Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ponyo Review

With the recent BD/DVD release of Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo) I thought I'd share my thoughts on latest film by the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki.

The plot centers around a little goldfish named Ponyo. She's washed ashore after getting stuck in a glass jar and is soon rescued by a 5-year-old boy named Sousuke. The two quickly develop a close bond, however Ponyo's presence in the human world throws the balance of nature into chaos. Only a sacred test of love can restore the world to its natural state and grant Ponyo's wish to become human.

First off Ponyo is hands down one of the most adorable movies I've ever seen. Miyazaki himself said that he made this movie for five-year-olds because of their unique perspective of the world. Everything they see is alive somehow and that's exactly what he wanted to bring to the world of Ponyo and I think he succeeded. But older audiences will find plenty of enjoyment from the purity and innocence that this film represents. It really makes you feel like a child in such a way that you don't feel as though you're being looked down upon, and that's mainly due to Miyazaki's uncanny ability to embrace audiences of all ages. With that said however it does require a suspension of disbelief. I think one of the reasons Miyazaki's worlds feel so real is because of how casually his characters react to some truly outrageous situations. In Ponyo's case, when the balance of nature goes completely out of whack the characters react as though it was a small flood. Nobody's panicking, nobody's becoming overcome with fear. You get the sense that this has all happened before and everyone's used to it. It's almost as if throwing off the balance of nature is merely a minor inconvenience for these people. It's a simple matter of letting yourself accept the things that you see as oppose to asking too many questions.

The animation is one of the film's more unique qualities. Studio Ghibli managed to simultaneously take a large step backwards and huge leap forward. The animation takes on a very simplistic style with pastel and watercolor backgrounds that have a storybook feel to them. The characters are designed with the same elegance that can be found in any of the Ghibli's productions yet they also have a less dynamic approach to their detail. It makes for a very inviting look that's not seen very often in Japanese animation. But the leap comes from the sheer number of characters and creatures that are brought to life. This is evident right from the start in the very first shot of the film, where we see a seemingly endless stream of tiny creatures make their way through the sea. Not since Pixar's Finding Nemo has the ocean looked so enchanting.

As for the characters themselves, they are some of the most adorable and lovable characters I've ever encountered. Miyazaki said that he didn't want Ponyo to be simply another Totoro. But the spirit of that film is definitely present here. You feel as though you've known Sousuke and Ponyo for years. Miyazaki has stated that he likes to make movie about normal children. Sometimes those children just happen to have special abilities, but they're still no different from you and me. I believe that's why people are able to relate to his characters so well. That goes for the adult characters as well. Although Sousuke's mother is a bit eccentric, her concern for him is genuine and doesn't feel forced or tacked on as it does in most children's films.

This is one of those rare opportunities in anime where both the English dub and the original Japanese versions of the film are both on par with each other. The voice acting on both sides are both outstanding. I especially have to give props to Noah Cyrus's performance as Ponyo. Ponyo is a very hyperactive child and most of the time characters such as herself come off as very annoying in English dubs. But almost every one of Cyrus's line deliveries was simply priceless. It's definitely worth checking out, even if you're like me and much prefer foreign films in their respective languages.

There are some nice bonus features too (Although not nearly as many as the Japanese version.) We get a hefty amount of behind the scenes featurettes and interviews compared to the norm for Ghibli releases in the U.S. But one of the most fascinating features is the World of Ghibli; an interactive tour of the several worlds from the films of Hayao Miyazaki. It's a nice introduction to those who have yet to view his other films. The Blu-Ray also comes with a DVD copy of the film. I don't own an HDTV at the moment so I can't comment much on the HD version but the DVD looked just fine. The picture was bright and vibrant and the sound was great. The only problem I have with both discs is that you have to go to the menu to switch the menu as oppose to being able to do it on the fly. This something I haven't seen them do since the Kiki's Delivery Service DVD, but that was done because English version had a longer opening and closing credit sequence. Since Ponyo has an equal running time in the various languages included on the disc there really is no excuse.

I'm a little baffled that Ponyo wasn't nominated at this year's Academy Awards (Not that it would have won anyway. The Secret of Kells must be one hell of a movie.)

Ponyo is a wonderful entry in the Studio Ghibli library and I truly believe that it will stay with a generation of young viewers for years to come.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Top 8 Mega Man Games

So for my first set of reviews I was planning on doing a Top 10 Mega Man games list in anticipation for the upcoming release of Mega Man 10. But with the seemingly endless number of entries in the franchise, I was still unable to think of 10 games in the series that I actually enjoyed. So here are my top eight games in the series instead.

Year Released - 1997
Platforms -
PSX, Saturn, PC

The first thing gamers noticed about X4 was the tremendous graphical upgrade from the previous X game. The 2D graphics were some of the best ever seen at the time. The anime cutscenes, while cheesy (especially in the English dub), were entertaining and the gameplay was kicked up a notch from the previous X games. This also marked the first time that gamers were able to start the game off as Zero. Like most of the X games, the soundtrack was very catchy and the difficulty was level was high. It's too bad X himself had possibly the worst voice in gaming history. I cringe every time I have to hear him say "time to get serious!" I know bad English voice acting has pretty much become the standard for the whole franchise, but this was just painful. But the gameplay was fast paced and intense, making for one of the better games in the X series.

Year Released -
Platforms - PSX, PC

The story comes full circle as it once again focuses on the your partner Zero and his inevitable sacrifice. Only this time you have the option to play the game from his point of view. It's one of the only games in the series that I enjoy almost entirely for the story. The game also sports quite possibly the best 2D graphics in the series to date. The only thing that bothered me in this title was that damn tutorial. I guess they really wanted to appeal to newcomers of the series.

Year Released - 2009
Platform - Wii Ware, PSN, XBL

When Capcom announced that they were making a MM9 for download, fans got excited. But when they announced that it would be 8 bit they got hyped. MM9 was quickly recognized as one of the most polished titles in the series, and rightfully so. It also featured a lot of firsts for the series such as leader boards, the endless stage, and the ability to play through the game as Protoman. The soundtrack was stuck in my head for months, not that I minded. I could tell from the start that the developers had just as much making the game as I had playing it. Mainly because of some of those sadistic challenges such as getting to a boss without shooting, beating all of the bosses with your normal blaster, and the sheer impossibility of completing the entire game without taking any damage whatsoever.

Year Released - 1988
Platform - NES

A lot of people refer to MM2 as the best game in the series, but I guess I just missed it when I was a kid. I didn't play 2 until only a few years ago and I didn't beat it until just last year. I certainly wasn't let down. It truly is one of the most polished games on the NES and one of the best sequels to any video game in existence. It's also the only game I can think of that requires you to die before you can defeat one of the bosses. They were not screwing around with this one. Naturally the soundtrack is some of the best 8-bit music you'll ever hear. I believe in the old saying, "Be a man! Play it on Hard Mode!"

Year Released - 1997
Platforms - Playstation, Saturn

Mega Man 8 marked the first 32 bit game in the main series. It sported some awesome graphics and anime cutscenes just like its X4 predecessor. The gameplay while seriously unforgiving, was very solid. But sadly it also has the worst voice acting in the series to date. It's as if the ADR director just didn't care. Names are mispronounced, characters are hilariously miscast, and some of them actually stutter. But that atrocity aside, it's one of the most solid 2D platforming games around. Also, why in the hell didn't they use this pic for the U.S. cover? Then again I could say the same for almost every game in the series.

Year Released - 2006
Platform - PSP

This remake of the very first game in the series wins the award for the most underrated game in the franchise. Here is a game that improves on literally every aspect over the original and yet I know very few people who have even picked the game up. Powered Up allowed you to chose between playing the original game with the updated graphics or the enhanced remake with new level design and two new bosses. This version also expanded on the story (That's right, the original actually had a story.) But what also makes this game stand out is the one thing that I had been craving for years. This is the only game in the franchise to include a level editor that lets you completely design your own stages and upload them online. It's essentially Little Big Planet: Mega Man Edition. If I had to nitpick I would say that I would have preferred the more traditional anime look from MM8, but the chibi look is just one more thing that makes this game unique among the others. If you've never played Powered Up, it is more than worth adding to your PSP collection.

Year Released - 1993
Platform - SNES

The first X game was one of my favorite games back in the days of the SNES. Capcom took a big risk bringing the cute and bubbly world of Mega Man into a dark and gritty sci-fi setting. Right from the get-go, as soon as you power up the game you find out that Dr. Light has long since passed away and now you are a new and improved version of the original Mega Man. With the advent of the 16-bit era, game designers were able to implement more story elements into all types of games that were previously bound to instruction manuals. Although brief, X was easily the most story driven game in the series at the time of its release. I still get a little sad every time I see Zero sacrifice his life for X. To top it all off, it has the most kick ass soundtrack of the entire series. Sigma Stage 1 is easily one of my favorite songs from any video game. When it comes to the X series, you simply can't top the original.

Year Released - 1990
Platform - NES

No other game on the NES gets me as fired up as when I pop in MM3. As soon as I hear that badass theme I'm ready to go. Although 2 is largely considered the best on the NES, 3 was the game that introduced me to the franchise. It's hard to choose between 2 and 3 because they're both so refined. But I have to give the nod to 3 not just for nostalgia, but because I honestly feel it's the better game. It introduced the slide which added a bit of evasiveness to the blue bomber, the level design is superb, and it has the best 8-bit soundtrack EVER. Every track in the game is fantastic. It's no wonder that its one of the most remixed game OST's out there. But as I've mentioned, most NES games could only fit so much story into the cartridge. But Capcom managed to cram a bit of tragedy into the game resulting in a genuinely emotional ending. (But we all know that Capcom is notorious for resurrecting their deceased characters.) MM3 is a fine example of gaming at its best, and to me it's the most solid game in the franchise.

It's almost baffling to myself how many games in the series I actually enjoy considering that the Mega Man franchise is in the gamers edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for its sheer number of installments. This is of course not to say that there aren't other games in the series that are enjoyable, but I feel that none of them live up to these eight titles. Who knows, maybe Mega Man 10 will be the ninth.