Whew, I finally did it! I made it through the new season! I wasn’t expecting this to be such a chore, but I think that’s largely because it’s hard to dedicate time to a 90-minute TV show anymore. I’ve found that I much more enjoy watching 30-minute bad movie reviews on YouTube. I really am a sucker for critiquing bad movies, though. I grew up on the original MST3K show, but those episodes are hard to rewatch, because a lot of the humor was timely. So a reboot/return was definitely due. While you could argue that RiffTrax has been a great alternative, nothing beats an actual guy and his robot buddies sitting in front of a screen and physically pointing out the absurdities.
That is, until the new cast spoke. Their voices were so off-putting. Tom Servo’s voice actor didn’t even try to do a “Tom” voice, and he ends up sounding too much like the new host, Jonah, making it difficult at times to keep track of who’s talking. Crow still sounds somewhat Crow-like, though, a feasible jump similar to Beaulieu being replaced by Corbett in the show’s original run. Gypsy is also completely wrong, and her occasional pop-ins during the movie segments never worked for me. They really hammed up the “people sitting in front of a screen” shtick, as the characters interact with the movie way more (and way more distractingly) than they ever did before.
But with MST3K, the setting is all fluff, anyway. It’s the jokes that matter! And the jokes are a mile-a-minute in this new iteration. There’s rarely a moment where Noah and the bots aren’t saying something. However, that means that fewer jokes actually land. Singing a line from a song isn’t even really a joke, and yet it’s something they fall back on time and time again. Many jokes are also obviously scripted. Yeah, I know, the show’s been scripted from the start, but at least the original episodes felt organic. Mike Nelson constantly broke character and laughed, which made it more funny. There are a few moments like that in The Return, but maybe the problem is that the new cast just hasn’t fully warmed up to the system yet.
Yooka-Laylee is a wonderful tribute to the 3D platformers of the N64 era. In fact, if you didn’t know that Yooka-Laylee was made by former Rare developers, it would be easy to call it a shameless rip-off. The characters and music aren’t quite as endearing as the original Banjo-Kazooie games, so it does feel more like a clone rather than a spiritual successor. But they pretty much nailed the same tone and design otherwise, warts and all. Yes, warts. I seriously forgot how frustrating and tedious Banjo-Kazooie could be. I kept wavering between splashes of gleeful nostalgia and moments of “are we still doing that?” annoyances.
I loved exploring the worlds and looking for secrets, but so many of the Jiggies… I mean, Pagies… are only obtained by completing a mini-challenge, be it a puzzle, boss battle, or time trial. I do remember Banjo-Kazooie following the same template, but was it really this prevalent? After a while, I felt like the joy of exploration had been taken away in favor of these one-off challenges. Near the end, I just started saying, “Nope, not gonna do that one,” and sought out a different Pagie. Years ago, I would have accepted the challenge, but as an older, jaded gamer, these gimmicks are just that… gimmicks.
It was weird to stumble into one of the game’s mini-challenges, though, and realize that this whole room and puzzle were created for just one Pagie. The developers really outdid themselves in making sure Yooka-Laylee was brimming with stuff to do, even though you may only ever see half of it. After collecting my 100th Pagie to unlock the end boss, I was ready to call it quits. But it took me 12 hours to get even that far, and I had fun maybe 85% of the time. Sure, there were your typical camera/control issues that plague most 3D platformers, but this is such a well-crafted love letter to an older generation that I can’t stay mad at it for long.
I really liked the first Grow Home game. It was such an oddly charming experience. But it’s also the kind of experience that would be hard to “sequelize.” I don’t know where you could logically take the game since the original already had you climb into space. That was the fun of Grow Home, though: slowly and meticulously growing this gigantic plant and then free-falling from extreme heights as you looked for more secrets. While Grow Up still has some of that in play, the game is much broader horizontally rather than vertically. You can fly around an entire planet, landing on floating islands and tinkering with various flora. While that’s definitely fun, it’s also not as endearing.
Part of the problem is that this sequel wanted to build off of Grow Home, so it wouldn’t make sense to strip Bud of his powers. You much more quickly gain access to the jetpack and glider and can plant helpful flora at will. This occasionally makes for some very entertaining “how should I get there” moments, but I also feel like it takes a lot of the reward away that the original had. Climbing to the top of the world isn’t as impressive when you can plant a flower that will propel you halfway up, then use your jetpack to get the rest of the way there. That said, I still had fun with Grow Up and would recommend it to fans of Grow Home. The original was a better experience, sure, but I’m glad this has become an actual franchise now instead of a one-off pet project.
Black Mirror is such a diverse anthology show that it’s probably not even fair to classify it as TV. It’s more like a series of independent movies. With the extended runtime that Netflix offers it, so many of these episodes do, in fact, feel like feature-length films. I wish they would adhere to stricter times, though. I’m always hesitant to start watching a 70-minute “episode.” Fortunately, the longest episode in Season 4 is also one of the series’ best. “USS Callister” is mostly lighthearted and fun but still has that sinister overtone to keep things interesting and thought-provoking. Black Mirror isn’t a show I would consider rewatchable, but I’d sit through “USS Callister” again.
Like Season 3, Season 4 has two episodes that veer on the colorful and hopeful side, but if you’re worried the show is becoming too soft, rest assured that the other four episodes are your usual Black Mirror bleakness. “Metalhead,” for instance, is the most Twilightiest Zoniest episode they’ve ever done and is a great, concise, 40-minute horror story. The remaining three episodes, however, are fairly weak, making this one of the most up and down seasons. There’s “Arkangel,” which follows a very predictable trajectory that’s not at all interesting to watch play out. And the season finale, “Black Museum,” is a little too self-aware, rushing through several good ideas to support a bigger (but not necessarily better) story.
One of the draws to the show is seeing what crazy technology they’re going to cook up next. Sadly, a lot of the ideas in Season 4 are things we’ve already seen, like digital clones and memory-recording devices. I’m sure it’s really hard to think up new stuff, though, and the episodes at least tackle these familiar ideas in new and different ways. Of course, you always have to be willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy Black Mirror. The tech is cool, but because everything else is so grounded in reality, it becomes vulnerable to scrutinizing and saying, “Hey, wait a minute… if they can do that, then why doesn’t that also happen?” But if you’re willing to play along with the rules in each episode and allow yourself to dwell on the social implications more than the technology, you’ll have a gloomy, good time.
I love tower defense games that also bring in some other gameplay type, and X-Morph: Defense does this incredibly well. It’s as much a twin-stick shooter as it is a tower defense game. Similar to Sanctum (another favorite of mine), each wave starts with maze-like tower placement, but once the enemies enter, it becomes an action-packed shoot ’em up. That doesn’t mean rearranging towers is then off limits, though. In particularly difficult levels, it became necessary to build, upgrade, and move towers on the fly as the enemy clusters grew/shrank. It’s nice that moving/selling towers doesn’t incur a penalty, giving you plenty of freedom to experiment and re-plan your strategy when things don’t go your way.
And, oh, how things don’t go your way. X-Morph: Defense can be very difficult. The difficulty is pretty up and down, though. Some levels start out feeling impossible, but once you earn more money and can place more towers, they become too easy. Other levels start out easy and then beat you to a pulp in the final wave. I found myself constantly needing to scrap my entire layout and reorganize everything. But, again, I appreciated that I was allowed and encouraged to do so. The enemy patterns frequently change, anyway, so you can never truly be married to your original ideas. Plus, the entire campaign is co-op compatible, meaning you and a friend can fuss over the perfect tower placement together, just like friends are meant to do.
Steam has really needed some 3D platformers to fill that Nintendo void. Plenty of indie developers have attempted 3D platformers before, but I know the genre is hard to pull off correctly, and most of the ones I’ve played haven’t been that great. Skylar & Plux, however, is pretty good, though it’s probably only safe to say that simply because the game is so short and bows out before things get hairy. The three worlds/levels that make up the entirety of the game feel more like Act I in something bigger. I guess I should give the developers credit for keeping the scope of the game within reason. This could have easily ballooned out of control otherwise.
What we’re left with is a well-made homage to the platformers of the Gamecube/PS2 era that, for genre veterans, can be beaten in about 2-3 hours. Sure, there are still collectibles and secrets to find, but the variety is fairly limited, so there really isn’t much replay value here. I did enjoy my two hours with the game, though. The environments are fun, the controls are surprisingly tight, and the new powers you learn provide some clever moments. There just needed to be more… more of everything. More powers, more collectibles, more levels/goals, and more for Plux to do besides be an annoying, expository sidekick. Maybe in the sequel, right, guys?