Feb 262014

The Toonami broadcast of Space Dandy recently started using the full opening credits from the Japanese language version of the show.  While the change was a nice treat for people who’ve been enjoying the English dub, it shouldn’t have made a particularly big difference.  After all, why would a different them song affect how much the audience enjoys the actual content of an episode?  As it turns out, a good opening sequence plays a vital role in getting viewers to engage with the world and characters of an anime series.


Is Space Dandy’s father named Space Daddy? Because he should be.

At an unconscious level, the way we think can be seriously affected by familiar sensations.  For example, if we see something we’ve seen before, it makes us remember what happened the last time we saw that thing, and our minds get ready for a repeat of that past experience.  This process used to provide vital information like, “I hear a wolf, so I should get ready to fight or run away.”  These days, it tends to produce less useful ideas like, “I smell a barbecue, so now I want to eat a hamburger.”  In the case of anime, the familiar sights and sounds of a show’s opening sequence can help us get in the mood to watch and enjoy that particular series.  By causing us to expect an episode of Attack on Titan, for example, “Guren no Yumiya” and its accompanying visuals set us up to be happy when those expectations were met.

All anime openings do this to some extent, but there are a number of factors that make some more effective than others.  One important element is how well the sequence matches the atmosphere of the actual show.  Looking at the Winter 2014 crop of anime, D-Fragments does this very well.  The series itself is a high-energy school comedy that relies heavily on quirky characters and visual gags. The silly lyrics and relentless pop sounds of “Stalemate!” echo this perfectly, especially when paired with a rapid barrage of visual references to the show’s most memorable jokes.  The D-Fragments opening animation is the equivalent of having a shot of espresso before drinking a giant can of Red Bull: it makes you excited to become even more excited.


Someone at Funimation deserves a medal for having to translate this song.

A good opening sequence should also be enjoyable.  If the audience spends a minute and a half being bored before each episode even starts, a series will have extra work to do if it wants to keep viewers.  On the other hand, a theme that fans look forward to has the ability to take pressure off an otherwise average show.  Look at Engaged to the Unidentified, which is a mix of likable but underused main characters and an overbearing supporting cast.  It’s a prime example of a series that might be on shaky ground, yet I’ve stuck with it while other shows from this season have long since fallen off my radar.  “Tomadoi Recipe” has done some heavy lifting as a theme song to help hold my interest (as have the end credits, but that’s an article for another time).

Finally, a good opening sequence should be able to stand out from the crowd.  If the song and animation are neither original nor well-executed, the creators run the risk of invoking memories of better shows instead of the series that the viewer is about to watch.  Putting someone in the mood for their favorite anime before showing them something less enjoyable is an easy recipe for disappointed viewers.  Look at the elaborate, stylized animation in the opening sequences for Psycho-Pass, or the way Madoka Magica made its peppy theme song seem increasingly out of place and disturbing with each dark episode.  We remember shows like these because of how much they diverge from the safe, “cute characters doing cute things” formula of modern anime, and that streak of originality carries over into their openings and closings.  An eye-catching or unusual cover can help sell a smart, original book, and the same effect applies to animation.

So, what of Space Dandy and its newly complete opening?  While it certainly didn’t hurt the English broadcast, it has yet to make a big difference.  Part of the issue is that viewers will need a few episodes to get accustomed to the new sequence and associate it with the series.  Space Dandy is also a unique series in that the opening narration does more to get viewers’ minds into gear than the theme music.  All I need to get hyped for a new episode is to hear, “He’s a dandy guy… in space.”


Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Feb 252014

It was on August 7, 1865 that the New York Daily Tribune declared America finally had a popular sport of its own.

“We have several clubs; but they are mostly patronized by English citizens. Our American game seems to be baseball. We had an illustration of its popularity over the river on Thursday, when twenty-thousand men and women assembled in the heat of a midsummer’s day to witness the contest of the champion [American teams].”

What does an old baseball game have to do with video games? When you consider it has had at least 50,000 viewers at a time and more than 25 million total views over its thirteen days in existence, you might say that “Twitch Plays Pokémon is the new American pastime. Move over, Babe Ruth. Get back in the dugout, Ted Williams. Red and his legion of simultaneous players and spectators are the new superstar players in what can be considered the most outrageously entertaining pop culture phenomenon since baseball’s popularity grew at an exponential rate 150 years ago.


There’s more to drawing comparisons between the early years of baseball and “Twitch Plays Pokémon” than looking at the numbers. Both seem to have a strange appeal that attracted thousands to these two games, both of which are “remixed” versions of earlier games people of their respective times were familiar with (baseball stemmed from the English game “rounders,” while “Twitch Plays Pokémon” is a massive co-operative version of the single-player Pokémon Red Version). Word spread about both through social means too: “Twitch Plays Pokémon” rose in popularity through social media, baseball became a universally-played sport as it spread across army encampments during the Civil War.

What’s even more fascinating, “Twitch Plays Pokémon” exploded across Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr for reasons that are very similar to why baseball caught on so rapidly. Again I draw from the New York Daily Tribune, which described the results of a baseball game in an issue from August 10, 1860:

“The result of the last contest was a signal defeat of the ‘Champion Club’ by the Excelsiors, and that led many to suppose that this game would be a second edition of it     . . . Though the majority did not anticipate the result that ensued, they felt sure that a good fight for the last laurels would be made – and a finely contested game it proved to be.”

The baseball game was described to have results that were not anticipated, yet the game was satisfying edge-of-your-seat entertainment? That sure sounds like the random, yet exciting events of “Twitch Plays Pokémon.” The randomness of waiting to see if a top-tier baseball player will hit a home run or strike out is very similar to waiting to feel either the excitement of Red actually capturing Zapdos, or the crushing defeat when a random Twitch user puts in the wrong command, releasing a much-beloved Pokémon into the wild. Like spectators in the baseball stand, Twitch users watching the “Twitch Plays Pokémon” stream have expectations for what they want to see happen in the game. The blatant possibility that what one expects to happen likely won’t makes the players’ “hits” that much more exciting, and the “misses” all the more devastating.


So, cook up a foot-long beef frank, pour yourself a beer, have a seat at your computer. With Red at the bat, you’re going to see one spectacle of a game.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Feb 202014

With the Titanfall beta wrapped up, things are looking fairly promising for the highly anticipated shooter.  The game’s core mechanics are solid, and the maps and modes present in the beta seemed to be well thought out.  In its final retail version, Titanfall stands a good chance of becoming a major selling point for the Xbox One.  Unless, of course, gamers prefer to buy the Xbox 360 or PC versions instead.


Titanfall follows the multiplayer FPS conventions of having players engage in deathmatch and objective-based game modes with customized weapon and equipment loadouts.  Performing well in combat results in earning experience points, which unlock new gear.  None of this is terribly new, but the actual gameplay does quite a bit to help Titanfall stand out.

The most obvious selling point is the presence of Titans, also known as Giant Freakin’ Robot Suits.  Over the course of a match, players earn the ability to call down a Titan, which drops in from orbit in a suitably dramatic fashion.  The Titans can either be piloted directly or left to operate automatically, in which case they will either follow their owner around the map or defend their current position.  Stomping around the map in a Titan is supremely entertaining, and offers a fascinating shift in perspective compared to traveling on foot.


Thankfully, the balance of power between Titans and infantry is surprisingly level.  When not piloting a colossal death machine, players have access to a wide range of stealth and mobility options.  Clever use of cloaking, wall-running, and jetpack double jumps allows players to outmaneuver enemy Titans and launch surprise attacks with heavy weapons.  Knowing whether a situation calls for troops or robot suits can make the difference between winning and losing a match.


The beta offered a choice of three game types: a team deathmatch mode, a territory capture mode, and a you-only-live-once elimination mode.  Each was entertaining in its own right, and the two available maps seemed suited to all three game types.  An urban map forces players to use buildings and side streets to flank the enemy, while a more rural setting places a greater focus on ranged combat.  The most interesting feature was an “epilogue” at the end of the deathmatch and territory capture modes, where the losing team has a chance to escape on a dropship.  The mad dash to “get to the choppa” led to some intense running firefights, and escaping after being defeated was almost more entertaining than winning.

In terms of player progression, the beta seemed tuned to allow quick increases in level in order to show off the variety of weapons, equipment, and abilities.  Infantry and Titan loadouts both offered plenty of things to customize, and I can only assume that a greater variety of gear will be available in the full game.  Player characters change appearance depending on a loadout’s primary weapon, which is a clever touch.  People with sniper rifles look like snipers, and people with shotguns look ready to suppress a riot.

One thing lacking in the beta was any sign of the story hinted at in the game’s various trailer videos.  I’m still curious about how a multiplayer shooter will be able to make players care about the world they’re fighting in.  Even without a storyline, though, the beta showed some interesting ways of immersing players in the fight.  Various “mission control” characters provide a steady stream of radio transmissions that are tailored to how the match is going, which feels far less artificial than the traditional disembodied narration pioneered by games like Halo.  AI-controlled infantry also appears on both teams, offering a swarm of expendables that both harass the enemy and help make the map feel more populated than it actually is.  In terms of making multiplayer feel as cinematic as single-player, Titanfall would appear to be one of the most successful games of its kind.


The content that was available in the Titanfall beta was entertaining, and promises a good final product if the full game is able to expand upon what we’ve seen so far.  Considering how much time has gone by since the Xbox One launch, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Titanfall to carve out an audience from bored Battlefield and Call of Duty players who want a chance to pilot a giant robot.


Titanfall is available via Amazon.
Article by Paul Jensen.
Feb 192014

In the US, manga bestseller lists are typically the exclusive territory of major franchises like Attack on Titan and Naruto.  A new volume from a less popular series is a big success if it makes the top ten for a week or two before the heavy hitters reclaim their spots.  A niche title is hardly expected to make the list at all, let alone hold down a top spot for multiple weeks like the first two volumes of Monster Musume have done.  It seems like publisher Seven Seas has a surprise hit on its hands, but how is a harem comedy featuring half-human mythical monsters managing to punch so far above its weight?


Lamias and harpies and centaurs, oh my.

It’s not incredibly difficult to understand Monster Musume’s initial popularity.  Even today, novelty is a key part of manga’s appeal in the US.  A reader who buys a Japanese graphic novel over more conventional domestic offerings is frequently looking for “something different,” but manga isn’t immune to getting stuck in a rut.  A series that shamelessly jumps the proverbial shark will naturally attract attention simply by shouting louder than the competition.  Monster Musume accomplishes this by taking the time-tested harem comedy setup and swapping out the usual female cast for centaurs, harpies, and other mythical beings.  This extra level of absurdity makes it strange enough to garner both attention and impulse buys as readers find themselves too intrigued to say no.

What this explanation fails to account for is the success of the second volume in the series.  Weirdness can sell one book, but subsequent releases will only fly off the shelves if the content is good enough to turn curious readers into fans.  The cover art on the front and sales pitch on the back made volume one a success, but it’s the pages in between that sold volume two.


New York Times bestseller lists from the premiere weeks for volumes one and two. Both remained in the top ten for at least four weeks.

To address the elephant in the room, Monster Musume does indeed rely heavily on sex appeal.  The series’ female cast members appear explicitly topless on a regular basis (as in EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER OF VOLUME ONE), and aren’t exactly modestly dressed the rest of the time.  All the expected boob jokes are made at one point or another, and the series seems to revel in its own raunchiness.  As easy as it may be to write off a series so focused on fan service, the truth is that it sells books just as well as anything else.

Coupled with this dedication for snake-girl cleavage is a self-deprecating sense of humor.  Monster Musume is well aware of its own absurdity, and is at its best when it mocks itself.  Puns on the characters’ animal natures abound (“hold your horses,” “for the birds,” etc.).  The usual selection of awkward situations and character humor is present and accounted for, but it’s the series’ willingness to call attention to its quirks that most frequently hits the mark.

Hidden beneath all this sound and fury is a surprisingly coherent theme of embracing diversity.  Anyone who judges the mythical characters in Monster Musume based on appearance is portrayed as an obnoxious buffoon in need of a swift blow to the head.  The series’ human protagonist has a nice speech at the end of volume one about how the monster girls shouldn’t feel compelled to change their personalities in order to fit in.  Sure, it’s the kind of corny lesson you’d expect from a Saturday morning cartoon, but it says something about the series’ perspective.  Behind the tails, hooves, and wings are real characters that aren’t just there to be gawked at for their strangeness.  It may look like a circus sideshow, but Monster Musume isn’t without a heart.

Even if, like me, you aren’t quite in love with Monster Musume, there’s still reason to celebrate its sales success.  It’s easy enough for American companies to be overly cautious with their manga licenses and ignore quirky gems in favor of guaranteed sellers.  Seven Seas took a chance with this title, and a positive outcome will be a point in favor of taking other risks down the road.  After all, what manga fan doesn’t enjoy seeing something new and original hit the shelves in the US?


Monster Musume is available from Right Stuf and Amazon.

Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Feb 182014

I recently dropped $399 on a beautiful Wii U, capable of high-definition graphics and endless gameplay configurations thanks to its tablet-like Gamepad. But the game I enjoyed playing the most on my Wii U so far is a traditional platformer that only uses a D-pad and two buttons. That’s right, I can’t get enough of my $20 copy of DuckTales: Remastered, a remake of the 1989 NES game based on the Disney cartoon. The controls are straightforward: you use either a control stick or the D-pad to move, then there’s a jump button and an action button to make Scrooge McDuck bounce on his cane. That’s it. It’s that simple.

This may be hard to believe, but there was a time where every video game was that easy to control, yet incredibly fun and engaging despite the technological simplicity. Remakes like DuckTales: Remastered are great ways to remind us of what makes a great video game at the most basic of levels.


If there’s anything you immediately take away from DuckTales: Remastered is that it’s hard. And I mean classic Nintendo-hard. The game’s six levels feature countless tricky jumps, as well as a plethora of enemies and other obstacles that are often impossible to dodge without taking damage. This is especially taxing at the start of the game, when Scrooge can only take three hits before losing a life. I do get incredibly frustrated whenever I miss a tough jump playing DuckTales: Remastered, but here’s what different between this classic remake and your average modern game: instead of throwing my controller down in a fit of rage, I think about what I need to do to overcome the next obstacle. There’s a certain randomness to obstacles and especially enemies that makes modern games incredibly unfair and often deserving of the legendary controller-smash. Classic games, however, require more of a trial-and-error strategy when trying to complete them. Because the attack patterns and movements by enemies hardly change, gamers playing old-school titles can challenge themselves to work out a solution to the latest problem they’re facing. Even if the last jump in a level is difficult to land, you can at least have comfort in knowing the rest of the level is now easily beatable because you’ve memorized it.


Besides level and enemy design, gameplay in classic-style games is deceptively simple. It’s not confusing to know how to play these types of games; in DuckTales: Remastered I move with the Wii U Gamepad’s left control stick, jump with the B button and perform attacks using Scrooge’s cane with the Y button. The controls are easy to master, but the challenge comes when you use the basic controls to maneuver around those aforementioned obstacles. For the longest time I wondered why more casual mobile games like Flappy Bird or Candy Crush explode in popularity, and now I realize it’s for this reason. Tap or swipe on a screen? Sure, anyone can do it. Now try swiping to match up like candies, or tap to fly a helpless bird through an endless sea of pipes. Even other classic games like Tetris share this same message: the simplest controls can present the most difficult challenges under the right circumstances.

Retro games are also among some of the most creative games ever made in terms of music and art design. Early Nintendo games sported bright color palettes, fantastic unique levels and some of the catchiest music to ever grace your television set. With this in mind, Ducktales: Remastered was a retro revival done right, with completely remastered level themes and voice acting, and beautiful hand-drawn backdrops for each level. With the capabilities modern game consoles have, bright colors and ear-candy music can again be the norm in games, grander than ever before. Some designers catch onto that, making some of the most artistically pleasing games in the modern era.


Moreover, there’s a whole retro revival as of late that spans across a vast variety of games. Independent studios in particular are at the forefront of this renewed interest in classic gameplay styles, with some examples in development being the Nintendo 64-inspired “collect-a-thon” platformer A Hat in Time, and the highly anticipated classic Mega Man-style side-scroller, Mighty No. 9. Designers like these are filling a void that we need as gamers: a need to explore vast, colorful, and unique worlds, and a need to play an engaging game that challenges us without stressing us through solid gameplay and level design. And to achieve this, sometimes you just need to go back to basics.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Feb 172014

There’s something delightfully simple about tanks in video games.  The “tank level” has long been a staple of first-person shooters, offering gamers a brief respite from the tactical stresses of infantry combat.  Enemies that would be terrifying on foot are mere cannon fodder when you’re encased in an armored shell of awesomeness.  Be it the Scorpion from the Halo series or the old Battletanx games on the N64, rare is the gamer who doesn’t hold a fond memory of lumbering around in a tracked behemoth.  World of Tanks is a game built on that armored nostalgia, and the result certainly isn’t lacking in appeal.


Originally built as a PC game, the new Xbox 360 Edition brings the free-to-play multiplayer of World of Tanks to console gamers.  Players fill a garage with a wide variety of armored vehicles, then use them to fight in large-scale multiplayer battles.  Winning (and, to a lesser extent, losing) earns the player money and experience points that can be used to upgrade tanks or purchase new ones.  There are five classes of tank, each with its own strengths and role on the battlefield.  Light tanks act as scouts, artillery and tank destroyers offer long-range support, and medium and heavy tanks bring the pain at close range.  Each class has its own style of play, and teams must coordinate their actions in order to succeed.


The gameplay in World of Tanks is a mix of intuitive controls and complex tactics.  There’s a significant learning curve, and a lack of respawns means that one careless mistake can put a player out of a match within the first minute.  Thankfully, eliminated players can quit, hop in one of their other tanks, and join a new match without penalty.  World of Tanks can be extremely frustrating during a run of bad results, but winning is supremely satisfying.  Whether or not the highs make up for the lows will depend on your patience for sudden and catastrophic defeats.  As with all multiplayer games, the experience is vastly improved by playing with friends.

As far as lasting appeal goes, World of Tanks has some problems.  While the catalog of tanks is incomplete compared to the PC version, the bigger issue is the lack of game mode variety.  The objective always boils down to “capture and/or defend the base,” and this rarely happens without wiping out the enemy team in the process.  Why not have a few big tanks face off against a swarm of smaller tanks?  How about some kind of convoy or VIP escort?  Why not introduce a co-op survival mode?  Without more variety in its multiplayer modes, World of Tanks runs the risk of becoming monotonous fairly quickly.  I worry that the developers will make the mistake of relying on new vehicles and maps to add variety instead of introducing new game types.


On the technical front, there’s far less to complain about.  The controls make sense, and the graphics are perfectly acceptable for a free game.  Matchmaking is quick and painless, and makes an effort to pit tanks of similar power against each other.  Sound is a highlight, and being part of a firing line of friendly tanks is a great way to wake up the neighbors.

Since World of Tanks is free to play, there are of course premium features that can be bought with real money.  A Premium version offers exclusive tanks and increased income, while in-game gold can be bought and spent on special equipment or a bigger garage.  These paid features are more a matter of convenience than actual in-game advantage, and the game isn’t pushy about recommending them.  Other developers would be wise to look at World of Tanks as a model for making money on a free game without annoying gamers.


FINAL VERDICT: Given the nonexistent price of entry, World of Tanks is easily worth a try for Xbox 360 owners.  There’s a reasonable amount of fun to be had, even if the replay value isn’t as high as it could be.  If the developers ever decide to add in some new modes, I’ll be happy to re-enlist for a longer tour of duty.


Review by Paul Jensen.
Feb 122014

If there’s one thing anime fans love, it’s tracking down merchandise from our favorite shows.  Print our favorite characters on anything from a mug to a messenger bag and we’ll buy it.  Naturally, then, I was intrigued to learn about a trading card game based around popular anime franchises.  I threw some money at the Internet, and soon had a pair of Weiss Schwarz trial decks.  Here’s what I learned.


Photos courtesy of my phone’s lousy camera.

Weiss Schwarz is a trading card game that licenses anime, manga, and video game characters instead of offering the usual selection of orcs and dragons.  There are English versions of several of their releases, including four anime series and the Vocaloid characters (because you can’t have anime without Hatsune Miku).  If you can read Japanese or don’t mind referring to online forums for card translations, there’s a much more extensive selection to choose from.  For this article, I bought the English starter decks for Madoka Magica and Bakemonogatari.

The pre-built Trial Decks come in a retail-friendly, impulse buy-inducing display box.  My local post office was thoughtful enough to confirm that the packaging is sturdy enough to survive some rough handling during the shipping process.  Opening the box is a simple matter of cutting a few pieces of tape with a box cutter or pocket knife.  No profanity or bandages were necessary, which is a good sign given my clumsiness and low tolerance for complex packaging.


1300 yen INCLUDING tax? I’m sold!

Along with a 50-card deck, each box contains a basic rule sheet, a play mat, and an advanced rule booklet to settle the inevitable arguments over how a particular card works.  I was a bit worried that the rules would be a hodgepodge of bad grammar that some underpaid assistant translated with a smartphone app, but was happy to be proven wrong.  Everything was easy to understand, and the play mat is extremely helpful once you get it unfolded and flattened out.


I swear it’s not as complicated as it looks.

The quality of the cards themselves is reasonably high.  They’re smooth enough to shuffle easily, and appear sturdy enough to stand up to regular use.  They have the same dimensions as a Magic: The Gathering card, so card protector sleeves should be easy to acquire.  Weiss Schwarz does away with the fancy holo-foil cards that we’ve gotten used to over the years, but fills that void by printing voice actor autographs onto the occasional character card.  Most of a typical card is taken up by the character art, but the actual game information is plenty legible.  My one gripe is that the ability text is small enough to require either good eyesight or a magnifying glass.  On the whole, though, I’m very happy with what I got for my money.


Ooh, shiny.

Anyone who’s played a trading card game like Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, or Yu-Gi-Oh! should be able to pick up Weiss Schwarz fairly easily.  Decks are mostly composed of character cards, which deal damage to your opponents and fight against their characters.  Event cards and climax cards are thrown in help manage your deck or power up your characters.  Whoever deals a certain amount of damage first wins the game.


From left to right: character card, climax card, event card.

The most interesting aspect of Weiss Schwarz is its ability to shift the balance of power back and forth during a game.  After taking a certain amount of damage, players “level up” and gain access to more powerful character cards.  If your opponent beats the stuffing out of you early in the game, you can even the score by bringing out big scary cards that will mop the floor with their low-level characters.  It makes for plenty of “this isn’t even my final form” jokes if you can find the right opponent.

After playing a few games of Weiss Schwarz, I’ve noticed a couple of things.  First and foremost, the level mechanic does a great job of keeping things close until the end.  Matches have a habit of going right down to the wire, with victory rarely certain until the last couple of turns.  It might not support as wide a range of strategies as more complex card games, but damned if Weiss Schwarz doesn’t do a great job of keeping things entertaining.

Another positive element is the sheer absurdity of it all.  There’s something delightfully crazy about the idea of Hitagi Senjyougahara clobbering magical girls with a stapler or Saber from Fate Zero stabbing Hatsune Miku in the middle of a concert.  As long as you can find a deck based on your favorite franchise, Weiss Schwarz appeals to that basic geek instinct of wondering which of two fictional characters would win in a fight.  That being said, you really do need to be an anime fan to get the full effect.  Playing Weiss Schwarz between panels at an anime convention is a much better idea than breaking it out when your friends from work come over for game night.

For anime fans with a taste for trading card games, Weiss Schwarz is an easy recommendation.  The game is entertaining, and the cards themselves are well made.  I’m not quite blown away enough to start buying booster packs and building decks from scratch, but I can see myself buying more pre-built decks as new properties get licensed.  Weiss Schwarz is an appealing addition to the US anime scene, and I’m sure it will carve out a comfortable niche for itself.


Weiss Schwarz products are available via Amazon.
Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Feb 112014

I know, that may be a tough headline to read for people familiar with the “Sonic cycle,” the seemingly never-ending sequence where a new Sonic the Hedgehog game gets announced, people get into a frenzy thinking this game will revive Sega’s most famous franchise, only to be disappointed when they play the game and find it’s just as mediocre as the last Sonic installment.

But I sincerely think things are going to be different this time around. Just hear me out:


At their press event last Thursday, Sega said Sonic Boom is planned to be a cross-platform franchise. This includes a new Wii U-exclusive Sonic game developed by Big Red Button (which is made up of former Naughty Dog developers), a 52-episode cartoon series on Cartoon Network based on the game, and a toy line that will include plush toys, action figures, and role-playing toys like Sonic-shaped masks.

Maybe the “Sonic cycle” will continue with the Sonic Boom game. Maybe it won’t. What I can see is a well thought-out marketing strategy, and that’s all you need to make a faltering 22-year-old game character popular again. Sega said younger kids are their target audience with Sonic Boom, and they’ve tackled several key places where kids spend their time. The Cartoon Network show is probably the most important piece, as it will likely be the first way the latest generation of kids can easily access the adventures of the Blue Blur. The toys and the new Wii U game could then be bought up if the show gains enough popularity: go into a Toys ‘R Us and look at all of the Adventure Time toys and video games they have on sale, and you can see the potential gold mine Sega has on their hands if kids respond well to the Sonic Boom cartoon.

The new character designs are the key to re-developing Sonic and his friends in a way that today’s children can appreciate them. Of course, the fan community is already up in arms about whether or not the new designs work, but so far I like what I see. Tails has a tool belt and goggles, which makes it easier to see that he has the brains of the team. Knuckles definitely spent some time pumping iron while guarding the Master Emerald, and while some fans may not like his new beefy look I know it will help younger kids know that he is the tough guy in Sonic’s crew. Sonic himself looks a bit more ragged, with a few spikes in his head out of line, athletic tape around his wrists, hands, feet, and ankles; and a scarf around his neck that is quite possibly a reference to Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake. Put all these together and they help to create a look that coincides with Sonic’s classic personality: a hedgehog with attitude who loves adventure and kicking butt. Though some say the athletic tape is unnecessary for Sonic and Knuckles to wear, I think it helps to give the gang the appearance of a ragtag band of vigilantes, as they were in a much earlier Sonic Saturday morning cartoon, simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog (colloquially known as Sonic SatAM).

I think back to my youth when I see Sega’s new plan to revive Sonic in the U.S. My middle school years consisted of two things: Sonic Adventure 2: Battle on the Gamecube and Sega’s previous Sonic cartoon, Sonic X. I developed a strong connection to Sonic and his friends watching that TV show and playing that one game: I grew to love Sonic’s carefree and energetic attitude, Tails’ ingenuity, and the humor between the gang and Dr. Eggman. Looking back on Sonic Adventure 2: Battle I realize now that it too was quite a mediocre game (and Sonic X a mediocre cartoon thanks to Chris Thorndyke), yet it gave me some of my most precious memories from my preteen years and I have to thank Sega for that.


After watching its trailer I do think the Sonic Boom cartoon could use some improvement, particularly with its humor (Eggman sends “Burnbot” to capture Sonic, but it doesn’t have fire attacks, it has sharp claws! ISN’T THAT FUNNY?!). Regardless, it is clear that Sega is making an effort to get a new batch of kids to love Sonic the same way I did in middle school. Whether or not the show or the new game is mediocre like previous Sonic games and shows, I guarantee a good number of kids are going to fall in love with that spiky blue ball of going fast no matter what. And if some kids in the next generation grow to love Sonic like I did then I’d say Sega had a huge success.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Feb 102014

Though the general public tends to shame some companies for ruthless marketing strategies, it’s impossible to be mad at LEGO, that lovable company that has been making interlocking plastic bricks for generations of children since it started in the 1950s. LEGO is so incredible at marketing itself using cross-platform techniques that it now has its own miniature media empire that includes children’s books, theme parks, video games, board games, kid’s clothing… and now, also a movie.


Like all other LEGO promotional tie-ins before it, The Lego Movie knows its audience, and knows how to share the fun of LEGO construction sets with both the kids who play with LEGO toys today, and the adults who reminisce on their own childhood memories with the toy. The film could have merely been an arduous hour-and-a-half of LEGO product placement (much in the same way that 1989’s The Wizard sold you on Nintendo video games). While I can almost guarantee you will want to buy a couple LEGO sets immediately after leaving the theater, you can also expect to leave having experienced a surprisingly satisfying story from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writers of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street.

The Lego Movie follows Emmet (Chris Pratt), an ordinary construction worker minifigure who mistakenly becomes “The Special,” a minifigure who is said by prophecy to possess the “Piece of Resistance,” a special piece that has the power to stop the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from super-gluing the LEGO Universe together in a mad push to achieve his vision of a perfect world. Guiding Emmet in his journey are Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), an edgy, butt-kicking female minifigure, and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a wise old “Master Builder” who first revealed the prophecy of The Special. Rounding up the main cast are two equally hilarious performances; Liam Neeson voices a LEGO-fied spoof of you typical movie “Good cop/bad cop,” and Will Arnett gives a truly laugh-out-loud performance as Batman, who is a real treat for any fans of the Christopher Nolan films.


What makes The Lego Movie so spectacular is the story drops some deep philosophical themes on the children and parents watching it. The first act of the movie shows Emmet in discomfort as he begins his adventure. He originally lived his life “according to the instruction book,” and eventually grows to appreciate escaping the routine that society cast down upon him. This is a very intricate question to throw at children: do you want to live life by the instructions as well, or escape social norms and, shall I say, “build” your life as you see fit? Another deep question involving creativity also comes toward the end of the film, but I will not go into detail on it here, as it would reveal an ending too jaw-droppingly incredible to spoil.

When the movie isn’t getting deep in its themes, there is some serious humor to appreciate. Expect a laugh a minute as minifigures interact with each other, from Superman trying to deal with a clingy Green Lantern to a classic spaceman minifigure (named “Benny”) obsessing about building a spaceship. I can guarantee you can also expect some cameos from many famous characters from licensed LEGO sets, some of which you won’t even see coming.


I also cannot talk about The Lego Movie without bringing up its animation – it is INCREDIBLE. The film is entirely computer generated, but is made to look like it was shot in stop-motion using real LEGO bricks. I originally wondered why stop motion was not done anyway, but then I realized how intricate it would have been by hand: waves on the ocean, lava flows, spilling and splashing water were all made out of bricks. Re-positioning each tiny brick for each individual frame would have been a daunting and time-consuming task. It is very impressive to see how realistic the toys appeared in CG; it was as though I was looking at a real LEGO set being played with before my eyes.

FINAL VERDICT: The LEGO Group has a reputation for high quality with each of their products today, from the toys to the video games. The Lego Movie is no exception. While the movie certainly is a commercial for LEGO bricks, it is at the same time a well thought-out family film with amazing animation and voice acting, and a much deeper story than you could possibly expect out of an hour-and-a-half long commercial. Kids will love the colorful landscapes and the laugh-a-minute humor; parents will love the chance to reminisce on their childhood memories playing with their own LEGO toys in between laughing along with their kids. This is a family film I would highly recommend, especially as we slog through the pre-Oscar slump of typically bad films in the theater.


Review by Steven Brasley.