Friday, July 29, 2011

Stuff I Grew Up With/Video Game Corner: Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (1998)

Apparently, the second Turok game was announced even before Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was released. I, however, didn't know that a sequel was coming until I saw it listed in Nintendo Power's pak watch, a section in each issue where they listed upcoming games. Having really enjoyed the first game, I was looking forward to it. When the first shots from the game were featured in the magazine, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This game looked like it was going to make the first one look dated by ten years, even though it had only been over one year. The shot of two raptors stalking around a temple and another one showing the jungle environment was so realistic that I just couldn't wait to play this game. I finally got it for Christmas in 1998 and not only was I amazed at how much more advanced it looked but how it had a completely different feel to it. To put it bluntly, this game took what made the first one great and cranked it up to ten!

I knew I was in for a game with a completely different attitude when the opening animation for Iguana Entertainment came on. It showed the same scenario: a large iguana laying on the moniker for the company. He hears some rustling in the nearby jungle and, as in the first game, an arrow nearly misses him. Many more come flying at him and he takes cover. But that's where I got a big surprise. The iguana jumps back up on the logo but this time, he's holding two huge, double-barreled guns! He takes at aim at who's been shooting at him and fires back. It then acts like what would happen when you're playing the game and you get attacked by an enemy until you finally die. When the hunter dies, the iguana gives a big, tooth-filled laugh before the game switches to the title screen. That animatic let me know what I was in for when it came to this game. In a strange way, it's even sort of a prelude to the types of enemies you would end up fighting.

When I started the actual game, it made itself distinct from the original right off the bat. Whereas the original had no in-game story to speak of and you would have to read either the instruction booklet or strategy guide to find out what it is, this game begins with a cinema scene that establishes the story. The newest Turok, a young man named Joshua, arrives through a portal into a suspended dimension where a blue-skinned woman named Adon reveals that the Elders of the Lost Lands, the Lazarus Concordance, have instructed her to guide him on his latest mission. For many, many years, an alien creature called the Primagen has been trapped in his crashed ship by five Energy Totems. However, he has recently been awakened (strategy guides and other media say that it was because of the destruction of the Campaigner and the Chronosceptor at the end of the first game but the game itself never makes this clear) and has mobilized many races of evil creatures to destroy the Energy Totems so he can be set free.

The fact that there was actually voice acting in this game really surprised me, since the original had almost no dialogue to speak of. Not only did this opening cinematic establish the new tone and feel of the sequel, it also established that the gameplay itself would be quite different. Whereas the main goals of the original game's levels were simply to collect all the keys hidden within and make it to the end, the requirements for completing the levels in this one were a lot more complex. Besides collecting keys to the next level, you're also given objectives that you must complete in order to move on. These objectives ranged from rescuing prisoners to destroying ammunition facilities to activating beacons and so on. Also, at the end of each level, you take part in a challenge where you have to protect the level's Energy Totem from an onslaught of enemies.

I keep saying that this game's tone and feel is much different than the first and you may be wondering what I mean by that. It's simple: not only is this game more advanced and sophisticated than its predecessor, it's also much darker. Sure, the levels in the first game had some eerie sections to them but this game is not only darker but downright scary! The level designs are really creepy, especially the Death Marshes and the Lair of the Blind Ones. Those two in particular really creep me out because they both take place at night and both involve creepy forests with owls hooting off in the distance and other eerie sounds. In the first level, the Port of Adia, if you turn the music off, you can actually hear screaming and horses neighing in the distance, to indicate that the Dinosoids are still slaughtering people nearby. In the River of Souls level, with the music off, you can hear the moaning of the nearby Soul Gates and the undead materializing out of it. It's really creepy. The music itself, of course, also adds to the creep factor in many levels. The music for the Lair of the Blind Ones is the creepiest to me because of how soft and slow it is. Before each level, Adon tells you about it and what lies hiding within each one. Once again, the backstory for the Lair of the Blind Ones is bone-chilling. She says that little is known of the Blind Ones and that there are legends of them rising up from underground at night and carrying helpless people back with them. Really spooky. The game is also dark purely in its look. The normal brightness level is so dark that I honestly have to turn the brightness up so I can see what I'm doing. Also, it makes you wary of what lies around each corner, waiting in the darkness. That coupled with the general sense of dread all the other factors I've mentioned create make Turok 2 quite a bloodcurdling game.

This game is also a whole lot more violent and gruesome than its predecessor. Yeah, the original Turok did have blood but it wasn't like it was flying everywhere or billowing out of dead bodies. This game, however, is a gorefest in every sense of the word. Unlike the first game, it has a dismemberment system programmed into it, where you can blow off an enemy's limbs if you hit it in a particular spot with enough firepower. Heads can get blown off as well as arms, legs, and even whole torsos. The bodies tend to flop around a lot when they lose their heads or torsos. Also, when the dead body lies on the ground after such extreme deaths, blood continues gushing out in pools until the body disappears. It's crazy. I can understand why this got an M-rating, unlike the original. As with the original, there was an option to either turn the blood off or change its color from red to green. I guess monsters gushing out green blood is not as offensive to some people as it is when the blood's red.

One of the best aspects of Turok 2 was its large arsenal weapons to choose from. Some are upgrades or counterparts to weapons from the original and some are brand-new. Replacing the original game's knife as your basic first weapon is the talon, a leather strap with short, stubby claws attached to them, useful for killing small enemies. An upgrade to the talon is the warblade, a leather strap with two huge, serrated blades attached to it. The basic bow arrow is back in play but this time, you can actually see arrows sticking out of enemies bodies when you hit them. Also back are the explosive Tek arrows and the Tek bow has a sniper mode to it now. There's also a flare-gun which isn't a weapon but is useful for lighting dark areas. The basic .9mm pistol would often take a few shots to put an enemy down but it was often very good for head-shots. The Mag 60 is an upgrade to the pistol that fires three shots at once and is actually quite effective at killing large enemies. Once again, you have a shotgun that uses either normal or explosive shells... and also once again, the weapon is useful except for its slow reload which can get you killed. The Shredder is an upgrade for the shotgun; it has a long barrel and fires fast, laser-like shots that bounce off everywhere in a spray-like manner when they hit something. The tranquilizer gun was not one of the best weapons because the enemy it was used against never stayed asleep for very long and would be really angry when he woke up. It didn't work against really big enemies anyway so it was best used only if you needed to get away from an enemy and had no other options. The charge dart rifle is an upgrade to the tranquilizer gun that fires electric shocks that zap the enemy will making it stand in place for almost an entire minute and unlike the tranquilizer, enough shots could actually kill an enemy. The grenade launcher returns as well but like before, the grenades can bounce back and damage you if you're not careful. Another returning weapon is the Plasma Rifle, which does more damage than before and has a sniper scope now (despite the fact that it doesn't work that well from a distance). The cerebral bore is undoubtedly the grossest weapon in the game. When the crosshair locks onto an enemy, firing the weapon sends out a blue that attached itself to the enemy's head, drill down into it, spew up a fountain of blood and brain matter, and explode for the coup de grace, blowing the head off. (Definitely inspired by the spheres from the Phantasm movies.) Don't get nastier than that! It's not effective against all enemies but watching it in action is definitely a sight to behold. Also brutal is the Scorpion Missile Launcher, which first fires two rockets that blow the enemy into the air and then another two that blow the body to pieces! The flame thrower does what you expect. It's actually funny to set an enemy on fire and watch him run around, flailing his arms to try to put the fire out. The Firestorm cannon is basically this game's version of the mini-gun from the original and it's just as useful: great for mowing down a bunch of enemies. The PFM (Proximity Fragmentation Mine) Layer sounds like it would be cool. It shoots sensory mines that explode whenever an enemy gets too close. Unfortunately, the mines sometimes don't detonate when they're supposed to and the strategy guides claim that the mines can slice off enemies' legs but that usually doesn't happen. Sunfire pods are small glowing spheres that make a bright flash when tossed and can temporarily blind nearby enemies. They're actually deadly against the Blind Ones, whom have spent their entire lives underground and haven't seen the sun in centuries. In the first part of Level Two, you ride a Styracosaurus called the Riding Gun that is equipped with a gun and rocket launcher. While powerful, it's sluggish and hard to turn, which can leave you open to attack. The Razorwind is a Frisbee-like throwing weapon with blades all around it that can slice through a row of enemies. The ultimate weapon, the Nuke, is the game's answer to the Chronosceptor and is also like a far more powerful version of the Particle Accelerator from the first game. It fires a ball of plasma energy that grows bigger and bigger until it explodes, which freezes any nearby enemies and then they too eventually explode. There are also two weapons used underwater: a harpoon gun and a small torpedo launcher. Since there are only two enemies you can run into underwater, however, they don't come into play that often.

While the enemies in the original Turok were fairly standard in their designs and species, this game introduces some of the most bizarre and downright frightening monsters you've ever faced in a video game. There are many different types of enemies as well. Your main enemies throughout most of the game are the Dinosoids, which comprise of both regular dinosaurs and advanced, humanoid-like dinosaur hybrids. The two most common of this type are Raptoids and Endtrails. Raptoids are humanoid raptors that, while not very strong, are intelligent enough to dodge your attacks whenever possible and are quite quick. They're especially hard to hit out in the open. Endtrails are even worse. They're a ten-foot tall human-like dinosaur with alligator-like skin and they have a range of weapon from grenades to laser blasts to their sharp claws. Some can even turn invisible like the Predator. They tend to be the type of enemy you run into the most throughout the game. There are also normal raptors, although these are quite different from those in the first game. They're much slimmer and VERY quick. My only complaint is the developers made them emit cute squeaks and they only act fierce when they attack up-close. The mournful screams they make when they die kind of makes me sorry I killed one. (I also don't like that they look very different in the actual game than they did in all the publicity photos, which looked much cooler.) Fireborns are a burning type of Dinosoid that you encounter deep within the Lair of the Blind Ones. They're similar to the Endtrails but nowhere near as dangerous and not as hard to kill. Their design is very cool, however. You've got Compys, those little dinosaurs that hang around corpses but will attack you at the drop of a hat. Just use the War-Blade and slash them to pieces. Finally, the leapers, those little hopping reptiles from the first game are back and while they're easy to kill, they're faster than before and can do more damage.

The Purr-Linn, those scaly ape-like monsters, are back as well (I love their design in this game much better than before) and, as before, there are several different types. The most basic is the type called the Warclub, which often bursts out of traps in the ground and tries to either smack you around or hit you with big boulders. They go down easily with explosive shells, though. Another type is the Gunner, which carries a Gatling gun that fires rocks from a backpack. These are no stronger than the Warclubs but their Gatling guns can rip you apart quickly if you don't take cover. Worst of all is the Juggernaut, a Purr-Linn dressed in a lot of armor and carries around a large sword that can shoot energy blasts at you. While headshots work against them, they tend to use the sword to block your shots. Very deadly and hard to kill. Also lurking in the Death Marshes where the Purr-Linn live are big hornets that fly out of large nests and attack you in groups of four. Their nests are easily destroyed and they don't take much health when they sting but their small size can make them difficult to kill.

Living in their lair beneath the surface of the ground are the Blind Ones, dangerous creatures who have lost their ability to see but can still pack a punch. There are two basic types: Sentinels and Guardians. The Sentinels pack massive axes, some makeshift armor, and even throw grenades. The tubby Guardians can move quite fast and have a crossbow that they can use with deadly accuracy. However, their weakness is Sunfire pods, which set them on fire when used whereas they just blind other enemies. The Blind Ones also have some other nasty creatures inhabiting their lair. There are small spiders that come out of nests that aren't that deadly (you can take them out with the War-Blade) but every once in a while, you run into enormous spiders that spit venom at you and can bite you. They also tend to make like Spider-Man and use their silk to rise up to the ceiling and drop somewhere else (usually behind you). They also take quite a few shots to kill so they're trouble in every sense of the word. Guardians also sometimes summon Skimmers, big centipede-like things that come out of the ground. You can kill them with one swipe of the War-Blade but their fast movements can make them hard to hit. One of the weirdest inhabitants of the Blind Ones' lair are Nalas, bizarre little things with huge arms and tiny legs, one eye, and long tongues. They attack mainly by spitting acid and while they can easily be killed, they can wear out your health if you don't act fast. Finally, there are Cave Worms (which you can also encounter in the Death Marshes), which are huge grub-like worms with long tongues. They're not too hard to hit because of their large size but they take a few shots to kill and can smack the crap out of you with their tongues.

There's a race of intelligent, humanoid insects called Mantids whose hive is a technologically-advanced fortress. The first ones you encounter are drones, four-armed, erect green insects equipped with jet packs and blasters. These guys are a pain! They fly around like crazy, often landing behind you and their lasers and claws do a lot of damage. They're also just plain hard to hit as well. Workers are smaller Mantids who keep control of the breeding chambers. Strategy guides often say that they won't attack unless you disturb the nearby eggs. I can tell you that's a lie! These guys attack you the minute they see you. They're not hard to kill, though. Little mites are what come out of the largest of the eggs you encounter as well as in the heart of the nests. They're not very dangerous; mainly just annoying and can be killed easily. The least common are the soldiers and that's a good thing because these massive Mantids are heavily armored and their blasters do a lot of damage. A few blasts to the face will put one down but, as I said, that's easier said than done.

In Level Two, you run into undead monsters pouring out of Soul Gates. There are two types: Deadmen and Zombies. Deadmen are the smaller type but they tend to feign death when you shoot them but then get right back up and keep attacking. Even if you blow them in half, they can still attack you! Zombies are much bigger and even worse because they hurl fireballs at you and can slice you up with their claws. Their slow speed, though, is what makes them easy to deal with from a distance. Worst of all the undead enemies in the level are the three Sisters of Despair whom you must destroy in order to complete the mission. They fly around like crazy, making them hard to aim at, and their magic spells do a lot of damage. If you don't get killed by them at least once, you're the man!

Aboard the Primagen's Lightship, you run into his cyborg minions. There are troopers, which are freaky mechanical monsters with weird faces and are armed with powerful assault rifles. One precise shot will put them down but it's hard to do so before they put you down. Elite guards are bigger versions of the troopers with a lot more armor and more powerful weapons. Their heads are where to aim in order to take them down quickly. Bio-Bots are really fast, turtle-like cyborgs that either jet up into your face and slice you or use their laser blasters to hit you from afar.

Finally, in many levels of the game are portals that lead to a dimension where you encounter the most frightening enemies in the game, a race of hideous creatures called the Flesh-Eaters. These freaks are demons from your worst nightmares and, like the undead enemies, make you think you're playing Resident Evil rather than Turok. Sentinels are the smallest but are ferocious and relentlessly pursue you, lobbing grenades at you and trying to slice you with their blades. Best to keep running backwards and dodging their grenades while firing at them at the same time. The Death Guards are even deadlier with their heavy armor, clubs and blasters, although they're mainly stationary and headshots will work against them. The most intimidating of the Flesh Eaters, the Lords of the Flesh, are really fast, heavily armored, and fire energy bolts that do major damage. You have to use really powerful weapons (I once ended up killing two with just one throw of the Razor-Wind).

The bosses are even crazier. The first boss is the Blind One, whom you face, naturally, at the end of the Lair of the Blind Ones. The Blind One is mainly an enormous eyeball in the ceiling of this chamber (I don't know why it's called "the Blind One" because it can clearly see just fine), that tries to kill you with tentacles, mouth-like openings that drool acid, and flesh-eating grubs that come out of the surrounding liquid to munch on you. This fight is tricky because you have to be constantly at shooting at the Blind One's tentacles and mouths whilst fending off the onslaught of grubs. After you've destroyed all of its defenses, the last thing to do is blast away the eye (which I was glad to do since the thing kept making gross noises whenever it blinked).

The Mantid Queen was the boss I faced the least amount of times but from what I can remember, she was quite tough. The spots where you're supposed to attack flash during each phase of the fight and between faces, the queen goes up into the ceiling and sends her minions out after you. Once you've killed all of them, she comes back for another phase. The first phase is the easiest because all you have to do is blast her forearms. The second phase, however, is the hardest because the target is her abdomen, which she makes difficult for you to hit because of her shooting poison balls from her tail at you, as well as firing deadly blue lasers that are pretty much impossible to avoid. Add to that the fact that you can only hit her abdomen when she's in a certain position and you've got a very frustrating battle ahead of you. The third phase is also difficult but not as much. She fires more lightning-like energy blasts but they're easier to dodge and you have to blast her arms as best as you can (grenades work best). The final phase is not a phase of attack at all: she falls to the floor and all you have to do is shoot her in the head.

After going through the Primagen's Lightship, you face the Mother, an enormous, fat, cyclops monstrosity with a huge mouth and whipping tentacle-arms. There are no sections between her attacks where you can catch your breath so you better be prepared to keep moving. During the first phase, she stays in one spot and tries smacking you with her tentacle arms. The arms are the targets and the Nuke comes in handy here because it takes care of them with only a few blasts. The second phase begins with her growing her tentacles back and using them to swing from the ceiling in an attempt to crush you. Like the Mantid Queen, this is the hardest phase because, while her tentacles are still the target, you barely get enough time to fire on them with her swinging around like crazy and you trying to avoid being squashed. In the third and final phase, she sprouts enormous, spider-like legs from her abdomen and chases you throughout the arena, trying to smack you with her tentacles or hit you with a blue energy blast. However, the target is her head now, which is easy to hit because of its size. During this entire battle, she spits bizarre little monsters at that you that you have to deal with as well, making it even more difficult. (While we're on the subject, I never cared for the look of these little monsters because they look cartoony and inconsistent with the design of the game in general.) She's also the only boss that you don't actually kill. Once you defeat her, she latches onto the wall and simply crawls away into the darkness. That's just plain odd, as far as I'm concerned.

And, of course, there's the Primagen himself. He's a bizarre, alien creature with insect-like attributes, big leathery wings, and badly proportioned limbs. I never liked the design of his face, though, with his sad-like frown. It just doesn't fit. Anyway, being the final boss, he's naturally the toughest. In between his phases of physically attacking you, he drops big bombs that kill you instantly if you're hit and split into many little ones if they hit the floor. Also, he sends little insect-like robots out after you which are hard to hit. To make things even more difficult, you can fall off the edge of the arena and die instantly from red lasers at the bottom. During the first phase where he himself attacks you, your targets are the little antennae behind his head. They're really hard to hit because of their small size and when you've almost destroyed one, the Primagen tries to heal it back (the sound he makes while doing so is disgusting beyond words). You have to constantly shoot him in the head to keep him from healing. You have to repeat this process until all the antennae are destroyed and while doing you have to keep moving to avoid swipes from the Primagen's powerful claws (again, all while trying not to fall off the edge of the arena). During the second phase, the target is his bizarre-looking left arm. During this part of the battle, he'll constantly fly up into the air and rain fireballs down on you and hit you with blue rings which take off a lot of health if three in a row hit you. Again, he tries to regain health and you have to hit him in the head to stop him. The final phase involves him actively trying to push you off the arena's edge and the target is his easy to hit head. He also tries to make you fall off with shockwaves from his fireballs. Another thing is that, unlike the Campaigner and the Chronosceptor from the first game, the Primagen is immune to this game's ultimate weapon, the Nuke, so don't even bother trying.

Like the first Turok, this game is so hard that I was only able to beat it by using its version of the Big Cheat (and the code for this cheat is way longer than that of the first game). Unlike the Big Cheat of the first game, this cheat gives you all the cheats in the game. Most of your favorite cheats from the original return: Invincibility, All Weapons, Unlimited Ammo, Big Heads, Little Enemies, etc. There are also some new interesting ones. One makes your enemies look anorexic; one gives them enormous hands and feet; and one even puts faces on lifeforce tokens (it's either one of the developers or a baby, depending on which code you use). There's one cheat that plunges the game into almost complete darkness, which I've never understand the usefulness of. Like I said, this game is already so dark that I have to turn the brightness up to see what I'm doing. Why would I want to make it even darker?

Now I have to talk about the game's ending. From what I've heard, the Primagen's final death is different depending on whether you completed all the levels or used the cheat (which, I must confess, I always do). The death I've always got is that the Primagen stumbles around with half his brain destroyed, screaming until he finally collapses. Apparently, if you beat the game fairly, the Energy Totems all blast the Primagen with their power, destroying him completely, a cinematic that sounds quite cool. After both endings, Turok goes back to Adon but what she says to him is apparently different depending how you defeated the Primagen. I've always gotten dialogue where Adon tells you that while the Primagen's body has been destroyed, his mind may still be active and that, "For now, we can only wait." But from what I've heard, she doesn't say that if you beat him fairly. However, I think in both versions she goes on to talk about something that I've always found to be a creepy way to end the game. She says that she was unable to identify the mysterious entity that tricked you into going into the Flesh Portals (she refers to the creepy voice that always said something to you when you entered one of the portals) but when she tried to scan it, she got a horrible feeling that she had never felt before. To cap it off, she says that she discovered that whatever this being is, Turok's ancestors have dealt with it before. That just creeps me out and the music that plays over the ending credits further punctuates the dread, with the entity, Oblivion, saying, "It is inevitable." I didn't know it at the time but this was meant as a prelude to the third game, Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion.

In conclusion, while there are aspects of the original game that I like better, there's no denying that Turok 2: Seeds of Evil is more than worthy of being a sequel and is a standout game for the Nintendo 64. It's definitely one of the darkest, most gruesome games I own and is also ridiculously hard but it's also a joy to pop in from time to time. I did play the Multiplayer mode with my friends but we did it so little (unlike the Multiplayer for Goldeneye) and it was so long ago that I don't remember much about it other than it was fun. After this game, I lost touch with the Turok franchise. I did get the game Turok: Rage Wars but I was expecting it to be the next entry in the series, not just a bunch of endurance and Multiplayer rounds so I only played it once. I never played Turok 3 so I have no idea how it compares to the first two. One day I may play that one but for now, Turok 2 is as far as my knowledge of these games goes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stuff I Grew Up With/Video Game Corner: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997)

I'm not exactly sure when I first heard about this game (it may have been in an issue of Nintendo Power) but I know when I first saw a clip of it. It was during Cartoon Network's Toonami block one afternoon when they showed a clip of a first-person shooter with someone firing a plasma-type weapon at something that blasted off into the sky using a jet-pack. It wasn't until I rented the game from my local video store that I discovered that this was what I saw. I'm pretty sure that this was the first M-rated game I ever played (although I honestly don't think it's that gory to be rated M) and the minute I first played it, I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was like Jurassic Park mixed with a James Bond game. The gameplay was fun and challenging, the enemies were well designed, and the levels were some of the most beautiful and atmospheric ever seen up to that time on the N64.

The game got me interested even before it actually started. There was a hilarious animation scene where a large iguana is sitting on the logo for the company that developed the game, Iguana Entertainment. Suddenly, a bunch of arrows fly at him, causing him to yell in terror, and a tomahawk comes really close to hitting him in the head. He gulps really loud and runs off right before a few more arrows come at him. You actually hear him say, "Mother." After that, you see a scene of Turok himself pulling back on a bow and arrow, firing it at the title logo, and when it hits with an explosion, you hear a roar in the background and the main theme of the game's score begins. That's how you get a player interested in playing a game.

The game itself doesn't tell you what the story is, but the instruction booklet and strategy guides for it did. You play as the latest member of the Turok family and your mission is to stop the Campaigner, an evil mastermind, from taking over the universe. He plans to do this by finding all the parts of a powerful weapon called the Chronosceptor, which can create gaps between dimensions. You must travel through eight enormous levels, collect special keys that allow you to enter the level after the one you're currently playing, as well as collect pieces of the Chronosceptor that you find in the levels. In each level there are also two bonus levels whose entrances appear as blue portals that pop up randomly throughout. You don't have to do these bonus levels to complete the game but they are useful whenever you need health or extra lives. There was also a central location at the heart of the game where you could use the keys you'd found to open the doors to new levels. 

The game's controls kind of befuddled me at first. Almost all N64 games used the control stick to move the character. Turok, however, used the yellow C-buttons (or camera buttons as they were usually called) to do so. When I first played the game and moved the control stick, all it did was control which way I was looking and I never moved. I started to get frustrated. I'd just started the game and I couldn't even move. I discovered how to move by accident but I was relieved when I finally did move because I thought the cartridge I'd rented was busted. These controls took some time to get used to but by the time I got my own copy of the game for my birthday that year, I'd pretty much mastered them.

As with many first-person shooters, Turok gives you a variety of weapons for you to find and use against your enemies. Your starting weapon was a basic knife which would eventually become useless against enemies in later levels but were good for closeup fighting. Your bow could shoot two types of arrows: normal and Tek. Normal arrows I never found to be that useful except against ordinary human enemies; Tek arrows, on the other hand, were great with their explosive tips and would usually take down enemies in one to three shots. The basic pistol didn't do much damage against non-human enemies but the good thing was you didn't have to reload it so you could fire away at charging dinosaurs. The shotgun was really when it came to taking down raptors but its reload time could get you killed. (That's what tends to get me killed in shooter games: waiting for your weapon to reload.) The automatic shotgun was one I liked much better because the reload was faster and you could usually rely on it to take down enemies quickly. Speaking of the shotguns, they each could use two types of shells: regular and explosive. Needless to say, explosive was always more useful. The assault rifle was a gun that fired several shots at a time for maximum effect but for some reason, I never found myself using it that much. The plasma rifle that I mentioned at the beginning was really useful in the first level you find it but as you went on and the enemies became stronger, it was a gun you would probably only use as a last resort. The mini-gun was a great weapon because it could cut down enemies very quickly, it had no reload, and worked well at long range. The grenade launcher was good at taking down tough enemies at long distance (it was powerful enough to blow some enemies' bodies apart) but using it in confined spaces wasn't a good idea because the grenades could bounce back and blow up in your face. The particle accelerator was a unique weapon because it would freeze enemies and after a few seconds, cause them to explode! Unfortunately, you had to charge it up for the blast to cover a large range and the reload wasn't the best. The alien weapons you could find were quite useful because the shot would first hit the enemy and then cause a small explosion that would take the enemy out more often than not. But the blasts could hurt you as well. Quad rocket launchers were best used against bosses and while they did a lot of damage, their reload was quite slow (but the animation was cool to watch though). The fusion cannon would cause a small nuclear explosion that would spread over a wide area. But it had its fair share of drawbacks: it could only hold two charges at a time; it had the slowest reload of any weapon; and it wouldn't work in the final battle with the Campaigner. And finally, there was the Chronosceptor. It only had three shots period and it was best to use it against the Campaigner. But man, it hit hard and did an amazing amount of damage, especially on a direct hit.

All good games have an interesting variety of enemies and Turok was no exception. The enemies in this game came in three different types: humans, dinosaurs and other monsters, and mechanical. As for human enemies, there was the basic poacher, which was no challenge at all; soldiers, which weren't much trouble either; Campaigner's sergeants, which were really tough with their heavy armor and powerful plasma rifles; ancient warriors, which took quite a few shots to take down and they usually attacked in groups, which made it even more challenging (especially if some had blowpipes); and the worst, warrior priests, which would attack with powerful magic spells and were hard to kill. For dinosaurs and other beasts, you first had your basic raptors, which would charge at you but you could usually take them down with a couple of shotgun blasts (but when they came in packs, they were much more challenging). In later levels, you would run into raptor mechs: cyborg raptors which could take a lot of punishment and had power laser blasters on one arm. Really difficult to survive against those guys. Dimetrodons were really trouble and your best bet against them was to use the grenade launcher. There were Dimetrodon mechs as well; these suckers had twin machine guns strapped to their backs, although, thankfully, they weren't that much stronger than the normal ones. One of the toughest dinosaurs were Triceratops, which had human riders on their backs as well as rocket launchers. If the rockets didn't get you, the dinosaur would try to gore you with it horn and even the human rider would take potshots at you. Best to use the rocket launcher (when they died, it was so satisfying because they'd fall backwards and crush the human rider, who would scream in pain). There were big beetles that you could easily kill with your knife but they often came in swarms which could overwhelm you if you let your guard down. Dragonflies were enemies I never had a trouble with because you didn't even have to kill them if you didn't want to; you could just run. Leapers were big, ugly reptiles that would jump towards you and slash you. There were three types: small, large, and leaders, which were huge. One wasn't difficult by itself but when they came in swarms, you could easily get slaughtered. They could also swim and you could run into them in water areas. Alien infantry were four-armed aliens that would use the alien weapons against you and were the enemies that would fly up into the sky with their jetpacks. Sometimes they would self-destruct! Tek bows and explosive shells were their weaknesses. Pur-Linns were big, ape-like reptiles that, like the leapers, came in three types: ones that would knock you around, ones that would pound the ground to create harmful shock-waves, and, worst of all, ones with powerful blasters on their arms. Tek arrows were the best when dealing with them. Demons were big, scaly humanoids with red eyes that would attack either spears or energy blasts. Quite challenging when you were dealing with a bunch of them. Demon lords were the same as warrior priests in their use of powerful magic and just as hard to take out. Subterraneans were big, worm-creatures that burrow up from under the ground and attack you with their claws and poisonous saliva. They only appeared in one section of one level and you didn't even have to deal with them if you didn't want to but if you did, you'd have quite a challenge on your hands. Sludge beasts were big crabs that you'd only encounter in the last level but they were tough with their long attack ranges and tendency to come up behind you. Killer plants were enemies you'd only find in one level. They'd act normal until you got too close when they'd bite you and then shoot thorns at you. Grenade launchers were best against them because they could block bullets. The mechanical enemies were the worst of all. Cyborgs were the most basic but they were invulnerable against normal bullets and arrows. Cyborg sergeants, like the human ones, were worse and could take a lot of damage. Finally, there were attack robots, which came in two colors: red and yellow. Yellow ones were tougher and had rocket launchers. They could easily make mincemeat out of you if you didn't take them down quickly.

The game also had four bosses. The first was Longhunter, a tough human enemy you'd face at the end of Level 3. You'd have to destroy two Hummers before actually facing him. The Hummers weren't too hard to destroy honestly but you'd waste a lot of ammo doing so. Longhunter himself, I found, was best to fight at close range because he'd put away his gun and fight you hand-to-hand. If you attacked him at long-range, he'd use his pulse rifle, which could fire two types of shots. I never found him to be that difficult, though. Now the giant mantis you faced at the end of Level 5 was another story. That sucker was hard. He'd hit you with acid spit, whack you with his pincers and, near the end of the battle, he would shake off little explosives that did a lot of damage. He also tended to jump on you or behind you. Fortunately, there was a section during the fight where he would start focusing on destroying the walls in the room and you could use that time to pump a lot of shots into him. Level 8, being the last level, had two bosses to face at the end. First was the Campaigner's cyborg T-Rex. He was the enemy where it was best to use the powerful but unreliable fusion cannon. After using that weapon, though, you'd have to circle around like crazy and blast away at him as much as you could. The T-Rex's attacks where powerful laser blasts from his eye, fire breath that could easily kill you if you got caught in it, shock-waves he'd cause with his tail, and his big teeth. Hiding in the alcoves along the wall wasn't recommended because the T-Rex would eventually stick his head in and pull you out, which could easily mean the end for you. One cool thing about the T-Rex that I liked was when you first faced him, you'd discover that he was the one doing the roaring you'd hear in the distance throughout many levels. Finally, the Campaigner himself was the most difficult boss. Three direct Chronosceptor shots would make him much easier to deal with but he was still difficult. He'd often teleport all over the place and hit you with fire rings and bomb-like crystals. Every once in a while, he would jump to a huge weapon on the wall and fire repeated shots at you. However, the more damage you dealt with him, the slower he would move. In fact, you find out that he himself is a robot as you deal more damage to him. If you kept moving and shooting, though, he'd eventually go down.

Interesting thing about the bosses was that when one killed you, there would be an animation of him finishing you off (except for Longhunter). When you lost to the Mantis, he would repeatedly smack you around with his arms. The T-Rex would actually swallow you whole and burp out the feathers in your hair. And the Campaigner would kick you to the ground and shout, "The universe is mine!" before delivering the final blow. While you were frustrated when you got killed, it was interesting to see these cinematics.

Another interesting note about the game's enemies is that they would die in different ways depending on where you shot them. If you hit human enemies straight on in the chest, they would fall backwards with a loud yell or gurgled choke. The one that always got me was what occurred when shooting them near the throat. They would grab their throat, choking and gagging, then fall down and finally make one last death rattle before dying. Dinosaurs also had a similar range of deaths. The raptors especially would sometimes scream and make a death rattle as they fell to the ground and expired. You could also get enemies of different species to fight if you positioned them so one would inadvertently claw or shoot the other. You would usually lose some health doing this if you didn't have the invincibility cheat activated but it was worth it to watch them fight. One thing that Nintendo Power's initial reports about the game was that enemies wouldn't magically disappear when you killed them as in most games. Well, that was wrong. The article boasted you could walk up to a dead dinosaur and count its teeth but it turns out the developers must have changed that because they do dissolve away a few seconds after dying. And they regenerate like mad as well. When dealing with a big group of enemies, you'd usually kill one and be busy trying to kill the others when the first one you killed would regenerate. That was a rather frustrating part of the game.

For me, personally, the enemies weren't the hardest part of the game. It was the levels themselves. To this day, I still can't find anything without a walkthrough or a strategy guide's map. The first level is not too hard and even the second one is quite simple but starting with level three, I get lost very easy. The biggest reason for that is the fog that the levels have that cover up the everything in the distance. When you get out into an open area and try to search one end to another, the fog effect makes it hard to figure out where you've been. (Although, it is cool to see enemies materialize out of the fog as they come running at you.) Level Five, the Catacombs, was the worst because the entire level is a dark underground maze. I get lost so easily in that level that it's unbelievable. Level Six, the Treetop Village, has so many paths to take I get turned around very easily. And one person wrote that Level Eight, the Final Confrontation, is fairly easy to navigate but I highly disagree. That level is as confusing as Level Five in my opinion.

Not only are the level designs and distance fog boundaries impressive but is the sound. If you turn the music off, it's amazing how much detail they put in the sound. You can hear everything from birds chirping and water sloshing to lions and the T-Rex roaring in the distance. In underground levels near the entrances, you can hear the wind rushing, breathing-like gusts in the tunnels, and even freaky sounds that sound like evil laughing and screaming! Finally, in the last level which takes place in the Campaigner's fortress, you can hear eerie energy surges throughout. It's really dang creepy. In the outdoor levels, there are animals besides the enemies that don't harm you at all. In fact, if you shoot deer or wild boars that sometimes pop up, they'll give you health. There are also monkeys that hoot and climb up the nearest trees when you approach. The only way to kill them is with the Particle Accelerator but you don't get anything for doing it so it's pointless.

This is where I have to make a confession: I never beat this game without cheat codes. Yes, I had to use cheats to complete the game (the same can be said for the sequel but that's a story for another day). I just couldn't find everything and unlock all the levels. The strategy guide tantalized with a couple of codes at the end of the book that were mostly meant for fun but they had an offer for a list of codes to send you if you mailed to their address. So I did so. I was particularly keen to get the code for All Keys. But months and months passed after I mailed to that address and I heard nothing back from them. By that time, I'd thought I'd found salvation when I bought a cheat book at Wal-Mart but when I tried the code it had for All Keys, it didn't work. In fact, none of its codes worked. The book was a complete and total lie! Eventually, Nintendo Power came through and gave me the code for the Big Cheat, which unlocks many different codes, including warps to all the levels and bosses, invincibility, infinite lives, all weapons, infinite ammo, and others. It was a life saver. It may not have exactly been the proper way to do it but I beat the game with these cheats so I didn't care. The only thing was the All Keys cheat wasn't part of the Big Cheat and to this day, I'm not sure it even existed to begin with because I've never found the actual code for it.

Some of the cheats were creative and downright funny. There was one that made all the enemies tiny with little sounds to boot. (This was good for a laugh but unless you had invincibility on as well, it actually made the enemies harder to hit because of their small size.) Another gave them enormous heads and deep voices to boot. If you combined those two codes together, it was equally funny. One made all the enemies disco dance(!); one turned the game entirely ink and paint and while it made it hard to navigate, it was cool to look at; one made the graphics less impressive; and my personal favorite was a code that made Spirit Mode, a bizarre feature that would happen whenever you touched a particular item, last throughout the level until you turned it off. With everything in slow motion, you could see all the detail in the animation of the enemies, their designs, and their regeneration. It did, however, start to mess up your eyes after a while.

While Turok: Dinosaur Hunter may seem rather dated by today's standards, I think it's still a challenging and enjoyable game to pop in every once in a while. Not only was it one of the first (if not THE first) shooter games for the N64, it started a franchise that lasted into the millennium, starting with the darker and gorier sequel, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, which I happened to get for Christmas the next year. While that game is better on a technical and gameplay standpoint, there's something about the simpleness of the first game that was never duplicated in any of the ones that followed. It's just in a separate league from all the others and that makes it a very memorable game.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Stuff I Grew Up With: SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron (1993-1995)

I remember first seeing an advertisement for this show on Cartoon Network when I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old. I didn't really think much about it since I was so young but one Saturday afternoon, I ended up actually catching an episode (ironically, it was the very first episode of the series: The Pastmaster Always Rings Twice). At that point, I mainly only watched classic cartoons like the Looney Tunes and wasn't used to this type of serious action show. But, I guess something must have hit a chord with me because I began watching the show whenever it was on and eventually, I became a big fan. Nowadays, I look back on this show with much more appreciation than I did when I was a kid (as is the norm with most stuff we saw as kids). I truly consider it one of the best and most underrated cartoons of the 90's. Hell, even that's not doing it justice. It is freaking awesome!

The show takes place in Megakat City, which is inhabited by anthropomorphic feline-people called Kats. The city is often under attack from evil villains and monsters and their main protection is a vigilante duo called the SWAT Kats. The SWAT Kats, T-Bone and Razor, are the aliases of two former pilots who work as mechanics in a hangar outside of the city. They're often contacted by Deputy Mayor Callie Briggs whenever trouble brews but neither she nor anyone else know who they really are. The leader of the city's military-like law enforcement organization, the Enforcers, Commander Feral, despises the SWAT Kats, seeing them as dangerous vigilantes who must be brought to justice. In the end, the SWAT Kats usually end up not only saving the city but Feral himself from time to time.

As with any successful TV show, the best thing about SWAT Kats was its varied ensemble cast of heroes and villains. Chance/T-Bone, voiced by the great Charlie Adler, is the pilot of the SWAT Kats. He's an incredibly skilled pilot and very brave, refusing to eject whenever their jet, the TurboKat, was in danger, knowing it could get them out of danger. He was my personal favorite of the two because of his tough, never say die attitude and his sense of humor. Jake/Razor, voiced by Barry Gordon, is the weapon specialist of the team, always sitting in the back seat of the cockpit and using his sure-shot expertise to take down bad guys. He's definitely the more tactical of the two, always trying to come up with a plan instead of just charging in like T-Bone often would. What always comes across with these guys is that they were very close friends; one would give his life for the other without a second thought. Mind you, they are quite competitive with each other, often partaking in challenges like pepper-eating contests, G-force tests, and the like but it was all in the spirit of two friends ribbing each other. Their likable personalities and close friendship with each other is what made them such great characters and why you wanted to see them succeed.

The SWAT Kats' biggest supporter was Callie Briggs, the deputy mayor of the city. Voiced by Tress MacNeille, Callie was the one who did the real work for City Hall, whereas the real mayor was more concerned with playing golf and had Callie write all his speeches. (Now that I think about it, that bugs me. She should be the mayor, not this putz! We'll get to him later.) What I liked about Callie is that she was a lady who wasn't a coward. She did scream when  she was attacked but often fought against villains herself when she needed to. Sure, she did need to be rescued by the SWAT Kats many times but you got the feeling that she would not go down without a fight. She also trusted the SWAT Kats completely, despite what Feral would say, and even when they were framed in one episode, she gave them the benefit of the doubt and helped them clear their names. In fact, she genuinely cared for them, shedding a tear when it seemed like they were killed in one episode. She was just a caring person. On top of all that, she was an anthropomorphic cat and yet was so damn sexy it was ridiculous. (Granted, "furrys" tend to freak me out most of the time but with characters like her, I can see how some people become part of it. Meow!)

Command Feral, voiced by Gary Owens, was without a doubt the least likable of the show's good guys. He's the leader of the Enforcers and as such, is really arrogant and hot-headed. He despises the SWAT Kats, writing them off as dangerous vigilantes who should let the real authorities protect Megakat City. In fact, you eventually discover that he's the very reason the SWAT Kats exist. Chance and Jake were once Enforcers themselves but while pursuing their archenemy Dark Kat, Feral ordered them to fall back and leave Dark Kat to him. When they refused, Feral swiped their jet away with his own, causing it to crash into Enforcer headquarters. Feral kicked them off the force and demoted them to junk-men to pay off the bill for the damages... damages which were mainly his fault! Because of the grudge between them, the SWAT Kats generally mock him as incompetent, which he and the Enforcers honestly are and the fact they're infinitely better than him may be the real reason why he despises them so much. And yet, despite his unlikable blowhard attitude, I can't help but admire his devotion to protecting the city. I also love his voice; Gary Owens' voice really is what you'd expect a commander to sound like.

In the second season, Feral's niece, Lieutenant Felina, voiced by Lori Alan, was introduced. As a kid, I honestly never liked her as much as Callie. But once I saw more episodes with her, I warmed up to her. She's as hot-headed as her uncle but trusts the SWAT Kats, often helping them fight villains. She often said that she wouldn't take "No" for answer (which she never did), would stand her ground against danger, and proved to be quite a skilled pilot herself. She's definitely no damsel in distress!

Of the other supporting characters, the most irritating was Mayor Manx, voiced by the great voice actor Jim Cummings. As I've said, Callie did all the paperwork and wrote all of Manx's speeches, whereas he cared mainly about improving his golf game. He was an absolute coward, running and cowering in fear whenever danger arose. At one point, he even pushed Callie out of the way so he could get to safety first! What a cowardly asshole! I loved how, even though he was supposed to follow his orders, Feral knew Manx was a fool whose antics would probably get someone killed. The only time Manx did anything brave was when his chance for reelection was in danger. It was clear this guy was only the mayor because it was a cushy job that offered a lot of benefits and one where he wouldn't have to do anything. I know he was meant to be a comic relief character but he just gets on my nerves.

Other notable characters were Ann Gora, voiced by Candi Milo, star reporter for Kats Eye News, whose ambition for getting good stories would often end with her and her cameraman Jonny (Mark Hamill) getting caught in the middle of a dangerous situation and needing to be rescued. Dr. Abby Sinian, voiced by Linda Gary, was curator of the Megakat City Museum of History and a really good source of information. Like Callie, she was every bit as brave as she was beautiful and never panicked in the face of danger. As seen in one episode, she's not above getting down and dirty at an archeological site. I actually liked her character and wished the show's writers did more with her, like putting her in the situations more and having her be proactive with the SWAT Kats instead of just sitting around the museum for pure informative purposes. There was also Professor Hackle, voiced by George Hearn, a well-meaning old scientist who ended up unknowingly turning two gangsters into deadly cyborgs. Finally, there was Lt. Commander Steele, voiced by Hal Rayle, an arrogant high-ranking Enforcer who hoped to replace Feral as commander but was actually almost as cowardly as Mayor Manx and even got airsick during a tense battle (which caused Feral to say, "And you want my job?", which makes me crack up every time).

The show also had an interesting lineup of villains as well. The SWAT Kats' biggest enemy was Dark Kat, voiced by Brock Peters, a seemingly demonic criminal mastermind who planned to turn Megakat City into Dark Kat City, which often involved destroying the city with weapons such as powerful bombs and other terrorist-like schemes. His henchmen were bizarre, purple bat-like creatures called Creeplings. As I mentioned earlier, he was the villain Chance and Jake were pursuing when they got get kicked off the Enforcers. My personal favorite villain was Dr. Viper, voiced by the legendary Frank Welker. (Seriously, look up this guy's track record. It's just amazing!) In a flashback episode, you find out that he was once a scientist Megakat Biochemical Labs but when he tried to steal a new type of mutagen, it spilled on him and changed him into a half-snake creature. With his expertise in biology, he created hideous monsters to help him try to conquer the city and turn it into Mutation City. In fact, his monsters killed quite a few innocent people. Then there was the Metallikats, Mac and Molly Mange, voiced by Neill Ross and April Winchell, husband and wife gangsters who were turned into cyborgs. Like Bonnie and Clyde, their main intentions were to rob banks, as well as kill Mayor Manx for denying their parole when they were in prison. The two of them often bickered but they clearly did truly care for each other at the end of the day. The Pastmaster, voiced by Keene Curtis, was an undead sorcerer from the Dark Ages who tried to warp Megakat City back to that time period in his first appearance, often tried to conquer the city in his own time, and marry the Queen of the city, who was an ancestor of Callie. (He once went after Callie in the present because of that.) Notable recurring villains included Hard Drive, voiced by Rob Paulsen, a technology thief who used a special coat to become an energy source and use electric lines to travel into buildings; Rex Shard, voiced by John Vernon, a convict exposed to the radiation of a special diamond mining machine and changed into a creature made of crystal and able to turn anything he touched into crystal; Madkat, voiced with great zeal by Roddy McDowall, a former comedian who went insane and fused with the spirit of a mad jester like himself, with the power to warp reality to his will; and the Red Lynx, voiced by Mark Hamill, an undead fighter pilot whose goal was to kill Mayor Manx, the ancestor of his greatest enemy, the Blue Manx.

The animation was another aspect that put this show above most cartoons of the time. At first, some of the character designs and movements were a little suspect to be honest but as the show went on and the animators honed their craft more, it became very impressive. The animation on Dr. Viper's mutations were particularly awe-inspiring. It's also apparent that the creators may have used a different team of animators for different shows or even for different parts of the same episode because the look of the characters and the way they moved tended to change slightly from one to the other. (But that tends to be the norm with most cartoon series.)

The music by Richard Stone has to be some of the best, adrenaline-pumping music ever composed for a cartoon. The main title music for each season's opening sequence alone was enough to get you pumped. I always preferred the score for the first season's main title because it starts off scary, turns to frantic as you see Megakat City being attacked, and then becomes kick-ass as the SWAT Kats hop into their jet and take care of the problem. The second season's main title, in keeping with the ramped up look and tone of that time of the show (which I'll elaborate on shortly), was hard edged rock music throughout and while it is good, it didn't hit me as classic as the first one did. The main theme for the SWAT Kats themselves changed between seasons and the second season didn't play certain music cues that I really liked, which disappointed me. Besides great action music, Stone was adept at composing creepy, atmospheric music for the show's scarier moments. Take the music that plays in the opening scene of the very first episode, The Pastmaster Always Rings Twice, where two graverobbers are digging in a cemetery. Really eerie music. Or the freaky as hell music that played for Dr. Viper and similar villains. Finally, there was some nice, smooth music that just fit the tone of the job Chance and Jake did as mechanics as well as the idea of two buddies just hanging out on some downtime.

As I mentioned, the show's second season is quite different from the first. It was always seemed to be much more hard-edged, with tougher character designs, more emphasis on shadow and shading in the design of the show itself, and even the actors voiced their characters in much tougher tones. The animation was also much different and smoother than before. In fact, the show looks and feels like an anime in the second season. This second season didn't begin airing on Cartoon Network until a little bit later, as I remember, although I do remember catching one episode of it on TBS. While the second season had some great episodes, I never liked it as much as the first, mainly because that was the one that I saw more often (but that's just me).

Favorite Episodes

The Pastmaster Always Rings Twice: As I said, the first episode ended up being the first one I ever saw and it was a great intro to the series. Two grave-robbers accidentally release the Pastmaster from the coffin he was imprisoned in and he proceeds to try to send Megakat City back to the Dark Ages. The opening scene in the cemetery is very creepy, you get introduced to the SWAT Kats' friendly competitive nature with each other, the Pastmaster unleashes a Godzilla-like dinosaur and pterodactyls on Megakat City as well as sending the SWAT Kats back to the time of the dinosaurs. The climax where the SWAT Kats return to the present and take down the Pastmaster is just all kinds of awesome and Stone's music just adds to it.

The Giant Bacteria: A pilot named Morbulus, who has an extra set of eyes in the back of his head(!), is shot down by the SWAT Kats after attempting to destroy all of the city's oil refineries. He manages to escape and meets Dr. Viper, who transforms him into a disgusting bacteria monster. Viper plans to use the monster to raid Megakat Biochemical Labs and obtain a mutagen he can use to take over the city. This episode is downright disturbing. The scene where Viper changes Morbulus into the bacteria monster is quite nightmarish and the monster divides into two new monsters whenever it's split in half. One scene in particular that was a source of confusion was one where the monster attacks a farm and devours a cow (which you see in shadow). The farmer comes out to see what's going on and after he sees the monster, it always cut to the shot of Viper leading it into the sewers. On a recent DVD release, the missing section was restored where, once again in shadow, you see Viper actually feed the farmer to the monster. I can guess that part was deleted because it was way too shocking. There's also a scene where one of the bacteria monsters attacks a subway car and apparently kills all the passengers inside! Really dark imagery for a cartoon meant for kids.

The Wrath of Dark Kat: Dark Kat steals the materials he needs to build a nuclear bomb to destroy the city and after Feral sneaks aboard his ship to stop him, the SWAT Kats are faced with not only stopping the villain but saving the guy who kicked them off the Enforcers. I didn't really appreciate this episode when I was a kid but as I've gotten older, I've come to really like it. This is the episode that has the flashback where you see Chance and Jake get kicked off the Enforcers and become the SWAT Kats. The ending battle in the air between the SWAT Kats, the Enforcers, and Dark Kat is really awesome.

The Metallikats: As the title suggests, this is the episode that introduces Mac and Molly Mange. After returning as the Metallikats, they kill their former crime boss and proceed to embark on a plan to kill Mayor Manx for denying their parole. The action scenes in this episode are really top notch. A highlight is when the Metallikats fire a relentless heat-seeker at the SWAT Kats and the guys have to do everything they can to shake it. This is also shows how awesome Callie is. She takes on the Metallikats herself (she calls Molly a brass bimbo at one point!) and later helps Razor fight off Mac.

The Ghost Pilot: A old war bi-plane is pulled from Megakat Bay and when it's put on display at the museum, the spirit of the pilot, the evil Red Lynx, is resurrected and wreaks havoc as he tries to kill Mayor Manx, a relative of his old enemy, the Blue Manx. I like this episode because you find out that Chance/T-Bone has always admired the Red Lynx and therefore, he has to take down someone he's admired. This is never really brought up as a dilemma but just the thought of it is cool to me. Mark Hamill does a great job as the voice of the Red Lynx, who is quite a threatening villain. As always, the final battle is great and Manx is the one who ends up saving the day!

Metal Urgency: Prof. Hackle reactivates the Metallikats in order to reprogram them from their evil ways. Needless to say, the plan doesn't work out and the two robots escape. They eventually discover who the SWAT Kats really are and when they hijack two enormous robots, the boys must stop them before they reveal their identities to the world. That very dilemma is why I like this episode. I also like the fact that even though Feral puts out an arrest warrant for them, when the Metallikats offer to tell him who the SWAT Kats really are in exchange for their freedom, he declines, saying, "I don't make deals with scum." I like that because it shows that Feral does have good intentions, despite his attitude.

Enter the Madkat: An insane former comedian escapes from the asylum and finds a jack-in-the-box which houses the spirit of an ancient mad court jester. The two fuse together to become Madkat, a powerful jester whose magic proves to be quite powerful, even for the SWAT Kats. Roddy McDowall absolutely steals this episode as the voice of Madkat. He is just hilarious. This is also one of the few times Feral actually acknowledges that the SWAT Kats saved him, which also makes it a standout in my book.

Katastrophe: After their plans are both thwarted by the SWAT Kats, Dark Kat and Dr. Viper team up, along with the Metallikats to destroy the SWAT Kats once and for all. Just the sight of these four villains working together as a team makes this a great episode. The climactic scene, where the SWAT Kats try to save Mayor Manx and Callie from the villains is great because the villains turn on each other and the fight is awesome. This is also the episode that shows that Callie truly cares for the SWAT Kats because she sheds a tear when it seems like they're destroyed at one point. Also, this one seems to end with the death of all the villains (although, they all would return eventually).

Mutation City: This is the episode of the second season that I saw most often as a kid. Dr. Viper floods the city an ooze created from a chemical he stole, which turns all animals and plants it touches into mutants. This is where you learn that T-Bone can't swim and that comes into play during the middle of the episode and the ending. T-Bone is also bitten by one of the mutants and eventually becomes one himself. It culminates with Dr. Viper mutating into a giant, Godzilla-like monster and Razor having to fight him by himself in a really great action scene.

Razor's Edge: While battling Dark Kat's new, spider-like machine, Razor misfires two missiles and blows up a building, injuring two civilians in the process. Razor is so shaken by this that he can't bring himself to fight anymore, which may be the city's doom because Dark Kat plans to destroy it with his new weapon. It's easy to see why I like this. Stories like this are always great because they give more depth to the characters. Razor is clearly rattled when he discovers he accidentally hurt two people and it's very touching. The best scene is when he goes to the hospital to visit the two civilians but discovers that it was a setup to destroy his confidence. The final scene of the episode is really triumphant as well.

The Origin of Dr. Viper: This short episode, one of four that were put in pairs for a show, reveals how greedy scientist Dr. Elrod Purvis became the twisted mutant, Dr. Viper. Although I like it, I see this episode as a missed opportunity because it's so short and a story like this should have been used for one episode or even a two-part one. Still, it's interesting to see Viper before he was mutated. He comes off as really slimy and shifty as Purvis and Welker even does a Peter Lorre type voice for him.

The Dark Side of the SWAT Kats: While out for a test flight in a thunderstorm, a stray lightning bolt sends the SWAT Kats into an alternate dimension where there are a pair of evil versions of themselves that work for Dark Kat and they're mistaken for them by Feral. It's weird that nobody in this dimension can tell the good SWAT Kats from the bad ones because they look and sound completely different but anyway, this is a great, unique episode. You even find out that in this dimension, Callie is evil and working with Dark Kat. (This evil version actually looks ugly, just so you can hate her even more.) The ending scene with Feral is hilarious as well.

Yeah, SWAT Kats was an awesome show but after the second season, it was abruptly cancelled. Why? I'm not completely sure but I think that idiot Ted Turner accused the show of being far too violent for kids. That annoys me because the dark edge of the show is what made it and other cartoons of the time awesome. Our generation didn't feel like we were being talked down to and that these shows were treating us like adults by giving the impression that characters actually died, some rather gruesomely from what we could gather. It's just annoying and sad that this great show had to end way too soon because of dumb adults thinking that shows like this could inspire kids to commit murder. Are you kidding me? There wasn't even a DVD release until like 2010 and even then it wasn't perfect (although I think another release is planned at this time).

Today, SWAT Kats remains a cult favorite among those, like me, who saw it growing up but to the general public, it's not very well known. I honestly believe that if it hadn't been cancelled so soon, it would be as popular as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was some talk of reviving the show and since classic cartoons like Voltron and Thundercats have been revived in recent years, maybe SWAT Kats will too at some point (though I kind of doubt it). Anyway, those who know and love the show will have fond memories of this ass-kicking cartoon for the rest of our lives and for those who are interested in seeing it, by all means do so. Cartoons don't get much cooler than this!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Movies That Suck: Headspace (2005)

The biggest problem with going to horror conventions is that people will try to stick you with independent films that they've been involved with, many of which are so bad you wouldn't look at them twice if you saw them in a video store. I don't know how anyone else handles it but with me, I try to be as gracious as I can to these people because I know it's probably really hard to make independent films, let alone get them seen by someone. At the same convention where I ended up with The Prodigy, a guy at one table first tried to sell me a copy of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door but I told him I had no interest in seeing a movie that sadistically cruel. When I went up to the table another day to talk with a friend of mine who was sitting there, the same guy gave me a copy of this movie Headspace and even signed it (I don't even think he was in it or had anything to do with it). He gave it to me for free so I couldn't complain. When I get stuck with independent movies like this, I feel obligated to at least try to watch them because it might turn out to be decent. But that wasn't the case with this movie.

The movie is about a 25-year old guy named Alex Borden who suffered a horrible tragedy when he was a kid but has grown up to be rather intelligent. One day, he engages in a chess match with a person and loses. However, after the match, his intellect begins to grow dramatically. He also starts having painful headaches and bizarre hallucinations. As he seeks therapy for his condition, a series of gruesome murders begins to happen all over the city and Alex wonders if he is responsible somehow.

I will give this movie one thing: the concept, that knowing everything may not be something you want, does have potential. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't do anything compelling with it. It's a lame psychological thriller with bits of a monster movie thrown in and neither of the elements work that well. The pacing is slow and boring, the characters are uninteresting, and the revelation is stupid and makes no sense. I can appreciate a slow build, as I've mentioned before, but if the road to get there is not engaging and the payoff is dumb, it's not worth it.

One of my problems with this movie is that it's one of those independent horror movies like Hatchet that brags about having many beloved genre stars in the cast but they're basically just cameos and meant to sucker in fans. You've got Olivia Hussey as Dr. Karen Murphy, the psychiatrist who treats Alex; William Atherton as Dr. Ira Gold, an alcoholic physician who's the first victim; Sean Young as Alex's mother in a flashback who apparently loses her mind and gets blown away by Alex's father; Mark Margolis as Boris Pavlovsky, a Russian scientist who was part of a Moscow science survey that studied people like Alex; Dee Wallace as Dr. Denise Bell, the doctor who recommends Alex to Dr. Murphy; and Udo Kier as Rev. Karl Hartman, a priest who Alex comes to as a last resort. Since these people are veteran actors, their performances aren't that bad but, as I said, their presence is meant to just to lure in genre fans and every time I see an independent film do this, I can't help but groan.

The film's lead, Alex, is played by Christopher Denham. A big rule of any movie is that if your lead isn't interesting at all, the movie won't work and for me, that's the problem with Denham. Mind you, I don't think he's horrible but he's just bland. In a featurette on the DVD (which I tried to watch but after this movie, I'd had enough), Olivia Hussey said that Denham has a lot of charisma. More than likely she was just saying that because she needed to and I hope so because Denham has no charisma whatsoever. He tries to act all tortured and fragile but it comes off as he's just going through the motions. We do see a little bit of likability in him at the beginning before this weird stuff starts happening to him but it's so brief that I don't feel that it allows us to empathize with him and care about him. Again, his performance isn't terrible but it's just not interesting.

The other actors aren't that memorable either. Harry, the chess player whom Alex frequently plays with and triggers the events (I honestly can't find the name of the actor) is even more bland than Alex himself. He's revealed at the end to be Alex's older brother, who was separated from him when they were children. This could have been a big revelation but the character was just so uninteresting with his screaming and bad attitude beforehand that I didn't care. Paul Sparks as Alex's friend Jason is kind of likable and funny, coming across as a sort of stoner type, but there's not much else to say about him. I did get a chuckle out of Patrick Wang's character Sammy Chung, even if he was an over the top stereotype of gay guy. I found his friend, Lloyd (again, I cannot find the actor's name), to be funny as well but I can't help but wonder why an old black guy would hang around a young, gay Asian. Maybe he's gay too? Who knows?

The big revelation is that the evil creatures that are haunting Alex and committing the murders are ancient evil spirits who seek out people with enormous amounts of knowledge. You find out that they need two such people to come together to act as conduits for them to enter reality. Alex and Harry being together as children is what caused them apparently possess their mother and make her attack them. They were separated so that it wouldn't happen again but now that they've unknowingly been reunited, the monsters are able to once again enter the real world and cause havoc. The way the monsters come through are sporadic and inconsistent. As I said, they apparently possessed the mother at the beginning of the film and forced her to try to kill everyone. A sign that someone is in danger of being attacked by the monsters when Alex is around is when their face begins bleeding. You also find out that anyone who touches Alex is in danger of being killed. But here's what's confusing. When Alex is around said person, they begin to act possessed, the monsters speak through them, and, as is the case with the reverend, are eventually killed. This is presented as something only Alex can see and the persons themselves aren't aware of it. But the monsters also attack people who have touched Alex even when he's nowhere around. They don't act possessed because Alex isn't there to see it. That I can kind of buy. However, there's a hole in this part of the plot. At the beginning with the mother, the father was trying to get the boys away from her because she had a knife and really was trying to kill them. The father even tells her, "It's not really you." So he can see that she's possessed? Did he pass on this curse to the boys? And the monsters apparently took her over completely because she lunges at the father with knives, forcing hhim to shoot her. They never do that to anyone else in the movie, whether Alex is around or not. Why? It's just completely inconsistent and poorly executed.

As for the monsters themselves when you finally see them at the end of the movie, they just look weird. They look like scaly-skinned demons with pig noses which makes me unable to take them seriously. Sure, they make a lot of threatening growls and roars and when they're creeping around in the darkness, it is kind of eerie. But this is one instance where they shouldn't have revealed the monsters. If they'd only left me with brief glimpses of them, the movie have been all the more effective. If you can't come up with a good enough monster, just don't show it. That's my view on these things. That said, the killings that the monsters commit are well done makeup effects-wise. When Sean Young's character is killed at the beginning, the father blows an enormous hole in the left side of her head which is impressive. There's a similar well done effect when Dr. Gold is killed, with his face all slashed up. The other effects are standard, like a demon hand slashing through Udo Kier's torso but they are well done. I will give the movie that.

It may seem like with first The Prodigy and now Headspace that I'm just picking on independent filmmakers and I'm honestly not. I have no problem with people trying to make movies with no money (heck, John Carpenter did that with Halloween and he ended up creating a classic). It's just that these movies are bad examples of independent films, as there are for any type of movie. Just because a movie was made with little money and no studio backing doesn't automatically mean you have to like it. To be honest, watching this movie was excruciating for me. It's only 89 minutes long but feels like three hours because it's so slow and uninteresting. Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator fame seems to really like it and that's cool but to me, Headspace just isn't worth the headache it causes.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Movies That Suck: The Prodigy (2005)

The first time I tried to watch this movie, it did something to me that few movies before it have: it beat me. This movie 113 minutes long and before the 45-minute mark, I turned it off. This was due, no doubt, to another awful movie I'd seen earlier that day and when this started, I just couldn't watch another generic independent film. I turned it off and didn't come back to it until recently when I released this would be a good candidate for Movies That Suck if I watched it all the way through. This time, I powered through (even though I paused it many times to get a drink or go eat something, which, to me, is a sign that the movie isn't keeping my interest) and I was right. This movie is bad. I'm well aware that this was a very low budget independent film that went straight to DVD and while I commend somebody for trying to do an action movie with what little money they had, the end result is still not good. Before we go on, I'd just like to add that I didn't buy this. I was at a horror convention and some young women were handing out free DVDs so I just figured, "Why not?" That's one of the few good things I can say about this movie and it doesn't even have anything to do with the movie itself!

The movie is about a small-time enforcer named Truman who's been rather hot-headed and violent his entire life. During one operation, a mysterious man dressed entirely in black with a hood and wearing night-vision goggles kills many of the mob guys, including some of Truman's friends and almost kills him. A month later, Truman is having nightmares about the event but he now has a girlfriend that he truly does care about to take his mind off things. When Truman gets a job to find a man who kidnapped his boss' nephew, he discovers that this assassin is a legend among the criminal world and he's apparently got big plans for Truman.

This whole movie is just generic from top to bottom. The very premise of the movie involving mobsters and hit-men has been done time and time again and much better I might add. I don't mind action movies with this kind of setting but you've got to have a good story with it and this one just isn't worth it. It's unoriginal, has a bunch of plotholes, makes no sense, and is not interesting in the slightest.

The acting and dialogue don't help it either. Holt Boggs as the lead, Trum, is not a charismatic character. He tries to act all tough and mentally tortured but he's completely one-dimensional, doing nothing but screaming and shooting people. The story is supposed to be about him finding his place in the world and maybe leaving his violent life behind but there's no empathy for the guy so it doesn't matter. Matt Beckham as Truman's best friend, Pat, is even more unappealing. While they do act like friends, we're never told why they are so. Pat tries to come across as that funny sidekick but there's one scene where he beats a guy within an inch of his life, even when it's clear he knows nothing. Pat just keeps beating him and beating and when Truman has had enough and walks away, Pat hits the guy again before following him. What did that mean-spirited scene accomplish? Nothing other than prove that Pat is a sadistic asshole. I know they're part of the mob but even Truman is disgusted by what Pat did to that guy. One character that I kind of liked was Ash, played by Diana Lee Inosanto. She's a friend of Truman's who has information about the assassin that's stalking him. I don't know why but she's quirky and funny enough to where I kind of liked her... and she gets killed in the second scene she's in.

Mirelly Taylor as Truman's girlfriend, Nicki, seems like a nice enough girlfriend and it's hinted that she could help Truman escape from the violent world he's part of. But, at the end of the day, she doesn't really do much to be memorable. Another friend of Truman's, King, played by Lawrence Varnado (who I swear reminded me of Charles S. Dutton when I first saw him), is someone who's had a bad run-in with the assassin in the past and was the only one who survived. He reluctantly tries to get Nicki away from the city so the killer won't get her but he ultimately fails. Again, not a bad character, but comes off as a cliche in the end. There's Marc Jeffreys as the mob boss JT, who is so cliched in characterization and portrayal (think The Sopranos) that he's not worth talking about. Ricky, played by Marc Hebert, is the nephew who's kidnapped by the assassin and his scenes where he's held captive would make you think you're watching a Saw movie rather than an action flick. It's that typical dark, dungeon-like setting where Ricky is tied up, tortured (he's already lost an eye and, while we don't see it actually happen, we see later that his legs have been cut off) and almost gets away before being dragged back inside and killed. Not much else to say about that. There's not much to say about Danny (Jay Moses) who I think was Truman's younger brother but I'm not sure. It doesn't matter. He gets killed at the very beginning of the movie. There are other characters (one of which is played by Dameon Clarke who voiced the evil Cell in the Funimation dub of Dragonball Z) but I don't remember who was who and I don't care.

Now let's get to the assassin: Rains. It turns out he takes his name from The Invisible Man and Claude Rains, the actor who played the title role in that film (he even at one point uses the alias Jack Griffin, the actual name of the title character of that film). He's meant to be this boogeyman among the crime world; a mystery that people wonder is real or not. He's also portrayed to be a menacing terrorist-like character who plants hidden cameras everywhere and can watch your every move. He's had his eye on Truman for a while and he says that what convinced him that Truman was the right choice to take his place was when he watched an interrogation video of Truman when he was a kid and he said he didn't feel sorry for beating up this other kid. I honestly didn't find him to be menacing in the slightest and even found him to be a joke. For one, he's apparently killed several times and yet just gets up. Granted, he could be wearing body armor beneath his suit but that doesn't explain how, in one scene, after he's been shot and is apparently dead, he gets up and comes up from behind Truman (who'd momentarily turned away from looking at him) all without making a sound. Not only that but he's placed so many little cameras everywhere that you have to wonder how he knew somebody was going to be there at a certain time. Is he psychic or something? And some of those cameras are in places where it would be hard to put them there without being seen. One thing I will give the filmmakers is that at the end of the movie, Truman apparently kidnaps the wrong man when he breaks into a motel room where Rains is supposed to be hiding. After almost killing the guy, he lets him go when it seems like he's the wrong man but it turns out he isn't. That surprised me, I must say. I also have to commend them for not having it be Truman's father, because I was expecting them to do that. Still, Rains, like almost everything else in the movie, just doesn't work.

The dialogue in this movie is as bad as most of the acting. My biggest complaint is that there are so many F-bombs in this movie that you'd think Rob Zombie wrote it. I honestly get sick of hearing "fuck" said every other word. Many writers, Zombie included, seem to think that's how people really talk or that it's edgy. It's neither. In fact, it feels childish, like a little kid who discovered the word "fuck" for the first time and is saying it constantly. I just find it annoying, like the writer can't think of any way to make the movie mature other than to swear a lot.

The very look of the movie is generic and the action scenes and editing make it clear how low budget it is. The film has either a blue tint or brown tint depending on what time of day it is, which I get tired of seeing just because it's used so much. The action scenes themselves could be good if the editing wasn't so quick and crazy that you could tell what was going on. Often during an action scene, the movie will suddenly shift in look. I can't explain it very well but there are moments where it'll look like a low budget TV show or like it was filmed with a regular camera (if you've seen the movie, you'll know what I'm talking about). I'm guessing they did this to make the action look faster or more dynamic but it just looks unprofessional. Now not all of the action scenes are bad. There are some fights which are choreographed decently and look fair enough but they still can't save the movie.

While the story is, as I said, forgettable, it does have some interesting points to it that could have made for a fair movie if done better. Truman is a character who seems to really hate the violent world he's a part of and Nicki may be able to help him escape from it. Rains also talks to Truman through recordings about him finding his niche in the grand scheme of things and Truman does seem to understand his capacity for bloodshed and compassion in his life. The ending, where Truman confronts the unmasked Rains and where he ultimately kills him (with Rains saying that he's so proud) and leaves to take his place as an assassin (we assume) could be interesting if the movie leading up to it was done better. But the cliched plot and uninteresting characters behind it make you just not care.

Other than some decent parts of the music score, there's not much else I can say about The Prodigy. I'm not saying that this movie is entirely bad because it's not that original. Quentin Tarantino often takes old ideas and makes good movies out of them. The point is that you've got to do something interesting with those old ideas. This movie just doesn't do that. It's generic, has an uninteresting story (although, as I said, there are some potentially good concepts in it), and the characters are cliched and forgettable. I feel bad slamming an independent movie because I can imagine it must be difficult to make on but that's honestly how I feel. Sorry, William Kaufman (the director), but this just isn't good.