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Big Hero 6 (2015)

big-hero-6-poster

Direct by Don Hall and Chris Williams

So after a couple of articles all about Big Hero 6, the comic, and my thoughts on the possible ways Disney could adapt it I finally got a chance to watch the finished product.

And it’s pretty fantastic.

But what did I think about it as an adaptation?

Big-Hero-6-Characters-

Well, despite that being the topic of all my previous posts on Big Hero 6 when I got to see the finished film it quickly became apparent that this is one of the loosest adaptations of any property ever. I kind of suspected as much once we started to get some character and plot details, and also from the total lack of any acknowledgement that this is a Marvel property but the main things the film and comic share are some names, some powers (loosely), a few design elements (even looser) and a sort of Japanese feel.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. None of the original characters are particular winners (well, maybe Sunfire but he’s originally an X-Men supporting character/anti-hero) and nobody’s powers had an amazing unique concept (although I do like Fred and his Kaiju monster aura). There isn’t a great definitive Big Hero 6 story that everyone loves so, yeah, as long as you keep the high concept of super-heroes but vaguely Japanese, change whatever you want.

So how is the film itself as its own beast?

(Spoilers, sort of, most of this is set-up)

big-hero-6-tadashii

Well, the film tells the story of Hiro (Ryan Potter who is Japanese/American, which is fantastic), young orphaned genius and his older brother Tadashii (Daniel Henney and FYI Tadashii is not a name. Is it so hard to ask a Japanese person if the word you’re using for a character name is a real first name of total gibberish? Well, not gibberish since it does mean right or correct but it isn’t a first name) who is similarly a genius. Hiro spends his days hustling illegal street bot fights for cash, Tadashii spends his days at University in a specialised programme for geniuses where they get to work on whatever interests them. Tadashii is dismayed at his brother’s lack of ambition and brings him to his school to see his latest project, Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable medical robot that will live in people’s homes and help them with psychiatric and physical medical assistance. There Hiro also meets Tadashii’s friends who are all idiosyncratic geniuses with their own interests and personality quirks. And Fred (T. J. Miller), who is the school’s mascot.

Hiro is inspired and desperately wants to join the school but to do so he needs to demonstrate something impressive. So he starts working on some micro-bots, think a cross between nano-bots and lego. They’re finger sized magnetic robots that can be mentally controlled to re-shape and build larger structures. He shows them off at an expo and everyone is suitably impressed leading to Hiro getting his school placement. He doesn’t get to enjoy it though because a fire starts at the expo, destroying his work and killing Tadashii.

Hiro, understandably, falls into a depression after this as his brother and best friend is dead and the only thing that snaps him out of his funk is the accidental discovery of a mysterious masked figure using his micro-bots to commit crimes. Well, that and Baymax who is programmed to try and treat his depression. With the help of a modified Baymax and Tadashii’s friends Hiro sets out to catch the thief.

big-hero-6-villain

The main strengths of Big hero 6 are the writing and the characters. This is a Disney film that, despite all the fantastic elements, feels very real and honest emotionally. Hiro’s personal arc is both engaging and really feels like something a teenaged boy would go through, and it’s paced marvellously too. And at the heart of that arc is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax.

I said in the build up that there’s a lot of potential in “ a boy and his….” Narratives. From Old Yeller to Iron Giant to How to Train your Dragon there is something about the relationship between teenaged boys and non-human friends that is really effecting and Hiro and Baymax are another highlight in this tradition. Baymax in particular is wonderful. Equal parts hilarious, caring, warm and adorable with a smidgen of badass. He’s the big brother everyone wishes they could have. He’s also just a great comic creation and Scott Adsit’s measured delivery of every line delivers some really great deadpan humour (if you’ve seen this film, you did a fist bump and went fa la la la la la la la, do not deny it).

greetings-from-san-fransokyo

The animation is, of course, spectacular. The flying and chase scenes have a sense of thrill and danger to them that puts most live action films to shame and the big action sequences with the team showing off their powers and fighting the villain are everything I want in super hero movies. Bright, colourful characters using their powers in creative ways and teaming up to look cool and kick ass. Much like Incredibles before it Big Hero 6 is so confident and creative in showing off super powers that it just highlights how limited and boring the action scenes in the Marvel movies, Man of Steel or the X-Men franchise have been. There’ so much invention in the fights and they’re choreographed so clearly and fluidly that my main complaint with the action is that there isn’t nearly enough of it.

The animation really soars in the details though. San Fransokyo is a masterful creation, it feels really lived in and is full of details that make it both aesthetically interesting and are really fun for a nerdy otaku like me to spot. Fred’s room in particular is one for the super nerds. He has a statue of sleepwalker in there! He has a statue of Black Talon. Black Talon, the guy who dresses like a chicken and fought the avengers once in the 70’s. Black Talon made it into a film before Wonder Woman!

big-hero-6-black-talon

San Fransokyo was one of the elements I was most worried about mostly because in the trailer it came off as more Chinese than Japanese. However, the creators have explained that the concept is that in this reality Chinatown has expanded to encompass the whole of San Francisco, so this is an American city with very obvious Chinese and Japanese elements. That makes a lot more sense and really comes across in the design. Stuff like Hiro’s robot anime posters, the cat named mochi or Honey Lemon pronouncing “photo-photo” with a really good Japanese accent make it feel Asian in a subtle and all-encompassing way that’s more effective and markedly less offensive than the original comics. Plus it just feels cool. It’s all the really iconic and awesome parts of modern Japanese culture nicked and combined in one sleek package.

BH6_Team_Transparent

My main complaint is that the other 4 team members get very little screen time or development. This is a story of 4 characters, Hiro, Tadashii (who dies), Baymax and the antagonist (whose identity is a secret). And that’s fine, there isn’t anything wrong with telling a focused narrative with a few side characters. Indeed, the narrative is stronger for its tight focus and excellent pacing.  But the film is called Big Hero 6 not Hiro and Baymax and we have 4 other guys who get very little to do. And that wouldn’t be so bad except that I really like these other characters and want to see more of them. Wasabi no Ginger becomes Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), nerdy black guy (I bring it up because I’m super happy he isn’t a horrible Asian stereotype like the comics character) with OCD and laser knives. Go Go (Jamie Chung) keeps her rebellious snarky personality but trades in bouncing like an egg for skating on frictionless magnetic bike wheels. Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is the complete opposite of the sexually dominating flirty comics character and is a shy, slightly clumsy but very sweet and caring typical girly girl with a purse that’s also a chemical factory. Then there’s Fred, who is pure unbridled fanboy excitement in a rubber monster suit that lets him jump high and breathe fire.

Fred could so easily have been annoying but I love him. He reminds me of me.

I like these characters, a lot. They’re fun, they have clear well defined personalities and they have wonderful chemistry together. And they have cool and varied powers. My favourite moments in the film (aside from just, everything Baymax does) are their training montage and the fights where they get to show off their skills. I just wish we had more time with them in costume fighting guys. I understand that in the original concept there was more of this but it got cut to tighten the focus. Hopefully we can get a sequel or a TV series to flesh these guys out more.

So in summary Big Hero 6 is a classic family film narrative enlivened by an imaginative setting. great characters and some clever jokes. It’s not ground breaking in any way but it’s hard to find fault in it really.

It isn’t better than The Lego Movie though.

So, this is a thing that I was recently made aware of.

Most people my age have fond memories of Fox’s X-Men cartoon from the early 90’s and one of those fond memories is likely to be the excellent opening theme. For those that don’t remember it,  prepare for a treat.

From the ominous driving church bell to the squealing guitars and the building sense of tension it is a  classic. It also helpfully shows off every member of the team, their name and their powers so it serves as a useful piece of exposition for anyone coming late to the party.

The show was a big hit and, even more importantly, the accompanying toy line was a massive success. And where money can be made off toys the Japanese aren’t far behind. So the show made the rare move from America to Japan with a Japanese dub.

And the Japanese team promptly took one look at the American intro and decided, nah, not nearly Japanese enough.

Thus was born, this.

It’s impressive that only 3 minutes of screen time could produce quite so much baffling insanity:

    • Yes those aliens are brood who do show up in the cartoon (looking nothing like this) but why does Magneto have the ability to summon them from the ground?
    • Brutal violence and decapitation!
    • SHOCK!
    • Beast can punch the ground hard enough to create earthquakes.
    • This shot of Professor Xavier being an absolute pimp.
    • Mummyboon X-Men Japanese Intro Rogue, Storm Pimp Xavier
    • Rogue’s super-power appears to be flirting.
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Rogue
    • Jubillee and Professor X seem to need to do Katas in order to use their powers.
    • Oh and telepathy can repel magnetism, apparently.
    • Cable gets his own intro and his super-power appears to be “owns big guns.” (this is not wholly inaccurate). Cable is not a member of the X-Men in this cartoon, he does feature but only as an occasional guest star. I can only imagine that Japanese fans were baffled at why the gun toting guy in the intro didn’t feature in the show.
    • Are those phalanx? On motorcycles?
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Phalanx on bikes
    • This amazingly emo bit of Drama with a capital D
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Emo Cyclops, wolverine & Jean Grey
    • Iceman makes it into the intro? He’s in this show less than cable. Hell, he;s in this show less than Maverick!
    • Krakoa!
    • Mummyboon Japanese X-men Intro Krakoa

And of course

  • CRY FOR THE MOON! – which is now officially my favourite Engrish sentence in a Japanese song EVER!

Superman Gary Frank Mummyboon

As part of a lengthy piece I’m writing about Gatchaman Crowds it became necessary to define what constitutes the Super Hero genre, and then that short paragraph spun out into an entirely new post.

Because defining what is and isn’t a Super Hero story is actually very difficult.

You wouldn’t think it would be. It is easy to look at the classic Superman as the archetypal Super Hero and go; powers, costume, secret identity, fights Super Villains that there is a Super Hero.

But it isn’t quite that easy. Powers? Batman doesn’t have them and he’s probably the 2nd most famous Super Hero of all time. Costumes? None of the Runaways have them, Smallville didn’t have them, Hellboy doesn’t wear one but these are all Super Heroes. Secret Identity? Everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man. Fights Super Villains? Surely that’s set in stone? But then there aren’t many Super villains in Watchmen, in V for Vendetta, in Miracleman and I would argue all of those are Super Hero stories.

The basic problem with defining the Super Hero genre is that genres are a mix of what can broadly be termed iconographic elements and structural elements (or alternatively connotative and denotative).

Star Wars Poster Mummyboon

Iconographic elements refer to the things in the setting that define the genre or sometimes the style with which the setting is portrayed. If you have aliens, ray guns, robots, spaceships, cyborgs, etc then you have a science fiction story. Similarly elves, dwarves, magic, monsters and wizards are all iconographic elements of the fantasy genre.

Iconographic elements are the easiest for the audience to latch onto but they’re sometimes the least useful in determining what genre a particular story is. Star Wars, for example, has space ships and ray guns but it also has magic, is it SF or Fantasy (many would argue it is a hybrid genre like science fantasy or space opera). Alien has aliens and spaceships but that’s a horror film, right? Spaceballs has space ships and aliens but that’s a comedy.

Conan the Barbarian Mummyboon

Iconographic elements are usually only signifiers of the structural elements that determine who the characters are, what the narrative beats will be and what the aim of the story is. For example, you can tell a science fiction without any of the normal SF iconography because SF is always concerned with answering the question “what if?” SF starts from a stand point of asking a question, usually about humanity and our relationship with technology, and then extrapolating out the outcomes of that question. The Man from Earth for example is undoubtedly an SF story, it asks what if there was an immortal man, but is set entirely in one room of a house and features no technology beyond modern day. The answer of “why is he immortal?” might be magic but that doesn’t make this a fantasy. That’s because fantasies, structurally, are concerned with a quest arc. Find this thing or go to this place to achieve this goal (usually defeating the baddie), and the meat of the story is the journey to get the thing or get to the place. LoTR, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Krull, the list of fantasy stories that conform to this template is endless.

Then you get the genres where the purpose of the story is the main thing defining the structure. Horror and Comedy are the clearest example, if the story aims to make you scared, it’s a Horror, if it aims to make you laugh, it’s a Comedy. Horror does have iconographic elements (ghosts, monsters, vampires, slashers) but if you can scare your audience you’ve made a horror whether or not those iconographic elements are in your story.

The thing that makes Super Hero stories hard to define as a genre is the lack of a firm structural element that is shared across them. Because most Super Hero stories appear in comics, and because comics are a serialised medium, creators are constantly having to think up new things for their characters to do.

And that’s hard. So they steal stuff.

They take inspiration from other genres and have their characters shift into that genre for a storyline. In the X-Men alone I can think of Horror stories (the one where Kitty fights a N’Gari alone at Christmas), Fantasy Epics (the Kulan Gath crossover, Inferno, the recent storyline rescuing Nightcrawler from Heaven), Space Opera (The Dark Phoenix Saga), Mythological tales (the time they all went to Asgard), Science Fiction (Days of Future Past), Comedy (loads but “Girl’s Night Out” jumps to mind) and many, many more. The X-Men switch genres with every story and so do The Avengers, The JLA and any other long running Super Hero team.

And this Post-Modern mixing and matching applies to the iconographic elements as well. The Avengers have had on their team Thor (from mythology), The Vision (an SF robot), Dr Strange (a Fantasy magician), Luke Cage (a Blaxploitation character of all things), Blade (a vampire hunter with his roots in Horror) and yet The Avengers is unquestionably a Super Hero team.

This Post-Modern mixing and matching of elements is actually one of the things I absolutely adore about Super Hero comics but it does make it bloody hard to say what is and isn’t a Super Hero.

So let’s go back to Superman and look at those key things we drew out of him and see what is and isn’t necessary to be a Super Hero.

The Key Things from Superman:

Super Powers

Costume

Secret Identity

Saves People

Fights Super-Villains

 

Super Powers

Goku Mummyboon

The presence of super powers would at first glance seem to be the biggest thing making your main character a Super Hero but it’s actually the weakest criteria of them all. There are Super powered characters in plenty of stories that would never be classed as Super Hero, indeed the leads in nearly every Fantasy story written have some kind of extra human ability. Harry Potter, for example, if he was in the Marvel Universe would put on a costume and go fight bad guys but nobody would dream of calling him a Super Hero.

And it’s just as true on the flip-side. Batman is easily the 2nd most iconic Super Hero there is and he has no powers. And he’s not alone, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Shang Chi, all the bat family; there is a long tradition on non-powered Super Heroes.

What all of these characters can do though is something that ordinary people can’t. Batman may not have powers but he is fantastically wealthy almost to the point of being able to do whatever he likes, he has gadgets and weapons ordinary people can’t access, he is amazingly good at martial arts, he’s an acrobat and he’s the world’s greatest detective. There are plenty of reasons you can’t be Batman and it isn’t because your parents are alive.

This is probably the number 1 iconographic element of the Super Hero, off the top of my head I can only think of a single example of a Super Hero with no abilities beyond normal man and that’s Kick Ass, which is sort of a cheat. However I can name plenty of Super powered individuals in other genres so on its own, this isn’t enough.

The Costume

Batman Neal Adams Mummyboon

Of course, you think! I know what Superman and Batman have in common, they both wear capes and underpants on the outside! Surely it is all in the costume. Batman may have no powers but he and all his friends dress up in silly costumes to fight baddies, that’s what makes a Super Hero.

Certainly if you’ve designed a character with a cape, tights and underpants on the outside then without question there is a Super Hero in your story. However, what is and isn’t considered a costume swiftly gets into dodgy territory. The Hulk doesn’t wear a costume, he wears normal street clothes but he is immediately recognisable as the Hulk because he’s huge and bright green. Hellboy doesn’t have a costume but with red skin, a tail, devil horns and an enormous right hand he sure does stand out.

A better way to phrase this would be that Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people. That kind of phrase includes Superman, Batman, The Hulk and Hellboy. It even includes many non-costumed Heroes. The Runaways are probably the poster kids for Heroes without costumes but Nico’s Staff, Chase’s Fistigons and Arsenic’s purple hair and dinosaur give them a distinctive design that would stand out on the street.

Runways Mummyboon

The only examples of Heroes without a distinctive visual that I can think of come from media outside comics like Clark in Smallville and there is a very good reason for this that again is due to the medium. Comics require you to evoke a recognisable character over multiple panels and multiple issues and often drawn by different artists. With the limitations of printing technology back when most Super Heroes were designed you have to do this using only 4 colours and a few quite thick lines. The end result is that Superman’s face can look quite different from artist to artist and panel to panel and it becomes impossible to recognise him just based on the face. So how do you ensure your audience recognises him? You give him something iconic like his s shaped jehri curl and his costume.

In live action though the audience can recognise the actor’s face so there is no need to have these distinguishing visual characteristics. When you start thinking about other comics, comic strip and animation characters though you soon realise that the stipulation “a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.” Is far too broad. For starters it seems to absorb most shonen anime characters. Think about Goku in Dragonball, with his monkey tail and red gi he stands out from the background crowd but nobody would call him a Super Hero. How about Edward in Full Metal Alchemist, very distinctive with his red coat and cyborg limbs but not remotely a Super Hero. Hell you could argue that this rule applies to Charlie Brown, Homer Simpson and Tintin and none of those are Super Heroes.

Secret Identity

Spider-Man Mark Bagley Mummyboon

Ah but the key thing about the costume is that it signifies the Super Hero’s secret identity. Clark Kent puts the costume on and now he’s Superman, not Clark Kent. The world may make fun of Peter Parker but when dons his tights the world will love Spider-Man.

The Secret Identity is a great story telling device creating tension between the private life of the character and their adventures as a Super Hero. It generates a huge number of plot devices that comics have reused for decades; “I have to do an important thing but this villain is attacking the city at the same time,” “oh no, the villain has discovered my secret identity and now can threaten my loved ones,” “oh no, a villain is attacking and I’m in my secret identity, how will I escape to change into costume?”  It’s such a good device for generating plots that it’s been used for tons of stories that have nothing to do with Super Heroes. Hannah Montana for example. In fact it pre-dates the Super Hero going all the way back to at least The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now some argue that this makes The Scarlet Pimpernel the earliest Super Hero (he arguably is actually) but I would say that using this device does not make your story part of the Super Hero genre.

And vice versa, not all Super Heroes have secret identities. In fact at this point I’d wager the majority of Super Heroes do not have a secret identity. Amongst the major marvel Heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow, She-Hulk, all the X-Men,  Captain Marvel, The Guardians of the Galaxy and arguably Thor all have identities known to the public at large. It’s basically Spider-Man and some teenagers with secret identities these days.

But notice I didn’t refer to them as Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov. I used their codenames because they all have them. Whether or not their civilian identity is a secret or not most Super Heroes draw a distinction between a personal life and a heroic alter ego. The world may know Steve Rogers is Captain America but he’s not actually being Cap until he puts the mask on.

And notably this excludes a lot of those shonen manga Heroes. Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy are always Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy whether they’re fighting bad guys or eating food. They don’t have some normal identity they retreat to. Interestingly this doesn’t include most Magical Girl characters or Tokusetsu characters (Power Rangers, Kanen Rider, Ultraman) all of which feel inherently more Super Heroey to me. This idea of an alternate identity then seems crucial to the definition of a Super Hero.

I propose the rule then is “Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity signified by a code name.”

Saves People

Superman Saving Someone Mummyboon

Super Heroes are Heroes, that means they save people.

Really? Have you read a Batman story in recent years? I can’t remember the last time I saw him on-panel save an innocent life. Punch thugs? Yup. Do some detective work? Yup. Catch someone falling off a bridge. I can remember something like it happening in Batman #1 3 years ago but since then, nada.

But there is a larger context to consider here. Batman might not be catching falling civilians or rescuing kids from fires but by his actions fighting villains he is saving people in another way. In the current Year Zero Arc, The Riddler has engineered a situation where electricity isn’t working in Gotham City, outside help is barred from entering and people are dying. By outsmarting the Riddler and defeating him physically Batman puts to an end that situation and stops more people dying. By punching the bad guy he saves people’s lives.

My slightly more nuanced way of putting it would be:

“By their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others.”

Now again, this is massively broad and encompasses nearly every Fantasy, SF, Action and Western protagonist you can name. In fact it’s more a definition of a hero than s Super Hero. But this to me is one of a two part structural component of the Super Hero genre alongside.

Fights Super Villains

The Joker Mummyboon

To me nothing more defines a Super Hero than that they are thrown into conflict with Super Villains. What’s a Super villain you ask?  Well we can apply the same logic for the iconographic elements, if your antagonist has abilities beyond normal people, a distinctive appearance that marks them out as separate to normal people and some kind of alternate identity then you have a Super Villain.

And the conflict between hero and villain is always resolved in some kind of physical sense. This doesn’t have to mean fighting (although, yeah, 99% of the time a Super Hero story resolves in punching) but it can mean the hero making some Superhuman act of endurance, a Superhuman sacrifice, a physical exertion beyond mortal means or outwitting the villain by hacking a thingy, pressing a thingy or inventing a thingy. But the conflict should be resolved as a result of the hero’s own ability to do things normal humans cannot not just by talking nicely, getting the police involved or some kind of deus ex machina.

Doctor Doom Mummyboon

The great thing about Super Villains for me is that they stand in symbolically for the theme of the story. If you’re writing an X-Men story about how racism is bad you can create a Super Villain that symbolises racism and then have the X-Men punch them to symbolise racism being defeated. Is it subtle? Oh Christ on a bike no. Is it satisfying and cathartic? Oh yes!

For me though the fighting Super Villain thing goes hand in hand with the previous point. If your protagonist is punching Super Villains to get rich, score women or to complete their paid job then you’re not a Super Hero narrative.

Structurally then I’d state that the Super Hero narrative is thus:

“Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super Villain antagonist”

That seems pretty comprehensive right, and narrow enough to only apply to Super Heroes?

Yeah…not so much. Whilst it applies to most Super Hero films I’ve seen recently it also applies to most action films I’ve seen recently, as well as a heck of a lot of Fantasy, SF and even some Westerns.

The problem with trying to define a Super Hero story structurally is that the stories go right back to the roots of western literature. Super Heroes are often described as modern myths and I believe this to be true and structurally the idea of turning the subtext into a text that is resolved via conflict goes all the way back to Gilgamesh. As such it has influenced all stories told ever since and so you find that Super Heroes are really lacking in a set of structural elements to call their own.

After much thought then I’ve defined my Super Hero genre test as follows.

Iconographic

  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.

Structural

  1. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

The test works for me like this. If your character possesses quality 1 and at least one other Iconographic element then they’re a Super Hero. Possessing quality 2 and 3 except in rare occasions does not make them a Super Hero. In addition your character must have been involved in at least one narrative that conforms to the structure of 4. If not then yes they are a Super Hero but they are not involved in stories in the Super Hero genre.

So with those rules established let’s do some tests on some core Super Heroes and some marginals.

Superman – 1234

Superman Mummyboon

Batman – 1234

Spider-Man – 1234

Spider-Man John Romita Mummyboon

Wonder Woman – 1234

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson Mummyboon

Goku – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Goku Chibi Mummyboon

Monkey D. Luffy – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Monky D Luffy Mummyboon

Sailor Moon – 1234 (definitely a Super Hero)

Sailor Moon Mummyboon

The Power Rangers – 1234 (also definitely Super Heroes)

Red Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Mummyboon

Indiana Jones – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Indiana Jones Mummyboon

James Bond – 34 (so we can stop that argument)

Daniel Craig James Bond Mummyboon

The Scarlet Pimpernel – 1234 (so yup, earliest example of the genre I can find)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Mummyboon

The Shadow – 1234 (although a pulp hero he also works perfectly well as a Super Hero, it’s simply an issue of tone as to which aspects of his character you wish to emphasise)

The Shadow Mummyboon

Harry Potter – 234 (and I’m only giving him 2 for the lightning bolt)

Harry Potter Mummyboon

Kane from Kung Fu – 34 (a hero, not a Super Hero)

Kane from Kung Fu Mummyboon

The Bride from Kill Bill 123 (lack of 4 means you could put the bride in a Super-hero story but she hasn’t been in one yet)

The Bride Kill Bill Mummyboon

V from V for Vendetta 1234

V for Vendetta Mummyboon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Summer Wars 2

No, Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins is not dead but I need to watch the 2000’s more anime styled series and the new series before I can talk about it further. In the meantime watch this.

NES and TMNT are up there in my personal favourite things list but last time they were combined we got the TMNT NES game and the world’s most difficult video game level; the underwater bomb disposal level. This is significantly less irritating.

 

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There is a tension inherent in adaptation.

When you adapt something from one medium to another you have to change things, that is simply unavoidable. Mostly this is due to the strengths and limitations of the medium you’re adapting the story into.  To give a comics example; you can’t do the Dark Phoenix saga in a film the same way yit was done in the comic because a film lasts 2 – 3 hours and tells a single story. A comic runs for years and tells a new story every month so you can have a slow burn sub-plot like the corruption of Jean Grey into the Dark Phoenix happen in the background every issue until you suddenly make it the main story. You could also do that on television, or possibly in a novel if it was lengthy enough but not in a film.

That’s just one example and there are many more. In adapting something to a new medium some changes are necessary.

However, if you’re bothering to adapt a story then there must have been something in the original worth adapting. It must have been popular enough that someone thought it was worth spending the money to make it into a film or TV show. The tension comes from making the necessary changes to adapt it into the new medium whilst preserving what made the original work in the first place.

So a certain amount of change is necessary.

But then you get the changes that have nothing to do with conventions of the medium but happen in adaptations anyway.

For example, Gimli the dwarf is presented an entirely serious character in the original Lord of the Rings novels. However in the films he increasingly becomes a comic relief character, prat falling and spouting one liners. There is nothing inherent in film as a medium that demands a comic relief character, this was a change the creators decided to make because they thought it would improve the film that was not entirely necessary.

These changes are unnecessary. But they’re not necessarily bad. There are plenty of examples of a creator adapting something and improving upon a flaw in the original text.  Batman the Animated Series was so good at this that many of their changes, like Clayface’s origin or Two Face’s personality, were absorbed back into the original comics.

More often than not though they are bad, or at least neutral, and they infuriate fans of the original work.

I’m a die hard comics fan, I have been so since I was 9 years old and I have heard more than a few people whine; “why did they have to change it? It was great before and now it sucks!” whenever anything from a comic gets adapted.

Indeed I’ve said it myself on occasion.

I say all this as a preamble to my next statement. The adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from gritty black and white comic book to Saturday morning cartoon may be one of the most successful adaptations of a property from one medium to another of all time.

I say this not because I think the 1987 TMNT cartoon is better than the comics (I don’t) nor do I consider it to be an amazing cartoon (it really isn’t. the animation and storytelling do not hold up well at all) but because I think the cartoon is a better and more successful at being a cartoon than the comic is at being a comic.

As evidence just look at the history of the two properties. The comic was cancelled one year before the cartoon was and whilst it has been brought back and cancelled a few times since and was a big hit for an indie property it was never a number one, nor even a top ten, selling title.

In contrast the cartoon was at one point the longest running American animated TV show (until The Simpsons overtook it). It spawned countless imitators and a huge host of licensed products and spin-offs.

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For most of the world, the 1987 cartoon is the definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it in every way supplanted the original comics. Indeed it introduced some changes and improvements that would be carried forward into pretty much all other adaptations.

So, what did it change?

The biggest change is an overall change in tone. TMNT the comic is played straight. Ridiculous stuff happens but the threats are real threats, the dangers are really dangerous. Characters die and suffer. It is a dramatic adventure story.

TMNT the animated series is a comedy. Dramatic stuff happens, the turtles use their weapons and fight bad guys but there is never really any sense of threat or danger. At all times the tone is light and comedic. We have bumbling incompetent villains, fourth wall gags, nod and wink references, parody characters and puns, a constant non-stop torrent of puns.

Now if you were a fan of TMNT the comic in 1987 I imagine you’d be furious at this. It seems for all the world like the cartoon is making fun of this comic you love. It really isn’t though; it’s making fun of anything and everything it can get its hands on and just embracing the fact that, well, the basic concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is kind of ridiculous.

And I think this was the smartest decision the producers could have made.

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Most narratives, especially in genre, are all about hitting the audience’s expectations and giving them moments they specifically come to see. In porn it’s sex, in comedy it’s a joke, in horror it’s a scare. For a dramatic action story it’s an action sequence. And your audience will forgive anything in the story itself if you hit these pay off moments well. A film with a very basic plot but excellent action sequences will go down well with fans of action films.

But action sequences that are exciting to watch are hard to do in animation. It can be done but it requires a lot of time and money to animate well and TMNT just doesn’t have that budget. Comedy though is kind of easy to animate. That’s why most animated television shows historically have been comedies and only recently have we had serious attempts to do dramatic story telling in western animation on television.

And let me just pause at this moment to critique the cartoon as a whole. In preparation for this review I watched the first 5 episodes of TMNT 1987 again and hoo boy are they rough. The animation is largely appalling* with tons of mistakes (my favourite is when the wrong voice comes out of a turtle’s mouth) and just the worst editing in a cartoon I’ve seen in outside of Hanna-Barbera. The plots are perfunctory and riddled with plots holes (how does the turtle van drive to a vast subterranean cavern?), the action is unimpressive and tedious (mostly it’s turtles dodging lasers) and there is never any dramatic tension even for a second.

But, as a comedy, it still works. Even though it’s aimed at kids and plenty of jokes don’t work there were more than a few lines in these episodes that had me smiling.

“We’re the news media. Who’d want to hurt us?”

“This is great! I must really be onto something hot if they’re trying to kill me.”

“No April, you wouldn’t last five minutes in a ninja pizza parlour (turns to camera) I love saying lines like that.”

There’s also just plenty of sight gags and situations that had me giggling too, such as an old lady pulling a giant machine gun out of her shopping cart when she sees the turtles.

Trying to do the TMNT cartoon as a drmatic action piece in the manner of the comics would not have worked with the restraints the producers had. Playing it as a comedy could have though, and it did.

So they changed the tone, what else did they change?

Most significantly and most successfully, it changed the appearance of the Turtles. The actual characters are slightly taller and slightly more humanly proportioned than they’re drawn in the comics. They also look friendlier and have pupils in their masks that make them more open and human looking which helps with the comedy.

But best of all they have colour coded bandannas.

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Hallellujiah!

Now I know colour coding wouldn’t help much in a black and white comic but even in later volumes of the comic that are in colour the turtles all have red bandannas. Considering the turtles are drawn to look identical to each other this makes it incredibly annoying to figure out which character is talking. Literally the only way to tell is to see what weapon they’re holding. Yes, it doesn’t make sense for a ninja to jump around in bright primary coloured cloth but these ninja are all green to begin with so shut up logic. The colour coding is such a massive help in telling the turtles apart that it was naturally carried forward into every other version.

The initials on the belts though…not entirely necessary guys.

The turtle’s origin is tweaked a bit as well. The turtles falling into the sewer and the mutagen falling into the sewer happen on different occasions. This is neither an improvement nor a loss really but does remove the Daredevil parody.

The mutagen doesn’t come from aliens this time either but from Shredder in an attempt to kill Hamato Yoshi.

This brings me to Shredder, Splinter and Hamato Yoshi.

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In this version Hamato Yoshi and Shredder (Oroku Saki still) are both ninjas in the foot clan. Yoshi is the leader and trainer of the branch of the clan they both belong to.  Shredder wishes to be the leader and so when a revered sensei of the foot comes to visit he literally stabs Yoshi in the back. Well, nearly. He stabs his robe to the wall meaning Yoshi can’t bow, and then when Yoshi removes the dagger he appears to have pulled a dagger on the sensei. Yoshi has been framed by Shredder and is apparently disgraced so he flees to New York.

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For some, inadequately explained reason he ends up destitute and living in the sewer. Kay. There he makes friends with some rats, and then the turtles. One day he and the turtles get exposed to the mutagen turning them into turtle-men and he into a rat-man, Splinter.

This is so much better than the comic.

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For starters it means we don’t have to buy kung fu rats in tiny cages. Yoshi becoming Splinter means he would of course know martial arts from his time in the foot. Indeed he’s already shown to be a teacher of ninjas.

It also provides a much more interesting dynamic between Splinter and Shredder. Rather than being a clichéd “you killed my master” kung fu set up Splinter has multiple reasons to hate Shredder. He disgraced him, forced him out of the clan and turned him into a rat man. Shredder also has better reasons to hate Splinter than revenge, he’s jealous of his superior martial arts skills and fears that he might take back the foot clan. It also gives the turtles a better reason for going after Shredder than revenge; they want to turn Splinter back into a human. That’s a much more noble motivation than they had in issue one of the comics. And it adds a tragic element to Splinter as a noble man betrayed and forced down to the level of a rat but who still has dignity and appreciation for art.

Considering this series isn’t aiming for high drama it does a better job of setting up dramatic conflicts between the main characters than the comic does.

Of course they had to change the origin. The original version had too many murderings and love affairs for a kids cartoon. But even if it’s an accident it’s a happy one.

There are some problems with the new origin though. It makes Shredder out to be the unequivocal bad guy, he’s the betrayer and the attempted murderer when in the original comic he has been wronged by Yoshi and so is a bit more nuanced. It also doesn’t explain why Yoshi goes to New York and then sets out living in the sewers. There are homeless shelters in New York dude, sewer should not be your first option.

Other than the origin changes the Turtles and Splinter are much the same as they are in the comics with clearly defined personalities. Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but rude and Michaelangelo is a party dude. Why it’s all there in the (still fantastic) theme song. The only real change is Raphael who is usually portrayed as the angrier more violent turtle but you can’t really do that in a Saturday morning cartoon so Raph here is more of a sarcastic quipster.

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The series also introduced a lot of stuff we associate with TMNT. The surfer talk catchphrases (Cowabunga, Radical) were created for the series. Incidentally it’s fun to see in the first five episodes things that were obviously meant to be catchphrase that never caught on (“Turtles fight with honour” and “let’s boogaloo”). It also introduced the idea that the turtles order really weird pizza like whipped cream flavour, or adding breakfast cereal as a topping. In fact it’s the first version to suggest that the Turtles are obsessed with pizza at all. While the weird toppings idea didn’t stick around the concept the the Turtles love pizza has certainly become ingrained in their make-up. This series also introduced the Turtle Van and Turtle Blimp. This is typical Saturday morning stuff  (put some vehicles in for kids to buy toys of) but the Turtle Van is so well designed and so iconic (I love the frowny face with the spare tire as a nose) it’s been brought back a few times too.

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April O’Neil is much changed from the comics. For starters she isn’t a scientist’s assistant but a news reporter. This is another great change from the source material. There’s a reason Superman and Spider-Man work for newspapers, it’s just a great story telling engine to insert into your narrative. Rather than being reactionary and limited to New York April O’Neil is out there chasing stories and that provides an excuse to send her around the country and get the turtles involved when threats become too big for her.

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Her appearance is much changed too but this is the iconic April O’Neil most people think of. Red head, yellow jumpsuit and, two features in particular that everybody remembers.

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Yeah, April O’Neil is pretty much the first woman I ever had a crush on. And I think she cemented my fondness for red heads forever.

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April brings with her a lot of new characters from her news channel. Her boss, Burne Thompson, her rival reporter and cameraman Vernon Fenwick and her friend and secretary Irma Langinstein. These characters provide broad comedy in most episodes with varying degrees of success but they’re pretty one note stereotypes.

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Casey Jones shows up but he’s a much reduced character than in other adaptations. He’s presented in a manner that very closely matches his earliest appearance parodying vigilantes and cop shows like Dirty Harry with his extreme violence (well, as extreme as a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon can get). The thing is in other versions of TMNT Casey is allowed to grow beyond that role and become an ally to the turtles and a well-rounded character. Here he never does.

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By far the biggest sets of changes apply to the villains. We’ve already discussed some of the changes to Shredder’s origin but there also changes to his appearance and personality here. The original comics Shredder was just a ninja, a particularly dangerous ninja with a Darth Vader helmet but still just a ninja. In this he gets elevated to full on super-villain. He has plots to take over the world (well eventually, most of the time he has a more short term goal that he needs to achieve before the world conquering stuff can start) and although he does have a ninja clan he also has a vast array of high tech weaponry, vehicles and resources, access to an extra-dimensional army and a crew of mutated street punks. His appearance makes him seem less like a stealthy fighter and more like a flamboyant Doctor Doom style villain complete with purple cape.

Now all of these changes are to make him more like a standard cartoon villain of course. The set-up with him having vast technological resources means you can tell a lot more stories with the same starting point. Shredder needs thing n so he uses x special weapon which causes y problem for the Turtles. Rinse and repeat. At least in his first few appearances he is still treated with dignity and comes off as a viable threat. However, by the time a few seasons have rolled around he’s been reduced to a comically inept villain.

This is also the series that cemented Shredder as the Turtle’s big bad. In the comics he dies in his first appearance, and although he does return the Turtles deal with a variety of threats in that book. In the cartoon he appears in nearly every episode. Again standard Saturday morning stuff but it helped define Shredder as the Turtles bad guy.

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Krang also appears in nearly every episode and he is by far the best thing about the 1987 TMNT series. Instead of being a race of brain aliens Krang is unique in this setting. He’s actually the conqueror of an alien dimension (Dimension X) and he used to have a body before losing it in an unseen accident that also blasted him to our dimension. Krang, more than Shredder , really drives the plot. He either wants to get a new body, or bring his army over from Dimension X or empower his vast tank the Technodrome** but being a brain without a body he can’t enact any of these schemes himself hence his allying with Shredder. Krang is written and acted as amazingly sarcastic. He just owns Shredder repeatedly with cutting put down after cutting put down. Their relationship is akin to something like Ren and Stimpy or Brian and Peter in Family Guy. One intelligent guy constantly sniping at his stupider friend at a level that often goes over Shredder’s head. It’s such fun to watch.

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Bebop and Rocksteady were original creations for the 1987 series that were fondly regarded but don’t seem to have shown up in any other versions. In one sense I don’t know why. They have really great designs and provide a striking visual. They’re also a nice concept. In this continuity Shredder has the mutagen himself and he uses it to turn his street gang allies into powerful animal men. Great idea, it means Shredder can routinely produce new monstrous foes for the Turtle’s to battle and it provides an endless source of new animal men designs for Playmates to make toys out of. However the main reason they’re usually not used elsewhere is that they’re a bit redundant. They’re henchmen for Shredder who already has an entire ninja clan at his disposal and they’re bumbling comedy henchmen at that. Bumbling henchmen is a venerable old trope but the problem with including it in TMNT 1987 is that the relationship between Shredder and these two is basically the same as that between Shredder and Kang so they’re a touch redundant.

Incidentally the foot clan in this version are all robots. This is incredibly stupid and makes no sense but was necessary because FCC restrictions at the time would have precluded the turtles using their weapons on real people. So it’s either robot ninjas and Raphael gets to stab things or human ninjas and he doesn’t. I feel the show made the right choice there.

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Baxter Stockman was the second villain the turtles encountered in the comics and so he is in the TV show too in a fairly faithful adaptation of his initial scheme involving small dangerous robots called mousers. Whilst Stockman is a recurring character in the comics he is mostly a technological foe attacking the turtles in a cyborg body for example. The TV show already has a technological foe in Shredder and Krang though so Stockman is another redundant character.

Until they turn him into a fly in a parody of, what else, The Fly.

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Yeah, that happened.

Oh and he was black in the comics and isn’t in the cartoon. I don’t know why.

The show also created a few new villains or elevated some existing villains into a much bigger deal. Of these Leatherhead and The Rat King are probably the most prominent and well remembered.

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Leatherhead is a Cajun Alligator-man. Unless you really like Cajun jokes there isn’t a lot to him.

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The Rat King is a bit more interesting. He’s a homeless guy with the power to control rats, initially with a flute and then later with just his mind. Since Splinter is a rat this understandably causes a few problems for the turtles. Rat King is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly he’s really more of Splinter’s enemy than the turtles which allows for some rare Splinter focused episodes. Secondly he isn’t a bad guy so much as he is chaotic neutral. He believes rats are superior to humans but mostly is content to just hang around in the sewers with his rat buddies and whilst he often is in conflict with the turtles he will sometimes aid them if something threatens the sewers. For an 80’s kid’s show that’s surprisingly nuanced characterisation.

Also props for taking a design like this

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And rendering it in a way that it can be animated; that took some skill guys.

So ultimately what do I feel about the 1987 turtles cartoon?

This is my childhood in TV show form. This thing is pure raw unfiltered nostalgia. And unfortunately it pretty much sucks. It’s got bad stories that are badly animated. I have very fond memories of this show but it does not hold up well at all. The only thing that hasn’t aged is the comedy and I was pleasantly surprised with how funny I found it as an adult when I had a sneaking suspicion going in that it was going to be a Scooby Doo level of bad, bad puns.

But I think the ideas and concepts in here are better than the comic. They’ve taken what was a promising idea and refined and improved on it. The characters motivations and personalities in here are just superior to the comic and it adds some concepts (colour coded bandanas, eating pizza) that just work and will show up in later adaptations.

Basically if you could take this show complete with light tone but combine it with more logical stories and better animation you’d have the platonic ideal of TMNT.

But what if you didn’t animate it at all? What if you did it as a live action movie? Join us next week when we look at the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie.

*Although by the standards of the time it wasn’t that bad actually. Of all the American cartoons produced between 1980 and 1990 really only stuff done by Disney and some of the Sunbow stuff (i.e. Transformers) was better animated. But it has not aged well at all.

** More kids cartoon stuff. TMNT like any 80’s cartoon existed to shift toys so Shredder and Krang often employed tanks and vehicles that screamed “buy me!” to their audience. The biggest and best was an enormous vehicle called the Technodrome which was basically a Death Star on tank treads with a giant eye on the top. Gaze upon it! I love the designs in this series, they’re so creative and so bizarre.

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