as he is an artist, is a terrible costume designer. How else would we have gotten HOT PINK ROBOTS!!!

I will just take a moment to briefly described the characters looks. Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl and Changeling all have existing costumes. I’ve never liked Robin’s outfit and the older the character is drawn the sillier it looks. Changeling’s look is pretty bland but considering he turns into animals and has the visually interesting bright green animal thing going on it’s kind of irrelevant. Wonder Girl and Kid Flash though have brilliant costumes. For both, the colours match the hero they’re a sidekick to but with a different heirarchy, Kid flash is primarily yellow with red highlights in reverse of the Flash. His loose hair conveys youth too in a subtle way and he just looks good on the page. Wonder Girl’s outfit has similar strengths helped by the fact that Perez draws a very beautiful Donna Troy and his great body language for her which always has her standing confidently.

For our newbies I’ll discuss Starfire a bit more when we get to her back story. Raven looks great. I love how her silhouette makes a bird shape using only a hood and a cape. The temptation would be to give her a mask of some sort to create the beak but the pointed hood pulls off the effect and has the bonus of feeling more mystical than traditionally super-heroic.

Cyborg is not the greatest design being mostly a guy who looks like he’s covered in bits of metal than a guy who is integrated with the metal but I have always liked his face mask. Nothing says cyborg better than half human face, half robot face.

Then we get to Deathstroke. hoo boy Deathstroke.

Deathtroke’s design is mixed. Like Cyborg I can forgive Perez’s fetish for assymtery because Slade is missing an eye and the half mask only showing one eye is mysterious and distinctive. I also get why he’s festooned in pouches, guns, sticks and swords since he is a skilled mercenary who uses all these weapons over the course of the issue.

But chain mail…on an acrobatic character? It didn’t make sense for Captain America and it doesn’t make sense for you either. Buccaneer boots? a massive dangling bandanna knot that anyone can yank? And worst of all the orange and blue colour scheme. It doesn’t look villainous or threatening it looks like he’s advertising Irn Bru.

In terms of his storytelling the main strength for Perez at this stage continues to be his figures, in particularly their body language. I mentioned Wonder Girl already but this approach applies to other characters too. Deathstroke always seems posed like he just landed or is just about to move again, he’s never still but constantly moving, ducking and weaving and for a character whose gimmick is supposed to be quick thinking it really sells him as a threat. Starfire is exuberant in her body language flinging her arms wide and always smiling, emphasising the character’s passion and Raven seems still and posed emphasising her restraint.

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Panel to panel wise Perez is using a grid but  shifts the number of panels in the grid, the layout and the proportions to best fit the needs of the scene. I particularly like the page where Ravager first attacks cyborg where the grid uses lots of different shapes and sizes as if emphasising the chaos of the attack in the layout of the page.

New Teen Titans Issue 2 is a nice follow up to the first issue. It goes over much of the same territory in re-establishing our main character’s personalities but adds a lot, 2 new villains, moves Kory’s arc along and has a nice fight scene t boot.

n223705326_6349730_4249You might think you know about Japan but if it’s simply sushi, samurai and Sony to you then think again. Here are 6 reasons you won’t find in any guidebook about why it’s great to live and work in Japan.

 

 

 

 

 

1. You’ll Get Treated Like A Celebrity.

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Japan is a very homogeneous society with only 1.5% of the population not being native born Japanese people, so most people you meet won’t have much experience with non-Japanese people. Rather than causing problems though this means you’ll get treated like a celeb. Strangers, especially kids, will want you to sign your autograph and take photos with them and lots of neighbours will want to take the new foreigner out to show off their own culture.

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If you live outside the big cities then everyone in your neighbourhood is likely to know you by name and don’t be surprised if you receive lots of gifts ranging from extra vegetables from their garden to bottles of fancy booze or even just a lot of time and help getting accommodated to living in Japan.  It can be very surreal but don’t worry, this attention usually fades over time as people get to know you. Still, it’s fun to feel like a star for those first few months.

 

2. You Can Live Life 24/7.

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The majority of Japanese people don’t leave the office until 9, 10 or even 11pm at night. This thankfully doesn’t usually apply to TEFL teachers but it means that in the big cities life carries on 24/7. Need a new sofa at 3 in the morning, need to pay your bills or just have the munchies? Chances are there is a department or convenience store open somewhere that can help you out.
In fact the only thing that does close early is the transport with train services normally ending at 11pm and the first train the next morning not starting until 6. This means that if you decide to go out to a club then your best bet is probably to stay out all night and head home the next day. Fortunately lots of places like karaoke bars or bowling alleys charge special discounted overnight rates that can make partying the whole night through until the next day actually work out cheaper than going out for a few hours in the evening.

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The variety of leisure activities you can do at night also outdoes anything in Europe or America. As well as the normal distractions of eating, drinking and dancing you can sing at karaoke, pet some cats in a cat café, read some Japanese comics in a manga café, play the night away in a gaming arcade or have a hot relaxing bath in an onsen (hot spring).

 

3. You’ll Try Amazing New Foods.

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Japan boasts some of the most diverse, delicious and delectable food in the whole world. You probably know all about sushi (pickled rice) and sashimi (raw fish) and you won’t find better anywhere else but have you ever tried okonomiyaki (a kind of a cross between an omelette and a pizza), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), shabu-shabu (a sharing hot pot filled with soup that you use to lightly cook vegetables and very thin slices of beef or pork) or Oden (eggs, mountain potatoes, daikon radish and lots of different kinds of fish cakes stewed in a soy broth)? The variety of food in Japan is astonishing, and even better, nearly everywhere you go has a local specialty so you’ll always be discovering new and even more delicious dishes no matter how long you stay.

Plus, possibly the biggest secret that outsiders don’t know about are nomihodai or all you can drink restaurants. You pay a set price per person per hour and then can drink as much as you like within that time. Shhh, keep that one a secret.

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And, in addition to the traditional treats, Japan puts its own delicious spin on other cuisines; like Kare Pan (a sort of crispy donut filled with curry) or Tonkatsu (tempura battered deep fried pork cutlets served with a Japanese version of Worcestershire sauce).

 

4. You Can Join In Fun Festivals.

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Japan loves a matsuri (festival) and is always looking for any excuse to have a party. Most festivals are free to enter and they’re so common that you can probably find something going on most weekends.

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Festivals range in size from small, local affairs put on by villages where a spectacular float containing a Kami (God) gets taken out for his exercise to city wide firework displays that last for hours.

Then there are the particularly famous festivals that draw in tourists from all over to visit. Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is a parade featuring gorgeous, ornate floats. Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka has hundreds of boats decorated with lanterns floating down the river. Yuki Matsuri in Sapporo has about a dozen enormous snow sculptures and hundreds of smaller ice sculptures lining the streets. There is even a naked man festival in Konomiya where thousands of barely clad men parade through the streets to the temple for the chance to receive a bundle of holy sticks.

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Whilst any tourist can simply visit the major festivals living in Japan means you get the chance to take part. So if you’ve ever fancied fighting in the nude for some sticks or taking god for a walk here is your chance. It’s an opportunity to experience something you’ll keep with you for your whole life.

 

5. You’ll Get Back To Nature.

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In Tokyo or Osaka it is easy to think that Japan is one massive cityscape with nothing but concrete, glass and steel as far as the eye can see. In reality through, because of the shape of the islands, you’re rarely more than an hour from the mountains in one direction or the beach in the other.
There’s a nice mix of nature in Japan to suit all tastes. If you just fancy a day trip then there are plenty of well trod hiking trails that are lined with the odd vending machine to quench your thirst. If you’re more of an explorer than there are still vast unspoilt cedar forests for you to get lost in and filled with interesting wildlife; wild boar, tanooki (raccoon dogs) and even Japanese macaques.

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Some of the particularly beautiful natural spots that won’t make the major guidebooks include; travel through the snow road cut into the Hokkoda Mountains which in springtime are covered in a pristine white layer of powder; take a hike along the elevated walkways that cross the Ayamedaira National Park and appreciate the stark beauty of the wetlands; go wind surfing on the enormous blue waters of Lake Biwa; play in the mini-desert of the Tottori sand dunes; join the throngs in watching the maple leaves in Miyajima turn a breathtaking shade of scarlet and hug an 1,800 year old cedar in the misty and ancient feeling Mount Haku National Park.

 

6. You Can Time Travel.

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In 1603 Japan closed its borders to the rest of the world and for the next 200 years its technology and culture remained largely unchanged until, in 1868, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy forcibly opened the borders delivering overnight two centuries worth of changes and new technologies.

The result of this is that instead of a gradual change there is a marked line between the past and the present and even today wooden temples that are hundreds of years old stand side by side with modern sky scrapers.

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It’s easy to time travel in Japan, walk anywhere and you’re soon likely to find an old shrine hidden in the corner of even the busiest metropolis. But it’s more than just buildings and artefacts. Rituals and festivals keep history alive. Traditional dress is still worn on special occasions and traditional crafts are still practised. Head to Arashiyama and you can still see cormorant fishing. On Sado island they still use barrel boats because the shape and manoeuvrability makes them well suited to fishing along that coast. Walk the streets of Gion and expect to see Geisha rushing to appointments, walking, living symbols of Japan’s past.

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And these aren’t mere tourist attractions but things you can join in too. Come autumn time you might just be invited to help your neighbours make mochi (rice cakes) the traditional way, by whacking wet rice with a great big wooden mallet.

 

 

Of course this article can only skim the surface of all the secrets and wonders waiting for you to discover for yourself. Maybe you’ve been to Japan and think we’ve forgotten one of the best reasons to live there, in which case please tell us in the comments below. The only way to really get to know Japan is to go and experience it and maybe you’ll discover the next hidden treasure. Don’t wait, start your adventure today by talking to one of our TEFL Experts.

 

image attributation; Illustration by tofugu.com, “Shibuya Crossing at Night” by Tony Northrup, “Okonomoiyaki,” “Oden,” “Kare Pan,” “Matsuri,”  “Hanabi” and “Cormorant Fishing” are used under a Wikimedia Commons license. all other images by Richard Adam Halls.

Summer Wars

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Summer Wars is very nearly a flawless movie.

And I use that term very specifically. A flawless movie means that I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. It doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is great merely that you can’t find fault in its execution. I’ve seen a very few flawless films in my time but even of the ones I have seen they aren’t my favourite kind of film. I’m much more interested in films that are trying to do something new or interesting even if their reach exceeds their grasp. Ambitious failures are more exciting than lazy successes.

Summer Wars is flawless and its got just enough creativity, engaging themes and new things to say to compensate for a straight forward plot and ideas that are not particularly original.

Summer Wars tells the story of Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) a high school student who has just missed out on the chance to represent Japan at the math olympics. He’s preparing for a dull Summer in a job as an administrator for OZ.

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What’s OZ? Well it’s a social media platform that has kind of replaced traditional browsers. In OZ you can do anything you can on the internet, banking, work, shopping, social interaction and of course play games. But rather than just reading text on a screen you have a custom avatar that inhabits a virtual world and interacts with its surroundings visually and in multiple dimensions. Want to go shopping? Well you can take your avatar to a shop and have it wander around the same as you would on the high street.

Kenji’s boring Summer plans get interrupted when he gets offered a Summer job working for Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) a girl who has just graduated high school this year and also a girl that Kenji has a massive crush on. She wants him to accompany her to her Grandmother’s home to attend her 90th birthday party. What Natsuki doesn’t tell our hero until he arrives is that he’s pretending to be her over achieving fiance from a perfect family. Turns out Granny Shinohara hasn’t been feeling well recently and Natsuki said she wasn’t allowed to die until she met her boyfriend, a boyfriend that didn’t exist.

Kenji of course thinks this is both unfair and impossible and has a stressful day answering questions and being sized up by the extended Shinohara family including black sheep uncle Wabisuke Jin’nôchi.

He gets distracted from his problems though when a mysterious message arrives composed of numbers. Thinking it’s a maths problem he spends all night deciphering it and then sends the finished code back to the mysterious sender. And this turns out to be the secret backdoor password into OZ. And Kenji has just given the password to a malicious A.I. named Love Machine that immediately starts causing chaos and havoc in OZ. Worse, since OZ effectively is the internet the chaos has major ramifications for the real world, fire engines are dispatched to fake emergencies, traffic seizes up into miles long gridlocks, medical monitoring equipment stops working. Whoops.

Now the race is on for Kenji to fix what he did and he discovers along the way just how much the Shinohara’s are inextricably linked to the fate of Oz, himself and the world.

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At face value Summer Wars is a Cyberpunk story, and not a particularly original one. The notion of an alternate virtual world that reflects how the internet works goes all the way back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984 and variations on the idea have appeared in Snow Crash, The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Tron, ReBoot and even Digimon.  In fact Summer Wars is in part a re-make of the second short from the first Digimon movie known in Japan as Bokura no wô gêmu! Or “Our War Game.” Director Mamoru Hosoda was also responsible for that short and the plot, basic concept and a lot of the animation is freely recycled from his earler effort.

What many of those other examples share though is that they’re set in the future and so feature other sci-fi or fantasy elements. Tron and Digimon feature people actually travelling to the digital world. Neuromancer and snow Crash features cyborgs and other SF technology that reinforce their theme of how people and technolgoy interact.

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In contrast Summer Wars is firmly set in real world Japan pretty much exactly how it works, looks and feels in 2010. And this is because Summer Wars is only half a cyberpunk story. The other half is concerned with the family and relationship drama of the Shinohara’s. The dynamics, tensions and alliances of the Shinohara’s are beautifully observed and feel so real to me. Kenji’s stress and panic when he’s the one outsider in a group of 20 or so people, all with names he struggles to remember, completely echoes the way I felt when I first stayed with my fiance’s relatives in Tokyo. Even if you don’t have any experience of Japanese culture though you’ll recognise and empathise with the way each family member teases the others, slots into a defined role, makes sub-groups within the larger family, etc.

Summer Wars really is about the contrast between communication amongst families and communication online. It’s about how the human dynamics of 2 thousand years adapt to the technology of the modern world. And it’s a story that could not be told more perfectly than in Japan. I’ve remarked numerous times that one of the things that stands out to me about Japan is about how the very high tech and the very ancient live together. Outside of Japan countries adapted to the changes of technology gradually, each new invention necessitating changes in how human beings lived and thought. But Japan remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years until the Meiji Revolution when, boom, all the benefits of the industrial revolution came completely overnight.

It meant that Japan had to adapt fast to change and the way they managed it largely was to isolate and section off their lives, this bit is traditional, this bit is new. Like the paper walls that section off a Japanese home they could create invisible notional walls that left both the old and the new in the same place, but separate.

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The Shinohara’s are a particularly good example of this. A samurai family with a large traditional house that made their money from silk. They have unusually strong ties to Japan’s past and are proud of their heritage. But they all have cell phones, the kid’s all have game boys, one son is a professional baseball player, another is a computer programmer and one more sells computers. They’re as much a part of the modern world as anybody.

Summer Wars is not alone in being about the tension between technology and tradition in Japan, Mononoke Hime and Hi-No-Tori cover similar ground in greater depth and complexity. What Summer Wars does get right though is that it doesn’t pick a side. Very often in films about the importance of family or the environment tech gets demonised and the audience is encouraged to root for nature. Not so in Summer Wars. Tech can cause problems but it also, ultimately, saves the day. The strong family bonds of the Shinohara’s help them organise and get through the crisis but it’s a failure in family dynamics that inadvertently causes the threat in the first place. And one character dies explicitly because tech that was keeping them alive no longer works. Tech is not the bad guy, nor even is the reliance on tech.

What is the bad guy though, in every instance, is a lack of communication.  Kenji not knowing the situation he’ll be in stresses him out, which leads him to solve the maths problem and not knowing who sent that problem leads to the problem in OZ. Wabisuke not knowing that he is loved and forgiven leads to the creation of the Love Machine. Equally every problem is solved through communication. There is an amazing sequence of Granny Shinohara phoning people up during the first OZ crisis and pulling seemingly the whole of Japan through the problem with stern words of admonition and others of encouragement. Kenji is able to get the gear he needs to fight Love Machine due to the family connections of the Shinohara’s each of who can contribute a particular skill or talent showing that we’re stronger together than fighting alone.

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If there is one criticism of Summer Wars it is that technology doesn’t work that way. The depiction of OZ is one thing but the damage that Love Machine is able to do because he hacks OZ is simply impossible. And the idea that punching a giant monster, which is rendered in code in a graphics engine, with a rabbit avatar which is equally rendered in code in a graphics engine would somehow re-write or alter code is frankly silly, a useful visual allegory but silly. I think the film gets a buy on this though. Every film gets to do one impossible thing and for me with Summer Wars I’ll let it slide that the internet doesn’t work that way. Partly because although the internet doesn’t work that way the way the film depicts how people use the internet, what our relationship with communications technology is and what it does to us is 100% spot on. I know for some people though this is an insurmountable obstacle, and all I can say is I wish you could get past it to experience just how good Summer Wars is.

Every other element is, as I say, flawless. The acting and script are just perfect. The movie has a very naturalistic feel despite the big SF concepts which again supports the contrast between the real world and OZ. Even better the script is brimming with humour and nice character moments. This film has a huge cast of characters, many of whom get maybe one line of dialogue and most of whom have names I couldn’t tell you. Yet they don’t feel interchangeable, everyone feels like a real person and distinct from the others. With only a few lines of dialogue, the acting and the animation everyone is able to bring each character to life.

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The animation too is spectacular, right up there with Ghibli. Supplied by Madhouse, who also did the stunning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Millennium Actress, the scenes in the real world look nearly photo realistic with amazing attention to the background details. The characters are just stylized the right amount, nobody looks like an obvious cartoon like Disney or Ghibli but they still move and emote with energy whereas many realistic animated films feel stiff and lifeless.

That realism is crucial for selling the contrast between the real world and OZ. In OZ though the animators are free to indulge in their wildest fantasies and OZ is full of striking, inventive and memorable visuals to rival other eye candy anime like Evangelion or Spirited Away. I particularly like how there are no  black lines in OZ, everyone is instead outlined in another primary colour such as red. It gives the effect of making OZ seem more ethereal and the real world more real by comparison.

Pacing, direction, music, atmosphere; everything else is just perfect for what the film needs them to do.

Summer Wars is an absolute must see.

 

 

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Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters (2013)

Directed by Tommy Wirkola

The opening credits sequences of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is pretty cool. It’s done in a style reminiscent of early printing, sort of like wood block art and it depicts the titular siblings beating up witches as they grow up and their fame grows with them.

It lasts for ages though. After a minute we quickly get that these two are indeed bad ass witch killers. Yet the scene just keeps going and going. The first time I watched this film I wondered why it was in there. Having seen the finished movie though, I know exactly why. It’s because without that scene you might wonder if Hansel and Gretel have actually managed to kill any witches at all.

Seriously, they get their asses handed to them repeatedly. The film has about 4 major action sequences involving the siblings fighting witches and in all but the last one the witches smack them around like they’re kittens in a bag. Fortunately, for plot related reasons, the two are immune to magic which means the Witches can’t blast them with spells but you know what isn’t immune to magic? Tree branches. And you know what isn’t immune to tree branches? Skulls. If you ever wanted to see people magically smash Hawkeye and a bond girl in the face with floating wood then you will not be disappointed by Hansel and Gretel.

My favourite example of just how massively incompetent they are is that Hansel (aka Jeremy Renner aka Hawkeye and yet at no point does he fire a bow and arrow which is a huge waste of a gag movie!) not once, but twice employs a strategy of “grab onto broom stick and get dragged along by evil witch.”  The first time he does this he gets dragged along the forest floor and his head smashed into a rock (which unaccountably does not kill him). The second time he does this he ends up falling off the broom from about, oooh 200 feet up, and landing in a tree. This also does not kill him. So presumably Hansel is also immune to gravity and rocks.

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Anyway, incompetence aside, what is this movie about? Well the film starts with the story of Hansel and Gretel you know rendered fairly faithfully to the Grimm version, assuming their version was art directed by Tim Burton and included the word “bitch.”

Having roasted an old lady the two kids decide they have quite the taste for murder and grow up becoming famous Witch Hunters the world over.

Cut to a town whose name I don’t care about in Germa-hun-slo-po-rus-den. Children are being stolen and the people blame witches!

that's bad

Fortunately they’ve found one!

That's Good

Unfortunately she turns out not be a witch.

that's bad

Fortunately Hansel and Gretel are here to catch the real one.

That's Good

Unfortunately there is a blood moon coming and witches will be more powerful than ever at that time. And the head witch (Famke Janssen who imdb tells me played ‘Muriel’ which is not the most threatening of villain names) has found a potion that will remove a witch’s main weakness, fire.

that's bad

Fortunately for our heroes the witches’ potion only works temporarily and requires Gretel’s heart to be made permanent.

Why does it require Gretel’s heart? Well it turns out she’s a white witch. As was Hansel and Gretel’s mother and that is why they’re immune to magic.

BTW movie, a witch tried to eat them once and they’re at this moment stealing and killing children. I think Hansel and Gretel have enough motivation to hate witches without needing to avenge their family.

Also turning out to be a white witch is the woman at the start of the film that Hansel rescued from the crowd. The woman he explicitly said was not a witch. Again, not the world’s best witch hunters here folks.

Oh and the other white witch is not immune to magic because…hey look a troll!

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So that’s your movie folks. Muriel *snort* wants to kill Gretel and kidnaps her, Hansel and white witch lady rescue her, witches get slaughtered, the end! Oh plus a troll and a fanboy are somehow involved.

 

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is of course dumb schlock, but it’s not terrible schlock.  Lets’ get the obvious problems out of the way first. The plot is bobbins, there is no attempt at theme or saying anything, the editing is iffy and the acting ranges between scenery chewing and phoned in.  Jeremy Renner’s costume is actually not far off his Hawkeye outfit and I’m sort of wondering if he shot all his scenes while they were setting up shots of Avengers. Also I’m 90% certain that Famke Janssen is only in this because they filmed it near where she lives and so she didn’t have to travel to do any work.

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So yeah, its crap; but it does have a few things going for it. It looks pretty great actually. Considering the budget the effects are well done and the costumes and make-up are also pretty creative. Edward the Troll looks better than similar monsters in much higher budgeted films. The witches in particular are a delight. The movie posits that a witch’s appearance reflects their inner darkness and so these witches are all mutated in varied and interesting ways. One witch has a massive goitre, another has no legs, there is a pair of witches conjoined at the back who are awesome! We even have a black witch which makes this film more diverse than pretty much any film set in historical Europe, even if she is a baddie with no lines.

On a similar note is the gore. Now I’m not a gorehound by any stretch of the imagination but the gore in Hansel and Gretel is surprisingly effective. It doesn’t wallow on entrails like an old 70’s gorefest nor is it amazingly creative in the violence like many anime are. What it does is just follow the consequences of an action for about a second or two more than Hollywood conventionally does. So for example when Edward the Troll crushes a guy’s head, normally you’d get a cut and a sound effect but here, nope, we see head crushing. Like I say, not normally a gore guy but the film is cartoony enough that the gore sort of adds to the fun. Evil Dead is the closest comparison I can think of although that comparison gives this film far too much credit.

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Where Hansel and Gretel has the most fun though is in the setting. The film is wildly anachronistic mixing up elements from as early as the 13th century to as late as the 19th and mixing styles and fashions from all over Europe. It sets its stall out early though with milk bottles that have got missing children posters strapped to them in string. Basically we’re doing, everyone and everything is completely modern but set is the past.

I kind of love that. It’s a big part of the appeal of the Discworld books for me and Hansel and Gretel has fun with it. I draw the line at the weapons though. I love steampunk, I love clockpunk and I’m an easy mark for mixing modern high tech weapons and fantasy weapons. I like Warhammer for god’s sake, a game that features Dwarves flying helicopters. Movie, I’m on your side with this. But Gretel has a crossbow that rotates to fire two bolts at 90 degrees to her.

No, no movie that is stupid. Not cool, not fun, just dumb. Really damn dumb.

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My only real problem with the film is its gender politics, and not for the expected reason either. Witches are inextricably linked with the oppression of women historically and normally in cinema witch hunters are unequivocally the bad guys, persecuting innocent women for their own gain. I also grew up in the 90’s, the era of New Age and the birth of Wicca as a popular movement. That means I’m even more inclined to automatically view witches as at worst misunderstood good guys who worship flowers.

But in this film witches are basically just monsters, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes I like a vampire movie where the vampire is a tortured and conflicted romantic, other times I want a scary monster. Here they’re scary monsters.

No the gender problem is that Gretel gets horrendously mistreated by this film.

She starts out being all bad ass and competent, shooting witches in the face with crossbows and head butting sexists in the nose! She has personality, she argues but she also jokes and she is a pretty great lead. She certainly comes across as more interesting that Hansel, if only because Gemma Arterton is having the time of her life hamming it up whereas Jeremy Renner looks like he woke up from a hangover and doesn’t realise people are filming him.

Then in the second act she suffers from the fact that both she and Hansel are just, really, really bad at their job guys.

Finally in the third act this happens to her. She gets assaulted by the Sheriff’s men (yeah there is a Sheriff in this film, he is not important) who attempt to rape her. Then she gets captured by Muriel *snort* tied up in bondage and stands there chained to a wall during the climactic battle.

I mean, she does get freed and do some shooting in the final battle but she went from arse kicker in leather trousers to damsel in distress in less than an hour.

And there is no need for the attempted rape whatsoever. I know why it’s there. Its story function is to  set up that Edward has to protect Gretel which is a clue that she’s secretly a witch. And it’s other function is that “we’re doing a revisionist take on fairy tales, yeah, with realism, yeah, and women got raped like all the time in the past so that’s realistic, yeah.”

But there are soooo many other ways you can set up the Edward thing and the attempted rape adds nothing. It’s sleazy, It’s gross, it’s exploitative and it makes the film much worse for being there.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care either except Hansel and Gretel was doing really well beforehand. It handily passes the Bechdel test and up until the ruining of Gretel all of the female characters had personality, agency and motivations that didn’t revolve around men. That just makes it all the worse when it does the typical Hollywood bullshit at the end.

So that’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Should you watch it? Meh. It isn’t a bad film but I’d have a hard time recommending it to someone because there isn’t anything especially novel in it. Unless you like seeing Hawkeye brained with branches. If you want to see that then no other film ever made will satisfy you more.

 

Richard Halls

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014 Director: Bryan Singer

The first 10 minutes of Days of Future Past were pure fan service, delivering cool moment after cool moment and making this X-Men fan boy squee uncontrollably.

I’ve largely enjoyed Fox’s X-Men movie franchise (with the exception of The Last Stand which is pure garbage) but I very early on had to separate them from the X-Men I know and love from the comics. The X-Men films were largely their own thing, much more like a conventional action movie than a translation of the storytelling style of the comics to screen.  This is fine of course. When you adapt something from one medium to another, changes will occur and that’s a good thing. You also have to remember that X-Men was basically the first film that kicked off the modern age of super-hero films. They were taking a big risk adapting the X-Men and were understandably cautious about many of the things they were trying. Hence the all black costumes, the action scenes which borrow far more from the Matrix than from X-Men comics and the original plot rather than any attempt to adapt an existing comics storyline.

Times have moved on though. Captain America can wear his comic book costume in all its four color glory in The Avengers and no one bats an eye. Super-heroes are common and accepted by audiences now and so you can push the boat on what aspects of the comics you use in your film rather than trying to be conservative.

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As such that first few minutes gave me teams of mutants, working together and using their powers in interesting ways! Costumes with colour and that aren’t just black uniforms. Blink! Goddamn Blink in all her pink face tattooed glory. The Blackbird! Sentinels! Iceman using Ice slides! ICE MOTHERFUCKING SLIDES! I was in nerdvana let me tell you.

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The scenes with the future X-Men bookend the film but the confidence that you can take the audience further and do more daring things than a conventional action film permeates the rest of the movie. One of my favourite things about super-heroes is the creative ways their powers can be employed and X-Men: DOFP is full of scenes that show this off in startlingly original and visual ways. Blink’s portal powers are stunning and some of the stuff Magneto does is very clever but the real star of the show is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver who gets one of the most unique set pieces in action movie history and absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

There’s more fan-service too including cameos from basically every X-Man to appear in the franchise thus far (the only omissions are Nightcrawler because Alan Cummings wasn’t prepared to undergo the make-up again for a cameo and Angel because everyone wants to forget Last Stand.) and plenty of Easter Eggs.

But the fan-service stuff is mostly confined to the beginning and end of the film. For most of its running time the story it’s telling is at once not at all like the X-Men and actually something right at the core of the franchise.

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X-Men: DOFP is of course an adaptation of the seminal “Days of Future Past” story-arc by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In that tale, Kitty Pryde is sent back in time from an apocalyptic future to stop Mystique from killing Senator Kelly. Kelly was an advocate for a piece of legislation called the Mutant Registration Act and his death increases anti-mutant sentiment which leads to more support for the Sentinel Programme (a programme that builds giant mutant hunting robots) and eventually to the apocalyptic future.

X-Men: DOFP starts from the same premise with a few tweaks. Rather than killing Senator Kelly Mystique is trying to kill Bolivar Trask, the creator of the sentinel programme because Kelly is dead in the movie continuity. Also rather than Kitty Pryde being sent back it’s Wolverine. Whilst I am annoyed that both the character of Kitty Pryde and Ellen Paige’s performance get thrown under a bus in favour of more Wolverine I completely understand the film maker’s decision to use him. He is by far the biggest and most popular character in the franchise whereas most viewers might not even remember who Kitty Pryde is from her brief screen time in X3. Also if we use the mind transfer plot device from the comics then the only candidates for time travel are Wolverine, Magneto and Prof X and obviously the film wants to be about the 1970’s versions of Prof X and Magneto so that only leaves Wolverine. To make up for it Kitty randomly gets new “I can send people back in time powers” that she nicks off Rachel Grey. Because adding Rachel Grey to the movie continuity would have been way more of a headache than was worth it for anyone.

DF-11515   Peter Dinklage is Dr.Bolivar Trask in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Wolverine doesn’t actually get to do a huge amount in the film though. He gets some nice making fun of the 70’s gags but he’s largely just there to move the plot along after that and have some short character stuff with Ryker. He doesn’t even get into a decent fight scene which seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity (although we do have 5 films of Wolverine fight scenes already). In fact most of the characters in this film exist either to move the plot along or to have a brief cameo and do something cool with their powers. Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask, for example, is supposed to be our villain but he plays basically no part in the climax and has only one direct confrontation with the heroes. He gets juuuuust enough screen time so that he comes across not as a one dimensional villain and Dinklage is one of those charismatic actors that makes their character feel real and lived in even without much screen time.

 

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In fact, the acting in this film is uniformly excellent. The X-Men films have generally been graced with excellent casting as one of their strengths. One of the reason’s the first three worked as well as they did is that old pros like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen can elevate a poorly written script with very well considered performances.  DOFP is no different and the film is generally at its best when it just lets two performers in a scene act at each other. There isn’t anything in here to hit the heights of ‘Magneto Nazi Hunter’ but stuff like McAvoy and Stewart’s cross time Xavier meet-up is joyous and McAvoy and Fassbender retain their fascinating screen chemistry.

And it’s a good thing they do because for most of the film this is a triple header between James McAvoy’s young Professor X, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.

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The film set’s these three up as a trinity opposed along different extremes with at various times one character in the centre, generally Mystique. So for example Mystique is the active character for most of the first act opposed to Magneto imprisoned in a cell and Xavier imprisoned in drugs and emotional crisis. Then we get Xavier preaching non-violence in stopping Mystique opposed to Magneto wanting to kill her and Mystique as the target. Or we get Magneto as a proud mutant who wears a costume proclaiming it versus Mystique who is a proud mutant but can hide who she is versus Professor X who is literally taking a drug so that he stops being a mutant.*

The main trinity of course is between Xavier’s dream on one hand, Magneto’s on the other and Mystique in the middle, someone who was part of the X-Men and part of Magneto’s Brotherhood but is now striking out on her own. Xavier tries to win Mystique back to his side, of a dream that mutants and humans will co-exist and that the best way to do this is to set a good example, showing humans they can be heroes and saviours. Magneto argues that humans will never trust mutants and the only way to survive is to instil a terror of mutants in the humans, to set themselves up as rulers so the humans are powerless to attack them. Mystique sits in the middle, wanting a better world for mutants but unsure of the method to achieve it. She is pragmatic and cynical in what she is prepared to do but she has not yet killed to get what she wants, not yet crossed the line into terrorism and it’s the battle for Mystique’s soul that the film really concerns itself it with.

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This battle of course is one of the driving forces in the X-Men comics but despite Magneto being in 4 X-Men films to date this is the first one to really concern itself with that central issue. And unlike many X-Men stories where you are inherently on Prof X’s side the film plays fair with it. Magneto’s viewpoint is bolstered by the fact that the future where Human’s hunt Mutant’s to extinction happens, it’s shown to us at the start of the film and despite everything Xavier and Magneto do it still seems to be inevitable. And yet the day is ultimately saved when Mystique chooses Xavier’s path, showing compassion for her enemies and not giving in to violence to achieve her arms. It’s only when they truly give Xavier’s dream a shot that the future becomes a better place.

The 70’s setting gives this theme a rich resonance too with the dreamers of the 60’s the civil rights activists, sexual revolutionaries and of course the X-Men literally destroyed by the Vietnam war leaving a more cynical, less compassionate and more pessimistic America in its wake. First Class did something similar using the backdrop of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the Cuban missile crisis to give the illusion of depth to its story but First Class basically rhymed with history to seem smart. DOFP in contrast has actual themes which parallel history but could also equally apply to today. The whole Sentinel aspect, for example, could be read as a cry to use compassion in winning the war on terror rather than drone strikes.

It’s this thematic depth that ultimately makes DOFP stand above any of the other X-Men films, and indeed most Super-Hero films. I’d still probably rate X2 as the most entertaining X-Men film and the best composed as an action piece but for what its worth I think DOFP might be the best X-Men film now.

It’s not without weaknesses though. A Super-Hero film necessitates action and DOFP seems to know this but to be singularly uninterested in it. Sure enough an action scene comes along approximately every 10 minutes according to some script writing guide somewhere but most of them are perfunctory and devoid of tension or excitement. Mystique beating up the ambassador for example is neither exciting, nor tense, nor an interesting use of her powers, nor building of character. It is a scene that exists purely because we haven’t seen anybody hit something for a while and it’s exactly the kind of Hollywood laziness that DOFP generally avoids. DOFP has three and a half really good, inventive and well shot action sequences but it really needed one more. Still that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent film.

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*As an aside this plot point is something of a stroke of genius. Clearly at some stage two production/story problems emerged. Firstly they were going to have one of their main characters in a wheel chair, which causes a nightmare for the production and lots of headaches that I’m sure they’d rather not have to deal with. Secondly Xavier’s power set is so powerful that he could legitimately end the story in about 5 minutes if he was working at full capacity. The plot device that the “cure” for Xavier’s paralysis dampens his psychic abilities not only deals with both issues at a stroke but it adds the idea of Xavier as a kind of metaphor for the downfall of hippies as the 70’s rolled in. His ideals of peace and love have decayed into drug abuse and mental problems. His self-identity as a mutant/hippie/campaigner has been crushed much like the dreams of hippies everywhere were by Vietnam. It’s an inspired McGuffin.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

X-Men DOFP is the first example I can think of where a film employs a ret-con. For those who don’t know a ret-con is short for retroactive continuity and it basically means that what you saw before in a story didn’t happen the way you thought you saw it. A good example from comics is Swamp Thing. Originally conceived as Alec Holland, a scientist who was reborn as swamp monster after an experiment gone awry Alan Moore ret-conned the origin so that Alec Holland died and the Swamp Monster created by the experiment merely thought it was Alec Holland.

Other films, especially sequels, have played fast and loose with continuity before and chosen to ignore other films in the series. Superman Returns, for example, is a sequel to Superman and Superman 2 but ignores Superman 3 and 4. DOFP however is the only film I can think of that provides a reason in the context of the story for how one of the previous films you watched, namely Last Stand, never happened. Basically it uses time travel as an excuse to undo the huge amount of damage that disaster did to the franchise. This made me happy, really happy. We might never get a film set in the timeline of the first 3 films again but if the future shown for he X-Men in DOFP is all we get I’ll still be satisfied.

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The 70’s setting is realised quite well until we get to the Sentinels who in no way shape or form look a thing like 1970’s technology. They look like I-Pods with guns.

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The X-Men films have not been shy of plundering the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for some obscure characters before (First Class had Azazel  in it for fuck’s sake from the one X-Men story we all collectively decided did not happen the moment it ended) but I still cannot believe that Ink is in this film. He gets no dialogue and nobody names him or explains his deal but that is unmistakeably Ink. For those who don’t know Ink his power is that whenever he gets a tattoo he gets a new super-power that relates to the image of the tattoo. Now X-Men fans are prepared to accept as part of the suspension of disbelief that mutant powers can give you such diverse super powers as the ability to teleport through space, the ability to absorb other people’s super powers by touch, the ability to  make copies of your own body out of seemingly nothing and a million and other powers that shit all over physics and give biology a swirly. However Ink was where we all collectively cried, bullshit. No, nobody has that as a mutant power. That is dumb. They made it slightly less dumb when they later ret-conned it so that Ink didn’t have super-powers, his tattoo artist did, and his power was to give other people super-powers and the tattoos just served to define what power they got. That at least explained how Ink’s body somehow new that the biohazard symbol would make people sick but it was still stupid. Ink was quickly put into a coma and nary a single fuck was given about him since. I honestly can’t find you a more despised X-Man, and yet, here he is.

 

 

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