Tag: Reviews

IDW's Transformers, Phase One

I'm a longtime Transformers fan. And over the past year or so, IDW's Transformers comics -- most specifically, the More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light series -- have surpassed Beast Wars as my all-time favorite Transformers series.

But it wasn't always thus. The first few years of Transformers at IDW -- now referred to retroactively as "Phase One" -- mostly just aren't that good.

The main series, spread across miniseries called Infiltration, Escalation, and Devastation (written by Simon Furman and drawn by EJ Su), was too slow-paced and human-centric. Another miniseries, Stormbringer (by Furman and Don Figueroa), was an attempt to course-correct and focus the action on giant robots and the planet Cybertron, but made the baffling choice of turning Cybertron into an uninhabitable wasteland; the book was pretty to look at but ultimately forgettable. All Hail Megatron (by Shane McCarthy, Guido Guidi, and various other artists) started out strong, and had some great moments with Megatron and Starscream, but ultimately suffered Third Act Problems and fizzled out near the end.

So don't start with any of those.

No, if there's a Phase One book you should start with, it's Megatron Origin, by Eric Holmes and Alex Milne. Megatron Origin is probably the single most important book in IDW's entire Transformers line, which is perhaps ironic since it was actually conceived as part of the previous Transformers line at Dreamwave.

That may be why the effects of Megatron Origin aren't really apparent through most of Phase One; it plants seeds that pay off later (mixaphorically speaking). But it introduces an element that's key to what I love so much about the IDW comics, and why I think Megatron is the most interesting character in them: it gives him an arc. Megatron starts out as the good guy.

That thread picks up later, in issues #22 and #23 of the 2010-2011 Transformers series (which are also collected in the Chaos Theory trade, along with some other stuff). Milne revisits Megatron's origin story with writer James Roberts, going back even farther than the Megatron Origin miniseries to tell of his first meeting with Orion Pax (later Optimus Prime). Roberts and Milne come back to this story again and again in More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light; it's a crucial moment in Megatron's development, signaling his turn from philosopher to violent revolutionary.

Those are the most important books in Phase One.

I also quite like the first ten issues (collected in the first two volumes) of Transformers: Spotlight, a series of done-in-one stories, each focused on an individual character, written by Simon Furman and drawn by various artists. They're not as crucial to Phase Two continuity as the Megatron stories I've mentioned, but they're well worth reading.

Lastly (for Phase One), there's Last Stand of the Wreckers by Roberts and Nick Roche, which is mainly important for two things: it introduces Overlord, who becomes important later, and it begins to establish Prowl as a scheming, calculating bastard, which becomes his primary depiction from here on in. It's not essential, but it does make for a nice "oh shit" moment if you know who Overlord is when he shows up later.

And oh, hey, all these comics are on sale on Comixology through November 30. (And if you miss this sale, keep an eye out for another one later; IDW has pretty frequent Transformers sales. They show up in Humble Bundles once in awhile, too.)

I'll be back tomorrow to talk about Phase Two.

Podcasts

Expanded from a couple of posts at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-08.


I like listening to NPR on the drive to work.

I do not like listening to NPR on the drive home. I have had just about enough of Kai Ryssdahl acting surprised about the Internet.

So I decided to look into some podcasts. I'm not really looking for scripted stuff at the moment (I've got a buttload of Big Finish Doctor Who I haven't listened to yet as it is); I want something where if I lose the thread for a minute to concentrate on the road, I'm not going to miss out on important story details.

So here's what I've been looking at so far:

Brontoforumus regular Niku recommended Talkin Toons with Rob Paulsen; I listened to the Rick and Morty episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. The website hasn't been updated in a couple of years; it has episodes up through Christmas 2015. It went on hiatus after that (Paulsen had throat cancer; he's better now) and came back in January. Tech Jives has episodes up through May. More recently, the show has moved to Nerdist, which has a bunch of short videos but no episodes; there are some articles referring me to a subscription service called Alpha but it's not mentioned on the website and I really have no idea if the show's even available in audio format anymore? It's really not clear and I hope they fix that.

Retronauts is a podcast started by Jeremy Parish and currently hosted by Bob Mackey, about retro games.

Axe of the Blood God is USgamer's RPG podcast. I've only listened to it a couple of times, when my old friend Steve Tramer was a guest; he hasn't been on it recently, but it's still a good group.

Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast is pretty great. So far I've listened to some great interviews there, with Frank Conniff, Rob Paulsen, and Carl Reiner.

And speaking of Frank Conniff, he and Trace Beaulieu have a podcast called Movie Sign with The Mads where, as the name implies, they talk about movies.

I don't listen to a lot of political podcasts at the moment, but I like Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air. Larry's a good interviewer; I'll never understand why he went with a panel format on The Nightly Show, which was easily its weakest component. (It's not an original sentiment, but I do wish he'd gotten to take over The Daily Show and Noah had gotten a chance to do his own thing in Colbert's timeslot.)

I hear good things about Flop House (failed movies), Kevin Smith's Fatman on Batman (comics, movies, the sort of stuff characters in Kevin Smith movies talk about), and WTF. I've mentioned Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files before, back in 2015. I've listened to one episode of Talking Simpsons with Bob Mackey (another Niku recommendation) and it was pretty good; I expect I'll check out more.

As for actually-scripted podcasts (not what I'm currently looking for, but there are some good ones!), I enjoyed the one episode of Dead Pilots Society I listened to. It's a podcast where they do read-throughs of TV pilot scripts that never made it into production; the one I listened to and enjoyed was Only Child, a John Hodgman vehicle (the hook was he was playing himself as a teenager; all the other kids would have been played by age-appropriate actors).

And, lastly (for now!), I see that yesterday saw the launch of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast. I haven't had a chance to listen yet, but I bet it's pretty good!

Kurtzman's Books

I mentioned the other day that I just read Bill Schelly's Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America. Since then I've been on a bit of a Kurtzman kick. The nice thing is, most of Kurtzman's work is in print.

I'm going to include some Amazon links here. As always, support your local comic shop or independent bookseller if at all possible, but if for some reason you can't (you don't have a local comic shop, your local bookstore can't order these books, etc.), please feel free to use these Amazon links; as always, they're Amazon Associates links and if you buy through them I'll get a small kickback.

While most of Kurtzman's work is in print, some of his earliest work, sadly, isn't; Hey Look! goes for big bucks used. But his EC work is available in a couple of different forms. Dark Horse has its hardback EC Archives series including Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and other titles that feature earlier Kurtzman work such as The Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, and Weird Science. Fantagraphics has black-and-white collections sorted by artist. Corpse on the Imjin contains some stories that Kurtzman wrote and drew himself, and others that he wrote and laid out but other artists finished. (I think I'll have more to say about Kurtzman's layouts in a later post.) Other books with with Kurtzman's layouts and other artists' finishes include Bomb Run (finishes by John Severin), Aces High (George Evans), and Death Stand (Jack Davis). Some of these books are also available in digital versions. Dark Horse books have DRM, but Fantagraphics books don't.

Unfortunately, neither format is ideal. The Dark Horse books are massive hardcovers, fit for a coffee table but not to be thrown in a backpack and taken with you. And I don't care much for the new coloring job. The Fantagraphics books, on the other hand, shrink the art down, and while the black-and-white presentation brings out more detail in the art, I think the stories lose something without their color. Plus, I prefer seeing the stories presented in their original anthology format to seeing them split up by artist. Still, while neither choice is perfect, both choices are good.

Which brings us to Mad. It's available in DC Archives collections, which is the best format you're going to get it in. The original comic book run (and issue #24, the first magazine issue) is collected in a 4-volume DC Archives hardcover set. DC Archives books use original coloring on newsprint. I'm kind of a snob about reprint coloring, and this is my favorite way of doing it: keep the original colors and print on newsprint; that's the way those old comics are meant to be seen.

But a $240 hardcover set is expensive -- even if you could get it for that price, which you can't, because the last two volumes are out of print. They are available digitally, but the digital versions have DRM, and unless you're rocking a 12.9" iPad Pro, you won't be seeing the pages at full size on a tablet. I'm also not sure how the colors look if you put them on a screen instead of newsprint -- and anyway, even the digital versions will set you back a total of $160.

I think Mad's Original Idiots is an acceptable compromise. It's three paperbacks, one each for Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Wally Wood; each book collects its respective artist's work from those first 23 issues of Mad; they go for $15 a pop. It uses the original colors and, while the paper isn't newsprint, it's not glossy, either; the colors look okay.

Again, the format's not ideal. You lose the letters and other editorial content. You also don't get any of the work by anybody but Davis, Wood, and Elder -- and that's a cryin' shame; John Severin is a particularly notable omission, but there were a few features by Basil Wolverton, Bernie Krigstein, Russ Heath, and Kurtzman himself in Mad's comic book period too.

But, nonetheless, I think the Mad's Original Idiots paperbacks are a decent way to go. I've bought all three and have been quite enjoying the Davis one so far. Even with the dated references, even not recognizing what half the parodies are making fun of, they're still great damn comics -- but hell, even when I was reading Mad as a kid in the '90s, I hadn't seen half the movies they were parodying, and I loved them anyway.

After Kurtzman quit Mad, he wrote and drew The Jungle Book, which, contrary to its title, is not based on the Kipling book. It's one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as a graphic novel, and it's all Kurtzman's work. It was reprinted in hardcover in 2014 and was nominated for Eisners for Best Domestic Reprint and Excellence in Presentation.

After The Jungle Book came Trump, Kurtzman's followup to Mad, which featured work by his Mad collaborators (including Elder, Davis, Wood, Severin, and Al Jaffee) as well as humorists including Mel Brooks. It was recently collected and is easy to come by.

After Trump came Humbug, another magazine by the original Mad artists.

Kurtzman's last magazine was Help! There's no complete Help! collection, but there is a collection of the Kurtzman/Elder Goodman Beaver cartoons that were published in it. It's out of print, but doesn't cost too much used.

Kurtzman and Elder's longest-term collaboration was Little Annie Fanny, which was published in Playboy, so that link may be NSFW.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other Kurtzman books, too, like his adaptation of The Grasshopper and the Ant, From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, and The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle.

This list is thorough but not exhaustive; it should be a good starting point, but there are other Kurtzman books out there I haven't mentioned.

I'm not done with Kurtzman. Hell, if the size of this list is any indication, I'm just barely getting started.

Kurtzman's Career

I recently finished Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America by Bill Schelly. It's an interesting read; the first couple of chapters are a little choppy, but as you'd expect, it picks up once Kurtzman makes it to EC and Schelly has more sources to work with.

Kurtzman's story, alas, is familiar to anyone who's studied comics history: he created an American institution but never achieved financial success from it.

And what tremendous influence he had, and continues to have. Not only did his work inspire the later Underground Comix artists (he counted Crumb, Spiegelman, and Kitchen in particular as friends), but Schelly's not overstating things with that "revolutionized humor in America" line. Mad's influence can be seen everywhere in American comedy, from Airplane! to The Onion to The Simpsons to The Daily Show to "Weird Al" Yankovic, to name a few examples off the top of my head. Hell, did I say "American"? Because that's too limiting. There's Kurtzman influence in Monty Python, too; John Cleese once did a photo shoot for Help! magazine, and that's where he met Terry Gilliam, who was Kurtzman's assistant at the time.

And yet, after Mad, Kurtzman never really had financial stability; he hustled for work for the rest of his life, and died with $35,000 in savings. That's not bad -- it's more money than I've ever had in my bank account, even before adjusting for inflation -- but I'm 35 years old and didn't create Mad.

Of course, part of Harvey's misfortune was self-inflicted. There's little doubt that if he hadn't quit Mad, he would have died a much richer man. His successor, Al Feldstein, went on to retire in comfort, and spent his final years on a 270-acre ranch. If Kurtzman hadn't quit Mad, it certainly would have become a different magazine that it did under Feldstein, but it's reasonable to assume it would have been just as successful.

Schelly notes that, of course, hindsight is 20/20. Kurtzman quit Mad because Hugh Hefner had offered him an unlimited budget and total creative control on a new magazine, glossy and in full color. Let's put it this way: if this were 1956 and you didn't know what you know now, and you heard that the entire creative team of Mad had left to start a new magazine, backed by Hugh Hefner, and Mad was being handed over to the editor of Panic and a bunch of new artists, which of the two magazines would you bet on?

In 2009, Warren Ellis remarked that the late Alex Toth "never drew a story worthy of his talent". Similarly, Kurtzman, in a career that spanned half a century, only ever produced one magazine that was up to his own high standards. It was called Trump, and it got cancelled after two issues.

Schelly posits two major reasons for Trump's cancellation, and neither one was related to sales.

One of the reasons Trump was cancelled was due to external circumstances entirely beyond Kurtzman's control: Collier's unexpectedly ceased publication, and it sent shockwaves through the entire magazine industry. Hefner suddenly had trouble getting investors; something had to give, and it wasn't going to be Playboy.

The other reason was Kurtzman's fault: his perfectionism kept him from meeting deadlines. Gaines had been effective at riding herd on him at EC and making sure Mad (and Kurtzman's previous comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat) shipped on time, but Hefner didn't have similar success keeping Trump on schedule (Hefner was in Chicago and Kurtzman was in New York; this no doubt played a role). Schelly quotes Hef as saying, "I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it."

And that's what frustrates me the most about Kurtzman's work: I think he got in his own way. I think he was a micromanager who needlessly restricted his incredibly talented collaborators, and his own output suffered from it. Spectacular as Kurtzman's work is, I can't help but wonder how much more he could have done if he'd been able to take a step back and give greater autonomy to guys like Jack Davis and Wally Wood.

And I suspect I'll have more to say about that in a later post.

The Mads Live

Expanded from a post at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-22.


Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, formerly of MST3K, have been touring the country, riffing movies, under the name The Mads. I caught them at the Chandler Alamo Drafthouse two weeks ago, riffing the Vincent Price "classic" The Tingler. It was fun! If you get a chance to see them, I recommend checking them out.

The event was smaller and felt more intimate than when I saw Cinematic Titanic some years back. They've got a merch table (books and posters) where they hock stuff before and after the show, and I had a chance to chat with them for a bit (and picked up copies of Trace's Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children and Frank's How to Write Cheesy Movies). They did an audience Q&A after the movie, too.

The riffing...well, you know how MST3K keeps things PG and doesn't make timely political jokes? Well, it's not like that. They say "fuck" a lot and one of the more memorable riffs involved a corpse covered by a sheet and Frank saying, "That sheet makes you look like a Trump supporter." So keep that in mind if you're planning on taking any kids or Republicans.

At any rate, the Mads put on a good show. Keep an eye on that tour schedule on Facebook (because for some reason their website is down) and go see 'em if you get a chance.

They've also got a podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads, where they discuss movies -- including some that are actually good! So far I've listened to their episodes on The Shining and Young Frankenstein -- it was Halloween season, after all. I enjoyed the shows and look forward to hearing more. And I expect I'll have more to say about podcasts in a future post.

Shout-Out to Nathan Rabin

A few months back, I tried to start blogging regularly again.

It lasted five days and five posts, at which point I started experiencing some debilitating thumb pain (carpal tunnel?). The thumb pain's not gone but it's under better control, so maybe I'll take another crack at it.

As I noted at the time, there were a couple things that inspired me to give another shot at regular blogging. One was an angry Sonic the Hedgehog fan who was so incensed by a years-old series of blog posts about Ken Penders that he just had to tell me about it when he came across my name in an entirely unrelated conversation. (Since then I've actually toyed with the idea of reposting my old, 1997-era Sonic the Hedgehog comic reviews here, but unfortunately I haven't been able to find them. They were on the same hard drive as KateStory Book IX, which I went to all that trouble to recover nine years ago; I suspect the files are still somewhere in my giant stack of hard drives but I haven't been able to find them.)

But another big inspiration was a blog called Nathan Rabin's Happy Place.

I first became a fan of Nathan Rabin about a decade ago, when he was the head writer of The AV Club and writing a column then called My Year of Flops. Every week for a year, Rabin reviewed a movie that was a commercial failure and evaluated whether it was really as bad as its reputation suggests.

I love bad movies. I love good movies. I love movies that other people don't love. My Year of Flops was right smack-dab in my wheelhouse.

My Year of Flops was eventually completed and released as a book. But the column continued after that first year, under the title My World of Flops; it expanded beyond failed films to include failed books, albums, and recently even a failed presidential campaign.

The AV Club is no longer the kind of site that does features like My World of Flops. So Rabin has started his own, Patreon-supported blog, Nathan Rabin's Happy Place. He's still writing My World of Flops, and other, similar features where he examines lesser-loved media (like Cannon Films). He also talks about other stuff, from politics to brutally honest discussions of his life experiences, including financial hardships and struggles with depression.

But my favorite of his features right now is The Weird Accordion to Al. Rabin literally wrote the book on "Weird Al" Yankovic (it's called Weird Al: The Book), and now he's taking a song-by-song look at Al's entire discography. (As of this writing he's up to Talk Soup from Alapalooza.)

I love Weird Al. I've loved Weird Al for over 25 years. Hell, all this talk about Weird Al has me thinking maybe I'll write some posts about Weird Al. (They won't be as good as Rabin's. But they'll have the added benefit of being about me.)

If you're a "Weird Al" Yankovic fan, you owe it to yourself to read The Weird Accordion to Al. And hey, if you like what you see and can spare a little money for it, kick in on Nathan's Patreon.

It's not just that Nathan's work is enjoyable, insightful, and frequently funny. It's also that his enthusiasm for his blog is infectious. I read a post where he talked about how easy it's turned out to be to write blog posts every day, and I got to thinking, shit, I used to do that for free, I enjoyed it so much. And I thought, y'know, maybe I should start doing that again. I'm going to be writing about whatever the hell's on my mind anyway, whether it's here or on Brontoforumus or The Avocado or the Techdirt comments -- so what the hell, why not here?

So thanks, Nathan Rabin, for giving me the bug again. I don't think I'll manage the same pace I did back in '11-'13 (seven posts a week about Frank Zappa, five posts a week about other stuff), but I'm still going to try and post more often.

And I'm sure those Sonic the Hedgehog comic book reviews are around here somewhere.

AOMEI is a Spammer

From: Doris
Subject: AOMEI Freeware Review Invitation (corporate-sellout.com contact form)
06/11/2016 11:15 PM

Dear admin,

This is Doris from AOMEI Technology Ltd. I am writing for inviting you to evaluate our free backup and restore software - AOMEI Backupper Standard, the simplest free backup software. It has been upgraded to version 3.2 now, supporting Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 8, Windows 7, Vista, and XP.

As a freeware, our Backupper has many advantages which most of other free backup software lack, such as incremental backup, differential backup, schedule automatic backup, create bootable media, PXE boot tool, dissimilar hardware restore and file synchronization etc.
Download Link: [direct link to an executable file]
Learn more: [some generically-named website]

Could you please spare your precious time to test and review our freeware? Or could you please take a look at that and pass on your comments to me, any of your suggestion will be much appreciated.

I am eagerly looking forward to your reply.

From: Thad Boyd
Subject: Re: AOMEI Freeware Review Invitation (corporate-sellout.com contact form)
06/13/2016 10:01 PM

What's that, Doris? You want to know if I'd be interested in writing up a nice blog post about how AOMEI Technology Ltd. is a dodgy company that advertises its products by spamming people's contact forms? Why, I would LOVE to!

Essex County is Really Good

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago in my post about the Humble Forbidden Comics Bundle, I bought the bundle partially because I'd been meaning to read Essex County. And now that I've read it, I can say with confidence that it was worth the $15 all by itself.

Essex County was the breakhout hit for cartoonist Jeff Lemire; he went on to do Sweet Tooth (which is where I first discovered his work and became a fan), and then to become a pretty big name at DC and Valiant. Last I heard he was acting as more of a story architect across multiple titles and less of an artist on his own, smaller work; it's wonderful to see his success but I have to admit I miss his art and his originality.

So I gave Essex County a read. And I haven't read a comic like it in years. I think comparisons to Love and Rockets are inevitable -- it's a character-based work of magical realism focusing on families over generations, with a vibe of loneliness and melancholy, and its setting is an essential component in establishing its tone -- but it's not Love and Rockets. The most obvious difference is in the art: Jeff Lemire doesn't do the smooth, clean lines of Los Bros Hernandez; his work is rough, angular, and jagged. The people in Love and Rockets are beautiful; the people in Essex County are not.

Essex County page

But it's not just Lemire's art that strikes a different tone than the Hernandezes'; it's his setting. Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar may be a small town, but the streets always seem busy, and his later stories (as well as Jaime's) mostly take place in and around LA. Love and Rockets has a huge cast of characters, and it did even in the early days before 30 years of continuity piled up.

Essex County takes place, mostly, in rural Canada, on small family farms. There is one section in the second book, Ghost Stories, which takes place in Toronto; the cast is briefly packed with enough supporting characters to form a hockey team. But, before long, those characters drift away, and while Lou Lebeuf stays in the big city, he finds himself lonely despite the throngs of people around him.

And, to a large extent, Essex County is about loneliness. Lester is lonely because his mother died, he never knew his father, he's moved to a farm to live with an uncle he barely knows, and the other kids make fun of him. Anne is lonely because she works long hours, her husband is dead, and her son barely speaks to her. Lou is lonely first because of his self-imposed exile from his family, then because he goes deaf, then because he outlives everyone he knows, and finally because he gets Alzheimer's. The wide, open, snow-filled spaces of Essex County externalize their loneliness and isolation, but they're not the cause -- at least, not the only one.

These three stories aren't happy, I don't suppose, though they've got moments of happiness. And I think, really, that's what they're about: find those moments of happiness. Find a connection with someone when you can.

Or maybe I'm off-base. Maybe that's not what the book is about at all. For all that it shows that those connections are precious, it shows how fraught they can be. Lou's problems start when he connects with somebody who he shouldn't. Lester doesn't know his father because two people made a connection that they couldn't sustain. Life is like that; it tends to defy simplistic morals.

And that's what Essex County is about, really: slices of life; moments in time. And families, and history.

And hockey. There's a whole lot of hockey. This comic is Canadian as fuck, eh?

Dueling Mega Men, Part 3: Rebalancing Act

As I've indicated in the last two posts, Mega Man: Powered Up has a lot more changes from the original game than Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X. And the changes to Powered Up are usually for the better, while the ones to MHX are usually for the worse.

There's a pretty simple reason for that: Mega Man has a lot more to improve than Mega Man X.

Back in the first post, I described Maverick Hunter X as "a pretty solid remake of an excellent game." Powered Up is the reverse: an excellent remake of a pretty solid game.

The original Mega Man is a classic, but it's got rough edges; it's an amazing first effort but it's got its share of flaws. There's a reason Mega Man 2 is universally considered to be a much better game.

The original Mega Man X, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. It's exquisitely designed and balanced.

So, rebalancing Mega Man resulted in a better-balanced game, while rebalancing Mega Man X resulted in a worse-balanced one.

Let's start with Mega Man.

Powered Up changes the original game so fundamentally that it actually changes the boss weaknesses.

In the original Mega Man, the order is:
Bomb Man Guts Man Cut Man Elec Man Ice Man Fire Man

In Powered Up, it's:
Cut Man Bomb Man Ice Man Fire Man Oil Man Elec Man Time Man Guts Man.

The change in order does more than just accommodate the two new bosses; it makes for a more natural stage order.

The original game has two logical starting points: Bomb Man's level and Cut Man's. The trouble is, if you follow the order of weapon weaknesses, starting with Bomb Man means you go to Guts Man's famously difficult level second. Starting with Cut Man means you take Elec Man's stage before Guts Man and have to go back later to get the Magnet Beam (though, granted, this wouldn't be an issue in Powered Up, which removes the Magnet Beam entirely).

The weakness order in Powered Up puts the two easiest stages right at the start, first Cut Man and then Bomb Man, and puts trickier levels like Elec Man, Guts Man, and the new Time Man near the end.

Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X doesn't change the Mavericks' weaknesses, but it does play musical chairs with the capsules. And that's enough to wreak havoc on the original game's finely-crafted balance.

The most important of the four capsules, the one you need in order to get the other three, is the Leg Upgrade. Here's where it is in the original game:

Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X

It's about halfway through Chill Penguin's stage (the easiest in the game), smack dab in the middle of the path. You literally can't miss it.

Whereas in Maverick Hunter X, not only is it possible to miss it, it's likely. Here's where it is in that version:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Don't see it? Let's try that again.

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

That's right: the ledge you grab onto to reach the Leg Parts is covered up by the fucking HUD. It's so hard to see that you can walk right past it even if you know it's there.

Contrast with the same location in the original Mega Man X (which, in that game, had the Arm Parts capsule):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The original game gives a very clear visual cue that there is something up there. Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, once again fails to handle the conversion from 4:3 to 16:9, and makes the hanging section almost impossible to see. And if you don't find that tiny ledge, you can't get any of the other upgrade parts -- your mobility, offense, and defense are all severely limited, and the game is much harder. Not fun hard, unfair hard.

And if you do know the Leg Parts are on Flame Mammoth's stage, there's another problem: nobody in their right mind would pick Flame Mammoth's stage first.

It disrupts the entire stage order. Do you start with Chill Penguin and then end with Flame Mammoth? That makes the game a whole lot more difficult, going through seven stages with no capsule upgrades.

No, the best option here is to base the stage order around the capsules, not the bosses' weaknesses. Take out Chill Penguin first, then Flame Mammoth, with maybe a stop-over at Storm Eagle along the way (he's a relatively easy boss and Flame Mammoth is weak against his weapon, and it also makes Spark Mandrill's stage easier; on the other hand, it's got all the shitty vertical parts I mentioned in my previous post, and they're harder without the Leg Parts).

The other three capsules are rearranged too. Chill Penguin has the Head Parts instead of the Leg Parts, Sting Chameleon has the Arm Parts instead of the Body Parts, and Storm Eagle has the Body Parts instead of the Head Parts.

The Head Parts are damn near useless in the original game, and they're not any more useful in the remake. In the original game, they protect you from falling rocks in one section of Sting Chameleon's stage, and are also necessary to reach the Arm Parts capsule in Flame Mammoth's stage. Maverick Hunter X is much the same, except that in this case you need them to reach the Body Parts capsule in Storm Eagle's stage. Chill Penguin's stage -- which, again, is the easiest level and, in the original game, the best one to start with -- has gone from having the most useful of the four upgrades to the least useful. Storm Eagle's stage, on the other hand, ends up with a much more useful upgrade than it had in the original, and one more reason to hit that level earlier in this version of the game than in the SNES version.

The change to Sting Chaemeleon's stage probably makes the most sense of the four, though it removes the nice sense of symmetry the original game gives you of defeating a suit of robot armor to gain an armor upgrade.

If you follow the stage order implied by the capsule locations (ie fight Storm Eagle and Flame Mammoth early), then that means Sting Chameleon will be the last of the eight stages. Getting the Arm Parts right before the Sigma stages, or right at the beginning of the Sigma stages, matches the original game, where if you started with Chill Penguin you'd end with Flame Mammoth, and get a chance to get the Buster Upgrade -- and if you missed it, you'd get it on the very next level.

Which brings us to another change.

In Mega Man X, midway through the first Sigma stage, Zero confronts Vile, and sacrifices himself. If you didn't get the Buster Upgrade from the capsule, Zero will give it to you.

Maverick Hunter X changes this in two ways. First, it moves the battle to the third Sigma stage instead of the first. Second, instead of Zero giving you a Buster Upgrade that's identical to the one you would have gotten from the capsule, he gives you a different Buster Upgrade.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't think it's a very good one, for two reasons.

The first is that it messes up the narrative structure. There's a reason Zero dies, and passes the torch to X, in the first Sigma stage in the original game: it changes the atmosphere of the rest of the game. It establishes a sense of loneliness and isolation that lingers through the end. Nobody else is going to help you; you're humanity's last hope. And you've done what Zero said you'd do all the way back at the end of the first stage: you've become stronger. The student has become the master.

In Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, you spend most of the Sigma stages playing catchup. Zero's gone on ahead. Even at full power, X is playing second fiddle, right up until the end.

Which brings us to the gameplay reason why it doesn't make sense to kill off Zero right before the end: it's right before the end. I understand the reasoning behind rewarding the player for getting almost to the end of the game without the Buster Upgrade with a cool, unique weapon -- but what the fuck good is it? You've got exactly half a level left in the game at that point, and then four bosses. (And I guess the caterpillar things in the last level, but they're pretty much just there to fill up your Sub Tanks.) The game rewards you by giving you a weapon you'll hardly get to use.

Aside from that, there are other weird little changes. The X-Buster takes longer to charge to its maximum level, and bosses are invulnerable for a longer period of time after you hit them.

And then there's stuff like this:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original game, when Spark Mandrill's stage goes "dark", it's just a transparency effect; you can still see where you need to go.

In Maverick Hunter X, the lights cycle off and on; the platforms go from being completely illuminated to being completely invisible. This, combined with the reduction in height, makes the section a lot harder, the timing a lot trickier, and makes it damned difficult to get through this section without getting clipped by the fireflies that whiz through it.

In fact, this section seems to be taking a cue from the Mega Man Xtreme version of the stage.

Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme

(It may look like the platforms are visible in that screenshot, but I assure you that if you play the game on authentic Game Boy Color hardware, you can't see shit.)

Basically, the game's full of changes, great and small. And most of them are for the worse.

All of this stuff, all of these changes, the reordering of the Capsules and the Sigma stages and Zero's death scene -- I think they actually could have made for an interesting game, if they were only on Hard Mode. The way I see it, Normal Mode should have kept everything where it was in the original game (with some changes, of course, to accommodate the screen height), while Hard Mode could have jumbled things around and created a legitimate challenge for experienced players. Think of it like the original Legend of Zelda: the Second Quest is neat, but it would have made a pretty crummy first quest.

Instead, Hard Mode gives the bosses some additional attacks (that's good!) and ups the amount of damage all the enemies do (that's cheap and lazy).

And then there's Vile Mode, which makes for a pretty great addition but can be overwhelming in the sheer number of options provided. Vile gets a total of 45 weapons, and while it's great to have that kind of versatility, it also means it takes a lot of time testing out all those choices and deciding which ones fit your play style -- and it also makes it a lot harder to figure out which weapons are effective against which bosses. If you're X, you can swap weapons on the fly and keep trying until you find one that works; if you're Vile, you can only equip three weapons at a time, and if none of them do the job, you have to start the level over if you want to try other options.

Plus, when you're Vile they move the Heart Tanks and Sub Tanks around, and while the save screen has a counter for how many you've got, it doesn't tell you which ones you've gotten. Okay, I've got seven out of the eight Heart Tanks; guess I get to figure out which one I'm missing.

(Also, I sincerely hope the decision to make every fucking stage use the same music when you play as Vile was an accident. Giving him is own theme music on the first stage is fine; reusing it on the next eight is not.)

To summarize three long posts, it's really easy to recommend Mega Man: Powered Up. It's thoughtfully and exquisitely redesigned, and good enough to be considered the definitive version of the game, even before you get into all the extras like the many playable characters and the level design toolkit.

Maverick Hunter X isn't bad but it's a much harder sell. Play the SNES game first; it's better; it's that simple.

But if you've played the SNES game already, forward and backward and side-to-side, and you're interested in trying out a new take? Then I'd recommend you take a crack at Maverick Hunter X. But remember going in that things are going to be different, and sometimes maddeningly so.


Mega Man ® 1989 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core
PSP: PPSSPP

Dueling Mega Men, Part 2: Verticality

The original Mega Man has some tricky platforming sequences. Mega Man Powered Up actually does a pretty solid job of redesigning them to make them more fair. Here's one of the most infamous examples, the gauntlet at the beginning of Guts Man's stage:

  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

Mega Man drops you right into what may be the toughest sequence in the game, and it's right at the beginning of the level. Powered Up, by contrast, starts you off with some training wheels.

Lest you think it's going easy on you, though, what it actually does is move that bastard platform to the end of the level:

Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

On the one hand, that's a much better balance, putting the easy stuff at the beginning of the level and the tough stuff at the end. On the other, it's even more infuriating to repeatedly die right before the end of a level than right at the beginning. And it's actually even harder in Powered Up: note the spacing of the "safe" spots in the lower belt; there's much less time to land and jump than the original game.

There's another sequence, in Ice Man's stage, which is, for my money, the worst part of the original Mega Man.

  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

In the original game, you have to jump from moving platform to moving platform over a vast empty pit. The platforms' movements are not predictable, they shoot at you while you're trying to time your jumps (and, not shown, penguin guys fly at you too), and sometimes just for the sheer fuck of it instead of landing on a platform you will fall right through it and die.

Powered Up reduces the number of platforms to two, makes them move in consistent zigzag patterns, and eliminates the additional obstacles that you have to avoid (not to mention fixes the collision detection). And greatly reduces the amount of space you have to pass over.

It's a pretty perfect example of Powered Up finding something that was wrong with the original game and fixing it.

Maverick Hunter X does not do that.

Here's an example from Storm Eagle's stage:

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's hard to tell from a static screenshot, but those three platforms all move up and down. And while it's easy to keep an eye on the next platform in the original Mega Man X, in Maverick Hunter X they move right off the screen.

It gets worse in Sigma's fortress.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Once again, Mega Man Xtreme actually does a better job than Maverick Hunter X; it reduces the number of platforms and their amount of vertical movement. It even turns the Sigma's Fortress sequence from a vertical section to a horizontal one.

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme

(Of course, don't let any of this faint praise give you the mistaken impression that Mega Man Xtreme is a good game. Its version of the Sigma Fortress platform sequence ends with a blind leap off into nowhere.)

The pattern here is that, while the Mega Man: Powered Up devs were more than happy to retool tricky platform sequences, the Maverick Hunter X team seems oddly reluctant to change them, even just to accommodate the different aspect ratio. ("Oddly" because they made plenty of other, and much worse, changes; we'll get to some of them in a little bit.)

The other big problem is the underwater sequences, because of the increased height of your jump. In Maverick Hunter X, you jump so high that you can no longer see where you're going to land. Here's a miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The enemy uses a weapon that pulls you towards the spikes; if you jump to get out of its range in the original Mega Man X, you'll still be able to see the platforms where it's safe to land, but in Maverick Hunter X, you'll scroll them right off the bottom of the screen.

And here's another miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage, a serpent which you can ride:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

While you can ride the serpent past the point where the spikes and platforms scroll off the bottom of the screen in the original Mega Man X, you go higher before that happens -- and it's still not too hard to land safely.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X

Riding the serpent and shooting it in the back of the head until it drops you is a viable strategy in the original game, but it's likely to get you killed in the remake.

Of course, for all the examples so far, there's at least an explanation for why these sequences are like that in Maverick Hunter X: because they were like that in the original. What's entirely baffling is when they add new vertical hazards, on purpose, and they have the same problems or worse.

Maverick Hunter X significantly redesigns the Sigma's Fortress stages (which, again, makes it even stranger that it leaves the sequence with the floating platforms as-is, albeit in a later level than in the original game). Early on in the first fortress level, there's another fight with one of the giant fish minibosses from Launch Octopus's stage, which wasn't in the original game.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Let's compare that to the one on Launch Octopus's level again.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The one on the Sigma stage is definitely worse: the spike traps are twice as wide, there's only one place where you can stand and it's half as wide as the Launch Octopus version, and the platform is at the same height as the spikes, so if you miss it you're dead, instead of having a chance to grab onto the side and jump back out.

The underwater section is followed by a reworked version of the vertical section from the original game, and I'll actually give some props here: this is one of the few instances where I like the Maverick Hunter X version better.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There are several reasons the Maverick Hunter X version is better: it's shorter, there are fewer enemies, and there are more places to stand. But most of all, this is an instance where the devs understand that they're working with a different aspect ratio, and make it work for them. They don't try to preserve the narrow shaft, or keep the Joes on tiny platforms backed right up against the wall where it's nearly impossible to get them to attack, then hit them while their shields are down, and then get onto the platform they were standing on. It's not perfect, but it's a thoughtfully-designed sequence that's a legitimate improvement on the original. And it's a frustrating example of how good this remake could have been if this same kind of care had been applied to other vertical sequences.

And then it passes, and you're in another vexing vertical sequence that wasn't in the original game. It isn't as likely to cause cheap instant deaths as the aquatic sequence at the beginning of the level, but it is incredibly awkward and annoying because of the screen's limited height and your inability to see where you're going:

Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

But the worst new sequence of all is the end of Armored Armadillo's stage when you play as Vile:

Armored Armadillo Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's similar to the sequence in Sigma's Fortress, with platforms at multiple heights and those same helicopter dudes coming at you. But there are more of them, they're harder to hit when you're playing as Vile (and you can't just use a powered-up Rolling Shield to protect yourself like when you play as X), and you have to jump to platforms below you, not just ones above you. And of course when you jump, you may very well scroll your destination platform right off the bottom of the screen and have to guess where it's going to be by the time you land. It's a friggin' nightmare, and a great justification for savestate-scumming.

All in all, Maverick Hunter X does a terrible job with pretty much any sequence that deals with vertical scrolling.

Powered Up doesn't have that problem -- but the comparison's not entirely fair, because Powered Up has an advantage: it's a remake of a game that has no vertical scrolling.

There are lots of vertical sequences in Mega Man, but the screen never scrolls. When you have to traverse a section that's taller than a single screen, that means climbing from the bottom of the screen to the top and then climbing a ladder up to the next screen, where you end up back at the bottom. The screen doesn't move up and down as Mega Man does, only left and right.

  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

So it was easy for Powered Up to follow that pattern. As substantially as it changes some segments of the game (and adds two entirely new levels), it keeps that rule. No room is ever taller than one screen high; the screen doesn't scroll vertically -- and so the game never has to deal with the challenge of how to handle vertically-scrolling sequences.

Maverick Hunter X does. And it proves, time and again, that it's not up to the challenge. And then, bafflingly, it doubles down on this flaw and adds entirely new vertically-scrolling sequences. And they're even worse.

That's a major reason why, despite all its polish, despite all the effort that clearly went into it, and despite the many things it does right, Maverick Hunter X is an inferior game, both to the original Mega Man X and to Mega Man: Powered Up.

Another major reason is that it completely fucks up the balance of the original Mega Man X. And that's the topic of my next post.


Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
NES: FCEUX
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core
PSP: PPSSPP