The Darkside Beckons

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October is right around the corner and that means it’s time for another month of anthology blogs! I previously spent October looking at “Twilight Zone” episodes and delving into the world of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” However, to save time, I only looked at an episode of AHP every other day, whereas with TZ I tackled an episode a day. Well, this month I’d like to return to that. So, for the month of October 2016, I’ll be looking at an anthology series from the 80s, “Tales from the Darkside.”

I’m not sure how well-known this series is to people nowadays (heck, this is the first I’ve heard of it), but I’ll give you the nitty-gritty. “Tales from the Darkside,” unlike the two anthology series I’ve covered, contains no main host to bookend each spooky episode. However, this IS an anthology series, so every episode is its own story. From what I’ve gathered, this show was made on a low budget and serves as a successor of sorts to the anthology movie “Creepshow,” which is a homage to the old EC horror comics. That film was helmed by the famed director George A. Romero, who also produces this series. The individual stories are mostly all original works, though a few were penned and adapted by famous authors such as Stephen King, Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison. The show ran for four seasons between 1983 and 1988, and later got a movie of the same name in 1990.

Because this is a show I’m completely unfamiliar with, I’ve chosen 31 episodes based mainly around if I find their premise interesting. However, I did also make choices based on episodes that are considered some of the best, though many of these were episodes I felt like covering anyway. I apologize in advance to any fans of the show if I miss out on some great episodes, but when you have around 89 episodes plus the pilot to choose from, there are bound to be some favorites left out. So, I’ll be right back to blogging this Saturday, Oct. 1st, to kick things off. I can’t wait to jump into this show, and I hope you’ll join me for what’s sure to be a creepy look at the darkside.

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Review: “Chibi-Robo! Clean Sweep”

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The Chibi-Robo series is very quirky and, at times, very Japanese. I’ve played all the games to date and have enjoyed all of them save for “Photo Finder” (my house’s lighting + the 3DS camera = poor gameplay). However, there was one game that eluded me: the Japan-only “Oaeri! Chibi-Robo! Happy Richie Oosouji” or, for a simpler translation, “Chibi-Robo! Clean Sweep.” Thankfully, some dedicated fans took the time to create an English patch so I could play it through an emulator. Yes, I know people aren’t fond of them, but emulating has allowed me to play both this and “Ace Investigations 2” after years of hoping for and not getting a North American release. So, what did I think of this elusive game? Let’s take a look.

Story:

This game, unlike the NA-released “Park Patrol,” is a direct sequel that takes place years after the first Chibi-Robo game, which debuted on the Gamecube. As is the case with all of these games, you play as Chibi-Robo, a tiny robot who performs tasks to make people happy and improve their lives. In this installment, you end up in the household of Jenny, who was a little girl in the first game. Jenny lives with her young son, Keith, and their dog, Lucky, and has been struggling to get by ever since her husband, Karl, died in a tragic accident. Because of her single mom status, her house is a mess and falling apart. Together with his robot partner Telly, Chibi-Robo must clean the place up and help the family out while interacting with a strange cast of characters along the way.

If you’re at all familiar with how weird the Chibi-Robo games can be, this one won’t surprise you. This is a game that has ghosts (literally), toys that come to life like they’re from “Toy Story”, and a few touching family moments mixed in as well. I’ve always found it easy to get invested in these games because they’re so quirky, and “Clean Sweep” was no different. It definitely helps that it continues the story from the first game only so much so that it has its own identity. You could play this game without playing any of the others and still get a feel for what this series is like.

Even though Jenny returns in this, she’s practically a new characters as the responsible, hard-working mom. I liked what they did with her here and Keith wasn’t TOO annoying for a kid character. They also give a decent amount of backstory on Karl and you see first-hand how his absence has affected the family. But one of the major draws of these games is the side characters, and the cast of toys here were a lot of fun. You got a pig who’s a cop called Iberico, a luchador called Habanero, a bathtub shark called Mesa, a guitar-playing tomato called Ketchup, a toucan alarm clock called Acapella, and the egg-like Free Rangers make a return from the first game as well. These characters all have side stories that you can complete as you play through the main story, and I enjoyed them all.

I chalk most of that up to the writing. This series can be pretty witty and this game, even as a fan translation, is no exception. As your source of guidance, Telly could easily come off as boring, but they give him enough of a personality outside of his role to make him stand out. I did notice that Japan is definitely looser with their language, though. There is the occasional light swear here and there, which is funny considering how a game like this would have some minor censoring if it came over to our shores. It’s kinda refreshing to see how frank they are around younger players over there. Anyway, story-wise, this game had all the usual Chibi-Robo charm.

Graphics:

Given that this isn’t Chibi-Robo’s first rodeo on the DS, the graphics here are surprisingly good. While the Gamecube version definitely has an upper leg thanks to a bigger screen and better hardware, both “Park Patrol” and now “Clean Sweep” push the DS to its limits. Since Chibi-Robo is only a few inches tall, the game takes great pains to show the various areas in the house as being huge and daunting. The menus are easy to navigate and the HUD shows the main things you need to know, such as battery life for Chibi-Robo and the house a map of the current room you’re in that dominates the top screen at all times. The character models, at least for the humans, look almost anime-esque (Lucky the dog looked a bit scary, to be honest), but they fit in with the more cartoon-y toy characters. One thing I’ve always loved about the series is how bright and colorful everything is. There is the occasional time, usually because of the location being “gritty,” that a darker tone will be used, but they’re few and far between. I don’t think they could’ve made the game anymore polished with the DS hardware, and I feel they did a respectable job bringing some scope to it.

Sound:

Music and especially sound effects are a big part of any Chibi-Robo game. Most of the time, the music is very laid back to reflect the casual style and slower pacing of the game. However, it does pick up when enemies are around (more on those later). I would argue that sound effects are an even bigger part of the game, though. They indicate when your battery is about to run out (always a stressful sound), whether enemies are on your tail, and even the hours in the day. However, some people might be annoyed by them over time, as you hear sound effects constantly. Everything from running to climbing to cleaning is accompanied by a musical instrument. For example, scrubbing sounds like a guitar is playing. I personally enjoy these and have been used to them thanks to the other games, but others may want to turn down or turn off the volume. The same could also be said during dialogue segments, as the characters all have Simlish-like voices. Some of these are a little more annoying than others (*cough*Acapella*cough*), but again, it depends on whether or not they’re distracting to you.

Gameplay:

And once again, we’ve reached the meat of the game. “Clean Sweep” shares more in common with the original Chibi-Robo than “Park Patrol,” which I consider a good thing. While some elements can get a little repetitive, you can easily play it at your own pace and this is a series that feels like a natural fit for the DS’s on-the-go mantra. The core of the game is to clean every room to 100% completion at least once as you progress through the story. You pick up trash, scrub dirt, vacuum dust using various tools that you acquire as you interact with the characters or buy items over the phone. This part is particular is crucial, because buying items allows you to “upgrade” the house with new furniture. You do this and generally aid characters to earn Happy Points. Happy Points are basically the upgrade system for Chibi-Robo and the house, as the more you earn, the bigger the battery and extension cord you can get. The house also has a battery you have to manage, which can be filled by throwing out trash or dust bags. Upgrading is also useful for completing each room’s cleanliness, as you often need a longer cord and battery life to reach certain areas and accomplish tasks.

So, if Happy Points are for upgrades, how do you buy items for the house or Chibi-Robo? You do that by earning Moolah, the game’s currency. Both Moolah and Happy Points can be earned a variety of ways besides helping characters and cleaning. You can sift through the dust you collect to retrieve gems that you can cash in, hop over to a casino to play games and earn chips to exchange for more Moolah, and you can even find Moolah just hanging around in high places or inside drawers. Moolah goes hand in hand with Happy Points to progress the story as well, as Jenny and her family often have family meetings to save up for a new item, which you’re required to help with.

But what about those enemies I mentioned? Well, each day is split into day and night, and as you upgrade Chibi-Robo, you can also upgrade the length of each day’s play time (they zoom by fast). At night, ghosts made of dust and dirt will pop up to hinder Chibi-Robo. If they grab you, they’ll drain your battery. Luckily, the game gives you a few options to get rid of them, and you can even catch them to throw in the trash or expand the casino. The common way outside of using costumes you receive from characters is by picking up and throwing your extension cord. Yes, before “Zip Lash” existed, this was the first time Chibi-Robo could use his cord to attack enemies. Personally, I hated these guys. The battery drainage is annoying, yes, but the ghosts will disappear if you talk to someone or run circles around them long enough. They’re strictly a hindrance than a threat and I could’ve done without them.

Which brings me to my honestly only major complaint about “Clean Sweep”: the controls. One thing I liked about “Park Patrol” was that you could run around using the D-pad and everything else was pretty much relegated to the touch screen. Here, however, EVERYTHING aside from the camera is controlled via the touch screen. This means that there were often times I’d be trying to adjust the camera with the “D-pad” (aka my arrow keys) while trying to cross a skinny ceiling beam only to fall to the floor (thankfully, no fall damage here). Other times I’d try to climb up on the thin leg of a chair, which is done by holding forward, only to walk right by it instead. But the two most rage-inducing times occurred during a cleaning job and the boss fight (yes, Chibi-Robo has one). During the cleaning, I was tasked to scrub dirt out of an air conditioner. This would normally not be a problem, except it would periodically blow air strong enough to force Chibi-Robo back outside. That meant starting the process over and over again since there’s only one place inside to stand without being blown back. As for the boss, you’re required to hit his weak spot three times and then plug in to use the vacuum to suck Moolah out of him (don’t ask). But every time he tries to catch up and succeeds, he steals the Moolah right back. Thanks to movement between completely on the touch screen, there were more than a few times where I’d try to run only to be too slow and get caught. I realize playing on a laptop probably isn’t as ideal as the DS, but I have to wonder how much easier it’d be on one anyway.

Overall, though, “Chibi Robo! Clean Sweep” is a game that I wish could’ve been brought over here. Honestly, while I though “Park Patrol” was a decent game, this is the sequel fans who liked the first game deserved. It has a fun cast of characters, relatively huge locations given the DS’s hardware power, and gameplay that takes after the first game, which is a huge plus in my book. The Chibi-Robo series is one of the oddest I’ve played, but I love revisiting that little guy any chance I get and I’m glad I got to try this adventure out.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” Review

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Of the more modern animation studios out there, I’ve considered Laika one of the strangest. Unlike kids films made by Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky and any number of other companies, Laika’s films often seem to fall into the cult classic status. That’s no more apparent than with their latest film, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” It didn’t perform well at the box office, but it’s gotten a lot of praise from audiences and critics alike. So, what did I think of it? Let’s dive in.

The plot involves a one-eyed boy named Kubo, who lives with his mother outside of a small Japanese village. Kubo is constantly warned by his mother not to stay out late, but he ends up staying out for a spiritual festival and is attacked by his mother’s cruel, witch-like sisters. Kubo is whisked away to safety soon after and put into the care of a monkey named…Monkey, and the two go on a quest to find a magical set of armor that will protect Kubo from both his aunts and wicked grandfather, who wants Kubo’s remaining eye. Along the way, the pair meet up with a man-turned-beetle known only as Beetle who joins them. Will this ragtag group be able to find the armor and keep Kubo out of harm’s way, or will his story end before they have the chance?

If you couldn’t tell, the plot sounds weird and almost nonsensical. Trust me, it makes way more sense once you’re thrown into the movie’s mystical setting. I do think that it’s a big change from Laika’s previous films, where you were eased in pretty quickly with more modern settings. Magic plays a huge part here, and while it’s jarring at first, I found this world interesting once I got the hang of it. The magic ties into Kubo’s companions with Monkey being a reanimated charm and Beetle being cursed, but my favorite aspect was Kubo’s use of magic to animate and utilize origami. It sounds bizarre, and it definitely is, but it ends up fitting incredibly well in this fantasy world. The plot in a nutshell is more of a standard “group on a quest” thing, and there are some cliches that pop up because of that, but it’s also a bit of an emotional experience. There’s an emphasis on memories, and the theme of stories, while sometimes heavy-handed, does give some good lessons for kids (though this movie might be intense for some).

The main characters were fine and had their charms. Kubo is a kid who often has had to act like an adult, in that his mother often loses her memory (they show how this occurs in the opening scene) and he sometimes has to take care of her. But even though he’s put into a hero role by the end, the movie does allow him to act like a regular kid at times, especially around his companions. Speaking of, while Beetle sometimes annoyed me with his attempts at jokes, I did appreciate that he brought some levity to the movie overall. And Monkey had this dry wit about her that got a few chuckles out of me. Both of these characters get some more emotional moments later on, but I won’t go into them due to spoilers. If there’s any character I have to complain about, it’s the aunts and grandfather. The grandfather fares slightly better as he’s the big confrontation, though I still can’t decide if I like how he was “taken care of” by the end. The aunts are creepy, with their witch-like appearances and constant floating, but my gripe with them is how their dialogue came off. Most of it ended up feeling like exposition and I was waiting impatiently for them to be taken down.

Besides those characters, a couple other nitpick-y gripes I had were with the visuals and humor. Now, don’t get me wrong, this movie is very pretty and arguably has the best animation of any Laika film to date. But this one comes down to character models, and like with the other Laika films, there were some I wasn’t fond of. Thankfully, the ones that mattered aka the main characters were fine by me, and the fantastical setting allowed for some pretty cool monsters as well. The humor, also like other Laika films, was hit and miss for me. As I mentioned earlier, while I liked Monkey’s bouts of dry wit/sarcasm and a few other random lines and moments throughout the movie, I wasn’t keen on Beetle’s style of humor. It was like a mix of a pinch of modern slang, plus the occasional goofiness that comes from having a more comedic sidekick, PLUS at least one instance of “explaining the joke.” Thankfully, his character came around for me more when he was acting less like comedy fodder, but it’s possible that Matthew McConaughey in general just didn’t click with me.

All that said, I liked “Kubo and the Two Strings.” While I think I still prefer “ParaNorman” more, I’d easily put this movie over “Coraline” and definitely “The Boxtrolls.” I mentioned the boost in animation earlier, but I also want to make note of this movie being possibly the darkest film Laika’s made yet. While the other movies have often been praised for not shying away from more adult subjects, this one has a heavy emphasis on death and has a few intense scenes. It might not be very suitable for younger kids, which may have played a part in its box office performance. For me, this movie’s fantasy and magical elements are what drew me in the most, and the journey and characters are what kept me watching until the end. If you’ve enjoyed any one of Laika’s previous films, you might just enjoy “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

2016 Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

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Yesterday, and for the two years in a row, I saw hot air balloons rise in my town’s park/baseball field. With no work to do, my mom and I decided it was the perfect day to go to the fiesta and spend the tail end of our afternoon and most of our evening there. Since the balloons weren’t scheduled to go up until 5:30 (and ended up being late anyway), we had some time to kill.

Unlike the Flea Market, there are a few things you can do besides eat junk food and buy crafts. We have a bandstand that plays live music throughout the day, typically by local cover bands who range in rock ‘n roll to country music. There were tons of people around in general yesterday, but a good chunk of them could be found listening to the music while they waited for the balloons. Today, weather permitting, they usually have a car show for all kinds of antique cars. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone on a Sunday, so I can’t remember if these cars are also for sale or strictly just to show off. Still, if you like polished antiques, these cars are cool to see. Finally, something they’ve started to bring back and expand on is the fairground. You have your typical junk food trucks and apparently not rigged carnival games to play for plushies and other random toys. They also have a small-ish selection of rides, most of them involving lots of spinning (no thanks). While adults can find plenty of fun, I feel it’s really more tailored to kids. Also, to our slight dismay, they’ve quit having a bingo tent for people to get some shade and win a little money. It’s kind of a shame ’cause it was something we often did as a family.

Anyway, after securing some seats nearby and waiting through a few delays thanks to some random gusts of wind, we finally got to see the balloons inflate and take off. Plenty of the usual balloonist regulars were there, along with the balloons themselves, but I was surprised to hear of at least two or three newcomers this year. It made me happy to see the fiesta trying to bring in fresh faces, though I guess it’s possible that they could’ve been filling in spots left by others who couldn’t attend. Whatever the case, I’m glad the people who paid for rides got to go up, and since all of the balloons seem to drift off over town this year, I’m sure they got a great view. Unfortunately, the few shape balloons they have this year weren’t able to take off, but they were nice enough to inflate them for the eventual moon glow (aka lighting up the balloons in the dark) and for people to get pictures.

After all of that, my mom and I stayed a bit longer to mingle with some friends and relatives and listen to a few tunes from the bandstand. I bought my usual helping of cotton candy and, since he couldn’t make it due to work, bought my dad some delicious kettle popcorn. We didn’t stay for ALL the music, as they tend to go until 10pm, but we left the park feeling satisfied with our day there. I’m glad I got to see the balloons go up this year, and I’m still hopeful that my fiance will eventually get to see them as well. With that, I’ll leave you all with the aforementioned shape balloons, just ’cause I love them so much!

“Touch Detective” Review

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Before I get into it, yes, I realize I’m extremely behind on this game. “Touch Detective” was released for the Nintendo DS way back in 2006, and I only now got around to trying it out. I’m going to play the sequel, “Touch Detective 2 1/2”, but I don’t plan to touch on that here. Instead, I figured I’d give this quirky little game the long overdue review that it deserves. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Story: 

“Touch Detective” is a point-and-click adventure game where you play as Mackenzie, a young girl vying for a shot at becoming a renowned detective. To help her out is her butler, Cromwell, her weird mushroom pet/friend Funghi, and her quirky best friends Penelope and Chloe. You play through four unique, strange cases to make Mackenzie’s journey into becoming a fully-fledged detective come true. There’s even a fifth “bonus” episode that lets you mingle with the townspeople and solve minor quests even after the main game is finished.

I’ll get this out of the way now: I enjoyed how quirky this game was in its writing. Granted, there were times when characters often sounded childish and a bit annoying (looking at you, Penelope), but the main lead and her friends ARE children so I could forgive it. While it did tackle a few adult-esque themes and jokes here and there, the writing seemed tailored toward a younger crowd. Again, this was probably due to the age of the characters in-game, but it needs to be pointed out. As for the characters, both main and supporting, I had very few problems with them overall. The game at least makes the effort to give a personality to each one, even the most insignificant townspeople. Overall, the game has a quirkiness factor that may or may not appeal to people.

Graphics:

I usually make the point not to let graphics decide whether or not I want to play a game, but in the case of this game, they were the selling point for me. If you couldn’t tell from the cover art above, the graphics have a sort of cartoon-y, Tim Burton-esque look. In the game, this artwork for the characters is sparse, but there’s an ever-present avatar of Mackenzie on the top screen. During dialogue sequences, this avatar will show her inner, often sarcastic thoughts. The actual 3D graphics aren’t too bad given that they try to continue the cartoon-y style. The character models show up clearly on-screen and, since the game relies heavily on touchscreen controls, there’s a little speck of light to indicate which spots you’re either moving Mackenzie to or examining the scenery. The backgrounds themselves are mainly 2D and look pretty crisp for the DS. Honestly, I loved the graphics from start to finish, though again, it may or may not appeal to others.

Sound:

Since this was on the DS, which tended to not have voice clips, this game sort of has sound effect dialogue similar to what you’d find in an Animal Crossing game. The plus side to this is they took the time to give many characters their own unique sound. None of the “voices” are all that annoying, though I’m used to that kind of thing. Despite that the DS wasn’t a powerhouse in the sound department to begin with, I also found the music and general sound effects came through pretty clearly. The game also has different music for different areas, which at least kept it from grating. Like with many games, I didn’t have much to complain about in this category.

Gameplay:

But now we come to the meat of the game and the place where many of my complaints lie. Firstly, aside from questioning characters to move cases along, you’re tasked with searching areas for items by tapping on the screen. This is mostly an easy task, but I often found the controls to be pretty wonky in tight spots. Trying to find hot spots could be nightmarish, and I’d find myself either tapping on Funghi by mistake (who follows behind you the entire time) or missing the hot spot altogether by a few pixels. I’m not very well-versed in point-and-click games to begin with, but I chalk it up to the touchscreen controls being the issue. Not only do you use them to tap for clues, but you also control Mackenzie’s movement as well. This could also be a pain at times in tight spots, because I’d get stuck on something minor and end up accidentally clicking Fungi, an item or another character by mistake while trying to adjust my position. The controls are easily a downside for these reasons, but it happened infrequently enough that I wasn’t too frustrated.

There are six locations in the game and you’ll revisit them frequently as you go along. Luckily, the game has a map screen that pops up whenever you exit an area for easy travel. Unfortunately, you still have to traverse each area just to reach the map, which while not hard could get a little tedious at times. It would’ve been nice if the game just let you bring up the map whenever you wanted to quick travel. But I suppose since the game only has five episodes, they didn’t want to make it go by TOO quickly. Each main episode has two parts to them, but if you know what you’re doing, this game could be beaten in at least 4-5 hours or so. Personally, as long as a game holds my attention and didn’t cost an insane amount, I don’t care how long or short it is. But again, others may not agree.

My biggest gripe aside from the controls, however, is the general lack of direction this game gives you. Now, I know point-and-click games are meant to be explored, and this game isn’t nearly as insane puzzle-wise as some of the old Sierra games were. But some of the tasks (I wouldn’t quite call them puzzles) felt a bit obscure, even for a younger crowd to solve. You sometimes get hints on where to go next, and other times you’re left clueless. You’re also able to show items to people, so like many games in this genre, it quickly becomes a game where you’re clicking everything on everybody just to progress once you’re stuck. Thankfully, I was only stuck twice to the point of having to look up online what to do next, so the game isn’t completely unforgiving. And as I’ve said, I haven’t played hardly any games in this genre, so it could also have been my lack of understanding. That said, while I appreciate that the game doesn’t hold your hand every step of the way, an established hint system would have been useful.

Overall, for a game released 10 years ago, “Touch Detective” is enjoyable and definitely underrated. It might not be the most polished point-and-click out there, but it has its charms. The characters and writing are quirky, the graphics have a cartoon-y feel that I really like, and the gameplay, while often wonky, at least forces you to think slightly critically to figure things out. It might not be considered the best the DS had to offer, but I don’t feel that it deserves to be forgotten.