Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Arcade1Up brings classic Atari Star Wars trilogy home

It's summer 1983, my parents have stopped at Gordano services off the M5. Holding a battered copy of Peter Davison's Book of Alien Monsters, I wander into a smokey, dimly lit, arcade after hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi's voice! A childhood dream of flying an X-Wing into the Death Star trench is within my grasp...

The classic Atari title, with its dazzling vector graphics and use of original music, sound effects and dialogue from Star Wars, was quickly followed by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The latter I discovered in Dawlish Warren during the summer of 1986.

Arcade1Up, with an established pedigree for officially licensed replica arcade cabinets including Gauntlet (affiliate link), has announced the original Star Wars trilogy from Atari.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

I Am Mother is a maternal Chappie

I Am Mother is the best Netflix original genre film since director Alex Garland's Annihilation. Like Garland's previous film, Ex Machina, I Am Mother shares the same sense of encroaching claustrophobia and mines a rich seam of sci-fi tropes (at times inverting them) with post-apocalyptic aplomb!

Set in the aftermath of an extinction event, I Am Mother could have been a pedestrian retread of overly-familiar themes. Instead, it is elevated by stunning cinematography, taut direction from first-time film director Grant Sputore with a background in commercials like Ridley Scott and David Fincher, Weta's wizardry - Mother is a memorable robot performed by Luke Hawker - and an inspired casting trifecta. Hilary Swank (Woman) channelling Linda Hamilton, Rose Byrne as the sensitive voice of Mother, and Clara Rugaard (Daughter) who is the revelatory driving force and evokes a young Natalie Portman.

I Am Mother weaves a philosophical tale of artificial intelligence raising human life, a prevalent sociological theme as digital assistants become increasingly integrated into our daily lives. What are Mother's motivations and is Daughter in danger from her gleaming guardian or the mysterious woman? There are nods to Alien, Blade Runner and Terminator as Sputore and screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green explore allegorical subtext with greater subtlety than Neill Blomkamp (Chappie).

Where I Am Mother stumbles is in the third act as the story moves from a confined space into an open world decades after a cataclysmic war. Yet, despite that unexpected narrative stutter, the ending is ambiguous and thought-provoking. It is easy to see Sputore going on to direct for Marvel Studios and a galaxy far, far away...

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Is Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge worth the read and ride?

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opened, with much fanfare, at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, last May. Our resident US correspondent, Nick Smith, discovers whether or not Marvel's Galaxy's Edge tie-in comic book series is also worth the ride?

Guest post by Nick Smith

It’s sitting there like a gleaming heap of wonderful space junk in a theme park not so far away. The Millennium Falcon is parked in Orlando, Florida, 5 hours from where I live, plopped in an outpost called Black Spire. Unfortunately, I can’t climb aboard the ship and go for a beer run, let alone a Kessel one. The 14-acre corner of Disney World doesn’t open until August 29th, 2019.

However, the Anaheim, California, Galaxy's Edge launched in May with a five-minute original soundtrack by John Williams, a visit from Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo), and a touching tribute to the late Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca).

The impression given by the press photos and behind-the-scenes footage is one of breathtaking scale. The Falcon towers over the actors and visitors. There’s a droid depot, a cantina and two major rides, Smuggler’s Run and (at a later date) Rise of the Resistance.

When I last visited Orlando’s Hollywood Studios a few years ago, Galaxy’s Edge was under construction – pardon our space dust – and I was concerned! Some speeder craft sat outside a shed; there were props and games in a dark studio space called Launch Bay; Kylo Ren fooled with a cheap toy lightsaber and First Order troops marched back and forth like they couldn’t find the exit. Was this going to be a half-assed blend of our world and the Outer Rim? When Galaxy's Edge opened, would I be making a five-hour drive to disappointment?

I needn’t have worried. In all their glory the Star Wars trappings are by all accounts seamless, providing escapism from our landlocked lives – a big attraction of the original movies, of course. Got bills to pay? Make the jump to hyperspace for a couple of hours. Relationship troubles? Go hug a wookiee!

To whet our appetites for this new land, with events set between Episode VIII and IX, there’s a five-issue comic book series from Marvel that gives some hints of what we can expect in Black Spire. The comics, by writer Ethan Sacks and artist Will Sliney, follow the shady adventures of Remex, Kendoh and Wooro, three outlaws trying to keep a low profile in the First Order-occupied outpost. Not so low, though, that they’re not prepared to pull a heist. Their target: the hammer-headed Ithorian Dok-Ondar who runs the Den of Antiquities, a collection of rare objects and beasties such as baby sarlaccs.

Han Solo and Chewbacca snag the babies in a first issue flashback. While it’s always nice to see the pair of smugglers doing what they do most (smuggling and getting out of tough scrapes), sarlaccs are best left underground and don’t come across as very threatening in their infancy. They’re actually kind of cute if you’re into teeth and tentacles.

The end of the first issue of Galaxy’s Edge hides the identity of a rare and precious object… until you turn the page and a house ad reveals that it’s a lightsaber! Might want to rethink those commercials, Marvel, and the plot too – since there’s a lightsaber shop just down the street from the Den. Not so rare after all, although this saber is a relic that once belonged to Jedi Master Ki-Adi-Mundi from the prequels.

The second issue, “Shoot First, Questions Later,” is better written – the narrative is faster, more intense as Star Wars creator George Lucas would say – framing two flashbacks this time. The main one focuses on Rodian bounty hunter Greedo who comes across as a bit of a loser, sent by Jabba the Hutt on a past mission to kidnap a codebreaker. Poor Greedo’s plans never go quite right although at the end of this tale Jabba gives him another chance… “a simple bounty.”

The flashbacks are fun but the deficit of this format is that the main story doesn’t progress very far and we don’t get to know the outlaws very well. The glimpses we get of the planet of Batuu betray its real-world influences – Tunisia, Jordan, Istanbul, wrapped in a morass of Arabian marketplaces and sand-seared hardware. The LA Times describes it as, “the mouse-ears version of the Persian Gulf” and it comes complete with an invasive superpower.

Beyond setting the microcosmic mise-en-scene, the comics don’t give a lot away about the new park. The Den of Antiquities is a major setting in the story so far and it’s an attraction in Anaheim and Orlando. In the marketplace backgrounds, attractively and authentically drawn by Sliney, there’s an emphasis on variety. How cool will it be to have Rebels, Stormtroopers and aliens like Dok-Ondar wandering around in real life? Very.

With its connections to the movies we love, particularly the characters and post-The Last Jedi setting, Batuu looks like an exciting melting pot of a place to visit. As a hint at adventures to come and a souvenir of the park, Galaxy’s Edge is worth the read (and the ride).

Friday, 14 June 2019

Star Wars Celebration returns to Anaheim in 2020

Star Wars Celebration returns to Anaheim, California, in 2020 and dates for the 4-day event have been announced. The official fan convention runs from 27th - 30th August. Fans will be able to visit Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland, too.

Star Wars Celebration Europe remains the best convention I've ever attended and here's hoping it's not another ten years before it returns to the UK. The event is produced by Lucasfilm in collaboration with ReedPOP.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Synopsis for Stranger Things season 3

Stranger Things returns to Netflix in less than a month. So, here's a new season synopsis to whet your appetite.

"It’s 1985 in Hawkins, Indiana, and summer’s heating up. School’s out, there’s a brand new mall in town, and the Hawkins crew are on the cusp of adulthood. Romance blossoms and complicates the group’s dynamic, and they’ll have to figure out how to grow up without growing apart. Meanwhile, danger looms. When the town’s threatened by enemies old and new, Eleven and her friends are reminded that evil never ends; it evolves. Now they’ll have to band together to survive, and remember that friendship is always stronger than fear."

Are you looking forward to the third season of Stranger Things? Following the further adventures of Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) as evil gathers in The Starcourt Mall? Let me know in the comments below.

Netflix is expected to announce exclusive content for Fortnite, the free-to-play battle royale video game, at E3.

Stranger Things season 3 is available from 4th July only on Netflix.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Konami brings PC Engine mini to E3

Konami is joining Nintendo, Sony and Sega by announcing its own range of official mini consoles at E3.

The PC Engine Core Grafx mini, the PC Engine mini and the TurboGrafx-16 mini will be released in three different regions to mark the 30th anniversary of the TurboGrafx-16's launch in the US coinciding with the Sega Genesis.

Confirmed games so far include:

New Adventure Island
Ninja Spirit
Ys Book I & II
Dungeon Explorer
Alien Crush

Simultaneous five-player gaming with multitap (sold separately) for compatible titles. The Japanese version will include Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, a regional exclusive which was only available on CD-ROM. Let's hope Konami makes it available for all regions.

The PC Engine was an expensive import back in 1988 and I would leaf through the pages of The Games Machine and drool at the prospect of playing a near-perfect port of arcade classic R-Type. I was given the choice of a PC Engine or Sony Discman as a reward for successfully getting into college that summer. I decided on the latter which included 5 free music CDs.

Are you excited about the PC Engine mini? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, 10 June 2019

LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga announced at E3

Back in 2016, I reviewed LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens and was struck by how strong the Force remained with the formula. At this year's E3, LEGO and Lucasfilm have announced LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga.

"LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga marks our return to the franchise that kicked off the LEGO video game series. The game will give fans an all-new LEGO Star Wars experience with complete freedom to explore the LEGO Star Wars galaxy. It was an absolute pleasure to be part of the launch of the original LEGO Star Wars game and it’s equally exciting to now move the series forward and help create a new era of LEGO Star Wars games."

LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga (affiliate link) will release on PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC and Xbox One in 2020.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order gameplay demo at E3

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a highly-anticipated video game from Respawn Entertainment. During this weekend's EA Play at E3, a gameplay demo in partnership with Xbox was released. The upcoming title deftly mashes Star Wars tropes with Tomb Raider and Uncharted.

Game director Stig Asmussen is famous for God of War 3. Set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a character-driven story with an unbalanced protagonist, Cal Kestis (Cameron Monaghan), who veers between Jedi and Sith in a fashion worthy of Anakin Skywalker. During the 14-minute demo, it's revealed Forest Whitaker is reprising the role of Saw Gerrera from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars Rebels.

Kestis' companion is the cutest droid since BB-8 rolled across the sand dunes of Jakku in The Force Awakens. BD-1 will aid you in your quest to unlock blast doors and much more. Kasumi Shishido worked with Lucasfilm's Doug Chiang, drawing inspiration from Pixar's Luxo Jr. and existing Star Wars staples. BD-1 looks far better than that hairdryer thing from The Rise of Skywalker. Where's my BD-1 desktop buddy, Disney?

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (affiliate link) looks like a welcome antidote to Star Wars Battlefront II and should satiate fans on Xbox One and PS4 this November. This'll keep me occupied on Xbox One X before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Google announces Stadia pre-orders ahead of E3

E3, the electronic entertainment expo, officially begins this weekend. However, companies are increasingly making major announcements ahead of the annual event and this year is no exception.

In a week where Apple announced official support for Xbox and PlayStation controllers, on compatible devices from the fall, during the Cupertino-based company's World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC). Google has released new details for Stadia, the Alphabet subsidiary's streaming gaming service, and begun taking pre-orders for a November launch in the US, Canada, Europe and the UK.

Early adopters have an opportunity to own a Stadia Founder's Edition Bundle in time for the all-important holiday season. The relatively low entry price of £119.00GBP includes a controller, a Chromecast Ultra, three months of Stadia Pro (plus a buddy pass) and Destiny 2. My pre-order is in. Thus, adding a fifth gaming platform once Apple Arcade launches. Thankfully, with far less clutter than in the seventies, eighties, nineties and noughties. A free subscription tier, Stadia Base, will be available in 2020.

To use Stadia, you'll need at least a 10Mbps internet connection, which will let you play games at 720p with stereo sound. To play games at 4K HDR 60fps with 5.1 surround sound, a 35Mbps internet connection will be required. This has caused controversy for folks with data caps. It's worth noting this isn't Netflix for games (like PS Now or Xbox Game Pass) and you can't download for local play.

Stadia is not the first cloud-based video game streaming service. OnLive launched in 2010 to much fanfare and closed in 2015. Google's platform has support from third-party developers such as EA, Ubisoft and Sega but there's no news (yet) on exclusives from those publishers. Launch games include Doom Eternal, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Baldur’s Gate 3.

Google is a disruptive force, with a history of shuttering services, and video game incumbents Microsoft and Sony are making pre-emptive moves to counter the threat to their duopoly. The competing companies have already announced a strategic partnership for xCloud services based on Microsoft Azure, greater third-party crossplay compatibility - good news for all gamers - Remote Play and a controller tie-in with Apple ahead of Apple Arcade. Who knows what Microsoft will announce during its E3 press briefing to counter Google this Sunday.

What a time to be a gamer, eh? Getting Google Stadia or couldn't care less? Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Netflix teases Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous

Netflix has released a teaser trailer for the upcoming Jurassic Park animated spin-off series Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous. The latest collaboration with DreamWorks follows a group of six students in a new adventure camp and is set during Jurassic World.

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, executive produced by Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World), is coming to Netflix in 2020.

Looking forward to more monster mayhem on Isla Nublar? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Russo brothers bring Magic: The Gathering to Netflix

Fresh from Avengers: Endgame, the Russo brothers are bringing Magic: The Gathering to Netflix with Wizards of the Coast and Allspark Animation owned by Hasbro.

“We have been huge fans and players of Magic: The Gathering for as long as it has been around, so being able to help bring these stories to life through animation is a true passion project for us,” the Russos said.

Netflix has built a reputation for high quality animated series, including Trollhunters and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, that have captured the imaginations of generations.

“Magic is a beloved global franchise with a massively engaged fan base that has only continued to grow over the last 25 years,” said John Derderian, head of anime programming for Netflix. “There’s no one better suited to bring this story to audiences around the world than Joe and Anthony Russo, whose talent for genre storytelling is unmatched, as is demonstrated by their central role in creating some of the biggest box office hits of all time.”

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Phantom Pains: Star Wars Episode I Remembered

Twenty years ago Britney Spears dominated pop culture with her hit single "...Baby One More Time" and a beloved space saga took fans back to a time before Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo challenged a tyrannical Empire.

Guest post by Nick Smith

In 1992 I watched Star Wars Episodes 4 through 6 and then I cried! I loved the movies, the characters and the warm fuzzy feelings they gave me. I cried because I knew there would never be another Star Wars movie.

It sounds silly now in a widely-branded galaxy of sequels, TV shows and video games but back then George Lucas had made it clear that he would not make his long-promised new chapters of the saga. Marvel had long since dropped its comic book run and the sci-fi bubble had burst at the box office. I had to settle for drying my tear-stained face with my copy of Heir to the Empire – an original novel so successful (reaching number one on the New York Times bestseller list) and passionately written that I get the feeling it nudged a little announcement in 1993, although author Timothy Zahn would be far too modest to admit it.

That proclamation had fans frothing with excitement: Lucas was planning a new Star Wars movie. This started a locomotive of speculation, special editions, video games and new toys. Six long years of build-up and light speed hype led to a new hope of a movie that took our minds off fears of Y2K and middle east conflict. This was also the first Star Wars segment to premiere since the advent of the internet – no wonder conjecture was rife.

We knew Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), John Williams, Frank Oz (Yoda) and many other old hands were returning to the series as if it had never been away. More importantly for a filmmaker like myself, Lucas was shooting some of Episode I on high definition digital video tape – a step away from exclusive celluloid and legitimization for folks like me who made their features with a video camera. The future was as bright and optimistic as a farm boy dreaming of the stars.

Lucas knew how to tease. The teasiest tease of all was a poster of a small boy casting a shadow on a stone wall. Look closely and you could see that the shadow belonged to Darth Vader. Gasp! We were going to meet Luke Skywalker’s father… before he broke bad. So far, so stoked. The only warning sign was the goofier elements that Lucas added to his Episode IV special edition – a Jawa swinging from his Ronto, for example. Surely the story of The Rise of Anakin couldn’t be that goofy?

The Phantom Menace premiered in Los Angeles on May 16th 1999. I got to see it soon after with my partner Ros. 16 years after Return of the Jedi I was finally getting a fix of this filmic space drug and I. Was. Excited. There was plenty to be thrilled about as I watched the movie on the big screen with my parents and my practical Scottish partner, Ros. There was Darth Maul (Ray Park), the Gungan land battle, the duel of the fates and the mighty Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) adding Alec Guinness-level gravitas to the proceedings. Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), fresh from Trainspotting, was a cool Hollywood hero.

Although some of the CGI was… jar-jarring, most of it was jaw-dropping in its scope and seamlessness. I was transported back to a time when Lucas’ ambitious cinema could bring a tear to my eye. "Och," said Ros, Scottishly, "that wasn’t so good." I was crushed.

A lot of people agreed with Ros, though. For every positive comment about Ray Park or the podrace, there was a negative one about Ahmed Best’s (Jar Jar) misguided performance, Jake Lloyd’s (Anakin Skywalker) pip-squeakiness or the exciting plot about the Trade Federation and taxes. Lucas had had so many years to make a great prequel; he had decided to focus on filmmaking technology rather than the old-fashioned storytelling that had made the original trilogy so popular.

Now there are fan-edited “better” versions of Episode I and the movie seems worlds apart from Disney’s slicker sequels. Yet something special has happened to Anakin’s early adventures. A new generation of fans has grown up on Lucas’ experimental epic. "Anakin, drop!" is a catchphrase in our house and my 19-year-old son Sam communicates with me mostly with prequel memes. With fan-fueled theories such as Dark Jar Jar plotting the downfall of the Senate and more official tales of Darth Maul running around on robotic spider legs, the internet that was so new in 1999 has helped to give Phantom a life that its creator couldn’t have imagined.

No one cries for The Phantom Menace. But its conclusion, so full of peace and hope, brings back those warm fuzzies I longed for back in the dark days… before the Clone Wars.

What are your memories of The Phantom Menace? Let me know in the comments below.