Ninja Ryukenden (1991)

I was a big fan of Ninja Gaiden games on the NES, especially the third part which I played through on a Russian pirate NES console in the 90’ies. So when I heard that there was an anime OVA for the series, I was quiet exited. Less so after actually watching it. Ryu the main character is quiet bland, which given the prominence of the CIA agent Robert makes you feel like the anime director felt similar. Irene was fundamentally changed from a damsel-in-distress CIA agent to a generic and definitely less compelling damsel-in-distress.

For games that were all about action, the adaptation has not enough and most of it is limited to the second half, with a few kills early on that are over far too soon. Even then, while the animation itself is quiet good, its visually boring and most of the action scenes are more quantity than quality. Not talking about what is drawn, but how everything is staged. For a series of games that are superior in enemy/encounter design and their visuals, the OVA doesn’t even capture an inch of what made these games great.

The rest is unengaging as well. The villain (or villains, there’s a twist later on) like to do their villain monologues, Ryu goes for emotional hero rages, and the whole cliched rest. Anyway, nobody is watching something like this for a great plot, but at least likeable or compelling character would be good to make it watchable. Sadly, with both the action and almost everything else lacking, it’s no wonder this is mostly forgotten.

Wizardry (1991)

Japan’s interest in the Wizardry franchise has over the years proven to always go that one step further than necessary, with countless merchandise that would never had a chance in the west, including this ’91 OVA that covers the very first game. The plot is about a group of adventurers that go down a ten-level dungeon to retrieve an amulet from its main villain Werdna.

The game’s focus was never on plot, and while the OVA faithfully covers all the games aspects in detail (monsters, player races, player classes, spells, even items with muramasa sword), it has a harder time making us care about each of the characters or their motivation. Even with such a short running time, two of the fighters in the initial party seem oddly interchangeable, the addition of an annoying, whiny hobbit and his master and an elven sorceress later don’t help and overall, while it’s interesting to watch for those who like the game, it doesn’t hold up particularly well.

The quality of drawings is quite good, typically for that era of anime, especially in OVAs, but the animation itself feels a bit stiff. Most of the action scenes feel like somebody couldn’t decide whether he actually wanted to remind viewers that Wizardry’s battles are turn-based (or phase-based for the initiated) or just wasn’t very good at making good action scenes. It feels like: player action, enemy action, player action, … Good for a game, but hardly exiting to watch in an anime.

Black Magic M-66 (1987)

OVA based on a manga by Masamune Shirow. A vaguely near future hunt-the-killer-android plot with the malfunctioning military android hunting for the niece of the inventor of the androids due to working on test data. Has a plucky journalist going up first against the military (who want to keep everything under wraps) and later against the android herself to save the inventor’s niece.

It’s all over the place in terms of mood and theme (one moment funny, the next gore everywhere), and the characterization is so bare-bones that I didn’t give a damn about anybody. That said the androids are relentlessly and chilling, making every scene where they turn up great. Also the animation exemplifies perfectly old-school anime, fully hand-drawn, very fluid movements and incredible attention to detail. Worth watching just for that alone.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

The vulture always seemed a bit of a one-note or gimmicky villain in the Spider-Man comics, following the typical animal-themed gallery of villains with not much to make him interesting. But actor Michael Keaton, together with a backstory that builds nicely on the events from Avengers one, make him one of the most compelling villains in the MCU so far. And when I say compelling, I mean halfway into the movie I wanted him – not to win – but to at least get away with his ill-gotten spoils.

Yes, he pretty much kills a guy in cold blood and is an arms dealer, but on the other hand he projects such a strong “I’m only a normal guy working his job to keep my family fed and my employees working” that it’s easy to root for him. Not saying its right; and thankfully Spidey has the moral backbone to take him down, but there’s a degree of truth in the things Keaton as Adrian Toomes says and how he deals with his people and later with Pete aka Spidey that makes him highly relatable and even likeable.

Homecoming suffers a bit from the typical teenage awkwardness that is found in all Spider-Man movies, and I’m aware it’s more of a feature and not a bug to most, but I never found that element appealing or interesting. On the other hand, at least this Spider-Man doesn’t go through another iteration of an origin story and the whole set-up with Tony Stark as a mentor feels fresh in terms of story-telling and yet quite fitting.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

It’s not implausible that someone who never watched the original comes away from the movie with a positive impression, liking it for what he has seen. But if you have seen the original anime and worse, loved it, the only thing that comes to mind when watching this abomination is that Hollywood has again managed to butcher an almost perfect foreign movie in their attempt to streamline it.

Interviews with the director give the impression that he did love the original, but when you see the movie all you can think about is that he obviously loved it for the wrong reasons. The movie stages almost shot-for-shot recreations of iconic scenes from the original, but with an almost completely different plot and different main character, it makes just no sense and descends to mere what-the-fuck moments.

At times the Ghost in the Shell adaptation feels like someone wanted to do a Blade Runner-like movie, but only got the GitS license. They’re both dystopian cyberpunk-like futures, but still have distinct styles and themes. Instead we get an odd mish-mash that doesn’t work either way and feels disjointed and generic.

But the biggest problem is the main plot, which doesn’t make a lick of sense. Or it does if you’re into dumb, one-note cartoon villains. Gone are the themes of the original, of the impact transhuman technologies have on human society and the political landscape and the complex machinations and conflicts between the powers of old, further intensified due to the emergence of entirely new players born form technology.

Instead we have a single evil guy abducting people for nefarious cyber-body experiments. It’s the most superficial, moronic approach anyone could have taken. The movie has a lot of other problems as well, especially on the character side, but honestly, it’s not worth wasting more words on it. Just avoid.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)

The NES Metroid is probably more important in kickstarting the series, but for me the second game on the Gameboy is more important as it was the first I played and which made me fell in love with both the Metroid series and the Metroidvania genre (which wasn’t a thing at that point). I remember wandering endlessly through its claustrophobic tunnels and caverns, occasionally finding bases with upgrades inside or the occasional Metroid lair and its occupant, which immediately turned into a frenzied fight for survival as I often was on my last hit points.

Lots of people say that the one thing to make the game better would have been an automap, and since I actually created one thanks to the Grid Cartographer software, I realized two things when I replayed it. The game isn’t actually that big and the map of the game has many parts that overlap (up to three layers in some places) and it’s impossible to get a correct plane map. I still wonder whether that was intentional on part of the gamemakers or just a by-product of how they made the game.

But more importantly, I think using an automap actually detracts from the experience. Yes, traversing the game becomes more comfortable and even without knowing where to go clearing the game becomes less cumbersome. But wandering around, exploring every corner of the map without any tool to assist you was part of the core experience. From the monochrome graphics, the simple but effective music and maze-like world-design, every aspect of the game reinforced that you were utterly alone in an alien, incomprehensible and often hostile environment.

It’s not per se a survival horror game, but my memories of how I played closely mirrored that sort of experience. Add an automap, and most of that is gone. It’s still a fun game, and some of what it did in terms of sprite graphics was pretty much foundational (more-so than the first Metroid) for the rest of the series, but it does lose something as well.

Most people these days tell you to either play the fan remake or probably go for the recent official remake, but to be honest, none of them matched the original game in terms of sheer emotional ups and downs, the terror from creeping along those lone corridors with your last health down to almost zero or the exhilaration of accidentally discovering and beating another metroid with almost your last few rockets.

GitS: SAC – Solid State Society (2006)

The Ghost in the Shell series can be a bit wordy a times, but at least the better entries (1st movie, 1st TV series) balance it with stylish action and neat science fictional concepts explored in a way you usually don’t get in anime. Sadly, the Solid State Society, an epilogue to the whole Stand Alone Complex sub-series is big letdown that lacks the right balance to make it compelling.

Over the last few years I made a few attempts to get through it, but was often too bored to continue early on. My last attempt managed to reach the finish line, only to find out that the whole plot amounted to nothing more than a cardboard racist James Bond villain and the usual allusion to something deeper going on, which is more or less a canvas for endless speculations but even that felt less deep than in other GitS entries.

I think the worst of it is that 99% of dialogue felt scripted like info exposition. Wordy is one thing, but when none of the characters even sound or act like a human being I’m left wondering whether the whole movie was just a random generator of text gibberish.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

I was pretty forgiving of the predecessor despite having similar flaws, but this semi-sequel goes into overdrive when it comes to characters doing stupid things to advance the plot. Even in Prometheus I felt like the decisions were sort of justified to some degree or at least somewhat believable (except maybe following a painting at the wall to another star system), but in A:C the things the main chars do are just inane.

Changing the target of a billion dollar investment colonization project because you got a strange message, getting closer to a planet that threatens the structural integrity of your star ship, open a quarantine bay when you know something alien and infectious is inside, running around a strange world without protective gear and so on. These characters weren’t just stupid, there upheld stupidity and run with it until they were killed by aliens. End of story.

Sure, none of the earlier movies are perfect, not even Alien and Aliens, but at least I can watch them without cringing. But A:C and to lesser degree Prometheus are just bloody moronic. Nice visuals only carry you so far.

Environmental Station Alpha (2015)

Environmental Station Alpha (short ESA) is one of the most content-rich metroidvania’s I’ve played, but also one of the most frustrating. In terms of difficulty, only An Untold Story is harder, and harder only in the sense of the platforming skills required, when it comes to boss design ESA definitely takes the cake. I played ESA’s demo when it came out in 2014 (which you should play if you want to see some extra-content), started ESA in 2015 and needed almost two years to see the finish line.

This is not to say that the game is unfair. It’s one of the most honest hard games I’ve played, each boss is doable with a lot of training and skill, it’s just that I prefer my metroidvania’s with less difficult bosses. Not that I find difficult bosses in general bad, it’s just that in this type of game they badly break the flow of gameplay and act like hard counters that just stop everything. I play these type of games more for the exploration than anything else.

This connects to my second point. The level design in ESA is superb, with lots of smart backtracking, winding corridors that lead back to the same hubs, with items required to open ways in areas you already covered. The problem is, the game requires so much backtracking, that you could only keep all that in your head and remember if you beat the bosses in a timely manner, if not you feel utterly lost. Once you’ve entered a room and see something you can’t reach, but the room itself is already uncovered on the map, you forget later that there was something to do there.

A map where you could jot down some notes would have helped make traversing the game much easier. At one point I stopped proceeding not because of one of the bosses, but because I’d forgotten that I could clear a certain type of block with one of my new items, because I didn’t realize I had to go there.

The graphics for the most part are quite cool, with a simplistic but inspired retro-vibe that feels like a high-quality demake of a game that never existed in the first place (apart from the obvious Metroid-vibe). That said, sometimes they are too sparse to make out details or differentiate between background and foreground. Most of the bosses also have quite neat sprites.

I didn’t much like the language encryption puzzles of the post-game content, I hated this stuff in Fez and I hated it here and the secrets are ridiculously obscured. I would have preferred something less oblique, but then I’m not a fan of adventure games and that type of thinking. Keep stuff like this to the genres where it belongs.

This sounds all a bit critical, so I want to iterate that I think ESA is one of the best metroidvania’s I’ve ever played. It has superb level-design and controls, it has excellent boss design, even earlier passed levels remain dangerous with tougher enemies getting activated later on and there is just tons of content here that beats most games done by larger teams.

Dead Cells (EARLY ACCESS)

I’m not usually a fan of Early Access titles, not because I think there’s something inherently wrong with that approach, but because I rather wait until a game is finished. In this case though, the trailer for the game looked too good and I’m a sucker for any metroidvania-type game. I was a bit skeptical at first, as similar titles like Rogue Legacy or Flinthook for example sport their roguelike influences on their sleeve, but usually contain no real trace of metroidvania-type gameplay.

And initially that was true for Dead Cells as well. Procedurally generated levels that change after each death, with a meta-game where you can earn persistent upgrades that make you stronger in each new run. But then I got my first ability, which allowed me to access more areas in the early levels. It’s a cool twist on the Metroidvania-genre, that actually manages to combines a roguelike action platformer with metroidvania-type elements into a neat mix. The roguevania descriptor here is actually well earned.

Beyond that, even at this early stage, the game is already more fun than many other full games. The action is perfect, with scrunchy hits that make it a delight to take enemies apart, either by sniping them from afar or going in for close combat. The weapon selection is such that instead of always preferring just one weapon, each is pretty cool and handles differently with unique advantages that makes it hard to decide which to take. Controls are tight and the graphics are a perfect fit for this type of game.

If the developers don’t make a major misstep in the future and build on those foundations, then Dead Cells will be almost perfect.