Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (18/50) -- Alice In Wonderland (1951)

What a strange, strange movie. This is seriously the only opener I can come up with when discussing Alice in Wonderland, Disney’s 14th Animated Feature based on Lewis Carroll’s duo of books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The film is so wildly weird and incredibly unconcerned with making any sense (narrative or otherwise), it’s something that you can only sit back and goggle at, an experience that makes Fantasia look positively grounded in storytelling.

To describe the plot of Alice in Wonderland is to miss the point, but here goes anyway. Alice is receiving study lessons from some woman who could be her sister (I could very well be wrong; the movie never explains who she is), when she sees a rabbit with in a waistcoat and trousers rush past her. Curious, and eager to be rid of her studies, Alice follows the rabbit down a very deep hole and into a Technicolor mindf@$# of a place called Wonderland. The movie then spends the next 70 minutes following Alice around as she gawks at everything she meets, before concluding so abruptly that I was reminded of the Package Films and their tendency to trail off, rather than end.

If you’re looking for a movie that follows a concrete “A then B” story, you should give Alice a wide berth, because this is not a movie where anything, in a sense, happens. There’s no conflict, there’s no overarching character development—it’s pure spectacle from first to last. But what a spectacle it is! Singing flowers, size-changing foods, anthropomorphized doorknobs, the whole movie is one big acid trip, and I have very little doubt that Alice, similar to Fantasia, saw a great following during the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” days of the 60’s.

This was a poster from Alice's 1974 re-release. Apparently it was marketed alongside Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Indicative much?

The movie tumbles head-first into psychedelic territory almost the moment Alice falls down the rabbit hole. As she drops, the colors start to turn funky, her shape distorts from wide to thin like a funhouse mirror, and she tumbles by several bits of levitating furniture. The extra bright picture afforded by the Blu-ray release (which is how I watched it) makes the film seem even more trippy.

Suffice it to say that the visuals are an absolute boon to this picture. The art direction is superb, blending the otherwise unfilmable images of Carroll’s books and the soft, lovely animation style of Disney’s Silver Age—the movie is undeniably strange, but is made all-the-more inviting by the charm Disney brings to the table. In particular, the doorknob is a fun and inventive piece of animation, and would be heavily referenced during Beauty and the Beast’s preproduction as an example of how to get inanimate objects to behave like humans.

The art style leans on the squash 'n' stretch a bit more than in most films, resulting in a more "cartoon-y" looking film.

Alice in Wonderland is the most song-heavy film in the Disney canon, with 14 (!) tunes played throughout the experience. Of course, not all of them are full-length Disney Tunes, and less than half of them break the two-minute mark; the rest are small blink-and-you-miss-them ditties, and even the famous “I’m Late” song lasts all of 45 seconds. The Did That Just Happen nature of having so many songs only adds to the sense of strangeness and befuddlement brought on by the movie.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the movie (to its detriment, I think) is how Alice reacts to the oddities around her. Specifically, how she doesn’t react. Alice is undoubtedly the most English protagonist out of any film in the canon, as she meets even the strangest sights by cocking her head and going, “Hmm, isn’t that peculiar.” Her distance as a character makes her hard for the audience to identify with, though her occasional deadpan remarks are fairly amusing (“Goodness,” she observes as she falls down the rabbit hole for a minute and a half, “after this, I shall think nothing of falling down the stairs.”).

The film also has the weirdest habit of periodically becoming super dramatic. Most of Alice is played as a lark, but occasionally, and sporadically, it will zoom in on one of the characters while the music becomes very loud and intense. Most of these moments involve either the queen or the Caterpillar (who is a bi-polar bug if there ever was one), but the most out-of-place one comes during the scene where the Mad Hatter “fixes” the White Rabbit’s watch by covering it in sugar, jam, and butter (don’t ask). The watch begins to spin and bounce about, while the camera zooms, the characters yell, and the music reaches an almost unbearable crescendo—it’s as if the movie is terribly frightened of rogue timepieces, and is trying to convince us of how scary they actually are.

The horror... the horror!

There are a few other flaws too. For all I have been raving and ranting about in regards to the movie’s unmitigated weirdness, I personally don’t have much use for it, and I find the movie’s total lack of any coherent narrative more than just a bit off-putting. The aforementioned songs also don’t leave much of an impact, with only “Golden Afternoon” and “Painting the Roses Red” really standing out as catchy to me.

Still, Alice in Wonderland is worth a look, if only under the pretense of being “arty.” Disney’s interpretation of Alice is arguably better-known than Carroll’s books, and Alice’s characters and imagery persist in popularity even today (culminating with, I think, Tim Burton’s live-action take on the franchise last year). Though the film can be disappointingly slipshod and absent of conflict (it also lacks anything related to the Jabberwocky, apart from a short poem sung by the Cheshire Cat), Alice in Wonderland is a cemented classic in Disney’s canon, and should be checked out if you haven’t seen it yet.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Golden Afternoon”
  2. “Painting the Roses Red”
  3. “The Sailor’s Hornpipe”

Favorite scene:

  • Alice's trial

Favorite character:

  • The Dodo

The Jar Jar:

  • Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (they function as a unit)

How I Watched It

I picked up the Blu-ray edition of Alice in Wonderland on first week special at Target, which comes with both the Blu-ray version of the movie and a DVD copy for the kids to use in the car. The film looks great in high def, and though it’s not as mind blowing as Beauty and the Beast or Fantasia are, Alice’s bright colors and clever art direction benefit greatly from the picture upgrade.

Alice in Wonderland has a good chunk of special features, the biggest of which is a movie-length documentary called “Through the Keyhole: A Companion's Guide to Wonderland.” “Through the Keyhole” plays the movie like normal, but is intercut with footage of Disney historians and animators (including Will Finn, animator of Aladdin’s Iago!), pencil tests, concept art, and live action reference footage; it’s basically a commentary, but taken to a whole new level, and is among the coolest special features I’ve seen in a Blu-ray release so far.

Also included is a host of deleted scenes, pencil tests, and even a few TV specials: “Operation Wonderland” is an excerpt from an old TV show, and details the process of how animation is created, while “One Hour in Wonderland” is a bit of a variety show designed to showcase Alice in Wonderland, featuring Katherine Beaumont and several guests, as well as a slew of Disney shorts. Lastly is the Mickey Mouse short “Thru the Mirror,” a Through The Looking-Glass-inspired cartoon where Mickey dreams that he goes through his bedroom mirror and dances with a set of playing cards. “Through the Keyhole” by itself would have been enough for me, but the well-over two hours of other bonus features also included on the Blu-ray are just icing on the cake.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (17/50) -- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad may be the most uneven film in the Disney Animated Feature canon. There are worse films, to be sure, and certainly there are better ones, but I’m almost positive that none of them go from “meh” to “pretty good” as sharply as Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Ich-y and Mr. T was created one year before Disney would bootstrap itself into profitability with Cinderella, and many Silver Age techniques can be seen employed here. However, the IT crowd still clings to many shortcuts and cheap-isms that hallmarked the previous five package films, making for a wild ride of sorts (heh heh heh).

The film begins in what appears to be someone’s study, as Basil Rathbone’s ear-buttering timbre explains that English literature has produced many memorable characters throughout the years (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Frodo Baggins, etc.), and that his favorite is a toad. J. Thaddeus Toad, to be precise, from Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel The Wind in the Willows. A disembodied hand, or perhaps friendly poltergeist, pulls the book from its shelf, and Rathbone begins to read the first of the film’s two narratives.

Fun bit of trivia: The Wind in the Willows was the first book I ever read with over 200 pages. My third grade self was rather proud.

Mr. Toad’s portion of the movie tells of four animals making their way in the Victorian England countryside: a badger, a water rat, a mole (whose names, respectively, are Badger, Rat, and Mole), and J.T.T. himself. Toad is a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who fritters away his money on various fads and pleasure-seekings. Badger and co. desperately plead with him to control his “manias,” but Toad spots a motor car for the first time and succumbs to the mother of all manias. Toad declares he simply must have a motor car, despite not having any more money for it, and is soon arrested for attempting to steal a car.

The movie then becomes Twelve Angry Men for a spell, during which Toad is tried and witnesses are presented. Toad insists that he traded the car for a deed to his estate, Toad Hall, but his key witness testifies that Toad instead sold him a stolen car belonging to some weasels, and Toad is locked away. Toad eventually breaks out to find that his key witness and the weasels were in cahoots, hoping to steal Toad Hall away (court appeals, real estate—sounds like this book was written as a bedtime story for aspiring bookkeepers). In a climactic ending, the group breaks into Toad Hall and steals the deed back from the weasels, proving Toad’s innocence.

For a movie about talking animals, Mr. Toad is far less fun or bouncy than it should be, owing to a surprisingly slow pace. Several sections drag out interminably, and only during the ending sequence where Toad, Badger, Rat, and Mole retake Toad Hall does the film’s energy pick up. The movie alternates between Rathbone’s narrations and the characters’ onscreen antics, which gives the film a jarring, hurry-up-and-wait feel to it. It’s a shame that Disney couldn’t make an entire film out of The Wind and the Willows; surely the added screen time could help the picture feel less congested.

Aside from an especially manic ending, Mr. Toad's portion of the film is not quite as fun as it could be.

After Rathbone concludes his story, the wonderfully dulcet tone of Bing Crosby pipes up (this movie is not wanting for pleasant voiceover talent), who asserts that we ‘Mericans have some pretty good characters too. He rattles off a few (almost all of which were covered in Melody Time) before finally settling on Ichabod Crane, the poor, unfortunate soul who met his end (or did he?) in Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Crosby thrusts us right into the story, as we follow Ichabod’s first visit to Sleepy Hollow. The town Man’s Man, Brom Bones, thinks the guy is a joke, but everyone else is absolutely smitten by Ichabod’s charm. Despite the fact that he looks like a vulture’s carcass warmed-over, the womens of Sleepy H. can’t help but throw themselves at “ol’ Icky,” and he soon feels right at home in his new hamlet.

Now I ain't sayin' he a gold digger...

Yes, it turns out that Ichabod is not the nice guy his nerdy appearance indicates, but is instead a cunning womanizer, who preys on ladies’ affections to fill his larders with food and pockets with money. Brom, too, is not quite what he seems; rather than a thuggish, John Hughes-ian jock type, Brom is a regular dude, no more cruel or unkind than anyone else in town (indeed, from the way he acts, he could very well be called Bro Bones *ba dump tish*). Everyone goes about their merry business, until the movie’s best argument against pining after women waltzes into view.

Her name is Katrina, and she is the kind of girl who likes to watch boys compete over her; a woman whose feminine wiles and callous man-ipulation have doubtlessly inspired many an emo song. Anyway, Katrina rides into town on a horse made of sex appeal and cotton candy (I’ll stop now), and everyone in town is smitten with her. Naturally, both Brom and Ichabod pursue her affections, and the movie has a good time playing Unstoppable Force And Immovable Object between the two characters.

The comic timing in the courtship scenes is razor-sharp.

Ichabod eventually gains the upper hand, though, and is invited to a party where he will inevitably propose to her, gold-digging his way into a comfortable living (the movie makes no effort to hide his ulterior motive). Brom, in a last stroke of effort, notices Ichabod’s superstitious nature, and weaves a tale about a horseman who patrols the back roads of Sleepy Hollow, no doubt because he enjoys the cool night breeze on his headless neck. On his way home, Ichabod encounters the horseman, and after a furious chase, disappears forever; whether he died or merely decided he’d move the Cleveland instead, the movie does not say.

In contrast to The Wind and the Willows, which felt like a full-length feature hastily shoehorned into a 30 minute short, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow feels exactly as long as it needs to be, telling the story as best it can while still padding the film with comic relief. Sleepy Hollow also opts to have Crosby narrate the whole thing, which helps sell the story’s appeal; even when characters speak, Crosby takes over for their voices (there is a portion where Ichabod croons to several women of the town in The Groaner’s signature manner).

Sleepy Hollow even looks better. While The Wind and the Willows looked more like a Donald Duck short, with characters squashing and stretching every which way, Sleepy Hollow’s visuals appear to be a not-too-distant cousin of Cinderella; humans are realistic while looking slightly cartoony, and the comic timing hints at what the silver age will bring.

It's definitely not as polished as the Cin-city, but it's definitely a step-up from the other package films.

If it wasn’t already apparent, I enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” FAR more than I did “The Wind and the Willows,” which saddens me. I read “The Wind and the Willows” when I was in grade school, and remember enjoying it quite a bit. The concept even sounds more fun: a madcap toad gambols about in several high-priced toys, causing vandalism and collateral damage before finally learning to straighten up and fly right (emphasis on the “fly,” haha). As it stands, though, “The Wind and the Willows” is short, ploddy, incredibly concerned that we understand the legal system of Victorian England, and overall a rather half-baked attempt at adapting what is otherwise a rather charming story.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed “Sleepy Hollow,” and I think most of it came from the characters. As I mentioned above, Ichabod is an anti-hero at best, which helps make Brom’s potential d-bagginess less of an issue. These two combined with Katrina, who is a total harlot, make for a story full of slightly despicable characters, which is a change of pace for Disney. The knowledge that every one of these characters “deserves” each other makes it easy to and soak in the story.

Then, of course, there’s the Horseman, who I would rank right under Chernabog on Disney’s Genuine Horror Animation Characters list. The Horseman’s laugh, jet black color, and sword-brandishing demeanor sell him as an actual threat to Ichabod, and if he weren’t used as a gag during several parts of the chase, I would say he is easily one of the most terrifying characters in a Disney feature.

Uh, yeah, you're boned.

Disney completists will want to rent The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but it is FAR from a necessary viewing (it’s not even the best Package Film. THE BEST PACKAGE FILM!). That said, the Sleepy Hollow segment is surprisingly entertaining, and worth a view during your next Halloween get-together.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “The Headless Horseman”
  2. “Ichabod Crane”
  3. “Nowhere In Particular”

Favorite scene:

  • Brom’s story of The Headless Horseman

Favorite character:

  • The weasels

The Jar Jar:

  • Cyril Proudbottom (the horse with buckteeth and what sounds like a bad Mel Blanc impression)

How I Watched It

This'll teach me to order some place only for Super Saver Shipping--while the disc looks just fine, the packaging looked faded enough that I had to check to make sure it was bootlegged (it wasn't, much to my disappointment). This is the standard edition of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad available for average every day purpose. Since this is a Gold Collection DVD, the transfer is pretty blocky and blah in places, with noticeable dirt and scuffs on the negatives, making me appreciate the Robin Hood and Saludos Amigos transfers (which I thought were pretty paint-by-numbers).

Aside from a pretty blah picture transfer, the DVD also comes with a few extras. Most of them are pretty unworthy: a Sing-Along, a DVD storybook of Mr. Toad, and a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride game (which I can only assume tries to ape the Disneyland ride). Rounding out the package is the Mickey Mouse short "Lonesome Ghosts," which casts Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as mid-30's Ghostbusters. The short itself isn't bad, and a decent idea to whip out at your next Halloween party.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gold and Silver! Silver and Gold! (c) Yukon Cornelius -- Pokémon Gold and Silver -- The Pokémon Retrospective

After playing the ever loving crap out of Blue, getting my paparazzi on in Snap, and owning fools in Stadium, I discovered that Nintendo was hard at work on a Game Boy continuation of the Pokémon franchise. The bullet point list of improvements was incredible: 100 more Pokémon, a day and night cycle, eight new Gyms, and the entire region from the first game available for unlock after joining the Pokémon League. For a series that, to me, was not in need of major renovations, Nintendo came out swinging with a laundry list of upgrades.

Pokémon Silver takes place in the Johto region, a western province based on the Kansai region of Japan, and it’s full of new sights to see. Like the first game, the player is a young boy setting out on an adventure to become the world’s greatest Pokémon trainer, with only the shirt on your back and the Pokéballs at your belt. Along the way, players will travel to new cities (all named for different species of plants), battle new trainers, and capture all sorts of new Pokémon.

New town, same ol' Pokémon Center.

The biggest change to Pokémon Silver comes in the form of an internal clock, which tracks the time of day. The environment changes depending on what time it is (if the game is played at night, the areas will become darker), and gameplay is affected by the time as well. Certain Pokémon only come out at night or in the morning, and several moves are more effective when used during a particular time of day.

While they do add a fair bit of gameplay variety, I was never too chuffed with the day/night cycle. It took the deep, fantasy world which I loved and tied it too strongly to the real world, and gave it a “game-y” edge to boot. Not to mention it was now impossible to try to find wild Pokémon; I wasn’t sure if certain creatures were rare, would only come out during the evening, or both. This probably could have been helped if I had bought a strategy guide, but catching ‘em all still seemed like far too daunting a task.

Though it added depth, I didn't care much for the addition of night.

Of course, more was brought to the table than just the clock. After players beat the Elite Four, they could take a bullet train to the Kanto region, where the first game took place. From there, players could journey back through old haunts and re-challenge the likes of Brock, Sabrina, Giovanni, and other old Gym Leaders.

I was super excited for this feature, but it turned out to be slightly less than advertised. When I finally reached Kanto, it had been waaayyyyy downsized from the way it was in Blue. I understand that it would have taken far too much memory to include such a huge map into an already enormous game, but I was still slightly disappointed. That said, I enjoyed grinding through 16 Badges was way more than I did grinding through eight, so the Johto/Kanto split was ultimately a good thing.

You hop on the metro to get to another region. Did I mention this game was made in Japan?

The last major shakeup was the Pokégear, a set of gadgets at the player’s disposal that functioned as a watch, map, radio, and cell phone. The cell phone part is the real kicker—players could now save the phone numbers of other trainers and call them for rematches, helping earn extra experience points.

Gold also took advantage of the Game Boy Color’s IR port with a feature called Mystery Gift. Once a day, players with two copies of Gold or Silver could Mystery Gift each other and receive a special, randomized item; the item could be something as simple as a Potion or as fabulous as a Rare Candy. Sadly, since I didn’t know anyone with a copy of either Gold or Silver, I never got to use this feature (I was now in 8th grade, and Pokémon was now for Pokélosers).

There was also the usual assortment of new TMs (devices that taught Pokémon different moves), health items (Pokémon could now hold items called Berries, which restored HP or cured status ailments in battle), and Pokémon techniques to try out, making for a fresh experience overall.

Folks like this old bloke helpfully explain the new mechanics like berries, which is right nice of them.

My favorite additions to Silver, though, were the fixes to my minor complaints from the last one. Pokémon Box full? Someone will call you and swap it! Need to level a weak Pokémon so it can evolve? Have it hold the Experience Share! Hoping the Pokémon you’re trying to catch won’t dodge the Ultra Ball you’re throwing at it? IT WON’T NOW! If nothing else, Silver was a polishing experience that made me realize how much room for improvement the first game had.

Unfortunately, I think the Pokémon franchise suffers a bit from the law of diminished returns, and while I enjoyed the crap out of my time with Silver, it wasn’t quite as memorable as Blue. Though I had a good time travelling around, I wasn’t able to remember very many of the city names (I think the original’s decision to name each town after a different color was a solid one). I also found myself falling back on old, G-1 ‘mons instead of trying the new, fancy ones introduced in Silver.

There were a few cool-looking monsters I adopted, but I mostly stuck to what I was familiar with.

Still, as a follow-up to the wildly popular original, Silver was about as ambitious as you could hope for, and succeeded in many places the original didn’t. It also helped keep the Pokéstoke going in my heart, letting me know that this series wasn’t just a fad. It wasn’t the revelation that Blue was, but it was a damn fine game, and sometimes that’s all I need.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When I'm Sixty-Four -- Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Stadium -- The Pokémon Retrospective (2/7)

As a Pokéfan who loved his Nintendo 64, I was absolutely jacked at the thought of what Nintendo could do to my new favorite series on their 64-bit wonder console. Nintendo knew how to manage their franchises, and they eventually released four Pokémon titles on the N64 (two of which we’ll talk about today). Though both weren’t quite what I imagined, they were still fun in their own right, and hold a worth place in my library to this day.

When rumors of Pokémon migrating to home consoles first reached my ears in 1999, I imagined a full-on adventure, exploring the polygonal countryside and visiting expansive, 3D cities. In short, I wanted something like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but with Charizard in lieu of the Master Sword.

Several months later, I remember seeing screenshots of a fully 3D Meowth and Pidgey in my issues of Nintendo Power. My mind raced with the possibilities, and, after pursuing every scrap of knowledge I could about the game, I found out that Pokémon’s debut on my favorite console would be…

A photography game? What?

Pokémon Snap

Yes, dear readers, the first Pokémon title to reach the comforts of the couch was a game where you shoot pictures of Pokémon instead of battling them. Sounds like the perfect recipe for lame sauce, right? You would be bubble-burstingly wrong, and I had a great time with Snap back in the day.

The game stars a young boy named Todd (you may have seen him on the TV show), who is exceptionally good at photographing Pokémon in their natural habitat. Todd is invited by Professor Oak to a small island to take pictures of the Pokémon that live there. On the island, he will travel through six different environments, discovering new Pokémon and doing his darndest to get them to say “cheese.”

Creativity and quick thinking can result in some fun and high-scoring pictures.

Pokémon Snap is basically an on-rails shooter. You travel along a predetermined path, taking pictures of whatever Pokémon you can before reaching a predetermined endpoint. You also have different items to lure Pokémon in from of your lens; food attracts the different ‘mons to where it’s dropped, while Pester Balls drive Pokémon away from where they’re thrown.

The real draw of Snap is its in-depth scoring system. After you get through with a level, you choose which pictures you want Professor Oak to evaluate. Oak scores the picture based on a whole host of criteria: how big the Pokémon is, what sort of pose it’s striking, if the picture is centered, and how many of the certain ‘mon is in the picture. Even though there are only six courses to go through, a heap of replay value comes from going through the stages and attempting to get better and better scoring pictures.

Snap's scoring system is surprisingly robust, and I put away many hours perfecting my high scores.

Of course, it is called Pokémon Snap, and the actual creatures themselves look great. The art style carried over to 3D really well, with the cool monsters looking totally sweet, and the cute monsters looking absolutely adorable. The environments are basic, but project a strong sense of place that makes up for their lack of graphical fidelity.

The only real complaint I have with Snap (apart from only having six environments) is that the game only has 61 different Pokémon. 61. That’s 89 less than there should be. I imagine that the developers ran out of memory to include more environments and all 150 different ‘mons, but it’s still slightly disappointing all the same.

Side note: you could pick your favorite pictures and take your cartridge to Blockbuster Video, where you could print out stickers of the pictures you took at a special station. The feature was a bit frivolous, but fun all the same; we were more of a Hastings family growing up, but I did manage to convince my parents to visit Blockbuster once in order to get my stickers. I frankly don’t remember what I did with them, but the novelty was fun.

The only thing more hilarious than the notion of a kid actually using this, is the kid who actually used it.

Snap was a fun diversion, but the real meat was coming, and faster than I suspected. As usual, Nintendo Power gave me forewarning about the game, and it sounded awesome: this new game allowed for battles between all 150 Pokémon in full 3D.

Of course, it would basically be only battles, but was beside the point.

Pokémon Stadium

Released in February 2000 to much fanfare, Pokémon Stadium let players battle in 3D for the first time. Pokémon Stadium is as true to its name as it could possibly be—instead of an epic, sprawling quest of travelling and filling Pokédex pages, you battle trainers in a stadium. It sounds barebones, and it is in some ways, but Stadium offers a surprising amount of options for a game that with an almost tunnel vision-focus on combat.

Players have two major options to choose from when the first enter Pokémon Stadium. The first is the Stadium itself, where players can compete in four different cups, each with its own rules and restrictions. The cups include the Pika Cup (for Pokémon levels 15 – 20), the Petit Cup (levels 25 – 30, with an additional weight limitation), the Poké Cup (levels 50 – 55), and the Prime Cup (up to level 100; all opponents’ Pokémon are level 100). Each cup consists of eight three-on-three battles, with players choosing which out of their six to send into the fray. In addition, the Poké and Prime cups have four different divisions, each named after a different kind of Pokéball (Pokéball, Great Ball, Ultra Ball, and Master Ball), giving the Stadium mode further legs.

For the first time, players could experience the thrill of victory and agony of defeat in three dimensions of goodness.

The other option is the Gym Leader Castle, where players can challenge Gym Leaders and collect badges, similar to the Game Boy games. In each Gym, players must first defeat three trainers before ultimately challenging the Gym Leader him or herself. This mode has a bit more of a narrative thrust than the Stadium mode, and the different Gyms all look varied and dramatic. Gym Leader Castle is also tough as nails, and took me a rather long time to work through.

This actually goes for the rest of the modes in Stadium as well. Unlike Blue, the trainers in Stadium don’t have any bullcrap, sissy moves like Harden or Tackle. No, they are out for Pokéblood, and will fight you to the very last. Fortunately, the results never feel cheap, and the computer never seems to swing in the AI’s favor; this helps the game feel less like a grind, and asks players to think strategically about their moves.

Stadium is far from a cakewalk, but the feeling of progression is incredible.

The main draw to Stadium is the ability to import Pokémon from a player’s copy of Red and Blue. This is done with the use of the Transfer Pak, an accessory that plugs into the bottom of the N64 controller. Players can insert their copy of Red or Blue into the Transfer Pak and see their team brought to life in full 3D, adding a point of pride to the competition. Players can also play the Game Boy game on their TV sets in an area called the Game Boy Tower (it’s about as straight-forward as it sounds).

With this little accessory, I could see hundreds of hours of my life represented onscreen. It was effing sweet.

There are a few extra modes as well. Players can rent Pokémon and engage in Free Battle, and players with two Transfer Paks and their own copies of Pokémon Red or Blue can enter an Event Battle, which allows for things like custom rule sets. The Gallery option allows Pokémon to be photographed, which can then be printed at the Blockbuster stations mentioned above. Lastly, the Kids Club has a series of nine Mario Party-style mini-games, ranging from watching Rattata race over hurdles on a running track, to a Lickitung version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

While not quite what I was expecting, I ate up Stadium, and have many fond memories playing it (even writing about it makes me want to go fire it up right now). However, it’s not a game for those unfamiliar with the franchise. The adventure elements that helped make the game popular are absent, and the difficulty curve is steep and craggy. Still, for the already-converted, it is a hell of a good time, and, as Nintendo Power wrote in their review, “it’s super effective.”

The Ones I Missed

There were two other Pokémon games released for the Nintendo 64 that I didn’t buy; by the time they came out, I was thigh-deep in Nintendo Gamecube stuff, and didn’t have time to fiddle faddle with outdated technology. The first was Pokémon Stadium 2, which was similar to the first Pokémon Stadium, but allowed for players to use their copies of Pokémon Gold and Silver (which we’ll cover next time). Stadium 2 also included more cup types, Gym Leaders, mini-games, and a Pokémon Academy where players could bone up on battle strategies. Basic, but adequate for a sequel to Stadium.

The other was an odd, very late-in-the-game title called Hey You, Pikachu. Hey You was comparable to the Dreamcast game Seaman: players used a microphone peripheral to talk to Pikachu in order to cultivate a friendship with it. Unlike Seaman, which featured a sarcastic Leonard Nemoy as the titular pet, Hey You, Pikachu featured, well, everyone’s favorite yellow electric mouse in all of his red-cheeked, er, glory. I can’t even begin to tell you how this game was played, and it sold rather poorly, if I remember correctly.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s easy to kvetch and whine about the lack of a full-length Pokémon RPG for the N64, but a home console version of the game would be missing the point. Pokémon was, at heart, a social game, and the draw of trading and battling friends would have been incredibly stunted if kept confined to the living room. In fact, the only way to effectively duplicate the Pokémon experience on a home console would be to make it a World of Warcraft-style MMORPG, which the Nintendo 64 would not have been capable of. Come to think of it, though, that’s not such a bad idea…

Next up: Gold and Silver

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In The Beginning -- Pokémon Red and Blue -- The Pokemon Retrospective (1/7)

I don’t remember the exact moment I was compelled to rush out to the store and buy my copy of Pokémon Blue, but I imagine the scenario went something like this. As a borderline-religious reader of Nintendo Power magazine, I was constantly (and I mean constantly) bombarded with previews and sneak peeks and inside looks at this new franchise coming stateside. A franchise that reached frothing levels of popularity in Japan, and now threatened to ensnare North American gamers everywhere.

This sounded like a right treat for me; it had all of the adventuresome thrills of a Super Nintendo epic, but could fit in my ‘ittle bitty Game Boy. Like so many other times in life, though, I was waiting for just the right reason to rap me on the head, tell me to quit procrastinating, and get my mom to take me to Target and buy it. The reason finally came in the form of Nintendo Power issue 111—bundled into the back was a mini-magazine called “Pokémon Power,” a six-part walkthrough spread out over six issues. “Pokémon Power” had in-game area maps, item and trainer placements, and details on all eight Gym Leaders as only Nintendo Power could bring it to me (can I have my money now, guys?).

This little bugger was invaluable in getting my addiction started.

The combination of the media blitz, supplemental magazine goodies, and a powerful ten-year-old’s imagination finally won out, and I settled on Pokémon Blue (and would continue to buy the “alternate version” for every iteration after that). Dear readers, if I can’t remember the exact circumstance that lead me to buy Pokémon, I will remember, until my dying day, the thrill of standing in my kitchen, commanding my Charmander to victory over Brock’s Onyx, earning me my first Gym Badge. The taste of victory was sweet, the smell of adventure musky, and before I knew it, I was a Pokémaniac.

To get an idea of why Andrew from 1998 fell head-over-heels for this little 8-bit wonder, please allow me to repeat myself a bit. First of all, Pokémon Blue is absolutely ENORMOUS. Far from the small-sized Game Boy adventures I was used to, and large even compared to many SNES games at the time, Pokémon Blue was a game that could occupy much—MUCH—of my time. At an age when new games were scarce, and I had to milk every fresh cartridge I had to the very last, Pokémon Blue’s longevity was heaven-sent.

Blue was also bursting with imaginative possibilities. The Game Boy was not a graphical powerhouse by any means, but this added to Blue’s appeal by letting me fill in the details with my mind. The game’s graphics showed only part of the scenery’s look, but I loved picturing how the game “really” looked, and imagining going through it with my trusty team. Far from stunting my imagination, Pokémon Blue acted as a catalyst for many adventures I would have in the years to come.

Lastly, I think Blue was my first epic quest. In the days before Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII opened my eyes to sprawling worlds and myriad journeys, Pokémon Blue gave me a massive countryside and told me, “Go get ‘em, tiger.” I felt important, like I could conquer everything. I was destined for greatness. I was gonna catch ‘em all.

Adventure is out there!

As a sidenote, Red and Blue was a veritable Wild West for what was possible with was possible to accomplish in a video game. Rumors abounded with what you could find and do: “Hey, if you go back to the S.S. Anne at the exact right time, you can ride it to the Orange Islands!” “Dude, go back to the spot where you found Mewtwo, then use the Pokéflute and Moonstone, and you can catch Mew!” “Aw man, when you catch all 150 Pokémon, go talk to Professor Oak, and he’ll take you to a new town where you can buy Rare Candies!” In the days before internet walkthroughs, these sorts of discussions happened all the time, and Pokémon was an especially popular target for them.

There was a good reason for all of the rumors and homespun remedies, though. The early Pokémon games were glitchy as hell. Exploits for duplicating items, finding certain Pokémon in places you weren’t supposed to, and even a new game-breaking glitch-émon were both possible and public knowledge, leading us to wonder what else was out there.

What the deuce is that?!

Blue is my favorite Pokémon game to date, but oh lordy, they did not make it easy on us back then. Pokémon Blue was the Isla de Muerta of video games, nigh unplayable except to those who already knew how to play it. The game certainly didn’t explain how the mechanics work, and the few tutorials that were there acted more like theoretical guidelines. It was pretty damn sink-or-swim, and I often wonder if I would have liked it was much if it wasn’t for my beloved Nintendo Power.

Blue would see its many kinks ironed out in later iterations, but I’m going to name off a few of my favorites. First and foremost, future installments would allow Pokémon not in battle to collect Experience Points through an item called Experience Share; this would allow weak Pokémon to level quickly while stronger ‘mons did the battling for them. In Blue, this feature was ABSENT. I won’t go into the finer details of why this was a pain in the ass, but it basically made leveling weak Pokémon incredibly time-consuming.

There are several other niggling complaints I have with the game, my favorite being the system that stores Pokémon after you’ve caught them. Pokémon are stored in boxes, and each box can hold 20 Pokémon. Well and good, but the game doesn’t do a good job of telling the player how many are in each box at a time. This leads to the inevitable encounter with an über rare Pokémon, only to find that game won’t allow it to be caught because the box is full, and there’s a half-hour hike to the nearest Pokémon Center if you want to do anything about it.

Great. Just great.

These complaints are just peanuts, though, considering how well the game comes together. The franchise was set in motion, and Red and Blue sparked a worldwide phenomenon. Though many, arguably superior versions would follow them, Red and Blue will always be the ones that started everything, and there will always be a special place in my heart for Blue.