Saturday, November 8, 2008

Nintendo Power Turns 20!

As Nintendo Power is turning 20 this year, thought that I would purchase an issue and see if it still holds up after all this time. It has been at least 5 years since I have bought an issue, so I am approaching this review with a fresh set of eyes.

First, I should explain that 20 years ago Nintendo Power was THE magazine. Every kid at school read it, wanting to know how to get the secret warp zone, or Contra code, or whatever. The magazine frequently would have whole level walkthroughs of games, and often had incredibly helpful cheats and game maps (you have to remember this was before the internet). The main problem with the magazine back then was a complete lack of objectiveness; everything reviewed or in the magazine was great. I understand that Nintendo is trying to sell a product, but saying that every game is great fools legions of fans into purchasing sub-standard fare, and it creates a backlash against the House of Mario.

I am glad to say that the reviews are somewhat more objective, but not by much. While many of the games are rated lower than a 7.0 (this may also be due to the utter dumpster-level quality of most Wii and DS games), you still never shake the feeling that Nintendo Power magazine cannot be a truly objective reviewer. I know that many magazines had been accused of accepting a paycheck for good reviews, but I do feel that other magazines on the market offer the reader a more trustworthy and unbiased opinon of Nintendo's wares.

Walkthroughs are no longer part of the magazine (games are too long now, and we simply can't take away from player's guide sales), so much of the content are articles on upcoming games. In the latest issue we get an indepth look at Chrono Trigger, Animal Crossing Wii, and a bunch of other DS RPGs that I have never heard of. The articles are only on key games and are of course designed to create excitment and salivation for these titles. While there is nothing wrong with promoting an upcoming release, Nintendo Power does not have the autonomy to do it in such a way that isn't unseemly.

There is also a lot of content for Nintendo Fanboys (and Fangirls): retro reviews, articles about Nintendo History, and game developer bios all help fill up the remaining pages in the mag. Some of it is quite interesting, but if you don't have a sense (or simply don't care) about Nintendo history much of these articles will be over your head.

Is Nintendo Power a must buy? Definitely not. No. At $4.99 US and $6.99 Canadian per month you will not get value out of this magazine. It should be noted that magazines are in general too expensive unless you get a subscription, which most of the time is at least 50% off cover price. If you see that Nintendo Power has an article in it that interests you enough to shell out your hard earned cash go for it, but there is a magical new invention called the internet that will let you get most of the content for free and with a more objective opinion.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Collection Update: Ghost Rider Run Complete!

Well thanks to some key last minute bidding on ebay, I now have a Ghost Rider #11 in my possession. This issues marks the final piece of the puzzle needed to complete the entire 81 issue run. I also have Marvel Spotlight #5-12 in the run as well. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Ghost Rider. Sure some of the stories are campy and dialogue can be outright laughable at times, but as a reader you are consistently entertained.

A twist on the Faustian tale Ghost Rider is a must read for any Marvel Horror fan, and I would recommend that all of you start picking up some great old issues today. Alternatively, you can run out to your nearest comic shop and buy the Essential Ghost Rider (an inexpensive way to read the first 40 issues or so).

So now I will have to start in earnest on my Marvel Team Up run (I only have 12 of 150 issues) and work diligently on finishing up the complete set of Acts of Vengeance cross-overs. Punisher vs Doombots! That gold Jerry! Gold!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: October 21st, 2008
Price: $30

I have always enjoyed the horror genre. I enjoy the genuine terror, the physical manifestation of social fears, and the campy nature of the beasts. It is no surprise that I am a big fan of the Castlevania series. The king of "Survival Horror" way before Resident Evil or Silent Hill came along, the Castlevania games provide the difficult, gothic, and bloody challenge that gamers have been craving for more than twenty years.

The newest title to bear the name Castlevania is The Order of Ecclesia (OOE) on the Nintendo DS. Another addition in the Castleroid genre, the game has a lot to live up to. First I need to mention that this game is hard, much harder than the last two entries into the series. You will die in this game and you will die often. Sometimes you will even die fighting some Joe Schmoe enemy in the middle of a level. And bosses? Forget it. You will die 10 to 15 times at some of the more difficult ones.

All that being said the game is not so difficult that you want to shut off your DS and never play again, but you will need to mentally prepare yourself for a litany of continuous death before you complete this opus.

The gameplay tries something new with the glyph system. Weapons are gone, but you can gain magical version of deadly weapons by defeating enemies. It makes for a nice in game collection and has some interesting customization options as well. There is also a great mix of fresh and familiar monsters to defeat.

Those who have played Castlevania II: Simon's Quest will notice a return to multiple locations on a world map. I must confess, I am not much for the multi-locals in a Castlevania game. It should be Dracula's castle, and that is all. It does offer some variety but a few of the locals are linear and boring.

There is a reasonable amount of replay value to OOE with extra modes, difficulties, and side-quests throughout, but I have to say that once I finish a game as hard as this one, I generally put it away for a good long while.

So should you buy it? The game will take at least 10 hours to finish and you should be able to find the game for about $30, so you are good in terms of per hour value, but if you hate a challenge while gaming, you should let this one pass by and rent Dracula instead.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The 11th Doctor, Who?

So David Tennant has announced that he will be stepping down as Doctor Who after the four television specials in 2009. A sad day for many a Whovian as he was one of the best to ever fly the TARDIS. For those of you who have not checked out the current Doctor Who series I highly recommend it.

But now the big question is who will replace Tennant and become the 11th Doctor? Speculation runs abound but I have a few suggestions. First off, the Doctor has to be played by a UK actor. There are a lot of great parts out there for American actors, but the Doctor isn’t one of them. I would suggest that the producers look at the cast of the sadly short lived HBO series Rome, as any of the following actors would make a great 11th Doctor.

1. CiarĂ¡n Hinds (played Julius Caesar).
2. James Purefoy (played Marc Antony).
3. Kevin McKidd (played Lucius Vorenus).
4. David Bamber (played Cicero).

Any of these four would make a great (but very different) 11th Doctor. Will we see a darker, more calculating Doctor? Or will we see a jovial, comical one? And as we get closer and closer to the Doctor’s final regeneration will we see the end of Doctor Who?

As with all great lists my casting suggestions should be discussed and debated thoroughly. Please leave your comments, and let me know who you think would make the best 11th Doctor.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Collecting Comics the Nerd Alert Way

I am often asked by my legions of adoring fans what I read. What comic books are worthy enough for me to dole out my hard earned cash? Due to the fact that inquiring minds want to know, I thought that I would fill you in on how I collect.

First off I have a very small, ever-changing collection. I keep one half box of comics and 3 shelves of trade paperbacks. No more. If I start to run out of space I need to sell some of my collection. This allows me to keep my collection fresh and interesting. There are some items that I always keep and read at least once a year (Sandman, Swamp Thing, Transmetropolitan), but mostly I cycle through everything I buy.

The comic books themselves are divided into two categories: new books (current titles) and older books (back issue bin gold). For the new books my current list is this: Amazing Spider-Man, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, JSA, Thor, Secret Invasion, and Final Crisis. I am thinking of dropping JSA after this current storyline is over. I will end up replacing it with something else (maybe a Superman title).

For the older titles I am always looking for runs of stuff that I cannot easily get in trade paperback format. Currently I am collecting Ghost Rider (1973 series), Marvel Team-up (1st series), and the Acts of Vengeance. I am almost finished the Ghost Rider run (one issue to go), and I only need a handful of the Acts of Vengeance issues. Once these two are complete I will concentrate a bit more seriously on the MTU run as I currently have about 12 of the 150 issues. I also have been toying around the idea of completing a Groo run.

You may have noticed that the older titles I collect are not marquee, flagship titles. I always like to be looking for a run where I can pick up the books for $1 or $2. I get to continually quest for some great stuff and it doesn't break the bank. I would encourage all of you to set yourself a collecting goal based on your local comic shop's bargain basement.

Well that is about it. I hope that this has proved illuminating to all of you.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Robot Chicken Season 3

I have always loved stop-motion animation. From the California Raisins to Jack Skellington I have been mesmerized by storytelling using clay-covered wire. It was no surpise then, that I instantly enjoyed Robot Chicken. The premise was simple: create an incredibly short television show using old 80’s toys as actors. Oh, and add in a bunch of genitalia and flatulence jokes.

The first and second seasons were fantastic, filled with memorable sketches such as Inspector Gadget becoming the Terminator; Hulk Hogan’s Heroes; and the Scooby Gang going to Camp Crystal Lake. The comedy is fast, smart, and completely reliant on the audience having a working knowledge of cartoons based on action figures. So I had high hopes for Season 3, and, unfortunately, those hopes were dashed.

Robot Chicken has run out of smart ideas and filled the void with coarse language, scatological humour, and nudity while trying desperately to offend everyone while mocking the mentally challenged. Cheap laughs.

I should point out that originally the language and nudity was censored for broadcast, but the DVD release is completely uncensored (in one case even showing actual female nudity). Parents should not be fooled by the PG rating on the box; a mistake has been made.

The season isn’t without its gems though, I almost laughed up a lung at the Car Voltron sketch and the “Reverse Wonder Woman” sketch is worth the price of admission. However, all in all the season seems lacking, with the humour being gross or mean-spirited. I can only hope that Season 4 goes back to basics.

So should you buy this? It will take about 5 hours to watch all the episodes and extras, so at $30 for the box set it is cheap per hour entertainment. The problem is that the majority of the season isn’t funny enough, and you can easily find some of the best sketches online (not that I condone that sort of thing). If you enjoy stop motion animation, 80s toys, or jokes mocking the deaf then pick up Season 3. For all others, watch reruns of the first 2 seasons.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Retro Review: Super Mario RPG

Title: Super Mario RPG
Cost: $8
System: Wii Virtual Console

I remember being quite sceptical back in 1996 when I heard that Nintendo was working on a RPG staring everyone's favourite turtle stomping plumber. It wasn't that I didn't like role playing games, but I am always wary of the mixing of genres as it can result in some of the greatest pop culture disasters of all time (think about how many awful "Dramedys" Hollywood produces). My fears were alleviated slightly when I heard that Nintendo was not going at this alone but would be partnering with RPG powerhouse Square (they hadn't merged with Enix yet). How would the creative minds behind goombas and chocobos give Mario a new genre to conquer?

My fears were groundless, as the game was a critical success that kept RPG purists happy and introduced the genre to gamers who previously only cared about platform jumping. Now it has been ported to the Virtual Console on the Wii and this week I am looking at how the game stands up after 12 years.

The game tells the story of Mario saving the world from the Smithy Gang. To achieve this goal he must team up with Peach, Bowser, and two new characters: Geno and Mallow. The title was released only months before the launch of the N64 and as a result the graphics are some of the best that the SNES has to offer (indeed, the graphics are easily better than many of the early PS1 games as well). The gameplay is easy to learn with a simple, but effective, control scheme. This game introduces some RPG gameplay elements that would be picked up for later Final Fantasy games, such as the additional button pressing timed perfectly for extra damage (Squall uses it often in FFVIII).

I do have a minor quibble with the pseudo-3D backgrounds: they make the jumping levels (admittedly, there are only a few) tedious and aggravating. I don't have the patience to continually fall into lava again and again.

The difficulty level is perfect for all gamers. Those new to the RPG genre will find the learning curve just right, while those RPG veterans will find enough in terms of hidden bosses and side quests that boredom will not be an issue. However, the optional best weapon and armour in the game are pretty easy to get and make the remainder of the game almost too simple at times. This might put off even the greenest of gamers if they appreciate a challenge.

So should you pick this up? Well video games, and especially RPGs, are some of the cheapest per hour entertainment out there. The game costs $8 (I know that the console cost you something, but bear with me) and will take 15-20 hours to finish. You will definitely get your 50 cents per hour of entertainment out of the game. Super Mario RPG was overlooked by many during its initial release (people were excited about the N64) and many gamers missed out on a true gem. Now that the game is back I would recommend it to anyone. It is a must have for your virtual console.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Between Loveless Vol. 3 and 100 Bullets Vol. 12 I have definitely read enough Brain Azzarello this week. He can be an excellent storyteller (the greatest complement a comic-book artist or writer can receive), but the myriad of convoluted twists and turns can cause one to yearn for the straightforward "Hulk Smash!" storylines of yesteryear.

As 100 Bullets is nearing its end, I will leave a review of that for another time, but for now we will talk about Loveless, a gritty, hard hitting western for mature audiences only. I mention the intended audience only so my readers are aware that this isn't some white hat vs. black hat kiddy western. This is a twisted tale of revenge full of graphic violence, sexual situations, brief nudity, and copious amounts of coarse language. All of that being said Azzarello doesn't abuse his use of R rated material. It does fit the story, which is much more than can be said for many comics since the abolishment of the code (I was never a fan of the code, but I think that sometime writers are just putting in swearing and breasts because now they can).

Set after the American Civil War, the story follows Wes Cutter and his wife Ruth Cutter as they seek revenge on the townspeople that wronged them. To achieve this grisly task they must navigate their way through a wide range of disreputable characters, murderers and rapists all in order to ensure that the town gets the comeuppance that it deserves.

I won't reveal too much more of the plot, but I will say that it is convoluted. But then we would expect no less from Azzarello. The series was cancelled prematurely, and that has contributed to the bizarre final issues, which feel tacked on and borderline redundant.

The art is perfect for the story and on occasion can be quite avant garde. Flashbacks are used quite frequently in the story when a location triggers a distant memory for a character. The problem is that at times it is difficult to tell what is a flashback and what isn't, causing you to flip the pages back and forth to try to make sense of it all. Couple all of this with a cast of unrepentant characters that we never really end up caring for and you end up with a pretty lacklustre comic book.

So is this lurid tale of wild west revenge worth your hard earned cash? At 3 volumes ringing in at $50 it will take you about 5 hours to read. $10 an hour is a bit steep for a series that never quite finds its mark, so unless you are some kind of Azzarello completist I would stay away. For those of you who want to find some great western comics, check out John Ostranders' Blaze of Glory mini-series for Marvel.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I remember getting my Nintendo Entertainment system back in 1987. Times were simpler then: you only needed a few minutes to actually finish a game, but that was after hours and hours of practice. Indeed, video games were much shorter when we were younger, but also much harder.

There is no real challenge to the games of today, if you simply sit in front of your PS3 with enough time and a hint guide you will finish whatever cookie-cutter sandbox GTA clone is newest, hottest thing. I am not saying that games today aren't good (many are destined to become classics), but our ability to accept a challenge from video games has been greatly diminished.

This bring me to today's review: a first look at Mega Man 9 for the virtual consoles on the Wii, XBOX360, and the PS3. With this game Capcom ushers in what will surely be a new genre in gaming: the Nouveau-Retro. That's right folks, Capcom has created a brand new 8-bit game for you all to enjoy and attempt to conquer.

The story is standard Mega Man fare; Dr. Light has been framed by Dr. Wily and Mega Man must clear his name by battling 8 stages of robots and gaining new and interesting weaponry.

I was reminded right away at just how difficult a Mega Man game can be as in the Concrete Man stage I was hit by an enemy and fell to my death. 5 seconds into playing the game. Undaunted I tried again and made it past the first jump, only to die due to extensive damage about 1 minute later. I finished off my third life (another horrible robotic death), and then decided to change levels. I tried each and every level and was met with a grisly end time and time again.

Here I should mention something for those new to the Mega Man series: there is actually a "correct" order to complete the levels. Certain weapons will help you defeat bosses with greater ease. It is an extended paper, rock, scissors type set up. Further to this you should never keep trying all the different levels as I did. You really should stick with one level and attempt to master it (I would suggest starting with the Galaxy Man stage as I actually made it to the boss on that one).

The problem is that in today's era of hint-books and online cheats we as gamers really don't have the patience to die continuously in the same spot over and over again. When you are 7 and have nothing better to do it seems like a good idea to contest a level ad nauseam until we eke out a victory, but now we are older and fear death and, as such, do not want to use up too many of our remaining hours being impaled by spikes in the Splash Woman level.

You might think that I dislike the game, but you would be wrong. The game is fantastic, and a great throwback to the golden age of Nintendo. But should you buy it? Well, at $10 Mega Man 9 is pretty cheap, but they aren't giving it away either. This will be a must have for any Mega Man fan, and you will get a great per hour return on it, but if you haven't ever played a Mega Man game before I would suggest you do a little research first. Find some older Mega Man games and see if you can handle the continual parade of death; if not, I am sure that Rockstar Games is working on something nice and easy just for you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spectacular Spider-Man

Adaptation from one form of media to another always brings with it a series of challenges as the interaction between audience and art is also changed. This difficulty can be seen no more clearly when comic books are adapted to other media such as television or film. More often than not adaptations using comic books as source material evolve into eye-candy with little substance or, in some cases, resemblance to the original. For every successful venture (Spider-Man, Iron-Man) there have been countless other failures (League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Electra, Howard the Duck, need I go on?). One area where comic books have seen some degree of continual success is an adaptation into an animated television show.

The animated medium allows for much of the character design, exotic locals, and stupendous super-powers to remain intact when such elements could break the bank in a feature film. A weekly television show also allows for a more episodic mode of storytelling, and this results in a longer narrative that is conducive for fleshing out the characters (a feature film often has to cram 30 years of comic book history into 2 hours). It is then the challenge of the writers and directors to use decades of source material to come up with a new set of stories that will do justice to the character, appease legions of ravenous fanboys, and bring in new viewers. No small task, but one done with great aplomb in the new animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man, the 7th animated series to feature our friendly neighbourhood wall crawler.

The series takes place in the modern times with Peter Parker in high school. In fact everyone is in high school. And I mean everyone as Gwen Stacey, Harry Osborn, Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Glory Grant, Kong, Hobie Brown, Rand Robertson, and Mary Jane all go to the same school. This does not divert too much from the source material, and it does give the viewer in the know a little wink wink to what may be coming.

Peter volunteers with Dr. Conners, whose workman is Max Dillon (Electro), and whose lab assistant is Eddie Brock. Eddie's parents dies in the same plane crash that killed Peter's folks. Tombstone is a crime boss, Norman Osborn makes super-villains for him, oh, and Dr. Otto Octavius works for Osborn. The point I am trying to make is that the show nicely ties everything and everyone together. As strange as it may seem this does not come across as contrived; the storytelling is just that good.

The series gains it strength from being able to rely on all of the good things that every other comic book, movie, or television show has ever done about Spider-Man. The final product is a mix of Amazing Spider-Man (concept, characters), Ultimate Spider-man (setting, updated timeline), the Spider-Man movie (several action sequences pay homage), and even other animated series (the symbiote comes to earth on John Jameson's shuttle). There is also a continual nod back to Ditko's original visuals with each episode ending with Spider-Man's eyes and red and black webbing appearing over the New York skyline.

So should you watch this show? The answer is a resounding yes. It currently runs on the CW and started September 7th in Canada on Teletoon. So if you have a television and cable I would set aside ½ hour each week to check out Spidey. However, I would advise against purchasing anything just yet. The first season is broken into 4 story arcs that are being released on DVD separately at $14.99 each. You will end up paying $60 for a 13 episode season. B.S. When the CW finally gets there money grubbing head straight a complete season will be released. Normally a 13 episode animated season goes for around $30 and has lot of extra features. For shame CW, for shame.

One last thing: the theme song is great. Not as good as the 60s theme song but then again what is. Is he strong? Listen bud, he's got radioactive blood. Why that didn't win a Grammy I'll never know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Retro Review: The Infinity Gauntlet

The Infinity Gauntlet TPB

Cost: $28

1991 was an interesting year for comic books: the industry’s biggest artists were poised to leave Marvel Comics and form Image; the tsunami of die-cut-holo-foil-wrap-around-cover issues had not hit yet; Superman wasn’t dead yet; and there were no Spider-man clones. Yes, in many ways 1991 was the calm before the storm that was the mid-nineties, in which the industry self-imploded. There is a lot of horrible stuff from this time, but some of it was good back then, and still can hold its own now.

One such storyline is The Infinity Gauntlet, a six issue mini-series written by Jim Starlin that chronicles the tale of the super-villain Thanos who uses infinite power (by obtaining the titular gauntlet) to destroy half of the sentient life in the universe. Opposing him are a host of Earth’s heroes, cosmic entities, and even Dr. Doom (who despite being a megalomaniacal despot himself, doesn’t want to see his own people erased into oblivion, a pre-cursor no doubt to him crying in the ASM 9/11 issue).

The storyline is tight and accessible for new readers (a year of special issues and Silver Surfer books led up to this, but they are not required reading for the miniseries), something that current big event books could learn from (I’m looking at you Final Crisis). The art by George Perez and Ron Lim is masterful storytelling and the change in artist does not disrupt the flow of the artwork. Legend Perez’s abilities as an artist were celebrated even back then but Ron Lim is no slouch. Lim has since fallen into obscurity but he is a consistent, quality artist that always was just shy of the recognition that he deserved (even back then he was always pegged at the #7 or 8 spot in the Wizard Top Ten Artists page).

This team can tell a story, a skill that many of the “top” artists of today are sorely lacking. If I have one minor quibble in terms of continuity I have always been bugged by the Hulk jumping out of Thanos’ way on page 10 of issue #4, only to completely disappear until issue #5. Many of the other heroes are killed or defeated by Thanos, but the Hulk never is, suggesting that the creative team simply had too many characters to think about and forgot to follow up on the Jade Giant’s appearance.

Viewed alone the story is a great big-event-cosmic-crossover, however, it is weakened in some ways that its sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, are vastly inferior and, in some cases, nigh-unreadable. So should you rush out and purchase this 17 year-old super-battle? Well at 6 issues it takes about 2 hours to read and costs $28, well worth the price of admission, however, you should know that you could probably do some digging and find the single issues on ebay for much cheaper. Also be well warned that if after reading this you feel the need to purchase Infinity War or Crusade; you might as well light your money on fire. If you are really curious to find out what happens next just read the Wikipedia entries.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Essential Godzilla

The Essential Godzilla

Cost: $20

On occasion my frequent forays into the world of pop culture nerdom reveal that of the most unexpected and happy of circumstances: a true surprise. I was met with just such a surprise this week when I decided to read Marvel’s Essential Godzilla. The trade paperback is part of Marvel’s Essentials line: a cheap, black & white way to read some great (or in some cases no so great) old stories.

The Essential Godzilla is a complete collection of the 24 issue series that ran from 1977-1979 and tells the story of the gargantuan monster’s rampage throughout the Marvel Universe. My first surprise in reading this was that it actually takes place in Marvel continuity. I was fully expecting this to be some kind of half-assed adaptation of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero or something, but was instead treated to a compelling story of Dum Dum Duggan and S.H.E.I.L.D hunting the king of the monsters through 24 jam packed issues of smashing.

S.H.E.I.L.D is aided along the way by Japanese scientists, a giant robot controlled by a 12 year old boy, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Spider-man. The series touches on several genres as well, with a series of giant monster throwdowns, a wild west yarn, and a time travel story all completing Godzilla’s tale. The hidden jem of the series is a sad and gripping tale of a compulsive gambler who happens to be in Vegas when Gojira strikes. I will not reveal more, but sufficed to say it is not your standard 70’s monster fare.

So, my intrepid readers, if you are asking if this bit of comic book history is worth the price of admission then the answer is a resounding yes. At $20 for 6 hours worth of entertainment you would be hard pressed to find anything on the comic shelf this Wednesday that comes even close. And if you are a Godzilla fan this should be on your shelf right now, or you should be hanging up your Mothra underoos in shame.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Final Crisis #1

Release Date: May 2008

Cost: $4

We are in a unique time in the comics industry. The writers and artists of today grew up reading comics and thus are just as nerdy as we are. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (among others, settle down Dikto fanboys) created some of the most memorable superheroes ever, but they didn’t grow up reading them. We are now in an age when an artist or writer is able to reshape and work with the very characters that drew them to comics.

Sometimes this is great, but sometimes I feel like I am being put through a test. I remember thinking that every issue of Universe X made me feel like I was constantly being quizzed on my knowledge of the Marvel Universe. It's not pleasant to wade through an issue desperately trying to remember why this or that character was important back in 1973.

This brings us to today’s review, Final Crisis #1 from DC comics. This is the final chapter in the Crisis Trilogy (after Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis) and will also be the final saga of the multiverse. As DC comics’ big summer crossover it will feature almost every major hero and villain in the DC universe. Summer crossovers should be fun and easy to read: a reward for longstanding fans, but also a jumping on point for new readers.

Final Crisis does not help new readers at all. You are flung in media res to several divergent storylines which seem to stem from the death of the New Gods characters. But maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself. Are you confused? So was I about 3 pages in. I guess that I should have read the 51 issue series Countdown to Infinite Crisis, along with the Death of the New Gods miniseries, but, silly me, I thought that I could pick up Final Crisis and have some idea of what was going on.

To sum up some of the story points the New God Orion is dead, Darkseid is in human form, Libra has killed Martian Manhunter and there is some kind of side story with the Monitors. Oh and Anthro (the first boy on earth) and Katmandi (the last boy on earth) are also in it.

The art by J.G. Jones is great and the dialogue by Grant Morrison is stellar, but I am put off by comments such as these:

"When we started work on Final Crisis, J.G. and I had no idea what was going to happen in Countdown or Death Of The New Gods because neither of those books existed at that point. The Countdown writers were later asked to ‘seed’ material from Final Crisis and in some cases, probably due to the pressure of filling the pages of a weekly book, that seeding amounted to entire plotlines veering off in directions I had never envisaged, anticipated or planned for in Final Crisis. "
—Grant Morrison

What!? Your original ideas for the plot of this series changed due to the insanity of publishing a 51-week prequel comic? That is ridiculous.

So should you buy it? $4 per comic for 20 minutes of entertainment is $12 per hour. Pretty pricey for the superhero exam you are going to be forced to take. If you knew who Anthro was before this article you should definitely pick it up. It will probably match your Hawk and Dove bed-sheets or your Haunted Tank underpants. If you are not the hardest of hardcore DC fans, but still love DC and wish to know how Superman and Green Lantern will get out of this one, wait until there is a collected trade paperback. In the mean time read the Wikipedia entry for Final Crisis once a month. That you can understand.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Amazing Spider-Man #555-557

Release Date: April 2008

Cost: $3 per issue

Normally I would only review a single issue at one time, but since Marvel has decided to publish ASM an abnormal three times monthly it makes more sense to talk about all three issues as a complete story.

I'll give a quick recap for those who might not be familiar with the current publishing cycle of Amazing Spider-man: ASM has always been the best selling of the Spider-man titles and the most important storyline-wise. So it must have made sense to Marvel to cancel every other Spider-man title and publish 3 times the number of ASM books, with all 3 issues making up a self-contained story. To complicate matters further the title has no consistent creative team as writers, inkers, and pencillers change every month. This wouldn't be a huge problem except for the fact that each creative team has control over every new character that they create. Thus, some interesting characters introduced six issues ago have not been seen or heard from for two months. This makes any storyline seem disjointed, and each set of 3 issues doesn't seem to connect to the previous or subsequent story arc.

All of this might make it seem that I am unimpressed with ASM right now, but that isn't exactly true. The Brand New Day concept isn't bad. The past 2 years of Amazing Spider-man storylines have mostly dealt with plotlines outside of the Spider-man universe. Major Marvel events like Civil War have dominated the Spidey landscape taking the character too far from the tried and tested status quo. To correct this, Marvel brought in a deus ex machina and erased the events of the last several years from Spidey's timeline. Now I am not a fan of timeline changes; writing should never be so ridiculous that it has to be fixed by magically erasing the past, but something really had to done.

After this "correction", all ASM stories have been published under the "Brand New Day" moniker. They make an attempt to return Spider-man to the status quo.

This brings us to issues #555-557. These issues quite nicely point out the current problem with Amazing Spider-man. Even though there is three times the comic every month, there isn't three times the story.

Our tale begins with Spider-man and Wolverine talking about breakfast cereal. Riveting stuff. Dr. Strange sends them on a mission and the duo end up saving a professor from Mayan warriors. Oh and there is a blizzard. The subsequent issues deal with the extreme cold, more Mayan warriors, a death deity, and the required plot twist/double cross. Despite all of this the story falls flat. The issues do nothing to advance Spider-man's personal storyline and are completely forgettable. I also have very little faith that Mayan Death Deity will become a re-occurring villain.

I find it ironic that the move to publish ASM three times monthly was done in part to emphasize the importance of title, but they have decided to focus on storylines that might not have made the cut for Web of Spider-man 15 years ago.

All in all the story will take you about 45 minutes to read. At $3 an issue that is about $12 dollars an hour worth of entertainment. For the Spider-man fanatic this will be a must have, but anyone else should pass these issues by.

I can only hope that next month brings a better story or Brand New Day will be another failed concept in Spidey publication history. Clone saga anyone?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Retro Review-Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels

Release Date: 
June 3, 1986 (Famicom Disk System)
October 1, 2007 (Nintendo Wii Virtual Console)

Cost: $6 (Nintendo Wii Virtual Console)

For most of us who grew up North America in the 1980's Super Mario Bros. 2 conjures up images of Shy-guys, using the Princess to float around, and Birdo (one of the first trans-gendered characters in video games). However, this actually isn't Super Mario Bros. 2. This game is actually the Japanese game Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic with characters from the Super Mario universe inserted in for the North American audience. You see the real Super Mario Bros. 2 was too close to Super Mario Brothers 1 and Nintendo figured that a North American audience wouldn't like so similar a game. 

When it was finally released in N.A. the game was retitled Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels. Originally available for the SNES as part of the game Super Mario All-Stars, it is now available for download on the Virtual Console. This will allow a new generation of gamers decide if Nintendo was correct in thinking that we wouldn't enjoy so similar a game.  

True, it is very similar to Super Mario Bros. 1 in terms of gameplay, sound, and graphics, but it does have one very important is insanely hard. 

Right away in world 1-1 you will notice a difference in the difficulty level. First, there are mushrooms that don't make you bigger, they kill you. We have been trained to run at the first mushroom that we see, so it is no surprise that I was killed on world 1-1. 

I managed to overcome my Pavlovian conditioning and made it all the way to world 3. and found a warp zone. I was expecting to jump ahead a few levels, but I was astonished to find out that this warp zone sent me back to world 1. What the heck! It took me hours to make it here! Now you sent me back to world 1? Despondent, I shut off the game before I lost my mind. (There are more examples of how difficult this game is, but I want you to be amazed and angered by yourself).

Returning back the game hours later, I really started to get into it. Yes, it is much harder than the Super Mario Bros. you remember, and, yes, it will drive you to the brink of insanity, but you will have fun with this lost little gem. 

It currently costs $6 to download to your Wii, if you have a SNES you could pick up a used copy of Super Mario Allstars for about $15. You will get at least 6 hours worth of entertainment out this, probably more. I still haven't finished this game yet, but I feel that I have my $1 per hour of entertainment out of this game. 

For any Super Mario fan out there, if you haven't played this game yet, what are you waiting for? For anyone else, especially if you can't handle dying repeatedly during a gaming session, let this one pass on by. 

Oh, and one final tip: the red piranha plants can rise out of the pipes even when you are standing on them. Treachery!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Secret Invasion #1

Release Date: April 2, 2008

Cost: $3.99

Well, it is that time of year again: the birds are singing, the snow is melting, and the House of Ideas is getting ready to wow us with another big event storyline. This brings us to Secret Invasion, the latest in a string of high-profile, universe-changing storylines from Marvel comics.

In the past, these big event crossovers have allowed for some of the most memorable and beloved storylines in comics. Some are well received (Infinity Gauntlet) while others are immediately forgotten (Contest of Champions II). They let us see our favourite superheroes working together to prevent the end of the universe as we know it, and, year after year, we clamour to read the latest epic.

Lately though, Marvel Crossovers have been pretty disappointing. Yes, they have been commercially successful, but all too often they have started out strong but ended with a lacklustre finish. I cite Civil War and World War Hulk as examples of this. So I was slightly trepidatious when I reached for the first issue of Secret Invasion.

Brainchild of Brian Michael Bendis, Secret Invasion involves the realization that the shape shifting aliens known as the Skrulls have been secretly impersonating Marvel heroes and villains for years. Bendis has stated that this story has been planned for years, and that there were clues hidden in all of his books since 2004.

Now the Skrulls are making their move and I must say, original fears aside, issue 1 of 8 did not disappoint. Firstly, I should note that the cover was exceptional. Gabriele Dell'Otto gives us a iconic image of Skrulls posing as heroes. The title graphics are great, as the lettering really invokes a 1950's sci-fi invasion of the body-snatchers feel. The front cover is easily destined to become as recognizable as the first issues of Infinity Gauntlet or Kingdome Come.

For the most part, the art is solid. Jae Lee can really tell a story, which, for those artists coming out of the Image era, is no small feat. I do have a few problems with flow; at times the jump from panel to panel was unclear (the section in the Thunderbolts Mountain is an example of this) and this hurts the reader’s ability to piece together an already complex series of divergent storylines.

The main storyline has our heroes investigating the crash landing of a Skrull transport in the Savage Land. Upon opening up the transport the heroes discover the ship full of Marvel Heroes (essentially themselves) wearing costumes from the 70's. Bendis wastes no time in establishing the seriousness of the Skrull threat. The Skrulls manage to take out Iron Man, his entire computer network, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Baxter Building. In addition, more major characters are revealed to be Skrulls.

This issue demonstrates the incredible potential for this storyline as a giant bottle of white out. Much in the way that DC used Crisis on Infinite Earths to correct their storylines, Marvel has the chance to fix or change any storyline of the last 20 years. Did your favourite hero die? Don't worry that one was a Skrull. Did your favourite hero get a new stupid costume? Skrull. Did your favourite hero get married? Or took up knitting? Or acted in a way totally different than 30 years of character development would dictate? Skrull. Skrull. Skrull.

I am not saying that Marvel will use this series as an opportunity to change history, but not everyone can make a deal with Mephisto and erase 10 years of storylines.

All this aside, issue #1 was solid read and I immediately wanted to read issue #2. In many ways that is the litmus test for a great comic. I still must caution that Marvel crossovers historically start out strong and end with a whimper. So, should you buy it? It took me about 20 minutes to read and it cost about $4, but will you get $12 per hour worth of entertainment for this? The series lasts until November, so you will not see a collected edition in hardcover until December, and you probably won't see a TPB until March or April of 2009. If you are a Marvel fan buy it now, but if you are just interested to see what might be happening over in the Marvel Universe, wait until the trade comes out.

On a final note boo-urns to Joe Quesada for a letters column that shamelessly promotes other Marvel TPBs that deal with Skrulls or the Secret Invasion. We know what is out there; don't push it on us.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fables, 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Release Date: Hardcover: October 18, 2006
                          Trade Paperback: March 5, 2008

Cost: $16.99

Since 2002, Bill Willingham has been entertaining audiences with his comic book series Fables, a smart look at what happens after happily ever after. Willingham has appropriated hundreds of public domain fairy tale characters, such as Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf, and woven all of their stories into a single gripping epic that has become the heir apparent to Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, The Sandman.

Fables focuses on the lives of fairy tale creatures forced out of their own magical kingdoms by the evil Adversary and living a secretive life in the “mundane” world of New York City. But what happened to all of these characters before issue #1? How did many of our favourite fairy tale heroes and villains get to where they are today?

Willingham attempts to satiate our curiosity in the graphic novel anthology 1001 Nights of Snowfall, a companion piece to the core stories of the Fables universe.

The main storyline of the graphic novel revolves around Snow White being sent to negotiate an alliance with the Arabian Fables against the Adversary. However, when she meets the Sultan she must tell a different story every night to prevent him from beheading her.

This nicely sets up the use of an anthology structure. Each story has a different artist, is a different length, and describes a different character’s history before issue #1. This structure allows Willingham and his team of artists to offer the reader a wide variety of tales. Some tales are horrific and disturbing, some are light and jovial, but all reveal a little more insight into the lives of fairy tales creature before the Adversary pushed them from their lands.

As with many anthologies, some stories work better than others. The powerhouse sections of the graphic novel are the tales involving Bigby, Snow White, and Frau Totenkinder as each tale helps to flesh out the important back-stories for these main characters. Other tales are not as successful; some, like the Mersey Dotes piece, seem like filler and others, like the King Cole section, go on for far too long.

In looking at the Sultan sections, I must confess that I never have been a big fan of comic books that are set up in novel format with a large section of text beside a picture. This has always seemed to me to play against the established conventions of comic books by providing the reader with too few visual cues. I have also felt that it is somewhat pretentious, as if comic book writers are trying to overcome their own inadequacies by demonstrating to the world that they can write outside of little word balloons.

Those minor quibbles aside 1001 Nights of Snowfall is a solid read and welcome edition to the other Fables trade paperbacks already on my shelf. It retails for about $16.99 and it took me about 2 hours to read. Anyone who is already a Fables fan will get $8.50 per hour of entertainment value out of it, but for anyone who isn’t a already a fan my advice would be to read the series first and then pick up this anthology.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

God of War: Chains of Olympus

Platform: Sony Playstation Portable
Release Date: March 4, 2008
Rating: M
Cost: $40

When the original God of War was released for the PSP in 2005 it blew away both fans and critics alike. Sharp graphics, excellent gameplay, and a compelling story made it one of the best games for the PS2 and an instant killer app. This was followed up in 2007 with an impressive sequel that sought to expand on the storyline, character development, and gruesome decapitations found in the first game.

So now in 2008 God of War has made the transition to the small screen of the PSP and fans of the series will not be disappointed.

As with its PS2 counterparts the game carries on the classical tradition with a nod to (and retelling of ) Greek mythology. The main story focuses on Kratos “the ghost of Sparta” a formidable warrior in the service of the gods. The story is far from spectacular but it works and manages to add some interesting plot points to the overall saga of Kratos. As this game is meant to be a prequel to the PS2 epics, there are some neat little story elements near the end that nicely set up the original God of War.

At first I was thrown off by the PSP controls, but by the end of the first level I had made the adjustment. The gameplay throughout is solid, and I am constantly amazed at how the series manages to use a fixed camera in a way that is not bothersome. (One of my pet peeves is “death by camera”.) Kratos has some great moves, weapons, and magic, but veterans of the series might be left wanting more. There are fewer moves, fewer weapons, fewer magic choices, and fewer bosses than either of the previous two God of War games. Overall the game just has less of everything. 

The game’s weakest point is its length. The game took me about four hours to finish on the easiest difficulty level. Some will find the game far too short and barely worth the effort, but there is some replay value in completing the game again and attempting the insanely hard “Challenge of Hades”. It should be noted that portable system games are often shorter than their home console counterparts, so all of you super-nerds could think of this as little break from your 100 hour RPGs. Usually I don’t mind if a game is short (I would rather have 4 great hours than 20 boring ones), but I was left wanting more at the end of this one.

So what is the value of God of War: Chains of Olympus? If we break down the cost by hours of entertainment we get $10 per hour. Not bad, but not great either. If you are already a fan of the series pick it up now (you’ll get $40 worth of enjoyment), but anyone else should rent it or wait to find a used copy.