Reader Beware!

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Goosebumps were a phenomenon in the mid nineties. The books, you understand, not the skin condition. Author R. L. Stine has sold something like 400 million copies, and was still publishing new stories as late as 2012. In fact, the original books are still in print.

People collected them as you would football stickers or Pogs. They were cool, and were a symbol of playground status and wealth. You always had the sad kid who showed up to school with a satchel full of “Chillers” or “Gorse Bumps” books, though. Poor bugger.

The covers were always fantastic, regardless of the content. They were playfully grotesque, but never really frightening, sort of like the Halloween section in the supermarket. They were just creepy enough that you felt like a bit of a maverick with them on your bookshelf, but not so disturbing as to give you nightmares.

The artwork was probably the best thing about the books, and certainly will remain in the memory long after the stories themselves are forgotten. The UK got exclusive new covers, and they were great. They usually showed a monster or object from the book sinking in a bubbly, neon-coloured goo.

They were embossed, so naturally you would run your fingers over the cover as if it were Braille to gauge the books’ scariness. To save money on embossing dies, the publisher later replaced the covers with cheaper, identikit ones that simply put the American artwork in a new frame. Boo.

Compare the two species. Below we have a selection of UK books. Note the abstract nature and bright colours.

dfg

It’s a bit like the end of Terminator 2. But not.

These covers were clearly deemed too visually stimulating for the Americans, whose books had a distinct, almost puritanical, style of their own:

Creepy for all the wrong reasons

Creepy for all the wrong reasons

The Merch

Goosebumps merchandise was popular, and was plastered with the trademark logo and stock art of many characters. Chief among these was Curly the Skeleton, although to my recollection he never actually appeared in a single book, but was nontheless the brand mascot. I figure that he’s meant to represent Stine himself. He looks pretty smug for a dead guy, anyway. He was your typical, garden-variety skellington in every way except for his tiny Scrooge McDuck reading glasses and his purple Mohican.

Curly moonlights as a Scout leader

Curly volunteers as a Scout leader in his spare time

Recurring characters included Slappy the dummy (a possessed ventriloquist doll, natch), Monster Blood (more on that in a sec), the Haunted Mask, and The Horrors. These guys, and all the Goosebumps characters for that matter, were quite tame. They certainly weren’t on par with Freddy Kruger or Jason Vorhees. But that was probably the point; you don’t sell many children’s bedsheets that way.

The Books

Monster Blood

Monster Blood

Nein! Der Pumpelkins!

Evan gets shipped off to his estranged great-aunt for the summer, because his parents are going to Georgia to look at houses and we all know that children will spontaneously combust if made to set eyes on a new house.

Aunt Kathryn is an eighty year old widow, profoundly deaf, and never learned sign language or how to properly spell her own name. So naturally she’s a good choice to look after a young boy. Evan spends his days walking his dog, getting duffed up, and going to toy shops with Andrea, the only girl in the neighbourhood.

Evan and ‘Andy’ end up in possession of an ever-enlarging, hungry blob that came from a tin of green slime called ‘Monster Blood’. First it outgrows its tin, then a coffee can, then a bucket, and then the bathtub. It eventually goes on a rampage, a bit like in the film The Blob. Okay… exactly like in the film The Blob.

The twist at the end is genuinely surprising and I shan’t spoil it here in case you’re twelve years old or have only just learned to read.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

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Delete my internet historryyyyyy!

Young Gabe goes to Egypt with his parents. Presumably, they’re there to pick up the Arab Parent of the Year Award, as they promptly leave him alone in the middle of Cairo, and allow him to get kidnapped by a stranger who uses the classic “Your parents sent me to get you” line.

Gabe carries around a tiny little mummy hand in his pocket that he calls his “summoner”. Did the ancient Egyptians make mummies in miniature? Shouldn’t it be in a museum, and not the trouser pocket of a neglected 12-year-old?

Anyway, Gabe is put under the care of his slightly less negligent uncle, and together they get into all sorts of scrapes inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, where they discover an ancient tomb full of treasure and mummies that come to life. Gabe’s family act like he just found some pennies down the back of the sofa, and they all ignore it like it never happened and go for ice cream instead. The end.

One Day at Horrorland

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“Tastes like wee”

This is probably the one Goosebumps book that I found truly unsettling. It begins with a family on vacation, driving around in the middle of nowhere looking for Universal Studios or something. They come across “Horrorland” instead and decide to go inside.

Immediately, their car explodes so they’re stranded there. The theme park is staffed by “Horrors”, little gremlin things that the family assumes are midgets in costumes. They’re mean and unhelpful, and deliberately separate the kids from their parents in order to expose each to a series of ever more deadly attractions and rides. Each time, the kids and their parents escape death by the skin of their teeth. It’s quite distressing, really. Would you like to think of your mother being locked in a suffocating coffin and sent down a raging river? No, that’s just not funny.

Maybe Stine had a bad experience at Disneyland as a child. Or maybe he really hates his parents. Probably both.

A Shocker on Shock Street

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“Red means STOP, asshole!”

 

In a way, this book is similar to One Day at Horrorland, as it involves two kids in a theme park (this time an actual parody of Universal Studios) where the attractions go a bit loco. For example, the children get chased by real monsters on the spooky filming set, zombies actually come out of the ground in the haunted graveyard, and the Cave of Creeps has… uh… worms in.

The kids generally spend most of the book pissing themselves in fright, but it’s left quite ambiguous whether the monsters are really real or not. That would be weird – who would build a theme park and fill it with dangerous monsters?

But if it’s all in the kids’ imaginations, that would be weirder still, because (SPOILER ALERT) it turns out that they’re not really kids at all, but sophisticated robots built to test the park. This one left us scratching our heads, to be honest.

How I Got My Shrunken Head

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Don’t lose your head! Arf!

Some would assume that the title refers to the author describing to us how his head had been shrunk. Like “How I Broke My Leg” or “How I Got Dysentery One Summer”. But that’s not the case.

It’s revealed that “chubby” 12-year-old Mark was given an actual shrunken head by his aunt, which isn’t really scary at all. Weird, maybe, but then aunts and uncles are known for giving weird presents.

(One time I was given a “Jurassic Park” basketball shirt my uncle brought back from the Philippines. It was a beautiful shade of purple and about eight sizes too big. Of course, we all remember Jeff Goldblum’s sick dunks from the film, don’t we? – Adam)

Mark’s parents are presumably in Egypt with Gabe’s, picking up their award, as they allow Mark to fly to the jungle island of Baladora (not an island) with a stranger. When he arrives, he’s kidnapped and held hostage. Showing good sense, he flees into the rainforest, presumably intending to live out the rest of his life in the infinite wilds with Tarzan.

On the way, Mark discovers that he has “jungle magic” – a power that he doesn’t seem to have direct control over, nor does it influence his surroundings in any way other than to advance the story. It’s not exactly the Power of Grayskull, is what we’re saying. At the end of the book, when he’s home and safe, his aunt takes away his jungle powers because they’re too dangerous for a boy who lives four thousand miles away from the nearest jungle to have. Except when they weren’t. Because she gave them to him in the first place.

What does it all mean?

We can’t see many kids reading these today, to tell the truth. Times have changed. Most of the adventures described in the above books just wouldn’t be possible in today’s world. Kids tend to Google or Facebook their way out of every situation now. Or at the very least use their iPhones to call the rozzers when kidnappings loom.

Goosebumps had that kind of patronising “Look kids! Reading is COOL!” feel to them. Sometimes it feels like we have to trick our children into picking up books – as if it might be a surprise to them to find that there’s words beneath the shiny embossed covers. But if the hype and the fad got just one kid to go to a library, or become a proficient reader, then it was all worth it.

Or so says R. L. Stine from his solid gold, ruby-encrusted palace. It’s very easy to be philosophical when you’re a bazillionaire.GB_Logo2013

“Dog Getting Duffed”

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Treat Time #2

Following on from our previous Treat Time, Adam once again travels back into the past to tantalise his tastebuds with sweet (and salty!) nostalgia…

Sonic Biscuits

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“Wear sunscreen, kids!”

Memory is a funny thing. I can’t remember a single thing from my college education, but I can still taste these biscuits. It was the height of Sonic Mania, some time in the early nineties… A friend had a bag in his lunchbox and charitably let me have one.

They tasted good, and my brother begged my mum to pick them up by the case at the supermarket. But on the lips of every Sonic fan (in addition to biscuit crumbs) was the question – why is Sally pink?

She looks somewhat denuded. Sally was, very briefly, this colour in the American comics but they soon brought her in line with the cartoon that launched alongside it, where as we’ve mentioned before, the pretty princess was a tasteful tan and brown with a shock of red hair. Burton’s obviously didn’t get the memo.

Sally was otherwise unknown on merchandise in our part of the world, and even America for that matter. Strangely enough, the distant land of Australia went Sally crazy – all kinds of dolls, clothes and other products were available. She also became the mascot for Segaworld Sydney. Upon hearing this, Luke changed into his swimming trunks and headed for the estuary, figuring to ride the E.A.C. straight into Sally’s waiting arms. If you see him out in the English channel, wish him Godspeed.

Ghostbusters Crisps

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“WoooooOOOOooooOOO!”

Lunchtimes were great when I was in first school (yay for three-tier education!). I had a Super Mario Brothers backpack stuffed with Transformers toys, a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles lunchbox, and Ghostbusters crisps.

They weren’t just Ghostbusters crisps, though. They were REAL Ghostbusters crisps, if you know what I mean.

That’s a funny distinction to make, and the more you think about it, the less it makes sense. The REAL Ghostbusters were the dominant form of Ghost Buster, but of course they weren’t actually real, being a cartoon. But no-one called them the “real” Ghostbusters. You just said “Ghostbusters”.

If you did say “real”, you were normally talking about the movies, which you probably hadn’t seen because they had swearing in and Gozer the Destructor had serious cameltoe going on in that Gozerian leotard. Roll on the new movie, when people will have to say things like “Have you seen Ghostbusters? No, not the cartoon. No, not the Extreme Ghostbusters. The new ones. The real ones. No, not the “real” ones. The real ones!! ARRRGGH!!”

Fiendish Feet

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“WoooOO – Oh, we did that one already”

There’s something about yoghurts that attracts novelty. I don’t know why, it just does. I recall that most yogurts for kids had sweets or sugary confections inside, and some had Kinder Surprise-like toys in. Even grown up yoghurts like Muller Corner (and its sister product, Muller ‘Captain of your ship’ Rice) come in any number of tooth-rotting varieties. They always say “low fat”, too, don’t they? Like that’s a benefit when you’re spooning condensed sugar into your mouth.

Fiendish Feet were awesome not because of the yoghurt, but because of the pot. They had FEET! What madness!
Of course, as we all know, feet are a sure sign of the devil’s work so the yoghurts were declared “fiendish” by the manufacturer and appropriately decorated to resemble vampires, mummies, werewolves and so on.

These faces are etched into my memory, displacing those of family members and loved ones. At each family reunion or gathering, I look around dumbly like Mr Magoo, squinting at people as they pass. But I can recognise Fangs A Lot from a hundred paces. Weird.

Turtles Apple Pizza

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Introducing the 5th Turtle: McCainangelo.

Turtles was on everything in the late eighties and early nineties. I had a Turtles woolly jumper, Turtles slippers, the aforementioned lunchbox… One time my friend even came to school in his Turtles pajamas.

I’m not sure if I ever tasted these pizzas, though. It’s not the sort of thing my mum would buy… Anything that came in a box with branding (or even colours) on was ignored in favour of the own-brand, no-frills stuff. I can scarcely believe that they’re really apple flavour – that was pretty extreme even for the time.

If anyone still has one of these lurking in the freezer, please send it in to our usual postal address. I need to taste it. On a side note, last night I had perhaps the most vivid, lucid dream of my entire life: I was a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle, and along with the rest of the gang had been kidnapped by Shredder and bundled into the back of a van. He took us to Krang, but we soon busted out and kicked Shredder’s ass. Interestingly, either because of my own gentle nature or because of the standards set by video censors in the late eighties, we only fought Shredder by doing silly things like pulling his cape over his eyes and dishing out ridiculous puns like “Have a nice trip, see you next fall!”

I’m dead serious.

Sonic Pasta

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HP up!

Pasta was cheap. So we ate a lot of it. In fact, I still eat a lot of it. Morisson’s recently had a deal on My Little Pony pasta shapes, so I filled a trolley like I was playing Supermarket Sweep. There weren’t any giant inflatable bananas in the aisles, though. Only shame.

You could argue that this is one thing that hasn’t really changed much over the decades. We still have pasta shapes, they’re still relatively cheap and they still come in cartoon varieties. The tins are smaller, though. About one quarter of the size. This is either because:-

a) the cheeky buggers want to sell you less product for more money, or –

b) Government guidelines limit the amount of salt and sugar you can give to kids in one meal. Being primarily composed of both, the pasta serving size was reduced. But most likely –

c) All of the above.

Join us again for more shenanigans, folks. And we’re not kidding about that Turtles pizza thing.

“Denuded Sally”

Let’s Get Along Again!

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Every now and then we like to go through the site stats and see what exactly is bringing in the punters, be it toy reviews, our occasional random list articles, or our unique brand of “journalism” and bestiality jokes. Far and away the most hits come from people looking for the obscure 80’s cartoon The Get Along Gang. We don’t pretend to know why.

“We wrote this with the blood of our enemies!”

So, because we’re super nice and always give you readers what you want (and because Luke blew this month’s entire toy review budget on a life-size Cadbury Bunny, for reasons best kept to himself) we’re going to revisit the gang with a view to reminding you what they were all about. We’ll cover the toys (obviously), the animated series, and even the disastrous 21st-century relaunch that no doubt ruined someone’s childhood FOREVER. And maybe we’ll even delve into the shameful Get Along Gang pornography scene if time and/or the law allows.

This one made our eyes water.

No on both counts, as it turns out.

THE GANG

A group of furry preadolescents created in 1984 by American Greetings (they of the Care Bears fame), the main six members were:

  • Montgomery Moose – the well rounded, personable one,
  • Dotty Dog – the smart and peppy cheerleader,
  • Bingo Beaver – a compulsive liar and gambling addict,
  • Zipper Cat – the sporty, tough guy with an attitude,
  • Woolma Lamb – a spoiled and vain waste of space,
  • Portia Porcupine – basically a toddler toted around by the gang for some reason.

Their sworn enemies were Catchum Crocodile and his slimy subordinate Leyland Lizard. Most of Catchum’s villainous “schemes” involved cheating in a contest of some sort, or trying to get into the gang’s clubhouse. Phew, make sure the kids are in bed before he comes on.

THE STUFF

The main line of GAG merchandise consisted of six 11-inch plush dolls. Each doll came with removable clothes and accessories (you can even take off their socks and shoes, which we find funny for some reason). All of them were packaged wearing roller skates, because that was apparently law in 1984 when they were released. The skates are actually the hardest thing to find on the secondary market, possibly because most kids took them off one time and promptly lost them. The dolls themselves can be found cheaply and easily second-hand and are remarkably well made; ours are still holding together after thirty years of rough play. Christ, turns out you really can trust Tomy.

Before we go any further, we’ve just got to mention that while the likenesses are generally very good, we feel that poor Woolma really got the short end of the stick here. We’d like to interview the designer and ask him what medication he was taking at the time this abomination was made. Behold:

They tried.

You tried, drug-addled designer man!

The main cast were also rendered as 5-inch hard plastic figures, advertised as Dress-Up Kids. Oddly, the male characters had their trousers painted on, just like Olivia Newton-John in Grease. Unlike Olivia Newton-John, all the characters had slightly creepy, shapeless bodies underneath their clothes, so we can’t imagine many people wanted to disrobe them.

Of the twelve characters actually designed by American Greetings, the toyline focused heavily on the main six featured in the cartoon. The others were available only as small figurines. These were scaled perfectly, though, for the Clubhouse Caboose playset. It was basically a red plastic wagon with a fold-down wall, and it featured a small platform for the toys to hang around on and a kind of turntable thing so they could spin around. It’s quite poor by today’s standards but don’t worry: it was quite poor by yesterday’s standards as well.

caboose

The live-action  Attack on Titan strayed from the source material slightly.

THE SHOW

Thirteen episodes were produced by Dic (cough) between 1984 and 1985. The same company was also responsible for the Super Mario and Sonic cartoons, but is probably most famous for creating the Robocop/Don Adams hybrid Insepctor Gadget. The show followed the adventures of the gang in and around their home of Green Meadow, a strangely anachronistic American small town. Actually, the whole show has a slightly outdated feel now that we think about it. The title sequence shows the gang riding around on soapbox carts they made themselves (not exactly the vehicle of choice in 1984 – when the skateboard, Big Wheel or even Pogo Ball were all popular) and instead of staying home and playing Atari these kids preferred to hang around in the malt shop or play with simple toys like marbles and the like. Very odd.

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The ’84 cartoon, in a rare moment of frantic action

Anyways, the stories themselves are standard-issue children’s TV fodder; we have treasure hunts, encounters with pirates and other bad guys, and typical power-of-friendship escapades. In fact, these very quaint “adventures” could have been written for any show at all, so generic are the settings and characters – but the stories chug along very nicely anyways. It probably won’t hold the attention of an adult audience but if you were expecting a furry version of Twin Peaks, then a) you’re asking too much of a kids cartoon, and b) someone get on that shit ’cause it sounds amazing.

THE REMAKE

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What the hell are the moose and beaver playing?

Round about 2004, American Greetings started sending out press packs detailing the relaunch of the Get Along Gang. This would be an all-new show, with a fresh and funky 21st-century look. Plans were to show off the new gang at a licensing exhibition that year (the kind of thing where smaller companies acquire the rights to produce merchandise like lunchboxes, stationary and the like) but as far as we can tell the powers that be put the kibosh on the whole thing before any licensed tat could be made.

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Left to right: Mogo, Hatch, Mayfield, Reagan, Domino, and Portia!

Some digging tells us that the characters were designed by artist/animator Saxton Moore, whose recent work includes The Twisted Whiskers Show and an original children’s book called Yin the Master of Yo. Instead of just freshening up the old gang, Moore created a whole new bunch of characters designed to be their successors.

Although the characters and (planned) merchandise had a  hand-drawn look, the accompanying cartoon was to be a computer-generated affair – presumably for cost reasons. Behind-the-scenes info and drawings have since leaked online, and the first, or perhaps only, episode has somehow made its way to Youtube. We’ve given it a look, and we quite like it. We can say it’s got a bit more of an “edge” than the original show (not hard, we know) with snappy humour and lots of fourth-wall breaking gags. They’ve also modernised the gang’s clubhouse a tad. It now has a hologram artificial intelligence built in – think Power Rangers’ Zordon, and you’re there. If “there” is a random designer’s crazy cheese-dream.

Curiously, in the course of the episode the new gang are actually shown stock art of their 80’s progenitors- we don’t quite know how to process this because it makes no sense – and are explicitly told that they are distant relatives of the originals. There’s no counterpart for Portia Porcupine (here given the actual surname of Bristlemore) because she’s revealed to be the old woman in the line up above. Erm, we hate to point this out, but only twenty years had passed between the original show and this one, so either it’s set far into the future or cuddly forest animals really don’t age well.

Watch the show below, and try not to snicker when it invites viewers to “get loose in the caboose”.

Theme song by Prince Paul. No, really.

WATCH IT NOW

At some point a company called Mill Creek Entertainment released a DVD containing 10 two-part episodes. We do wonder were they sourced the episodes from, though. The picture and sound quality is abominable – it’s the worst we’ve ever seen on a store-bought DVD. It looks for all the world like it was straight-up ripped from YouTube… after being recorded off the telly in 1985. And it’s Region 1, so UK readers will have to nab a multi-region DVD player to even watch the damn thing. It also says the gang “travel the countryside” bringing help to “wherever they’re needed” which pretty much confirms the manufacturer never actually watched the product they’re selling.

Maybe we’ll revisit the gang in the future. There are rumblings of yet another remake in the works, so with any luck a whole new generation of kids will get to enjoy their own version of the gang, but as it stands it’s a nice throwback to a simpler time. The Get Along Gang were a nice bunch, and their exploits and adventures were many and quaint. It seems that the show was an effort to instill some positive values in the young audience, to prepare them for the tumultuous decades ahead.

You’re never too old to learn – so maybe we should all sit down, watch some Gang, and all learn how to get along.

X-Rated

Retro Gaming Spotlight

Ranger X

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Ranger X – Generic title, great game.

Many people probably picked it up based on the cover illustration alone, not knowing just how varied the gameplay was. It’s certainly not your typical shoot ’em up.

The presentation is superb – you’re never in any doubt of what’s happening or where to go, as the beginning of each level is preceded by a wireframe 3D video (!!) explaining your objective. There are little cinematic cutscenes here and there, too.

The controls may take a little getting used to, but once you have the knack they’re intuitive and precise. Ranger X himself can float around with the aid of his jet-pack, or walk forwards and backwards along the ground. Pressing either A or C will make him spin 180 degrees to face the left or right. It sounds odd at first, but the game is halfway between shooter and platformer, the traditional controls of either would have been frustrating to use.

I love to ride my BI cycle

I – love – to – ride – my – BI – cy – cle….!

You are followed by a little motorbike called “Ex-Up Indra”, and it scoots loyally around your heels like a robotic puppy. It goes where you go, and shoots when you shoot. If you so choose, you can take manual control or have its movements dictated by a second player for some co-op action. You can also combine with it, Transformer-fashion, to burn rubber through the levels or navigate small tunnels. Later in the game, it’s replaced by Ex-Up Eos, a sort of gunship. Not half as cool, as you can’t control this one.

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Ranger X flies over the apple orchards of New Tokyo

Ranger X has a large array of weapons at his disposal, although most have to be found in later levels. From the off, you’re equipped with a standard laser rifle. It’s ammo is unlimited, and the rate of fire high. Naturally, it doesn’t do much damage to most enemies, meaning that you have to bob and weave your way through the hordes, strategically deploying your stronger weapons.

These are:

Flamethrower: Does what it says on the tin. Strong, but rubbish.
Seeker Mine: These explode on the ground and leave a trail of hot blue fire. Good for heralding your approach and taking out ground-based enemies. Can also be thrust down the gullet of anything in your way, blowing them up from the inside.
Seeker Charge: Most players will default to this weapon. It sends out rapid-fire twin lightning bolts. Tapping the button will launch them dead ahead, holding it down will cause the lightning beams to rotate 360 degrees until they lock onto a target. Useful for covering your back.
Seeker Falcon: A robotic falcon that perches on your shoulder. One of the most powerful weapons in the game. Fly, my pretty! Fly!!
Plasma Blast: A weapon that fires crescents of burning plasma. Rather reminiscent of Alex Kidd’s power bracelet, but without the cool sound effect.
Photon Storm: This is the mandatory BFG. A one-shot wonder that destroys all in its path. Feels good. Your mum will come in just to check you haven’t blown up the TV.

Kineval mode!

Kinevel mode!

The weapons are powered by sunlight (very environmentally-friendly) and using them will deplete the charge. As long as you’re above ground the weaker weapons can be used liberally, but the more powerful ones will, of course, use more power. When empty, you must retreat to a sunny spot to recharge. If you’re underground or inside a building you will have to improvise.

Weapon power can also be sacrificed to refill your life meter by standing in one of the ‘recharge chambers’ hidden throughout the levels. Inexplicably, Ranger X can also shoot apples off trees and eat them for a little life boost.

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Never mind the burning city, the real battle’s HERE.

The maneuverability Ranger X’s jet-pack offers is incredible, but you must take care not to over-heat the engine. Use it too much and it will cut out, causing you to (harmlessly) plummet to the ground. It adds a flair of strategy to an already complex shoot ’em up. A later level will see you scaling a gigantic skyscraper, leaping from window ledge to window ledge, with the ground perilously far below. Misjudging your flight will often mean starting the whole ascent again.

The levels run the gamut from traditional scorched desert, to technological fortresses, to lush forests. Each one is guarded by an intimidating boss character such as the giant crawler robot from level one, or the squid monster on level three. Some will require cunning and patience to defeat, others just a good old ass-kicking.

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That’s not his arm, by the way.

You’ll burn through the whole game pretty quickly, but unlike contemporaries Thunder Force or R-Type it remains a varied and interesting experience that never repeats itself and constantly throws new things at you. You won’t regret adding this one to your Mega Drive collection.

Transformers: Devastation UK Review

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The Transformers have been with us for thirty years now, and in that time they’ve graced every form of media you can imagine. We’ve had cartoons, comics, movies, music and books. But so rarely have there been Transformers video games, you could count them on the fingers of one hand. If you only counted the good ones, you’d end up making a very rude gesture indeed.

Transformers games of the past have included the dire Commodore 64 game; the infamous Famicom Mystery of Convoy; and the PS2 bore-fest from (*snigger*) Winkysoft. So where does Devastation stand?

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First of all, the graphics are lovely, even if you’re playing on your old Xbox 360. The game moves along at a silky-smooth framerate that never slows even when things get busy on screen. Coming from the studio that brought us Viewtiful Joe and Okami, it’s no surprise that everything has a painted, cel-shaded look that manages to emulate the old 80s cartoon yet provide a crisp, metallic sheen to the characters.

It looks like the old Transformers cartoon come to vivid life, and it’s brilliant. The Transformers themselves are reminiscent of the old cartoon designs but are more intricately detailed. The animation is top-notch and the characters leap around like gymnasts, tumbling and somersaulting around the levels. At any time you can transform into vehicle mode, and it’s intensely satisfying – you’ll no doubt spend a little while just transforming back and forth.

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If you had asked a kid back in the eighties to describe the perfect Transformer computer game (and, well, a computer to play it on) he would not in his wildest dreams have thought up anything half as good as this. That said, we do wonder if the kids of today will be put off by the cartoonish stylings. Not for nothing have the modern Transformer movies made four billion dollars – it may be too much to ask for people to make the leap back to the old cartoony style.

The game is primarily an “action combat game”, or hack ‘n’ slasher as they’re more commonly known. It seems a strange and risky choice for a Transformers title, given the relatively small audience for the genre. Indeed, we were a bit apprehensive about it, but you couldn’t have surgically removed the smile from Adam’s face as he tore around the first level as Sideswipe in Lamborghini mode and sped towards a Decepticon, before transforming back to robot mode at 100mph and uppercutting him square beneath the jaw. Kabosh!

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The freedom of movement is fantastic. The superb animation combined with slick motion and camera controls means that you’ll spend a few minutes running around each new environment just for the fun of it. There’s nothing quite like leaping around the city as Optimus Prime – the real Optimus Prime, not Michael Bay’s movie monster – then with a press of a button transforming to truck mode to drive through underground tunnels while your headlights illuminate the path ahead.

The playable characters – Prime, Sideswipe, Bumblebee, Wheejack and Grimlock – can either use their traditional weaponry that they’re famous for (Optimus’ axe, Sideswipe’s shoulder cannon, etc) or swap them out for a huge variety of blasters, flamethrowers, swords and hammers to take on the legions of Decepticon goons and – far more frequently than you might expect – big hitters like Megatron, Soundwave or the mighty Devastator!

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You can upgrade your character and weapons, but frankly it makes our heads spin. There are way too many statistics and XP points and whatnot – it’s very daunting. However, the game is first and foremost a hack ‘n’ slasher so these things are to be expected. Many players will enjoy improving their weapons or leveling-up their characters, no doubt.
Upgrades and power-ups can be found scattered around the environments or can be created in Wheeljack’s lab in a fun little mini-game found on the character-select screen.

There are little cameos and appearances from Transformers characters and lore long forgotten. Some are pretty obvious, like the little Kremzeek that hides in the dark alleyways, and others more subtle, like the image of Prowl’s stern face staring back at you from a computer monitor.

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There are quite a few unlockables to be found, including artwork from the game and the wider Transformers universe, as well as weapons and downloadable skins for your characters. Bumblebee and Sideswipe become Goldbug and Red Alert at the touch of a button. It won’t add much replayability to the game, but it’s nice for fans of the latter two characters and bodes well for future DLC content.

The graphics and presentation are wonderful, but the music is quite generic, despite Vince DiCola’s input. Most of the time you won’t even notice it, but when you do it has that inoffensive ‘rawk’ feel that puts us in mind of Sonic Adventure. The voices are spot-on, though, with several of the original cast returning to reprise their roles. The most obvious – apart from Peter Cullen and Frank Welker – being the unmistakable Michael Bell. The characters will narrate your gameplay and mutter amusing non-sequiturs to themselves, and also talk to each other via a little pop-up in the bottom of the screen, much like your team mates in Star Fox.

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We doubt that many casual players will want to see the game through to the end. It’s really only for die-hard hack ‘n’ slashers. It’s a shame, as the joy of movement, great graphics and slick combat could have made for an unbeatable action-platformer.

As it is, the environments are a little too small for players uninterested in the combat to make a game of exploring, and we worry that the relatively niche genre will put off most players. It also seems strange that you can only play as the Autobots, despite the enemy Decepticons being so well designed that it seems like a cruel tease to have them unplayable.

It’s a more entertaining game than the grisly and grim War for Cybertron, but the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. A bargain at £25 (if you settle for last gen), it’s great while it lasts – if you love games like Bayonetta, Devil May Cry or Oneechanbara, then add a point to the score. If you also love Transformers, add another point – you’ll be in heaven.

It’s funny, enjoyable, well-presented and a love-letter to G1 fans old and new. But it never quite breaks the chains of the genre.

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I Clean My Gun and Dream of Galvatron

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the animated Transformers movie, and the masterminds at Takara have promised to celebrate the event the only way they know how: by making more awesome toys. So far revealed for 2016 are new figures of movie posterboy Hot Rod – which makes sense – and menacing Decepticon Shockwave, which makes far less sense when you consider he has exactly two lines in the movie and is quietly squashed out of existence in the final act.

Both are part of the reinvigorated Masterpiece line, which aims to correct the mistakes of the past and produce new figures of existing characters improved with today’s toy technology. So why the hell have we not got a Galvatron yet?

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“Who’s a guy got to disintegrate to get a new toy around here?”

In the movie, Galvatron was created by Unicron from the remains of Decepticon boss Megatron. His job was to cover Unicron’s considerable ass by hunting down any pesky Autobots who would seek to destroy him. Unbelievably, Unicron was voiced by Orson Welles – whether or not the animators modeled the foul-tempered planet-eater on Welles himself is not certain at this time. Galvatron sets out to capture the Autobot Matrix for his master, but not before getting his own house in order by challenging Starscream for leadership of the Decepticons. And by “challenging” we mean straight-up terminating his ass in one of the movie’s most brutal scenes.

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Our faces looked just like this when Starscream carked it.

The character of Galvatron came about, in real-life terms, because of a number of factors. Changing gun laws in the United States meant that the continued production of Megatron – who turned into a perfect replica of a P-38 Walther handgun – just wasn’t viable. The toys had been on the shelves for two years by this point, so it was decided to shake up the ranks of the Autobots and Decepticons with two new leader characters. The new, improved version of Megatron would now turn into a futuristic-looking laser gun, and if need be further transform into a static laser cannon.

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The battles of the future will be fought with… these things.

Galvatron’s original animation model was designed by artist Floro Dery with little consideration for how it would work as an actual toy – leaving the people at Hasbro to do their best to make a transforming action figure from his sketches in short time. The resulting finished toy has a good amount of weight to it, and even fits nicely in an adult’s hand in laser gun mode. It’s also one of the first – if not the first – Transformer to have electronic lights and sounds. Alas, this figure of Galvatron is probably best described as the phrase “you tried” manifested in physical form.  If you squint a bit it kind of looks like him. Or at the very least it looks like a random Transformer in a home-made Galvatron Halloween costume.

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“If you do just 50 crunches a day, you can have abs like these!”

It would take Hasbro 22 years to muster up the willpower to crank out another toy, and you can guess how that went. This time Galvatron was a tank – a mandate by Hasbro deems that all new TF lines must contain at least five tanks because “kids love that war shit” – but the figure has vestiges of some kind of third mode, a symptom of being drastically scaled-back in both size and complexity at some point in production. The result is a figure that not even a God of Chaos could love.

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Tanks, but no tanks.

And that’s how Galvatron’s story ends. These days, the name has variously been applied to new characters in the live-action movies and comics, and by all accounts Hasbro is more than happy to leave Megatron’s alter ego well enough alone for another 20 years. In the words of gravelly-voiced old timer Kup, it’s not the end we’d wish for, lad. Someone at Takara needs to put this right!