Retro Game Challenge (2009 - DS)

Retro Game Challenge may appear to be a collection of mini-games, but it's actually a very lovingly-crafted tribute to the entire 8-bit gaming era and its culture. Some of the games on the collection are more primitive than others, but the crown jewels are Guadia Quest, a full (if somewhat short) RPG, and Haggle Man 3, a challenging (if also short) sidescroller.

For a full review, click here.
Rating: 4/5

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 - DVD)

Thoughout the years, Close Encounters has remained one of my all-time favorite movies. I don't consider myself a believer in the paranormal, but it is one of the best "What if Aliens were real and really visited Earth?" scenarios I've ever seen play out. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is your average blue collar worker who experiences a "close encounter" with a UFO while out late one night on a job. After witnessing several unidentified craft fly down a nighttime road, he becomes obsessed with trying to figure out what he saw.

I'll admit that the first-time viewer might find the middle of the movie rather nonsensical. As Roy appears to go insane and starts building mountains out of mashed potatoes and throwing potted plants through his kitchen window, it almost takes on a comical tone. But then there are other times when the movie switches gears and it can get quite tense - specifically, when the aliens come for the little boy, Barry, and his terrified mother is helpless to stop them.

Then, the third act, with Roy and company finally figuring out what the visions of the mountain mean, becomes a whimsical adventure - as Roy says, "It's like Halloween for adults!" and then holy crap at what they find on the other side of said mountain. And then just when you think it's all over... holy, HOLY crap! That scene still gets me every time - don't worry, you'll know it when you get there.

The visuals in the movie are often quite breathtaking, and I'm not just talking about the flying saucers - the Gobi Desert scene made my jaw drop.
Rating: 4.5/5

Skyfall (2012 - Theater)

While I'm still far from being the world's biggest fan of James Bond (and I swear Daniel Craig looks like he's perpetually doing "Blue Steel" from Zoolander), Skyfall was a lot better than Quantum of Solace. The series seems to have finally gotten its sense of humor back, as well as some of the elements that make the Bond series what it is, like Q and his helpful array of gadgets. The plot is a fairly standard action/spy thriller movie plot, but at least I felt somewhat engaged by it because the villain had sympathetic motivations. Unlike Q of S where I was left thinking, "What? That's what this is all about?"

Despite the fact that this series keeps evolving with the times, and getting darker with each new installment, there's this eyebrow-twitching subtext about old people and their olden ways being superior to the young, computer-savvy generation, only - well, I think the movie wants us to agree with that, while simultaneously struggling, and not always succeeding, to not prove the opposite. The villain is also another one of those magical movie villains who seems to be able to make anything happen (see also Simon in Die Hard 3 or the Joker in The Dark Knight), in this case, just on account of him being a computer hacker with magical hacking powers.

And the last part of the movie, well, aside from becoming Home Alone with adults (not joking), gave me flashbacks to Resident Evil 4. It's like someone played the beginning of RE4 where you take a tunnel under a building to a rustic old church and thought that was so cool they wanted to put it in a movie. (Yeah, I know, go ahead and tell me it's only coincidence, but also remember that Leon S. Kennedy is a knife virtuoso when you come to the corresponding scene in Skyfall.)
Rating: 3.5/5

Disney's DuckTales, Volume 1 (1987 - DVD)

Since this is the first half of Season 1 (I watched the second half last year because I watched Volume 2 first), this really is more of the same good stuff, and I had to look at an episode list to remember which ones were in this set. Since what I said in last year's capsule reviews still applies, I'll just mention a few highlights:

There's an episode in here where Scrooge McDuck grapples with an invisible character. It would be really interesting to see that scene with the "ghost" drawn in.

DuckTales is curious in that fantastic things exist. Magic exists. Aliens exist. Time travel exists. But not ghosts. I've seen no less than four episodes in which a "ghost" has turned out to be a living character in disguise. It's almost like a better version of Scooby-Doo because the plots aren't nearly identical every time, but it does make me wonder why the show is so adamant about its spook skepticism when everything else is allowed.

The "Earth Quack" episode, where they meet a bunch of underground creatures who mobilize by rolling themselves into balls, is one of the most wonderfully screwed-up episodes of anything I've seen lately. And the mine cart sequence was beautifully animated.

Bonus Comment: I think a sea monster ate this band's ice cream.
Rating: 4/5

Lupin the 3rd: The World's Most Wanted (1977 - DVD)

The World's Most Wanted is a DVD with the first six episodes of the original 1977 Lupin the 3rd TV series.* I have to confess that I didn't quite enjoy this as much as The Castle of Cagliostro. It's not that it's bad, I was just hoping it could've been a little more than what it is. The first episode is really nonsensical and the writing seems to assume that we are familiar with the villain. I guessed that this was because this may have been an episode from later in the series and I had missed something, but no - that's the actual first episode of the show! Which tells me that either that villain came from the comics or they were being intentionally esoteric.

Fortunately, things get better after that, and I will admit there is some allure to a show whose "heroes" are actually "villains" - Lupin and his crew are a gang of highly-skilled thieves. But after a few episodes, it's easy to notice a pattern to them: Lupin comes up with a plan for a heist. There's a screaming "villain of the day" (usually an old man, often a mad scientist). Lupin always just about gets away with his loot, but something goes wrong and he loses it all. And there's always Inspector Zenigata, who's constantly chasing after Lupin. I really wish they'd give that character a rest once in awhile if he's not directly related to the plot. While I wouldn't mind eventually seeing more of this series, Zenigata's the main reason I'm not in a hurry to.

* - The DVD contains the first six episodes, except they skipped one called "Hitler's Legacy" where Lupin attempts to locate a lost treasure that belonged to Hitler. Seriously, this disc is rated 13-Up. Did whoever make the decision to omit that episode think 13-year-olds don't know who Hitler was?
Rating: 2.5/5

A Pup Named Scooby-Doo: Complete 2nd, 3rd & 4th Seasons (1989 - DVD)

I have very mixed feelings about this show. Following in the "Muppet Babies" trend of the 80's Saturday Morning Cartoon era, this is essentially the same package as the original Scooby-Doo series, only the characters are now kids, there's a lot more Tex Avery-style visual humor, and Freddy is a whole lot dumber - which I'm okay with because I got a lot of laughs out of the jokes involving him. As you might know, Freddy always blames the caper on a bully character named Red Herring, even when it's glaringly obvious that it wasn't him. So, there's an episode where Freddy promises not to blame Red Herring, and yes, you can probably guess the ending, and yes, it's brilliant!

But on the other hand, most episodes are formulaic to a T. Not just the plots, themselves, but there are very specific things that happen in almost every one. And, I'm not kidding, I correctly guessed the villain every time.

So, that means the humor is the main reason to watch, and sometimes the visuals are funny, sometimes I don't know what to make of them, and other times they're downright disturbing. How disturbing? Imagine all five characters' heads blending into one giant screaming head. Or a "Doo Family Sniff", which apparently means the dogs' noses pop off and scatter in all directions on their own. And then there's Shaggy and Scooby constantly jumping out of their own skin.

Despite the formulaic nature of the show, it seemed that by the last season, the writers were at least trying to do things a little differently. I kept wishing that someone else besides Velma could solve the mystery once awhile, and yeah, Shaggy and Scooby eventually do solve the library episode. There are also a few episodes that break out of the normal mold towards the end, but because it ends right when they start appearing, it feels like there was some wasted potential here.

Considering that episode quality varies from "almost great" (that crazy Picasso lady and her awesomely hilarious painting) to "lackluster" (the half-assed Ghostbusters parody that ends the set), perhaps a score right down the middle is most appropriate.
Rating: 3/5

1080 Original Soundtrack (1998 - CD)

I actually listened to this in December 2012, forgot to review it with all the other albums I listened to, and then almost forgot again. And, well, that's probably because most of this music is forgettable. True that I haven't played much of the game, so that might figure into why most of it doesn't stick with me, but after receiving a few requests for 1080's music on my Video Game Music Downloads page, I only managed to find five out of fifteen tracks that were acceptable, and even amongst those a few were repetitive. Ouch. Being too repetitive is the number one problem with most of these songs, but some also feature a really annoying female voiceover, and some of the shorter tracks barely feel like songs at all.

The only reason I even own this CD is because back when I bought it, I pretty much bought every video game soundtrack CD that Nintendo Power magazine would offer. This might have been evidence that their standards for what they put out were slipping.
Rating: 2/5

Anthology 1 (1995 - CD)
Artist: The Beatles

Anthology 1 is a 2-CD collection of previously unreleased Beatles recordings, including live performances, demos, and outtakes. My impression of it is that it's really only for hardcore Beatles fans and collectors. Now, if they had trimmed the fat somewhat, it may have made a decent live Beatles album, but is it really necessary to have songs where they mess up and have to start over again? Or songs where they laugh through the whole thing? Or songs where the audience cheering is too overpowering and annoying for them to be enjoyable? If they had cut all this nonsense, it could've been a good one-disc live album, even if the studio versions of the songs are the better way to listen to them (but, hey, fans like their live albums). As it is, I can't give it a strong recommendation because I had to cherry-pick the good songs for my MP3 player as opposed to dumping the whole album onto it.
Rating: 3/5

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" & Symphony No. 8 (1997 - CD)

A live 1990 recording of Dvorak's 8th and 9th Symphonies from the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by acclaimed German conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch. While it seemed enjoyable enough to me, I confess I don't have anything to compare it to as it's the only recording of these pieces that we own. Crawl was listening to it at the same time I was and commented that the 8th Symphony, the lesser-known of the two, "isn't worth driving into town for". I'm not sure if that's a problem with the performance, recording, or the piece itself, but I suspect it's because a lot of classical music has "adagios" (slow movements) where the music (and thus the momentum) kind of dies. If there's something that can be done to make parts like this more listenable, I don't know what. Still, it's good to have at least one version of the 9th, since it's been used in so many video games and other things.
Rating: 3.5/5

Speaking in Tongues (1983 - CD)
Artist: Talking Heads

While I understand that Talking Heads are a rather unusual, avant-garde band, I think I may have expected a little more out of this album than some weird 80s dance pop. While the headlining track, "Burning Down the House", (one of their best songs and my personal favorite) is awesomely great - and a true rock number - it's the first track on the disc and then everything that comes after it is like, "Eh... eh... eh... eh...", although I will say "Swamp" is pretty good. I guess what I'm saying is that it's not a soul-crushing experience, but sometimes I feel a little disappointed in an album when the one song I'm familiar with turns out to be far and away the best. I like discovering deep cuts that I tend to think of as strongly in my mind as the radio stations do of the big hits. This album didn't quite do that for me.

Update: Since writing this review, I've listened to this album (or individual songs from it) a few more times and I have to admit that it may just take time to grow on you. I was expecting everything to be closer in style to "Burning Down the House", which can give one the wrong expectations going into it. The music is weird and different, but certainly not in a bad way, and it may, in fact, have aged better than a lot of other hopelessly 80s dance music. (Re-Scored from original 3/5 rating.)
Rating: 3.5/5

What's Going On: Deluxe Edition (1971 - CD)
Artist: Marvin Gaye

Most reviews I've seen of What's Going On seem to be written from the perspective of a baby boomer who expects it will have the same impact on any new listener as it did to them in the 70s. While it's arguably the most important R&B album of all time because it covers topics such as the Vietnam War, the environment, and poverty in an era when it was still considered taboo for most music - particularly Motown - to discuss such issues, I'm concerned that both the fact that this practice is now far more commonplace, and the laid-back nature of the songs might make it difficult for newcomers to get worked up over them. Some of the lyrics are excessively preachy, both in the literal and figurative sense, some to the point that one might find them cheesy. (And a part of me cringes when I hear "God is Love", but at least it's the shortest song.)

The good side is that the music itself is groovy and Marvin Gaye had a great voice. I've always liked "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me". I'm not going to say the album is overrated, because I won't deny its historical importance and influence, but if you were to come away from it thinking that it's not quite the #1 greatest album of all time in your book, I'd understand.

Also, unless you're a hardcore fan or collector, you may not need the Deluxe Edition. It's almost the same album three times in a row.

Update: Since originally writing this review I have listened to this album (or individual songs from it) a few more times, and just like with "Speaking in Tongues", it took some time to grow on me (and I had to get over the expectations of this being "The Greatest Album Ever!!!" that Baby Boomers foist onto the world). After listening to some other albums where all the artists did was sing about "love", it made me feel really bad about picking on Mr. Gaye for doing something different. And the more I thought about his lyrics, the more I realized the importance of what he was doing. I don't agree with every sentiment (I kind of think we need a Space Program and I don't believe reading the Bible is the answer to the world's problems), but his heart was in the right place. Although politically-charged lyrics became more popular and common in time, I realized that lately I haven't heard much from modern artists that deals with current topics. Whereas, Gaye was shining a light on the problem of inner city African-Americans being taxed to the point of starvation, nowadays all you hear from the media is how if you're poor, it means you're lazy and don't work hard enough. In short, we need more Marvin Gayes and less Justin Biebers and Katy Perrys now. (Re-scored from original 3.5/5 rating.)
Rating: 4/5



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