Sunday, November 1, 2015

Cole's Favourite Transformers

When I was a kid, I watched lots of the popular cartoons of the day ("the day" being the mid eighties through mid nineties, mostly). Some of those even included shows geared towards girls, like the original My Little Pony (more because of its timeslot than anything else, I think, although I'm not trying to make excuses here) and Jem (which I genuinely enjoyed for some reason). But still, being a boy, it was stuff like He-Man (and, yes, She-Ra), GI JOE, M.A.S.K. and Voltron (which became my favourite when I was much older) that I liked the most. Hell, even more forgettable stuff like Bravestarr was alright by me.

But one show stood above them all. This was the show that I followed as closely as I could and collected as many of its toys as my parents would buy for me. Since the entire purpose of this show was to get kids to buy their toy line, in my case I would say mission accomplished and then some. This show of course was The Transformers. Even though some episodes and characters were totally phoned in and stupid, and there were animation errors aplenty (more than any other cartoon I can think of) I'd contend that actually the vast majority of the content was really good. I mean, as this was a show created simply to advertise a toy line, it would be understandable if it was all halfassed, forgettable crap. But I believe its creators really put a lot of effort into the animation, characters and stories. It's amazing how well much of it still holds up even all these years later.

Because the series's main mandate was to sell toys, TONS of characters were introduced. Of all the shows I watched as a kid, Transformers easily had the biggest cast. And as I've said, this definitely led to a quantity-over-quality approach. With so many characters, good guys and bad guys, vying for screentime, many of them were one-dimensional and lame, with their only redeeming quality being perhaps their transformed mode.

This also led to a lot of annoying voices since, with such limited time to develop characters, the easiest way to differentiate between them was making their voices and/or way of speaking somehow stand out from everyone else. This gave us results such as THREE characters who spoke in rhyme (Jazz thankfully only briefly, Blaster occasionally and Wheelie ALL THE GODDAMN TIME),  the tank, Warpath, endlessly punctuating his sentences with exclamations of "Bang!", "Zoom!" and crap like that, some weird accents (Tracks, Outback, and someone who appears on this list) and miscellaneous weirdness like the Dinobots (speaking like braindead retards), Blurr (talking like a superfast retard) and Seaspray (gurgling?).

There were some great characters, though. And, of course, Transformers exists in all kinds of media besides the show, like comics, movies as well as tons of different updates of the show. So plenty of characters were given more dimension there. All are in different continuities and sometimes make changes to various characters. For this list I'm considering characters based on ALL their appearances. Let's get to it.

5. Razorclaw (Transformed mode: Lion)
While hardly a major character in any incarnation of Transformers, Razorclaw is still the leader of the Predacons unit, and that has to count for something. Actually, in the IDW Comics continuity, the Predacons are considered one of the most elite units in the entire Deception force. And, typical of being a Predacon I guess, in most media he's shown to be one of the most capable fighters when it comes to hand to hand combat.

He's proven himself a good leader as well, with a sort of all-business attitude that's actually kind of unique among Decepticons. I guess I like him because the Predacons are my favourite Combiners in all of Transformers and, as their leader, he's their best representative. He transforms into a lion and is often able to overwhelm opponents in this mode. When in robot form he wields a really cool sword (officially called a sonic sword as it's able to emit powerful vibrations) and you know I love swords. Not many transformers, Autobot or Decepticon, have swords so this makes him unique as well. An effective tracker as well as commander, it breaks my heart I never had his toy.

Personal Crowning Moment of Awesome: I'd go with the episode "Nightmare Planet" from the original animated series. Specifically when he's forced to team up with Autobot, Springer in battling his way out of a castle created by Daniel Witwicky's dreams (yeah, it's a weird one).  The castle is owned by a fearsome dragon and Springer, wielding some kind of trident, rode Razorclaw (in lion mode, obviously) and they charged the dragon, managing to kill it. Serving as horsey for the enemy may seem like an odd pick but trust me, it's really cool.

4. Galvatron (Transformed mode: Laser cannon)
Well, I think you'd all agree that this guy definitely is a major character. Some people might've even doubled down, taking the old Megatron/Galvatron route, fitting in two characters
for the price of one. They'd certainly be justified in doing so. But to me, Megatron and Galvatron are separate characters and should be treated as such. While in most continuities, most notably the original show, he was formerly Megatron, he wasn't in all of them. In the IDW comics, for instance, he is a completely separate character who actually predated Megatron by millions of years. And even if you are dealing with a continuity where he isn't, I still believe the change (or, transformation, if you'll allow me) was enough that there's really nothing tying him to Megatron anymore besides a fanatical desire to defeat the Autobots.

If this list was a few slots longer I would definitely include Megatron because he is awesome and probably one of the best villains you can find. He's extremely powerful, brutal, charismatic and, even though it's true he kind of loses all the time (such is the fate of the villain), actually quite a competent leader. He's even shown to be quite rational, sometimes putting aside his hatred of the Autobots for the sake of the greater good (although in those cases the greater good only counts because it involves saving his own skin and that of his Decepticons). It seems every time he dies he manages to come back and just his name strikes fear into the hearts (or...circuits, I guess) of Autobots and those on the side of good.

So why am I picking Galvatron over him? For starters, one key difference between him and Megatron is that he (Galvatron) is most definitely NOT rational. While Megatron could certainly became enraged and occasionally fly off the handle, this is basically the permanent setting for Galvatron. He's always screaming and ranting and raving, threatening everyone around him. While that could just as easily be an argument for why he isn't as cool as Megs, personally, it just really appeals to me. Galvatron is a fucking lunatic and I love him for it. It makes him wildly unpredictable and ridiculously dangerous. In the continuity of the Generation One cartoon, it's his defeat at the hands of Rodimus Prime (The Transformers The Movie) that really drives him over the edge. Things get kind of confusing after that because in both this continuity (as continued in the Transformers Headmasters series that never aired in North America) as well as the Marvel Comics continuity, there are diverging timeliness involving his path, so multiple versions of him result.

In the world of IDW comics, Galvatron hails from Cybertron's fabled (and oft-referenced) Golden Age, which predates that continuity's setting by a few million years. That's before there were such things as Autobots and Decepticons and he was actually close friends with that era's Prime, Nova Prime. Here he's part of a spaceship crew (the first Ark) that is lost in an anomaly sending them into what's known as the Dead Universe, where he became an undead being. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that he eventually shows up in the present to trouble the Autobots.

In most continuities he's presented as even more powerful than Megatron, which is really saying something. Hell, in some he's nigh invincible. I love the purple colour scheme (purple seems to always work so well as the colour of evil in various things for some reason) too.

Personal Crowning Moment of Awesome: For a guy like him, there are many but it's tough to beat his arrival on Char just after his rebirth at the hands of Unicron (The Transformers The Movie). The devastated Decepticons have reluctantly allowed Starscream to assume leadership in the wake of Megatron's demise when suddenly Galvatron touches down with the also newly created Cyclonus.

Starscream: Who disrupts my coronation?
Galvatron: Coronation, Starscream? This is bad comedy.
Starscream: Megatron? Is that you?!?!
Galvatron: Here's a hint! (Transforms into cannon mode and blasts Starscream to ashes)

It's so awesome you should see it. So here you go.

3. Sky Lynx (Transformed mode: It's...complicated)
Here we have a truly unique transformer. This guy doesn't even have a robot mode. Instead Sky Lynx is a sort of triple-changer who actually has FOUR (just three in the Marvel comics though) unique forms, those being: lynx, space bird (?), space shuttle bird with lynx legs? I don't know. But it doesn't matter because he's awesome. And he knows it too. In fact, he repeatedly lets everyone around him know just how awesome he is. Just how full of himself is he? Well, consider this quote from the Generation One show: "Before you do anything, think, 'Is this what Sky Lynx would do in my position?' , and you will not go far wrong." ("Call of the Primitives").

Holding the rank of Lieutenant Commander, which maybe isn't all that impressive because Grimlock does too, I'll always associate Sky Lynx with my memory of the commercial for his toy (which also featured the Predacons/Predaking, something we'll explore in further detail below) which used footage from the show as well as catchy musical hook ("It's Sky Lynx!). I actually had this commercial on tape, as it appeared during an episode of Ducktales, another great cartoon from that era.

By Season Three of the Generation One show, Omega Supreme was still around but Sky Lynx seemed to take over as the Autobots's de facto mode of transportation when going on missions deep in space and/or to other planets. And, unlike the Decepticon equivalent for this, the triple-changer Astrotrain, he actually retained his giant size. Strangely enough, while in his own shuttle mode, Astrotrain is large enough to transport many of his fellow Decepticons (a good example is in the movie right after the battle at Metroplex where Starscream tosses out the nearly-dead Megatron) but as a robot, is the same size as the average transformer. The two have actually battled each other several times. But, as the aforementioned commercial suggests, it's the Predacons Sky Lynx has a real rivalry with, clashing with them on numerous occasions. In the Generation One episode, "Call of the Primitives", where he is front and centre, it must have really galled him to be lumped into the same group as the Predacons as well as the Dinobots and the various animal cassettes. In that instance he immediately named himself leader of that group. Also to his shame, during the show he was often mistakenly animated with a Decepticon insignia. How insulting!

Personal Crowning Moment of Awesome: While his rescue of the Aerialbots (as Superion) in the episode "The Big Broadcast of 2006" (a favourite of mine) deserves a mention, I'd say it was his role in locating and bringing back a Quintesson during the Hate Plague ("The Return of Optimus Prime parts 1 & 2"). Fortunately one of the few Autobots not infected by the plague was the magnificent Sky Lynx as he was the only one left capable of spaceflight. The Quintesson he retrieves is successful in restoring Optimus Prime to life and Prime discovers how to stop the plague. Sky Lynx then helps Optimus against Galvatron and although he later does wind up being infected by Rodimus, his prior actions led to the curing of the plague.

2. Optimus Prime (Transformed mode: varying kinds of 18 wheeler truck)
Like on some of my other lists, we've come to an entry on a character who is so iconic and so celebrated that I'm at a loss for what to say about him. There have been many, many different incarnations of the Transformers over different forms of media. And while some can get pretty different and "out there" when compared to the original show and Marvel comic, the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, is always present. Although his character doesn't exactly appear in the Japanese animated series Super God Masterforce, his form does at the least (Ginrai) and as far as I can tell, that's really the lone exception.

Naturally it's his depiction in the Generation One cartoon that still stands as probably the most iconic and it's the one I draw the most from with the current ongoing IDW comic series coming in second. I mean, honestly, how could he have had the same initial impact without the brilliant voice talent of the legendary Peter Cullen? Even Michael Bay and the geniuses behind the live-action film series realized that there was no way they'd succeed if they didn't get the man himself to once again voice Prime. And  while you can say what you want about those movies, back in 2007 when I saw the first one, hearing Cullen's voice in the theatre literally sent shivers down my spine.

Optimus is leader of the Autobots but he's not the type to lead from the back. Whatever's going on, he's in the thick of the action. And while it's true that many characters on the original show were often poorly written and forgettable, Optimus was ALWAYS well-written, exuding courage, strength, wisdom and compassion that often transcended the cartoon. As weird as it sounds, this giant transforming alien robot warrior was actually a good role model for the children who watched the show. He always showed reluctance to battle the Decepticons and often expressed his disappointment and frustration with constantly being forced to fight. He lamented that Megatron and the Decepticons couldn't learn that their way of attempting to conquer everything around them by force was wrong, that it was anything but glorious. But when it came time to fight, he was ready.

And really, there was no one better at it. As I said, Optimus was an incredibly "hands on" leader. He wasn't just a brilliant commander and tactician but was unequaled in battle prowess. Whether he was firing away with his ion blaster laser rifle, fighting hand to hand or even in vehicle form, he was a force to be reckoned with, able to defeat many enemies single-handedly, best Megatron one on one and even fight off much larger opponents. The Decepticons knew to fear him and few would dare engage him without plenty of support.

Probably the best depiction of Optimus becoming a Prime is the IDW comic miniseries Transformers: Autocracy. Set on Cybertron just before the Great War (the beginning of the millions of years of Autobots vs Decepticons conflict), Autobot commander (of what was a special police unit back then) Orion Pax is given the task of rooting out terrorist Decepticon cells sowing dissent throughout the city-state of Kaon. The Prime at that time was Sentinel Prime.

As noted above, some version of Optimus Prime exists in every incarnation of Transformers and while they have their differences, all are great leaders. Still, Peter Cullen, much like Kevin Conroy with Batman, gives the definitive vocal performance and his is the voice I hear in my head whenever I read any of the comics.

Personal Crowning Moment of Awesome: Too many to mention, obviously. He had one in nearly every episode of the original show and plenty more were to follow in other shows, comics and movies. He even has some great ones in the much-maligned live action films. Personally, I love his highway battle with Bonecrusher in the 2007 movie. Even his death scene in the animated movie could be considered one. But for me, it's not a moment of glorious combat or even that dramatic a moment that always resonates the most. I'm going to give it a pretty long setup because I think that's the only way to give it proper justice so bear with me.

In the Generation One cartoon, there's an episode called "The Core" wherein Megatron has the Decepticons construct a massive drill to tap into the earth's molten core. The plan is to harvest geothermal energy thus giving themselves either an alternative to Energon or possibly an ingredient to make it; it's never explicitly stated.

The plan, as pointed out by Starscream, is incredibly risky as the deeper they drill, the greater the chance of breaching the core and causing the earth to explode. Megatron brushes this off, saying he has a contingency plan in place: a space bridge capable of teleporting the Decepticons to Cybertron is nearby in the event of the drill threatening the earth's stability. The Constructicons build and operate the drill.

As you would expect, the Autobots discover this plan and try to stop the Decepticons. To counter the power of Devastator, whom they know Megatron would surely deploy against them, Wheeljack and Chip (Spike's wheelchair-bound friend) created "dominator discs" - small discs that need to be placed on each individual Constructicon. Once this is accomplished, when they combine to form Devastator, the discs will activate and allow the Autobots to take control of Devastator.

Blah, blah, blah. They get the discs on the Constructicons, predictably the drill goes haywire and the earth is in danger, the space bridge becomes damaged so now the Decepticons are in the same boat and Megatron agrees to work with the Autobots to save the planet. Devastator, who had briefly been under Autobot control as planned but isn't anymore, uses his strength to destroy the drill. But when he returns he finds Megatron and the other Decepticons have fled. Chip tells him his "noble leader" ran to save his own hide but Devastator, loyal to a fault, states he left to plan his next attack, as a good leader would. He takes off and Chip sighs. He says he was hoping that Devastator/The Constructicons really would join the Autobots but dismisses it as a "dumb old dream." As the music dramatically comes up, Optimus comforts Chip with these words: "Hang onto your dreams, chip. For the future is built on dreams. Hang on."

Maybe that seems like me making a big deal out of something rather simplistic but between the writing, the music and Cullen's delivery, I think it will always be my favourite Optimus Prime moment. It's stuck with me ever since I first saw it more than twenty-five years ago.

1. Starscream (Transformed mode: F-15 Eagle fighter jet [Gen 1]; F-22 Raptor [IDW])
Just like with Optimus Prime, you pretty much can't do a version of Transformers without the scheming, treacherous Air Commander Starscream. So known and revered is he for his conniving nature that he is actually the Trope Namer for such characters across fiction. Simply put, nobody out-Starscreams Starscream.

The earliest indication of Starscream's ambition is in his bio on the box for his original 1984 toy, where it's mentioned that he desires to lead the Decepticons. Then in the very first episode of the original show, within the first five freaking minutes his stance is heavily hinted at and he winds up making a power play, beginning a long streak of failure. Seriously, even in the episodes where he didn't have any specific plan to overthrow Megatron, he's always criticizing him, quite openly. This of course leads one to wonder why a ruthless commander like Megatron would ever tolerate Starscream. Hell, Cracked even did their own list on this subject back in 2009.

The accepted explanation for this is that Megatron, as a Decepticon, actually values and encourages a certain amount of ambition and guile in his troops, plus, since Starscream is so bad at seizing power, he gets to constantly punish him and demonstrate the folly of challenging him to the rest of his underlings. And it isn't lost on Megatron that for all his whining, scheming and criticizing, Starscream still is a very capable and effective soldier. He is the leader of the Seeker jets after all and does instill a healthy amount of fear and respect in the Autobots. This is even shown in the 2007 film.

Still, sometimes he does prove to be more trouble than he's worth. The episode "Starscream's Brigade" may be the best example of this from the Generation One show. After another unsuccessful attempt to take out Megatron, Starscream is beaten by his superior then dumped (by Laserbeak - arguably the most effective Decepticon there's ever been if you stop to think about it) on a remote island in the south Pacific. Here he discovers several old wrecks of military vehicles from World War Two and is inspired to create an army of his own. He brazenly makes his way to Cybertron and steals the personality components of five renegade Decepticons that were stored in a detention centre. He returns to the island and installs them in five of the vehicles. Thus the Combaticons were born.

Starscream, by virtue of activating his new "friends" without installing energy absorbers, leaving them dependent on him to get some for them, is able to get them to do what he wants. Eventually he leads them in an attack against Megatron and the Decepticons and at first, they're winning. Megs plays his trump card, having the Constructicons merge into Devastator. However, the Combaticons show they also are Combiners and form Bruticus, who quickly despatches his giant counterpart. Only the late arrival of the Stunticons saves the day, with their combined form, Menasor, taking Bruticus by surprise and defeating him. For once, Starscream's actions have real consequences as Megatron banishes him and the Combaticons to deep space, having Astrotrain dump them on a distant asteroid.

After so many humiliating defeats and setbacks, Starscream finally does manage to depose Megatron, throwing his nearly lifeless body out of Astrotrain (oh, the irony!) after the disastrous attack on Metroplex. Of course, his stint as leader is short lived as the newly born Galvatron arrives to destroy him. (The Transformers The Movie)

As much as I love Starscream from the original show, it was in the comics where he often really shined. Longtime Marvel scribe Simon Furman  would portray him as more intelligent and often sarcastic. Here he suffered less defeats and humiliation and was often the main focus of many stories. He was a bit more respected by his comrades and his enemies here and he was always very competent.  The IDW comics would follow this approach. He's one of Megatron's first supporters before the Great War and, because of his charisma, was deployed as a Decepticon recruiter. Two of his targets that didn't join up were Blurr and Hot Rod but with many others he was successful. But it wasn't just his silver tongue that made him an effective operative. He, along with an assist from Shockwave, assassinated a room full of senators, beginning in earnest Megatron's rise to power on Cybertron (Megatron Origin). However, it wasn't long before he began to conspire against his leader and aided Scorponok in overthrowing him. Once again, this was a temporary state of affairs and Megatron would resume his position. Starscream would grow disillusioned with the Decepticons, tiring of the state of endless warfare. It was revealed that Megatron chose to keep him around as reminder to always watch his own back, as treachery was part of the Decepticon way.

There's plenty more and not just in the versions of Transformers I've mentioned but that's the stuff I know best and we can't be here all day, can we? Starscream will always be one of the most memorable and prominent characters in Transformers and he'll always be my favourite. He's been a scientist (that's his backstory in the Generation One show, where he was friends with fellow scientist Jetfire/Skyfire), air commander, Decepticon recruiter, Decepticon leader and even a freaking ghost. As previously noted, his scheming, treacherous ways are the stuff of legend even outside of Transformers and his deeds as a warrior shouldn't be overlooked.

Personal Crowning Moment of Awesome: There are many but how about personally shooting down Air Force One in the IDW comic All Hail Megatron #3?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Spooky Movies for Halloween

It's that time of year where the days get shorter, the air gets cooler, and the world gets a little spookier. There is nothing better to watch at this time of year than a good scary movie! Here is a list of some great horror films to watch this Halloween season.

5. Trick 'R Treat

Trick 'R Treat is a Halloween anthology film that was released in 2007. Horror typically lends itself to anthology films, but there aren't many with the pedigree of Trick 'R Treat.

The film features four stories, all centered around Halloween and taking place on the same night. The intertwining thread is a character named Sam; a young trick-or-treater wearing orange pyjamas and a burlap sack over for a mask.

Trick 'R Treat is perfect to watch around Halloween, not only because it's set on Halloween night, but also because it features all the spooky stories that you think of around this time of year! There's jack-o-lanterns, tainted candy, urban legends, and monsters.

You can tell a lot of love and great talent went into making the film, which is unfortunate because it went through a development Hell taking two years to be released. As a result, it only saw a limited theatrical run before being released on DVD. The film has garnered a cult following, however, and as a result of great home video sales a sequel went into production in 2013. Hopefully this isn't the last we've seen of Trick 'R Treat and that creepy little costumed Sam!

4. Halloween III

Let's get the obligatory Halloween film out of the way!

The fact of the matter is that this is the time of year to watch Halloween films and there are several great entries that you can pick from that franchise to enjoy during the month of October. I've decided to switch things up a bit and feature the black sheep of the series, Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Halloween III is a completely different tale from the other films in the franchise in that it doesn't feature the iconic slasher Michael Myers and there are no babysitters in sight! Instead we follow Dr. Dan Challis, portrayed by a mustachioed Tom Atkins, who is investigating a novelties company, famous for their signature Halloween masks.

If it sounds like a weird premise, you seriously don't know the half of it. Veering about as far away as possible from the themes and story of the first two films, John Carpenter (director of Halloween and Halloween II), Debra Hill, and Tommy Lee Wallace (long time collaborators of Carpenter's) went with a story that's about as Halloween-y as you can get! Halloween III blends a tale of witchcraft, science fiction, and Celtic religion.

About the only connection between this film and its two predecessors is the fact that it takes place during Halloween. Originally Carpenter, et al. wanted to make a series of films that would take place around Halloween, but would all have different stories. After the success of the first film the decision was made to make a direct sequel, sew that story up once and for all, and then move on. Halloween III was their attempt to take a new direction, however the film did not do well at the box office, pulling in the lowest gross of any Halloween film to date.

It is an absolutely crazy movie, but if you're looking for something interesting to watch this Halloween season, there's nothing like a movie featuring Druid robots, Stonehenge, and creepy Halloween masks! 

3. The Monster Squad

How could you have Halloween without Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon!? Well get this, 1987's The Monster Squad features all of these infamous characters in one film! Not only that, but this is a kid's adventure movie, not unlike The Goonies from 1985. There's just not enough of these movies!

The story follows a group of pre-teens and kids that have an after-school club known as The Monster Squad, where they get together and talk about their favourite monsters and horror movies.

Little do they know that their beloved creatures and tales are real! Count Dracula is anxiouisly waiting for the day when he can sacrifice a virgin and, with the help of a mystical amulet, take over the world. He was thwarted in his efforts 100 years previous by his arch nemesis, Van Helsing, but the famous vampire hunter was unsuccessful in destroying the amulet, so Dracula is back and the only ones that can stop him are the experts... The Monster Squad!

The special effects and monster makeup was handled by none other than Stan Winston, himself, and they looks awesome. They keep the classic look-and-feel you remember from the Universal horror films, but add a fresh and modern look, as well.

The Monster Squad was, sadly, a failure upon its release back in '87. I think it's because it straddled the line a little too much between a kid's movie and something for teenagers. Looking back at it, it definitely seems tame, but some people are just too stuffy!

You have some seriously funny moments and unforgettable dialogue. There are several characters in it that are very memorable, which I can't say about a lot of films I've seen. It's not only funny, but scary and at times even heartwarming. This movie has it all!

It's criminally underrated (a term I don't use often) and is on my Halloween watch list every year. It should be on yours, too!

2. Nosferatu

I would be remiss if I didn't suggest something classic in this list and since most people who know me would expect me to choose my favourite classic horror film, Frankenstein, I decided to switch it up and choose something even older: Nosferatu.

Nosferatu, originally titled Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens in its native German, is an expressionist film directed by FW Murnau in 1921, seeing its release in 1922. Murnau wanted to film an adaptation of Bram Stoker's infamous novel, Dracula, but could not obtain the rights. As a result, many of the terms and phrases of Stoker's novel were changed - vampire became Nosferatu, Count Dracula became Count Orlok - and the movie was made anyway, which didn't sit well with Stoker's widow.

Ultimately the Stoker family won in court and all copies of Nosferatu were ordered to be destroyed. By a little luck a few prints of Nosferatu managed to escape destruction and are now a part of the public domain.

The story is very much the same as that of Dracula, with only a few names changed; an old and reclusive Count in Transylvania is looking to buy real estate in the German town of Wisborg. Thomas Hutter is sent to meet the Count only to come face to face with Nosferatu! The "Bird of Death"! Count Orlok makes his way to Wisborg and the hunt is on to kill the evil Nosferatu.

As I mentioned previously, the film is expressionist, which in my opinion makes it creepy all on its own. To make things even scarier, Max Shreck portrays Orlok, who has got to be one of the scariest looking vampires ever seen in cinema.

Shreck's portrayal of Orlok became legendary in the film industry after Nosferatu was released, because of his own mysterious background and his incredible portrayal in the film. This rumour persisted for years and was the subject of the film Shadow of the Vampire, in which John Malkovich portrayed Max Schreck who was hired by Murnau to play Orlok because he was a real vampire.

The stark imagery, use of light, real Eastern European landscapes, coupled with Shreck's unprecedented portrayal of the Nosferatu make this film a very scary watch. The film is not only black and white but silent and when it was displayed at a theatre a musical track would be played live by a symphony. Most of the original music by Hans Erdmann has been lost, but many composers have created their own soundtracks to the film in its subsequent video releases. I'm not sure which soundtrack I've heard while watching the film, but I believe the release is called Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (a translation of the film's original German title) and is composed by Hammer's James Bernard.

If you think an old black and white film can't be scary, I dare you to watch Nosferatu with the lights off this Halloween!

1. The Blair Witch Project

I think a lot of people overlook The Blair Witch Project as a great flick to watch at Halloween, but I watch it every year around this time. Not only is it actually set just before Halloween, but it involves a witch! I have watched this movie numerous times - as recently as last night - and I can honestly say that it still delivers the scares and the chills.

The film is infamous for being the mother of the Found Footage subgenre, but I think the thing that really makes it special is its experimental nature. The filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, really put the actors in this film through their paces.

Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, although they were given direction by Sanchez and Myrick, were legitimately sent into the woods for several days, given very little to eat or drink, and were subjected to actual scare tactics during the night scenes. The film, in a lot of ways, was a real psychological experiment and I think that is what makes it makes it so compelling to this day.

The marketing for the film was ahead of its time, as well. The Internet was a burgeoning phenomenon in the late-90s and had taken hold in many homes in North America. The ad marketing for the film played it up as if it were a true story and the website was chock-full with information and documentation lending to the idea that the film was all real.

This was even coupled with a faux documentary, which aired on TV, that acted as a teaser for the film and gave some credence to the idea that it all really happened. I know I bought into the hype! I waited eagerly to get into a theatre and finally see the film, back in 1999.

If you're looking for a good scare this Halloween season, then give The Blair Witch Project a try. If you're outdoorsy, I guarantee the woods will never look the same!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Alternate Worlds of Mega Man

When Mega Man was first released in 1987 I'm fairly certain that its creators at Capcom never expected that their game about a little blue robot shooting pellets at other robots would become the worldwide phenomenon it is today.

Mega Man is such a beloved icon that he has seen many homages and has been used in all sorts of other games and media, including spin-offs by Capcom themselves.

With Mega Man's 30th Anniversary looming and Capcom announcing a new animated series and feature film with 20th Century Fox I thought it would be fitting to take a look at a selection of some of the best and worst versions of the Blue Bomber that have surfaced over the last 28 years.

5. Worlds of Power

I recently posted an article on my site Retro-Def (shameless, I know) about Metal Gear and in researching the original NES title I rediscovered the Worlds of Power novels that were published in 1990.

They were edited by Seth Godin, written by several writers (including Godin himself), and published by Scholastic under the nom de plume "F.X. Nine". The idea was to take some of the most popular Nintendo games at the time and develop them into short novels as a gateway to get kids reading.

One of those novels was "Mega Man 2" written by Ellen Miles. It was one of two "junior" editions in the series - the other being "Bases Loaded II: The Second Season" - which meant they had a slightly smaller page count in comparison to the other novels in the series.

As was the case with all of the Worlds of Power books, the authors took great liberties with the storyline, often going off of what little they could find in the games' manuals, some of the gameplay, and notes that Godin had developed as a sort of "bible" to follow in their writing.

In many ways Mega Man 2's adaptation is no less wacky than any of the others, but it certainly stands out. In the novel Mega Man has already faced off against Wily's robots in the past. When Dr. Wily re-emerges with a new cadre of Robot Masters, Dr. Light decides it might be prudent to clone Mega Man to shore up their odds.

In his attempt, however, he pulls some sort of weird Geppetto and accidentally makes Mega Man into... a real boy! That's right, Mega Man is alive in this story, but still has to face off against Dr. Wily's evil robots.

As he is no longer a robot, Mega Man has to carry a handheld laser in this story, which may have been an attempt to answer the question as to why he was brandishing one on the box art of Mega Man 2. If it was then the great irony is that all weapons were removed from the covers of the Worlds of Power books, so instead of Mega Man blasting at Quick Man it just looks like Mega Man is shaking his fist sternly.

Mega Man is also at another disadvantage in this story, as he no longer has his copy abilities. Instead he takes the weapon of each of the Robot Masters he defeats so that he can use them down the line. Interestingly enough he can still consume "E-drinks" to regain his energy, even though he's no longer a robot.

I actually owned this book when I was a kid, although I can't seem to find my copy. I have no recollection of the storyline, whatsoever, and as a kid I may not have found it totally weird, although I suspect I would have. The one thing I do recall is that at the end of each chapter there would be a small hint that you could actually use in Mega Man 2 on the NES!

4. Captain N: The Game Master

Captain N: The Game Master was a Saturday morning cartoon series that aired on NBC from 1989 to 1991. It actually started out as a story in the pages of Nintendo Power, Nintendo's former official magazine, entitled "Captain Nintendo".

The story's writer, Randy Studdard, brought the character he'd published in Nintendo Power to some Nintendo executives as a "spokes-character" and even proposed a TV show. The greasy execs decided they liked the idea - but didn't want to play Studdard - so they went to DIC Entertainment with a very similar show idea, which became Captain N.

The show ultimately focused on a teenager by the name of Kevin Keene who is playing Nintendo with his dog Duke and is sucked into Videoland, where all of his favourite video game characters actually exist.

The show featured Nintendo-owned characters like Pit (erroneously named "Kid Icarus" in the TV series), Mother Brain, King Hippo, and Eggplant Wizard, but also - and somewhat surprisingly - there were licensed characters, like Simon Belmont, Dr. Wily, and Mega Man!

To say that the series took liberties with the source material would be the understatement of the century. Simon Belmont is portrayed as a womanizing dolt who is obsessed with his looks and is afraid of his own shadow and Mega Man is perplexingly coloured green and has what could be classified as the most grating voice in cartoon history.

You can't really blame the writers in taking some liberties with the subject matter on this one. They were trying to deliver a kid's cartoon based on characters that, at the time, didn't exactly have the deepest back-story. That said, I would say that the writers could have done a little more research. Mega Man's green hue, for instance, is often attributed to the fact that the animators played the game on a TV set with maladjusted colours and they actually thought that he was green and not his signature blue.

Although Mega Man is depicted as a loyal and powerful little fighting robot, having him prefix almost every other word with "mega-" and giving him that awful smoker's voice makes him a little hard to take whenever he's on screen. At the end of the day, though, I usually enjoyed the Megaland (Mega Man's home world in Videoland) episodes the most, because they often did a decent job of depicting what a Mega Man level might look like in a 3D space.

I give Captain N's weird little green Mega Man a bit of leeway, because I grew up with the cartoon, but in the end he is nothing like the true blue Mega Man he was based on.

3. Mega Man Animated Series

Captain N: The Game Master wouldn't be Mega Man's last foray into animated television. In 1994 Capcom, in association with several other production houses - namely Ruby-Spears Productions - decided to develop a Saturday Morning Cartoon-style Mega Man series.

The show was developed in Japan, but was animated in such a way so that it would blend in well with Western expectations of cartoons, and as such didn't go with an anime style. They also didn't depict Mega Man or Roll as children and instead went for a more grown-up, teenage look.

The show follows the events laid out in the first Mega Man game pretty closely. Dr. Light and Dr. Wily are working on advanced robots together and come up with a prototype version. After some issues, Dr. Light wants to scrap the prototype, but Dr. Wily steals the plans and goes on to create the robot in secret, which of course ends up being Proto Man. This is probably the biggest deviation from the canonized Mega Man storyline set out in the games.

Dr. Light goes on to build Rock, Roll, Ice Man, Guts Man, and Cuts Man. Dr. Wily kidnaps the robots, reprogramming the latter three. When he sets his sights on Rock and Roll, Rock lies to Dr. Wily - something he believes robots can't do - and tricks him into letting himself and Roll go free.

Dr. Light then sees that a warrior is needed to fight Dr. Wily and protect the world from his evil deeds, so he re-programs and upgrades Rock into Mega Man.

The show was a fairly big success and went on to spawn action figures from Bandai, as well as VHS releases of several episodes. This was ultimately a blessing and a curse, however, as Bandai would eventually drop the toyline because of poor sales, which prompted Capcom to pull the plug on the show after the second season, even though a Season 3 was already fully planned.

This was especially a bummer, because at the end of Season 2 there was a time warp, which brought Mega Man X, Vile, Spark Mandrill, and Sigma from the future of 21XX into 20XX. This same premise would go on to be explored in the relatively new Mega Man Archie comics, so if you are a big fan of the Mega Man Animated Series you can scratch that itch!

2. Bad Box Art Mega Man

Bad Box Art Mega Man is one of those things that I could never have imagined would exist in any sort of tangible way, but of course Capcom somehow managed to make him an actual character in their ever-growing roster.

It all started with Mega Man Universe, a scrapped game that was being developed for Xbox Live and Playstation Network, which was basically going to be an online, 2.5D side-scrolling Mega Man game where users could create their own levels, as well as customize their own characters. It was a great idea and is one of the two Mega Man projects that Capcom inexplicably cancelled in 2011 after Keiji Inafune left the company, the other being the hotly anticipated Mega Man Legends 3 for the Nintendo 3DS.

The game was not only going to include character creation and customization, but also several DLC characters, like Ryu from Street Fighter and Arthur from Ghosts n' Goblins. Another character that was teased for the game was none other than Bad Box Art Mega Man.

A complete joke character, Bad Box Art Mega Man is based on the horrific North American box art from the original NES Mega Man game. Referred to as "US Mega Man" in Japan, he is depicted as wearing yellow and blue armour and carrying his Mega Buster like a gun. The only difference between how he and a normal Mega Man character was intended to play in Mega Man Universe was that Bad Box Art Mega Man was only going to be able to shoot two shots at a time, unlike Mega Man who can shoot three.

This was all teased in an awesome claymation cartoon, which I would suggest you watch, but I can't find it anywhere on the web. Capcom might've been brushing this one underneath the carpet after the backlash of cancelling Mega Man Universe and Mega Man Legends 3. The image above stands as proof that the video existed.

Bad Box Art Mega Man wasn't down and out. During the development of these two Mega Man games a joint venture between Capcom and Namco was also brewing in the form of Street Fighter x Tekken, which featured fighters from Capcom and Namco game series. In what is widely considered to be an apology to fans expecting those Mega Man titles, Capcom added Bad Box Art Mega Man to the SFxT roster.

In this version Bad Box Art Mega Man is depicted as overweight and very boisterous. He says things like, "It's time to bring home the bacon!" He is sort of a cross between the look of Bad Box Art Mega Man and Megaman Volnutt - the hero of the Mega Man Legends series - as he is described as a digger and treasure hunter.

I for one wish that Mega Man Universe somehow gets greenlit again and that I get the opportunity to play through a game as this weird little oddity in the world of Mega Man.

1. The Protomen

What may be the most interesting and unique version of Mega Man is the mindchild of The Protomen.

The Protomen are a rock band based in Nashville known for their very gritty, indie style and most famously for their namesake: concept albums based on the world of Mega Man.

The band themselves are actually an enigma. They all use stage names based on different pop culture references, like "Murphy Weller" from Robocop and "Reanimator", a Stuart Gordon film loosely based on a Lovecraft story. The band is mostly comprised of students the Middle Tennessee State University's recording program and different musicians and artists from the area of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When they play on stage they wear costumes and make-up, which thematically reflects their music, but also acts to hide their true identities.

The band has become famous with "Nintendocore" music enthusiasts for their first two albums, known as ACT I and ACT II. These albums are centered around the world of Mega Man's first six games, but this isn't the Mega Man you know and love. They've created this dark, dystopian world that essentially uses the story you know as a launching board and then goes in their own direction.

In their first album's story Dr. Wily rose up using a robot army and took over "the city", which serves as the entire scope of their world. Dr. Light, once a partner of Wily's, stood up against Wily's regime and created what he considered to be an unbeatable robot, Proto Man. Proto Man attacked Wily and his Robot Masters, but was defeated and literally torn apart.

In his grief, Light created a new son, Mega Man, who he dissuaded from fighting against Wily and his robots. Over time, however, Mega Man hears the stories of his brother's heroism and wants to fight back against Dr. Wily, take back his city, avenge his brother, and save the masses from their horrible lives under the thumb of the machine.

ACT II, entitled "The Father of Death" serves as a prequel to the first album and tells the story of Thomas Light and Albert Wily, inventors trying to create robots to perform jobs that are dangerous for humans, like mining and manufacturing. It details Albert Wily's rise to power, his betrayal of Thomas Light, and what leads Light to creating Proto Man in an attempt defeat Wily and end his rule over the city.

I'm reticent to give any more details than I have about the world the Protomen have created in their music. I can't emphasize enough just how much I enjoy their music and how their version of Mega Man stands out for me. They consider themselves storytellers, which is very apparent in their lyrics and the tone of their albums. ACT I features a dark, gritty sound, purposefully recorded in mono, meant to help mentally describe the city after everything changed and Wily took over. ACT II is a much cleaner sound, meant to reflect that we're seeing the world before "the bomb dropped".

The music may seem jarring at first and it may not be for everyone, but I encourage anyone that considers themselves to be a music enthusiast and a big fan of Mega Man to listen. It is a very different take on the world set out by Keiji Inafune some 28 years ago, but it is unlike any Mega Man you've witnessed before and likely ever will.

Monday, August 10, 2015

More Mellow Videogame Music

Hey, if it takes just copying a fellow Five-O-Ramaer's list to help keep myself productive, I'm not above that. Ryho's idea of creating a playlist out of some of the more soothing tracks videogames (I follow the EGM example and write it as a single word) have to offer is a good one and I plan to implement it myself.

So here are some of the songs that will definitely be on it.

*note: For this list I selected the in-game versions of these songs, foregoing any remixes or different versions like orchestral, piano solo, etc. just so that those seeing them for the first time could experience them as they are in their respective games. But I encourage you to explore different versions as well.

Here's ryho's list as well.

5. "Lazy Afternoons" (Twilight Town's theme)  - Kingdom Hearts 2 (PS2) - Yoko Shimomura
Huge surprise, me picking a Kingdom Hearts song, I know. But how can a song titled "Lazy Afternoons" NOT be mellow? Backed by soft, elegant guitar  picking with the compulsory strings overlaying as the melody comes on (clarinet in the high registers), the song conveys a definite feeling of warmth and tranquility. That's what summer afternoons have always felt like to me, particularly in the later stages and particularly when I was around the age of the game's main characters.

The song also meshes well with sunsets (I must have experienced a thousand of these in Twilight Town), as it gives you a feeling of something pleasant and peaceful just about drawing to a close. When Roxas says the line "Looks like my summer vacation is over" (in the game, not the song), my heart always breaks a little bit, not just for him and his situation but also for myself, as I recall the summer vacations of my own childhood and their inevitable endings.

4. "Tifa's Theme" - Final Fantasy VII (PSX) -  Nobuo Uematsu
And now a Final Fantasy song. I guess the list isn't shaping up to be very original so far but I can't really help it. I can only assume Ryho left selections from that series off his own list because he figured those soundtracks and Nobuo Uematsu are already extremely well known and celebrated. Whatever his reasons, it was a good call because it introduced me to a couple songs I wasn't familiar with. That said, I still feel I have to put "Tifa's Theme" on here.

Now, there is a difference between songs that are mellow and songs that are more...I'm not sure how to put it, starkly beautiful? Anyway, I think the case of "Tifa's Theme" vs my personal favourite track from FFVII, "Aerith's Theme" provides a good example of that. While "Aerith's Theme" starts off very soft and peaceful, it eventually builds into a crescendo that can literally get your heart racing and give you goosebumps. "Tifa's Theme" remains slow and subdued throughout.

I know it's pretty melancholy, which is itself somewhat different from mellow, but I still feel it belongs here. "Farm Boy", also from FFVII, might have been the more obvious choice since it's pretty much all laid back peaceful days without any sadness, but I think for myself personally, I almost prefer a bit of sadness, as this list will reflect.

Much of the mood of this song is based on Tifa's past, growing up with Cloud, starting to have feelings for him that went beyond friendship, and the realization that she's going to lose him. Even though they're reunited after six years, she still carries this feeling (and this song) with her because, in many ways, the Cloud she knew and loved never really came back. Maybe by the game's finale he's actually become a stronger, better Cloud but still I think she yearns for the boy she knew in Nibelheim, when they were both innocent.

3. "Soft Tones On The Sea Breeze" - Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (PSP) -  Noriyuki Iwadare
Once again, with a title like that, how could this song be anything but mellow? Lunar's major theme is music (the other is love) so its soundtrack is even more prominent and important than in most other games. So it's no surprise that it's one of the very best game soundtracks out there. And as far as songs that are mellow go, I'd say nearly half of them would qualify as such. I re-listened to them all and picked what I feel is the best of the bunch. Like many others in the game, the song is carried by a combination of strings and ocarina. I actually do prefer the piano solo version though.

Silver Star Harmony is, of course, the second remake of Lunar the Silver Star (Sega CD), the first being Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (PSX). Additional music was added with each remake but I do recall this track was in Silver Star Story Complete as well and while I've never played the original game (although I'd buy a Sega CD just so I could), I can't imagine it not being on the original soundtrack (although it isn't listed on the soundtrack that was sold separately). In any case I've selected the newest version of the song for this list.

Listening to this song is a bit like wandering along a deserted beach in a dream. If that's not mellow, I don't know what is.

2." Xion's Theme" - Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (Nintendo DS) -  Yoko Shimomura
Ok, let's face it: for me, "mellow' is rarely just laid back and peaceful, it also has to be heartbreaking as all hell. It's just how I'm wired, I guess.

"Heartbreaking as all hell" is definitely what's required if you're going to compose a theme for Xion, as she is easily one of the most tragic characters in all of videogames. Like a lot of people, I was first introduced to Roxas, the main character of 358/2 Days, in Kingdom Hearts 2. You play his little bit and it's definitely sad. But then to play 358/2 Days is that much more heartwrenching. For those who haven't played it, I won't spoil anything specific but I do think it's fair to warn you that if you have any kind of a soul, by the time its end credits are running, you're going to be feeling a sadness and emptiness that will cling to you for days. But it's worth it.

The song is structured around a slow and sombre piano part with drifting strings eventually overlaying. An echo-y, xylophone punctuates the melody later on and things eventually get downright Chrono Trigger-esque in the middle. The juxtaposition of high notes over low without ever really much in the middle registers adds to the dreamlike quality - doubly important in this game as its major themes are highly existential and identity-based.

As sad as this song and game make me, it's important for me to relive it. That way, Xion and Roxas will always live on in my own heart.

1. "Smiles and Tears" - Earthbound (SNES) -  Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka
One of the greatest videogame soundtracks of all time - featuring tons and tons of awesome songs - requires a pretty amazing tune for its ending and "Smiles And Tears" certainly doesn't disappoint. Like most good videogame music, it's really best experienced within the game but I'll let you cheat and hear it here. Just know that within the context of finishing the crazy, emotional, funny, surprising, post modern experience that is Earthbound is really the way to go. Of course it's too good of a song to limit yourself to just this rare occurrence, I know. But believe me when I say you owe it to yourself to play through this game in its entirety if you never have before. And if you have, you need to do it again. Even twenty years after its release, it remains a truly unique game, memorable for its visual style, unconventional storytelling, philosophical themes and, of course, brilliant music.

As I said, as a final track, "Smiles and Tears" doesn't disappoint. It carries within it many elements of the songs you've heard throughout the game so, while something wholly different than what came before, still feels very familiar. Hearing it for the first time is like hearing this melody that's been with you the whole time but just under the surface. It's new to you and yet it's like you already know its every note.

One of the more pronounced and obvious themes (of which there are many, some less obvious) of Earthbound is childhood and it's expressed musically (and in other forms as well) beautifully throughout the game at various points. But the ending is where it all comes together. The first time I beat it (seems so weird to me to still use such terminology; the best games out there you don't "beat", you just complete the experience; it's not about winning - too bad Roger Ebert never wrapped his fat head around that) and this song began to play, I felt all the emotions the game had spurred in me during my journey: joy, mirth, longing, sadness, regret, vulnerability and more, all come washing over me. By the time we hear Shigesato Itoi's voice (a very surprising phenomenon on the SNES) utter the words "I miss you", it almost became too much for me. But that was just right. As I've said, it's the way I'm wired.

RIP Satoru Iwata

Friday, July 31, 2015

Most Difficult Video Game Challenges

There was a time when I considered myself pretty good at video games. There weren't many games that stumped me and I usually enjoyed a pretty quick learning curve. There were other times, however, when I wanted to tear my hair out. Here are some of the most blood-boiling moments in my gaming history!

5. Parasite Eve (PSX) - Final Battle

Playing Parasite Eve for the first time was like a revelation for me. It was Resident Evil meets Action RPG and I adored it. I can remember playing the game for hours perusing its many locations in a fictionalized version of Chicago, blown away by both the gameplay and the graphics, but most importantly the deep story.

I had spent many hours going through the "dungeons" in Parasite Eve and assumed that I had leveled myself to what the kids today would call "OP". Then I finally reached the final boss of the game and was summarily put in my place.

As much as I loved Parasite Eve, I did not finish that game because of my adoration. No. I finished that game out of sheer willpower. I must have faced off against the final boss several dozen times. Some times I'd get pretty far into the action, sometimes I'd die right off the hop. I can't say exactly why, because I'm certain I had leveled Aya very well and had great weaponry, but the many "stages" of the final boss would completely leech me of all my advantages and leave me scrounging for every little bit of Parasite Energy I had left in the end.

Then finally after playing it so many times everything came together; my tenacity met sheer luck, the stars aligned, and I finally managed, by the skin of my teeth, to kill the boss and finish the game.

I still have nothing but respect and love for Parasite Eve, but recently I picked it up as PSOne Classic on the Playstation Network and played through it on my PSP. Everything was going great and then I reached that final boss again. I'm sure I'm going through some sort of video game-PTSD, but I haven't had the willpower to boot that game up since. Someday I'll have to face my fear and take on that boss again...


4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) - Hudson River

I was born in the 80s, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I, like most kids from that era, was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So when my parents bought me the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas in 1990 the first game I ever owned, besides the packed in copies of  Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, was TMNT.

And I couldn't get past the second freakin' level.

Fun fact: this stage is infamously known as the Dam or Water Dam, but the manual for TMNT actually states that the second level is the Hudson River near the Holland Tunnel. In fact all of the stages, save for The Technodrome, are described as actual locations from New York. You have Fifth Ave./Greenwich Village (Level 1), Wall Street (Level 3), JFK International Airport (Level 4), and the South Bronx (Level 5).

If you aren't familiar with the Water Dam level in TMNT, it starts out as a side-scrolling stage not unlike the first level. You face off against waves of bad guys, while traversing the many platforms and ladders working your way to the top of the dam. Once you reach the top, and dispatch a couple of Foot Clan ninjas, you can see what looks like an opening in the roof's guard rail.

It's time to leap into the river of death!

First of all, swimming stages in the NES-era weren't picnics. The swimming physics were often clunky and difficult, and TMNT is no exception. Secondly, the Shredder appears to have not only planted bombs all over the river, but booby traps, as well. There are electric barriers and spinning blades strewn about the riverbed that will test your swimming abilities. But worst of all is the dreaded electrified seaweed. Combine all that with a strong tidal flow and you have the ultimate death course.

Honestly, it wouldn't be that difficult if it weren't for one small section of the map. If you've played the game then you know the one I'm talking about. It is a tunnel of electrified kelp. When you enter it you have no choice but to press forward, but each second you're in the tunnel you are losing tons of energy.

Of course many years ago I found a way around all this, which was simple. I sacrifice one of my precious Turtle brothers to continue on. You see any bombs that you've dismantled will remain that way even if one of the Turtles dies, so I would switch to Michaelangelo (his nunchuku are useless in the game), swim through the tunnel of seaweed, and with whatever little energy I had left attempt to get the bombs on the other side. Then I'd commit underwater seppuku and get the leftover "easy bombs" with a healthy Turtle.

It's actually only been this year that I've managed to get through the Dam stage with one Turtle. I have been trying TRUEandHONEST's Red Swayze Challenge (they have this weird obsession with Patrick Swayze, which I endorse) now and then, which requires a player to try and beat TMNT for the NES while only using Raphael. I've actually managed it once, but with little-to-no energy in the next stage, which resulted in death.

There's hope for me yet!

3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64) - Water Temple

The Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has become infamous in gaming culture as one of the most difficult stages/levels/dungeons in any video game. The thing about the Water Temple, however, is that it isn't so much difficult as it is confusing and long.

The temple requires you to constantly hit switches that change water levels in the dungeon. It seems simple enough, but there's no real defined way of knowing exactly what areas you've changed by hitting a switch. It takes a lot trial and error just to get an idea of the lay of the land.

Then there's traversing all of that water. In order to walk around in the underwater sections you have to equip Iron Boots. Sounds easy enough, but going into the menu to change the boots isn't just a quick click of a button. You have to enter the start menu, switch the equipment section, go down to boots, and make the switch. Again, not that big of a deal, but you're going to have to do it like a million times as you go through the dungeon. Also, when you're underwater an added challenge is that the only weapon you can use is the Hookshot, which you'll have to use to fight enemies, hit switches, etc. This is also a bit time consuming coupled with the sluggish movement you face when submersed.

Finally, this temple effectively has two boss fights: one against Dark Link and another against the final boss of the dungeon, Morpha.

If you take all of this into account, coupled with the sheer size of the dungeon, and its repetitive nature and you have one doozy of a video game challenge on your hands. I think even if you knew the whole map inside and out and were really fast on the draw with changing your boots and shooting the Hookshot, you'd still need an hour alone to finish the temple. I can recall sitting down to it and playing it for well over two hours of constantly shooting switches, changing boots, and tearing my hair out trying to get to the end of it.

The biggest kick to the sack - if you will - is that you go through all of this expecting some great reward at the end, but instead all you get for your trouble is the Longshot: an extended Hookshot. It helps you get into at least one area that I can think of, but it doesn't make you feel any better about it when you finally put the Water Temple to rest.

These days if you wanted to play Ocarina of Time, your best bet might be to get the 3DS version of the game. They've added some improvements to the UI design so you can quickly change in and out of the boots and also have colour-coded some of the areas in the Water Temple to take out some of the challenge!

2. Goldeneye 007 (N64) - Invincibility

I don't use strategy guides for video games. I never have and I never will. I have looked at and read a few, either after the fact or for a game I had never played before. I used to receive them from Nintendo Power when I held a subscription back around the mid-90s. I got one for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and one for Goldeneye 007.

Now, one thing I did check out in the Goldeneye guide was a list of cheat codes. These weren't codes you punched into your controller, though. These cheat "codes" actually required the player to perform different challanges in the game. Then they would appear in a list on the menu screen and you could apply them to your game, whether it be single- or multi-player. I guess they were more like "unlockables".

One of these unlockables was for Invincibility, and I will never forget it.

I had achieved all of the other codes on the list, doing a variety of challenges. Some were simple, some were somewhat difficult, but none came anywhere near Invicibility.

To get the Invincibility cheat you had to complete the Facility stage on 00 Agent (the highest difficulty) in two minutes and five seconds. There were other cheats on the list that required a similar feat, like Invisibility, which required you to finished the Archives stage on 00 Agent in a minute and twenty seconds. That sounds like it would be more difficult, but once you figured out what to do and where to go, you could complete the Archives pretty easily.

The problem with beating the Facility in such a short time span was that in this stage you had to interact with an NPC in order to complete the level. It wouldn't be that big of a deal, except this particular NPC (Dr. Doak, who I affectionately called "Dr. Dick") was a random spawn and could be found in several different locations in the stage.

That with the fact that the stage itself is pretty long and requires multiple objectives on 00 Agent and you have a recipe for disaster. Even after you find ways to shave off time, like performing mission tasks without waiting for NPC interactions, and barrelling through rooms without fighting any enemies (which results in having an army of baddies chasing you through the level) the stars all still have to align and the good Dr. Doak has to appear in just the right spot at just the right time to pull it all off.

I must have run this stage over 100 times, easily. I can remember my fury growing with each run through, but my completionist nature and love for a challenge fueled me to continue. I can also recall when I finally managed to pull it off; when all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I managed to unlock Invincibility. After having to play the stage over and over again so many times there was some relief, but I can remember the win being bittersweet, because I was so sick of Goldeneye that I didn't even care that I'd managed to unlock it!

That feeling passed, however, as I ultimately played more Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64 than probably any other game in my personal gaming history, but that cheat code was a nightmare to unlock!

1. Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX) - Wiegraf/Velius Battle

Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that often requires two things: patience and a lot of critical thinking. You have to plan your battle several steps ahead to ensure you come out on top and even then sometimes a third factor - luck - is a requirement for success, as well.

For the most part you get into a rhythm, however. You can keep your team well-balanced and leveled, purchase good equipment, and make sure everyone knows lots of abilities for their specific job. Follow those rules as you play the game and you'll find most of it moves pretty well.

There is, however, one moment in the game that you cannot prepare for. You will have no idea it's coming, in fact. Then it just lands on your lap and you have to find a way to survive. That battle is the Wiegraf/Velius battle in Chapter 3.

What makes this one so heinous? It's a two-part battle which begins with a one-on-one fight between the game's main protagonist, Ramza, and Wiegraf, a Holy Knight. He comes equipped with abilities that Ramza can't even learn and that can easily wipe you out in a matter of a few turns.

So now you're up against a much more powerful enemy with one lonely character and you have to find a way to survive. This part alone took me many different tries and tactics before I could master it, and even then I barely made it out of the fight.

I should note that there was another factor that made this particular fight that much more difficult for me. If you have been playing RPGs since the late-80s/90s you know the golden rule about save files: always have at least two. You will undoubtedly come across a moment in which you wish you could've gone back to a recent point, or you've gotten stuck in a situation that you weren't prepared for and need to revert to an older save. I - for whatever reason - did not have multiple save files prepared when I first encountered this battle and, as a result, had to find a way to proceed or lose my entire game. It was legitimately "do or die".

All these years later, with the help of the Internet and watching several Twitch players that rock a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics, I know of several tactics that can help you through this fight pretty easily, but at the time I had none of that. I just had trial and error. After what felt like hundreds of attempts I eventually came up on a tactic to get me through the Wiegraf portion of the fight, which is the real hump.

I saw that I had accumulated enough JP in the Chemist job class that Ramza could learn Auto-Potion, a buff that will cause the character to use a potion each time they are hit. I had a lot of Potions and Hi-Potions in my stock, but those weren't doing it for me. I needed X-Potions. What I had to do was throw away all of my Potions and Hi-Potions so that Ramza would automatically use X-Potions on each hit. I only had a few, so it still took several attempts, but I eventually managed to survive the Wiegraf portion of the fight.

After that I can't really remember specifics. The fight against Velius is definitely tough, but with my full team at my side, I think it only took me a few tries to take him out. It was all that dirty, no good, one-on-one battle that made this fight my most difficult video game challenge to this day.