Sep 16 2011

Star Wars Blu-ray changes: all in one place

It’s now widely known that the recently-released Star War Blu-ray box sets feature further ‘enhancements’ to both the original films (blinking Ewoks! Vader says “Noooo!”) and the prequels (meh). Here are video clips of all of the major changes, for your perusal, derision or apathetic indifference.

First up, probably the most reviled of the changes to the original trilogy: Vader yelling “Noooo!” as he bears witness to the Emperor’s gleeful attempts to murder Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi:

Returning to the original Star Wars film, this more ambiguous edit of the Han-or-Greedo-shoots-first scene might almost be construed as an admission that having Greedo shoot first made no sense:

Next, here’s the long-overdue addition of blinking Ewoks, as demonstrated by Wicket:

Sticking with Jedi, here are a couple of updated scenes from Jabba’s Palace. First, Han’s slightly improved defrosting (if ‘improved’ is the word), followed by the totally unnecessary shoe-horning of a Phantom Menace “character” into an earlier scene. I believe it’s called a “Dug”.

There are other changes to the original trilogy, such as a better look at Jabba’s palace door (at last!) and small fixes to lightsabers and other effects. As for the prequels, it’s hard to care. Replacing The Phantom Menace’s pretty woeful Yoda puppet with a more convincing CGI model, like that used in the later prequels, is technically interesting, at least:

If this has all been too much for you, you can still pick up a copy of the DVD box set, which includes the theatrical releases as bonus material. Bear in mind that these versions are not presented in true widescreen, and have not been remastered since the trilogy’s Laserdisc release. In fact, you can still grab the actual Laserdiscs as well…

May 22 2011

Asteroids do concern me, Admiral

There is little doubt that the finest Star Wars film is the much-lauded The Empire Strikes Back. This is cinematic fact: if you don’t like it, hurry back to your Stargate DVD box set or your Transformers 2 Blu-ray and don’t come back.

Like that superior sequel – and, of course, its ground-breaking predecessor – much of John Williams’ score for the original trilogy is held in stratospheric regard. The original Star Wars theme and that which accompanies the throne room scene at the close of the first film are instantly recognisable, conjuring up images of heroic space-based daring-do, epic clashes between good and evil and lots of awesome Muppets doing cool stuff. Darth Vader’s theme – otherwise known as the Imperial March – is similarly evocative, despite not appearing in the first film at all. The Cantina band’s catchy, quirky slice of space funk-pop is another bona fide classic. Leia’s Theme actually elicited a tear from at least one jaded thirtysomething when it resurfaced at the close of the otherwise turgid Revenge of the Sith; such is the power and resonance of its sweeping, epic, David Lean-worthy strings. And, hey, everyone loves that Ewok yub yub song, right? Right?

However, arguably the finest piece of music to feature in the original trilogy – on The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack, naturally – remains largely ignored. The piece in question is, of course, The Asteroid Field. Beginning with a reassuring burst of the Imperial March, the score that accompanies Han, Leia and Chewie’s escape from Vader’s fleet then segues into what might initially be written off as a piece perfunctory Williams-lite chase music. But this is not some off-the-shelf tune that might slot just as easily into an Indiana Jones soundtrack or some later, lesser work – a Star Wars prequel, even. No. Instead, after a short but tense build up, the strings section bursts into life, spiralling to new, dazzling heights that perfectly score the Millennium Falcon’s pirouettes and plunges through the space worm-harbouring asteroids. TIE fighters screech to their doom in satisfying fashion, a harp underscores the softening relationship between the princess and Han “I’m nice men” Solo and it’s over, with the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than ten parsecs safely ensconced in the entirely stable asteroid cave.

Mar 2 2011

Nintendo 3DS – hands-on impressions

Launching a piece of hardware with a unique selling point – 3D without the glasses – that can’t be conveyed by traditional advertising means is a tricky proposition. However, Nintendo have been in the business of promoting unconventional approaches to gaming before, and they know a thing or two about creating the sort of buzz that can make or break a fledgling games system (just don’t mention the Virtual Boy). To this end, the Big N has embarked on a series of preview events to provide would-be 3D gamers with the opportunity to get their hands – and eyes – on the new hardware.

It was at one such event that this long-time Nintendo gamer experienced a selection of the 3DS launch software line-up, plus a handful of titles poised for release in the months following the hardware’s March release.

First up, the device itself. While perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as the sleek, satisfyingly-chiselled DS Lite, the new 3DS unit feels rather sturdier in the hands than the shiny plastic exterior suggests. The analogue nub slides unconventionally under the thumb but ultimately delivers the precision expected of a device that relies on 3D movement, while the traditional Nintendo D-pad and ABXY buttons are satisfyingly ‘clicky’, feeling more akin to an NES pad than the more recent DS incarnations.

The slider control used to adjust the degree to which the 3D is projected does work, but I found myself either wanting to max out the 3D effect, or simply turn it off completely. It’s likely, though, that prolonged play will require the user to find a more subtle balance. The effectiveness of the 3D effect itself varies from game-to-game – and I’ll offer some more specific observations shortly – but needless to say, any game that makes use of the 3DS’s gyroscope (or Wii-like ‘waggle’) to control the action immediately runs into problems: tilting the screen to navigate Super Monkey Ball almost immediately moves the 3D screen out of its ‘sweet spot’. The unit must be held at a certain distance from the eyes, and at a particular inclination, for the 3D effect to work – even minor variations can result in the appearance of flicker, or the loss of a clear 3D image altogether.

The software installed on the 3DS is actually rather impressive (aside from the suspiciously absent eShop and web browser) . The bizarre Face Raiders, where a 3D(ish) image of your head, or that of your friends, becomes a target to shoot in a variety of colourful settings is an unexpected blast. The included Augmented Reality (AR) cards also show huge promise. The AR-based mini-game on show at this event,  in which you shoot a small creature on the table top in front of you, proved to be a particular highlight (in no way influenced by the charms of the attendant booth babe).

Overall, whether or not you’ll actually enjoy the 3D is likely to come down to personal preference. There is undoubtedly a certain novelty associated with glasses-free 3D and some of the software on show at these preview events really capitalises on the effect. Resident Evil looks particularly stunning on the handheld, as does its Capcom stablemate, Super Street Fighter IV, although all of the best-looking games on show were pretty impressive with the 3D turn off. Forthcoming titles such as Paper Mario and Metal Gear Solid may even surpass these ‘launch window’ titles in their use of 3D to create stunning, detailed, immersive game worlds. However, as someone for whom James Cameron’s Avatar effectively signalled the end their visits to the multiplex, 3D – with or without glasses – is simply not a game changer.

Aug 18 2010

The Best – and Worst – Mario Games

Super Mario Galaxy 2 has proven to be a rare high point in the 2010 Wii release calendar, while New Super Mario Bros. Wii has gone on to become one of the biggest-selling titles on any platform since its release last year. Here we consider the iconic plumber’s finest outings, as well as some of the more forgettable entries in the main Mario franchise.

A small note: We’ll revisit Mario Kart, Mario Party, Smash Bros, et al on another occasion and, in an effort to avoid repetition, the remakes and re-releases so favoured by Nintendo (Super Mario Advance, Super Mario All-Stars) will be omitted in favour of their original incarnations.

The Best

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Had this list been compiled just a few short months ago, it might have been topped by Mario’s first proper Wii outing, not its sequel. However, Super Mario Galaxy 2 features every bit as much vibrant imagination as its predecessor whilst expunging the cumbersome hub world and some of the extraneous story (did anyone really want to sit in the library with new girl Rosalina when Princess Peach was in peril?). That this superlative sequel sees the return of Yoshi is only the icing on the exquisitely-designed, perfectly-paced adventure-shaped cake.

Super Mario Bros.
The game that started this gamer’s twenty-year love affair with all things Nintendo, this first foray into side-scrolling platforming action still stands up as one of Shigeru Miyamoto‘s finest creations. Be warned, however: you can expect something of a challenge if you haven’t played in a while. In addition to the genre-defining side-scrolling, this was the 40 million-selling game that introduced the masses to the Mushroom Kingdom and its myriad delights, not to mention its legendary soundtrack.

Super Mario Bros 3.
Following the uncharacteristic misstep that was Super Mario Bros.2, Mario bounced back in a game that put the ‘super’ back into the Super Mario Bros. series. Arguably the best of the two-dimensional Mario games, SMB3 heralded the arrival of the overworld map and granted the portly plumber the ability to fly by means of the Super Leaf or Tanooki Suit power-ups. Each of the eight worlds boasted a distinct visual style, while advanced technology – built into the game cartridge – facilitated greatly enhanced graphical flourishes that placed the second sequel head and shoulders above most NES titles in terms of aesthetic appeal. Tight level design and an often demanding difficulty curve cemented the game’s legacy as a near-perfect classic and confirmed Mario’s place in the pantheon of gaming.

Super Mario World
The Super Nintendo launch title that united Mario with his faithful dinosaur companion, Yoshi, also saw the moustached hero enter the shiny new 16-bit era. Larger and even more colourful than its direct predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World also introduced the concept of levels that may be completed by more than one means, with multiple exits. That these alternative routes through the same terrain accounted for a proportion of the game’s fabled ninety-six levels did not detract from the satisfaction players derived from knowing they had truly triumphed when all were accounted for.

New Super Mario Bros. DS
Mario’s two-dimensional appearances waned somewhat following the release of Super Mario 64. Indeed, his first true platforming adventure on the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS was actually a remake of the seminal 3D N64 game. However, a triumphant return to side-scrolling Goomba-bashing and Koopa-stomping was delivered in 2006 in the form of New Super Mario Bros. DS. Whilst never scaling the innovative heights of some of its predecessors, NSMB was a happy throwback to the days when gaming in three mutually perpendicular directions seemed unnecessarily futuristic. We had a new Mario game in our pocket, and we were happy to see it.

Honourable mentions

Super Mario 64
Let’s get this out of the way: this is a personal compendium of the best Mario games and this gamer did not fall in love with Mario’s first 3D effort. Perhaps it was the timing of the release – the N64 era coincided with a renewed interest in alcohol-related pastimes – but, at the time, the additional dimension confused and disoriented, while levels felt strangely banal after to their NES and SNES forebears. However, there is no doubting the title’s significance: it ushered in the era of 3D platforming and paved the way for not only the exceptional Super Mario Galaxy games but pointed to a 3D future for the Legend of Zelda series, which also worked out rather well…

Mario Bros.
NES /Arcade
Bridging the gap between Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros, this minor arcade classic was the first to feature Mario by name, jettisoning his rather more prosaic ‘Jumpman’ moniker.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii
While Mario’s return to 2D on the DS provided nostalgic platform-based fun on-the-go, the Wii follow-up was something of a disappointment. The simultaneous multiplayer sounded like a good idea, but quickly became tedious when there was a disparity in the players’ abilities, or, indeed, their willingness to co-operate. The level design began to look rather mundane in places, too, when considered next to the inspired ‘forced-2D’ portions of the Galaxy games. That said, the tried-and-tested Mario mechanics are present and correct, and holding a Wiimote sideways provided a suitably retro approximation of the NES controllers of days past.

Super Mario Land
Like Mario 64, the Gameboy’s Super Mario Land rather passed this Nintendo fan by. Memories of the title are dominated by blurry movement and tiny, monochrome representations of Koopa Troopas and the like. An ambitious attempt by the Big N to get their flagship franchise onto the hugely-popular handheld platform, then, but our favourite plumber was ultimately better served by the suite of Mario remakes that later graced the Gameboy Advance under the guise of Super Mario Advance.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japanese Version)
As direct a sequel as they come, the punishingly-difficult, Japan-only Super Mario Bros. 2 was every bit as good as the Super original, but offered little in the way of technical innovation or development. The title remains well worth downloading via the Wii’s Virtual Console, where is aptly entitled Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
To some extent a Mario game in name only, the true star of this belated follow-up to Super Mario World on the SNES is Yoshi. The somewhat incongruous art style distances the title further still from the Mario series proper, but this was certainly one of the better releases during the Super Nintendo’s dying days.

The Worst

Super Mario Sunshine
While the Gamecube era arguably represents the nadir in Nintendo’s quarter century as purveyor of quality home entertainment – in terms of sales, at least – there were certainly gems to be uncovered in the little purple box’s software catalogue. This Zelda fan, for one, savoured the beautiful cell-shading and stylised art direction of Wind Waker, while the Metroid franchise underwent a bold, but hugely successful, revamp and Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 – originally a Gamecube exclusive before the inevitable PS2 and Wii releases – remains that series’ high water mark.

One franchise, however, suffered a horrible fate on the flagging system: put simply, Super Mario Sunshine was a failure. Abandoning the player in a charmless, garishly-hued open world, and armed with an unwieldy water jet pack, the seemingly directionless level design laid bare the frustrating difficulty spikes and pointlessness of the running around. The disappointment of Sunshine is what hurts the most.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (Western Version)
It’s widely known that the game released in Europe and the US as Super Mario Bros. 2 was in fact a hastily re-branded version of Doki Doki Panic: a game with considerably less pedigree than one might have expected. It’s also widely known that the Western Super Mario Bros. 2 was not very good. Dispensing almost entirely with the power-up and enemy-besting conventions established by its predecessor, the game has little to recommend it, save perhaps the bizarre egg-spitting Birdo and the improved graphical presentation.

Jul 22 2010

Unique New Predator T-Shirts

Predators TshirtInspired by the classic Arnie movie, these unique Predator t-shirts feature the Predators’ signature laser sights. Currently available in Large, with Medium on the way.

Available via eBay.

Contact us for details.

Jul 20 2010

What makes Ghostbusters great

Why does busting make us feel good?

The set-up

Ghostbusters is one of the finest examples of the 1980s high concept comedy – this is no by-the-numbers rom-com (yes, there is a boy-meets-girl element to the narrative, but the girl sleeps above her covers… four feet above her covers). In the context of Hollywood blockbusters, the set-up is far from conventional: three scientists unceremoniously shown the door by their university employer go into business for themselves, using a variety of brilliantly conceived, believable contraptions to capture and incarcerate ghosts, and end up battling a hundred-foot marshmallow man.

In mainstream movies, scientists are traditionally cast in the role of expositor, playing celluloid second fiddle to the relatable everyman hero. In Ghostbusters, the elite intellectuals – complete with (alleged) degrees in Psychology and Parapsychology – take centre stage, kicking ass and getting the girl/terror dog.

Everything from the pleasingly probable-looking proton packs to the notion of a mouldy Babylonian* god dropping in on Central Park West and tearing up the city feels fresh and fun, and is ripe with comedy potential whilst remaining firmly rooted in its own off-kilter mythology.

* actually Sumerian

The script

As with his Bilko (shudder) co-star, Steve Martin, it’s difficult to pinpoint when Dan Aykroyd ceased being funny. Certainly something had started to go wrong as early as 1989’s Ghostbusters sequel, but in the 1984 original he and co-writer Harold Ramis seemingly still teemed with enough goofy one-liners (“Listen. You smell something?”) and existential silliness (“Are you a God?”) to make the Ghostbusters script shine.

Of course, some of the film’s funniest moments are ad-libbed by a certain other cast member (we’ll come to that shortly…) but as Alfred Hitchcock once remarked, “to make a great film you need three things: the script, the script and the script”.

The soundtrack

Ray Parker Jr’s Academy award-nominated Ghostbusters theme song may form the basis for his entire career (just don’t mention the lawsuit), but it’s also a timeless classic that spawned its own catchphrases. Well, “timeless” might be pushing it somewhat – the ‘80s production is pretty unmistakable – but with lines such as “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” and “bustin’ makes me feel good” lodged firmly in the pop culture lexicon more than twenty-five years later, a certifiable classic it certainly is.

The remainder of the soundtrack – largely a ode to the synthetic drum machine – serves its purpose well, with tracks such as Mick Smiley’s Magic conjuring up just the right sort of spooky atmosphere. The Bus Boys’ boogie woogie-powered Cleanin’ Up The Town also deserves special mention as the rousing accompaniment to the Ghostbuster’s first call, and their classy arrival at the Sedgewick hotel. Only Air Supply’s turgid I Can Wait Forever mars this otherwise special, Grammy-nominated collection.

The special effects

Born out of the golden age of practical and optical effects – a decade before Spielberg’s Jurassic Park ushered in the era of computer-generated mediocrity – the ghosts, ghouls and gods of Ghostbusters are a visual delight. Creations such as the “disgusting blob” that later became known as Slimer, the deliciously gruesome taxi cab driver and the surprisingly scary librarian ghost all have a physicality and personality that belie their relatively scant, almost dialogue-free, appearances on film.

Richard Edlund’s effects also include the barely-controllable proton streams thrown by the Ghostbusters’ personal unlicensed nuclear accelerators, the spectacularly ominous failure of the containment system and the other-worldly final showdown with Gozer the Gozerian. These showpieces underpin the story and, despite their awesome scale, never overwhelm the actors’ work. This fine balance is where so many other special effects-driven movies have failed, including Ghostbusters 2, where the constraints of working with an increased effects budget and all the blue screen and hitting of marks that comes with it eventually robs the actors’ performances of any sense of spontaneity or fun. Which brings us neatly to the final point…

The Bill Murray

Sigourney Weaver is utterly believable as the luminous cellist Dana Barrett – and as terror dog Zuul. Harold Ramis will never play Hamlet, but he’s perfectly cast as the bumbling, serious Egon Spengler. Likewise, Dan Aykroyd brings an enthusiastic charm to his role as “the heart of the Ghostbusters”, Ray Statnz. The film also features fine supporting turns from Rick Moranis as Louis Tully (and Vinz Clortho), William Atherton as Walter Peck and Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz. However, there is one cast member who undeniably steals the show: Bill Murray.

Murray’s loose, almost nonchalant style of delivery and oft-quoted one-liners are arguably the highlight of the film, and, as is frequently noted, much of the most memorable dialogue is ad-libbed by the actor. What’s often overlooked is that in many ways this is Bill Murray’s breakthrough role. Following a successful stint on Saturday Night Live, Murray began portraying largely misanthropic, borderline psychotic characters in films such as Meatballs, Stripes and Caddyshack, with some not inconsiderable – if somewhat niche – success. His Peter Venkman is certainly cynical, displaying a certain arch detachment from his fellow Ghostbusters, but he maintains a warmth and humour that is entirely absent from characters such as Carl Spackler in Caddyshack.

Murray has been openly critical of Ghostbusters 2, and has, on occasion, distanced himself from the mooted Ghostbusters 3 (despite apparently enjoying the making of the recent Ghostbusters: The Video Game). However, if the second sequel is to go ahead, it simply won’t be Ghostbusters without him.

Jun 21 2010

Top Ten Predator Quotes

With the Robert Rodriguez-produced Predators stalking theatres from next month, and the newly-mastered ‘fully loaded’ Blu-ray edition of Predator hitting shelves shortly, here is a run down of the top ten quotes from the Schwarzenegger original.


10. Wrestler-turned-actor-turned-politician Jesse Ventura, playing Blain, makes the most of his relatively short tenure in Arnie’s team of commandos with one-liners such as…

Blain: This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.

9. Bill Duke’s jittery performance as Mac is equally memorable. Determined to avenge the death of his commando buddy, he finally comes face to face with his camouflaged foe, to whom he whispers…

Sergeant Mac Eliot: I see you!

8. Poncho is probably one of the less awesome members of the team, but he provides an excellent foil for the better-than-awesome Blain in this short scene.

Poncho: You’re bleeding, man. You’re hit.

Blain: I ain’t got time to bleed.

Poncho: Oh… OK… [Poncho shoots a round of grenades at cliff top overhead]

Poncho: You got time to duck?

7. There is no doubting the legendary status of Carl Weathers (see also Arrested Development). While his character, Dillon, has a lot to prove after setting up Arnie and his comrades, his wisecracks are up there with the best of Arnie’s quips.

Dillon: [after Dutch’s trap fails to lure the Predator] So, what are you gonna try next? Cheese?

6. And, speaking of Arnie’s one-liners, here’s a fine example, delivered moments after pinning an unfortunate fellow to the wall with his improbably-sized knife.

Dutch: Stick around

5. Schwarzenegger. Weathers. The scene that establishes Arnie’s awesomeness – as if such a scene were even required!

Dutch: So why don’t you use the regular army? What do you need us for?

Dillon: ‘Cause some damn fool accused you of being the best.

Dutch: Dillon! You son of a bitch!

4. Many of Arnie’s best lines are in the delivery. On paper, the quote below might seem prosaic, but, through the power of Arnie’s acting, it takes on a power and an urgency that defies the banality of the written word.

Dutch: Get to the Chopper!

3. Blain isn’t just a bad-ass. He’s a philosopher, too.

Blain: You lose it here, you’re in a world of hurt.

2. Foreshadowing his towering performances in such comedy classics as Jingle All The Way and Junior, Schwarzenegger delivers this classic 80s ‘zinger’ with aplomb…

Dutch: [the Predator removes his mask] You’re one… ugly motherfucker!

1. Predictable, yes, but there can be no doubt that this single line – in a mere seven words – sums up the film’s entire ethos, and cements Arnie’s status as the go-to guy for all things bad ass.

Dutch: If it bleeds, we can kill it.

Predators is released on 8 July in the UK (9 July in the US). The newly-mastered Blu-ray edition of Predator is available to pre-order from Amazon.

Apr 29 2010

Half-Life 2 Digital Actors Revealed

In a feature on the development of gaming classic Half -Life 2, EDGE magazine reveals the real life “actors” on which the character models for Eli Vance and the G-Man were based.

Eli Vance was based on an unemployed man.

The G-Man was based on an Alexander Technique practitioner named Frank Sheldon.

Feb 5 2009

No Sky Thinking

As the magnificent Battlestar Galactica spins up the FTL drives and jumps towards its no doubt thrilling conclusion, the euphoric excitement that surrounds these final episodes all but dispels the malaise customarily associated with being alive on a Tuesday evening. This week, however, our frakkin‘ toaster of a Sky+ box – possibly in an act of solidarity with its Cylon cousins – decided to sabotage the recording of what promised to be one of the most balls-to-the-wall installments yet, already met with uniformly ecstatic reviews in the United States.

The nature of the sabotage was especially cruel: the apparently sentient Sky+ box knows exactly what it’s doing. The recording didn’t just fail outright – oh, no! The bastard box allowed us a few minutes of building tension, nuanced performance and simmering plot development before suddenly rendering the sound unintelligible. On screen, Gaeta reaches down to his crudely severed leg, gobbling like a demented electronic turkey: is this some subtle léger de main, designed to allow his fellow conspirators to further whatever devious plan they’re warbling about? Or is that stump of a limb just really, really itchy? Thanks to Sky, we just don’t know.

Of course, following this outrage, I am compelled to complain. Channelling my anger, I deftly navigate the Sky website, refusing to be thwarted by the navigational traps designed to sap would-be crusaders of justice of their resolve. I locate the complaints form. Brilliant, I think. I quickly construct a lucid and subtly threatening expression of my dissatisfaction, designed to strike fear into the withered hearts of the bean-counting Murdoch acolytes at Sky. “Why don’t I download the remaining episodes of Galactica illegally, as everyone and their technophobe aunt seems to do?”, I postulate. Ha! That’ll hit ‘em where it hurts, I think to myself, with smug, cartoonish satisfaction.

But then I think some more. What do I hope to achieve by means of my finely crafted diatribe? The ritual sacrifice of some superfluous “customer service advisor” is, naturally, the first acceptable outcome that comes to mind. On further consideration, however, such fleeting gratification does not further my cause. Other, more prosaic solutions – a partial refund, for example – do little to quell my now directionless wrath. Maybe it’s time I leave Sky behind. Look into Freesat. Stick to consuming my favourite shows on DVD. Form more meaningful relationships with real people. I don’t know. Probably, though, I’ll just grumble ineffectually and continue to reward Sky for their galling incompetence.