Good-bye Fruity Pebbles, hello Raisin Bran Crunch

March 1, 2009

FROM JASON’S CERAMIC BOWL — Count Chocula is a hack. Cap’n Crunch is all washed up. Lucky the Leprechaun is clearly a pedophile. And I’m pretty sure Tony the Tiger is dead.

The best cereal in the world doesn’t have a mascot. It has two scoops and a delicious, sugary coating that ensures crunchiness.

Now, I don’t often endorse commercial products, or even really care about them. But in-between keystrokes, I’m scooping oversized spoons of Raisin Bran Crunch into my mouth. I can’t stop. This is my third bowl. I am in love.

Where has this cereal been all my life? Think of all those years I wasted, suffering through soggy regular Raisin Bran as a teenager, pouring lumps of sugar into the bowl to try to offset the weak wheat flavor that no sun-ripened grapes could ever mask.

This is how I know I am an adult: when I was a child, cereal served as just a vehicle for enough sugar to fuel my hyperactivity and ensure early onset diabetes. I wanted puffed rice saturated in corn syrup, then coated with rainbow-hued dyes:

I wanted loops of something that was probably fried corn dipped in three unique artificial flavors that tasted really nothing at all like cherry, orange, and lemon:

I wanted what ostensibly were marshmallows cut to look like clovers, clowns, robots, Pac-Man, vampire bats, balloons, or ghosts:

I wanted crushed cornmeal seeped in brown sugar- and honey-flavoring and treated to keep away the Soggies during sea-faring missions:

These days, I’m looking for an actual meal. No more Crunchberries. No more Cookie Crisp. No more Honeycomb, Marshmallow Crispies, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, Smurfberries, Frankenberries, Honey Smacks, C-P30’s, Urkel-O’s, Cocoa Krispies, or Apple Jacks.

As an adult, it’s all about getting bran that tastes decent and has a satisfying crunch, sun-dried fruit, and some granola clusters. I salute you, Raisin Bran Crunch.

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YouTube Cinema: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

June 26, 2008

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.

As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.

In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.

This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.

Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.

Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.

MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.

This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.


Week of Cartoons – Day 3: TaleSpin (1991)

March 25, 2008

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

talespin.jpgFROM JASON’S AIRSHIP FORTRESS — Who is this Baloo of whom you speak? I thought Don Karnage was the star of the show. If we’re being honest, TaleSpin was all about the air pirates.

Plunder & Lightning is the TaleSpin origin story, telling how boy scoundrel Kit Cloudkicker defected from Karnage’s clutches, teamed up with ace pilot Baloo, and saved Cape Suzette from a rain of laser fire and looting.

The show isn’t exactly steampunk, but it’s set in a timeless 1930-ish oceanic world with anthropomorphized bears, apes, tigers, pumas, and dogs. Looking back, I can’t explain how relieved I am that TaleSpin wasn’t just a Jungle Book spin-off set in India and featuring Mowgli. What we got was far superior and reminds me less of Rudyard Kipling and more of Indiana Jones.

P&L hit the TV in 1991 as part of the Disney Afternoon and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animation Program. I didn’t care about that; all I wanted was more kinda-noir hijinx. Boy did it ever deliver. It could have gone wrong — Baloo and Kit could have just zipped around against blue skies with zany, fluffy plots.

Instead, the animators put the Sea Duck in dog fights and swooping dives against some of the most incredible cloudscapes you’ve ever seen and actually made you afraid for the characters’ safety on a regular basis. There were also airships, robots, mad scientists, and diminutive Soviet warthogs.

The show was a bundle of pure awesome.

Baloo was an oddity: In a time when muscled action heroes like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were cashing in, Baloo was a fat, reluctant adventurer. The pear-shaped bear wanted nothing more to laze in his hammock. He was also a bumbler; his only redeeming qualities were his loyalty to friends and his flying skills.

Kit was awesome, zipping around on his aerofoil and playing Robin to Baloo’s huggable Batman. But I always thought the name Kit Cloudkicker was suspiciously too much like Luke Skywalker. Admittedly, I’m always one to see Star Wars parallels lurking in the shadows.

There are also quite a few Star Trek links to TaleSpin. Tony Jay, the voice of Shere Khan, appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Campio of the planet Kostolain, who was engaged to marry Lwuxana Troi, mother of Enterprise counselor Deanna Troi.

R.J. Williams, who voiced Kit Cloudkicker in TaleSpin, was also on TNG as Ian Andrew Troi, Deanna’s father.

Legendary voice actor Frank Welker (Megatron from Transformers), who has more than 550 acting credits on IMDB, helped out in TaleSpin, too. If a cartoon aired without his help, the universe would probably explode. I hear his IMDB resume is almost dense enough to collapse and become a new star. By the way, Welker appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager as a random alien in 1998.


YesterGames #5: Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy (Secret of the Oracle)

March 12, 2008

FROM JASON’S CYAN AND MAGENTA SCREEN — It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when side-scrollers didn’t work on the PC. Long after the folks over in Japan had figured out how to Mario themselves into Scrooge’s Money Bank-esque piles of cash, the PC was still lagging dangerously behind.

In a way, all of the modern computer games — Bioshock, Portal, Crysis, Sins of a Solar Empire, Supreme Commander, everything — owe all their success to a little 1990 game called Commander Keen (download). Its code surmounted a major problem facing PC gaming: the lack of parallax scrolling.

Inspired by Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, Buck Rogers, and other old radio serials, Keen tells the story of Billy Blaze, an 8-year-old boy with an IQ of 314 who journeys across the galaxy trying to thwart his nemesis, Mortimer McMire. Interestingly enough, Billy’s backstory was re-written after the release of Wolfenstein 3D (both created by Id Software) so that he was the grandson of Wolftenstein hero B.J. Blazkowicz.

Keen creator Tom Hall discovered a coding trick that allowed smooth scrolling on the EGA graphics card/CRT. His first move was to port the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC and try to sell Nintendo on getting into the home computing market. Nintendo purportedly came close but eventually declined, and Hall (and collaborators) decided to make an original game.

The account of that venture is pretty widely established and you can read the 3D Realms version if you want. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to rehash it.

Of all the Keen episodes — there are six, including a Gameboy Color title — I think Secret of the Oracle (the first half of the Goodbye Galaxy story arc and the fourth in the series) is by far the best. First of all, it was the first to be backward-compatible with CGA monitors, which meant I could play it in its four-color glory: black, white, cyan, and magenta. It also boasted non-linear level selection once the first two stages were completed.


Keen’s level design was tops in 1991. This player knows what he’s doing.

But maybe the best thing about Oracle was the level design. These were still the days of randomly floating platforms and floating chochkes, but in Oracle alone did the Id team manage to make these elements look somewhat naturalistic and contiguous. The 2/3 view didn’t hurt, and the large, solid background elements like trees and desert, houses, the infamous slug statue, and Billy’s rocket ship added a sense that this wasn’t a world made up of just 16×16 sprites.

I also think a big reason why the early PC gaming community adopted Billy Blaze as its ad hoc mascot was because he’s so geek-relatable. Computers in the pre-Windows days weren’t exactly user friendly, and not everybody was savvy enough to get drivers to work or even learn commands for DOS (or DOShell). Those who developed even basic early PC literacy were pretty bright and I, especially, felt like I could identify with a kid genius slinging lines of DOS syntax and BASIC commands.

Maybe that’s a little narcissistic, but that’s how I felt as an 11-year-old 3.5-inch disc jockey.

Leave Billy alone long enough in-game and he’ll sit down and read a book — just like me. He’s also got some young punk cred; a trick in the Temple of the Moon level will make him moon you. He’s got that superior cocked eyebrow going on in the title screen. He’s also got that slightly lopsided grin that maybe I stole from him subconsciously.

One last thing: I always felt there was a little bit of ambiguity in the Keen games about whether the events were really taking place. The narrative always played it straight: Yes, Billy was really planet-hopping to fight the Vorticons et al. But I always thought that the entire Keen world might just be a byproduct of Billy’s imagination. I mean, I’m not too proud to admit that as a small boy (age 16 or 17 or 24) I would don a football helmet, grab a Captain Power lightgun and rush around the basement acting out some epic quest. I wonder if that’s all Billy was doing and if that means the surrealism of the game was entirely a figment.

There are better platformers out there now, or course, but Secret of the Oracle still holds up remarkably well (if you’re slightly forgiving). It certainly looks better than many, many Famicom Nintendo titles from the same era. Hall continues to waffle about the future of the franchise — he doesn’t have the intellectual rights anymore — but says he wants to someday develop another episode.

Let me say this: If a Keen-a-la-Mario64 reimagining hit the Nintendo DS today, I would pay double the retail price to get it.

NOTE: I was already planning to talk about this game, but Ninjarabbi gave me a kick in the butt. I hope Scrym talk about Keen on Geeknights soon.


YesterGames #1: X-Men 2 — Clone Wars

February 27, 2008

FROM JASON’S BATTERED 16-BIT SYSTEM — Before consoles had the power to use 3D graphics, Sega was leading the way in superhero side-scrolling platform action by licensing comic book characters.

Nintendo was still leading the market with the Mario and Zelda franchises, but meanwhile Sega was forging an alliance with Marvel and creating darker teen games with oversized sprites like Spider-Man and Venom: Separation Anxiety. But maybe the best of this brood was 1995’s X-Men 2: Clone Wars.

The plot: Techno-organic beings known as The Phalanx have sent a clone invasion to Earth. Only a small band of X-Men have remained uncaptured. When the baddies go after a closed-down sentinel factory, it’s your job to stop them.

I spent weeks playing Clone Wars as a teen, switching between the playable characters and their assorted mutant abilities: Beast with his amazing strength and ground-pound; Cyclops’ optic blasts; Psylocke’s 180-degree sword slash and psychic thrust; Gambit’s long-reaching staff and telekinetically-charged cards; Wolverine’s claws, wall-climbing, and self-healing; and Nightcrawler’s ability to crawl on ceilings, teleport, and deliver and high-speed flying kick. Later in the game, I was dumbstruck when Magneto was unlocked to fight alongside the X-Men. He was slow but he could fly (and remaing hovering), giving each level a new dimension. He could also throw a pretty wicked magnetic bomb blast.

That versatility meant many different ways to complete a level, and allowed for a great deal of strategy compared to other platformers of the day. It’s also what makes modern comic-book vidjagames like X-Men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance so attractive and re-playable.

Nightcrawler was easily my favorite character, and if played right he was almost invincible. During an invasion of Asteroid M, Nightcrawler could bypass almost the entire level by walking up the wall and clawing across the ceiling, then teleporting to the exit. At one point I completed the first 6 levels in 15 minutes using those tricks and his speedy flying kick to circumvent enemies.

The levels were beautifully rendered. The introduction stage was a Siberian military complex with flying snow and mock-3D ice walls. Later stages included a raid on a sentinel factory, Magneto’s Avalon, a showdown with Apocalypse, the Savage Land, and a dark Metroid-type maze.

In that final level, you have to fight clones of all the X-Men to survive. I beat the game once during college but never again managed to duplicate that victory.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you have a Genesis emulator, the ROM is out there. Take the time to learn each of your mutants’ special moves, then go out there and kick some Apocalypse/clone ass.


YouTube Cinema: DuckTales, Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)

January 31, 2008

“Did you ever hear of Atlantis? It was everybody’s favorite resort until Merlock couldn’t make any reservations. Then down she went! Poor Pompei. Mount Vesuvius would never had blown its top if Merlock hadn’t blown his!”

FROM JASON’S ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DAYS — I’m not sure I can explain to you kiddies just how important DuckTales was. For years, it was the anchor of The Disney Afternoon, a two-hour block of after-school cartoons that included The Gummy Bears, Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and a spin-off of the Aladdin movie.

To a pre-adolescent boy, these shows had everything that mattered: Swords, exploration, gadgets, villains who were evil for the sake of being evil, pirates (and air pirates), zombies, superheroes, supervillains, robots, curses, lasers, dungeons….

So when I stumbled on the 1990 DuckTales movie on YouTube, I had to sit and watch.

The first 20 minutes had everything I remembered that made the show great: Exotic traps, faux history (Collie Baba and his 40 thieves, anybody?), sumo-wrestling scorpions, pith helmets, and lushly-painted desert and pyramid scenes.

The rest was significantly meh as we stayed in Duckburg and dealt with the whole genie-in-the-lamp Pinocchio story and the be-careful-what-you-wish-for business.

The Plot (Such As It Is)

Real quick: Scrooge has been hunting his entire life for the lost treasure of Collie Baba. When he finally finds it, a shape-shifting wizard named Merlock swoops in and steals it.

Merlock doesn’t care about jewels; all he wants is the magic lamp containing a genie. Merlock has a magic talisman, which will allow him to force the genie to grant unlimited wishes — and giving him unlimited, unadulterated evil control over the entire world.

But Scrooge’s niece, Webby, filches the lamp and makes friends with the genie, who she calls Gene. Along with Huey, Dewey, and Louie, she starts making wishes, until Merlock comes to Duckburg to collect the lamp again.

Using his magic, he takes over Scrooge’s mansion, and the boys have to break back in and free Gene and the rest of the world from slavery. It’s almost the exact same plot as Disney’s Aladdin movie in 1992.

The Dire Consequences

There were rumors. Boy, were there ever rumors. Back in the pre-Internet days of 1990, that’s all we had to live by — that, and various hints in video game magazines.

The rumors said that Disney had lots of other DuckTales movies up Michael Eisner’s sleeves. The rumors were right.

Unfortunately, Disney, perhaps as the spiritual ancestor to FOX, decided to cancel those plans when Legend of the Lost Lamp only made $18 million at the box office. My parents paid good money for my little brother and I to see it, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The other movies were canned, as was a Rescue Rangers feature-length film (which I would bankroll today if I had the means).

DAMN YOU, WALT DISNEY COMPANY. DAMN YOU STRAIGHT TO HEEEEEELL!

The Geek Connections

If you’re a geek, you know everyone who had a hand in this movie. Even if it’s only by proxy, you know their work. You’ve seen their shows. Let me show you the way.

Alan Young, the voice of Scrooge, is better known as Mister Ed’s owner, Wilbur (“Gee, Wilbur!”) in the 1961 TV show. He’s also a bat-shit crazy Christian Scientist and is down with the Focus On the Family crowd. I can almost — almost! — forgive him, though, because he was also Haggis McMutton in the LucasArts game Curse of Monkey Island.

Russi Taylor, who voiced Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Webby, was also baby Gonzo on Muppet Babies and has been the voice of Minnie Mouse since 1986 — including in the RPG Kingdom Hearts.

Terry McGovern, AKA Launchpad McQuack, is also a Lucas-ite. His early films include THX-1138 and American Graffiti. In 1977, The Lucas hired him to do voice-overs for stormtroopers in A New Hope (“Close the blast doors!”).

The genie was voiced by flamboyant ’60s comedian Rip Taylor, known for crying on stage, doing Mofaz the Persian-type routines about his bad luck, and for his recent work with The Bloodhound Gang and Jackass.

The mack-daddy of them all — and if you don’t recognize the voice immediately then you are dead to me — is Christopher Lloyd as Merlock. You know him as Doc Brown from Back to the Future, Kruge in Star Trek III, the Rev. Jim from Taxi, and… god help us… as John Bigboote in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

Oh, and about six dozen other shows, many of them crappy, including Amazing Stories, Cyberchase, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Addams Family, Suburban Commando, Angels In the Outfield, and Baby Geniuses. I have to admit that I love watching Christopher Lloyd. It’s a testament to his ability and personality that he can make such shit watchable.

I almost forgot. Frank Welker (Optimus Prime) did some voices in Legend of the Lost Lamp, too.


MDK’s gameplay gimmicks hold up years later

January 25, 2008

mdk3.jpgFROM JASON’S CD CASE O’ LOST GAMES — The third-person shooter is a fairly standard vidjagame staple now, especially on consoles, thanks to titles like God of War, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Grand Theft Auto III.But back in 1997, it was a pretty novel concept.

MDK was among the first I remember playing in that genre, and I was gripped by a sudden urge Sunday night to play it after I saw a (totally unnecessary) HUD on Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles that reminded me of the game’s sniping action.

Of course, I had to rummage for about 20 minutes yesterday before I found the CD-ROM tucked away in the piles of software under my computer desk.

The game is short, and after some fiddling with the control scheme and about an hour making screenshots I ran through it real quick in three two-hour sittings. But don’t think shortness equals boring — especially if you take the time to toy with that sniping action.

mdk2.jpg

MDK ostensibly stands for “Murder, Death, Kill” or maybe “Mission Deliver Kindness” — I remember the magazine ad campaign back in the day toyed with the acronym to hilarious effect (one ad tagline read “Massive Dollops of Ketchup”).

Kindly delivering the human race from the hands of aliens, though, was the mission of the game, so that’s what sticks in my mind.

There’s a plot of sorts: A slightly deranged scientist discovers aliens are heading for Earth aboard city-sized strip-mining ships to harvest its resources. He designs a high-tech fighting suit for his janitor — that’s you — including leather armor, an arm-mounted chain gun, and mostly importantly a pterodactyl-ish head-mounted sniper cannon that can shoot everything from mortars to guided bullets.

The “coil suit” also has a built-in parachute, which allows you to glide pretty long distances or even fly through the air on updrafts.

I’m not going to pretend that the plot is very deep or that it matters to the gameplay (just shoot everything). It is to third person shooters what Super Mario Brothers was to platformers.

mdk1.jpg

The thing that is terribly important, though, is the game’s sense of humor. Some enemies hold nice, big targets you to aim at, you can call in an air strike by your robotic dog, if you aim properly you can actually shoot enemy eyeballs right out of the socket, and if you beat the game you’re treated to a non-sequiter French technopop tune.

Unlike Quake, Jedi Knight, or Duke Nukem 3D — all games that I remember playing in 1997 — you’re not exploring big dungeons with cramped passageways, hidden areas, and dozens of routes through each level. MDK is linear, taking you from one fighting area or puzzle area to the next. The difference is scope; MDK’s fighting arenas are sprawling affairs and the developers used some impressive software acceleration techniques to get the enormous levels to render without laggy load times.

MDK practically screamed along on my P133 with 128mb RAM and a 16mb 3D card, which for the day was a terrific machine. My parents had just upgraded from a 486 with 66mb RAM, and I was in geek gaming heaven moving from traditional 3D platforming to actual, immersive games (although they were choppy and low-res). Today I’m slumming with a 2.4ghz processor, 1.5 gigs of RAM and a 256mb graphics card, and MDK works as well as ever.

mdk4.jpgGraphics aside (and yes, they can be pretty damned square), MDK’s handling — if calibrated correctly — is just as good as modern entries to the genre such as Star Wars Battlefront. The developers allowed for what at the time was unprecedented mouse control, including mapping to the then-fairly-rare middle mouse button. Using the keyboard alone, the setup is crude and almost unwieldy. But with a little tweaking you can get the jumping, strafing, flying, sniping, and shooting all in easy reach.

I’m not really sure where we landed on the whole abandonware argument, but I can tell you that Home of the Underdogs has a free full CD version download. I couldn’t find a place where Moby Games was still directly selling it, but if you really feel compelled to pay somebody, then Amazon has used copies for about $4.

EXTRA: Here’s a neat list of the top PC games from 1997 that I found while doing some background research. Can you just feel that nostalgia seeping in over your Intarnets?