Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Written by Chris Roberson
Art by Alex Ross and Dennis Calero

            There is something inherently attractive about hero team-up comics, even if you don’t know a thing about the heroes in question.  Thus why Avengers titles tend to sell well regardless of the team, and why Masks brings together a group of heroes from the pulp era.  But while team-ups generally need to rely on strong characters and story, Masks doesn’t really go past being a cool team-up.
            Taking place in 1930s New York City, Masks starts with a political takeover by the Justice Party, who’s turning the city into something resembling a fascist state.  Masked police officers are arresting people for the smallest of crimes, and everybody is being bribed by the party to keep it happening.  It’s up to The Shadow, Green Hornet, The Spider, a new version of Zorro, and more heroes to come together and stop them.
            The big plus side of Masks is how the Justice Party is used.  They’re a very obvious flip of the coin from the vigilante heroes, and one that’s handled very well.  This only really comes across in the final 2 issues, but when it does come across, it’s pretty hard-hitting.  The standard villain speech of “Join me” has some real weight here that has to be considered by the heroes, and it’s tied in with a message of hope.  That even if there was a Justice Party, there’s a force that would stop it.
            What doesn’t work at all here is the heroes themselves.  I feel no attachment to them at the end of the day.  It doesn’t help that the only one here I know anything about is Zorro, and that’s the classic version.  There’s two big problems here.  The first is that it keeps skipping between heroes, so you don’t get enough time with any of them.  This especially hurts the fringe heroes.  I couldn’t tell you a thing about Miss Fury or The Spider at the end of the comic.  And they’re also just all too similar.  Their smaller differences would surely come out individually, but together, it’s this mass of people that might as well be the same person.  And there’s just not enough conflict within the team that tells me the differences, either.
            One of the other big problems with Masks is how it tells the story.  Constantly, a scene with a character will end with them reacting in shock.  Cut to a different group of characters, cut back, and…we never find out what they were reacting to.  At best, it’s a bunch of guards, which at some point is just status quo.  Setting up cliffhangers that don’t pay off is just cheap.  And finally, there’s the use of Alex Ross on just the first issue.  I have nothing against Calero’s art, but very little can match up to Ross’ meticulous painting.  And it probably takes a lot of work, hence why he only did one issue, but why not just have Calero on the whole series?

            If you’re a huge fan of all the pulp heroes here, then you’ll probably enjoy Masks.  Casual readers can just forget about it, as there’s no reason to care about the people here and not enough identity to them. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nintendo Land

Developed by Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Published by Nintendo

            New technology seems to bring on tech demo games, and Nintendo is about the only company that makes these major games for the systems.  Wii Sports was a huge hit, Pilotwings Resort brought back a franchise that hadn’t been seen since the N64, and now Nintendo Land is a system pack-in with the Wii U Deluxe that has 12 minigames (or, as they’re called here, attractions) based on 12 different Nintendo franchises.  So the question is, if you don’t get it with the system, is it worth picking up?
            There’s little if any story to be had here, but there is the hub area for the game.  Instead of having a simple menu where you pick which minigame you want, the hub is an area that features the 12 doorways to the attractions, a tower, a train, Miis walking around (either from Miiverse, or premade ones if you’re not online) and various items you can buy that help populate it.  It is very satisfying to go from an empty area to filling it up with enemies and objects from the attractions, and each one has its own description given by the game’s host, Monita.  If nothing else, having a hub instead of a simple menu gives the game a bit more class and presentation value that bumps up the experience.
            The minigames are divided into co-op, competitive, and single player.  We’ll start with the competitive ones, as these are likely to be the ones that’ll get the family together to play.  They generally follow a similar concept: one side is trying to catch the other side.  Mario Chase is the simplest: the GamePad player is Mario, while the Wiimote players are Toads who have to tag Mario within the time limit.  The game’s simplicity doesn’t stop its franticness, as the Mario player can see everything, while the Toads have to communicate where they’ve seen Mario and judge the distance to figure out where Mario is.  Luigi’s Ghost Mansion bumps it up a bit, placing the GamePad player as a ghost who has to hunt down the Wiimote Luigis, who are armed with flashlights.  Extreme paranoia runs rampant here, as the Wiimote players have nothing but vibration to judge if the ghost is nearby, and the flashlight runs out of batteries after a while.  It’s tense, and the various levels manage to ramp up the difficulty appropriately.  Finally, there’s Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, where the Wiimote players are animals who have to run around and collect candy, while the GamePad player controls two guards simultaneously to track the animals down and tackle them.  Having to control both guards adds a level of complexity and tactics that’s a lot of fun, and the animals have to choose whether to risk getting in one place to get higher-value trees, along with the fact that eating more candy slows them down. 
All of the competitive games are fun, but there’s a strange sense of game balance.  For one, the games use bigger maps with 3-4 Wiimote players than with 1-2, but that generally turns out alright.  If it ever ends up as 1v1, though, the GamePad player can just forget about it.  Mario Chase adds Yoshi carts which hunt the Mario player down and stun them, giving the Toads an easy victory.  Sweet Day has places where the animal can deposit the candy, losing the main difficulty for them.  And Ghost Mansion adds a computer-controlled Monita player with an unlimited flashlight for each human player that isn’t there.  Not too bad with 3 Luigis, but with 1, it becomes a game of avoiding the Monitas.  If you’re going to play any of these games, you need at least 3 people, with 4 or 5 being ideal.
The co-op games are more intense than the competitive, ramping up the difficulty and seeming to aim more for the “core” audience.  Pikmin Adventure is the simplest, which has the GamePad player as Olimar and the Wiimote players as Pikmin.  You run around with a top-down view, fight enemies, and collect power-ups and nectar to level up.  It certainly doesn’t match the actual Pikmin, but it’s a fun pick-up-and-play experience, and easily the one you can share with the less experienced gamers.  The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest is an on-rails shooter/slasher, where the GamePad uses a bow-and-arrow, while Wiimote players put their MotionPlus on for a sword and shield.  If you enjoyed the 1:1 sword motion in Skyward Sword, there’s plenty of it here, but simply going through wave after wave of enemies does get tedious after a while, especially with a shared life meter and some copy-pasted environments.  Along with the co-op quest, there’s also a bow-based time trial mode.  Metroid Blast is probably the closest thing in this collection to what could be a standalone game.  Not a retail game, but a $10 download, certainly.  The GamePad player takes control of Samus’ ship, while the Wiimote players are Samus herself, as you fight off enemies in an arena setting.  This is an honest third-person shooter, no on-rails, an actual experience.  It’s not much more than that, but it’s very fun and exciting.  This also comes with two competitive modes, a ground-vs-air mode and a free-for-all of the ground players.
And finally, we get to the biggest mixed bag of Nintendo Land: the single-player games.  Let’s start this off with one simple fact: with 6 multiplayer games which range from good to excellent, why they felt the need to stuff the rest of the collection with single-player games is beyond me.  Considering that the GamePad player has mainly been staring at the GamePad up until this point, it seems like this is where the gimmicks come out that use it and the TV together.  For instance, Yoshi’s Fruit Cart displays the fruit you have to pick up and the hazards you have to avoid on the TV, while you have to use landmarks on the background to draw a path with the GamePad.  This stands out as one of the weaker games in general, with its slow pace and generally tedious gameplay.  Balloon Trip Breeze fares better.  The TV shows a zoomed-out view, while the GamePad is zoomed-in on the player, as you swipe through spikes and enemies and float your way from island to island.  Having to look down on the GamePad to tap things adds some franticness, and in general, it’s just a fun little game.  Octopus Dance is a rhythm game that has you copy an instructor as you move your arms with the control sticks and tilt the GamePad.  I love rhythm games, and this is a solid one, that’s just difficult enough.  Captain Falcon’s Twister Race makes you tilt the GamePad to lead the Blue Falcon around obstacles.  It’s nice enough, although the difficulty ramps up fast and there’s little leeway in terms of the time.  Donkey Kong’s Crash Course is the single-player winner, as you tilt the GamePad to lead a weird contraption through obstacles.  It’s hair-pullingly difficult as you get used to what you’re doing, and yet you can’t help but say “One more try”.  And finally, there’s the single player loser, Takamaru’s Ninja Castle.  This definitely falls under “Did this really need the GamePad?”  You use it to slide ninja stars and defeat ninjas.  It’s like a rail shooter made unnecessarily difficult, as the sliding motion is tedious and will likely hurt your hand.  And ultimately, this could be done with a WiiMote.
Even with some fun ones in the single-player games, there’s still some big problems throughout.  For one, they’re way too short.  After you beat them, you gain extra levels for next time, but you have to go through the old content first and it never changes.  If there was a corridor of spikes in Balloon Trip, it’ll be there every time.  Next, properties just seem oddly used.  Yes, there’s shades of this in the other games, but it really comes out when you could’ve removed Donkey Kong’s name from Crash Course, and it wouldn’t have mattered that much.  Not to mention there’s some obscure properties here.  Ninja Castle is based on a game that was never even brought to America, and meanwhile, Star Fox and Pokemon get left out completely.

Overall, with the first-year drought of games coming to a close, Nintendo Land’s usefulness might be ending soon.  However, as a collection of a few fun games to play with family and friends, it’s worth getting, and it’s always nice to play with the GamePad before the big stuff comes along. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Duncan Fegredo

            I love Hellboy.  The many comic series that have built up the long-lasting story have stayed consistently entertaining, the movies have both been a good time, and the games…er, forget about those.  So I was excited to read the original graphic novel, Midnight Circus, but something here is missing.
            The story here focuses on a young Hellboy, who runs away from the BPRD and runs into the Midnight Circus, which is run by demons, and from there…well, things get fuzzy.  Don’t get me wrong, there have been some trippy moments in Hellboy stories in the past, but what exactly happens here is hard to determine.  The references to Pinocchio are interesting, but at the same time, Hellboy doesn’t really have a lot in common with Pinocchio.  And there’s foreshadowing that seems to carry little meaning besides being heavy foreshadowing.  It’s a story where things happen, and in a way, these things are interesting, but at the end of the day, I could not write you a logical synopsis.
            And yet, “things happen” is still a fascinating thing to happen to Hellboy.  If nothing else, knowing the pure weirdness he would encounter in the future, this seems like a spot where Hellboy is first thrust into what he’s going to spend the rest of his life fighting, and he reacts about how you’d expect a kid to react.  It’s interesting to see a different side of Hellboy, who isn’t yet all-powerful, but is still just a kid who has a tough destiny ahead.  The other real strength of this book is Fegredo’s art.  As always, I’m a little disappointed that Mignola does the cover when the interior is a different artist.  At the same time, Fegredo masterfully takes control of things.  In particular, there’s the art changes between the normal world and the Midnight Circus.  I had to check to make sure it wasn’t two different artists, and having it as just one is very impressive.

            So Midnight Circus isn’t quite a perfect story.  Even with the hard-to-understand story, there’s enjoyment to be had here.  But at the end of the day, there’s better Hellboy stories.